Thursday, March 31, 2011

Through the Lens

These days it seems like everybody takes photos—snapping them with everything from their phones to their ultra-high-tech digital SLR with telephoto lens and tripod support. That may not always be such a great thing; in fact, there’s an excellent post by Lynda of Mainly Mongoose about why to not take pictures. And yet, for me, photography has been an interest that has enriched, rather than reduced, my perception of the world.

I don’t deny that some of my enjoyment in the activity is really a passion for collection—a passion I think many scientists share, from the 19th-century naturalists with their glass-covered cabinets of specimens to the 21st-century ecologists with their sea tables swimming with experimental subjects, or the molecular biologists with their tissue-culture plates. I’ve often suspected that many biologists on the ecology, evolution, and behavior (or EEB) end of things really got drawn to science because it let them bring home (er, to the lab) all those plants and animals they wanted to pick up and put in jars/buckets/their bedrooms as kids. –But even if there is, as I admit, a possessive spirit to the act of photography, it’s still a vast improvement over other kinds of wildlife collection. For one thing, I don’t actually remove or kill anything. For another, photos take up a lot less space. As someone with a bit of a beachcombing problem (acknowledging it is the first step towards recovery), I appreciate the advantages of bringing home photos rather than shells from the sea. (Although I still bring home a few shells—what, am I made of stone?)

It’s not just the possessive element, though, that inspires me; there’s also the part of taking pictures that involves art—or at least skill—and it’s through that that the photographer benefits most. I feel I notice more now, even when I don’t have a camera handy: I see the light striking the rippling, surface of a building’s windows so that they swim with color; I notice the line of salt-cellars mirrored across tables in a restaurant; I spot the single rosehip glowing like a banked coal among dry stems and leaves. I notices backgrounds and foregrounds, I notice forms and angles. I’m not saying I can take photographs that do justice to these visions, but thanks to the camera, even a myopic like me can see better.

I also see more; and this is why I think cameras are useful props, if you will, for all sorts of observers in many disciplines. My desire to get good photos of wild- and zoo-life usually means that I don’t just want any old photo—I want a striking portrait, a funny pose, an unusual behavior—and to see, and then capture that, I have to spend a great deal of time watching animals—from grackles perching on fences to otters diving for clam shells. Because I’m waiting with a purpose, I can wait—the lens gives me the license to stay in one spot, and it also gives me the patience to do so. If I just stopped by each animal, took one look—or a single photo—and moved on, I would never observe most of the interesting behaviors I’ve been lucky enough to witness. And the longer I wait the more things I become aware of.

Of course it’s terrific to simply see things—to get a glimpse of a flock of wild turkeys in a field off the highway, to pass by a panda and smile at its blissful expression as it chomps on bamboo. But when you stay for a while, or return again and again to an exhibit or park or beach, you have the opportunity to see so much more.

If you can do that without a camera, more power to you. I myself take great pleasure in the combined delight of witnessing something and knowing I got a decent image of it; that’s worth all of those moments of frustration when I know I took the picture too late or when the camera batteries die just as a hawk lands in front of me.

So there you have it: my paean to the lens. I hope it’s at least half as convincing as my defense of pigeons.

{A note: I do write all text and take all pictures. Please do not reproduce either without my permission.}

Monday, March 28, 2011

Evil Arboreal Sex Fiends

Daffodils are nodding on their tender necks, crocuses are spurting up like little gold and purple flames, and the trees—ah, the trees!—are adorning themselves with gauze and froth, veils and fountains of fragrant petals as luminous and fragile as dawn light.

It’s horrible.

Oh, of course I delight in looking at them, the boughs swaying in the breeze, the cascades of delicate blossoms, the vivid colors a welcome relief from the never-ending grey of winter. But I’d be able to appreciate them a lot more if my eyes weren’t swollen and maddeningly itchy, and if the tantalizing perfumes in the air didn’t choke me and turn my nose into a gushing faucet.

