With Valentine’s Day close in the rearview mirror and the “Decade in Review” fresh in my memory, I’ve decided that this is a good time to devote a full post to one of my favorite wild animals: Albert the black bear.
For those not familiar with Albert from previous posts, he was a resident black bear that I got to know in some capacity while my wife and I were living in the Bella Coola Valley last spring. During our six weeks stay there I had many bear encounters (both black bears and grizzlies), but the vast majority ended with the bear running off through the woods. This is not a bad thing, especially in an area that experiences a fair share of human-bear conflict. But my goal when I head out into nature is to observe animals going about their normal business. This can be a real rarity, especially for animals that are/were hunted or that view us as potential predators. What was most rewarding about my experiences with Albert was that he eventually accepted my presence enough so that he seemed to continue with whatever he was doing even when I was around. Through my repeated interactions with Albert I began to get a feel for him as an individual. This was only possible by watching how Albert reacted to various stimuli and observing his morning and afternoon habits. Just as with people and pets, the behavioral profile (or personality) of wild animal comes together over time, and even with my many interactions, I was only able to scratch the surface in terms of being able to paint a picture of Albert.
There’s a relatively new discipline devoted to the study of animal personalities, and what’s known more technically as behavioral syndromes. In broad strokes this refers to a suite of related behaviors that an individual exhibits within a specific behavioral context (such as when foraging for food), or across contexts (such as associations between foraging behavior, mating behavior, antipredator behavior, etc.). Consider the birds that visit a feeder in your yard or a neighbor’s yard. A flock of chickadees appears every morning just around dawn, and individuals zip back and forth from the feeder to the nearby stand of trees, opening or caching the sunflower seeds they’ve collected from the feeder. Each bird looks the same to our eyes and they quickly blend together into a generic chickadee. If you were to catch those chickadees and give them unique identifiers like colored leg bands or GPS trackers, behavioral differences would begin to emerge. Some individuals might be bolder than others, visiting the feeder in the presence of a possible predator, pushing others off the feeder when they want access to the seeds, and being the first to explore new feeders that appear in the yard. Others may be shyer, less dominant, and less likely to explore new food sources. That there are differences among individuals probably isn’t surprising to most people, especially those who have owned pets, but what some researchers are finding is that there can be consistency in groups of these behavioral traits. Individuals that are bold early in life often remain bold later in life, and those that are more likely to explore their environment are more likely to have broader social networks, and potentially be more dominant.
The point here is that we’re learning a lot about how different individual animals are, and how the behavioral profile of an individual can influence every facet of their ecology. And with respect to Albert, I want to relay a handful of stories about him to provide a sketch of what this bear was like to be around.
Our first meeting:
Five days into our stay at Madeline Cabin in the Bella Coola Valley, I was out exploring some of the local trails that crisscrossed Katie and Dennis’s property and that of the lodge nearby, when I heard a distinctive crunching sound from the woods off to my left. It was late April, and spring was working hard to reclaim the land from the clutches of winter. Most of the deciduous plants were still covered in hard buds that had not yet opened, and the grass was just starting to green up. But the skunk cabbage (or yellow arum) had begun to push through the mud in wet, low-lying areas, and this plant, oddly enough, is sought after by bears that have recently emerged from hibernation. Skunk cabbage gets its name from the stinky aroma it produces (sometimes likened to rotting meat) to attract pollinators like flies. Bears are drawn to it in the early spring because it has a laxative-like effect and helps to remove the waste that has been in their systems all winter. While various components of this plant have been marketed as medicinal, I would not recommend trying this as a homeopathic remedy yourself.
Upon hearing the crunching of leaves and twigs, I froze and looked through the tangle of understory branches. The bear was about 50 feet away and moving parallel to me and the trail. He then cut towards the right, and after a few moments emerged from the brush onto the trail. He looked around, saw me standing on the trail, and took off running away from me. He didn’t run far, however, and after his short bout of exercise, he turned around to assess me again from a safer distance. After a brief appraisal, he turned and resumed his leisurely strolling pace from earlier. I waited until he rounded a corner and then slowly followed after, making sure to give him plenty of time to put some distance between us. When I reached the bend at which he had disappeared, I slowly eased myself around the corner, but he was gone. After a few minutes listening for the snapping of twigs and weighing my option of continuing on the loop trail or backtracking, I opted to backtrack and return to the cabin.
The Icelandic ponies:
About two weeks after that initial meeting, I had my second notable experience involving the bear I now recognized as Albert (Katie and Dennis knew him from previous years and had bestowed the name of Albert upon him). I had run into Albert a couple of times in the intervening weeks, but they were mostly brief encounters. That morning in early May, however, was a bit different.
I was out on my usual morning rounds, tramping through the damp grass in the floodplain of the Atnarko River and trying to absorb everything in the world around me. The air was humming with birdsong from recently arrived migrants, as well as those that had stuck out the winter. Golden-crowned sparrows and American robins kicked up dead leaves along the sides of the trail looking for hidden seeds and invertebrates, and Pacific-slope flycatchers, Wilson’s warblers, and yellow-rumped warblers zipped about in the branches at the edge of the woods. A few days earlier, the lodge next door had set-up a temporary pony paddock in a small clearing down by the river, and this paddock was now inhabited by a group of six Icelandic ponies. The ponies were used to take guests on trail-rides, and they had been moved into this area because it was full of fresh green grass. The lodge uses that particular equine breed because they are alleged to have no innate fear of grizzly bears (grizzlies never having made it to Iceland). This trait is desirable because, unlike Iceland, the Bella Coola Valley has a very healthy population of grizzlies, and most horses, ponies, and mules are apt to panic if they catch the scent of a grizzly or happen upon one on the trail. This usually doesn’t bode well for the person they are chauffeuring around.
