Field Notes Friday 0031: Is iNaturalist a Good Excuse?

You’ll have to tell me whether you think this is a good reason to have missed so many weeks of #FieldNotesFriday: I’ve become an iNaturalist addict! I’m uploading observations like crazy, both from the computer and via mobile.

iNat is a great tool for learning more about nature, connecting with naturalists across the globe and locally, sharing your knowledge, and keeping a record of your discoveries.

Both online and mobile formats are relatively easy to use, though both have their quirks and cons. (Shoot me a comment on this blog or message me on iNat if you have questions. I’ll do my best to help.)

I hope you’ll give it a try, or if you’re already an iNat addict, find me! (I’m quickly nearing 100 observations. That’s just an arbitrary base-10 number but I’m still excited.)

Find me (and my recent observations) here:
http://www.inaturalist.org/observations/happynaturalist

Field Notes Friday 0030: Monarch Day!

It was a day of Monarchs! I’ve never seen a migration like this… or rather, I never knew to look up at the right time before.

The actual journal page is below, but I know how my handwriting is, even when I do my best to slow down and smooth out the curves… so here’s the transcript/translation:

Social media CAN be used to reconnect people with their nature! Before I got out of bed (it was SO COLD this morning! We slept with the windows open and it dipped into the upper 40s), I checked Facebook. Both Suzanne & Michelle had commented on monarchs flying through their backyards/are (in Fort Worth). So I kept my eyes open [throughout the day], and HOLY COW! As I approached LLELA, I saw ever-thickening numbers – at first I was delighted with one, but then 15 in as many minutes… and this gave way to 150 in an hour and I lost count! They seem to be using the area just South of the dam as a highway, flying East to West. The only two or three times I saw them deviate was when a couple circled each other or a dragonfly chased one. (about 2.5 / min or 5 every 2 min)

There is something sacred and special about feeling a part of something as epic as this journey of thousands of miles. To be witness – to be graced with a canopy of monarchs – to see beauty and fragility but know it belies strength and tenacity – to finally be awake and aware enough to see how grand nature’s stories are – I am honored to be this awake, and indebted to those who have made the invisible visible by studying this incredible… being.

Monarch Day

Dad got to see it, too – he surprised me and showed up to see what the Dutch Oven Club is all about. Then we walked to the Homestead. SEeing monarchs, and honey locust, and a few other items of interest caused him to say ‘now I remember what I enjoyed so much about Lufkin.’ His family used to visit the grandparents every summer, I think.

Field Notes Friday 0029: Sisters of the Eclipse

The clouds low on the Southern horizon were like a gathering army, visible only once illuminated by the premonition of sun. They invaded when the sun rose, never spoiling the view.

One of my latest Field Notes entries was more flowery than usual. The florid words were inspired by an early, chill morning, an amazing astronomical sight, and being graced by the company of like-minded naturalists who were dedicated to seeing something powerful in nature… regardless of losing sleep, enduring a tough climb (not to mention the descent), and facing the unknowns of a new location and the dynamics of a group of people who are just starting to know each other. We were watching the October 8 eclipse, which was awe-inspiring. I’m grateful for their company and glad to share my experience here.Sisters of the Eclipse

Continuing from my field journal:

My spirit bird* soared over us after the sun lightened the Eastern sky, but hadn’t yet appeared… (turkey vulture)

Int the dark turning dusk, a ladybug landed on my spread sleeping bag…. I was surprised to see it so early.

The air was still and warm till 6am, when a stiff breeze whipped the warmth away from my body… even though the breeze was warm.

We bonded on top of that tall climb, wanted to dance and sing at full eclipse, raised our arms to the wind and the rising sun…

And Cynthia says her name means moon.

As we stood on top of the dam, 125 feet up after a long climb, a dark morning, feeling like dancing and singing to the moon and finally seeing the sky turn bright and colorful, Susie said she feels the world would be a calmer, better place if more people saw something of this awe and beauty every day. Kris ventured ISIS as a juxtaposition… and I wondered if [ISIS members would] be where they are today if someone had shown them the beauty of calm and surrender and loving this world and its creatures. Maybe I can help make the world a better place – by helping people be more calm and introspective.

Some of my pictures are here on my Facebook page (although don’t expect astro-images until I get permission from friends to share their photos. Mine are much more earthly).

