Tag Archives: Birds

Catalina Island Animal Calls

Raven Animal Calls

On Catalina Island there is a wide variety of animals. Some of the animals that we see include ravens, foxes, bison, sea lions, and whales! Each of these 5 animals make vocalizations, or sounds, for specific reasons.

The common raven typically tends to use one of two calls. The first call is a loud caw or groan. Ravens use this call to communicate with each other. Their call can be heard by ravens that are a mile away! The second call that ravens make is a fast, repetitive caw. Ravens typically use this call when they are hunting prey like rodents, worms, or insects!

The Channel Island fox, Urocyon littoralis, is a relatively quiet animal. However, it can make up to 40 sounds and calls! These calls are used by a foxes to convey different messages to one another. For example, foxes will bark to alert other members of its skulk about danger, such as an approaching predator. The male foxes bark to attract a mate and growl to protect their territory. Female foxes bark to locate their cubs. Sometimes, the small cubs will let out a little  bark just to get mom’s attention!

Bison Animal Calls A bison can often be heard snorting, grunting, and even coughing! Male bison attract a mate by making a deep, low rumbling sound called a bellow. The length, volume, and frequency of the bellow indicates which male is the most dominant and therefore the most likely to find a mate! The female bison uses calls to locate her young. She will produce low grunts and wait for the calf to respond with high-pitched grunts! They repeat this process until they can find each other.

Sea Lion Animal Calls Sea lions communicate both audibly and visually. When they make a sound, they also strike a distinct pose! Male sea lions lift their heads up high in the air and bark when they are claiming their territory. When they are barking to defend their territory from other sea lions, they will bark right in the face of the trespassing seal lion! The female sea lions bark to locate and protect their pups. The female sea lion lets out a loud yell and listens for her pup’s weak crying response!

Whale Animal CallsWhales use clicks, whistles, and calls to communicate with their pod. Toothed whales called odontocetes use echolocation to help them navigate and find food! When echolocating, whales will make a clicking sound and wait for the sound to echo back to them. When the whales hear the echo, they are able to identify the location of the object or animal they are trying to find! Some whales can echolocate prey that is over 1,500 feet away! Whales also whistle and call to socialize with other members of their pod. Scientists discovered that whales have different dialects to help them differentiate between their pod and strangers! Certain low frequency calls can travel more than 10,000 miles across the sea. Pretty wild, right?!



https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Corvus_corax_(Common_Raven),_Yosemite_NP,_CA,_US_-_Diliff.jpg (Raven photo)




https://www.flickr.com/photos/usfws_pacificsw/16512606125 (Fox photo)



https://www.flickr.com/photos/don34685/22654449684/ (Bison Photo)



https://www.flickr.com/photos/catsnorkelscuba/7826945136 (Sea lion photo)





Ravens: Clever and Intelligent

RavensFor thousands of years cultures all across the world have told tales of raven’s intelligence. The clever trickster in many native tribes’ stories, a sacred animal to Apollo the God of prophecy, a bringer of wisdom to the Norse gods, even Game of Thrones shows a three eyed ravens during prophetic visions. It’s obvious people recognize these birds as pretty smart, and as it turns out, many scientific tests back this up. There are several characteristics that put ravens up there with the cleverest species, sometimes even out smarting great apes and human children!

Recognizing friend or foe

Ravens birdsRavens are social creatures, in many ways very similar to some humans! When ravens are old enough to leave their parents’ safe and cozy nest, the juveniles will join a crew and spend their time there. When a raven eventually finds a one true love, it will separate off and mate for life. They even hold funerals for their lost loved ones!

With all these social interactions, what is really interesting is ravens’ ability to recognize friend or foe. When interacting with other ravens, these birds will be friendly with birds they know and like, even if they haven’t seen each other for years. But you don’t want to get on their bad sides. Not only have they been known to act suspiciously towards ravens they don’t know and give the cold shoulder to birds that have wronged them, but they recognize human faces as well! If you cheat a raven out of its food, it will remember you and hold a grudge for months!


Tools and Toys

ravens animalsUsing tools and playing games are sure signs of intelligence seen in only the most clever of animals such as monkeys, dolphins, and -you guessed it- ravens! In the wild, ravens are known to drop rocks on people threatening their nests, and to use sticks and other tools to get food. In one test, a majority of ravens figured out in only 30 seconds to pull down a string, anchor it, and keep pulling to reach a treat. But they’re not all work and no play! Ravens have been seen skiing down snow covered roofs and hillsides, making toys out of pinecones and golf balls, etc (a very rare animal behavior), and even playing “keep away” to taunt other animals just because it’s funny!



