Lab Updates February 2017

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It’s been an exciting few weeks for all of us here at Team Macrobird with February seeing the first paper from our project published in Nature. We’re thrilled to finally have this out in print after over two years of data collection, analysis and the hard work of citizen scientists from around the world. We’ve already received some wonderful feedback and mentions in publications from the New York Times to the Yorkshire Post. You can learn more about the paper and our findings in our recent blog post or view it in full here.Nature issueAlongside this, the first portion of our data has now been made available via the Natural History Museum’s Data Portal– a dedicated space to ensure the museum’s collections, research and associated data is accessible to everyone. Whilst our website markmybird.org provides a gallery of approaching 8,000 3D scans, the data portal provides more in-depth data for an initial 2,028 specimens, comprising raw scan data and multiple landmarks for each as well as an adjoining spreadsheet featuring sex, museum registration number and taxonomic details. By making this data freely available we hope that more questions regarding beak shape can be investigated and answered by researchers, students and anyone with an interest well into the future.

NHM Data Portal

We’ve also had a new research assistant join our team collecting data at the Natural History Museum at Tring- Michael Jardine will be helping photograph the plumage of the world’s birds for the next six months. So too, Yichen He began his PhD towards the end of last year, working with PI Gavin Thomas to characterise phenotypic data for MicroCT scans of zebra finches.

Data collection: 3D scanning & UV photography

Whilst our first paper explores bill shape at genus level, we are still aiming to build a far more comprehensive dataset of bill and plumage information- covering as many of the approximately 10,000 extant species of bird as possible. This means data collection will be continuing full force, using the Natural History Museum’s ornithology collections at Tring.

Scanning has been going ahead in small increments this month with a number of new world warblers, australian robins and ovenbird species soon to be added to our site. Next month however, we aim to have a new push to complete the Furnariidae- more on this later.

sulphur crested cockatooIn contrast, towards the end of this month we moved over to having two photography light tents in operation for the first time. Not only will this increase the number of specimens we are able to image but the new, second light tent will also allow us to photograph larger passerines and many of the non-passerine families we choose to focus on.

Even better, this month we reached a significant milestone- with 25% of all world bird species imaged. This equates to a whopping:

12265 specimens photographed: we are selecting up to 6 specimens of each species, both male and female
73590 photos taken: six photographs- dorsal, ventral and lateral in both UV and human visible spectrums- of every selected specimen
22.68% of families
29.41% of genera
25.94% of species

MarkMyBird

Having only just celebrated the 1000th volunteer signing up to our crowdsourcing site markmybird.org last month, February has seen an amazing increase in new members with many first-time landmarkers contributing to our ongoing study through citizen science. We now have in excess of 1400 registered users with over 1000 bills landmarked this month alone, brilliant stuff!

great billed hermit

Landmarks placed along the beak edge of the Great-billed hermit (Phaethornis malaris), a species of hummingbird.

However, with scans for almost 80% of world bird species uploaded and ready to view on our website, the hard work isn’t over yet! If you’ve just heard about our project, have an interest in ornithology, are interested in the way historical museum specimens are used in modern science or are just curious to see what it involves to become a citizen scientist, head on over! We’ve even made a short video, showing the basics of landmarking a bill from beginning to end:

#BeakoftheWeek

Maui parrotbillOur twitter competition #BeakoftheWeek takes place every Wednesday- a chance to test your bird identifying skills against our 3D models. A favourite pick from this month was the Maui parrotbill (Pseudonestor xanthophrys), an unusual and misleading bill shape that really kept people guessing! Everyone is welcome to join in and a place on our leaderboard (as well as bragging rights) is up for grabs…

Other news

Macrobird post-doc Chris Cooney was lucky enough to undertake a research visit to the University of Chicago- spending time with Trevor Price and his lab group before scanning some hard-to-find species from the collections at the world famous Field Museum. You can read more about Chris’ American adventure here.

Finally, congratulations are in order for Will Wood and Louie Rombaut, both of whom undertook summer research projects last year as part of the University SURE (Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience) scheme. Both Will and Louie spent time with us collecting data at the Natural History Museum in Tring and presented their findings at a recent open evening.

louie, will, chris

Happy New Year-ish!: Lab Updates January 2017

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It’s been another busy few months for all of us here on team MacroBird and time has flown since our last update at the end of the Summer. Team changes, data collection, paper writing, outreach and PhD-beginnings have kept us occupied as we start another year of all things macroevolution!

Data collection will be continuing throughout 2017 using the fantastic ornithology collections at the Natural History Museum at Tring. With two remaining research assistants and a new member joining the team, both scanning and photography will be pushing on over the coming months. Emma Hughes, one of our original RAs, is now based with the rest of the team in Sheffield, beginning a NERC-funded PhD exploring the impact of global change on avian diversity.

IMG_8589At the end of September we took part in Science Uncovered- the Natural History Museum’s European Researcher’s Night event- for the second year running. MacroBird PI Dr Gavin Thomas gave a talk about our research and crowdsourcing project whilst we demonstrated our use of the collections with our scanners, specimens and citizen science website. You can read more about the night here.


Data collecting in Tring: 3D scanning & UV photography

Having achieved approaching 90% of species processed (with over 75% successfully scanned), we’re well on our way to completing the scanning component of our project. The remaining species that are available within the Natural History Museum’s collections will be scanned over the coming months and added to our crowdsourcing site MarkMyBird, increasing the diversity of bills available to view and landmark through our galleries. Remaining target families include the Tyrant flycatchers (Tyrannidae) and Ovenbirds (Furnariidae).

Finches

Clockwise from top left: I’iwi or Scarlet honeycreeper (Drepanis coccinea), Brown-capped rosy finch (Leucosticte australis), Long-tailed rosefinch (Carpodacus sibiricus), Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)

As such, data collection has had a shift of focus in recent months as our efforts have been turned from scanning to photography. After some alterations to the equipment we are using whilst imaging the plumage (male and female) of every extant species in both the human visible and ultraviolet ranges we continue to photograph our way through the passerines. We are currently progressing through the brilliantly varied Fringillidae family, including everything from the European goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) to the fascinating Hawaiian honeycreepers.

