The Smell of Conservation

Part of my internship includes writing a couple “Great Stories” about my time here on Kauai. This is my first, and I thought it was pretty good material for this blog too. (I know I wrote about Kauai’s birds on my last post… but you can’t have too many bird posts, right?)

Kauai is home to 8 native forest bird species. 6 of them are endemic – found nowhere else in the world outside of this island. 3 of those endemics are endangered, with populations precariously hanging on at less than a thousand individuals. The focus of the Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project (KFBRP) is to help reverse the declines of these species; to recover them from the brink of extinction. Working for this project is working on the frontlines of a battle against extinction. Many moments have been impossibly hard and impossibly depressing; but when you see the birds – see them foraging, see them breeding, whatever – you can’t help but smile and remember the reason we can’t give up this battle.

The 3 endangered species we focus on here at KFBRP are as follows:

Puaiohi, or Small Kauai Thrush (Myadestes palmeri). Numbering about 500 individuals, the Puaiohi have been listed as endangered since 1967. They are primarily fruit eaters, and nest in pukas (cavities or depressions) on streamside cliff walls.

Akeke’e, or Kauai Akepa (Loxops caeruleirostris). Less than 1000 individuals remain. They have slightly offset bill tips (a “crossbill”) that help them to pry open flower and leaf buds in Ohia canopies in search of insects.

Akikiki, or Kauai Creeper (Oreomystis bairdi). Less than 500 individuals remain. True to their name, these birds “creep” along tree trunks and branches, picking among bark and moss in search of insects.

The Akikiki is my personal favorite. Not just because they’re adorable with their goofy pink feet (all the birds are incredibly cute), but because of their demeanor. Often looking for food below the canopy, I have had the privilege of observing them for hours. They make little hops up and down branches, often flipping over like a gymnast on a bar – their little tails in the air – to reach prime spots on the underside of branches. Quietly as they look, they communicate to each other via airy chirps, as they are often found in small family groups of 2-4 individuals. Watching them, I smile at their acrobatic antics until the inevitable thought hits me: there are less than 500 of these birds left. These could be gone from the wild within 5 to 10 years if we don’t change something. Most people on this island – in the world, really – don’t even know these birds exist at all. They will never be affected by their disappearance and they won’t know the tragic loss that could occur so quickly. This is so sad to me, partly because I think most people would be so charmed by the character of these birds if only they were able to see them.

Foraging Akikiki. Cutest little feather butts. Photo by Lucas Behnke

Foraging Akikiki. Cutest little feather butts. Photo by Lucas Behnke

I love all of what I’m doing here. I love that I get to help spread the word about these birds that are so unique and amazing, in addition to being out in the field directly observing and monitoring them. But there is one moment in particular that will be with me forever, a unique experience that few have had the opportunity to enjoy: I smelled an Akikiki. And it was wonderful. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve smelled lots of other birds too, but they don’t compare to the Akikiki. When one has a particularly strong sense of smell and just happens to have a bird in hand…. Sometimes it’s irresistible. Most birds have a sort of subtle musty, almost powdery, smell. It’s not a bad smell; it’s rather earthy actually. But the Hawaiian honeycreepers add another level to that musty bird smell, with sweet and flowery undertones (describing bird smell is an art akin to describing the taste of wine). In fact, this strong scent has been so well documented amongst the Hawaiian honeycreepers, that it actually is considered a characteristic of their taxonomic subfamily Drepanidinae, and is (creatively) called the Drepanidine odor. Science says it’s true, I’m not making this up! The Akikiki really takes the cake though. Even after releasing the bird after it has been captured and banded, everything the bird has touched now has that sweet, musty, honeycreeper smell. The scented feathers of this little bird just add to its charm. As if being cute wasn’t enough, it smells good too!

I am distinctly aware of how few people have gotten to experience this smelly little puffball of a bird. Once numbering in the thousands just a few decades ago, the akikiki’s population has plummeted to around 450, mostly due to malaria, predation by non-native predators, and loss of native habitat. And the Akikiki isn’t the only one; most of Hawaii’s honeycreepers are suffering these declines for the same reasons. The field of conservation biology is rough and can be depressing if you’re not careful. But rather than letting despair take over, I use it for motivation. I love these little birds, and I so desperately want them to thrive in the wild. I also want others to experience their charm, and if all goes well, maybe someday that will be possible. Until then, it’s important and exciting for me to tell you about these birds, Drepanidine odor and all. Endangered species are not only the face of conservation, they are also the smell of conservation.

Until next time friends. Go look at a bird. Or smell one, if you happen to have the opportunity.
(P.S. I’d recommend smelling a Wrentit if you want a good, strong representative of the classic, musty bird smell. Just fyi.)


“Go Inquire of the Birds”

Ho‘okolo aku i ka nui manu.

My hiatus has been well-earned. I made a big move, 2400 miles away from home, to one of the most isolated islands in the world: Kaua‘i. Accepting a position as an intern for the Kaua‘i Forest Bird Recovery Project is maybe one of the most random, reckless, unplanned, and fantastic things I’ve ever done. In the past few weeks, I’ve encountered some of the most endangered birds in North America within some of the most dramatic and beautiful habitats I’ve ever seen. I’ve flown in helicopters, trying desperately to refrain from puking while simultaneously listening for the tiniest of blips on a radio receiver, indicating the presence of a bird with a transmitter tag. I’ve seen landscapes devastated by invasive species, and shamelessly found joy in the removal of rats. This is no vacation; I’ve been to a beach once in the past  7 weeks. Certainly a change of a pace for a seasoned plover lover!

