Seven Reasons To Take The Nature Photography Challenge

 

Post your original nature photos seven days in a row, then tag others to do the same. These are the reasons I’m enjoying the challenge. What about you?img_8153

  1. You have photos in your camera (or phone) you haven’t even downloaded yet. You deserve a little time to look at those photos and assess what you have. I can almost guarantee you have some gems in there.
  2. You’ll enjoy a review of how much time you’ve spent observing the natural world. Yes, humans are natural, too, but there’s something ineffable about interacting with a tree that no human planted, or a bird who no one has tamed, or a mammal who’s nobody’s pet. Even urban wildernesses have these wild spaces and untamed creatures.
  3. You might get inspired to make some resolutions. I know I have. I resolve to get outside more next year, and to share my photos in a more timely manner, including on iNaturalist. (I spent a lot of time indoors this summer after giving birth… understandable, but still! Don’t want that to become the new norm.)
  4. You’ll learn about your photographic strengths and weaknesses, as well as your interests and habits. I discovered that my photos aren’t as in focus as I’d like, or I’m pushing the limits of my Canon PowerShot SX50 too far (or I need to read the manual)… I’ve discovered I could justify buying equipment to do macro photography, since I would actually use it. My photo cache shows the pattern clearly: I enjoy tiny details like the veins of leaves and the texture of a mushrooms.
  5. You’ll relive fun outdoor memories! And who knows better than you how much fun you had? I think the original idea was to post anything from the previous 12 months, but I’ve stretched that a little bit. You could also challenge yourself to post a photo from each current day. THAT would give you a lot to choose from for Field Notes Friday!
  6. You get to inspire your friends. Not only do people get to see the cool things you’ve seen, at the end of your week of photos you tag your friends to challenge and encourage them to do the same thing!
  7. You’ll flood social media with cool nature photos rather than (insert whatever current fad or trending topic is just. too. much.) I love going to Instagram because I have filled my Instagram feed with high quality nature photographers. I look at their photos and I breathe more calmly and feel my face relax. You can do that for others, whatever social media platforms you use. [I’ve been posting my photos on Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Find me there!]

What reasons am I missing? Let me know!

Whatever inspires you to get out there, be observant, and commune with the wilds – just do it. Get out there. [And believe me, I will take my own advice!]

 

A Naturalist Looks at Pregnancy

Hello again. It’s been a while.

I’ve been reminded by my fellow interpreters at the latest NAI Region 6 conference that it’s time to break the silence; it’s time to post my own #FieldNotesFridays again, and get back to regular writing and online publishing. So I thank them and you for the encouragement, and the patience, as I gathered myself over the last months.

You helped me through a dark time, when I felt ecologically estranged and depressed. I can’t say I’m through that stage, but I can say that hearing from you, learning that I wasn’t alone, meant a lot to me and helped me see light at the end of the tunnel. I feel closer to our in-person and online naturalist community since sharing how I felt and learning how you feel. You were with me on that journey, and now I’d like to share another journey with you.

The driving factor in my life right now, the inescapable and obvious-even-to-others fact: I’m pregnant.

I’ve wanted to share the steps and moments with you all the way. I’m fascinated by the biology of pregnancy and excited to be ‘attempting’ our first child.

For example, I wanted to post around week 6 that – eww – my ‘baby’ still looks like a deformed tadpole and – fascinating! – has gill arches which will someday turn into a jaw, inner ear bones, and more. (More on the evolution of those homologous arches in Your Inner Fish – and hey, there’s a companion TV series on PBS we should watch)

And I wanted to post on week 23 that – strange – our kiddo might survive out of the womb with modern medical technology, but still has translucent skin, so would look like a baby-shaped bundle of blood vessels for a while.

And in week 31, I was excited to learn that our little human’s cortex was furrowing into a more spacious place for cognition.

At least, these were the developments we assumed were taking place, if everything was going well.

And that’s what stopped me cold. Once we got pregnant (and it seemed to take a long time, although I know it’s taken others longer, and some are heart-broken that they can’t get pregnant), I was quickly reminded of the social taboos of sharing your news “too early.” Too early – in the first three months! – because of the danger of miscarriage. Miscarriages are strikingly common. 50% of fertilized eggs are spontaneously aborted, and 10-20% beyond that are also miscarried (this doesn’t even count stillbirths, the term used after week 20). Those are sobering odds.

