Archive | Wildllife RSS feed for this section

Bunny Blankets

8 Apr

A bunny in bear’s clothing? Yes, it is. A team of researchers in China developed a fabric that mimics the fur coat of a polar bear. A live rabbit was wrapped in a ‘blanket’ made img_6854-1of this prototype fabric and used infrared imaging (thermal imaging camera) to measure the difference between the rabbit’s body and ambient temperatures. The body of the rabbit under the blanket was almost completely undetected. Where the body was exposed to the changing temperatures (14-104 degrees Fahrenheit), thermal imaging detected only those exposed areas. This demonstrates good thermal insulation.

Like the fur of polar bears, the fabric also reflects infrared light. The blanket fabric reflected light up to twice that of commercial textiles and can’t be detected by night-vision scopes and cameras, just like polar bears.

What makes polar bear’s fur so special? A fiber from the fur of a polar bear is a

B3EAB6F6-5D44-4D43-8E74-18C026DDC578

Polar bear fiberS

simple cylinder. The interior core of the fibers are hollow, which helps traps their body heat and insulate them from Arctic winters. This hollow trait of the bear’s fibers also reflect back infrared light, but the transparency of those same fibers scatter UV light to neighboring hairs, via light scattering. Their black skin absorbs and stores heat from that UV light. All these factors help insulate the polar bear from cold, even when wet. Think of passive solar energy and storage.
Despite being so porous, the fibers are strong because a thick layer of keratin surrounds the hollow core. Keratin is a protein common in nails and hair. Keratin protein molecules form a helix, and two keratin helixes wind around each other conferring both strength and elasticity. You can think of animal fiber as a thick rope containing many stings of these entwined keratin filaments. In the case of the polar bear, these keratin layers surround the hallow core.

So how did those scientists mimic the fur of a polar bear? They did so through a very complex process of spinning a mixture of compounds found in silk and crustaceans (like shrimp and crabs). A solution of fibroid, a protein in silk, and chitosan, a structural carbohydrate made from chitin, was spun in freezing conditions. Ice particles separated the fibers leaving air spaces when warmed. These resulting fibers, which had both properties of thermal insulation and strength, were aligned and then woven into a fabric, and tested on the bunny.

Being a fiber artist, I wondered how fibers from sheep compare to the properties of polar bear fibers. The variability of fiber between breeds and individual sheep is immense. So many factors influence the characteristics of wool fibers: breed, age, nutrition, and weather. However, the primary composition of wool fibers is fairly consistent.

Because I raised sheep in Oregon (decades ago) and spun their wool, I was familiar with the overall structure – overlapping scales in varying lengths – of wool fibers. However, I wanted more details on its morphological structure. I can quickly draw and label the structure of muscle fibers and fibrils, but not a wool fiber! So I searched online for a diagram and electron micrographs, longitudinal and cross-sectional,  of a typical wool fiber. From these we can see how polar bear fibers are structurally different, but they both have insulating properties.

9D27F175-317A-4C94-BD49-770CEC83B078

Mammal, silk, and plant fibers

Most animal fibers contain exterior scales (except polar bears,  remember). You can see the difference in scales, or lack of, in the image to the right, in both animal, silk and plant fibers. Also apparent are the sizes of the scales, and their distance apart. These are the images most of us are familiar with when we think of fiber structure. But it’s more complex than this.

If we compare the fibers in this image to that of the polar bear fiber, we can see that fiber structure of wool is more complex. You don’t see slightly rough exteriors and hollow centers! Instead, wool has irregular and overlapping scales. But that’s not where the differences end.

Let’s look at the interior morphological structure of wool. Wool fiber contains three

64B2C28C-BB8F-4705-BBC9-72FAE8DDFC12

Morphological structure of a wool fiber.

primary parts: the outer cuticle, the cortex (divided into two sections), and the medulla. The cuticle includes the scales and several layers that surround and protect the cortex.

