Nature

24
Jan

Differentiating Birds of Prey

Hawks, falcons, and eagles are three of the most skilled birds of prey. While birders are trained to identify these hunters by their plumage, people who have never experienced watching these birds end up mystified.

Telling the difference between a falcon, a hawk, and an eagle is a common problem among many beginners. However, these three have different traits that you can easily make out, even from a distance.

Despite having identical size and physical attributes, hawks, falcons, and eagles have specific traits and behaviors that differentiate themselves from each other. Experienced birders know that identifying a bird of prey takes time and experience.

The different types of raptors have varying plumage, size, and flight patterns, which all factor into their category. These characteristics are what you should be looking out for to identify each type of animal successfully.

1. Size and Shape

Among the three types of prey birds, the eagle has the largest body size, with a broad wingspan and massive feet. Eagles also have a wedge-shaped tail that helps keep them balanced in flight.

Falcons typically have long and pointed wings and a long tail, while hawks have shorter and rounder wings and a long, narrow tail.

2. Flight Behavior

Different birds of prey have varying flight behaviors and patterns. Eagles, for instance, hover over treetops flapping their wings slowly while on the lookout for its next target. They can also be seen perched in trees or on the ground.

Falcons are considered swift flyers that catch their prey off-guard with dives at breathtaking speeds. Peregrine Falcons, one of the falcon species, is regarded as the fastest animal alive. This bird of prey is often found sitting on high perches to wait for the right opportunity to make their assault.

Hawks are medium-sized birds that are mainly found in woodlands. When hunting, this bird dashes from a concealed perch and quickly ambush their prey.

3. Hunting Style

When it comes to hunting prey, Eagles are aggressive and powerful. They have heavy heads and powerful beaks that they use to tear flesh apart. Their massive claws are strong enough to kill their target and ensure it does not escape its grasp.

Falcons generally dive towards their intended target, taking it by surprise. These birds of prey feast on smaller animals located around their territory, such as doves and pigeons. These raptors have an angled beak that is used to snap an unsuspecting animal’s neck quickly.

On the other hand, Hawks are equipped with smooth beaks featuring a simple curve. These animals primarily use their powerful talons to snatch their prey and kill them.

 

Common types of birds of prey found in Eastern US

 

Peregrine Falcon: Ohio

Before the 1940s, analysts estimated that there were more than 3,800 nesting sites made by Peregrine Falcons in the United States. However, introducing a toxic pesticide to the environment cut down their numbers to about 300 sites.

In Ohio, officials conducted a restoration project that reintroduced the species to the state to breed and recover their numbers. There were 46 of the species released in the cities of Akron, Cincinnati, and Columbus, which have since expanded the falcon’s range and territory.

Peregrine Falcon landing on tree branch

Peregrine Falcon

American Kestrel: Tennessee

The American Kestrel is the smallest species of falcon in North America. It sports various colors and has spread widely across the nation. This type of falcon is more commonly observed than other varieties due to its fondness for creating its nest on agricultural lands and residential areas.

Red-shouldered Hawk: Georgia

A year-long resident in Georgia, the Red-shouldered Hawk is a common resident and has an unusual courtship ritual. Two birds would come together and fly while occasionally rolling over on their backs. They are commonly seen soaring the skies while upside down.

Red-tailed Hawk: Florida

Red-tailed Hawks are typically seen making their nests along fields and atop telephone poles and fenceposts in Florida. This hawk species sports a signature bright red tail, which even first-time birders would be able to identify in flight.

Bald Eagle: Alabama

While Bald Eagles are common in the United States, birdwatchers have only seen an average of 100 to 150 birds in Alabama in recent years. This large, majestic bird of prey makes its nest along rivers and large bodies of water.

Bald Eagles stick with one mate for their entire lives and divide responsibilities with each other. Enormous nests are usually found on the crown of massive trees near water bodies.

Golden Eagle: Appalachian Mountains

Sporting a beautiful golden hue, the Golden Eagle are large birds of prey that could have a wingspan of up to seven feet. This species of raptor is found in Alabama in mid- to late November before migrating elsewhere.

Like Bald Eagles, Golden Eagles make their nests on top of large trees and are called aeries. These birds of prey begin laying eggs in February or March inside nests of lower attitude than usual.

Golden eagle sitting

Golden Eagle

 

You can find more information on birds of prey here.

24
Jan

Ladybug Self-Defense

Ladybugs are generally known as cute garden bugs who are both harmless to humans and beneficial to gardens. Their classic red and black body pattern makes them the most endearing of insects. Sometimes people even see them as a sign of good luck. However, the color of their wings serves a purpose beyond appearance; it is also a warning to predators. Ladybugs are naturally skilled at both protecting gardens from aphids and protecting themselves from their predators.

