Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Christmas birds at Marievale

WARNING: The following post contains 90% pictures of birds by volume. If you're not interested in birds , check out the post on Guns or the Anniversary Appendectomy.

Last week, my friend Andrew de Klerk took me out for a morning of birding at Marievale Bird Sanctuary. The sanctuary lies about 70km southeast of Johannesburg. Its 2500 acres of small ponds and mudflats are the result of mining operations disrupting the course of the Blesbokspruit, a small stream (by USA standards) that ultimately flows into the mighty Vaal river. 

A satellite view of Marievale Bird Sanctuary. You can easily get a sense of the incredible amount of wetland habitat, and also a sense of how it is sandwiched between intensely cultivated agricultural land and mining operations (see the tailings pile on the upper left, shining like a golden rhombus).

Marievale is one of South Africa's IBAs (Important Bird Areas, not Irritable Bowel). The species list for Marievale is over 280 species, and it's a main feeding area for Eurasian migratory species in the boreal winter. The following pictures show just a few of these bird species I was able to capture using my new telephoto lens.

An African Darter. There are only five species in the darter's immediate family, and like cormorants they produce no oil so their feathers become waterlogged when swimming. Although this helps them dive for small fish, it also requires extended periods of drying in the sun.

This rather emo-looking fellow is a Black Heron. In the picture below, he's making an umbrella of his wings to shade the water so he spot small fish and frogs.

A gorgeous Black Winged Stilt foraging and in flight. Look carefully at stilt's beak on the top photo - you should be able to see a droplet of water between the upper and lower parts. Stilts (and many other shorebirds) actually use surface tension to transport small droplets of water containing their prey up the beak and into the mouth (like capillary action).

A Cape Longclaw, one of my favorite South African birds. It's quite similar but not closely related to the Meadowlark of the USA.

One of the boreal winter visitors (from Siberia), a Curlew Sandpiper.

Unfortunately a rather rotten picture, but this is a Hottentot Teal, a cute little duck that migrates within Africa. 

One of the many dead barbels (catfish) seen floating in the wetland. This one was about 2 feet long, but some go over a yard.

A Lesser Striped Swallow, another intra-African migrant. This one is not quite in full breeding plumage.

A Lesser Marsh Warbler defends his territory. The warblers down here are basically all brown and indistinguishable to a novice eye like mine. Calls are quite distinctive though.

Another of my favorite South African birds, this is a Long Tailed Widowbird male, displaying for mates. These guys formed the basis for a classic study in sexual selection, where researchers captured the males, cut the tail feathers off of some and glued additional tail feathers to others. The males with the longest tails mated with significantly more females. The long tail makes them particularly susceptible to wind, and it's funny to see these fellows being blown about like loose kites in the summer breezes.

The Masked Weaver, a ubiquitous garden bird. Although garrulous, they're pleasing to the eye and weave intricate nests. 

These may or may not be weaver nests, but you get the idea.

A Red Bishop male in full breeding plumage.

This cover of Red Knobbed Coots filled the lee side of one of the small waterways. Apparently people have spotted upwards of 3000 of these birds at a time during peak season.

The Reed Cormorant, a resident of Marievale.

Here's a little Stone Chat male just getting up to full breeding colors.

This Ruff is a Eurasian migrant, and yet another species that flocks to Marievale in the boreal winter. 3500 were once counted in a single large flock (proper name: a fling of sandpipers).

The above three pictures are of one of my new favorites, the ethereal Squacco Heron. These guys are just wintering here.

A Whiskered Tern on patrol.

A White Throated Cormorant giving a strange display.

A White Throated Swallow chilling out.

The Yellow Billed Duck is a South African local.

Finally, this Yellow Crowned Bishop stands out in the swamp.

All in all, we saw 70 species in a few hours of birding (on a windy, cold, rainy morning), of which 40 or so were completely new to me. All of the pictures above are of relatively common birds. Next time - Kingfishers!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Gun fun

A couple of weeks before Christmas, I played hooky at work and spent a day at the shooting range with my colleague Bernhard and two students in the department, Pia and Mike. Here are a few of the pictures - image credit goes to Pia for many of them. For those of you worried I'm putting together a doomsday bunker and planning on going off the grid, let me assure you that my only motivation is to learn how to bag my own game for culinary purposes.

