Tag Archives: creature feature

10 Amazing Things about Ospreys

I think ospreys are amazing birds and love to watch them dive into a body of water and come up with a giant fish. I am always amazed when they lift off from the water and fly off, carrying a fish with their sharp talons. Did you notice the fish is always facing the same way as the osprey? What must that fish be thinking!

Let’s look at these interesting birds and see what we can learn.

An osprey eating a fish

An osprey eating a fish

1. Ospreys are often called fish hawks or fish eagles and it’s easy to see why when you watch them for any length of time. They eat a lot of fish! And are very skillful hunters–catching fish about 50-80% of the time. 99% of their diet is fish. The rest might be animals such as small reptiles and amphibians, rodents, small birds and rabbits.

osp2-10572. Ospreys are found on every continent except Antarctica.

3. Ospreys are 21-23 inches long with a wingspan of 5.9 feet.

osp2-15134. Like owls, ospreys have two toes facing forward and two toes facing backwards, rather than the 3 and 1 arrangement of most other birds. This allow them to snag their prey in water and then hold it in flight.

5 Another interesting thing about their feet is that their talons have backward facing scales that act like the barbs on a fish hook. These help the osprey hold the wiggly fish in flight.

6. Ospreys will catch their prey and then move to a safe place to feed–this might be a pole, tree top, branch, roof, etc.

An osprey on a nesting platform

An osprey on a nesting platform

7. Ospreys build nests at the top of dead trees, though they will readily build a nest on human-made structures such as utility poles, artificial platforms, and other structures.  Females lay 2-4 eggs and then incubate them for 5 weeks.

8. Chicks do not hatch all at once and the first one out has the greatest chance for survival. Both the male and the female take part in the raising of the chicks.

They don't seem all that fussy about where they nest

They don’t seem all that fussy about where they nest

9. Can you imagine learning to fly if you’re and osprey? Have you ever seen their nests? They are SO HIGH up! The chicks have never flown before, but must take off on their own and hope for a good flight. They learn to fly when they are 7-8 weeks old.

A crow chases an osprey that has a fish

A crow chases an osprey that has a fish

10. Ospreys are long-lived birds, able to live more than 20 years. However, most live between 7-10 years in the wild.

An osprey dives into the water to snag a fish

An osprey dives into the water to snag a fish

A crow in hot pursuit!

A crow in hot pursuit!

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10 Things You May Not Know about White Pelicans

puzz-1149White pelicans in a large group soaring through the sky is a pretty amazing sight. They seem like they never have to flap their wings at all, just riding the thermals, high above the earth. There is so much about them that is interesting… so let’s get started.

1. First off, white pelicans have one of the largest wingspans of any North American bird. At 9 feet, this is impressive!

puzz-97732. You can probably guess that white pelicans eat fish, but did you know that they sometimes work together to herd fish to more shallow water where they can feast on them more easily?

3. From the time an egg hatches til the chick leaves the nest and becomes independent, the parents provide roughly 150 POUNDS of food!

4. White pelicans are pretty accomplished thieves, stealing from other pelicans and cormorants so they don’t have to do the work themselves.

Notice the odd growth on the top of the bill

Notice the odd growth on the top of the bill

5. Have you ever looked closely at a pelican and noticed an odd projection on its bill? When I was in Kansas last winter, it seemed like all of the white pelicans we were seeing had this weird bump on the upper mandible near the tip of the bill. I wondered about it, thinking it was some kind of genetic deformity. After all, I had seen white pelicans before that did not have this hump. But research showed that they have this odd bump during the breeding season–apparently, it makes them more attractive to prospective mates! Go figure. Interestingly, this is called a nuptial tubercle and it will fall off after the breeding season.

6. White pelicans breed on islands in shallow wetlands with many other birds, including other white pelicans and also cormorants. puzz-9798

7. Unlike brown pelicans that fly high above the water and then dive down into the water to catch their prey, white pelicans get their food by feeding from the water surface, dipping their beaks into the water to snag fish and other aquatic animals.

