Friday, June 29, 2012

Flamingo Friday: O

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Monday, June 25, 2012

The Frog Game: A New Player in Town

This weekend the open pond within the zoo was full of frogs: teeming with fat, half-grown tadpoles that pocked the surface with their carnivorous lunges at water-bugs, and the edges of lily pads and reed-beds lumpy with the bronze-green bodies of adults who floated, splay-legged, their dazed expressions suggesting too much time spent in the dazzling heat of the sun.

Perhaps the heat had addled their minds, or at least their usually well-honed sense of self preservation, because they showed no fear—or even awareness—of the many early-morning photographers clustering around their pond.

To play the frog game under these circumstances felt unsporting, so I didn’t bother to count the number of numbed amphibians gazing blankly past me. I soon discovered, however, that not everyone involved in the game was likely to be as generous: for there, right by the reeds—right there in the open, in broad daylight—was a really big snake!

That’s right: not a zoo-approved snake, but a wild one, a reptilian free agent, sitting (er, coiling) there like a wolf among the sheep. And the frogs weren’t doing a damn thing!

Maybe they feared drawing more attention to themselves by moving. But I can’t see how it was safer to stay within lunging distance of a huge predator… And these frogs really did look a bit stunned, like unsteady college kids after a night of binging; I can’t believe that all of them were aware of the snake and simply practicing a strategy of stealth.

But I can’t blame them for being unprepared. Probably the frogs assumed—as I had—that all the loose and brazenly displaying serpents were hanging out along the Appalachian Trail, not sunning themselves in the middle of the National Zoo.

Whatever the reason for their paralysis/torpor, I wasn’t about to stick around and see anybody get eaten.

It’s a dangerous game they’re playing.

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Saturday, June 23, 2012

A Paparazza among the Pollinators

It’s the end of National Pollinator Week—but it should only mark the bee-ginning of our celebration of the many pollinators (including bees, moths, wasps, birds, and bats) that make the fruits and produce we love possible and allow unmoving plants the opportunity to enjoy a little hanky-panky.

Others have done more to explain the joys of pollination, so I’ll leave you with just these couple of photographs and these links:

When it comes to explaining pollination and its value (for plants and people), Bug Girl doesn’t mince words.

And Rick Leider’s photos of pollinators in action are worth a thousand words.

And, finally, the great Isabella Rossellini has made a video that gives the worker bees voice.


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Friday, June 22, 2012

Flamingo Friday: Moment of Waking

Is it just me, or do the feathers pushed up by this flamingo's bill not look like a cresting wave with wind-blown spray? Only...more pink?

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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Some Musing on Muses

A number of excellent scientists, naturalists, and other writers who are drawn, with a magnetic pull, towards studying and observing the world and its properties, have written very beautiful essays on why and how they first became enamored of and addicted to this way of seeing and examining the world. Rachel Carson, a writer whose prose is so pitch-perfect that it induces in me spasms of admiring envy, has a number of such essays. Phil Plait, a scientist and blogger, has a recent article in Slate about how the moment of sheer joy he experienced when looking through a telescope for the first time inspired him to become a scientist.

Not enough is said explicitly—though it is everywhere implied, within labs and within the world of science bloggers—about the basic, necessary joy, the thrill, the visceral excitement, that is the fundamental requirement and basis of the pursuit of a science career. One could easily argue that it should be the basis of any career, not just a scientific one—but I think it’s especially important to emphasize in the context of science because so often scientists are perceived to be emotionless or robotic, and because science itself is so often presented as being a dull conglomeration of facts, equations, and Latin names. (Poetry, in fact, is often taught in the same I-know-how-to-make-you-hate-this way, and should also be redeemed, rejuvenated, and refreshed by its devotees and practitioners—for heaven’s sake, it’s meant to wake the soul, not deaden the mind!).

In one of my favorite passages in Middlemarch, the author, George Eliot, describes the beginning of a very particular kind of love affair, and one that she acknowledges is not often addressed in novels—or anywhere else; she describes how Dr. Lydgate’s “intellectual passion” was “kindl[ed]” when he was a boy: bored at home, he absently opened an encyclopedia to an entry on anatomy, and read about the valves of the heart—and, in connecting valves with his knowledge of the Latin for doors, “through this crevice came a sudden light startling him with his first vivid notion of finely adjusted mechanisms in the human frame.” In this moment, “the world was made new to him by a presentiment of endless processes filling the vast space planked out of his sight by that wordy ignorance which he had supposed to be knowledge.”

