Readers’ wildlife photos

January 11, 2021 • 8:00 am

Please send in your photos, lest this feature disappear.

Today we have the second part of reader Peter’s photos of the Galápagos and its fauna. (Part 1 is here.) There are no notes save this introductory caption, but surely you can identify many of the species!

Years ago I visited the Galapagos Island and enjoyed it immensely. Here are a few of the photos that my wife and I took. I’m sure your readers will be familiar with them all.

Readers’ wildlife photos

January 8, 2021 • 8:00 am

Doug Hayes gives us part 11 of his “Breakfast Crew” series. His notes and IDs are indented; click on screenshot to make the pictures bigger.

All shots were taken in my backyard in Richmond, Virginia’s Forest Hill Park area. Bird activity has increased as the weather has turned cold and rainy. House finches and sparrows remain the most numerous, but we still get a variety of birds each day, driven out of the river and forested areas surrounding the neighborhood as food becomes scarce. Quite a few of my neighbors have feeders in their yards, so the birds have plenty to choose from. It is interesting to note that some species of birds tend to stay in certain parts of the neighborhood.  I see maybe one or two mockingbirds at my feeders, but there are whole flocks of them in the churchyard a few blocks over.  When it rains, dozens of red winged blackbirds show up in my backyard, but ignore my neighbor’s yard about four houses away even though she has feeders and a more heavily wooded yard.

The rain always brings out flocks of red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus). No matter how hard it pours, these guys will show up to eat!

A female northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) waiting in the rain for the morning rush to die down.

A male northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), also waiting for the mob to thin out before he grabs breakfast.

This female red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) almost always goes for the seed feeders rather than the suet feeders that the other woodpeckers seem to prefer. She will dig around in the feeder until she locates a peanut, then quickly fly off with it.

Peanut located, the woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) executes a barrel roll as she takes off.

A blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata) scarfing down some suet. This one shows up almost every day now.

Ruby-crowned kinglets (Regulus calendula) are becoming regulars as the weather cools off.

A rather angry looking brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) enjoying breakfast.

A house finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) taking off after a leisurely meal.  The finches will perch and eat, then just hang out on the feeders until driven off by other birds.

A downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens). There are several of these little birds that are regulars. I have seen two males show up at the same time and proceed to chase each other around the yard.

Female house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) watching a demonstration of levitation by one of their crew. Actually, she is flapping her wings and hovering a bit, action frozen by the camera’s high shutter speed.

Fight! House finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) vs white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)! Apparently this feeder isn’t big enough for the two of them.

Despite having the advantage of a longer beak, the nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) decides to retreat.

The nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) uses its superior clinging skills to elude the finch (Haemorhous mexicanus).

Victory! The nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) snags the best nut of them all – the peanut!

The eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) are in a feeding frenzy right now. They must sense winter coming. They have been showing up in groups lately and frantically eat from the suet feeders, then leap over to the seed feeders and then down to the seeds spilled on the ground. Unless I manage to drive them away, they will feed all day long.

Camera info:  Sony A7R4 camera body set to crop sensor mode, Sony FE 200-600 zoom lens plus 1.4X teleconverter (with the 1.5X crop sensor mode added to the lens and teleconverter combo it gives the equivalent reach of a 1,260mm lens when zoomed to the 600mm mark), ISO 5000, all shots hand held with lens and camera body image stabilization.

Readers’ wildlife photos

December 28, 2020 • 8:00 am

We’ll need new batches of wildlife photos for the New Year, so I ask that you send in your good ones. Thanks.

Today we have some photos of animals from the Galapagos, sent in by reader Peter. His notes:

Years ago I visited the Galapagos Island and enjoyed it immensely. Here are a few of the photos that my wife and I took. I’m sure your readers will be familiar with them all.
How many can you identify? (Click photos to enlarge them.)



Readers’ wildlife photos

December 24, 2020 • 8:00 am

I think we’ll take a break from the photos tomorrow, as people will be celebrating and the photographer’s work may be overlooked. But do send your photos in!

Today’s photos were taken in Tanzania by Daniel Shoskes. His commentary is indented; click on the photos to enlarge them.

These should be self explanatory. The baby wildebeest was a few minutes old. It’s amazing to me how a giraffe can bend down so low to drink and then raise up their head to full height and not stroke out.


