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. 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Spring Birds in Winter

Remember the polar vortex winter we had last year? This robin came to my window every cold morning of it with his feathers so puffed up he looked downright chubby. I fed him raisins for breakfast straight through until spring. He's back! He (or someone who looks just like him) started looking in my windows a few weeks ago and is back in the habit of breakfasting on raisins at my place. 
Robins eat worms and insects and fresh fruits and berries when they can get them. We typically see robins stalking worms in short grass all through summer. When winter comes and the insects and worms hole up, robins change to a diet primarily of dried fruit. Some robins migrate to warmer places, but some just disappear from lawns and form winter flocks that travel to different kinds of foraging areas. 

White-throated sparrows are behaving differently in deference to winter, too. They have started to show up on my porch where I haven't seen them since last winter. I see them in the neighborhood all year, but they only visit the porch in winter (even though they would likely find a snack of seeds in any season). Click to enlarge.
New York City's northern mockingbirds tend to stay put during the winter, but it might seem like they have gone south. We are used to their flashy wing-waving and tireless singing; in winter they become relatively quiet. They visit my porch for raisins. 
I usually hear my favorites, the blue jays, before I see them. I give them peanuts in the shell. They make repeated trips until they have gathered them all. But they have to share with...
Northern cardinals that always seem happy to pose in the snow in return for peanuts... 
and Brooklyn squirrels!