The cortex is the bulk of a fiber. In that cortex are many macro- and microfibrils, similar to a muscle fiber. A similarity to the polar bear fiber, and that of most mammals, is keratin. The medulla is not really distinct, depending on the mammal species. It is empty space and arranged in a honeycomb fashion within the cortex. That space can be tiny, as in sheep breeds with fine fiber, or larger, which is more typical in medium and coarse fiber breeds.

The structure of the wool fibers, and the fiber ‘community’ (meaning the collective grouping of fibers in what we sheep folks call ‘fleece’), contribute to the insulating properties. Another structural component is fiber crimp. Wool fiber can be long and straight, or short with many crimps. The number of crimps, how they are spaced along the length of the fiber, and how close they are to neighboring fibers, greatly influence how much air a fleece can hold within it. That air also contributes to its insulating properties.

But it doesn’t stop there! At least for humans that shear those fleeces, wash and prepare them to spin into yarn that is eventually knitted or woven into fabric to wear or for other domestic purposes. The natural structure and characteristics of those fibers determine how we process the fleeces, how we spin them, use the yarn for a final product.

We could even knit a blanket for a bunny.

Advertisements

Sharing the Landscape; Can We?

13 Oct

An older draft that was never published. Oversight and all…….. it happens.

Some readers may be familiar now with the new of the deadly Grizzly encounter in Yellowstone National Park. If not, I refer readers to a post by Doug Peacock, Do Killer Grizzlies Deserve To Die? . Peackock’s  essay offers perhaps the best description of the incident.

Many questions arise from this incident: “Does the feeding of wild animals upon a human corpse fall into the category of “natural behavior”? Even if it doesn’t, should every bear who feeds upon a dead human be condemned to die? ”

There is no option in refraining from making a moral judgement in this and similar cases. If the deceased was non-human, it would have not received any attention other than a nod to the normal cycles in Nature.

But it wasn’t that way. The prey was a human, and not for the first time reaching back into the the first encounters between predator and prey. But human narratives change everything in this natural cycle. We are summarily the judge and executioner based on human morality. All of our environment now exists within this framework; the narratives are only variations based on this.

Another example is people that move into and build on land that was uninhabited before them. Then they complain and kill wild animals that roam onto their personal property, with total disregard and acknowledgement that the land they built on and live was once the home for a diversity of wildlife before them.

The title of the post above can be juxtaposed: is the Beast the bear? and other predators? Or is the Beast us, humans now in a human-dominated world?

How can we learn to co-exist with these predators (and I hate to use that term because it is fraught with moral undertones and a shadow narrative itself)…. with these animals when we increasingly fear our own shadows and species?

Am I projecting? I don’t think so. Increasing sociological and psychological investigations suggest (I carefully use that term) that the root psychology of our interactions with other species are linked to our interactions with members of our own species. And vice versa. Even the science is presented within a framework of narratives that are often embedded in moral judgement and/or politics, which includes economics.

The one trait that is innate in all creatures, including humans, is self-preservation. But so is altruism (to some extent depending on which author one reads/listens to, or depending on what one chooses to believe). Human morality adds layers and baggage on to that innateness. Other animals don’t.

I will admit that in my private opinion, which now is no longer private, I would not have killed that grizzly.

Life is messy and we make it a dramatic, sometimes chaotic baggage of snakes and worms. Life is not black and white, but is multiple shades of gray.
Regardless, it is good to have these discussions across that range.

Climate and species are a-changin’

8 Oct

This summer was a perfect example of environmental changes. In the northern states, some waterfowl species never migrated south last fall, and this spring’s surveys revealed that some birds migrated north earlier than normal. Conversely, milkweed (Asclepias spp.) emerged one to two weeks early and migrating monarch butterflies arrived two to three weeks late in all the northeastern states. Areas in a few northeastern states were stricken with a historic “100-year or more drought.” On the other hand, many areas in the semi-arid southwest experienced historical devastating floods.