MarkMyBird 

Fratercula arctica- Atlantic puffinOur crowdsourcing site markmybird.org still needs you! We are aiming to scan the bills of as many as possible of the world’s 10,000 species of bird and now have almost 80% of this total uploaded and ready for you to view and landmark on our dedicated crowdsourcing website. In order to include these incredibly detailed 3D scans in our study, we need citizen scientists to help us ‘landmark’ these models, placing key points and traMagpie2cing curves and edges. The process allows you to get up close to this fascinating and massively variable area of avian anatomy and contribute to this wide ranging research. We have everything from extinct and endangered species to old favourites such as the Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica– left) and the Eurasian magpie (Pica pica– right) to explore. This month we reached a fantastic milestone, exceeding 1000 registered users on the site- brilliant stuff! 

#BeakoftheWeek

Our weekly twitter competition #BeakoftheWeek is still going strong with some especially unusual choices in recent weeks- including the little spotted kiwi (Apteryx owenii), as pictured below. Anyone is welcome to join in and have a guess every Wednesday- you might even be first to get the correct answer and make your way onto our extremely prestigious leader board.

kiwi

Publications

After over two years of data collection, thousands of 3D scans (and even more specimens assessed, measured and processed), the contributions of scores of citizen scientists and months of analysis, we’re thrilled to say that the first paper resulting from this project has been accepted for publication. The paper will available to read very soon and we’ll be sure to make lots of noise when the publication date arrives- watch this space!

Images

All scans (c) of Team Macrobird and The Natural History Museum (London and Tring)
Finch photographs: credits provided.

Lab Updates August 2016

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It’s been another month of change here at Team MacroBird with two of our original team members moving on to adventures anew.

14100385_10104845417626067_3774523421000460044_nPost-doc Jen Bright (green t-shirt, thumbs up), geometric morphometrics whizz and all-round human-encyclopedia, is taking up a new post as Assistant Professor of Geosciences at the University of South Florida.

Research assistant Elliot Capp (cheesy grin, beard), mechscan master, brains behind #beakoftheweek and all round zoology ace is off to become a teacher extraordinaire.

To mark these departures, all of us on team MacroBird went on a trip to South Kensington to see the new Colour and Vision exhibition at the Natural History Museum. We saw the octopus Charles Darwin kept as a pet during the voyage of HMS Beagle, lots of very cool trilobites, some impressive iridescent butterflies, plenty of birds (Gouldian finches galore) and learnt that ‘cyborg artist’ is someone’s actual job title.

Colour & Vision

Data Collection in Tring: 3D scanning

With all this change on the horizon, we’ve been pushing to meet as many data collection targets as possible. This involves progressing through remaining large families and returning to those we moved on from whilst nearing completion.

Screen Shot 2016-09-09 at 10.04.13

3D Scan of Mauritius Kestrel (Falco punctatus) from www.markmybird.org

One such example is the birds of prey which are, in general, great to scan. Although some genera have obstructing feathers and bristles, most have clear landmarks and well-defined ‘cutting edges’ that are clearly picked up by our scanners. One of the last non-passerine families in need of completing were the Falcons and Caracaras (Falconidae) – with all the larger species having already been imaged on the bigger of our two scanners (the R3X) we still had a number of significantly smaller, finer bills remaining. After what feels like months of Hummingbirds (Trochilidae) and Sunbirds (Nectariniidae), finishing a family with such chunky, nonlinear bills was a breeze!

On the other end of the scale, we had some really big species that needed our attention. Both the Rheas (Rheidae) and the Cassowaries (Casuariidae), two of the tallest and heaviest living birds, are primarily stored as either mounted taxidermy or in a compact, curled-up form within the collections due to their size and shape. Selecting a specimen suitable for scanning can be a real challenge as we need to access the bill from all angles in order to capture enough images to build a 3D model. Rather than simply rotating the specimen (as we do with small passerines for example) we have to get a bit creative and move the scanner around these huge specimens, carefully manoeuvring the long, brittle necks to ensure no damage is caused. In moments like this, such as scanning the last of the cassowaries (below), we realise just how peculiar parts of our job are…

cassowary

Data Collection in Tring: UV photography

This month we’ve been photographing the plumage of some really interesting species- with the Pittas (Pittidae) being a particular favourite.

The Pittas are a small family of charismatic birds found across Asia, Africa and Australasia. They are small-medium in size and stocky in form with very short tails and comparatively long legs. What really sets them apart from other species is their brightly coloured plumage (particularly interesting for this element of our research), in vivid shades of red, blue and purple. In the wild, Pittas are notoriously difficult to pinpoint as they are highly secretive and perhaps because of this, they often feature on lists of species birders particularly want to see (including one or two members of our team!). 

Being able to access these species within museum collections allows us to use an ultraviolet filter when photographing the specimens, which provides us with a different perspective of this fantastic plumage. Certain patches of colour positively glow- as you can see from our images of the Azure-breasted Pitta (Pitta steerii) below. 

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MarkMyBird and #BeakoftheWeek

We’ve recently been experiencing some technical problems with our crowd sourcing website markmybird– thank you to everyone for being so patient and for keeping us updated. Everything is now up-and-running again and we’ve uploaded more than a thousand new 3D bill models for you to view and landmark, even more reason to revisit or sign up and give citizen science a try!

black-winged stilt

Our weekly twitter competition #BeakoftheWeek has seen some great picks this month, including a number of first-time guessers and winners. Chris Packham was successful in spotting the black-winged stilt (above) in record time, followed by the hen harrier in his honour. There are still thousands of species to pick from so the competition is far from over, join us on twitter every Wednesday and give it a go.