* I feel the need to explain that this is not an animal that came to me in a vision after a spiritual quest; I use “spirit bird” to mean the animal that makes me feel elated, makes my “spirits soar” every time I see it.

If you’d like to participate in Field Notes Friday, it’s as easy as using a hashtag on your favorite social media and sharing your unique perspective on nature. Learn more here: http://bit.ly/FieldNotesFriday

P.S. One of the Eclipse Sisters herself just shared this photo! This is totally how I felt.Eclipse sisters from Diane

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Field Notes Friday 0028: Don’t Take Field Notes

Don’t take field notes ALL the time. Or even photos. It’s vitally important that, sometimes, we just abide with nature. Not every moment needs to be captured. Not every species needs to be documented.

True, I think the world will be a better place when more people take field notes, take notice of the world around them, see how truly enmeshed in nature we are, feel moved by the seasons and care for the dramas that unfold around us on both tiny and epic scales.

But, sometimes… Just sometimes… don’t pull out your pen and paper. Or your camera, or your phone. Just look, and listen, and feel, and smell, and be.

New Mexico

This post is inspired by a recent entry in my personal journal, not my field notebook. Below is the page, and below that is a transcript (because… handwriting!)

Don't always take field notes

Tue, Sep 9, 2014

“I will release my anger and bad thoughts.” That’s the hardest line I added to the Dalai Lama’s quote.

But you know what? I don’t just have to release bad thoughts. Starting with the hike up Capulin Volcano in New Mexico, when Landon begged me to hurry my pace and not take so many pictures, I’ve been thinking about ‘breathe it in, breathe it out,’ ‘let it in, let it out’ ~ let the experience pass through me and away, and what stays is really going to stay, but clinging to each moment – even good ones – only causes more stress. I can’t hold or record each moment, and I’m not fully living when I try.

 

On a lighter note, because I was so camera-crazy on top of Capulin (trying to capture every sweeping vista and intriguing plant), I caught the exact moment when Landon’s patience snapped:

Patience snaps

I think that expression is a good reminder that even perfectly patient people can be taxed by a naturalist’s pace.

Want to know how to participate (and sometimes not participate) in Field Notes Friday? Click here: http://bit.ly/FieldNotesFriday

A Conversation About Litter (From a Dream)

The first words I ever said to him were, “Sir, please don’t litter.” The first words he said to me were “F**k you.” And that was the beginning of a beautiful conversation.

litterbug3

I was at a conference for the Environment & Urban Societies. I was sitting in the shade of one of those blue pop-up tents you see hovering over tables and volunteers and vendors at races and festivals. The sun was beating down, albeit at a late afternoon slant, onto the short-clipped grass, outdated concrete plaza fountain, and crowded street around the rows of tents. People from the conference were pressing in to hear the announcement we’d just learned would be made shortly about some detail of the conference. City traffic – cars and pedestrians – added to the throng.

I had thought he was one of those pedestrians, and thought the handful of whatever he had flung to his left, just out of my sight, was wrappers or a Styrofoam to-go box or who knows what. I was sitting there stewing in the heat thinking about – and had been musing all day about – the litter issue: why some cultures in some times seem more likely to litter, what the real threats of litter are, and the impact on humans, wildlife, and the ecosystem. As an interpreter and educator I like to learn, puzzle things out, see patterns, and use education as one way to help reverse problems. Litter had been in my mental microscope for the conference thus far, and my obsession carried through to this brief break before we jumped back into lectures, networking, and expanding our ideas and knowledge. Buoyed and blinded by this obsession, I uncharacteristically spoke a brazen rebuke to a stranger before examining the situation, and that was the source of the strife, and the curse.

After our sweet little exchange, I took a mental split-second to look again. His words hadn’t seemed malicious – just a ‘get off my back’ or ‘give me a break’ tone. For some reason I was in touch with my confidence and compassion enough that I was only momentarily offended and angered, and quickly realized I needed to take a breath and a step backward. It also helped that the crowd wasn’t moving and he wasn’t in a hurry to get out of my presence.

His demeanor wasn’t any more agitated than someone waiting in line, which I took to be a sign of some calm good-naturedness. As he shifted his weight, standing blocked by the crowd, I saw what he had tossed onto the grass was a binder full of papers. Not typical litter. Oops.

