Sunday, January 25, 2015

More Bird Droppings

I wrote about bird droppings a few years ago. You can read that blog by clicking here. Since then, and entirely by accident, I photographed two more birds to add to that group of photos. Above is an immature peregrine falcon, Falco perigrinus. And below ---

An American Robin, Turdus migratorius. Click to enlarge. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Gray January Day

It is colorless and cold in New York today, hovering between rain and ice. Instead of going outside to look for winter ducks by the river, I am posting a picture from summer -- a bumblebee on a pink flower. It almost seems like it's from a different world, doesn't it? 

John Steinbeck wrote: "What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness."

And Albert Camus wrote: "In the middle of winter, I found there was within me an invincible summer." 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Isolated Pigeon takes New York

This week's story is less about urban wildlife than it is about my new Wacom graphics pad, although it does include a pigeon. I already knew how to isolate parts of photos using Adobe Illustrator, but a graphics pad makes it much easier. So I wasted an hour isolating a pigeon and dropping him into photos around New York. There is a brief description of the method at the end. It's a useful technique to make nice graphics for presentations. I am starting with this photograph of a pied pigeon. Click to enlarge. 
The pigeon has been extracted from the background. 

Once isolated, it is easy to duplicate and reflect the image. 

Or to duplicate and reflect lots of them. 
Or to drop him into the action at the Brooklyn Bridge. 
Or on the shore of the East River. 
Or Coney Island. 
Or Times Square. 
Or taking in the view from the Manhattan Bridge. 
Picking up a snack. 
Hanging out at Brooklyn Bridge Park. 
Stayin' alive.  

You get the idea. Here's how to do it on a Mac. Open the photo that contains something you would like to isolate, like a pigeon, in Adobe Photoshop. (I have version CS5.1.) Use the pen tool to outline the thing you want to isolate. (This is MUCH easier if you have a graphics pad plugged into the computer because you can outline with an actual pen in your hand instead of a mouse.) The outline will be a series of dots connected with lines. Use more dots where the shape of the edge is more complex. Work your way all around the edge and join the last dot to the first. Then open the "Paths" window in Photoshop and choose "load path as a selection." From the "Layer" menu, select 'New" and then "layer via cut." Look at the layers panel and you will see two layers -- your newly cut out image and the background it came from. Discard the background by dragging it to the layers panel trash can. What's left is the isolated image. Save. Then open it in Adobe Illustrator (I have CS5.1) and select "feather" from the "Stylize" menu to soften the edges of the cutout. After that, do whatever looks good -- change the size and orientation or paste it into other photos. When you have finished a creation, use the art board tool to crop as desired. I usually save as an .ai file, then open with Preview, export, and save as a .jpg. 

Waiting for the C train. 

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Quiet Mockingbirds

I have seen where the she-bird, the mocking-bird, sat on her nest 
in the briers, hatching her brood. 
I have seen the he-bird also; 
I have paused to hear him, near at hand, inflating his throat,
and joyfully singing. 

Walt Whitman, Starting from Paumanok, Leaves of Grass

When I picture a mockingbird, it often looks like the one above -- sitting on a conspicuous perch with beak open and singing loudly. But mockingbirds don't sing in winter. I have written about winter mockingbirds before -- click here for an earlier blog -- but every year I notice their seasonal personality change. For the last few weeks, as the weather has become grey and cold, a mockingbird has been coming to my porch in the mornings looking for raisins.

Except for its flashy white wing patches, you might think it was an entirely different bird than its summer self. It is quiet! The famous singer has not a word to say. It is enough to give the widely held impression that mockingbirds fly south for winter. Some mockingbirds from colder places further north might move to warmer locations for winter, but in Brooklyn they stay put -- and rest their voices. 

This young Brooklyn mockingbird, born nearby in the summer of 2012, is hopefully among this year's winter visitors. 
Mmm... serviceberry! Click to enlarge. 

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Happy New Year!

My creature of the year award for 2014 goes to --- 

The spun glass caterpillar, Isochaetes beutenmuelleri, of Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky. I photographed the fabulous pale green larva, covered with transparent glassy spikes, in September. The larva will grow up to become a relatively drab moth. Spun glass caterpillars are rare sightings and give caterpillar hunters something to brag about. (Smirking.)

I saw the caterpillar on the wooden walkway that leads to the River Styx, pictured here -- it's one of many cool local attractions at Mammoth Cave Park. Mammoth Cave is also the least crowded National Park I have ever visited.

The caterpillar looked like this when I first saw it. I'll bet it had fallen from a tree above. I would never have  noticed it if it had landed anywhere but on the contrasting wooden railing of the walkway. The caterpillar is tiny, only about 1/4 of an inch long. Congratulations spun glass caterpillar -- you are my 2014 creature of the Year! Yay!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Remembering Summer Bees

I know everyone is busy with holiday preparation, so just a few words about some bees I saw in June. I've seen this bee before -- it's Bombus fervidus, commonly called the golden northern bumble bee -- but it has always managed to fly away before I could take a photograph. I snuck up on this one while its head was deep inside a wild bergamot blossom. See all the furry yellow stripes on its abdomen? Click to enlarge. 
The bumblebees I usually see are these common eastern bumblebees, Bombus impatiens.  Note the black abdomens and short yellow jackets. I saw all the bees in this blog post in Brooklyn Heights. 
I also sometimes see brown-belted bumblebees, Bombus griseocollis, like this one. Note the "hip-length" furry jacket.  
The golden northern bumblebee again -- I'd call that a "knee-length" yellow fur coat if bees had their knees where ours are. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Bird News!

There is big news in the bird world this week. For the last four years, hundreds of scientists in an international group called the Avian Phylogenomics Consortium have been sequencing bird genomes. They sequenced the DNA of 45 extant birds and a few crocodilians, and combined that with three previously sequenced bird genomes and then analyzed that huge mass of data. The results just released show the best reconstruction of the evolutionary relationships among the orders of birds that we have so far. And there is lots to marvel at: falcons are more closely related to parrots than to eagles and vultures, and flamingos are a sister group to grebes. To look at the tree of relationships, click here.

The results of the study were published in a special issue of Science Magazine; eight research articles from the study can be accessed by clicking here. Another 20 papers were published elsewhere; read them on the Avian Phylogenomics Project website by clicking here. 

Some of the high points revealed by the study are that bird genomes are near a third of the size of mammal genomes, and lack gene clusters present in many other vertebrates. There are analogies between vocal learning genes in birds and humans. Coolest, and possibly explaining the house sparrows' attitude issues, the ancestor of all land birds, including giant monster sized "terror" birds now extinct, was probably a big predatory bird. An even older ancestor lost the genetic code for growing teeth. This study produced data that will be mined for years to come.

Click on the photos to enlarge.