When they are in the water you don't see their black-lined wings

When they are in the water you don’t see their black-lined wings

8. White pelicans are one of the heaviest flying birds in the world. An average white pelican weighs between 7 – 20 pounds.

9. Females lay 1-3 eggs in a slight depression in the ground. Both the male and female will incubate the eggs–not the way other birds do, but with their giant orange feet! Eggs hatch in about a month and usually, only one will survive to leave the nest. Chicks leave the nest–fledge–when they are about 10 weeks old.

10. Except for the fact that males are slightly larger than females, the two appear identical.

A flock of white pelicans high above

A flock of white pelicans high above

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10 Things You May Not Know about Swallow-tailed Kites

Last week’s puzzler was a swallow-tailed kite–a bird I suspect some readers may never have seen or even heard of. That’s because it is not common in most of the United States.

kite-2562Have you ever had the pleasure of watching a swallow-tailed kite soar in the sky above you? It is quite a sight to see as these beautiful birds are so graceful.

Let’s look at a few interesting things about these birds:

  1. Before 1900 these birds could be found in 21 states, their range extending from Florida and the Gulf Coast states all the way up to Minnesota. These days you can find them in only a handful of  states– Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, Texas and Florida. Their range also includes Central and South America and the west Indies.
  2. Some swallow-tailed kites spend summers breeding in North America and then migrate to northern South America. Florida has the highest population of kites and you can see them there only from March-September.
  3. Swallow-tailed kites are the largest species of kite in America. They can be 19-24 inches long, which includes their forked tail that is 12-15 inches long. They have a wingspan of 50 inches.
  4. dragon-Swallow-tailed kites eat almost all of their food on the wing. Have you ever watched a dragonfly in flight? If so then you know what amazing flyers they are, twisting and turning and darting about so quickly that it’s hard to imagine anything ever being able to catch them. But swallow-tailed kites do! They chase them and then snag them in mid-air! (the same way dragonflies catch their prey!) Also on their menu are butterflies, beetles,bees, wasps, other insects, frogs, lizards, snakes, small birds and less often, bats, fruit and small fish.
  5. They also drink while they are flying! To do this they glide low above the body of water and open their beaks.
  6. They build nests high in dead trees–often a 100 feet from the ground! They often nest in loose colonies with other kites, usually by water.
  7. Both males and females incubate and feed the growing babies. Their incubation is 28-30 days–a long time if you’re a bird used to soaring through the sky! Chicks leave the nest to take their first flight at around 40 days after hatching.
  8. Have you ever heard of obligate siblicide? Me either, but in studying this bird I came across this term. Many females lay two eggs. The one that hatches first often kills the other one so it can have all of the food and attention from its parents. Talk about extreme! But in nature, it’s just another adaptation that equals success.
  9. Two swallow-tailed kites mating

    Two swallow-tailed kites mating

    Mating for kites (and many other birds) is a SUPER QUICK affair! I was in Florida a couple of years ago in early spring and was watching some swallow-tailed kites wheel around in the sky. All of a sudden one landed on the top of a very tall dead tree, then another quickly landed there too–on top of the first one! They were together for less than 30 seconds, and then both flew off. A bit later a kite flew overhead with a stick, obviously ready to build a nest. Talk about a quick courtship!

  10. Males and females look similar.
    A kite with nesting material

    A kite with nesting material

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10 Things You May Not Know about Damselflies

If you’re saying, “Damselfly? What the heck is a damselfly?”…read on!

Recently I featured a damselfly nymph as one of my Weekly Puzzlers. If you don’t know much about this insect, here’s your chance to learn a bit more! (Continue all the way to the end to watch some fabulous videos)

A damselfly covered in dew

A damselfly covered in dew

Many people who see a damselfly think it is just a little dragonfly, but this is not true. The two ARE related, in that they both belong to the order Odonata, meaning “toothed ones.” In this order there are 5000+ different species, with roughly a third of them being damselflies. Both have an extendable hinged lower lip called a labium that they can shoot out like a dart to grab unsuspecting prey.