Planning Ahead

ravens intelligentWhat really sets ravens apart is that they have proven to be able to plan for the future, something scientists thought for a long time only humans and our close animal relatives did. In one study, ravens were given a tool to get food. Not only did they figure out how to use this tool, but later when they were offered this tool or another less tasty snack, many would chose the tool to use later. They continued to chose tool over snack even when it would be a long time before they would get the food. This type of delayed gratification test has been presented to monkeys and human children, and the ravens out performed! Talk about self control!


On Catalina Island, we have tons of huge raven friends, and If you have ever left your backpack outside while at CIMI, you may have experienced just how clever these ravens can be when on the search for your tasty food. Now that you know how impressively intelligent these majestic birds are, don’t forget to hide your snacks!






What is the Nitrogen Cycle?

Different parts of our ocean ecosystems, from the shallow water reefs we snorkel in, to the open ocean systems we travel across, to the deepest unknown depths, are connected by biogeochemical cycles. This includes the water cycle that transports water between our oceans, lakes, streams, and atmosphere, as well as the carbon cycle that transports organic matter through earth’s atmosphere, oceans, soils, and crust. It also includes the lesser-known, but equally important, nitrogen cycle.

Nitrogen Cycle

An example of how the nitrogen cycle functions in terrestrial (land) environments.

Nitrogen is one of the most basic and necessary elements of life along with carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Although it makes up around 80% of our atmosphere it is not always very easy to come by. That is because nitrogen exists in many forms like nitrogen gas (N2), ammonium (NH4+), nitrite (NO2-), and nitrate (NO3-), only some of which are directly usable to the organism that need them to function.

Nitrogen Cycle 1

Ammonium is the form of nitrogen that is most easily consumed by microorganisms. For this reason, ammonium is consumed almost as fast as it is produced, a process called “assimilation.” The result is that the nitrogen becomes incorporated into the cells of living organisms. Ammonium also happens to be very easy to find around the island. You only have to look for a white rock!

Nitrogen Cycle 2

Guano, or bird poop, is loaded with ammonium! When this guano is washed off the rocks, it fertilizes the algae in the water. The algae, in turn, is eaten by fish, which are then eaten by bird! When the birds return to the rocks to rest and poop, the cycle starts all over again.

If Penguins have wings, why can’t they fly?

Penguins are an interesting species of bird that are found in the southern hemisphere of our planet. There are around 17 different types of penguins, and these species are all non-flying. They have a semi-aquatic lifestyle and several characteristics that are very different than other types of birds we commonly know. While other birds have adapted wings for flying, penguins have adapted flipper-like wings to help them swim through the water.

Penguins 1

A large group of penguins in the water is called a “raft” and a large group on land is called a “waddle.”

A penguin’s body is constructed perfectly for aquatic life. They have long, streamlined bodies that help propel them through the water. They spend around 75-80% of their life in the ocean, but will mate, lay eggs and rest on land. Spending this much time in the water puts penguins at a high risk for predators, such as the leopard seal. Penguins’ wings play an essential role in helping them to escape from predators in the water, but not so much on land. This is because there are several differences between birds that use their wings for flight and our non-flying penguin friends.

Many flying bird’s wings are constructed of delicate, lightweight bones that help to lift the bird off the ground to reach flight. However, some species of birds such as the penguin, ostrich, and emu have heavy solid bones that make it harder for them to stay in the air. A penguin’s wings are designed perfectly however for gliding through water. They are often referred to as flippers because of their shape. The wings are super stiff and penguins can actually rotate them in different directions at the same time! This helps them act as the perfect paddle to help catch their prey. They can even reach speeds of up to 22 mph and some species can hold their breath for as long as 20 minutes!

Penguins 2

A penguin using its wings as flippers to glide through the water!

Some scientists believe that a penguin’s inability to fly comes from where they are located. Since penguins have always lived near water millions of years ago, they had to rely upon the ocean for their source of food. Over time they adapted to become more so an aquatic bird, exchanging true wings for “flippers”. Other scientists suggest that getting off the ground took too much effort for a bird that spent so much time in the water. They have over time adapted to their surroundings and decided to become expert swimmers instead of flyers.