Is that great or what?

In a later section—another favorite of mine—Eliot, when discussing another character, talks about the ways in which we fail to see the sadness of events that we perceive to be everyday, common occurrences: “That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

Beautiful and terrible, all at once—and yet I think that second sentence could also be applied to some of what is wonderful about science—that there are those moments in which we do feel and see what is ordinary in a way that is piercing, magnificent, overpowering, revelatory. We can convince people that science studying black holes, or blue whales, or things that explode, is cool—but it’s not really those things that makes science so exhilarating: it’s the sensation of awe that shivers through you when you understand the way the moon influences the tides or watch an octopus change color so quickly that its body seems to flicker, as if colored flames are playing beneath the surface of its skin.

That’s what should—and, I think, usually does—motivate most scientific inquiry—that desire to know more in order to appreciate more, that desire to hear, if only for a second, the roar on the other side of silence.

But that’s just me. What do you think? Did you have, as Phil Plait puts it, a “Saturn moment”? What’s the spark that kindled your intellectual passion?

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Monday, June 18, 2012

One Good Shot: I Want THAT Piece

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Sunday, June 17, 2012

Mr. Gizzard: A Paean

A year or two ago, my parents somehow (I’m still not entirely clear on how this came up) got into a conversation about owl pellets. My mother, who knows quite a bit about animal life, explained that owls grind up food in their gizzards, and that the digestible parts go on to their stomachs while the bones, fur, feathers, and other general ickiness get lumped into pellets that are then regurgitated.

As she explained the various steps in owls’ eating, my father observed, “So, they have a basic mammalian digestive system, then.”

“Um…no.” After my mother had explained a little more (including the distinctions between birds and mammals), she teased, “Haven’t you noticed how, as we and our friends are all getting older and more and more things are ailing us, no one ever complains about their gizzard?”

Not missing a beat, my father said, “That’s because the gizzard is always the last to go.”

I mention this story not to make fun of my father’s confusion over avian vs. mammalian digestion but to illustrate some of the many things I admire about him.

First, he’s never afraid to admit his ignorance of something, even though he’s one of the least ignorant people I know (and for those inclined to mock the gizzard incident, how many of you know that snails make their own shells, huh?). [Oooh, and as a side note, it just occurred to me that Gizzard Incident would make a great band name.]

Second, he’s one of the funniest people I know. He helped me come up with a number of my pun-ny departmental-talk titles back when I was in grad school—and the ones he didn’t help with he still inspired. (“Sex and the Single Crab,” “Home Is Where the Hurt Is,” “Scents and Sensibility”—the list goes on.) He’s also the best joke teller I’ve ever encountered.

Finally, one of the things I like best about my father is also illustrated in his responses to the natural world. My father is not an outdoors-y person (why eat outside amongst insects when you can be bug-free—and near a DVD player—in your own home?), and he’s always avoided nature documentaries, claiming that animals have no plot. My mother got a birding scope for her birthday; my father got gift certificates to the movie theater.

At the same time, though, whenever something in the natural world amazes, baffles, or delights him, he never hesitates to express his fascination or astonishment. Nor has he ever felt it to be somehow weak or beneath him to notice when an adorable animal is cute.

[is this cute or what?]

And why should he pretend otherwise? Unlike so many people, he’s got nothing to prove, and he’s open-minded enough to acknowledge when something is interesting, even if—as with a midnight trip to the beach to watch for horseshoe-crab mating—it’s not something he would seek out on his own.

It’s that complete lack of posturing, that profound sincerity, that I admire so much, and it’s a sincerity that pervades his actions and relationships generally—including those with his daughters.

I may not know if he knows that barnacles are crustaceans or that chicks have egg-teeth—but I’ve never had to wonder or worry about how he feels about me.

Thanks, Dad.

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Friday, June 15, 2012

Flamingo Friday: The Fan

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Monday, June 11, 2012

Moving towards Greatness

Forgive the recent radio silence... I don't have any excuse, except that it's hot.

