Incredible Condo-Building Weavers

May 21, 2013 by  
Filed under Features

Well known for their nest-building abilities, weavers (Ploceidae) are small passerine birds with the majority of the family’s 117 species found in sub-Saharan Africa, and smaller numbers making their homes in tropical Asia. While there are some exceptions, weaver species are very sociable and generally breed in colonies. Sparrow Weavers in Africa are known to build large condominium-style nests with between one and three hundred breeding pairs sharing one structure in which each pair has its own chamber with narrow entrances facing downward. Other species, such as the Lesser Masked Weavers, may build their nests as individual structures, but will nevertheless be found in groups, sometimes with more than one nest dangling from a branch.

Closely related to finches, weavers are sometimes referred to as weaver finches and get their name from the manner in which they build their nests. Thought to be the most elaborate nest-building technique of any bird, weavers use locally available materials such as grass, twigs and fibrous leaves, to weave their nests. Some of the species strip fibrous leaves into fine strands to weave a nest together that will withstand all types of weather, but others are not quite so fussy and will build untidy looking nests which are deceptively strong. They tend to build their colonies near water and they are a common sight hanging from willow trees alongside streams and lakes in Africa. Social weavers, found in Namibia, Botswana and South Africa, build some of the largest colonies of nests in trees and on power lines or other structures. These colonies will house several generations of birds at the same time, and in addition to the protection factor of a large group against predators, these large colonial nests offer protection from the extreme temperatures often experienced in Africa.

Primarily seed eaters, some weaver species are considered by farmers to be pests as they damage crops. The Red-billed Quelea falls into this category. With an adult breeding population estimated at 1.5 billion pairs (with some studies suggesting the overall population is 10 billion birds) found only in sub-Saharan Africa, the Red-billed Quelea is the world’s most abundant wild bird species. In colonies of thousands to millions of breeding pairs, these weavers can decimate a farmer’s field in a matter of hours.

Black-throated Robin Rediscovered in China

December 20, 2011 by  
Filed under Birding Tips

The Black-throated Robin (Luscinia obscura ), also referred to as the Black-throated Blue Robin, or simply the Blackthroat, is a species in the Muscicapidae family of small passerine birds found mainly in the Old World – Europe, Asia and Africa. Primarily due to decimation of its preferred habitat of bamboo thickets and high altitude coniferous forest, this elusive little bird has become quite a rare sight in recent decades. So when a team of Swedish and Chinese researchers discovered a community of breeding Blackthroats in the Qinling Mountains of north-central China’s Shaanxi province, it was a newsworthy event.

With their distinctive song consisting of short, sharp, varied strophes including harsh notes and whistles, seven singing males were counted in Foping Nature Reserve, with another seven observed in the Changqing National Nature Reserve. Being the more vocal of the sexes, males are easier to find, and it is considered to be almost certain that each male has a mate. The majority of the birds were seen in bamboo thickets and coniferous-broadleaf forests at an altitude of around 2400 to 2500 meters above sea level. Recordings have been made of the Blackthroat’s song, which will made identification easier in the future.

Resembling a European Robin Erithacus rubecula in size and general shape, the Blackthroat male has a jet-black throat and breast, and while it is believed that the female has a light-brown throat and breast, this has not been confirmed. They were first recorded in the late 19th century, and between the time of first being observed and into the early 20th century, ten of these birds were collected during their breeding season of May to August, in two different localities in China’s Shaanxi and Gansu provinces. Subsequent Blackthoat sightings include unconfirmed records from China’s Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, as well as a few birds spotted in captivity at markets. The most recent reported sighting of a Blackthroat was at the Sichuan University campus in May 2011, with reports of a Blackthroat being captured in Thailand during the winter months, which is a possible migration destination or stop-over point.

Young Penguins Fitted with Monitors

July 19, 2011 by  
Filed under News

The African Penguin, also referred to as the Jackass Penguin, might be a little awkward on land, but can definitely hold its own in the water as a very efficient hunter. Tourists who visit Cape Town, South Africa, and see the beauty of these birds do not realize that they are actually witnessing a very rare moment, as the population of these birds has decreased from approximately four million in the 1900s. The last census done by the Southern African Foundation of the Conservation of Coastal Birds in 2010 counted only sixty thousand. This alarming decrease has led to the creation of a new project to protect these valuable birds.