Images

All images (c) of Team Macrobird and The Natural History Museum

 

The Sickle-billed Vanga (Falculea palliata)

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From the fantastically diverse vanga family (vangidae) the sickle-billed vanga really is sight to behold.  When a species has a bill as distinctive as this you can see why it would be quick to identify on #BeakoftheWeek, and low and behold the bird that the bill belonged to was quickly ascertained in the weekly challenge. Some of the beaks we have had the opportunity to scan at the Natural History Museum collections in Tring are a joy to work with, and this was definitely one of those.

Here is a nice video from the internet bird collection for you to watch to get a feel for what this bird looks like and how it moves.

 

  • What does it look like?

    The sickle-billed vanga is the largest in its family and it really stands out because of the strongly decurved bill that is possesses. There is no sexual dimorphism in this species, with both males and females being mostly white except for its upperparts, which are black with a blue sheen (as can be seen below). These vangas have blackish-brown irises, its legs are dark grey/pale blue and its bill is bluish grey fading to ivory at the tip.  Juveniles are similar in appearance to adults.

    sickle-billed vanga 2

    Sickle-billed vanga

    This is all very well and good if you can see the bird, but what if it is doing what birds are wont to do and hiding just out of sight? Well then we can rely on what it sounds like, if it decides to make any sound that is. Below is a recording of this species in the wild for you to memorise if you happen to be heading out to Madagascar.

  • Where can you find this bird?

    This species is endemic to Madagascar and is a year round resident along the whole of the western side of the island nation, as can be seen below. They are typically found in dry deciduous forests and Savannah.

    Sickle-billed Vanga range

    Sickle-billed Vanga range

  • Diet

    This species forages in holes and crevices of living and dead trees on the hunt for invertebrates (such as spiders, beetles and cockroaches) and small vertebrates (e.g. geckos). In the non-breeding season they form large foraging groups of between 20-30 individuals and sometimes form mixed groups with other species such as Madagascar Crested Drongos (Dicrurus forficatus).

    Sickle-billed Vanga

    Sickle-billed Vanga

    Breeding

    These vangas breed between October and January in NW Madagascar. Interestingly they are Polyandrous, where more than one male mates with one female and all the males (plus the female) then feed the young. These modern males also help with predator defence, territorial defence and sometimes incubation and brooding.

    This nest itself is built 9-16m off the ground in the fork of a tree and is formed from twigs into a cup-shape before being lined with more comfortable materials. Once it is ready a clutch of 3-4 eggs will be laid, which will then be incubated for 16-18 days. The chicks will then remain in the nest for 19-23 days before entering into the real world.

  • Good news on this front in that this species is seen as of “At Least Concern” on the IUCN Redlist for species. It is common to fairly common across it’s large range and it also found in many protected areas.

  • Sickle-billed vangas are polyandrous, as mentioned previously, which is a rare mating system thought to only occur in less than one percent of bird species. It is well documented in phalaropes, although this “strange” mating system did lead to John James Audubon mislabelling all of his males and female phalaropes in his illustrations.

    There are two types of polyandry: Sequential polyandry is where a female mates with a male, lays eggs and then leaves the male to do the rest as she goes off to find another male to mate with, and Simultaneous polyandry, where a female holds a large territory which contains numerous smaller nesting territories where males care for the eggs and young.

    For further reading this week I am providing a link that will explain polyandry in more detail and also provides links to information on different mating systems, such as polygyny and cooperative breeding. Follow this link to a Stanford University site to begin your learning journey.

References

BirdLife International (2016) Species factsheet: Falculea palliata. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 26/08/2016.

BirdLife International. 2012. Falculea palliata. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2012: e.T22708041A39344831. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2012-1.RLTS.T22708041A39344831.en. Downloaded on 25 August 2016.

Yamagishi, S. & Nakamura, M. (2016). Sickle-billed Vanga (Falculea palliata). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from http://www.hbw.com/node/60562 on 25 August 2016).

Images and Videos

BirdLife International and NatureServe (2014) Bird Species Distribution Maps of the World. 2012. Falculea palliata. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2016-1

ian_hempstead, IBC1195731. Accessible at hbw.com/ibc/1195731.

Keulemans’ Sickle-billed vanga by John Gerrard Keulemans is licensed Public Domain Mark 1.0.

Sickle-billed vanga by Cédric de Foucault is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Audio

Hans Matheve, XC155300. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/155300.

The Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius)

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I say this far too frequently for it to warrant much merit but this is definitely a #favebird. Not only is it a highly skilled snake assassin but it has some rather fanciful “hair” to boot.

This one was solved pretty quickly on #BeakoftheWeek by our resident expert but it was mistaken for quite a few other accipitriformes first.

Check out the video below for a quick run through about this species before diving into a bit more detail.

  • What does it look like?

    This rather large bird is over a metre tall (125-150cm), that is almost as tall as Kylie Minogue! I would love to say I have seen one of these birds in the wild, but I Should Be So Lucky. I will have to make do with wonderful pictures like the one below for the time being.

    This species weighs between 2 and 4.5kg and has a large wingspan of up to 215cm (as wide as Shaquille O’Neal is tall- wow).  It is an unmistakable bird with it’s long pink legs, bare orange face and black crest feathers. Males are similar to females, although females are slightly less blue in appearance and juveniles have a shorter tail and crest.

    Moving swiftly away from celebrity heights…

    Secretarybird

    Secretarybird

    Xeno canto has let us down on this occasion so the best I can do is relate a description of their calls from the fantastic Handbook of the Birds of the World. Their most frequent call, which they make whilst perched/in flight is described as a high-pitched “ko-ko-ko-ko-ka”. They can also be heard making a more audible “kowaaaaa” and a “cockerel-like broken “kurrk-urr””.  I don’t know about you but I feel like I could do quite a good impression of a secretary bird now, thanks again HBW.

