Category Archives: photo

Hanging with Mr. Darwin @ Fresno State

As part of Darwin Week at Fresno State, the local chapter of the Tri Beta Biological Honors Society organized Darwin Hour at noon on Feb 9, 2011. Dr. Paul Crosbie of the Biology Dept. dressed up as a youngish Mr. Darwin, circa 1961 to talk about how he came to write his most famous book, and answered questions about what his theory means for us.

[Pictures taken on an iPhone 3Gs, hence the low resolution]

Posted via email from Darwin’s Bulldogs

We love you too!

A short and sweet exhortation from Oscar Fernandez (Biol 110, Human Ecology) for all of us!

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What you and I do to each other is fair game because we belong to the same gene pool. But did you ever think at some point that all of our infighting is effecting everything else? CO2 emissions are endangering species such as the Emperor penguin, koalas, arctic foxes, and many other not so well known organisms stowed away in the Arctic and Antarctic. Emperor penguins, like the adorable ones pictured above, have less space to, uhm, procreate because global warming is melting away ice platforms that act as their habitat. Arctic foxes are being out-competed by the warm climate adapted Red foxes. Lets not forget about the Koalas either. Global warming is reducing the availability of the euphoric and very intoxicating Eucalyptus leaf that keeps them dizzy and feeling o.k.! Come on people, we need to become better managers of this planet.

Storm!

Even as some people here (Fresno-Clovis) saw a few flakes of snow on Monday night, and many of us have woken up to frosted lawns, dead plants (sadly), and iced over windshields for the past two mornings in the San Joaquin Valley, here’s a terrific composite image from NASA showing the real extent (we don’t really have too much to complain about yet) of these storms that swept past us this past weekend (click on the image to download a much larger version):

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A severe winter storm blustered its way across the United States on December 7 and 8, 2009. The storm dumped heavy snow from California to the Great Plains, and fierce winds added to the hazardous conditions. The storm was predicted to continue eastward in midweek, and blizzard warnings were in effect for Great Lakes states as of December 9.

This image shows the blanket of snow laid down by the storm across the West, along with the thick swirl of storm clouds over the Great Plains from North Dakota to Oklahoma. The image is made from a combination of images captured by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) sensors on NASA’s Terra (most of the left side of the image) and Aqua (most of the right side) satellites on December 8.

[From Winter Storm Crosses United States : Natural Hazards]

Note also that another set of storms are heading our way across the Pacific and we may see quite a few this winter as we are in an En Niño warming phase as you can see in this NOAA animation of sea surface temperatures (SST) over the past several months…

… and of SST anomalies:

All that red, i.e., warmer sea surface temperatures, can only mean more moisture laden winds heading our way from out west over the ocean! So brace yourselves, prepare to batten down the hatches, find an extra blanket to wrap yourself in (lower carbon footprint than burning something for heat!), grab that mug of hot beverage, and curl up this winter break with George Stewart’s brilliant novel Storm, which I have mentioned here before. How the meteorologist in that book (published in 1941), who takes us through the life-stages of a storm as he tracks it across this same ocean from its infancy near Japan to fully mature fury over California, would have loved to be able to see such images! I may give that wonderful book a second read myself, once I’ve dealt with a minor storm of final final exams/term papers brewing on my desk from my various classes…

Crepuscular companion from my youth…

Long tongue on the gecko

…how I miss having you around the house now!

Back – waaay back – in the days when I was a suburban kid without much access to “nature” and no television (yes – imagine that kids, no TV!), I spent countless hours staring up at the ceiling and walls watching the drama of our household population of geckos! Emerging from their daytime roosts under the fluorescent light fixtures, the geckos, small and large, would wait for a smorgasbord of insects to arrive as night fell, especially during the monsoon months. Big ones would chase little ones who might escape by dropping their tails to distract their pursuers and scuttle across the wall or ceiling. Occasionally one would drop, with a soft plop, sometimes down one’s shirt collar or trouser leg (happened to an uncle once! hilarious!!), sometimes onto the dinner table, but for the most part, amazingly, they managed to cling to the surface even at top speeds. And sometimes one would get overambitious and try to bite off more than it could chew – a large beetle, or mantis perhaps (although I never got lucky enough to see a battle royale like Gerald Durrell did) – and provide a different kind of amusement. Endless unscripted entertainment for a curious kid on those warm humid evenings. I miss having these critters around the house here in north America… I wonder what they’d make of the black widow spiders ruling the roost on our back porch now.

