I was almost done writing a piece about eels. I heard a knock at the door. An artist friend had showed up. Now I have to write about an owl.
The friend, Pamelia and I got talking about animals, as often happens around here. The friend had seen a snowy owl. It flew off from a tree at her house when she drove in at midnight one recent night. Pamelia and I said wow; neither of us has ever seen a snowy owl in the wild, even though they live here in Maine.
Then our friend told us about her brother and another snowy owl. The brother lived elsewhere in New England. He raised homing pigeons. He had a shotgun. He sometimes fired it to warn off predators eying his birds. One day a couple of decades ago, to protect a pair of homing pigeons who were mating, he raised the gun and fired to scare off a raptor. The raptor didn’t fly away; it fell. The brother looked. He had shot a snowy owl.
He had not meant to kill this lovely bird. He also knew that shooting snowy owls is illegal. Unsure what to do with an animal that was both evidence against him and a rare, beautiful creature, he put the bird in his full-sized freezer. He left it in there. He tried to forget about it.
Weeks passed. The brother finally decided to return to the freezer. He lifted open the big hinged door.
There sat the owl. Alive. The buckshot had not killed him; it had only wounded and stunned him. The bird was now doing fine. To stay alive the snowy owl had eaten virtually everything in the freezer—frozen meat, mostly, a familiar and delectable staple. Very kind of this human to stock just what I like.
The brother was amazed and relieved. He let the owl fly out of the freezer. With some effort, he was able to get it out of the house. In the wild, snowy owls have a life expectancy of only 10 to 15 years, so the bird has no doubt died by now. Seems to me its story ought to stay alive.
I know a lot of you would love to take a peaceful, beautiful hike today on Maine’s Mount Desert Island but can’t. So come along with Pamelia and me on one. Around 6 last evening we pulled off the road near Upper Hadlock Pond (just a few miles from The Naturalist’s Notebook) and headed into the woods on Hadlock Ponds Trail. It’s an easy walk, though it does have lots of roots and rocks to step on and over. Anyhow, come on. We’re going.
Hope you enjoyed the walk.
We met up in a western Maine parking lot: five amateur naturalists and a five-week-old Nigerian pygmy goat. We were ready to caravan a dozen miles and then hike up a rocky roadway into the woods to visit esteemed writer and biologist Bernd Heinrich at his cabin for an event Pamelia and I were calling a vernal pool party. Yes, we were doing serious work for an upcoming Naturalist’s Notebook art-science installation-collaboration, but we also had packed cupcakes.
The gathering had been postponed from the previous week because of snow on Bernd’s property, but this was a perfect day for studying, sketching and photographing frogs, bugs, insect eggs, plants and whatever else we could find in Bernd’s prime vernal pool. Vernal pools, if you’ve forgotten your high-school biology, are spring wetlands (usually shallow and temporary) that have no fish and are essential to the life cycles of many small animals and plants. Even a small vernal pool can contain hundreds of thousands of wood frog, salamander and insect eggs.
In our group was artist and educator Dorie Petrochko. She is president of the Connecticut Natural Science Illustrators program based at the Yale Peabody and is creating The Naturalist’s Notebook’s vernal pool installation; you’ll learn more about it this summer. She’s getting guidance from Yale Peabody Museum preparator Michael Anderson and 86-year-old Ruth Morrill, who is linked to the famous dioramas in the round by James Perry Wilson and Ralph Morrill (her late husband) at the Peabody and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Also contributing are top naturalists such as Bernd and MacArthur Fellow and turtle expert David M. Carroll, whose award-winning book Swampwalker’s Journal includes a fascinating and sublimely written vernal-pool chapter.
Marcelene the goat was our companion throughout an afternoon of not just vernal pool studies but also woods walking, tree cleanup, abandoned-cabin exploration, a double-birthday celebration (honorees Bernd and Dorie blew out the cupcake candles) and even an old fashion Maine baked bean dinner at the house of a friend of Bernd’s. We all went home with new insights into vernal pool flora and fauna. Marcelene—who lives with Renee and Brett at Sweet Pea Farm—discovered that she likes the forest. Here are some photos from the day:
One More Look at the Wood Frogs
I should have put this up a couple of weeks ago, when we saw it, but here is a wild scene from one of vernal pool near our home on the Down East coast. The wood frogs are mating in an amphibian version of wrestle-mania. The tangle of bodies is multiple males trying to find a female, and sometimes grabbing another male by mistake.
As you Facebook followers know, the Notebook was just chosen as a Best of New England destination by Yankee magazine. Not too many places in Maine made the list, and Yankee is the magazine of this region, so we’re pretty happy. Thanks for the outpouring of kind words after we posted the news on Facebook!
