Audubon’s Hummingbirds at Home

HummingbirdAppHummingbird enthusiasts will rejoice at the Audubon Society’s newest app, Hummingbirds at Home, a tool to crowdsource scientists’ understanding of hummingbird behavior in response to climate change. Like tiny, well oiled machines, these flying aces carefully sync their migration and foraging patterns in time with the bloom periods of their nectar sources. But as climate change increasingly gunks up the works, these incremental changes – slippages in bloom periods, anomalous weather patterns, drought – could trigger a tectonic slip in hummingbirds’ ability to forage and breed. By monitoring how and when hummingbirds nectar in gardens around the world, scientists hope to track these changes and how – or more importantly, if – hummingbirds are able to adapt. Too, by tapping into homeowner’s backyards, scientists get a glimpse into how hummingbirds interact with artificial nectar sources (feeders).

The app is free; download it, and you are ready to start logging time in the backyard. The app allows you to set up a patch in your backyard for repeat observations throughout the season, or simply log single observations if you do your birding through the kitchen window when you do dishes. The app’s website offers two great tutorial videos that walk you through how to get set up, and the easy interface includes a simple guide to identify and log hummingbird species and nectar sources, even your feeder.

True: your participation will give the scientists behind Hummingbirds at Home a window into hummingbird behavior. But on a more personal level, it will give you a window into the lives of your neighbors – the winged ones that careen through your yard like spastic fairies, of course.

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Jepson Herbarium Workshops – UC California Naturalist Training

The deadline to register for the UC Naturalist Program‘s UC California Naturalist Training Workshop through The Friends of the Jepson Herbarium’s 2014 Jepson Herbarium Workshop series is fast approaching. The goal of the California Naturalist Program – the first such statewide program in California – is to promote “environmental literacy and stewardship through discovery and action” by growing and training a pool of active volunteer naturalists and citizen scientists.  Many other states have similar naturalist programs; this is the first statewide program in California.

Workshop classes will meet at UC Berkeley on Thursday evenings from September 4 to November 6 and will include Saturday field trips and one overnight field trip. Upon completing certification requirements, participants are eligible for four academic credits through UC Davis Extension for an additional nominal fee.

Applications – available here – are due July 15th; the final registrants will be selected from the pool of applications received, and will be notified by August 1st.

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The Pond Turtle in the Pool

This thursday, connecting through the serendipitous six-degrees of separation afforded by the marvels of social media, I was alerted that a neighbor had discovered a pond turtle floating in their swimming pool. And as luck would have it, it was a western pond turtle. By the time I stopped by to help out that afternoon, the neighbors had already carefully removed her from the pool and placed her in a cooler in the shade with a finger of water.


When I first picked the turtle up – a large, 7-inch long female, and to all appearances an old veteran – to inspect her for any injuries or signs of how she came to be in the pool, she withdrew into her shell. But within minutes, she became animated as I poked and probed her, checking to see if she was carrying eggs (she wasn’t). A visual inspection of the shell showed tooth marks, signs of past predatory attempts that had since-healed over. And the red markings evident in the photo above, which I at first mistook for discoloration in the photograph, proved to be faded red spray-paint, a likely sign she had once been someone’s pet. (Why people feel the need to paint turtles, I can’t say.)

Wandering into the neighbor’s swimming pool – its steep sides would have only thwarted any turtle’s attempts at hauling itself out – had merely added insult to her injuries. Each of her limbs showed signs of trauma: her forelimbs were each missing the ‘pinky’ digit’s claw, her hind limbs each had a raw spot on the sole of her pads where the scales had been rubbed off, one hind leg had a laceration above the knee joint, and the very tip of her tail was broken, dangling by a thread of skin.


After photo-documenting her injuries, I placed her in a bathtub lined with towels so she could move around without further aggravating her injuries. She explored the tub over the next hour before settling down, accepting my guest bathroom as her newest lot in life. When I drew back the shower curtain that evening, she had buried herself beneath the towels.