In search of lost time

December 18, 2020 • 1:15 pm

Truth be told, it’s a cold and lazy day, with one lone hen (named Soft-Serve) swimming in a half-frozen pond, and a tired PCC(E) trying to stay awake. Braining just isn’t on today, so let’s revisit some of the past—without the help of madeleines or tilleul. That is, here are a some old photos for your delectation. Click to enlarge them.

First, here’s a photo that warms my heart: Honey overseeing her 17 offspring, half of which weren’t hers but were kidnapped from Dorothy. It was a great joy for me to see Dorothy re-nest and produce a brood of her own, which she raised to fledging.  This photo was taken on June 12 of this year. Yes, Honey stole another hen’s brood, but she took good care of them, and all flew away. She’s now produced 29 ducklings on my watch.

The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, where I spent two glorious days in July, 2011, surrounded by palatial architecture and fantastic paintings. It’s still the nicest art museum I’ve ever visited in regards to architecture and paintings (the Louvre comes second):

Throne room, with lovely inlaid floors:

You’re allowed to take photos so long as you don’t use a flash. Here’s a gorgeous Rembrandt: “The Descent from the Cross” (1634):

And what may be one of the few Leonardos in the world: it’s not absolutely certain this is by his hand: “Madonna Litta” (ca. 1495, sadly with a glass reflection). The Hermitage labels this as a genuine Leonardo. (It’s my goal to see every Leonardo painting in existence, though I can’t be arsed now to look up how many there are.)

October, 2011: Mark Twain’s house in Hartford, Connecticut. During the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s annual meeting, where I spoke that year, the FFRF ran a field trip to the house. (Twain was, of course, an atheist.) You can see he made enough dosh to have a big place to live! Some say it was designed to partly resemble a riverboat, which of course Twain had piloted (that’s where he got his pseudonym):

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the FFRF raffling “clean money”, i.e., currency printed before 1957, and thus lacking the “In God We Trust” motto added by Congressional declaration that year:

I traveled a lot that year. In October I spoke in Valencia, and my friends took me to the market. Such delicious raw hams for sale!

The Spanish love their ham, as do I:

Local mushrooms:

And local people waiting to cross the street:

Olives of all sorts!


After Madrid I met a friend in Switzerland, near Geneva. Two trees on a walk:

Richard Burton’s house in Céligny, Switzerland, where he died in 1984. He was 58. Note the ducks on the gate.

January, 2012: After the Evolution Society’s mid-year officers’ meeting in Costa Rica, I traveled around a bit. This is the humble abode of Alexander Skutch, (1904-2004; a near centenarian), the great ornithologist who lived here for many years. It’s now a museum, but preserves the house as it was when he lived there:

The house is just as he left it, including his clothes, office, and books. As you see below, he was well read:

The Skutches had a beautiful garden with local and imported plants.

And of course there was a bird feeder, replenished with fruit. Can you identify these two birds?

Finally, a few photos of the famous field station La Selva, where I spent two weeks in 1974 as a grad student in the OTS Tropical Ecology Course. Here I was, back again nearly 38 years later.

Some birds (you identify them; I can’t):

Sexual dimorphism:

Some bats on the ceiling of the field station; the dots are marks put on by researchers:

And my favorite frog (besides Atelopus coynei, of course), Oophaga pumilio (I knew it as Dendrobates pumilio). There are several color morphs, and this one gives it the name “blue jeans frog”. It’s a poison-arrow frog, very toxic—as you might guess from its coloration:

I love making these posts. In a time of no travel or adventure, they bring back good memories.

Readers’ wildlife photos

December 17, 2020 • 8:00 am

Don’t forget to keep those wildlife photos coming in.

Today reader Doug Hayes of Richmond, Virginia continues documenting the avian world near his home with another episode of “The Breakfast Crew.” Doug’s captions are indented; click on the photos to enlarge them.

