20140905

#IAmANaturalist. It’s only in the last year or so that I’ve become comfortable with using that title. More officially, I am an ecologist. Certainly these titles are not, and should not, be mutually exclusive. Actually, I think being both an ecologist and a naturalist is ideal as interests and insights in one are often inexorably linked to the other. However, up to this point, much of my research in ecology and evolutionary biology has not been particularly inspired or rooted in natural history observations, at least not my own observations. This is not necessarily a flaw, but rather something I would simply prefer not to be the case. Something to strive for in the future.

I mention this because natural history in the broad sense—attentive focus given to organisms, patterns, and processes in nature—has grown as a personal pastime and passion. This of course can take many forms: photographing arthropods, bird watching, walking through and enjoying natural landscapes, and identifying plants growing out of sidewalk cracks, just to name a few. My increasing comfort in calling myself a naturalist comes primarily from four realizations: 1) natural history observations are key in informing and inspiring interesting research questions in ecology and evolutionary biology, 2) basic natural history is of critical importance in managing species, communities, and ecosystem imperiled by anthropogenic changes (e.g. climate change, habitat destruction), 3) natural history is the common thread in basically all my interests and pursuits in life, 4) understanding of, and connection with organisms and natural places is simply very pleasing and can even evoke a sense of spirituality that is otherwise foreign to me.

Much has been written about my points 1 & 2 above (notably these recent papers here and here) but I would like to provide a bit of a window into my points 3 & 4:

Yesterday I headed up to Hartwick Pines State Park about two hours north of East Lansing, Michigan (where I just moved). I learned of this park from this list of old-growth forests. I knew visiting an old-growth forest in Michigan would help me gain a sense of place in this new environment.

The forest was a mix of white and red pine, sugar maple, beech, and eastern hemlock. The tall and straight white pines were the signature feature though, as they were typically larger in diameter and extended above the canopy of the other species. This 30 second video gives a sense of the environment better than anything I could write (do you hear the woodpeckers foraging?):

It is important to stop moving. Listen. Look. Smell. Touch. Taste. Tuning your senses to a natural environment always results in interesting discoveries. I was inspired to capture my discoveries with a poem (of sorts):

Joyous rhythms

In these ancient woods

My eyes scan

For dead trees

I walk slowly

Tilting upwards

Peering around snags

There!

Hairy woodpecker

Tail feathers pressed firmly against bark

Pounding fits of 8th notes

Head angled left

Then right

Chiseling bark and wood

Scatter and fall

Gentle percussions

On twigs and pine needles

Red squirrel shouts

My pinecone!

Feverishly runs off

And then a duo

Both tapping

Both hopping upwards

White pine dance floor

Thankfully left

For their performance

 Of course there were other interesting sightings too:

20140905-3

20140905-4

Experiencing this setting, all the details, the clean smell of the air, even the mosquitoes that swarmed around me, was an uplifting experience. But it was also bittersweet. Undisturbed communities such as this old-growth forest are very rare. Building a connection with this unique place, this islands of unlogged forest, gave me the visceral realization that I was within a biome that is severely damaged, and in its pristine state, nearly extinct. Old-growth forests in North America are miniscule polka dots on a map dominated by landscapes fully or partially run over by humans’ destruction. Aldo Leopold said “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” This is the dark side of being a naturalist.

But there is power in connection with nature and power in feeling the pain of the gaping wounds ripped across our landscapes. Reed Noss said in his great book on the natural history of Southern Grasslands “Endless fascination with nature–nothing more and nothing less–is the key to enlisting people in the fight to save biodiversity”. If we can’t get more people to have personal connections with places and organisms then are attempts at protecting and rebuilding populations, communities, and ecosystems are doomed. This is another very important reason to be a naturalist, to identify as a naturalist, and to promote and share the practice of natural history.

We must remember that aboriginal cultures did not have a word for “nature” because they had no reason to consider themselves as separate from the world around them. Their lives were entirely dependent on their understanding of the organisms, communities, and ecosystems that surrounded them. This remains true today although it can be hard to tell and easy to forget. That understanding is scattered across our vast populations with selected few having the personal connections with the physical, chemical, and biological processes that allow our modern lives to continue as they do. When we become disconnected we lose wisdom, compassion, and foresight. Natural history is about rebuilding those connections. #IAmANaturalist, and proud of it!

20140905-2

watchful eye and patience turn every nature walk into a fascinating spectacle. 

I was walking with a friend in downtown Toronto’s High Park, checking out the birds and flowering plants, and looking at the insects on milkweed and goldenrod. Also, watching at all the dogs running around was pretty entertaining too. Throughout, I was trying to find a sugar maple to demonstrate how to distinguish them from the invasive norway maples that covered the park. For an hour or so I failed to find any, which was actually a bit sad. This is the symbol of Canada and they are being replaced by an invader! 

