Sunday, June 30, 2013

Biological Diversity--Threads in the Ecosystem Fabric

Where Raspberries Come From                                21 June 2013

A small bee, perhaps a native species, resting among the leaves of a raspberry...

There is wondrous complexity in the world, and it is helpful to think of nature’s processes as woven fabrics.  Sometimes, the fabric is tightly woven. Sometimes the fabric is loosely woven.  The strands have different sizes and different levels of importance, and there is little uniformity in the weave.  Sometimes, the strands cause bunching and lumping in the fabric, giving it unusual dimensions.   Biological diversity, the threads of nature’s fabric, builds a fabric that is difficult to grasp for those seeking uniformity and tidy neatness.  Nature’s order is beautiful in its chaos, but the forms and functions we see in this fabric have to do with the interactions of the threads, the unique variety of threads in the fabric we study. 

Henslow's Sparrow, a thread in the prairie fabric...

The Henslow’s Sparrow is a rare thread in the Great Lakes states.  The fabric in question is prairie, and the assortment of threads that makes the bird possible includes a few important connecting threads considered here… The first is that the prairie needs to have a taller grass component.  Secondly, it is very important that time and succession have allowed a dead thatch to build up beneath the rapidly growing live grasses.  Another is that the prairie needs to be quite large, quite expansive, largely free of trees and shrubs.  It even seems as though some rolling topography helps to weave in the Henslow’s Sparrow thread more strongly.   A large and complex prairie fabric will have spots in which different sorts of grasses, different sorts of heights, different sorts of microcosms are woven together, resulting in a rich assortment of avian threads.  These are woven in song as much as in function, and the chorus may include exuberant, nasal Bobolinks, musical Eastern Meadowlarks, lazily buzzing Grasshopper Sparrows, and bouncing Field Sparrow Songs.

A small, green, metallic bee and a raspberry flower...

We have a tendency to dutifully oversimplify ecological functions.  Recently we have all become students of bees, and most of us know that honey bees are experiencing precipitous population declines, that honey bees are the heroes that give us “one in every three mouthfuls of food”, and that honey bees’ colony collapse disorder is a real and serious problem.   But the truth is not so simple.  Before European honeybees were brought to this North American landscape, how on Earth did anything get pollinated?  It turns out there are many, many native species of bees as well, and they all continue to do the work of pollination.  In fact, it is likely that the native bee and wasp species are more abundant, more efficient, and more effective at pollinating a wider variety of plants.  After all, they are the threads of an older fabric here. They all deserve recognition in the news.

Strangely, we know very little about our native bees. Scientists are still working to find out which threads have broken, which threads have weakened, and if there are new threads in the fabric that could cause problems.  Could our use of many new pesticides and industrial chemicals be taxing the immune systems of our bees?   Pollinators are vastly important, lending to the pollination of agricultural crops and, more importantly, a rich and vast diversity of natural flowering plants growing wild in every functioning terrestrial ecosystems.  There are threads in the forest fabric such as American Basswood trees and Spotted-touch-me-not flowers, threads of wild food including blackberries, raspberries, black-caps, serviceberries and blueberries, that are pollinated by bees.  

We need bees.  Our ecosystem fabrics have been successfully bunching up around bee threads for 100 million years, and the bunching fabric has grown strong and tight amid the threads of bees.  I stood by a small patch of raspberry plants for about an hour with my camera ready. The rich diversity I witnessed in that hour was inspirational.  All of these bees were photographed in just an hour, in an area of about five by five feet.  Enjoy the threads of biological diversity, this gallery of “Where Raspberries Come From.”

All images were made with a refurbished Canon 7D and Canon 300mm f4L IS lens.  

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Fine Art of Mosquito Appreciation

Part of the Circle            18 June 2013

Porcupine, tolerating the mosquitoes

Part of the strange joy of a summer biological field season is the constant presence of biting insects.  While this may sound like a sarcastic play on irritating mosquitoes, my reality is widely defined by those insects that take blood meals.  They keep me sharp, wary, attentive, and probably help me achieve my proper intensity for the effective exploration and description of breeding bird communities.  I have grown to expect them, to interact with them, to tolerate them, and even miss them when the last day of the ornithology field season has rolled behind me and I awake in a safe, quiet room with no threat of dangers in the day.  

Golden-winged Warbler, a resident of mosquito-rich mosaics of bogs, sand plains, and forests

...and a scratcher of insect bites...

