|Elizabeth A. Hunter||
A pretty good haul of animals on the survey route today. Tons and tons of clapper rails, too many to count very well. The first alligators spotted on a survey route, one growled at us from under the water near our boat...or maybe it was just gas. The water is finally getting warm and now they are waking up. Ten little fishes caught in our traps. One site that had about 30 seaside sparrows within 5 meters of where we were standing all singing right next to each other...I could only find one nest though. Perhaps some sort of communal courtship? Got the boat stuck a couple of times as low tide caught up to us quicker than we thought it would. Nothing like some good ol' fashioned boat-pushing to make you feel like you've done a good day's work.
I suppose I've been waiting these last 3 weeks (since I started fieldwork on the GA coast full time) to be sufficiently inspired to write something. A trip to Wolf Island did it. After several days of going out in the boats in 30 degree weather with 20+mph winds, it was a balmy 40 at 6:45am and blissful with no wind whatsoever. The horizon was getting set-up for what was sure to be a spectacular sunrise with deep purples and maroons seeming to emanate out of the water as Katherine and I headed out. As we looked to the horizon, we saw what appeared to be a cloud of smoke, but as we approached it became alive with movement, swirling into itself and diving towards the marsh grasses. It was a "murmuration" of chimney swifts - tens of thousands of them all moving in synchrony. We stopped the boat when we were directly under them, and they stopped, too. They hovered, evenly spaced, across the entire sky. An endless sky of little cigars with wings.
We moved on, and the water was so calm that the boat skated over it almost effortlessly. The smallest ripples reflected the imminent sunrise as pinks fading to silvers and golds. It was perhaps the most mesmerizing sunrise I have ever seen as we sped into a psychedelic sea and sky of color. This picture is not a picture of it...I'm very bad at taking pictures of things that are very beautiful. My eyes are greedy for the present, and I forget that I may want to see beauty again later. For me, the climax of a sunrise is when I see the first sliver of the sun above the horizon - after that, the sun's rays wash out all its expectations. ("Better than the deed, better than the memory, the moment...of anticipation!")
We arrived to our first call-back point on Wolf Island and immediatly heard seaside sparrows. There is a big colony of sparrows on the island, and perhaps because of the high density, they seem more exhuberant than the single pairs we've found other places. Males were singing continuously and conspicuously, and they often treated us to nuptial dances of frenzied twitters as they seemed to hurl themselves into the sky and return straight down hurriedly. The ubiquitous clapper rails were also present, but the island definitely belongs to the sparrows. Everywhere the grass was surprisingly short - where are all of these birds to nest? There must be a good amount of competetion for the taller stuff near the creeks' edges. At another point, we were surpised by a couple of dolphins that came near our boat and seemed to puff salutations to us as they (possibly) fed on fish that had been stirred up by our outboard motor. The water remained calm as we returned to the boat ramp, and we got the boat on the trailer gracefully, in one try. Perfect.
I spend a lot of my time now staring at a computer screen (actually 2 now), and I'm often doing a lot of tasks at once - as I wait for program or piece of code to run I'll start another one and another one and so on. This will often make me really frazzled and antsy. So I often go outside for just a few minutes to catch my breath. One of the best things about the location of my building on campus is its proximity to the Horticulture department's trial gardens. This is where they try out new varieties of flowers and garden food plants, and the place is always buzzing with life. In addition to the gorgeous array of flowers (still in bloom, in December!), bees and wasps, beetles and moths fill the air as they zip about from flower to flower. Today I saw a beautiful hawk moth - just like a miniature hummingbird it hovered in front of flowers as its iridescent purple and pink abdomen shimmered in the sunlight. Whenever I arrive in the gardens, I can feel my brain relax...an almost tingling sensation fills the back of my skull as I shift my eyes from things that are close to me to things that are far away. Surely the colors in the garden are replicated on my shiny computer screen, but when I look at the brilliant flowers I feel as if my eyes are drinking in the pigments with a great thirst. I don't get the same sensations when I just go for a hike on the weekend...there's something about the rapid switch from computer brain to outside brain. Anyway, I'm grateful for the gardens, they are indeed a sight for sore eyes.
