Reader Chris Schulte sent some photos from a trip to the Galápagos archipelago. (I was supposed to be there in about a week, but since the trip was combined with a trip to Machu Picchu in Peru, and there are riots and unrest in that country, they canceled the whole deal. But I’ll be lecturing instead on a trip to the islands in August, and it will not be canceled because the Galápagos are part of Ecuador, not Peru).
Chris’s captions are indented, and you can click on the photos to enlarge them.
My wife and I went to the Galápagos a few years ago and I’ve been meaning to send these to you for a while. I don’t know if everything is identified correctly, but perhaps someone who knows better can correct me.
Today we have photos of a swell trip taken by Robert Lang, physicist and origami master. (I believe it was this trip, sponsored by New Scientist and Steppes Travel, and featuring Richard Dawkins as lecturer) Robert’s notes and IDs are indented, and you can click on the photos to enlarge them.
We spent a week sailing around the Hawaiian islands. We saw quite a few birds, both endemic and introduced, but I didn’t get many good pictures of the endemics; most of them were too skittish and/or stayed in heavy leaf cover. But I did get this Saffron Finch (Sicalis flaveola), which is an introduced species, but was too pretty to pass up.
We also did some kayaking along sea cliffs. I loved the brilliance of this Red Pencil Urchin (Heterocentrotus mamillatus), which was just above the waterline.
At one point, the ship we were on spotted a pod of Pantropical Spotted Dolphins (Stenella attenuate). As we revved up the engine, they joined us to surf the bow wave.
The highlights of the trip were two snorkeling excursions. First, a night snorkel with Reef Manta Rays (Mobula alfredi). The organizers set up surfboard with lights, which attracted plankton; the plankton attracted the rays, which did repeated somersaults just underneath us—literally less than a foot away. This picture is a screen capture:
But I hope you will able to see the video:
Later we did a day snorkel on Lahaina with Green Sea Turtles (Chelonia mydas). There were quite a few people in the water (as you will see in the video), but they just ignored us, coming up to the surface for a breath, then heading back down.
We’d arrived on the big island of Hawai’I while one of the volcanos, Mauna Loa, was undergoing an eruption (note, this is not the volcano with all of the telescopes on it—that’s Mauna Kea). We only saw lava distantly from the plane on the way in, but the ash in the sky gave us some beautiful sunrises and sunsets.
Robert didn’t ask me to put this up, but I couldn’t resist. He sent it while on the trip, with the remark, “Richard had a slide in one of his talks comparing embryonic development to origami, which was why he pulled me in as a visual aid when that slide came up. That was, of course, great fun. Charming fellow, I gather he’s done some biological something-or-other in his day.”
Finally, since Mauna Loa is having one of its rare eruptions on the Big Island, I asked Robert if he saw it directly. He responded:
We did see the eruption from afar, from the plane while flying in. (Pic below.) One of the days we drove up to within a mile of the flow, but it was fogged in so we couldn’t see anything.
Today we have a new contributor: Gerfried Ambrosch, who sends us lovely pictures of herps. Gerfried’s notes and IDs are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.
I took all of these photos on my iPhone. Most of the amphibians depicted are nocturnal. Only the picture of the Alpine newt was taken during the day. Interestingly, some of the most important European green toad populations are found in urban areas, which is why they’re sometimes considered a synanthropic species. However, one main reason this endangered, steppe-dwelling species of toad now mainly populates these secondary habitats is that its primary habitats have mostly been destroyed. Once common, the European tree frog – Central Europe’s only tree-climbing frog – is now also a threatened species. Fortunately, there are many wildlife-protection and biodiversity projects (some of which I’m involved with) in Austria and Germany that work hard to mitigate these problems.
Today we’ll finish off the photos sent in by Kira Heller (her photos of bears in Alaska are here). Her notes and IDs are indented, and you can click the photos to enlarge them. Readers can identify the lizard and duck shown.
These photos were taken by Ephraim Heller, and I am sharing them with his permission.
