Step Closer

What draws you in, entices you to step closer?

There’s a Blackjack Oak (Quercus marilandica) in my neighborhood I’ve never, ever noticed before, and this Fall it’s multi-colored. I suspect, though I haven’t taken careful note, that Blackjack Oak  leaves usually turn paper bag brown like the leaves of Post Oaks (Quercus stellata), my favorite trees. But not this year, not in my neighborhood. There are delicate shades of turning in these remnants from ancient Cross Timbers forests.

This tree captured my attention so thoroughly on recent a drive home that I turned the car around, parked, and hopped out to get a photo.

And here’s the photo.

6CB8150B-F1E0-448C-BFAF-86505A5A569C.JPG

This photo is an unpoetic, unskilled, simple copy of my view – what my eyes could take in. But it in no way captured what my mind focused on. The criss-crossing power (or telephone?) lines detract, the pavement dominates, and only the barest hint of color shimmers in the leaves. I was surprised with the result, and disappointed. So I stepped closer.

A4B8B1C6-6624-40D9-ADEF-37D4501BE42C.JPG

The second photo is more like it – the pavement and power lines are relegated to the background where they belong, the azure sky frames much of the tree, and the color of the leaves is starting to tantalize. But I really, really wanted to capture that rare color, and I hadn’t yet. So I stepped closer.

2DF1F2E3-740D-4C7C-ACF0-AD43D054CFC7.JPG

And, look! I got some color. There are golds in them thar leaves! But, I thought, the grandeur I see in this tree just isn’t showing. It looks the tree is pushing you away with a suddenly raised branch, or trying to distract you by dangling a confusing mass of leaves in your face. You can’t see the scale of the tree; the trunk looks scrawny. So I stepped closer.

DCA6FDEA-0B75-478E-9E4A-70C5CF021E3F.JPG

Now I looked up. The leaves were illuminated by the warm sunshine and contrasted with the dark bark (which I presume gives the tree its name). I wanted to scale the tree like a spirit squirrel and revel in the dappled light and lounge on the branch hammocks all day. But the picture didn’t quite portray that longing. So I stepped closer.

5845F16B-459B-432A-9F87-2CB041CAD09A.JPG

This one. This one is framed like I wanted, and draws me upward into its branches. It makes me want to reach toward that rare gold which shines like a beacon above the darkness of the writhing, rippled bark. I had to hug the tree, lean against it to get this shot. I experimented with framing, with attempting to capture the fractal-lightning branches silhouetted against the sky.

There is a wildness in this untamed, untrimmed remnant of ancient Cross Timbers forest. Maybe that’s what drew me in after the splash of color caught my attention.

I had to get closer to capture the feeling that drew me in from afar.

If you want to see something better, step closer. If you want to understand something better, step closer. Of course, there’s a time to step back, and a time to step away. To everything there is a season. But right now, in life, there are a lot of things that puzzle me, and I’m choosing to step closer to get a better look.

The next time you want to step closer, will you?

 

These photos were taken with my husband’s iPhone 6 and are completely unedited. If I learn photo editing it will be to help my photos better convey the feelings of longing and appreciation each subject inspires in me.

Ecologically Homeless (a Field Notes Friday entry)

I’ve said to several people that I’ve loved every ecosystem I’ve ever visited (except human urban ecosystems, I suppose). And I do:

I love the Pacific Northwest,

the coast of California,

the sub-arctic alpine forests of Alaska,

the Pacific tropics of Hawaii,

the Caribbean/Atlantic tropics,

the Gulf Coast (except the obvious human-made damage of dying ocean & oil spills there),

the Arkansas rocky forests,

Louisiana bayous,

North of London rolling farmland (though it used to be forest),

the Great Redwoods,

the gorgeous country of Upstate New York & unsullied New Jersey,

the rocky hills and mountains of southern & eastern Oklahoma,

the big skies of West Texas,

the chalk hills of Aledo/Hill country…

I’ve never seen real prairie yet, but if I like the sickly shadow of it that’s left in North Texas I’d probably love the real thing in Kansas…

and now I’m in the pinewoods of East Texas. And maybe it’s my sore back from the first night camping or the disappointing drone of the nearby highway, or how little energy I had for our one real hike in the forest (where it was QUIET), but I have now turned that statement around and am looking at it from the other side.

I love every place I’ve visited, every ecosystem I’ve briefly experienced, but none – not one – feels like home. I feel like a homeless wanderer bound to love every place a little, but none too deeply.

There’s a character in a Miyazaki film (Spirited Away) who suffers a kind of amnesia – he can’t remember who he is because the river where he’s from has been destroyed – paved, obliterated.

