The Poets Birds: Crested Caracara

Crested Caracaras (Caracara cheriway) taking the sun at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

Despite neither appearing nor behaving precisely like a falcon, the crested caracara is considered a member of the falcon family. Resident in Florida, Texas, and Arizona, its range extends southward through Mexico into tropical areas of Central and South America. Its name, Caracara, may be an anglicization of the Guarani Indian traro-traro: an imitation of the unusual rattling sound the bird makes when agitated.

Often referred to as a Mexican eagle, the caracara is thought to be the bird originally depicted on the national emblem and flag of Mexico before being replaced by the golden eagle.
Continue reading

A Halloween Spiderpalooza

Who could be afraid of this? Juvenile peacock spider (Maratus albus)
(all photos courtesy of Jürgen Otto)

Jürgen Otto is passionate about spiders: not just any spiders, but the tiny Australian creatures known as peacock spiders. Famous for their brilliant colors and intricately patterned courtship dances, their genus, Maratus, includes sixty-seven species and subspecies.

The first peacock spider was described by British arachnologist Octavius Pickard-Cambridge in 1874. In the past decade, Otto and his colleague David Hill have discovered more than half of the currently documented species. One species has been found in China, but the others all live in Australia, primarily in the bushlands on the southern portion of the continent.

Peacock spiders are so small (the one in the photo above is sitting on a pencil) that most people don’t notice them, even in the heart of their territories. Recalling his own first encounter with a peacock spider, Otto says:

I did not know anything about them until I stumbled over one during a walk in nearby bushland [near Sydney] purely by accident. It attracted my attention in the way it jumped — it seemed more nimble than other spiders. The specimen I saw then was one of Maratus volans, and I had no idea at the time what it was or that there were other similar species.
Maratus volans in his full glory, with abdominal flaps extended
A true thumbnail portrait of Maratus volans ~ notice the folded abdominal flaps

For many years, people believed that peacocks (a variety of jumping spider) used the flaps on the sides of their abdomens to glide through the air, but no one actually had seen them use the flaps for any purpose. Eventually, Otto’s research unearthed a suggestion or two that Maratus volans used its flaps in courtship, and his work with the spiders confirmed it.

When a male peacock spider encounters a female, he initiates courtship by waving his legs like semaphore flags. If she seems interested,  he raises the flaps at his sides and displays his brilliantly colored abdomen while dancing back and forth.

If he performs well and the female finds him acceptable, they will mate; occasionally, the female will do her own little dance of acceptance. But color patterns and dance moves are species-specific, meaning that males with atypical dances, or color patterns that resemble those of a different species, can come to a sorry end.

There’s little sentimentality among female peacock spiders. If she doesn’t approve of the dance, or mistakes his abdominal pattern for that of an unfamiliar species, she’ll often have the male for lunch — as the main course.

 
The mating dance of a Maratus personatus (who apparently was refused, but lived to tell the tale)

Watching one of Otto’s  videos, it’s easy to assume the spiders are dancing in the wild. But most videos are shot in his home, where he maintains a “spider room” for studying and documenting the various species in every stage of development.

At one point, he kept a pile of leaves on the dining room table for photo shoots, until his wife objected, and other accomodations had to be made. As for the filming itself, Otto’s techniques are relatively simple:

 When I started to film them, I had no idea about how to go about it. I simply thought one day to explore the video option on my DSLR, a Canon 7D with a 100mm macro lens. So I just kept filming them and added scene after scene to my collection. I had no prior experience in editing video footage.
The equipment that professional documentary makers use is very different from mine, with much larger cameras, big steady tripods etc., and for a while I thought that getting such equipment would be something to strive for.
However, I now realize that the small, simple, and cheap setup I used was almost ideal for the job as it allowed me to follow the spiders on the ground and use natural lighting. Once you find a place where they occur, you simply have to search for specimens and watch them or, better, find a pair that is already engaged in some courtship.

Otto’s affection for his subjects is obvious, as is his hope that people introduced to them will develop the same affection. He often mentions that the spiders are considered cute, even by self-declared arachnophobes, and that he “loves the way they interact with their environment: how they exhibit fear, excitement, and curiosity.” Seen through his eyes, the spiders are less fearful than fascinating: the very opposite of the Halloween horror they’re often portrayed to be.

What’s also clear is that he enjoys their dancing, and sometimes is amused by it. I suspect only someone with a great deal of affection for these creatures and an ability to be amused by them would have come up with this video. It’s a musical tribute with a sly title. For the male peacock spider, staying alive certainly does depend on his ability to dance his tiny little heart out.

Comments always are welcome.
For more videos, see Jürgen Otto’s YouTube channel.  For photos, try his Flickr page.
For a hilarious video of a peacock spider dancing to the Village People’s “YMCA,” click here.
For some serious science, PECKHAMIA, the major publication of the Peckham Society, is a good source. Founded in 1977 as an informal alliance of amateur and professional naturalists or scientists with an interest in jumping spider research, the society was named in honor of George and Elizabeth Peckham, early pioneers in their study.

