Archives

Hello, Hedwig (snowy owl)

Birds, on this blog?? I must be out of my mind. Posts covering birds are almost unheard of on this website. It’s not that I do not find birds fascinating. There are just so many bird-dedicated websites out there that I do not feel I can contribute anything unique, and if I want to be completely honest – I am not exactly the best bird photographer out there. I will always prefer looking at insects and other ground-dwelling creatures. This is something that I need to change: I need to make a habit to switch from arthropod-seeking to bird watching once winter hits Canada and it gets too cold for insect activity. I decided to force myself out and go searching for snowy owls in my area. Living in Mississauga on the shore of Lake Ontario, I always knew I have a good chance of finding snowy owls, but it takes dedication to look for birds in below-zero temperatures, even more so in my case because I am fine-tuned for searching smaller animals.

A resting snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) is like a sitting duck. On a dock.

A resting snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) is like a sitting duck. On a dock.

Snowy owls (Bubo scandiacus) are truly stunning animals. It is one of the largest and heaviest owl species, and easily recognized thanks to its unmistakable appearance: a hefty white bird, with a black beak and bright yellow eyes. Female snowy owls are bigger and heavier than males, and their feathers are mottled in black. The smaller males are entirely white.

Who left this pile of snow on the dock? hehe

Who left this pile of snow on the dock? hehe

It's transforming!

It’s transforming!

Snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus). Try not to get hypnotized by these eyes.

Snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus). Try not to get hypnotized by these eyes.

Despite being big and showy, snowy owls made it to the mainstream only in the late 90’s thanks to the Harry Potter book series. In the story, Harry has a pet snowy owl named Hedwig, used for delivering messages to other wizards, but also serving as a companion to Harry. The popularity of snowy owls has increased also thanks to a famous meme, perhaps one of the oldest internet memes in existence, focusing on their somewhat goofy facial expressions.

These owls are native to and breed in the Arctic tundra. Every year a part of the population migrates south to winter in the North American prairies, whereas the others remain in the Arctic year-round. The migration is triggered by seasonal population fluctuations of their prey – small mammals, mainly rodents. When hungry they will go after birds as well.

Snowy owls probably hunt small rodents like this meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus)

Snowy owls probably hunt small rodents like this meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus)

Snowy owls are very unique among owls for nesting in shallow mounds that they build on the ground. Even outside of the breeding season they stay active close to the ground level. Because they prefer open habitats, they are often found in areas disturbed by human activity. They utilize boat docks, airstrips, and arable land, which probably host their prey. Here in Southern Ontario I bet they hunt voles because, let’s face it, those are quite common in semi-urban areas, and judging by my experience they are extremely easy to catch.

O RLY?

O RLY?

The nice thing about snowy owls is that they do not seem to care too much about humans. Ok, I should clarify this – they will not care *only* if you respect their privacy and keep your distance. I want to prevent a situation where people harass these beauties. It is also important to mention that this species is currently classified as “Vulnerable” by the IUCN. When undisturbed, the owl will keep its position, and even display some natural behavior like cleaning, scratching, and… grinning. However, once the observer gets too close and is spotted by the owl, it ends right there. A snowy owl will not hesitate to take flight if it feels threatened. If you decide to go and look for these birds please be respectful, and you will be rewarded with an unforgettable experience that will stay with you forever.

New Zealand – the sad side

I cannot end my NZ report without mentioning one sad truth.
New Zealand is full of invasive species.

At first I was not sure if the European blackbird I saw when I landed in Auckland was indeed the one I know from home or some NZ-specific species. Soon I learned that there are so many introduced birds species in New Zealand. Moreover, New Zealand has no native terrestrial mammals (except for two bat species), yet many introduced mammal species are widespread and frequently seen. The same goes for other groups of animals as well as plants.
New Zealand, being a group of islands, is exceptionally prone to such species “invasions”. Many non-native species, introduced deliberately by man or naturally by immigration from nearby continents, found suitable environmental conditions to colonize the country and in absence of their natural enemies there is no control on their population growth.

One of the best examples is the Common brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula), introduced intentionally from Australia by European settlers in the 1850s. The reasons behind this were to use the animals as a source for food and to use their soft fur for clothing. However, some possums escaped from the farms and established wild populations, and by the 1980s they were widely spread throughout NZ in a variety of habitats. Possums are herbivores, feeding on leaves, fruits and seeds. They have some negative impact on the NZ flora by reducing the diversity of plant species in a given habitat, in addition to damaging agricultural crops. But their main impact is transmitting diseases to other mammals. They are vectors for bovine tuberculosis, which is a major threat to farm animals. Department of Conservation (DoC) as well as several other agencies are putting substantial efforts to control and reduce the numbers of possums by trapping and poisoning them, with some success.