Is this a fluke? Or is this the new norm? Perhaps somewhere in the middle, but more likely these weather and climatic changes are the ‘new normal.’  The events and data support that assessment.*

How do living organisms respond?

Published studies by biologists have been documenting the impact of climate change on the environment, especially species that are adapting and not adapting. We can learn about impacts on organisms  by examining changes in cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena of plants and animals in relation to climate. These seasonal changes and cycles are known as phenology. Noting the times of year that specific plants bloom, or when birds migrate are two examples. Comparing the phenology of many species over a period of time can reveal informative clues on how changes in climate may affect them. Many studies along this model of investigation demonstrate that the living environment is indeed impacted.

United Kingdom researcher Stephen Thackeray(1) and his colleagues analyzed the phenology of a wide range of species. They used 10,003 phenological data sets to determine if and how much species’ phenology have changed over a minimum of 20 years. The analysis revealed that phenology has shifted in unequal rates in different species groups. Thus, climate change leads to disruptions of the phenological match between species, which often impacts ecological relationships.

Another question the researchers asked was how sensitive events in their life cycles are to the two most common variables in climatic change: temperature and precipitation. Both variables have changed in an uneven process over the flow of seasons. How does this impact species relationships? Some periods of the year have warmed faster than others, which may affect two interrelated species with equal temperature sensitivities but at different times. This could shift their phenological events at different rates and cause a mismatch in their relationship.

For example, milkweed plants emerging and flowering much earlier than normal resulted in sub-optimal conditions for the late-arriving monarch butterflies to use the plants for breeding. Additionally, the persistent hot and humid weather in the northeast could impact monarch larva (caterpillar) by either accelerating or arresting development.

trophic-pyramid

Trophic levels

The study authors also discovered a difference of sensitivity to temperature variations at different positions of the food chain (referred to as trophic levels). Species at different levels did not differ in the time of year at which they were sensitive to annual variations in temperature. But they did vary in how sensitive they were.

 

Species in higher levels of the food chain (the secondary consumers) are less sensitive to temperature changes than species at the bottom (the producers and primary consumers). These species are twice as sensitive to temperature changes than upper level species. Secondary consumers are also less sensitive to precipitation variations.

The authors then combined the species sensitivities with a future climate scenarios. They forecast that primary consumers -birds, insects, small mammals, etc- will shift the timing of their phenological events by twice as much as will species at other levels of the food chain. One reason their response varies is because species at different tropic levels respond differently to exactly the same temperature cue. Species respond differently to temperature during various times of the year.

The above example of the milkweed and monarch butterfly mismatch could impact the breeding success and thus population numbers of the butterflies. Both species have different physiological mechanisms that determine their phenological events and use different cues to determine their timing. Although these cues will be correlated to some extent, the cue used by the consumer -in this example, the monarch butterfly- is less reliable than that of the the plant they rely on. This cue unreliability in the consumers may mean that they will evolve with less temperature sensitive phenology than those species at the trophic level they rely on.

Ecologist Marcel Visser (at Netherlands Institute of Ecology) calls attention to moving from conventional two-species interaction research to a more holistic approach: investigating the effects of climatic change on the entire food-web. In a review(2) of the Thackeray, et al. study, Visser additionally proposes that impacts by phenological mismatches could be buffered by other mechanisms in their ecosystems.

To help us understand the consequences of phenological mismatches and thereby form predictions, he proposes questions that should be considered in studying changes in climate changes and relationships:

How are the strengths of the links in a food web affected by phenological mismatches? What happens if the phenology of species at one trophic level shifts more than that of species at another? Does this lead to the loss of some links and the formation of others? Does this destabilize the web? Such analyses would be a stepping stone from studying the phenological shifts of species to understanding the effects of
climate change on ecosystem function.(2)

dscn2300-m

Stink bug preys on larva.

