Monday, December 23, 2013

A Good, Old Fashioned Snow

Trumpeter Swans and Open Water                         8 December 2013

A breath of fresh air, the snow this winter is light and airy, the temperatures are freezing cold, and Winter is back to visit Wisconsin and Minnesota in a most classic way!  In an era of temperamental climate and uncertain futures, a winter like this is so welcome.  As the temperatures dive to below zero Fahrenheit, the moving current of a wintery brook maintains enough water open to keep the swans close to their Springtime breeding haunts.  While they haven't reached the frenzied exuberance of late February's breeding behavior, they are majestic and beautiful in the soft, clean snows nearer to the Winter Solstice.

The recovery of the Trumpeter Swan from the brink of extinction is a resonating reminder that we are to be optimistic, forward thinking, and joyous.  The swans live each day in pursuit of another day, thriving in social activity and the beauty of the wild.  They live well, and they live long.  One of Wisconsin's banded Trumpeters is 25 years old this year.  

Trumpeter Swans mate for life.  Locally, one pair of banded birds (62K and 68K) have remained together for at least five years, raising cygnets every year.   They are also very territorial and return to the same breeding locations many years running.  Banded swan 89K has returned to the same bay of the same tiny lake to breed successfully three years in a row.  Their family ties are strong in the winter, and family groups are often apparent.  

This time of year, open water invites mixed groups of waterfowl.  This particular stream always invites Canada Geese and Mallards.  When there aren't any rare or unusual birds, there is equal entertainment in behavior.  Mallards have begun securing and reinforcing pair bonds in the autumn, and they will continue the rituals into the breeding season.  This elaborate behavior builds an investment in the bond and also serves to isolate the mallards as breeding partners.  In evolutionary context, it is a pre-zygotic isolating mechanism, an elaborate dance that serves as a complex gateway.  Without the agreement of the dance, there will not be fertilization.  It is a ritual that makes a mallard a mallard.  

The silent, peaceful snow continues to fall, and, both poetically and biologically, the land is cleansed and cycles renew. Winter itself isn't stagnant, silent, or still.  In winter there is growth.  It isn't the green growth of Spring or the sort of dietary growth of the autumn fat-building diet.  Rather, it is the recharging of rivers, the silent bottlenecks of natural selection, and a time for renewal in a population's strength.  Winter is a bittersweet beauty, a time of social togetherness in the wild, a time when animals concentrate around opportunity and create the most spectacular visions for human imagination.  In their struggles, they demonstrate promise.

All images were made with a refurbished Canon 7D, a Canon 300mm f4L IS lens, and a Gitzo basalt tripod.  Most of the images were made very low to the water and ice, so I wore insulated bib overalls and paid careful attention to safety and ice conditions.   Bruce was with me, a fellow artist but also a safety partner.  Winter photography in the wild can be somewhat dangerous, so it is always nice to photograph with a friend!  

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Pura Vida! Part IV-- Sarapiqui Memories...

Costa Rica’s Rain Forest Frogs                  8 July 2013

Costa Rican Red-eyed Tree Frog

This day, July 8 2013, has given countless and vivid memories.  We have decided to meet Michael Sevilla at 5:15 AM along the Sarapiqui River. We have planned for “some photography,” a day that will be adventurous, intensive, and richly rewarding.  Bruce and I are enthusiastic for the morning shoot, so we have arrived early and have set up our tripods on the scenic beauty of some river rocks.  Within a few minutes, Michael has arrived quietly and with a smile.  We begin our day of adventures in the rainforest.   Perhaps it is now that I should remind you that a day of photography in the rainforest is unusually hard “work.”  It is the intense work of creativity. While animals are abundant, the environment is harsh on camera equipment, and moisture in the air is unforgiving on camera angle, incident light, and lens care.  Each and every step must be calculated if any photography is to result.  Michael is aware of this, and he is an exceptionally gifted guide in his ability to couple his deep knowledge of the forest with the specific needs of a photographer. We are so lucky to have his friendship.

Montezuma's Oropendola

Orange-billed Sparrow

I also feel lucky to have made a last-second purchase.  I have purchased an electronic cable release, the high quality Canon equipment, for this trip.   Matched with a stable Gitzo tripod, I soon find that almost everything hoped for in this environment would be impossible without the cable release and tripod.  This is essential gear if photography is the desired outcome in a rainforest journey.  

A Woodcreeper, most likely a Cocoa Woodcreeper

Butterflies, dragonflies, and birds abound.   Mantled Howler Monkeys make their presence known from the distant canopy.  Green-and-black Poison Dart frogs and Strawberry Poison Dart frogs, the “Blue Jeans” frogs, are abundant in places along the forest floor.  Where fruit grows, monkeys and birds suddenly appear, descend upon the fruit, and, within a few minutes, have disappeared entirely.  Food is abundant, and animals are often on the move.