Great blue heron (Ardea herodias) hunting and catching an eel/fish in Half Moon Bay, CA
A lizard on my walking path in San Jose, CA:
Common Mergansers (Mergus merganser) in Alaska. Chicks move from parent to parent as they float on the river. I count 39 with this parent:
Merganser chicks ride on the backs of adults. Alaska:
It’s been a while since we’ve had photos from reader, physicist, and master origami artist Robert Lang, who lives in California. Here’s a spate of fauna with Robert’s captions indented. Click on the photos to enlarge them:
My office window looks out into the Angeles National Forest, so I get a lot of animal visitors; I keep a camera on my desk so when something interesting wanders by, I can just grab it and shoot. A few months ago we did a little landscaping and installed a water feature, which has been quite the popular visiting spot—no surprise in this drought-stricken semi-desert region! Some of these pictures were also taken on the local trails.
I’ll start with some reptiles and mammals; subsequent posts will include visitors of the avian persuasion.
The most common vertebrates I see on the trails and in back are lizards. The largest is the Coastal Whiptail (Aspidoscelis tigris stejnegeri), which is a real beauty with its striking spots.
Smaller, but more common, are the Western Fence Lizards (Sceloporus occidentalis), which can be seen in both dark forms or a brilliantly iridescent version:
Not only are these the same species: they could even be the same individual! Western Fence Lizards can change their color during the day, starting out dark in the morning to absorb the sun to warm up, then lightening later in the day when they don’t need the extra heat.
Both lizards are sometime prey to the Gopher Snake (Pituophis catenifer), the most common snake around here. They often give hikers a start, because their pattern is suggestive of the local rattlesnake, but they’re harmless to people (and help control the local rodent population as well).
Another harmless rodent-eater is the Striped Racer or California Whipsnake (Masticophis lateralis). These guys zip through the brush! But this one was hanging out on the trail, not moving for about 30 seconds, then ZOOM—and he was gone.
Of course, the one that everybody worries about is the Southern Pacific Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus helleri). This one was resting on my front doorstep. Once you know where they are, there’s no danger, of course—you just keep your distance. It’s the ones you don’t see that you have to worry about.
And now, on to some mammals, from small to large.
We do get the occasional chipmunk (Neotamias sp.):
The gray squirrel is grayer than the more mottled ground squirrel, and has a far more luxuriant tail.
My studio is right on the boundary between two ecological zones: the Coastal Sage Scrub, which is low open brush, and the chaparral—dense, chest-high or higher, and nearly impenetrable to bush-whack through (at least, not without getting a lot of scratches along the way). So I get visitors from both communities. From the CSS, there’s Audubon’s cottontail (a.k.a. the Desert Cottontail) (Sylvilagus audubonii):
And from the chaparral, the Brush Rabbit (Sylvilagus bachmani):
They’re pretty close to the Audubon’s cottontail in appearance, but the latter have black-edged ears as the most prominent distinguishing feature. Their behaviors are very different, though. The Audubon’s cottontail forages out in the middle of the wide-open meadow behind my office, while the brush rabbit never strays more than a few feet from the edge of the chaparral and is quick to dart back into its dense brush at any sign of danger.
Moving up the size scale, I get frequent nocturnal visits from striped skunks (Mephitis mephitis)—which I know about via a motion-sensitive camera, fortunately not via odor! But this was a rare daytime visitor. It was evidently lame in one of its front legs, but still moved through the yard with some alacrity.
Although foxes, coyotes, and bears have all been visitors in the past, the most common large-ish predator is the bobcat (Lynx rufus). While I don’t have quite the fascination with felines of our host, I find these kitties to be magnificent, and am happy for their frequent visits.
That’s it for the reptiles and mammals. Coming next: birds.
I paid a visit to Botany Pond last Friday (7 October). It had rained much of the day before I got to Hyde Park in mid-afternoon, but the sun had started to come out and there was more going on than I thought there would be. The water was high– covering the “ring” islands next to the cypress islands– perhaps from the recent rain.
First, quite a few mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) were there.
There were 22 of them, evenly divided between hens and drakes, though I think the exact equality was coincidental. There did seem to be some male/female pairs, but not all had a match.
