Exploring with a click of the mouse

January 30, 2011 

During January's and February's gray and wet days, when even mammals and birds seem to hunker down, I like to wander the Web in search of nature news and photographs.

Yes, there is firewood to stack, indoor projects to finish and letters to write. I rationalize that it’s research, but it is really simple curiosity that leads to enjoying interesting photographs and findings.

Here are a few of those finds:

Penguin condos: A University of Washington researcher’s team built 120 nests for Galapagos penguins with the hope of increasing that endangered species’ chances of survival. Penguin challenges include declining habitat and introduced species such as pigs, dogs, cats and rats.

We’ve got issues: Tiny sea creatures (foraminifera) are being used as a diagnostic tool by University of Washington researchers to assess the health of Puget Sound. The one-cell organism’s response to pollution varies, allowing researchers to assess pollution problems in specific areas. The evidence is often in the shells. The more foraminifera in an area, the cleaner the water.

Tundra swans: Hundreds of migrating tundra swans have found a winter home near Vancouver, Wash. The swans like the native tuber wapato that grows on Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge and Franz Lake. The also eat slugs, snails, insects, crayfish and plants.

They should hang around through March. Having eaten their way through as many calories as possible, they’ll take off for the 3,700-mile trip to their Arctic tundra nesting grounds.

Earlier this decade, about 2,000 tundra swans were seen on the area’s larger lakes but the numbers have now dropped into the hundreds, according to the state Fish and Wildlife Department.

Ground control to birds: Human development influences where some birds fly, according to researchers at the University of Missouri. Nonmigrating birds prefer flying over forest corridors because they can more easily escape from predators. Breaking up those corridors might restrict where they live and who they meet for mating. Isolation can lead to inbreeding and more disease-prone birds.

Does size matter? Female red-eyed tree frogs in Belize know what they want in a mate, according to a report in Herpetological Journal. A study of male calls concluded that larger frogs more quickly found mates, although usually at the females’ discretion.

The auditory information in a call tells all. There is greater mass in a larger frog’s internal “voice” mechanism, thus longer, more frequent calls at a lower frequency than smaller frogs’ efforts. The call equates to size and size equates to quality and ability to survive.

Dem bones: Yale University paleontologists and the Smithsonian Institute have discovered that a flightless bird that lived about 10,000 years ago in what is now Jamaica used its wings as a weapon. That type of ibis had thick hand bones and is the only bird that has been found that evolved with those types of wings and bones. The hands are hinged at the wrist.

The research was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

Winter sports may not mix well with birds: The stress levels of shy and endangered wood grouse, commonly found in Germany and Switzerland alpine regions, go up during the winter, markedly more if they live close to ski areas.

Researchers at the Swiss Ornithological Institute’s published in the journal IBIS, theorizing that since winter is the hardest season on grouse, disruption by humans costs them energy and makes them less likely to survive. Those factors may be linked to the population decline of the species, particularly in ski areas.

Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.

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