Names of the Ladybug

The name ladybug, or ladybird, came from European farmers who had their crops eaten by aphids. The farmers had prayed to the Virgin Mary for the safety of their crops and ladybugs answered. Grateful for the beetles’ destruction of aphids, they named their saviors “beetles of Our Lady” or ladybugs for short.

While thought of as bugs, ladybugs are actually beetles. Ladybugs are formally known as coccinellidae which is a family of beetles. Within this family, there are several species of ladybugs which vary by diet and body pattern.

The most common ladybug species is the seven-spot ladybug (coccinella septempuntata). This species is what people think of when they think of ladybugs. The seven-spot ladybug has the classical red with black spots pattern and eats aphids as the main part of their diet. The diet of the ladybug varies by species but they are generally omnivores. The most popular choice of food for ladybugs are aphids, but they also eat other insects such as caterpillars, spider mites, and insect eggs and larvae. Because of their love of aphids, ladybugs usually have a good relationship with humans and keep gardens and crops pest-free. Ladybugs also eat plants, fungi, fruits and berries, nectar, and sap.

Ladybug on a blade of grass

Little ladybug sitting on a green grass

Protection Against Predators

Several animals and other insects prey upon ladybugs. Animal predators of the ladybug include tree frogs and birds such as swallows and crows. Insects that eat ladybugs include dragonflies, ants, and parasitic wasps.

The main way that ladybugs protect themselves against predators is through the color of their body. The bright red or orange coloring mixed with black is an example of aposematic coloring. This is a common warning sign in nature that alerts predators that they’re toxic if eaten. Other insects and animals such as frogs also use this sign. Ladybugs are not poisonous to humans but can be to certain animals because they produce toxic chemicals called alkaloids. Alkaloids are present in their blood and will harm anyone who eats the ladybug. A brighter color in a ladybug’s back means they have higher levels of toxicity in their body.

Ladybugs’ spots are another aspect of aposematic coloring. While not all ladybugs have spots, when they are present they will help keep predators away. The number of spots varies by species, ranging from no spots at all to 24.

Another way ladybugs protect themselves is by playing dead. When laying on their backs, ladybugs will reflux bleed where they release a small amount of blood from their legs. The alkaloids in their blood produce an odor that is repellent to predators. Combined with clear warning colors and reflux bleeding, predators should know to steer clear of ladybugs. They will be in for a surprise if they don’t!

23
Jan

On The Trail: Water Purification

Water is an essential part of hiking and it is particularly important to stay hydrated while on the trail. When going out into nature, you should always bring a water bottle of some kind, no matter how short the hike. However, if you run out of water or are hiking for an extended time, you will have to find natural sources of water. Before you start drinking from any lake, river, or stream you come across, first make sure that the water is safe to drink by purifying it.

Is This Water Safe to Drink?

While you should never just assume water on the trail or in the woods is safe to drink, these basic guidelines will point you towards safer sources of water.

1. Look for clear, flowing water.

Clear, flowing water is the best bet for drinkable water in nature. Water that looks clear and free from surface particles is obviously a better option than cloudy or visibly contaminated water. Streams or fast-flowing parts of rivers tend to be the cleanest sources, but you should purify this water as well just to be safe from any water-borne illness.

2. Stagnant water is most likely unsafe.

Lakes and ponds are usually not drinkable because the water is stagnant and most likely full of bacteria. If you are drinking from these sources, you must purify the water beforehand to kill any bacteria or viruses.

3. Avoid water downstream from camping areas.

Water that is downstream from camping or farming areas may be contaminated with water-borne viruses from any waste that traveled into the water source. Steer clear of these areas and head upstream for better water quality.

4. Never drink salt water.

Salt water can dehydrate you which is the last thing you want while hiking. It is best to avoid any saltwater lakes when looking for drinkable water.

 

Mountain stream

How to Purify Water

Purifying water means removing harmful viruses, bacteria, and chemicals that may be in natural sources. There are several methods of purification to choose from; some are more convenient and effective than others.

1. Filtration

Filtering water before you purify it is a good idea if the source is especially dirty, but usually purification alone is enough. Some filters can be inconvenient to use and heavy to carry; a simpler yet less effective way to filter water is to pour it through a paper coffee filter which can easily be carried in a bag or backpack.

Filtration can also be used as a purification method in and of itself. This process is generally done by pumping water through a ceramic or charcoal filter and then treating the water with chemicals. After pumping natural water into a separate water bottle, it will be clean and safe to drink. Some water bottles have built-in filters for an easy and convenient filtration option.

2. Boiling

One of the most effective ways to purify water is by boiling it, which removes any bacteria or viruses it may be contaminated with. Water can be boiled in a metal cup, pot, or canteen over a fire. Keep water at a roiling boil for at least 60 seconds to ensure it is safe and let it cool before drinking.

