Hornbills

Red-billed Hornbill pair, Zambia

Red-billed Hornbill pair, Zambia

These showy birds in the Bucerotidae family can be found in Africa and Asia.  Characterized and named for their large bills, it is this feature that makes them entertaining to observe.

 

Hornbills are the only bird with the first and second vertebrae fused together, a feature that helps support the large bill.  Powerful neck muscles also offer support.

 

Southern Ground Hornbill, Zambia

Southern Ground Hornbill, Zambia

There are approximately 55 species of hornbills in the world, pictured here are four species we observed in sub-Saharan Africa.  Except for the southern ground hornbill, most hornbills are arboreal.

 

Species vary in size.  All the birds here range around 20 inches (50 cm) long, except the ground hornbill at about a meter tall.  More hornbill info here.

 

Crowned Hornbill, Zambia

Crowned Hornbill, Zambia

Their diet is omnivorous, and includes fruit, insects, and small animals.  While the large bill is used for catching prey, the bill is so long that the tongue cannot reach the food.  You will often find one vigorously shaking the head, to aid in swallowing.

 

In addition to preening and fighting with the bill, another important use is for nest building.  Most hornbill species are monogamous.  They construct the nest in a cavity, and when the female is ready to lay her eggs, they do a peculiar thing to prepare a safe environment.

 

Yellow-billed Hornbill, Botswana

Yellow-billed Hornbill, Botswana

They build the entrance just large enough for the female to enter.  Then she enters and the male seals it shut, almost entirely.

 

Using mud, fruit pulp, and droppings to seal it, he leaves enough room to pass food through.  When the chicks are ready, she breaks the seal open.

 

Not only is it a fascinating bird to watch, but the sounds are great too.  Click here for my favorite hornbill sound:  the southern ground hornbill.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

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Happy Easter

Prairie Dickcissel, Attwater Preserve, Texas

Prairie Dickcissel, Attwater Preserve, Texas

Warm wishes to you as we celebrate hope, renewal, rebirth~~

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

California poppies

California poppies

Violet-green swallow eggs in nest box

Violet-green swallow eggs in nest box

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

California

California

Amsterdam

Amsterdam houses

Amsterdam houses

As the capital and most populated city in the Netherlands, Amsterdam is a spirited and unique city.

 

It is popular among tourists for many attractions:  museums, canals, the Anne Frank house, the red-light district, tulips, and cannabis coffee shops, to name a few.

 

This is a city of deep history, starting as a fishing village in the late 12th century, developing into one of the world’s most important ports in the 17th century, the Dutch Golden Age.  Today the region is a modern metropolitan center and cultural capital with a population of approximately 2.5 million.  Click here for more info.

 

Façade of the Rijksmuseum as seen from the Museum Square

Rijksmuseum facade, Amsterdam. Courtesy Wikipedia.

There are so many museums it was impossible to see them all in one week. We visited the city’s two most famous museums:  Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum.

 

Other notable museums include:  Stedelijk Museum, the Hermitage Amsterdam, and Amsterdam Museum.

 

The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer (c. 1657-58). Courtesy Wikipedia.

The Rijksmuseum is an art and history museum, with an extensive collection of Dutch masters.  There are over 2,000 paintings from the Golden Dutch age celebrating Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, and many more masters.  More about Rijksmuseum here.

 

There is also an incredible art exhibit, including Dutch masterpieces, in the Amsterdam Schiphol Airport.  It’s free.

 

The back of the Van Gogh Museum

Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Courtesy Wikipedia

The Van Gogh Museum, located near the Rijksmuseum, is the largest Van Gogh collection in the world (pronounced “Van Goff” by locals).

 

This was an incredible collection featuring the paintings, drawings, and letters of the famous former Amsterdam resident.  More info here.

 

Amsterdam bridge

Amsterdam bridge

My favorite part:  the waterways.  The canals were built in the early 17th century as an urban planning project.

 

In addition to the Amstel River, Amsterdam has three main canals that form a concentric circle around the city, from which many other canals stem.

 

The canal ring area is designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.  There are 60 miles (100 km) of canals, 90 islands, and 1,500 bridges.  Canal boat tours are readily available and affordable.

Amsterdam airphoto.jpg

Aerial photograph of Amsterdam canals. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Tulips abound at Keukenhof Gardens, less than an hour away from Amsterdam in the town of Lisse.  It is open for eight weeks from March to May, highlighting seven million tulip bulbs.

