Saturday, December 31, 2005

Crazy Salamander Ballistic Tongue Videos

I could watch these all day. You read it right - a ballistic tongue. Some salamanders actually fire their own tongues at prey...and weird looking tongues they are. I found this site years ago and it still fascinates me.

Stephan Deban is a Biology professor at the University of South Florida. His website has a fantastic collection of slow-motion video of salamanders feeding. Ok, that may sound boring...salamander opens mouth and shoves in worm. I assure you, you will be amazed-especially by Hydromantes supramontis - a cave dweller from Sardinia. It launches its tongue 80% of its body length.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Bat Poop-eating Salamander

For some reason this story appeals to me on several levels not the least being my British heritage and their love of scatalogical humor. I would like to subtitle this entry as Eating Bat Poop better than a Big Mac.

The grotto salamander is a cave dweller, as are a number of salamander species around the world. It is an interesting beast that is blind as an adult. As a larval salamander it has functional eyes and often develops outside of caves. The adults live exclusively in caves. Other blind salamanders retain their gills as adults and never leave the water. It was previously thought that Grotto salamanders ate insects and cave shrimp that fed on bat guano. A recent study of a population of salamanders in Oklahoma revealed an unusual feeding habit. It turns out that since so much of the bat guano is undigested insects the bat crap is more nutritious that the shrimp! I love this stuff. The best part of the study was comparing the protein and fat contents of the bat guano, the shrimp, and a MacDonald's big mac. The bat guano came out on top with 54% protein and 1% fat while the Big Mac was 23% protein and 33% fat. The Shrimp was in the middle with 44% protein and 8% fat.


Panda Bonanza

A few weeks ago I was in Washington DC for the American Association of Tropical Medicine and Hygience Meeting. I gave two talks on the blood parasite Babesia microti, a pathogen that our research group at the American Red Cross studies.

While in Washington, my family and I visited the National Zoo and of course we had to see the pandas, especially the new baby panda. I'm glad to report that the baby is doing well and recently took a romp outside with its mother.

Pandas have an advantage when it comes to conservation...they're cute. I mean really cute. My children like a website devoted to all things cute called When visiting the site I saw a picture from the Wolong Panda Reserve in China. This year they had 18 babies born, a record. Here is a picture of 16 of them being held by their keepers from the China Daily Website.

Condor Progress

The San Diego Zoo reports that California Condors reintroduced to the Baja Peninsula of Mexico have begun to expand their range northward and may be seen flying in San Diego County for the first time since 1910. There are 4 groups of birds in the US and Mexico, all reintroductions descended from 14 birds. Eventually it is hoped that the southern California population and the Mexico population will meet up.

In 1985, while I was in High School, I took a weekend trip to California to try and see one of the last wild birds (I think they were down to 6). I flew a redeye People's Express from Hartford to Los Angeles for $99 round trip. I think my only food that weekend was a large package of hot cross buns I bought for a dollar. I did have to drop over 100 bucks to stay at Marina del Rey so I could take one of the fishing boats out. At a lookout in Los Padres National Forest I saw one of these magnificent birds, so large they look like a small plane. Within a few years all the birds were captured for the captive breeding program. Today there are about 270 birds, over 100 free flying.

photo from San Diego Zoo Website

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Birding in the Buff

A story from the Japan Times by a naturalist with a penchant for wildlife watching while soaking in hot springs. A new one for listers - the bath list.

"An hour later, feeling part boiled and part frozen, I exited the pool having recorded an astonishing 21 species, ranging from those Whooper swans, goldeneye and goosander, to white-backed, great spotted and Japanese pygmy woodpeckers." - Mark Brazil


Monday, December 26, 2005

Thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger) website

A site devoted to the possibly extinct Thylacine, an amazing predatory marsupial from the island of Tasmania. The author (C. Campbell) visited the Australian museum to study the specimens there and observe the extraction of Thylacine DNA. There is enough preserved material that chances are good that a complete genome will eventually be sequenced. Recent evidence has surfaced that a small number may still be alive. If one was documented it would be a story of greater magnitude than the Ivory-billed woodpecker.


The Pygmy Elephants of Borneo

For years there have been arguments about the small population of Asian Elephants living on the island of Borneo. These elephants were smaller than their mainland cousins and considerably more docile. Some people thought these elephants were feral animals that had come from a once domestic population. The closest other Asian elephants are on the Island of Sumatra in Indonesia. When I was in Borneo I didn't have the chance to see these creatures because their range is so limited, found only in the extreme northeast corner of the island.

Recent DNA studies have shown that this population is a distinct subspecies that has been separated from other living populations for up to 300,000 years. When the sea level was lower Borneo was part of the Asian mainland. This is evidenced in the fact that the fauna of Borneo is predominantly Asian. Across a narrow, but deep strait of water is the island of Sulawesi. Sulawesi was never part of the mainland and has a mixture of a few Asian animals like monkeys, two wild pigs and some small wild cows (Anoa) plus a contingent of birds and mammals with origins in the Australasian area.

