Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Wild Wildlife: A Blizzard of Snow Geese

Over President’s Day weekend, Annie and I went to the beach.

Even in the DC region, even in a winter as freakishly mild as this one, late February may not seem like the best time for a seaside jaunt. This is certainly a fair assessment if your plan is to get in a lot of sun-bathing (although Annie did manage some of that anyway, as evidenced below).

If, however, you’re simply obsessed with the look, sound, and smell of the ocean, then even a beach day with face-flaying wind can be a satisfying one.

The wind wasn’t really at the face-flaying stage anyway—most of the time—and we spent many happy hours walking the shores of Lewes, DE, and visiting the nearby Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge.

On the Sunday we visited the refuge, the sky was overcast but not dark; instead, the high masses of clouds caught the light, deepening the rich browns and reds and greys of the grasses and reeds and giving the smooth surface of the marshes a luminous, iridescent radiance like the nacre of a pearl.

We knew we were in for a good day, because before we had even left the parking area we looked up to see skeins of snow geese flying overhead, long overlapping strands and Vs gliding through the air with the grace and speed of skaters skimming over ice. We couldn’t tell quite where they were going, but we knew it had to be close.

Later in the day, as we stopped at a beach near the refuge, we found out where they had all been going. In a marsh along the road right before the beach, there were thousands—possibly hundreds of thousands—of geese, settled like a drift of snow over the water and flying down in vast flocks, as myriad as snowflakes.

Seeing them I felt the same exhilaration that I feel during a snowstorm, watching the fat flakes spilling and spiraling out of the sky—only in this case the flakes had agency, and they spiraled up as well as down, rising from the water in a blizzard of wings or coming in from the west in wave upon wave to float down to the marsh’s surface.

There’s something about the flight of geese—any geese, even a small half-arrow of them darting overhead—that pulls me out of myself as if my soul has been swept up in the rush of wings, drawn to the plangent calls, speeding on high currents of air. I’ve never in my life seen so many birds in one place, never heard such a melodious cacophony of sounds—some honks, some piercing, piping calls, all mixed together in a babble accompanied by the beating of countless wings.

[view large to get a sense of
just how many geese are in that photo]

I hear a lot about the need to translate the value of environmental protection into human terms—public-health benefits, protection from erosion, better crop yields, national security, water availability—and all of that is important and true. And yet there is an infinite value in the privilege of witnessing nature, a value that is perhaps so great precisely because it is intangible and yet all-pervasive. To dismiss that as mere tree-hugging sappiness is to ignore its profound ability to lift us up, to grace us with a sense of beauty and majesty vaster and more glorious than any cathedral’s.

Of course we need the environment for all of the necessary and practical reasons I mentioned above (and many more). But if we ignore the other reasons we need safe, wild places, as a refuge for both other species and our own capacity for wonder, then we run the risk of impoverishing ourselves. We humans are always trying to define what sets us apart from other animals—if we don’t cherish the appreciation for the world around us that, if not unique to humans, is at least best articulated by us, then we don’t have any right to claim superiority to begin with.

All these reflections came to me later, of course. At the time, my thoughts were fully expressed in my exclamation to Annie: “There’re just so many geese!!”

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Friday, February 24, 2012

Flamingo Friday: Over and Under

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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

In the Bird-Blind

At the moment I'm too tired to do more than post a photo, but expect more soon on where we were and what we saw when it was taken.

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Friday, February 17, 2012

Flamingo Friday: Droplets

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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Happy Valentine's Day!

(Have you ever noticed that sea lions have heart-shaped nostrils?)

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Sunday, February 12, 2012

One Good Shot - for A.S.C.

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Friday, February 10, 2012

Flamingo Friday: Snow Birds

A photo from last year around this time, back when we were having more of a winter in this part of the world.

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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Another Way of Seeing

A visiting friend of mine and I saw these sun starfish lying all over each other in their aquarium at the zoo’s invertebrate house. Another visitor to the zoo saw them too—limbs flopped over one another, entangled—and exclaimed, “They’re just like puppies!”

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Monday, February 6, 2012

February’s Circus of the Spineless!

My first semester in college I took a course in invertebrate biology taught by a wonderful professor who later became my advisor. On the first day of class, she asked us to name some animals—whatever animals came to mind. Of the 15 or 20 students in the class, perhaps two came up with non-vertebrates.

This is disappointing but not perhaps surprising. Possessing spines ourselves, we see them everywhere around us, like someone who’s bought a new car and suddenly notices Corollas on every street. We assume that they’re the norm, and so everything from zoos to children’s books to tattoos to lists of favorite animals feature mainly other vertebrates more or less like ourselves. But what a shame! Because vertebrates are just a tiny portion of the animal species out there—we don’t even have a phylum to ourselves—and the vast majority of animals lack not only backbones but many of the traits that we take for granted.

The vast majority of animals are, in fact, far more interesting than vertebrates, and display shapes, sizes, systems, and behaviors beyond our wildest imaginings. They are the aliens among us, the other-worldly beings, the beasts of fairy-tale and myth—and this month’s submissions of posts with prove my point to you with a veritable phantasmagoria of invertebrateness.