For a long time, when people would ask what I wanted to do with my degree, I just mumbled something or other about doing conservation and working with endangered species… I didn’t have a solid idea of what that meant, and it showed, with how my response would just trail off into weak musings of conservation.
But right at this moment, I’m doing exactly what I always wanted.

This is who I’m working for:

“The Kaua‘i Forest Bird Recovery Project aims to promote knowledge, appreciation, and conservation of Kaua‘i’s native forest birds. Our efforts focus primarily on three federally endangered species: the Puaiohi, ‘Akikiki, and ‘Akeke‘e, with the goal of facilitating recovery of their populations in the wild.”

I’ll take you on the emotional roller coaster of Hawai‘i’s conservation status later. Tonight, I want to introduce you to the jewels of Kaua‘i’s forests. All of the photos were taken at one of our camps in the Alaka‘i Wilderness. No birds were harmed, they are perfectly safe with the way we hold them (please do not try to handle wild birds unless you have been trained to do so!)


‘Akikiki – Endangered and Endemic
Oreomystis bairdi
Otherwise known as the Kaua‘i Creeper, ‘akikikis are small gray honeycreepers that creep around more for insects than for honey. Acting much like brown creepers or nuthatches on the mainland, these little birds are most often seen crawling along trunks and branches in search of their next meal, often accompanied by a mate or small family group. I’m not sure if it’s the plants they hang around or if they’re just emitting cuteness, but they smell wonderful. Unfortunately, they are the most endangered bird on this island. With less than 500 individuals left, the future for these sweet little birds is uncertain.

'Akikiki! Cuties. This one is a juvenile, with the white eye-ring. Photo by: Kyle Pias

‘Akikiki! Cuties. This one is a juvenile, with the white eye-ring. Photo by: Kyle Pias

‘Akeke‘e – Endangered and Endemic
Loxops caeruleirostris
I’ve recently learned that there are more birds than just Red Crossbills that have crossed bills. The ‘Akeke‘e is one of those birds. While not as dramatic as a Red Crossbill, the slightly off-kilter  beak of this bird helps it to manipulate and open buds and flowers in search of insects to eat. Mainly foraging on the flowers of ‘Ōhi‘a trees, these birds spend a great deal of time at the top of the canopy – making them notoriously difficult to capture, observe, and study. A flash of yellow and a forked tail may be all that you see as they fly between trees. Current population estimates place these guys around 700 individuals.

'Akeke'e! Photo by: Kyle Pias

‘Akeke’e! Photo by: Kyle Pias

Puaiohi – Endangered and Endemic
Myadestes palmeri
Melodiously singing it’s own name, the Puaiohi or Small Kaua‘i Thrush is the oddball of the island. Like most thrushes, they are frugivorous – or fruit eaters. While they are much larger than the other birds of the island, they can be much harder to locate due to their secretive nature. Also unusual are their nesting habits. Puaiohi nest among cavities and crevices along the cliff faces of valleys that have been carved by streams. Hovering around 500 individuals, the availability of these specialized nesting habitats and native fruits are crucial to their survival.

Juvenile Puaiohi. Notice the buffy spots all over, and the the light wing bar. All of this will molt to a uniform dark grey as they age. Photo by Kyle Pias.

Juvenile Puaiohi. Notice the buffy spots all over, and the the light wing bar. All of this will molt to a uniform dark grey as they age. Photo by Kyle Pias.

Adult Puaiohi. No more spots! Photo by: Me!

Adult Puaiohi. No more spots! Photo by: Me!

‘Anianiau – Endemic
Hemignathus parvus
The smallest of the honeycreepers, these cheerful little birds are only found on Kaua‘i. Often quite vocal, you may very well hear them before you see them hopping from flower to flower in search of nectar. Adorably, they weigh about as much as 4 pennies!

'Anianiau. Photo by: me

‘Anianiau. Photo by: me

Kaua‘i ‘Amakihi – Endemic
Hemignathus kauaiensis
Feistier and larger than the ‘anianiau is the Kaua‘i ‘Amakihi. Their large bills allow them to garner nectar from a wide variety of flowers, as well as partaking in insects and fruit as well. Other ‘amakihi species can be found on the Big Island and Oahu, but Kaua‘i has the largest one.

Kaua'i 'Amakihi. Photo by: me

Kaua’i ‘Amakihi. Photo by: me

Kaua‘i ‘Elepaio – Endemic subspecies
Chasiempis sandwichensis sclateri
Gregarious. Charming. Adorable (I know I’ve used this for like 3 other birds…)! If you see a bird with its tail held straight up, perpendicular to its body, it’s an ‘elepaio. ‘Elepaios are the clowns of the forest, keeping our spirits up on damp and dark days. As juveniles, they have orangey heads that molt out to gray as they age. These guys are acrobatic flycatchers, swooping up from their perches to snatch insects in mid-air, keeping our camps fly-free! Other ‘elepaio can be found on Oahu and the Big Island.