I had tried to make friends with the ponies on a couple occasions, but they were decidedly uninterested in friending me. When I came upon their paddock that morning, they were all clustered together a little ways upslope from me, and they were staring intently at the lower corner of the paddock. I followed their gaze, and at the edge of the electric fencing, Albert was contentedly munching away on the fresh grass. I was positioned at one corner of the fenced paddock, and he was about 60 feet away at another corner. He hadn’t yet seen me, so I knelt down, and watched him eat, hoping he would come around the corner into the open so I could get some photos of him eating. Albert certainly knew the ponies were there and would occasionally look their way while chewing on grass, but it seemed more a mild curiosity than anything else.
There was nothing mild about the ponies’ interest in Albert, however, and after a few minutes, the dominant stallion from the group decided it was time to act. He broke from the cluster, and ran down the hill at Albert, stomping his hooves in an exaggerated prance. He ran up right up to the section of fence where Albert had been eating (on the other side), sending Albert running into the bushes. Once safely ensconced in a blackberry thicket about 20 feet from the fence, Albert turned to assess the situation. He and the stallion examined each other for a few moments, and after coming to some sort of understanding, the stallion began feeding, and Albert slowly extracted himself from the bushes. He gradually made his way back towards the fence, although not quite as close as before, and resumed eating. The stallion, meanwhile, had begun eating his way over to the corner where I still knelt in the wet grass. Albert had now come out into the open, and was certainly aware of my presence, but he seemed nonplussed, and continued his breakfast of fresh greens. While taking photos of Albert I could sense the stallion’s close proximity, and I looked over to see him foraging just a few feet to my left. But what really caught my attention was his fully erect penis. He was not simply grazing away on grass; he was engaging in a display of dominance, and it seemed to be directed at me. In hindsight I suspect that it was still related to showing Albert who was boss, and that he was actually coming close to me to ensure my safety now that Albert had moved in my direction.
Albert had no interested in me, however, and the three of us spent an enjoyable (for me anyways) 20 minutes in each other’s company, before Albert wandered into the woods and out of sight.
The electric fence incident:
Two mornings later I wandered down the trail towards the pony paddock and was very surprised to see four of the ponies outside of the electric fence. I was trying to determine how they had escaped when I saw the cause; on the uphill side of the paddock, the fencing lay on the ground. But how had the fencing been knocked over? Had the ponies staged a jailbreak, or had it been an outside job? I looked around for a few minutes trying to make sense of things when the culprit emerged from the bushes at the top of the hill: Albert. There were a few cabins perched on the hill overlooking the paddock area, but they remained empty for most of the year. I had never seen Albert near those cabins, so I was curious as to how he would treat them. He walked past the first one and made his way over to a medium-sized motorboat that was tucked in under an open garage. The boat was up on its trailer, which sported a 5-gallon bucket over the end of the trailer tongue. Albert went over to the bucket, sniffed it and then pulled it off the trailer. He inspected the boat and trailer a little longer, and then vanished around the far side of the cabin.
I waited for a few more minutes to see if he would reappear, but when he didn’t, I continued down the path towards the river. A family of common mergansers navigated the river upstream a little ways, and Canada geese honked in agitation when I appeared on the riverbank. The water level was beginning to get high with all the snow melt from the mountains, and the current had picked up noticeably over the past week. Rather than doing the full loop trail, I returned the way I had come, and upon reaching the paddock, I saw that my way home was now blocked by some of the ponies.
I had not yet interpreted my experience with the stallion as him being protective of me (this only occurred to me later when one of the ponies “rescued” me from an overly curious yearling deer that wanted to inspect me at close range) so I was a little wary of the roving ponies. Rather than risk a close encounter with one of them, I decided that I would skirt around the top of the paddock and return home via the road just above the paddock. I began making my way up the slope keeping an eye and an ear out for Albert, whom I hadn’t seen in 30+ minutes. Just when I reached the section where the fence had been knocked over, I heard some snorts and huffs coming from the other side of a bush, and when I looked up, Albert was staring at me from about 10 feet away. He was clearly surprised and agitated to see me so close, and he issued a few more huffs, and then bluff charged towards me. It was a very abbreviated bluff charge (you can’t get much closer than we already were), but the message was clear. I stepped backwards over the downed fence, and sidled my way downslope a little bit, keeping the useless fence between me and Albert. I spoke gently to him, letting him know I saw him, and was trying to give him some space. When he saw that I wasn’t crowding his personal space anymore, he turned around, and nonchalantly walked away. My heart was racing as the adrenaline surged through my body, but I was very happy with how things had turned out. I hadn’t panicked when he charged and given that I had (unintentially) threatened Albert by showing up unannounced in his face, he had responded in a pretty reasonable manner (for a bear anyways). Moreover he was probably still annoyed at having been shocked when he knocked the fence over. I can think of many people who would have been much grumpier than Albert under those circumstances.
Encounters at the cabin:
Albert showed up at our cabin a couple of times to partake of the crop of dandelions we had growing in our front yard area. I covered some of these visits previously, including the one where he found my wife’s hiking shoe, sniffed it, and then quickly threw it away (see here). But there was another visit that I haven’t covered that is worth recounting.
I had gone off on an afternoon hike, and my wife had stayed behind in our little log cabin to get some work done and do some dinner prep. Her work station was our dining room table, and she sat with her back to one window, but with another set of windows off to her left. My wife gets a little bit of tunnel vision when she is in work mode, but a slight tap on the window right behind her head brought her back to the world. Her assumption was that I had returned from my hike and was gently knocking on the window to get her attention. But when she turned around, she was face to face with Albert who was peering in through the window at her. One can imagine how startled my wife would have been to have her husband morph into a very large bear, and for this bear-husband to be mere inches away. Startled though she was, she didn’t panic, but simply grabbed the bear spray and her video camera and watched as Albert sniffed at the house a few times, did some lawn-mowing, and then moved on. My wife had been cooking garlic, and it’s possible the potent aroma had wafted outside and attracted Albert, who just wanted to see what was cooking. When an invitation to join wasn’t extended, he was very courteous, and went off to find his own dinner.
