Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Somewhat Familiar Face



Where I grew up in (and later right outside of) Detroit, MI, the local cicadas were the annual, “dog-day” cicadas whose calls signaled the end of summer and the approach of the school year and fall. They had a hypnotic eeeeeooooo-eeeeeeeoooo call that seemed to suggest the inexorable change of seasons and the passage of time.

Here in DC the cicadas are also pretty predictable summer noisemakers—none of this periodical nonsense, thank you very much—but these cicadas make more of a revving sound as they lure their mates, and they arrive much earlier in the summer with no regard for their potential usefulness as metaphorical heralds.

Nonetheless, since it’s always rarer to see them than hear them, I like to observe evidence of their presence, even if it’s evidence of their immature, younger selves. I spotted this husk—the old shell of the cicada’s nymph life—clinging as with a life of its own to a tree along my route home from work, and it was at once so familiar to me from childhood and so damn bizarre that I had to take a picture of it.


Cicadas are fascinating creatures whose life-cycle patterns differ widely from our own: they live underground as flightless nymphs for several years (sometimes even 13-17 years, as in the case of periodical cicadas—but we’re not talking about them) before tunneling up to the surface, crawling up a tree or shrub, breaking free of their nymph shell, and become winged, siren-calling adults for just a brief (but sex-filled) one- or two-month season. Before they die, females lay eggs inside of twigs; then young hatch out, burrow into the ground, and the cycle begins all over again.

I’m sure there’s a joke in there somewhere about how some humans, too, spent the vast majority of their lives sexually immature and in the dark—but seriously, imagine spending most of your life as a juvenile. Would all cicada books be young-adult literature?

The great thing about cicadas is that, as with fireflies, their cycles make an impression on, and create associations with, our cycles, and for those of us who grew up with them, summer wouldn’t be the same without them.

If you miss the cicadas of your youth or just have an unnatural interest in noisy insects, you can visit this page from the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology to hear the calls of a whole bunch of different kinds of cicadas. (For those of you from southeast Michigan, I think the eeeeeoooo guys are Tibicen pruinosus.)

Are there insects, or other “everyday” fauna, that mean summer to you?



[a periodical cicada in NJ, about which
I will not speak further]


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Friday, July 27, 2012

Flamingo Friday: Cowlick



I can never get my hair to lie flat either...


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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

How to Exoticize the Not-So-Other



I’ve been feeling guilty these days. Now, I have any number of things to feel guilty about, from the (non)regularity with which I dust to the fact that I’ve never gotten all the way through Moby Dick—but my guilt in this case was related to the disturbing pattern I’d fallen into in my approach towards this blog and, by extension, the natural world.

Of course it’s great to have—and take—the opportunity to see, photograph, and remark upon zoo-life, but lately I’ve found myself considering them the only subject for posts—and, therefore, the only animal subjects worthy of observation. This goes against the very title of my blog, not to mention my better nature, and I’m quite ashamed of myself. Here we are, surrounded by wild things that miraculously survive—and thrive!—even in our labyrinths of concrete: surely they too deserve notice and respect.


So I’ve tried to once again pay more attention to the world around me, even as I walk to and from work or return from the grocery store, laden with the basic necessities of fresh bread and peanut M&Ms (hey, Annie was out of town).

In doing so, I’ve become fascinated all over again by the intensity and ingenuity of urban birds and squirrels that know where, and how, to acquire food that humans discard (or, in some cases, the food that humans have looked away from for half a minute).

I spied this squirrel sneaking along the fa├žade of an apartment building, gripping a huge hunk of bread (a bagel? a pita?) in its mouth, but I couldn’t pull my camera out in time to document the food-snatching-sneakery. I was able to capture the dirty look it gave me, though.


I also noticed some of the perching spots of local pigeons:


It made me wonder whether they tend to congregate on buildings that are, or are near, food shops during the day—the better to snatch a bite—and then retreat to more isolated areas at night.


And, on my way home one day, I spotted this insect awkwardly but determinedly navigating the jungle formed by a patch of ground ivy:


At first I feared I was ogling an invasive Japanese beetle, but a little light Googling determined that it was in fact a native June bug!


I don’t think I’ve ever knowingly seen a June bug before, so this was very exciting for me.

Apart from the June bug, none of these species were novel, and I didn’t see them engage in any remarkably new or atypical behavior. Nonetheless, there’s much enjoyment to be had in what is common but overlooked, and I hope to do a better job of illustrating that here.




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Sunday, July 22, 2012

Wild Wildlife: Sometimes I Notice Things




…Like this beetle in a morning-glory blossom, for example.

And sometime soon, when I have more energy, I’ll write more about the many other things I got to see this past week and weekend.


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Friday, July 20, 2012

Flamingo Friday: Blurred Mirror




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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Shameless Advertising




[this shyly peeking lotus has shame, but me? No.]