A Skipper species of butterfly

Violet-headed Hummingbird

Violet-headed Hummingbird

Palm Tanager

Green Honeycreeper, female

Olive-backed Euphonia

Mantled Howler Monkeys lounging just before heading to feed on fruit...

A dragonfly species (updates later!)

Another mystery to solve!

One of the smallest dragonflies I have ever seen, another mystery of identification...

The famous bullet ant, a lone soldier with a powerful bite (equated to the feeling of being shot). 

A large, adult Iguana basking along a stream...

A brown basilisk lizard hiding among the vegetation, this is one of the species
 famous for being able to "walk on water".

Michael shows great respect for the animals we are photographing.  He is careful to allow each animal to continue on with its life in perfect health, and he reminds us not to use flash photography with the nocturnal frogs.  It is possible that a bright camera flash can cause permanent damage to the eyes of Costa Rica’s iconic Red-eyed Treefrog.  Each organism is an individual and also a beautiful part of the rain forest's immediate form and function.  

Green-and-black Poison Dart Frogs

Costa Rican Red-eyed Tree Frog

Strawberry Poison Dart Frog, also called the "Blue Jeans" frog

More time spent with Michael Sevilla adds up to a great education.  Soon, we are learning about the complex and interdependent relationships among living things in the rainforest.   We learn about ants that eat poisonous fungus and frogs that eat poisionous ants, a food chain that magnifies the toxins to potency in the skin secretions of a colorful rainforest frog.  Animals that eat toxic food most often have some means of sequestering the toxins, shunting the molecules to a different location where they can be deployed in defenses against predators.  The frog’s brilliant colors warn, “Careful! I taste bad!”  Occasionally, the colors could mean, “Careful! I am deadly!”   This is known among biologists as aposematic coloration.  The warning colors of the frogs tell an ambiguous tale, as some species are greatly more toxic than others.  Many animals of the rainforest also use cryptic adaptations, structures and colors that result in camouflage.   Sometimes, the two survival schemes are twisted together, a break-up pattern that camouflages and a touch of brilliance that is flashed when the animal is suddenly discovered.  Michael brought us an amazing caterpillar covered in bristle hairs that would surely cause spectacular irritation to any animal so foolish as toe attempt to eat it.  But those same bristle hairs allowed the caterpillar to disappear in certain environments.  

Can you find the caterpillar?    

It is not very late at night, but the sun goes down promptly in the tropical rain forest.  By 7 PM, the world is a dark, mysterious and wondrously noisy place.   Most of the sounds could be attributed to insects, but it is clear that there are also numerous species of frogs, some bats, and the occasional nocturnal bird.   There is plenty to guess about, and a biologist’s mind races in such dumbfounding beauty.   Michael meets us again for a photo shoot, and, since we have been up since 4 AM and making art since 5 AM, the 8 PM meeting feels like midnight.  Our mission for the evening is “light painting.”  Light painting is the use of slow shutter speeds in darkness.  Diffuse light, ideally warm incandescent light, is cast like a spotlight upon the subject of the photograph. In our case, we use two Mini-Mag flashlights.  So long as the subject doesn’t move and the camera is rock-steady, the image should work.  The successful results are usually quite dramatic!  I added the additional touch of placing my fingers around the end of the flashlight to “pinch” the light and use my own capillaries as warming filters.  (The tones of the light in some of my light painted images are literally warmed with the color of my blood.)  

Michael catches a large, tan and golden colored tree frog briefly.  As he lets it go, I reach down, capture it gently and then ask, “Michael, could we photograph this one?”  He carefully selects a moss-covered limb, and we set up the branch under our incandescent flashlight set for some “light painting.”  Before I release the frog onto the branch, Michael tells me, “Pay attention to the foot pads on this frog. They are very strong.”  As if locked to my hand, the foot pads give a strange sensation as they release to the safety of the branch.   While I have held one of the incandescent flashlights for other frog photos, I am now the recipient of the gift of this gentle light.  Michael and Bruce are painting the frog with the light while I make my exposures.   A couple of pictures, and I am pleased. We release the frog to the safety of the forest.  That’s when Michael tells me, “Be sure to wash your hands before the headache sets it.  This one is one of the most toxic frogs, and the alkaloids will give you a bad headache.”  While many would find this news alarming, I find myself smiling.  This is very cool.  I wash my hands under cold water.  Suddenly, the pads of my hands feel very, very hot…and insanely itchy.  Michael asks me, “Do they burn?”  I am experiencing the expected.  The itching becomes very mild within a few minutes, then, over the next day, slowly subsides, and I am thrilled to have experienced the reality of the rainforest frogs.  I cannot imagine what it would be like to eat a frog like that, and I don’t plan on trying to find out!

