About a week ago, as part of yearly summer fire prevention, some of the fields at the marine lab were mown. After this happens many of the little critters living in the dried grasses are left homeless and become relatively easy prey for predators of all sorts. Since the mowing I had been seeing a great blue heron hunting in the field, and it took me until the day before yesterday to remember to bring the camera with me. Fortunately it was overcast that morning and the heron was there!
I watched the heron hunt (unsuccessfully) for a while, then my attention was drawn to a much more dynamic avian predator. A juvenile red-tailed hawk, possibly the one that grew up and fledged from the nest across the canyon from my house, flew overhead and perched in a cypress tree. From there it had a birds-eye view of the field, and it didn't take long for it to spot a late breakfast. The heron left, squawking loudly to protest the interruption to its hunting.
The hawk actually skinned the rodent before eating it. . .
. . . and then it ate the skin!
The hawk did not linger on the ground after eating its rodent prey. It flew back across the road up to the cypress tree again. I got lucky and managed to catch a few shots as it flew by.
Of course, I have no way of knowing if this young hawk is indeed the one we watched grow up. I'm reasonably certain that the marine lab is in the parents' foraging territory, as I've watched them leave the nest site and fly towards the lab. At some point the juvenile will have to disperse away from its parents and establish a territory elsewhere. In the meantime, it, along with other birds of prey, will have easy pickings in the fields. This has been a banner year for wood rats and gophers (ugh!), which means there should be plenty of food to go around.
By the way, the heron did not catch any rodents while I was watching. It did not return after the hawk arrived.
In early July we joined my in-laws on a 2-day driving trip around the International Selkirk Loop, a series of highways that follow rivers and lakes through the northeast corner of Washington, the northern skinny part of Idaho, and southern British Columbia. These roads pass through some beautiful country in both the U.S. and Canada, and it would be a nice trip to take at a more leisurely pace, stopping to explore some of the little towns along the way.
Knowing that we'd be driving through some spectacular scenery, I decided to test-drive a wide-angle lens. I rented the Nikkor 16-80mm lens, designed for crop-sensor cameras such as my Nikon D7200. I don't have much experience with wide-angle lenses, so it was a different kind of photography for me. And boy, talk about a whole new way of seeing things! I could get into landscape photography now. This post will showcase some of the photos I took with this lens.
Day 1: Our trip started in Blanchard, Idaho, a tiny dot on the South Lakes Super Side Trip outlined in pink in the map. Our first sight-seeing stop was the Kootenay National Wildlife Refuge, near the town of Bonners Ferry and about 20 miles south of the Canadian border. I hoped to see a moose. En route to the Refuge we took a dirt road and got a little lost. But our accidental detour took us through some wide open landscapes, and the sky was fantastic.
The Refuge is on the Pacific Flyway and is visited by many migrating birds in the spring and autumn. Mid-summer is supposed to be the best time to see moose, but the moose didn't read the same pamphlet that we did.
Seriously, doesn't this look like quintessential moose habitat? No moose to be seen.
Crossing into Canada, we continued driving north along the east side of Kootenay Lake. One of the perks of the trip is the free ferry ride across the lake, from the town of Kootenay Lake on the east shore to Balfour on the west shore. During the summer season the crossing is traversed by two ferries, the M/V Osprey 2000 and the smaller M/V Balfour. We were on the Osprey, which runs year-round. Kootenay Lake remains ice-free in the winter, allowing business and pleasure craft to operate year-round.
Here's the other ferry vessel making the eastward crossing:
That night we stayed at Ainsworth Hot Springs Resort, where we had a fantastic dinner and 'took the waters' before going to bed.
Day 2: Our first stop on the second day was a town called Kaslo, the home of the S/S Moyie. The Moyie was one of several steam ships that transported passengers and cargo up and down Kootenay Lake. She operated from 1898 to 1957, when she was retired from service and sold to the City of Kaslo for $1.00. She was hauled up onto land, permanently dry-docked, and restored to become a museum. As the oldest known intact vessel of her type, the Moyie gives visitors a glimpse into the past. One thing I noticed right away was that people were a lot smaller 100 years ago.
Back in the day, there were 11 sternwheelers running on Kootenay and the other lakes in the region. The really cool thing was that they connected with the railroad lines, allowing transport of goods and people throughout the area before there were roads. Passengers would board the Moyie in the morning, stow their children and the nanny in one of the staterooms, and party in the parlor while cruising up or down the lake. It would be a leisurely cruise, with the passengers relaxed, well fed, and liquored up.
Passengers were looked after by a crew of stewards. I like kitchens, so this butler's pantry was my favorite part of the boat. Note sloping floor!
And because safety always comes first, here's the obligatory set of instructions for how to put on your cork life jacket. I'm guessing that they are called Cork Life Jackets because they are filled with cork, which apparently was A Real ThingTM.
The Moyie is docked on land right next to the shore of Kootenay Lake. Just off her port side there's a piling with an osprey nest on the top. And we got lucky in that the osprey was there, too!
The osprey was the first of our wildlife sightings on the second day of the trip. Heading west on Highway 31A between Kaslo and New Denver, we stopped at a little lake on the side of the road. This was Fish Lake.
In addition to being a pretty little lake in the mountains, Fish Lake is home to a species of amphibian called the Western Toad (Anaxyrus boreas). The toads are likely restricted to a few lakes in this basin and are listed as Near Threatened by the World Conservation Union, and as Special Concern by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. We didn't see any toads, but there were many proto-toads in the lake.
And guess what we saw a few miles up the road from Fish Lake? That's right, a moose! And not just one moose, but a cow and a calf. They were right off the side of the road, and all we had to do to get a good look was find a safe place to turn around and drive by again. I took these shots from the car.
Despite her proximity to the highway, the cow was pretty undisturbed. She kept feeding in the shallow water. It was surprising how long she could keep her head underwater. Meanwhile the calf, obviously not weaned yet as it kept trying to nurse and didn't feed on vegetation, just waited until its mother raised her head again. Then she looked around to check her surroundings and plunged her head right back into the water.
I haven't always had the best of luck in moose country, so I was glad to see these two. They are odd-looking, lumpy animals, even the calves. And to get a good close-up look at two wild moose totally made up for not seeing any at the Kootenai Wildlife Refuge.
So, what do I think of the Selkirk Loop? Highly recommended! The roads are lightly traveled, passage between the U.S. and Canada is easy through these ports of entry, and the scenery is spectacular. You can take the driving trip as we did, or stop and camp along the way. When we were there in early July the weather was quite warm, but those were the first sunny days of the season after a long, wet spring. You'd probably want to have a back-up plan in case your camping trip gets rained out. Honestly, though, the entire drive was gorgeous. If the opportunity comes your way to drive this loop, take it. You won't be sorry.
This weekend a subset of my students and I spent a day at the Fort Ord Natural Reserve (FONR) to participate in the 2018 spring Bioblitz. We were supposed to visit FONR for a class field trip in early March to do some vegetation studies, but that trip was rained out. Today's visit was sort of a make-up for that missed lab; because it's a Saturday I couldn't compel the students to attend, but I offered a little extra-credit for those who did. It just so happened that Joe Miller, the field manager at FONR, had organized a Bioblitz for another group of students, and he welcomed my Ecology class as well.
Located adjacent to the city of Marina in Monterey County, FONR is one of five natural reserves administered by the campus of UC Santa Cruz. The other four are the Campus Reserve (on the main campus of UCSC), Younger Lagoon Reserve (on UCSC's Coastal Science Campus), Año Nuevo Natural Reserve (up the coast in San Mateo County), and Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve (along the Big Sur coast). FONR occupies some 600 acres of a former military base that was closed in 1994. The reserve opened in 1996. As with all the other UC natural reserves, FONR exists to provide students, teachers, and researchers with natural lands to be used as outdoor classrooms and laboratories. Field courses at UC Santa Cruz and CSU Monterey Bay make extensive use of FONR, and students carry out independent studies and internships there.
After all of the participants arrived at the Reserve, Joe described the activities he had planned for the day. He told us that we could wander around the Reserve on our own if we wanted, but there were several hikes we could choose to join:
One to where some people were finishing up the day's bird banding activities
One to collect samples of environmental DNA
One to ID various tracks in the sand
One to the different habitats and vegetation types
One to check out some pitfall traps for small rodents and reptiles
Because my knowledge of the local flora is sorely lacking, I went on the plant hike with Joe. Many of the spring wildflowers had either finished or were finishing up their yearly bloom. The poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) is looking amazing this year; I think it has been able to take advantage of two consecutive wet seasons with a decent amount of rain. There were many poison oak plantlets scattered around all over the place, and the established bushes are lush and green. There is no way I didn't come into contact with the stuff at least once on this hike, so today is going to be the true test of whether or not I am allergic to it.
Much of the terrain at FONR is a maritime chaparral. The soil is extremely sandy (Pleistocene sand dunes, Joe says) with a poor nutrient load and water content. It's not a desert, because we do get a fair amount of precipitation along the Monterey Bay, but the plants have adapted to thrive with low soil moisture levels. It's also often very windy, and there are no trees. Even the coast live oaks (Quercus agrifolia), which can be magnificently massive and meandering, are stunted here. Much of the foliage is low-growing perennial shrubs or annual plants.
Joe led us through the habitats of the Reserve, mostly on trails but also along narrow-to-nonexistent tracks that we called Poison Oak Lane, Rattlesnake Drive, and Tick Alley. And yes, we did see a rattlesnake! My husband spotted it, right about where he was going to put his foot. It wasn't a big snake, maybe half a meter long, and was sunning itself in a narrow opening between manzanita bushes. I didn't stop to take a picture because there wasn't a good space to do so, and I wanted to let other hikers pass the snake quickly. The snake didn't seem to react to us, but it's always a good idea to leave them alone.
Just beyond where we saw the rattler, Joe had found a pair of southern alligator lizards (Elgaria multicarinata) mating. When Joe picked them up the male had grabbed the female with a bite behind her head; he does this to keep her from running away, and it also shows his strength and suitability as a father for the female's offspring. The lizards didn't like being interrupted in copulo, so to speak, and the male released the female and escaped back to the ground, leaving his lady love behind in Joe's hand. Hopefully they were able to find each other again once they were both let go.
To me, the picture above exemplifies what a Bioblitz is all about. We have two people examining a natural phenomenon, and one of them is taking a picture that he will presumably upload to iNaturalist. People learn a lot when they participate in a Bioblitz--they usually see things they've never paid attention to before, and when their observations are ID'd or corroborated by the community of iNat experts, they get to put a name to the thing they saw. True, it's a better learning experience to sit down with a specimen, hand lens, and book to figure out what an organism is, but most people don't have either the inclination or the luxury of time and the necessary books. And while I'd rather have people look at the real thing with their eyes instead of their phones, getting people to go outdoors and pay any attention at all to their surroundings is a minor victory. I find Bioblitzes to be a little unsettling sometimes. My preferred method for observation is to examine fewer things in greater depth; this is what my graduate advisor Todd Newberry referred to as "varsity" observations. I don't think a Bioblitz has any place in varsity studies, because of its very raison d'être--to record as many observations as possible--means to some degree that instead of taking a deep look you have to glance-and-go. Still, it does have its place in natural history, and I value it as a way to get more people involved in science.
I was on the plant hike, so many of the organisms I photographed and uploaded to iNat are new to me. Some are California endemics and all have adapted to survive in the difficult conditions of a maritime chaparral.
And I did see one of the California native thistles. Invasive thistles are such a problem that the knee-jerk response is to stomp on them or yank them out of the ground. This one, for which I'm still waiting on an ID confirmation, is silvery and sort of looks like cobwebs. Joe said that its blossom is a bright pink.
And one of my newish old favorite wildflowers, Castilleja exserta, was there. The purple owl's clover occurs throughout California; in 2017 I saw a lot of it on my wildflower excursion to the southern part of the state. It varies in color from purple to pink to white and thus has multiple common names.
We also saw a lot of the peak rushrose, Helianthemum scoparium. It is a California native species that does well in dry, sandy areas, such as throughout most of Fort Ord.
While I was leaning down to photograph this plant, one of the Reserve volunteers pointed out a much paler version nearby. He told me that most of the time the peak rushrose has brilliant yellow flowers, but there are always a few that have this much more delicate color.
And speaking of yellow, I discovered another new-to-me organism! What at first glance looked like a blotch of spray paint on a tree trunk turned out to be something much more interesting--a gold dust lichen in the genus Chrysothrix.
The lichen book1 that I have describes two species of Chrysothrix, both of which can be found in coastal regions of California. The species have some overlap in habitat, with C. granulosa usually living on bark and occasionally on wood or rock, while C. xanthina can regularly be found on bark, wood, and rock. Nor is color by itself an entirely useful characteristic: C. granulosa is described as brilliant yellow, and C. xanthina can be brilliant yellow, yellow-green, or yellow-orange. There are certain tests that would be able to distinguish between the species, but field ID when the lichen is 'brilliant yellow' remains problematic. So while I'd guess that this specimen is Chrysothrix granulosa (based on a combination of color, location, habitat, and good old-fashioned gut feeling) I can't be at all certain.
The discussion of lichens brings us around to the animals. Did you know that fungi are more closely related to animals than they are to plants? Well they are, despite being included in more botany than zoology courses. And of course we did see animals on our plant hike. Hawks and turkey vultures soared overhead, song birds and hummingbirds flitted among the trees and shrubs, alligator lizards mated, and there was that one rattlesnake, which even the people on the herps walk didn't get to see. As we hiked through the various plant communities in the Reserve, Joe occasionally called out "If you see a horned lizard, catch it!" A woman in our group, Yvonne, managed to do so, despite being loaded down with a backpack and a camera. She pounced on it and held it up for us to photograph.
Cute little thing, isn't it?
The last critter we saw as we were walking back to the gate after lunch was a juvenile gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer). By the time I got there the snake was resting in the road. It was a very pretty snake. I wanted to take it home and release it into my yard, where there are enough gophers to feed an entire family of snakes, but alas, collecting is not allowed at the Reserve. I do wish that a gopher snake would move into my yard, though.
It is now about 24 hours since we got home. We did our tick checks and didn't find anything, thank goodness, then showered and scrubbed. There's no doubt that we were both exposed to poison oak; it is impossible NOT to be, this time of year. This is the real test for whether or not I am allergic to it. I haven't been so far, but there's a first time for everything and I will never say that I will never get it. My husband, who gets poison oak very easily and very badly, says it could take up to two days to be sure. I'm not itchy today. Tomorrow may be a different story, though.
1Sharnoff, S. 2014. A Field Guide to California Lichens, Yale University Press
Library of Congress I was completely unprepared for how astoundingly beautiful the Library of Congress is. From the outside it looks like another of the many federal buildings constructed in the Classical style. The interior, though, was spectacular.
The ceiling of the Great Hall is magnificent--take a look at this stained glass!
We joined a tour and the docent explained the significance of many of the architectural and artistic details she pointed out to us. She told us that when the building was designed in the 1890s, the intent was to portray the United States as a major player on the world stage, able to build in the Classical style as well as the Europeans did, while adding details that are distinctly American. For example, the mosaic floor of the great hall features a motif of an ear of corn, to represent a New World plant that isn't native to Europe.
And this painting, high up on a wall, represents Sport. It features baseball, that most American of sports! The corresponding painting on the opposite wall shows American football. And of course the athletes are naked, because that's how the ancient Greek athletes competed. Artistic nudity, either in painting or in sculpture, was not a problem in the 1890s. There were no prudes calling for fig leaves to be placed over statues' genitals, or for female nipples to be covered with pasties.
Our docent told us that the building's designers were all Americans, but that some of the actual artisans were brought over from Europe. Likewise, much of the stone came from quarries in the U.S. The marble for those columns with the fancy capitals, however, was mined near Siena, Italy. She wasn't sure if it was Cararra marble. I think the look is right for Cararra marble, though.
There a lot going on, visually, inside this building. It's exactly the kind of visual input that should have killed my brain right on the spot. However, because all of the elements conform to the theme of Classical Greek and Roman design, they fit together thematically. The net result is very pleasing to the eye. I would really like to return and go on a tour with a different docent, who would highlight other things for us to look at. The amount of symbolism and history in the building is fantastic. Every item and detail means something.
Our docent pointed out that there were no depictions of named women, anywhere in the Library of Congress. However, female figures were often used to portray broad themes such as wisdom, philosophy, culture, government, and the like. There is one mosaic of the Roman goddess Minerva:
Minerva is located at the landing on the staircase leading up to the overlook. Tour groups are allowed up to the overlook one at a time, and nobody is allowed to stop at the Minerva mosaic. The only way to photograph her is from across the room.
The overlook looks down into the Reading Room. It sounds like anybody needing to do research can obtain a library card and use the resources, including the Reading Room. As mere visitors, we were restricted to looking down from above.
The Library of Congress holds one of three existing Gutenberg Bibles printed on vellum; the other two are in Europe, housed in Paris and London.