In the United States, too many of us have come to expect comfort and sterile isolation from the wild.  We have lost touch with what it feels like to be alive, and, as a grim result, we are guilty of destroying much of what we fail to experience.  Life…at times…feels like mosquitoes.  They remind us we are alive.  Here is a reality about mosquitoes that may change how you view them.

Blanding's Turtle suffering the abundance of summer mosquitoes

Ecosystems, including microscopic ecosystems, are interdependent systems, with many “cogs and wheels” that are closely connected, co-evolved, and necessary to proper function.  On the microscopic level, our immune systems are healthier when raided by a myriad of small parasites.  Like a bored dog, an idle immune system tears down its own home, the body, causing all sorts of autoimmune disease issues.  Perhaps it is the mosquitoes that keep beating back my own potential for Rheumatoid Arthritis.  June is a month of happy elbows and fingers as I hike hard, survey birds and their habitats, and feed thousands upon thousands of hungry mosquitoes.

A healthy porcupine, an individual, a microbial ecosystem...

...and a scratcher of mosquitoes...

...adaptation for climbing trees and swatting insects...

12:41 AM, 18 June 2013, respite in the cool of the night, a mother porcupine nurses her young

Mosquito and black fly larvae are critical biomass components in aquatic ecosystems, food for hundreds of other species, including damselflies, ducklings, and fish.  Deer flies serve a similar role in feeding dragonflies in the terrestrial realms.    Because so many species of biting flies (including mosquitoes) greatly increase their own reproductive potential by parasitism on the rest of us as they successfully consume a blood meal, it is our suffering that lends to a huge biotic potential in healthy ecosystems.  We join the circle.  We pay for ducks and fish with our own blood. 

Sandhill Crane, an animal built, in part, by invertebrate food sources...and indirectly, at times, built of mosquito biomass...

In the extreme case, I wonder how many animals die of exposure to parasites.  As much as they increase biotic potential, perhaps there are times when they limit it.   While I have learned to admire mosquitoes, I have also learned to admire those who tolerate them endlessly in the summer, those beings who can make no escape.   I believe that porcupines love a brisk November chill and that wolves seek more than just a warming sun as they bask on a January snow slope.  Those wolves and porcupines are remembering what it was to be bothered by a din of mosquitoes, and I believe they rejoice in a winter respite, a time of comfort.

All images were made using a refurbished Canon 7D and Canon 300mm fL IS lens.  Enjoying a great field season!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3...

The Better Beamer Tested...and the Canon 300 f4L IS as a "Macro"         

11 June 2013

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Wandering around in nature, I am using what I know to make opportunity.   Today my day began with a bundle of crazy (yes, Crazy!) bird surveys knocking around in back roads made of silt and water, gathering great data with great adventures along the way, decorating my van with mud!  There is glory in this life!  No guts, no glory!

As my day eased into "after work", I came upon a porcupine sampling the minerals of the gravel road.  I parked nearly a quarter of a mile away and spent more than twenty minutes stalking him.  While porcupines are not fast, they quickly leave "clean" photo range by sauntering into the tall grass.  I wanted him in the open, and I didn't want to ruin his day.  He was having fun, after all.  When the porcupine turned away, I stealthed a few paces closer... and closer... and closer...

When this porcupine finally realized my looming form was animate, he bristled and turned away.  I had never looked so closely at the array of quills.  I took a good look and put my 300mm to the test.  How much information about the living porcupine could I capture?  

While I succeeded in making the images, I failed in my efforts to avoid ruining his day.  The bothered rodent sauntered off into the water, hummocks, and leatherleaf of a small bog before climbing the bank to familiar oak forests.  He gave one last show of displeasure, which I captured as a sort of animalian floral bouquet.  Thorny roses, perhaps?

I meandered toward that Ol' Man River, the Mighty Mississippi to see what birds I might find.  I had just purchased a "Better Beamer" for my Canon 320 Speedlight, and I wanted to try it out on the small birds.  A pair of Prothonotary Warblers and a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher showed me, as best they could, how to use my new apparatus.  They shared the approval.

Prothonotary Warbler, male...Better Beamer and rainy overcast light

Prothonotary Warbler, male... Better Beamer and filtered sunlight through the canopy...

Prothonotary Warblers, male and female, natural light...

