Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Book Review - The Kingdon Guide to African Mammals, Second Edition - Princeton University Press

     Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the literature of African fauna knows East African Mammals - An Atlas of Evolution in Africa - a six-volume magnum opus by Jonathon Kingdon, a veritable tableau of excellence, eclipsing all previous attempts at coverage of this group of mammals (and arguably all attempts since). Upon publication it received this level of praise from no less an icon than Richard Dawkins, " is more magnum than any opus has any right to be."
     With this background, however, one does have every right to expect a superlative field guide by the same author, and that expectation is satisfied in spades. The first edition was legendary, the second edition improves on legendary! Within the parameters of a standard field guide, designed to slip into a pocket or pouch, it covers all the mammals of Africa and updates taxonomy and adds new species since the original version in 2004. The illustrations, all done by the author, are designed as an aid to identification in the field, not as miniature artworks, and they admirably fit the bill in this important aspect.

     There is a very useful section at the beginning of the book dealing with the African environment where the relationship between climate, elevation and vegetation are linked to the presence of species. Several excellent photographs and diagrams are included in this section.
     This review is not the place to get into a discussion of the newly emerged concept of Afrotheria brought about by the science of molecular phylogeny, but a useful, succinct summary is provided, especially important for those unfamiliar with either the terminology or the concept of Afrothere radiation.
     The bulk of the work follows the standard, user-friendly format of most modern field guides, and its very familiarity and ease of use are key to its efficaciousness. Animals are divided into their various orders and families, with pictures on the right hand page and diagnostic notes and range maps on the left.  Some smaller groups are treated generically, as in the bats, for example, e.g. Tomb Bats, Taphozus, since the species in this group are impossible to tell apart in the field and for the average observer are seldom captured in the hand for more detailed examination. Where extensive morphological variations occur in well known species they are dealt with in detail, e.g. Giraffe, Giraffa (camelopardalis). 
     The book does what every good field guide should do. It gives you the tools to go out and observe creatures, and, by referring to the book, identify them. It is compact, user-friendly and accurate. And it will stimulate further study of Africa's fascinating and often unique fauna, and a concurrent desire to protect it. Who could ask for more?

The Kingdon Pocket Guide to African Mammals: Second Edition
Jonathan Kingdon
Paperback - US$25.95 - 9780691203522 - 304 pages - 780 colour illustrations - 5in. x 7 1/2 in.
Publication date: 25 February 2020

Monday, 24 February 2020

Real Royalty

      I really get tired of hearing all the drivel surrounding erstwhile royalty, and I wish the media would let it drop, and let these poor, pampered, underprivileged, hard-done by waifs vanish forever from the public consciousness. I am sorry they chose to move to Canada. Anywhere but here I say! Let others deal with a defrocked prince and a former starlet, a couple of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too whiners, one of whom suffers from a severe case of silver-spoon-wedged- firmly-in-the-mouth-syndrome.
     Today, Miriam and I went on a quest for authentic royalty, true aristocracy, the real thing. Could I be talking of anything but a Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)? I think not.
     It was a beautiful winter's day; an "Oh my, it's good to be alive" kind of day, and I think that these striking horses agreed with us.

     Living in close proximity to Mennonite territory horses in the field are common sights here, but rarely have I seen this pattern of black-and-white. The horses frisked and gambolled and nuzzled into the snow to find morsels of grass. They seemed nothing short of elated, a mood to match our own.
     Many churches are being abandoned due to declining congregations and this trend is especially noticeable in rural areas where there is a general exodus of young people into cities. 

     We could not decide whether this church has been abandoned or not. No path had been cleared to the door, yet the building appeared in good condition and seems to have even been recently painted. Perhaps it has been purchased for conversion to a residence as sometimes happens. 
     Large round bales of hay were in the fields, wrapped in white plastic, camouflaged in the snow.

     Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris) were quite common as we drove along rural roads, rarely coming within photographic range, however.

     I have to tell you that Miriam has an exceptional ability to spot birds, and this talent seems to manifest itself especially with owls. It was she who spotted a white lump not too far from the road. She knew instantly it was a Snowy Owl.