3. Iodine

Water purification tablets or iodine droplets are the most convenient and affordable way to purify water. Tincture of Iodine 2% is used to kill any viruses or bacteria and will leave you with safe, drinkable water. Iodine is also the active chemical in many water purification tablets which will accomplish the same thing. Add a few tablets or drops of iodine to your water bottle and let the water set for at least 20 minutes for the chemicals to react. Iodine-treated water may taste strange, but it will be effectively clean.

4. Ultraviolet Purification

Ultraviolet water purifiers involve treating water with UV light to neutralize contaminants and organisms such as bacteria, viruses, and protozoa. This method works best on clear water, so it is best to filter your water first. Some ultraviolet water bottles come with a built-in pre-filter. After filtering your water, stir it with the UV purifier for about 90 seconds. While UV purification is very effective, it can be more expensive than the other purification methods.

23
Jan

On The Trail: Protecting Nature

The scope and beauty of nature can be breathtaking and is good for the soul. Hiking is a great way to reconnect with nature and experience its beauty firsthand. But in order to keep the wilderness wild and safe for everyone to enjoy, it is important to protect nature when out on a hike. Anywhere you are hiking or camping, but especially in national parks, make sure to respect the trail and your surroundings. Here are some ways to protect nature while hiking and camping.

1. Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace is the golden rule of hiking. When out on the trail, you should leave everything the way you found it or even cleaner by picking up any trash you may find. Take anything that you bring in with you back out. This not only applies to leaving trash but also taking souvenirs. Avoid taking rocks, plants, or flowers that you find along the trail.

Another way to keep nature safe is to stay on the trails. The designated trails are designed for hiking, but other areas of nature are not. Don’t stray off the trails; this may damage the plant and animal life. The more people following an off-trail path, the more wildlife is harmed, leading to erosion. Wandering off the path is also an effective way to get lost in the woods.

2. Respect Animals

While hiking, you are likely to come across animals such as birds, squirrels, or rabbits, but occasionally you may find larger animals like bears, moose, or deer. If you come across an animal, be sure to keep your distance for both your sake and the animals’. Animals living in their natural habitats should be left alone and respected. Be careful not to frighten them which could cause them to flee their habitats and leave behind their young. You should also avoid feeding any animal as this could make them sick.

A deer with antlers in a field Description automatically generated with medium confidence

3. Be Careful with Fires

Another way to protect nature is by preventing forest fires. When making a fire in the wild, be extra careful to keep the fire from getting out of control. Keep fires small and make sure your fire is far enough away from brush and trees. Don’t leave the area until your fire is completely extinguished with no sparks remaining.

4. Keep Water Clean

When hiking, it’s best to bring your own reusable water bottle. Plastic water bottles contribute to water pollution and landfill buildup, making reusable bottles a healthier option for Mother Nature. If you are filtering natural water to drink, make sure to keep the source clean by avoiding

contamination. Don’t put any chemicals or trash into natural water sources and use biodegradable soap if you are washing dishes.

5. Clean Your Boots

Your boots will most likely get dirty on the trail and can be a mode of transport for seeds or insects. Your boots or hiking gear may also introduce invasive species to new areas and damage to the ecosystem there. Before and after hiking, wash your boots and gear or wipe them down to avoid transporting any invasive species.

11
Jan

U.S. Mountains: Rockies and Appalachians

The United States is a vast and geographically diverse country that is home to several different climatic zones and landforms.

There are five main major mountain ranges in the United States, including the Rockies, the Appalachians, the Sierra Nevada Range, the Cascade Range, and the Coast Range. Today we will be taking a look at the Appalachian Mountains and the Rocky Mountains, also known as the Rockies.

Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee

Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee (part of Appalachians)

The Appalachians

The Appalachians, not to be confused with the European Alps, are an Eastern mountain range located parallel to the Eastern coast of the United States and Southeastern Canada. They stretch from the Canadian island Newfoundland to Central Alabama, a total length of about 2,000 miles. The range is split into Northern, Central, and Southern regions longitudinally and marks a boundary between the Eastern and Midwest areas of the U.S. latitudinally.

The Appalachians are home to a variety of both flora and fauna. The land surrounding the mountains is heavily forested and full of wildlife. The trees that make up this rich landscape consist of firs, pines, hardwood, and spruces. At the ground-level of the forest are shrubberies and herbs, as well as various berries. Animals common to the Appalachians include small and large mammals, large cats and wolves, birds, and snakes. Most well-known are rabbits, deer, wolves, moose, beavers, bears and many species of tree squirrels.