Adult Kaua'i 'Elepaio. Adults tend to be much more gray than juveniles. Photo by: Kyle Pias

Adult Kaua’i ‘Elepaio. Adults tend to be much more gray than juveniles. Photo by: Kyle Pias

Juvenile Kaua'i 'Elepaio. That cute orangey color will molt out to gray as they age. Photo by: Kyle Pias

Juvenile Kaua’i ‘Elepaio. That cute orangey color will molt out to gray as they age. Photo by: Kyle Pias

‘I‘iwi – Declining
Vestiaria coccinea
Perhaps one of the most iconic birds of Hawai‘i, the ‘I‘iwi can be found on almost all of the islands. They are bright red jewels as adults, but have a yellowish-green leopard pattern as juveniles. Their large curved bills allow them access to the nectar of many flowers, often pollinating as they go.

'I'iwi! Everybody's favorite. Photo by: Kyle Pias

‘I’iwi! Everybody’s favorite. Photo by: Kyle Pias

Himatione sanguinea
Found on all the major islands, the ‘apapane is another feathered ruby that seeks nectar among the flowers. Their bills and legs are black (compared to the ‘i’iwi’s orange), and they have a “diaper” of white feathers on their rump. They have a large vocal repertoire, compared to the other honeycreepers, with at least 10 different songs.

'Apapane. Photo by: Kyle Pias

‘Apapane. Photo by: Kyle Pias




The Plover Post

The lack of posts this summer was partially due to birds (and multiple jobs…)

But one species in particular was allotted a significant amount of my time both this summer and last summer: the Western Snowy Plover (Charadrius nivosus). Ah yes, the infamous plovers of Humboldt County. Chances are you already know this saga if you live in this area (or if you have been so fortunate to have asked me about it….). But for those of you who don’t, you’re in for a treat. Or at least you’re in for a long story and some adorable photos. So stick with me.

I had the pleasure of helping to monitor populations of snowy plovers throughout the beaches of Humboldt County. Being particularly cute and federally threatened, I had great incentive to find them. But finding these little guys is no small task. Plovers are shorebirds, and spend their days poking around the sand and beach debris looking for small invertebrates to eat. Snowy plovers are sand colored and maybe the size of a tennis ball. A SAND COLORED TENNIS BALL ON A BEACH. The first few times I went out to look for them, I wasn’t convinced they were real. I didn’t see any of these birds that were supposedly running around and foraging in front of us, as my coworkers were listing off individual leg band combos and behavioral observations….

I’m screwed, I thought,  I don’t think I’ll be able to do this job… 

But I soon discovered that all those hours spent dwelling over Where’s Waldo and I Spy as a child would pay off.

Finding something takes not just a keen eye, but patience. At some point in the first couple weeks of looking for these birds, it clicked. I could see them. It was like that part in Hook where Peter begins to believe in Neverland and then all the food appears on the table and they proceed to have a food fight (RIP Robin Williams)! But I digress. Hours of observation had granted me a search image – all those positive observations and identifications had taught my brain what to look for to find them. It wasn’t just going out there and blatantly looking for plovers; I now knew what shape to look for, what color, what sort of movement… looking for specific characteristics that would narrow down the field of debris I was looking at, thereby saving me time and effort. Dwell on this for a moment, because we will talk about it again in the sense that it is most commonly used – for animal predators.

Male plover on Clam Beach, photo by yours truly. Males are distinguished by exceptionally dark markings around the face and neck. Females may have these too, but they are much less defined.

Male plover on Clam Beach, photo by yours truly. Males are distinguished by exceptionally dark markings around the face and neck. Females may have these too, but they are much less defined.

Female plover on Clam Beach, photo by yours truly. Notice how she lacks the dark marks around the face and neck.

Female plover on Clam Beach, photo by yours truly. Notice how she lacks the dark marks around the face and neck.

I told you there would be cute photos.
Notice the little colored bands on the female’s legs? No, she isn’t wearing these to impress the male with her fancy jewelry. Most of the birds in our population have individual color band combos so we can tell them apart, and see who’s where, who’s doing what, who’s breeding with who…. It becomes a grand soap opera, really. It also allows us (in a non-scientific way) to get to know these individuals, and recognize their unique behaviors and personalities.

At this point you’re probably wondering why I’m rambling on about these little birds at all. Why are they special? Why do they get neat little ankle bracelets? Well, I mentioned earlier that they are federally listed as a threatened species. There are two distinct sub-populations of Snowy Plovers. An interior population (doing just fine), and the Western population which includes all of our birds – this population is not doing fine, and is the one that is federally threatened.  Their numbers have been declining on the west coast mainly because of nest predation – when their eggs or chicks have been killed or eaten by a predator. Here in Humboldt County we are facing a cunning and impressive predator: the Common Raven (Corvus corax). Now, ravens have always been around. They are part of countless folk tales in North America and beyond, and can be found in almost every habitat type in the world. They are renowned for their intelligence and problem-solving skills, and are quite possibly one of the smartest creatures in the animal kingdom.