The telephone pole:
The final story happened towards the end of our tenure in the Bella Coola Valley, and came on the heels of another bear adventure that had ended with me getting a tetanus booster. I was returning home from getting the shot (an hour away in Bella Coola proper), when I came upon Albert just off the main road near our turnoff. I pulled off the road and watched as he waddled up to a telephone pole, stood up and began shimmying against the pole. Bears love a good back scratch, but scratch trees (or rub trees) are for more than just getting at a good itch. They serve as signposts, or message boards for all the bears in the area, relaying important information about who’s there, when they were in the area, as well as information about an individual’s social standing and reproductive state. These signposts are actually used by all manner of animals as can be seen in this video.
A good scratch tree will be used year after year, and the bark can get worn down by all the rubbing activity. Bears also wear impressions of their footprints into the ground at the base of these trees, showing where they stand when rubbing against it. I had come across a handful of these signposts on my wanderings, but this was my first time seeing a bear in action at one.
Albert was very intent on his scratching, and he was clearly doing some messaging while he was there. A steady stream of urine came out while he was rubbing against the pole, undoubtedly infused with a rich array of hormonal signals. At one point he reached up behind his head, grabbed the pole, and then turned and bit into it, gently splintering a small portion of the outer layer. Albert was most likely one of the dominant male black bears in the area, and I suspect that he was sending a message of love to any interested and eligible females, as well as a massage of warning to any males that might wander into his territory.
When he felt as though he had sufficiently made his mark, he got down onto all fours and wandered away, and that was the last I saw of him. I felt immensely privileged to have spent some time with Albert, and that I had been able to watch him be a bear on his terms and in his territory. Hopefully I’ll be able to get reacquainted with him sometime soon.
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During the fall semester of my sophomore year at college, I learned a valuable lesson that has remained with me over the intervening two decades: don’t try to study wild animals that are smarter than you. You might think I was endeavoring to work with some great ape or dolphin, but the animal that humbled me back then is familiar to most everyone in North America: the American crow. Crows are in the family Corvidae, which includes about 120 species of crows, jays, magpies, ravens, rooks, and jackdaws worldwide.
As part of a Field Biology class at Cornell, I was attempting to conduct a research project examining the responses of crows to different types of predators; would they treat a terrestrial predator like a cat or a fox differently than an aerial predator like an owl or hawk, and would they treat a great horned owl differently than a sharp-shinned hawk? Great horned owls generally represent the most extreme threats to adult crows and their offspring, and should elicit an animated and prolonged mobbing response, whereas the smaller sharp-shinned hawk and the terrestrial predators like the fox and cat should evoke a more restrained response. Or so I hypothesized.
Right off the bat, things went askew. I had managed to acquire a captive great horned owl from a raptor rehabilitation center to use in my study, and I planned to unveil the owl (protected in a cage) in an area frequented by crows. I covered the owl cage in a sheet which had a long trailing line, and once I had positioned the cage in a conspicuous location and hidden myself for 5 minutes in the bushes a little ways away, I pulled the string and revealed the owl. I expected that once one crow had found the owl, it would recruit others and the mobbing would begin.
In my first few owl reveals, one or two crows did show up, but their response was not what I expected. After a few initial caws, they appeared to transition into what I deemed was an “evaluation stage,” during which they would fly around the cage, seemingly inspecting it. After this assessment, they would take off, and that was it. No recruiting, no angry mobbing, nothing to suggest that their most feared predator was in the area. I’ve seen crows mobbing wild great horned owls, and it is a raucous, wild affair. I thus had an idea of what should be happening. So why wasn’t it? After a half dozen failed attempts at eliciting a response, I decided that the crows were correctly gauging that my owl was not a threat. Could they tell that the owl was unable to fly? Did they know what a cage was? I’m not sure, but they were clearly making a determination that this particular owl was not a risk to them or their families and returning to more pressing matters.
In order to salvage my project, I shifted gears and opted to work with birds of less advanced cognitive abilities. I focused on birds like chickadees, robins and nuthatches, and I’ve mostly stuck with the “less sophisticated” members of the avian group since. I know that lots of people study primates and cetaceans, and they have gleaned valuable information from these geniuses of the animal world. But in most cases, they can only do this with captive animals that have “agreed” to cooperate with the researchers. Studying the behavior of wild animal Einsteins is often an exercise in futility, as I discovered long ago.
There are some persistent researchers, however, who have successfully worked with corvids over the past few decades, and we’ve learned an incredible amount about this family of high achievers. In fact, recent work has placed some corvids at the level of seven-year-old children when it comes to problem-solving, easily equaling or even outpacing the most advanced primates and cetaceans. Check out the video of a New Caledonian crow working through an 8-step puzzle. This crow had seen the individual steps before but had never encountered the multistage puzzle prior to this trial.
Moreover, these crows have been shown to not just use tools, but make tools, and even keep them for future use.
In addition to the puzzle-solving example above, corvids are savvy problem-solvers in an everyday context. Anyone who has attempted to keep crows, magpies or jays from eating their bird food has experience with this. In the Pacific Northwest, northwestern crows have learned how to crack open hard-shelled bivalves by taking them into the air and dropping them onto hard rocks. This behavior is widely exhibited by their gull neighbors, but it is unclear if the crows adopted this behavior on their own, or from watching the gulls.
Even more impressive than the clam-dropping is the walnut-cracking behavior shown by the Japanese carrion crow. These birds have learned how to utilize both cars and crosswalks in order to get at their walnut prizes. The crows drop their hard-shelled walnuts onto the road at crosswalks and wait for passing cars to crush them open. Then, they wait for the crosswalk light to change, which allows them to recover their food without the risk of getting squashed. The following clip from the Life of Birds shows how they go about doing this.
