Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Monday, June 30, 2008

THE BIG PAYOFF

There will be no more badmouthing the current administration on this blog. I just received my government check today--part of the "economic stimulus program," yet another brilliant solution to a sticky problem. As we all know, the U.S. economy is in the toilet because Americans don't buy enough crap. It's time now for all of us to lift together and engage in some good, intensive consumption. I'm typing at a computer that's a decade or so old--heresy, really. Maybe I'll get a new one. Or maybe I'll fill up my gas tank and drive up and down the Main Street. I'll have to think of something good, but I'd better do it quickly...the world needs me.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

ART OF THE MANGROVES

Life began in the sea and remained there for over 3 billion years. It's learned to thrive on land just as well, but occupying the intertidal zone, that strip between the two, continues to be a difficult trick, both ecologically and physiologically. Around a hundred species of tropical and subtropical trees have become specialized to exploit this zone, and diverse ecosystems have grown up around them. These trees are known as mangroves, and the systems they support are called mangrove swamps, mangrove forests, or mangals, and constitute one of earth's most critically threatened and under-appreciated ecosystems.

In an attempt to raise mangrove awareness (and hopefully a few $$ for mangrove conservation and research), I'm trying to get a traveling group show of mangrove art going. The initial response from museums has been overwhelmingly positive, and we're presently focussed on securing a lead venue. If you're a painter or sculptor who would be interested in submitting work for the jury, please comment on this post or drop me a line at carelbvk at gmail dot com, and get to work over the next year on some mangrove work. We want the show to represent the diversity of mangrove communities, so you're better off avoiding subjects like ibises (ibes?) and spoonbills, that have been done to death.Strictly speaking, around 45 species of trees in ten genera and five families constitute the true mangroves, but plants from over a dozen other families are usually lumped into the designation as well, including a palm, a screwpine and a sedge.

High salinity, fluctuating tides, silty soils that are low in oxygen and nutrients, and harsh sunlight combine to complicate living in the intertidal zone. Among the many adaptations evolved by mangrove trees to deal with these challenges include branching systems of stilt roots and pneumatophores or “breathing tubes” rising from under the ground. Roots and stems are highly impervious to salts, and some species have evolved special glands for excreting excess salts. Mangroves exhibit many different systems for storing gases and nutrients and many of them engage in photosensitive leaf movements to limit evaporation.

The greatest mangrove diversity is in Southeast Asia, but mangals are found in 114 countries, as far north as Japan, from Polynesia west through Asia to the Arabian Peninsula, and in coastal Africa as far north as Egypt and Mauritania. Mangroves are less diverse in the New World, but are well represented on both coasts of South and Central America. In the United States, mangroves occur only in Hawaii, where they were introduced and are considered pests, and in Florida and the southern Gulf Coast of Texas. Nearly half of the world's mangal area resides in five countries: Indonesia, Nigeria, Brazil, Mexico and Australia.


Mangroves' complex stilt root networks provide substrates for oysters, barnacles, bryozoans and other sessile animals, as well as shelter for many species of crustaceans and fishes, while above the surface, the forests provide habitat for birds, mammals and reptiles, including many species that are completely dependent on such habitats, like the endangered Proboscis Monkey (Nasalis larvatus – below). The roots strengthen and protect coastlines and act as sinks for heavy metals and other toxins. The direct relationship between mangrove removal and destruction from the 2004 tsunami was staggering. Humans have exploited mangals for thousands of years, harvesting oysters, crustaceans and fish for food, and wood for poles and fuel. With increased population, these uses have put greater pressure on the world's mangrove communities, but commercial activities are the biggest enemies of mangals, especially tourist and urban development, shrimp and rice farming, and salt mining, which have been responsible for most of the mangrove clearing of the past 50 years. Other threats include water and air pollution, rising sea levels, loss of coral reefs (corals interrupt wave action, creating quiet waters favored by mangroves), water redistribution, erosion and extreme weather.
Estimates for total global mangrove loss range from 35% to 55%, but good data are only available for the past 25 years. Between 1980 and 2000 total mangal area decreased by about 20%. Indonesia, Mexico, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Panama, Vietnam, Malaysia and Madagascar recorded the biggest losses, although Pakistan has curbed mangrove destruction dramatically in recent years, as have Singapore, Oman, Barbados, East Timor, Bangladesh, Ecuador, Liberia and Benin. Recent horticultural advancements have aided greatly in restoring mangals, and this promises to be an important area for future mangrove conservation.