I don’t begrudge the trees their desire to have sex. But not only do they not do it behind closed doors—not only do they wave their frilly genitalia brazenly in the open air—but they waft their randy pollen on the winds as well—sometimes inadvertently, sometimes deliberately to seek out mates. –And it’s for that that I can’t forgive them, regardless of their beauty. The agonies of the tree-allergy sufferer are not to be sneezed at.

So to speak.

{A note: I do write all text and take all pictures. Please do not reproduce either without my permission.}

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Wild Wildlife: The Love That Dares Not Speak Its Name

I don’t care who knows it: I adore pigeons—their beautiful slate-and-cool-grey plumage, their striking orange eyes, their iridescent neck feathers that glimmer like geodes with purple and green. I’ve endured enough taunts about my fondness from people who argue that pigeons are filthy, stupid, and enormous pests, and yet I still don’t understand why more people don’t appreciate them, especially since the arguments against pigeons are so unreasonable.
Filthy? Pigeons are no dirtier than any other bird species; they may be in a better position than some species to transfer mites to humans, but it’s a rare bird in the wild that’s not a vector for something. And, again, the argument is specious, since we all ooh and aah over adorable deer—even though we know they’re seething with tics that carry Lyme disease.

Stupid? Compared to what? Maybe they’re not problem-solving geniuses like ravens and crows, but pigeons can recognize and distinguish between the work of various impressionist painters, which is more than most people can do. And since when has the subject’s intelligence influenced our enjoyment of animal life (do you think peacocks or gazelles are especially brainy?)—or, for that matter, our response to politicians?

As for being pests—we revile pigeons because they’re able to adapt to an urban world we’ve created and live in—we’ve set up a double standard in which any animal that can live in our cities is automatically reviled, even though we live there. And yet for some reason we still find squirrels cute in spite of their penchant for living in attics or garages and eating bulbs, flowers, and garden crops.

So for those of you who are already admirers of pigeons, well done! And for those who have spoken badly of them, I urge you to reconsider. Once you get past your original prejudice, they’re a lot of fun to watch.

{A note: I do write all text and take all pictures. Please do not reproduce either without my permission.}

Friday, March 25, 2011

Flamingo Friday: A Drop

I could have called this entry “A Droplet,” to more accurately describe the little bead of water suspended from the flamingo’s beak—but then I couldn’t use the title as a lead-in to an entirely unrelated story about the phrase “a drop in the bucket,” which you may be familiar with. Basically, it means, one tiny portion of a vast multitude—yes? And it comes from the image of a single droplet within the whole waters of a bucket. It’s the version of “a drop in the ocean” before inflation.

And yet my father, for many years, believed that the saying described a drop in a bucket—that is to say, someone plummeting from a height while sitting in a bucket. (I think they’re already in the bucket, not dropping into the bucket.)

Isn’t language funny?

{A note: I do write all text and take all pictures. Please do not reproduce either without my permission.}

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Leafing through their shiny pages, I’ve often wished that I could live in CatalogueLand—or at least could go for an extended visit. In CatalogueLand, everyone is happy and smiling, even if they often stand or sit at odd, seemingly unnatural angles. Everyone loves whatever they wear, and it seems that the mere act of slipping on a pair of “washed cotton beachcomber pants” or a “Cyprus one-piece” swimsuit is enough to transport one to a sundrenched shore next to dazzling blue water. It’s almost always summer in CatalogueLand, even when in the real world it’s late February and you’d like to buy a warm winter jacket. The weather is always beautiful in CatalogueLand; the sun shines on tropical landscapes and fruity drinks next to beach chairs; the rain only falls when everyone is already wearing their dashing raincoats and hooded windbreakers; even the snow falls in big, aesthetic flakes that don’t turn sooty, or get in anyone’s way, and never clump in anyone’s faux fur or shearling cuffs and collars.

It’s a slightly eerie place, is CatalogueLand—a little Stepford-y—but I do enjoy the weather.