Welcome to the tenth installment of the Breakfast Crew. There are several new members of the Crew this time around as the cold and rainy weather has brought several species I haven’t seen before to the yard. In and around the Forest Hill Park area in Richmond, Virginia.
 One rainy day, an entire flock of red winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) converged on the backyard. There must have been a couple dozen of them. They mostly went for the seed feeders.  Despite being fairly large birds (about the size of starlings), they had no trouble perching and eating their fill. This one is a male.
This is an immature male red winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) shot the same day as the adult male specimen.
New to the yard are the ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula). They are the smallest birds in the area (with the exception of hummingbirds, which have migrated for the winter), and are smaller than a sparrow. They are also quite fearless. I have been working in the yard no more than three feet from the suet feeders and the kinglets will land and eat, keeping an eye on me from time to time, but carrying on as if I were not there.
Another new bird, a dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis). More and more of these have been visiting the yard the past two months. Probably driven up from the park area in search of food.
A female pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). These are the most spectacular looking birds in our area with their black and white feathers and flaming red crests. They usually keep to the more heavily wooded areas of the park (There are two large dead trees there, covered with holes where pileated woodpeckers have been nesting for years that I call the “woodpecker condo”), but from time to time they venture into the neighborhood.
A rather drenched American goldfinch (Spinus tristis).  This one didn’t let a little rain get in the way of an easy meal.
Meanwhile, down at the lake, Double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auratus) are a common sight along the James River. During the late fall, a few will head for the lake in Forest Hill Park. Probably for the easy fishing with less competition.  These three are juveniles just hanging out and drying their feathers after a busy morning searching for food.
The bluejays (Cyanocitta cristata)are hanging around the yard more often now that food is becoming scarce in the wooded areas they normally frequent. Photographs just don’t do justice to the intense blue of their feathers.
A white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) taking a break from the crowds around the feeders.
A tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) about to take off with its prize.  These little guys are hit and run feeders. They don’t linger and eat like the sparrows and house finches. It is pretty rare to see them on the ground feeding on seeds scattered by the other birds.
A female red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus). This one seems to prefer seeds to suet (she will eat suet sometimes) unlike the other woodpeckers that visit the yard.
A male downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens). One of a pair of regulars, the other is female. They may or may not be mates. I have seen two males show up at the same time. The usually wind up trying to chase each other away.
Mourning doves (Zenaida macroura) are fairly common sight, but their usual hangout is at a church a few blocks away.
An American robin (Turdus migratorius) searching for worms and insects under fallen leaves.
Nothing can stop an Eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) determined to get a free meal. They can pretty much outwit any “squirrel proof” feeder and get used to being hit with water guns and Nerf darts. A couple of times they have managed to pull down the suet feeders and make off with the entire block of suet.


Camera info:  Sony A7RIV DSLR body (full and crop sensor modes), Sony FE 200-600 zoom + 1.4X teleconverter. All shots are hand held with camera body and lens image stabilization enabled. ISO 5000 at f/11, shutter speed controlled by lighting conditions.

Readers’ wildlife photos

December 14, 2020 • 8:15 am

We are seriously low on readers’ wildlife photos, and I’m getting quite nervous. Do me a favor and send in your good photos; don’t make me beg! If I have to, I’ll play the my-content-is-free-so-please-send-some-pictures-in-return card.

Today we have contributions from two readers—some photos and a video. The photos come from reader John Egloff, who admits that they’re not the greatest pictures; but I thought they were worthwhile posting, as one rarely sees these nocturnal creatures even though many of us live among them. John’s captions are indented.

 In response to your request for more wildlife photos, I admit to being a bit intimidated by the stunning quality of the photos submitted by others that have appeared on your website.  Although the attached photos aren’t of that quality, I thought your readers might enjoy seeing these pictures of a nocturnal animal that most people never see and (as was originally the case with me) may not even realize is native to the Midwest.

Several years ago, I was living on the third floor of an apartment building on the far north side of Indianapolis that backed up to a woods and river where the wildlife was plentiful.  One evening, after dark, I was grilling on my back patio when something plopped onto the bird feeder a few feet from my head, startling me.   When I turned to look, my first impression was that a mouse, or perhaps even a rat, had jumped onto the feeder.  I watched the creature munch on sunflower seeds for a few minutes when, to my surprise, it simply leapt off of my birdfeeder, some 25 or 30 feet in the air, into the darkness.

Looking through one of my handy wildlife reference books, I discovered that what I had seen was a Northern Flying Squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus).  Although I had (mistakenly) considered myself to be pretty knowledgeable about our local wildlife, I had been under the impression that flying squirrels were something that existed in the tropics – and certainly not in Indiana.

I soon discovered that these flying squirrels were coming to my birdfeeder every evening as soon as it grew dark.  Perhaps because we were up so high, they didn’t seem to be the least bit afraid of people, and on one occasion when my father was visiting he even (foolishly) reached out and petted one!