An example for a holistic ecosystem approach is field observations (my own and in the literature) that have suggested that as prolonged temperatures increase, depredation and parasitism of monarch larvae and adults increase. Is this a function of differences in phenology of  monarchs and its predators, or changes in all vegetation and species interactions (a complex of one or more phenological overlapping and mismatches)  in the habitat? Do temperature mismatches in other members of the monarch habitat increase risk or rates of depredation?

One research team suggested that migration of monarch butterflies may have evolved as an adaptation to decrease depredation and parasitism in their breeding habitats. If monarch adults were to delay or ignore cues to migrate because of changing climate, how would that impact their overall population?

Adding to the complexity, climate sensitivity in species is not fixed. Phenological mismatches can lead to selection on the timing of phenological events. Resilience to environmental challenges can alter phenology, but over time can also result in genetic changes to sensitivity, thereby fixing phenological changes. Conventional theory on temperature range sensitivity of monarch adults and larvae states that it quite narrow. However, some observations(3) of their coping mechanisms with prolonged high temperatures in the Pacific Northwest sub-population questions if this sensitivity range is more flexible than conventional thought, or if this could be a developing adaptation.

Some researchers are already investigating genetic changes accompanying phenological adaptations to climate change (e.g. genetic alterations in melanin associated with plumage and physiology in European owls that have adapted to changing ecosystems). Such complex studies must be conducted to forecast the impacts of climate change and phenological responses and ecosystem function.

Research by Thackeray, Visser, and other colleagues demonstrates that long-time series of data are essential for such investigations. They also applaud and encourage professional and citizen scientists to continue collecting and submitting observations to add to the data pool. As Visser commented, “The additional advantage is that observing phenological shifts in, sometimes literally, your own backyard drives the message of global climate change home.”


(1) Thackeray, SJ, et al. “Phenological sensitivity to climate across taxa and trophic levels”. Nature 535, 241–245 (14 July 2016)
(2) Visser, ME. “Interactions of climate change and species”. Nature 535, 236–237 (14 July 2016)
(3) Anecdotal observations by Dr. David James, Washington State University entomologist, in central Washington and myself at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, eastern Oregon.

* The main difference between weather and climate is time. Weather is the atmospheric local events over a short period of time.  Climate is an average of the weather over much longer time in a region or globally. Sure, we can agree that weather and climate is cyclic, with highs and lows historically up and down. Also, a few episodic variances from the average can be expected.  But climate does not vary as greatly as weather. The trends clearly demonstrate that climate is changing. Modern paleoclimate technologies can now add to the 70-year human records of climatic changes, both which confirm that climate change is a reality. Those changes have accelerated, more than any other equal span of time in historical evidence.

A community working together for wildlife

6 Oct

We get dirty sometimes. Mosquitoes practice their vampire act on us. Often times we get wet, such as falling in marsh water with chest waders on. Sunshine beats on us and the wind might push us around. But everyone has a good time, from the refuge staff, to dedicated local volunteers, perhaps a photojournalist thrown in, to the occasional beauty pageant queen.

Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge encompasses over 10,000 acres of marsh land and forest, most in various phases of restoration. It is a part of the overall Montezuma Marshes, a wooded swamp and marsh complex named in 1973 and designated as National Natural Landmark. The entire complex is around 100 acres of low land at the northern end of two of the Finger Lakes, Cayuga and Seneca Lakes. In addition to the federal refuge, large holdings are also managed by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and Audubon. Together, they form the Montezuma Complex with similar goals: to restore, conserve and protect habitat for wildlife.

The Montezuma Complex is important for conservation because the marshes, pools, and channels are stopovers for migrating birds on the Atlantic Flyway. Songbirds, shorebirds. waterfowl, swans, and raptors use the riparian areas and food sources for shelter, rest, and to fuel their migration south and north. Also of significance are the slowly increasing population of sandhill cranes. As of this summer, five or six nesting cranes were documented on the complex, most of them on the national wildlife refuge. They form a new but small component of the Atlantic Sandhill Crane Population.

