Archive for November, 2009

Here’s a goofy video of comedian T.J. Miller acting and interacting with a bear in hopes of getting a part in Yogi Bear, a combo live-action/animated movie by Warner Brothers. It worked. He got the part of Ranger Jones, thanks to his enterprising tape.

He thanks Hollywood Animal Ranch at the end of the video. By that I think he means Hollywood Animals, which says it trains bears from cubs and treats them well. (Where and how the bear cubs, elephants and big cats are acquired, I don’t know.)

No word on whether the bear Bam Bam worked for free for this occassion, or if TJ Miller paid the customary  fee of $595 for two hours. Just you and the animals of your choice like a tiger, white lion, leopard, bear, panther or cub for an unique animal experience,” they pitch. That means for $600, you can get a date with a bear and play Ranger Jones, too.

Here’s where you can see bears in the wild (or at rehabilitation facilities).

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Every winter since 1674, Hamburg’s full-time “swan father” has taken care of its flock of 120 mute swans (Cygnus olor). The current swan father, Olaf Nieß, uses blue motorboats loaded with hay to ferry the flock to a pond that’s kept free of ice. The city also gives the Hamburg Schwanenwesen winter food and even their own website, too. 

The idea goes back to a myth that as long as one swan lived in Hamburg the city would prosper.

Olaf Nieß, who inherited the job from his father, learned that he only has to move the young, difficult swans. The rest know the routine. When he shows up with his blue boats labelled in emergency services type lettering ” Schwan” (swan) on Schwanenvesen (Swan Boat), they go to their winter place. He catches the unccoperative swan over two or three days, tying their feet with a velcro strap and laying them gently on the straw. The swans stay in Eppendorfer Mill Pond, which the city keeps from freezing over by pumping the warmer water from the bottom to the top. Other migrating geese stop by, too. They forage a little for themselves, but the city makes sure they have grain. Then in March, when the main water area is ice free again. 

Olaf Nieß told the Hamburg Morgen Post that the flock stays at about 120 because some chicks naturally die off. Some swans do get removed–but just to be sent as goodwill gifts around the world. The only real trouble the swans face is flying into buildings or run-ins with traffic or  fishing nets and hooks.  The swans often pick unusual places around the city–windowboxes, traffic islands, tugboats and highrise terraces. The city also has a nice animal rescue and rehabilitation service that raises 300-500 birds a year–not just swans, but all types of birds.

It’s great to see a city appreciate its waterfowl–instead of putting up signs forbidding anyone from feeding them, as has become the trend. 

Find more places  to see birds and animals in Europe

Photo courtesy of Qiao-Da-Ye

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I finally go up to Central Park and see the great horned owl (bubo virginianus) who’s been visiting the ramble this week. I showed up about an hour before dusk, when the owl flies out to hunt. He (or she) spent a lot of the time puffing up, stretching, then tucking his head back to rest. He reminded me of a person trying to ignore an alarm clock. Though he was sharp enough to glare at movement on the ground and a mobbing blue jay.

It’s a huge bird, but it could still be tough to find. I’d found out he was there from my friend Donegal Brown, who takes and gets great animal pictures from readers around the country at Pale Male Irregulars. But, as is often the case in Central Park, you don’t have to be a keen enough spotter to find the bird. You only have to be observant enough to find a bunch of people with giant lenses looking up. By darkness I think 20-25 people had come to see the bird. 

I was especially lucky. The guy with the pro camera let me look through his lens, then even asked for my memory card and shot some wonderful close-ups. Who was this photographer who was impossibly generous? Turns out it was Lincoln Karim, who runs Palemale.com, where you will find dramatic pictures of the owl’s open mouth and clenched foot. Lincoln is a well-known advocate for wildlife in the park. Among other things, pushing to end dangerous rat poisoning. (It’s his picture of the owl with the side view here.)

Lincoln says this bird is unusual in that he keeps moving around. He flies around from spot to spot during the day. And he ends up in a different spot when his fans come to find him at dusk. I asked Lincoln why the owl bobbed his head once he flew out. He guessed that owls are triangulating on its prey; which is exactly what the Owl Pages says. No one knows how long this owl will stick around

Looking for more wildlife around New York City? Here’s a map and guide.

