Monday, February 28, 2011

Gorgeous Giants

In my continuing quest for spring, I decided to do a post on butterflies.  Not the ordinary well-known varieties that are seen frequently on my butterfly bushes, but the rarely seen and more unusual ones that are a lepidopterist's dream come true - the birdwings.  Birdwings are from the swallowtail family of butterflies and are known for their size and the fact that they fly more like birds than butterflies.  There are 30 or 40 different species of birdwings.

The largest butterfly in the world is the Queen Alexandra's Birdwing found only in Papua New Guinea.  The male and female look entirely different with the male, like some bird species, being the more colorful, but the female being the larger of the two.  This photo will give you some perspective as to size.

Female Queen Alexandra's Birdwing
Photo by Eddie Malaisa  Source: Things With Wings

The wingspan of the female can be up to a foot, while the male's wingspan is a few inches smaller (but still large enough for a butterfly).

Male Queen Alexandra's Birdwing   Source:  Curious Animals

Another spectacular birdwing is the Rajah Brooke's Birdwing found in Borneo, Sumatra, and West Malaysia.

Male Rajah Brooke's Birdgwing  Source:  Wikipedia

And the Southern Birdwing found in India has a very graphic design on the underside of its wings.

Source:  Wikipedia

The second largest butterfly in the world is the Goliath Birdwing.  And again the male and female look entirely different.  The Goliath is also found in New Guinea and a few adjacent islands.

(Male above, female below)  Source:  Wikipedia

While it may be called the common green birdwing, there doesn't seem to be anything common about this butterfly at all.

Photo by Nicole Duplaix    Source:  National Geographic

While the next photo is not of a Birdwing, I just had to include this gorgeous thing - a Postman butterfly or Heliconius Melpomene found from Mexico to South America.  There are many subspecies with similar markings and looks.

Source:  Wikipedia

While this post won't go up until Monday, I'm writing it on Sunday and looking out the window at - you guessed it - more snow.  We only got a few inches and it's already turning soupy and melting.  Tomorrow (Monday) more rain.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Strange Snowscapes

I hate to dwell on our snow, but right now it's in a very strange state.  With all the wind and melting and freezing, and wind and freezing and melting, the tops of the snow banks are now very crystalline and almost looks like there are shards of glass sticking out of the snow, along with some nature-made mini ice sculptures.  Plus in other areas the snow resembles the surface of the moon, or maybe tracks from a herd of elephants - take your pick!  Well, here - instead of trying to explain it, I'll just show you.

I'm glad I took a few pictures because right now it's raining, and tomorrow we're supposed to get more wind, buckets of rain and 50 (F) degree temperatures.  With any luck at all by tomorrow evening our snow will be gone!!!  At least I've got my fingers crossed.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Wishing for Wisteria

When I lived in Georgia, I fell in love with wisteria.  We do have it up north, but it's not nearly the prevalent plant that appears so frequently in the south.  Seeing the wisteria and crepe myrtle in bloom in Atlanta was a sign that spring had definitely arrived.

Some people think wisteria is a real pain to grow (and they're right!)  because as a climbing vine it can become invasive and easily out of control.  Especially if you are growing it in a small space.  But it can be 'trained' if you keep it properly pruned; it just takes some work.  Here is wisteria as a tree.

With its long plumes of flowers and wonderful scent, it's a very striking plant.  Maybe some day we'll have scratch and sniff internet, so you can smell it too!

Source:  FindMePlants

However, don't take my word for anything because I decided to plant one a few years ago and it has never bloomed!  Of course, I just stuck it in the ground and haven't taken care of it very well until it got so out of control that I had to cut it back.  Although they say that cutting it back actually helps produce flowers, so maybe I'll have better luck this spring.

There are ten species of wisteria.  As I mentioned, you see wisteria a lot down south which is interesting since the American variety is actually native to the eastern U.S.  There are also varieties from China, Japan and Korea.  You can find wisteria with blooms in shades of purple, violet, pink or white.

Source:  Oregon State

As invasive as it is if you have the space, masses of wisteria make an incredible impact and can be absolutely gorgeous.  The largest known plant is more than an acre in size and weighs 250 tons.  It was planted in 1894 and has 500 foot branches!  The town of Sierra Madre, California where it grows has an entire festival around this plant.

