Archive | July, 2014

Big Cats

Cheetahs

Cheetahs

As a kid, the cheetah was my favorite animal because of how fast it was. Since I was pretty fast myself, I admired the cheetah for being the fastest land mammal in the world. I started to read more about the cheetah and learned that not only can it reach speeds of 70 miles per hour, but that it has many unique features that distinguish it from other big cats. In fact, although big cats might appear similar, they each have special attributes that allow them to thrive in their environment and remain high on the food chain.

Cheetahs are smaller than other big cats, but are built for speed. They have slim bodies and long, muscular legs that contribute to their speed in the wild. Their long tails help them stay balanced, and the special padding on the bottom of their paws to gives them better traction on the ground. One of the biggest distinguishing characteristics are the black “tear stripes” that run from the inside corner of their eyes, down the side of their mouths. This “tear stripe” helps keep sunlight out of their eyes and allowing them to see long distances that aids them while hunting for prey. Because of their speed, cheetahs love to hunt during the day. Like the other big cats they are carnivores, and love to prey on gazelles, wildebeest calves and smaller hoofed animals. Another unique characteristic cheetahs have from other big cats is that they can’t roar. They purr.

Of all the big cats, cheetahs are also the most delicate and have a hard time adapting to new environments. Cheetahs have never existed in large numbers. In the early 1900’s there were over 100,000 cheetahs that roamed their habitats throughout the world. They used to live all throughout Africa, parts of the Middle East, India, and the plains of southern Asia. Today only an estimated 9,000 to 12,000 exist in sub-Saharan Africa. Their extinction in many areas is largely due to habitat destruction, and a loss of species to prey upon. Cheetahs also have a high cub mortality rate and in some areas 50 to 75 percent of their young die before 3 months.

Leopard

Leopard

Another “big cat” is the leopard. This big cat is the most widespread of all the big cats, meaning it can be found in more areas around the world. Like the cheetah, it has a spotted fur pattern, but a leopard’s pattern is more complex. Although they can sometimes be confused with one another, they are actually very distinguishable. A cheetah’s spots are oval and solid black, while a leopard has a central brown spot with black spots around it, called rosettes. This pattern helps the leopard stay camouflaged and the spots simulate the different shifting of shadows while in the wild. These patterns are also unique to each leopard and like fingerprints: no two patterns are the same.

Leopards are solitary animals, meaning they live alone. They are also nocturnal, so unlike cheetahs that hunt during the day, leopards are active at night. Leopards have very strong legs and can leap over twenty feet away and 10 feet high. Because of their strength and jumping ability, when they catch prey, they take it with them into the trees to keep it away from other opportunistic animals looking to steal their food.

Lion

Lion

Lions are the most popular big cats. As kings of their domain, sitting on top of their food chain, they let their ferocity be known with the ability to roar loud enough to be heard 5 miles away. Lions range in size from 5 to 8 feet in length, and weigh 300 to 500 pounds. They are much larger than leopards that are 4 to 6 feet long, weighing 100 – 200 pounds, and cheetahs, that are 3 1/2 to 5 feet in length, weighing 100 – 150 pounds. Although lions are considered to be kings of the jungle, tigers are actually much larger and can weigh up to 850 pounds, reaching an amazing 11 feet in length, which has led some to question who the actual king would be if they ever crossed paths, but there aren’t many opportunities for lions and tigers to cross paths since lions are mainly in Africa and tigers live in Asia.

Female Lion

Female Lion

Probably the most well known characteristic of a lion is its mane. The mane is only found on male lions, and is said to help protect them while fighting. But did you know that the female lions actually do most of the hunting? Male lions hunt on occasion and will help out when hunting a big animal like a buffalo, but for the most part, it is the females that do a large part of the hunting for the group. Lions are the only social felines of the big cats and live and hunt together in groups of about 15 lions, called prides.

Big cats are amazing and beautiful creatures. It is unfortunate that their populations have decreased over the years, and can only really be seen in places like Africa or Asia. Of course you can always go to a zoo, but that’s not the same. If you ever get a chance to visit one of those places I suggest you take a tour and see then in their natural habitat.

Summertime Insects and Spiders

Hairy Mygalomorph

Hairy Mygalomorph

Summertime has a different meaning for everyone, but for the insect lover, they know that means they’ll be seeing a lot more. Birds and lizards love this time of year as well because it means more opportunities for food. Here at the Havasi Wilderness Foundation, we have the pleasure of seeing a wide variety of insects and spiders and how they coexist in the habitat.