Thankfully, there are still sugar maples in the park though, and I got excited when we finally found a grove of them. And before I could proceed with showing the differences between the two maples we spotted a cicada (a dog-day cicada, Tibicen canicularis) about 1 meter up the tree trunk that had just starting to molt. It didn’t seem to be moving though, and my first impression was that it had died in the process of molting–molting is a rough time in an insect’s life ya know. Lucky for out us, it was just fine, and with some patience we observed the full molting process (click image to view large):

20140829 cicada 1

Once the cicada broke free of its larval shell the wings unfolded and inflated with hemolymph (insect blood), turning from little shriveled green nubs to beautiful sets of wings. What a delightful and fascinating performance!

20140829 cicada 2

This species feeds on the roots of trees for several years than crawls out of the soil to transform into their adult form, mate, and lay eggs that will hatch and return to the soil. We were thrilled to experience this delicate and vulnerable moment in its life cycle.

20140829-20

20140829-19

Following the BugShot Macro Photography Workshops at Sapelo Island, Georgia, and last fall in Belize, I have two important new ways of thinking about photography: 1) try to capture an image that is not like others you’ve seen before, and 2) imagine what shot you want to capture and then work towards that goal. Here are three examples of photos I took over the weekend in Georgia where I first was taking an OK, but not overly exciting or interesting shot, but then I imagined and captured something more compelling.

1) Rosy maple moth (Dryocampa rubicunda, Saturniidae). I first thought it might look neat sitting on top of leaf litter, a scene very much inspired by a photo by Piotr Naskrecki. I set up a little scene in a white box with a floor of leaf litter.

20140525-8

I think this is an alright shot, but not unique or exciting. Also, the weird bright colors of this moth don’t really blend in all that well with the leaf litter.  Using the same setup I tried a different angle which I think is much more interesting.

20140525-9

2) I believe this is a slant-faced grasshopper (Gomphocerinae), and is perhaps my favorite animal of the weekend.

20140525-10

This shot, again in a white box, is kinda neat. But with an animal so unique and unusual just about any well-lit shot is kinda neat. But when I looked closely I noticed an opportunity for something more interesting. The long face and bulging eyes just begged for a portrait. With lots of patience I managed one of my favorite macro shots yet.

20140525-11

3) Twin-spot skipper (Oligoria maculata), a butterfly that  lives in coastal swamps. This is an OK, but also very normal, shot of a skipper.

20140524-7

To improve upon this, I really wanted to capture this skipper in the context of its swampy environment. In this shot I used a fisheye lens stopped down to get a large depth of field and an off camera fill flash. I am pretty excited because this is my first successful attempt at an insect wide angle macro.

20140524-6

These follow-up shots were, I think, all large improvements over my first attempts largely because I came up with a unique vision, and then tried to make that shot happen. Previously, I often didn’t think of macro photography in that way, rather, I just wandered around snapping shots of whatever I happened to find. But thanks to the guidance and inspiration of John Abbott, Piotr Naskrecki, Thomas Shahan, Alex Wild, and the participants of the BugShot workshops, I have a new, and much more fruitful way, of approaching photography.

HT to Andy Warren (@AndyBugGuy) for the skipper ID.

I had a great day of naturalizing in the forests around the University of Toronto – Mississauga campus.

Perhaps most exciting is this fly:

20140413-7Some insect ID gurus on twitter (@BioInFocus @stho002) thought this fly was in the genus Aulacigaster, part of the Aulacigastridae, a very unique and species-poor fly family. Many sources say there are less that 20 species in the family, but @ta_wheeler pointed out many species have been described recently, see this revision of Aulacigaster which now has 55 described species.  According to BugGuide: “Adults of Aulacigaster are found at slime fluxes and wounds of deciduous trees, where the larvae are also found”. Guess where I found this fly? On the wound of a deciduous tree! So seems very likely that ID is right. So cool. Here is a dorsal shot with the tree wound visible.

I also found some nifty vertebrates.

20140413-6This is a jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum). This species is rare in Ontario. It also has some really interesting genetics involving hybridization and polyploidy. Lots about it here. The larvae of a closely related species (the spotted salamander) has a symbiotic relationship with algae, meaning it can photosynthesize, the first vertebrate found to do so! Maybe Jefferson salamanders can too?

Today was also the first day this year I saw snakes, and two species even.

20140413-3Dekay’s brownsnake (Storeria dekayi) – lots of natural history info here.

20140413-4Common gartersnake (Thamnophis sirtalis) – natural history info here.

Here are some other nifty insects I found today:

20140413-5Do you see the insect? It is a tiny moth that is incredibly cryptic on tree bark.

20140413-8I found this cryptic insect in the leaf litter. It looks like a leafhopper nymph to me.

With my head down looking for insects I stumbled right into an entire family of resting deer laying on the forest floor chewing their cud. The deer here on campus are very habituated to people and these ones only stood up when I got about 5 m away. They eventually laid back down and let me get even closer to get this photo:

20140413-14

Last weekend our lab took a retreat to Algonquin Provincial Park, the oldest and one of the largest (> 7,500 sq. km.) Provincial Park in Canada.  After a 4 hour drive North from Toronto and we arrived at the Wildlife Research Station where we stayed in a delightful cabin adjacent to a lake. The lake, however, was completely frozen over and there was still about 2 m of snow! So while technically spring had begun, it was still pretty wintery up there. We spend nearly all the daylight hours snowshoeing around and naturalizing—the land was not exactly bustling with life but nature, as always, did not disappoint. Here are some photos of what we found.

