Sunday, January 30, 2011

Ring-billed Gull, Larus delawarensis

Ring-billed gulls that I saw on a walk by the East River in Brooklyn, New York, yesterday.

Ring-billed gulls are often called sea gulls, but they are can be found far from the sea. They spend the winter along both coasts and pretty much throughout the interior of the United States (and in Central America and the Caribbean), where they are found near rivers and lakes.

They are famously unafraid of civilization and actually kind of like it; they feed at trash dumps and loaf in parking lots while waiting for restaurant dumpsters to fill up. Not surprisingly, they have acquired some unflattering nicknames like trash gulls, landfill larids (for the genus Larus), and fast food gulls. They are good scavengers and they are not too picky about what they will eat. Their menu includes insects, rodents, worms, fish, garbage and any delicious thing one might find on the sidewalk.

A ring-billed gull shares a slice of pizza with some pigeons. 

The ring-billed gull is about 16 inches long and has a wing span of about four feet. Its has a black ring near the tip of its yellow bill. In adults, the back feathers are light gray and the wings are tipped in black with white spots. Gulls change their plumage as they grow from juveniles to adults (three years for ring-billed gulls) and from summer to winter. Luckily the birds are gregarious and in a group most will be old enough to have the diagnostic ringed bill, yellow legs, and yellow eyes. Juveniles are streaked and mottled all over with a dark-tipped bill and pinkish legs. When not in their summer breeding plumage, adults have gray streaks on their white heads.

A ring-billed gull in winter plumage poses with the Empire State Building and the Manhattan Bridge.
I am happy to find ring-billed gulls by the river even on the coldest days of winter.

P.S. I am getting emails from many people who have just received my book through online orders from Amazon or Barnes and Noble or Stackpole Books. Thanks to all of you who have sent me nice comments! JF

Monday, January 24, 2011

Philadelphia Edition -- a Red-tailed Hawk in the City of Brotherly Love

I spent the weekend in Philadelphia. I visited the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Ben Franklin's house and grave, Betsy Ross' house and grave, City Hall, Penn's Landing, Christ Church,  and Elferth's Alley (which is the oldest continuously inhabited street in America).

Elferth's Alley. 

I was snapping shots of the statue below called "The Signer" -- he holds a scroll in one hand and a quill pen in the other -- when I noticed that bird perched in the tree above and to the left of the statue. The bird was holding something with its foot and pulling it apart with its beak.

The Signer in Signers Park, Old City, Philadelphia.

A closer look revealed a red-tailed hawk. It never got any closer so we have to settle for a glimpse. If I had arrived sooner I might have seen it swoop down from its perch to strike and kill whatever it was eating. Red-tailed hawks usually capture small mammals or birds.

A red-tailed hawk, Buteo jamaicensis.
Red-tailed hawks are common throughout North America where they occupy forests, fields, grasslands, desserts, mountains and cities. They seem to be unfazed by civilization; I have seen one perched on a street light in a traffic island at a busy intersection in New York City at rush hour.

They are big birds that can weigh over three pounds, measure over two feet long, and open their wings to span more than four feet. The red-tailed hawk's plumage color can vary but adults all have the famous reddish tail. The light colored underbelly is crossed by a band of vertical streaks. The bill is short, dark, and hooked. The legs and feet are yellow.

The bird I saw was eating quietly; if I had not been looking up I would not have seen it. But red-tails have a famous cry that is often heard overhead (even over the noise of New York City) and it is very often used in the soundtracks of television shows and movies -- a harsh screaming cry of Keeee-eee-ar.

Here is a YouTube link to a screaming red-tailed hawk:

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Common Clothes Moth

The common clothes moth, Tineola bisselliella
Not all urban wildlife lives outside; the moth in the photo is a famous resident of closets.

