Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Good (Bird) Behavior

To me, bird-watching is a lot more than spotting unusual birds and checking them off on my Bird List. I like to sit and watch... just like when I was a kid and watched fish. (A little diversion: I was really into saltwater aquaria and the habits of all sorts of sea creatures. I lived on Biscayne Bay and had a boat to get to the nearby ocean reefs. From bay to reef, the sea offered me endless opportunity to watch abundant and diverse sealife. I could float over a little ecosystem with mask and snorkel for hours just watching. But, also collecting for my mini-ecosystems at home. By learning the behaviors of the fish and other sea creatures, it made finding and catching them pretty easy. It's the same with birds.)

With birds, I catch them on my camera. I am learning how and where to find them, but even more fun, I am learning what they do in their day-to-day routines... eating, bathing, nest-building, mating, caring for young, watching out for danger and protecting their turf, speaking out, and so on... just like us. And really, just like fish and every other animal in its own way. I'm going to share some of the cool feeding behaviors that I have been lucky enough to see.

Just like the rest of us, bird feeding behaviors are really varied. Like human vegetarians vs. carnivores, the hummingbird delicately sips nectar from a flower(click) while the osprey violently snatches a fish right out of the water in his talons (click) and tears it apart. Don't we all know eaters of both kinds?

Like eating a bowl of stew, Roseate Spoonbills sift crustacea and insects from the mud by sweeping the shallows with their spoons (click). And ibises use their curved chopstick-like bills to pick their prey from the mud (click). Like the human hunter, other waders catch frogs (click) and fish (click) by stalking them - like the Green Heron (click) - or by scaring them up with a lot of dancing around and flapping - like the Reddish Egret (click).

Then there are the smorgasborders. I've watched Snowy and Great Egrets fishing from low docks, picking minnow after minnow from a large school in the shadow below (click), and stand on the rim of an overflow pipe nailing the small fish that are pouring out with the water(click). The vulture, a carnivorous feaster, stuffs his belly with roadkill (or any kind of dead meat). Here's one striking the classic vulture pose, as if he's hoping I'll keel over (click). Whereas, the Black Skimmer might be compared to the picky eater, skimming only from the surface (click).

Some birds dive, swim, and fish underwater. Some divers seek their prey amongst the rocks and plants at the bottom, like this Pied-billed Grebe(click) whose just landed a crawfish breakfast.

The spearfishing Anhinga goes straight for the fish. Crystal spotted this guy just as he surfaced with his big catch (click). When he raised it up, we could see the effectiveness of his spear-point bill penetrating right through the bream's gill plate (click). Instead of biting the big fish into pieces, the bird must swallow it's prey whole. I wonder if they ever get one too big to swallow. This one looked like it had to be too big. The Anhinga maneuvered the fish around - this took awhile - until it was pointing face-first into his mouth (click). Once he got the fish in the precisely right position, he seemed to unhinge his jaw, then all at once, the fish slid into his throat. Mind you, the fish was resisting with a sharp rigid dorsal fin the whole way. Once swallowed, that dorsal fin remained firmly extended (ouch!) going down that skinny neck (click).I remember from my aquarium days, I once had a Sargassum fish who swallowed a Mangrove Snapper that was nearly equal in size. The snapper kept that dorsal fin up and thrashed about inside the Sargassum until it tore open the predator's stomach. Both fish died. I was sad to lose both of these beautiful fish, but it was an amazing thing to have seen.

When it comes to feeding babies, having no breasts, hands, baby spoons, or food-processors, birds have come up with another creative solution: partially-digested babyfood. Yum! Open wide. In most bird species, the parent forages for food, then brings it back to the nest in its stomach where the baby feeds on the reguritated food directly from the mouth or throat of the parent. Here is a Pileated Woodpecker fledgling feeding from Mama's mouth (click). A little gross, but civil compared to the Anhinga chick, whose entire head (and spear-like bill) is down the throat of Papa (click... Yow!).

There's a taste of the world of birds that I have seen so far. There are many other behaviors to photograph and blog on. But they'll have to wait for another post. Until then, bon apetit.