The Serendipitists

Green comet milkweed buds (Asclepias viridiflora)

It wasn’t the sort of news that would entice just anyone to change their weekend plans. Still, as word began to spread that green comet milkweed had been found on the Nash prairie, and that Susan Conaty would lead a prairie walk to see both the milkweed and other late spring beauties, plans began to change.

Susan knows Nash Prairie as well as anyone, and a chance to spend time there in her company wasn’t to be missed. I arrived at the prairie to find Susan had been delayed, but eager milkweed hunters already were comparing notes, trying to pin down the plants’ location with half-remembered bits of information, a few cryptic texts, and entirely wrong assumptions about the plant’s appearance.

As we bumbled about, the search for the milkweed reminded me of my initial search for Nash Prairie itself. On that trip, a goat standing atop a shed and a utility substation served as unmistakable markers. Our flower-finding directions were more vague: turn left from the hay road; scan near the fence; look for the fallen gate; draw an imaginary line to the stand of trees.

Finally, a cry of triumph drew us to plants we had to have passed at least a dozen times, oblivious to their presence. Still in bud and unblemished, the large round clusters of flowers and trailing leaves certainly made the name “green comet” understandable.

With the day’s primary goal achieved, people spread out to explore the prairie: taking photos, identifying unusual plants, and gauging the readiness of seeds to be plucked. Among the plants still in bloom, the unfailingly cheerful black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) bobbed and nodded in the breeze.

A typical black-eyed Susan

I spent some time chasing butterflies among the Rudbeckia, hoping to photograph a black swallowtail at rest. Unsuccessful and ready for a different subject, I scanned a nearby group of flowers and realized I’d found something I never imagined I’d see: an example of fasciation.

A fasciated Black-eyed Susan 

Derived from the Latin word fascia  (“a band, bandage, swathe, ribbon”), fasciation describes an abnormal fusion or flattening of plant stems, flowers, fruit, or foliage. In the case of this black-eyed Susan, fasciation has caused both a broad, flattened stem, and a double, or “twinned” flower. The causes seem to be varied, and somewhat mysterious: viruses, genetic abnormality, insects, or physical damage all have been offered as reasons for the phenomenon.

The flattened and ribbon-like stem

I’d heard that photographing a fasciated plant can be challenging, and so it was. As I contorted myself this way and that, I heard a voice behind me ask, “What have you got there?” I untangled myself, sat up, and said, “It’s a serendipitous Susan.”

Indeed, it was: wholly unexpected, entirely delightful, and odd as odd could be.

Over time, the excitement I’d felt at the discovery abated, although I enjoyed looking back at the photos occasionally. Then Chris Helzer added a new gallery of photos to his site, “The Prairie Ecologist,” and brought the joys of serendipity back into focus.

In 2013, as he photographed a crab spider on what appears to be a sunflower, an ant unexpectedly appeared. Describing the experience, Chris wrote, “Often, [these] older photos capture a particular moment of serendipity that still evokes strong emotions for me.”

I enjoyed his reference to serendipity as much as I did the photo, and began to ponder how often these serendipitous experiences seem to occur in nature.  We should call ourselves serendipitists, I thought, since we’re always hoping to bump up against some unexpected oddity of life.”

Horace Walpole, the British art historian and man of letters who coined the word serendipity  seems to have been a bit of an oddity himself. In his introduction to Walpole’s Hieroglyphic Tales, Thomas Christensen describes the author and critic as an exemplar of a somewhat peculiar strain of British tradition: one distinguished by “absurdity, ridicule, wordplay, wit, wickedness and just plain madness.”

There’s no question Walpole had a vibrant imagination and a taste for high jinks. When he wasn’t busy shepherding tourists through Strawberry Hill, his home outside London, he wrote volumes of letters  One of his most famous, a 1765 letter to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, written after Rousseau fled persecution in Geneva and took up residence in France, was a fake.

The letter, supposedly written by King Frederick of Prussia, offered Rousseau asylum-with-a-twist. Among other things, the faux King Frederick said, “I will cease to persecute you as soon as you cease to take pride in being persecuted.”

Rousseau first attributed the letter to Voltaire. Later, he suspected his friend David Hume, and the letter played a role in a spectacular falling out between Hume and Rousseau.

When he wasn’t stirring up trouble, Walpole amused himself by renovating Strawberry Hill, his “Gothic mousetrap” of a house.  Like most collectors, he wanted his objects to be ­admired, and Strawberry Hill was the perfect showcase.