Earth Day Update
The Notebook’s Anthea Taeuber and her team took a portion of our traveling, interactive, spectrum-color-coded, history-of-the-universe timeline to the big Earth Day event in Redding, Conn., last Saturday. Anthea is writing a blog post for us on that event and the role the timeline will play at her high school’s Palooza celebration later this month. I’ll save many of the photos for that, but below is a glimpse of kids going through the timeline last Saturday. Good work, Anthea!
Answer to the Last Puzzler
Here’s the correct match of naturalist to quotation:
a) Jane Goodall: “My mission is to create a world in which we can live in harmony with nature.”
b) John Muir: “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”
c) David Attenborough: “I don’t run a car, have never run a car. I could say that this is because I have this extremely tender environmentalist conscience, but the fact is I hate driving.”
How many frogs are in the knot of bodies shown below? Don’t worry: They were all alive and apparently enjoying a mating (or post-mating) moment.
Each starts as one cell, then divides into two cells and then four cells and then eight cells and on and on in a beautiful illustration of nature performing mathematics: 2 raised to the umpteenth power. Frog’s eggs usually look like a dark, globular mass (or, if you will, dark, globular math), but the other day they shimmered and sparkled with clarity in the late-afternoon sunlight striking our local vernal pool. Pamelia preserved the moment in these photos. I think they’re cool.
Other Bird News
This was a first: I received an email request yesterday asking for permission to use one of my photos in a nature video about ducks. We’ll let you know when the video (which is going to be a humorous but educational one for kids) is available. The picture, which ran with a 2012 blog post about the death of a duck by our house, is below.
The Boston Photo (and Afterwards)
Those of you who follow The Naturalist’s Notebook’s Facebook page—or read the Mount Desert Islander newspaper—know that Pamelia and I experienced a freaky coincidence last Monday, the day of the Boston Marathon. At about 3 p.m., as we walked along the shore of Maine’s Western Bay, she found an unusual shard of sea glass with BOSTON embossed on it. It made us think happily of our recent trip to that city, and made me think of the marathon. The piece was beautiful, so I photographed it against the sky.
Back home about an hour later, I turned the computer on to download my photos and learned the horrific, almost unbelievable news from the marathon. I checked to make sure no one from SI had been hurt. When I put the photo and story on our Facebook page, it was clear that people needed to express their shock and sadness over the bombings. Many of them shared or commented on the photo. One suggested that we see it as a symbol of Boston’s resilience in the face of tragedy. I liked that perspective. The sea glass (which has 1850 embossed on it as well) had survived many years of battering by the ocean and had come through it looking beautiful. In the end, more than 26,000 people viewed the photo on Facebook, and the editor of the Islander emailed and asked if the newspaper could run it. The picture appeared on the front page.
The Boston tragedy and the story of the perpetrators continues to dominate the news and to strike a personal note with the two of us. In November we were in the Caucasus Mountains in Russia; on the other side of those mountains is Chechnya, home to the two brothers’ ethnic roots. One of the brothers shot a policeman at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, by the school’s Stata Center, where Pamelia took my photo last month (below). I didn’t even know the name of the architecturally distinctive building until I read a news account of the shooting.
The decisions made inside human brains are fascinating and, in cases like this, horrifying. We’re currently creating a brain room at The Naturalist’s Notebook because we’re among the many people eager to explore and understand the human brain. What neural connections or malfunctions make a person kill? What brain mechanism makes a person love? What makes a person rational or irrational, or even able to define what it is rational? What leads us to perceive a shard of old glass as a symbol of life, death, sports, terror, humanity, inhumanity and an entire city? The answers lie inside our heads, inside a five-pound organ that is more mysterious than the entire universe.
Answer to the Last Puzzler
1) Sir Francis Bacon died from pneumonia he developed while studying how freezing of meat can help preserve it.
2) The two cones in the photo are from a white pine and a white spruce.
Match the quote to the naturalist who said it:
a) Jane Goodall
b) John Muir
c) David Attenborough
1) “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”
2) “My mission is to create a world in which we can live in harmony with nature.”
3) “I don’t run a car, have never run a car. I could say that this is because I have this extremely tender environmentalist conscience, but the fact is I hate driving.”
Karen James has spent several years on an unplanned voyage into the space program. It has taken her inside a simulator in the Johnson Space Center in Houston; close enough to Space Shuttle launches to feel the concussive impact rattle her body; to telephone hookups with a doctor orbiting the Earth; and to the page on the USAJOBS website where anyone can go to fill out an application to become an astronaut. At least when there’s a vacancy.