Because it was dark, when the squirrels leapt from my birdfeeder I couldn’t really see them “fly.”  In order to try to capture that, I set up a camera and flash on a tripod and aimed the camera into the darkness in the direction where the squirrels seemed to go.  As soon as they leapt from the feeder, I would fire the camera and flash.  Although I ended up with a lot of photos with no squirrel (or sometimes half a squirrel), I did manage to get several shots of the squirrels in flight.  The photos aren’t the sharpest because it was dark and I had to simply guess at a pre-set focal point; they’re also a bit grainy because the image has been enlarged.

Good enough; such photos are quite rare.

And now some videos from reader John Crisp:

Here’s an amazing whale encounter we had on the Fram [JAC: A Hurtigruten polar ship, similar to but smaller than the one I was on last year] in January this year. We were surrounded by an estimated 200 humpback whales (counted by the resident whale researcher). Sorry about the human noises – not just tourists, but half the crew were on the deck, so unusual was the experience! Nonetheless, the roaring of the whales is awe-inspiring. My apologies for the last 20 seconds, where I lost the plot. I should probably edit them…

John added this:

If you think it is suitable for a family show, I also have some remarkable footage of copulating lions…

I’ve asked for that footage but just got it a few minutes ago. The captions:

Lions mating in the Masai Mara. Somewhat voyeuristically, we watched for a while. During the time when a female is receptive, the pair may mate every 20 minutes and up to 50 times in a 24-hour period.

It is a noisy and apparently antagonistic affair! Watch these two:

This one shows afterglow, but no cigarettes:

And a nursing lioness:


More houses from Kenwood and a possum

December 11, 2020 • 2:30 pm

Here are some more houses in Kenwood that I photographed on yesterday’s constitutional. (My previous post on the area is here.)

First, though, here’s a Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana) that ran across 57th Street and crawled through a window grate into a safe space. I took a photo and left it alone, though it may be the one I saw two days ago. I will feed it if I see it again. (I left a banana in the grate this morning.)

Click to enlarge all photos:

Here’s a better view of Obama’s house (or ex-house, as I’m not sure whether he still owns it). I shot over the cement barriers and wire that blocks off pedestrian access.

Moar fancy houses:


I’m quite proud of this photo, which is a selfie—I’m right in the middle of the reflection—because it was really hard to take. The sun was shining so bright in my eyes, reflected off the ball, that I could find my position only by standing relative to the red ribbon and the gate, which I could see in the reflection. It also shows the nice houses across the street.


Readers’ wildlife photos

December 10, 2020 • 8:30 am

Evolutionary ecologist Bruce Lyon is back with another fact-filled post with great photos and his own videos. TRIGGER WARNING: consumption of mammals by birds is shown.  I’ve indented Bruce’s commentary, and you can click on the photos to make them bigger.

Herons and egrets with interesting hunting strategies

Here in Coastal California pocket gophers (family Geomyidae) are abundant. These rodents are subterranean but easy to see because they often poke their heads up to the surface when digging burrows—they push dirt from tunnels out onto the ground. Pocket gophers are interesting for several reasons: they are important ecosystem engineers that affect the soil and plants, they destroy garden plants like nobody’s business, and they are a very abundant prey item for lots of predators. And they apparently get their name from fur-lined cheek pouches!

Below is a video of a local pocket gopher that has a collection of tunnels and surface mounds just outside my back door. I am not certain of the species but Botta’s pocket gopher (Thomomys bottae) seems most likely.

Pocket gophers can move a massive amount of earth: one estimate is 2 tons of soil brought to the surface per year per gopher. Since they can be very abundant, this can add up to a big effect at the landscape level. In coastal California, they can be hell on garden plants (they eat the roots), so gardeners often go to great lengths to protect their plants. One defense is a ‘gopher basket’—a wire basket lines a hole and then the plant and soil are put inside the basket. When we first bought our house, we did not always use gopher baskets and as a result lost a bunch of nice plants we had planted, including productive fig and lemon trees. We actually watched the lemon tree tip over and fall to the ground. When we checked it, it had no roots left.

Below: A gopher basket (photo from the web)

Gopher baskets are not the only line of defense—predators are another. Hawks, bobcats, coyotes, and even herons love to eat gophers. Great blue herons (Ardea herodias) have long hunted gophers in the fields around my house. Recently, a particularly tame heron has been hunting in peoples’ yards and because it is so tame I have been able to follow it around and observe and photograph it hunting gophers.

