Monday, June 16, 2014

on the galapagos

When one mentions the Galapagos Islands, it conjures mystery, wonder, and even uncertainty. Often, it evokes the question “where is that?”. Whatever the reaction to its name, there is a lot to be said about the Galapagos—to scientists, students, and citizens alike. An ever-changing battleground of life, a ‘living laboratory of evolution’, and a treasure trove of species, the archipelago has something to intrigue and inspire everyone.
            Located 600 miles west of the Ecuadorian mainland, the islands were formed (and continue to form) over a volcanic hotspot, conveniently located at a convergence of the Cromwell and Humboldt ocean currents. The Humboldt current brings cold, nutrient-dense waters to the islands, creating a suitable habitat for marine life on the equator. A variety of marine species are endemic to the archipelago, including the marine iguana, Galapagos sea lion (formerly thought of as a subspecies of the California sea lion), Galapagos fur seal (the smallest fur seal in the world), Galapagos shark, Swallow-tailed Gull (the world’s only nocturnally feeding gull), Waved Albatross (the only tropical albatross), and the Galapagos penguin (the most northerly breeding penguin). The cold upwellings from the Humboldt current support thousands of beautiful fish, invertebrates, seabirds, and even the occasional cetacean or whale shark passing through the area.

            On the hot, dry land baked by the equatorial sun, it seems strange that life would sustain on the islands, with fresh water a rare find and the sun unforgiving. Life, however, has found a way, and perhaps the most famous group of species living on the islands is the Darwin’s finches. These small, drably-colored birds, of fourteen varieties, have changed the way we see and understand evolution and Darwin’s natural selection; thanks to a fourty-year study of the finches of Daphne Major by Peter and Rosemary Grant, many questions have been answered (and raised) about the why’s and how’s of evolution.

            Also making their way on land are the lava lizards and land iguanas, the former a small reptile that varies in patterning from island to island, and the latter an orange giant, a thick beast that feeds on cactus pads. Alongside them nest myriad seabirds, like the charismatic Blue-footed booby and its strange cousin the Nazca booby (named for the Nazca plate that some of the islands sit upon), as well as the variable Red-footed Booby. Tiny storm-petrels nest in cracks in the hardened lava, where Galapagos short-eared owls lie in wait. Red-billed tropicbirds rattle across the coastline, their long tails streaming behind them in a blaze of pure white. Great Frigatebirds, pirates by any definition, patrol the skies for unsuspecting victims to steal a meal from. All around them, Galpagos shearwaters zip by on stiff wings.

            Underwater, fish of all sorts light up the sea. King angelfish with their neon blue edging, Moorish idols striped black and white with a streaming dorsal, streamer hogfish with their hump heads and trailing streamers on every fin. Damselfish fiercely protect their small gardens of coral, blennies dart quickly away from any snorkeler who so much as looks their way, and schools of juvenile barracuda nervously band together, mere shadows of their future predatory selves. In deeper waters, trumpetfish and cornetfish, long and thin, glide so easily through the water it’s hard to believe these living needles were ever there. Whitetip reef sharks and blacktip sharks patrol the bottom, diamond stingrays disturbing the sand in search of prey beneath them. Triggerfish and pufferfish, large and small, add a dose of strangeness to the mix. Back on the reef, huge schools of Yellowtail surgeonfish envelop the rocks, concealing various parrotfish within their ranks.

            The Galapagos is a place of wonder, where both quiet moments alone with the waves are as inspiring as the thrill of splashing in the shallows with sea lion pups. Although my experience while travelling to and from the archipelago was highly stressful and fast paced, it was also eye-opening and a spectacular look at the natural world I have dedicated myself to protecting. The trip widened my already broad perspective on the planet, introducing me to foreign people, places, and nonhuman animals. I found myself thankful to call the United States my home, although upon returning I was a bit sad to have left all the natural splendor of Ecuador behind. There is a unique feeling that the birds and other wildlife of the islands left with me; they were ambassadors of the unknown. They showed me that, although they were so strikingly separate from the creatures I knew and loved at home, they held similar beautiful individuality, the same deep gazes full of spirit, and both a dose of shyness and spunk. Curiosity was abundant within all of us, human and nonhuman. It reminded me of how large our world really is, and how many individuals we really share it with. It gave me personal experiences within which to manifest my respect of all life and my admiration of it.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

tales of hidden lives

i never have written a post about my deer, have i?
well. where to start. early 2011, jan/feb/march, i got to know the local deer herd who calls the fields and woods by my house (in ohio) their home. there's over 40 individuals if i remember the last count at one of their winter dusk-time meetups... and there are numerous subgroups, likely with mothers and their fawns. there are a few large bucks, and while the younger/smaller bucks come closer and further out of the woods, the largest of the males stay far away, ever watchful but wary.