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You can spend thousands of dollars watching wolves in Yellowstone or $50 – $200 to get a much closer and scientific view of the new canine species that is replacing the wolf: the coywolf. And if you’ll have trouble getting to Cape Cod by dusk or dawn, you can even stay in the house of wildlife biologist Dr. Jon Way so he can take you out to see the animal he studies.

Way can take you along for field work when he’s using his radio collars to track the animals that are laregely taking on the role of predator across the east, where the wolf was wiped out. He describes his accomodations as “rustic casual:” you sleep in the basement and eat with his family. But the real attraction is the coywolf  and Way, one of its strongest advocates. He is pushing to change the way the coywolf is classified and treated.

Some state wildlife agencies (in the mid-Atlantic) have been treating these coywolves, which are conspicuously larger than western coyotes, simply as an invasive species from the west. They appeared after the wolf was wiped out. Invasive (as opposed to native) means they don’t belong and were introduced by humans. The invasive designation means about the only management these new coyotes get is hunting by the federal government through its controversial Wildlife Services agency. Even in states where it’s not labeled invastive, there’s no bag limit and long hunting seasons–something Way wants to change.

“We should not be calling this animal a coyote. This animal is really a native animal, essentially a product without human assistance,” he says. “By getting rid of wolves, we clearly opened up the niche for this animal.”

The evidence is showing that the coy-wolf–a term Way predicts will catch on within a year or so–is really a hybrid of the coyote and the endangered Eastern Red Wolf (Canis rufus). Those invasive-native categories have come under attack in books like Playing God in Yellowstone because they presume the American wilderness was pristine and frozen before Europeans showed up.

The coywolf has forced biologist to rethink many old classifications. They are discovering that many of the previously distinct species of wild dog may really be the same. The red wolf is being reintroduced but one of the obstacles is that the animals go out and breed with coywolves.

What we’re witnessing is evolution in our lifetimes. The wolf’s niche was largely wiped out by development, but a slightly different niche opened up and the coywolf filled it. The coywolf is more amenable to living near people and more flexible in its diet: it eats tiny rodents up to deer.

Eating deer may be the thing that makes the coywolf popular. Way thinks the coywolf could be the answer to the exploding deer population–if people would just let the coywolf do its job.

“The answer is right in front of our face,” he says. He supports the reintroduction of the wolf, but thinks they’re never going to be able to be as widespread or effective as the coywolf in modern America. Wolves won’t be able to exist in suburban areas where deer generate complaints.

Way would like to end the no bag limit hunting that is keeping coywolves in check. About 400,000 coyotes are killed every year, according to a story by Mike Finkel in Audubon. “That is more than 1,000 coyotes a day — almost a coyote a minute,” Finkel writes. The federal government is, remarkably still in the business of predator eradication and its Wildlife Service division itself killed 89,300 coyotes in 2008.

The Adirondacks tourism office, for example, boasts that call coyote hunting “one of the fastest growing sports in the country.” With an estimate of 20,000 to 30,000 coyotes in New York, the office pitches, “there are plenty of opportunities in the Adirondack Park.” In Way’s Massachusetts, last year hunters killed 442 coyotes, almost double the previous years’ total.

Way wants to encourage another way to enjoy the coywolves: come out an watch them in action. Aside from his personalized treks, he hopes to open a center so people can learn and enjoy them all the time.