_____________________
illustrations: upper: Plein air pencil sketch (1996) Rio del Rey estuary (Ndian River) SWP, Cameroon 9" x 6"
lower: DUSKY-GILLED MUDSKIPPERS (2008) acrylic 6" x 12"
All Photographs by CPBvK

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

AMPHIBIAN LARVAE: SALAMNDERS vs. TOADS, part i

Here are a couple of humble portraits of the tenants in my front-yard pond: Amphibian larvae! On May 6th of this year I collected 4 Woodhouse's Toad (Bufo woodhousii) tadpoles, and on June 16th I collected 6 Barred Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma mavortium) larvae. Today I broke down and photographed them for the first time (click on the photos to see them full-size). Above is one of the salamander larvae. While the tadpoles of most anuran species are herbivorous, most salamander larvae feed on arthropods, as do those of A. mavortium. A wide range of prey is captured, but arthropods more than 25% of the larva's bodylength are rarely taken. Prey species that rest on the substrate are preferred. The salamander typically approaches potential prey nonchalantly, then quickly opens its mouth and expands its throat, pulling in a large amount of water and, more often than not, the desired item. A. mavortium is the most common amphibian of my area, and I've raised hundreds of their larvae over the years. Around here, the eggs usually hatch in early May, releasing larvae about 8mm long. They grow very quickly, metamorphosing before winter. In just over a week, these fellows have increased their length by about 30%, reaching a current total length of about 5cm. What were barely visible limb buds have become mildly respectable little legs. The lovely, feathered gills grow in inverse proportion to the amount of oxygen dissolved in the water. Tiger Salamanders growing in richly-oxygenated waters develop stumpy, sorry-looking gills. By late September, they'll be about 5 inches long and their gills will be all but gone. Their greenish color will give way to a brownish-gray with small, darker spots, and they'll haul up onto land to bury themselves and hibernate. Adult Barred Tiger Salamanders are mostly terrestrial and fossorial. They emerge at night and during rainstorms to hunt arthropod prey. Upon emerging from hibernation in the spring, the adults enter ponds or still pools in rivers to breed.

These Woodhouse's Toads are the first members of their species I've kept. According to the literature, they occur in my area, but I've never seen them this far north, only their relative, B. boreas. These individuals were taken from the Beaver Dam Wash in southwestern Utah. Like other toad tadpoles, they feed on algae, often hanging inside tangles of Spirogyra to graze. These tadpoles have grown far more slowly than the salamanders, having added only a few mm in nearly two months. Today their total length is about 4cm. About 2 weeks ago, their hind limb buds began to sprout, and they're coming along nicely, even developing some barring. I'll do my best to post new photos of both species every Tuesday.
_____________________
Both photos by CPBvK, taken on June 24, 2008

Monday, June 23, 2008

ENGLISH SPARROW UPDATE


A couple of years ago I wrote about the North American introduction of English or "House" Sparrows (Passer domesticus) and a few of the ecological effects of that act. English Sparrows, especially fledglings, are far easier for predators to catch than any native bird, a fact that I believe is responsible for a number of behavioral changes I've noticed in other creatures, most notably American Kestrels (Falco sparverius). Here in Utah, kestrels living in human-altered ecosystems feed heavily on young English Sparrows in the summer, and tend in general to be much more ornithophagic than their wilderness-dwelling brethren.