  • Where can you find this bird?

    Endemic to Africa the secretarybird is typically found in open grassland and savannah in the sub-Sahara and tends to nest and roost in Acacia trees. As you can see from the range map below they are found extensively across Africa.

    Secretary Bird Range

    Secretary Bird Range

  • Breeding

    This species isn’t fussy, as long as there is a good level of food availability they will nest at any time of the year. Secretarybirds hold territories of 25-45km² in which they build their nests. Nests are formed 3-7.5m from the ground (although they have been seen much higher at 36m) on top of low trees such as an Acacia. The base of the nests is formed with sticks which are then lined with grass, wool and dung. They sometimes re-use nests but more often than not a new one is built.

    One-three eggs are laid, which are then incubated by both sexes (42-46 days). The chicks remain in the nest for typically 75-90 days, and can remain dependent for 62-105 days.

    Nesting Secretarybirds

    Nesting Secretarybirds

    Diet

    You would be mistaken to think the secretarybird restricts its diet to our serpentine friends, it mostly feeds on arthropods. Particular faves are beetles and grasshoppers, but it isn’t a finicky eater. They have been known to eat a wide range of small animals, ranging from lizards and frogs to tortoises, squirrels, hedgehogs, hares and birds eggs and young.

    In order to kill its prey is usually kicks them to death with its long legs and strong toes, before swallowing smaller prey whole and tearing larger prey apart whilst holding it down.

    This species is known to hunt around grass fires, eating prey as it tries to escape/if it has been killed by the inferno. What a way to go.

    Secretary bird feeding

    Secretarybird with a tasty treat

  • Unfortunately this species is listed as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN Redlist, with some surveys estimating that total numbers are only in five figures. Rapid declines have been seen across much of its range, with no sightings occurring in Western African making it perhaps the most threatened raptor in the region.

    There are number of factors which could be causing the decline in this species, such as cultivation, urbanisation, burning of grasslands reducing prey numbers and severe drought. It is hoped that by educating locals on the threats facing this species it will help to lessen this decline.

  • I have gone for a mix of further reading today, a bit of science mixed in with a bit of art.

    Let’s start with art. The illustration below is by Louis Agassiz Fuertes (b1874, d1927), a man synonymous with ornithological art. He produced thousands of drawings and paintings in various mediums throughout his lifetime before tragically dying in a car accident.

    Fuertes made his artwork from animals in their natural setting, as well as from fresh study specimens and in order to create these masterpieces Fuertes went on many expeditions, travelling thoughout much of the Americas and Africa.

    Not many people have a species named after them. Fuertes managed that achievement twice – Fuertes’s Oriole and Fuertes’ Parrot.

    By design this further reading is intended to whet the appetite and encourage you to go off and learn more.  I recommend doing a simple search to see more of his illustrations to start with (here is his fantastic white-cheeked hornbill).  John James Audubon, whom we have spoken about previously (click link and scroll down to further reading) was perhaps the most famous ornithological artist and Frank Chapman, curator of the American Natural History Museum who collaborated with Fuertes many times, wrote a comparison of Audubon’s and Fuertes’s work and personalities that can be read here. Frank Chapman also wrote an obituary of Fuertes in Auk where you can see in what high esteem he was held and read more about his achievements.

    Fuertes secretarybird

    Fuertes’ Secretarybird

    Now for a quick bit of science! Imagine the importance of accuracy when targeting a venomous snake, the consequences of missing could be deadly. This journal article (S.Portugal et al. 2016) looks into the locomotion and mechanisms behind the secretarybird’s kick and gives you a great insight into just how powerful this bird’s kick really is.

References

BirdLife International. 2013. Sagittarius serpentarius. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2013: e.T22696221A49946506. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2013-2.RLTS.T22696221A49946506.en. Downloaded on 23 August 2016.

Kemp, A.C., Kirwan, G.M., Christie, D.A. & Marks, J.S. (2016). Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.).Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved fromhttp://www.hbw.com/node/53186 on 23 August 2016).

Images and Videos

BirdLife International and NatureServe (2014) Bird Species Distribution Maps of the World. 2013. Sagittarius serpentarius. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2016-1.

Fuertes’ Secretarybird by Louis Agassiz Fuertes is licensed under Public Domain Mark 1.0.

Nesting Secretarybirds by Peter Dowley is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Secretarybird by Ian White is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Secretarybird with a tasty treat by Jean & Nathalie is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Planet Doc Full Documentaries. 2015. Secretary Birds of Africa | Nature. [Online]. [23/08/2016]. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t1UEneEPZO8.

 

Lab Updates July 2016

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HummingbirdsTime is flying on all sides of project MacroBird. We have some big changes on the horizon in coming months with scanning targets to meet, team members moving on and tweaks to some of our data collection processes.

This month we were joined by a second undergraduate from the Department of Plant and Animal Sciences at Sheffield. After being awarded a SURE (Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience) grant, Louie Rombaut spent a fortnight with us at the Natural History Museum, shadowing our work and making use of the fantastic ornithology library collections. He will be using our scans to investigate hummingbird feeding behaviour for his summer project- it’s great to see the data being put to use already!

Data Collection in Tring: 3D scanning and UV photography

Hummingbirds have featured heavily in our lab updates for the last couple of months and July is no different. These long, sometimes curved and often extremely fine bills have really put our scanning equipment and skills to the test! As such an interesting family however, they are one of our priorities so we have continued to work through the huge number of species, alongside the equally varied and challenging tyrant flycatchers.

One of the things we don’t often talk about on this blog are the practicalities of working with museum specimens. For the scanning and photography sides of the project, we are using the birds in quite different ways- focussing on different aspects that require very different approaches for data collection.

Whilst the bill scanning uses only one specimen and is a steady, time-consuming process with the birds virtually static, the photography method requires us to sample up to six specimens of every species, rotating the birds to capture all angles of their plumage. Varying vastly in condition, size and preparation method, the research skins need to be handled securely and with care so having the right equipment to allow us to do this is really important.