Ravens and plovers sharing space is nothing new; the problem is in the influx of these predators in recent years.
Corvids – those birds in the crow and raven family – are all opportunists. They like our food and our waste, and they know how to take advantage of it in order to thrive. More people around the coast means more opportunities and resources for these birds to utilize, thereby increasing the number of these birds in the area. More ravens means more nest predators for plovers. Remember when we talked about search images? Ravens, being the smarty pants that they are, are quite adept at figuring out where food is. They can often acquire search images for different sort of nests or creatures that make tasty and easy meals. Despite their cryptic nature, plovers are no exception.

Guess what? There's a plover nest in this photo! Guess what else? YOU'LL NEVER FIND IT.

Guess what? There’s a plover nest in this photo! Guess what else? YOU’LL NEVER FIND IT.

Plover nests are notoriously hard to find, but somehow, ravens manage it on a regular basis. A plover “nest” is really more of a little cup in the ground that they scrape out, and then proceed to decorate. Males will make many of these “scrapes” and decorate them by flicking little bits of shells or kelp onto them, and then a female will choose the one she likes best to lay her eggs in. Some birds like a minimalist style, and others will incorporate as many shells as they can find. The plovers pretty much solely rely on camouflage to protect them and their nests, and there is little they can do once a raven discovers a nest. Thankfully, plovers are persistent, and will continue to try and breed after a nest is failed.

So what can we do? There is hope for these little guys. In some areas, raven populations are being controlled in order to give plovers a fighting chance. Lethal removal is a last resort, but can significantly impact sensitive populations like these. In many areas, respecting beach closures and recreation restrictions during breeding season can help them too. If nothing else, at least properly dispose of your trash when you are out and about, or even pick up trash that isn’t yours (gasp!) when you’re on the beach too.

Go ahead. Be a plover lover.

Painted by meeeee!

Painted by meeeee!

Because why not have a plover meme? (randomly found on the internet, I didn't take it or create the meme)

Because why not have a plover meme? (randomly found on the internet, I didn’t take the photo or create the meme)

An Unusually Excellent Mother

Sorry about the gap between posts! I had to take a break to wrap up my undergraduate career… I am now a Humboldt State University graduate, with a degree in Wildlife Biology! Yay! That means everything on here is legit, straight from a real biologist, right? Right. We’ll go with that. This one’s extra long to appease you after the long break.

I want to talk about moms. Because I really like mine, and there are some pretty incredible ones in the animal world too.

Mother’s Day was a few weeks ago, and I was far from home, in eastern California looking at birds. After a weekend of camping, getting up at 5am, chasing crazy birds, and sleeping cold, I had mostly forgotten about the holiday. But on Sunday, somewhere between Lava Beds National Monument and Tulelake, I saw something that reminded me: a great horned owl mother and her chick, sitting on a rock face soaking up some sun (I am assuming this is the mother, as the females do most of the parental care). The fluff ball of an owlet was significantly smaller than mom, and snuggled right up next to her. As moms go in the animal world, most birds can be pretty fantastic, especially those with altricial young – those chicks that hatch naked, blind, featherless, and helpless (the opposite of this is precocial, those that hatch almost fully developed. Although there are species that fall between these two; it is a sliding scale rather than two exclusive categories). Mom (and sometimes dad!) will supply food to them until they grow their feathers and fledge from the nest. This is the case with great horned owls. The time and energy constraints placed on parents during this time of caring for young is one of the most strenuous periods a bird will ever experience as they are almost constantly searching for food for their young.

Many of us have seen bird nests and/or the iconic image of a mother bird feeding her chicks. It is not surprising to us, for some reason, that birds and mammals invest so much time in their offspring. They are warm-blooded like us, fluffy or feathery, and charismatic. We identify with the parents of these groups, and by this association, we assume their excellent parenting skills.

But there is an unsung hero in the world of animal mothers.
An unlikely mother, fiercely protective and unexpectedly gentle.
She has neither feathers nor fur, and relies on the sun to heat up her blood.
In her prime, she can reach nearly 20 feet.

She is a Crocodilian, and she will literally tear you limb from limb if you threaten her offspring.

Reptilians are not usually known for their parenting skills. We know they lay eggs and many may guard the eggs until hatch time, but most exit the story after that. Crocodilians – members of the Order Crocodilia including crocodiles, alligators, and caimans – are an exception. Not only do they build extravagant vegetation nests for the eggs, they stay around long after hatch. First off, let’s talk about that nest some more……

Eggs need to be warm to develop properly. Birds sit on their eggs to keep them warm. Turtles bury them in sand to keep them warm. Most crocodiles and alligators build up large mounds of vegetation around their clutches to keep them warm (a clutch is a single group of eggs in a nest). Mom will adjust, shift, or add to the vegetation nest as needed throughout the course of incubation – the embryo development within the egg under the proper conditions – in order to maintain a temperature suitable for development. While there is a range of temperatures that the eggs must stay within in order to survive, curious things happen at different temperatures, specifically about two-thirds of the way through incubation: the sex of each embryo is determined at this time depending on temperature. All Crocodilians are subject to this temperature-dependent sex determination during incubation. The patter goes as follows: on the extreme ends, very warm and very cool temperatures will produce female offspring. In the middle, mild temperatures, male offspring are produced. Exactly why or how this works is not known (though there are many hypotheses).
Now, you may be thinking, “So are entire generations of crocodiles and alligators completely male or female? Are extreme weather patterns skewing sex ratios of Crocodylians?? OH GOD IS GLOBAL WARMING CREATING A SUPER RACE OF FEMALE CROCODILES?!?!?”
Settle down. No. That’s not happening (yet). Nature has this cool way of dealing with stuff like this; it’s called variation in nature. Because females will lay eggs in very different areas with different environmental conditions and varying weather patterns, natural populations tend to balance themselves out. No two nest sites are the same, and temperatures will vary among them, and even within them, creating a mix of males and females (but just to be on the safe side, let’s try not to add to climate change problems, mmmkay?).

