Readers’ wildlife photos

Stephen Barnard has returned from fishing in New Zealand (sadly, I didn’t see him there), and has graced us with a new round of photos. His captions are indented:

Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura). Isn’t nature beautiful? Their bald, featherless, hideous heads are clearly an adaptation to deal with carrion. They have an acute sense of smell for rotting meat. Look at those nostrils. In 1938 they were observed circling over a leak in a natural gas pipeline. It was discovered that they were attracted to the chemical methanethiol (aka mercaptan). Humans are also exquisitely sensitive to the smell of methanethiol. (It’s unpleasant.) Subsequently, methanethiol has been added to natural gas, propane, and butane as a safety measure to detect leaks.

This is a Wilson’s Snipe (Gallinago delicata). It’s one of the most secretive and well camouflaged birds around here, which accounts for its mythical status. Many people are surprised that snipe actually exist, knowing of them only from cruel pranks at Boy Scout camp. I heard it calling from the reeds across the creek, where I think they’re nesting, and enticed it out with a recording on my phone. (I don’t overdo this, but it’s almost necessary for a bird like this.) If I’d had a “normal” lens it would be a good “find the snipe” challenge.

Here are photos of what Stephen calls “another secretive bird”:

The Virginia Rail (Rallus limicola) is the only bird I know of that rivals the snipe for secretiveness, and it hides in the same habitat — reedy wetlands. I’ve been hearing these birds for years, and catching a few fleeting glimpses, have never seen one clearly until I took these photos. Like with the snipe, I called the bird out with my phone. Their calls are remarkable. They have two main ones, a grunt and a “kiddick”, neither of which you’d expect to hear from such a bird.

Some people get bothered by the phone trick, maintaining that it puts undue stress on the bird. It can be abused, especially when there are lots of birders and photographers frequenting one spot, usually looking for a rare bird. This rail and its mate live on a remote place on my ranch and are only bothered by me, and that’s very seldom.


  1. Jenny Haniver
    Posted April 22, 2017 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    I read that the turkey vulture’s olfactory ability is greatly enhanced because lacks a nasal septum so you can see right through them.

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted April 22, 2017 at 10:05 am | Permalink

      “Them,” meaning their nostrils.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted April 22, 2017 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

      @Jenny Perhaps they’re fans of the white horse? Like Stevie Nicks who has [or had?] a hole in her septum large enough to pass a coin through… 🙂

      I doubt that the lack of a nasal septum evolved to improve detection of odours. The Old World vultures have the same feature, but a very poor sense of smell – they find the dead by sight alone. I also suppose that having a nasal septum improves directionality of smell detection.

      A more likely explanation [I googled for it – no personal knowledge] is that the lack of a nasal septum reduces the risk of rotting matter being trapped up the nose.

      • Posted April 22, 2017 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

        “The Old World vultures have the same feature, but a very poor sense of smell”

        No, the New World vultures are the only ones with that feature. That fact was used as evidence to support early genetic work showing that New World vultures and Old World vultures were not even in the same family.

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted April 22, 2017 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

          @Lou Thank you for the correction

          My reference, when describing Old World vultures, said they lacked a “perforate nasal septum” & I got the meaning of that backwards 🙂

          Do you think the lack of a nasal septum in New World vultures is ‘for’ improved smellovision and/or hygiene or something else?

          • Posted April 22, 2017 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

            I don’t really know, but it is shared by relatives like the storks, only some of whom eat carrion. So it may be just an evolutionary leftover in this clade, which may have evolved for reasons that no longer apply.

    • Posted April 24, 2017 at 7:52 am | Permalink

      “Professor Owen has demonstrated that the olfactory nerves of the turkey-buzzard (Cathartes aura) are highly developed, and on the evening when Mr. Owen’s paper was read at the Zoological Society, it was mentioned by a gentleman that he had seen the carrion-hawks in the West Indies on two occasions collect on the roof of a house, when a corpse had become offensive from not having been buried: in this case, the intelligence could hardly have been acquired by sight. On the other hand, besides the experiments of Audubon and that one by myself, Mr. Bachman has tried in the United States many varied plans, showing that neither the turkey-buzzard (the species dissected by Professor Owen) nor the gallinazo find their food by smell. He covered portions of highly-offensive offal with a thin canvas cloth, and strewed pieces of meat on it: these the carrion-vultures ate up, and then remained quietly standing, with their beaks within the eighth of an inch of the putrid mass, without discovering it. A small rent was made in the canvas, and the offal was immediately discovered; the canvas was replaced by a fresh piece, and meat again put on it, and was again devoured by the vultures without their discovering the hidden mass on which they were trampling. These facts are attested by the signatures of six gentlemen, besides that of Mr. Bachman.”
      Darwin – Voyage of the Beagle, Ch.9

  2. Randy schenck
    Posted April 22, 2017 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    So Snipe hunting is a real photo sport.

  3. Ken Elliott
    Posted April 22, 2017 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    Those vultures are magnificent.

  4. Posted April 22, 2017 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Back in Girl Scout camp, I was known to be a birdwatcher. Some girls decided to take me snipe hunting. I was eager to see a snipe. However, they wanted to leave me in the woods! I kept telling me that snipe live in marshes, not forests, but they insisted on the woods. Naturally, I refused to stay there uselessly waiting for a snipe who wouldn’t be there. If they’d taken me to the small marsh in the camp, I might be there still!

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted April 22, 2017 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

      What nasty little creatures! (The girls, not the snipes.)

      • Stephen Barnard
        Posted April 22, 2017 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

        The snipe hunt is a rite of passage in the US. You Kiwis must have something similar.

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted April 22, 2017 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

          No. We told ghost stories sometimes on school camps to try and scare others, but individuals mostly weren’t picked on.

  5. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted April 22, 2017 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    Great pictures! And welcome back.

  6. Posted April 22, 2017 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    Your secret spot with secretretive birds is no more.. might have to get your phone with a GET OFF MY PROPERTY LEAVE THOSE BIRDS ALONE call on file… but thanks for taking us there.

    • Stephen Barnard
      Posted April 22, 2017 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

      This spot isn’t secret, just private. There are NO TRESPASSING * NO HUNTING * NO FISHING signs all over the place. I take birders and other visitors there occasionally, not often.

  7. Posted April 22, 2017 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    I have a tank of natural gas for my stove, and it leaks so I have set it outside. Every now and then Turkey Vultures (the Ecuadorian race, with a little white half-collar on their necks) come down and circle it….

    I also used tapes often to call out birds, and I am convinced that in the temperate zone at least, it doesn’t adversely affect them, and may even help some species. Some endangered species like Black-capped Vireos, which nested in loose colonies when they used to be common, might need the stimulation to keep up their hormone levels.

    • Stephen Barnard
      Posted April 22, 2017 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

      That’s crazy (about the vultures).

      There are a number of phone apps that have bird calls and songs. I use one from The Audubon Society. If you can identify a secretive bird by its call you’re halfway home.

  8. rickflick
    Posted April 22, 2017 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful bird shots Stephen.

    • Stephen Barnard
      Posted April 22, 2017 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

      Getting the Virginia Rail and the Wilson’s Snipe was very gratifying because these are extremely difficult birds to photograph.

      • rickflick
        Posted April 22, 2017 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

        I know. But the chase is the fun of it. Congratulations.

      • Posted April 22, 2017 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

        You didn’t just “get” them. You NAILED them. Nice, unobstructed shots.

  9. Posted April 23, 2017 at 2:45 am | Permalink

    Vultures image make me remind this:

  10. Posted April 24, 2017 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    Great shots Stephen! Wow! Those Rail shots!

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