Sunday, November 30, 2014

Death in the Pines

Patty and I went wandering about in the woods behind our home this morning. And we came across this.

Not a pretty sight even when alive, this turkey vulture looks downright awful sprawled out on the ground. The odor wasn't all that nice either.

But as the saying goes, even in death there is life. And if you look closely at the image above and the image below you can see that. (If you're up for the challenge, you'll probably need to bigafy the images, which you can do by clicking on them.)

The sharp eyed (and strong stomached; at least you don't have to deal with the stench!) may notice some insect larva. They change position between the two images.

These larva, commonly known as maggots, are performing the same function as the vulture did while alive. They both turn dead animals into live animals as part of nature's clean up crew.

We may not like these creatures and there is no doubt good evolutionary reasons for that. Avoiding decaying animals, and the bacteria they harbor, is probably a good survival strategy. But without them there'd be dead animals piled up all over the place. So the next time you see a group of vultures soaring in the air above or on the ground gathered around a dead beast, be thankful that the local clean up crew is on the job. The world is a less stinkier place because of them.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Gone Fishin'

It was the day after Thanksgiving here in the States. That means it time for crowds of people heading to the same spot all trying to get the same thing ...

... pictures of ...

... Eagles!

And Fisherman's Park at the Dam at Conowingo is the place to go. Especially if you live in the mid-Atlantic states. And sometimes even if you don't, as there was a group from Japan snapping away.

Look closely at the shot below. How many eagles can you spot?

I count at least twelve (remember you can always click to bigafy). They are not many places where you can see flocks of eagles in the lower forty-eight.

This is my fourth visit to Conowingo. And the warmest. Albeit still cold. And it was the first time that the photographers out numbered the eagles. Apparently it is still warm enough up north so that the birds are in no hurry to head south.

The people still came to see the birds, although not everyone wanted to be part of the crowd (that water is cold!).

It's called "Fisherman's Park" for a reason. And that's why the birds come.

For the fish! (It's not gonna end well for one in the image above.)

Got 'em!

It doesn't always go the eagles way ...

A big splash all for naught. (And that water is still really cold!)

But most times the fish loses in these encounters.


Our friend Lori came with us this time. And was she ever pumped to see the eagles. "Wow!" "Are you kidding me!" "I see it, I see it!". All the while we're apologizing for making her wake up at six am and driving two hours for what to us was a disappointment. But her enthusiasm made us realize that it was still a great day. And it didn't hurt that we saw six more eagles on the ride home.

We will be going back this season as we've other friends that want to go. And we owe Lori a lot more birds. And I'm still hoping that Santa brings me a really big lens for Christmas.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Distant Mirror

While apes are our closest cousins on the tree of life, monkeys offer more distant insights into our family lineage.

One of the incorrect arguments against evolution is to question why if we evolved from monkeys are monkeys still around? The question is flawed on several levels. We didn't evolved from monkeys. Monkeys, apes and humans evolved from a common ancestor. An ancestor that has in fact gone extinct. But just as both you and your ancestors and-or descendants can be alive at the same time, evolution does not demand that ancestors disappear when new species split off from the ancestral stock. It is enough that the descendant and ancestor species be separated in space so that they can no longer interbreed. And thus the genetic lineages diverge over time.

So while monkeys are not our ancestors, we can still learn from them what our common ancestor may have been like. We can study behaviors across species and infer that common behaviors derive from that common ancestor.

One of the reasons monkeys are so fascinating to observe its that we can see ourselves in them. We recognize those common behaviors while at the same time knowing the differences.

So, do you recognize any of these fellows in the folks that gather around your Thanksgiving table?

(I definitely recognize the one sticking out her tongue!)

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Meeting the Neighbors

We had seen them often when we first moved in, as we drove the long way round to our new home. Always at the same place along the road, by the same house. As we learned the roads around our new home we traveled by them less and less. And since we were busy doing all those things you do when you move to a new home we didn't get over to see them as much as we would have liked. But of course they were still there. Mom, dad, kids often cavorting about in the fields along the road. And I kept thinking I needed to stop and spend some time with them, get to know them.

Yesterday I finally did.

Other than their distinctive dress, I knew little about them. I now know they are immigrants from India, although I don't know when they migrated over to this neck the woods.

As with many immigrant groups, they tend to associate mostly among their fellow immigrants, creating a space of their own. We'll see if this is the case with this group, or if they expand into the greater community in the coming years.

They were wary of my presence and I didn't want to upset them. So after a couple of minutes and a few photos I moved on. I plan to go back to learn more about their life and customs. Hopefully they'll come to accept me. I'll let you know how things go.