He was of average height and weight – taller than me but not imposingly so, slightly stocky with middle-aged roundness around the gut. He had leathery, mottled skin and the overall hoary appearance common among heavy smokers, or maybe someone who used to smoke a lot.

But what tipped the balance in favor of another exchange was that he had looked back at me, too, not angrily, and at the same time we realized we were wearing the same shirt from the conference. Then we seemed to both recognize each other from, of all things, a choir rehearsal associated with the conference. (Yes, some musically-inclined soul had the idea that music was a good venue to share environmental messages, and thankfully had the conducting and composing expertise to make it happen. So this was the second Environment & Urban Societies conference that had had a volunteer choir, and we were both in it.)

That little bit of commonality emboldened me to say, “I’m sorry. I really thought you were littering–” but before I finished he waved me off and in a gruff voice said, “Forget it.”

“I work at a nature preserve,” I pressed on, “so I’m so used to dealing with…” Words failed me – should I say ‘litter’ again? In the same conversation – the second or third sentence I was saying to the guy? I gestured vaguely at what I’d thought was his trash, which I’d realized was a binder, and now it was dawning on me that the binder was probably the music from rehearsal. Yeesh, did I feel unobservant and gun-shy about jumping to conclusions.

But he was unfazed by my fumbling and said, ‘Hey, I know. I tell crapheads to pick up their shit all the time. And it’s not even my job – I don’t work for an environmental place.” He paused, perhaps calculating the value of continuing our exchange, or the intensity of whatever he was feeling at the time, weighing whether he wanted to say more. He seemed to unwind slightly as he looked around and continued, “I’m tired of people who treat everywhere like it’s a trashcan, like the earth is one big trash can.”

He was indicating the space around us but I could tell his mental reach with that gesture encompassed the globe, maybe even the space around the globe, where thousands of pounds of our human-made satellite debris orbits even now… and maybe it included companies who leave trails of trash and environmental damage like they own the earth – the whole earth – or worse, like no one owns it, so no one inherits it, and it has no inherent value.

I’d been nodding as he spoke as a conciliatory gesture and to show my support for the sentiment. I even said something lame like, “Yeah, totally” just to be sure he knew I felt we were on the same side.

I figured it was time to wrap up this exchange with this middle-aged stranger on a positive note. “Well, I didn’t realize you were with the conference,” I began, but again he spoke over me in that gravelly voice which probably served him well in the bass section.

“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean jack. I’ve seen people in there walking in with Styrofoam cups, or throwing away those stupid-ass plastic water bottles. Throwing them away. At an environmental thing. People are clueless. Even when they care. So just being in this conference–” he shrugged and shook his head– “people just don’t know.”

It’s hard to pinopoint the mental calculus involved in any human exchange. Below the level of consciousness, we evaluate all sorts of factors: the value of our interaction with the person, his or her honesty or intentions, subtle cues about health and attractiveness or repulsion, thoughts of other things to do, social fears and morés and consequences. Somewhere in this brief exchange, I decided I liked the guy. And I dared to engage.

“Even if they do know,” I continued for us both, “you’re never sure if they care at all. There are too many people who know, on some level, that littering is bad and they just don’t care. Or it’s an inconvenience to have to deal with it, and they don’t want to be inconvenienced.”

I figured I’d prattled too much for a typical stranger exchange, but he hadn’t lost interest; on the contrary, he seemed to be digging in.

He answered, “Yeah. Ethics can be inconvenient. Look, I’m an atheist, and people think that means I have no ethics, but that’s not true, that’s not what it means. I have strong morals and they’re based on observation and trying to make things better. And I observe that humans make a lot of stuff worse. It’s just what we do – it’s natural, not intentional.” He took a deep ragged breath like he was sucking air through a cigarette, like this way of thinking made him tired and wired at the same time. “We’ve never had to change our behavior before, because up until now we couldn’t have much impact on the globe. There were too few of us, we didn’t have the technology then. Now, we have to totally re-steer our species to do what’s NOT natural, to do what’s NOT convenient, so we don’t ruin what we’ve got.”

I had noticed other people standing around were starting to get interested, to turn toward us subtly and lean in slightly. I was happy to see this could potentially blossom into a philosophical conversation among new acquaintances.

A woman standing near the man chimed in sardonically, “Like, we have to act like our future depends on sharing the planet?” A lovely, wry statement – obvious to conservationists, hard to swallow for the average human when she or he realizes the implications for business and personal life.