Where the Prothonotary Warblers live... Cavity nests in standing dead wood over open water...

Until more adventures find the page... Good Night! All images were made with a Canon Powershot SX230HS and a refurbished Canon 7D and Canon 300mm f4L IS lens...and a few with the Canon 320 Speed Lite flash unit and Better Beamer fresnel lens.  

What Forests Are Made Of

Northern Saw Whet Owl...and Community           10 June 2013                                                 

Truly tiny, the Saw Whet is named for the "tooting" sound it makes, a sound similar to the resonance of a saw blade as it is run against a sharpening or "whetting" stone.  It is this tiny tooting that first brought me to the owl, and it was careful tracking that made me able to find it again.   Even a tiny owl leaves many clues. A myriad of small signs in pellet casts and "white washings" below favorite roost trees narrow down the places to look.  A patient ear reveals the sounds.  Luck fills in the gaps.  

What makes a bird like this so spectacular is the whole of the environment that makes the bird possible.  The pictures are less without the beauty of lichen, leaf, and history of habitat. Indeed, the pictures would not be possible without them.  Birds choose habitats based on a wide assortment of "micro" habitat variables.  For each species, it is a finely balanced recipe.

Birds live in biological communities.  Plants support fruits and prey species, and plant structures at many levels lend to survival for each bird species.  The complexity of a forest community in the specific structural and living members are the answers to what possibilities exist for any given bird.  Often, a particular cadre of birds can be found together, responding, perhaps to different parts of a continuous habitat theme.   A forest is beautiful on many levels.

Finding this owl is analogous to finding so many other hidden secrets, even the little-known behaviors of common and "well-known" species of birds.  As I explore more and more of the details of forests across the state of Wisconsin, I find an almost unbelievable amount of community interdependence.  Each bird is evidence of thousands of working pieces, thousands of tiny stories, thousands of clues about how nature works.

All images were photographed on 10 June 2013 (as is the theme of this blog), but an assortment of cameras were used from the Canon Powershot SX230HS to Canon 40D ("pack camera") and Canon 7D ("nice camera").    

Friday, June 7, 2013

Hoverfly...A Pollinator

Interdependence...                    7 June 2013

Hoverfly and Lupine

A small window into the universe, the two organisms portrayed serve to tell so many stories in biology, stories about themselves, each other, and stories about so many others entwined.  The small fly, a hoverfly, is a mimic.  While harmless, its colors fool would-be predators into assuming this insect has a nasty sting.  The fly pollinates the lupine, serving as a sexual liaison between flowers, ensuring that future lupine seeds will carry a wealth of shuffled genes.  The lupine's continual survival is critical to a community of lupine-dependent species, including the endangered Karner Blue butterfly, the caterpillars of which depend upon the leaves of the lupine as a host plant.  Interdependence.  It is all connected.  It is all valuable.  

...And Today Just Happens to Be "One of Those Days"!

Serendipity and the Prepared Mind                   6 June 2013

Northern Saw-Whet Owl

The forest world is infused with mist, falling droplets of rain, an endless stream of rich and fragrant aromas.  I am wet from the chest all the way to the soles of my feet, and the water inside my boots makes strange sounds that cause me to look over my shoulder.  Up since 3AM, I am drawn into a corridor of bird song, wondering what luck I might have today.    Nearly a decade ago, I had a spectacular day afield that convinced me of an outdoor truth.  "We start every journey with doubt, but some days are destined to be great days...and sometimes that day is today."

Canada Warbler, female

Amid the din of falling raindrops letting go of waxy leaf tips, sound carries so well that I can hear birds singing nearly a quarter of a mile away.  My ears map the birds' forest realm, and, today, it seems nothing will escape my attention.   And it just so happens that I have stumbled upon a gem of forest habitat today, rich in birds and rich in diversity.  I have stumbled upon it, but my mind is sharp and prepared.  In an instant, I realize the significance of this place.

This is a wonderful time of year, a time to be immersed in the wild, to recover my soul, to live life in every breath, to contribute to ornithology in the ways I had imagined as a kid.

Northern Saw-Whet Owl with a touch of fill flash photography

All images were made with a Canon 40D and my old Canon 300mm F4L IS.  Images were made under a dark and overcast, rainy sky.  I shot at ISO 800.  Endangered Species Information is not public record, and one of the honors of working as a contract ornithologist is in keeping a good secret.  Cheers!