Black Vulture on light pole. Photo by Steve Schwartzman
Saturday, December 22, 2012
Black Vulture on light pole. Photo by Steve Schwartzman
Thursday, December 20, 2012
This morning while on a bicycle ride through the “wilds” of suburban Sarasota I had the pleasure of watching an adult River Otter (Lutra canadensis) lope across Cooper Creek Parkway in front of me. The otter came out of a wetland to the south (right on this aerial image) and then run to the median of the road. There, as he attempted to cross the road and continue north he encountered some traffic that convinced him that crossing the road was a life-limiting activity. Wisely he turned around and went back to the artificial wetland. I was lucky and got to watch him twice.
The yellow pin shows the location of today's River Otter sighting. Not exactly in the middle of the wilderness
Spring Creek east of Rice Lake Wisconsin. I learned more basics of biology along this stream than anywhere else on earth.
River Otters just being River Otters
The contents of an Otter toilet
An Otter pelt. This picture was downloaded (without attribution) from Google Images.
Paul Theroux ended his epic trans-Africa journey while riding the commuter rail from downtown Cape Town to Simon’s Town. It was a route that I mimicked when I was in Simon’s Town. It was as far south as anyone can travel by rail in Africa. Completing his journey, Theroux boarded the ultra-plush five-star Blue Train and rode it from Cape Town back to Johannesburg. The Blue Train website says this about the train and its service:
|The opulence of South Africa's Blue Train|
|East Africa - Where We All Began|
We are all the same through all of our differences. We all began from the same place and we adapted to fit our local environment. In ecology it’s referred to as “adaptive radiation.” It works for birds and it works for fish and it also works for human beings. If you think pragmatically about the origin of human beings all of the evidence suggests that we first appeared in East Africa. From there human beings radiated out in all directions until we have occupied virtually all of the earth except the rapidly melting poles. However, at the level of our DNA, everything is the same no matter where you are or from where you came. What is curious to me about that observation is the realization of what color skin was on the first hominids. Most probably because our first ancestor arose in East Africa where the bulk of the population today is black, there is a very good chance that our original ancestor was also black. From those black beginnings we changed with time into white people who lived in colder climates where there was less intense sunlight. We also evolved into yellow people and red people and brown skinned people because we adapted to the environment into which we moved. We all came from the same place and we all looked the same. Then evolution took over and everything changed. One of my biggest pleasures is explaining this theory to xenophobic racists. White’s may be the dominant race economically, but they are not the dominant race at the population level and they were not the dominant race when evolution made homonids stand upright. Still at our core we all remain the same. That is something that can only be learned by travel and by exposing ourselves to things and places and people who make us feel uncomfortable. Eventually if you learned from your experience all those things become a part of who you are. It’s a lesson more people need to learn.
|Air France Business Class Lounge at Johannesburg. I Love Air France|
Check-in for Delta’s nightly nonstop from Johannesburg to Atlanta was scheduled to begin at four in the afternoon. Because my reservation was in Business Class I was given access to the Air France Business Class lounge where I read several newspapers and news magazines and I caught up with some of what had happened in the world while I was away. The juxtaposition between where I had been and to where I was returning was stark.
|Dinner - Lion style|
As I sat in the departure area waiting to board my flight, a group of bible thumpers from Iowa who had traveled to Swaziland to do a week of good deed doing, sat waiting in a group of chairs next to me. They had built one house in a Swazi village during their week and felt that their effort would cause them to get a merit badge from god. Despite accomplishing their mission, they looked dumbfounded when I asked if any Swazi people had helped them in their house-building endeavors.
|Do-gooders building a house in Swaziland. Note the lack of any Swazi's learning from them.|
“Nobody but our group from Dubuque helped us,” Benton, the leader of the group and a local dentist, told me with great pride. “You see it was our mission to build homes for these poor people who have so little.” When I asked why they didn’t teach the Swazi’s how to build houses so they could do so when his group had returned home, Benton said rather emphatically, “You don’t understand the mission of Christians do you?” I think I understand the mission of Christians perfectly and that is why I long ago gave up on organized religion.
|Business Class seat on Delta's 777 from Johannesburg|
|US Customs and Immigration - Atlanta International Airport|
Telling him a bit more about my experiences I mentioned the leopards, and about watching African elephants tearing limbs from trees just because they could, and watching the puff adder, and the story of the man whose leg was bitten off by a great white shark, and how beautiful the Karoo desert is at dawn, and about Upington, and about Springbok rugby, and about Lambert’s Bay, and about everything I came to love and appreciate about South Africa. We talked for fifteen minutes and finally the Customs agent said to me as he waved me on, “I think you should write a book about your trip.”
Wednesday, December 19, 2012
Tuesday, December 18, 2012
If I was a betting person I would bet, with some certainty, that most people with an ecological consciousness remember the day they saw their first sandhill crane. For me it was a cold early April morning in 1968. I had recently earned my driver's license and decided that it was time to take off exploring. The Crex Meadows Wildlife Management Area near Grantsburg, Wisconsin was about two hours from home - far enough to be "away" but close enough to get home to if it turned out to be too far away.