As a friend studying sonography(?) said, when you learn about all that can go wrong, it seems amazing that humans can procreate at all.

I’ve been… scared.

I’ve been scared of what can go wrong – not that I wasn’t previously aware of these possibilities, but now I am keenly aware of them, and they’re personal. If we lose this child I know I will go through a period of doubting myself, questioning anything I might have done wrong, and having a hard time forgiving myself.

And if, medicine forbid, I contract Zika virus… well, there’s a whole new worry for pregnant women. (More on the CDC’s suggestions for pregnant women avoiding mosquitoes and Zika here).

But part of being a naturalist, and therefore being scientifically aware, is not only recognizing possibilities, but recognizing probabilities. I’m not likely to contract Zika; there fewer than 20 cases in Texas so far (or were when I first drafted this in March), and all but one them is from travel. (One is from sexual contact, a transmission method more likely than originally thought – again, see the CDC’s recommendations.) Even if I do contract Zika, studies in Brazil show that only about 30% of fetuses are adversely affected*. (Right, I know… who wants to be in that 30%? Who wants to take those odds on their future kid? But my point is I’m more likely to experience complications from not taking my vitamins and from gaining too much weight.)

The fear has a positive side: I didn’t realize how much I would care about our first child surviving. I didn’t have any concept how much I would want this pregnancy to come to fruition, how much I would anticipate meeting our son, giving him all the chances I’ve had in life, and hopefully more.

So maybe now that I’ve shared my fears I can share the joy more readily. I’ve come far enough to be facing the very real, highly likely possibility that this pregnancy will be successful, that little Sagan Shane will enter the wider world healthy and ready to learn, and I’ll have a whole new set of possibilities to worry about and come to peace with.

Here I am, just another primate procreating… but to me, this journey is sacred. I have a support network of family and friends, I chose to be pregnant and chose a loving partner with whom to raise a family, and I recognize, because I’m aware of the biological process, that this is a precious, dangerous, treacherous, joyous, once-in-his-lifetime journey.

I look forward to sharing the rest of the journey with you.

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Pregnant naturalists can still hit the trails! Here I am bumpin’ out in the wilds of Village Creek State Park in March (left) and the LLELA Nature Preserve in February (right).

*Please note: this figure is from a newspaper article I read in March 2016. I need to find the article and link to it; I apologize for not having the source available at the time of publication. Til I can provide a source, take this figure with a grain of salt (healthy skepticism), just like I hope you treat every unsupported claim.

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 0015: Quantity, Quantity, Quantity

It’s time for you to get brave. It’s time for you to learn the secret to sketching – the underlying, most secret, most essential knowledge that will make you a better sketcher: quantity trumps quality. If you let go of seeking to produce quality sketches, your quality will improve.

I wouldn’t have believed it, but encouragement from a friend at the Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program plus a push from the John Muir Laws blog have sealed the deal. I’m a new convert to quantity over quality. I hope you will be, too, if you’ve been timid about sketching (as I have been).

Here’s my first attempt at my new brave task: occasionally, sketch everything around you. No holding back. No judging. Embracing ‘mistakes’ as learning opportunities. Just try it!

Quantity

I hope by sharing my attempts to improve my field notes and observation skills, you’ll feel more free to explore and improve your own abilities. Perfection is never the goal; appreciating our world and helping others to do so is.

To get connected to the community of scientists, naturalists, educators, interpreters, conservationists and restoration folk who participate in #FieldNotesFriday, click here: http://bit.ly/1pER2F4

Field Notes Friday 0013: Lucky Snake

We found our first snake in the yard! We’ve been living in this house for almost a year and a half, so I suppose it’s about time. I wouldn’t have thought of seeking out this sign of ecological diversity without finding it, though. Not that our yard is very diverse. Right now it’s Bois d’Arcs and so-called “weeds” (albeit edible ones).

We don’t hang out in our backyard much, but we want to change that. We also want to change how unwild our backyard is. The transformation will be a never-ending labor of love, which we’ve already started. I’m sneaking in native and fruit-bearing plants every now and then… but my failure rate with transplants is pretty high.