The docent described how Gutenberg had to set, by hand, every single letter on each page he printed, and that he needed a way to organize all of the letters so he could find them easily and use them again. He decided to put all of the capital letters on the upper levels of his shelves . . . which is why we call them 'upper case' letters! And the lower case letters were, of course, organized in the lower levels of the shelves. I had no idea how or from where we inherited that terminology. If Gutenberg had put all the capital letters in boxes on the floor, 'upper case' and 'lower case' would mean the exact opposite of what they do mean!
Thomas Jefferson's library is housed in this building, as well as memorabilia from Bob Hope. It also holds much of the estates of George and Ira Gershwin, some of which is displayed in the Gershwin Room, opened as a permanent exhibit in 1998. We got to see George Gershwin's piano! It's a black Steinway grand, a smaller version of what you'd see in any concert hall and doesn't look particularly special until you consider the musical genius of the man who sat at it and composed Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris. Not to mention Porgy and Bess. I mean, WOW!
It doesn't get more American than that, does it?
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Finally, on the afternoon of our last day, we got to visit the NMNH. My friend, Dr. Chris Mah, works in the Invertebrate Zoology department of the NMNH. We arranged to meet him outside the staff entrance so we could bypass the ginormous line, then wandered the hall for a couple of hours before meeting up with him again for a tour of the behind-the-scenes stuff.
To be honest, while I love exploring any natural history museum, this one was too crowded for me to relax and enjoy. Again, it was because I was there during spring break, and all of the museums were especially packed with visitors. We had time to wander through the Ocean Hall, the fossils, and the minerals and gems. The minerals and gems are often my favorite part of a natural history museum, because (a) I'm not a geologist, so there's always stuff for me to learn; and (b) I love the colored minerals. I don't covet precious gems because of their monetary value, but I do love looking at them for their brilliant colors.
I took only one good picture on the main floor of the museum--there were too many people around for me to be able to take the time to frame shots nicely and after a while I gave up. But this is the fossil skeleton of a whale ancestor. Note that this animal didn't have just the pelvic bones that modern whales have; it had fully formed hind limbs. The most recent thinking is that Ambulocetus natans was entirely aquatic, but may have been able to walk around on the seafloor even if it never came out onto land.
The real treat for us was meeting up with Chris again at the end of the day. Chris took us through the security doors to the Invertebrate Zoology department, where the various collections are housed. This is where all the cool (and bizarre) stuff is kept. Most of the items are not going to be displayed, but are used by scientists studying particular groups of animals. Chris works at the NMNH but also travels to museums in California, Paris, and Tokyo to identify sea stars in those collections. The bowels of a museum are like the bowels of any other building--fluorescent lighting, dingy walls, old posters and whiteboards on the walls.
This was the best door sign. In recent years the federal museums have undergone reorganizations and consolidations. I don't know why and forgot to ask Chris, but the Invertebrate Zoology department inherited the entire National Parasite Slide collection. I bet it's a huge collection of parasites sectioned and mounted on slides.
In one of the collection rooms, sitting against the wall, was one of the most godawful objects I have ever seen.
It's a giant clam shell (Tridacna sp.) mounted on a silver base of mermaids. At first I thought it was a bathroom sink, but Chris said it's a punch bowl. Apparently there's a whole set of punch cups that go with it. The whole shebang was a gift to one of the early 20th-century presidents. Seems it might be a better item for the American History Museum, but may be they got right of first refusal and refused to accept it. Or maybe because of the clam shell the IZ department wanted it? Doubtful.
The collections are housed in movable shelves, in some order that hopefully makes sense to both the curators (people who decide what goes where) and the scientific users. Here's a bit of the coral collection:
Items that are being actively studied or need a temporary place while their permanent home is being decided or made ready end up spread out on big tables. This is the kind of thing that I find fascinating. The detritus of working scientists is fun to examine.
These are freshwater bivalves:
Chris said that the museum acquires items from a variety of sources: private collections, smaller museums or schools that can no longer keep all of the material in their own collections, and donations from individuals. Some of the artifacts are quite old, and arrive in quaint containers such as these nostalgic match boxes. Other things are packaged in paper towels and plastic bags. This, of course, is for dry specimens. Wet specimens, preserved in alcohol or formalin, are stored in buckets elsewhere.
Chris showed us some specimens that were of special interest to this marine biologist from California. The first were some brittle stars, Ophiocoma aethiops, collected by Ed Ricketts! Get a load of the label on this box:
There were four other boxes of the same animal. The date (March 20, 1940) and location (Espiritu Santo) indicate that this specimen and the several others just like it were collected during the trip that Ricketts and Steinbeck immortalized in their book Sea of Cortez. I read this book every so often, and use bits of it in lectures. I know that most of Ricketts' collection was deposited with the Hopkins Marine Station, part of Stanford University in Pacific Grove, after his death, and it was really cool to see this set of specimens in the Smithsonian.
The other special item that Chris likes to show visitors from California is the type specimen of one of our local sea stars, Pisaster giganteus. Before the onset of sea star wasting syndrome I'd see this star occasionally in the low intertidal, and divers would see it subtidally in kelp forests. The biggest one I'd ever seen was probably about 23 cm in diameter, a bit larger than my completely outstretched hand. What the Smithsonian has in its collection, for reasons that I don't remember, is the type specimen for this species. The type specimen is the individual (or group of individuals) that is the basis for the scientific description of a species and the species' name. You can think of it as the 'default' for a species, with an important caveat. Many times a species is named based on a type specimen that turns out to be not the norm for the species, which is why we encounter scientific names that are descriptive but make no sense.
Anyway, here's the type specimen of P. giganteus:
The tag says that this animal, which indeed lives up to its species epithet, was collected from Tomales Bay in 1857. It's easily three times the diameter of the conspecific stars that I've seen alive. And even in photos of subtidal stars, I haven't seen a P. giganteus this big. Do they just not get this big anymore? Does it have something to do with habitat? I wouldn't have expected to find P. giganteus in Tomales Bay, because I usually associate them with a rocky bottom in a more exposed habitat. So what's going on with this type specimen? I don't know, maybe nothing. This thing is remarkable for its huge size, though. Stuff like this is very cool. I always like going backstage and getting to see things that will never make it into the exhibit hall.
National Archives We spent the morning waiting in line to see things in the National Archives building. The lines to get in were very long, and even though we'd bought a membership the night before so that we could bypass the entry line, once we got inside the building there were more lines to go through security. And this was like going through security at the airport--all coats and belts removed, all pockets emptied, walk through the metal detector, then retrieve belongings and get dressed again. At least they let us keep our shoes on.
Of course, everybody at the Archives wants to see the Charters of Freedom. I'd never heard of that term before but it refers to documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. There were very long lines to get into the room where these items are displayed, and this was the location where my head really was unhappy with the crowds. Many of the tourists were school groups on spring break, and they were loud. It was exactly the kind of stimulus that my brain, still suffering from post-concussion syndrome, can't deal with.
Oh, and there's no photography allowed at all in the Archives, so no pictures to share.
The Charters of Freedom are exhibited in a dimly lit room. Museum staff let in group of ~30 people at a time, and people would rush from case to case. As soon as the crowd began to dissipate another group would come in and there wasn't any time to really look at any of the documents. Given their age it is not surprisingly that they are faded with time. The ink is visible but difficult to read. Some day I would like to go back when it isn't so crowded and spend some time inspecting them. There is something undeniably special about seeing one of the original copies of the Declaration of Independence in person, even if it is sealed in a special case behind glass.
Smithsonian Air and Space Museum After lunch we made our first visit to one of the Smithsonian museums. Air and Space is always one of the most popular of all the museums in DC, and the day we were there it was predictably crowded. The staff was also setting up for a fancy shindig of some sort, which I imagine must happen fairly regularly in places like that. The folks arriving towards closing time were dressed in formal cocktail attire, and the rest of us were herded towards the doors right at 5:30 p.m.
The Air and Space Museum makes for tricky photography: all of the artifacts are behind glass and most are dimly lit so photos end up glare-y and/or noisy. A lot of the cool stuff is hanging from the ceiling, but there are so many vehicles suspended up there that it's really hard to get the entirety of any one item in view without it being at least partially covered up by something else. Still, there's no other way for some of these huge planes and craft to be displayed, and it's really cool seeing the actual sizes of things. You can walk through the Skylab module, which we did right at closing when they were shooing visitors out the doors. I didn't know they had a real shower up there!
This is probably my favorite artifact of the bunch. It's the Apollo command module. I don't know why, but I think it looks really cool.
As someone who suffers from mild claustrophobia, it's really hard for me to imagine what it would be like to be cooped in this capsule for longer than about five minutes. And the Gemini capsule would be even worse! This module was used to learn how humans perform in space and how they can work in space, leading up to the Apollo moon missions.
Two astronauts would stay in this tiny capsule for as long as the anticipated length of a lunar mission, up to 14 days. Two whole weeks! See those chairs? That's about all the space there is. There was nothing in the signage about how they took care of bodily functions when restrained in a tiny compartment for that long. Surely I can't be the only person who wonders!
This is the suit that Eugene Cernan wore on the moon. He became the last human to leave the moon's surface by being the last to return to the lunar landing module in Apollo 17. He died in January 2017. Some parts of each moon walker's suit were left behind on the moon to minimize weight for the voyage home.
And hey, here's that flag from MTV! This isn't the actual flag that astronauts left on the moon, obviously, but is a replicate. There were six U.S. flags planted on the moon, by astronauts from Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17. According to this NASA site, five of the six flags were still standing on the moon's surface until fairly recently. I think many scientists were surprised to learn that the flags have survived several decades on the moon's surface, with constant exposure to full solar radiation and extreme temperature. They must be completely faded by now.
I have been fascinated by the idea of robots crawling across the surface of Mars and sending data home to Earth since the Sojourner rover landed on Independence Day 1997. And I remember watching and listening with bated breath as the Spirit and Opportunity rovers approached for its landing on Mars in 2004. To me, the fact that we sent robots to another planet and communicated with them for over 10 years as they collected data, is the epitome of scientific success. Spirit's wheels got stuck in the sand and NASA was unable to free it, but the robot continued to send data back to Earth until March 2010. As of today, Opportunity is still alive and roaming.
But I've never known how big these robots are. Air and Space has a life-size model of the Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in 2012 and remains operational. Based on this model, Curiosity is about as long as and both wider and taller than my car, a Honda Fit.
Of all the weird gizmos and gadgets displayed in the Air and Space museum, one of my favorite displays was this panel of equipment included in the return modules. I think that now, with Russian Soyuz capsules serving as the vehicles taking astronauts and cosmonauts up to and back from the International Space Station (ISS), returning space travelers land in Kazakhstan. But before the use of the Space Shuttle, astronauts came back to Earth by splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. So perhaps it isn't surprising that their return kit included these items:
Those NASA engineers sure thought of everything, didn't they? I wonder if any of the astronauts had to use the shark repellent. Unfortunately, the signs didn't say.
Lincoln Memorial This is one of the most easily recognizable monuments in Washington, DC. It graces the back of our $5 bill and sits directly across the Reflecting Pool from the Washington Monument. Everybody knows what it looks like.
From the outside, especially from the bottom of the steps, this is another imposing marble edifice. I like that the names of the states carved into the frieze above the colonnade. I first saw these names on the back of a $5 bill when I was in grade school. Kinda cool to see that they're also present in the real thing.
Inside the memorial has a very different feel. There's the famous sculpture of Lincoln sitting on that big chair, of course, with his various writings carved into the walls around him. But even though that statue is so dang big, it doesn't feel cold or distancing. Lincoln looks like he's just a person. Viewed from ground level the statue's hands and feet are enormous compared to the head; I don't know if the sculptor did that deliberately, or if it's just an artifact of perspective because we're looking up at it.
I'm strongly drawn to the hands of this sculpture. Neither of them indicates a relaxed posture; the fingers of the right hand are gripping the armrest of the chair, and the left hand is closed in a fist. I don't know what those hands are intended to convey, but to me they suggest tension.
Isn't that slightly raised right index finger interesting? I wonder if that was an actual mannerism of Lincoln's, or just an artistic decision made by the sculptor.
Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is, of course, among those writings inscribed on the wall of the memorial. For some reason I'd assumed that the bit we all know was the beginning of a much longer speech. But no, the entire thing is contained in this single panel. Simple and eloquent. Why the heck do politicians talk so dang much today? And why do they so often seem to say so little?
Vietnam Veterans Memorial I knew what the Vietnam Memorial was going to look like, having seen plenty of pictures and followed from afar the design and construction of it. And everyone I knew who had seen it raved at how touching it is. The one thing that pictures and words cannot convey is what it feels like to walk by the wall. Getting to the wall from the Lincoln Memorial you walk past a monument to the U.S. soldiers who fought in Vietnam.
It's slightly larger than life-size and the details are amazing. From the expressions on their faces these men are exhausted and yet resolved. I wish we'd had more time so I could take pictures of this piece from different angles.
The Vietnam Wall is shaped like a long, meandering trapezoid. Like the FDR Memorial, this is one that you don't just approach and leave; the path takes you along the entire length of the Wall. The panels on each end taper up towards the panels in the middle. This is visually pleasing, but the effect results from the fact that each panel bears the names of the soldiers who died in a given year of the war, and so the overall shape of the wall is a long, tapered trapezoid. I didn't have the right equipment to get all or even any significant portion of the Wall in a photograph, so I didn't even try.
You might not expect a simple list of names to be so moving. I certainly didn't. And while this listing might seem like a way of making the names anonymous, it had the opposite effect. I don't have a relative whose name is on the Wall so none of the names here meant anything to me personally. But when you are confronted with the sheer magnitude of the mortality and the (mostly) young people who were lost to their families, it's very sobering.
Note that there are no ranks among the names. Each name on the wall represents a person who served and died, and military ranks don't matter to the dead. Nobody gets special treatment in this memorial.
Slightly off the beaten path and therefore not heavily visited is the Vietnam Women's Monument. There are only eight women's names on the Wall, but there were ~11,000 women who served in Vietnam, mostly as nurses. The Vietnam Women's Monument recognizes the skills of these women as they tend to a wounded soldier.
The blue cards on the base of the monument are thank-you notes written by schoolchildren in Kansas. They said things like "Thank you for serving your country" and "I wish I had your courage." Smart kids.
On Monday we ventured south of the Mall to the Tidewater area, where an extension of the Potomac river floods into a basin and forms a tidal pond. This area is where the famous cherry trees of Washington, DC, are concentrated, and we hoped to catch some of the bloom. Alas, it had snowed about a week earlier, there were still patches of snow on the ground, and that day it was cold and windy. The cherry trees were thinking about blooming but hadn't gotten around to making any real effort yet. It was sunny, though, and nice weather for walking around, since we were bundled up.
Jefferson Memorial Our first stop was the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. We skipped the Washington Monument because it didn't look very interesting and I didn't want to wait in the line to go up to the top, from where the view must be spectacular. I did, however, take the obligatory photo of the monument itself.
The Jefferson Memorial occupies a beautiful spot along the tidewater shore. It must be truly beautiful when the cherry trees are blooming.
Inside the rotunda the walls are inscribed with some of Jefferson's writings. The walls are curved and tall, making them difficult to photograph. Another difficulty I had with this memorial was reconciling Jefferson's words about freedom with the knowledge that he was a slaveholder. While I do think it's unfair to judge historical personages by the moral standards of today, I can't really wrap my brain around that particular cognitive dissonance. This one particular inscription, though, I thoroughly agree with. It seems pretty clear to me that Jefferson never intended the U.S. Constitution to be a static document that could not be amended as required. Rather the opposite, in fact.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial My favorite memorial of the day was the one for FDR. I liked it because it didn't have present me with any of the minor squicks that I got at the Jefferson memorial. Not only that, but unlike the other presidential memorials this one isn't a single giant edifice that people walk up to and then away from. The FDR memorial consists of life-sized sculptures mounted at eye level, so passersby can interact with them as they wander along the path. Several of FDR's quotes are inscribed along walls interspersed with fountains. All this gives us a memorial that we can experience at a human level and gives us a feel for who FDR was as a person, not just a president.
I liked how Eleanor Roosevelt was memorialized, too.
My favorite part of the FDR Memorial was at the far end. Walking along the path you first encounter a series of columns that appear to be covered in bronze plates. The columns and the frieze behind them commemorated FDR's federal public works projects, a response to the Great Depression.
The really cool thing about this part of the memorial is that the columns are actually the die rolls used to make the panels on the frieze wall. I didn't see any signage explaining what was going on, so the visitors have to figure it out for themselves. This was another of the things that made this particular memorial feel personal.
Here's one part of one die roll:
and here is the panel cast from it:
Isn't that cool?
Martin Luther King Memorial The MLK Memorial consists of a single large sculpture of the man in front of a wall inscribed with bits of his writings and speeches. The sculpture itself is very imposing and grand, very different from the more personal and humble feeling I took from the FDR Memorial.
From the front of the sculpture he really seems to be looking down on us. He was a preacher, and this expression makes me feel like I'm about to hear a sermon. I don't enjoy being preached to, so this is not a comfortable feeling for me.
Like the Jefferson Memorial, this one left me feeling cold. It imparts a feeling for who MLK was as a preacher and leader, but nothing about who he was as a person. Most of the inscriptions on the wall were ones that we're all familiar with. The one that struck me most strongly was this one:
I like this particular quote because I think we often forget how easy it is to be a good person when things are going well, and how bloody difficult it is when things aren't going well. It may not be fair to judge people by how they behave in times of adversity, but it is fair to say that we are generally not at our best in those situations. And yet, there is something to be said about how having to endure hardship often shows us our true selves. It can be a difficult thing to face up to. For me, the power of MLK's message comes from his exhortations to us to be better people, and a society, than we have been. We may have come a long way, baby, but we still have a long way to go.
Spring break for me this year was the last week of March. I generally don't travel far for spring break because it's nice to have a week of nothing to do but not be working. This year, though, we decided to visit Washington, DC, for most of the break. I had never been before and had always felt in the back of my mind that every responsible citizen should pay a visit to the capital of his or her country. I have a friend who works at the Smithsonian, too. He said he would be in town for the week and could give us a special tour of the National Museum of Natural History, so we went. More on that tour in another post.
Washington National Cathedral
We arrived on Saturday, the day before Passion Sunday. Flying across the country from west to east consumes an entire day, so even though we left San Francisco on an 08:00 flight by the time we got to our apartment and settled in all we had time to do was walk down the street and grab some dinner from a food truck. The March for Our Lives had finished an hour or two before our arrival; on the train into the city from the airport we passed many train cars going the other way that were jam packed with people leaving DC after the march. There was a fair amount of post-march detritus littering the streets, but not nearly as much as I had expected. And the trash, as well, as the enormous bank of portable toilets around the Navy Memorial, cleaned up the following day. Well done, Washington! I guess they're used to cleaning up after big events like this.
Knowing that we'd be in DC for the right date, we decided to attend the Passion Sunday service at the National Cathedral. The day was cold and clear, with a bright sun that made outdoor photography of the church difficult, at least from the angles that I was interested in capturing. Parts of the building are being restored/rebuilt after major damage sustained in the 2011 earthquake.
I have always found gothic architecture to be extremely beautiful, especially for churches. The well-thought use of line and proportion draw the eye upward, and the use of flying buttresses to support the towers creates the impression of height without weight, making them appear even taller. It really is amazing how the medieval builders figured out ways to make such tall buildings that make the viewer think of light rather than heaviness.
The gothic style is also evident inside the cathedral. The rib vaulting is both graceful and strong, transferring the weight of the roof to the supporting columns. Rib vaulting, pointed arches, and flying buttresses are--to my inexpert eye--the hallmarks of gothic architecture.
Immediately after the service the church staff asked everyone to leave so they could start setting up for a concert later in the afternoon, so we didn't have much time to look around. We did, however, sneak down to the crypt, where there are several small chapels as well as the tomb of notable persons such as Helen Keller.
Joseph of Arimathea Chapel (also called the St. Joseph Chapel):
And the much showier mosaic in the Resurrection Chapel:
Given my love for simplicity in art, it is probably not surprising that one of my favorite items in the entire cathedral was this statue of Jesus as Good Shepherd, tucked into an alcove in the crypt. There was no sign or plaque indicating who the artist is, or when the statue was carved. There were other carvings in similar alcoves throughout the crypt, but none caught my eye like this one did.
We did not stay for the afternoon concert. Instead, we went to a play that evening: a fabulous performance of The Winter's Tale in the iconic Folger Library. That is one fantastic venue for Shakespeare's plays. We hadn't planned on visiting the Folger Library, and it was only by chance that we happened upon a listing for the play. I studied Winter's Tale in college but had never seen it staged, so it was doubly enjoyable. The Library currently has an exhibition on illustration in the time of Shakespeare, and there were many very cool artifacts on display. The play in the evening made for a long day, but everything was worth it.
I like to venture out of my comfort zone every once in a while, as that's the only way to keep learning. Even though my particular area of interest is the marine invertebrates, there are a lot of other aspects of marine biology that are almost as interesting. And if I'm going to call myself a naturalist I should extend my knowledge in as many directions as I can, right? Besides, going out and learning new stuff is a lot of fun!
Shortly after the new year I went up to Año Nuevo State Park to see the northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) at their winter breeding rookery. Of course, I've known about the rookery ever since I came to Santa Cruz and have had friends in the Ph.D. program doing their dissertation out there, yet for whatever reason I never managed to get out there during the breeding season. The park is open all year, but while seals are on the beach for breeding the trail out to the rookery is accessible only via docent-led tour. This year I remembered to buy tickets ahead of time, to ensure that we'd be able to see the seals on a day we had time to do so.
The day we went, a Thursday, was threatening to be stormy, so we took our rain jackets just in case. We met up with our docent, a woman named Trevlyn, and hiked out to the beaches. Before we got there, though, we saw a mother bobcat (Lynx rufus) and her two kittens. This particular mom is well known to the folks at the park, who see her frequently. Because of the overcast skies, these normally crepuscular wild cats were active in the middle of the day.
And here is one of her kittens. There were two, but they were much shyer than their mom and hesitated to come out of the bushes.
Both of the kittens looked healthy, alert, and well fed. It looks like the heavy rains of the 2016-2017 season resulted in an abundance of prey--everything from insects to rodents to rabbits to birds--for carnivores, including bobcats. Given the bobcat's variable and adaptable diet, the future looks bright for these kittens who were lucky enough to be born in a state park. They (and their prey) will not be poisoned by pesticides or herbicides or hunted by humans, although it is likely that mountain lions (Felis concolor) prowl these trails as well.