The refuge was also instrumental in the successful reintroduction of bald eagles to New York State, and the first such program in the U.S. Since the program began in 1976, many of those eagles, and now their offspring, still return to the Montezuma complex to nest. Two of the nests that we monitored this summer had three nestlings fledge per nest, a sign that the species is doing well.

Another raptor species recovering from near decimation in this area is the osprey. Four of the five nests atop utility structures that line the road to the refuge entrance were full of nesting osprey and their young. These raptors are now a common sight as they elegantly dive for fish in the channels and marshes.

In addition to eagle surveys, the refuge participates in monitoring other species: ducks, geese, great blue heron, swans, grassland birds, black terns, and shorebirds. A new species added this year is the monarch butterfly: testing habitat evaluation tools and management protocols for monarch and all pollinators.

But there is more to just counting and banding ducks on the refuge.

Some of the refuge is accessible to the public to enjoy birds and native vegetation.A visitors’ center, wildlife drive, and hiking trails weave through the refuge pools, marshes, forests, and fields. Visitors can observe birds in the water and in the air. At the nearby Audubon Center, visitors can stroll through native fields in colorful bloom, or even rent a canoe or kayak to paddle on the creek and nearby canal.

But many parts are closed to the public, too. Because many waterfowl species -ducks, swans, geese, sandhill cranes, great blue herons, and eagles- nest summer-long in the marsh water, fields or trees, they need undisturbed places to successfully rear their young.

dscn2386These marshes, forests and fields are also field laboratories for children and adults. Many educational events occur on the refuge and the Audubon holdings for children to experience hands-on education on ecology, biology, botany, and team building. The DEC staff conduct training sessions for young hunters. And even the staff of the refuge and DEC partake in skill building and training workshops. This past summer we participated in a three-day workshop on waterfowl habitat management and a two-day course in duck banding in cooperation with the American Bird Banding Laboratory.

Most impressive to me was the cooperative and successfully productive network with the state, private, public, and federal entities. At the core of this are the committed staff and dedicated volunteers. Thanks to the large membership and contributions of the Friends of the Montezuma Wetlands Complex, many projects in the complex are supported by donations and volunteer work. The most successful is the MARSH! program.

MARSH! is part of a larger effort to restore, protect, and enhance wildlife habitat on nearly 50,000 acres in the Montezuma Wetlands Complex.

We formed this VOLUNTEER program to support the habitat restoration efforts of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Montezuma Audubon Center and other partners at Montezuma. This group works on controlling invasive species in grassland, shrubland, forest, marsh and river. The work is hands-on as we cut and pull invasive species & replant with natives that will be more beneficial to wildlife & less harmful to Montezuma habitats overall!

Staff from both the national refuge and the NY DEC work with volunteers on a variety of projects:

  • surveying seedling tree survival,
  • controlling invasive species, such as swallow wart, honeysuckle, etc.
  • black tern surveys,
  • collecting wetland and upland native plant seed,
  • surveying for invasive plant density using GIS apps on phones and iPads, etc

We always finish off with lunch together, sharing stories and laughs. My last MARSH event with them culminated with a presentation I gave on the monarch life cycle and habitat. Sharing those events with them this summer was a unique and satisfying experience that will be memorable.

Especially when a local beauty pageant queen worked with us for one MARSH day.

A photographer and column writer from a local paper watched and photographed us all one day while we collected emergent marsh plant seed. He called me the next day to request an interview, which I really did not think would be published. But it did.
(Follow link below for full article)

THE BIGGER PICTURE: A visitor from the Land of Enchantment

fltimes-interview-copy

Link to full article.

The art of observing

4 Oct

“Don’t think. Just observe.”

