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!]

 

Field Notes Friday: Hill Country Sounds

Picture yourself in the Hill Country of Texas, enjoying a beautiful night. You’re sitting by a fire that’s reduced to embers. Your friends and family have retired for the evening. The breeze is soft and comfortable, the oaks around you dark against the clouded, moonlit sky. You’re relaxing and letting your thoughts flow where they may… and you realize you’re hearing that sound again. A sound you’ve been hearing for several nights, but decided to simply enjoy rather than identify. (Now pretend you also can’t identify these sounds – press play and listen as you read on.)

I’ve been trying to get into birding. I feel I’m making a successful entry, but I’m not as quick a study as I’d like to be. The mnemonic devices used by birders to describe calls are baffling. I don’t hear “tea kettle tea kettle tea kettle” when I hear a Carolina Wren – I hear something without English consonants (and often not matching any vowels), something whistly and tuneful but strange and inimitable. And that’s a problem – I can’t imitate bird songs with any useful degree of fidelity (*confession* I can’t whistle) so I can’t speak the songs to myself like I can Spanish words or “botanical latin” or any other language I’m trying to grasp. Buntings sound like someone’s shaking a squeaker toy (but I can’t tell Indigo from Painted – yet), Phoebes supposedly say their names (“Phoebe! Phoebe! Phoebe!”), but unless it’s a crow or a Great Blue Heron, I’m hoo-dooed by the sounds.

I’m even more baffled by the descriptions of some songs, like this one:

The song is a loud string of clear down-slurred or two-parted whistles, often speeding up and ending in a slow trill.

http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Cardinal/sounds

Technical! I don’t get an auditory picture in my head when I read that. And when I listen to the beautiful recordings shared in the website above, the description and my perception don’t match. I just don’t grasp the lingo yet.

But enough grousing. (Ha – grousing. Get it?) Because I’ve had a wonderful auditory experience recently, and thanks to the magic of technology, I can share it with you.

I was having the experience described above: I’d spent several days and nights with family in a new place, and had heard what I figured was a bird, but knew I had little chance to identify it, so I just decided to embrace the sounds and the not-knowing. But something amazing happened on the third night. Loving the sounds and accepting not knowing, thinking about anything and nothing, a phrase floated into my conscious mind. “Chuck will’s widow.” Hmm. Wonder where that came from, and why it came up – like an ear worm, you know? A jingle, a phrase, a bit of forgotten trivia out of nowhere. I let my thoughts drift on. But I came back to that phrase and wondered, is that a menmonic device? A bird call? …And a little later I wondered, is it also the name of a bird?

I made a recording with my phone just in case the singing stopped – because I knew I couldn’t imitate or describe the call well enough for other birders! I opened my Audubon app and looked up that weird phrase. Sure enough, it’s a bird! And then wonder of wonders, when I listened to the sound on the app, it was a match with what I was hearing in real life, in real time.

I think I’ve identified my first bird by sound.

Maybe some of those mnemonic devices are useful after all.

Did I get it right? Here’s more info on the Chuck-Will’s-Widow.

For more info on Field Notes Friday and how you can participate, click here

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

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Dear [Undisclosed] United Methodist Church: Please Don’t Litter!

Imagine enjoying a vacation in one of your favorite outdoor places. You come upon trash tangled in the grass by a river: a card attached to a pink ribbon and the remains of a ragged green balloon. The card has a friendly message from a church and a request for you to respond with where and how you found the card.

A group I was with last month was in this position. This is my response.

 

Dear [Undisclosed] United Methodist Church,

I received your Easter card attached to a balloon. Thank you.

But please consider finding another way to share your message.

The Story

I was in LLELA (the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area), a 2,000 acre nature preserve in the heart of the metroplex. The group I was with hiked and explored beautiful forests, prairies, and aquatic ecosystems for three days. On April 26 we were surprised to find your card near the river, tangled in the grass. We read your message and although no one disparaged it, three people in the group are members of United Methodist churches and seemed to cringe at their denomination being associated with litter.

About the Nature Preserve

I do not represent LLELA when I send this letter, but I’m someone who cares about the place and all the life within it. Putting LLELA in context, the land is recovering from a history of harsh use by humans. The forests were cleared, the prairies were plowed, the wildlife was killed, and the land was used as a dump. LLELA staff and volunteers work diligently to restore ecosystems, reintroduce and care for native species (like Wild Turkey and Texas Bluestar), and ensure that our natural heritage is here for future generations. Slowly, LLELA is again becoming a refuge for wildlife and native plants and a place people fall in love with.

What’s the big deal about a balloon?

Plastic pollution is a crisis for our wildlife, fisheries, and fellow humans. (More info at Plasticpollutioncoalition.org)

Ribbons, string, nets, and fishing line are devastating to wildlife, including birds. LLELA staff show pictures like these to fishermen to encourage them to clean up their trash:

Balloons and plastic bags, once in water, look like jellyfish. They tempt and choke countless wildlife, including turtles.

You and I may seem landlocked in prairie, forest, and city, but we share a watershed connected to the Trinity, which flows to the Gulf.

Trinity Basin and Texas Counties

Trash, just like water, rolls downhill.

The Gulf of Mexico, as you probably know, faces plenty of pollution problems. Seagulls, pelicans, dolphins, turtles, fish and humans contend with oil spills, agricultural and suburban fertilizers, chemicals pouring in from our storm drains, and humanity’s ceaseless flow of unnecessary trash.