I once saw a Raven (Corvus corax) fly down an English Sparrow, and imagine that could be common behavior in some situations. This morning I added another species to the list of species I've seen benefit from the little immigrants. An adult Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia) caught a fledgling English Sparrow on a suburban lawn and flitted over the rooftops with its prize.
_____________________
upper: AMERICAN KESTREL & ENGLISH SPARROW (2007) acrylic on illustration board 30" x 20"
lower: CRASH-BARRIER WALTZER--BLACK-BILLED MAGPIE (2005) acrylic on illustration board 30" x 22"

Friday, June 20, 2008

BAT APPRECIATION WEEK part ii

The same factors that keep the average schlemiel oblivious to the bats around him make it difficult for the odd interested party to study and understand them; they live in a world to which we are deaf and dumb. Before night vision goggles could amplify ambient light and bat detectors convert ultrasonic calls to audible frequencies, bat researchers were relegated to observing their subjects leaving or returning to their roosts and collecting droppings and food waste below. The data collected were added to somewhat random information gleaned from trapping individuals at night, and the rest of the picture was by necessity speculative. Some species like the Spotted Bat (Euderma maculatum – above) of the American Southwest, long considered very rare, are probably less rare than hard to observe (although this species is one of the few in the U.S. whose echolocation call is audible to human ears). The gap is slowly being bridged, but mystery still reigns when it comes to bat behavior. Unfortunately, this makes it hard to assess, address, or even perceive a crisis when it hits, and it's hard to say whether the current decline constitutes the beginning of a crisis or not, but something's going on.

Being mostly small and delicate, bats are especially vulnerable to stress, injury and infection. Insectivorous bats are often exposed to pesticides, many of which have endocrine-disrupting effects. Frugivorous bats can also be exposed to agricultural pesticides when they feed on human crops, and in such instances are often subject to more direct violence as well. Bats reproduce slowly; a single pup per season is the norm. Of course, habitat destruction can be devastating. For some social bats, a small piece of real estate can be crucial to a large population. Over much of their range, the Pteropus bats of Asia, Australasia and Madagascar are hunted for food or as crop pests, and typically shun areas where they're disturbed by humans. Today, large Pteropus colonies are restricted to remote regions or small, uninhabited islands, like Pulau Kalong, a flat, one-mile-square, mangrove-covered atoll west of the Indonesian island of Flores. Nearly a quarter-million P. vampyrus roost here during the day, leaving each evening to forage on adjacent islands (below). Besides removing roosting and hibernating sites, deforestation diminishes insect populations and stresses individuals.

In much of the northern hemisphere, safety/liability fanatics sealed many natural caverns and mine shafts during the last century, lots of them in such a way as to prevent the entry of bats, destroying important roosts and hibernacula. Such was the case with Ezell's cave, between Austin and San Antonio, where a large colony of Cave Myotis (Myotis velifer) were inadvertently excluded by a gate in the late 1950s. Without constant bat guano enriching the cave's subterranean lake, the water's ecology became impoverished, resulting in a decline of its top predator, the Texas Blind Salamander (Eurycea rathbuni), and its honor of being the first species listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Several attempts at reintroducing bats failed spectacularly, and no bats have taken the initiative to recolonize the place on their own, probably due to human activity in and around the cave. In fact, spelunkers have always been a bit of a scourge for bats, disturbing maternity and hibernating colonies. When aroused from hibernation, a bat's metabolic rate jumps, and when disturbed too many times it can starve to death. In recent years the caving community has begun to discourage its members from entering major roosts and hibernacula during crucial periods. It's difficult to establish the overall impact on a species when a colony abandons its digs, but human disturbance in caves appears to be a major factor in the decline of numerous species, including the endangered Gray Myotis (Myotis grisescens) and Indiana Myotis (M. soldalis).

Light pollution is another bat threat that's hard to quantify. Over most of the industrialized world, the night sky has changed remarkably. The effect this has had on nocturnal ecosystems is profound, but poorly understood. In the late '80s, a wooded area adjacent to my home was replaced with a well-lit supermarket. Over the next three years, the composition of nocturnal insect species in the area was completely rearranged. Exactly how these changes transmit to insects' predators isn't well understood, but important effects should be expected. A number of faster-flying bat species have learned to exploit streetlights and the insects they attract, while some other species seem to shun them.

Wind turbines have been vaunted as ecologically-friendly alternatives to coal-fired and nuclear power plants, but, as with any system, they have their down side, too. It's become apparent that in some situations, the frequency of bat collisions with these structures is far greater than chance would dictate. Of the 45 species of North American bats, 11 have been recorded as killed by wind turbines, none of them endangered. Of the recorded fatalities, over three-quarters belonged to three species: The Hoary Bat (Lasiurus cinereus), Eastern Red Bat (L. borealis) and Silver-haired Bat (Lasionycteris noctivagans). All three bats migrate long distances and roost in trees, Lasionycteris in tree cavities, and Lasiurus usually in foliage. More data are needed, but it appears that most bats are killed during the fall migration, and then mostly on still, overcast nights. To better understand the significance of this, let's look at the behavior of the best-known of these three species.


The beautiful Hoary Bat (above) is the most widespread, and over much of its range, the biggest bat in North America. Its sturdy foot-wide wingspan can carry it for amazing distances. It's the only bat to have successfully colonized the Hawaiian Islands, and it occurs on Bermuda and even Orkney Island, north of Scotland. A close relative was one of the few native mammals on the Galapagos, but it appears to have recently gone extinct. During the summer, males and females live separately, and many populations appear to consist solely of one sex, the females tending to concentrate in the east and the males in the west. A single female raises her pups each year in a group of spruce trees not far from my home. In September, migration and contact between the sexes begins, along with courtship behavior, including copulation and fighting between males. Hoaries may migrate singly or in flocks. Like many migrating birds, they seem to follow the Pacific coastline south, and it seems reasonable to expect migrating bats in general to follow shared flyways. The sexes live together during the winter, then separate for the spring migration. Females store sperm over the winter and ovulate in the spring, giving birth early in the summer. Lasiurus bats sport four mammaries instead of the normal two, and can give birth to as many as four, or in unusual cases, five, pups. The Hawaiian subspecies, L. c. semotus, is thought to have declined from habitat loss, and is listed as endangered by the U.S.D.I. The I.U.C.N. lists its status as indeterminate.

Courtship behavior probably has a lot to do with the huge spike of collisions during fall migration without a corresponding spike in the spring. Whether the increased mortality on overcast nights is related to increased migration activity or lower altitude of flight has yet to be established. Bats seem to be hit more frequently by turbines on tall towers, especially in wooded areas, but the available data are still rather poor. It is suspected that bats may be attempting to roost on turbines. Many fatalities seem not to result from a strike by the blade, but from rapid decompression from the vortex trailing behind it. At some sites, Mexican Free-tailed Bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) may be at special risk. Current research involving coating turbines with paint of varying UV reflectivity seems to indicate that a simple paint job could reduce mortality. As the nature of the problem becomes better understood, it seems likely that a safer wind farm regime can be devised.

