Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Little Feathers of Sunshine

The American Goldfinches have begun to flock in the prairie at the Ecology Center. Two weeks ago we caught 30 golfinches in the mist nets. Yesterday I watched a few of the birds flutter around the tops of dried flowers, foraging for seed.

The Goldfinches nest later than other songbirds, sometimes as early as mid-June but breeding usually commences in July and August.. The finches time their nesting around the maturation of thistle plants and other wildflowers that bloom in mid-summer (such as the echinacea sp).

Male Goldfinches do not defend established territories, rather they defend their mate, especially while she is incubating or brooding chicks. The male also almost exclusively feeds the young while they are in the nest and will often form flocks and fly miles away from their nesting sites to forage for food.

I look forward to the mid-summer addition of the Goldfinches. They add a nice splash of vibrant color to the prairie and it is wonderful to hear their sweet song. I'll be keeping my eyes open for more photo opportunities and keep you posted on their activity.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Backyard Enemy

When I declared war on the weeds in the backyard a few years ago, I made a few enemies: Honeysuckle, Winter Creeper and Roses of Sharon to name a few, but none have proved to be as powerful an enemy as Poison Ivy. Sure, their numbers are few, but they have the big guns in their arsenal, Urushiol resin. This is the stuff that causes contact dermatitis (in layman’s terms, the God awful rash and itch that never seems to disappear).

Urishiol is indeed a potent weapon. Just one nanogram (or one billionth of a gram) causes a rash and the oil can be active on any surface, including a dead poison ivy plant, for a period of up to 5 years.

I’m convinced that I break into a rash as soon as I see a poison ivy plant. Back in the summer of 2001, when I was out doing bird work in the woodlands, I developed a rash from poison ivy exposure seven times. Since then, I’ve been pretty good about keeping an eye out for the poison ivy plants but I’ve developed contact dermatitis 3 times since I began the war against the weeds in April. The first two cases were very minor; a smattering of a rash up one arm and the around my wrist, but the third episode was a big one and I knew EXACTLY when I was exposed.

I was on the battlefront yanking honeysuckle a few other unidentifiable weeds when I pulled a poison ivy plant hidden amongst the foliage. I was ambushed and subsequently unprepared for the long vine that trailed behind the dreaded leaves of 3. I let out an anguished howl as the vine brushed across my bare legs. I glared at the enemy in my gloved hand but smiled grimly. I may have been ambushed but I knew how to neutralize the enemy…or, at least I thought I did.

I made 2 huge mistakes that day. The first mistake was wearing shorts while weeding. The second mistake was…well, read on.

Knowing the clock was ticking (you have anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours to rinse off the resin before it sets in), I quickly bagged the remaining weeds and put the clippers away. I knew cold water was the antidote to the Urishiol resin and I knew my legs were hit but I didn’t know the extent of the damage. I was hot and sweaty from the war efforts so I decided to take a shower. That way, not only would I be rinsing off the sweat and grime, but the resin as well.

I slept worry-free that night, thinking I had successfully neutralized the enemy…until I woke the next morning to find my legs covered in that all-too-familiar rash. Nooo! What happened? I was so confident in my plan that I even skipped the Tecnu application. Well Ladies and Gentleman, what I did NOT know was that warm water will open your pores and let the Urishiol soak in. I simply made the situation worse. Further reading informed me that repeated rinsing with cold water is the best treatment for poison ivy exposure. The rash lasted for nearly a month and the faded remnants from the encounter with the enemy still remain on my legs.

Not long after exposure to that poison ivy fine, I came across this giant.

(Reconnaissance photo taken with my BlackBerry phone)

That’s the biggest poison ivy plant I’ve seen to date on the battlefront. I do believe long sleeves in addition to the pants and gloves are going to be needed.

The intense heat and humidity has suspended the backyard battle but when the weed pulling resumes, that plant will be the first to go.