Below: Why did the heron cross the road? To gopher more food. [Example of appalling dad humor I try to inflict on my students.] This heron is right in front of my house.

Below: The heron slowly walks across a neighbor’s lawn after it has detected a gopher. I am not sure if the herons detect the gophers by hearing them moving near the surface or if they see the ground move when the gophers push soil up out of their burrow.

Below: The lunge. The technique is to stab the ground violently with the dagger-like beak. My impression is that they stab the gopher and wound or kill it with the stab. Note that the bird covers it eye with its transparent nictitating membrane during the stab. This translucent covering protects the eye from injury from branches or other sharp things that could damage the eyes.

Below: The attack was successful. This gopher was pretty large—they can get rat-sized. I watched this heron get five gophers in the space of a couple of hours! I suspect the gopher might have had a nest in the general area and was feeding kids.

Below: Another successful stab. This photo clearly shows that the animal had been impaled during the stabbing lunge.

Below: The herons swallow the gophers whole. Sometimes they toss them into the air, like popcorn, and then gulp them down. Other times they work them slowly up the beak to the mouth as this individual is doing.

Below: After several gophers, it is time for some relaxation and preening. Birds have a preen gland that produces waterproofing fats and lots of other goodies—the tip of this heron’s beak is right at the preen gland (on the lower back just where the tail feathers insert in the skin).

Great blue herons are not the only heron-like birds that have interesting hunting techniques. Tool usefoot shaking and providing shade (canopy hunting) have all been documented. Once in a while I see great egrets (Ardea alba) going for gophers but it is rare compared to herons  Egrets have other tricks up their sleeves. One egret at my study area at the university arboretum learned that western fence lizards (Sceloporus occidentalis) are easy pickings, and I watched one egret pick off ten lizards in about 30 minutes. The egret was really tame so I was able to get a couple of videos with my phone. While hunting, the egret constantly swayed its neck back and forth, a behavior that has been discussed on WEIT before but I am not sure if we know why they do this.

Below: Video of the great egret snatching a lizard. Note the swaying neck.

Below: Another video of the same bird.

Below: I have repeatedly seen snowy egrets (Egretta thula) catching fish in an interesting way at Jetty Road, a great birding spot south of Santa Cruz. A few large pipes go under the road to assist with tidal flow in Moss Landing Harbor.  At certain tidal heights the water forms strong whirlpools and the egrets like to grab fish from the whirlpools. I am not sure if they do this because the fish are easier to see or if the whirlpool traps the fish so that cannot escape. Regardless, it is fun to watch. And note the bright yellow feet—this egret species sometimes hunts by shaking its feet in water and I have wondered if the yellow feet help with that in some way.

Below: This egret catches a grunion (Leuresthes tenius) at the whirlpool.

Readers’ wildlife photos

December 7, 2020 • 8:00 am

Today we have more photos from Antarctica taken by Peter Klaver, who recently sent us some pictures of penguins as well as of Iguazu Falls. Here some the larger animals from Antarctica. Peter’s captions are indented; click on the photos to enlarge them.

In followup to the photos of Iguazu Falls, I hereby send you photos of when Rachel and I had moved from Argentina to Antarctica. We were surprised that the cold environment there supports so many animals. Below are photos of the bigger animals we saw there. Latin names are once again courtesy of Rachel Wilmoth.
Antarctic fur seals, Arctocephalus gazella:  the seal species we saw most. A short clip of the seal in the first photos chasing some penguins is here. [JAC: the link is safe]

This is a crabeater seal, Lobodon carcinophaga. Our guide told us that the English name is a bit off, as they don’t eat crabs but krill. You can see it sliding off a small iceberg here.

One evening the ship’s intercom reported that there was a pod of Orcas, Orcinus orca, near the ship, hunting. I think there were about four of them.

I don’t know what type of seal this is. But it had a nasty wound on its head. I don’t know if it got that from a rival dring a fight over mating right, a ship’s propellor, or something else still.

The largest animals we saw were humpback whalesMegaptera novaeangliae. Most of the time we saw them sleeping, which they do while turning off half their brain while the other half controls surfacing and breathing. But occasionally you see one diving.

The one below is taking a dump while submerging; see the orange material to the right of its tail: