When people want a different perspective on the world, they may go to the mountains, or the ocean, or admire the endlessness of the night sky. Landscapes so vast as to approach incomprehensibility let you feel small, temporarily lifting the weight of consequence from your shoulders.
You can get a similar effect rather closer to home by seeking out the opposite: worlds so small that you become incomprehensibly vast, and therefore as irrelevant as a distant snow-crested peak.
Recently I flew from a particularly dire version of Minnesota winter—periodic rain making no dent in the graying heaps of snow, while rendering the smooth ice-covered sidewalks puddle-pocked and slick, so that it was not unusual to find oneself sliding inexorably down an icy slope into four inches of slushy water—into the blush of spring.
This new season was in California, where I was visiting my fiancé for the weekend. (Long-distance relationships are a staple of academia; my Minnesota labmates have significant others in Seattle and India.) Three hours on a plane headed west and I seemed to have jumped forward two months. Puffed-up robins in the snow…
…were replaced with marsh wrens singing furious declarations of their virility.
I’m not conducting junco-focused field work anymore, but that doesn’t mean I’ve lost my fondness for the little guys. I was delighted this spring to find a junco nest not five meters from my front door, well-hidden in the crotch of an ornamental tree.
While I was working on my dissertation, I imagined that finishing it (finally!) would mean a sudden change in my life. I pictured an acceleration, a speeding-up of things: all the junco research published, a new research project started up efficiently thanks to everything I had learned from the juncos, new analyses performed and revealed quickly.
But although the junco research is on its way to publication, and although I am starting a new research project, neither process has been swift. I catch myself laying the blame for this at my own feet: why can’t I work faster? Why didn’t this get done yesterday?
I’ve been spending a lot of my free time in marshes lately. I like the combination of open space and dense impenetrability. I like the stalking egrets, the hovering kites, the harriers bounding along just above the reeds.
A birder’s brain responds to photos of familiar bird species in a way that is, neurologically, “strikingly similar” to the way that anyone’s brain responds to photos of familiar human faces (Tanaka & Curran 2001): birders seem to use a similar strategy to recognize birds as everyone uses to recognize people they know. If you are a birder, this probably isn’t surprising; certainly, to me, recognizing a bird species feels similar to recognizing a friend. And it isn’t only birders: the study also looked at “dog experts”—which I did not know existed before I read this—and found the same pattern when those experts looked at photos of dogs. If you are passionate about models of cars or architectural styles or garden flowers, I wouldn’t be surprised if you experience the same thing.
(Bafflingly, the study reports that the photos it showed to the birders included “the robin, sparrow… oriole… [and] hawk,” none of which are actually individual species. Which sparrow, guys? Didn’t you talk to your birders at all while you were studying their brains?)
The sparrow, obviously. (Rufous-collared Sparrow, San Jose, Costa Rica.)
I always thought of puffins as fairly dignified birds. They look sleek and posed in the photos you usually see, like statues of themselves. Recently, however, I discovered that to get that sleek, clean look, puffins take on some poses that would be quite hard to capture in a statue.
Just preening in a photogenic way….
Nudibranchs, or sea slugs, are descended from animals with protective shells like those of modern snails. Nudibranchs have lost that shell, leaving them potentially vulnerable: squishy morsels in an ocean full of hungry things. But nudibranchs have some tricks to avoid becoming someone else’s meal: they use their own food to protect themselves.
Hermissenda crassicornis may not have a shell, but he is well-defended.
Photo by M. LaBarbera
One trick is to steal the defenses of your prey. Many nudibranchs eat stinging animals like hydroids and anemones. These animals use specialized stinging cells to catch their own prey and to defend themselves.
Hydroids. The stinging cells are on the ends of the long tentacles, waiting to catch prey.
Photo by M. LaBarbera
The last week has felt very hectic, not just for me but for my whole lab. It seems we’re all prepping for a field season/writing a paper/learning how to solder under a microscope. (Okay, that last one might not apply to all of us.) Not only do I have too much to do, but I can’t seem to decide when I should be doing what. Is it most crucial to be writing the paper revisions that are due soon, or packing dinners for the field? Or wait, isn’t starting the camera batteries charging the first most-important thing? But if I don’t take the car to the mechanic before doing everything else, we won’t even be able to get to the field…
So, to balance out my crazy disorganized brain, here are some birds who are doing exactly what they need to be doing and not second-guessing themselves at all.
White-crowned Sparrow: eating a flower.
Black Phoebe: watching for bugs.
Eurasian Collared Dove: sitting on her nest.
My dad, as you already know, is no slouch at photographing terrestrial vertebrates.
American Robin fledgling. Photo by M. LaBarbera.
Chickaree. Photo by M. LaBarbera.
I’ve started planning the upcoming field season in a serious way now—deciding on dates, interviewing potential field assistants. It’s made me think a lot about last field season, and about how much I haven’t yet found an opportunity to mention in this blog. So this post is just going to be a selection of memorable things that happened last field season, without any real theme but with lots of photos.
The most beautiful insect I’ve ever seen in person. It looked like a piece of enameled jewelry.
This nest had two chicks in it; when we took them out to band them, we found two unhatched eggs. The lighter one is a junco egg; the dark one is a cowbird egg. These juncos were lucky that the cowbird egg didn’t hatch!