Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Before and After

First let me say that I owe my friend Cheryl Malone a debt of gratitude for turning me on to digital photography back in February. She lent me her PowerShot SD1000, one of the “Elph” models that Canon puts out. The ability of that camera to overcome my timidity and total incompetence was amazing. I barely know an F-stop from an aperture. The experience was so satisfying that I knew I had to get a camera of my own.

I wanted to be able to shoot images of both insects and vertebrate wildlife, so I started doing research, and asking advice from photographers who’s work I admire. Since I was losing my job imminently, I also had a pretty strict budget.

The little Elph is likeable for its compactness, ease of use, and astonishing close-up capabilities. When it comes to getting an image of a bird smaller than a turkey, however….For example: You pretty much have to take my word for it that the red blob is a vermillion flycatcher. The 3x zoom, and added digital zoom, really doesn’t cut it very well.

Several photographers tried to talk me into getting a refurbished DSLR with a versatile lens. They were being politely optimistic. No way am I sophisticated enough to wield one of those, and if I were to lose it or damage it, I couldn’t easily replace it. Thanks to a saint named Troy Bartlett, who actually went to a camera store and examined the two camera models I had narrowed my choices to, I confidently purchase a Canon SX10 IS, a “super zoom” that is just a step below a DSLR.

The kind folks at Greg’s Camera Shop here in Tucson spent an hour with me last Friday going over the basics. They even turned off the automatic digital zoom, which often destroys an image rather than enhancing it. The next day I took it for a test run, and could not have been more pleased.

I honestly had no idea what this bird was when I zoomed in and took the shot, but after downloadloading the image to my computer and cropping it, Voila! It’s a black-throated sparrow! This camera, with a 20x zoom, even overcomes my inability to stalk a subject.

Cheryl probably didn’t know what a wonderful new world she was going to open to me, simply by trusting me with her camera and encouraging me to “Go play.” I’d like to pass along the same sentiments to anyone else contemplating digital nature photography.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Birder's Death List

I don’t have a “life list” like some birdwatchers keep, but it occurs to me that between museum taxidermy mounts, roadkill, window-collision fatalities, fallen nestlings, and the holiday turkey, I have probably seen more species dead than alive. Couple that with captive birds at the zoo and the pet store, and the total far surpasses their living counterparts as species I have seen in the wild, flying freely and behaving naturally. What troubles me more than my own observations is that I would bet this sums up the experience of many other people as well.

The worst case scenario, of course, is viewing the taxidermy mount of a species that has gone extinct. I worked two years at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, and one of the most vivid memories I have is of “Martha,” the last known individual passenger pigeon, now mounted and displayed in a special exhibit there. That I, and anyone born after Martha’s death in 1914, should be deprived of even the opportunity to see wild passenger pigeons is a true travesty that should not be visited on any more species, or any more human beings.

Meanwhile, the carnage continues in ways we pay little mind to. Daily totals of road-killed birds in the U.S. probably run into the thousands, judging by mortality studies and estimates conducted previously. Collisions of migratory birds with windows, towers, cables, and other obstacles take a great annual toll. One objection to wind farms is that the spinning blades of windmills will spell death for many more birds. Oh, and look what the cat dragged in! Much as I love cats, feral felines and outdoor cats stalk and kill untold numbers of songbirds each year.

Introducing our children, and their parents, to the world of birdwatching will help cultivate an awareness of bird life and nature in general. It might be a good idea, however, to also remind folks that birds face many obstacles erected by Homo sapiens, and instruct them on ways to mitigate these problems. No one’s “death list” should exceed their life list.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Banner Day for Wilderness Protection

I subscribe to an e-mail newsletter for the Tucson chapter of the Arizona Native Plant Society, and I have the editor, Nancy Zierenberg, to thank for informing me of today’s passage of “monumental” wilderness legislation by the U.S. Congress in Washington, DC. It is expected that President Obama will ratify the measure without qualification.

Known as the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, this represents the greatest expansion of wilderness lands in over a decade. More than two million acres will be permanently protected in nine states, from coast to coast.

But wait, there’s more! The act also includes the National Landscape Conservation System, which, through the Bureau of Land Management, will administer 1.2 million additional acres of watersheds and forests in the Bridger-Teton National Forest of western Wyoming. Now how much would you pay (in tax dollars)?!