Eyes of a damselfly do not touch

Eyes of a damselfly do not touch

Here’s how you can tell the two apart:

First, damselflies are smaller and more delicate-looking– less stocky–and they fly less swiftly.

Second, when at rest most damselflies hold their wings above their bodies rather than spread out to the sides, as do dragonflies.

Lastly, the eyes of dragonflies meet on the tops of their heads –in damselflies they are widely spread and not touching.

A dragonfly's eyes touch in the middle

A dragonfly’s eyes touch in the middle

Here are some facts about damselflies:

1. They have been on earth for more than 300 million years! That’s a long time. Wow, what a successful group of insects! They were here long before the birds. Some Odonata had a wingspan of 30 inches–as big as a hawk!

A damselfly snags a fly!

A damselfly snags a fly!

2. Like their bigger cousins, damselflies are FABULOUS hunters, both as nymphs and adults. As adults, they grab prey in mid-air, using their legs like a basket to catch it. In the water, as nymphs, they are also fierce predators, catching other aquatic invertebrates like mosquito larva, mayfly nymphs and isopods.

3. Just like dragonflies, they cannot walk with their 6 legs. Instead they use them for catching prey and for perching when at rest. If you look closely at their legs you will notice they are covered with small, sharp-looking bristles. These help in trapping prey in mid-air.

A damselfly

Notice the bristles on the legs of this damselfly

4. Damselflies are found throughout the world, everywhere except Antarctica. And, they can be found in just about every color of the rainbow, from turquoise, blue, green, purple, brown and gold. Which color is your favorite?

Wow, a purple damselfly! Temperature and light can make their colors fade.

Wow, a purple damselfly! Temperature and light can make their colors fade.

5. Both males and females have a long abdomen with 10 segments. Both also have clasping organs at the ends of their abdomen. Have you ever been kayaking or fishing and seen two damselflies locked together and flying around? Ever wondered about this? Yes, damselfly mating is quite interesting, especially for the female. First, the male clasps her behind the head with special claspers at the end of his abdomen, fitting into the space perfectly–like a key in a lock. Then the female bends her body upward to grasp the male with her clasping organs at the end of her abdomen. Before transferring his sperm to her, he scoops out any remaining sperm of rival damselflies. Sometimes you can see them flying around in this tandem position, known as the “wheel position.” It looks a bit like a heart, the way their bodies bend towards each other.

First, the male clasps the female behind her head.

First, the male clasps the female behind her head.

Damselflies in "wheel" position

Damselflies in “wheel” position

6. Damselflies (like dragonflies) DO have antenna. They are just so short most people never notice them.

7. Damselflies have many nicknames, including damsels, bog dancers and devil’s darning needles. This last one especially might give cause for alarm, but not to worry, these insects are harmless and do not sting or bite–unless of course you are a mosquito, fly, or other insect.

8. A cool fact that I just learned recently is that the female of many species of damselflies actually goes UNDER water to lay her eggs! She crawls down the stem of some submerged vegetation and will cut small holes in the plant stem where she will lay her eggs. All the while down there she is able to breathe because of oxygen surrounding her body and wings. When she is done, she travels back to the surface and then must be able to take off again into the air. Many damselflies become fish food during these tense moments.

dragon-9. Their eggs hatch in 1-3 weeks and will stay in the water as nymphs for 2 months up to 3 years, depending on the species. They will go through 15 molts before finally crawling up a plant stem or rock and emerging from their nymphal skin as an adult with wings. This is an amazing thing to witness! I have seen it a few times in my lifetime, and am always blow away by it. Next time I see it, I will make a point to film it so I can feature it here on my blog! Have you ever been lucky enough to witness this?

10. As nymphs they have 3 feathery-looking appendages at the ends of their bodies–these are their gills. Dragonfly nymphs have internal gills.

A damselfly nymph--notice the 3 feathery gills at the end.

A damselfly nymph–notice the 3 feathery gills at the end.