i take walks almost every day, and more than once a day during summer, and so i have gotten to know their families, faces, groups, and subgroups very well. i am already versed in cetacean identification, but in some ways, deer are even harder. they change appearance during the course of the year, and their movements become less visible during summer months. this creates some confusion or lack of sightings sometimes. when winter rolls around, or "fuzzy deer season", i always celebrate because i know that the deer will be out more, more visible, and easier to identify. their markings are much more pronounced on their winter coats, and their colours are richer, making it simpler to separate them by colour shade. (some deer are much darker than others, some have redder coats in winter, some greyer, some browner, etc. in summer it's more uniform, but still there are slight variations)

i have named and catologued at least 15 of the deer i have positive identifications on through photos or repeated sightings, and i have plenty more that i need to assign names and alphanumerical designations to. i give them a number (in sequence from when i first assigned the number) and the prefix NR, for North Ridgeville (the town in which i live, and they live) since i'm the only one spending any real time studying and watching the herd, it isn't a priority to sort out all the faces in the photos i've taken. but, in the field, in my head, i have names for many more than i've written down.
the main deer i run into the most, what would be the main cast of characters if this was a television show (like meerkat manor...), are as follows:

NR1 Roger (younger buck; the first time i encountered him he had only one antler, and the one he had left was chipped at the end. his face is very youthful and the corner of his mouth makes him look like he's smiling)

NR2 Crimson (very handsome buck, one of my favourites; his coat turns bright cinnamon in the winter. his expression is suave; he looks like he knows he's handsome.)

NR4 Mosaic (lead doe, very watchful and wise, short and plump and she has very small rounded ears, round face, and scarred coat. i think of her as the oldest of the herd, and she is my favourite. i just feel connected to her. i always smile when i see her in the bunch. she's like the granny figure of the herd-- like granny j2 of the southern resident orcas. when everyone is bolting away, i can always tell where she is due to her stubby tail-- she's got half a tail, and the fuzz isn't as long as the other deer's tails. )

NR8 Lori (other lead doe, she is masculine in form and has a very heavy, unique step. she has a stern, boxy face and a tiny white speckle between her eyes. she's a character and i love her! she works in tandem with mosaic when they're together, but can hold her own while mosaic isn't around.)

NR10 Recon (one of the largest bucks, i've seen him and crimson hang together. recon is just massive and he honestly looks like a weathered but handsome military officer)

NR7 Serena was a lead doe with a lovely fawn brink NR12. serena was absolutely beautiful, and so unique looking. she had high set eyes, a long face, and one of the most endearing markings on her face was a little snip of white above her nose in the black triangle.
she, lori, sedge, and mosaic were a team of strong ladies. these lead does were brilliantly watchful together, and they really seemed like they knew each other well. serena and mosaic stuck together.
i haven't seen serena since 2011, and i miss her dearly. she was just a wonderful presence. 
i got to know her during the winter of 2011, but by the time the snow fell in late 2012, she was no longer with the herd. i haven't seen her since. i only hope she didn't meet her end by car or gun.
serena was a caring mother to her fawn brink NR12 and a dedicated and observant lead doe. she was outstandingly the leader in her subgroup, and she was ever watchful. she was cautious but never too afraid. 
she struck me as such a unique sort of beauty than the other does-- her high-set, calm eyes were soulful. her long face made her profile and face-on view much different than the rest. she was graceful and serene looking-- hence her name. 
i often think of her and miss her presence as i see her old subgroup moving across the fields at dusk. sometimes i imagine she's still out there, hiding among the trees at the edge of the clearing, still watching me with those deep, knowing eyes. she always had a sort of fantastic presence... perhaps she still moves silently through the woods, making paths i will never trace. 

Rose, Cadet, Huck

NR13 Rose 
(a thin, tall doe with a kind but cautious face. she's one doe who i constantly see all year long, and she is mother of NR14 and NR15)
NR14 Cadet (sex unknown, but a sort of timid young thing. cadet looks SO MUCH like their mother, it's almost scary. like, you can totally tell rose is their mother)
NR15 Huckleberry (huck for short. lil young buck who hasn't grown antlers yet. he's curious and wide-eyed, and is a lighter colour than his sibling or mother. however, his face is similar to his mother's so you can tell the relation)
the family of rose, cadet, and huckleberry i have known for years. while looking through my photos from last winter, i found a photo and something struck me: i knew those faces! it takes a bit of sleuthing to figure out who's who in winter vs summer, and for me, it's worlds easier to identify them in winter. their markings are more pronounced (sometimes certain markings only show up on winter coats!) and colours are richer. 
Rose, Huck in front, Cadet behind him
these two fawns (well, yearlings/young adults) i have encountered before, and they're really inquisitive. i think huck is more so than his sibling. 

this photo is from 2011 when i encountered them without rose, their mother. huck is in front. his lighter coat has always stood out, and it's easy to see in the first photo.  he looks pastel compared to his mousy mother and fawn sibling. both the fawns, though, look SO much like their mother. you can definitely tell they are related. i hope they survive for years to come, so i can see huck's antlers grow and rose bear new fawns to add to the family. 

