Birding in the DC Suburbs

35964256756_c2ae7ed02d_cThe Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalisis one of my favorite birds. We were fortunate to have a pair nesting in the yard of our friend’s house we were staying with in Kings Park, Virginia, one of the suburbs of the Washington DC metropolitan area. Being a good father, the male was often around the nest and I photographed this proud dad in the morning. It is the state bird for seven states and two American sports teams. The striking red color gets everyone excited about birding, including my family. The females are not as colorful but have the nice crest and red accents. They range from southern Ontario to Mexico and from Texas, east, only absent from the Rockies and Pacific Northwest.

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The American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) is also a striking bird. This male was feeding on a thistle-like bush in my friend’s garden, near the nesting cardinals. The Goldfinch is found in every US state and the southern Canadian provinces. It is the state bird of three states and with the male’s bright yellow spring plumage, I can see why. They are the strictest vegetarian bird in the world, exclusively relying on seeds and fruits for its diet. Like the Northern Cardinal, they are a common backyard bird.

The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation does a good job of preserving ribbons of land on sides of creeks and rivers. There was a long trail of woods following a creak in the neighborhood. On my morning bike ride following my wife running, we spotted a fox, which you can see through the bushes, although my camera focused on the leaves in front of it. The fox spotted us coming at it while on the trail and after stopping for a short time to check us out, deftly it went into the bush and crossed the creek to evade us. Our friend warned us to not leave the gate open in order to protect her chickens…  This Washington Post article confirms their presence in DC.

 

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Can you spot the fox behind the bush? 

 

On my next trip to the Washington, I hope to explore a bit of the Chesapeake Bay and some of the coastal environment.

Japanese Macaque

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Scraping through the snow to find food

It was so thrilling to see the internationally famous “snow monkeys” of Japan. The Japanese Macaque (Macaca fuscata) is the northernmost non-human primate in the world. It is such an odd thing to see monkeys on all fours, crawling through snow. We saw one at our hotel in the Shiga Kogen ski resort area, jump down from a birch tree and walk along a top of a high snow bank.

The macaques of National Geographic fame are winter residents of the Jigokudani Onsen in the Nagano prefecture. Winter is a tough time for them and they are fed at the onsen. They gather in large numbers in the narrow ravine. Jigokudani means “valley of hell” in English and it refers to the sulfurous hot springs and steep rocky cliffs of the Yokoyu river.

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There are 23 different species of macaques ranging from Morocco to Japan. We encountered them in Singapore and now here in Japan. The Japanese macaques are found all through Japan except for the northern island of Hokkaido. They are found in the forests around our Osaka suburb of Minoh but we have not spotted them yet.

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The Japanese Macaque is characterized by having a short tail and pink faces and backsides. Besides swimming in the warm geothermal waters, I also noticed that they huddle together often to stay warm. They were pretty good swimmers and we not afraid to go underwater. A fascinating morning and if you are in the Nagano prefecture, I highly recommend a visit to the pools. You can watch the full National Geographic documentary here.

 

Long-tailed Macaques

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We had a grand time riding around Pulau Ubin, an island off the coast of Singapore near the Changi airport. We rented bikes for the day and encountered numerous troops of long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis). They are native to Singapore, Malaysia, Borneo, Thailand, etc, but due to their ability to live with humans, their range has expanded greatly to many islands in the Pacific and Asia and are now a nuisance in many areas. They eat crops, spread diseases and drive out native species.

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They are aggressive and one jumped on the basket of my bicycle to get at my bag. This must be a learned behavior as tourists usually carry food in the baskets. The long-tailed macaques have a long history living alongside humans in Asia because they prefer disturbed habitats . They are regarded as sacred in some Hindu temples. They really made our day today and I hope the population numbers can be controlled on the small island.

 

A Day with the Dolphins

The word awesome in modern English is almost always misused. Awe means a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder. It is often used for experiences that were pleasurable, entertaining, etc., but rarely full of wonder. Yesterday, my son Owen and I had a truly awesome experience of kayaking with Long-nosed Spinner Dolphins (Stenella longirostris).  For a short time, we were in the midst of a pod of 30 or so dolphins, so close that we could hear the blow of air when they surfaced and see the details of skin tone variation and the eponymous long snouts. AWESOME!

Owen and I went over to the adjacent bay in our kayaks to check out a new snorkeling spot. As we were taking the kayaks off the beach preparing to head back to our rental home, I spotted the distinctive fins of the dolphins. They were about 100-150 meters off shore so we paddled out and got right next to them. We spent about 15 minutes with them and then headed back to shore. There must have been over 30 dolphins with a main group and a couple of smaller groups. A few minutes later, two tourist boats came to observe them. They must have spotters on shore or the dolphins regularly come to that area.

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Later in the afternoon, I went back out alone with my camera to try to video and photograph them. The footage in this blog post is from me on the kayak, trying to keep my camera dry, paddling after the dolphins and shooting video, so you can see why the footage is not exactly National Geographic standards.