 

Amsterdam tourist boat (Athena's waving in background)

Amsterdam boat (Athena’s waving in background center)

Navigating through the city on boat or bicycle, visiting some of the richest art museums in the world, and enjoying the many elegant sites of Amsterdam is a true pleasure.

 

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander (unless otherwise noted)

A Favorite Sign of Spring

Anna's hummingbird (male), California

Anna’s hummingbird (male), California

It’s this time of year along the U.S. Pacific coast when Anna’s hummingbirds are building their nests.  Every year they are our first bird to embark on the new nesting season.

 

Calypte anna usually lay a brood of two white eggs.  A tiny collection of plant fibers, lichen, and spider webs, the 2-3 inch nest is built by the female.  It can be found 4-25 feet above the ground, and is deeply camouflaged in a tree limb.

 

Anna's hummingbird (male), California

Anna’s hummingbird (male), California

The female will incubate the eggs for 14-19 days, and feed the chicks until they fledge, about two weeks later.  The male helps out by protecting the territory.

 

Though this four inch long bird is tiny, it is fierce.

 

Every spring we dedicate an entire day to searching for a hummingbird nest, but only one year, probably about a decade ago, did we actually find one.

 

Anna's hummingbird (male) -- notice his tongue

Anna’s hummingbird (male) — notice his tongue

The female will leave the nest for brief periods, zoom to the feeders for a few good drinks of nectar, and then return to her chicks.  That lucky day we attentively watched where she went, which led us to the nest.

 

Recently we saw a female gathering nesting materials, flower fluff from a coyote shrub.  For five minutes we watched, as she came in three times.  It was windy, gusty, and she dropped the fluff the first time.  The other two times she flew up a hundred feet into fir trees, disappeared out of sight.

 

They flash across the sky and vanish into the foliage, and somewhere in the forest we know they are nesting.  Right now the males are especially ferocious at the feeders–another indication that nesting is occurring, for they are all vying for territory.  In a few weeks the antics of the fledglings will begin.

 

So many things in life are not certain,  but this start to spring is still a constant in my world.

 

An utter delight.   Happy spring!

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Traveling into Space

International Space Stn and Planet Earth

International Space Stn and Planet Earth

Earthlings celebrated a remarkable milestone this month:  two astronauts returned safely to earth after spending an entire year in space.

 

They resided at the International Space Station (ISS), a microgravity laboratory in space.

 

Astronaut Scott Kelly aboard the International Space Stn, 2016

Astronaut Scott Kelly aboard the International Space Stn, 2016

American astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko returned to earth on March 1, 2016.  It was the longest ever continued episode in space.

 

 

ISS during Aurora borealis

ISS during Aurora Borealis

In the course of their year on ISS, Kelly and Kornienko were joined by 13 astronauts representing seven different nations.  They performed three spacewalks for various tasks of station upgrade and maintenance.

 

More info here about their year in space.

 

Crews of men and women from numerous countries have occupied this station since November of 2000.  Often it is a crew of six who live and work here for months at a time.

 

Coleman discussing Astronaut Coleman describing the robotic arm she operated on ISS at NASA, Houston

Astronaut Coleman describing the robotic arm she operated on ISS; NASA, Houston

The International Space Station is 357 feet (108m) long, about the size of a football field.  It weighs almost one million pounds, about the equivalent of 320 cars.

 

ISS interior

ISS interior

 

 

It travels at five miles per second and orbits the earth every 90 minutes.

 

In some places on earth we can see the ISS in the sky, apparently it looks like a very fast airplane or bright star.  Click here to learn if you can spot the ISS from where you live.

 

Our local PBS station televised “Year in Space” and many of the photos here were captured from our television.  (The other photos are from a NASA tour I enjoyed in 2014.)  This program is a collaboration between PBS and Time, and is a two-part series; the second part will air in 2017.  More program info here.

 

ISS over Earth

ISS over Earth

For images from space taken by Scott Kelly click here.  Take a look at our amazing planet, captured from above.

 

Foods served on the ISS. Courtesy Wikipedia

ISS residents get fresh food only when new supplies arrive.  This, as you can imagine, is a big deal.

 

On the one year mission there was some food rationing that occurred when two consecutive ships carrying supplies met with disaster.  But the third try, a spaceship launched from Japan, was a success.  It safely arrived with 4.5 tons of supplies.

 

NASA Houston, Mission Control Center

NASA Houston, Mission Control Center

Kelly described the smell of space as “burning metal.”