Sometimes during the evening, I’ll go outside and look at that poison ivy plant, assessing the dangers and plotting my course of action. The wall of protective weeds will need to be removed first and I may have to attack from behind. I’m also convinced that that plant is measuring me as well, devising a way to slip in between the armor of a sleeve and glove, perhaps even springing up to brush a cheek or a bit of hair before going into the yard waste bin.

I know that plant isn’t going to go down without a fight. Let’s hope I can keep the personal damage to a minimum.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Photos from the field: The Bugs and Blooms edition

Checked nest boxes today at the Ecology Center and was just itching to take photos with the new camera. Yes, it's finally growing on me now that I'm figuring out the advanced functions and the peculiarities that have accompanied the camera in its age (Very much like a used car).

I consulted with my entomologist friends on insect identification. As we all know, there are thousands of insect species and I am mostly unfamiliar with WHERE to look a bug up in the field guide. Speaking in bird terms, if I see a small bird with a thick bill, I think that bird is mostly likely a Vireo species, so I know to look in the Vireo section of my book. With bugs, well, I have NO clue, but thankfully, I know people who do know which section of the field guides to scan first.

Once my friends and colleagues responded with the species, I went a step further and did a little research on the internet. So without further ado...

I first came across this large moth on the edge of the woods.

It is most likely a Beloved Underwing (Catocola ilia). As with most moth species, the female Underwing emits an airborne pheromone and the males use their large, brushy antennas to pick up and follow the scent plume. The eggs are deposited on tree bark and hatch the following spring. The caterpillars eat the leaves of White Oak, Burr Oak, Northern Red Oak and Black Oak trees. Adult moths are found June - September.

On the edge of the north side of the prairie, I found a Bumblebee resting comfortably on the leaf of a Cup Plant. I love the way the wings shimmer in this photograph.

There is a small patch of prairie on the southeast corner of the property and I came across a section that was alive with buzzing wings. I spent a long time taking pictures.

I originally thought this to be a Thread Waisted Wasp, but I've been since told it is actually a Thick headed Fly (Conopidae sp). Now that I've seen photos of both, I can tell the difference.

As you can see, the Thick headed Fly mimics the appearance of a wasp and there are 70 species in the Conopidae family. The mimicry protects these insects from predators and they deposit their eggs into the abdomen of their hosts in flight. I found this insect among several bumble bees, honeybees and other flying insects and I learned this is common behavior. When the larva hatch they will eat their living food, from the inside out.

After reading all of that, I can't help but wonder how many of the bumble bees I photographed have little Conopidae eggs inside their abdomens, just waiting to hatch...

Let's end on a positive note, shall we? I found this little skipper, most likely a Fiery Skipper, resting on a Slender Mountain Mint plant.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Fit Club

July marks the first year anniversary that I began FitCamp classes. FitCamp is a mix of cardio and resistance that meets for an hour in a city park twice a week. The class is lead by Exercise Guru, a sprightly woman who is a personal trainer and lover of boxing. It all began when I reconnected with a friend from High School through Facebook. For several months she had been talking about this class and curiosity, coupled with the desire to get in shape prompted me to attend the classes.

The first month was rough. Soreness was a constant companion, especially the first week when going down stairs and sitting down was a painful chore. But my stamina grew over the months and my muscles adjusted. Exercise Guru quickly grew on me and I marveled over the countless creative ways she found to make the park where we exercised our outdoor gym. We lunge-walked up hills, ran up steps, used park benches to tone our triceps and biceps. We sweated through the summer and fall in the park before moving inside to an Activity Room at a nearby grade school for the winter months.

The torture, er, “fitness”, continued as Exercise Guru proved again we didn’t need the fancy provisions of a gym. We just needed our trusty weights and exercise mat. There were the “mountain climbers” (body in an “A” position as you jogged in place) followed by push ups, the “kayak” (you sit up straight on your bottom as if you’re in a chair, with your legs extended and you “paddle” with your weights), jumping jacks and jogging in place. Before the end of the month, I was exercising at the back of the room next to a wide open window. Exercise Guru would work me up into such an awful sweat that I came to look forward to the brain numbing cold during class days because it make the indoor exercise more bearable. Minus 5 degrees you say? Great! That meant the sweat would turn into little ice cubes on my forehead when I stuck my head out the window.