My main reason for traveling to Crex Meadows that day was to see an osprey, a species of bird that then was almost extinct. Its population was declining at a rapid pace because of chemicals placed in the environment. One of them, DDT, took a special interest in causing the shells of osprey eggs to thin. Thin eggs meant that adults crushed the eggs when incubating and that meant no baby ospreys. For some reason, however, ospreys were doing fairly well at Crex Meadows. Something I read somewhere told me that with a modicum of luck, if I searched long enough, I might see one of those fishing eating hawks.
Not long after arriving I found a large reservoir where a group of dead trees occupied the center. In one of those dead trees was a pair of ospreys repairing winter's damage to last year's nest. Despite my anticipation it took me only a few minutes to see an osprey and begin learning about them - how they flew, how they fed, how one squawked at the other when there was a squabble. About mid-morning I heard a voice to the south that was unlike any I had heard before. It was loud and trumpeting and seemed to fill the entire basin of Crex Meadows. I searched the southern sky and in the distance, I saw two small dots that looked at first glance like fighter jets. Their wings were set and there was no motion. They were losing altitude like a plane would do. They continued to call this primordial call from as high in the sky as I could detect them. I could tell nothing else about them.
Norman Stone was the first manager of the Crex Meadows Wildlife Area. He had been there since the 1940s and probably knew every tree and every grass on his domain by its first and last name. Norm came along in an old beat up pickup truck as he patrolled the area. When he stopped to ask this sixteen year old kid what I had seen on the marsh I told him about the ospreys. More importantly I said I was perplexed by this noise in the sky from what I thought was birds but were too far away to really tell.
"Ah," Norm said, "You get to welcome back the first sandhill cranes of the year to Crex Meadows. They should have been here a couple days ago. I guess they just took their time getting up here from Florida." Not knowing a thing about sandhill cranes I asked Norm for more information and like a gushing river he filled me with his knowledge of where they come from what they do, how they live how they die and what makes a crane a crane. Stone also told me that sandhill cranes were a living reminder of primordial America. They were on the landscape long before the American bison showed up and with luck they would be on the landscape many years after humans take leave of the planet.
Stone also told me about a story in a book by Aldo Leopold that I needed to read. The story was called "A Marshland Elegy" and it was an essay in a book called A Sand County Almanac. Norm told me "If you want to understand how things were and why they are today like they are today you need to read that book. And when you do you'll know a lot more about sandhill cranes." As I stood on the road by the reservoir and listened to Norm tell me about cranes, the birds I had heard now looked like gigantic bombers making their final approach to the meadows. They ultimately heralded their arrival with a triumphant bugle once they stood on the ground. It was a sound that never left me.
In 1979 I was conducting research designed to figure out how to keep water in the Nebraska’s Platte River for sandhill cranes while allowing agricultural development to continue. At the time more than eighty percent of the world's sandhill cranes descended on the Platte River each spring where they prepared themselves for the rest of their migration to northern Canada, western Alaska and to eastern Siberia. I vividly remember a conversation one March morning with a corn farmer near Kearney Nebraska. He could tell from the emblem on the side of the truck that I drove that I was with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. He waved me down, gave me a thorough chewing out because of who employed me and then informed me in no uncertain terms that I should carry a side arm for protection "because you're trying to save those god damned cranes." I owned a .357 magnum pistol at the time and it promptly went under the front seat of my car no matter where I drove.
Luckily with the passage of time and education efforts the attitudes about cranes on the Platte River have changed dramatically. Where once farmers were threatening my life because I was protecting a bird, now those same farmers referred to them as "our cranes." Where once the Omaha World-Herald newspaper wrote editorials bemoaning how water flowing down the Platte River that hadn't irrigated corn was wasted water, that same newspaper now writes editorials about the need to protect an obscure flower from going extinct.
Throughout my career as a wildlife biologist I was able to study sandhill cranes in Alaska, central Canada, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana, Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Idaho, and Wyoming. I once spent ten days with them in Cuba and still remember the blistering cold morning on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea watching a flock of sandhill cranes fly over me and land in Russia just a few miles away.
Living in Florida we are lucky to have so many sandhill cranes in so many places. For me I often don't need an alarm clock in the morning. I am regularly blasted out of bed by the duetting call of a pair of sandhill cranes who have decided that my development is ground zero for their territory. Each morning the pair sends a message out to all of cranedom that this is theirs and any interlopers better keep on keeping on.
Of all the nearly 6,000 species of birds I have seen worldwide I feel no greater kinship with or love for any species except sandhill cranes and with that kinship a love of all species of cranes has blossomed. I watch and listen to them every chance I get. And each time I do I still have a synapse in the back of my head that reminds me of that day long ago when I first heard them herald their triumphant arrival on a primordial marsh in the wilds of northern Wisconsin.
Sandhill Cranes on Nebraska's Platte River - the ONLY place to watch Sandhill's
Wattled Cranes in South Africa
Gray-crowned Crane - WOW!
After a long, bumpy, desolate trek across the Karoo, I crested a small hill and saw Calvinia laid out before me. It appeared as a green oasis on the floor of the desert surrounded by massive Utah-like buttes. Two trucks had passed me as I drove north and two others passed me as they drove south during the seven hours and 130 miles that I drove on the R 355.
Rolling up the sidewalks on a Saturday night in Calvinia