Common brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) in Fiordland National Park, South Island. Do you think this guy is cute? Not only it defoliates trees and damages crops, it can also transmit diseases to farm animals.

Common brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) in Fiordland National Park, South Island. Do you think this guy is cute? Not only it defoliates trees and damages crops, it can also transmit diseases to farm animals.

 

Another interesting example for an invasive species in New Zealand is the rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus). Rabbits were initially introduced as a food animal by European settlers, but were later liberated from farms to use as game for the export of skins and fur. They have multiplied and reproduced well and by the 1870s, they were reported as a serious pest. The rabbits depleted the soil through erosion and negatively affected the diversity of plant species. In farming areas the rabbits reduced the sheep-carrying capacity by competing with sheep on food sources.

Do you think this guy is cute? Well he is, but he is also responsible for eroding the soil and reducing vegetation cover, ultimately changing the landscape (Otago Peninsula, South Island).

Do you think this guy is cute? Well he is, but he is also responsible for eroding the soil and reducing vegetation cover, ultimately changing the landscape (Otago Peninsula, South Island).

 

Soon after the establishment of wild rabbit populations, farmers demanded a solution to the problem. They suggested introducing the rabbits’ natural enemies as a means of population control, and in the 1880s mustelids (stoats and weasels) were introduced from Britain into New Zealand. It was not long before the mustelids learned that instead of wasting time and energy chasing rabbits, they can easily prey on the native ground-nesting and flightless bird species. These birds have evolved in the absence of mammalian predators and were essentially sitting ducks (pun intended) for the mustelids. And soon enough, a drastic drop in numbers of several New Zealand bird species was recorded.

Today mustelids are widespread in New Zealand and there is a DoC program to control their populations. Traps for mustelids can be seen in many nature reserves and national parks. In fact even Fiordland National Park, which is considered one of the world’s heritage nature reserves, is not immune to invasive species and during my short visit there I observed dozens of possums and a baby mustelid – a bad sign that they are breeding in the park, despite DoC’s efforts to trap and hunt them down. In one of my hikes in Fiordland I found a small base harboring two small choppers. My first thought was that those were rescuing choppers and I felt relived that if got stranded in the park I would have a good chance of coming back alive and in one piece (and how ironic is it that I actually needed such a rescue a week later?). But when the DoC personnel showed up they explained that every couple of months DoC sends hunters into the park to go after wild roaming deer, mustelids and possums, and those choppers are used to transfer the hunters in and out of the park.

Choppers used to bring DoC hunters in and out of Fiordland National Park

Choppers used to bring DoC hunters in and out of Fiordland National Park

 

These are just several examples for invasive animal species in New Zealand. There are hundreds more. I did not mention rats, mice, cats, Australian magpies, german wasps, as well as other notoriously-known species.

European goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis) were introduced from Britain in the late 1800s and since then have become extremely common throughout NZ. I have never had a chance to photograph a group of goldfinches in my home country, so I find it ironic that I succeeded only after traveling to the other side of the world (Okiwi Bay, South Island).

European goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis) were introduced from Britain in the late 1800s and since then have become extremely common throughout NZ. I have never had a chance to photograph a group of goldfinches in my home country, so I find it ironic that I succeeded only after traveling to the other side of the world (Okiwi Bay, South Island).

 

An introduced slug species from Dunedin, South Island (all native NZ slugs have a characteristic leaf-vein pattern on their dorsal side).

An introduced slug species from Dunedin, South Island (all native NZ slugs have a characteristic leaf-vein pattern on their dorsal side).

 

On the topic of invasive plants, New Zealand border control is doing the best it can to prevent visitors from introducing unwanted species. After you land you are greeted by a nice officer that inquires about the contents of your luggage (including gifts!) to make sure you are not carrying any fruits. Then he takes a good look at your shoes for any sign of dirt, soil, or seed stuck in your shoelaces. If something looks suspicious, you are asked to remove your shoes and after a short inspection you receive them thoroughly washed and clean. Very impressive and reminds me of my visit to the Galapagos Islands when my bags were searched and I was asked to dip my shoes in some sort of disinfecting solution. Unfortunately, invasive species are a global problem not limited to islands only, but still in most world countries such ‘visitor checks’ are relatively minimal. I have more to say about this but it will have to wait for another post.