Humans, as the story usually goes, had a great influence in the reduction of numbers of African Penguins, as up until the 1960s the penguin eggs were being harvested for human consumption. Another factor was the harvesting of guano that was used as fertilizer, but is crucial for adult penguins, as they use the hardened guano to make nest burrows. To add to the penguins’ problems, oil spills and over harvesting of anchovies and other fish species that are a part of their diet has made their fight for survival even harder.

Scientists want to try and create artificial hatcheries to assist in the breeding of African Penguins for release, but to recreate the hatcheries efficiently, it is vital for them to have the correct information to understand the penguins better. In order to do this they have attached a transmitter, which is approximately the size of a matchbox, to baby penguins that are about ten weeks of age. The penguins are first placed in a pool so they can get used to swimming with the transmitter and then released into the ocean. One penguin has already been released, and a penguin named Richie is due for release. Scientists will be releasing approximately five penguins with transmitters.

Dr Richard Sherley, a key member of the scientific team from the University of Cape Town, commented that he hoped that the data collected would allow them to understand what influences breeding colonies in the choices they make and the early life of a penguin, as these questions have not been answered as yet. Lucy, which was the first penguin to be released, has already transmitted back data, which showed scientists that young penguins are able to swim approximately twenty-eight miles in one day. Sherley commented that because no-one really knows much about the early days and life of young penguins, it is crucial for them to collect this data to assist in their conservation projects. The transmitters will eventually fall off of the penguins, but it is hoped that by then enough information has been gathered to assist scientists in finding the ideal breeding site for a colony that can be protected and will be the site of the hatchery.

Nightingale’s Journey Provides Valuable Migratory Information

July 20, 2010 by  
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While being fairly nondescript in appearance, the nightingale is legendary for its amazing singing ability, which can often be heard at night, as well as in daylight hours. The name nightingale literally means ‘night songstress’ revealing the misconception early writers had that it is the female that produces the complex range of trills, whistles and gurgles, when in fact it is the male. It has long puzzled researchers as to where exactly in Africa these migratory birds spent the northern hemisphere’s winter months. Now thanks to technological advances, it has been possible for scientists in Norfolk to track a single nightingale’s 3,000 mile migratory journey, thereby providing invaluable information that will hopefully assist in halting the decline in numbers of this fascinating bird.

In April 2009, scientists from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) captured a male nightingale near Methwold Hythe in Norfolk and fitted it with a geolocator – a tiny device for tracking the bird’s position. This new technology has proven to be vastly superior in providing accurate information as compared to the method of ringing birds which has been used for decades prior to this. The information gathered helps scientist not only to examine threats to the wellbeing of breeding birds in their home territory, but also to evaluate whether migratory destinations of the birds are impacting negatively on their numbers.

Codenamed OAD, the nightingale left its home territory in Norfolk on July 25, 2009, arriving in southern France in mid-August. By September, OAD had arrived in northern Morocco, where it remained for around three weeks. The nightingale continued on to the Western Sahara, where it appeared to stop for a while before continuing to Senegal in November, and from there to Guinea Bissau where it remained until returning to Norfolk in February 2010. Due to the locator failing, the exact route of the return journey is not known, nevertheless it was captured by researchers about 50 yards from the spot where it was initially found in April 2009.

No doubt, the information gleaned from OAD’s epic journey will be of great value to BTO as they continue their work of understanding the pressures faced by birds migrating to Africa.

African Fish Eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer)

February 9, 2009 by  
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The African Fish Eagle or as it is scientifically known, Haliaeetus vocifer, can be seen throughout Southern Africa and is known by many varieties of names, in many languages. This includes the River eagle, Aigle pecheur, Pygargue vocifer, Afrikaanse visarend and so on. This fairly large bird is related to the North American Bald Eagle and can be easily identified by the distinct black, brown body and white head and tail. The length of the African Fish Eagle varies between 63 and 75 cm.