Life rarely takes people on a straight, space-shot trajectory to a known destination. In the case of a Karen, a biologist at Maine’s Mount Desert Island Biological Lab, pursuing a passionate interest—not in rockets and stars but in a famous naturalist and a 200-year-old wooden ship buried under three meters of mud in an estuary in Essex, England—led to a surprising and wonderful detour into a realm she hadn’t focused on since she was a child. Karen has a photo of herself as a 10-year-old in Colorado Springs, walking onto the tarmac at Peterson Air Force Base with her brother and Air Force colonel father to view the Space Shuttle Enterprise, which was perched atop a modified jumbo jet that was transporting it across the West. At the time, she did not dream of becoming an astronaut. That would have to wait until she was in her 30s.
A few years ago, having finished her Ph.D. in the Department of Genome Sciences at the University of Washington, Karen was living in London doing doing post-doctoral research at the Museum of Natural History. Besides working on the Barcode of Life project (an effort to identify all living species based on DNA: http://www.barcodeoflife.org), she was coordinating the museum’s Charles Darwin 2009 bicentenary science campaign. She even appeared alongside Sir David Attenborough in the museum’s acclaimed film on evolution, part of which she wrote.
More significant to her astronautical future, Karen, who’s something of a Darwin buff, became a co-founder of the HMS Beagle Project (http://www.hmsbeagleproject.org). It’s a nonprofit campaign to build a replica of the 90-foot wooden ship on which Darwin spent five years doing his world-changing research. The replica will someday be a floating research lab for scientists from around the world. And yes, as you might have guessed, the original HMS Beagle is the ship that now sits buried in the estuary off Essex.
Karen’s Darwinian efforts made news. In 2007, an astronaut-in-training and doctor named Michael Barratt picked up a copy of the journal Science from a coffee table at the Johnson Space Center. He read a blurb about the HMS Beagle Project and was intrigued. He loved sailing, was looking for ways to link the space program to biologists and other life scientists, and calculated that he would be up in the Space Station at the same time the Beagle replica was projected to make its maiden voyage back on Earth. He did some Internet research, found that Karen was a fellow Washington grad, and wrote her an email that changed her life.
Michael proposed a collaboration between him in the Space Station and Karen aboard the Beagle replica—science done at both ends simultaneously. Karen, reading the email at home one night, felt her heart rate increasing. She flew to Houston. She met with NASA officials. Michael gave her a private tour of the Johnson Space Center. They flew the shuttle simulator together. Karen got to reach her arms into huge gloves and pick up precious Moon rock specimens through a glass wall. Even people who worked at NASA told her how rare it was for anyone to get the access she was receiving.
Good things kept happening. The HMS Beagle replica didn’t get built in time for Michael’s 2009 Space Station visit (it’s still in the planning/funding stage), but he and Karen—who was on a visit to Brazil—connected in an educational project. “Michael did a live interview from space with 60 Brazilian school children,” Karen recalls. “The children had memorized their questions in English. At the end of each question they said, ‘Over.’ And at the end of each answer, Michael said, ‘Over.’ The children were talking to someone in space. The parents in the audience had tears in their eyes.”
Experiences like that are powerful. So is the lure of space. Says Karen, “I was getting hooked on it.”
She attended Space Shuttle launches (“When you know someone who’s on board, it changes everything,” she says. “My stomach was up in my throat.”) She even covered a launch of Atlantis for the British newspaper the Guardian. After she posted on Twitter the photo of herself as a 10-year-old going to see the Space Shuttle, a NASA official wrote back in a note that included the phrase “when you go to space.” Whoa, Karen thought. When you go to space?
Why not? In November 2011, after NASA announced an astronaut job opening, Karen went to the USAJOBS website and began the process of persuading the space agency that she had The Right Stuff. “You apply for it like any other government job,” she says. Except, of course, that the application takes a lot more work to fill out, you have very little chance if you aren’t a scientist, an engineer or a member of the military (or some combination of those), and, in this case, 6,300 other talented people are applying for the same job. You’re lucky to make even the first cut.
But Karen did. She was one of 400 applicants who received letters from NASA telling them that they were “highly qualified” for the astronaut position. Karen jokes that she will someday use that as her epitaph: HIGHLY QUALIFIED.
From last October through January 2013, the winnowing process continued. Candidates went through FAA-designed physical exams. NASA contacted references. Judgments were made based on ….well, Karen isn’t sure on what. She was one of the candidates who did not receive an invitation to the next round of rigorous testing: four days of medical evaluations, one day of psychological evaluation, a half-day interview and, Karen speculated, gut-wrenching sessions in a centrifuge. “That’s my silver lining,” she says. “I didn’t have to throw up.”
Karen will try again to become an astronaut whenever the next opening is announced. The whole experience for her has been a silver lining without a cloud. It has been a reminder of the value of following passions, taking chances, seizing opportunities. We live only once on this little blue speck of a planet in the vastness of space. Why not live fully?
“Just applying for it changes everything,” she says. “You think, I could be an astronaut.”