This all begs the question, why are corvids so intelligent? To answer this, I think we need to look at other intelligent groups of animals and see what links them together. (Note: I’m using a rough, classical definition of intelligence here. There are many ways to define intelligence, and this classical version is simply one that many people are familiar with). Why, for example, are humans so intelligent (in theory, that is)? What about dolphins? African gray parrots? Chimpanzees? In short, we don’t know for sure, but most of these organisms live in complex social groups that may favor the evolution of more advanced cognitive functioning. The next question that arises is why do complex social groups favor advanced cognitive functioning? Is it because cooperating with others requires advanced thinking and reasoning skills? Or is it because cheating members of your social network (and not getting caught) requires innovative intelligence? It may actually be some of both; learning how to cooperate successfully with others who have the ability to surreptitiously cheat requires a lot of mental gymnastics. Indeed, researchers have found that when faced with a choice between working with a cheater or a reliable cooperator (based on previous encounters), most crows choose to work with the reliable option. Not only can they identify when a particular individual is cheating them, but they will continue to avoid working with that individual for months or longer.
Whatever the root cause of their smarts, corvids express their intelligence in myriad ways. Not all corvids are capable of advanced problem-solving or tool making, but most corvids shine in some cognitive capacity. Some, such as the Clarke’s nutcracker and pinyon jay, have fantastic spatial memory abilities that help them recall the locations of tens of thousands of seeds they’ve cached. Blue jays and Steller’s jays will mimic a red-tailed hawk’s call when approaching a bird feeder to scare the other birds away.
One of the more common strategies that corvids use is the “distract the bully” technique. This usually involves a large predator at a food source and may include multiple individuals working together. Crows, ravens, and magpies have all mastered this technique, and they often employ it upon eagles who have claimed an animal carcass. The strategy is simple; one bird sneaks up behind the eagle, grabs a tail feather, and tugs. The eagle whirls around in an attempt to catch the offender, but the smaller and faster corvids can easily outmaneuver the eagle. While the eagle is distracted, other birds dart in for a quick bite of meat. This process can be repeated until the eagle flies away, or all the corvids have had their fill.
In a similar vein, Bernd Heinrich (scientist, naturalist, and ultramarathoner extraordinaire) discovered that young common ravens in Maine will work together to acquire meals that have been claimed by more dominant adult ravens. He details his work in the wonderful book Ravens in Winter, but in short (spoiler alert—if you plan to read his book, skip the rest of this paragraph), he found that when non-territorial (often young) ravens find an animal carcass in the territory of adult ravens, the non-territorial birds often begin vocalizing. These vocalizations attract other non-territorial birds, and once their numbers reach some critical mass, they descend upon the carcass. The resident, and typically much more dominant birds are unable to defend the carcass against the onslaught of young hooligans, who are all able to partake of a meal they would have been unable to procure by themselves.
Another telltale sign of their intelligence is their penchant for play. Ravens appear to thoroughly relish aerial acrobatics, and perform a variety of stunts, including barrel rolls, flips, and even prolonged flights upside-down. Ravens also enjoy sledding or rolling down snowy slopes. One of the most entertaining videos of presumed corvid play comes from Russia, and shows a hooded crow repeatedly snowboarding down a roof on a plastic lid. It’s hard to know for sure if this is an example of play, but it certainly appears to be.
Corvids are well known for their mobbing behavior, which is generally directed at larger birds of prey like hawks, eagles and owls. There’s good reason for this behavior; these raptors pose a possible threat to the adults and their young, and mobbing is thought to serve as both a forum for alerting the neighborhood to the whereabouts of a potential threat, as well as a teaching aid for young birds.
But many corvids seem to derive a degree of satisfaction from tormenting raptors that goes beyond strict utilitarian function. The PBS video below shows a raven having some fun with an immature bald eagle.
A number of corvids have undeservedly acquired reputations as thieves and tricksters, and their fondness for eating the young of other animals doesn’t help. But these birds possess an intellect and awareness that may approach that of ourselves, and in my opinion they should be viewed with the same level of respect afforded cetaceans, parrots, and primates.
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A few days back, I went out for a late afternoon walk on one of the dirt roads near our place. We live a few miles from the nearest paved road, and once winter hits, some of the mountain roads around us become impassable to vehicles but make for nice snowshoeing or walking trails. The walk was pleasant, but cold and mostly quiet. A flock (or “murder”) of crows was circling far off across the valley, getting ready to head to their communal nighttime roost, and a pair of black-billed magpies called quietly from atop some tall Ponderosa pines. A set of relatively fresh mountain lion prints got me excited, but they appeared to be at least 24 hours old, and I saw no other evidence of the lion. I had turned around a little after sunset, and as dusk settled on the mountain, I heard a sound I’ve only heard a few other times in my life; the “too-too-too” song of a northern saw-whet owl.
For those not familiar with this bird, it is one of the smallest and most abundant owls of the northern US and southern Canada. Despite their abundance, few people ever get a chance to see these birds because of their cryptic behavior and plumage. As is the case for most of the approximately 220 owl species worldwide, saw-whets are nocturnal and spend the daytime hours roosting in well-concealed spots. Once the daylight fades, these little hunters become active and leave their roosts to search for a meal. Small mammals are their favorite prey, but they will also go after small birds like chickadees and kinglets, as well as the occasional invertebrate.
In early February a few years ago when we were living in Illinois, a fellow birder found a saw-whet owl that had likely migrated down to the area for the winter. Like many others, I am especially fond of owls, so I could not resist the urge to see the owl myself. Despite the fact that the owl was likely to be in the same general vicinity in which it had initially been located, finding the robin-sized raptor was far from a given. It had been found in a large cluster of red cedars spaced out over a couple hundred square meters, so I knew it would be a little like finding a needle in a haystack. But unlike needles, owls often leave some hints as to their whereabouts in the form of white-wash (aka—bird poop) and regurgitated pellets. These pellets are composed of the hard-to-digest components of their prey- bones, fur, feathers, feet, etc.- and pellets from large owls like great-horned owls and barred owls will often contain the complete skeletons of small mammals that they’ve consumed whole.