In only a few minutes, the conversation had turned from an affront to a pleasant camaraderie. I could feel the warmth of growing respect blooming in my smile.

The aforementioned announcement served as an interruption, after which our group disbanded, but I knew I’d be seeing the man and the other people throughout the conference. Some in rehearsal. Ours is a small, though growing, world of people who care enough about the environment to take time off work to go to conferences like these and gripe and grow and learn and lead. We’d run into each other again, and after a few fumbling, awkward exchanges, we’d delve back into sharing ideas and groping toward changing the world for the better.

 

If you’ve read this far, I thank you for sharing this experience with me, and apologize for going over my self-imposed 500 words limit. Those who know me well know that my dreams are vivid, and I didn’t want to break this one into a series or boil it down past its subtlety, which I hope I’ve conveyed. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this trip into one of the worlds my brain conjured during sleep.

Field Notes Friday 0027: Today I Felt a Prairie Fire

Is this what it means to be human? To have the power of life and death in our hands? Today I felt the heat of a prairie fire as I volunteered for a planned burn. It reminded me of the first prairie fire I ever witnessed, and an essay I wrote afterward in utter awe of the power. I’m taking liberties with my self-imposed 500-words-or-under rule to share this with you. The original publication was here in February 2011 (I was a guest blogger). There are great pictures at that link, and the other entries are well worth a read, especially for naturalists and prairie ecologists. The photos below are from Thursday, September 4, 2014.Today I Felt a Prairie Fire
Today I participated in a prairie burn at LLELA (the 2,000 acre wildlife preserve where I work). I now have a profound respect for the settlers who moved to the prairies and fought wildfires with their bare hands, with shirts and rags. They fought to help neighbors and themselves, to save houses, fields, and families.

I also gained a profound respect for fire fighters. Even several feet away from a blaze of waist-high plants engulfed in powerful, vibrant orange, I felt the skin on my upper arms burning and wondered if I’d walk away with blisters. How do fire fighters do it? How did settlers do it?

After work today I became aware of the bustling activity of a few LLELA employees and volunteers. The winds were right, the time was short, the plans were laid – it was time for a burn! Steady, slow winds and other factors expedient for a burn coalesce rarely, so when the time is right, action must always be swift (even though plans are made well in advance).

I was honored to be invited to watch my first ever prairie burn; I didn’t know I’d get to participate! I showed up to observe the pros at work, but instead was told to park my car nearby with the keys still in the ignition (so someone could start the car fast and get away if needed – yikes!). I was handed a big yellow bag full of water to wear on my back, and its accompanying hose and sprayer to douse unruly flames, and took turns with my boss Lisa using what looked like a mud flap from an 18-wheeler attached to a broom handle to slap little flames (or sometimes big flames) that strayed from their allotted zones.

Prairie Fire
It was serious work! My eyes would sting when the smoke thickened, my arms were burning, hot ash sometimes landed on my bare skin, my upper back muscles were sore, and the only shade available was from the smoke itself, and only when it became so thick and brown it blotted out the sun! In those eerie times, the glow around me would look alternately green, magenta, and even purple.

As I watched Lisa deftly handle the tools of the trade (the flapper, the hose, the igniter), and heard her conversing with Ken and Richard via radio, I realized how important communication is in such a situation. Teamwork is as essential as any of the other tools. A fire may be planned, but it is a raw, powerful, raging form of energy, and I kept thinking of the word force; it is a compelling, unavoidable, unrelenting Force of Nature which, once unleashed, is hard to contain.

And containing it was the art. The tools were never idle; used against a huge blaze, they may seem paltry, but they were deftly and strategically wielded. We were creating a fire break, an area that would be burned ahead of time so that the major fire would blaze toward it, get to the edge of it, run out of fuel, and subsequently die.

Our purpose was clear, but the method was subject to the caprices of weather. Our supposedly steady forecasted wind proved as fickle as a politician, and constantly shifted positions. Little flames seemed to be constantly testing their bounds, and when we turned our backs, they’d have created messes as toddlers with a new babysitter do.

And a new babysitter is exactly what I felt like! Experience is a grand teacher, and it was obvious that I had none. Lisa could see signs of fire where I saw only grass; she could see flames where I saw only wisps of smoke. When I first started helping, the scene would look placid right up until the point that there were multiple small fires out of my control. Gradually I became more aware of the patterns of the fire, and of the goal behind the smaller actions involved in keeping the fire in line.