About a month or so into FitCamp, I began exploring other exercise possibilities to add to my class and found Yoga. I went to yoga classes at the Yoga Center for about 2 months. While I immensely enjoyed the calming effects of the poses, the class was too big for my liking.

When Exercise Sunshine (Guru’s substitute instructor for FitCamp) began her HardBody yoga classes in the late fall, I was elated. I was always happy to see Sunshine filling in for Guru and felt an almost immediate kinship with her. Sunshine’s HardBody Yoga proved to be a challenging class that incorporated strength training, stretching and breathing. We always began with modified Sun Salutation before doing such poses as Bridge, Dolphin, Tree (my favorite!), Warrior, “Froggy” or Downward Dog (and Sunshine, Downward Dog has finally grown on me!). And just because you’re on the mat doesn’t mean the work is easy. Try balancing one side of your body relying on just one hand and foot for support, or holding the plank position (starting position for a push up) while kicking one leg higher than your waist, then the other leg and doing this for 30 – 60 seconds.

Through these 2 classes I’ve learned quite a bit about myself. I’ve learned patience with my physical limitations and imperfections. I can only do a limited amount of cardio. Running, jogging, and skipping still leave me standing in my tracks. But I can run, jog and skip a little further than last year. Push ups are still a bitch and I still can’t grab my big toe with my fingers when stretching. But just because I can’t do as many pushups, run as fast or stretch as far as the woman next to me (or most of the other women for that fact) doesn’t mean I’m out of shape. Exercise, as most things in life, is not an all or nothing endeavor. I still get impatient and frustrated with myself, but I’m in class and doing the best that I can.

Both classes have proved to be an integral part of my routine. Classes are a must now, not an option. I talk about the class often, not only to provide accountability for myself (I want to answer “yes” when one of my friends asks me if I went to class) but to spread the word…these classes have made a huge difference in my life and maybe that enthusiasm will spark the desire in someone else to incorporate some form of exercise in their life. Because if I can exercise, anyone else can too. Fitness of body and mind is not out of anyone’s reach.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Pictures from the new camera

I started taking pictures with the new camera last night. I played with some of the options (exposure bracketing and shooting mode). Focusing was a bit of a problem under poor lighting but I had the same issue with my Rebel G.

This is the best picture I took last night

This morning I took some pictures out on the prairie. There were a few incidents where the subject wasn't in sharp focus.

I took the following photos this afternoon in my small garden bed in front.

Plan to take lots more pictures this weekend.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

I know it's just a camera but...

My camera broke last week. The auto focus stopped working on all my lenses, but I could still manually focus and take photographs. I’ve been going through the 5 stages of grief from the moment the auto focus shut down.

Stage One: Denial

I played the “I can still use the camera, it’s just the auto focus, I’ll just manually focus when I take pictures. No biggie” like a mantra in my head.

I wasn’t ready to accept the fact the camera was broken. After a few days of manually focusing, I tried the auto focus and it still would not work. I tried another line of thought. Maybe the camera wasn’t really broken, maybe it just needed to be cleaned. After all, I was constantly changing lenses outside and it was possible that dirt, dust and pollen could have entered the camera body during one of those times. I knew Creve Coeur Camera and Video cleaned cameras for $50. That would be an acceptable option. I could afford $50 and a week without my camera.

The next 2 stages were kind of meshed together and they both hit on Tuesday when I went up to Creve Coeur Camera to see what the staff could do about my camera.

Stage Two: Bargaining

“Hi. The auto focus on my camera isn’t working for any of my lenses.” I said to a young salesman.

He took the camera, turned it on and tried the auto focus with both my 35 mm and telephoto lens. After about a minute of fiddling, he placed the camera on the counter and stated the obvious. “Yup. The body of the camera isn’t working.”

“Does it just need to be cleaned?” I asked hopefully.

“No. But I’m not sure what’s wrong with it.”