If you want to learn more about dragonflies, check out my post on these HERE, or, Check out this fabulous video from BBC Nature about the short life of a damselfly.

Hope you’re having a fabulous day! See you again soon.

Check out this video of a damselfly emerging as an adult! WOW, spectacular! Nature is so amazing! (Whether it happens in Scotland or the US, the process is the same! Don’t let the location turn you away)

Here’s a video from the BBC on damselfly mating:

Posted in Animals, Insects, Spiders and other Invertebrates, Ten Things, Weekly Creature Feature | Also tagged , , , , , , 2 Comments

10 Things That Might Surprise you about Ring-Necked Pheasants

pheasant-0478Have you ever seen a ring-necked pheasant? Did you get a good, close-up look at it? Was it a striking male or one of the duller females?

The first time I ever saw a live, wild ringed-neck pheasant was when I was a teenager, out exploring the wild land around my house in western New York. Of course, as was my custom, I had my trusty camera with me–a Minolta back then that I had saved up for with my babysitting money. It was land I knew well, having visited many times before. Even then I had an intimacy with the land, knew things about it from hours and hours of unstructured time wandering freely. I knew where the turkeys hung out, where I was likely to see an owl, where the fox regularly left his scat, what flowers bloomed in the forest and where the best place to see deer was. I spent many hours learning the land and always hoping to see something exciting.

On this day I first heard the pheasant–though as the time I didn’t know what it was–and then I saw a male running across an open area. I practiced the art of stalking, hoping to get a decent photo but of course back then I did not have a very strong telephoto lens and so although I got pictures, the bird is just a tiny speck in the frame, visible only if you study it closely.

Since then I have learned more about this bird and have gotten a chance to see some in the wild. On my recent trip to Nebraska I was blessed with the good fortune of seeing some close enough for some full-frame shots (of course the 600mm lens helped too!)

Let’s see what we can learn about this colorful game bird:

1. Ring-necked pheasants are NOT native to the US. Instead they were brought here from Asia in the 1880’s. Now they can be found throughout the northern US and Canada where there are open fields and weedy roadsides.

pheasant-05192. Males have spectacular plumage that can be different colors according to how the light hits it–from purple to blue, green, teal, red and everything in between. Females are a dull brown, of course so they can blend into their surroundings when they are nesting. They are 20-36 inches long, including their long tail. They weigh 2-3 pounds.

Here is a male (far right) with two females.

Here is a male (far right) with two females.

3. Speaking of nesting–this is done on the ground. Females use their bodies to create a small depression in the ground, surrounded by tall vegetation. She will line the nest with feathers from her breast as well as fine twigs, grass, corn husks and other soft materials.

4. She lays a clutch of 7-15 olive-brown to blue-gray eggs and will incubate them for 23-28 days.

5. When the chicks hatch they are already covered in down, and their eyes are open. Amazingly, they leave the nest right away, following mom and learning to feed themselves. They can fly at 12 days but will stay with mom for 10-12 weeks before heading out on their own.

6. Females will sometimes lay their eggs in the nests of another grassland bird–called a prairie chicken (Read more about these HERE). The pheasant eggs typically hatch before the chicken eggs and then the female prairie chickens feed those babies rather than their own, often causing their own to die.

Pheasants spend their time in tall grasses where they "disappear"

Pheasants spend their time in tall grasses where they “disappear”

7. Ring-necked pheasants take dust baths to remove  oil, dirt, parasites, dead skin cells, old feathers, and the sheaths of new feathers.


pheasant-04828. Like other members of the grouse family, pheasants have powerful breast muscles–have you ever been walking in a field or in the woods and heard one of these birds? They shoot out of the brush with a loud burst of noise and then veer off at a high speed–sometimes as much as 40 miles per hour! Have you ever seen or heard this?

9. Ring-necked pheasants have a diet that changes throughout the year–much like many other birds that don’t migrate. In spring and summer they feed on insects, spiders, earthworms, snails and other invertebrates, as well as fresh greenery. In fall and winter they eat seeds, grasses, roots, fruit, nuts, leaves and insects when they find them.