The young gecko in the above picture, which is my submission to this week’s Weekly Wildlife, Nature and Conservation Photography Challenge, I encountered on a wall of my in-laws’ house on the outskirts of Kolkata a few years ago. A few more images of this little fella are in this flickr gallery.

Meanwhile, it seems someone got lucky enough to spot (but not run into) a mountain lion just on the outskirts of Fresno earlier today! I hope they let the poor beast be and not hunt it down as a public menace…

A Kinglet for Furlough Friday

A Kinglet, Ruby-crowned!

I caught (in pixels) this Ruby-crowned Kinglet at Lost Lake Park just north of Fresno last weekend, when we spent an afternoon there with visiting friends (including the biology colloquium speaker last week). Kinglets (Regulus spp.) are among my favorite warblers in north America, revealing my Old World bias – for they are the closest relatives on these shores to the Phylloscopus Leaf Warblers I spent almost a decade chasing during graduate school. Indeed, Regulus were classified as within the same family, Sylvidae, as the Phylloscopus, but now have their own family Regulidae. I first encountered the Kinglets’ Asian congener cousins, the Rubycrest and Goldcrest among the forests of the Himalaya where I strove to catch a glimpse of their “crests” and learnt to listen to them to tell them apart from so many other little green jobs flitting about restlessly among the dense foliage often high up in the canopy! That was over 20 years ago, and I’m still fascinated by the lives of these wee creatures (although I haven’t studied them formally for a while – maybe its time to resume?). For wee they may be, indeed (weighing a mere 6 grams or so!), but they are quite capable of long-distance flight! Like so many of their Sylviid cousins, these Ruby-crowned Kinglets are also migratory, breeding all they way up north from Alaska to Newfoundland, and down into the conifer forests of the Sierra Nevada in California, and wintering at southern latitudes and lower elevations across north America. Around here in the San Joaquin Valley, they just showed up a couple of weeks ago and will hang around until April or so, in all kinds of tree-filled habitat, ranging from the “natural” riverine forests to urban parks to backyards, and even parking lots (see image below!).

I like having them around, and thought I’d share the above and a few more images below the fold with you on this friday when I’m off campus on furlough for the day!

A ruby-crowned kinglet caught in flight!

Caught in flight at Lost Lake Park

A shy Kinglet!

A shy Kinglet – this is how you glimpse them most often!

Fighting reflections in a human-dominated world

But not too shy of taking on a challenge! Although this one is unfortunately boxing at shadows we throw up in our strange habitats! I found this bird in a parking lot in Los Banos a few years ago.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet on SUV mirror

Finally at rest atop the conquered foe!

Message from our backyard for 350.org’s International Day of Climate Action

350 in fallen leaves

350 in fallen leaves

This image and the two below represent a small scale contribution from our daughters to 350.org’s International Day of Climate Action from our little backyard in the central valley of California. In a region with limited opportunities for community action (only one event on the day in Fresno which we couldn’t make it to), and considerable cynicism from a largely conservative population, our daughters helped stage this visual message in our own backyard using autumn’s fallen leaves. The two older girls (9 and 4) are my daughters, and the youngest (1 yo) belongs to friends visiting us for the weekend, including the speaker for the seminar in the Biology colloquium last friday.

Does my future lie under this?

Does my future lie under this?

Don't pass the buck on climate change!

Don’t pass the buck on climate change!

A more complete gallery is available on Flickr. And a whole lot more images from around the world may be seen at 350.org, and in their growing Flickr photoset, which includes the above pictures from our action! I haven’t seen any report from the Fresno State event yet, but will post a link here when that is available.