In February 2006, a new and especially alarming bat threat was discovered. Bats in a hibernaculum near Albany, New York were found with a crust of white fungus on their face and wings. The fungus was originally identified as belonging to the genus Fusarium, a group primarily associated with plant disease, but including vertebrate pathogens as well. At the height of the Cold War, both the U.S. and Soviet Union conducted biological warfare research with Fusarium fungi. In 2008, it was determined to belong to another fungal family altogether, and was ascribed to the genus Geomyces. Last year, it was identified as a new species: G. destructans. By that time, White Nose Syndrome (WNS), as it has come to be known, had spread to most of the known hibernacula in New York, and into Vermont and Massachusetts. Mortality of affected bats at these sites has been 90 – 97%, but it is difficult to gauge how many, if any, survivors make it through the summer. Each year has seen a rapid geographic expansion of WNS; its westward spread has crossed the Mississippi and it has ventured as far south as Alabama. The latter fact is surprising, since the fungus only thrives in cool temperatures. Whether the fungus is the cause of a fatal disease or just an opportunist associated with an unidentified pathogen is also unknown. Afflicted bats exhibit radical behavior change, including increased winter activity. They often fly about the cave entrance, even leaving it to flutter about in broad daylight on a frigid winter day. Not surprisingly, necropsied bats have shown depleted fat stores. The disease could be directly responsible for this, or it could be the result of increased activity and inability to find food, or both. Is the activity caused by hunger or vice versa? It's possible that the pathogen interferes with the bats' ability to thermoregulate. In the winter of '06 -'07, an infected bat was taken into captivity, fed up, and released in spring, which suggests that it may be possible for bats to fight the infection if their condition is sufficiently raised. Some articles have blamed global warming, but there is no basis for this. Within the affected sites, all cave-hibernating species have been found to be affected, except the Big Brown Bat (Eptesicus fuscus) and the Eastern Small-footed Myotis (M. leibii). The latter species, listed by New York state as a species of special concern, hibernates in different sections of the hibernacula, and work is underway to establish if they are infected; it's assumed that they are. Important populations of the endangered Indiana Bat (M. sodalis) are also afflicted. Eighty-five percent of the known population of this bat hibernates in 7 caves. Some dead bats have been found without the fungus, and fungus has been collected from asymptomatic bats. In 2008, G. destructans was found on an otherwise asymptomatic Greater Mouse-eared Bat (Myotis myotis) in France, which raises many interesting questions. Preliminary findings suggest that immune functions of infected bats may be significantly impaired. Like Chytridiomycosis in frogs, White Nose Syndrome is a darkened room with far more questions than answers, and the potential of real ecological devastation. Disinfection and general behavioral guidelines (similar to the ones established in 2007 for Chytridiomycosis) are being hammered out for biologists and spelunkers. Nine universities and a number of state and federal wildlife and health agencies are involved in studying WNS, along with a number of independent researchers. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's Indiana Bat Recovery Team is overseeing distribution of funds.

According to the IUCN, nine bat species have recently gone extinct (six of them megachiropterans), 32 species (14 megachiropterans) are critical, 44 (9 megachiropterans) endangered and 172 (39 megachiropterans) vulnerable.
_____________________
Thanks to Laura Ellison
upper: SPOTTED BAT (2008) acrylic on illustration board 20" x 30"
middle: Pteropus vampyrum photo by CPBvK
lower: HOARY BAT (1993) acrylic on illustration board 17" x 12"

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

THREE CHEERS FOR CHIROPTERA part i

A good chunk of the past year's blog posts have covered the current global frog decline; still, I make no apologies. At the moment, anurans are crashing harder than any other animal group. But lest anyone infer that all is well in the rest of the animal kingdom, let's take a glimpse at another taxon, and what better direction to glimpse than toward the order Chiroptera, the bats? Few of us take notice of bats, but they're all around us. Aside from rodents, they are the biggest, most diverse mammal order, with over a thousand species and a nearly global distribution. They're only absent from a few small, remote islands and the polar regions, and they often occur in huge numbers. At over 100 million, the Mexican Free-tailed Bat (Tadarida brasiliensis) is one of the US' most plentiful mammals, despite being restricted to the southern third of the lower 48. Even so, bats' nocturnal habits and mostly small size and secretive nature keep them out of sight and, for most of us, mind. In temperate latitudes, bats are small, insectivorous creatures that devour many tons of insects every night, but as one moves toward the equator, they become far more diverse in form and behavior. In the tropics, they have evolved to feed on fish, birds, and other vertebrates—even on blood, as well as fruits and nectar. Many tropical plants, like the Merinthipodium neuranthum feeding a pair of Lonchophylla robustum in the painting above, are dependent on bat pollinators. Many fruits, including Africa and Madagascar's iconic baobabs (Adansonia spp.) rely on fruit-eating bats to disperse their seeds.

