Tag Archive: birds

holy mola!

DSC_0400-1i know, the photo is not that spectacular… but we were treated to a Mola mola (ocean sunfish) sighting this morning under rather difficult conditions to capture well.  all was grey and the fish (two of them actually, surrounding by ogling albatrosses) were about 50 m from the boat.  they were small by mola standards, maybe a metre from fin tip to fin tip, meandering around in their strange sideways fashion, occasionally poking an eye out of the water to stare back at us, flapping their fins awkwardly and just generally looking like a pretty unlikely animal.  in addition to the black-footed albatross, some ?shearwaters (positive ID to follow) and northern fulmars were dabbling nearby.

tomorrow, photos of undersea creatures!

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a few days ago, just as the sky began to get light, we were awakened by a crash. my first thought was that a kereru/native woodpigeon had flown into one of the windows of the next room. if it were a bird, it would almost certainly be injured, given the force with which it had hit the glass (we felt the impact as well as heard it). so i padded downstairs to see whether anyone was lying stunned (or worse) on the ground. in the grey early light, it was difficult to see, but eventually i did make out an unusual shape sprawled among the pale green leaves of the juicy succulent that is slowly claiming the ground outside our guest-room window. when i folded the wings back in and turned the bird over, this is what i found.

20150330_071910this is a ruru or morepork (Ninox novaeseelandiae), new zealand’s only remaining owl (the laughing owl, along with about half of our other native bird species, became extinct between human colonization of the islands and the end of the 20th century). i had seen them before (and we hear them reasonably often–they make over 20 different vocalisations) but never in the wild, and never this close. his mottled rust-brown and cream feathers were smooth and silky on the wings, incredibly soft on the belly, and almost spiderweb-fine down the legs, to the surprisingly yellow feet. when i picked him up, his head lolled and his eyes were closed, but one foot grasped a fallen cabbage tree leaf, he was breathing, and to my great relief, the remaining tension in his neck showed that it wasn’t broken.

i gathered him in to hold in one hand, pinning the wings to the body. i’ve studied wild birds in the past but the usual hold, with the head supported between first and second fingers, would clearly not work for a bird longer than my forearm. even a small owl has wicked talons and an effective beak, so i hoped i wouldn’t have to explain a slashed wrist to our local emergency facilities (although, good story!). he seemed far from a vicious panic attack, though, so i took my chances. i carried him up to our small deck and sat to examine him more closely. as we walked through the door from the house back outside, his wide yellow eyes popped open and looked around, and he turned his head a bit to get a better look at his surroundings—and me.

owl eyes are unlike most other birds’ eyes; they are proportionally very large, forward-facing and set in flat facial discs and supported by the bony rings common to all raptors. up close, their size and vivid color make for an intense, piercing stare; the bright yellow-orange irises and extraordinary large black pupils of this morepork seemed to convey a much higher awareness than the eyes of most smaller birds. this is probably why owls have their reputation for wisdom across many cultures; in the traditional facial moko/tattoos of the maori, women wear a stylized ruru on their chins for wisdom. i was glad to see that the pupils, although remaining large, expanded and constricted together. the owl’s clear gaze continued to hold mine as i debated whether to test his ability to stand, or check him for injuries.

in the end, his improving head control (i only rotated him a little—for science) and the foot continuing to grasp the cabbage tree frond convinced me to let him try perching. i positioned him behind a bamboo gardening hoop on the deck and touched the perch to the top of his feet; he flailed a little and then grasped, crouching a little lopsidedly and continuing to peer around. while his coordination showed he was not yet fully recovered, nothing seemed obviously broken, although he did slowly tip forward until he hung bat-like from the underside of the perch. i re-collected him into a tea towel so i could isolate each limb and sat down to examine him more closely. i felt along his legs and feet; tension was good, i couldn’t feel any broken bones and he didn’t flinch at my prodding. his ribs, sternum and skull all seemed fine, so although his eyes had closed again, i thought he had a good chance of recovering after some peace and quiet.

20150330_071922i carried him inside with me (to the cats’ consternation—as indoor dwellers they don’t get to see birds on their side of the windows very often), procured a wooden beer crate and brought it back out to the deck with some fat sticks to make perches. i set the box with the open side facing out, positioned the sticks, and gently inserted the owl behind a one, planning to retry the perching prompt. he grasped one of the sticks with a foot, but fluttered his wings and made an awkward hop that brought him out of the box. once in the open, he looked at me, sprang into the air, and made a smooth, swooping, perfect flight over the deck rail, around the corner of the house, and off into the trees. so he was clearly… owl right!