Sunday snapshot: hummingbird caught in the bottle!


caught in the bottle!
Originally uploaded by leafwarbler

I captured this hummingbird in a feeder at the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park in Albuquerque, New Mexico last August when we visited the town to attend the 2009 annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America. It was a lovely break from the meetings sessions to go for a morning of birdwatching along the Rio, which must be getting plenty of action these days since it is one of the significant migratory flyways in the arid southwest! You can read more about the history of the park here, and view more of my pictures from that day in my flickr album, also accessible by clicking on this picture (I think – but this is my first attempt to blog directly from Flickr, so I don’t yet know how links work!).

Imagining and imaging wildlife and nature in the city

[These are my reflections on urban wildlife after participating as a guest commentator in a wildlife photography contest on Facebook last week. A version of this was also posted in that group’s notes.]

House Sparrow's perspective

For most people, the terms wildlife or nature will rarely conjure up images of animals in cities. And if people like us (i.e., those concerned about how we share this planet with other species, us conservationists and naturalists) do think of urban wildlife, the thought comes with many a dark foreboding. Cities, we tend to think, are bad places that any creature (except, of course, us) would want to shy away from. Species that remain there are likely to be stuck there, with few other choices, survivors of human onslaught on them and on their habitats, living off the crumbs we leave for them in the interstices of our ever-sprawling urban jungles. And a handful that are not stuck there, that are perhaps more numerous in cities, bumping into us all the time, are often dismissed as nuisances or resented for collaborating with us in driving out other, better species. Urban landscapes are not often discussed in terms of their natural beauty either. Nature and City are, in our minds, quite mutually exclusive conceptual categories. And this dark, dystopian vision of the city as a sort of purgatory for wildlife, with the artificial (i.e., human-made) elements driving out the last vestiges of nature, is prevalent not only among the lay public, but often among my ecologist and conservationist colleagues. The scientific literature in these fields, that small (but growing) fraction of it which addresses urban habitats, is quite rich with papers looking for, and often finding and documenting, the bad things that happen to good species in the city: habitat fragmentation, ecological traps, competition from urban generalists, loss of nesting sites, habitat disturbance, air pollution, water pollution, weeds, invasive species,… the list goes on. Oh, and don’t forget the cats! The villainy of cats has been written about at great lengths – especially on the internets – and comes second only to our own selves among things that many a conservationist would like to rid this good planet of, for the greater good of biodiversity!

Why is it that we fear/loathe/resent/mourn/lament the place where most of our own species now prefers to live? By most accountings, humanity has passed the tipping point on that, with more than 50% of us now living in what we call urban areas worldwide. This is, then, shaping up to be the urban century, when cities are our primary habitat, with their effects cascading through the surrounding countryside into the very (few, dwindling) wildernesses of Earth. And I think it is fair to say that most of us involved in ecology and biodiversity conservation, be that within or outside academia, likely grew up ourselves as kids of the city; but took the first opportunity to run away from it, chasing after the diminishing frontier of real nature, where we could catalog biodiversity, study how it worked, photograph it, protect it, keep it safe from all that pesky human interference. And we continue to nurture the dystopian vision of the city, of human habitats, as sterile places devoid of any meaningful biodiversity. The city that nurtured and sheltered us, gave us the museums and universities that prepared us to appreciate nature; the city that provides better refuge to the poorest and most dispossessed among us than any other habitat; that very city, our birthplace, has become a symbol of everything that destroys what we now love – nature! Ah bittersweet cognitive dissonance… but lets leave the psychoanalysis for another day, shall we?

And let us also leave aside the other side of this metaphoric coin of the city: the many million more humans who may not quite share our apprehensions; who love the city for all its wonderful human artifacts and culture; who hate that pigeon for crapping on their cars, and resent that tidal flat and mangrove swamp for harboring mosquitoes and holding back human progress; who would rather pave over most of that pesky real nature and replace it with carefully manicured lawns and golf courses, dotted with hand-picked swans that can hold a pose for our cameras, and clean multi-colored pigeons we can feed; and in some parts of the world, a troop or two of well-behaved monkeys and an occasional snake we can worship during the appropriate holy season. Those people vastly outnumber us, but I’d argue that they too share the basic dichotomy of our vision, separating the city from nature; in that they remain our kin, even if we work at cross purposes,