     Moreover, it was a wonderful pristine white male. Such a glorious creature! Such a regal figure!

     Even princes have to attend to their toilette from time to time.

     A house nearby looked very utilitarian and could not lay claim to style or grandeur. A lone tree seemed a fitting companion.

     The wind had sculptured the snow drifts alongside creeks and ditches, forming beautiful curving shapes.

     Snowmobile trails showed evidence of recent use.

     I was glad that no machines were present with their clatter and roar to disturb the tranquility of our winter outing.
     We drove up and down rural roads that held great promise for flocks of Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis) but none could be found. 
     It was impossible to leave without bidding farewell to the Snowy Owl, who had not moved from the position where we first found him.

     May he have a long and productive life and father many offspring to bring joy to future dedicated observers.    

Saturday, 22 February 2020

Book Review - Handbook of Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises of the World - Princeton University Press

But what place is exempt, what creature safe, from the intrusion of man! Boast as he may of his humanity, he is in a state of perpetual warfare with every living thing which can satisfy his wants or pamper his appetite for luxuries; and his path, almost the world over may be tracked by blood.
J.N. Reynolds

     When I was very young (I don't remember a time when I was not wedded to nature), I had a hard time conceiving of air-breathing mammals living their entire lives in water, and producing live offspring in that seemingly hostile environment. To understand how this is possible has long been resolved, but the sheer wonder evoked by these animals has, if anything, been magnified with the passage of the years.
     A book devoted to the whales, dolphins and porpoises of the world is, therefore, a rare treat and one to be savoured. This lavishly illustrated volume is a template for excellence in its coverage of this group of mammals. Mammalogists the world over will take singular delight in its publication, and it will in short order occupy a place on every bookshelf.

     The work begins with a "how to use this book" section, followed immediately by a segment on the challenges of identification. All the different characters used to clinch ID are covered in detail, accompanied by a helpful series of illustrations. There then follows an introduction to the fourteen cetacean families and information for effective study at sea.
     A two-page spread on cetacean topography covers all salient points, with excellent photographic and diagrammatic support, and a readily understandable depiction of the parts of a cetacean skeleton.
     A "Quick ID" deals with all the topographical features by which cetaceans may be identified, followed by a breakdown of the species to be expected in the various oceans of the world.
     Having become well-equipped to deal with cetaceans as a group, the reader is then invited to delve into a masterful coverage of all the species in the world, from page 46 to page 507. This is the "meat and potatoes" of the book, with an informative, precise, well-written text for each species and an array of stunning photographs. Each species account is supported by maps, charts and schematic representations. There are species that I had not encountered before, and by reading the relevant account, I became familiar with them very quickly, and in considerable detail.
     One of the devices I find incredibly useful in a book of this nature is a glossary, yet so many works do not include one. This is not the case here, where an excellent glossary covers all the terms germane to cetaceans. And the description of each term is concise and complete.
     There is even a checklist at the end for people to tick the species they have seen. I must go through my records and complete this section based on my own experiences!
     Cetaceans are in trouble throughout the oceans and rivers of the world - all of them. Over-hunting by some nations is still a huge issue, with such illegal activity often being camouflaged as science, and the way that we are continuing to overload the seas with plastics and other pollutants is both staggering and foolhardy. Not only are we jeopardizing the future of these ancient, magnificent creatures, we are simultaneously incurring threats to our own survival, and degrading the very habitat which provides much needed protein for a burgeoning human population. It behooves all of us, if only from self-interest rather than altruism, to urge our politicians to take action to prevent the continuation of such practices and to remediate the degradation that has already occurred - and to do it now. We need to pay careful attention to the people we vote into power and ensure that knowledge of the natural world and a genuine conservation ethic is a key component for every public official.
     A world without cetaceans is unthinkable for me. The thought that my grandchildren should not be able to witness the majesty that I have been privileged to see is a thought too dire to contemplate. Let us all band together to make sure this does not happen.
     In summary, this is a book for its time, an important testament to a world which many will never experience personally, but is no less vital to the continuing viability of human existence.
     I encourage you to rush out and buy a copy and urge your local library to do the same. It is just that important.