Scanning

As you might expect, there isn’t a big market for this kind of product so there is a good amount of experimentation, testing and DIY involved. This month we have been working on a new ‘stand’ to support a wider variety of specimen sizes for photography and will begin putting it to the test next month.

MarkMyBird and #BeakoftheWeek

This scanning focus does mean there is now a wide variety of Trochilidae scans ready for landmarking on our crowdsourcing site MarkMyBird so, if you’re interested in seeing the variety of bill form within this fascinating family, head on over. You can always have a browse through our gallery to look at some interesting species or get a feel for the 3D models we are generating, it might just inspire you to sign-up and contribute to this vast study.

Frilled coquetteLophornis magnificus)

Frilled coquette (Lophornis magnificus)

There have been some great picks of species on #BeakoftheWeek lately, including this weeks challenge- the Apostlebird. You can read more about these mudnesters in our most recent blog post here.

We’ve also written about a #Beakoftheweek pick from a few weeks back- the reedhaunters– a pair of species first collected by Charles Darwin aboard HMS Beagle with a fascinating taxonomic and historical background, just a click away on our team blog.

John Gould's original illustrations of the Reedhaunters, with Limnoctites rectirostris thought to have been painted directly from the type specimen

John Gould’s original illustrations of the Reedhaunters

 

Images
– The Chilean Woodstars (Eulidia yarrellii), from ‘A monograph of the Trochilidæ, or family of humming-birds’ by John Gould. Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library: http://dx.doi.org/10.5962/bhl.title.51056
– Photograph of a bird being scanned and 3D scan of the frilled coquette, copyright Natural History Museum, London and Tring.
– John Gould’s illustrations of the Reedhaunters (Limnoctites rectirostris and Limnornis curvirostris) from The zoology of the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library: http://dx.doi.org/10.5962/bhl.title.14216

The Apostlebird (Struthidea cinerea)

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I couldn’t wait to write a blog about this species, so I have waded straight into it before the dust has even settled from another round of #BeakoftheWeek.

I had the pleasure of working at a research station (Fowlers Gap) in New South Wales a few years ago where there was a group of habituated apostlebirds, which was a fantastic experience. All you had to do was give a whistle and they would fly over and gather around you in the search of tasty treats. This allowed me to get some great photos like the one below.

Apostlebird1

Apostlebird PC Elliot Capp @ornithzoologist

This social, cooperatively breeding passerine species is an Australian mudnester (Corcoracidae) and is one of many species that had the pleasure of first being described by British Ornithologist John Gould (in 1837). Yup, that is the man who pointed out to Charles Darwin that there was something special about those birds he had brought back from the Galapagos. The 12 seminal ground finch species. This subject could cause me to massively go off on a tangent as I am sometimes wanton to do, but I will stick to the apostlebirds this time.

Apostlebirds are the only member of their genus and one of only two species in the Corcoracidae family, along with the white-winged chough (Corcorax melanorhamphos). If you head over to Onezoom you can see what other species they are closely related to.

  • Apostlebirds are around 30cm in length and largely grey in colour (hence Cinerea, which means grey in latin) except for their brown wings and long black tail which has a greeny gloss in certain light. Sexes are similar in appearance, as are juveniles except that they appear to have slightly softer feathers on the head and body.  They have a black bill and legs.

    Investigative Apostlebird

    Investigative Apostlebird

    Apostlebirds are very vocal, with harsh, gritty calls. Xeno Canto, provider of an unparalleled range of bird calls and songs has once again allowed me to share with you the distinctive sounds these birds make.

  • Where can you find this species?

    Apostlebirds are endemic to Australia, across most of inland Eastern Australia with an isolated population in the Northern Territory. They prefer open habitats, and are typically found in arid and semi-arid woodlands/shrublands.  They can become quite bold and tame around places like campsites and farms, so you might be able to get a better view of them there, if you happen to be in Australia that is…

     

    Apostlebird Range

    Apostlebird Range

  • Breeding

    As I mentioned earlier on in this article, this species breeds cooperatively. This means that the breeding effort in this species is shared amongst members of the group, helping to take some of the burden off of the breeding pair. Members of the group help by assisting with tasks like nest building, egg incubation and nest defence.  The number of helpers in a group can be as high as 17.

    It is in fact the group-living nature of these birds that gave rise to their name.  They are often seen in groups of 12, much like Jesus’s Apostles. Although this species has a whole host of other names, such as the “Cwa-bird” and the “lazy-jack”. Apostlebirds also charmingly called “grey jumpers”, a name derived from their habit of jumping from branch to branch.

    As an aside, this species forms a fission-fusion society with these “breeding units” coming together with other breeding groups in winter to former larger groups, before then breaking off again when breeding season comes around.

    You scratch my back, i'll scratch yours.

    You scratch my back, i’ll scratch yours. PC Elliot Capp @ornithzoologist

    Breeding generally occurs between August and February, with exceptions occurring at other times of the year in drier areas where breeding can commence following rain.

    The mud nest, which all group members take part in building, is typically around 7m (range = 3-12m) from the ground in the horizontal branch of a tree. Nests are commonly built in Eucalyptus , Cassuarina and Acacia trees, and are constructed using dried mud, twigs and grass.

    Typically 3-5 eggs are laid, with the breeding female undertaking most of the incubating (19-20 days), although all group members help somewhat. The whole group then takes responsibility for meeting the nutritional requirements of the nestlings (18-20 days) and subsequently the fledglings for up to 10 weeks. Offspring form a major part of breeding groups and often stay in their natal groups for many years.

    Diet

    You’ll see these birds foraging on the ground looking for seeds and insects, although they have been known to steal eggs from other species’ nests and eat small mammals. They have been seen to kill mice by thumping them into the ground before eating them, what a delightful way to go.