Most of the drakes seemed to be in full nuptial plumage, such as the following fellow,
but a couple had either not yet completed the fall molt, or were just weird.
Members of Team Duck arrived a bit after I did, and they confirmed that while some matched pairs were present among the ducks, a number were not in a committed relationship.
Several of the named ducks were present, including Honey, Bernie, Billy, Ginger, and Gooseduck. I tried to take a picture of Honey, but they were moving around quite a bit. I’m not sure if this is her; the triangular spot at the base of the bill doesn’t seem quite right, but Jerry should be able to tell one way or the other.
[JAC: This is not Honey.]
I had gone to Botany Pond with a particular interest in the turtles there, which include two subspecies of slider, the red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) and the yellow-bellied slider (Trachemys scripta scripta). The latter is represented by a single individual, not seen on this visit. Despite the rain having stopped not long before, there was one very active large male that came out on to the rock “beach” to sun for a bit. He was in and out of the water a few times.
This male was very dark. In the water, though, you could see more of his shell coloration, as well as the long front ‘nails’ and long, thick tail that identify his sex.
There was a second large male red-ear in the water, but he did not come out, and I did not get a picture of that second turtle; he was much greener.
Send in your photos, lest I get shpilkes in my kishkes!
Today’s photos are from Arizona, and were contributed by reader Bruce Cochrane. His captions, and IDs are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.
With the exception of two years disrupted by Covid, my wife and I have made a spring trip to the Tucson area every year since 2012. We usually stay at vacation homes in the desert west of Tucson, most recently in the Robles Junction area. Over the years, I’ve accumulated quite a collection of plant and animal pictures, and while I can’t claim to be a sophisticated outdoor photographer, I’ve managed to get a number of decent photos. Here are some of the animals; I will contribute a set of plant in the near future.
For people new to the Sonoran desert, a good place to start is the Desert Museum. It has a great collection of both plants and animals, the latter housed in reasonably natural habitats. It also does animal rescue work, and in 2012 we got to see its raptor show, featuring birds that could not be released into the wild. One I was able to photograph was a Ferruginous hawk (Buteo regalis).
One of our regular stops is at the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, a Nature Conservatory property about 65 miles south of Tucson. It’s quite distinct from the Sonoran Desert, and it contains one of the few remaining permanently flowing streams in the state. It is an internationally recognized birding hot spot, and although we’ve never been able to get there early enough in the morning to really appreciate it, I have managed to get a few photos.
There are, of course, mammals as well. Although often mistaken for wild pigs Javelina, or collared peccaries (Dicotyles tajacu) actually diverged about 36 million years ago and in fact are members of different families (Suidae vs. Tayassuidae). They are gentle animals that can do a number on landscaping:
We discovered Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, about 65 miles southwest of Tucson on the Mexican Border, in 2013. It had been a cattle ranch, but was made a wild life refuge in the early 1970’s. It’s a great place to visit, as it is well off the beaten path. Here are a couple of fairly common denizens.
Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana), Although often referred to as an antelope, it is in fact only distantly related to true antelopes of Africa and Eurasia (divergence time is about 30 million years.
Gila Monsters (Heloderma suspectum) are fairly shy creatures, so it was incredibly fortunate for us that this one decided to saunter across the road in front of us in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Although a venomous reptile (the only one native to the US), it does not pose any significant threat to humans.
In 2019, we ventured south to Puerto Peñasco in Mexico and walked out on the tidal flats north of La Choya. There were lots of invertebrate species, including this crab (unknown genus and species, at least to me):
Finally, one habitat of Homo sapiens, A Tucson “landmark.” Note that we did NOT stay there, even for an hour. You can read more about it here:
Today’s batch of photos come from Costa Rica, and were taken by Fred Dyer. His notes and captions are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them:
Some Photos from Costa Rica 10-20 July 2022
I recently traveled around Costa Rica with my family for about 10 days prior to a conference. Our itinerary included a day in the capital city of San Jose, a couple of days in the mountainous/volcanic region northwest of San Jose, and then several days along the central Pacific coast. Costa Rica is an amazing place, geologically, biologically, and culturally. Almost everything you see is beautiful. These photographs are a grab bag that don’t have much in common except that they were the ones that came out looking pretty good.