He proceeded to tell me a $250 deposit was required to fix the camera and it would be shipped to the manufacturer for repair. He mentioned the store sold used cameras for less than the price of the deposit to fix my broken camera. I wasn’t quite ready for the idea of buying a new camera, but I followed him to a glass case filled with cameras of every make and model. He pulled out a Canon Rebel G (my model) and another upgrade. I stared at the cameras, feeling sad as the reality of what I needed to do began to dawn on me.

I told the salesman I needed to call my husband. The cameras were well within our budget and I knew Dan didn’t really care one way or the other if I bought another camera, but I think I needed the reassurance and comfort. Reality was proving to be an ice cold slap in the face.

Stage Three: Anger

When I called my husband, the salesperson did not give me any privacy. The man did not move. When I moved 5 steps to the right, the salesman followed me and even leaned across the counter as I told my husband what he told me. I stared at the man expectantly but either he was oblivious to the significance of the stare, or he chose to ignore it. I did not have a favorable opinion of his intelligence or tact, so I’m thinking he was just an idiot.

When I got off the phone, the salesman showed me the Cannon upgrade and claimed that the lenses from my Canon G would fit on this newer camera. The telephoto lens did fit, but the 35mm lens did not. He said there was one 35mm lens that did not fit on this model and obviously I had that 35 mm lens. I also told him I had a macro lens and I was concerned that lens would not fit so I wanted to go home and bring the macro lens back at a later time.

“What kind of macro lens is it?” He asked.

Sensing the hungry wolf on the other side of the counter, I replied “I don’t know. That’s why I need to go home and look at it. It was given to me as a gift and I don’t use it very often.”

“I could look it up in the computer if it was bought here.”

The anger that was simmering just beneath the surface was coming to a rapid boil and threatened to spill out of my mouth with that “suggestion”. He was being pushy. I was nothing more than a commission check in his eyes. He didn’t review all the bells and whistles on the camera. If he cared about my satisfaction and loved photography, he would have pulled out all the stops on this camera. He had no idea what was on that camera and that was obvious when he was surprised that my 35mm lens didn’t fit on the very camera he was trying to sell me.

I politely thanked him, went to my car, called Dan back and just let it all spill out. While I was angry at the salesman, deep down I knew I was more upset about my broken camera. Dan suggested I take the camera to Schillers Camera on Manchester. He also mentioned he emailed me a thread on a forum on Rebel G’s and the problem I was having with the auto focus. Evidently this was a common problem and not an easy fix.

Stage Four: Depression

I didn’t want to read that article because it would have made my impending loss all the more concrete. But the visit to Creve Coeur Camera started the reality ball rolling and there’s really no stopping the facts once they get going.

So I had a broken camera. The camera that was an extension of my eyes, my soul, was broken. The camera that captured breathtaking sunrises, the vivid colors of landscapes through the seasons, recorded the countless birds, bugs, smiles and memories of good times with friends and family was dead. I knew it was just a camera, but it was so much more than just a tool. It gave my creativity, my memories, even my thoughts, physical form. This camera recorded my personal history, captured plants and invertebrate subjects in photographic form for me to examine later in a field guide. It also gave me the opportunity to share my love of birds and nature with other people.

So went the depression phase.

Stage Five: Acceptance

Last night I went to Schiller’s Camera with my precious, broken camera in tow. Dejectedly I went through the same dialogue with a different salesperson. But where the Creve Coeur salesperson was indifferent to his trade, the Schiller’s person was enthusiastic and although he did try to sell the more expensive used camera, he respected my budget constraints and went to town showing me all the options on a Canon 20D. He took photos in the store, showed me a few tricks and let me take some photos with the camera as well.

I left the store an hour later with the Canon 20D. I’m still sad and not 100% excited about my new-to-me used camera, but I imagine once I start playing with it, I’ll be won over. I’m going to test it out tonight.

As an aside note, I do plan to keep the Rebel G. It is still functional. If I go out to a place where I know I will use both my 35mm and telephoto lens, I may pop one lens on one camera and the other lens on the other camera. Logistically speaking, this will be cumbersome, but I know this practice is the norm with other photographers. I'll make it work.