With the inspiration to wild our yard, and inspiration from a New Year’s visit to friends’ land, we’ve finally started our home nature journal. Here it sits in its pride of place, a showcase area of the countertop.

Home Nature Journal

But enough about that. The snake! The snake seemed paralyzed with cold, so I felt bad manipulating him/her for more than 2 photos. Hopefully I got enough for identification.

I looked on TexasSnakes.net and HerpsOfTexas.org, and I lean toward a *newbie* identification of Texas Brown or Checkered Garter.

What snake do you think this is?

What sites/resources do you use to identify snakes?

Mystery snake

Mystery snake

Here’s a pic of the journal entry, with transcript/translation(?) below, because… well, my handwriting is hard for even me to read sometimes.

Snake entry in home nature journal

Sunday, March 16, 2014

We found our first snake in the yard! We’d been digging up parts of the yard to change the slope. (The rain on Saturday nearly came in our back door.) Every earthworm & grub I found went into the compost pile, and then I put a thick layer of leaves over the dirt & worms. Right by the house & the sump pump, under a layer of leaves, I found a small grey snake. I remember a light underbelly & staring, round pupils. I took a picture. The poor thing was so cold (wind chill ~35°, temp 45ish, wind gusting 30+ mph) it wasn’t moving. We put it under the leaves in the compost pile. Landon looked for it later and found it more coiled up, hopefully comfortable. We’ll await an identification from Lisa. I’m hoping that we wild our yard enough that eventually we can’t even keep track of the wildlife sightings.

Oh! And thank you, thank you to all who helped with the butterfly mystery. I’ll be sharing the identification you made and giving proper kudos soon.

For more about Field Notes Friday and how you can participate, visit the #FieldNotesFriday tab, or click here.

Field Notes Friday 0012: Kayaking for a New Perspective

If you want a new perspective of wilderness, travel by water. This is Part II of my journey down the Elm Fork of the Trinity River with KayakPower.com (Part I is here). Shameless plug: join us next time! Or tour your favorite wild place via water soon.

The SIZE of this tree! The photo doesn’t even capture it. I wondered how on earth a tree so big could have roots so shallow. I took this photo to pose the question to you. However, I think I found the answer (below). You’ll have to tell me whether you agree.Mystery tree roots

Those aren’t leaves. Grackles! It was amazing hear their noise before we could see them. They are a cacophonous group! I’ve only previously seen them congregate like this in parking lots. It was quite majestic (raining poop notwithstanding) to see them in such a large group in a wild setting.Grackles!

These look like the same root structure that puzzled me (above), and they’re attached to a live Sycamore tree. More evidence below.Sycamore roots

We discovered a mystery, and formed a hypothesis. This boat may belong to Waste Management, who runs the (very) nearby landfill. That pole may be for picking up trash along the river. Oh! And I just noticed the shovel to the right of the walkway. Perhaps there’s a regular effort by WM to clean up what the wind carries from the site. If I worked for WM, I’d ask to be on that crew.Mystery boat

As close as I could get to a nesting Great Blue Heron.Great Blue Heron and Nests

The same tree the Heron and nests are in. Look at those white branches: Sycamore for sure. Now look at the roots. Same as the mystery tree? I think so. What do you think?Sycamore with Heron Nests

The white Sycamore branches against the blue sky. (Because… color!) Without the river to erode the land, I’d never see Sycamore roots displayed so clearly. Sycamores are spread widely in the area, so unless I hike for many miles, only traveling by river will give me this perspective.Sycamore and Sky

Two species compared: Turkey vulture and Black vulture.Black and Turkey Vulture comparison

I learned something about kayaking in the late winter: it’s a birding fiesta. Winter birding on the water is breathtaking. You startle Great Blue Herons and Egrets (unintentionally, of course), who fly hundreds of yards down the river just to be disturbed by you again and take to their giant wings in dramatic fashion, uttering prehistoric calls.

Approaching a volt of vultures who watch you dispassionately till you cross a threshold only they perceive, then suddenly, individually, take off and soar above you, is awe-inspiring.A Volt of Vultures 1 A Volt of Vultures 2 A Volt of Vultures 3

My grandfather-in-law wanted to reincarnate as a vulture, and I can see why.I love vultures.

I hope you’ve glimpsed how much wildness you can experience via kayak (or other human-powered water craft). Join us next time, or take a kayak or canoe to your own wild space.