Now on to the fun momma part! A couple months after laying eggs and keeping them at the perfect temperature, the baby crocs begin to pip – or crack the shells of their eggs from the inside out with the help of a specialized “egg tooth” which is actually a hardened bit of pointy skin on the end of their snout (these disappear shortly after hatching). Hatching is hard, you guys. Imagine being stuffed inside a tiny, hard space within which you’ve never really been able to move around. Suddenly, you need to get out. You gotta breathe! But you’re so tiny, and the shell around you is so tough to break through! What do you do?? You do what comes naturally of course. YOU CALL FOR MOM.

Crocodilians are some of the most vocal critters in the herpetological world. They are able to make a stunning array of sounds with a wide variety of purposes and meanings. And it all starts with little throaty chirping noises during hatching. This noise is a trigger for mom. She immediately heads to the nest upon hearing it, and begins to excavate the nest ever so gently. Moving aside the vegetation, the eggs come into view. Some have tiny snouts poking out already – the stronger hatchlings already making headway. Others need help though; some may have barely pipped, and show only small cracks on the outside of their eggs, but mom can hear them chirping even inside their eggs.
This is where it gets even more amazing than it already is. This is where one of the most feared, revered, and terrifying predators acts in the most gentlest of ways.
Crocodiles are known for having the strongest recorded bite force of any living animal, able to administer 3,700 pounds per square inch (psi) of bite force. Big cats can bite up to 1,000 psi. Humans around up to 200 psi. These are serious jaws with unrivaled strength, and momma crocodile will now use them to help hatch her eggs.

So very gently, she will take an egg in her mouth and carry it to the nearest water. Slowly she bites the eggs, with delicate pressure, in order to facilitate hatching. She will do this for as many eggs that need help, one by one, making sure the young are safely in the water. A baby crocodile or alligator on land is a vulnerable one, exposed to a variety of predators, and it is important that the hatchlings reach the safety of their aquatic nursery as quickly as possible. For the young that were able to hatch themselves in the nest, mom will carry them in her mouth to the waters edge, again demonstrating the grace and delicacy her mighty jaws are capable of.

Her care still does not end here. Young crocodilians will stay with their moms for several months to several years, depending on the species, relying on her presence for further protection. Instances of mothers “feeding” their young have even been recorded, albeit infrequently (see this cool video!!! 


Tip your hats to the unexpected crocodilian mothers of the animal world. They are so much more amazing than anyone expected a “cold-blooded” mother to be, showing the utmost care and gentleness toward her offspring. Go hug your mom. She’s done a lot for you too. And remember that mammals aren’t the only ones capable of amazing motherhood.

Until next time friends. Respect those crocs, and especially their babies, lest you have a run-in with their mom.
Also watch this video, narrated by none other than the amazing Sir David Attenborough, which gives a wonderful visual to everything I just explained. I didn’t make it up.

Cause an Uproar! (WARNING: this post contains material I’m extremely passionate about)

I have a confession.

I love cats.
(insert apology to ornithology advisor here…)

I originally came to Humboldt State with every intention of leaving as a large carnivore biologist, straight to Africa to save the lions. I think this has been my intention since I was about 5 and saw The Lion King for the first time. This truth surprises some who know me now as a bird nerd, but it is the truth nonetheless. I incessantly read about African lions; fascinated by their social biology and saddened by their plight. Fair warning guys: I get heated up about this stuff. The conservation of all creatures on this earth is incredibly important to me. My drive every day comes from the sad reminder that species are quickly going extinct, and that I have a personal goal, calling, and responsibility to try to change some of that. Many would say it is a hopeless feat, to try and save endangered species and prevent the extinction of more unique creatures. But I say otherwise.

I’m not quite a hopeless romantic, but I am an incredible optimist, and I think that keeps me going.

We must be hopeful if we wish to change the world. One cannot sit idly by, hopeless and downtrodden by the bad stuff. Where is your motivation to change, if all you do is dwell on the worst? How active can you be, sad in your corner? Changes do not happen overnight, and they certainly do not happen if we don’t believe they can. That being said, it is helpful to focus on the successes and good things people are doing with loving spirits. These cases are not only encouraging, but may give us insight to what makes a successful conservation strategy in future dilemmas.

I mentioned cats earlier. Big cats in particular. Almost all big cat species are endangered, with most facing the constant challenges of poaching and habitat destruction. Tigers and African lions in particular have been hit hard by poachers because of the traditional medicinal uses of their body parts. However, one of the biggest causes of lion mortality is retaliatory killings by livestock farmers in rural Africa. The livelihood of these farmers – and their entire communities – relies on the livestock, and the loss of even just one animal can result in devastation. As a result, lions are often hunted and killed if livestock is taken. This on top of poaching has brought lions to the brink: 90% of their population in Africa has disappeared in just 75 years. We are in a critical period where our decisions now may affect whether or not lions exist in wild Africa in the future.