 

There is an enormous physical impact that the human body endures in space.  Extended weightlessness and increased radiation (to name a few) can cause many health problems for individuals who have lived in space. More info here.

 

Although there have been extensive studies done on the health hazards over the years, a unique aspect of Astronaut Scott Kelly’s year in space will be to follow the effects of his body in comparison to his identical twin brother’s body, Mark Kelly, a now-retired astronaut.

 

When it was time to return to earth, Kelly said entering Earth’s orbit was “like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel while you’re on fire.”

 

NASA Training Ctr, Houston

NASA Training Ctr, Houston

I am happy to live on earth and spend every glorious day here.  But I find it a fascinating exploration and am grateful to our space pioneers.

 

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander except where noted

Statistics from nasa.gov.

NASA Space Suit, Houston

NASA Space Suit, Houston

 

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler, CA

Northern Shoveler, CA

Widespread across the world, the beloved Northern Shoveler is a dabbling duck.

 

Typically found in open wetlands, they prefer mud-bottomed marshes where they hunt for invertebrates.

 

Dabbling ducks are ducks that dabble in the surface of the water, rather than diving down under.  They feed by tipping, tail up, to reach aquatic plants, and sometimes snails.  Mallards, a duck most of us know well, are also dabblers.

 

Northern Shoveler, CA

Northern Shoveler, CA

The northern shoveler is named for its specialized spoon-shaped or spatulate bill.  The wide bill has approximately 110 tiny comb-like projections along the edges, used for filtering food from the water.  The shoveler skims the water’s surface in search of crustaceans and plankton.

 

Anas clypeata is a migratory bird, found in much of North America.  Where I live, in California, soon they will be gone, returning to the northern parts of the continent for summer breeding.  More shoveler info here

 

Northern Shoveler, CA

Northern Shoveler, CA

With their clownish bill and bright colors, it is always a joy when this lovable duck returns for the winter.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

 

Tyrannosaurus rex named Sue

Sue's skull, Chicago Field Museum

Sue’s skull, Chicago Field Museum

There is an astounding dinosaur fossil featured in the Chicago Field Museum, one of the world’s premiere  natural history museums.

 

 

Courtesy fieldmuseum.org

Found in 1990 in South Dakota, this is the most complete and best preserved Tyrannosaurus rex speciman ever found.

 

The bones were  90% intact.  Only the red bones illustrated here were missing, and had to be replicated.

 

The skeleton of this T. rex is 67 million years old; and is 40 feet long (12.3m) and 13 feet tall (4m).  The dinosaur weighed more than seven tons and was 28 years old at the time of death, the oldest known T.rex.

 

Sue, Chicago Field Museum

Sue, Chicago Field Museum

Sue’s life (named after the Chicagoan paleontologist who found the first bones) has been thoroughly traced by scientists studying the bones and cellular structure.

 

Sue, Chicago Field Museum

Sue, Chicago Field Museum

By way of fossils found with Sue, from the late Cretaceous period, it was learned that South Dakota 67 million years ago was warm, lush, and seasonally damp — not at all like it is today.

 

The dinosaur’s range covered Alberta, Canada, and the western U.S. states of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and both Dakotas.

 

Terradactyl, Chicago Field Museum

Terradactyl, Chicago Field Museum

Along with forests and  floodplains back then, huge rivers emptied into a sea that stretched from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

 

Conifer, palm, and fern fossils accompanied Sue, along with bones of freshwater rays, sharks, lizards, and amphibians.  Read more about Sue’s life here.

 

The first bone was found by Sue Hendrickson, while working with a paleontology team in South Dakota.  They had just discovered a flat tire on their truck.  While her colleagues went into town to repair the tire, she explored parts of the cliffs that her team had not checked, and found a small bone, then another bigger one.

 

As the grand importance of this skeleton literally surfaced, ownership became an issue.  There were lawsuits, which eventually settled.  It was determined that the man who owned the property, owned the skeleton.  He chose to sell it at auction.

 

Courtesy fieldmuseum.org

There was concern that the T.rex would be purchased by an individual and never shared.  So the Field Museum, who wanted to share it with the world, teamed up with many other organizations and private citizens, secured funding, and purchased it for $8.36 million.  More info here.

 

Courtesy wikipedia

Since the exhibit’s opening in May 2000, more than 16 million people have learned about this dinosaur and his or her life.  (Gender and cause of death were not determined.)

 

What a wonderful world it is that we have people devoting their lives to these studies; we have tools, education and organizations invested in learning more, and sharing.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander except where noted

Courtesy wikipedia