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Our science fun this week is inspired by the book Seabird in the Forest:  Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet, written and illustrated by Joan Dunning (the link goes to a longer review).

This nonfiction picture book tells the incredible story of the marbled murrelet, a tiny seabird that searches deep in old forests to find a place to nest in a large tree. Once they build the nest, incubate the eggs and the eggs hatch, the parent murrelets fly all the way to the ocean to catch fish for their nestlings. They bring the fish back to the tree, a journey that may be as long as one hundred miles per trip.

The fact that murrelets nest in old-growth trees was only discovered recently, after all who would think of looking for a seabird nesting in a big tree?

Activity:  Investigate what sorts of animals live in a tree in your neighborhood.

Gather:

  • notebook
  • pencil
  • binoculars (if available)
  • camera to record observations (if available)
  • field guides to help you identify animals

Pick a tree in your yard, or nearby, to study. If you can, try to identify the tree. Go out each day for fifteen minutes. Slowly approach the tree looking for birds and squirrels first. Listen and look through your binoculars. Once you write down all the birds and squirrels that you see in the tree, then get closer and look for insects and spiders. Try to figure out what they are and what they are doing. Do this for one week. Or even better go out in the morning for ten minutes and the evening for ten minutes. Do you find different animals at different times of day?  After you are done, count how many animals use the tree.

Here is a list of some of the animals we found in our desert willow tree, Chilopsis linearis:

We chose the desert willow tree because it flowers most of the summer, supplying nectar and pollen for many visitors.

willowflower

desert-willow-flower1

Some animals that visit the flowers include,

carpenter bees like this one,

honey bees, flies,

green june beetles, hummingbirds,

verdins, and lesser goldfinches.

The lesser goldfinches might be taking nectar, but they also peck around the buds, perhaps looking for insects.

Although many birds perch in the branches to preen,

or to wipe their beaks like this house finch is doing, no birds have ever nested in the willow. Perhaps the foliage is too sparse to provide a good cover for a nest.

A few insects use the leaves for food.

We think these eggs hatched into...

this large caterpillar, which will become a Manduca rustica moth..

Several kinds of birds like the seeds.

mystery-seed-17

The trunk of the tree serves as a home for tiny ants that look for food (forage) around the flowers.

It is likely that the roots provide food for insects too, such as cicada grubs.

Of course, all the insects that feed on the willow may also serve as food for other animals. I suspect the verdins and the hummingbirds both feed on the small flies that are attracted to the flowers.

It seems like a whole community of animals depend on our desert willow for their livelihood.

How many animals do you think you will find on your tree?

If you try this project, we'd love to hear what you discover.

Have you seen the new video of a hummingbird drinking sugar water? All I can say is, "Wow!"

Using a special artificial flower and a high speed camera, researchers have been able to record some incredible shots.

Look at that tongue, it is acting like a mop.

For more about the video, see this report at Wired magazine.

Hummingbirds use these incredible tongues to catch small flying insects, as well.

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Did any of you take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count this year? What did you see?

My son counted:
Mourning Dove - 8
Inca Dove - 1
Anna's Hummingbird - 2
Black Phoebe - 1

What was a very noticeable change from his count last year was a lack of house sparrows and house finches. It could have been the time of the day he counted, and the fact it was cold and rainy.

We weren't worried about house sparrows, because we still see them all the time. Here's one from the park the other day:

But we had already noticed fewer house finches in our yard, even though we were feeding the same kinds of seeds in the same kind of feeder. Checking the previous count totals for our city in previous years we see 138 house finches were counted in 2009, 102 in 2010 and now only 31 so far this year. House finches are native to the Southwest, so we checked to see if the trend carried throughout the state. Sure enough 7,978 house finches were counted in 2009, 7,132 in 2010 and only 3,821 in 2011 (not all reports made yet).

(Photo from 2009).

The Black Phoebe is an interesting new addition, although I noticed this morning that the male Anna's hummingbirds are giving it trouble so I don't know whether it will stay.

What birds did you count this year? Do you have house finches?

Did you search through the counts from previous years?