Handbook of Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises of the World
Mark Carwardine
Paperback - US$35.00 - 9780691202105 - 528 pages - 1,000 colour illustrations - 90 maps - 6 1/8 in. x 9 1/4 in.
Publication date: 25 February 2020

Sunday, 16 February 2020

Great Backyard Bird Count 2020

15 February 2020

     Each year at Waterloo Region Nature (the finest little nature club in the universe) Mary Ann Vanden Elzen organizes our participation in the annual backyard bird count conducted across the continent.
     We do it in style, however!
     Instead of peering out our own windows into our own backyards, we visit the homes of three members of our club, who welcome us with coffee, tea, hot chocolate, aromatic steaming cider, muffins, cookies and the like, and at the last stop, lunch. Having been spoiled in this fashion so frequently, I cast my unanimous vote to continue this tradition forever!
     Brenda Holvey hosted us first. Brenda's husband, Alan, had always been there to welcome us too, but Alan passed away last year at the age of ninety-three, and it is a tribute to Brenda, now ninety-one years old, that she is still living in her own home and continues to welcome so many fellow naturalists. I should add that she received sterling assistance from Meg Slater.


     I can tell you from personal experience that no one is possessed of more intelligence, good humour and wit than Brenda. I am so happy that she is my friend.
     Here we are looking anxiously at the feeders, which were for the most part not patronized extensively.

     Of course, given the very strenuous nature of this kind of birding, we had to keep going back to refuel with food and drink.

     Paul Bigelow always acts as the official counter for our group and seems to be enjoying his coffee, since there was not at that point much to record.

     Others kept looking and also did not miss the opportunity to mingle and socialize, a very important part of this event.

     It is a measure of the paucity of birds visiting Brenda's well-stocked feeders that the visit of a Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) generated excitement and hoots of joy among this corps of expert birders!

     As we left to move on to our next destination, Miriam turned to get a shot of Brenda's house.

     Fraser and Nancy Gibson were the next to host our group; their house being mere minutes from Brenda's location.

     Fraser, a very fine naturalist, has an array of feeders of different types, dispensing a range of seed, with suet feeders also, and there was lots of activity at the Gibson Fat, Protein and Good Taste Café.

     Fraser and Nancy are so fond of bird houses that even their house plants are so equipped.

     I spent a good deal of time fixated on this abode, waiting for the tiny occupants to fly in or out, but if they did they escaped my scrutiny.
     A Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) and a Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) were content to feed on the ground on seed knocked down by energetic birds at the feeders, who obviously had specialized training in eating only one out of four seeds, strewing the remaining three hither and yon - more hither than yon actually.

     These House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) were the proud holders of the avian equivalent of a gold medal in seed tossing.

     Their friends lined up along the fence and in the conifers just waiting to join them.

     Happy humans sipped, snacked and watched.

     A pair of House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) obligingly perched on opposing sides of a feeder.

     I made the facetious remark that males are more handsome than females, and Mary Ann was quick to retort, "Yes, that happens with birds, David!" Touché!
     Black-capped Chickadees in characteristic fashion visited a feeder, grasped a seed, and left.

     And what would a day at the bird feeders be without a squirrel waiting his turn to filch a little snack?

     Soon it was time to move on to Sprucehaven, our final destination, where Dave Westfall, Sandy Hill and Jamie Hill would be our kind and generous hosts. This is a view looking out from the family room window towards the barn where we do our Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) research.

      Everyone was happy to mingle, chat, eat, drink, eat some more and watch birds.

     A wonderful feast was laid on for us, a veritable smorgasbord of so many good things, it begged for a return visit to the table. 
     There are many feeders at SpruceHaven and the birding was commensurately good. Here are shots of some of the species seen.