There is a lot of research and information on spinner dolphins online. One study done in Guam, a researcher from the University of Oregon looked at the impact of human activity disturbing the dolphins. Spinner dolphins during the day come to shallow bays to rest. They swim in formations so the members of the pod can turn half their brain off and still be protected from sharks with the plan that at least one will spot the danger and they will be able to react. However, this is the time that they are close to shore and humans often disturb them, such as the tour boats and Owen and me. We didn’t stay long and were not motorized, but studies show that dolphins will move away from highly disturbed spots and/or their rest will be disrupted and they will reproduce less. They go out at night to feed in deeper water. Below is a chart of their daily cycle. Thank you to Robbie McNulty for posting his research paper online free of charge!

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What a great day on the bay! I really love kayaking and hope to do more of it during this holiday and in other areas around the world. It is a nice way to be on the water, getting exercise and exploring coastlines. The freedom of putting a kayak into a quiet cove and go for a swim and then move on is exhilarating.

We did see them jump and spin a couple of times. I will see how often they come back to the bay this week.

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Mount Lamlam in the background of Merizo Bay

 

 

Black-capped Squirrel Monkey

Yesterday we went to Yvaga Guazu, an ecological park outside of the city, located on the highway to the foothills of the Andes. The owner has a large property that has an extensive plant collection in front, all identified. If you are looking to learn more of tropical garden plants or local trees, this is a good place to go.

The back of the 14-hectare property is still tropical lowland forest and we spotted two troops of monkeys, Capuchin (Cebus) and as pictured above, the Black-capped Squirrel Monkey (Saimiri boliviensis). I was able to photograph the squirrel monkeys (above and below) but not the Cebus. There are six different species of squirrel monkeys and all are similar. They are differentiated through genetics, fur color patterns and range.

The squirrel monkey is adaptable to a variety of habitats, including secondary or disturbed forest. Unfortunately, they are commonly caught and sold as pets. When I was teaching here in Santa Cruz in the late 90s,we found an escaped pet on campus and we kept it in the classroom for a few days before giving it to a reserve. They are very cute and gregarious, so I can see why they are so popular.

We encountered a troop of about 5-7 individuals that were fairly low in a stand of young palm trees. I will upload the video later.

Three-toed Sloth

Sloths are a very strange animal. They are not monkeys, but live most of their lives in trees. They are very slow moving and I can’t see how they can survive in the wild. They do so by camouflage and their fur carries algae to help hide it. Their stomachs are massive because they live on a diet of leaves with low nutritional value. Sloths stay in the trees all the time except to defecate once a week. They will climb down the tree, dig a hole and do their business, cover it up and return to the tree. They are vulnerable to predators at this time. I guess they do this to hide where they live. Predators might smell their stool and look in the tree above it?

The three-toed sloth (Bradypus variegatus) is the most common of the six different species of sloths. They are separated into two families, the 3-toed and 2-toed, although this is a misnomer. All sloths have three toes but they differ in the number of claws/fingers. They should correctly be known as three-fingered sloths.

“I’ve had enough of you tourists.”

Santa Cruz Bolivia was once known for its sloths in the main plaza. All the guidebooks featured that tourists and locals could watch the sloths in the trees in the downtown plaza. They have since been removed as the city has grown. We encountered this one at the Botanical Gardens. The sloth appeared stressed by all the attention the tourists were given it and eventually stopped at a base of a small tree and curled up into a ball. I can see why they were harassed in the plaza and had to be removed. They are one of the few wild animals that are easy to approach and even pet. I remember seeing them in the city of Cartagena Colombia. Vendors carried them around the markets, either for sale or tourists could pay to get their picture taken with one.

They are still quite common in the lowland forests of Bolivia and seem to survive well close to humans. We spotted one at the Guembe Reserve in Urubo, a nature resort in the new part of the city.

What a fascinating mammal! The sloth has been associated with being lazy or slow, but they are far from that. The sloth has evolved to find an unique niche in the forest and is able to live from a diet that few animals can, similar to the koala in Australia. They also have interesting relationships with algae and a range of arthropods that live on their dung and fur. I will be looking for more sloths on our trip to eastern Bolivia later this month.

A distintive marking on the backside of the sloth.

Red Fox

I went for a bike ride yesterday in the late afternoon and was presently surprised by encountering a red fox. I was going around a bike trail circling a football pitch. The field is part of a larger complex owned by the city. It consists of recreational facilities like tennis courts and it is adjoined to a military base. Most importantly for the fox, there is a significantly sized forest as well. I came around the curve and spotted the fox eating something near the edge of the field. I immediately noticed by the long tail and the shape of the head that it was not a dog. After snapping a few photos, it heard or smelt me and took off running. Before it hopped into the woods seeking cover, it stopped, turned and took a good look at me. It was then gone.

In researching the Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) I found out they do well in urban environments. For example, there are 10,000 foxes in metropolitan London. They are omnivores and feed on rodents and garbage scraps, both abundant in cities. They range from North and South America to Europe and Asia and North Africa, and are now a pest in Australia.

In Japan the red fox is known as kitsune. In Japanese folklore, they are associated with the Shinto kami (or spirit-god) Inari. Kitsune have the ability to shape shift into women and have magical powers. They are generally regarded as good and have a long association with the Japanese people

It was thrilling to see such a large carnivore in the city. I was shocked to learn that foxes live so close to our home. I wonder what else is out there? This is why I maintain this blog and try to always have a camera on me, to capture these moments. Goodbye red fox, I hope we meet again.