10. Ring-necked pheasants do not migrate or hibernate but stay active. During extreme winter weather, pheasants can go up to two weeks without feeding by reducing their metabolism and energy requirements.

Male pheasants have striking feathers

Male pheasants have striking feathers

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10 Things You May Not Know about Prairie Chickens

Safe to say before this recent trip to Nebraska I knew nothing about the animal called a prairie chicken! So maybe you are like me and this will all be new.

Last week I wrote a brief post about a bird called a prairie chicken. If you live in the midwest, you may have seen or heard of this bird. If you live elsewhere but travel through the midwest in the spring, you may want to consider stopping in to see their unique mating dance, which takes place every morning and evening for about 4-6 weeks. It is incredible!

prchick-9583Before traveling to Nebraska and seeing these birds, I knew nothing about them. But now I know a lot! Here are some things I learned about greater prairie chickens:

prchick-95981.Greater prairie chickens are found only in the United States and only in a few places, many of which are on private land. In much of their original range they are extinct or endangered. There are thought to be about 459,000 remaining prairie chickens. They need open grassland with grass 10-18 inches long for roosting and nesting in. They are found in Kansas, Nebrasaka, Oklahoma, and scattered areas in Wisconsin, Illinois and Colorado.

2. Have you ever visited those states during winter? If so you know it is pretty cold! But even so, prairie chickens do not migrate. Instead, they dig into the snow, creating horizontal tunnels which insulate them from the freezing temperatures. They have feathers on their legs and feet which helps to keep them warm. Like many other animals, they change their diet in winter, becoming herbivores.

3. The rest of the year prairie chickens are omnivores. They eat a variety of plant and animal matter including leaves, seeds, buds, grains, insects and other invertebrates.

prchick-95424. Prairie chickens have a mating ritual that they participate in each spring called booming. Males in breeding plumage are pretty spectacular, with yellow combs over their eyes, feathers that look like rabbit ears that can be held erect or laid back over their neck, yellow patches below their eyes that they inflate with air to create a unique “booming” sound and a tail that fans out and stands erect.


Here are two videos of this: (I did take videos of this ritual but because I was in a blind with other photographers who were in “rapid fire” mode, it is hard to hear the chickens so I am choosing to use these videos instead)


5. Prairie chickens are polygamous and become sexually mature at one year of age.

prchick-95676. Booming rituals take place at “leks,” which are the “dance floors” for the birds. Leks don’t look very different than surrounding grassland but the males claim about 100 square feet of ground and then defend it against other interested males. Two males can often be seen facing off on their leks, then jumping into the air and having physical contact with their competition for the eligible females.

7. Females create a shallow depression and arrange grass into a bowl shape, lining it with sticks, leaves and feathers that she removes from her breast. She will lay 5-15 eggs and incubate them for 25 days. When the chicks hatch, they can feed immediately. They will stay with mom for 8 weeks.

Non-native ring-necked pheasants share habitat with prairie chickens

Non-native ring-necked pheasants share habitat with prairie chickens

8. Ring-necked pheasant females –another bird of the open grassland–sometimes lay their eggs in greater prairie chicken nests and these eggs hatch before the prairie chicken eggs. Female prairie chickens will then isolate these pheasant eggs, thinking they are theirs. As a result, their own eggs often do not survive.

9. Prairie chickens weigh in at 2-3 pounds and are 16.9 inches long.

prchick-942610. A group of prairie chickens is called a “little house” or a “pack” of prairie chickens.

Do you have anything to add about prairie chickens? Have you witnessed their booming ritual? As always, I’d love to hear from you! Use the comment box below to share your thoughts.

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Ten Things That May Amaze You About Frogs & Toads

So in preparation for an amphibian program I had recently I did a lot of reading, much of which was fascinating but didn’t actually apply to my program because it was about amphibians in other parts of the world instead of here in western North Carolina.