First, a few photos from near the town of La Fortuna and the Arenal volcano, including from a guided walk through a private rainforest reserve. On the walk we saw toucans, howler monkeys, army ants, leaf cutter ants and morpho butterflies, plus these (I welcome corrections on the species identifications):
Eyelash pit viper (Bothriechis schlegelii), which gets its common name from the hairlike scales protruding over each eye. It is a small snake, but one of the most dangerous in Costa Rica.
Stingless bees (Apidae : Apinae : Meloponini: Perhaps Tetragonisca sp?) guarding their nest entrance tube. There are something like 60 species of stingless bees in Costa Rica. These guard bees were 4-5 mm in length. The colony is enclosed in a cavity so its size is hard to know, but some species have several thousand workers in each colony.
View of the Arenal Volcano from the north. This volcano began erupting violently in 1968 and continued until 2010. Vapors still issue from the peak, although this picture shows only clouds:
From La Fortuna/Arenal we drove toward the Pacific coast, and stopped at a wildlife rescue center (Santuario Las Palmas) near the town of Cañas in Guanacaste province. The enclosures held rescued jaguars, pumas, ocelots, monkeys and several species of parrots. We also spotted some wildlife outside the enclosures:
Automeris metzlicaterpillar (larva of a Saturniid moth—in the same genus as the North American Io moth). This beauty was about 10 cm long
Same caterpillar after it moved onto a twig. The urticating spines supposedly produce a nasty venom. Here is what an adult Automeris metzli looks like. Whereas the larva relies upon aposematic signals and spines to deter potential predators from attacking, the adult is cryptic in the resting position, and exposes eyespots as a startle cue.
You can read more on Automerishere.
Black Ctenosaur (Ctenosaura similis), also known as the black spiny-tailed iguana, grazing at Las Palmas. These large lizards are extremely common along the Pacific slope:
In Manuel Antonio National Park, stingless bees (species unknown) on a Heliconia sp.:
Also in the park, Panamanian white-faced capuchins (Capuchin imitator) engaged in a groomfest, while baby looks on. These were part of a larger group of a dozen or so monkeys in a grove of trees about 3 meters above the ground:
Same monkeys, still grooming.
Back in town, a Groove-billed Ani (Crotophaga sulcirostris) with some insect yumminess for its nestling(s). These are large birds (a bit bigger than a grackle) in the cuckoo family. They often nest communally but this seemed to be a single mated pair. The nest was in a tree across the street from our rental house in Manuel Antonio. Pictures of the nestling(s) and the other parent didn’t come out so great.
Playa Hermosa, a black-sand beach about an hour north of Manuel Antonio. This is a destination for expert surfers, and the surf was really intense the day we were there.
American Crocodiles (Crocodylus acutus) basking next to the Tárcoles River below the “Crocodile Bridge.” This is a tourist attraction on the main coastal highway (Route 34). The travel guidebook said that there is a population of 2000 or more crocs in this river and the nearby Carara National Park. Crocodiles often rest with their mouths open to dissipate heat.
We don’t often get photos from South Africa, but it’s a place full of biological diversity. Today we have some pictures by Matthew Ware, whose IDs and notes are indented. Click to enlarge the pictures.
This is the third largest canyon in the world (though that’s open to some dispute, apparently) and forms part of the northern section of the Drakensberg Escarpment. It is 26 km in length and averages 750m in depth. The canyon consists mostly of red stone. The highest point of the canyon, Mariepskop is 1,944 m above sea level and has had a listening post for the SA Defence forces due to its height and proximity to the Zimbabwe and Mozambique borders.
The dam was constructed in 1975, primarily to serve as a reservoir for the local mining interests.
A view of the Dam wall from on the water.
A view up the Blyde River. There are hippos in the river but we did not come across any.
The Rondawels form 3 huge pinnacles of rock rising above the Blyde River canyon below. Once known as the Three Sisters. They are named Mogoladikwe, Magabolle and Maseroto after a local king’s wives.