To some extent, DC itself feels like CatalogueLand to me, with its amazingly accelerated seasons and mild winters—but even more so, the Botanic Gardens are a CatalogueLand as well, where plants are always blooming and the air is always fragrant with the scents of flowers and leafy respiration. You always feel a little as if you’ve entered another, better world when you visit the Botanic Gardens, and it’s in that spirit that I present these images from my last visit:

Consider the geometric perfection and tender, living shape of this uncurling fern:

Observe the humid lushness of these orchids:

And the utter otherwordliness of this passionflower:

Visiting somewhere where you can see such marvelous, unearthly creatures is at least as good as visiting CatalogueLand. Better, actually; at the Botanic Gardens, you don't have to buy anything.

{A note: I do write all text and take all pictures. Please do not reproduce either without my permission.}

Monday, March 21, 2011

Wild Wildlife: The Giant Matzo-Eating Waterfowl of DC

Annie and I went on a canal walk this weekend, and while I’m sure the area will be even more picturesque once the trees have leaves and the ground is bright with grasses and weeds, we still saw some interesting sights, including a couple of great blue herons,

…a bouquet of kayaks,

…a horned grebe (not, alas, pictured), and—perhaps most interesting of all—the tracks of a giant, possibly flightless bird with a taste for matzo or an interest in celebrating Passover a month early:

[strewn bits of matzo
among the giant(-)bird tracks]

It’s not easy to tell from these images just how huge the web-marks were—I hope this sixth-of-a-matzo I’ve included for comparison gives you a better idea (if it helps, I’d estimate the marks as being between 3.5 and 4 inches long):

We suddenly found ourselves contemplating the existence of enormous, Jewish wading birds strolling the banks of the DC canal and leaving only crumbs and web-prints in their wake. What would such a species be called, I wonder? The Greater North American Kibitzer, perhaps? (It does have a nice ring to it…)

I don’t yet have an answer, but I encourage you, Readers, to spread rumors of this bird far and wide. That won’t get us answers, either, but it will engender a highly intriguing urban legend. And what more could a humble blogger desire?

{A note: I do write all text and take all pictures. Please do not reproduce either without my permission.}

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The DC Conversation

A good friend of mine who’s lived in DC for a couple of years now told me that, inevitably, three topics come up in a true DC conversation: IKEA, the Peace Corps, and yoga.

I was unable to find wildlife photos that would illustrate all three, but in honor of the favorite themes of the District I am posting a photo of lemur yoga:

{A note: I do write all text and take all pictures. Please do not reproduce either without my permission.}

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Unexpected

Last week, as I passed the panda enclosure, I saw something I’d never seen before. Not only was the panda (I think it was the male, Tian Tian) not eating, but he wasn’t even on the ground!

I’m not sure what he was up to in the tree—maybe some very ambitious scent-marking?—but it was great to see the branches sway and swirl around him as he moved up and down the trunk.

Soon enough, though, he tired of the exercise, and with supreme nonchalance, as if it were something he did every day, lowered himself out of the tree and continued with his panda-y business.

{A note: I do write all text and take all pictures. Please do not reproduce either without my permission.}

Friday, March 18, 2011

Flamingo Friday: All the Colors

It’s been a few months since this incident, but it’s stuck with me:

I was taking photos of the flamingos, as is my wont, and about four or five teenagers, boys and girls, came up. “Oh, look at all the colors!” one of the girls exclaimed, impressed, as she studied the birds.

“What do you mean, ‘all the colors’? They’re pink,” one of the boys scoffed—and the others picked up on it, until all of them were saying, “All the colors! —It’s pink!” and snorting with laughter.

And the girl was embarrassed, although, since the kids’ interactions were all a little flirty, she took it in stride—but you could also tell that she felt a little bad for saying what she’d said, that she felt kind of silly, or stupid, or wrong.