I also don't have much of a post for the day, but I do have a photo of this nice balletic pose made by a young, soon-to-be-greater (but never lesser) rhea:

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Friday, June 8, 2012

Flamingo Friday: Close

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Monday, June 4, 2012

Too Close to Nature

This past weekend Annie and I went camping with the Unitarians.

Because this is not a blog about humans, I won’t explain further, nor will I go into detail about our experiences—I’ll just say that overall we had a very nice time. And, really, that’s saying something, given that I take as my own motto the statement emblazoned on a magnet that Annie gave me: “I love not camping.”

Let me be clear: I have a great fondness for nature, and I think it’s both foolish and dangerous for humans to pretend that they’re unconnected to the rest of the natural world. This does not mean, however, that we have to abandon the habitations and facilities to which we’ve become habituated and invade the wilderness, which already has plenty of well-adapted species living in it and doesn’t need us to join them.

Luckily for me, this was not true camping: only those who chose to do such a thing slept in tents, while the rest of us were provided with cabins and even a communal washroom (with hot running water, no less). The only thing that truly reminded me of our precarious position as soft creatures pitted against the inimical wilds was the warning we received in our information packet, asking us to make sure we took plenty of bug repellent and checked for ticks, since people in past years had gotten Lyme disease. (I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite as paranoid about my encounters with greenery as I did this weekend.)

I had plenty of lovely nature sightings, though; the camp is on the Chesapeake Bay, and so I spent a lot of time hanging around by the water and watching birds soaring overhead. There were a number of vultures gyring around the camp (making me wonder just what they knew that I didn’t), and it was a pleasure to sit on a dock and observe them gliding effortlessly overhead.

As I was sitting by the Bay, I heard a strange call; a high-pitched twittering, plaintive as a gull’s cry but more clipped and frenetic. To my surprise, it was a bald eagle. (No majestic cry for them! And actually, their almost hesitant-sounding chirpings make them much more appealing than a harsh call would.)

I don’t see bald eagles very often, so this was especially exciting, and I spent a lot of time attempting to take pictures of them—partly for the pleasure of taking them, partly to have proof of my sightings, since I always anticipate skeptics saying, “There were a lot of vultures around; the sun was probably in your eyes…”

A number of species were about, from blue herons to ospreys to cedar waxwings to chipping sparrows, but the bald eagles were definitely the highlight of the trip, bird-wise.

The low point of the trip, and the reason for this post’s title, came on our drive home. I had just made the mistake of writing a friend (via email on my phone) that we were looking forward to seeing her and were “probably tick-free.”

Now, I was raised secular, and I find theological questions less than compelling. The existence of an overarching divine spirit or presence is something about which I have no opinion.

I am, however, firmly convinced—from much unfortunate personal experience—that lurking in the ether are myriad malevolent sprites just waiting for you to make an overconfident or self-satisfied statement so that they can punish you for your hubris. Announce, “I never get colds in the springtime,” and you’re almost certain to be hacking and sneezing through April. Announce that you’re tick-free, and…

Well, it’s just as well that I put in that “probably.”

I was glancing idly at the fields we were passing on our drive, only to have my eyes struck by a vision much closer and infinitely more horrible. There, on the inside of the window, was an eight-legged creature with a shape I had come to dread.

“Annie!” I said with a sort of strangled urgency. “There’s a tick on the window. What should I do?”

“Kill it!” she advised sensibly.

This is more easily said than done, even if you are fueled by terror and wielding a Kleenex. I watched in horror as the tiny creature continued struggling irritably even as I attempted to crush the life out of it against the window pane. Finally I gave up, scrunched the still-wiggling thing up inside the Kleenex, and threw the whole thing out the window, thus compounding cowardice with irresponsibility and littering. It was definitely not my finest hour, and I felt crawly all the way home.

And that is why I say to you: if you are thinking of spending a contemplative weekend amongst beautiful woods and around congenial people, reconsider.

[I jest, of course; if you live somewhere like DC, you can contract Lyme disease without going anywhere--so why not have fun while flirting with debilitating illness?]

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One Good Shot: Why It's Always Better To Be on Vacation

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Friday, June 1, 2012

Flamingo Friday: Fireworks

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