Recently we’ve seen this guy, a Hairy Mygalomorph, from the tarantula family. It might seem scary because of our own association with spiders, and movies like Arachnophobia (at least for me) but it’s actually quite harmless and one of the biggest assets to our chaparral. First of all, they are harmless and don’t bite unless mishandled. Many people have them as pets, and some state parks are so sure of the gentleness of these misunderstood creatures, they even show visitors how to handle them. These spiders are generally nocturnal and live in burrows, coming out at night to feed on other insects. As predators, they are an asset because they help to control the insect population.

Velvet Ant

Velvet Ant

Now this cute and furry one you definitely want to stay away from. It looks like an ant, and is known as a Velvet Ant, but it’s actually a wasp. Male and female velvet ants are different, and it is this difference that is very important to understand. The male doesn’t sting, but has wings and is able to fly. The female on the other hand, cannot fly, but if stung, will be very painful. Another nickname for the velvet ant is the “cow killer.” Although its sting has never actually killed a cow, the amount of pain has been referred to as, “strong enough to kill a cow.” So if you see one of these velvet ants near you, and it doesn’t have wings, don’t kill it, just proceed with caution.

Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly

Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly

Some of the most interesting insects you’ll see are butterflies. I say this because of the metamorphosis they go through. It is a real privilege being able to witness the different stages like the larva, the caterpillar, the chrysalis and the butterfly, each of which have a unique defense to predators. The larva is usually placed under the leaf of a plant, since it is completely defenseless and immobile. The caterpillar stage is an interesting one. This stage has 5 phases called instars, which are the periods between molting. Let’s look at the Tiger Swallowtail butterfly, which is one of the most common butterflies you’ll see. During it’s first 3 instar phases, the caterpillar is brown which is meant to mimic bird poop and avoid predators. After the molting of the third phase, the caterpillar turns green, and develops eyespots. These patterns on the caterpillar are meant to look like eyes which is another defense technique. This caterpillar, like all members of the papilionidae have an osmeterium. The osmeterium is an orange, flesh looking organ that emits a foul odor which is also used to deter predation. In the final molting stage the caterpillars attach themselves to trees using silk and molt into the chrysalis stage. From the cocoon they emerge into the beautiful butterflies you see today.

These are just a few of the many insects you’ll see and hear. Be on the look out for grasshoppers, blue damselflies, flesh flies, and so many others that each have their own special characteristics, survival techniques and eating habits.

 

 

 

Seabirds and Shorebirds

Sanderlings

Sanderlings

Last week we explored urban birds, who they are, what they eat, and where they live. We learned a little about mallard ducks, a bird that spends a lot of its time on water, but we didn’t get into all the other birds that spend the majority of their time out at sea or use the shore as a feeding ground. These are our seabirds and shorebirds.

There are a few distinguishing characteristics between seabirds and shorebirds. The main difference is that seabirds are pelagic, meaning they spend most of their life out at sea, while shorebirds are migratory birds that run along the shore looking for food.

Black Skimmer

Black Skimmer

Since seabirds spend most of their life out at sea, they have different adaptations that help them survive their native habitats. Some seabirds have webbed feet that help them move throughout the water. This adaptation also helps to provide traction when the birds take off for flight from the water. Other seabirds have claws to help them grab hold of fish under water. Seabirds also tend to have more feathers than other birds that help with insulation and waterproofing. The feathers on their back are dark and the feathers on their underside are light. This is an adaptation known as countershading, which is common in many mammals, reptiles, birds and fish. Countershading is a type of camouflage that helps the animals avoid detection from predators as well as prey.

Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican

Seabirds have different strategies when feeding. Some seabirds do what is called surface feeding and dunk their heads into the water to capture prey below. Seabirds such as penguins have the ability to dive underneath and pursue their prey called “pursuit diving.” Some seabirds try plunge diving. This is when they dive from high in the air, building enough momentum on the way down to plunge into the water and go deeper than normally allowable due to air between their feathers that makes them more buoyant. This is a highly skilled tactic that not all seabirds have mastered. Gannets, boobies, tropicbirds, some terns and brown pelicans all specialize in plunge diving. Seagulls and skuas try the plunge dive but are less skilled and successful at it.

Marbled Godlet with Willets

Marbled Godlet with Willets

Shorebirds, also known as wading birds, spend less time in the water but rely on the sea and other wetlands for food. Common shorebirds are avocets, black skimmer, oystercatchers, plover, sandpiper, and stilt. These birds have longer legs and pointed beaks allowing them to wade in the water and poke their bills into the sand for food. Most shorebirds are migratory and are known for their distant travel each year. Some shorebirds travel an astonishing 15,000 miles each year, while others can reach altitudes of 10,000 feet and reach speeds of 50 miles per hour. Almost two-thirds of the shorebirds that breed in North America journey from their arctic nesting grounds and go all the way to Central and South America for winter. In the following spring they return to the Artic.

