What is bubble net feeding???

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Two Humpback Whales engulfing fish off Cape Cod. You can see the baleen on the upper jaw of one. Photo by Alan Kneidel

I was thrilled – and baffled –  last week, watching Humpback Whales just 100 feet away from our wildly rocking boat. With my son and husband, I was on a whale-watching trip to the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Cape Cod.  Great trip!  But what in the world were the whales doing?

At first I was really happy just to see 3 or 4 Humpbacks and a calf swimming very near our boat and diving around with their flukes thrown into the air.  The markings and scars on each Humpback’s fluke are so unique that they identify individuals, like our fingerprints.

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The pattern of markings on each whale’s fluke is unique. Photo by Alan Kneidel

But soon I realized the whales were engaged in a complex behavior that I didn’t understand.  Here’s what I observed:  periodically the 3-4 whales near our boat would submerge simultaneously and entirely disappear into the depths.  Several minutes later someone would yell “Here come the bubbles!” or “Here come the whales!” and the water would turn pale blue from the huge number of bubbles rising in a circular area maybe 75 feet wide.   Then all of sudden the 3-4 whales swimming up from the depths would burst into the air, their mouths wide open. What the heck??

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The whales burst to the surface together. My only usable phone pic.

 

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Amazing shot of the roof of the mouth of a Humpback Whale by Alan Kneidel

Turns out, the Humpbacks were cooperatively “bubble net feeding.”  To do this (I learned), the whales submerge and swim in a shrinking circle blowing bubbles underneath a school of fish. The shrinking column of bubbles surrounds the fish (or in our case, sand eels) pushing them toward the surface.  The whales then swam through the mass of fish with mouths open, the baleen “screen” in their mouths trapping the fish and allowing the water to flow out.

The whales went through that process probably 8 times during the 3 hours we were watching. My son Alan got lots of shots of wide-open mouths pointed skyward! It was an awe-inspiring sight!  I struggled with my camera and phone to get pictures, but the tossing of the boat and the need to hold on to the rail made that a challenge.  Very lucky I didn’t drop my phone in the ocean.  Alan kindly agreed to let me post his pictures.  Thank you Alan for planning such a fabulous wildlife experience!

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It was a great birding trip too for seldom-seen oceanic birds. Alan Kneidel took this crisp picture of a Gannet. Lots of birds were feeding on fish the whales brought to the surface.

Some populations of Humpbacks are endangered, but conservation efforts have helped somewhat. Check out this NOAA article for more info on Humpback conservation and continued threats to their survival such as climate change, ocean noise, and ship strikes.

Here’s an amazing video of Humpbacks in Alaska bubble net feeding, with underwater footage.  Wow!

 

Posted in Wildlife

Why are all the snakes on roads Brown Snakes?

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Brown snake I found on the road. I moved it to a safe place.

I spotted this Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi) today on the road while I was taking a walk.   Almost all the snakes I’ve seen on roads in my neighborhood have been Brown Snakes.  I’ve wondered if Brown Snakes enjoy basking on warm pavement more than most snakes.  Or is it just that they tolerate human development better than most snakes, and they’re the only snakes left in my neighborhood?

Probably both.  I used to see Worm Snakes, Earth Snakes, Garter Snakes, Black Rat Snakes, and even one Rough Green Snake in my own yard – over the last 20 some years.

But in the last ten years or so, the only snakes I’ve seen in my entire neighborhood have been Brown Snakes.   And all of them were on roads.  (On second thought, I have seen two Black Rat Snakes nearby. One of them was on the road.  Black Rat Snakes are common predators of mice living in crawl spaces under houses.)

Makes me sad that the all the wooded areas in my neighborhood are being developed.  Or have been developed.  Hardly any habitat left in the city.

I understand that being on roads makes snakes much more visible, so I’m much more likely to see them.  Dead or alive.

But that doesn’t explain why all of them are Brown Snakes.

 

Posted in Wildlife

Black and yellow millipedes, Sigmoria aberrans

Love these stinky Sigmoria millipedes with the bright yellow legs.  About 2 inches long, I see them moving across the forest floor in dampish forests, often in the mountains of NC and Va.  When handled, they give off a smell similar to almonds, a smell that deters predators.   A bad taste accompanies the smell. So the bright yellow is a warning color to predators that they’re distasteful.  Because they’re unpalatable, they have no need to hide and they don’t.   Millipedes often coil too when handled, a posture that protects their more vulnerable underbelly.  Millipedes are very different from centipedes. Both have lots of body segments and lots of legs, but centipedes are predatory and they can sometimes bite. Millipedes are not predatory and don’t bite.  Millipedes are (in my opinion) much more attractive. And likeable!

Sigmoria aberrans, Sally Kneidel

Posted in Wildlife

One of my favorite creatures – the lovely Red Eft!

Red Eft, Sally Kneidel

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I went out during a drizzle in the mountains last week to look for salamanders. NC has more salamander species than any other state in the US, and with their moist skin, they like damp weather. This Red Eft was making its way along the edge of a gravel track. It’s the terrestrial life stage of the Red-spotted Newt, headed for a nearby pond to morph into the aquatic adult stage. The red is a warning color to predators – the eft’s skin makes noxious secretions. I don’t know of a prettier salamander. Check out the bright red spots and the tiny toes!