Our nearest shooting range is to the west of the city, in a neighboring municipality called Roodepoort. 

The Durban Deep Rifle Range is built into the backside of an old mine tailings pile, so stray ordinance is absorbed by sand.

The clubhouse features mementos portraying a rather deep and distinguished history. For example, this plaque has competition medals going back to 1919 on it, and another one had medals back to 1909. 

The recent history is far less distinguished. This poor fellow was gunned down on the range while he was checking his targets. Thieves shot him with his own weapon. Since this nastiness, procedures have been changed at the range, but it stands as a good example of the unfortunate violence that touches most everywhere in South Africa.

I'm considering joining the South African hunters association just because of its awesome Dinofelis (sabretooth cat) logo.

But enough about the range, let's review the arsenal! We actually fired three handguns (you'll see Bernhard's snub nose revolver later). These two are a .22 and a .357 revolver, respectively.

A .22 lever-action.

A .357 lever action.

The two game rifles: a .30-06 top, and a .375. The .375 is the minimum calibre legal for use on big game in South Africa. It also kicks like a mule.

We were assigned a few benches at the range and allowed to lay out the weaponry as we saw fit. Here I'm firing the .357 lever action while Bernhard instructs Pia in the finer points of shooting the same-calibre revolver. 

Bernhard lighting up the 10m target with his snub-nosed revolver.

For 'zeroing in' the sights on the game rifles, we used these adjustable stands and sand bags to eliminate user inaccuracy (in my case, flinching due to recoil).

Here I am, popping off a few rounds with Bernhard's revolver. Temptation to shoot from the hip, cowboy-style, was quite high but I valiantly resisted.

And upon inspecting Pia and my own placements on the target, I am firmly resolved that if there is an intruder in my house, I'm going to hand the gun to Pia and ask her to take care of it.

Here's Mike shooting at a rather distant (100m) wildebeest target. He's now using the a tripod rather than the shooting table to simulate proper hunting conditions. Mike, Pia, and Bernhard made every shot in the critical area at this distance - I had decent success as well.

For our last shots, we squared up this charging Cape Buffalo target at about 25m, simulating a dangerous game scenario.

Despite the pumping adrenaline, we were all able to hit the bull between the horns, as it were. My goal this year is to fill our chest freezer (yet to be purchased) with a pile of biltong, droewors, and prime cuts from a bok I've hunted. I'll clearly need to spend a bit more time at the range first.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

European tour part Zwei: the land of the Huns

And so after a fruitful yet expensive time in the Kingdom of Mercia, our little troupe buggered off to the Continent for a hearty dose of German hospitality.

This is just a teaser from our first stop, Berlin, where we attended the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology Annual Meeting. Here a Brachiosaurus towers over the atrium in the Humboldt Museum of Natural History, where the conference reception was held. Owing to our commitment to professionalism we took no other pictures at the meeting, so we'll pick up in Tubingen, our first stop on the post-SVP two week museum spree.

The relationships of Tubingen, Stuttgart, and Berlin, our three German cities. Note that our travel vector was considerably different from this owing to striking German transport employees. It's nice to know that strikes happen outside of South Africa sometimes...

Tubingen is a small university town of about 85,000 people. At its heart, a walled medieval city still has bustling markets. Here's a shot of the main square at night, as we struggled to find our rendez-vous point with friends.

The University of Tubingen houses a magnificient paleontological collection, with everything from dinosaurs to sea lilies. Here I'm standing next to one of their many panels of ammonites.

And this is a panel of sea lilies, or crinoids. These fascinating creatures attach themselves to the substrate (here a log) and send out delicate stalks with filter feeding arms at the end. What's cooler, though, is that THEY'RE STILL ALIVE TODAY. And I didn't know that until I wrote this blog post.

A modern sea lily from the internet.