The Fish Eagles habitat is limited to mainly lakes, large rivers, pans and dams with surrounding trees for it to perch on. They can also be found near estuaries and coastal lagoons but are rarely spotted in the southwestern parts of Africa and areas on the eastern part of Somalia because the land is so arid. The African Fish Eagle makes its nest out of large piles of sticks, 30 to 60 cm deep and 120 to 180 cm in diameter. The nest is built usually near water at the fork of a tree, sometimes on a cliff ledge or on a steep slope on a low slope.

The beautiful and distinct call of the African Fish Eagle is synonymous with the sound of Africa and is very similar to the American Bald Eagle. There are two specific calls, the one is in flight and the other is when it is perched. When the male fish eagle nears the nest it makes a kind of mellow ‘quock’ sound where as the female has a more of a shriller sound.

The African Fish Eagle pairs up whether it is in or out of mating season, which goes from March to September. The pairs even go as far as sharing any kills that they make between the two of them. The African Fish Eagle is known as a kleptoparasite, which means that it will steal prey from another bird, like the Goliath Heron who loses a lot of its catch to Fish Eagles. They will also take advantage of nesting water birds for their eggs and young.

The main diet of the Fish Eagle is fish that they catch and occasionally when it is dead. They can catch a fish that weighs up to 1 kg in weight and now and again up to 3 kg’s. If the fish weighs more then two and a half kilograms the eagle will not carry it in flight but will plane it along the waters surface to shore. Fish eagles mainly catch lungfish and catfish and in some places will feed off flamingos and other water birds if the occasion presents itself. It has been known to eat dead animals and on very rare occasions they will even feed off monkeys, insects, frogs, dassies and so on. The hunt begins when the eagle leaves its perch to stoop and catch its prey with its feet about 15 cm from the waters surface. It’s not often that the African Fish Eagle will catch prey in the sky or submerge itself in the water.

Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis)

February 9, 2009 by  
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The Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis) is approximately 17 inches in length, with both sexes looking similar. They are predominantly white in color, with short, dull orange, pointed bills. In some rare instances, some adult birds might have deep red legs and bills, opposed to the dull yellow or orange that is generally found. Today, these birds are located world wide, but originated from Africa. It is suggested that they moved over the Atlantic ocean, from the African continent, and began a slow advance over areas such as South and North America, until they reached places like Argentina and Canada. Their migration over the world is so great, that they sometimes outnumber the native herons that are resident to a certain area.

Egrets spend their days in the company of cows, cattle herds or any livestock for that matter, relaxing and feeding in the wet pastures. They are constantly on the lookout for any beetles, grasshoppers or edible insects that are disturbed by the cow’s grazing. If the ground does not bring in enough food, they simply hop onto the backs of the cows’ and take a quiet tour around the field while searching for flies and ticks. After a days work, the Cattle Egret will fly up to the roosting accommodations to rest. They are also known to be birds of routine having daily routes which they follow. Egrets are commonly found amongst herons, and they are able to adapt to aquatic vegetation if cattle are not around.

Cattle Egrets nest in trees that are close to rivers or water, or wherever they are able to find vegetation to support their nests. Males will establish a territory, and then start with elaborate dances to attract a suitable female. Once a pair has been established, they head to a second location to build their nest together. Nest building is undertaken in a frenzied manner, with the male usually bringing the materials and the female doing the building. Materials are sometimes stolen from the neighbors, if their nest is left unattended. Nests are built in big colonies that include different species. The light blue eggs are laid with intervals of two days, and number between 3 to 4. Once all the eggs are laid, the male turns his attention to the nest. Both parents assist in the 24 day incubation period, and often need to shelter the eggs from the sun with their wings. Chicks will beg aggressively for food, but for chicks to kill each other is extremely uncommon. Adults will sometimes adopt other chicks if they are less than 14 days old. It takes between 14 to 21 days for the chicks to complete their growth, and although they are now able to leave the nest, they still remain close to their parents. It takes a complete 60 days for the Cattle Egret chicks to be able to fly and forage for themselves.

Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus)

February 9, 2009 by  
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The Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) is a medium-sized bird that averages between 32 to 37 centimeters in length. The males have solid gray coloring over their heads, neck and wings. Their bellies are white with gray to black stripes, dark gray tail feathers and black eyes. Bills are pointed and black of color. The female Cuckoo resembles the males, but with morphed brown coloring. The Common Cuckoo is a migratory bird and is seen across Europe, including Britain, as well as Japan and China, and migrates to Africa during the winter months. It adapts easily to live in cultivated areas, on the edges of dense forests, open country, marshes and coastal areas.

The Cuckoo has a wingspan of approximately 71 to 76 centimeters and has an extremely distinctive low flight. They fly with rapid ing beats and are very swift in flight. Their flight pattern bears a resemblance to that of raptors, with the exception that the Cuckoo has much weaker strokes and does not glide after a series of beats.

The preferred food of the Common Cuckoo includes a diet of hairy caterpillars, larvae and insects. Not being too fussy, they will also eat beetles, crickets and dragonflies, and have in some instances also been seen eating eggs and songbird nestlings. The female Cuckoo is not the best parent, to say the least. They are not interested in parenthood at all. She can lay in the region of eight to twenty five eggs, and the eggs can vary in color. Sometimes the eggs are brown with markings of lilac, gray, black and red-brown. At times eggs can be green, blue or red, with markings. This enables the Cuckoo to secretly lay an egg in another nest. Not all of the Cuckoo species find host parents for their eggs. The Common Cuckoo will find a species with similar eggs to her own and when the host parents are not in sight, she will lay her eggs amongst the eggs already in the nest. The host parents, not realizing anything is amiss, will complete the 11 to 13 day incubation period and rear the chicks until they are ready to fledge the nest. The female Cuckoo will never return or revisit her chick. Most of the time, the Common Cuckoo chick will be bigger in size than host parents, putting strain on the parents to feed the intruder.

Although the Common Cuckoo is a very wide-spread species and difficult to monitor, it is believed to be plentiful and is not threatened by extinction.

Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus rubber)

February 9, 2009 by  
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The Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus rubber) can be found in North and South America, Asia, across Europe and in Africa. Standing at approximately five feet, the Flamingo, ranks amongs the tallest birds on the planet. Their distinctive pink plumage, large bodies and long pale pink legs make them unique. The beak of the Greater Flamingo is shaped at 45 degrees, is light of color with a black tip and assists them in filtration and pumping while they feed. Interestingly enough, the Greater Flamingo’s coloring is a result of the crustaceans that they eat. Flamingos that are housed in zoos are given dyes such as flamen oil or a beta-keratin coloring additive to ensure that they do not lose their coloring. Male and female Flamingo’s are similar, with the males being taller.

The Flamingo has webbed feet and an extremely long neck. Having webbed feet allows them to swim, but most importantly it helps them stir up organisms such as algae, diatoms, protozoa and insect larvae on which they feed. Flamingos also eat worms, crustaceans  and mollusks. The feeding process of the Greater Flamingo is very specialized. Flamingos will spend most of their day with their heads bent down, filtering water through their beaks. Their beaks contain a lamellae, which is a sieve-like structure, that is thin and can be described as a comb. Their fleshy tongues are used to suck water in the beak and then force it back out again. The bolus of food that is nearly dry after the water is forced from their beaks, goes to the back of their mouths and is swallowed simultaneously with the next water intake. The Greater Flamingos feed in large groups as this ensures safety by numbers when they have their heads down. Big flocks can also create a lot of noise, and when they are not feeding they flap their wings, preen themselves or stand in beautiful postures. Flight and migration takes place at night, and during flight Flamingos have both their legs and necks outstretched.

Flamingos are filter feeders, and are therefore found by lakes and lagoons, or watery areas that have the right water depth and mud to sustain the flamingos’ feeding process. They will only breed when they are in large numbers, and even though some build new nests, it is known that many use the same nest each year. Breeding takes place during March and July and the birds generally form a pair bond that is long term. Flamingos will built their nests on the waters edge from mud, and it is approximately 35 to 40 centimeters in diameter and 25 centimeters high. The female will lay only one egg that is white in color with a red yolk. Both parents take care of the egg that has a 28 to 32 day incubation period. Chicks are gray in color with a pink bill. The chicks are able to leave the nest after a few days, and parents will only feed their own chick. For 4 to 6 weeks, the chicks will be fed by their parents, and fledge the nest at three months. Fledglings will group together and only reach full size between the ages of 1 to 2 years. Adult plumage is only acquired during the ages of 2 to 4 years, and the long maturing process is suggested to relate to the long life span of the Flamingo. The Greater Flamingo can live to between 25 to 60 years of age.