KayakPower.com offers paddling trips down the Elm Fork of the Trinity River starting from LLELA on the third Saturday of every month.

Kayak for Better Eco-Vision

There’s nothing like seeing wild places via river! This is a mix of thoughts and images from a February 15 kayak trip down the Elm Fork of the Trinity River with KayakPower.com. I’ve made the trip before, but it’s enticingly different every time. Hopefully you’ll be inspired to explore, too.

Here’s Mike Swope (owner of KayakPower.com), demonstrating 1) a cut bank being eroded by the river, and 2) his dislike of being photographed. It’s great to review geology and hydrology while floating on the water and basking in sunshine. KayakPower.com

I love kayaking along tight lanes and tangled banks. Tangled Banks and Tight Turns

Have you noticed certain spots that are favorites of, and apparently often visited by, wildlife? This one wouldn’t be visible to me except via boat. This pile of barely-digested hackberries says ‘raccoon’ to me. What do you think? Raccoon Scat?

One of those tangled banks I love. I haven’t figured out how to photograph them and do them justice. The wilder the river, the more beautiful sites like this.Tangled Bank

In a side channel, I ventured out of the kayak, walked around and found stark differences in soil types exposed by the river. The yellow is sandy/rocky, and the grey is clay. The clay was sculpted by the ripples of the years. I’ve felt skeptical about ancient wave patterns becoming fossilized, but after seeing this clay preserve wave shapes so faithfully, I don’t doubt anymore.Clay and Sand

I thought this was the largest bobcat track I’ve ever seen… but the animal appears to have sunk in the mud so deeply that claw marks show. I reminded myself with a little research that bobcat tracks have an ‘m’ shaped palm or ‘interdigital pad’. But the track is so wide! I know a large male bobcat lives at LLELA near where I took this photo – I know it’s male because I saw him mark a tree – so I thought maybe this track was his. LLELA is an urban wilderness, so this could be the track of a very large, wide-footed dog. What do you think? Coyote? Bobcat? Dog?

It was a spot well traveled by several species. Again, inaccessible unless you’re willing to get wet.Well traveled waterway

Soil horizons? Urban upheaval? Different flood deposits? I look forward to spending more resources (like time) learning about soils. To me, this looks like Blackland Prairie soil overlaid with Crosstimbers soil. That might make sense along the Elm Fork, which has spent centuries blurring the boundaries between the two in its floodplain. Rivers lay bare the secrets of the soil. Soils

A tree which budded out very early. Elm?Elm?

The remains of a bridge from Old Town Lewisville. Was it for trains or regular road traffic? My kayaking companions debated.Old Town Lewisville Bridge

A perfect bank for a rest, a snack, and a sneak photo from a hill. I’ll take another rest now and keep my 500-or-fewer words promise. Please join me for Part II of the river trip!River bank

KayakPower.com offers paddling trips down the Elm Fork of the Trinity River starting from LLELA on the third Saturday of every month.

Field Notes Friday 0011: Do You Know This Butterfly?

Yesterday I was preparing for the eco-adventure-themed Spring Break camp I’ll be helping lead next week. My favorite assignment in preparation was to check out the Blackjack trail at LLELA, which winds through one of the easternmost outposts of the Cross Timbers ecosystem. It wasn’t just a pleasure hike (although it was delightful; I even disturbed resting deer!). I was there with a mission: discover the places where novice hikers are most likely to get lost, and plan to prepare next week’s young hikers for what to do if they feel lost in the wilderness.

Toward the end of my hike, I found a startlingly brilliant, iridescent orange butterfly on the ground. I didn’t have a camera or my phone with me. Frustrated, knowing I had only my nature journal and my rudimentary sketching skills, I pulled out my permanent pen and began sketching. This is (sort of) what I saw:

Butterfly sketch

Having no camera and no other recording device, I was forced to spend quite a while observing the creature, rather than taking a cursory look and a photograph and moving on. After many moments with open wings, the butterfly surprised me by closing its wings suddenly. It seemed to wobble as if stiff with arthritis, or as if drunken. It couldn’t stand straight. I wondered if I was observing its last sacred moments alive, or if it was just struggling in the 50 degree weather and would be flying fine tomorrow. Its orange, q-tip-like antennae were pressed together as if at attention, taut at not-quite-90 degrees from its body.