Monday, November 3, 2014


I do not remember when my fascination with apes began. Perhaps it was when watching Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. Or by reading the articles about Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, or Biruté Galdikas ("Leakey's Angels") in National Geographic. I do remember a picture in a book I saw at a friends house when I was very young that had a picture of a chimp, an orang, and a gibbon seated at a table having a meal and thinking how cool would it be to have playmates like that.

The great apes are our nearest relatives in the animal kingdom. We share ~ 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees and slightly less with the other great apes.


Bonobos, formerly referred to as the "pygmy chimpanzee" are highly intelligent social creatures. One bonobo, Kanzi, learned to communicate with humans via a keyboard and uses a vocabulary of some 500 English words and can understand several times more. In the wild they are generally peaceful, with the females atop the social hierarchy.


I remember reading about the "man of the forest," which is what the indigenous peoples referred to as the orangutan, and their solitary life in the treetops of the forests in Indonesia. 


I could relate to spending time in trees as there was a tree in our yard that I would climb as a youngster and sit and read for hours after school.

Gorillas on the other hand spend most of their time on the ground, with only the young climbing trees on a regular basis.


I don't know why these beasts fascinate me so. But they always have.


I have shelves of books about great apes. As well books about the lesser apes like the gibbons and siamangs. And books about monkeys, lemurs, and the other members of the primate group of which we humans are a member.


I saw many of our primate cousins at the San Diego zoo, where I took these images.  I was there on a recent business trip. It is on my bucket list to see all of the apes in the wild.

I hope I get the chance. Things are not looking good for the long term survival of these species. Habitat loss is the main threat with the forest homes being destroyed at an alarming rate. Unfortunately most apes live in regions of strife or corruption. And apes are more often viewed as food in the bushmeat trade then as creatures worthy of the right to life.

But all is not lost. And you can help. The three women I mentioned at the start of this post, Leakey's Angels, provide a way. Two, Jane Goodall and Biruté Galdikas, are still working with chimpanzees and orangutans respectively. Sadly, Dian Fosse was murdered protecting gorillas but the work she started continues today. The links below with take you to the websites of the projects these women started.

The Jane Goodall Institute works to ensure a bright future for both chimpanzees and the people who share their home.

The Dian Fosse Gorilla Fund International does the same for gorillas.

The Orangutan Foundation International has perhaps the toughest task, as the habitat was never large to begin with and is under intense pressure from logging and palm oil production.

All three are worthy of your support. They have had mine for years.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Mourning Doves

My friend Greg (of Greg's World fame) is a very avid birder. Last year he did a NJ Big Year and totaled 310 species. An avid citizen scientist, Greg did his big year to raise money for NJ Audubon's Citizen Science program.

And Greg's favorite bird in the whole world is the Mourning Dove.*

So he would have really enjoyed the show outside my window this past Friday.

There were at least twenty-five of these birds in the yard, enjoying their lunch at the same time I was enjoying mine.

Mourning doves are one of the most common birds in the United States with an estimated population of 350 million birds.

Think about that for a moment. Think about how often you see a mourning dove. And how often you see multiple morning doves. Now imagine instead of 350 million there were 5000 million or 5 billion of them. That was what it was like to be alive when the passenger pigeon, a now extinct cousin of the mourning dove, was.

We, Homo sapiens, are responsible for the demise of the the passenger pigeon. Let that sink in. There were five billion. Now there are none. And the prime culprit was our outright killing of these birds.

And we are still doing it. Some times directly, as with the bushmeat trade. And other times indirectly by destroying habitat. For some species it is too late. For others there is still time to make a difference.

And that's one of the reasons that Greg did his big year. And why I too volunteer my time as a Citizen Scientist for NJ Audubon (and other worthy organizations). To help gather the data needed to prevent other species from going the way of the passenger pigeon.

Click here or search the internet for citizen science projects to find a project you can join. And if you can't donate your time you can always donate your money. It can be as simple as recording what you see at your bird feeder. Or you could plant milkweed and other native plants in your yard to help native fauna. Or you can go out in the field and do surveys.

Please help. The other inhabitants of our world will thank you.

* Did I write "favorite bird"? I meant "least favorite bird". Sorry for any confusion.

The American Pumpkin Holiday

In these parts, October means pumpkin carving. So we had a pumpkin carving party.

Alcohol and knives, what could go wrong?

Fortunately, nothing did. No humans were injured in the making of this blog post.

The pumpkins on the other hand ...

Now, don't eat all your candy at once or you may end up like this ...

Happy Halloween!