My first lessons in the ‘field’ were before I was taught any biology, physiology, ecology, any -ology. An old trapper/tracker in Maine was my human mentor. He was short on words and usually answered my questions with another question. Or a quick shrug of his shoulders. He spoke more with his eyes than he did his mouth.

When I asked him to teach me this or that, he swept his arm and hand out at everything before us and said, “That’s your teacher. I’m just an old man.”

It was almost a year before I started to realize what he meant. It came to me during the fall when a secret signal tells the maple trees to start turning orange and red. And when hair on several of the small mammals begin to change color. Leaves on many  annual and perennial plants turn yellow, shrivel and fall off while seeds mature and catch a ride on the winds or by clinging to your pant cuffs and socks.

It becomes harder to walk quietly in the forests on dried leaves and twigs that crunch and snap. You learn to step on tree roots and rocks thrusting above the litter. You might glimpse a deer walking in the forest and see how they slowly place a hoof on mossy spots or bare places in between the leafy carpet. Instead of pushing your way through branches, you twist half your body sideways or bend to move in the spaces in between.

During winter you might find animal tracks in other animal tracks. Or in your tracks. Blazing new trails costs energy; go where someone else has moved the snow. Perhaps you’ll remember to follow the game trails after the snow has melted.

It was a year before I could sit, or lean against a tree or boulder, and not think. I learned to watch and observe; save the thinking for later. I learned to be still. The more still I was, the more silently I moved. The more I didn’t think, the more I learned. With the dismissal of expectations and preconceptions, the more aware and attentive I was. Actually, I became less, and more like my surroundings.

And everything spoke to me. Not in words, but in just being. My environment was my final mentor.

French philosopher Simone Weil wrote:

Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object; it means holding in our minds, within reach of that though, but on a lower level and not in contact with, the diverse knowledge we have acquired, which we are forced to make use of. Our thought should be in relation to all particular and already formulated thoughts, as a man on a mountain, who, as he looks forward, sees also below him, without actually looking at them, a great many forests and plains. Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it.

In other words, don’t ask or think……….Watch and observe.

To be, or not to be, which species? Why question?

22 Sep

Over the past several years I have participated in the genetic and taxonomic debates over the Red wolf: is it Canis lupus (wolf)? Canis latrans (coyote)?  Canis rufus (current classification)? Or a hybrid?

Depending on which author’s paper you read, the general consensus is that the animal shares more genetic similarity with the coyote than wolf. To complicate the game, a few genetic markers associated with (note my avoidance of ‘unique to’)  the red wolf can be found in a sub-population of the timber  wolf, most notably the Great Lakes or Algonquin wolf.

The typical argument against introgression of the two wild canid species, C. lupus and C. latrans, is behavioral boundaries between them. Under normal circumstances, the two species do not tolerate each other and will not mate to form hybrid offspring. When they are sympatric (when their territories overlap), wolves usually kill coyotes or they just avoid each other.

However, a group of geneticists hypothesize that despite traditional behavioral and geographical boundaries that usually prevent introgression between species, these very boundaries are plastic. In other words, they may fail and individuals of both species may mate and produce viable offspring.

A scenario of this transgression might be in a geographical area that borders territories of both species. If resources are severely limiting, such as during a long drought cycle, a few individuals of each species may mate due to poor mating opportunities within their own species.

Another scenario is more common today: when human land use encroaches upon and shrinks traditional habitats, forcing trespass from one species into territory of the other. This is the primary explanation given for the increase of the current  ‘coywolf’ population in the northeastern US.

As one geneticist posits, such introgression may have occurred more than once, especially in an arid region, such as the southwestern area of the red wolf’s former territory: Texas. After several generations of backcrossing and/or admixture with coyotes, isolation of this growing population could conceivably be on the way to speciation, resulting in the historical  and extant Canis rufus.