On Thursday and Friday last week our temperatures were close to 60F (I had my windows open - it was heaven), but alas Saturday and Sunday brought us back to reality.  And in spite of those two days of delicious warmth, we still had snow on the ground.  And Monday we had more snow!  Just a dusting and it melted almost as soon as it fell, but it was just enough to be disheartening.  Is our winter ever going to be over?  Many areas of the country are well on their way to having the snowiest winter on record.  The Northeast is so longing for spring (at least I certainly am) and I imagine other parts of the country that have been hit particularly hard by snow and cold feel the same way.  But I'm afraid hoping for wisteria in February in New England is strictly wishful thinking.  The only saving grace - March is only a week away.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Humbly Human

How can I talk about the natural world and not mention one of the most numerous beings on the planet - us, Homo sapiens, a diverse group of primates with a variety of coloring and facial features.  There are almost 7 billion people on the planet and estimates are that by 2050 that number could reach 10 billion.  About 60% of the world population lives in Asia (around 4 billion), and another 15% (close to 1 billion) live in Africa.

Source:  China Today

The other day I watched a movie 'The Infidel" about a middle-aged Muslim man with children and a family who finds out he was adopted and is Jewish.  Hmmm.  You can imagine the confusion that creates within himself, his family and friends.  But why should it?  He's still the same man with just a surprisingly different background than he thought he had.  (I recommend this movie, by the way.)

Source:  Israelity

One thing that evolutionists and creationists can agree on - the concept of Adam and Eve. Through DNA analysis it has been determined that there was very likely a founding population with a 'mitochondrial' Eve and a 'scientific' Adam.  And sequencing shows that the Homo Sapiens life story in all probability began in East Africa.  Despite all our physical and cultural differences - black or white, Jew or Palestinian, gay or straight, Muslim or Christian, Dalit or Brahmin, Chinese or South Korean, Hatfield or McCoy, Red Sox fan or Yankees fan - every human being on the planet is related to one another.  We are literally a human family and all of us share a common ancestor.

An Interfaith Conference at Yale Divinity School

If you want to take that a step farther, every living thing on Earth is also related.  Humans share 98.6% of their DNA with chimpanzees; chimps and humans are more closely related than chimps and gorillas.  It is now claimed that humans and mice share about 97.5% of their DNA.  And humans and bananas?  Well, I've found several different answers on that one - anywhere from 50-60%, but if you believe that we evolved we have to include bananas on our list of relatives (along with everything else), but I don't think you need to invite them to your next family reunion (or the chimps either).

Source: NY Times

As supposedly more intelligent beings than the rest of our 'family' tree, people have yet to figure out how to live in peace.  (Perhaps it would help if we start looking at each other as individuals instead of labels or proper nouns.)  As the world population approaches the 10 billion mark, this becomes more and more critical, along with making sure there's enough habitat and wild spaces for all the other creatures that give our lives so much joy and pleasure.

Source:  Something New

If you want to see a really interesting program, watch 'The Human Family Tree' on the National Geographic Channel.  And the next stranger you see, just remember that you're related and you probably have more in common than you think.  After all, diversity is what makes life interesting.

If you're interested in tracing your ancestral roots via DNA analysis, click here.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Springing Sifakas

When you think of lemurs you might think of the ring-tail variety which are commonly found in zoos.  They look like sort of a weird cross between a cat and a raccoon.

Ring-tail lemur  Source:  Wikimedia Commons

However, one of my favorite lemur groups are the sifakas (pronounced shif-auk).  They are named after the alarm call they make and there are nine species/subspecies.  Unlike the ring-tails that walk on all fours, the sifakas remain upright and are like aerial acrobats in the trees leaping from branch to branch using their powerful hind legs instead of their arms. One leap from tree to tree can measure up to 30 feet.  And when on the ground they leap on two legs with great panache looking a little more like kangaroos than primates.

Verreaux's Sifaka   Photo by Simon Harrap   Source:  Bird Quest

The sifakas eat leaves (from as many as one hundred different varieties of plants), flowers, fruit, and even tree bark when other food is scarce.  The smaller golden-crowned sifaka is one of the more unusual looking.

Source:  The Travel Word

The word lemur comes from the lemures (ghosts and spirits) of Roman mythology and none fit this description so well as the Silky Sifaka.  I'm sure you could easily believe you see a ghost moving through the trees with this species.

