After getting back from Nebraska it seemed a shame not to use my rented 400 mm lens during the last few days of my rental period. So, instead of heading home to much-needed sleep, I drove straight through Houston to Galveston, TX, which is well-known for the diversity of shorebirds that it attracts.
Saturday, Galveston was shrouded in fog, which made photography difficult — I have hundreds of shots of mist-veiled birds, but by using my car as a blind, I was able to sneak up on quite a few birds, getting close enough for a good photo despite the clinging clouds.
My most interesting find, though, was undoubtedly this carcass of a juvenile dolphin. Though gnawed and decomposing, it’s readily identifiable, and gave me the chance to check out some cetacean anatomy up close and personal.
A little gross, maybe, but also very cool, and also, perhaps, prescient imagery, given the disastrous 170,000 gallon oil spill that took place on Saturday, just hours after my visit.
It was, at first, strange to go back — after my graduate school misadventures, driving back felt like a reminder of my own failures, and of a particularly rough time during my own life. The weather didn’t help much, either: Tuesday’s drive was a terrifying haul through clouds, wind and billowing snow.
But on Wednesday morning, the sky was clear. Frozen grass sparkled like gold, and I got to watch cranes fly under a perfect blue and yellow dawn.
I’ve seen Sandhills before, and in Australia I had the privilege of seeing both Brolgas and Sarus Cranes, but these sightings of solitary birds simply don’t compare to the awesome sight (or the sound!) of a hundred birds packed together, trilling and trumpeting at each other from a narrow stretch of sand.
Later in the day, I watched cranes feed together in groups of two or three in empty fields, surrounded by broken stalks of corn. Occasionally, they’d stop to dance, practice for their more serious courtship when they finally resume their migration to Alaska.
After a quick coffee break, I headed down to Kearney, where I stood with dozens of other birdwatchers to watch them tumble down to roost at night, jostling for space on a sandbar, or wading ankle-deep in the braided channels of the Platte River.
Wow. It’s been a while, hasn’t it, blog friends? How are you? I’m doing really well! I’m back in the United States, applying to graduate programs, and spent the last year taking lots of photos. I couldn’t be happier if I tried.
Anyway, I’m hoping to update the blog more often. I’m not going to make any promises, because clearly those promises cannot be relied upon, but I would like a more formal environment than tumblr to post nature photography and writing (not that I don’t love you, tumblr) … and I have this perfectly good blog just lying around.
I’m planning on driving up to Nebraska on Monday to get in some photos of the annual sandhill crane migration through the state, and I rented a 400 mm lens to prepare for the adventure. Yesterday, I took that lens out for a test run on the birds of Brazos Bend State Park, here in Texas. I had a very good birding day, and took home some shots that I’m quite happy with, even though the lens definitely takes some getting used to.
Am I allowed to say that? Probably not, especially because I have yet to hear anyone actually use these words, although I have heard many other unique Australianisms (“Fair dinkum” is probably my favorite, although the liberal and senseless use of “heaps” is also pretty fun.)
Anyway, I have been terrible at keeping this blog updated. I could say that this is because I have been toiling in the bush, but my regular Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr updates suggest that this is not, actually the case.
I’ve been in Australia for just over two months. It’s the very beginning of autumn here, and I’ve moved south, from inland Queensland to the city of Sydney. This is a good thing, as it means that I will probably not die of heat exposure (which was a real risk in the Outback, let me tell you).
I’ve posted just under two hundred photos to my Flickr account, and so I will leave you with a few of my favorites (so far).
So, after spending the last seven or so years of my life with the ultimate goal of visiting Australia and seeing freshwater crocodiles in the wild, I am FINALLY in Australia. And while I am not yet in the right place to see crocs, it’s pretty brilliant. I’m spending my first couple of months in Queensland — I’ve got a week in Brisbane to do useful things like set up my bank account before heading west, but I am mostly spending it exploring some awesome parks, enjoying the sun, and being completely amazed at the presence of fruit bats in a major city.
By far the most beautiful place that I’ve visited in, uh, the past four days, is Lamington National Park, which has some of the most breathtakingly beautiful scenery in the world coupled with incredible plant and animal diversity. I got a leech! I saw giant skinks! It was pretty brilliant!
Lamington was not the only brilliantly beautiful place that I went, though. Daisy Hill Conservation Park has the loudest cicadas I’ve ever heard in my life, while the City Botanic Gardens in Brisbane are basically full of water dragons and cool insects. Mount Coot-tha, which rises over the city of Brisbane hosts some really lovely butterflies, and was the first place that I got to see the incredibly weird and incredibly brilliant bunya pine.
Oh, and the stars are upside-down here. It’s a weirdly disorienting, beautiful thing to look into the night sky and see Orion hanging the wrong way.
I spent most of today sketching, and then realizing that I didn’t have a good scanner. So, then I spent the day recreating my sketches in Photoshop. I was completely making up technique on the fly here — and you can sort-of tell, but I am, nevertheless, pretty happy with the result.
My parents are remodeling their house, which is one of those processes that will, invariably lead to all kinds of surprises. This is a close up of a very large hornet’s nest that they found inside of one of the south walls — I’ve keyed it out as Vespa.
It’s always shocking to me that insects that people think of as dangerous and aggressive, like these hornets, can establish themselves next to humans and remain unnoticed for years before evidence of their existence is even discovered.
So, 2012 has been pretty crazy. I started the year in Europe, where I had the opportunity to take a geometric morphometrics course and collect data for my master’s thesis. I applied to, and was accepted to a Ph.D. program in Lincoln, Nebraska … and, at the end of the year, I’ve decided to quit the program in order to take time off and focus on myself, because I’m really not sure that grad school is what I want to do with my life.
Oh, and I managed to take some photos during that time. Here are a few of my favorites from the year. I think that I’ve learned and improved a lot over the last twelve months.
Next year promises to be even more exciting, as I’m going to Australia. I’ve wanted to visit for as long as I remember, and I’m really excited to go. I’m going to be living in western Queensland for at least a few months , working and taking pictures of the local fauna. Afterwards, I hope to spend some time up north, for rainforests and crocodiles, and then spend some time in Sydney and the south of the country in the Spring and Summer. I’m looking forward to discovering a whole new continent of reptiles and arthropods. :)
Salamanders are probably my favorite organisms on the planet. I know that I posted something this summer about how bombardier beetles are the best organisms on the planet, but I can pick favorites based on other qualities, and salamanders have plenty of those. For example, some mole salamanders (in the Ambystoma jeffersonianum complex) reproduce through a process known as gynogenesis. These entirely female lineages clone themselves in order to produce offspring — but they cannot reproduce without mating. Instead, they mate with males from closely related species, essentially stealing their sperm, without passing on paternal genes. (If anyone wants me to talk about this at length, I totally can, because it’s awesome.) Other salamanders are known for their remarkable ability to completely regenerate limbs that they have lost (axolotls, Ambystoma mexicanum are the model organism in which this has been most extensively studied, but the phenomenon of limb regeneration is well known from many, many salamander species) and their incredible longevity (olms in the genus Proteus can live to well over seventy years). The largest amphibian in the world is a salamander –Andrias davidianus can reach over four feet in length and weigh sixty pounds.
Basically, frogs are boring?
Anyway, the reason that I’ve been thinking about salamanders is that I’m in North Carolina for the annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting, and because this state has the world’s greatest diversity of salamander species, I took a few days before the conference to go herping with friends. The salamander catch wasn’t great — it’s a little late and a little dry — but poor salamandering in North Carolina is better than excellent salamandering almost anywhere else in the world, so I’m not really complaining.
Most people probably go to the Great Smoky Mountains to look at things like bears and foliage, but they are wrong — bears are everywhere, as are trees. If you take the time to flip over a few logs, though, you will almost certainly find one of these guys — and they occur nowhere else in the world. Red-cheeked salamanders are mildly toxic; they secrete a nasty mucus when disturbed, and the red color on their cheeks is generally thought to be warning coloration deterring potential predators.
The imitator salamander, Desmognathus imitator shares its range with the red-cheek, and takes advantage of the other salamander’s chemical defenses by mimicking its coloration in order to deter potential predators. This is a biological strategy known as Batesian mimicry, in which a harmless species mimics a toxic or otherwise dangerous one in order to improve its own odds of survival.
This semester, I’m taking a herpetology class. It’s a lot of fun — I get to actually learn about amphibians, and the class has a lab and field component that I’m really enjoying. Part of my final grade will be based on how well I keep a field notebook — and while writing down substrate temperatures quickly gets boring (there’s a reason I’m not an ecologist, dammit), the plus side is that occasionally, there are things like snakes and frogs in my life.
For example, on Labor Day, I wandered down to the southeastern corner of the state with my lab mates, and while the herping wasn’t great, we did manage to find this wonderful Great Plains Ratsnake (Pantherophis emoryi) hiding under a rock near the side of the road.
Yesterday, our whole class piled into a couple of vans, and we hit Schramm State Recreation Area. With thirty eyes fixed on the ground, we managed to find some pretty cool stuff — including a young Eastern Racer (Coluber constrictor) caught in the act of eating a neonate Common Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis).
I admit it’s not my best photo ever (super natural background, eh?) but that’s just cool.
Other finds included large numbers of Blanchard’s Cricket Frog (Acris crepitans blanchardi), a juvenile male Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon), adult Common Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis), Plains Leopard Frogs (Lithobates blairi), a young Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus) — an invasive species in Nebraska, and, finally, a pair of young Cope’s Grey Tree Frogs (Hyla chrysoscelis), who were hanging out in the park restrooms (cool, damp, and full of insects!) — here’s a portrait of one on a slightly more natural background.