Monday, June 14, 2010


I’m a loser of keys. If I am not looking at my keys when I put them down, chances are likely that later I will forget where I placed them. Fortunately the episodes of key misplacement are usually short, but there are the times when the few moments of searching turn into several minutes of frantic, panicked searching. Sunday was one of those days.

I was already running late for my yoga class when I couldn’t find my keys. I looked in all of the odd spots where I sometimes place my keys when I’m not paying attention: the table next to the love seat, the pants I was wearing the previous day, the bathroom (don’t ask), the bed and the dining room table. I even looked in my car. After 10 minutes of searching, I called Exercise Sunshine.

“I can’t find my keys. I’ve been looking for them for the last 10 minutes and I can’t find them!” I was talking a mile a minute and I recognized the slight panic in my voice that always accompanies the extended key searches.

“Take a deep breath. You will find your keys. Where was the last place you remember you having your keys?” She asked.

“Well, I remember what pants I was wearing. I checked my pants.”

She laughed and offered a few suggestions before I found them. They were in their usual spot next to the kitchen door that leads to the garage but I had placed a cloth bag over them in a moment of inattention.

Last year I couldn’t find my keys and they were right in my face. Again, I was running late, but this time for work. I called Bug Girl in a state of panic. I raced around the house picking up papers, looking under tables, out in the car and everywhere in between while the 2 of us brainstormed on where my keys were. I finally sat on the floor, nearly in tears when Dan walked in, looked at me and said “Are those your keys right there on the loveseat?”

Yes folks, the keys were right at eye level, in plain sight, on the love seat.

A few years ago I had to cancel a doctor’s appointment because my keys were in the passenger side door of my husband’s car. He was at work.

But the best (or worst) key misplacement happened just this past April during my trip to Texas. My rental car was a 2010 Nissan Altima which did not require keys. The car was started by pushing a button on the steering column. However, you did need the accompanying remote to be within the car to be able to successfully start it. I arrived Sunday afternoon and by the end of that night, I had lost and found the remote(s) at least 4 times.

Monday morning I met up with a colleague on a Walmart parking lot at 5am to carpool to his workplace. He worked with the endangered species Black-capped Vireo and I spent the day in the field with him banding the birds and searching for nests. He drove me back to my car 4:30 that afternoon and my keys were gone. We pulled everything out of my backpack and his car. No keys. Gone. They were just gone. I told him I probably lost the keys somewhere in the field when I was pulling my camera out of my backpack.

After 30 minutes on the phone with the rental company I learned that it would cost me 200 dollars to replace the lost remote (they had no spare remote. I had the spare. Why do these rental agencies not keep any spare keys? ) and the cost of towing the car back to the rental agency. They also regretted to inform me they did not have any spare cars to give me for at least the next few days. The news went from bad to worse when I called AAA and the man on the other end of the phone wasn’t sure if he could safely tow my car without its remote.

By 5pm my options had run out and I was in a state of panic. I was stranded in a Walmart parking lot in the middle of nowhere with a car that may not be tow-able. I walked to another rental agency and got in the door just before they closed for the evening. Just as I walked out with the keys to my new rental car, my cell phone rang. It was my colleague. He found the keys to the Nissan on the passenger side floor in his personal vehicle (He dropped me off in the company truck because he was going back to work). I must have dropped the keys on the floor instead of into my open backpack. It was dark and I was still sleepy. I didn’t think to double check my backpack once we were out of his personal car.

You would think that after that horrible ordeal I would have learned my lesson. 30 minutes on the phone, the threat of being stranded in the middle of nowhere, the panic…apparently my memory is short-term. But my keys aren’t the only items I lose on a regular basis. I lose my phone, debit card and flash drive. I just came off a 7 year library hiatus because I lost 2 library books.

As I stated before, if I’m not paying specific attention to the item that is in my hand when I put it down, it’s as good as lost. But my keys are the worst. Not sure what I can do to rectify this terrible shortcoming. I’m just glad my head and appendages are attached to my body.