Once I had navigated to the cedar stand, I began searching under trees for white-wash and pellets. I found both in good quantities, indicating that the owl had been in the area for a while. This was a good sign that the owl was still around, but with these “hints” in many areas, it made the search a bit more challenging. After 30 minutes or so I came to a cluster of small cedars that were bunched closely together, and I had to bend way down to get in. Hunched over, I wedged myself in among the thin trunks, and continued my search. I happened to glance back over my shoulder at one point, and just a few feet away, the tiny owl sat on a branch, staring at me with saucer plate eyes. I was startled at how small the owl appeared; it seemed no bigger than a sparrow. I slowly backed away so as to give it some space, but the owl appeared to be almost disinterested in me. Its gaze passed from me to the ground, and the owl began watching a clump of dead leaves that was shaking in the breeze. Even though saw-whets are nocturnal, this little predator appeared to be ready to take advantage of a daytime meal if it presented itself. But the leaves did not morph into a small mammal, and the owl eventually closed its eyes to nap, despite the close proximity of a giant lumbering primate (me).
As mentioned above, most owls are nocturnal, and these nighttime hunters possess a suite of remarkable traits that help them find and capture prey in the dark. One such trait that allows them to sneak up on prey is their silent flight. The wings of most birds create noise when air passes over them, as during flight, and the bigger the wing and faster the flight, the louder the noise. Many prey species of owls, especially small mammals, have excellent hearing, and they would be alerted to the presence of an approaching owl in the relative quiet of the night if owls made as much noise as a normal bird their size. But many nocturnal owls, especially those that prey upon small mammals, have evolved the equivalent of silencers on their wings. These sound-dampening features come in the form of comb-like serrations on the leading edge of the flight feathers, the flight feathers’ overall velvety texture, and fringes on the trailing edge of the wing feathers. Together, these features work to reduce turbulence and streamline airflow over the wings, thereby producing the mostly silent flight.
Owls also have very large eyes which allow for excellent vision even under very low light conditions. Interestingly, their eyes are tubular in shape (kind of like a telescope) rather than rounded like ours, and as a result, they are relatively fixed in their sockets. This means that when they want to look at something new, they have to move their entire heads. Owls are famous for their neck flexibility which allows them to rotate their heads 270 degrees. They can do this because, unlike humans who have two socket pivots connecting the head to the rest of the body, owls have only one. But this isn’t the only obstacle they have to overcome; if we twisted our necks around like an owl, the blood vessels and arteries in our neck would get twisted and damaged, resulting in clots and possibly embolisms. Owls have enlarged gaps in the bones through which the vessels and arties pass, as well as increased artery size at the base of the head. These features provide extra protection for the blood vessels, and allow for extra blood to reach the brain, so that when blood flow is restricted when the head is turned around, the brain still has a rich supply of oxygen.
One of the other prominent features of many owl faces is the flat, disk-like shape. These facial disks are no mere accident of design; they help collect sounds and funnel them to the owl’s ears. Species within the barn owl family (Tytonidae) have the most pronounced facial disks among the owls (they appear almost heart-shaped), and not coincidentally, they also have the best hearing. In addition to their facial disks, barn owls have offset ears. That is, one ear is slightly higher on the skull than the other. This slight difference in ear location provides the owls with stereoscopic hearing and allows them to pinpoint the location of their prey based purely on sound. Experiments have shown that barn owls can do this from 20-30 feet away in a completely dark room.
Not all owls have offset ears or heavily pronounced facial disks, however. The massive great horned owl, which is found across North America and even down into Central and South America, has ears that are symmetrical (so not offset) and relatively minor facial disks. They still have excellent hearing, but they rely a bit more on visually locating their prey. Studies on prey capture by great horned owls have shown that they do much better in open areas where they can see the prey. They also are more successful when there is moonlight, and a full moon is bad news for great horned owl prey. Great horneds have been known to capture and kill everything from mice and voles, to skunks, hares, opossums, ducks, and even other raptors, including other owls, adult osprey and red-tailed hawks. Indeed, hunting great horned owls are probably the biggest threat to large nesting birds and their offspring. Even people need to be wary of great horned owls, although not because we’re on the menu. Nesting great horneds are fiercely protective and will attack people that get too close to their nest, clubbing them with balled talons, or lacerating them with open talons. Great horned owls can also be exquisitely tender, however, and you can watch them at their nest via one of the many “nest cams” in operation. They begin nesting as early as late January/early February, so these cams will become active soon.
On the other end of the owl spectrum are the diurnal owls, which, in North America consists of the northern and ferruginous pygmy owls, the northern hawk owl, and to some extent, the burrowing owl (which can be active at any hour of the day or night). These species generally lack the special adaptations for nighttime hunting, such as facial disks, offset ears, and silent flight. Other owls will forage during the day on occasion or when conditions necessitate it (like summertime in the far north when there is no nighttime), and a few are primarily crepuscular (such as the short-eared owl, whose buoyant flight makes it look like a giant moth bobbing over open fields and marshes at dawn and dusk), but these four species have fully embraced the day.
The pygmy owls and the hawk owl are active hunters of other birds and small mammals, whereas the burrowing owl eats a lot of invertebrates (with some small mammals, lizards, and birds thrown in for variety). Despite the overlap in operating hours, spotting one of these diurnal species is still a relative rarity for most people.