House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

February 9, 2009 by  
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The House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) is known the world over for its gregarious, lively behavior. A master of adaptation and great opportunist, this remarkable little bird has gone on to colonize countries the world over. Despite its longstanding relationship with urban man, House Sparrows have sadly been declining in numbers even being added to the Red List in the UK.

A renowned silhouette, the House Sparrow measures in at 4.25 inches in length. Its thick conical bill is ideally suited to the sparrow’s seed diet. Males differ greatly from females and can be identified by their gray crown, black mask, breast and throat, rusty upperparts and nape, with black streaks on the back, gray rump and white on the wing. During the summer the male House Sparrow’s bill is black, but changes to a yellowish color in winter. Female and immature House Sparrows have a gray-brown crown, gray-white underparts, tawny and black streaks along the back, black wings with a white patch and a yellow bill. House Sparrows are typically seen in large flocks oftentimes with other bird species. The bird calls of these lovely little sparrows can be heard year round and are made up of chirrups and cheep sounds.

House Sparrows are actually native to Britain, through northern Scandinavia and Siberia, across northern Africa, India, Burma and into Arabia. This species was introduced into the Americas, southern Africa, New Zealand and Australia, where they have gone on to breed and live successfully. Wherever people are, there you will find House Sparrows. Whether it is in agricultural lands or mankind’s urban sprawl, House Sparrows can be seen taking advantage of any opportunity for a tasty meal.

House Sparrows breed well, raising 2 to 3 broods annually. Each clutch consists of 3 to 7 eggs laid in nests safely built in trees, under eaves or in creepers. Incubation of the eggs lasts 10 to 13 days and the young House Sparrows fledge in 14 to 17 days. During winter, House Sparrows are known to roost in groups.

So what is causing the decline in House Sparrow numbers? Some believe it could be the frequent use of garden pesticides, killing insects which serve as food for newly hatched sparrows. Others say it could be caused by less chickens in back yards and on farms, thereby reducing food availability. On the other hand it could just be a lack of consideration and care on the part of mankind. Why not do your bit in caring for these marvelous little creatures by keeping your bird feeder and water dish full.

Little Stint (Calidris minuta)

February 9, 2009 by  
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The Little Stint (Calidris minuta) is located throughout Europe and Africa, and is generally found in areas that have water sources. It prefers mudflats, beaches, estuaries, island tundra and coastal tundra. This 13 to 18 centimeter little wader bird is part of the Sandpiper family and is a rusty brown color over its breast, face and neck, with spots of black. Its back and wings are scale-brown and it has a white belly. The back also has an extremely distinctive white “V” when the bird is in flight. Both sexes look similar and in winter the adult Stint changes in color to gray-brown streaks and dull brown wings and upper body parts. The Stint has black eyes and a dagger-like bill. This little bird only weighs a mere 23 grams and has a wingspan of about 28 to 30 centimeters. Flight is very swift, with extremely rapid wing beats.

There is sometimes a little confusion when identifying the Little Stints amongst the other wader birds. It is therefore important to take extra care in noticing the plumage pattern on the wings, coloring and being aware of the little hind toe that is visible on the Little Stints’ feet. Birds such as Sanderlings are generally paler in color and larger in size, while Timmincks’ Stints have yellow-green coloring on their legs. This wader bird feeds mostly on insects but will also feed on mollusks and crustaceans. Being a migratory bird, the Little Stint will migrate to Asia and Africa during the cold, winter months.

During the bird breeding season, nests will be constructed from a ground scraping, and is lined with dwarf birch leaves and willow. The female Stint will lay between three to five eggs, which are either olive green or yellow in color and have red-brown spots on the shell. Both the male and female will be active in the 21 to 23 day incubation period. It is not unusual for the Little Stint to incubate two nests at the same time. After the chicks have hatched, it takes approximately fifteen to eighteen days for the young chicks to learn to fly, and fledge the nest.

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