So step right up, ladies, gentlemen, and others, and enter the Circus of the Spineless!

(And don’t worry about the ticket-taker—she’s always a little cranky first thing in the evening.)

Consider the sideshow mermaid or the Amazing Fish-Boy—those creatures that should be of land turned instead to mysterious mer-flesh, abandoning the solidity of earth for the protean pleasures of slow currents and rapturous depths. Imagine, if you will, with what similar levels of fascination and horror marine ribbon worms and aquatic flatworms would view their shockingly terrestrial brethren—the amazing Land Nemerteans and Land Planarians, oozing like slime-sheened laces over leaves and grass and stone!

Chilling, are they not? Not to worry—you can warm yourself vicariously with the story of a newly discovered hydrothermal vent shrimp (and can learn why the shrimp is not somehow miraculously invulnerable to heat, despite the claims of a newspaper article).

But perhaps you enjoy the chill. Perhaps you long to be startled and unnerved, brought out of yourself by the eerily unfamiliar. Then visit this series of portraits of arachnids and other invertebrates: close up they are as beautiful and terrifying as the beasts and monsters out of fairy tales—werewolves and evil queens with poison barbs, elves and delicate sprites.

Or visit this daring and devilish acrobat.

Or this (water)dragon.

Or become haunted by Macleay’s Spectre, an insect that seems to have the power to fade into the leaves and branches, leaving as little trace as a ghost.

Enchantment is everywhere among the invertebrates, but never more so than with those awe-inspiring magicians, the cephalopods. With a few dexterous flicks of their supple, subtle arms, they can transform trash and debris into a glorious abode—or appear and disappear at will through the magic of nerves and pigment.

Of course, we all disappear in the end. Those are pearls that were his eyes; and those are horns that were their “spines”… Nothing of these ram’s horn squid that doth fade but hath suffered a sea change: once freed of their fleshy garments, the squids’ internal shell begins a new life, drifting with the currents to new and wondrous places and astonishing and perplexing those who find them.

Speaking of perplexing, have you ever wondered how a springtail moves so fast? Neither had I, since I’d never heard about them until I read this post (and its sequel) and learned about their incredible, super-hero-like speed and the equally incredible physiological explanation for it.

And speaking of super-heroes, can you produce silk, like Spiderman? Neither can I—and neither can weaver ants! Well, not all the time, anyway, and yet they still manage to sew together their nests with silk (it’s all explained here). Ah, the glory of working together!

And yet togetherness can be a dangerous proposition. If you think riding on the bus during flu season is risky, how do you think social insects like bees feel, trapped with hundreds of their potentially contagious hive-mates during times of infection?

And it’s not just diseases you have to worry about, being around others. Sometimes a simpler form of togetherness can be just as hazardous; sometimes, especially if you’re a spider or mantid male, a little death can become a big one

The invertebrate world isn’t all about magic and poison and sexual cannibalism, though. It’s also about (often unintentional) cuteness and rare and kind of adorable color mutations.

And it’s also about the risks that so many species face because we don’t think enough about the world around us and don’t appreciate or respect those spineless wonders keeping our soil healthy, pollinating our fruits and vegetables, forming the basis of our food chains, and illuminating the world around us with majesty, mystery, or ickiness. Consider the ways in which you can help promote the cause and conservation of invertebrates. You have to admit, it’s worth it.

I’ll close with this poem by Anca Vlasopolos about another magnificent invertebrate, the

Mantis Shrimp

she looks goofy
her eyes rolling in different directions
all of her colored as if by a child trying out every purple shade in a new box

her fists have her trapped under triple glass
smaller than my pinky
she packs the wallop of a 24-caliber bullet

how do I see her
as she seeks privacy and the element of surprise

a flashing “smart” phone draws her out of her recess

I think
if in the tank the phone
would not be smart for long

Blogs/posts included above:

Ribbons: Terrestrial Nemerteans of Singapore at the Lazy Lizard’s Tales
First shot of 2012 at the dairy farm at Macro Photography in Singapore
Observations of Macleay's Spectres I at Dave Hubble's ecology spot
Year of the (water)dragon at The annotated budak
Coconut Octopus and Wonderpus at the Blennywatcher Blog
Spirula "Spines," Spread, And Spawnlings at Squid a Day/Science 2.0
Popcorn Critters on Ice at Wanderin’ Weeta
A few things you (probably) didn't know about weaver ants at Safari Ecology
Fighting Infection the Apine Way at 21stcenturynaturalist
You’re Never Too Old to Learn about Sexual Cannibalism at Beasts in a Populous City
10 Bugs 5,000 Cuter Than Puppies Or Kittens at
Things You Can Do To Promote Invertebrate Conservation at The Dragonfly Woman

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Sunday, February 5, 2012

Coming Soon

It's been a hectic weekend, but please keep an eye out later on Monday or on Tuesday for this month's Circus of the Spineless, for which I've gotten a number of terrific submissions.

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Friday, February 3, 2012

Flamingo Friday: Undulations

I've been sick for most of this week, hence the absence of posts, but even if I weren't feeling better, there's no way I could miss Flamingo Friday, or the opportunity to post this photo of an avian Narcissus among the wavelets and wavering reflections.

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