Before arriving at the rookery we stopped so that Trevlyn could go over some elephant seal biology and give us the rules for visiting the beaches. The rules were: (1) stay behind Trevlyn at all times; and (2) do whatever she says without question. These animals are BIG and can move surprisingly fast over short distances. We were there at the early part of the season and there were only a few hundred animals at the rookery. But later, after all the adult animals have returned to land and the pups are born, it gets very crowded and stinky.
Elephant seal biology
The northern elephant seal is a highly pelagic animal, coming to land for two purposes at different times of the year: to breed in the winter and to molt. While they are hauled out for either purpose they do not feed, and survive on blubber reserves accumulated during the months foraging at sea. The different demographic groups (pups, juveniles, adult females, and adult males) haul out at different times of year.
The breeding season begins in mid-November, with the adult males arriving first. As they are staking out beach territory the females start arriving about three weeks later. They are pregnant and usually give birth a few or several days after their arrival.
A female who has given birth spends all of her time resting and nursing her pup. See how the pup in the photo above is sort of skinny, with wrinkled skin? This tells us that it is only a couple of days old. As it continues to nurse that loose skin gets filled out and the pup gets nice and fat. In the meantime, its mother is fasting while she nurses, and loses a significant portion of her bodyweight.
Sometimes the juvenile males, who have not yet proven their worth against an established bull male, get a little overexcited and try to mate with a female who has just given birth. These females are not receptive because, well, they've just given birth and have not yet gone into estrus. Watch this female above rebuff the attention of a juvenile male. Trevlyn told us that females try to rest near the larger bull males, whose presence will keep the juvenile males in line. Oh, and those markings on the young male? Those are made with ordinary hair dye, to identify the animals being studied.
Pups nurse for 28 days, then are abruptly weaned when their mothers mate and return to the sea. At this point the pups are called weaners. Weaners can't follow their mothers to the sea until they molt their pup fur and learn how to swim. They usually head out around early May, when they become fodder for white sharks lurking just offshore. The sharks ain't stupid.
The spectacular showdowns between adult male seals fighting for mating rights should be starting up about now.
Adult males are by far the largest animals on the beach. They also have a much larger proboscis. And see that pinkish stuff on the neck? That is thickened, callused skin that forms when the animals are fighting. As two bull males charge into each other they rear back and then slam forward, trying to gouge each other's neck with their teeth. The fights are not deadly but can become quite bloody before the loser decides to give in to the dominant male. While they aren't fighting or mating the males are resting to conserve their energy. This early in the season there is plenty of space on the beach and things are pretty serene, although as animals continue to arrive and pups are born, the fighting and mating will begin in earnest and there will be a lot more activity.
But at least as of early January, youngsters like these yearlings can relax on the beach without having to worry about being run over by males weighing up to 2500 kg.
Año Nuevo Island lies just offshore. When northern elephant seals began to return to this part of California they established their first breeding colony on the Island. Many pinnipeds, as well as seabirds, breed on islands because they are protected from land predators. In the case of the northern elephant seal, the major land predator was the grizzly bear.
Problem is, Año Nuevo Island has limited beach real estate. Elephant seals can't climb up even short cliffs, so can come ashore only on sandy beaches. The last wild grizzly bear in California was spotted in 1924, and since then the elephant seals have began taking over the coastal beaches near the island. All told, some couple thousand elephant seals will be on the beach at Año Nuevo this winter. This is a small rookery; the rookery south at Piedras Blancas is much larger. The northern elephant seal population in California seems pretty robust, with the animals having recovered nicely after being hunted to near extinction at the end of the 19th century. In these days when all news about the environment seems to be doom and gloom, it's nice to hear of a wildlife species doing so well.
The other day I was walking along Pescadero Beach about an hour north of where I live. My husband and I had gone on a short afternoon hike in Pescadero Marsh and decided to return to the car via the beach. It was a windy afternoon, making photography difficult, but I did enjoy the chance to get out, stretch my legs, and observe some nature. The ocean was quite lively, and as always it was fun watching surf scoters playing in the waves crashing on the beach. These ducks breed in freshwater lakes in northern Canada and Alaska, but spend their winters along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of North America, where they forage on small invertebrates.
High on the beach well above the high-tide line we spotted some little brown puff balls, perfectly colored to match the sand and tiny enough to disappear completely in the divots formed by the footsteps of previous beach combers. They would run along the sand and duck behind a small hillock of sand, where they would be protected from the wind and from visual predators. See how well they disappear?
These are the delightful snowy plovers in their winter plumage. The field guides describe them as inconspicuous, pale little birds, which they certainly are. Unlike the sanderlings and other 'peeps' that frequent our beaches, which gather in large flocks and run away from both waves and people, snowy plovers react to human presence by hunkering down in small depressions and relying on their cryptic coloration for protection. Snowies live in California year-round, but I see them usually in the winter and spring. They nest in the sand, laying eggs in small depressions lined with shells, pebbles, and other like debris. Both parents incubate the clutch of 3-4 speckled eggs, which hatch into speckled nestlings.
It's this habit of nesting on sand that imperils the snowy plover. They are not as a species considered endangered, but some populations are declining. Human activities and the presence of dogs on beaches disrupt breeding birds and destroy eggs. Such tiny birds have a high metabolism and need to feed constantly. Every time they are disturbed into running away from humans they expend precious energy that they cannot spare. This is why some beaches where snowies are known to be nesting are closed to humans during the nesting season.
So if you see one of these signs on the beach, stay out of the fenced areas and keep your eyes open for tiny sand-colored puff balls. Even when the birds are not breeding they should be left alone and watched from a distance. Use your binoculars to get a close-up view of them.