Now, here lies the question: is this animal a species? Or a sub-species? Is it ‘wolf’? Is it ‘coyote’? Or is it a hybrid? And this is when the poor animal falls into the vortex of the ‘species concept’ debate. And possibly one of life or death.

Tonight I reread a paper published in 2006 and that was once used as a focal topic paper in a journal club session: “On the failure of modern species concepts”, by Jody Hey (Trends in Ecology and Evolution, vol. 21, No. 8). An excellent paper that stirred a three-hour debate between eight students and monitors. Shame on me for forgetting the final two paragraphs (‘Lessons on the method of multiple concepts’).

“Definitions cannot be forced to serve the arbitration of entities that are truly ambiguous. The fact is that species are hard to identify for a variety of reasons related to the various ways that they can be indistinct and no criterion that presumes to delineate natural boundaries can overcome this.

As scientists we should not confuse our criteria for detecting species with our theoretical understanding of the way species exist. Detection protocols are not concepts. This point would be child’s play if we were talking about electrons or disease agents, but because real species are so difficult to study, and because our best understanding of them includes their often being truly indistinct, we have had trouble separating the detection criteria from our more basic ideas on the existence of species.”

Right now, the fate of the red wolf in large part revolves around whether or not it is classified as a true species, sub-species, or a hybrid. The Endangered Species Act does not recognize and therefore does not include hybrids for protection from extinction. Both government agencies, policy administrators and scientists are still embroiled in the vicious vortex of yea or nay. Nor can the biologists agree on how the species concept applies to a possible animal caught in the cycle of speciation.

I am a victim of my own Trickster antics of playing in the ‘species concept’ debate. Tonight this is resolved and I am absolved: it doesn’t matter which species the red wolf is tagged with. It doesn’t matter if it is a hybrid or not. In fact, as a hybrid it’s protection and conservation is even more important. We have the opportunity to watch and learn what happens during the course of a mammalian hybrid as it continues its course of speciation.

May the Red wolf howl and carry on safe from human impact and intervention other than a helping hand for protection from human-caused anhilation. Perhaps you can teach us humans humility. Especially us scientists.

An encounter with a young hawk

29 Jul

I heard a nearby truncated shriek. A familiar sound, but lacking the usual power and strength. Scanning the area around me, I saw a silhouette that, again, was a familiar shape.

Underneath the wide umbrella canopy of an old tree, sheltered from the sun, sat the form of a raptor. My first thought was one of the four raven fledglings that constantly explore the air and ground around the refuge headquarters and resident area. But the shape of the head, attentive and looking around, was not that of a raven.

Most of the buteos have a sloped skull that flows into the downward slope of their hooked beak. The bony ridge over the eyes of a buteo gives the profile of their familiar hooded eyes, which can be piercing.

A raven’s skull is shorter and rounder than a buteo’s. Ravens also lack the boney ridge over their eyes, which are like round black buttons. The long and fat raven beak is the key difference. Thick and long, it might be compared to a tapered black banana.

When the bird awkwardly took flight from the ground, white feathers of the short leggings and underwings confirmed that the mystery bird was a buteo, or hawk. What also caught my eye was that its talons were taking a meal for a ride.

Red-tailed hawk

Red-tailed hawk

The hawk flew into a nearby large and ancient cottonwood tree, where it couldn’t seem to find its balance on a branch. As I walked closer, perhaps about a hundred and twenty-five feet away, the bird gave up flapping its wings in amongst the branches and finding a place to perch. It flew down to the ground.

Now quite curious, I retrieved my binoculars out of the travel trailer and walked back to where I was. Scanning the weedy grass and rabbit brush, I could not see any sign of the bird. But occasionally I would hear a sound like a short and high-pitched bark. An odd sound for a raptor!

Walking slowly and carefully through the dried weeds and grass, I chose a direct path towards the sound. After 20 feet of noise with every foot-fall, I stopped and returned to the chunky gravel and decided to try my luck along the edge of the gravel refuge road.