But not all of the news is bad! Good things are happening that may just save lions and other big cats from forever disappearing from the wild. Good things like the Big Cat Initiative, set up by National Geographic and the tireless and ever-passionate work of Derek and Beverly Joubert – big cat experts and conservation gurus. The Big Cat Initiative seeks to combine a multitude of strategies in order to conserve the big cats in our world while simultaneously aiding the people coexisting in the same areas as these large carnivores. Resources and education are provided to the local people while integration of conservation efforts take place. In Africa in particular, the building of bomas has been wildly successful. Bomas are safe enclosures for livestock that keep lions out, which ends up reducing the number of retaliatory killings. It costs just about $500 to build one, and not only saves lions, but the livelihood of the livestock farmers.

Conservation cannot – and should not – be solely focused on animals. We cannot exclude people from the equation. In many cases, endangered species are threatened by destruction or hunting by people in impoverished situations that have no other means of getting by. If we force strict preservation laws, we are forcing these people to choose between saving a plot of trees or feeding their families. Which would you choose? If we want to save animal species, we must also find ways to offer alternative, sustainable, and profitable practices to people around the world. Everything from buying fair-trade chocolate to donating money to build a boma can help. It is possible to make changes, if only we believe it possible to do so.

Please please PLEASE check out the Big Cat Initiative and all the beautiful things they have done around the world! Support them by donating or spreading the word – Cause an Uproar! We can make a difference.

Until next time friends!

Wings, Stings, and Things!

(Credit for the clever title of this post goes to my always wonderful friend, coworker, and fellow cat lady, Sarah!)

It’s bee season! And bird season! And I am so excited. Do you realize – right here on the Pacific coast, in Humboldt County – we are smack in the middle of a gigantic and amazing bird migration route?! It’s true. It’s called the Pacific Flyway, and it is one of four large migration routes in North America. The others are the Central, Mississippi, and the Atlantic, with the Mississippi flyway being the largest of the 4. I’m not sure about you, but spring for me is most certainly marked not only by the arrival of blossoming flowers, but of spring migrants as well. Hundreds of thousands of birds are moving north to their breeding grounds that have thawed and warmed up enough for feeding, breeding, and being merry.

     One of the most exciting parts of birding is the seasonality of it. When I started birding, it seemed so random, and I paid little attention to the range maps including “summer”, “migration”, and “winter” localities. Every time I went out felt like a gamble, and I had little expectations of what I would see aside from those reliable year-round residents (here’s lookin at you, chickadee). Since living behind the redwood curtain for a couple years, I’ve watched birds come and go from one of my favorite birding spots here – the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary. Going to the same spot many times throughout the course of a year will give you a good insight into the phenology of a region. Phenology refers to the seasonal changes and cycles of plants and animals.

Let me tell you, I was so excited to learn there was a word for this.

Seasonality is so interesting and vital to everything we do.  It’s not just an abstract idea of environmental changes that control when a bear should hibernate or when a flower should bloom; it’s directly related to our own lives. These changes and cycles are important for the growth of our food, the flow of our water, and the livelihood of people around the world. Furthermore, it isn’t even just about a flower blooming; for few flowers can procreate themselves. Pollination is perhaps one of the most important and beautiful seasonal relationships that the natural world has to offer. Just as a human being longs for the touch of another, flowers open themselves to the embrace of their pollinators; humbly and graciously giving a gift if only for the promise of transport of their potential offspring. Pollination is the transport of pollen in order to facilitate fertilization, and it’s all about the birds and the bees…

Few plants are able to pollinate without animal assistance, and those that do usually use wind or water as a vessel for doing so.

Bees are fuzzy and birds are feathery. This makes them perfect transporters for little pollen grains! A bunch of other critters aid in pollination as well including flies, beetles, butterflies, other insects, and even mammals like bats and some rodents. With the sweet smell of nectar on the air and the enticing colors of petals all around, these pollinators are drawn to blooms for a snack, and inadvertently transport pollen grains among plants. If the pollen introduced to a different flower is of the same species, it will fertilize the flower, and the goal of pollination has been accomplished. Without the help of these nectar-loving animals, plants would be few in number and woefully invariable. Pollination has allowed for the grand array and great number of angiosperm, or flowering plant, species. With different pollinators in all different habitats, plants have created mechanisms, colors, scents, lures, and shapes of almost infinite sorts to attract their pollinators. Some like to reach a wide audience, and are built to accommodate anyone who might stop by. Others – such as orchids – have a single species of pollinator for nearly every species of flower, with each species of orchid carefully tailoring its design to appeal to the fancy of its particular visitor. Some have even gone as far as to mimic a female bee that the male bee pollinator then “mates” with, and gets covered in pollen during the process! Clever flowers…

Nature is so cool. I think I say this in every post. But here, in this discussion, it is not just neat.
It is necessary.
We heavily depend on pollinators. Our main food sources are only possible because of them!