It is only about one quarter of an inch long. Its wingspan is just half an inch. It has pale shiny wings, black eyes, a punk hairdo of reddish tufts, and a feathery fringe on the edges of its wings. It's a weak flier; I could easily reach out and catch one if it fluttered past. It is sometimes called the webbing clothes moth because its larvae spin silky webbing around themselves.

Adult females lay eggs on woolens, furs, and items made of feathers -- things like suits and blankets, sweaters, mink coats, and feather boas. When the eggs hatch the larvae feed. They take small bites, but the damage they do can be disproportionately large; a small but visible hole can ruin an entire outfit. The adults do not eat. The little caterpillars do all the damage.

Adults occasionally fly near storage areas or flutter up when a closet door opens. But they prefer darkness and will stay in the closet and try to find cover quickly when disturbed.

Closets can be hard to find -- just ask a New Yorker. As habitats go, the closet is a patchy resource. Clothes moths are uniquely adapted to them. Females of many outdoor moths release scents to attract males, but clothes moths of both genders seek good habitats and hope to meet others there; they are attracted to the scent of food their larvae like.

When a male finds a habitat that can support larvae, he releases scent signals to call other adults; he can make a good closet smell even better to passing moths. He also makes ultrasonic noise to add to the closet's appeal. Females  arrive and produce their own sexy scents for close range communication. Mating ensues and before long little caterpillars are born and commence to eating the woolens.

A bedroom closet that seems silent and still may actually be broadcasting a symphony beyond our senses. And smells of irresistible deliciousness.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Mourning Dove -- blue eyelids!

The mourning dove, Zenaida macroura
Coo-ah coo coo coo Coo-ah coo coo coo -- the call of the male mourning dove sounds melancholy and mournful (to us) and gives the bird its common name.

Every morning a few of them are waiting on my terrace at dawn, huddled and silent, hoping for a handout of food. They stay in New York City for the winter.

I give them sunflower seeds, which they eat without opening. The northern cardinal that eats among the doves takes time to crack and peel each seed, and ends up eating one for about every ten scooped up by a dove. Mourning doves have a special way of drinking, too; they use the beak like a straw to suck up water in a continuous draft. The more common bird method of drinking is by filling the beak and then tipping the head back to swallow.

Mourning doves are light brown and about 10 inches long. Males are a little larger and more colorful than females, with bluish iridescence on the crown and pink on the breast. The mourning dove's tail has long inner feathers, white on the edges, and tapers to a point. Their feet are dull red. Their beaks are thin and black. They have large dark spots on the upper surface of their wings. The wings make a whistling sound when the bird flies and they sometimes clap their wings together noisily above and below the body when they take off suddenly.

Males and females have a small dark comma-shaped mark on both sides of the head below and behind the eyes. Their eyes are dark brown and ringed about with pastel blue skin. Their eyelids are blue, too -- one of my favorite things is to find a mourning dove asleep with its powder blue eyelids showing.

I caught this one blinking. Blue eyelids! 

Mourning doves are good parents. They sometimes make nests very close to humans; one pair I know  use a low windowsill on my building that is eye level to passersby on a busy city street. When nesting mourning doves feel threatened, either may try to lure an invader away by landing away from the nest and making a show of pretending to have a broken wing. When the predator has been lured sufficiently far away by the promise of easy prey, the dove flies away.

Mourning dove are among the 10 most abundant birds in the United States. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated a population size of about 350 million in 2008. The birds are as rural as they are urban, at home on farms as well as in cities. In most of the country the bird is considered a game bird. They are hunted and eaten. But in New England, New York, and New Jersey, the mourning dove is a protected songbird. Hmmmm. If you were a dove, where would you spend the winter?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Happy New Year!

My last accomplishment of 2010 was figuring out how to make a rudimentary You Tube video. Ta Da! Here is the link:

And my book about urban wildlife is now on, available to order for the February 1 release. YAY! Here is the link: Field Guide to Urban Wildlife (Thorndike Basic) (9780811705851): Julie Feinstein: Books

The stinging rose caterpillar could pass as a Christmas ornament!