After making several sketches, I rushed to my car to find a camera and rushed back. Because of that, I can share these photos with you:

Butterfly compilationHopefully you see some resemblance to the sketches.

I’m grateful to have had access to a camera, and to be able to share these images with you. But I’m also glad to have been forced to sit down and take a few minutes to observe an animal I rarely pay much attention to. I noticed behaviors and details I wouldn’t have seen if I’d been relying on my “external brain” devices to do all the recording. And I think, when I figure out what kind of butterfly this is, I will remember the species readily because I’ve had a deeper experience simply abiding with it for a time.

The lesson? Sometimes, it’s good to be caught without your camera or digital devices.

So, do you know this butterfly? What about its behavior?

What methods and tools do you use to identify butterflies and other insects?

I’m always grateful for your response, thoughts, and comments.

For more information about #FieldNotesFriday and how you can participate, click here.

Idea for Lent (or any time): REFUSE Plastic

You want to make your life and the world better. Do both by reducing your plastic footprint! Here are some tips (just in time for Lent) about refusing single-use, disposable plastic.

What do I do?

Reduce how much plastic you buy and throw away. Find reusable, recyclable, compostable alternatives to plastic and Styrofoam. (Want to make it official? Take Plastic Pollution Coalition’s pledge.)

Why refuse plastic?

Pollution: In all production stages, plastics produce chemicals we end up breathing and eating. Single-use plastics (e.g. bags, straws) become plastic pollution.

Energy: Plastics are made from oil and require energy to produce. Let’s use our resources more wisely; it doesn’t make sense to create something permanent for a temporary use.

Health: All water (and trash) rolls downhill… and much of our trash ends up downstream. If you eat seafood, you ingest chemicals leached from plastic.

But you don’t have to eat seafood to be affected. Plastics are already in you, and even in newborns. Plastic additives (like BPA) are linked to cancer.

At best, we’re not sure how plastic affects human health. At worst, we’re poisoning ourselves. Diminishing the plastic waste stream can only be a good thing for our health and the planet’s.

What about recycling?

Recycling isn’t bad, but it gives a false sense of security.

  1. Most plastic isn’t recycled or recyclable. It ends up in the landfill, taking up precious space.
  2. Most “recycled” plastic is actually down-cycled. Bottles aren’t turned into more bottles; they become something of lesser quality that will be thrown away shortly. That’s not a continuous cycle; it’s just one added step before the landfill (or the plastic gyres in the oceans).
  3. Recycling saves energy, but produces pollution. Recycling isn’t as straight-forward as you think.

Can I make a difference?

Every thing you do makes a difference, especially setting an example. What if, through your example and others, American’s decided to go just one day without buying plastic water bottles? That would save 576 million bottles!!! (Americans throw away 2 million plastic water bottles EVERY 5 MINUTES).

How about inspiring people to use reusable bottles? Millions of bottles could quickly become billions of bottles saved. That’s a lot of plastic and oil saved, and a lot of trash that wouldn’t end up in our streets, our drinking water, and our food chain. Change starts with you, and continues because you set an example.

But plastic is everywhere!!!

If you’re overwhelmed by how much plastic you use, pick one item you regularly purchase and find an alternative. Change one habit a week, and by the end of a month you’ll significantly reduce your plastic consumption and start great habits.

Don’t throw out perfectly functioning plastic items. If you’ve already bought it, use it till it can’t be used any more, then recycle/repurpose it, then buy or create a non-plastic alternative.

 

There are lots of ways to reduce your plastic footprint. Follow me on Facebook and Twitter for more tips, and share yours! Together, we can make this a #plasticfree world. #RefusePlastic!

Field Notes Friday 0010: If I Can Sketch, You Can Sketch

A compilation of my faltering, embarrassing, improving sketches… as encouragement to anyone who feels his or her skills are not good enough to share!

1. Sketching is a practice-able skill. No one is born able to do it.
2. Sketching hones your observation skills, encourages you to think in new ways, and adds life to your notes.
3. You are not the worst!

Here is clear, undeniable evidence that you MUST be able to sketch, and you can now be brave enough to share your sketches on #FieldNotesFriday.

I mean, come on. I’m sharing these.

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