Written by: Brooke Fox










The Hummingbirds of Catalina

IMG_6737Hummingbirds rank among some of the smallest bird species on Earth. They get their name from the sound their wings make as they rapidly beat them 50 times a second to keep their bodies aloft! Their wings rotate in a figure eight pattern, which allows the bird to hover or fly backwards if it needs to. Because they move so quickly, they also burn through energy quickly, so they constantly have to feed on nectar and insects throughout the day. At night they hibernate, slowing their ultrafast metabolisms down to a torporific state. During this time they also slow their heart rates from 1200 to 50 beats per minute.

IMG_6748Catalina Island is home to three species of this tiny bird: the Anna’s Hummingbird, the migratory Allen’s Hummingbird, and the Channel Islands Allen’s Hummingbird. Male Allen’s Hummingbirds have bright, iridescent red-orange throats, and Anna’s Hummingbirds have magenta plumage on their throat and head. Both species can be found zooming around Catalina’s blossoming bushes and eucalyptus trees, feeding on nectar they find in the flowers. The Channel Islands Allen’s Hummingbird is endemic to all the Channel Islands except for Santa Barbara, and it is a permanent resident on Catalina. The migratory Allen’s Hummingbird winters in central Mexico and then works its way up the coast to spend its summers in California. Anna’s Hummingbirds can be found on Catalina all year round.

At 3 to 3.5 inches in length, these hummingbirds may be small, but don’t let that cause you to underestimate them! Male Allen’s Hummingbirds can be quite aggressive when they are defending their territory, and some have even been known to chase away red-tailed hawks! If you look at a tree buzzing with hummingbirds, you will soon notice several intense battles being waged, with the males sitting on conspicuous branches and quickly darting at anyone that tries to get near them. Male hummingbirds also put on a show when they mate, performing a courtship dance that includes a high-speed dive of 100 feet or more. With their dynamic flight patterns and brightly-colored bodies, these little hummingbirds are truly the feisty, speedy acrobats of the bird world.

The Nitrogen Cycle

The Nitrogen Cycle is an essential building block of life. Living organisms need nitrogen to develop the proteins that form the structures of their cells. Nitrogen is also all around us, with nitrogen gas making up nearly 80% of the Earth’s atmosphere. However, most organisms are unable to directly use nitrogen in its pure, gaseous form, so other processes must come into play that help convert the nitrogen in the air into a form that organisms are able to use.


In the ocean, nitrogen gas is dissolved and taken up by nitrogen-fixing microbes, which convert the nitrogen into compounds that allow other organisms to consume it and incorporate it into their cells. Algae is one of these organisms, using the nitrogen to help build chlorophyll-binding proteins that help the algae harvest light.

IMG_6573Ammonia is a nitrogen compound found in the feces and urine of animals that algae is able to readily absorb. Bird poop in particular has high levels of ammonia in it. Rocks that are surrounded by water, like Ship Rock, are favorite resting grounds for birds because their isolation protects the birds from predators. As dense numbers of birds congregate on the rocks, they become covered in poop. Algae then starts to grow around the rock to take advantage of the consistent supply of nitrogen the poop supplies. This in turn brings lots of fish towards the rock who want to live off of the algae. And what do the birds eat? Fish! So the birds continue to stay and poop on the rock because they have a nearby food source readily available to them. This cycle continues, with every organism contributing something important to their ecosystem. And the unlikely powerhouse that keeps this cycle moving is the underrated (and often even despised) substance we call poop.


Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: 26 Years Later

According to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, on March 29th, 1989 approximately 11 million gallons, or 17 Olympic-sized swimming pools, of crude oil were spilled into Prince William Sound, Alaska. Due to the amount of oil, timing of the spill, and pristine location in which it occurred, the Exxon Valdez oil spill is still widely considered one of the worst oil spills in history in terms of environmental damage. The spill covered 460 miles, and approximately 1,300 miles of shoreline were impacted. Even after 26 years, the habitat and wildlife are still suffering from effects of the spill.

Though almost all animals were affected by this environmental disaster, birds were among the most immediately and widely affected. The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council estimates that 250,000 seabirds were killed by the spill. Birds are particularly susceptible to oil damage because of their feathers. Birds use their feathers as insulation to protect them from cold water. When oil penetrates feathers, they can no longer hold air to keep the birds warm. Many birds died of hypothermia because of this lack of insulation.