     Think of a large farm, producing some sort of fruit to sell to a large region. Now think of thousands and thousands of plants. Picture the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of flowers among those plants. Now imagine you have to pollinate those flowers, armed only with your own self and maybe some Q-tips. Swabbing pollen from one flower, taking a couple steps, and swabbing another flower to transfer the pollen. With each flower you pollinate, you create a fruit, so it is vital that you pollinate as many flowers as possible. It’s a daunting task, isn’t it?

     Believe it or not, this is happening more and more as pollinator populations are declining from continual climatic changes in our world, and the pollution and destruction of their habitats. I’m not here to stand on a soap box and lecture you about climate change. I am here to put a little buzz in your ear about bees, and other pollinators that are so very important for all of us! There are many little (fun!) things you can do to help bees, and the first is to not be scared of them! I hope you realize how important they are for the life of the beautiful plants around us, and how the health of ecosystems around the world are reliant upon them. Bees are not angry, mean, yucky insects that are out to get you; to the contrary, they would rather not sting you. Most bees die after they sting you. It is a sacrifice they will make only as a last resort. Once you are comfortable with them, consider housing them, or simply feeding them in your backyard! The earth will thank you. Find more tips here, and check out the lovely documentary, Queen of the Sun:

Until next time friends. Go outside and look at a bee! Or make some cool bee art, like this print that I carved and printed myself! Buzz.


The Wonderful World of Frogs

     It was hard deciding on my second post topic… I have too many topics I want to share with you, and definitely not enough time to do them! All in good time though. As a warning, you may be getting an inordinate amount of information on reptiles and amphibians because I’m (finally!) taking Herpetology this semester! And no, non-science friends, herpetology has nothing to do with herpes. So let me give you a crash course on what it is and what it means.

     Modern herpetology includes the study of reptiles and amphibians. The Greek word herpeton literally translates to “crawling thing”. So herpetology translates to the study of crawling things…. anti-climactic, I know. But in the young, golden age of discovery and biology there was a very simplistic grouping of vertebrates: birds fly, fish swim, mammals are fuzzy, and everything else is a nasty, slimy, despicable creepy-crawly (seriously, read some of the things Linnaeus had to say about amphibians. Boy was he rude. And wrong.) This means amphibians and reptiles were incorrectly grouped together.

Yup. Incorrectly. The closest relatives that reptiles and amphibians share are tetrapods – which are simply the first group of animals to develop 4 legs to walk on land. It just so happens that tetrapods also gave rise to mammals and birds…. both of which are more closely related to reptiles than any of them are to amphibians. And that’s as far into the fossil record I’ll go. Let’s get into the exciting stuff!

     Most of you who have known me for any great amount of time will recall that my first love – of any wild, living thing – was frogs. I don’t recall any precise moment of realization, or specific capture that instilled this fascination. It was just always there, waiting to be fed information so it could grow. And grow it has. I have always known this group of creatures was awesome. I read everything I could about them growing up, watched every nature show, and captured countless frogs of different species and varieties. But formal education has taught me things that I never came across in independent studies.

Guys, frogs can HEAR THROUGH THEIR LEGS. And make COCOONS. And brood eggs INSIDE THEIR THROATS. I’ll be damned if those aren’t the three coolest things you’ve heard all day.

     Haven’t you always wondered why frogs know exactly when to stop croaking when you walk by so you don’t find them? I’ve always wondered that. Because I’ve always been frustrated by it. Part of the reason is because they can feel-hear you (just invented a term. yay!). Next time you see or catch a frog, notice that their front legs are strikingly close to their tympanum – that round disc behind the eye, which acts sort of like an external eardrum. A frog’s (and salamanders!) front legs and inner ear are actually sort of connected through muscle and middle ear structures, and they have a special inner ear sensory area called the papilla amphibiorum which receives low-frequency sounds that travel up from the ground through the forelimbs. They feel-hear you!! I can feel-hear your amazement.

     So the cocoon thing. This was stunning. Like, I made an audible gasp of amazement in class, stunning. Frogs have thin, permeable skin, which means water and salts and things can easily pass in and out of their bodies. This makes it easy for them to breathe through their skin and make the most of moist environments. But if you’ve been paying any attention to the world, you’ve probably noticed that not all amphibians live in moist environments. There are frogs living in deserts around the world, so how do they not dry up into little froggy crisps?? Well first off, they don’t come out during the heat of the day. Most desert animals don’t come out during the heat of the day basically because it sucks. But especially amphibians, because their skin needs to stay moist for them to survive. During dry periods in these areas (which is most of the time…) frogs will burrow underground, where soil stays fairly moist. This was not new information for me and probably not for you either. What I didn’t know was that before burrowing, some frogs are already hard at work creating a cocoon.
     To understand how a frog makes a cocoon, you need to know that amphibians shed their very top layer of skin, sort of how reptiles do too. I think most people don’t know this because it isn’t quite as dramatic an effect, as it is with reptiles. Frogs and other amphibians eat their skin as it’s peeling off their bodies, or immediately after, and the skin is so thin that this event is hardly noticeable – and the frog just looks like it’s gulping a lot. Anyways, this is a regular occurrence to keep their skin nice and permeable. But frogs that are getting ready to retreat underground will halt this shedding process, and let their skin build up many layers, to be nice and thick. When the frog goes underground, he will sometimes have up to 40 layers of skin built up. These layers keep water from evaporating out of his body because of heat! Extra skin secretions keep these layers sticking together and sort of seal him in his cocoon for the dry season. Water retention is of the utmost importance in desert environments, and frogs have taken these extreme measures to retain every drop. When rains come, frogs will wiggle and bust out of their cocoons, and continue with their lives til they next have to retreat underground again.

