Musings about life on Earth in all its aspects…

Month: August, 2012

The Amazing Ancient Murrelet

There is something very special about the birds that live most of their lives at sea – the penguins, albatrosses, petrels.  But near the top of my list of favorite birds are the alcids or auks.  These birds of the northern seas are the ecological equivalent of the southern hemisphere penguins, and are fat birds capable of diving and swimming after prey in cold water.  Alcids have the added advantage that they can fly as well as swim.   Included in the group are auks, murres, puffins, auklets, and murrelets.  And my favorite alcid is the little Ancient Murrelet (Scientific name Synthliboramphus antiques). 

The bird got its sobriquet “Ancient” from the specific name, “antiques.”  The specific epithet appears to have its origin in the Russian folk name for the bird, “Starik” (which means “old man”), which is based on its appearance.  One of the first western authors to describe these birds was Thomas Pennant, in 1784, who wrote “white, long, loose and very narrow feathers…which give it an aged look.” (These feathers occur on the side and back of the head of the adults.)

Ancient Murrelets are distributed along the Asian and American coasts of the North Pacific, from Japan, Korea and the Kurils north to Kamchatka, across the Aleutian island chain to Alaska, south along the coast to Washington State.   Some of the largest breeding colonies for these birds are on the Queen Charlotte Islands off the coast of British Columbia. 

Adults weigh around half a pound, and live nearly their entire lives at sea, usually out of sight of land.  They are on land only during the breeding season.  In the Queen Charlottes, this is April through June.  They nest in colonies on conifer-forested slopes of islands within 400 meters or so of the water, digging burrows several feet long at the bases of large trees under the roots, or under grass tussocks.  They typically incubate two eggs for about a month, taking two to four day shifts.  The adults are active above ground in their colonies only when it is nearly completely dark.  The males sing from tree branches or other perches at night in the nesting colonies.

The baby Ancient Murrelets are precocial, that is, they are covered with down and able to walk almost immediately after hatching.  The adults do not feed them in the nest, and the young leave their burrows when they are from one to four days old.  The adults fly to the water at night, while the young (they weigh only about one ounce!) walk to the shore.  The adults swim just offshore, calling to the young; they have individually distinctive calls, and the young rendezvous with the adults by recognizing their calls.  Once they reach the sea, the family groups travel nonstop out to sea for about 18 hours, travelling to offshore feeding areas.  The youngsters can swim and dive immediately on reaching the sea.  The parents feed the young birds for about a month, and the young fledge at sea at six weeks or so of age. 



Back in the early 1990’s, I went salmon fishing off the Queen Charlottes several times, and saw both Cassin’s Auklets and Ancient Murrelets in those waters.  The picture posted here, however, is one I took on a boat trip my wife and I took across the Bering Sea from Kamchatka up through the Aleutians to Nome in 2006.  It was taken off Little Tanaga Island in the Aleutians.  I like the way the small bird looks so vulnerable, and yet so comfortable, bobbing in the cold green water.  Amazing birds, these tiny sparks of life scattered over the surface of the vast and heartless northern sea.

– Roy Beckemeyer

There is a marvelous book summarizing what is known of this bird: “The Ancient Murrelet: A Natural History in the Queen Charlotte Islands,” by Anthony J. Gaston, 1992, T & AD Poyser, London.

You Say Ephemera, I Say Ephemeroptera

I have been fascinated by mayflies ever since I took a course in river ecology back in the 70’s and learned a bit about them and their biology.  Mayflies are aquatic insects, which means they live most of their lives in the water. 

Ephemera guttulata mayfly nymph small

Eventually the immature, water-dwelling  form (the nymph, which has gills and breathes underwater) hatches into a flying adult.  The adults live only a few days, and in fact have no functional mouth parts, so they cannot eat – they live just long enough to mate and they die soon afterwards.  Thus the scientific name for mayflies: insect order “Ephemeroptera,” which has the same Greek root as “ephemera” – literally, “for a day.” 