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Paris loves pigeons

When I went to Paris recently I was surprised to see what looked like a beyond-huge pigeon house in a pocket park in Montmarte, not far from Sacre Couer. Did pigeons, detested throughout the world, find a warm welcome from Parisiennes? Were they like the Jerry Lewis of birds?
Well, not quite.
The pigeons like the giant communes, where they live comfortably in groups of up to 200. But it’s a trap. They’re designed so the pigeons don’t poop on buildings. And every week or so someone from a pest control company comes in and shakes their eggs so they won’t have baby pigeons.
They do allow some reproduction. A Bloomberg report seems to say they let one egg per nest hatch. Le Figaro seems to say that workers let the first brood of each pair (La première couvée de chaque couple) hatch, then shake all the rest. Either way, it amounts to a lot of pigeons not being born, but a good life for those who do hatch.
The League for the Protection of Birds [Oiseaux] (LPO) likes the plan. The Humane Society of the United States has been pushing contraceptive as the most sane, least cruel strategy for dealing with populations of animals that people find annoying.
The big catch? Those fancy houses cost a lot of money. Like 20,000 euros ($30,000) to build and another 5,000 euros ($7,500) to maintain. But just one experimental house up five years is supposed to have prevented the birth of 5,000 pigeons. Depending on how long the houses last, it amounts to something like 9 € ($13.50) per pigeon prevented.

Can’t believe there’s any real wildlife in Europe? Check out this animaltourism.com map and guide of cool places to see Europe’s wild horses (koniks), bison (wisent), wild boars and other natural wonders.

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Birding Bob (also known Dr. Robert DeCandido) send a report from Thailand. Birding Bob is a biologist who leads popular tours in Central Park. Here’s where his pictures are posted.

Thailand (mostly raptor) photos: Surprise Surprise…near this national park (Kaeng Krachan in Thailand), there is a very slow (dial-up) internet service. I can now send and receive messages albeit very slowly.

So, do you want to know about the 10 foot King Cobra that was within about five feet of me (I did not move – more on this is a second); or do you want to know about the Red-legged Crakes, Orange-headed Thrushes; Great Pitta, Mouse Deer and some others that I was watching from a blind? Well, the two stories really are one – let me begin by writing that two of the folks I know here approached a few local poachers to set up water holes (well the poachers had the water holes already set up – about seven), and my two friend promised to bring tourists and charge them money and pay the poachers a fee.

So on Wednesday afternoon a few minutes after I arrived, I found myself walking into the forest  – and then sitting down in a fairly comfortable hide (= blind; there are about six hides near this first water hole). Not much happened from 2-4pm but then as the light got a bit dimmer, all sorts of birds began to arrive. The absolute highlight were the Red-legged Crakes who chased one another in and out of the water hole (about 18 inches wide by 6 inches wide by three inches deep – so not too big). Red-legged Crakes were previously believed to be rare here, but this eco-tourism/anti-poaching effort is making some discoveries too.

OK anyway, I am watching all this and enjoying it – including the Giant Pitta (I have to look up the common name – but it was a Pitta) – and all the squirrels and tree-shrews eating the Papaya and other fruits. And they come and fetch me at 6pm because it is almost dark – but good enough to find my way out. So on the following afternoon (Thursday), after my very favorable report, I return at the same time or thereabouts…and this is now the second part of the story.

It is 2:30pm, I am sitting quietly in my hide minding my own business…when way down the trail coming at me slowly is a big snake. I mean big…(I had heard that King Cobras had been seen and the advice was to just sit still and let them pass by). Well, the Cobra keeps coming toward me and my heart is pounding; I pick up two stones and plan an escape out the front or side depending upon which entrance the Cobra might use to get into the dark shelter. I can say with all honesty – right about then I wish it was a Tiger that was coming at me…But wait a second – the Cobra stops at the water hole and proceeds to drink for what seemed an eternity. All the birds were going nuts (including Black-naped Monarchs and a lone Racket-tailed Treepie).. Then the Cobra finishes drinking and continues toward me…now it is rearing up (and I am almost panic attacked at this point)…I am watching it taste the air about ten feet from me with not much more than some canvass and mesh between me and it. And of course a couple of holes for my camera and me to see through…To make a long story short – the cobra decides to make a left turn off the trail and climbs up some vines and disappears somewhere over my head…for all I know that Cobra could have spent the entire afternoon watching me (or tasting me via the air) from above.

I eventually calmed down and got some Orange-headed Thrush photos and a crake shot or two. No elephants or tigers yet – thank goodness.