the road north

two weeks ago today, we drove from omaha up to the lake in northern minnesota. we had been home from north carolina for nearly 18 hours, so high time to get moving again…

in omaha, the air had a spring balminess to it that didn’t quite match that of north carolina, but was still a cheerful indicator of winter’s past tense. as we drove further north, however, chilliness began to set in and it soon became evident that winter was not toothless everywhere, just yet. we did see an amazing diversity of bird life – waterfowl migrating back north (pelicans, trumpeter swans, loons), raptors (kestrel, red-tailed hawks, bald eagles, osprey), ground birds (turkeys, grouse) and waders (several blue herons, and we heard sandhill cranes, although they stayed out of sight behind the treeline). when we stopped, song birds flitted through the trees (chickadees, red-winged blackbirds, phoebes), and a bluebird flew across the road right in front of us. truly an avian cornucopia!

the landscape, though still clearly in the very early stages of post-winter recovery, was also lovely to drive through in itself. for some reason, the sky never looks the same anywhere else as in northern minnesota. on this particular day, the deep slate-blue of distant clouds, which appeared to be sifting sheets of powdery snow onto neighboring counties, contrasted beautifully with the standing golden remains of last year’s crops, and the air was calm enough for crystalline reflections in ponds and lakes (sometimes, of geographically unlikely beasts).

much as i love new zealand, spending time in minnesota, whatever the season, is always a homecoming.

feathers & scales


adopted by a gannet

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sealog #3: the flying food chain

although the days tend to run together a bit out here, each is usually marked by at least one unique event.  the day before yesterday, it was the flying fish.  they leapt out of the water singly, in small groups or by the hundreds, to spread their huge pectoral and anal fins and glide away from the ship’s bow, just centimeters above the water but for dozens of meters at a stretch.  when they caught the sun, they flashed silver, blue and copper, and they were quite lovely.  i had seen them before but never so many and never at such leisure.  they have excellent directional control (best demonstrated by the one that launched itself toward the looming bow, experienced a small mid-air freak-out and then deftly executed a tight u-turn to splash down a safe distance away).  watching whole airborne schools is nothing short of marvelous.  but i did find myself wondering whether, in their ingenious avoidance of marine predators, they ever put themselves into other harm’s way.
yesterday afternoon on whale watch we were joined by a young gannet.  its aerial grace was breathtaking (although it did unfortunately remind us that our friendly neighborhood owl was rather far from home and its usual comfort zone).  it wheeled and soared, scratched itself in mid-flight with its bright orange feet, zoomed past the ship and then dropped back to make another swooping pass.  and soon, it began to dive – not into the water, but skimming just above its surface, in hot pursuit of (you guessed it) the flying fish.
the chases were intense.  the gannet would make a few high passes, then drop and put on a burst of speed and rocket over the low waves; the gliding fish shortened their flights noticeably in response, and usually escaped back into aqua firma just centimeters from the pursuing beak.  of the ten or so attempts i witnessed, i believe the gannet took three unlucky fliers, diving briefly into the water following each catch and floating smugly for a few moments before rising to start again.
watching the whole sequence elicited the usual mixed feelings – the excitement of the chase, the admiration for the sleek and speedy gannet, and the simultaneous inner cheer whenever the splash of safety came just in time.  and as usual, these emotions had absolutely no bearing out the outcome – probably for the best, since i caught myself half-hoping that a higher trophic power (say, a whale) might suddenly rear its head and snatch the careening gannet in a blaze of karma.  (of course no such preposterous event transpired.   but my camera and i were ready just in case.)