The ‘Monkey Face’ rock – may require some imagination on behalf of the viewer.
This is a Nile Monitor (Varanus niloticus), Africa’s largest lizard, growing up to 2.2m.
The African darter (Anhinga rufa), sometimes called the snakebird, is a water bird of southern Africa. Its feathers do not contain any oil and are therefore not waterproof. Because of this the bird is less buoyant and its diving capabilities are enhanced. After being in the water for some time, the feathers can become waterlogged. In order to dry out, it sits, wings outstretched, to get the most of the warm air and sunlight.
Well, it’s been about seven and a half weeks since Audrey and her brood of 12 arrived at Botany Pond, and so we’re at right about the time these ducks become able to fly.
We still have all 12, and as you can see in the four videos below, they’re huge now—almost the size of Audrey. You can also see that she is always present with her brood and always attentive. She’s the best duck mother I’ve ever seen, which I suppose goes along with her thuggish tendency to attack other broods that enter the pond. (Her babies are becoming thugs, too, chasing the “itinerant” hens that hang around the pond.)
The “babies” have begun flapping their wings as if about to fly, and they tend to do this when they run across the sidewalk. The flapping became very vigorous yesterday morning, and some of them even went up on their tiptoes. They tend to flap when on cement; I have no idea why this is so. It may be because it gives them a long solid run, though they don’t run the length of the sidewalk when flapping.
All videos by Jean Greenberg on the morning of July 14, 2022.
I often wonder, when they’re flapping like this, whether they somehow know they’re going to fly (from watching other ducks), or are merely exercising an instinctive flapping urge that eventually will take them into the air. For sure they don’t know they’re practicing to fly, though!
Note that the last one goes up on its tiptoes.
I really, really hope we can see a first flight, or at least an early one. Since I’m a duck parent, or godfather, to me that would be equivalent to seeing a baby’s first steps. The first flapper in this video is trying hard to get off the ground!
The other news (I’ve been slow putting up duck photos, but I will) is that we found three very tiny red-eared sliders—turtles of the species Trachemys scripta elegans—on the pond in the last week. They are so small that they simply cannot have been put into the pond by people, as you can’t buy red-eared sliders this small. (I suppose it’s possible that a breeder put newborns in the pond, but that doesn’t seem likely.) As per Greg’s instructions, we’ve measured them and will do further checks when the sun allows us to recapture them. In the meantime, have a look at these cuties!
A baby turtle on a rock (all turtle photos by Jean Greenberg): To give a sense of scale, I’ll put another picture below this one:
Since these are likely to be newborns, their presence is of natural-history interest, for Chicago is pretty much north of the normal limit of their breeding range. The species is native to the Southeast and South-Central US (range map below), and their ability to breed is limited to where their eggs can survive the cold winters in a nest. Greg and I marked two new nests last fall and dug them up this summer; and none of the eggs (5 or 6 per nest) had survived. The presence of at least three Tiny Turtles, seen simultaneously the other day, strongly suggests that they can breed here. We’ll write up a small note about this for one of the herpetology journals.
I’ve circled the baby below (click, preferably twice in succession, to enlarge the picture) so you can compare its size to that of the other and older turtles nearby. They’re all sunning themselves, and I have no idea how these tiny ones (there are at least three) get atop those rocks. They are tenacious, though.
Here’s a map of the native range map of the species. But they’re now in many other places since they’re invasive and are also easily introduced since they’re the most purchased and most exchanged species of turtle in America. I bet a lot of us had one as a kid (I did), but they usually die from improper care, as mine did.
One in my hand:
And my hand and a ruler for scale (we’ve measured them with measuring tape now). This one was only about 3 cm long (shell length), or a bit more than an inch.
An upside-down view showing the plastron (lower shell). The spots on the plastron can be used to diagnose an individual. Greg pointed out that the rear part of the shell is discolored, which may indicate either a developmental or a nutritional problem. I’m supposed to squeeze the shell gently when we do one more capture of these to see how pliable it is (there should not be much “give” in the shell of a healthy baby and none in an adult).