20140328-8This was the first animal we found when we stepped out into the snow. An amazing phenomena! In some places our footsteps were quickly stained black with these little creatures.

20140328-7They are commonly referred to as snow fleas (Hypogastrura sp.), but they are not fleas of course, but rather Collembola, a group of arthropods sister to insects. Like most Collembola, they rocket away when disturbed using a spring loaded appendage (hence the common name springtails) on the undersides of their body called a furcula. They can survive on the snow, an impossible feat for most arthropods, partially because of a completely unique antifreeze protein which has been studied quite extensively.

20140328-9

20140329-36

Lichens flourish in the winter extremes—many tree branches are covered in communities of multiple species.

20140329-37Fungi are of course always presento too, especially the hardened fruiting bodies of shelf fungi.

20140329-32We all went snowshoeing out across a frozen lake. Here in the foreground is a stump with what I assume are longhorn beetle exit holes, plus there are some familiar large mammals in the background.

20140330-3

We made our way into the forest where there was some more life around:

20140329-35like this adorable little patch of moss on a tree branch,

20140329-34and this friendly grey jay. In winter gray jays seek out humans knowing they are a good source of easy food.  The nuts we threw on the ground were quickly snatched up and hid away for later.

20140329-39

I got pretty into photographing the textures of tree bark—a great source of biologically rich colors and shapes in landscapes that can otherwise seem somewhat bleak. This is a paper birch (Betula papyrifera).

20140330-4

I am pretty sure this is a striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum).

20140329-38These are the exposed buds of hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides).

Along our travels we saw signs of several other vertebrates including huge excavations in tree trunks from one of my all time favorite birds, pileated woodpecker, the food debris piles of squirrels, and the scat of wolves and moose. It is a bit of a haunting experience walking through a forest where you known wolves are prowling…

20140331 boreal chickadeeFinally, I saw a new bird species that I was super excited about. I was not able to get a photo so I made a drawing instead. It’s a boreal chickadee!

Winter in Canada is pretty good at making you miss all the aspects of nature that you enjoy because, chances are, those living things you love are dead, dormant, or delocalized. (So, I was just trying to keep the alliteration going there, but by delocalized I mean they have cleverly migrated somewhere warmer, I often wonder why we don’t do the same.) This sense of longing has a silver lining, I think, because it illuminates what aspects of nature you may have taken for granted, and also encourages you to look closely for living things. To give attention to organisms you might, in more plentiful seasons, pass over for something more exciting, or to notice biological shapes and textures you’ve never studied closely before. In other words, this desolate setting reinvigorates the quest for life and beauty.

Luckily, the days are getting longer and there are hints of warmth, on some days… Life is responding and the quest is getting easier. I am quite happy for that.  Today I went for a walk with a friend at Grindstone Creek in Hamilton, Ontario. Birds were out in abundance, like the first migratory species to arrive, red-winged blackbirds. The complex squawks of males drifted over the flowing water that was frozen solid just days ago. Males are here early to stake out a territory for when the females eventually arrive. Many of the resident birds were active and noisy too.

20140315-22

A female northern cardinal. Some of the bright red males were belting out their complex lazer-like songs nearby. I personally like the look of the females better, but maybe that is just because folks get excited by the garish males and overlook the comparatively reserved females. Feminism spilling over into natural history perhaps?

20140315-23

At this park lots of people feed the birds and they have become quite friendly. It is an endearing interaction between humans and wildlife, I think. This is a white-breasted nuthatch.

20140315-24

To my surprise the downy woodpeckers were unafraid of humans as well. They are so cute!  [The background on this photo was washed out and distracting so I made the shot black-and-white and whited out the background]

20140315-29 20140315-28

Black-capped chickadees were ever curious and would gladly snag food from human hands. When adorable birds were not capturing my attention I looked for some more subtle beauty.

20140315-2620140315-27

This park had some quite large trees for Southern Ontario. Tree bark, especially on large trees, often has delightful and complex textures. I’m not sure sure what species the first tree is actually, without leaves large trees are hard to identify. The second shot is a paper birch.

20140315-25

The dried husks of summer’s productivity are often sources of beautiful shapes and symmetry, like this burdock fruit.

20140315-30

Many fungi are always present, like these little shelves slowly decomposing a downed tree.

20140315-31

It was nice to see a cute little mammal, an eastern chipmunk. They hibernate over the winter, but because of their small size they cannot pack on enough fat stores to survive, so they stock their burrows with food to keep them going. Winter is still with us so I bet this chipmunk is just taking advantage of the few slightly warmer days to top up its reserves that were probably fully depleted over the long winter.

As you can see, today’s quest for life and beauty was quite successful. No need to wait for the full arrival of spring, life marches on through this still-frigid month. I encourage you to give some of your attention to all those organisms struggling through the cold, find some natural beauty before spring brings it on in waves.