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sometimes the most mundane aspects of a travel experience make the biggest impression, so i’d like to dedicate today’s entry to food, preceded by a brief weather report.  neptune has continued to smile upon us, with very gentle swells accompanied by light zephyrs, or sometimes more refreshingly stiff gusts, as we move further into the tropics.  it is now decidedly muggy and the air conditioning is on in most parts of the ship, although in our cabin we prefer to leave the porthole open instead.  conditions have been fairly good (in theory) for whale-spotting, although the whales are not playing along.  instead we’ve had flocks of flying fish and visits from several birds, including – of all bizarre candidates – an owl.  before today i would almost certainly have scorned the idea of a sea owl, but short of a mass hallucination and some very weird camera tricks, i can’t explain it away. this should-be nocturnal land-dweller  flew with us for several hours this morning, in fact, and may return tomorrow, if it decided to roost somewhere on the ship.
and it was far and away today’s most exciting wildlife event.  apart from the whale-spotting efforts, the days until we reach our first biological sampling stations are mostly revolving around meals.  we are fed four times a day, every four hours starting from 7.30, and all other scheduled activities (plus naps, owl-spotting, and cards) are meticulously slotted in between.
my biggest reservation about joining this cruise, after the inconvenience of its timing and the nearly six-week absence from home and the pebbles, was actually the food.  i freely admit that i am a picky eater, and i’m pretty sure the relief i felt when i started cooking for myself was surpassed only by my mother’s relief at the same development.  my usual list of don’t-eat foods includes (but is not limited to) onions, seafood (including fish), green peppers, ketchup, and mayonnaise, plus a few more things usually too obscure to bother including (but hey, what the heck: veal, duck, any kind of organ meat or amorphous meat product including most sausages, and beer if that counts as a food).  the list of foods that don’t appear on my home menu but may be eaten as politeness requires is much longer; a small sampling would include pretty much any bread other than white bread (especially ‘chunky’ bread with any kind of seeds, or sweet bread products like cinnamon bagels), peas, red and yellow peppers, things with nuts or raisins in them (although i like both on their own), anything with banana or banana-flavoring other than actual bananas, and most savory-sweet combo dishes.  you can see that the probability of finding an entirely tintenfisch-approved meal anywhere outside my own home is near zero.
luckily i married a saint who is both an excellent and accommodating cook, and whose own don’t-eat list is short and very compatible, consisting of seafood and the easily omittable parsley and pineapple.
unluckily, my saint was not coming along on this voyage, and i would be at the mercy of an entirely unknown russian kitchen crew for over a month, who would be cooking on a scale capable of sustaining sixty people four times a day (enough to give the strongest of constitutions pause, i suspect) .  i packed a few chocolate bars, and a bag of cookies, resigned myself to probably suspending a few of the don’t-eats (fish, for example), and envisioned either making illicit friends with some kitchen staff (a working knowledge of russian would have helped here), and/or returning home in a nearly translucent state.
to no one’s astonishment more than my own, i have eaten almost everything put in front of me; i blame the constant motion of the ship (it takes a lot of effort to stand ‘still’), and the invigorating salt air.  the top-ranking meals so far would have to be the daily soups, a delicious creamy rice pudding, and a couple of pasta dishes.  the ‘surprisingly palatable’ list contains borscht; a bizarre salad of peas and chopped pickles, beets, cucumber and carrots; and several kinds of fish.  the ‘consumption ban temporarily lifted by necessity’ litany (so far) reads: fish, shrimp, duck, and some kind of salami that was probably mostly made of blood.  and until today i wouldn’t have been able to list anything i actually avoided/refused. but the honeymoon period couldn’t last, of course, and when we sat down to ‘tea’ (the 3.30 meal) and were faced with bowls of cold chopped chicken buried under a 2-inch layer of cold chicken-broth flavored gelatine, i drew the line.  i did flop the gelatine layer aside and at least try the chicken, but i really couldn’t get over the resemblance to jelly-meat-style cat food and had to give up pretty quickly.
it was then that the unlikeliest event of the day, and perhaps of my lifetime, transpired.  the other four biologists in my team watched my chicken jell-o investigations closely (which i would like to say stopped short of turning the bowl upside down just to see if it would hold… but i can’t; it did).  when i put my fork down, perhaps a little visibly green around the gills, they pushed away their untouched bowls as one and shook their heads.  and one of them said, in complete seriousness, ‘we know by now that if you won’t eat it, we shouldn’t even try.’
well.  anyone who knows me will realize how utterly ridiculous that statement is.  i chuckled to myself for the whole rest of today.  and i am considering calling for a helicopter to take me to shore right now, because i can just tell – no matter how the sampling goes, and what cool squid we find, i’m pretty sure that at the end of the cruise i will look back at that statement as my single proudest moment.

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sparrow joy


no trip abroad is complete without making a fuss over the local fauna.  although the more dangerous beasts of oz kept their distance (no snakes, blue-ringed octos or particularly bitey spiders), we did have some nice run-ins with the scaly and feathered.  ibises, although introduced, are now pretty ubiquitous in the cities.

lorikeets swooped regularly through the back yard of the pebbles-in-law, brightening the rain with their tropical colors and cheeky chat.

magpies, which are a terrible pest in new zealand, are at least tolerated in aus (where they’re native).  and their fluting song makes a nice wake-up call.

during the brief patches of sunlight, lizards crept out of every crevice to bask and collect a little solar energy.

although there were also some reptiles that also preferred to work by night.

and this tiny one probably would have preferred to be nocturnal, but he got confused and turned up in the house in the morning instead.

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singing in the rain

i will get some reflections posted about the colossal squid stuff one of these days, but in the meantime, i want to share something else.  this fine fellow is a tui (Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae) and he's been sitting in a big tree above our back patio singing his heart out for the past two days, in spite of heavy rain and generally wretched weather.  last week was fun and exciting, but the tui's bubbly whistles, squawks and constant chatter have also made me glad to be home.


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