Birds often perform preening, an act of straightening their feathers with their beak. The beak also has a specialized gland that produces an oily substance to keep the feathers waterproof. Along with destroying the effects of this waterproofing substance, crude oil is likely to be ingested by birds while preening. When ingested, the crude oil acts as a poison, killing the bird. Clean up efforts required washing individual animals with dish soap to rid their feathers of crude oil. Unfortunately, it also stripped the feathers of natural oils, so a recovery period was necessary.

Crude oil is considered a persistent oil; meaning natural processes are not usually enough to remove it from the environment. Because a large amount of oil was pouring out of a number of holes into calm seas, the oil slick spread consistently on top of the water. Compounding this issue, the lack wave action or turbulence in Prince William Sound during the spring did not break up the oil into fragments or droplets. Without this breakup of the oil slick, natural processes such as dissolution or biodegradation, along with clean up substances being dropped onto the slick, did not have opportunity to take effect.

There is a simple experiment that can be performed to examine the effects of crude oil on bird feathers. Buy soft feathers from a craft store. Create a “crude oil” mixture by mixing 3 parts vegetable oil and 1 part cocoa powder. Make one bowl each of salt water, fresh water and fresh water with dish soap. Dip feathers in the crude oil mixture and compare the washing effect of each type of water. Feel how oily each feather is after washing. Pouring the crude oil mixture at different speeds can also simulate the effect of turbulence. First, pour the oil into the salt water bowl quickly, taking note of the natural separation of the oil into droplets. Quickly pouring the oil creates turbulence in the bowl, simulating wave action and rough water separating an oil slick. Then, pour the mixture slowly. This represents calm seas, in which the oil will spread evenly, coating the entire surface of the water.

Pelican vs Cormorant! The Winner Is…

Pelican vs Cormorant! Okay, so a pelican and a cormorant may not ever battle each other, daydreams aside. But what if they did? First, let us compare and contrast.

Around Catalina Island we typically see the brown pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, one of only three pelican species found in the Western Hemisphere. The Brown Pelican is considered the smallest kind of pelican, weighing in at 8 to 10 lbs, but can have a wingspan of over 7.5 ft (for reference, Phil and Cullen are only about 6 feet tall)! This species has a very large bill (over a foot long) with a pouch at the bottom to drain water when it scoops its prey from the ocean. This pouch can hold over three times more than its stomach! It’s head is often white, or yellowish in color and they have red coloration under their throat, while they have brown plumage (that’s a code word for feathers) and are brown to black on their chest, legs and feet. When it hunts, the brown pelican soars above the ocean and dive-bombs its prey, snatching it with its bill. Rad. You’ve heard that saying “pelicans fly together,” right? Well, they do. You can see them gliding together, their wingtips almost touching, low over the water.


Cormorants are typically darker in color, and may appear completely black at first glance. They catch their prey not by dive-bombing, as the brown pelican does, but instead by slipping head first underwater and swimming with their feet to snag fish, eels and water snakes! They have been observed diving as deep as 150 feet to catch food! Talk about persistence. After a dive, cormorants can be seen resting ashore with their wings spread out in the sunlight so they may dry. Around Catalina Island we commonly see Brandt’s Cormorant, Phalacrocorax penicillatus, whose scientific name means “painter’s brush” in Latin for the plumes that appear on its neck during its breeding season. Brandt’s Cormorant only grows to about 4.6 lbs, with a 4 ft wingspan.


Alright, so what if they were to fight? The brown pelican has a distinct size advantage, weighing in at almost double that of our cormorant! Dropping the two birds in the ring for a one-on-one battle, the size, strength and bill size of the pelican would overpower the cormorant. Let’s not forget the pouch below the pelicans bill, which is probably big enough to hold an entire cormorant captive! Now remember that a cormorant can dive well below the surface of the ocean! So let’s crack open a scenario to play this thing out. We have pelicans soaring over the water and they spot a few cormorants paddling about below. The pelicans point their bills down and begin hurdling down towards the unsuspecting victims. The cormorants, spotting their nemesis, dive below the surface, leaving the pelicans to faceplant in nothing but water. Now it is the pelicans who must evade as the sleek cormorants can spring surprise attacks from the depths, likely scaring off the larger, more buoyant bird. Yep, my money’s on the cormorant.

For more information visit: http://www.nps.gov/chis/naturescience/brandts-cormorant.htm


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