As the sea level rose the Bornean elephants became isolated.

The World Wildlife Fund is tracking some of these elephants by GPS hoping to better understand their movements and behavior. They are working with the government of the Indonesian state of Sabah to help preserve this distinct population of elephants. It is thought that the population stands at between 500 to 2000 animals.

There are only 35,000 wild asian elephants thought to be still roaming around in 10 countries in South and Southeast Asia.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

New Trout species found in Russia

A new species of fish in the same genus as our brook trout has been discovered in far eastern Russia. Technically the fish is a char, a group somewhere between the trout and salmon taxonomically.

Change of scope

I'm expanding the topics covered on this blog to anything about the natural world that I consider interesting, which is a lot. I envision this as a natural history or something. Here goes...

Friday, May 27, 2005

End of Migration

Yesterday I took a short walk around a little pond at the UConn Health Center. The Canada Geese have some little goslings now. They were feeding in the grass, while a few other adult geese floated around in the pond.

In a tree overhanging the pond I saw a male Orchard Oriole hopping around and singing.

On the way back to my office I stopped by the outflow stream and found a male Wilson's Warbler in a bush. In our parking lot the Warbling Vireos were singing.

I noticed that the Coltsfoot that were flowering last month have gone to seed and have little fuzzballs on the end of long stalks. The Russian Olives are in full flower with tens of thousands of tiny yellow trumpet-like flowers. The smell is very powerful and can be detected a long way from the bushes. It smells a bit spicy.

This afternoon at lunch I took a walk at the MDC Reservoir on Farmington Avenue in West Hartford. The vegetation has fully emerged, save a couple of trees. I watched a six-spotted tiger beetle running on the path in front of me. It flew a few feet when I got too close. A Gray Tree Frog was calling high in a tree near the trail.

At one of the ponds I saw a fine Northern Watersnake slip into the water of the small reservoir when I approached. There was some vegetation in the water which it hid in. I moved the vegetation and the snake, about 2 feet long, swam away underwater.

On the insect front I saw a few skippers (a mulberrywing and a dusky wing of some sort), a ringlet, several pearl crescents and a black swallowtail. I also saw the first dragonflies and damselflies of the summer.

I climbed up onto a small ridge, past some huge dead hemlocks killed by wooly adelgids. On the top of the ridge I watched a Red-eyed vireo feeding in the canopy of a large oak tree.

Friday, May 13, 2005

May in Connecticut

Its been a bit difficult finding time to post, but I have been out and about.

This morning in Farmington I watched a Red-shouldered Hawk being harrassed by an American Crow as it circled above our parking lot at work. On Monday the hawk was sitting quietly in a small tree right outside our building for several hours. A couple of Mockingbirds were scolding it.

Last Sunday three of my children and I took a walk in the woods behind our house and made our way up onto the ridge overlooking our neighborhood. Many of the spring flowers are out including Dwarf Ginseng, Canada Lily and Wood Anemone. The maidenhair ferns are just coming up in a little patch near Dickinson Creek, which runs along the border of our property.

My goal in getting up on the ridge was to look for a Raven nest. For the past month I have seen a pair of Ravens in our area and I suspected that they are nesting at the top of a cliff on the ridge. We made it up with quite a bit of protest from the kids. Sure enough the Ravens were up there and circled us. I didn't find the nest but their activity was very suspicious.

On the way back home we found an old White-tailed Deer carcass. The Carrion beetles were finishing off the remaining flesh. The kids wanted me to bring the entire skull, spine and ribcage home. I ended up pulling off the skull and putting it in our woods to let the beetles finish their job. The carrion beetle larvae look a bit like wood lice with segmented armor.

Two pileated woodpeckers have taken up residence in our back woods and we've had some great views of them as they work a dead tree and fly back and forth in the woods flashing their black and white wings.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

I'm finally up and running

Well it took me longer than I thought but here it new blog.

I am backdating all the entries to when I wrote them. Back here in the States my nature watching has some similarities to being in Iraq. Its mostly opportunistic, half an hour here and there. As Major Ed in Iraq commented to me, the situation is very similar to the Doctor in the movie Master and Commander. So close to so many wonders but duty calls.

A short walk in my woods netted me the first deer tick of the season (I found it crawling on my kitchen table after I came inside). Some of our friends who have a Daschund have been finding loads of them since February. The dog is a regular tick vacuum cleaner.

We are on the cusp of spring. The Eastern Phoebe was hanging out in the trees near my deck, the Honeysuckle, Barberry and Russian Olives have tiny green leaves peeking out and I've seen lots of insects in the last few warm days. The Witch Hazel continues to flower in my back woods. I some some small tortricid moths flying around the flowers yesterday evening. The Dark-eyed Juncos are still hanging around the feeder but they'll soon be moving to higher ground to nest.