That’s a real shame—first, because I think it's an example of the unfortunate consequences of certain gender and group dynamics—but also because she was so right: the flamingos are all kinds of different colors, from the peach-tangerine on their heads to the delicate, cherry-blossom rose on their under-feathers, from the shocking neon-pink undersides they show in mating season to the black of their inner wings and the yellow of their eyes. Anyone who doesn’t notice that, or who acts as if real, live flamingos are the same as those plastic ornaments sticking up in front lawns, simply isn’t looking at all.

{A note: I do write all text and take all pictures. Please do not reproduce either without my permission.}

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Wild Wildlife: Dirty Birds

I was at my computer, minding my own business, when out of the corner of my eye I saw a huge dark shape gliding over the bricks of the apartment building opposite mine.

It often happens that I’ll see the shadows of hawks and crows as they fly overhead; sometimes swallows dart among the buildings, and once a mourning dove landed on the air conditioning unit just outside my window and took five minutes, in typical ditzy-dove fashion, to realize that, OHMIGOD! There was someone ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE GLASS!! and fly away, wittering in alarm.

But this time the shadow I saw was that of a black vulture, and the bird wasn’t just passing by, soaring majestically on a thermal—it was landing on the chimney of the building across the way. A moment later, another black vulture landed next to it.

I gave up on minding my own business and ran for my camera.

[I'd like to say that images were blurred
to protect the birds' identities, but really my old camera
just ain't what it used to be.]

For a while the vultures just stood there in their characteristic, hunched, vulture-y way, but then they became more agitated, pacing back and forth across the chimney top and flapping their wings. And then It happened. Yes, that’s right—right in front of all those apartment windows, right in front of the world, the vultures engaged in the behavior that is referred to by ornithologists as the “cloacal kiss.”

They didn’t even have the decency to the do it behind closed doors—no, they were visible for all to see who were leaning out their windows with a zoom lens trained on them.

Have they no shame??

{A note: I do write all text and take all pictures. Please do not reproduce either without my permission.}

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

One Good Shot: Kiko Gives Me a Look

I’m not sure if this paper-bag-bottom was a sunshade, a fashion statement, or a signal, but I wonder if it wasn’t a response to the dislocating awfulness of Daylight “Savings” Time. Certainly the switch to DST always makes me want to stick my head in a bag...

{A note: I do write all text and take all pictures. Please do not reproduce either without my permission.}

Monday, March 14, 2011

Shake It Off – or, Animals Don’t Pose #2

[A quick note: I am as horrified as most people are about the multiple disasters striking Japan, the attempted destruction of US unions and pollution regulations, and the generally appalling and depressing state of the world. But to begin that rant would be to never end it, so for the moment I will continue to address simpler subjects nearer at hand.]

Unlike, say, alligators—or even gorillas—otters are not particularly tranquil, meditative, still animals. There are exceptions to this, of course; sometimes a whole group of small-clawed otters will lie together in a big otter-pile, dozing contentedly in the sun and not moving even when a bunch of what may be Mennonites (men and boys in long pants, women and girls in dresses and bonnets) begin clapping loudly and shouting, “Wake up!” at them, thereby helping to reinforce and/or create negative stereotypes about their group (the Mennonites’ group, that is, not the otters’). I know I personally had to restrain myself from calling them a few choice phrases. The words “obnoxious bonneted twits,” among others, leapt to mind…

Generally speaking, though, the otters move around a lot, and it’s always a matter of luck and a fast shutter finger as to whether or not you’ll get a decent picture. In the space of a week or two I happened to catch several motion-photos of the otters shaking themselves after emerging from the water; it’s not much of a theme, but there’s something about it that really captures their energy and perpetual motion.

—And, of course, their clownishness.

{A note: I do write all text and take all pictures. Please do not reproduce either without my permission.}

Sunday, March 13, 2011

...and You, Sir, Are No Gentleman

[also not a gentleman but a cuttlefish]

I would be among the first to agree that what you call someone matters—a fact that should not surprise any of you who have read my rants about people calling orangutans “monkeys” or referring to every single animal they see as a “he.” On the other hand, when a term already exists in common parlance, it strikes me as absurd, not to mention pretentious, to suddenly alter that common name and make the usage of it a measure of how smart or well-informed someone is.