Running through the mountains is the Appalachian National Scenic Trail which connects Mount Katahdin in Maine with Springer Mountain in Georgia.  Hikers that complete the trail through separate trips are called section-hikers, while hikers who complete it in one season are called thru-hikers. The latter group usually hikes from South to North and starts in early spring so they get to the North when the spring does. In total, this 2,000 mile trail usually takes five to seven months to hike.

The Rockies

The Rocky Mountains are a western mountain range located in the United States and Canada. They stretch an impressive 3,000 miles, starting in northern British Columbia and sloping off in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Eight states and provinces are host to the Rockies, including British Columbia, Alberta, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico.

The Rocky Mountains were formed around 60 million years ago as a result of the gradual shifting of tectonic plates. A fascinating landform that runs through the Rocky Mountains is the Great Continental Divide, which acts as a boundary that diverts water to the Pacific on one side and the Atlantic on the other. The Triple Divide Peak diverts water to the Arctic Ocean as well as the Pacific and Atlantic.

Because of the wide range in latitude that the Rockies encompass, the climate is highly variable. The variability of altitude also affects the climate, as the temperature decreases the higher you travel up the mountains. Snow is characteristic of the highest peaks, even in the summer months.

While the human population in the Rockies is limited, the wildlife population is thriving. The Rocky Mountains are home to a variety of animals including mammals, birds, and fish. Among the wildlife in the area are grizzly bears, wolves, moose, elk, bison, otters, and mountain goats, as well as bald eagles and cutthroat trout.

11
Jan

On the Trail: Water Birds

Birds are beautiful and diverse animals that inhabit nearly every ecosystem on Earth. There are thousands of different species of birds, ranging from the tiniest hummingbird to the vibrant peacock to the 9 ft tall ostrich. In this article, we will explore the world of water birds. These birds have adapted to life in the water through flattened bills, webbed feet, and waterproof feathers.

Waterproof feathers

Aquatic birds give their feathers water-resistant properties by coating them with waxy oils. This process is called preening, in which the bird distributes oils from the preen gland at the base of its tail to the other feathers. Water birds must continually preen their feathers to keep them water-resistant. Another way these birds stay protected from water is through a dusty powder in their feathers. This powder comes from the breakdown of special feathers called ‘powderdowns’ and adds to the water-resistance of the feathers.

The following birds are examples of North American water birds you may see on the trail:

    1. Waterfowl

Waterfowl is a classification of aquatic birds that live in freshwater. The main types of waterfowl are ducks and geese, who are both commonly found in North America.

Ducks

Ducks can be found in practically any type of body of water including marshes, ponds, rivers, and lakes. They are omnivores and their diet varies by species. Ducks may be shovelers, who eat insects, snails, and seeds, diving ducks, who are able to dive deep to catch fish, or dabbling ducks, who feed on land or at the water’s surface. Dabbling ducks eat plants, grasses, insects, and small animals.

Geese

There are several types of geese, a common example being the Canada Goose. Canada Geese can often be found flying overhead in a V-formation or around water or grassy fields. These birds are herbivores and eat grass, berries such as blueberries, seeds, and grains.

Geese can sometimes get violent both with other geese and with humans. When threatened, they will hiss or honk and may chase after people. If they’re fighting with another goose, they may attack and hit each other with their wings.

Two geese flying in the sky

Geese flying in the sky

     2. Common Loon

The common loon lives mainly in lakes and ponds. A lake populated with loons is often a good indicator that the water is very clean, even crystal-clear. Loons prefer crystal-clear water so they can see their prey easier underwater, which is mainly small fish. They will also eat crustaceans, snails, or leeches if there’s not enough fish around.

Loons are excellent hunters in the water and powerfully dive after their prey with the help of the feet located at the back of their body. They have the unique talent of being able to flip around 180° in less than a second to follow their prey. After lurking in the water looking for fish, they will suddenly dive down and use these skills to their advantage.

     3. Pelicans

Pelicans are relatively large birds with a weight of 30 pounds and a wingspan of up to 10 feet. They can be found on islands in freshwater lakes where they breed or in shallow marshes where they go foraging for their food. During a migration, they may stop at lakes or inland rivers.

Pelicans are very social and often hunt prey together. This is accomplished by using their collective wings to drive fish toward the shore where it will be easy to catch them. Pelicans also travel together in flocks and will occasionally fly in a V-formation like geese over long distances.

The most characteristic feature of the pelican is its throat pouch, called the gular, which they use to catch and drain fish. They mainly eat small fish but will also hunt crayfish and tadpoles; their diet can vary based on the water levels and which types of fish or other creatures are available.

Two pelicans standing in front of a tree

Pelicans standing by some trees

Next time you’re at Houston Leisure, see how many water birds you can spot.