Stilts

Stilts

One of the most common enemies to these birds, other than their predators are what are called “introduced species.” These are species that aren’t necessarily native to the habitat but have been introduced to the environment and are able to survive. The survival of these introduced species throws off the life cycle of native species. An example of an introduced species that poses a threat to these birds are feral cats. A feral cat is a domesticated cat that has returned to the wild, usually left behind by travelers and then breeds on the land. Other introduced species can have a different affect, such as goats, rabbits and other herbivores. These animals aren’t predators, but eat the vegetation that would otherwise help them to protect their young.

Birds are an incredible species, with so many different adaptations to help them survive. The slightest increase in length of their legs and bills allows them to strategically plant themselves in shallow waters to feed, while the adaptation of webbed feet or more feathers helps them survive conditions presented by the sea. As climates change, and habitats evolve, new adaptations will occur in order for these seabirds and shorebirds to survive.

 

Urban Birds

Pigeon

Pigeon

There are over 10,000 different species of birds that live in many different habitats. We usually associate birds as animals that fly, but not all birds have the ability to fly, such as ostriches, penguins and several others. Birds are one of the few animals, other than domesticated pets, that we have the opportunity to see on a daily basis. You might see them throughout the city and suburbs, perched on trees, feeding at parks, or perhaps nesting in a nook nearby. These are our urban birds.

Urban birds live among us, adding to our daily soundtrack with their melodic sounds. Some of the most common urban birds are pigeons, home sparrows, and crows. Pigeons are commonly perched above us on power lines and building ledges, or below, feeding on seeds and grains found on our sidewalks. Personally I enjoy observing pigeons and watching them feed because it is therapeutic. It’s something about seeing the essence of every day survival, and not knowing where their next meal is going to come from that I find intriguing. Of course this happens with all wild animals, but it’s not a process we’re able to witness daily. In the wild, a pigeons lifespan is 3 – 5 years. Although they have to beware of the red tailed hawk, a pigeon’s biggest threat is a moving vehicle. Pigeons and doves differentiate themselves from other birds by how they feed their young. These birds have crop milk, which is a secretion from the lining of the crop that is regurgitated to young birds. The baby birds feed by placing their beak inside the parents mouth and feed as the parent regurgitates the milk. Both parents are able to feed their young through this process. This process is not only unique due to the crop milk, but also because in most cases baby birds open their mouth and are fed, and not the other way around as described above.

Titmouse

Titmouse

Since not all birds eat worms, the “early bird gets the worm” saying most likely refers to the insectivores. Although the opportunistic omnivores will eat worms, insectivores like the titmouse, swallow, and the magpie-lark are some early birds that get the worm. Birds that eat insects (spiders, beetles, ants) help keep our worm population in check and help prevent destruction of our gardens.

Home Sparrow

Home Sparrow

Urban birds live in different places throughout the city. Some live in trees, others live in nests, inside air conditioning units, some even below freeway overpasses. Home sparrows live closer to you than you think. They were given that name because they often live in trees that are in your backyard, and their nests are near homes and residences. Like pigeons, they feed on grains, seeds, and crumbs left behind by humans. Like many urban birds, they have developed many strategies on feeding. Crows for example, are known for dropping hard shelled seeds into the street so cars can run over them and break them open. They do the same with clams and mussels by dropping them onto the rocks from above. Unlike pigeons and sparrows that are granivores, meaning they mostly stick to seeds and grains, crows are omnivores that are opportunistic eaters that eat whatever is available.

Red Tailed Hawk

Red Tailed Hawk

Every once in a while, you might see a red tailed hawk soaring high in the sky, or perched on top of a utility pole. This urban bird is a carnivore, with an average lifespan of 21 years. Red tailed hawks are known for being monogamous and sometimes mate for life. As previously stated, red tailed hawks are a predator to pigeons and other urban birds, but 85% of their diet consists of rodents and other small mammals. Like omnivores, red tailed hawks also eat roadkill. On some occasions it can take days before a dead animal in the road is cleaned up, so eating these animals can be helpful when trying to prevent the spreading of disease.

mallard ducks

mallard ducks

Some urban birds spend time on water, like ducks. One of the most common ducks you will probably see at your local park is mallard ducks. The males and females are different colors. The male mallard ducks are more colorful with green heads and yellow beaks, while the female is brown. While their diet mainly consists of plants, they are considered omnivores.

As you can see there are plenty of urban birds to look out for. Next time you see one, take some time to observe its behavior and how it interacts with other birds and our surroundings. And if you take the same route every day, you might observe the same hawk in the same location because that has become his or her territory.