  • How is this species faring?

    This species is not considered to be under threat according to the IUCN redlist but is seeing population declines in some areas due to drought, fire and clearance for agriculture leading to habitat loss.

  • The Biodiversity Heritage Library

    I don’t think we have given a shout out to the Biodiversity Heritage Library as of yet, so this is as good an opportunity as any.  It is a fantastic resource that has digitised a large amount of biodiversity literature, such as the Birds of Australia.  It has been created by a consortium of natural history and botanical libraries, such as the Natural History Museum (London) and Smithsonian Libraries, with the aim of digitising biodiversity literature in their collections and making them available to all (open access).

    This project gives members of the public access to reading material that they would most likely never get the chance to see otherwise, unless they had a wealth of time on their hands and the ability to travel the world on some carefree reading adventure.

    Here is the Birds of Australia for you perusal.

References

BirdLife International. 2012. Struthidea cinerea. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2012: e.T22705385A38386489. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2012-1.RLTS.T22705385A38386489.en. Downloaded on 29 July 2016.

Rowley, I. & Russell, E. (2016). Apostlebird (Struthidea cinerea). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from http://www.hbw.com/node/60602 on 28 July 2016).

Photos and Videos

BirdLife International and NatureServe (2014) Bird Species Distribution Maps of the World. 2012. Struthidea cinerea. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2016-1 – range

Investigative Apostlebird by Benjamint444 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Audio

Marc Anderson, XC171837. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/171837.

Lab Updates June 2016

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Team2

June saw team member Chris Moody (dog whisperer, last on the right) move on from his role as photographer-extraordinaire to challenges anew. Alongside our farewells to Chris, the usual data collection and analysis have been keeping us all busy..

We were also joined by an undergraduate from the Department of Plant and Animal Sciences at Sheffield, Will Wood, for a fortnight. After successfully being awarded a SURE (Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience) grant, Will (who is interested in how UV plumage is affected by the environment, with a particular focus on South American suboscine passerines) came to shadow the team during data collection at the Natural History Museum, having a go at photography, scribing and using these amazing collections.

Data Collection in Tring: 3D Scanning

Haeckel HummingbirdsThis month we finally finished scanning the majority of the sunbirds (Nectariniidae), a massive task requiring lots of patience! We are still left with a number of large families with narrow, fine or bristly bills to occupy us, including the tyrant flycatchers (Tyrannidae).

A current target remains to continue working our way through the more than 300 species of hummingbird (Trochilidae). This month, we scanned some species of Lophornis, a genus of particularly tiny hummingbirds known as the coquettes. These fantastic birds have some of the most outlandish plumage, with the males displaying particularly colourful crests and markings.

Many of the hummingbirds have brilliant names, and some of our favourites from recent weeks include the festive coquette (Lophornis chalybeus), the bronze-tailed plumeleteer (Chalybura urochrysia), the blossomcrown (Anthocephala floriceps) and the glowing puffleg (Eriocnemis vestita).

To date we have scanned:

  • 7159 (71.64%) of species
  • 3338 (82.38%) of species from island families
  • 3893 (62.25%) of passerines
  • 3263 (81.03%) of non-passerines

Data Collection in Tring: UV and Visible Photography

The Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

The Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

One of the main families we have been photographing this month are the Starlings (Sturnidae) – displaying some of the most impressive iridescence we’ve come across yet. Even the Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris), with its white feather tips and glossy greenish, blue, and purple sheen, has beautiful, complex plumage when viewed up close.

Lamprotornis Starlings. Above Left: Superb Starling (Lamprotornis superbus), Above Right: Burchell's Starling (Lamprotornis australis), Below: Emerald Starling (Lamprotornis iris)

Lamprotornis Starlings. Above Left: Superb Starling (L. superbus), Right: Burchell’s Starling (L. australis), Below: Emerald Starling (L. iris)

Our process of imaging each specimen requires a series of single dorsal, ventral and lateral shots. These static images don’t necessarily display this extraordinary iridescence in all its variety (as with these photographs taken in the field) but will allow us to compare and assess the extent to which, if at all, these species utilise UV reflecting plumage.

To date we have reached:

  • 69 (35.57%) of families
  • 2654 (26.56%) of species
  • 12264 specimens: we are selecting up to 6 specimens of each species, both male and female
  • 75384 photographs: six photographs- dorsal, ventral and lateral in both UV and human visible spectrums- of every selected specimen

Mark My Bird

Our crowdsourcing site markmybird.org has now exceeded 840 registered landmarkers- with 3D bill models for over half of all extant world bird species available, there is a huge variety to view and landmark. As mentioned above, we have recently been working on scanning the bills of as many species of hummingbird as possible so these will soon be uploaded for people to explore with other new species regularly added as they are imaged from the museum’s collections. If you would like a go, simply visit our site markmybird.org and sign up, everyone’s efforts- however big or small- will help contribute to this huge research project.

#BeakoftheWeek

Our twitter competition #BeakoftheWeek has continued every Wednesday (plus the occasional surprise Thursday). Everyone is welcome to join in and have a go at guessing the species of bird from one of our fantastic 3D bill models. One of this month’s challenges was the straight-billed reedhaunter (Limnoctites rectirostris), pictured here (more on this bird at a later date). If you think you’ve got what it takes, have a guess and perhaps even make it into our leaderboard!

Publications

Cooper, N., Thomas, G.H., & FitzJohn, R.G. (2016). Shedding light on the ‘dark side’of phylogenetic comparative methods. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, 7(6): 693-699.

Images

Page from Ernest Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur (1904), showing a variety of hummingbirds (Trochilidae) is out of copyright

Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) taken by Koshy Koshy is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Lamprotornis Starlings
Above Left: Superb Starling (Lamprotornis superbus) taken by Sumeet Moghe is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 
Above Right: Burchell’s Starling (Lamprotornis australis) taken by Bernard DUPONT is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Below: Emerald Starling (Lamprotornis iris) taken by Doug Janson is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

 

Lab Updates May 2016

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May has been another busy month of data collection for team MacroBird with us reaching some big milestones on both the photography and 3D scanning sides of the project.