At work in Farmington I saw a Twice Stabbed Ladybug (Chilocorus stigma) resting in the sunshine on the side of a Red Maple. At home my son caught a Lampyrid beetle (Firefly family) I think it is one of the flashless fireflies possibly the genus Lucidota. I usually see many of these little beetles in the early spring congregated on the trunks of trees. If you pick them up they emit milky white liquid in little drops. I've tasted it and me no like, obviously chemical warfare against predators.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Frozen Frogcubes Awake!

I have been saving my observations from the last month on my laptop mostly because I couldn't think of a name for my new blog. I'll backpost tomorrow after the kids go to bed. I had to go to Martha's Vineyard and down to Maryland on Business so of course I got in a little birding.

Spring has arrived in Central Connecticut. The weather yesterday was above 60 and it was only a little cooler today. This afternoon I heard the first Wood Frogs tentatively singing their quacking call in the small swamp behind the American Red Cross parking lot in Farmington. The Spring Peepers will be joining them in a few days creating a wonderful racket like a thousand tiny sleighbells. Their ability to freeze and thaw throughout the winter always amazes me. In the trees male Red-winged Blackbirds were singing their Conga-Ree song and flocks of Common Grackles made their rusty hinge call.

The Aspen Trees near the Connecticut River had their catkins out in full force were I crossed the Rt. 3 bridge going towards Rt. 2.

I love this time of year because each day something new is waking up. I should be hearing my first phoebe and Pine Warbler any time now.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Home, Marlborough, Connecticut

Yesterday we had steady soaking rain all day. Last night I turned on the deck light hoping to get some early moths. A week ago I found a Eupsilia morisoni clinging to my window. It was around 35 degrees. Last night was in the 40’s and I found 3 moths of two species clinging to the same window overlooking the deck.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Nod Brook Wildlife Management Area, Simsbury/Avon, Connecticut

My father, my sister and her husband and 3 boys on bikes took an Easter afternoon walk down to the ponds near my parents house. The Chinese Witch hazel is still fragrant and flowering next to the power company parking lot.

The ice has melted off some of the ponds and we saw a few migrating ducks. On the large north pond we found a pair of Bufflehead and a flock of 11 Hooded Mergansers. The southern pond had 5 ring-necked ducks, a few Canada Geese and a Mallard or two.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Branford, Connecticut

This afternoon I went down to Branford with my family to visit our Battalion Surgeon and his Wife. We took a short walk along the Branford Nature Trail which runs through a nice salt marsh and along the old trolley tracks that used to lead out to Stony Creek.

The male Red-winged Blackbirds were staking out their territories in the Phragmites. Dr. Young told me that they see rails in the summer, sometimes running down the path. Out in the marsh a Herring Gull was bashing some type of shellfish against a rock.

We saw a few ribbed mussels sticking out of the salt marsh mud and it seems like a very good place to see Fiddler Crabs in the summer.

In April the Ospreys will come back to nest on a platform that has been put out in the middle of the marsh.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Shady Acres, Maryland

I flew down to Washington for a meeting with our Research group at the Holland Lab in Rockville, MD. I enjoyed the flight down. It was a very clear day and great for watching things out the window. My plane was a commuter jet that looked like a elongated Lear Jet. South of New York City there was much less snow cover. By the time we flew over southern Pennsylvania there was no snow left.

In Rockville, I noticed that Spring is a little further along than back in Connecticut. The Honeysuckle bushes are starting to get leaves and the daffodils have come up.

In a little drainage pond by the Metro Station in Shady Grove I found a pair of Ring-necked Ducks, several Hooded Mergansers including a very handsome drake and a small group of Canada Geese. Across the road in some tangled bushes a Carolina Wren sang and then hopped out on an exposed branch and continued. A Red-winged Blackbird was on its territory in a little marsh.

On my walk to the Lab I found the galls of a Tephridid fly on the stalks of Goldenrod from last year. These pretty little flies hatch out in April in Connecticut. Sometimes I gather a few of them and put them in a plastic bag so my kids can see them when they emerge.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts

I had to go out to Martha’s Vineyard today for a blood drive where we were collecting blood samples for a continuing study on Babesiosis.

On the island I saw a small flock of Common Eiders as we crossed the causeway out of Vineyard Haven. On my way back to the mainland I saw more Eiders, Red-breasted Mergansers, Bufflehead and several Common Loons.

The the loons passed very close to the boat as I was leaving the harbor.

A storm was coming in and it was very windy and rainy on the crossing back to Woods Hole. About 4 miles from Woods Hole out in the channel I was surprised to see a flock of about 20 American Crows flying back toward the mainland. Maybe they had spent the day foraging in Nantucket. I know crows sometimes fly very long distances to feed before coming back to their roost.

It was raining steadily when I left the Ferry parking lot in Woods Hole. By the time I got to Fall River the rain turned to snow and sleet. It took me 5 hours to get home. Usually it takes less than 3.