The legislation is not without its flaws (a portion of wilderness in Alaska was removed from protection to allow for the construction of a road), but all in all this is a significant milestone.

I will have more to say about wilderness and land conservation in future blogs, but in the meantime, you can learn more about this historic bill from the Wilderness Society blog.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Cincinnati, Ohio

Orion magazine once included a department entitled “The Place Where You Live,” where readers were invited to contribute their own biographies of the places they call home. I was fortunate enough to be published twice, once for Cincinnati, and the other for Forsyth, Missouri (see the blog entry for Forsyth). Since I did not receive payment for either piece, and because many years have passed since their publication, I will include them here. This piece appeared in the summer, 1997 issue, volume sixteen, number three. An editor at Orion actually helped me craft this piece, and my good friend Steve Pelikan was kind enough to take the picture that was requested to accompany the essay. This patch of wildness is just amazing in the spring, the season depicted here.

I define a place more by the living things that call it home than by the latitude and longitude, or even a name. Just the same, I call this “electric alley,” this place where the high-tension power lines stretch across the landscape, their gray, girdered towers marching up this ridge, down into the ravine, up the next hillside, and so on. The gas lines run underground, but between heaven and earth, between the aerial sizzle and the silent flow below, life pulses in the myriad plants and animals found here.

This ribbon of meadow cutting through the forest is a haven for wildflowers and browse for deer. Smaller fauna are in abundance: a brilliant, iridescent tiger beetle crouches in a dried-mud hoofprint, then takes flight at my approach; a leaf-cutter bee scissors a locust tree leaflet to line her nest tunnel, bored in a nearby log.

Color everywhere! Buttercups, dandelions, phlox, larkspur, and so many others for which I know no names. Indigo buntings add an auditory complement to their loud blue plumage. Then there was the scarlet tanager—which part of me still claims to be only a cardinal—so spectacular that I broke into spontaneous applause as it flew by.

Once I spied skyship Shamu, the Sea World wonder blimp, gliding noisily over the wires and wondered if the resident red-tailed hawk, the one with the wedge of feathers missing from one wing, would chase it away, back to the watery medium where orcas belong. I marveled at this artificial, airborne whale, swimming through an ocean of atmosphere, echoing the sound of ancient seas that once blanketed this region, leaving in their wake abundant fossils of bryzoans, brachipods, and crinoids, evident now in the eroded gullies of the hillside.

Past, present, and future, these are the organisms that define this place, this electric alley of Eden, vibrant in energy that flows not in wires or pipes, but pulses in the vein.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Lucky Day

Friday the thirteenth is supposedly bad luck in American culture and folklore, but I found that March 13, 2009 was anything but an unlucky day. I was happy to find myself in the company of Jeff and Cynthia Boettner (see “Meet the Boettners” on my Bug Eric blog), visiting from Massachusetts, on the way to Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson, Arizona.

Upon our arrival midway up the canyon, we found the feeders at the Santa Rita Lodge to be bustling with activity. We were first greeted by the comical sight of several wild turkeys, Meleagris gallopavo, galloping around a pan-shaped feeder, trying their best to eat and chase off the competition at the same time. I did manage to snap a few shots of these magnificent birds, their iridescent feathers shining in the sun.

Gray squirrels were literally squatters in other feeders, and a Coues white-tailed deer, Odocoileus virginianus couesi, soon joined the circus.

Among the many other birds in attendance were acorn woodpeckers, lesser goldfinches, a broad-billed hummingbird, and Mexican jays.

We eventually left the other spectators at the lodge and drove to the trailheads at the top of the canyon. We settled on “Super Trail 134” as our path of choice, affording a lovely view of Mount Wrightson even before we set one foot forward.

The trail meanders through what is mostly an oak-juniper habitat, quite rocky in places. We found an abundance of lizards basking on almost every available rock during the morning hours. The majority of these reptiles were “spiny lizards” in the genus Sceloporus, but the species here are exceedingly difficult to identify. No matter, we enjoyed their antics and often splendid coloration, no doubt in preparation for courtship and territorial defense.

The hike was eerily quiet, save for our conversations, and greetings to other hikers. I suppose the silence was fitting for at least that portion of the trail that crossed into official “wilderness.” Unfortunately, just across the wilderness boundary, one gets an incredibly scenic view of a….mine (sigh).

This part of Arizona is still highly vulnerable to natural resource extraction, thanks in part to mining laws that date back to the 1800s. These are our public lands, and I feel they should be maintained for present generations, future generations, and as a legacy of past generations that included the likes of John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and Bob Marshall. The Coronado National Forest, in which Madera Canyon is located, is indeed a national gem worthy of respect and protection.

Monday, March 16, 2009

"Golden Rocks"

The stunning silence of the Super Trail was shattered by the voice of a six-year old urgently begging for help in finding “golden rocks.” Kidspeak is always a delightful challenge to comprehend. I initially thought the boy was seeking bowling balls. My trail mates, Jeff and Cynthia Boettner, were amazingly patient. The boy was in the company of his much quieter brother with no parent in sight. Mom soon turned up, though, packing an infant in a carrier on her chest. She related that her sons had not been terribly enthusiastic about hiking, until they became focused on finding more “golden rocks.” The special stones were actually rocks containing reflective quartz crystals.

”We hafta find more golden rocks. Look through your binoculars” the one boy pleaded with Jeff. Surely he could see the golden rocks better with an optical aid. Jeff found his naked eye more than adequate to uncover a few more pieces of quartz, for which the boy was grateful.

The quest for the quartz didn’t end when we parted ways, the boy needing substantial coaxing to stick with his own family rather than continuing to tag along with us. Jeff continued picking up golden rocks, just in case our collective paths should cross again. He decided to unload his pocketful of pebbles on a bench at the trailhead where they could be easily seen.

We ended our own trek by eating lunch at a picnic area within sight of the trailhead. Sure enough, the boys and their mother eventually came down. The precious golden rocks remained undetected, however, prompting Jeff to lend some assistance. A loud “thank you” rang throughout the picnic area and parking lot, signaling the triumph of treasure found; and the success of a mother raising her son to be polite and grateful. Jeff’s mother did something right, too.

We need purpose and goals throughout our lives, even as young children. My own mother tells me that when I was ten years old I put away my toys and told her I had to make something of my life. That sounds about right, but I can’t recall my motivation. What purpose do you have? What do you seek on the trail of life? Love? Belonging? Maybe simply memories and golden rocks.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Forsyth, Missouri

Orion magazine once included a department entitled “The Place Where You Live,” where readers were invited to contribute their own biographies of the places they call home. I was fortunate enough to be published twice, once for Cincinnati, Ohio, and the other for Forsyth. Since I did not receive payment for either piece, and because many years have passed since their publication, I will include them here. This piece is in the winter, 2002 issue, volume twenty-one, number one.

Call it the place where I lived, past tense. My presence here has been brief, abruptly terminated in a catastrophic downsizing event. That economic equivalent of geological upheaval seems fitting in this Ozarkian landscape. Shaped by powerful forces over the eons, it is still seemingly undecided, ecologically and economically, as to what it wants to be when it grows up.

Oak and hickory forests grow half-heartedly, perhaps in anticipation of their own demise in the next logging operation, maybe taking their sweet time with the meager nutrients offered by the rocky soils. Sometimes they give up altogether, yielding to the grasses and cacti that form mini-prairies called “glades.” The deep valleys are now flooded by a series of impoundments, the resulting lakes being stocked with exotic fish, and lined with poor man’s marinas and low-rent resorts. It is the split personality that comes from impoverished locals attempting to answer the intrusion of wealthy absentee landlords. Invasive enterprises in the city proliferate, exploiting what is there, sometimes at the expense of the natives.

In my small town of Forsyth, across the lake and a world away from Branson, life is more symbiotic. The county fair is still a major event, and spectators will turn out for even modest main street parades. Chain stores have barely made inroads, and most residents prefer the mom-and-pop merchants anyway. Still, one feels a palpable uneasiness. The indecisiveness runs like a fault line down the middle of Taney County. Will an economic earthquake forever alter the landscape, leaving ecosystems in ruin and thrusting strip malls upon the scene?

Progress is an imposed evolution here. The earth moves in great explosions where blasting makes way for the expanded highway between Branson and Springfield. Vultures hover over the valleys, adding an ominous presence, but there are also hopeful signs. We have lots of bluebirds, and there is a chance that voters will pass the billboard ban. In the meantime, the new cellular tower doesn’t block the lake view as it stretches from this schizophrenic landscape toward a limitless sky.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Spring Waits for No One

Tucson, Arizona has been experiencing much warmer-than-normal temperatures lately (it hit a record high of 91 F on February 23, 2009), and it seems to have triggered an early spring. I, for one, am not ready. Thankfully, my friend Cheryl Malone has loaned me her Canon PowerShot SD1000 (Elph), so I can at least share a few images of the desert landscape that is coming alive now.

The brilliant vermillion globe mallow flowers, Sphaeralcea sp., are among the more spectacular blooms right now, but they are ahead of the solitary bees that pollinate them. Honeybees are already at work, though, such as this one on a blossom of creosote bush, Larrea tridentata. Other flowers clamoring for attention include Gordon's bladderpod, Lesquerella gordoni, a lovely member of the mustard family, and desert marigold, Baileya multiradiata. This is in a residential, mid-town neighborhood. There are a couple of vacant lots, but colorful blossoms can sprout from a mere crack in the curb.

I took these images on March 5 and 6, 2009, but I am a very amateur photographer. Much better photographs of Tucson wildflowers can be found at the Firefly Forest website, along with good information about each species. Here's hoping that spring is fast approaching wherever you live.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Your Right to Nature

For many people the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of nature, wilderness, and wildlife are one and the same. In light of this, what more compelling reason is there for the conservation of habitats and their organisms than to insure the rights of citizens to enjoy them? The traditional arguments for preserving biodiversity are wearing thin, yet human rights issues remain at the forefront of international agendas.

One standard plea of conservationists is that wildlife and the biosphere should be protected for future generations. Unfortunately, this does not emphasize the urgency needed in addressing the problem of endangered species, or reflect the fact that numerous extinctions are occurring in the lifetimes of present generations. Furthermore, we owe as much to previous generations as we do to our heirs. Will we continue to ignore the wisdom of Audubon, Thoreau, Leopold, and Carson?

Scientists point to the ecological services provided by species, such as pollination, nutrient cycling, and other life processes, but these concepts are often too abstract and complex for the general public, and government policymakers, to grasp. For urbanites especially, who may spend little time in the wilderness, the function of ecosystems is too far removed from their personal experiences to be a major concern.

More relevant to society are the utilitarian values we place on different organisms. However, this argument suffices for only a few species like honeybees, silkworms, and plants that yield substances of medicinal importance. The utilization of a species can also be abused. This is especially true for vertebrates, like the rhinoceros, valued for their horns to be ground into aphrodisiacs or fashioned into dagger handles. We also alter the molecular fabric of some species to exaggerate those features we find desirable, resulting in genetic corruption and domestication. Other useful species are often introduced abroad where they become pests in their adopted homeland. Finally, for purists, wildlife managed for human consumption and exploitation ceases to be truly wild. It is hard to look at a trout these days without seeing a fish hatchery.

Some animal activists believe that non-human life has rights of its own. This is a noble thought, but difficult to prove. Besides, society has been reluctant to recognize the rights of women, minorities, and other members of our own species.

The idea that we have an inherent right to experience other organisms in their natural habitats is not a new one. In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold stated “The chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech.” Howard Evans, in Life on a Little-Known Planet, asks “…I happen to like yellowjackets; do I not have a right to yellowjackets if my neighbor has a right to a cat?” He continues: “If freedom means anything at all, it means the right to choose one’s environment and one’s friends.” Former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas proposed no less than A Wilderness Bill of Rights. Parts of its preamble, composed by Douglas and Helene B. Hart, speak for children of all ages who delight in nature: “We believe in the right of children to an understanding of their place in nature’s community, of which they are a part…We believe in their right of discovery and adventure in nature’s world,…”

Allowing the continued extinctions of fauna and flora would be an insult to all scientists, lawmakers, and philosophers, many of whom, like Dian Fossey, George and Joy Adamson, and Francisco Mendes, have given their lives in the fight to preserve natural diversity. If we cannot value wildlife for its own sake, we can at least value our scholars who do.

Conservation is thus truly a human rights issue. Ornithologist Nigel Collar provided an assertive summation of this thesis in his paper “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (American Birds, vol. 42, No. 1): “…if the quality of our lives is to be ransacked no further, then we must be ready to stand up for the earth and for ourselves (italics his).” Only then can we guarantee that in the future our happiness will not entirely elude our grasp.