Monthly Archives: January 2011

National Geographic article Q and A

With Carl Zimmer

There is an open door to ask question of  author Carl Zimmer, in regard to the “long, curious, extravagant evolution of feathers”. The article is in this months National Geographic Magazine (Feb. 2011) , just gone on sale, or here online:

I asked several friends if they had any questions about the article. Martin Collinson and Andy Stoddart came up with these, each followed by Carl’s response.

The 4 amazing right side  photos taken by Rebecca Nason. Can you name them (without checking Rebecca’s blog!). The 1st and 3rd and regular in the UK, the 2nd and 4th are not!

P.S. you must check out Rebecca’s blog- just don’t look for those feather photos!

Any more for any more Q’s for Carl?

1)  Do you think that feathers evolved for display and subsequently gotsubverted for flight?  Or was it thermoregulation?

C.Z. The earliest traces of feathers are patches of bristles, which would have been unlikely to do much good for thermoregulation. So that leaves visual functions—sexual display or camouflage.

2) If scales and feathers are basically the same thing, why don’t any birds

have stripy legs?

C.Z. I don’t know the answer to that, sorry.

3) How many times do you think flight has evolved? 

C.Z. Flight has evolved several times—once in birds, once in pterosaurs, once in bats, and probably a few times in insects.

4) How about those birds (e.g. on throats of hummingbirds) where feather pigment is absent but instead the feathers are reflective (a product of the microscopic structure of the feathers). How/why did this evolve and what are the evolutionary advantages and disadvantages to this feather type?

C.Z. know now that dinosaurs already had iridescent feathers. It’s possible that these bright colors evolved as sexual displays. In particular, they might have signified that a male was in good condition, and therefore a good mate.

Disk tail-feather tip, wobbles during display. Robert Clark/ National Geographic
Courtesy Peter Mullen, Ph.D.

Great White Redpoll… refound!

in North Sheffield.

Coming to a garden nyger feeder in Grenoside. Thanks very much to Vincent Giles who sent these images- taken through a house window. Crickey! I wish I had Redpolls that close. More on this bird and fascinating comments on its unusual appearance here:

with explanation of the bird’s appearance :

All photos below Vincent Giles, 23rd January 2011

Would Birding Frontiers readers like this..?

said National Geographic Magazine

No Kidding! Got an email from some of the guys at the 120 year old magazine. Famed for its yellow-bordered front cover, and awesome award winning photo journalism, it was a bit of an honour (and surprise!).  The scoop is an article entitled:

‘The Long, Curious, Extravagant  History of Feathers” by Carl Zimmer.

It’s in this months National Geographic magazine, February 2011, on newsstands from today (January 25). The author addresses the question: If feathers did not evolve first for flight, what was their purpose? Fossil discoveries from a recently as 2009 shape the discussion.

I will be interviewing Carl Zimmer with a few questions from readers of Birding Frontiers. Interview to follow shortly.

“First Came Fuzz”

“Birds evolved from dinosaurs, but the origin of their feathers may trace back even deeper in time, to the common ancestor of dinosaurs and pterosaurs, like the fossil at left. These flying reptiles were covered with thin filaments that may have looked something like the down on this pheasant chick.

The flying reptile fossil is Jeholopterus ningchengensis, 168-152 million years ago, China. At Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Beijing.”

photo credits: Robert Clark/National Geographic. Photo Caption: National Geographic.

also see:

Tail feather, assists in climbing
Institute of Zoology and Zoological Museum, University of Hamburg. Robert Clark/National Geographic.

It’s a great read, and begins:

“Most of us will never get to see nature’s greatest marvels in person. We won’t get a glimpse of a colossal squid’s eye, as big as a basketball. The closest we’ll get to a narwhal’s unicornlike tusk is a photograph. But there is one natural wonder that just about all of us can see, simply by stepping outside: dinosaurs using their feathers to fly…”

In this copy- out today: (with thanks to Kamie Pamulapati and Kate Baylor of National Geographic Magazine)

Marsh Gull – Sheffield

Well maybe his Great x10 Grandaddy was…

Joined Sheffield January Bird racers down at Orgreave  for the gull roost on Saturday evening (22nd Jan). Mark and Pete had a ‘yellow-legged’ argentatus Herring Gull in the morning and before long it was picked up in the evening roost.  This one looked like it might be from the yellow-legged Finnish population-sporting ‘proper’ yellow legs (similar to dull winter Lesser-Black-backed legs) with reddish orbital ring, only perhaps a tad paler than some of the nearby ‘argies’, with longish grey tongue on p10 and no black visible on p5 (though some Finnish birds have black on p5).