While seeing owls is uncommon, hearing them is a bit easier, and late January through March is a great time to go owling as species begin singing to establish territories, reestablish pair bonds, or attract a mate. Many people don’t need to go far to listen for owls; a number of species have acclimated to humans and can be found in backyards, city parks, or even urban centers. One of my first owl experiences occurred probably 30 years ago in a green space called the Arnold Arboretum, close to where I grew up in Boston. This urban park hosted a pair of great horned owls that would begin calling just before dusk in the late-winter months. Male great horned owls are smaller than females (a trend common in most raptors) but they have a deeper hoot, and the two owls would duet from the depths of a stand of old white pines. On a few occasions I ventured into the dark understory of the pines to look for the owls, but I would only ever catch a fleeting glimpse of a large shadow lifting off from a high branch and vanishing back into the woods. These tantalizing glimpses provided sufficient fuel to kindle a life-long passion for these amazing raptors, and I am always on the lookout for any signs that these secretive birds may be nearby.
Next post: TBD
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The idea of doing a “best of 2019” entry seemed like a fun way to start off the new year, but I quickly realized that there are heaps of wildlife encounters that predate this year that I could share. So instead of a year in review, I’ll kick of the new year and the new decade with a “best of the 2010s” post. Without further ado, let’s take a giant step back through time to relive some of the most exciting wildlife moments of the 2010s! Well, my most exciting moments anyways.
The Great Snowy Owl Irruption--Winter 2013-14
We’ll start off with a winter that saw thousands of snowy owls invade the lower 48 states, with individuals appearing as far south as Florida and the Bahamas. Snowy owls breed in the Arctic, and in a typical winter, a few dozen or perhaps a few hundred birds will journey south into the Northeastern US, northern Midwest, and northern western states. But the summer of 2013 was a record year for lemmings (a favored food item of snowy owls), and the owls produced prodigious numbers of offspring that summer. Immature snowy owls, like many birds, exhibit natal dispersal, and with so many owls successfully fledging the previous summer, the number of dispersing young birds was at its highest in perhaps a hundred years. For bird watchers, this meant a bonanza of snowy owl sightings.
My wife and I often go hunting for snowy owls (or “snowies”) when we visit Maine during the winter holidays. In a typical trip we see one or two of these majestic birds, but in 2013-14, we saw 15-20. Snowies prefer habitat that is similar to the Arctic tundra, so when they come south, airports, marshes, and other open areas are the best spots for seeing them. In the Biddeford Pool area of Maine, snowies were so plentiful that they could be found roosting on the roofs and chimneys of houses that bordered the saltmarshes and sand dunes.
Those were the most conspicuous locations, but they were also in parking lots, on the beach, and even large rock formations at the upper edge of the intertidal zone.
Snow owl irruptions occur, on average, every 4-5 years, but the 2014-15 winter was also good for snowies, as was winter 2017-18. Last year was a poor one, and this one is shaping up to be similar to last year. Despite the low numbers this year, we were able to see one two weeks ago at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island in Massachusetts. This refuge encompasses one of the largest protected salt marshes in the northeast and is probably the best location for finding snowies in New England. The bird we saw was far out in the marsh roosting on an osprey nesting platform; even through binoculars it was just an owl-shaped white blob on the nest platform. We watched it for a few minutes before we succumbed to the cold and returned to the warmth of our car, happy to have glimpsed this visitor from the far north.
Pacific White-sided Dolphin Explosion-Quadra Island, BC, March 2019
I’ve covered this event in the blog already, so I’ll “borrow” excerpts from that post here. To get you up to speed, last February-April we were living on Quadra Island, located just off of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, as part of a 6-month writing and photography retreat. One day I was driving past a harbor when I noticed a small group of people clustered on the side of the road. I pulled over, grabbed my camera and hurried to the water’s edge. Perhaps 100 meters (~330 ft) from the barnacle studded rocks I was standing on was a pod of 50-75 Pacific white-sided dolphins slowly swimming about in the shallow waters of Drew Harbor. The dolphins would swim in one direction for a while, frequently surfacing with a loud exhalation as they expelled air and water vapor from their blow-hole. Some individuals would change direction, and it would appear as though the pod was swimming in a circle. This behavior is called “milling” and after watching them mill for 30 minutes or so I raced home to get my wife.
When we returned, the dolphins were still there, but now they had added another component to their slow meanderings; the sprint. This seemed to happen about every 30-45 minutes at which point the entire pod they would start racing through the water. During these sprints, the dolphins would break the surface with most of their body, but they generally wouldn’t jump out of the water. Sometimes the dolphins would sprint one way for a hundred meters, and then turn and sprint back to where they had been. The sprint would typically go on for a minute or two, after which the dolphins would return to their milling behavior.
Late in the afternoon, something changed; suddenly, there was a solitary splash. Then another. In the midst of the milling, a few individuals had begun full body breaches, jumping clear of the water and smacking back down on their sides, backs or bellies. This was some sort of signal, and it spread through the pod rapidly. The dolphins exploded into motion as they began the final act to their day-long spectacle. All traveling in the same direction, the dolphins tore through the water, leaping and breaching as they went. They raced around the perimeter of the harbor, passing within 20-30 meters of where I knelt at the water’s edge, and within a few minutes they had exited the harbor. I stood up and laughed with joy and shock at what I had just witnessed. I had been hoping for an acrobatic display, and I got that and then some.
But what had that entire day of activity actually been? Was it related to breeding displays? Was this group-bonding? Was it a day-long choreography session that closed with this spectacular finale? I don’t know—any of those options seem plausible. All I know is that I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to bear witness to an amazing natural event.
Alligator Display-Merritt Island, Florida, March 2016
Alligators and crocodiles are among my favorite animals. I think this is due in large part to my obsession with dinosaurs as a child; even though birds are the current incarnation of dinosaurs, crocodiles and alligators seem to embody more of what dinosaurs used to be, or at least what we thought they were. There’s also an undeniable fascination with them because of their predatory behavior, and the fact that we can find ourselves on the menu for some species. But rather than being mindless killing machines, crocodilians are much smarter than we originally thought. They also have complex social behavior, including elaborate mating and territorial displays, which my wife and I got to witness firsthand a few years back down in Florida.