Spring peeper

Spring peeper

Some of this stuff is right out of a science fiction movie so I decided to write a post about it. I suspect you will be as blown away as I was! We live in an amazing world and there are so many wickedly-awesome adaptations that animals have!

So here then, are 10 Things You May Not Know about frogs and Toads:

Frogs are slimy and hard to hold!

Frogs are slimy and hard to hold!

1. Have you ever touched a frog and noticed how slimy it was? That’s because they have mucus glands that secrete slime to keep them moist since they can obtain oxygen through their skin. They also breathe through their nostrils and lungs but about 50% of their oxygen is through their skin and when they are underwater, all of the oxygen exchange takes place through their skin.

2.Did you know frogs and toads shed their skin? Some do this daily, some weekly or less frequently. I have never seen this but have read that it’s like the frog suddenly has the hiccups and starts moving strangely, then peels off its outer skin, like removing a sweater. Then, guess what? It eats it! Yum.

3.Some frogs and toads, like our Cope’s gray tree frog, can change their color. Light, moisture, temperature and even mood can affect this!

Gray tree frogs can change colors!

Gray tree frogs can change colors!

4.The largest frog on Earth lives in West Africa and gets to be a foot long. It is aptly named the Goliath Frog. As for the smallest frog, it is a tie between the Gold Frog in Brazil and the Eleutherodactylus iberia (Yikes, I’m not going to try to pronounce that! Too bad they don’t have a common name yet for this frog!) that was discovered in 1996 in Cuba. Both are only about 9.8mm long! And we thought our spring peeper was tiny! (Our spring peeper is 1 inch long!)peep-5854

5. Many frogs and toads make noises to attract mates. They do their by inflating their vocal sac or sacs. (Some frogs have one but others have two, one on either side of their mouth) When they do this, it looks like they are chewing gum and blowing a giant bubble. Sometimes the noise of a lot of frogs doing this at once is DEAFENING! The songs can sometimes be heard a mile away! Ever wondered why they don’t go deaf with all of this noise? It’s because their ears or tympanums are connected to their lungs which also vibrate when they call. This pressure keeps frogs from hurting their own ears as they call. peep-

6.Have you heard of a pipi pipi toad? My gosh, this toad is incredible! The male actually embeds the female’s eggs onto her back, and then the skin grows over them so the developing eggs are INSIDE of her back! Then, incredibly, fully formed froglets hatch out several months later! Check out this video:

7. Maybe you’ve heard of Darwin’s Frog? This is a frog that looks like an overweight leaf and lives in the Amazon. The male actually swallows the tadpoles and then allows them to grow up INSIDE his vocal sac. Wait’ll you see what happens when they become fully formed frogs!

8. Wood frogs are a frog that we have here in the US, especially on the east coast, but even up as far north as the Arctic Circle. Amazingly, this frog can freeze solid–with more than 60% of its body frozen–and then just wake up and thaw out in the spring. As the first ice begins to form on their body, it sets off an alarm reaction which then triggers the production of glucose in their body. This acts like anti-freeze and protects the INSIDES of their cells from freezing. In less than 15 hours their heart stops beating, they don’t breath, no blood circulates. They look DEAD. But as long as the temperature doesn’t go below -8 degrees, they will wake up in the spring and head off to continue their lives!

Wood frogs freeze!

Wood frogs freeze!

9. Did you know frogs have teeth? They don’t look much like ours, but they do have teeth on their upper jaw. They use them to hold prey in place before swallowing it whole.

10. Frogs’ tongues are not connected in the back of their mouths like humans, but rather in the front so they can “throw it out of their mouths” and use its stickiness to catch prey. Here’s a video of this:

I hope you are as amazed by frogs as I am! It was hard to narrow it down to only 10.

If you want to read more, here are a few other links

10 things you may not know about wood frogs

Here are some recordings of the songs of an American Toad, Spring Peeper,and Pickerel Frog.

What cool facts do you know about frogs and toads that I have not included? As always, I would love to hear from you!

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