The real trouble is: we are at a point where we can’t keep nature separate from us, what we do, not really. Not when we know that the smoke from California’s raging summer fires colors the dawn/dusk skies hundreds of miles away, and the burnt particles in that smoke may be deposited in snows atop mountains or in the arctic; not when the plastic garbage we throw out – whether in Baja or Alaska, Hawaii or Japan – ends up floating in the middle of the Pacific ocean, endlessly circling some hidden drain; and most definitely not when the fossil fuel we burn is changing the entire planet’s very climate! So we begin to turn around, and take a good look at our own habitats, especially that city we love to hate, to try and see if we can find any nature still lurking in there, and perhaps to devise ways to bring nature back. And this too is happening, among amateur naturalists, conservationists, and even academic biologists like me who are turning the tools of our trades to focus on studying urban wildlife and habitats.

It is high time (perhaps even a bit late) for us to re-imagine the city, not as a metaphor for all that is bad in us, but for the possibility for good that also still resides in us. Instead of running away from the advancing city, trying to save the remaining wildernesses with our backs to the wall, it is time to advance, to charge back into the city and start reworking it in ways that make it a better place for more of us, and also more of other species, perhaps finding more common ground to work with the rest of the human horde that loves cities. And, most exciting for biologists like me: let’s look at the city itself as a wonderful laboratory, with many different replicates, where we have set a number of evolutionary experiments in motion, altering behaviors and genetics in strange and exciting new directions! If you know my recent research, and my capacity to ramble on (exhibit A stretches back all the way from here to the top of this very page!), you know that I could go on (and on) about urban evolutionary ecology for quite a while – but I’ll stop now!

Let me instead ask you to join me in celebrating one specific small shared enterprise: an exercise in reimagining the city by imaging some of the wildlife we do find in cities, and sharing them through the Weekly Wildlife, Nature and Photography Contest on Facebook. As I wrote last week, I was invited to participate in this social networking experiment as a guest commentator, or a friendly native guide of the urban jungle if you will – for the week’s theme was “Creatures in the City”! I had a lot of fun viewing and discussing the 90-odd images that were shared in the group this week – so much so that I think it is rather a shame that most of the images and their attendant comment threads had to be deleted at the end of the week under the rules of the competition, leaving only a handful of “winners” and “special mentions” in the group’s gallery! Rather a shame, and something the moderators of this wonderful social experiment might want to think about changing (perhaps by using Flickr or other social networking site with better options for managing networks around images).

For what a lovely array of images of diverse creatures were shared by this growing group of nature enthusiasts! We had vertebrates and invertebrates (“creatures” I suppose, precluding any plant life); the former group was well represented by birds (most frequent and diverse, not surprisingly), mammals (squirrels, bats, cows, macaques, langurs, an elephant, sea lions, and a moose), and reptiles (a couple of lizards and several snakes; but no amphibians?); and among the latter: spiders, butterflies, moths, caterpillars, bees, ants, a dragonfly, a millepede, a crab, and even a cockroach (half eaten) and a fly shot up close! While the diversity of species was (hopefully) eye-opening for anyone who may consider cities depauperate of living things, even more interesting were images capturing interesting behaviors and novel ecological contexts that had me scratching my head spinning hypotheses and calling up expert colleagues to shed further light upon! I’m sure I will keep thinking about many of these pictures, and some may even spark a research project or two. (Which is another selfish reason why I wish the pictures and attendant discussion could remain archived somewhere!) The winners will, of course, be archived and remain available, even if the discussion generated around them disappears (really?!), so let me recap pictures and themes that particularly struck me:

  1. Breakfast with sparrowsBirds were the most common and diverse group – not surprising given how conspicuous they are and how many people they recruit into nature watching. Lovely images of crows, pigeons and starlings (of course), a sunbird, kingfishers, parrots, gulls, pelicans, grackles, munias, a swallow and a bee-eater. But, surprise, surprise (and alarm?): no House Sparrow! Are we so used to this commensal, so inured to its charms, that no one thought to share an image? Even though this species is declining throughout most of its Old World urban range? We can’t let it disappear from our collective imagination too! So let’s hope it makes a come-back and rebuilds its numbers if we can lend it a hand – all it may need is the right habitat being left alone/rebuilt. May they come back like the Flamingoes have, to Mumbai’s creeks, lending that dash of bright pink to the dark mangroves (recovering nicely in some parts despite urban growth) and grey concrete.
  2. An amazing image of ordinary looking high-tension power lines near the hills of Mumbai – but with hundreds of Amur Falcons perched all along the wires! These migrants from Siberia and Mongolia pass through the city en route to winter quarters in southern Africa, and make landfall – or wire-fall in this case – on November mornings like this one when Shashank Dalvi captured this image.

    The Search
    Click on for larger version of this image

  3. Two other avian images stand out for interesting behaviors and contexts: a White-throated Kingfisher perched on a water pipe in front of a train compartment, with no “natural” habitat in the frame! What does it feed on, I wonder – fried fish from the vendor on the railway station?! And a group of Indian House Crows, in their smart two-toned suits, commuting atop a speeding bus in Mumbai! Notice how they remained dapper and cool on the roof while the humans were probably sweating it out in the crush within the bus? And we think we are the smart urbanites…
  4. Given that the Facebook group comes from the Nature Conservation Foundation in India, with most members from that region, most pictures were from also from there. Which, of course, means monkeys! Cute and mischievous, juxtaposed with their mythological counterparts, and being fed by women at temples – macaques and langurs made their presence felt. And there were cows, squirrels, a donkey and an elephant; but there were also a couple of bat pictures, and the surprise mammal was probably the moose outside a trailer in Alaska! So even some large mammals can manage to persist in cities then. I’d have liked a few more carnivores too (I don’t think a skin of one on someone’s wall counts!).
  5. Urban snakes are always interesting (if not frightening), and the winner (or special mention) among them, a cobra, was even caught performing an ecosystem service – eating a rodent! And it was surrounded by a gaping mob of people too!! Then there was a flowerpot snake, a rat snake or two, and several lizards – but no gecko, oddly enough!

    The Search

  6. Among the invertebrates, the most interesting image (special mention, ergo in permanent gallery) was of a bee sucking nectar off of another dead/dying bee that had been fogged out of its urban nest by intolerant humans! A poignant image of what man had wrought – but one that also had us marveling at the remarkable behavior of the bee that had survived. Another striking image was of a dragonfly perched on a high-rise balcony overlooking an urban tableau of more high-rises with patches of greenery.

    The Search

Many of the descriptions and comments were interesting too – but what got me thinking (and rambling on in the first half of this post) was that the majority of people were down on the city as habitat, despite the lovely evidence to the contrary seen in the very image they were commenting on! Yes, the city is sprawling, trampling over habitats everywhere, dirtying the air and water, and depriving most of us from meaningful contact with nature – but look at this natural beauty you have captured within cities? Surely not all these species are suffering! If anything (as my own research suggests) many actually like cities, and are thriving amid our enterprise! So the trick really is understand how they do it, what works for them, and figuring out ways to offer the same urban (or non-urban) life choices to other species too – and working on reducing our urban footprints on this planet too.

Can we, therefore and at last, really begin re-imagining, rebuilding, and reorganizing our cities in ways that let in more of nature’s beauty and complexity while improving our own urban existence? For that is really at the heart of reconciliation ecology!