We were at Merritt Island, on the Atlantic coast, and were on part of the driving circuit when I noticed a large bull alligator floating in the water parallel to us. I stopped the car and we rolled down the windows to get a better look. The gator noticed us, turned perpendicular, and began swimming towards us. At the same time, it lifted its head and tail out of the water and began what was likely a territorial display. It would suck in a large gulp of air, and then begin vibrating its body against the water. This vibration is part of an infrasonic, or low frequency, sound that can travel for long distances in the water. We couldn’t hear the sounds, but we could see the water droplets dancing on the water surface. This then transitioned into an audible bellow that we could most certainly hear. Alligators and other crocodilians perform this behavior to warn off potential rivals, establish a territory, and potentially to attract a female. I’m not sure where we fell among those options, but it was an awesome display to witness firsthand.
The Bamfield Experience-Vancouver Island, BC, August-September 2017
This portion will break from form a little because I’ll be focusing on a place, rather than one specific incident. For my first trip to British Columbia, I was traveling around Vancouver Island in a U-Haul cargovan that I had temporarily outfitted to be a U-Haul campervan. My wife and I had first tried this maneuver in Alaska in 2016 with great success, and then did it again on a trip through the Olympic Peninsula and up to Vancouver Island the following year.
I was really pushing the limits of the van by driving on a super rough logging road to get to a remote coastal region called Bamfield on the west coast of Vancouver Island. This area is a dream-come-true for nature enthusiasts, and in my three days there I had three wildlife encounters that I will never forget.
First, I rented a kayak to explore an inlet where black bears were known to forage in the intertidal zone at low tide. I paddled my way up the arm of the inlet, passing the skeletons of old buildings and shipwrecked boats. Belted kingfishers and great blue herons fished along the edge of the water, and bald eagles circled overhead. The inlet opened into a small cove, and tucked in one corner of the cove was a mother bear and her yearling cub. They were foraging among a cluster of rocks that sat in the mud at the mouth of a small stream. I stopped paddling and coasted to a stop in the thick mud. I was a few hundred feet away from the bears, and they took no notice of my presence. Mom and cub nosed among the rocks for a half hour, then clambered up a nearby grassy slope, and mom lay down in the grass for an afternoon siesta. The cub was having none of it, however, and began wrestling with mom. When it became apparent that the cub was not going to be taking a nap, mom gave up on her attempts at sleep and engaged with her rambunctious offspring. She lay on her back, swatting at the cub while it tried various approaches for biting mom’s feet and head.
They wrestled for a few minutes, and then mom got to her feet and gave her grass-covered coat a good shake. She then led her cub back to the water’s edge, and they slowly sauntered over to a nearby island by way of a narrow causeway that had been exposed by the receding water. The intertidal zone is rich with food options for hungry omnivores, and the two bears went about sampling the marine delicacies. As they walked, they flipped over rocks to get at the animals hiding underneath. The cub mimicked its mother’s behaviors, turning over rocks and crunching up the barnacles and crabs it unearthed. But while mom could easily flip rocks in excess of 100 pounds, the cub had to limit itself to smaller fare.
While the bears foraged, I sat in my floating observation vessel, occasionally paddling myself into a better viewing location, or backing up into open water if the bears started to come too close. After an hour of rock-flipping, the bears crossed back over the causeway, and vanished into the thick woods that edged the cove. I kayaked back to the town landing, and after talking to the proprietor of the kayak rental place, decided that I would take a water ferry across the channel, and camp on Brady’s Beach that night. When I arrived at the beach, about an hour before sunset, I was greeted by two grey whales that were breaching in the golden light cast by the low-hanging sun. I set up my tent, and then climbed up a massive rock formation to watch the dusk settle over the area. When the stars began emerging from the deep cobalt sky, I retreated to my tent for the night.
The next morning I was up at dawn, and quickly got my campstove going to brew up a cup of coffee. I took the steaming mug to a memorial chair that had been placed partways up another large rock formation, and sat down to enjoy the emergence of another stunning day. I was almost done with my coffee when I was joined by another early-morning riser; a humpback whale. Except he was already on to breakfast and was very actively going about acquiring it. I hastily climbed back down to the beach, and ran down to a rock point that jutted out close to where the whale was foraging. The whale was lunge-feeding, which means that it would dive down close to the bottom, and then burst to the surface of the water where the schools of herring were concentrated.
I couldn’t tell if the whale was using any sort of bubble-net tactics, but it seemed to be proficient at getting mouthfuls of the small baitfish with each lunge. What was most striking was that the whale would sometimes venture in to the small cove just to the south of my rock point. There were times when the whale was easily within 50 feet of the rocks. Sounds like a photographer’s dream come true, doesn’t it? The only problem is I had no way of knowing where or when the whale would surface. Sometimes it would be hundreds of meters offshore, and other times it would be within a stone’s throw.
Over the course of two hours I managed to get a handful of shots of the whale breaking the surface, but the real thrill simply lay in being so close to this leviathan (while on shore) as it collected its breakfast. After the two hours, the whale stopped foraging and began milling about offshore. I took this as an omen to go get some breakfast of my own, and headed back across the beach to my campsite.
When I reached my tent, I realized I had dropped my long-sleeved shirt somewhere en-route. I went back to search for it, and while I was at the other end of the beach, I heard a scream come from the water. I looked out into the waves, and saw two small shapes swimming through the ocean. They were headed for one of the rock formations that sat offshore, and when they reached the rocks, the lead animal pulled itself from the water and began sprinting up the rock face with the other animal following. I took a few shots with my camera and realized they were mink, but I had no idea what they were doing. They quickly vanished from view, but moments later they came tumbling down the rock mount, with the lead animal again screaming. It launched itself back into the waves, and frantically swam for another clustering of rocks with its pursuer close behind. When they emerged from the water again, the trailing mink caught up to the first animal and tried to tackle it, and I realized what I was seeing.
