Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Very Grebe-y Birthday

Being The Nature Geek, I in turn have many geeky friends. One such friend, a bird geek, celebrated her birthday last weekend. Today I shall honor her birthday by sharing the cutest pictures I can find of her favorite bird of all time: grebes. Let us begin our d'aww-worthy journey of swooning and learning about these fabulous birds, shall we?

There are 22 species of grebe found worldwide, seven of which are found in North America. The horned grebe (seen above) is The Grebe Geek's favorite. Gaze upon its fluffy "horns."

Grebes are diving birds with their legs placed far back on the body for optimal swimming and diving abilities. This western grebe is showing off his leg, which features individually webbed toes. Grebes and other water birds are known to sometimes extend or wave a leg, it is thought perhaps as a way to dry or warm it. I just think he's showing off by swimming with one foot.

Even if you don't know much about grebes, you may have seen footage of the spectacular courtship rituals of some species. As I often like to do, I'll let Sir David Attenborough take it from here in the video above.

And what is the result of successful grebe courtship? Adorable grebe chicks. I hereby dub them grebelets

Riding around on your parents' backs is not just an easy way to get around, but a method of protection from predators lurking below, who like to make an easy meal out of the young of water birds. 

I think this chick is just pushing it.

I had to put in one last chick picture. They are too stinkin' cute.

Grebes use their amazingly adapted legs and webbed toes to dive up to 90 feet (think of a nine story building!) to find their food. Grebes with longer beaks like this great-crested grebe, found in Europe, eat mostly fish. While grebes with shorter bills, like the pied-billed grebe eat mostly small aquatic invertebrates.

Apparently someone forgot to tell this pied-billed grebe that he eats mostly small invertebrates.

Well there you have it, a photo journey into the world of the grebe in honor of my friend, The Grebe Geek. Grebe Geek, I hope you had a wonderful birthday and totally pigged out, pied-billed grebe style.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The White Stuff

Yesterday here in Philadelphia we got some snow. We got a lot of snow. We got enough snow to merit nonstop hyped up snow coverage on the news, two days of school cancellations, and a post apocalyptic scene in the local grocery stores. 
"It's beginning to snow and we're out of Pop Tarts?

Granted, it only takes about 2" of snow to cause this kind of mass hysteria in Philadelphia, but this time we received over a foot of the fluffy white utterly terrifying stuff.

I don't understand why snow causes such a panic around here, but that's probably because I grew up in North Dakota where they only cancel school for -65 degree wind chills and enough snow that you risk losing your toddler in. There are lots of animals that also laugh in the face of so-called "snow events" and today I thought I'd highlight some monochromatic critters and their ways of keeping their cool when faced with heaps of snow.

Polar Bears
Ah the pure white fur of the polar bear, as beautiful as the freshly fallen Arctic snow.

Except that a polar bear's fur is not actually white. Geek alert! A polar bear's fur is actually transparent in order to let the sun's heat go right through the dense fur and be absorbed by the bear's black skin, an incredible adaptation for keeping warm in a land of snow and ice.
A close up of polar bear skin and fur.

So why does it appear white? For the same reason that the snow outside my window forms a giant white drift instead of a clear one; the structure scatters visible light which causes it to appear white. Think of it as a kind of optical illusion. It works out pretty well...snow forts wouldn't be nearly as cool if everyone could see you inside of them. And let's face it, if a polar bear's fur was completely transparent and all you saw was the skin, Coca-Cola wouldn't have a very successful marketing campaign.
"Hey kids, wanna share a Coke and a nightmare?"
(This is not a polar bear, but rather a spectacled bear 
with a rather unfortunate skin infection)

White-tailed Ptarmigans
These small members of the grouse family are ready to strut their stuff no matter what season nature throws at them. For winter strutting, these birds have fluffy, feather duster feet to keep them warm. They even have feathers around their nostrils (nares) to pre-warm the air before it is breathed in. And of course, the bird's pure white plumage helps it to blend right in to its winter surroundings.
Sleeping in your own personal snow cave helps with camouflage too.
*pops head up* "Is that the pizza guy?"

But living in the alpine regions of Canada and down through the United States, it is not like the arctic home of the polar bear which stays white year 'round. So, like a little feathered fashionista, it changes its feathers to match the occasion.
Winter or spring, the white-tailed ptarmigan has just the thing!

Short-tailed Weasel (aka Stoat or Ermine)
This little weasel also goes through a wardrobe change in the winter and summer in the northern parts of its range. However the short-tailed weasel always keeps just a hint of black on the end of its tail to use as a decoy for predators. A hawk swooping in for the kill focuses on the easy to spot black tip of the weasel's tail, which is much harder to grasp in one's talons. Studies have found that this color strategy makes the short-tailed weasel harder for a hawk to catch than an animal that is entirely white, in which the bird's focus remains on the prey's entire body.  
"Can't catch meeeeee!"