We also collaborated on a short video exploring the immense value of museum collections with the brilliant team at Eco Sapien– an organisation dedicated to spreading the word about all things related to biodiversity, conservation and the natural world. You can view the video, featuring our very own Dr Chris Cooney and a cameo from Emma Hughes, here:

Data Collection in Tring: 3D Scanning

Last week we celebrated reaching 80% of all bird species processed- that’s over 8000 specimens selected, retrieved from the collections and, where possible, databased, measured and 3D imaged! You can view many of these scanned species (approaching 7000) on our MarkMyBird gallery.

The streaked spiderhunter (Arachnothera magna). A member of the Nectariniidae family alongside the sunbirds, with a long, curved and finely pointed bill

The streaked spiderhunter (Arachnothera magna). A member of the Nectariniidae family alongside the sunbirds, with a long, curved and finely pointed bill

As with last month, we have continued to work on completing scanning the bills of all island species such as the fantails (Rhipiduridae) with their flat, triangular bills, and the bristly drongos (Dicruridae). Just to make life easier for ourselves, we have also turned our attention towards working through some of the remaining families with particularly hard to scan bills, such as the sunbirds (Nectariniidae) and hummingbirds (Trochilidae). With extremely fine tips, prominent bristles and long bills- such as the Streaked Spiderhunter (Arachnothera magna) pictured here- these species are time-consuming to both scan and select from the collections.

To date we have scanned:

  • 6994 (69.99%) of species
  • 3281 (80.97%) of species from island families
  • 3788 (63.33%) of passerines
  • 3203 (79.54%) of non-passerines

Data Collection in Tring: UV and Visible Photography

Plumage photography has continued at full pace and also reached some important milestones with well over 10,000 individual specimens now imaged- a huge achievement!

The Asian Paradise Flycatcher (Tersiphone paradisi). Right: Illustration taken from Birds of Asia by John Gould, courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library, licensed under CC BY 2.0 Left: Photograph taken by Dr. Vijay Anand Ismavel MS MCh and licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

The Asian Paradise Flycatcher (Terpsiphone paradisi).

Amongst other families this month we have been photographing the beautiful Paradise Flycatcherspart of the monarch (Monarchidae) family. Found across Africa and Asia, the genus Terspiphone is sexually dimorphic- with colourful males featuring prominent tail streamers and primarily monochrome or rufous females. 

Another interesting feature exhibited by some species within this family are colour morphs. For example, the male Madagascar Paradise Flycatchers (Terpsiphone mutata) have both a nominate white morph and a rufous morph.

To date we have reached:

  • 67 (34.54%) of families completed
  • 2452 (24.54%) of species
  • 11209 specimens: we are selecting up to 6 specimens of each species, both male and female
  • 67254 photographs: six photographs- dorsal, ventral and lateral in both UV and human visible spectrums- of every selected specimen

Mark My Bird

Our crowdsourcing site markmybird.org has now exceeded 820 registered landmarkers. With over 5000 3D bill models uploaded and ready for landmarking, and more added regularly as each family is scanned from museum specimens, there is lots to be done! If you would like to see the amazing diversity of bill form up close, you can visit our site markmybird.org and have a go at landmarking, contributing directly to this huge study.

If you are new to citizen science, aren’t sure what we mean by landmarking or just want to see the process in action, Elliot has also produced a video taking you step-by-step through the landmarking process. Any questions, queries or comments- let us know!

Twitter and #BeakoftheWeek

Our twitter competition #BeakoftheWeek has continued every Wednesday- all are welcome to join in and have a guess, perhaps even beating our current contenders to the top slots!

We post regular blogs about some of our favourite species chosen for the weekly challenge over on our website, this month including the fascinating Tawny Frogmouth (Podargus strigoides).

Publications

IMG_3522RAs Zoë, Emma, and Elliot wrote an article for the Spring edition of the Natural History Museum’s evolve magazine. Exploring the role of the museum’s collections and citizen science in our research, the article includes photographs of some of our favourite unusual bills from the ornithology research collections taken by Chris and Lara.

Zoë is also lead author on a paper detailing the rediscovery and identification of a (thought to be) long lost owl specimen collected by Charles Darwin on the famous second voyage of HMS Beagle. During research into the zoological collection of Robert FitzRoy- Darwin’s captain during the South American voyage- a specimen thought to be Asio flammeus galapagoensis was found to contain a tiny metal tag hidden amongst its tarsal feathers indicating a different species and backstory. The paper explores how, by tracking a specimen through original voyage manuscript data and on through historical museum registers and catalogues, specimens such as this can be traced back to their original collectors and correct identifications.

Varley, Z., Cooper, J. and Prys-Jones, R., Rediscovery of a long misattributed and misidentified Darwin Beagle bird specimen (2016) Bull. B.O.C., 2016 136(1)

Images

Streaked Spiderhunter (Arachnothera magna) taken by Lip Kee is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The Asian Paradise Flycatcher (Terpsiphone paradisi)
Right: Illustration taken from Birds of Asia by John Gould, courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library, licensed under CC BY 2.0
Left: Photograph taken by Dr. Vijay Anand Ismavel MS MCh and licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Evolve front cover (c) Natural History Museum, London

The Tawny Frogmouth (Podargus strigoides)

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The Tawny Frogmouth (
Podargus strigoides), a #BeakoftheWeek contender from last year,  is a weird and wonderful member of the Podargidae family.