Red Eft, Sally Kneidel

Posted in Wildlife

Rosy Maple moth turned up with flashy blonde hairdo

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This Rosy Maple Moth turned up under an indoor light last week in the NC mountains. My friend Sonia pointed out the resemblance to Trump – ha ha! A gorgeous moth, in spite of that. It’s in the family Saturniidae, and none of the adult moths in this family have the body parts for feeding, so they can’t eat. The adults live only a few days — just long enough to mate and lay eggs. Then they die. The caterpillars that hatch from the eggs do eat and grow of course. I never see the beautiful big moths in this family in the city anymore, too many pesticides and mosquito sprayers. But still to be found in more rural places. And the too-steep-for-building slopes in the mountains are mostly still rural. Yay!

Posted in Wildlife

Pipevine Swallowtails “puddling”

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Pipevine Swallowtails sucking nutrients from the ground

In the North Carolina mountains last week, I saw Pipevine Swallowtails every day “puddling” for water and nutrients. These were on a gravel driveway, lingering for hours. Others were on the ground in a grassy area.  I’ve never seen this species before, and just about all of them were puddling. I don’t think I saw any on nectar flowers, although there were lots of flowers.

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Pipevine Swallowtails

The caterpillars of this species feed on the poisonous pipevine plant, so the Pipevine Swallowtails become poisonous too, which protects them from predators. Good strategy! Some of the other swallowtail species are mimics of the Pipevine Swallowtail, such as the Spicebush Swallowtail, Black Swallowtail, and the dark morph of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. Predators avoid the mimics too, so mimicry works well to improve the mimics’ chances of survival. I love the intricacies of relationships in nature!

The most famous butterfly example of mimicry is the toxic Monarch and its mimic, the Viceroy. But these butterfly examples are two different kinds of mimicry. The mimics of the Pipevine Swallowtail are “Batesian mimics,” defined as a mimicry where the model is toxic or dangerous but the mimic is not. Mullerian mimicry is a situation where both species are toxic to predators, and that’s the case with the Monarch and the Viceroy. Each species benefits from resemblance to the other.

 

Posted in Wildlife

Land planarian in city park reproduces by fragmenting

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I shrieked with glee when I saw this beautiful flatworm at a city greenway yesterday, crawling across the path. It’s an awesome “land planarian.” Ten-inches long! I used to find them under rocks in my backyard, back when there was more green space in my hometown. (And fewer pesticides.)

You can see the very delicate half-moon shaped head, which they tap against the ground as they move along. No eyes. They eat slugs and earthworms. Very slow, very tentative, very slimy. Lovely stripes!

They reproduce mostly by “fragmenting.” A fragment can move on its own right away and grows a new head within days. Is that fabulous or what? So many fantastic creatures….even here in the city.

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Posted in Wildlife

Mantises hurt by mosquito sprayers?

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Found this lovely in the shed and moved her outside.  She’s a Carolina Praying Mantis, a smaller mantis species. That round belly means she’s full of eggs and will lay them soon, to hatch in the spring. Yay! We used to see mantises all the time — now it’s rare. Thanks to urban infill and the dadgum mosquito-sprayers. A guy was spraying my neighbor’s bushes for mosquitoes and had this logo on his business van: “GREAT FOR KIDS AND PETS!” I bet. Anyway, mosquitoes breed in water, not bushes – ???

Posted in Wildlife

Bessbugs rock (and squeak!)

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Found this huge Bessbug in the backyard, displaced by our whacked-out climate. Bessbugs are cool – one of the only beetles that live in groups and raise their young communally. And communicate by squeaking! The rotting logs they live in are dried out from the drought, and they’re already threatened by habitat loss in general. I love Bessbugs. I wish I could protect them.

For more info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passalidae

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Posted in Wildlife

Blue Ridge Red Salamander – what a beauty!

Pseudotriton ruber, Red Salamander, Sally KneidelSo excited to see this amazing Red Salamander (Pseudotriton ruber) last month. About 10 miles from Mount Mitchell in North Carolina, the highest peak east of the Mississippi.  I think it’s Pseudotriton ruber nitidus, the Blue Ridge Red Salamander. It lacks the black chin of other subspecies. Red Salamanders are in the family of lungless salamanders (Plethdontidae).  They have neither gills nor lungs, but breathe through their skin! Their skin has to stay moist for them to breathe, which is one reason salamanders are more common at higher elevations with greater rainfall and cooler temps. The lungless salamanders are a huge family of salamanders in N.C.  I haven’t seen a Pseudotriton in 20 years!  I’m grateful they’re still alive.

Posted in Wildlife

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These days, I blog mostly about nature and wildlife. Even the tiniest creatures make me happy! You'll also find here lots of posts about plant-based foods, health, and ecotourism. Ecotourism can support local people who make a living through sustainable use of wildlife, habitat, and natural resources.

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Our other blog, Veggie Revolution, focuses more on food than this one does, especially the environmental, health and humane aspects of our food choices. That blog was started in 2005 and continues today, while the blog you're reading now began in 2009. Some of the newer posts are on both blogs, but Veggie Rev has at least 260 more posts than this blog, including Sadie's travels to Morocco. In the sidebar of Veggie Rev, you'll see links to each year that can take you back to all the posts for a particular year.

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