Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category

NASA announced yesterday (6/19/17) that their Kepler space telescope has found 219 new candidates for life-supporting planets in the universe. They keep finding more and more. Man, if this doesn’t give wings, no, rocket boosters, to my imagination! That said, chances that life evolved on any of these planets to a sentient point in sync with our own are infinitesimal, considering all the fits and starts it took us to get to where we are. Mass extinctions, severe climate fluctuations, natural selection, the age of our planet and solar system, things that like to eat us – from the inside and out, and so many other random factors (many would argue non-random) brought us to this exact moment.

antenna - My Favorite Martian

Uncle Martin

It took our planet 4.5 billion years to nurture a form of life that can wonder aloud about alien life and actively seek it out. And that only occurred within the very-most recent blip of time in earth’s history. There may be life on some of these planets but it’s unlikely they’ll look like Mork or Uncle Martin (there’s a reference for oldies). That life could be a billion years ahead of – or behind – our own. With regard to the former, it could be of an ilk that doesn’t reach out. Maybe it can’t. Maybe it doesn’t wanna. When you remove the carbon-based requirement for life (Hey, why not silicon?), who knows what can be out there? I’m not saying that would be the case, but I’m also not saying it can be ruled out. Many physicists are surely open to the possibility.

Now, NASA isn’t claiming that any of these planets support life of any kind. What they are saying is they are somewhat “earthish” in their size and distance from the sun. It’s something called the “Goldilocks Zone”. Because we know that our planet, of the size it is, and of its distance to the sun, does for a fact support life, a good starting point in searching for extraterrestrial life is to find planets similar to the one we know was successful in that regard. It all worked out here; why not elsewhere?

Despite these possibilities, I have difficulty believing UFOs are what some say they are. Yes, they’re “unidentified”, and they “fly”. And they’re “objects” (sometimes). But the idea that they traveled tens of thousands of years from another planet to visit us on this little mote in the universe is a bit anthropocentric (unless they’re really here to see the whales), and hard for me to imagine. Not impossible, but improbable. I do feel compelled to leave that door open a bit. To a civilization millions of years ahead of us it could simply be a coffee run. We do have good coffee on this planet – one of the perks (ugh) of the long, circuitous path of life on earth. Maybe they can fold time and space, a theory of space travel suggested by many in the field of astrophysics. The laws of physics dictate that ONLY light can travel at 186,282 miles per second (speed of light). Even if a traveler could approach that speed, at say 185,000 mps, that’s still a hell of a long trip. Bear in mind, too, that mass increases as it grows closer to light speed, adding what would seem an insurmountable challenge to the problem. Based on our current understanding of such things, folding space-time would be one of the few theoretical options left to make possible a trip from even the closest of these discovered planets. Hey, but maybe they know something different. And not to brag, but we humans do seem to figure things out over time, making possible what once seemed impossible. Maybe the whales know something (sorry, watched too much Star Trek*). But right now we humans are at the “impossible” stage.

Heady stuff…

Still, life of any kind existing anywhere off earth – even within the icy, high-oxygen seas of  Jupiter’s Europa, is dream fuel. And Europa we can do – we’ve already been there. How they/we will detect that life is beyond me. But one step at a time. Step one: As it’s done here on earth, find the right habitat. It seems we’re making some progress there.

So why do I care about humans finding something I will likely never see? As a naturalist, I spend a lot of time seeking out living things here on earth; fauna and flora I’ve never seen or heard before. There’s something about discovering another living thing that took a different life path to get to where it is now. We share a planet, an atmosphere, the victories (for now) over all of earth’s fits and starts mentioned above, and the chemical building blocks of life – DNA. I’m grounded by both their differences from the human I am and the many things we share. Every new thing I find gives an answer, but better yet, asks two more questions! It’s the questions that keep us moving forward. Expanding that search into the cosmos seems a natural extension. We don’t share a planet, but a universe. We share the same stuff that makes up all matter in existance. Will that bring us answers? No doubt. Will it bring even more questions? How can it not! I don’t care if it’s a single celled organism or endoparasitic xenomorphs. Just as I take tremendous armchair satisfaction in knowing there are places on earth teeming with life that I will never see, knowing life can exist elsewhere else in the universe is enough for me. (I do hope they’re not endoparasitic xenomorphs)


One of those xenomorphy thingys

Again, I think the chances of hearing from representatives of some cosmic community are slim – at least in my lifetime, and likely that of my children’s children.

But a haystack can surely hide a needle. And if one looks long enough…

*A good read! “The Physics of Star Trek” Lawrence M. Krauss


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A beam of Venus' light in Cape Cod Bay.

A beam of Venus’ light in Cape Cod Bay.

   Over the course of one month, I’ve witnessed two incredible night-sky phenomenon – each over a different bay in the Northeast. The first was “moondogs” over Winter Harbor in late August. The second occurred in Cape Cod Bay in North Truro, MA on September 28, 2013. Shortly after watching the sun set from our beachfront porch, our party observed Venus come into view directly across the horizon. It was the brightest “star” in the sky and it cast a long, pale beam on the calm bay.  I have seen plenty of moonbeams on the water, but never one created by another planet! Had I been sitting in a boat in that spot, I could have read by the light of Venus.