Dark-eyed Junco
Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)
Hairy Woodpecker (Dryobates villosus)

American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea)
Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens)

     All too soon it was time to head for home, and one by one, we started to leave.
     It had been a terrific day characterized by good fellowship, great food, every bird was a joy to see, nothing could have been better.
     A huge vote of appreciation is due to Mary Ann for organizing the event as she does year after year, and to Brenda, Fraser and Nancy, and Dave, Sandy and Jamie for hosting. 
     I am already looking forward to next year!

Final tally: Mourning Dove (3), Downy Woodpecker (2), Hairy Woodpecker (1), American Crow (1), Blue Jay (1), Black-capped Chickadee (11), Red-breasted Nuthatch (1), White-breasted Nuthatch (1), House Sparrow (36), House Finch (5), American Goldfinch (9), American Tree Sparrow (2), Dark-eyed Junco (10), Northern Cardinal (5).  Total: 88 individuals of 14 species.

Sunday, 9 February 2020

Our Snowy Hinterland

08 February 2020

     It was for us a perfect winter's day. Fresh snow covered the landscape, pristine and white, pure almost, and the temperature was minus nine with just a hint of a breeze. There could hardly be a more agreeable day. 
     Winter here is characterized by a suite of birds that come from farther north and are only present during the coldest months of the season. We set out to discover them and to bask in the glorious conditions of this most splendid Great Lakes region in which we are privileged to live.

     We had good luck finding an interesting variety of species but the opportunities for photographing them were scant. Usually they were too far away, or skittish, and not remaining in one place long enough to permit a picture.
     The first bird we saw was this interesting dark morph Rough-legged Buzzard (Buteo lagopus) and I think that Miriam did a first rate job of obtaining a few decent images of a bird that was not especially close, and was partially hidden by branches. She would carefully direct me to get the car into position for a better angle and by shooting multiple times from different vantages, here is what she came up with.

     A Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) in a distant tree was impossible to capture.

     Initially, I had thought that due to the paucity of bird pictures I would not create a post based on this day out, but it occurred to me that for people who don't live in an area where snow occurs (and even for those that do) images of the winter landscape might be interesting nevertheless.
     This farmer had obviously taken advantage of frozen ground to bring in lumber from the forested areas on his property.

     I am not quite sure what this is all used for, but it is obviously a business, for there is far more than any one farm could use for fuel, for example.
     Farms, and their associated barns and outbuildings look appealing at any time of year, but perhaps they attract our attention more in the winter.

     Another tree furnished a fine perch for a keen-eyed Red-tailed Hawk to scan the fields for rodents; once again, however, it was too far away to show any detail on the bird.

     Many of the rural townships are characterized by a one-room schoolhouse, like the one Miriam attended as a young child. Some, like this structure here, have been modified as a residence.

     There was snow in the woodlots. Animal tracks in the morning will reveal the creatures that have travelled through there overnight.

     A red barn made a bold statement against the white of the snow.

     This grand old house has stood for many a year and no doubt its walls would have stories to tell could they only talk.

     We finally saw a Red-tailed Hawk fairly close, but despite Miriam's best efforts the pictures were a little blurry. I am using one anyway!

     There were many Amish folk out and about and this group seemed to be involved clearing a brushy area in some fashion.

     The young boy had his own pony and sled and seemed determined not to stray too far from the pony which he petted constantly. The dogs were content to act as bystanders.

     This old shed has obviously seen better days and it is questionable as to whether it will withstand the next storm.

     It is a longstanding practice in the Mennonite community that as children get married and need their own space, that additions are simply added to the existing house, some of the structures becoming very large as a result, as shown in the images below.

     A fine sunny day was not to be missed as an opportunity to hang the washing on the line. Mennonite ladies' fashion on display.

     Some sensible people just don't worry about the latest trends and figure that what has worked for centuries still works today! I wholeheartedly agree.

Land Acknowledgement

We acknowledge that the land on which we are situated are the lands traditionally used by the Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabe, and Neutral People. We also acknowledge the enduring presence and deep traditional knowledge, laws, and philosophies of the Indigenous Peoples with whom we share this land today. We are all treaty people with a responsibility to honour all our relations.