A toxic treefrog, flashlight painted.  I did not use noise reduction and have some work to do. 
This image will be updated some day.  For now, here it is in its original form!

All images were made with a refurbished Canon 7D, a Canon 300mm f4L IS lens, a Gitzo tripod and ball head, and a Canon electronic cable release. Michael Sevilla guided for most of these images, and his friendship and expertise is a treasure! Yes, ALL of these images were made on the same day! 

Passerini's Tanager

Friday, October 25, 2013

School Days

Small Mammal Response to Forest Succession                    24 October 2013

An arboreal mouse of the genus Peromyscus...

Year thirteen of a small mammal community study with my Ecology students continues to go very well.  We are looking very carefully at habitat use by a variety of small mammals in Polk County, Wisconsin.  Safety protocol is very strict, and the mammals are measured, marked with permanent green dye (on the belly) and released.  Short-tailed shrews remain a habitat generalist after all of these years.  Meadow voles are only found in the brushy grasslands and beneath the low pine bows of our oldfield /early forest succession area.   Red-backed voles remain a rodent of the tamarack and sphagnum bogs.   But the mice of genus Peromyscus, formerly a rodent of the upland forest and bog lowland forest tracts of our school forest, are finally colonizing the oldfield/early forest succession area!  The secret to this colonization is quite likely the size of the white pines, as many are now reaching 14 to 17 years of age.  With their size they are providing plenty of arboreal structure and, recently, dead snags! We continue to see a variety of tail patterns in our Peromyscus, implying that they are hybrids, and while we could clearly call the population white-footed mice by their size, most have the tail pattern of the deer mouse.   This population is very different in body size and body build than those of the Saint Croix River Valley in the same county!  Surely, this species complex is still poorly understood!

The picture was taken with the spectacular Carl Zeiss optics of the Nokia Lumia 928 smart phone! We do live in amazing times! 

Up With the Sun

Each Day a Treasure                           13 October 2013

Dawn, Crex Meadows State Wildlife Area, Sandhill Cranes in flight...

Time passes.  We are mere passengers and witnesses to its passing.   Sometimes it rips by relentlessly and ruthlessly with no hope for stopping it.  Runaway Train.  Sometimes it flows slowly, mercifully, allowing the moments to sink in, allowing us great repose.  We become authors of our lives, writing our stories but revising as time dictates.  Time passes in so many ways as life moves along in lurches.  This morning, in the rising sun, my own time stood still.

Sunrise Sandhill Crane flights, North end of the Refuge

We are humans, gifted with thought and creativity, gifted in crafting our futures.  The human memory is a powerful force, helping us to predict, with at least some certainty, the future.  It is in our predictive powers that we meld our past, present and future, authoring the deeper details of our lives.  We are very capable of making avenues toward "repeats."  As we gather more and more memory in life, we become capable of revisiting annual events, chasing the seasons, improving upon what we have done before.  

Trumpeter Swans and Sanhill Cranes

Trumpeter Swans

Sandhill Cranes, family group in flight.  Wisconsin Sandhill Cranes have made a tremendous recovery and are becoming a common sight.  Adults teach the young the migratory routes, and family groups are close-knit. Like people, families of Sandhill Cranes pass on a rich culture of learning. 

We become capable of imagining a better opportunity, hypothesizing about the missing details.  For those of us living as closely to nature as we can in this day and age, our predictive powers bring us to the same haunts year after year, chasing the same natural phenology, making opportunities and arriving at temporal intersections that we have come to understand.  We hunt the patterns, and, as we learn from our mistakes, we adjust and improve.   Our greatest power comes in the form of synthesis as we learn to incorporate smaller pieces of new knowledge into our older sets of knowledge, thriving in surprising and new scenarios.

American Bittern, protective "freeze" pose 

American Bittern hunting...

In this way, I celebrate my aging mind and body.  With more memories, I feel wiser.  Simply said, I know how to find things now, how to create my opportunities.  Everything in life is an experience. Every day is a treasure to be invested and to be used again as a memory.  Every day is a treasure that builds possibilities for the future.  Every day, lived in the moment, is a treasure.

White-breasted Nuthatch and Autumn colors

Yellow-rumped Warbler, Autumn female preening

Eastern Tiger Salamander

These memories were made on October 13, 2013 at Crex Meadows State Wildlife Area.  All images were made with a refurbished Canon 7D (now in my possession for nearly a year and surviving much), and a Canon 300mm f4 L IS lens.   The bittern was completely unexpected and provided an unusual opportunity! As I chased the new season with my past experiences, I learned many new things!