I tried to take a picture of Venus itself using my Coolpix camera set on “night portrait”, but, as evidenced by the photo below, I couldn’t hold the camera still enough. I think I need to cut back on my coffee intake.

Yeah, that's a handheld night-portrait-setting shot of Venus.

Yeah, that’s a handheld night-portrait-setting shot of Venus.

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I just came across a cartoon I did back 1994 – when I was president of the New Haven Bird Club. Part of the job was writing a “From the president” piece for our newsletter. I couldn’t think of anything to write that month, so I drew a picture.



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Cricket Radio: Tuning In the Night-Singing Insects

Most haunting of all is the one I call the fairy bell-ringer. I have never found him. I’m not sure I want to. His voice — and surely he himself — is so ethereal, so delicate, so otherworldly, that he should remain invisible, as he has through the nights I have searched for him.”

The actress portraying ecology movement pioneer, Rachel Carson, spoke these words in the 2009 film “A Sense of Wonder”. They were taken from an essay she had written in Womans Home Companion in 1956, called “Help Your Child to Wonder”. The passage recounted time spent searching, with her grandnephew Roger, for the sources of the “insect orchestra”, which swelled and throbbed outside of her Maine cottage from midsummer until winter.

Carson writes, “The game is to listen. Not so much to the full orchestra, as to the separate instruments, and to try to locate the players.”

She describes her fairy bell-ringer’s call as clear and silvery, and faint. It is “so-barely-to-be-heard, that you hold your breath as you bend closer to the green glades from which the fairy chiming comes.”

While I’m sure the scientist in Carson really did want to find that little “fairy”, I can understand why another part of her didn’t mind leaving it a mystery. There is something to be said for enjoying something for enjoyment’s sake. For the perpetually curious, it can be a challenge to override that part of you that needs to know more about those sources of wonder. Sometimes, as with the crickets she was unable to find, that choice is made easier for you.

I’ve no doubt she knew those crickets were not calling for her pleasure. They were hard at work at the business of holding a place for their kind on this planet. There could be no more urgent and consequential task to be undertaken by those insects, or for any creature. There was no joy in their song. There was no celebration; nor was there sadness or sorrow. Those “players” were throwing everything they had into propagating their species, and not by choice. They are hard-wired to do so. Yes, Carson knew that, but she probably also knew that there is a kind of beauty in those cold, hard facts. It is like the Mathematician waxing poetic at the austere elegance of the Pythagorean theorem. Physicists find beauty in the makeup of mass, matter, and motion. I suppose the common theme is balance and harmony — things working as they should. A cricket rubbing its wings is carrying out its purpose, as it should. There is something added to that, though. Sound has a way of stimulating our brains. It enters through our ears and resonates within the auditory cortex. The hippocampus, responsible for long-term memory, is located just below that auditory cortex. It integrates with this region, adding connections to our past, along with the associated emotions.

That beauty we derive from the songs of crickets, birds, and whales; the enjoyment of listening to waves crashing on the shore, or wind through the leaves, comes from our own perception, interpretation, and triggered memory connections. We are hard-wired, too. It is in design of the human spirit to be stimulated by things not undertaken for our own edification.

. . .

The preceding opens the first chapter for my new book “Cricket Radio: Tuning In the Night-Singing Insects” (Harvard University Press). Having grown up with an appreciation of the sounds of nature, the crickets, in particular, I set out to explore why they sing and what it is about their sound that touches the human psyche. In the process of doing so, I ended up writing a field guide to the Ensifera (crickets and katydids) and now, this book. The guide, “Guide to Night-Singing Insects of the Northeast” (Stackpole Books), represents the “how” when it comes to getting to know this group. “Cricket Radio…” is the why. Why should we open our ears to the sounds that drift in through our windows on a late summer night?

I think a clue can be found at the end of the second chapter:

. . .

Whether they are joined with others, or going it alone, there can be no question that Ensifera song has a purpose — several, actually. It is part of their inheritance. They are born with their auditory signals encoded in their systems. A singing insect is compelled to sing. To silence it, you’d have to tie its wings behind its back. This becomes most evident to me on those sunny November late afternoons, when I’m noticing how quiet things have become. The frosts have come and gone several times, a grim reaper harvesting the last of the year’s insects. The chorus has been silenced. And then, I hear a trill. It’s a lone Carolina Ground Cricket (Eunemobius carolinus) calling, feebly, and stuttering, from beneath a leaf in the side yard. The song lacks the vitality of its summer brethren, but those worn wings still move ablur. There are no females left to answer. It doesn’t matter. It is trilling because it has to, and it is giving it everything it’s got. It is the violinist playing as the Titanic is sinking. It’s what they do.

How can that not stir a soul?

. . .

For more information on “Cricket Radio: Tuning In the Night-Singing Insects, go to www.cricketradiobroadcast.com.
And go here for “Guide to Night-Singing Insects of the Northeast

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Great Crested Flycatcher shaking off a knock to the noggin

I was painting at my drawing table when I heard a bird hit the window in front of me. It hit pretty hard, but fluttered up to a branch on the birch just outside the window. It looked okay at first, but then the eyes slowly closed. The bird went into shock, looking as if asleep, but remained on the branch because avian feet must be consciously flexed to open.

