Archive for the 'Fieldnotes' Category
Razorbills (Alca torda).“Razorbill” has in the past also been used as a name for Puffins and Murres/Guillemots. All of these birds are auks, of the family Alcidae. “Auk” comes from the Old Norse alka. The largest auk was the nearly 3-foot tall Pinguinus impennis, the now extinct Great Auk. Note that binomial: the penguins, Southern hemisphere birds which are unrelated but similarly flightless and superb swimmers, were named after the Great Auk. The big birds were exploited for food, feathers/down, oil, and bait. The last two confirmed breeding Great Auks were killed on Elday off Iceland in 1844. History records the names and words of the two humans who strangled the birds and the third who smashed the egg, but damned if I’ll mention them here. Ironically, museums in their desperation to get specimens before it was too late helped hunt the last Great Auks down. We also know what’s left: 78 skins, 75 eggs, 24 complete skeletons. Here’s one of the taxidermy specimens, in Philadelphia. Razorbills and the other extant auks can fly, but their wings are rather short and narrow.This profile suggests what they really excel at: swimming. There are many fewer Razorbills breeding on Staple than Common Murres/Guillemots: in 2013, there were 75 breeding pairs compared to 12,942 pairs of Murres.
Tags: butterflies, insects, invertebrates, plants
Twelve thousand breeding pairs of Common Murres, Uria aalge, known as Guillemots in the UK, nest on Staple Island. Murres eschew nesting material and just use shallow depressions on the rocky surface of such “bird cliffs.” Their eggs are rather more pointy on one end than your typical egg, so that, if nudged or knocked, they should roll around in a circle… instead of off a ledge.Choate says “murre” is probably of Celtic origin. “Guillemot” is from the French Guillaume, making these birds “little Williams.” The final “t” is pronounced in Great Britain.A small percentage of Murres are of the brindled or ringed variety, with white around the eye and flaring back in a down-curving line. This percentage increases as you get further north.Sets you apart in a crowd. But with so many birds crowded together to nest, wouldn’t the birds simply confuse eggs? Turns out their eggs have a high degree of variation, presumably to help parents identify them.
1. It’s hard to focus an iPhone in the wind with one hand.
2. Looks like I need a manicure. Although I’ve have never had one, so I probably won’t ever get one.
3. Never believe anybody when they say the city is a sterile wasteland with nothing but pigeons and a surplus of rats. Just down the block from a Kestrel nest in the valley of the industrial-wasteland bordering the Superfund site of the Gowanus, I find a Multicolored Asian Lady beetle (Harmonia axyridis) on something growing out of the crack between sidewalk and building.
The Farnes are a series of outcroppings of igneous dolerite known locally as the Whinstone Sill starting a mile and and half off of the town of Seahouses, Northumberland. There are 15-20 of them, the ambiguity depending on the tide. Uninhabited except for bird wardens working for the National Trust, the larger rocks in the cluster were once the purview of monks and then lighthouse keepers. Local Victorian heroine Grace Darling (could she have a more perfect name?), a sturdy lass with the oars, is famous for helping her lighthouse-keeper father rescue crew members of a wrecked ship; the area was long treacherous to ships and is littered with wrecks. A family of European Shag (Phalacrocorax aristotelis); if you’re seeing green on the adult, good, because get this way during breeding season.Now days, the Farnes are littered with guano. About 21 species of birds nest on the islands, with Guillemots (a.k.a. Common Murre) and Puffins the most numerous: in 2013, there were 12,942 breeding pairs of Guillemots and 11,151 pairs of Puffins on Staple alone. Kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla, we call them Black-legged Kittiwakes on this side of the Atlantic) are the third most numerous breeder. Just under a 1000 breeding pairs were on Staple in 2013. They prefer tiny ledges for their sticky nests. They typically have just one chick. The islands are also a big tourist attraction: several boat companies operate out of Seahouses, which has a definite “Puffin Season” this time of year. You pay for both the boat trip and the National Trust’s entrance fee (₤7.40) if you’re not an NT member. We opted for the 2.5-3 hour (₤15) morning trip to Staple with the Billy Shiels company. Keep an eye on the weather: we heard that afternoon trippers were poured on by the rain (by then we were safe inside the Olde Ship Inn with Black Sheep Bitter).The islands smell distinctively of fish, the main food for practically everybody there, and all that fishy guano, which whitewashes the cliffs. Of course, there are those who eat anything and everything, including other birds. Above, Lesser Black-backed Gulls (Larus fuscus) keep an eye on the Puffins.This European Herring Gull (Larus argentatus, considered different from our Herrring Gulls, L. smithsonianus) was unsuccessful at swallowing this dead something chick.The only pair of Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) I spotted. (There were 58 Fulmars recorded on Staple in 2013.) Banding has proven that these pelagic birds — they only come ashore to breed — can have a mean lifespan of 34 years, and some have lived half a century, outlasting the people who banded them. There are also Grey Seals (Halichoerus grypus) in the surrounding waters and rocks and small shingle beaches. On Inner Farne, Atlantic Terns were nesting, so you’ll need a hat if you go there; they are fiercely protective of their nesting space and will dive-bomb you and shit on you (I had that experience in Iceland, thank you.)Oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus), different from American Oystercatchers (H.palliatus) but just as noisy.
Yesterday afternoon, I walked over the canal and was surprised by a pair of Kestels cavorting in the air, then two more, flying about. I didn’t have my real camera, so for our post-prandial constitutional we walked down into the valley to see if we could catch the family again. I’d spotted the nest earlier, in a rotten cornice, as is usual here in the city, but at sunset there was no sign of them. Still, there were compensations: these things, and Swifts, and then, nearing home, the fireflies.