Silky Sifaka   Photo: Jeff Gibbs  Source:  Wikimedia

The Silky Sifaka and Perrier's Sifaka are the most endangered with estimates of individuals possibly numbering only in the hundreds.

Perrier's Sifaka   Source:  Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership

Sifakas live in family groups from 6 to 15 individuals.  The females are the dominant ones and usually remain in the group in which they were born, but the males may change groups several times during their life.

Coquerel's Sifaka   Source:  St. Louis Zoo

For a video of these leaping wonders, click here.  And also here.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Minnie Mouse Lemurs

I recently watched a TV program about Madagascar and it reminded me of how much I like lemurs.  Lemurs are only found in Madagascar, the fourth largest island in the world located off of Africa, and there are at least 100 different species.  I've already done a post on aye-ayes (see Accolades for Aye-ayes) which is one of the most unusual and oldest of the lemur species, but the program also renewed my love of mouse lemurs.

There are around 15 species of mouse lemurs and some have just been discovered in the past decade. The pygmy mouse lemur has been surpassed by the recently discovered Madame Berthe's mouse lemur as the smallest primate on the planet, with a body length of only 3 or 4 inches and weighing in at around one ounce.  Its big eyes are due to its nocturnal nature, its cuteness due to its lemur-ness!

  Madame Berthe's Mouse Lemur  Source:  Mammals' Planet

It does rather look more like a mouse (hence its name) or perhaps a squirrel or chipmunk, but it is a primate.  Lemurs are prosimians, pre-monkeys if you will, with characteristics more primitive than their monkey cousins.

MacArthur's Mouse Lemur
Photo by Dr. Blanchard Randrianambinina  Source:  Wildlife Extra

Mouse lemurs' diet consists of fruit, flowers and insects.  They spend nearly all of their life in the trees, sometimes sleeping in a hole or nest during the day, but more commonly just sleeping in the branches, and hunting at night.  Some mouse lemur species hibernate - not because of cold weather, but during the dry season when food resources are low.  They store fat in their back legs and tail and take a three or four month nap.  Some mouse lemurs also go into torpor during the day to save energy.

Goodman's Mouse Lemur  Source:  Mammal Watching

Because lemurs only live in one place and new species are being discovered on a regular basis, it is critical to maintain habitat and food sources for these little guys.  For a video of a mouse lemur, click here.  I'll be doing posts on other types of lemurs in the future.  Stay tuned.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Same Ole Same Ole

Ho Hum.  Another day, another new bird.  This is getting monotonous - NOT!  We've had so much snow there's no bare ground anywhere so the birds are getting desperate and coming to my house.  Yay!  Today I saw an Eastern (Rufous-sided) Towhee twice!

Male Eastern Towhee   Source:  Boreal Songbird Initiative

The first time it stayed for only a minute, but long enough for me to recognize it.  The second time I had just stepped out onto the porch to get the cat food dish and there it was again.  I stayed very still.  It kept looking at me, but didn't take off until it had eaten a bit.  The Downy Woodpecker was also there, and the Towhee took off when the Downy did.

Female Eastern Towhee   Source:  Boreal Songbird Initiative

It's so exciting to add another bird to the list.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Confused Critters

I saw the Northern Harrier twice on Saturday and again on Monday.  Or the bird that I think is a harrier.   I first saw it Sunday morning and really got a good look while she sat in a tree for about 20 minutes. And I got a good size comparison as the crows dive-bombed her a few times! She is bigger than a crow, but not a lot larger.  I'm pretty sure it was the female I saw each time; she had the white eye stripes above and below her eyes and white breast with brown streaks.  Then I saw her later at almost dusk on a telephone pole next to my neighbors' house, then she went back to the tree, and then flew right toward me as I was looking at her through the binoculars and landed on the telephone pole next to MY house.  Then Monday I saw her sitting on a telephone wire, and then she flew to the tree in my yard.  I got a few photos - a few on Sunday although it was raining and the light was fading - I seem to see it the most when the weather's bad.  But it was midday on Monday and the sun was peaking through the clouds.