Prairie Fire
At one point I saw flames brightly and colorfully reflected in big drops of water Lisa had just sprayed on the grass. So I knew that grass was wet and had no need of my attention, so I turned to other fires to swat. The next time I looked at the same area, it had become a bustling city of little flames, sprouted there as if by magic, or mischief! Vigilance is a must.

Little flames could also crouch unseen, hiding under small thickets of green grasses and plants. They seemed to watch with bright eyes until I turned away, then they’d suddenly burst forth and consume the towering goldenrod above them, as well as the shorter stems that had covered them. I could understand how ancient people might have attributed animate characteristics to fire.

The movement! The colors! The sound! The smell! The smell of a prairie fire is as homey to me as a campfire. Nothing was as unsettling, though, as the sound it made. Different plants burned with different sounds, but when many plants were burning inside of a wall of angry red and orange, the sound became cracking, popping, and a faint thrumming roar. I think it would have given me goosebumps if I hadn’t been so hot. If I heard that sound anywhere but in a controlled burn, my blood would to turn to ice in my veins. That’s the sound of death rushing straight at you.

And the animals noticed, too. We were only burning about 20 acres, so I’d guess that most of the animals we’d consider cuddly and cute were able to get away before they were in real danger. But the grasshoppers were caught by surprise. Some of them didn’t seem to be able to figure out which way to hop. Are they geriatric at the end of their season?

I had only a little time to contemplate the fate of some roasted grasshoppers, and wonder at the other animals who were (hopefully) making their escape. (In particular, I asked Lisa about snakes, her area of expertise. Could they slither fast enough?) But as I drove home, the implications of the power of fire wielded by human hands settled on me like heavy ashen dust.

Is this, then, what it means to be human? To have the power of life and death in our hands?

We decide when to burn; we decide when to plant. We decide what to kill; we decide what to preserve. We decide what to contain; we decide what to eradicate. Fire is the most blatant display of such powers I’ve ever seen. The scorched land we’d created with the use of fire recalled scenes or war, or descriptions of a hellish wasteland, a true gehenna. What will spring from these ashes, though, is a healthier prairie, covering the scars of fire with breathtaking greens, golds, reds, blues, browns, and purples in less than a year.

Fire kills, and fire brings life. It’s a heady experience to control a power like that, even just to see it. Maybe control is too strong a word; perhaps manipulate is better. Manipulate – is the root word related to hands? That would be appropriate. With our own hands, and our own brains, we choose how and when to use a power like fire.

Prairie Fire Preparation

Some tools of the trade: an igniter (the silver can) and water tank with pressure hose (the white container on the ATV)

Fighting that fire (for that was my role, though others had different roles) was tough and rewarding. Though I’m inspired by the prairie settlers’ tenacity, bravery, and toughness, I can see that they were fighting a perpetual battle against a force of nature. Prairies and fires are as inextricable as forests and leaves.

Restoration ecologists know this about North American prairies: you can’t have a thriving prairie ecosystem without bison… and fire. Fire, as destructive as it seems to humans, is necessary for the renewal of the prairies, and the removal of trees. Prairie Fire

Trees, yes – those symbols of restoration. “Plant a tree!” we’re told. But trees are the enemies of some ecosystems. Trees and grasses are ancient enemies; where one thrives, the other rarely survives. So, fire it must be to keep the prairies alive. Fire, bison, and now humans, for so much of the prairie is incarcerated behind concrete bars and barriers that we are the new bison; we are the new force of nature, and in our hands is the power to protect or destroy.

After the prairie fire

Part of the fire team reflects after the burn is over. Note the charred area behind us.

Dear Curiosity: An Open Letter to the Curiosity Rover

Dear Curiosity, I heard about your wheel troubles recently and wanted to write to encourage you.

We’ve been your supporters since you were a baby – an idea, really. We were so excited to hear about the planning that went into making you, the testing you endured… you were bringing such promise of discovery into the world!

We were with you during your long trip, and we were with you during your harrowing landing. How tense we were during those 7 minutes – or were they 7 hours? It felt like it! – of silence as you plummeted through thin atmosphere, facing searing heat and blowing sand… and then your amazing landing! What skill! I admit we were worried – skeptical, even – about your vertical landing, which was so dependent upon 4 thrusters and a lot of other technology, but WOW. You pulled that off beautifully. It was a great start to your excellent career.