These seem pretty rare to me in the UK. I have only seen a couple before that I thought looked pucka. There was a dead bird found in the London area I think in the 1990’s- which had the same yellow legs, reddish orbital, bit more black on wings than Norwegian argies etc. I was sent details and it had been ringed in Finland. This was the only ‘proof’ which I knew of indicating that birds from the old ‘omissus’ population reached the UK.  Anyone know more about that one? I did have photos of it but lost in the mists of time. Would like to get hold of them again…

Marsh Gull?

It’s the English name sometimes used for the original eastern Baltic, (Finnish,/Estonian/ Latvian) population that nested on  (you guessed it) marshes, and had yellow legs. Used to be called ‘omissus’. Seemingly the omissus stock were invaded by pink-legged Baltic breeders in the 1950’s and lost their integrity.  To add to the complexity it hs been postulated that omissus was originally  the product of hybridisation between Caspian Gulls and Baltic (pink-legged ) Herring Gulls. I am not personally convinced by the hybridisation argument (re Caspian)- or that these yellow-legged birds are uninteresting. They have a reputation though of generating more heat than light!

Some birds from the region, though, still look pretty distinctive and worth looking for in the U.K.

Bad photos but it was virtually dark!

Coues’s Arctic Redpoll No. 7

First winter- 8th Feb 1996

Wintersett Reservoir, West Yorkshire

What follows are photos of 7 different trapped Arctic Redpolls- with very grateful thanks to the guys mentioned below as well as Steve Denny and John Hewitt who sorted out the pics. They range from some pretty obvious ones including adult males and first winters- to some pretty scary ones. I am not challenging any of the identifications; they saw the birds, examined them and recorded relevant details. I am just reflecting on them. They also trapped over 500 Mealy Redpoll- so were well and truly in the Redpoll ID Zone!

These photos help highlight a few aspects of identifying Coues’s Arctic Redpolls.

  • The variable appearance of upperpart tones(especially in different light/ angle of viewing)
  • Some Arctic  Redpolls can be quite brown –toned above
  • Rump streaking is ‘normal’ in Arctic Redpolls- most of these birds have some
  • Flank  streaking is pretty well-marked on one or two birds
  • You can see some variation  in long undertail covert streaks
  • I think a couple of them would be easy to overlook in the field (as expected!)
  • One of them might never get identified in the field!

Wing length: 74mm

Width of dark streak on longest undertail covert- 1.4mm

Length of unstreaked white rump: 8mm (17mm of fine indistinct streaking)

Credit for trapping and photographing  goes to Pete Smith, the late Philip Harrison and John Gardner

Looks like a nice identifiable Arctic Roll. The amount of  white on the rump might be noted as looking a little thin in the field (sub 8mm of white in hand)

Coues’s Arctic Redpoll no. 6

1st winter – 16th Dec 1995

Wintersett Reservoir, West Yorkshire

Wing length: 73mm

Width of dark streak on longest  undertail covert- 1.3mm

Length of unstreaked white rump: 12mm

Credit for trapping and photographing  goes to Pete Smith, the late Philip Harrison and John Gardner

Great Comparison shots by John Gardner

A fine looking first winter Arctic Redpoll- big unstreakd white rump- but the greyish undertail coverts streaking is a little more than a single dark streak.

Coues’s Arctic Redpoll Nos. 4 and 5

2 first winters  – 27th Dec 1995

Wintersett Reservoir, West Yorkshire

Wing length: both 75 mm

Width of dark streak on longest undertail coverts recorded as: 1.8mm and 1.6mm

Length of unstreaked rump: recorded as zero for both birds- with fine streaking throughout rumps of both birds to 16 and 15 mm

Credit for trapping and photographing  goes to Pete Smith, the late Philip Harrison and John Gardner

Bird One

Bird Two