The National Audubon Society bird book I have says that they 'seldom watch quietly from an exposed perch, as do other birds of prey'.  And when do I always see it?  When it's sitting on an exposed perch, of course.  If it is a harrier, it definitely has UN-harrier-like behavior.  She looks very similar to the photo that's in the book and others I've seen on the internet.  Plus it's also known as the marsh hawk, and I know there may be some sort of marshy area near my house (probably over near the river in the back of the park that's next to my house) because I've had red-winged blackbirds come to my suet.  But then It may not be a harrier at all, so I may be the one that's confused.  Whatever it is, I'm fascinated by it.

And we're not the only ones in a state of confusion.  Possums are supposed to be nocturnal, but this guy (or gal) showed up at 1:30 on a sunny Sunday afternoon .  Could be its figured out that the food some folks put out for the feral cats disappears before dark.

 Or then again maybe it's something in the water!

Monday, February 7, 2011

A Band of Brothers

I don't know if you're tired of my bird posts yet, but here's another one.  I know you like them, Jeff, so this one's for you!   I think I mentioned in a previous post that I have three pairs of cardinals that come to my feeder.  The other day I had FIVE male cardinals all at the same time.  I love it when the males all come together because they're like Christmas ornaments on my butterfly bushes.

With so much snow on the ground, the birds are out in full force - cardinals, blue jays, mourning doves, juncos, tufted titmice, chickadees (although I haven't been seeing them around as much) starlings, pigeons, and, of course, the house sparrows with a few squirrels thrown in.

How many house sparrows can you find in this picture?

Also I have another new bird - another sparrow.  As I explained in the Alien Avians post, I have so many house sparrows that when a different kind of sparrow shows up it's cause for celebration.  So besides my new little song sparrows (I've seen only two at the same time) now I have white-throated sparrows.  I've seen four together so far.  Since I don't have a telephoto lens, getting a photo is not easy.  Here is a feeble attempt (it was snowing both days I tried), along with a 'professional' photo so that you can actually see what it looks like.

And I'm really enjoying the little song sparrows.  They're so cute and do a little dance with their feet trying to brush the snow away so they can get to the seeds.  They have very good rhythm.  Maybe THAT'S why they're called song sparrows!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Numerous Newbies

New species are being discovered all the time, especially in areas that have been lightly explored due to difficulty in getting there.  Over 1200 new species have been discovered in the Amazon over the past decade.  Over 120 new species were identified in the past few years in Borneo.  More than 40 new species have been tagged in Papua New Guinea, along with 350 new species in the eastern Himalayas.  I always think what a shame it would be if, because of habitat destruction and/or global warming, there would be some species that go extinct before we even know they existed.  Here are just a few of the new species that have been discovered lately.

Case in point, a new species of titi monkey has been confirmed, found in Columbia's Amazon basin.  It has already been recommended to be declared critically endangered as it is estimated that there are only about 250 individuals left.  Named the Caqueta titi monkey because it was found in the Caqueta area of Columbia, this newbie is a total cutie.


There are about 20 species of titi monkeys and they are the only primate species besides the gibbon that are monogamous.  Titis main diet is fruit, with a few leaves, insects, and bird eggs thrown in.

There are about 600 species of crayfish, half of which are found north of Mexico.  A new species of giant crayfish was discovered in Shoal Creek in southern Tennessee, proving you don't always have to travel to places unknown to find something new.   'Bearded' antennae distinguishes this crayfish along with its unusual size, almost as big as a lobster.

Barbicambarus simmonsi   Photo by L. Brian Stauffer  Source:  University of Illinois

Two new species of herbivorous beetle have been found in New Caledonia.  Also known as a 'flea'  beetle, they use their leaping ability to avoid predators.
Arsipoda geographica and Arsipoda rostrata
Photo by Jesus Gomez-Zunta   Source: Science Daily

Remember my post on slugs?  This long-tailed slug is one of the new species found recently in Borneo.  I never thought I would think a slug is pretty, but he definitely is.

Source:  The Guardian

The spectacled flowerpecker was also among the Borneo discoveries.  Flowerpeckers are mistletoe tree specialists.

Meet Smith's litter frog, a newbie found in the Indian state of Assam.

Photo by Milivoje Krvavac, WWF Nepal  Source:  The Guardian

And, last but not least, using genetic evidence scientists have realized that the species known as the Egyptian jackal is actually a gray wolf, proving that wolves lived in Africa three million years before coming north.

   Photo Courtesy of University of Oxford   Source:  Science Daily

Now that we've found all these wonderful new creatures, let's make sure we preserve them and their habitat.