Bats' dainty structure makes them exquisitely adapted for flight, but poorly so for leaving fossil records, and bat evolution is not well understood. The oldest known bat fossils, from early Eocene deposits in both Europe and North America, are quite similar to modern forms and don't likely represent the order's roots. Modern bats fall into two large suborders. The Megachiroptera comprises the family Pteropididae, the fruit bats, a group restricted to the Old World, including the biggest bats, the flying foxes (Pteropus spp. - above), whose wings can span a meter and a half. In all, there are 42 megachiropteran genera with around 173 species. The remaining 17 bat families reside in the suborder Microchiroptera. It was long assumed that both groups were derived from a common ancestor, but a recent and controversial theory, based on similarities between megachiropteran and primate brains, proposes that the two bat groups evolved flight independently of each other, spurring a lively and continuing debate—and that's about as far as I care to wade into those shark-infested waters. Whatever their phylogenic trajectory, the first proto-bats probably evolved from tree-dwelling gliders similar to the modern Colugo (Cynocephalus volans - below) of Southeast Asia, probably bats' closest living relative.

The largest microchiropteran family is Vespertilionidae, the vesper bats. This family of 42 genera and about 355 species is distributed globally. Typically small insectivores, vesper bats include most temperate zone species. The genus Myotis, with around 100 species belongs to this family. Aside from Homo, it's the most widely-distributed terrestrial mammal genus, with representatives on every continent save Antarctica, and as far afield as Samoa.

The most diverse family, Phyllostomidae, is restricted to the New World. This group includes the tongue-feeding bats of the subfamily Glossophaginae, like our friends Lonchophylla up top. These nectar eaters are important pollination vectors for many plants, including the crucial Blue Agave (Agave tequilana), from which tequila is manufactured. Other notable phyllostomids include the three vampire bats (subfamily Desmodontidae), with three monotypic genera, and the carnivorous Vampyrum spectrum (below), the largest New World bat, indeed the largest microchiropteran.

The fabulous-looking Old World horseshoe bats (Rhinolophidae) include two of the biggest bat genera, Hipposideros and Rhinolophus (below), with 51 and 69 species, respectively.


The afore-mentioned Mexican Free-tailed Bat belongs to the Mastiff family, Mollosidae, with 16 genera and 86 species. The family, whose tails extend well beyond the interfemoral membrane or patagium, includes some of the most social mammals with colonies that can number in the millions.
The emballonurid, or sac-winged bats comprise 12 genera and 48 species, with pantropical distribution. Most members sport a glandular wing sac near each shoulder that secretes a strong-smelling, reddish fluid. The remaining twelve bat families are small ones, with less than ten species apiece. They include such favorites as the monotypic Craseonycteridae from Thailand, whose sole species, Craseonycteris thonlongyai, is possibly the world's smallest mammal, and the ditypic Noctilionidae, whose two Neotropical species (Noctilio leporinus is pictured above) are common throughout the American tropics, including the islands of the Caribbean, wherever there is still water. Remarkably specialized for catching small fish swimming near the water's surface, they eat little else and show no capacity to forage in any other way. These creatures' sensitive hearing can pinpoint the tiny ripples made by fish swimming near the surface surface by echolocation, then, dragging their long claws beneath them, they rake up their prey, eating it on the wing. The sight of one of these large bats fishing on a foot-and-a-half wingspan, its talons raking the glassy expanse of a moonlit blackwater lagoon, is not soon forgotten. There's our glimpse of general bat ecology and biogeography. The next post will address their current decline.
_____________________
upper: MARKEA NEURANTHA (1995) acrylic on illustration board 30" x 15" (note--this plant was re-designated as Merinthopodium neuranthum a couple of years after I painted and named this piece.
All photographs by CPBvK; Locations (in order): Maraonsetra, Madagascar; Nusa Tengara, Indonesia; Sarawak, Malaysia; Fortuna, Costa Rica; Flores, Indonesia
lower: FISHING BULLDOG BAT (1997) acrylic on illustration board 15" x 20"