When you sent your first picture home (a photo of your foot safe on firm ground) I almost cried. You’ve continued to work steadfastly ever since then, and humanity is already benefitting from the knowledge you’re sharing. Do you have a favorite discovery yet? A favorite picture you sent, or a favorite place you’ve visited? Which of your images or discoveries do you think will impact humanity the most?

I bet the terrain looks oddly familiar. Weren’t some Earth deserts included in your training? Those rugged, red rocks, the sand and dusty horizon… although they’re Martian, the images you send home remind me a little of Arizona & New Mexico.

Which makes me wonder, are you homesick at all? Or does Mars feel like the place you belong? In a deep sense which no living creature (at least that we know of) can boast, you were made for Mars. I hope you feel a sense of awe knowing you are one of the only explorers on a planet almost as large as the entire land surface of Earth.

Let the grand scale of what you’re accomplishing buoy your spirits. Don’t focus on the state of your wheels. I know you have to travel more slowly now, and some paths may not be open to you. That’s ok. Every explorer has faced similar challenges at some point. If you continue despite hardships, and take setbacks in stride and continue to do the best work you can to benefit humanity (and the Earth and Mars of course; I don’t want to sound too human-centric), that’s what makes you a hero.

Yes, traveling through space, flying through the atmosphere, exploring for years through uncharted terrain, sending telepathic messages across millions of miles – those are all exciting endeavors, and make you worthy of the title Explorer. To be sure, your powers are like a super hero’s! But its your day to day commitment to persevere in the face of adversity that makes you a real hero.

Keep up the good work.

With gratitude,

Erin Taylor

The Happy Naturalist

Dear Curiosity

Field Notes Friday 0025: Patterns in Your Nature Collections

I’m totally into thigmotropism. I bet you are, too.

Into what?? Yeah, I hadn’t heard that word until recently. Very recently. But after learning the word, lots of things make sense.

Like collecting sticks like this…

and this… Thigmotropism_credit_HappyNaturalist

and this…Thigmotropism_credit_HappyNaturalist

and writing a post about this:

Snake or plant?

Snake or plant?

…and being called “Twisted Sister” by one of my botanist friends (Bob O’Kennon, one of the editors of the Flora of North Central Texas). Why does he call me Twisted Sister? Because I LOVE thigmotropism! I just didn’t know it, until a friend (Suzanne Barnard of the LISD Outdoor Learning Area) shared this worksheet (look at definition “c”):Thigmotropism

I knew about gravitropism and phototropism, but I’ve been a fan of thigmotropism for a long time without even knowing the name. I realize not everyone is a word nerd like I am, but isn’t it fun to learn there’s a word to describe something you’ve been enjoying for a long time? I think there’s a lesson in there somewhere about the human brain and how we learn.

At first it was hard to remember the strange word, but then I thought about the definition: plant growth in response to contact with another thing… thigmotropism… it’s like you’re saying “thing” but with a stuffy nose. (In other words, say “thing” without the ‘n’.) That’s my mnemonic device, anyway.

So, years ago, as these various trees and vines grew together in dappled shade, and touched each other and began an epic battle-dance for height and sunshine and space, I was developing an affinity for all things twisty, winding, and coiled. As these plants responded, each to the presence of the other, and allocated resources to the tussle, I was collecting sticks and stones and shells. And I started to refine my collections of sticks, leaning toward the twisted, the mangled, the beautifully bent. Some of these plants, or parts of them, died, and fell upon my future path, where I found them and treasured them and took them home. These events made a perfect nest in my mind for the word (and the concept of) thigmotropism.

I can understand why some people ascribe to synchronicity – some series of events seem laid out just for us!

Lessons I take from this turn of events (see what I did there?):

  • There’s always something unexpected to be learned.
  • Generous teacher friends are the best.
  • Encourage people to collect natural items (ethically and sustainably, of course). Patterns will emerge, and there are  wonderful lessons to be learned.

What patterns do you see in your collections?

Field Notes Friday 0024: How Do YOU Identify Bugs?

How do you look up a word you have no idea how to spell? And how do you identify a bug if you have no idea where to start? How do YOU unravel the insect mystery in front of you?