My two favorite NZ birds

New Zealand is home to an astounding high number of endemic birds, for this reason it is often referred to as the “land of birds”. As the end of my research trip approached, I tried to think which of the bird species I came across left the most impact on me.
To my surprise it was not any of the famous NZ birds; I never had a chance to get to Maud Island to see the Kakapo; the Tui and the bellbird are beautiful but I didn’t find them that interesting, the same can be said for the yellow-eyed penguins and the giant NZ Pigeon; and kiwi reminded me of a beaked rat with bad case of platfus. Could it be that something happened to me in Canada that was clouding my judgment?

You see, I was born in Israel, and the most common animals I saw in the vicinity of my house were crows, stray cats and rats. Do not get me wrong: I am not saying that Israel does not have an interesting fauna, on the contrary! The biodiversity in Israel is amazing (and from many aspects even much more interesting that that of… New Zealand). However, if you live in a big city, these animals I mentioned are the ones you will see most frequently.
But I had already been living for a year in Canada before I took the trip to New Zealand, and being surrounded by tame squirrels, brave chipmunks and fluffy rabbits had its effect (well actually, I always had a thing for rabbits). I am not even going to talk about the freakishly tame deer that are all over the place. So when I got to New Zealand the first animals that left an impression on me were the ones who were not afraid to check me out from up close.

I met the first bird species on my first night alone in New Zealand. I left my PhD supervisor at the ferry terminal and drove to a town called Okiwi Bay, a lovely place. I found a good spot to pass the night in the forest, looking for weta. In the morning, I woke up to an amazing view of the turquoise blue water of the bay, peeking through the canopy. Just as I was appreciating this magnificent sight, I heard a loud “Nee! Nee! Nee!”
Of course the first thing that came into my mind were the knights from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but I set out to look for this mysterious animal. And it was sitting on a branch right above my head. First I saw a white hand waving to me from the branches and I had to pause for a second because I wasn’t sure what I was seeing.

New Zealand fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa)

“Nee! Nee! Nee!” (translated: hello!)

 

Then I saw that this was actually a bird the size of a swallow.
It was a fantail.

New Zealand fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa)

New Zealand fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa)

 

The New Zealand fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa) is probably the bird you are most likely to see if you come to NZ. It is a very common, relentless bird, constantly moving and calling. These birds are not afraid of people, and very often approach to feed on flying insects that hover above your head. This behavior made it very difficult to photograph the bird, because when using a long telephoto lens the fantail would often come too close for an appropriate working distance. When I think about this, I kick myself in the head because these birds are everywhere in NZ, and I cannot believe I do not have a single decent photo of a fantail… They are grey in color with a white or pale grey tail, which they display open almost all the time. There is also a “black version” of this bird, I got to see it twice throughout my trip, but it was too concealed to get a good photo.
I immediately fell in love with this bird. There is something so adorable in its rapid movements and cutesy calls that it looks like it came straight out of a cartoon.
Do check that link by the way, you will not regret it.

New Zealand fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa), displaying its tail

New Zealand fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa), displaying its tail

 

The second bird species took interest in me while I was searching for Holacanthella springtails. I was digging inside a rotten log when suddenly I saw a beak snatching a spider that I exposed while working. I raised my head, and saw a small grey songbird standing 15cm from my face. I cannot even describe the feeling to you. The fact that this wild bird, which I have never seen before, was interested in what I was doing and decided to join me. It was priceless.

South Island Robin (Petroica australis australis)

South Island Robin (Petroica australis australis)

 

I soon learned that the South Island Robin (Petroica australis australis) is another brave bird that will often come to check what humans are doing in its territory.  I took advantage of this, and experimented just how close the bird would get. The answer – pretty darn close! If you are exposing prey items, or better, if you are offering the robin a prey item, it will come fearlessly to take it from your hand. Unbelievable. This is a wild bird, I remind you!

Feeding South Island Robin (Petroica australis australis) from my hand

Feeding South Island Robin (Petroica australis australis) from my hand

 

South Island Robin (Petroica australis australis)

South Island Robin (Petroica australis australis)

 

This behavior also creates excellent opportunities for some macro photography, something that is sometimes difficult to achieve with small birds. It is very rewarding to see all the tiny details in head feathers. At the end of the day I felt bad for leaving the bird alone in the forest. It really felt like there was someone else there with me. This is probably something that only people who work alone in the field can relate to.

Working together in the field to discover arthropods, me and my new buddy

 

I will probably write a post about the other NZ birds that I mentioned, or at least post some photos of them. But if you like birds, the best tip I can give you is – go to New Zealand. You’ll feel like you’re in heaven.

SIRobin7