The first animal must be a female, and the pursuer a male hoping to mate with her. Except she clearly had no intention of mating with this male, so it appeared that he was attempting to force copulate with her. The female mink wrestled free and continued running across the rocks before jumping into the water yet again. Now they were headed directly towards me. I got down low in preparation for what I hoped would be a close pass. I could see the little heads among the waves as they made their way towards shore. The female reached the barnacle-covered rocks in the surf first and raced through the shallow water with the male right on her heals. She raced right by me and would almost certainly have been tackled on the beach but an unexpected hero came to her rescue.
A few houses sat in the woods up from the beach, and one of these houses was home to a Scottish Terrier who must have been attracted to the action by the female mink’s screams. Just as the male mink cleared the waves and was about to mount his final assault, he was intercepted by the diminutive dog who came racing down the beach barking ferociously. The male mink turned and raced back into the waves, and the female vanished into the brush at the top of the beach, finally safe from the unwanted advances of the male.
There are a few encounters that I’ve covered in depth in the blog that I’ll just include links to, as well as some that I was unable to get good photos or video of, but that warrant mentions.
First, a close encounter with a lynx in the Bowron Lakes area of British Columbia.
There were so many amazing bear encounters, I've included the Bears of the West post.
As with the bears, there have been numerous moose encounters, so I'll include the second moose post.
And I'll wrap up this review post with two marine experiences that, unfortunately, I have no photos or video of.
Close Encounter with a Whale Shark-Panama, February, 2015
On a boat trip out to go snorkeling at beautiful Coiba Island in Panama, we came across a 20-25 foot long whale shark that was slowly swimming around at the ocean’s surface. We got the ok to jump in the water, and jump in we did. We swam over towards the giant but gentle shark (whale sharks are filter feeders) and then floated there hand in hand as it swam around us. At one point its massive tail passed within arm’s reach, and then it began descending and we returned to the boat.
Swimming with Reef Manta Rays-Big Island, Hawaii, March, 2017
In a similar vein to the whale shark encounter, I was able to get quite close to another large marine animal—manta rays-- in the waters of Hawaii. My wife and I were on the Big Island visiting family and had heard that there was an area south of Kona where a hotel had floodlights that shown onto the ocean. At night, these lights attracted plankton, which in turn attracted reef manta rays. Reef mantas can have a wingspan in excess of 15 feet, although most are in the 6-10 foot range. Like their larger relatives the oceanic manta rays (which can have wingspans up to 23 feet) reef mantas are filter-feeders, and they are attracted to areas where plankton congregate. The word had gotten out that the shallow waters near the hotel were great for a plankton dinner, and mantas were known to show up on an almost nightly basis. There were tours that took people out to see the mantas, but I figured that since we had a two-person kayak, we could save a few hundred dollars, and DIY the adventure ourselves. We brought a flashlight and a headlamp (my thinking was “maybe we could attract plankton to our kayak and then the mantas would come right to us”) and pushed off into the waves. The sun was just setting as we paddled offshore to get the lay of the area. It was pretty choppy, and the rocky point on which the floodlights were situated looked quite dangerous now that I could see it from water level. Moreover, as the light faded, I began thinking about all the tiger sharks that make the Big Island their home, and that are most active at night. It also became immediately apparent that the flashlight and headlamp we had brought were entirely useless for attracting plankton. They barely penetrated a foot down into the water.
I kept these concerns to myself, however, and tried to convince my wife that it was still a great idea as we bobbed about in the inky water. And then, salvation arrived. A group of kayakers rounded the point and made their way over towards us. They were part of an actual guided tour, and were on their way to rendezvous with a large catamaran that was also motoring in to the area. The cat had a bank of its own floodlights as well as a giant rig that people could hold onto to remain within the lighted area. We chatted with the kayak guide for a few minutes and he suggested that we could join up with the kayakers and cat tour group. My wife seemed less than thrilled at the prospect of jumping into the surging dark water, plus we needed someone to stay in the boat so that it didn’t float away into the darkness, so we agreed that she would remain in the kayak, and I would jump in and go find mantas. We were about 60 feet away from the group of people that was now assembling in the water around the floating lights, and I banished all thoughts of hungry sharks from my mind and flopped over the side of the kayak. I swam towards the light and even from a distance I could make out large dark shapes in the water below the lights. As I approached, the shapes took form, and I could see there were about a half dozen mantas flying through the water. I joined the group of people holding on to the PVC structure and floated above the whirling buffet-ballet. The mantas would swim towards the surface (and the people) with their mouths wide open, and just before they would touch us they would flip and swim back down towards the bottom, at which point they would cycle back up to the surface. I remained motionless, entranced by the beautiful feeding frenzy, until I began shivering from cold. I pulled myself away from the mantas, turned and realized that the kayak and my wife were a hundred meters away in pure black waters that were almost certainly teeming with ravenous sharks. With no massive bank of floodlights ahead, I put my head down and swam as rapidly as I could without splashing (which, when you are wearing loose aqua-socks is not very fast) back to the kayak. I somehow managed to avoid the sharks and pulled myself aboard the kayak with all the grace of a walrus. My wife and I turned the kayak towards shore, and left the dancers to their meals.
In the process of writing this post, I've realized there are many more adventures I could include, but these are the ones that first jumped out to me. A happy 2020 to everyone, and here's to another decade spent in the company of wildlife!
Next post: TBD
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About the author:
Loren grew up in the wilds of Boston, Massachusetts, and honed his natural history skills in the urban backyard. He attended Cornell University for his undergraduate degree in Natural Resources, and received his PhD in Ecology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has traveled extensively, and in the past few years has developed an affliction for wildlife photography.