My recent entomological adventure started one lazy summer morning when my husband and I heard a familiar sound: a flying insect trying to get out by buzzing against a closed window. The poor thing was too high for us to help. Hours later in the evening, we found (we presume) the same bug, tuckered out and resting on a houseplant. Easily caught, observed, and then released, it filled my next hours with interest.

However, I feel my research could be more efficient if I knew a few tricks… or tips… or resources… or a little more about entomology. I’m looking for your suggestions.

Here’s what I did this time, and I’m hoping this convinces other novices, teachers and students that you DON’T have to already know everything. You can start from ground zero and still get close to the ‘right’ answer pretty quickly.

  1. Capture carefully. Don’t endanger yourself or the insect. Release when you’re done.
  2. Observe, photograph, and SKETCH. Sketching helps you notice important details you’d miss otherwise, which most amateur-level cameras (like cameraphones) are not powerful or fast enough to capture. This became important in step 6!

    Home Nature Journal

    Home Nature Journal (for more info: http://bit.ly/1oCDhFI )

  3. Mentally compare to what you know. What does its coloring remind you of? Its shape? Don’t worry if you have less-than-basic knowledge. If you’ve thought of a comparison for the bug, you can bet someone else has, too, and it may lead you closer to identification. In this case, the coloring and the shape indicated conflicting answers: the warning coloration resembled wasps/yellowjackets, but those bulbous eyes and tiny antennae reminded me of… could it be… a fly?? I based that inkling on having taken a cursory glance at worksheets like this:

  1. Search for your hunch. I typed “yellow jacket look-alikes” into a search engine and scrolled through photos. Screen Shot 2014-08-07 at 12.27.56 PMThe closest photo was from a BLOG, a wonderful find with great information, sending me in a new direction (which I’d never heard of): syrphid flies.

  2. Refine your search. Armed with new info, I Googled “syrphidae”. Again, there’s no magic or secret knowledge here – this was a completely new word to me. I wondered whether it would lead to an ID.
  3. Follow your leads but focus on details. If something looks close, follow it! Learn more about it. (Do you have resources to suggest?) The most informative “syrphidae” image I found was a compilation of species on Wikipedia:

    At this point, the trail seemed to get cold. Two of the closest look-alikes in the image weren’t a match to the pattern on the thorax and the golden accents on the abdomen of the individual I’d seen.

  4. Embrace persistence. Don’t give up on details you’ve noticed! False leads and dead ends are all part of the chase. Just keep going.
  5. Check trusted sources. I’d looked at Wikipedia, and felt I was on the right track with “syrphidae.” I’ve seen BugGuide.net several times in other searches, so decided to try that site. It confirmed I was on the right track at the Family level, but there was a LONG list of species to click through, and no thumbnails – not an easy resource for a novice to use.

    The same was true of a Canadian website. OMG, Ontario!

  6. Focus on your area. That Canadian site gave me an idea. Perhaps my bug was unique to Texas, or at least notable in Texas. I Googled “syrphidae of Texas.” Persistence again paid off, because on the ELEVENTH row of images I found something promising (bottom right). Screen Shot 2014-08-07 at 12.32.33 PM Clicking the image led me to THIS page, and a potential identification! Milesia virginiensis, the Flower Fly. (Interestingly, its range is from Canada to Texas. The Canadian site wasn’t far off my trail!)
  7. Ask the experts. You can do this digitally, thanks to iNaturalist. I posted my potential identification and photos and clicked the “ID Please!” button. (I wonder if the iNaturalist community would appreciate the sketch? They seem to be photo-dominated.) Thanks to those who responded, I learned a more full name (Virginia Flower Fly), and that BugGuide has a key I can use next time I find a Syrphid fly.
  8. Be ok with uncertainty. It’s ok to be corrected, it’s ok to be wrong, it’s ok to tell people “I’m pretty sure this is…” Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you have to be 100% right all the time. You’re always learning, and you set an example to emulate when you admit it.

I’ve found TWO more blogs that seem to validate my ID.

This ID’ing adventure shows that naturalists have an important voice on the internet. Most people haven’t been trained in their local flora and fauna, and they need a guide – even a digital one – when learning about their natural heritage.

So thank you BugEric, Jim McCormac, Pam, and my fellow naturalists on iNaturalist (sambiology and marcello)! You helped me, and now hopefully I’m helping others.