each deer is an individual being, with a personality different than the others. i have seen spring fawns being led by their mothers, bucks dueling in autumn, yearlings prancing around and playing with each other, families foraging at dusk... getting to know these beings has been one of the most rewarding, eye-opening, and heartwarming parts of my life. i wish, so desperately, that i could go back in time and bring all my friends and family to stand silently in the snow at dusk on the quiet, frigid nights i stood watching the procession of the mosaic's herd, her wise steps guiding them to their nightly haunts. 
i wish i could bring my loved ones to the hour i spent with rose and her family that one late summer day, watching rose step and snort towards me, wary and nervous. 
i wish i could share my deer friends with everyone, i wish i could show the world how precious and unique each of their lives is. 

it is so important to acknowledge all living beings as individuals, with personal desires, dislikes, needs, emotions... we must learn to break down society's hardened and sky-high wall of speciesism, and begin to extend our compassion, respect, and kindness towards ALL life. only then will we be on the path to peace. only then will we begin to right our numerous wrongs.

i encourage you to get to know your own local deer beings, for they have much to teach you-- you need only listen.

~Peace always,

Huck, Cadet, Rose 

Monday, July 29, 2013

Hidden Poetry: The Grey Catbird

A garbled song at dusk. A sneezy mew in the shady forest. A flick of the tail in dense undergrowth. You move forward, passing these seemingly insignificant instances in search of something brighter and sweeter. Little do you realize, who you are leaving behind is perhaps the most remarkable of all.

Understated yet enigmatic, the Grey Catbird ( Dumetella carlolinensis ) is a soft smoky grey with and ash-colored tail and cap, deep brown eyes, and rich rusty chestnut undertail coverts. Growing up to 9.4 inches in length, they are medium-sized songbirds—but don’t let their size fool you. The Catbird’s quirky nature and endearing notes make for quite an interesting neighbor. Having adapted beautifully to the expanding urban environment, they make their nests in gardens and yards from the northwest to the southeast United States, and the southwestern portion of Canada. 

Human development, while extremely harmful to some species, has instead created habitat for Catbirds, who like tangled undergrowth and dense shrubs. Deforestation can cause patches of scrubby regrowth, perfect for Catbirds. They can be found foraging for insects and berries near disturbed roadsides, fence lines, and the edges of clearings. While most songbirds eat a diet heavy in insects, the Catbird eats many more berries when the fruit is ripe and so has a wider range of food to choose from. (This can be exasperating for bird banders, however, for when a Catbird relieves himself, as they frequently do when being handled, the product is a deep purple color that stains clothing!) On their wintering grounds on the Gulf Coast and central-to-south America, they eat almost nothing but fruits.

The adaptability of the Catbird is also apparent in their nesting strategy, which is to build multiple nests a season to ensure survival of their children.  Their well-hidden nests lie deep in thickets where predators like cats and snakes cannot find them. (Please keep your cats indoors to reduce the risk to birds of all species!)

Catbirds also confuse humans who would like to find them, for these birds are in the family Mimidae, which includes mockingbirds and thrashers—birds notorious for their ability to mimic other species’ sounds. Often heard but unseen, Catbirds produce individual variations on a jumbled, gargling song full of both buzzy and sweet notes. Their general species tune is interrupted by hundreds of mimicked phrases of other birds, frogs, and machinery. Unlike mockingbirds, however, Catbirds mimic in short bursts and the borrowed phrases are intertwined with the Catbird’s general song and sometimes cannot be completely distinguished from the rest of the song.

Why mimic, though? What purpose would copying other species’ voices serve? The answer is astounding: In order to survive, a male Catbird must find enough food, avoid predators, find a mate, establish and defend his territory, and migrate twice a year. This takes an astonishing amount of energy, and so many birds do not live very long. To deviate from any of these tasks could result in a loss of energy and could be fatal. However, successful males have energy to spare, for their territory is established and they are finding enough sustenance. This is when they listen. This is when they learn.

The more successful a Catbird is, the more time he has to spend listening to and learning other sounds, which he then incorporates into his own breeding song. This is an auditory signal to potential mates that he is a good suitor: successful and smart. Interestingly, if he has traveled around and learned birdsong from other regions outside of his current territory, it will be reflected in his song and therefore shows the females that he is experienced.

The Catbird sings before dawn and at dusk, their rich and melancholy voices greeting the day and then putting it to sleep. Their tentative mews uttered softly from hidden perches offer a sweet, questioning companion to the lonely hiker.

In their plush grey feathers, with muted tones of buff and taupe, and their large dark eyes, with glinting slivers of burnt umber in the iris, there is poetry. They stay hidden until it is time to be seen, until they are confident enough in their observer. When binoculars meet the gaze of a thin grey being barely visible in the brush, there is something about even the quickest of glances that stirs the heart. Abundant the Grey Catbird may be, but to really see one, and to have them see you, is an experience few and far in between.

~Peace always,
Kristina ~

*Please note*: This essay was originally written for the Ohio Young Birders Club's Golden-Wings newsletter. Please consider joining if you are a young birder in the Ohio region, or making a donation to the club if you are able to! It is a wonderful group of young naturalists ages 12-18 who are passionate about birds and nature, and are on their way to do big things for conservation! Please help the cause and support these amazing folks! Thanks!