Recalling what I was taught decades ago when learning to track animals, every footstep was slow and light. Any audible sound of the gravel rearranging under my feet was muffled by the strong breeze and moving tree leaves. Keeping my upper body as motionless as possible, I slowly shifted my weight with every carefully-placed footstep. Moving sideways, without moving my head and arms independently was a bit tricky, trying to keep it all a fluid motion. I made a mental note that I needed to get back into Tai Chi to improve my balance and proprioception.

With the binoculars held up to my eyes, I spotted first the raptor head, then the neck. Moving closer, I could monitor the bird’s eyes through the binoculars. Whenever its head and eyes moved in my direction, I froze; sometimes with a foot suspended above the gravel while waiting for the head and eyes to turn away from my direction.

It seemed to take forever for me to approach near where the bird was on the ground. Perched on a large branch lying on the ground and in the shade of the tree was a young hawk. A few features informed me that it was immature. The color of the eyes (iris) were grayish with subtle yellow. Adult Red-tailed hawks have dark brown irises, which often blend in with their black pupils.

The white breast feathers were typical of a red-tailed hawk. However, its white patch was smaller than most others I have seen on juveniles of this species. Below this patch were soft, almost downy variegated feathers; white with wide bands of medium to light brown, and many of them blowing in the breezes sneaking under the canopy of the tree. It’s cere was large and bright yellow, the brightest coloration on this mostly dark bird. Little white showed on the top of the wings and head. Below its white softly feathered leggings betrayed the presence of knobby legs and gray-yellow talon. This bird had not gone through its first molt yet.

Now at about 25 feet from the bird, I didn’t need the binoculars anymore. I held them to my chin to avoid any exaggerated movement. Standing stock still, I studied this bird and wondered why it decided to perch on a grounded branch rather than up in the tree canopy.

Slowly shifting my body a few more feet to the right I was able to see more of the story. One set of talons grasped the wood, and the other…….   All I could see was the bottom of its leg and the upper toes disappearing in the gray-rusty colored fur. These talons were deep into the hindquarters of an unidentified furry mammal with soft gray and tan-orange fur. Below the heap of fur was the bottom of a leg with some white fur and a foot. A paw, to be more exact. With the binoculars, the shape of a paw with dark tan fur had me stumped. Then another feature grabbed my curiosity.

To the right of the hawk I noticed and oddly shaped reddish branch covered with yellowish knobs. It looked like a miniature bloody chainsaw! Not until the hawk picked up its buried talons and shook the heap of fur did I see this odd reddish bar shake as well. It was attached to the heap of fur!

I realized that the hawk was sitting on a hindquarter that was still attached to the bloody spine of a mammal. After shaking the heap of fur and the rib, the hawk looked down at his trapped talons. Apparently the youngster buried those talons into the scavenged meal and was unable to remove them. Shaking it a few times unsuccessfully released it. It finally took a break and glanced around, yawning. And I continued to watch.

After a furious attempt to shake the cumbersome attachment to its talons, it managed to jump up off the fur heap and branch, and turn around with a squeal. Possibly sitting on the rib and powerfully pushing off, its talons were finally dislodged from the fur. With great dexterity, this determined bird caught the entire carnage before it fell on the ground, parked it on the branch, itself carefully perched on the wood, and began to tear off tufts of gray and tan fur. A whitish tail surrounded by gray and tawny-orange fur leads me to guess that the unfortunate meal was a white-tailed jackrabbit, a large relative of the common black-tailed jackrabbit.

The beautiful black and brown banded tail feathers confirmed the age of this bird. Although fledged for a month or so now, it was learning to hunt and feed itself on its own. Finding a partially consumed meal might seem an easy meal for this youngster, but now it needs to learn constraint on digging its talons into prey. And I thanked it for letting me share its experience.

 We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creatures through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of haven taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth. –  by Henry Beston, excerpted from The Outermost House

%d bloggers like this: