Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Couple of "Wild" Ideas

When I lived in Cincinnati in the 1990s I learned of a truly unique enterprise aimed at helping research biologists in developing countries. I was reminded of this just the other day when I was made aware of another such effort through a different organization. The holiday gift-giving season seems a perfect time indeed to let you all in on these two secrets.

Idea Wild is a non-profit organization founded in 1991 by Wally Van Sickle. Since that time the non-governmental organization has grown steadily in the number of projects it has facilitated, the number of developing nations it has established relationships with, and in the dollars donated to its cause. That cause is to furnish field, laboratory, and office equipment to research conservationists for use in their native lands.

There are myriad ways you can help Idea Wild continue its mission, but chief among them are donating dollars and your (gently) used equipment. If you think I’m a good salesman for this outfit, you should meet Wally! He has inexhaustible enthusiasm for the projects he undertakes (or, rather, the projects being conducted by those wildlife biologists in their native countries). He campaigns tirelessly on their behalf and the results have been phenomenal. Please check out the Idea Wild website, “like” them on Facebook, and tweet away on Twitter.

”Cameras for Conservation” is a campaign of Reptile and Amphibian Ecology International, another non-profit with a wildlife conservation mission. I became familiar with them, and their founder, Paul S. Hamilton, at the Tucson Reptile Show back in September. Paul is an awesome photographer in his own right, but he is just as excited about fostering the work of other field photographers. He has also captured the power of the web (Reptiles and Amphibians.org) and social media.

I know I’m going to see what materials I can donate to these two fantastic enterprises, and I hope you will, too. I can’t think of a better way to empower scientists in other lands.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Berries encased in ice,
Frozen delights on a stick
That children lick,
But without synthetic spice

Berries embedded in ice,
Frozen delights on a stick
That birds can't pick,
But other seeds will suffice

Monday, December 6, 2010

Our Eco-econo Logical Survival

Last night I made sure to watch 60 Minutes because of the advertised interview with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, but it was the conversation between Scott Pelley and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke that got my attention. Homo sapiens is perhaps unique in not only having to address its ecological survival, but also its economic survival. After hearing Bernanke’s prognostication for our immediate financial future, I’m beginning to wonder if we are not in peril on the economic front as well as the climatological one.

I have to say that I trust Ben Bernanke to not make dishonest statements about short-term and long-range economic forecasts as he perceives them. That is why it was truly sobering to learn that he does not anticipate any great decrease in the unemployment rate for a minimum of four or five years. From the perspective of our American society at large, I am confident we can weather the storm and doldrums, but on an individual level I am feeling a bit shaky.

My part-time employment will end around the first week of May, 2011, and the unemployment compensation that is supplementing that income will no doubt expire even sooner. Having only a high school diploma does not heighten my chances of re-employment at any meaningful wage, as Bernanke mentioned in his interview.

When Scott Pelley pointed out that the gap between the rich and the poor in the U.S. is the greatest it has been in some time, Bernanke laid the blame largely on a disparity in education levels. For those with a college degree, unemployment is about 5%, said Bernanke, adding that unemployment is almost double that for people with only a high school diploma. While I personally think this is mostly a sorry excuse for an explanation of inequitable distribution of wealth, the implicit message was even more disheartening and unrealistic, if not irresponsible.

Bernanke’s apparent solution for the unemployed and underemployed is to go back to school and get new skills or enhance existing ones. In other words: go into debt to get ahead. This is in part what got us into trouble in the first place: personal debt. No worries, Bernanke plans to keep the lid on low interest rates, encouraging borrowing (while rendering savings accounts, Certificates of Deposit, and other responsible financial behavior worthless).

I am by no means an economist. I didn’t even do very well in that course in college. All I know is that the current banking establishment and financial administration reigning from the Fed are *not* operating in my best interests. Literally! Interest on my savings is appallingly low. There are no products that keep my assets liquid in case of emergency, while offering any kind of return on my investment….but I digress.

Most people cannot afford to return to school in any sense of the word. They can’t afford it financially, and they can’t afford the time out of the workforce (though most adult students work at least part-time while going to school, this wears one out physically, emotionally, and intellectually). We need to resurrect an apprenticeship approach to re-employment. The “guilds” of the Renaissance sound mighty appealing about now. The idea that one could produce something meaningful and useful while accruing new skills is also what the old WPA was all about. We need a “new” New Deal.

This is where we could also address our ecological survival. Train people to produce and install solar panels, rainwater harvesting cisterns, and other sustainable technologies that lead to a more sustainable, less consumer-oriented society. Make peace profitable. Hire defense contractors to begin disarming our nuclear weapons. Start with the hair-trigger ICBMs that still loom in silos, one false-alarm away from throwing us into nuclear winter. Make community gardens a priority so that neighborhoods can take back ownership of their diet, nutrition, and food quality. Build affordable housing. We can have a bright future, but we might have to buck the system to achieve some of it. The finances will follow, though, as our collective will prevails.

Full disclosure: I am personally debt-free, have no credit cards, and do not own a private vehicle. I rent an apartment. I have an account at a bank and a credit union. Were ATMs more convenient through the credit union, I would not have an account at a commercial bank.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

WOW Arizona and The Oasis B and B

Back on October 3, I was invited to help lead a nature walk at the Oasis Bed & Breakfast (also known as "WOW Arizona" for Wild Outdoor World). This little gem is located in unincorporated Tucson, Arizona, just east and north of Oro Valley. Christopher J. (C J) Vincent and MaryEllen Troy Landen run this establishment, a true haven for Sonoran Desert wildlife.

The Oasis manages to cater to a wide variety of clientele, from mountain bikers to amateur naturalists. The grounds are a virtual Eden and the hosts know every resident plant and animal. The water and flowers (mostly native, some ornamental) attract an enormous diversity of wildlife from butterflies to birds and mammals, making it a great place to become familiar with Sonoran Desert flora and fauna while being as comfortable or adventurous as you would like to be.

C J picked me up after work on October 2, so I got to have dinner and stay the night, too. I like the cozy, "contemporary-rustic" feel of their home. The decor includes spectacular images of the wildlife seen and photographed by C J on the scenic grounds. I slept like a baby, and woke up to.....

More food! C J and MaryEllen are very conscious of the differing nutritional needs of their guests. I'm lactose intolerant and they had lactose-free milk. That never happens! The entrees are delicious, a great treat for a "meat and potatoes" guy like me, yet still "gourmet," just not pretentious. Pleasing folks with your menu is a tough task, but The Oasis does so perfectly. Outside the dining room the bird feeders were drawing a variety of fine feathered friends, like this Curve-billed Thrasher.

A little searching revealed one of their resident rattlesnakes, Cartman. He’s quite a heroic specimen of a Western Diamondback. Most of the organisms on the premises are not nearly as dangerous as this, but I like the fact that C J and MaryEllen welcome all forms of life, not just the cute, cuddly, and charismatic (though I personally find rattlesnakes to be quite charismatic in their own right).

C J recently acquired non-profit status for WOW Arizona, so it is now a certified environmental education organization. They hosted a class from Pima Community College a week before our October nature walk, and C J was still raving about the transformation of the students from urbanites a bit intimidated by the wild desert to fascinated people anxious to learn more.

I heartily recommend The Oasis B & B to anyone visiting southern Arizona who wants to avoid crowded parks, see wildlife up close, and enjoy captivating conversations with the proprietors over a great meal. You can get an online introduction at the WOW Arizona website and blog, and follow C J’s posts on Facebook, too. Check it out!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Rea Farm ("The Beanery")

I have to thank Abigail Parker for her intimate knowledge of all the best places to go for birds and insects in the Cape May region of New Jersey. One of my favorite stops was at the Rea Farm, where we visited on October 17 of this year.

Actually, I should also thank Abby for letting Heidi Genter and myself be her guests, since Rea Farm is only open to members of the New Jersey Audubon Society. The site was once a working lima bean farm, hence the local name of “The Beanery.” The idle remains of the huge lima been shucking machines are a landmark for the parking area at the entrance to the birding area. They look like covered bridges to nowhere.

Property owners Les and Diane Rea decided to lease visitation rights to the Cape May Bird Observatory (a project of New Jersey Audubon) beginning in 1999, in the wake of sharply falling demand for lima beans. They also grow flowers, and run a nearby farmstand where you can purchase local fruits and vegetables.

The Beanery comprises 82 acres and is located near the very center of Cape Island. It is consistently the warmest place on the isle in late autumn. Migrating birds may linger there longer, among the fields, hedgerows, and swampy woodlands. The three fields, ringed with tractor paths, are the centerpiece of the farm. Several species of sparrows frequent the tall grass and autumn aster flowers, providing a real challenge for birders.

Then there are the raptors. Hawks, vultures, and even eagles like the immature Bald Eagle above can be seen daily over the fields as they rise on thermals in the afternoon. The unobscured skies over the fields and parking area afford great views of the soaring birds.

There is no shortage of insects, either, particularly Buckeye butterflies, their caterpillars, and chrysalids. At least they were very abundant during our visit.

Dragonflies forage over the fields as well, including the Common Green Darner, and Carolina Saddlebags (below).

The crops that are still grown feed grasshoppers as well as people, and while this Carolina Grasshopper found them tasty, I’m sure that such insects are not welcomed!

Rea Farm is yet another gem among the seemingly endless jewels that are Cape May birding areas. I can hardly wait to go back and visit during another season, to see what else calls the area home.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Avalon Sea Watch

The Cape May area of New Jersey has an abundance of birdwatching activities during the fall migrations. One of the best is the Avalon Sea Watch held in the town of Avalon. The watch is on from September 22 to December 22 every year, and is operated by the Cape May Bird Observatory.

Abigail Parker, Heidi Genter, and myself visited the sea wall site of the seabird tally on October 16, 2010. We arrived just in time for a presentation by a volunteer from New Jersey Audubon. He described how to identify the more common seabirds. Believe it or not, you can identify many birds by the flight formation of their flocks, and how high off the water or horizon they fly. A diagram on an easel offered a visual aid as the guide described the silhouettes and behavior of the various birds.

Right in front of us, on the rocky jetty beyond the sea wall, were a handful of various birds, including a flock of Black-bellied Plovers, in the image below. Among them is another bird, possibly a Ruddy Turnstone.

Eavesdropping on the presentation was a Herring Gull. This gull was such a constant presence that it was christened “Jake” (if I recall the name correctly). Jake was no doubt waiting for a handout, but he was most polite and patient. His colleagues were not always so well-behaved. A walk out on the jetty among fishermen and other tourists found another gull determined to make off with someone’s bait fish.

The wind was ferocious, and forced some of the shorebirds, like these Semipalmated Plovers, to seek shelter behind whatever rocks they could find. Western Sandpipers (yes, Western sandpipers!) joined them, and birds of both species tucked their faces into the feathers on their back to avoid the onslaught of blowing sand. Sunglasses are recommended to you for just this reason. Blowing debris will ruin anyone’s day.

The dedicated volunteers that tally the birds from dawn to dusk, day after day, are to be commended. The data amassed by such dependable folks will help determine the health of bird populations in North America and help direct conservation efforts where they are most needed. Oh, and the average annual count is nearly 800,000 birds since it began in 1993. Among them are flocks of cormorants like this one.

I highly recommend the Avalon Sea Watch for anyone, from novice to expert birder. You are certain to see a good variety of birds in a very short period, no matter what time of day you arrive. Dress warmly, though, and don’t forget that eye protection.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Cape May Point State Park

After spending time at Cape May State Park on October 15, 17, and 18 of this year, I can highly recommend this natural gem to any naturalist. There is literally something for everyone, from history to architecture to nature.

The most obvious landmark at the park is the lighthouse, 157 feet in height. It was erected in 1859, after erosion forced the dismantling of the previous lighthouse built in 1847. Many of the bricks from the older version were incorporated into the current tower.

An equally impressive structure is a World War II bunker, constructed as part of the Harbor Defense Project of 1942. The entire park is actually a former military base, and the bunker was originally 900 feet from the shore. Today, at high tide most of it is under water.

A pair of linear one-story buildings near the lighthouse houses the restrooms, park visitor’s center, and a small natural history museum that contains some live animals as well as typical taxidermy mounts and other old-style interpretive exhibits.

You might be better off simply exploring the trails that lace through 153 acres of wetlands and open woodland. The half-mile Red Trail is wheelchair-friendly, while the Yellow and Blue trails eventually end up at the dunes and beach. While watching for birds above, be sure to note what is underfoot on the boardwalks, too. We saw this ribbon snake on one of our treks.

Other animals may cross your path as well, like this male Blue-faced Meadowhawk dragonfly

The boardwalks also have several platforms, and even a few wooden blinds, from which to watch waterfowl on on the open water in the marshes. There are obviously continuing efforts being made at habitat restoration as well, with numerous plantings installed on drier ground.

Do take advantage of the many programs and guided nature walks offered here. There is even a hawk-banding demonstration from mid-September through October.

The official website for Cape May Point State Park offers more details than I can share here, but by all means consider a trip here.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Cape May, New Jersey

You looked so very pretty when we met in Ocean City
Like someone oh so easy to adore.
I sang this little ditty on our way through Ocean City
Heading south along New Jersey’s shore

On the way to Cape May I fell in love with you
On the way to Cape May I saw my dreams come true.
I was taken by your smile as we drifted through Sea Isle.
My heart was really gone when we reached Avalon.
On the way to Cape May, Stone Harbor skies were blue.
We were naming the day when Wildwood came in view.
If you’re gonna be my spouse, we better head for that courthouse
On the way to Cape May,
On the way to Cape May.

Thanks to Abigail Parker for sharing this song with myself and Heidi Genter during our visit to Ocean City and Cape May. Abby and Heidi are both accomplished vocalists, not so myself. “On the Way to Cape May” was penned by Maurice ‘Buddy’ Nugent around 1960 and sung by a variety of artists since. The most popular version is performed by Philly Cuzz and the Shoobies, and played regularly on a certain Philadelphia radio station on Fridays.

I like to think that the song also describes my time getting to know Heidi, and while we didn’t stop at the courthouse, I think we fell in love with Cape May, as well as with each other. Easy to do with the beaches, dunes, salt marshes, and balmy weather in mid-October.

The cape is a world-famous destination for birdwatchers (“birders”), especially during fall migrations, and is it ever a great spot. The Cape May Bird Observatory makes birding easy, with events almost every day and volunteer bird experts helping you find and identify the birds.

Cape May Point State Park is where most of the action is. The lighthouse serves as a beacon to orient to. Close by is the Hawk Watch, an elevated platform overlooking a wetland set back behind the dunes and the beach. Spotting scopes are usually available for sharing, and interpretive signs inform you of the wildlife you are likely to see. Adjacent picnic shelters afford meeting places for bird, butterfly, and dragonfly walks. Trails originate there as well, and boardwalks take you through the marshes.

Besides Cape May Point State Park, there are other locations worth exploring. Rea Farm is a working agricultural enterprise open only to members of the New Jersey Audubon Society, Bird Observatory, and their guests. The fields and swampy woodlands offer superb habitats for a variety of songbirds and insects. Lily Lake, surrounded by a fairly upscale suburban neighborhood, lures waterfowl and wading birds. Sunset Beach, with its landmark “concrete ship” is a great place to find “sea glass” and quartz agates, as well as knick-knacks at a truly wonderful gift shop.

I’ll be adding more installments about some of these places as time allows. For now I bid you farewell, along with this Great Egret departing the wetlands near the Hawk Watch.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Sports Mentality

I think I have at least a partial answer to why men get so worked up over spectator sports. Women, and a few men I suppose, often react by saying something like “Why are you so upset, it’s only a game?” Well, no it is not, and I’ll explain why.

Sports are symbolic, a metaphor for justice (or injustice), success and failure, even good and evil. We want desperately to believe that we can triumph over adversity ourselves, succeed through hard work, and vanquish our own demons. Increasingly, men are feeling disempowered and seek symbolic justice through spectator sports.

We believe, these days at least, that we are at the mercy of employers, bosses, banks, government, and maybe even spouses. Real or imagined, we feel powerless to change our own circumstances and have largely lost faith that the “good guy” can finish anywhere but last. We rail against “America’s team,” the franchises and universities rolling in wealth and entrenched in “tradition,” as they represent the evil overlords of our own jobs, careers, and personal finances.

When “our” team wins, we feel vindicated, hopeful, and energized by association. When that team loses, we sink further into despair and hopelessness. It doesn’t seem rational, you say. It doesn’t have to be. It just….is. It is about respect, or lack thereof, and we feel disrespected much of the time in our personal lives. We are disgraced, humiliated, and repeatedly dismissed when we attempt to advance in the workforce. We bring home smaller wages, driven down by “illegal immigrants.” Our jobs are shipped overseas, not unlike professional sports teams that abandon one city for greener pastures elsewhere. It isn’t fair, and that is the bottom line.

I guess that is what irritates me the most. I don’t get people who respond to the disappointments, trials, and tribulations of others with comments like “life isn’t fair.” Maybe not, but why the hell aren’t you working to make it fair? Why is that not a priority with you? Why is it not a priority with our society, and why are those who want to make life more equitable for all labeled as “socialists” or “communists?” Why is that a bad thing?

We won’t talk about any of this, of course, engage in meaningful dialogue, or God forbid take action to change the status quo. We may not even have voted on Tuesday. No, we will turn up the volume on the TV so we can better hear the sports announcers. We’d rather be at the game in person, but the team owner jacked up the ticket prices to pay for those new luxury boxes at the stadium.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Ocean City, New Jersey

Sunrise. Deserted boardwalks still beckon as the sun seeps over the horizon. Beach and jetty are cool on a mid-October morning, but holding hands with a loved one warms me. The sound of the surf is soothing. The casual flapping of the gulls is relaxing, effortless wingbeats exercising indifference to us.

Ocean City, New Jersey is a “dry” island, devoid of alcohol sales, but it profits from the tourist trade all the same. The off-season leaves few but the locals strolling and cycling along the waterfront. There is still attention to detail, though, decorative cornstalks heralding autumn.

There is a stark contrast between the wild Atlantic Ocean and the amusement park mentality of local enterprises. They merge on the boardwalk where grackles and gulls will steal your fast food. Few shops are open now, the ferris wheel sits idle, and Music Pier is taking an intermission.

Beyond the façade of glitz and the aroma wafting from the pizza joint that stubbornly persists in cooking pies, the neighborhoods are modest, quaint, and peaceful. Houses have modest gardens, but the residents groom them well. It is not a terribly romantic place, yet one feels comfortable here. You will be back, you know it, but no rush. No hurry here, the gulls, grackles and tides will be patiently waiting.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Butterfly Time (Part 2)

This post takes up where Part 1, on my sister blog ”Bug Eric” leaves off. The seventh annual “Butterfly Magic” kicked off with the suave and swanky “Butterfly Affaire” fundraiser on Sunday night, October 10. Music, fine food and beverages were the order of the evening, but at least a few folks ventured into the hot and humid greenhouse in their gowns and suits (though most were dressed a little above “business casual”).

The butterflies had mostly settled down to roost for the night, making them difficult to spot. The lights were on in the tropical greenhouse, but insects are not easily fooled by the artificial extension of natural day length. Consequently, the hit of the night was a group of recently-emerged African Moon Moths, Argema mimosa.

These large, showy insects are very cooperative, sitting idly in the places we had put them earlier in the day. The moths live only two or three days, even in the wild. They do not feed, or even have functional mouthparts, living instead off the stored fat reserves they built up in the caterpillar stage. Females wait patiently for males to fly to them, attracting the opposite gender with a pheromone (like a perfume) that the males can follow from a mile or more away.

The males use their feathery antennae like satellite dishes, picking up the fragrant signals of a female and homing in on her. She may not even venture off of her cocoon, at least not in our captive setting where we usually take cocoon and moth out to the greenhouse and pin the cocoon perch to a tree trunk.

Longwing butterflies in the genus Heliconius are at the other end of the longevity spectrum. While most butterflies can last two or three weeks, maybe a month on flower nectar, longwings can go up to six months because they can also eat pollen. There is no end to the variability in color and pattern, even within one species of Heliconius. Some mimic milkweed butterflies that are toxic to some predators. All are neotropical in their distribution (that means they are native to Mexico, Central and South America). Colorful and seemingly fragile, they fly slowly, perching frequently. This Heliconius erato displays a typical pattern for its species.

Come evening, or during overcast days, the longwings seldom take flight, instead hanging from the underside of foliage, or perching on leaves like this Heliconius doris.

As diminutive as the longwings are, the swallowtails are large and powerful. This Magnificent Swallowtail, Papilio garamus, is the only specimen to emerge so far from the multiple chrysalids we have received in shipments. It ranges from central Mexico to Costa Rica.

A real success from the shipments were sulphur butterflies in the genus Catopsilia. They are commonly known as “immigrants,” which of course has been the source of many bad jokes among the staff and volunteers in the exhibit. Ironically, the “Orange Immigrant,” Catopsilia scylla, hails from northern Australia and neighboring islands of Indonesia, not from south of the U.S. border.

Wherever you call home, you might want to plan a trip to meet these wonderful insects while they are here in Tucson. Butterfly Magic runs through April 30, 2011, so reserve those tickets now.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

It's "Arachtober!"

One of my friends on the photo-sharing website Flickr recently informed me of an annual group posting called “Arachtober.” It is an invitation-only group, but you can inquire to the moderators to become a participant. Each member tries to post one spider image a day during the month of October. How appropriate given the Halloween season.

It is encouraging to see the spiders are not only getting positive publicity, but that they are becoming the focus of an increasing number of amateur and professional nature photographers. They certainly make wonderful subjects. Those that sit in webs are pretty easy to take pictures of, without the risk that the spider will run away.

”Arachtober” began on October 1, 2007 with the posting of a single spider image by one of Flickr’s users. An encouraging comment on the image from another user suggested that Halloween week should be deemed “Spider Week.” The user who initially posted the image responded that he probably had enough images to post one spider a day for the entire month. Thus, “Spider Month” was started.

Meanwhile, a third user started her own “Spider Blitz” Halloween week and in the process learned of the month-long effort of the other two users. This third user suggested “Arachtober” for that project and the name stuck.

In October, 2008, the Arachtober group finished with forty-five members and 599 image posts. The 2009 campaign was even better, with a total of 70 members finishing the month and 1, 088 images posted.

You are still welcome to join this year’s effort, which at present includes 74 participants. According to the founder of Arachtober:

”The group works like a short term 365 group, the goal is to post spiders to Flickr daily during October and have fun. When you shot the spider isn't important. To make it through the month, most of us have to save up over the year. Even if you don't have enough spiders for every day, you can still participate. You can either post them daily till you run out, spread them out every few days, or save them till Halloween week. Spiders are especially popular around then.”

I have sprinkled this blog post with some of the images I have already submitted to Arachtober this year. I encourage you to visit the Arachtober page and browse the collective. Here’s hoping you will participate, too. Arachnophiles unite!

Note: By custom, and to protect privacy, few Flickr users reveal their real names, hence the rather cryptic references here.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Tucson Reptile and Amphibian Show 2010

Saturday, September 25, I had to choose among several nature-oriented events around the Tucson area. My selection was the annual Tucson Reptile and Amphibian Show at the Expo Center in South Tucson. While the overwhelming majority of participants were vendors of live reptiles, arachnids, and terraria and other products related to keeping pet “herps,” the educational exhibits were quite enthralling.

The Tucson Herpetological Society featured several live reptiles native to Arizona, including this Great Basin Rattlesnake, Crotalus oreganus lutosus.

I just looked up the scientific name for that serpent in the book Rattlesnakes of the United States & Canada, authored by Manny Rubio. I purchased that outstanding reference at the Reptile Show as well, and Manny was on hand all day signing copies.

The most impressive exhibits were furnished by the Phoenix Herpetological Society. This organization even runs a sanctuary for unwanted reptiles. I suspect that some of the more dangerous specimens were probably seizures in raids on drug-smuggling rings since trafficking in narcotics and exotic pets often go hand-in-hand. Macho dealers often want pets symbolic of their toughness, and/or dangerous pets to guard their stashes of illegal substances, cash and weapons. In any event, the animals the PHS brought to Tucson were truly amazing.

I am not readily intimidated by reptiles, but one specimen had me a little nervous and totally in awe. It was a Reticulated Python, Python reticulatus, raised from a hatchling by the gentleman standing next to it at the exhibit. The snake is now seventeen years old, just shy of 19 feet in length, and weighing in at 260 pounds. I estimate the snake’s head was at least as large as my size 7 ½ shoe. The snake’s name was “Tiny.” No, I’m kidding!

The python was in a compartment on a long trailer that included many other snakes and lizards. Among them was this gorgeous albino Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, Crotalus atrox.
Aberrations like this don’t usually survive long in the wild, but they make excellent ambassadors for their species in an educational venue.

Most of the animals in the show were in plain enclosures that facilitate easy cleaning and optimal viewing by the public (no place for the reptile to hide). This did not make for the best photo ops, but I was happy to get some of the results I did given the obvious “in captivity” look, smudges on the glass from countless children’s noses and hands, and often poor lighting. Still, a King Cobra, Ophiophagus Hannah, has an overwhelming presence in any setting.

A couple of small crocodilians and an enormous Alligator Snapping Turtle complemented the snakes, but it was the vipers that I found most amazing. Take this Mangshan Pit Viper, Trimeresurus mangshanensis, for example. Found only on Mt. Mang in the Hunan Province of China, it is literally “something you don’t see every day.”

Likewise, this bright yellow example of an Eyelash Viper, Bothriechis schlegelii, is best encountered behind glass in a nicely-landscaped terrarium, as opposed to wrapped around a branch at eye-level along a jungle trail in Central or South America.

There are more images of other snakes over at my Flickr photostream. I’d like to thank my friend Leigh Anne DelRay for reminding me of the show to begin with, and sharing the experience with me last Saturday. I encourage everyone to visit their own local reptile show and take a friend or young person with them. It can make a lasting impression to come face-to-face with native and exotic wildlife at such events.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Shooting the Messenger

Monday, September 20, Malaysian government officials announced that they will not proceed with a planned release of genetically modified Yellow Fever Mosquitoes, Aedes aegypti (pictured below, on *me*), in rural and wild regions of that nation (source: Malaysia Today.com). The mosquitoes have been “engineered” to produce short-lived larval offspring. This is obviously an attempt to prevent delivery of the disease-causing organism by eliminating its vector. What I find ironic is that there are concurrent efforts being made to engineer malaria mosquitoes (genus Anopheles) that are non-lethal to the insects, but prevent them from being viable intermediate hosts to the malaria parasite Plasmodium. Quite a contrast between the two strategies.

It can be argued convincingly that anything curtailing widespread mortality in “Third World” nations should be a high priority that will also aid in eliminating poverty. It can be argued that with current trends in climate change, tropical diseases will make significant inroads into temperate areas thus far free of such epidemics. It is also a fact that disease-causing organisms are developing resistance to antibiotics at an alarming rate. Why not shoot the messenger then: Attack the vector organisms responsible for ferrying those protozoans and other microbes.

The problems with killing off mosquitoes include a potential disruption of the food chain, whereby other organisms will be deprived of prey. Mosquito larvae also have their own role in filtering water. We cannot readily predict what the absence of mosquitoes would mean to ecosystems on even a local scale.

Interestingly, another article I read recently described how the “Brain tissues and the nervous systems of insects may provide the next line of antibiotic defense against emerging superbugs that have become resistant to drugs.” How do we know that the very cure for some of our human plagues doesn’t rest in the literal minds of mosquitoes? The point is that we haven’t examined all the possibilities. Before we assert a death sentence for a species, should we not mine it for all the “good” it could do? We are reticent to execute individual human criminals, perhaps in part because there might be something to be gained as a society by keeping them alive. We tend to be optimistic that way.

I tend to be optimistic about the most malevolent creatures we share the planet with. No creation, or product of evolution, is without some degree of merit, even if that grain of positivity has no direct bearing on human lives.

The “shoot the messenger” campaign has been seen before. Tsetse flies carry the trypanosomes responsible for sleeping sickness in humans, and “nagana” in livestock, especially cattle. Wild African mammals are immune to the disease, but serve as reservoirs for the parasite. Eliminate the tsetse flies and Africa becomes one big cattle ranch with no place left for wildlife. Is this an oversimplification? Perhaps, but the Law of Unintended Consequences factors prominently in cases like this.

We need to have meaningful dialogue about the direction that GM research is taking. The left hand needs to know what the right hand is doing, and profit from that information. I remain confident that we can overcome human mortality factors in a responsible manner that does not disrespect other creatures in the process. I still have faith that we can act responsibly in our own affairs of reproduction and population.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Once again I find myself apologizing for the relatively sporadic nature of my posts here lately. No excuses, really, though I have been working rather random hours at the Tucson Botanical Gardens, and consequently eating randomly, sleeping randomly, and writing randomly. Maybe I need to take a class on time management.

I also just concluded a project in which I reviewed chapters for a forthcoming self-published book on the natural history of Virginia Beach, Virginia, by Scott Bastian. He has been a delight to work with, and he will be turning out a pretty unique book that has a wealth of information stretching far beyond the locality of Virginia Beach. You'll hear more about this once it is off the presses.

A relative lack of rain this year in Arizona (except for the area immediately adjacent to the Mexican border) has meant that many insects have been lacking, or at least less numerous, than usual. Perhaps because the Tucson Botanical Gardens is heavily watered, I have found a surprising diversity of things there, and expect the trend to continue through October.

Best wishes to my readers for a fruitful fall of exploring, image-taking, and enjoyment of autumn colors.

Saturday, September 4, 2010


Yesterday we had what was probably the last big storm of the “monsoon” season here in southern Arizona. I haven’t quite gotten used to the idea that we have monsoons. This isn’t Bangladesh. I have to take the television meteorologist’s word that the summer weather pattern qualifies as such.

During May and June, the Sonoran Desert heats up to an almost intolerable degree. Literally! Temperatures regularly exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit. One year in recent memory we had a string of 39 straight days that were over 100 F. This simmering pattern sets the stage for what is to come. The winds change toward the end of June as low pressure replaces the fading high pressure, and moisture is drawn up from the Sea of Cortez. Rains usually follow.

Still, the definition of our Arizona monsoon seems to depend upon who you ask. Some say that when the dew point reaches 54 degrees Fahrenheit, it more or less marks the onset of the summer rainy season. The dew point is the temperature at which air becomes saturated with water vapor and that vapor begins to condense. Others simply assert that the average beginning of the monsoon falls on about July 7.

That is not to say that every monsoon is “average.” Far from it. Last year there was almost no rain at all, and this year has not been a great improvement. My immediate neighborhood has seen maybe three good storms with heavy rains. An average year would be more than double that.

The thunderstorms associated with the monsoons can be terribly violent. The storm yesterday included hail as well as rain, plus very gusty winds. A storm a few weeks ago spawned lightning that lit a tree on fire in a nearby park. Some streets here in Tucson are sacrificed to drainage during storms, and I jokingly tell people that I live on the North Fork of Magnolia during the monsoons.

Most destructive of the monsoon phenomena are “microbursts.” These are straight-line winds that can wreak just as much havoc as a weak tornado. Microbursts are essentially “wind bombs” that happen when cold air in the top of a thunderhead suddenly drops to the ground, sending the equivalent of a shock wave of wind in all directions. The winds generated can exceed 70 miles per hour, and the phenomenon can last from five to fifteen minutes. The area impacted is small, however, generally restricted to less than 2.5 miles in any given direction.

The intensity of the monsoon season varies considerably, and La Niña and El Niño events can exert quite an influence, but the rains are vital to preserving the diversity of flora and fauna in the Sonoran Desert.