Creatures in the city – a wildlife photo contest

If you are on Facebook, you might want to check out a new conservation related social phenomenon there, started by my friends at the Nature Conservation Foundation in Mysore, India (and if you aren’t already doing so, start reading their excellent new blog – eco logic, which even mentions reconciliation in their masthead!): the Weekly Wildlife, Nature and Conservation Photography Contest (the prize: fame, in having your image enshrined in the group’s winners gallery). Now there are plenty of places on the intertubes, as you may rightly point out, for nature and wildlife photography, and many even have contests with real prizes – so what makes this so special? Apart from being on Facebook, where the group has rapidly grown to over a thousand members within a few weeks, the moderator is also experimenting with ways to make the experience richer than just eye-candy, and some oohs and aahs from voters in the comment fields. From the outset there has been a weekly theme, and some of them are unusual and intriguing, provoking some fresh perspectives on nature. Last week, they started a new feature: “expert” guest commentary from someone who knows a bit about the week’s theme, with the intent to generate some deeper conversations where viewers/readers might delve beneath the surface of an image and explore its broader ecological context. And this week, with the theme of “creatures in the city”, they invited yours truly to be said guest commentator! So I’ve been popping over there for a half hour or so every day, viewing the days submissions, dropping whatever pearls of wisdom are rattling around in my urban ecologist skull. Its been interesting – so much so that I forgot to mention it here on this blog! I will post a summary of my thoughts after the contest ends this weekend, but you might want to go check out the submissions before all but the winners disappear! So hurry on over there now!

And to start you off, let me share the image I posted there, with the following commentary:

We are the Sea Lions of San Francisco Bay!

Tourists (at least newcomers) visiting San Francisco’s famous Fisherman’s Wharf may be surprised to find that one of the docks on Pier 39 has been taken over completely by California Sea Lions! These large marine mammals started gathering at the dock exactly 20 years ago this month, and eventually persuaded (in collusion with conservationists) the human users of that dock to give up that prime roosting habitat. And in return, they’ve proved to be a significant draw for tourists from all over the world, giving a little boost to that segment of the industry. A fine example of reconciliation ecology, as I tell my students in that class. You don’t find them at the docks all year round – they go to the Channel Islands during the summer breeding season – but they are here most of the rest of the year. You can read more about this population at the Marine Mammal Center website.

When Pavithra gave me a heads up about the theme of the competition here this week, and invited me to provide some commentary, I was excited. But then she also said I should submit one of my own pictures too! How can you ask an urban ecologist with pretensions of amateur photography to pick just *one* image to share with the world? Should I go with the hundreds of bird images I have? Or squirrels? What about spiders, butterflies, snails, and other small denizens of the city? And given that most of us live in cities anyway, surely this theme will bring a real deluge of submissions, no? There’s over 40 already and its still Monday!

After browsing through my iPhoto library as well as submissions thus far, and pondering the theme of the week, I decided to go with this image because the wide angle captures something holistic about urban wildlife coexistence. What you are looking at is a group of Sea Lions dozing on the floating docks under that clear blue California sky, with the city of San Francisco rising up on the hill in the background. I probably have better – closer-up – images of these beasts taken that same day (you can see them on Flickr), but this one has become a favorite.

Shy flowers on a cold spring morning in the Sierra foothills (Friday Photo)

Even as California continues to experience a drought, and the region is facing water shortages, this winter-spring has brought just enough precipitation to allow the wildflowers to blanket the Sierra Nevada foothills in a riot of colors the like of which I haven’t seen in the five years I’ve lived in this area. My colleagues and students have noticed an increasing grumpiness in me these past couple of weeks, and part of the reason is that I really want to be out there in them thar hills traipsing through the wildflowers, not cooped up in the concrete of the Science building (where, to be fair, I have had quite a few glimpses of snowclad hills this spring – but that only makes being in the office worse!)! Why do we have spring break in April in this goshdarned valley, when actual spring has long since passed us by? I know, I know, it probably has to do with a certain religious holiday in early April – but that’s a subject of a rant I’ll save for another day. For now, this Friday, let me share some of my attempts to capture the fleeting beauty of spring in the Sierra foothills onto a few digital images. I’ve managed finally to create a Flickr album to collect these images, including this one of a dewy Baby Blue Eyes and some Goldfields (I think) apparently feeling too shy and/or sleepy to face the morning sun (on tuesday Mar 24) after the equinox weekend’s cold snap:

blue and yellow, turning away

Click on the picture to access the entire gallery, which I hope will provide you some relief even at your computer desk. Especially if you’ve been tearing your hair out this week while watching the circus of the Texas State Board of Education watering down their standards of how science is taught in that state! (And please do let me know if I’ve made any errors of identification – floral taxonomy is not my forte!).

Happy Spring, wherever you are! And I also wish you total blissful darkness – or romantic candlelight – this saturday when we celebrate Earth Hour!