After coordinating with the veterinary staff at the Lindsay Wildlife Museum Friday morning, I transported her to their wildlife hospital for veterinary care. There, they’ll assess her injuries, develop a treatment plan, and ultimately determine whether she’s suitable for release back into the wild.

But as is so often the case with wild animals taken in as pets, release may not be an option for this turtle. Without knowing where she originated from or under what circumstances she was held in captivity, rehabilitation staff need to weigh the risks and benefits of returning a single individual into the wild against the likelihood she has been exposed to other pet turtles with diseases she could transmit to wild turtle populations, that she might not recognize predators or know how to forage for food, or that she has imprinted on humans and might approach people instead of fleeing from them.

Instances like this are a good reminder why wild animals make poor pets, and what you should do if you come across a western pond turtle on a trail or crossing the road. It’s everyday decisions like these – recognizing when a wild animal needs medical attention and when they should be left alone – that helps keep wild animals wild.

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The Shirt Off My Back – Design by Humans

Summer is t-shirt weather for sure. This natural selection of nature-themed tee’s comes to you from Design by Humans:

Where to find them ::  Paisley Elephant {LINK} :: Party Animal {LINK} :: Shadow Hawk {LINK} :: Your Rib is an Octopus {LINK} :: Rethink {LINK} :: Geometric Forest {LINK} :: Horizon {LINK} :: Into the Wild Animal {LINK} ::


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Book Review: Rare Birds of North America

rarebirdsk10101Rare Birds of North America, by Steve N. G. Howell, Ian Lewington, and Will Russell, Princeton University Press (, 2014, 448 pages, $35.00

Though I’m a rank and file wildlife biologist, I consider myself more a birdwatcher than a birder.  So it was with some surprise when I cracked open Rare Birds of North America to find that this new guide to rare North American birds dealt not in threatened or endangered species, but in vagrant species – those that turn up in scarce numbers (averaging 5 or fewer) at locations atypical of their natural range during migration events. Knowing this is key to appreciating the scope of this guide, which looks at some 262 straggler species who – whether by misorientation or weather or bad directions – run the risk of waking up one morning to find a gaggle of bino-eyed birders ogling them to check another vagrant off their life list.

Vagrancy is a curious thing in birds, a phenomenon poorly understood even today. But as authors Howell, Lewington, and Russell so carefully explain in the introduction, there are no shortage of explanations for how migratory birds stray off course. Birds are their own pilots with an array of navigational tools at their disposal, be it reading the landscape by sight, following celestial features (stars, sun, moon), or following the Earth’s magnetic field. But like pilots, their tools can be hampered by inclement weather or poor data, causing birds to turn back from exhaustion or give in to prevailing headwinds. Similarly, whether their migratory patterns are learned or innate, a miscalculation of time, distance, or environmental cues (barometric pressure, wind direction) can lead birds to over- or undershoot their destinations. Every species is different, but certain vagrants in North America are more common than others (East Asian species typically occur in western North America, Western Eurasian species typically occur in eastern North America), and shrewd birders keen on bird migration and weather systems can predict vagrants with surprising accuracy (see, for example, Derek Lovitch’s How to be a Better Birder).

Once the basis and reasoning for vagrant birds occurring in North America is established, Rare Birds… spills into a field guide to said rarities. Not a guide you’d necessarily lug around in your pants pocket – odds are if you’re chasing vagrants through the woods, you’ve got your eyes glued to your binoculars, not your bird guide – but surely one you’d consult as you planned your trip, on the plane as you share airspace with fellow migrants, or in the passenger seat as you hurtle towards your destination. The species accounts are quick and clean, with an emphasis on a description of their distribution and status (essentially, where they should be, and where vagrants have turned up) backed by a discussion of vagrancy patterns and field identification. Ian Lewington’s illustrations are exceptional, inside and out. The cover illustration of a Siberian accentor looks like a gritty, bokeh-styled field photograph I would be proud to have taken. So if you take your birds rare, don’t miss out on this impressive testament to the study of vagrancy in North American birds.

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