Field Notes Friday 0036: Signs of Spring

Just a quick note today. Others have joyfully pointed out Trout Lilies and Spring Herald (or Elbow Bush) to me this week. But the King of Spring this week is a magnificent, stately elm tree (also pointed out to me – where has my head been??) that stood stately by the Green Dragon Trail at LLELA. Look at those buds/blooms!

IMG_5884

Field Notes Friday 0035: Thoughts About Mushroooooooms

This is how obsession starts. It’s also how real learning happens.

I’m not sure exactly when it started, but it’s dawned on me that I’m interested in fungus. Very interested. I’ve been fascinated for years by how decomposers turn trash into treasure, especially into soil. Soil is more precious than gold. But lately I’ve become interested in the fruiting bodies of fungus (which we call “mushrooms”).

My awareness crystalized when I was supposed to be ordering one unrelated book online… but I wandered over to the field guides and… I ordered two field guides to mushrooms. Sight unseen.

The Peterson Field Guide to Mushrooms has arrived, and I am reading it cover to cover (as noted on my Twitter account).

Happy Naturalist on Twitter

I’m learning a lot. Like, from the first page.

A First Page of Peterson's Field Guide to Mushrooms

Who knew I could learn to recognize fungus Orders so quickly! That’s thanks to Vera McKnights’ organized sketches.

But I had been paying attention even before nature-nerd-ing out over the field guide. In fact, I’d taken a few photos and posted them to iNaturalist. I was excited (and honored) to receive a response from LGPrice, the creator of the Texas Higher Fungi project on iNaturalist. I quickly learned that I need to take more photos, and perhaps even cut some mushrooms open (which I’m loathe to do).

I also need to take even more field notes. I know journaling is important, but in the case of mushroom edibility, noticing and recording details can be the difference between life and death! (Not that I’ll be eating wild mushrooms without an experienced mycologist any time soon… or ever…)

Here is just a sample of information that’s crucial in mushroom identification:

  • Cap size, shape color, thickness, and surface texture
  • Color and texture of the INSIDE of the cap (Cut it open!!?!)
  • Odor/aroma
  • How the color changes when the surface is pressed or scratched
  • Regarding the stalk: does any fibrous material connect to the cap? Is there a skirt-like structure?

(Currently I’d be happy just to identify to the right Order, let alone Species.)

I’m even using Vera McKnight’s illustrations as inspiration to get back into sketching! As an art teacher told me, a great way to learn to draw is to emulate good drawings. (Note the important quote.)

mushroom sketches compilation

My newest nature obsession even bubbled out during an iNaturalist social meeting – the first of its kind that I know of – wherein local naturalists who have also “gone digital” get together to support and encourage each other. I mentioned mushrooms twice, and quickly found other Fungi Friends! Oh, this could get geeky. And wonderful.

This is just the beginning of a fruitful obsession, and I’m so excited.

(I’m glad we’ve moved beyond the British influence which negatively associated mushrooms with witches and dark arts. Although if you look at the #mycology hashtag on Instagram you won’t just find beautiful photos of mushrooms… if yaknowhaddimean)

If you’d like to geek out over nature and share it with your friends and family, please participate in Field Notes Friday!

Field Notes Friday 0034: The Appearance of Destruction

Shocking as scenes after a fire may be, some fires are “good” (meaning they’re an essential part of some ecosystems). In a controlled burn, one of many goals is to burn often enough that raging, far-ranging fires aren’t a possibility in the future.

I imagine in the past, the swath of land a herd of thousands of bison had tread and munched might serve as a natural fire break – not enough fuel for the fire to continue. (I don’t have a source on that; just imagining.) In modern controlled/prescribed burns, at least the ones I’ve participated in, mow lines, water sprayers, and backfires do the job.

Here’s a before and after shot:

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It looks shocking. Like the land is devastated.

But it’s not. The fire burned through quickly and made way for native prairie species while making it harder for invasive woody species to encroach.

I hope to return and show a different “after” photo: one that’s full of the green and gold and reds of life, sprung anew from the ashes.

I’m posting this as part of my pledge that I will make it easier for myself to participate in Field Notes Friday. I’m taking my own advice: keep it simple! Just a photo and some thoughts are plenty.

Here’s a link to the photo and thoughts I shared on Facebook. I hope you’ll join me there as well as on WordPress (…and iNaturalist… And Instagram…)

Field Notes Friday 0033: A Realization and Encouragement

This realization has already helped me, and may help you. So of course, I want to share.

Bird banding log

Bird banding log and restored savannah behind it

It started to dawn on me when I listened to Dr. Jim Bednarz speak to the Dallas Audubon Society this month. He detailed his research in the Galapagos, an exotic location I’d be honored just to visit. He focused on the Galapagos hawk and its unusual polyandrous breeding arrangement, including what evolutionary pressures could lead to such an arrangement and how the size of male harems affects each individual’s fitness (survival and reproduction).

Dr. Bednarz did a stellar job making his research come alive; striking photos and interesting anecdotes wrapped around the scientific steps of creating a hypothesis, gathering data, celebrating being wrong and revising hypotheses… and gathering more data. Data, data, data. As the photos flashed before my eyes, I saw similarities with another study I’m occasionally able to participate in (and which Dr. Bednarz consistently does): the Winter Sparrow Site Fidelity Study at LLELA. In the Galapagos, the researchers caught, banded, measured, measured, and measured the hawks again. Data. And the researchers returned, year after year. I think the study spanned 6-8 years. Data, and more data, and details, and time.

And at LLELA, I’ve felt the excitement of flushing sparrows toward mist nets in the prairie, the pressure of writing data for multiple birds simultaneously, as well as the monotony of making the rounds to find empty nets. I’ve seen the enlivened team when there are multiple catches, and disappointed participants when the ‘pickins are slim’. And I realize: a successful researcher is tenacious. There is a process. There are steps. There is information to be gathered, there are good days and bad days, and one must persevere.

I’ve long admired the brilliant insight of naturalists like Darwin and Wallace, the adventurings and pluck of Mireya Mayor, and the discoveries and positive influence of Jane Goodall. But all I’ve gotten to see or study are the highlights of their lives: the big ideas, the results of their influence, the excitement and danger of travel… the director’s cut, really. I forget that there were hours spent with a magnifying lens or microscope, crawling at (truly) a snail’s pace on hands and knees to get a closer look at something, hours poring over books and maps. Hours of journal time, noting the tiniest changes in the subject. Hours of staring at the subject. Hours, probably, of recording seemingly unimportant numbers. Data.

So I revisited the sparrow study and took this photo.

And in my journal, I wrote:

MAYBE

SCIENCE

is a slow process

made of tiny mundane steps

leading to short, rare bursts of insight.

I need to adjust my desires and expectations.

I find this new perspective uplifting and affirming. The little moments you and I spend in detail work, perhaps feeling like we’re making no progress or not contributing to humanity’s knowledge, all add up. Keep on keepin’ on.

KeepOnTruckin

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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

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

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.