It's been a number of months since I've updated my Beasts in a Populous City Gallery blog (the site where you can easily purchase prints if you so choose), and I finally got around to it, using a new method that I think will make searching for images simpler.

Unfortunately, it took about 17 times longer than I'd anticipated, so I don't have the "real" post I was intended to have for today...soon, though, I promise.



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Monday, July 16, 2012

The Heat Just Keeps On Coming





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Friday, July 13, 2012

Flamingo Friday: Not-So-Stealth Educating





This week I discovered that one of my photos of flamingo head-flagging (featured in my post “Flirting” and in my flickr photostream) was going to be used—with my permission, of course—as a small (but meaningful!) graphic in an educational display at the Philadelphia Zoo.

Now one of my images will help illustrate and explain flamingo courtship rituals to the public.

It’s a pretty proud moment for me.


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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Marine Xenophilia




I’ve never made a secret of my love of all things marine, including snails, barnacles, and the sea itself. Part of the magic and mystery of the sea, to me, is that its inhabitants, existing in a medium so different from our own, have developed such incredible physiologies, physiognomies, and behaviors. That’s why, when people talk so excitedly about life on other planets, I wonder why they set their sights on such distant places and possibilities, when there are so many aliens among us, cementing themselves to intertidal rocks, living in the interstices between grains of sand, and gliding effortlessly through depths whose pressure would crush us in an instant.

So to you I pose a question: what’s your favorite marine species?



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Monday, July 9, 2012

I'm Thinking



I’d like to pretend that that’s true, but honestly, it’s been so hot here lately that all higher functioning has shut down, and I haven’t been able to muster up the mental energy for a single thoughtful or thought-provoking post. It’s supposed to get a little more manageable, weather-wise, though, so while I let my brain recover enough to form complex sentences and ideas, I’ll just leave you with this photo of a greater rhea who looks like it’s far more insightful than I could ever hope to be.


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Friday, July 6, 2012

Flamingo Friday: What's That?



They've finally discovered the Higgs boson? That's incredible!


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Thursday, July 5, 2012

One Good Shot: Just Because I'm Domesticated Doesn't Mean I'm FRIENDLY



"Buddy, I've chewed cud smarter than you."


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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Not Quite Black and White



We went to Indiana this past weekend for an extended-family reunion of Annie’s, during which time I saw an unidentified flicker, redwing blackbirds, a kingfisher, various mallards, a distant turtle, what was probably a chipping sparrow, a multitude of swallows, and a ton of mute swans. And Annie’s relatives too, of course, but they, being human, won’t feature in this blog.

The swans were all over the lake next to which we stayed, drifting along in flocks of up to 20 birds. (I hadn’t realized swans were so social, but Annie’s mother pointed out that maybe they, like we, were on vacation and so more inclined to be gregarious.)

We also spotted a swan family: three half-grown cygnets and their parents, sculling calmly along the edge of the lake. They kept a wary eye on us—and even hissed warningly at Annie when she tried to get too close—but by and large they didn’t seem too concerned about anything except pulling up and eating water weeds.


As you’ll notice in the photos, one of the cygnets was white, while the other two were grey. They were all, as far as I could tell, the same age, so it wasn’t as if one was in a different stage of development than the others. What was going on?


I conducted a Google search on “color variation in cygnets” and found, to begin with, this article from the 70s on “The Color Phases of Downy Mute Swans”. It claims that color in mute-swan cygnets is a “sex-linked recessive” trait, with white being the recessive allele and grey the dominant. The NY State Department of Environment website says that mute-swan cygnets can be white or grey and that the “color at hatch is a genetic trait and not related to sex”—which makes sense up to a point (i.e., you can’t tell a male or female by its color) but is kind of inaccurate if the gene is sex-linked. But I digress.


Another article from the 70s (Norman 1977), of which I could only access the abstract, claims that adult mute swans treat cygnets differently based on color and are much more aggressive towards white youngsters than grey ones (I guess because the white ones look like adults).

I made a slight attempt to pursue this topic (searching for articles that had cited this one), but I didn’t find anything relevant, so I don’t know if this paper was simply the authoritative Last Word on the subject or if nobody read or believed it.

I saw no evidence of discriminatory behavior on the part of the mute swan parents in this family; I’m not sure if that refutes anything or if this was just an especially progressive couple.


Or maybe one of the parents was white as a cygnet, too, and remembers the tough breaks s/he got and didn’t want to repeat the experience.


Or maybe s/he was raised lovingly and wanted to pass that on.

Or maybe I spent too much time at a family reunion. I’ll let you be the judge.


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Sunday, July 1, 2012

One Good Shot: Box Turtle



Last weekend, I discovered this Aldabra tortoise having squinched itself (himself, I think) into the corner of his outdoor enclosure.

The reason was not apparent to me.




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