Walpole often “gave personal tours to posh visitors, but left his housekeeper to herd the hoi polloi for a guinea a tour.”  Despite producing a guidebook to the place, Walpole eventually wearied of the numbers of guests traipsing through its halls. “Never build yourself a house between London and Hampton Court,” Walpole said. “Everyone will live in it but you.”

Still, he loved his home, with all of its “papier-mâché friezes, Gothic-themed wallpaper, fireplaces copied from medieval tombs, Holbein chambers evoking the court of Henry VIII, Dutch blue and white floor tiles, modern oil paintings, china and carpets.”  It seems reasonable to assume Walpole created Strawberry Hill as a concrete analogue to his writing. As he said,

­Visions have always been my pasture. Old castles, old pictures, old histories and the babble of old ­people make one live back into centuries that cannot disappoint.

Michael Snodin, ­curator of the Walpole exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum, suggests Walpole’s cultural legacy was “to pioneer a kind of imaginative self–expression in building, furnishing and collecting,” but his  fixation on the house and its furnishings didn’t exclude other interests. Much of Walpole’s “imaginative self-expression” was centered on language. Today, his extraordinarily useful word serendipity  has become familiar to nearly everyone, and he surely would be pleased by the increased use of the word and its derivatives.

Writing to Horace Mann in 1754, Walpole first defined the word as “a propensity for making fortunate discoveries while looking for something else.” He said he’d derived the word from the title of a Persian fairy tale titled The Three Princes of Serendip, a story in which the heroes “always were making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”

As John Barthes notes in his retelling of the Sinbad saga, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, “You don’t reach Serendip by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere, and lose your bearings in the process.”

In that sense, my discovery of a fasciated black-eyed Susan on a day meant to be focused on milkweed surely was serendipitous. But it’s worth noting that Walpole’s serendipity is more than accidental discovery or happy coincidence. For Walpole, sagacity — the ability to link apparently unrelated, innocuous or irrelevant facts — was  equally important if previously unsuspected pathways for exploration and delight were to open.

Someday, a more sagacious serendipitist may stumble across another fasciated flower and make the intuitive leap to the unrelated, innocuous, or seemingly irrelevant facts that finally explain the phenomenon. If — or perhaps when — that happens, it surely will be fascinating.

Comments always are welcome.

 

 

First Grade, Forever

Five-year-old me, on my way to my first day of first grade

As Hurricane Harvey curved east and north, away from its landfall near Rockport, its rampage through Houston, and its nearly total immersion of the Texas Golden Triangle, families and businesses focused their attention on immediate needs: shelter, drywall removal, mold remediation, and the complications of living without electicity or water.

More than homes and businesses had been damaged, of course. Hospitals and medical centers, recreational facilities, and schools also faced substantial challenges. Entire school districts, poised to begin a new year of classes, were forced to delay their openings for as much as two weeks. Continue reading

Those Thick-Barked Survivors

The Big Tree at Goose Island, Texas c. 1990

For years after being designated Texas’s State Champion Coastal Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) in 1966, the tree affectionately known as The Big Tree reigned in leafy glory at Goose Island State Park near Rockport. 

Dethroned in 2003 by the discovery of an even larger tree in Brazoria County — the San Bernard Oak on the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge — it still remains the second largest live oak in Texas, and one of the largest in the United States.

Thirty five feet in circumference and forty-four feet tall, the Big Tree is more than a thousand years old. It would have been only a sprout when Dirk III, Count of Holland, defeated Henry II, Holy Roman Emperor, at the Battle of Vlaardingen, when Buckfast Abbey was founded in England, or when Aeddan ap Blegywryd, King of Gwynedd, passed on.

More recently, the giant oak survived an 1864 Civil War battle that destroyed the nearby town of Lamar, but most recently it did battle with Hurricane Harvey: a battle that left it battered, somewhat broken and stripped of leaves, but firmly rooted to its ground.
Continue reading

Watered In

High and still dry

In the end, practicality won out over aesthetic appeal, and the powers-that-be installed recycled plastic benches along our marina’s walkways.

Less attractive but more comfortable than the previous teak and metal benches, they serve their purpose admirably. Dog walkers, boaters, sunset-watchers, and elderly residents who’ve misjudged their stamina vie for empty spots. Friendly though the competition may be, it’s competition nonetheless.
Continue reading

Sailing A Different Sea

Kansas: an ocean of grass

To undertake a westward journey on any early American trail — to begin life on the Oregon or Santa Fe, the Mormon or Gila — necessarily demanded the acceptance of difficulties.

From accounts in pioneer diaries, scientific notebooks, and letters written to family and friends, it seems that Indian raids, horse rustling, gunfights, and buffalo stampedes were the least of it. More often, quotidian challenges became the undoing of even the strongest traveler. Mired wagons; swarming insects; meal after meal of crackers and tea; the combination of overpowering thirst and stagnant, disease-ridden water; all these demanded remarkable levels of commitment and persistence.
Continue reading