Answer to the Last Puzzler
Sir Isaac Newton IS the source of these notable quotations:
• “To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction.”
• “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”
• “A man may imagine things that are false, but he can only understand things that are true, for if the things are false, the apprehension of them is not understanding.”
• “I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.”
He did not, however, say, “Knowledge is power.” That classic line comes from Sir Francis Bacon.
1) Let’s stick with the brilliant Francis Bacon (1561-1626) for the first question. He helped develop what we call the scientific method of inquiry (he pioneered the process of observing directly, gathering data and building conclusions) and his work influenced Isaac Newton (1642-1727). Conspiracy theorists have long claimed that Bacon actually wrote the plays credited to Shakespeare. Supposedly Bacon had to hide his literary identity to protect his political ambitions; back then writing plays to entertain the masses was beneath the stature of a statesman.
The Puzzler question: How did Bacon famously die?
a) He fell off a horse while testing the effect on a person’s directional sense of riding blindfolded.
b) He developed pneumonia while studying how the freezing of meat can help preserve it.
c) He developed trichinosis from eating undercooked bacon.
2) What kind of trees did these cones fall from (from left to right)? I photographed them on a walk here in Maine the other day.
a) white pine, white spruce
b) blue spruce, balsam fir
c) black spruce, hemlock
“Stop,” I said to Pamelia. We listened. “Are those the turkeys?” We were on a four-mile walk late this afternoon, on the warmest (mid-50s) day of the year so far here in coastal Down East Maine. We kept going, expecting to find our familiar feathered flock.
But then we neared a roadside vernal pool and realized: Those are wood frogs calling. Spring really is here.
Wood frogs are amazing. As they go through winter buried beneath leaves in shallow forest burrows, they can partially freeze. In fact, they can survive the freezing up to 70 percent of the water in their bodies for up to four weeks. Research has shown that their hearts can start beating normally again even before all the ice inside them has melted.
In doing some wood-frog research I discovered that the Fairfax (Va.) County Public Schools have an ecology website that’s pretty good. I loved its simple description of wood frogs and their mating behavior:
“To mate, males call females from the water. When a male sees another frog, he hugs it (called amplexus with frogs). Unfortunately, he can’t tell a male from a female until he does. Once he hugs the other frog, he can feel if she is fat with eggs, or if he’s grabbed another male. If he grabbed a male, that male will croak loudly, and this will make the first frog let go.
“When the frogs have mated, the female will lay a large egg mass, holding over 1000 eggs into the water. Usually, she attaches it to some sticks or stems of a plant.”
Nice job, kids (and teachers). If any of you blog followers want to escape into a Maine spring for one minute, click on this youtube video I made after our walk and just listen. It’s quite beautiful. If you look closely you can see the frogs moving in the water.
Angry isn’t the right word to describe a truculent wild turkey. I’m not sure anyone knows whether wild turkeys even feel what we think of as anger. A better description of the large birds that did battle in front of Pamelia and me this week might be territorial. Or mating-obsessed. Or, simply, male.
We heard lots of leaf-rustling and footsteps on one side of our house, went out to check, and saw four male wild turkeys in a pitched battle. Two turkeys were fighting one-on-one; a third turkey joined that bout, then briefly paired off against the fourth male. It wasn’t pleasant to watch, but it was a natural part of wild turkey life.
The term “alpha turkey” sounds like the set-up for a comedian’s punchline. Nevertheless, the goal of the turkeys’ fighting seemed to be to establish a pecking order on the eve of mating. Today we noticed that one of the males was not with the rest of the flock; we guessed that he was the loser of the main bout we watched.
Here’s a short video of some of the scuffling. Fear not: You will see no blood. One turkey did end up with a swollen neck.
Notebook in the Works
The second floor of this year’s Notebook will be out of this world. Visitors will be transported millions of miles into space and back in time 13.8 billion years. This weekend some kids helped us paint the soon-to-be Moon and Sun rooms and we all had a blast—or rather, a blast-off. It’s too early to show you photos of what the rooms look like—there’s more work to be done, and we want to preserve the element of surprise—but suffice it to say that we had a supernova time. Thanks again to Oberlin College physics professor emeritus and Sun/astronomy expert Joe Snider for joining us and adding his expert insights.
Answer to the Last Puzzler
The quote NOT from Rene Descartes was e). Francis Bacon is the one who said, “I will never be an old man. To me, old age is always 15 years older than I am.”
Let’s do more quotations. Which of these quotes is NOT attributed to Sir Isaac Newton, the discoverer of gravity, the light spectrum and so much else?
a) “To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction.”
b) “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”
c) “A man may imagine things that are false, but he can only understand things that are true, for if the things are false, the apprehension of them is not understanding.”
d) “I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.”
e) “Knowledge is power.”