Adult tawny frogmouth, perching in daylight, Queensland

Adult tawny frogmouth, perching in daylight, Queensland

Alongside oilbirds, potoos and some nightjars, frogmouths are part of the wider order of birds known as Caprimulgiformes. Literally meaning ‘goat-milker’ in Latin, this peculiar name is said to have derived from folk tales regarding the feeding habits of the European nightjar, thought to surreptitiously suck the milk from goats in the depths of night!

The Tawny Frogmouth was first described in 1801 by the great English naturalist John Latham who was able to study and name many species of Australian birds from specimens finding their way into England’s growing natural history collections at the turn of the 19th century. In his first great ornithological work ‘A General Synopsis of Birds’ he actually focuses on the unusual bills of these then so-called ‘goatsuckers’ as follows: 
“The bill in this genus is very short, and hooked at the end. Gape vastly wide: on the edges of the upper mandible seven or more stiff bristles.”

Tawny Frogmouth 2

Ornithological painting from the Natural History Musuem’s collection of First Fleet artwork: “Strigoid Goatsucker”, native name “Birreagal”

One of the earliest known images of these birds is part of the collection of artworks created during the First Fleet expedition of the 1780s that saw the formation of the first European colony in Australia. Over half the natural history artworks focus on birds, with a number acting as iconotypes (where an image has survived but the specimen it was taken from (usually the earliest known to science) has not).

This fantastic painting, noted as a type and labelled around its time of creation as depicting a ‘Strigoid Goatsucker, native name Birreagal’ was re-examined in 1970 and confirmed as being detailed enough to accurately identify as Podargus strigoides.

Tawny frogmouths can be found throughout Australia and Tasmania and are known to live in most available habitats- from forests and woodland to heaths and urban areas. Known for their ‘cryptic plumage’, their colouration is variable, but usually consists of greyish upperparts, streaked with barring and vermiculation in blacks and brown with females usually having darker feathers.

Frogmouths have often been confused with owls, seemingly as a result of their nocturnal habits, brilliant camouflage and expressive faces alongside some quirks of historic synonymy. Confusingly, some of the most commonly used names for the Tawny Frogmouth are ‘Birreagal’ and ‘mopoke’, a name also shared by the boobook, a small Australasian owl. The Latin name strigoides itself reiterates this, with strix meaning owl, and oides meaning form. Many resources continue to refer to frogmouths as ‘false owls’ or simply ‘tawny frogmouth owls’ for good measure; there are however a number of key differences between these taxa.

Unlike most owls with their strong legs and curved, pointed bills for killing prey, the tawny frogmouth has an extraordinarily wide, chunky bill ideal for catching and consuming insects. So too, during daylight hours frogmouths tend to perch on branches, utilising their extraordinary camouflage to blend in with their surroundings and avoid detection. Unlike owls, they gather most of their food by ‘pouncing’ from low branches to the ground where they mainly feed on worms, slugs, snails, reptiles, frogs and small mammals.

Tawny Frogmouth family- these birds have some of the most fantastical looking chicks.

Tawny Frogmouth family, New South Wales. Frogmouths have some of the most fantastical looking chicks.

Tawny Frogmouths breed between August and December with both sexes sharing incubation duties. Their nests are fairly loosely formed structures, primarily comprised of sticks and usually creating a platform between forked tree branches to safely raise their young  (having an average clutch size of 2 to 3 eggs) from the ground. These birds have distinctive ‘soft and low’ pitched calls, most commonly sounding like sequential bursts of ‘oom-oom-oom’ sounds, and are known to loudly bill-snap when threatened:


You can find out more about which species are related to the Tawny Frogmouth at OneZoom. For now though, I’ll end this post with a passage from another historical text, The Birds of Australia of 1911, which brilliantly captures the appearance and character of these birds:

‘The Frogmouths are beautifully soft-plumaged birds, with a motley of grey, brown, black and white markings. In the coloration then they resemble the dead bark of the bough on which they sit. To render it still more difficult of detection, the bird does not sit across the bough, but along it, assuming the stiff attitude of a rugged branch broken off short. The eyes are large and adapted to the diminished light of night, the brighter light of day seemingly making them dazed and inert. In both these characters they resemble the Owls. Their disposition is however, much milder, and they can be handled by day without attempting to offer any resistance. They are invaluable insect feeders, and capture their food, Cicadas, Phasmids and Beetles, &c., on the branches of the trees. After swallowing an insect they bring their mandible together with a loud snap, as if in satisfaction over the tit-bit.’

References
Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive, Podargus strigoides: http://www.hbw.com/species/tawny-frogmouth-podargus-strigoides (accessed April 2016)

White, John, A General Synopsis of Birds: Vol 2, Part 2, London, Printed for Leigh, Sotheby, & Son (1801). Available via Biodiversity Heritage Library:  http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/105238#page/7/mode/1up

The First Fleet Expedition and Collections, Natural History Museum London- Library and Archives Collections: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/art-nature-imaging/collections/first-fleet/art-collection/index.dsml (accessed April 2016)

Australian Museum, Podargus strigoides factsheet: http://australianmuseum.net.au/tawny-frogmouth (accessed March 2016)

Lucas, Arthur Henry Shakspere & Le Souëf, W. H. Dudley, The Birds of Australia,  London, Whitcombe and Tombs Limited (1911). Available via Biodiversity Heritage Library:
http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/114952#page/9/mode/1up

Images and Audio

Adult tawny frogmouth, Queensland by Tatters is licensed under CC BY 2.0

“Strigoid Goatsucker”, native name “Birreagal” from the Natural History Museum’s collection of First Fleet artworks, available online: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/art-nature-imaging/collections/first-fleet/art-collection/nathist.dsml?sa=1&lastDisp=gall&notes=true&beginIndex=264&desc=true

Tawny Frogmouth family, New South Wales by tinykettle is licensed under CC BY-NC 3.0

Audio recording of Tawny Frogmouth (Podargus strigoides) call, XC150467, by Marc Anderson. Accessible at: http://www.xeno-canto.org/150467