Because of this very short-lived adult stage, individuals of a given species of mayflies will tend to hatch nearly simultaneously and to emerge in huge swarms.  People who live near lakes or rivers with abundant mayfly populations often have to sweep mayflies off their porches.  These insects also mate in swarms, flying out over the water, mating in an aerial orgy, laying eggs and falling onto the surface of the water to die.  Needless to say, fish love this, and it is mayflies that fly fishermen often use as patterns for their artificial flies.

Ephemera guttulata mayfly

Adult mayflies have more or less triangular shaped front wings, very small hind wings, and two long filaments, called cerci, trailing from their abdomen.  They are not long distance fliers, but can hover and seem to dance over the water.  Their wings and manner of flying are fitted well to their fairy-tale lifestyle.

But these short-lived insects have been for around a long time – Protereisma directum is a mayfly ancestor that lived in the Permian (more than a quarter-billion years ago) of central Oklahoma.  Here is a photo of the fossil of the front wing of this species of fossil mayfly. 

P directum and penny

Back then, adult mayflies did have working mouthparts, so they might have lived longer than their descendents of today, but would still have been fairly short-lived.  Their front and hind wings were almost the same size and shape, so they likely could fly more slowly than today’s mayflies.  They did have those long filamentous cerci also. 

I find it endlessly ironic that insects like these, only hours in the air in their short lives, have flown year after year for hundreds of millions of years, reproducing and evolving and attaining their own kind of longevity, their own permanent sort of impermanence.  Here in this imprint of the wing of a tiny insect that flew for a only a few days 275 million years in the past, there is much for us to marvel at and ponder.  Ephemera, indeed!

– Roy Beckemeyer

The Book

Well, life on Earth would be much less meaningful to me without books.  So what better way to begin this blog than to acknowledge a wonderful paean to words printed on paper pages and bound into that wonderful artifact of civilization – the book.  Produced by the Eighth Day Institute in Wichita, Kansas, and titled “The Book by Synaxis n. a periodical gathering,” this periodical paperback (Volume 1, Number 1, Winter, 2012) was designed and edited by Erin Doom.  It is a unique and thought provoking assesssment and celebration of books and the role they play in our lives in this digital age.  It’s eight chapters are titled:

  • “Why Bother with Books?”
  • “What is a Book?”
  • “The Books of My Life”
  • The Fate of the Book”
  • “On the Reading of Theological Books”
  • Children’s Classics & Orthodox Spirituality”
  • “The Whole Book”
  • “The Pixel Became Flesh”

To quote the editor, each chapter is “… presented in the form of a triplet: an opening poem, a supplemental piece, and a prinary article.”  The chapters are really quite well put together and the pieces complement one another very well.  For example, the first chapter begins with a poem by Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz entitled “And Yet the Books,” a reminder that books will very likely be around much longer than any of the individuals who read them.  Next is an extract from Plato’s Phaedrus, which is followed by an extraordinary essay by Warren Farha with the same title as the chapter: “Why Bother with Books?”  It would be worthwhile to buy this book for this article alone, but the book is of consistently high quality, and there are many more memorable thoughts to be found here.

Although this is a periodical, “… each issue of Synaxis  is intended to look, feel, and function like a book.”  The editor notes that “… each issue…will focus on a theme of enduring relevance.  This inaugural issue focuses on ‘the book.’ The physical book increasingly finds itself neglected…”  He also says that “…each issue…strives to initiate dialogue by prompting a multitude of questions.”

I highly encourage every bibliophile to get on the Eighth Day Institute’s web site and order a copy of this first issue of Synaxis.  Even though the institute itself is affiliated with Orthodox Christianity, and promotes “renewing culture through faith and learning,” there is much here for readers of any religious or philosophical bent.  This issue of Synaxis meets its goal of promoting the “renewal of culture through literature and book reviews,” in a grand and eloquent fashion. 

– Roy Beckemeyer