I took an "extracurricular" tree class this semester taught by the most awesome Dan Williams. I think I took it mostly out of embarrassment that I have a degree in Botany and attend a forestry school and had no clue what most of the trees around me were. I started my botany degree with a healthy interest in identifying plants, but my interest waned as I learned more and more plants and began to realize that, in southern Wisconsin at least, I was surrounded by non-native, invasive plants. I have enjoyed identifying plants for fieldwork, but have made no effort to know the plants in the towns where I live. I've come to realize that knowing the trees around me can be (nearly) as exciting as knowing the birds. The oaks in the southeast are particularly lovely and charismatic. In the picture are (from left, clockwise) red oak, white oak, post oak, southern red (spanish) oak, and water oak. The water oaks were the most pleasing to identify - they line nearly every street in Athens, and when I first moved here I mistakenly thought they were strangely tall and slim live oaks (due to the narrow leaf). I think I even used the presence of live oaks to characterize Athens to some people. After several trips to the coast, where live oaks actually are abundant, I realized that I was probably wrong and the trees became a nameless mystery tree. Now that I know all the oaks of the area, it's so satisfying to crunch along the leaf-strewn streets on my way to campus every morning and think "water oak, water oak, southern red, water, post, scarlet
For the past couple of days, I have seen a group of 300-400 Cedar Waxwings foraging on Red Cedar fruits outside my building on campus. These are one of my favorite birds for a few reasons. Obviously, they are stunningly beautiful with crisp delineations of brilliant color on a sleek, compact body. Their beauty comes partially from their role as a seed disperser -- the brightly colored waxy tips of their secondaries are pigmented with carotenoids from red cedar and honeysuckle fruits, among others. Every time I see a waxwing, it is always foraging on fruit, and I love seeing the evidence of the tight relationship between plants and animals put so clearly and beautifully. I generally only see waxwings in the fall and winter when they travel in large groups. Their high-pitched calls are one of the few that I know instantly, maybe because I know that I'm in for a big treat when I hear them. I first saw them on a cedar outside of my parents' old house in Wisconsin - a group of a couple hundred that stayed there for a few days in October until they had completely depleted the cedar's cones and carried the seeds southwards. That was during the time when I was first discovering and falling in love with birds, and the magnificent spectacle of the large group made me realize that winter would now hold some promise of beauty and excitement (I'm not a winter person) now that I could look forward to seeing these big gregarious groups of birds. And, indeed, the winters in upstate NY were made much more enjoyable by the nightly passage of thousands of crows in Syracuse from the cemetary near ESF down to Lake Onondaga, and the rafts of Aythya ducks on Cayuga lake in Ithaca that looked like a continuous rolling mat of flapping squawking bodies. Now that I'm in Georgia, it seems almost too good to be true that I get to enjoy winter's pleasures while bathing in the sunlight of a 65 degree day.
I've decided to re-join the blogosphere by posting some thoughts and field experiences on this website. I have mixed feelings about such things as I'm a pretty big consumer of some user-generated content on the internet, but I get a bad taste in my mouth when thinking about contributing to the share-everything culture of my generation. I generally like blogs, though, in that the format promotes somewhat intelligible writing. I also have mixed feelings about my previous blogging experience (retortoisepinta.blogspot.com), but I think it was beneficial in terms of informing my family and friends that I was still alive on a desert island while also telling some nature stories along the way.
I'd like this blog to be a continuation of that theme, stories from the field, but I'd like to expand it beyond just when I have a field season for research. I have interesting interactions with nature every day, and I find that writing about them helps to crystallize them and make them have more meaning. Plus, I just enjoy writing casually. So this blog will be a random assortment of thoughts and opinions on a nature theme. Although I will talk about my work in an abstract way, it's all just my own personal opinions.
Okay, justification and "blog pre-nup" accomplished, here we go.