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 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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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.

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.

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

Caterpillars and Curiosity

My recent strange interaction with caterpillars led to curiosity, then inspiration. During a wilderness survival weekend, I was on “Earth Time” as Mark Suter calls it, and I leisurely observed caterpillars around us. But I’m not as adept at up-close vision as E.O.Wilson (who lost his long-distance vision as a child but has seemingly microscopic vision up close), so I needed help from some handy-dandy tools.

Here’s a friend’s camera and a $4 jeweler’s loupe, and how I used them together. I put the loupe at the end of the camera lens, and WOW! could I see detail!

Makeshift macro lens

I used my makeshift lens to observe a caterpillar even more closely. I was amazed at the tiny critter. I had thought its pattern was simple (a white “skull”, some blue and yellow stripes)…

tent caterpillar

Normal macro setting

…but the pattern was complicated, intricate.

tent caterpillar

the view through a loupe and macro setting

I was surprised again when I turned the loupe to a second and third caterpillar: Each caterpillar’s patterns and colors were recognizably different. I could tell the caterpillars apart.

Start by looking at the white spots. Then look at the difference in colorful patches.

Start by looking at the white spots. Then look at the difference in colorful patches.

I was so intrigued, I created a palette for each, using the colored pencils I’ve recently added to my field bag.Nature's palette

Being able to tell individuals apart humanized (for lack of a better word) the caterpillars. They weren’t objects; they were individuals. Perhaps this is why (as I’ve discovered) sketching something leads to caring about it. The closer we look at anything in life, the more we understand and appreciate.

And don’t we want people to appreciate and care for the environment and its inhabitants, whether local or global?

My interest deepened to inspiration, so I’ve set brush to canvas to paint my fascination. (The tetraptych is still a work in progress, but I’ll share it eventually.)

All of this – the interaction, observation, curiosity, endearment, photography, inspiration, art – was before I knew what the species is called. But in a deeper sense, I knew the caterpillar in a way I won’t soon forget. I’d wager that this species will stay in my mind throughout my life, whether or not I recall the scientific name.

I even had a friendly wager going with a coworker. Was this a species that made the ‘tents’ on nearby tree branches, or not? As it turns out, we were both right and both wrong, at least according to the Texas Bug Book. This is a tent caterpillar, but it’s a kind that doesn’t make tents. Weird! Maybe that’s why they were falling on us from Grandmother Bur Oak…?

Obviously, there’s more to learn, and I’m grateful for the printed and online resources I’ll use. But please note: the curiosity, inspiration, endearment, and deep memorable learning wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t had an experience with this species in its native habitat.

If someone had simply toldme about these caterpillars, or if I had only read about them, I might have retained the information but wouldn’t have made profound connections – connections which will deepen with time and experience, rather than facts which will erode due to irrelevance and disuse.

Field Notes Friday 0018: Caterpillars From the Sky

You know it’s been busy if I’ve missed two Field Notes Fridays in a row! But it’s been a good Spring busy-ness. I crave a job that embraces the changing seasons and helps me feel connected to earth’s cycles… and I have it! Spring is as busy for an educator/interpreter as it is for the bees and birds. And mammals. And butterflies. And caterpillars.

Yep, caterpillars. Some gardeners hate ’em, most butterfly lovers love ’em, and most people find them at least interesting, if not downright fascinating. My latest experience with caterpillars was not only fascinating, it was inspiring. And, frankly, a little weird.

I was participating in another Survival Skills weekend led by Mark Suter of Primitive Texas at LLELA (the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area). Throughout the weekend, we noticed caterpillars on our backpacks, on our shoulders, on the ground around us… there were always several within view any time. They seemed to be everywhere. We tried not to kill any, but I’m pretty sure I rolled over one in my sleep. They were cute – a little bit fuzzy, pleasantly colorful, and with interesting behavior, if you took the time to watch.

And taking the time to watch came naturally. All of us made observations – this caterpillar was climbing, that one seemed to be sleeping, this one was reaching for branches, this one seemed to be jerking or dancing, oh, look, there’s another one on your sleeve – we were observing insect behavior without even intending to. We were immersed in wilderness, working on skills previous generations needed for survival (making rope and fire, finding resources), and it gave us time to connect to the biological richness around us without even trying.

A few of the survival students enjoying lush Spring surroundings.

A few of the survival students enjoy the lush Spring surroundings.

I’m sure wonder and bemusement turned to mild annoyance for some. Trying not to harm caterpillars that come out of nowhere is taxing. Did I say out of nowhere? They seemed to be raining from the sky. Actually, on the final day, when Mark and I sat in the warm dappled shade working on hand-drill fire technique and yucca basket-weaving, we figured out they were falling on us. Perhaps from “Grandmother Bur Oak,” as Mark dubbed the tree shading our beautiful shelter. We could hear the soft pat….. pat as they fell into the thick leaf litter around us and began what I assume is the next chapter of their lives.

The sound of caterpillars. The sight of them dancing. The feel of them tickling your arm as they walk. We experienced caterpillars with multiple senses (but not with taste or smell, thank goodness). Because of these mental connections, we’ll never forget these little creatures.

Experiences like this usually inspire curiosity, as they did in me. What in the world species is this? Why are they falling on us? Do they sleep? What butterfly or moth will they become? I’ll let you enjoy the curiosity and questions a little while, as I did. Answers (and inspiration) coming soon…

(And here’s a treat. At least, I enjoyed it: A relaxing 30 second video looking up at Grandmother Bur Oak)