     Ok for this last one I’ll admit that I did know about frogs that brood their eggs in their throats. I just wanted a nice group of weird facts to throw at you in the beginning! Brooding is taking care of developing eggs, and frogs do this in so many different ways! But throat brooding is funny, because of its end result. Darwin’s frogs (Rhinoderma darwinii) in South America will initially breed like normal frogs. But after the eggs are laid, the male will engulf the eggs! He isn’t eating them, but rather gently storing them in his vocal sac. Think of a frog croaking, and that large bubble on his throat that extends when he takes in air; that stretchy sac is where he is putting the eggs to develop. What safer place than in the mouth of your parent? Unless the frog is eaten, very little can happen to the eggs. The eggs develop, hatch, and metamorphose in his throat, AND THEN DAD BURPS THEM UP INTO THE WORLD:

I really hope you learned something.

Til next time, friends!

Flighty Beginnings

In the winter, the alarm goes off at 6am; in the summer at 5. It’s hard getting up. It kind of sucks. I look around and it’s still dark, and sometimes cold, and I think there’s no way I’m getting up now. Bed is so cozy, blankets so warm… the wind is playing in the trees outside, rain sometimes gracing the earth and showering its inhabitants. 

Its inhabitants.

I remember why the alarm went off. Why the roar of the wind now sounds like a purr, enticing and intriguing and pulling me out of bed. I’m up for the birds. Their songs are already floating through the windows and echoing around the street as I pack up and head out, binoculars in hand. 

Currently I’m looking for someone specific. I’m looking for a chatty and energetic little bird called a yellow-rumped warbler (Dendroica coronata, Family Parulidae), common throughout Humboldt county this time of year. Officially, I’m gathering warbler data for my senior thesis; unofficially I’m looking at all the other birds, recording bird vocalizations, taking pictures and looking for frogs because why the hell not. But while I’m on the subject, let me give you the lowdown on my project (because it’s pretty awesome, if I do say so myself): “Foraging resource partitioning of 2 subspecies of the yellow-rumped warbler at the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary”. 

Wuuuuuuut. Big words. Science words (yay!). Let’s break it down. 

Foraging is the act of finding food. All animals forage in some form, whether they dig for bugs, fly around looking for nectar, stalk a wildebeest… if you’re looking for food, you’re foraging. The behaviors exhibited while foraging can vary, depending on the species, the environment, and the food being searched for. 
Resources supply things to us. In the case of my project, I am focusing on those resources that are supplying food to my warblers, that is, the trees and shrubs in which they are foraging.
Partitioning can occur when different species divide resources among themselves somehow, to reduce competition for these needed resources.

     Now here’s the cool part: the species yellow-rumped warbler contains 4 subspecies (subspecies can be genetically or physically distinct populations of a single species, although the true definition of subspecies isn’t quite that simple). There are two non-migratory subspecies in central America, and two migratory ones here. These migratory populations are the ones that I am interested in, as their ranges often overlap, which gives me the opportunity to observe them in the same spaces. We have the Myrtle warbler (Dendroica coronata coronata) and the Audubon’s warbler (Dendroica coronata auduboni). The easiest way to tell them apart is to look at their throat: Myrtles have white throats, Audubon’s have yellow throats. Otherwise they are practically identical birds, with beautiful black and gray pattering on their backs and striking yellow rump and armpit patches. 
     A good many years ago, a guy named Robert MacArthur thought that warblers were pretty cool too. He was one of the first biologists to look into resource partitioning of songbirds, and his studies revealed some neat things. He found that multiple species of warblers foraged in different parts of trees to avoid competing with each other for food resources. Certain warblers were more likely to forage at the very tops of trees, while others would forage lower. Some preferred the outer branches, and some stayed nearer to the trunk. 

Nature! You are so cool! These birds have shown that they know how to share their space while they are feeding in the same habitat, thereby maximizing the food that they can acquire without engaging in conflicts with other birds. Now, this does not mean that all birds do this, or that this is a universal rule among animals sharing space; in fact, many animals just chase competitors away from their resources. We can’t know how certain species interact with each other until we take a critical look at them. Which is why I am excited for my project, because I am doing just that! My goal is to see if subspecies of warblers divide themselves among shared resources, as many warblers have been shown to do. When I go out on my birding trips and I see yellow-rumped warblers, I record their position on the tree, and the behavior they are showing as well (as different birds will forage in different ways). I hope to be done with data collection by the end of the month, and once the stats are run, I’ll let you know the findings. 

Maybe you weren’t expecting a wildlife biology lesson today, but in any case, I hoped you learned. And I hope you come back to learn more! Because the wonderful world of wildlife is always displaying new and beautiful things, evolving to a changing world, and giving us the opportunity to share fascination with each other. My goal here is to entertain and educate, and take you on this journey with me through the natural world around us. There is so much to see and discover! And I hope you can appreciate that I want to share this passion with you, friends.

Now go outside and look at a bird!