Philadelphians may not be capable of dealing with a lot of snow, but the polar bear, white-tailed ptarmigan, and short-tailed weasel are built for life in the white stuff. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to start working on eating that stockpile of Pop Tarts.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Vomiting and Severed Limbs in the Workplace

Last month at my job, we got a new turkey vulture, an injured wild bird unable to fly. He was named "Ralph" because he was quick to employ the vulture defense of vomiting when threatened. It's a pretty good defense when you think about it; not only does the threatening animal (or Nature Geek) receive a smelly dose of partially digested dead animal delivered at their feet, but it also makes the vulture lighter, and able to take flight that much faster.

This kind of defense is completely normal among vultures. If one vulture saw another vomiting, it wouldn't think "eww, gross!" but instead "danger? where?" But what if we humans shared some of the same defenses as found in the rest of the animal kingdom? It got me to thinking of how the workplace might look quite differently.

Scenario 1: The Boss Confrontation
Boss: "Susan, I need you to step into my office right NOW."

Boss: "Ummm on second thought, why don't you just go back to your office. On third thought, you can stay in my office and I'll leave."

I imagine that even the most hardened of bosses would want to vent their office for a while after you vomited up your egg salad sandwich and coleslaw in their doorway.

Scenario 2: The Unwelcome Drop-In
<Joe, working diligently on a project at his desk, desperate to make that 3:00 deadline.>
Susan, appearing at door: "Hey Joe, do you mind if I--"
Susan: O.O
           *runs away with mad flailing of arms*

There's not too much that grosses me out in the natural world, but watching footage of a short-horned lizard squirt blood out of its eyes makes me wince every time. Probably because I just have a thing about my eyes, but I digress. (And now my eyes are watering just typing this. Great.) A few species of short-horned lizards, also nicknamed "horny toads," are able to change the pressure in their heads in order to rupture small blood vessels in the eyelids and can aim the resulting blood flow up 3-5 feet away. If that wasn't bad enough, the blood also contains a chemical compound that tastes bad to members of the canine family. This horror show defense mechanism is not effective against birds, however, who probably just think the horned lizard comes with its own flavor packets.

Scenario 3: The Unwanted Client Interaction
Susan: "Oh man Joe, here comes your client, Mr. Jenkins. That guy never stops talking!

Mr. Jenkins: "Joe? Susan have you seen Joe? I could have sworn he was just here a second ago."

The potoo has got to be one of the most spectacular examples of camouflage in the bird world. There are many birds with feathers colored to look like bark, but the potoo brings a stiff, angled body posture to its routine that sets it above the rest. Of course, when you look like this with your eyes open:
you are going to need to work harder than usual to disguise yourself in the tropical forests of Central and South America.

Scenario 4: The Staff Meeting
Susan: <thinking to self> Man, this meeting is so bor-ing. If I have to listen to the boss talk one more minute about bottom lines, I think I'm going to lose my sanity. I need a diversion.

Susan: "Run awayyyyyyy!"

Some species of lizards and salamanders have the ability to get out of a tricky spot by breaking off their tails, an ability called caudal autotomy, enabling them to escape the tight grip of a would-be predator. What's more, the severed tail segment can keep twitching for up to 20 minutes, keeping the predator distracted as the reptile or amphibian makes their escape. What about blood loss, you ask? These critters have it all under control! Muscles around the main artery to their tails pinch off at the moment of detachment, preventing any major loss of blood. 

Today with a bit of training, Ralph the turkey vulture doesn't live up to his name nearly as much. And although vomiting to get out of an uncomfortable situation may sound tempting on a bad day in the workplace, just keep in mind that vultures re-eat their vomit after the danger has passed. I don't think that egg salad sandwich is going to taste any better the second time around. 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Return of the Geek

I'm baaaaa-aaaaaack!

Man it feels good to be back! "What have you been doing for the past year and a half that you could not enrich my life with your witty, yet educational bloggings?" you ask? Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up:

You just watched the outtakes from a series of short videos I created as part of a study for my graduate degree in Environmental Education and Interpretation. Videos that I can now share with all of you!

The middle of winter may not strike all of us as a perfect time for a nature hike, but now is an ideal time to get out and look for animal signs. And if you are fortunate enough to live in an area with snow on the ground right now, the signs are even more abundant! What kinds of stories might be revealed? Find out by watching this week's video!

Be sure to follow my trail right back here next Wednesday. See you then!