Although their dinosaurs are nice, I'd have to say that the Tubingen displays of various marine reptiles were some of the most diverse and awe-inspiring that I've ever seen (and then we went to Stuttgart which is a close competitor). These are some plesiosaurs.

But of course, we mostly weren't working up in the nice part of the museum. Blair's standing at the end of one of about 20 aisles that form the bulk of the real collection.

Our next stop along the way was the "Staatliches Museum fur Naturkunde Stuttgart," or the State Museum of Natural History. The museum itself is in a strange architectural style, especially for European museums, but this is because the original museum was firebombed in WWII and destroyed (along with quite a few important fossils).

Every morning, we traversed this rather lovely park between our hotel and the museum. The only fault - dickhead bicyclists whizzing past.

We were at the museum for its special exhibit on feathered dinosaurs - here an oviraptorosaur guards its nest.

The main portion of the exhibit has been recently redone, including some fantastic dioramas like this one showing the early evolution of tetrapoda...

...and this one showing a Middle Triassic scene...

...and this one showing the rise of the dinosaurs in the Late Triassic.

Their collections space was well-organized, but I get the sense that the gentle reader may now understand that these things are just sets of drawers, so I will refrain from showing any more pictures of them.

We had a weekend day to devote to cultural enjoyment, so we took the train to the nearby town of Ludwigsburg. On a Sunday, the public squares were full of lively markets and farmer's wares, including these heads of "Klu Klux Kabbage". 

But our objective wasn't to purchase cabbage (in fact I was quite full of cabbage at that point), it was to visit this impressive palace, the Residenzschloss, built by Duke Eberhard Ludwig von W├╝rttemberg in the early 1700s. It has over 400 rooms, of which we saw less than 100 (no pictures were allowed inside).

The grounds of the Residenzschloss are equally impressive, featuring this mini-castle and many other outbuildings such as an orangerie. Owing to the short, dark days of early winter, most of these structures were closed to the public.

Having unfairly ragged on cabbage, I need to show you some of the better German chow we dined upon. This is an eisbein (or schweinshaxe), basically a brined ham hock that is roasted until the skin turns into crackling. On the left, semmelknoedel, or bread dumplings. On the right, spaetzle, or fresh German pasta.

And just like that, we were back to Berlin, this time to study some dinosaurs. We had a rather ominous start, as it turns out that the backpackers hostel we booked into belonged to a nightclub complex called the "Ball House."

Berlin wears the scars of WWII on its sleeve, and many buildings have facades marred by bullet holes and shrapnel marks, as above.

This is the impressive Berlin cathedral, which sits amongst other beautiful buildings on museum island. As you might expect, a closer look shows a facade marred by bullet holes.

Among the cooler non-dinosaurian exhibits at the Humboldt Museum in Berlin was the fish collection. Fish are commonly preserved like this - in glass jars containing a mix of ethanol and water. Rather than hide their 80,000 jarred specimens away in some attic as most museums do, the Humboldt made all the back walls of the collection out of glass, and now visitors can peer in and see ichthyologists at work (while being kept safely away from all that sweet, sweet ethanol).

The Humboldt houses much of the famous dinosaur collections from the Tendaguru beds in Tanzania. Tendaguru was a Late Jurassic deposit, and at that time dinosaurs were attaining truly massive sizes. Here Kimi is standing next to a shoulder blade of a brachiosaur...

...and Blair is working in the catacombs, surrounded by monstrous pelvi and femora.

...and here's what you've been waiting for. The showcase of the Humboldt Museum is the famous "Berlin Archaeopteryx," an exquisite specimen preserved on a slab of limestone that clearly shows how this "first bird" is a mix of primitive and derived features. In accordance with its iconic status, it's behind bulletproof glass and raking light shines on it for only 30 seconds out of each minute.

...but perhaps what you didn't know is that the Humboldt ALSO harbours this fossil slab of ancient amphibians that look kind of a lot like a bunch of weiners. Strangely, this one isn't behind bulletproof glass.

And with that, I bid you auf wiedersehen!