I feel like that. I get the most excited about the Cross Timbers, but they’re vanishing even as I write. What’s left of the system is the skeleton – dying trees which will have trouble reproducing in Bermuda grass and sprinklers, which are cleared on the whims of businessmen and women who crave larger parking lots. Their birds are moving on, the forest’s silence shattered by highways and landfills and machinery, the trees’ once-impressive profile on the landscape obfuscated by rows and rows and rows and rows of squeezed-tight houses. The few builders who try to preserve the few trees do so as an afterthought, and the trees die soon after the check is written anyway.

The Cross Timbers is the only place I can think of right now where I would walk quietly, stealthily in my modern ‘moccasins’ (Vibrams) and be hunting thrill… belonging… comfort… and find it.

I want to research where remaining Cross Timbers (and similar habitats) are. Then have a getaway there.

[…] I think if an ecosystem is ‘yours’ in a deep sense, it’s like how I described the Cross Timbers to Tony- like a lover, simultaneously exciting and comforting. This is how we achieve my desire for continuity with change – you get so familiar with the same place that you are then aware of the differences. Seasonal differences, annual subtleties, overarching change. Last year the frost nipped the greenbriar. This year more grasshoppers than crickets. The kind of things you can’t notice if you don’t stay put, but noticing them makes you feel like you’re on a journey.

Field Notes Fridays are an invitation to share the raw entries in your own journal ~ whatever format, whatever content. Won’t you join us?

Field Notes Friday: Ecologically Homeless Field Notes Friday: Ecologically Homeless

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:

IMG_5122-0

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

For more info about Field Notes Friday and how you can participate: http://bit.ly/FieldNotesFriday

Please join me on Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook, and iNaturalist. Let’s keep in touch!

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 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.

Field Notes Friday 0023: KISS of DEATH Bugs

The title’s dramatic, but there’s an opportunity for you to help monitor the spread of potentially deadly-disease-carrying Kissing Bugs. You can be a citizen scientist, an epidemiologist, and a nature hero, all while doing what you probably already do: observing nature at home and at your favorite outdoor places.

Some Background

There is a family of bugs called Assassin bugs (the scientific name of the family is Reduviidae). A small subset of these are in the genus Triatoma. An even smaller group of species within this genus may carry Chagas disease, which is an uncommon disease, but worthy of attention. What does this have to do with you? Texas A&M University is studying the spread of the disease, and they need eyes on the ground. Your eyes.

What can you do?

  1. First, stay calm. This isn’t a huge health crisis. It’s just an area of study and interest.
  2. Read this informative brochure about Triatoma and what info Texas A&M needs if you find one.
  3. Continue your nature observations in your favorite places, and get in contact with Texas A&M if you find species that look like Triatoma (contact info is in the brochure link). Actually, based on my experience this week, you may want to contact them just to let them know you’re looking.
  4. Watch for bugs like this:

    T. sanguisuga, T. gerstaeckeri, T. indictiva

    T. sanguisuga, T. gerstaeckeri, T. indictiva

My Recent Experience

Because a friend let me know about this new study, I had Triatoma on the brain as I was helping with a wilderness survival camp for kids at LLELA (led by Mark Suter of Primitive Texas). When one of the campers saw a cool bug, I recognized it as an Assassin bug. I thought it looked a lot like Triatoma, so I carefully encouraged it into a little container I had.

I took photos of it and sent them to Texas A&M. In a very short time I had an answer back: the little guy/gal wasn’t in Triatoma after all. I could release it! (Good thing; I didn’t want to have to kill it, even if it was a dangerous offender.)

Interestingly, Texas A&M wanted the location of the bug, even though it wasn’t in Triatoma. In graduate researcher Rachel Curtis’ words:

We are trying to build some models to map where kissing bugs can be found in Texas.  Along with all the kissing bug locations we have, we need some “known negative locations”.  These are locations where people (like you!) are looking for kissing bugs, but not  finding any.  We have a way to randomly generate locations, but it is best to include actual locations where we know people are looking for kissing bugs.

So you may want to contact Texas A&M to let them know you’re looking, even if you’re not finding anything. This may be a case of “no news is good news.”

After all this excitement, I made my third ever contribution to iNaturalist with these photos:

Bee Assassin… I think. What do you think?

Bee Assassin… I think. What do you think?

After a few responses to my photos and request for help with the ID, I think what I found is a Bee Assassin (Apiomerus spissipes).