But it’s not just the Gulf that suffers. The problem is local, too. People at LLELA find wildlife tangled in fishing line and ribbon too often, and usually only after the situation has become fatal. There are lakes, ponds, and rivers near you, too, and if you look closely, scenes like this are common:

Great Egrets are a common Texas shorebird, and often end up fatally tangled in fishing line, rope, and twine: http://morningjoy.wordpress.com/2008/08/18/seaside-tragedy/

A Great Egret (a common Texas shorebird) with a mangled leg wrapped in fishing line: http://morningjoy.wordpress.com/2008/08/18/seaside-tragedy/

Due to ocean currents, even places where humans don’t live, or where humans don’t produce plastic, are swamped with debris.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the terrible plight of the Midway Atoll Albatrosses, where thousands of young birds die each nesting season because they eat plastic debris. Long after they perish and their bodies completely decay, the plastic remains, to be eaten by the next generation of chicks. One piece of our throwaway plastic can contribute to untold deaths.

Chris Jordan's heart-breaking photography of Midway Atoll Albatrosses: http://www.blog.designsquish.com/index.php?/site/plastics_dont_disintegrate/

Chris Jordan’s heart-breaking photography of Midway Atoll Albatrosses: http://www.blog.designsquish.com/index.php?/site/plastics_dont_disintegrate/

Alternatives

I implore and encourage you to use your creativity, passion, and love to find another way to share your message.

  • Send paper airplanes off a tall building, or leave little cards on benches, on buses, or in restaurants. You might be shocked to hear a conservationist propose strewing paper about, but paper is biodegradable and, in the United States, usually sustainably sourced.
  • Join the Geocaching community and leave messages of hope and love that way. When you add to or create geocaches of your own, you’re tapping into a network of engaged, interested searchers.
  • Start a sustainability club or committee to consider your outreach, even looking at your utensils, cups, and plates. I hope you ascribe to the well-founded belief that every action and choice an individual or organization makes changes the world – for good or ill. With more information, we can make decisions that better all species.
  • This website suggests alternatives to balloons.
  • You’ll find even more info and alternatives here.

I understand.

I’m sure you’re not intending to cause harm. I’m sure, like me, you’re trying to reduce suffering in the world.

I also understand that your balloon release was intended to be a joyful and community-enhancing event. My horror at finding a balloon in the wild doesn’t squelch my curiosity: I’m fascinated by the distance this balloon traveled: about 25 miles in 6 days (as the crow flies). I have lots of questions I’d love to ask you about how many responses you received, where they were from, and more. I’m not writing to squash your joy or outreach; I’m writing to help you do less damage.

I recognize your denomination and possibly congregation face many challenges in the future. As you decide your path and actions, please carefully and compassionately consider the environment in your ethics. Your decisions affect humans and all other species, the least of these, who have no voice in our society. With just a few habit changes, you can profoundly influence the world for good.

I have mailed this to [four staff members] and also posted it on my blog. I didn’t include the full name of your church, because that might expose you to undue criticism. I’m not here to gripe; I’m here to help.

Please, please find another way to share your message, and consider the environment when you do.

 

Don’t Mess With Texas!

Sincerely and hopefully,

Erin Taylor

The Happy Naturalist

The Richness of Listening

There’s more depth to our outdoor experiences when we take the time to listen. This hazy previous knowledge suddenly crystallized into understanding as I was participating in a bird banding research project this week. This is an excerpt from my field journal about the experience.

The richness of listening

Ken heard a call and almost instantaneously identified it and its location. He suddenly had an even deeper knowledge of The Bowl [an area of the prairie we were in]. He knew there was a Ladderback woodpecker in the trees. Maybe 2, calling to each other. In short order (when we were done banding) he had located a nest. Now there’s a game cam there, hoping to catch evidence of activity.

So  I realize: knowing nature by SOUND makes an experience so much richer. Birds. Frogs. Even some trees can be identified by their sounds in the wind.

Jim said he couldn’t hear the calls I asked him to identify. Rock & roll music & heavy machinery were the culprits, he said. I joked that it feels like by the time I can identify birds by sound, I’ll be so old I can’t hear them. But Jim said women seem to hang on to their hearing in that range longer. We’ll see. I know I protect my hearing with earplugs more often than anyone I know – although more people are admitting to bringing earplugs to movies lately.

So I want a way to study bird calls. I can A) attend more birding walks. B) Hang out with birders more. C) Design my own course: Pick key species in the area & season, look at their photos, & play their calls from my Audubon app. Repeatedly.

I consider myself a fast learner when it comes to music tunes, but those are created by humans & I can generally repeat them, practice them. I can’t whistle and haven’t found a way to faithfully imitate or recollect bird songs in a meaningful way, and I can’t rely on devices yet to listen & identify. This is hard work!

How and when do you like to listen? How do you remember calls? I’m all ears.

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 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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20140221-162025.jpg

Guest Blog: Seeking Wilderness Everywhere

Today, I’m sharing something different. Linked below is a powerful essay about where I work, volunteer, and recreate. It’s written by David Taylor of Center for Humans & Nature. I find this piece so moving that I want to share the writer’s words, experiences, and ponderings directly. I think you’ll feel inspired.

Here it is: http://www.humansandnature.org/blog/uncertain-memories

Look for these and other themes ~

  • the value children, juveniles, and adults find in nature
  • how repeat visits to wilderness can lead to deep ecological understanding
  • life skills developed through free exploration
  • the inherent value of wilderness, especially amidst urban development

What else did you encounter in David Taylor’s words? I always want to hear your thoughts.

http://www.humansandnature.org/blog/uncertain-memories

The Elm Fork of the Trinity River, just below the Lewisville Dam http://www.humansandnature.org/blog/uncertain-memories