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

INTERNATIONAL HORNBILL CONFERENCE


The 5th International Hornbill Conference will be held next March 22nd through 25th at the Botany Centre of the Singapore Botanical Gardens. It promises to be a great opportunity to learn more about what are, let's face it, the coolest of all birds. Alan Kemp, author of the great Oxford book, The Hornbills, and Pilai Poonswad, director of the Hornbill Research Foundation at Mahidol University in Bangkok, will be the keynote speakers. A website for the conference is in the works, and I promise to link to it once it's up. Registration for international participants is S$650, or S$500 (about US$365 at the moment) before the end of December. Got to start saving my pennies.
BAR-POUCHED WREATHED HORNBILLS (1996) acrylic on illustration board 30" x 20" collection of Pacific Securities, Taipei, Taiwan
"Like all but two of the 54 hornbill species, the female Bar-pouched Wreathed Hornbill (Aceros undulatus) walls herself into a tree cavity prior to egg laying. This species, which ranges from Bengal to Bali, has a particularly long nesting period; the female can spend 130 days or more confined in her cell. During this time the male busies himself collecting fruits for his mate and growing offspring, to whom the food is delivered through a small aperture. In this painting the female has just emerged from the nest to stretch in the sunlight while the single youngster peers from the cavity onto its newly expanded universe. Interestingly, Asian hornbills of both sexes in their first plumage resemble adult males, rather than females. As far as I know, they are unique among birds in this respect"

Friday, June 13, 2008

ART OF THE ANIMAL KINGDOM


Tomorrow the thirteenth annual Art of the Animal Kingdom exhibition will open at the Bennington Center for the Arts in Bennington, Vermont. It will include just over 80 flatworks and sculptures depicting both wild and domestic animals. The exhibition was juried by John Seerey-Lester, who is this year's featured artist. John will give a lecture at the museum tomorrow at 11:00am. The show continues through July 27th.
_____________________
illustration: SPRAWL--OUSTALET'S CHAMELEON (2007) acrylic on illustration board 18" x 24"

Thursday, June 12, 2008

WHAT DO FISH EAGLES EAT, ANWAY?

video My recent post about sea eagles started a couple of conversations about the dietary preferences of those birds and their possible use in falconry. Steve Bodio, proprietor at Querencia and an experienced falconer with an unhealthy fascination with flying eagles at game, suggested that a Steller's Sea Eagle might be flown at Canada Geese (a friend of his once flew a Bald Eagle at jackrabbits with regular success). The thought was interesting to me, even though my limited experience with sea eagles has left a distinct impression of languor. For many years, a population of Bald Eagles has wintered in the desert of western Utah, feeding largely on jackrabbits, and according to the literature, Balds capture ducks quite frequently, especially in the southeastern U.S. In the late 19th century, the great ornithologist William Brewster described Bald Eagles in Virginia capturing geese in flight. Surprising as this may sound, it's hard judge the speed of an eagle. They appear slow because they move fewer body lengths per second than a smaller bird, but watching a pair of Goldens stoop at your Peregrine makes any unmerited disrespect suddenly dissolve. This said, it's still hard for me to shake my old attitudes toward the genus Haliaeëtus.
Last week a friend emailed me a series of seven photographs taken by Tom Carver from British Columbia showing an Adult Bald Eagle striking a full-grown Trumpeter Swan. I strung them together into the video clip above to facilitate comparison. It's hard to tell for sure whether it's a case of attempted predation or mere bullying, but I'm inclined to interpret it as the former. The first photo is clearly unrelated to the rest, and serves only as an introduction. The second shot shows the eagle hitting the swan's rump, possibly without much height advantage. The original narration said the swan then dropped straight into the water below, but the photos show the eagle quickly gaining altitude, presumably to continue the chase. According to the narration, the swan landed on the water and the pursuit ended, which makes me suspect the eagle wasn't terribly serious.

I'm pleased to have seen these photos and had my prejudices shaken a bit. Clearly, sea eagles are capable of a range of behaviors, and can wax raptorial with the best of them when it strikes their fancy. Still, I keep coming back to visions of the only sort of Bald Eagle predation I've witnessed, typified by this photo I took earlier this year, of Bald Eagles feasting on cow placenta.
____________________
UPPER: Photographs by Tom Carver of Terrace, BC; Thanks to Anne Schneidervin
LOWER: Photo by CPBvK