Photo from Wikipedia

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Last week I got to visit the Saarbrucken Wildpark, but I’m still not completely sure what I saw. There’s no exact translation for “Wildpark,” but these little nature attractions are all over Germany. Native animals–wild boars, fallow deer, red deer, bison –and farm animals like goats roamed in huge pens in the woods.

But then when we got to the cafeteria there were signs and a brochure boasting of “wildsalmi” and how great it is that they let animals live wild until they die.

So were these animals here going to be eaten? Were they rescued from injury? Or were they just here for a pleasant show?  The answer is probably the last one, as near as I can gather so far. The couple Germans I’ve talked to were adamant that the animals at wildparks aren’t eaten. They didn’t know about rescue. As a small-time wildlife rehabber, I’d think the parks would be the perfect place for injured, orphaned or diseased animals that couldn’t survive in the wild.

They seem to be a unique German–or maybe European–tradition going back decades. This one was built in 1929. German friends say they went as kids. That explains why the extraordinarily helpful train clerk in the Saarbrucken station practically tried to talk me out of going, noting that there were certain hours to go “if you want a pony ride.”

Europeans may be bored with their fallow deer and wild boars, but I’ve never seen them. I couldn’t have been more delighted with the native European animals they had there. The wild boars were the animals most interesting to me, even though they mainly just napped in the mud. There were both red and fallow deer. I tried to use my knowledge of German from 99 Luft Balloons to ask a helpful worker which these were. And then I learned that that luft means air, not red. Plus they have wisent (Bison bonsasus a smaller, endangered European version of the bison), which are breeding. I’d like to figure out if the young wisent are part of the captive breeding program that is returning the wisent to the wild. The wisent ignored us at one end of their ample enclosure but came rushing over at the other end. I think it was the piles of acorns at our feet they were after. I obliged–after all, you’re allowed to feed the animals here, a huge difference from U.S. wildlife facilities.

What’s peculiar is I wrote to some German tourism office before we left asking about chances to see wild animals. One wrote back that the Rhine isn’t known for fallow deer; it’s known for wine. Gee, thanks. I think these sleepy wildparks would be a big hit with American tourists if they knew they were there.

Got any information on wildparks–or other good places to see animals in Europe? Let me know, so I can map them at animaltourism.com.

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Ilya, the Florida manatee rescued from New York harbor two weeks ago, should be well enough to be released in the Florida Keys in about a month, says Dr. Maya Rodriguez, the veterinarian at the Miami Seaquarium, which supplied the picture of Ilya (left) swimming with his poolmate.

“We expect him to get a clean medical mill in next couple weeks,” says Dr. Rodriguez. Identified by his mangled tail and white scar on his forehead, Ilya at least didn’t pick up any new distinguishing scars on his journey up to Cape Cod that perplexed marine biologists. 
Stuck in the cold water of New York harbor, Ilya initially suffered cold stress, which can shut down manatees’ long digestive track and immune system. He lost about 100 of his 1,200 pounds, had low blood sugar and was having trouble digesting, Dr. Rodriguez says. A video (below) of the event shows him getting wrapped in mylar survival blankets and getting spritzed with water to keep moist.

Ilya is recuperating in a 82 degree saltwater pool at the Seaquarium with an orphaned, female,  18-month-old manatee picked up in the Everglades and named Glade. Normally Dr. Rodriguez would be reluctant to put such a big male in with her but Ilya has been very gentle. “He’s just a really docile manatee,” Dr. Rodriguez says. 
Ilya is unusual among manatees, which normally handle food just with their prehensible lips, because he grabs with his flippers. “He’s all flippers,” says Dr. Rodriguez. Ilya, who touches noses with Glade, has even taught his new companion to pick up lettuce with flippers.

Since the water in Florida is still warm, Dr. Rodriguez will wait a bit to release him so he isn’t tempted to head north again. Manatees need to stay in Florida (often by the warm water of hot springs or power plant outflows) over the winter but migrate in all directions away in the summer. Ilya was caught on the third attempt near the outflow of the Conoco-Phillips in the Arthur Kill, which separates New Jersey from Staten Island. 