Moral(s) of the story:

  • You do NOT have to kill first and ask questions later.
  • It’s great to have friends who are in-the-know about nature and the news.
  • Citizen Science opportunities abound!
  • It’s good to have your camera with you.
  • iNaturalist can be a great source of identification help… as long as you have a reasonable quality camera.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Field Notes Friday 0020: Star Milkvine (Matelea biflora)

DISCOVERED: starfish alien flower life form!

I ecstatically soaked up information and enthusiasm at the 5th Annual the State of the Prairie Conference. I’m beyond glad that the Coastal Prairie Partnership decided to host the conference in Fort Worth, the Prairie Queen City of Texas. I might never have heard of the conference otherwise, and would be truly impoverished if I never met this group of knowledgeable, engaged, and proactive biologists, conservationists, land owners, and practitioners.

One of many great features of the conference was the field trips. My chosen trip was to the McFarland and Hilmont ranches. Jason Singhurst of Texas Parks and Wildlife and Dana Wilson were along, and their wealth of plant knowledge was as useful as it was stunning. I saw and touched plants I’ve never even heard of before. One of them was Matelea biflora, a vine I’ve never seen. LOOK at this thing!

Matelea Biflora

Notice the hairyness. Also, did you see the reason it’s called biflora (two flower)? There’s a green bud in the frame. These plants usually have two flowers together – no more, no less. (I’ve heard Star Milkvine is also called two-flower milkvine. Have you heard something like “two-flower milk weed vine” as its common name? I couldn’t find any references to that name online, but I only made a cursory search.)

Out of context, this plant may seem weird, or perhaps even wonderful, but it’s as disjunct as a factoid on a cereal box.

Only when you climb a hilltop in a generational ranch which is ecologically managed, and see this plant in its full range of life stages, scattered amongst other glorious flowers and inconspicuous green life, and take in the air and clouds and breadth of view – and realize you’re standing in a precious ecosystem that we have the power to save or wipe out – do you realize any plant’s significance. Star Milkvine is a harbinger of habitat, an ecological beacon. Whether it’s on the Floristic Quality Index or not, this plant is associated with good prairie, and if you live in the DFW metroplex (or any other urban area in the central US which is bursting at the seams) you understand how vanishingly rare that is.

McFarland Ranch

Star Milkvine in context at the McFarland Ranch

I’m proud to have ‘discovered’ this weird life form and to have documented it. I’ve been re-introduced to iNaturalist.org by Michael Fox, and I think I’ve finally got the impetus to fully participate, so I’ll be uploading my finds from this conference to iNaturalist soon. I’ll also be sharing more photos via my Facebook and Tumblr page, so stay tuned.

Thank you for participating in Field Notes Friday by reading my observations and and by sharing yours. We make a difference in others’ lives when we share our field notes; we’re educating and enchanting our friends and the public with the otherwise unnoticed life all around them.

Field Notes Friday 0019: Texas Yellow Star Daisy

Something simple today: 2 drawings and the photos that inspired them. Lindheimer Daisy, Texas Yellow Star, Lindheimera texana – whatever you call it, it’s in bloom, bud, and seed in North Texas.

I’ve always loved Texas Yellowstar seed heads, but this week I paid attention to the flowers and the buds. I took pictures, mostly because I wanted to draw them but didn’t have time right then. I’ve gone to one drawing class since my latest art kick (at A Creative Arts Studio), and the instructor told me it would be easiest to start by emulating other drawings, then move on to photographs, then live/in-person. I couldn’t find drawings of Lindheimera texana online (and wasn’t lugging around my 20-lb copy of the Illustrated Flora of North Central Texas), so photos had to do. And they did rather well. I was able to zoom in on the photos the way I’d want to do with a loupe and the real thing, and finding a spot on a picnic bench under a cottonwood tree to concentrate and draw was like a mini-vacation.

Lindheimer Daisy by Happy NaturalistNotes I from my journal (which don’t come through on the compiled images):

  • Only 10 lobes [I crossed through my first, less observant attempt]
  • In the Spring, 2 shades of green are the most important colors to have.
  • This is not just shading [around the center of the bud]; there is some sort of casing/cupping around those lobes
  • A rather bedraggled Texas Yellostar/Lindheimer daisy… but one with personality.
  • A central vein seems to lead to a div[o]t at end of petal.
  • After looking at more pics, I’m not actually sure what stage I drew yesterday. It’s so green it seems pre-bloom… but what I thought was post-bloom looks almost the same, just brown.

For me, sketching and drawing has been a matter of facing my fears, learning a few simple techniques, slowing down to pay more attention, and being pleased with the process. I hope you’ll join me and others in sketching… or writing… or listing… or experiencing nature in whatever way makes most sense for you, and sharing it with the world via Field Notes Friday.