What am I talking about, you ask?

Here’s an example. A few years ago the New England Aquarium set up a very nice new exhibit all about, and full of, jellyfish—both true cnidarians and other animals that are transparent and float around in the plankton. They called the exhibit “Amazing Jellies.” –That’s right: not “jellyfish,” but “jellies,” as if they were showing off an especially impressive array of marmalades. It’s part of a new trend, calling jellyfish “jellies” and starfish “sea stars”—because, you see, they’re not really fish, so why call them that? It’s just too ignorant for words.

This drives me crazy. I mean, there’s already enough of a divide between zoologists and people who aren’t trained in science, and already enough scientific names and jargon that’s incomprehensible to the public—why alienate them over common names, too? Why make that be an indication of whether you’re really in-the-know about marine life or not? Of course they’re not fish, but then, neither are cuttlefish—should we call them “cuttles”? Should we no longer call seahorses “seahorses” because they’re not actually horses? Or change the name of sea cucumbers because they’re not related to zucchini? Or get rid of the name “Portuguese man-o’-war” altogether because, hell, that doesn’t suggest sea-life at all?

[side view of a sunflower star(fish);
doesn't it look like a volcano
with lava streaking out from it?]

If people are going to think that cuttlefish are fish, then you need to make sure they’re informed about what cuttlefish are. I don’t think anyone was in danger of considering a starfish to be a fish—and if they were, I doubt a name change would do anything to correct that impression. Why not work on actual education, rather than futzing around with names? The only people who are changing what they call these organisms already know what they are.

What worries me even more is that this campaign won’t stop at “fish” suffixes but really will try to alter other common names like the ones I’ve listed above, thus eliminating poetry as well as accessibility from what we name organisms. And that’s a terrible shame. It’s so much better to appreciate the name “leafy sea dragon” (which is a kind of dramatically ornamented seahorse) and learn, or teach, more about the animal itself than to try to make its common name duller.

[a leafy sea dragon;
its head is to the right]

Maybe once we get that through our heads we’ll be better educators as well as researchers.

{A note: I do write all text and take all pictures. Please do not reproduce either without my permission.}

Friday, March 11, 2011

Flamingo Friday: Top Billing

The zoo’s flamingos are always a bit testy with one another—although “testy” is maybe not the best word to describe a state that vacillates, within minutes, between honking hostility and amicable uninterest. Flamingos’ squabbles arise and dissipate with equal suddenness—and, as far as I can tell, neither their flashes of annoyances nor their return to peacefulness have any clear cause.

["She was too old for Yentl!"]

I have, however, noted a correlation between an increase in their beaky behavior and the heightening of the breeding season. Some flamingos are already sitting in the dirt of their enclosure and arranging the dirt and grass around them domestically, suggesting that soon there will be nesting mounds built and eggs laid within them. And while I still don’t understand what provokes flamingos to switch from standing sleepily on one leg to ruffling their feathers and waving their beaks threateningly at one another, I can report that whatever it is is happening more frequently now.

I can also report that the beaky behavior I’ve observed is not restricted to birds of a single sex; the zoo’s flamingos are banded on the left leg for females and right leg for males, so I can often keep an eye on who’s beaking whom—and when I’ve been looking, I haven’t seen either sex bill more than the other. (I haven’t, however, done a careful, recorded study, so there may be associations that I simply haven’t noticed.)

[a three-way standoff]

Whatever prompts it, and whoever does it, it’s a damn noisy behavior. It’s hard to describe the sound to those who have never heard flamingos squawking in indignation; it’s sort of like a combination of the resonance of goose honks, the shrillness of a rooster’s crow, and the rhythm of southern-Italian dialect at the point in the conversation when the hand gestures get really intense.

If that doesn’t make you want to visit your local zoo, I don’t know what could.

{A note: I do write all text and take all pictures. Please do not reproduce either without my permission.}
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