Ilya kept coming back for the 75 degree water even though it was in a heavily industrialized area; the rest of the harbor was in the 50s. Plant workers kept a close eye out for him and alerted rescuers when he returned. The video shows the rescue workers lining up and splashing the water to goad him towards the giant net. A huge team of oil workers, volunteers from the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, local EMT divers and federal wildlife agencies pitched in to save the endangered manatee.

Wanna see a manatee at one of the places they huddle to keep warm this winter? Try these hotspots.

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Literary agent Pamela Brodowsky people who travel to see animals will want have to dream about travel adventures. Destination Wildlife: An international site-by-site guide to the best places to experience endangered, rare and fascinating animals an their habitats gives you places and animals to aspire to see around the globe.

The book is exactly what you’d want to have on hand through a cold winter weekend when you’re dreaming about where you could travel next year. You’ll need some other books to get into the specifics of travel to all those destinations, but this is a nice way to browse your options. Written with the National Wildlife Federation, you can be pretty sure these are ways to see animals that aren’t going to hurt or exploit them.

Brodowsky is extremely diplomatic in describing the one place in the book I’d question: the wild horses of Assateague and Chincoteague. She describes the roundup of horses, some of which will be sold, adding “Depending on your personal preference, you might want to join or avoid the pony-swim crowd.” Fair enough, but I’d go further and say that many people who love wild horses would be disturbed by the round-up–especially since the horses are managed so differently on each side of the Maryland-Virginia border. The Maryland folks use the Humane Society’s birth control procedures (and allow dogs); the Virginian manage the herd to sell off horses every year to support their fire department (and ban dogs from the island, even inside cars). Which would you rather support? 

I would have liked to see some glossy color pictures and maps, a fuller representation of wildlife everywhere and a greater willingness to consider places outside big national parks and sanctuaries. Animaltourism.com tries to give people practical wildlife options close to home. But we need all kinds of wildlife watchers and guides to promote sustainable, responsible wildlife watching. Brodowsky does uncover a few rare gems, like Monkeyland, a primate sanctuary in South Africa, and specific inns to stay at to see the friendly gray whales off Baja, California. I bet her book inspires lots of great adventures.

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A Scourge of Bunny Rabbits?

Stadspark (City Park) in Antwerp, Belgium, has bunnies like Central Park has squirrels. At first I didn’t believe a local who told me of the roaming rabbits, but they aren’t hard to find. In fact, they were hard to miss. Black, white, multi-color rabbits that had clearly been released from careless pet owners, nonchalantly gathered in clusters and hopped across paths.

Antwerp is not alone. It’s just one of many places around the world facing a surging rabbit population. Stockholm parks managers kill thousands of rabbits a year, so many that this year they decided to start burning them as fuel. England is worried of a rabbit surge. Even Mike Ballast, the composer who wrote theme song for the embattled rabbits of Watership Down, has been wiping out rabbits on his estate. In British Columbia, the town of Kelowna has been hunting bunnies with air rifles, but will now catch them and try to give them to rabbit rescue groups or neuter them like feral cats.

What’s going on here? There are two kinds of rabbits: wild and dumped pets.Both groups are benefiting from some changes: in Europe 95% of rabbits were wiped out by the myxomatosis virus in the 1950s. But resistant rabbits thrived and over the decades the population came back to levels not seen in many people’s lifetimes. Some also think global warming lets them overwinter in places that were once inhospitable. And there’s the lack of natural predators. Or even unnatural predators, like unleashed dogs, which have vanished since the 1950s.

The dumped pets generally can’t survive in a real forest; they starve to death or are eaten by predators, according to the House Rabbit Society. A predator-free city park with human feeders can be another story. Some of the rabbits I saw in Antwerp were babies–too cute to have been dumped. So I think they’re successful enough to breed. People who dump pets are hard to catch–unless the cities start requiring microchips in rabbits, which could quickly put an end to the problem.

What’s odd is that there’s been little effort to introduce natural predators. That’s admittedly difficult in a city park. But fox and rabbits are the classic population cycle relationship biologists have been using for decades. English pest control agents are using ferrets to chase them out of holes. If there are any natural predators out there, they’re likely to start surging on their own with this healthy diet.

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