There wasn’t much I could do. I watched from my window, which was only about four feet from the bird.

Then, slowly, the eyes opened. I grabbed my camera. How could I pass on that opportunity? I took my fill of shots, the window acting as the perfect blind. The bird took off a few minutes later. I heard it calling – “reeeeet….. reeeeet….” from the yard a few minutes later.

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Out Summer 2009!

Out Summer 2009!

What a journey this book has been on. It began at Northword. As I was halfway through the paintings, I got an E-mail from my editor saying Friday was her last day and the company was in the process of being purchased by another – nameless – company. She told me there were no guarantees the new company would pick up my contract. Their declining to do so, of course, would leave me unpaid for the work I did.

She said that it was up to me to take the gamble of finishing the book for some yet-to-be-named publisher who may have no interest in it. Legally, they were under no obligation to do so.

This kind of thing happens way more than you think in the children’s book publishing industry. I’ll tell you about a nearly identical situation with an upcoming (Fall 09) book I illustrated (A Daddy Longlegs Isn’t a Spider) some other time. I should say that as bad as I was feeling about the fate of this seashore project, I felt even worse for my editor, who had just lost much more.

I still had a month’s worth of paintings to create in order to complete the project. That’s a lot of time that could be spent working on other projects with a better outlook toward producing income. I don’t do this as a hobby.

I decided to keep going, the main reason being that I was enjoying the way the illustrations were coming out. I’ve done a number of children’s books with a nature theme, but this was my first about life on the seashore. This “assignment” forced me to explore a habitat I generally don’t make enough time for. Why didn’t I come up with this sooner? I mean, my job required me to hang out at sunny New England beaches. Oh, the sacrifices one makes for art…

One of the research highlights occurred while looking for sandhoppers, little crustaceans that live among the seaweed and hop like fleas (they’re also called beach fleas). I noticed that 2 young boys were watching me, trying to figure out why that man was sifting through the beach jetsam. They finally got up the courage to ask, and when I told them what I was doing, they asked if they could help.

This attracted more attention, and I was soon joined by a little girl, her brother, and then, her mother. I remembered being warmed by the sight of this loose band of seaweed flippers spread out along the beach hunting for something they most likely never noticed before. This is the kind of stuff I dream my books will inspire after they read them. That it came before, was just as fulfilling.

hermit crab "who's at the seashore?"

Oh, so anyway… the publisher turned out to be Taylor Trade, a division of Roman and Littlefield. They picked up my contract and it’s now a book. I guess my gamble paid off.


If you want a copy, and your local bookstore doesn’t have it, they will order it for you. Amazon and B&N carry it online – or go here.

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The blood-red eye of a vireo.  Oh the horror... OH THE HORROR!

The blood-red eye of a vireo. Oh the horror... OH THE HORROR!

A Rather Chilling Field Trip Report: Chatfield Hollow SP, Killingworth, CT, May 3rd, 2009 – for the New Haven Bird Club

Sixteen birders braved the (level, mostly paved) trails and (bit chilly) climate on a birding expedition into the most savage, untamed (lawns weren’t mowed yet) wilderness on that particular spot on the map. The rather modest total of 38 species was but scant reflection of the august efforts of the stalwart lot choosing to throw caution to the wind on that dark (overcast) Sunday morning.

Walking across a winding platform of mere lumber (the boardwalk), only inches above the roiling waters, we espied, at eye level, warbling Warbling Vireos and yellow Yellow Warblers. A Song Sparrow caroled, perched on an alder — typically a common sight, but this one sang a chilling version of its song none there had heard before. It was shortened; cut in half. Despite this, we moved on.

I know I was not the only one thinking we should have heeded the ominous warning of that croaking Common Raven we heard at the onset. Hubris; birding’s cruel mistress…

Curiously shrunken mockingbirds flitted like butterflies above our heads. These tiny “blue-gray” aberrations were surprisingly adept at “gnat-catching”, despite having to overcome the asthmatic wheezing this activity seemed to bring on. Two American Redstarts were seen and heard. Pine Warblers were not. Could there be a connection? Of course not. A Worm-eating Warbler was discovered along a stream. However, on this morning, and in this place, one could be forgiven for expecting to see worms eating warblers.

Louisiana Waterthrushes called, and yet, none were seen. How could this be?

One ray of sunshine was a Yellow-throated Vireo, who, like its Warbling cousins, chose to sing for us in the open, at eye level. It gave our loins the much needed girding for pushing forward. With necks craned at torturous, inhuman angles, we watched singing Baltimore Orioles and Northern Parulas. A lone vireo, its eyes blood-red, murmured to itself in short, repeated phrases. It was stuck in a vocal loop, oblivious to our presence. The bird was beyond anyone’s help.

Along a stream, a pair of Gray Catbirds tossed leaves angrily into the air. They may have been looking for food, but on this day, who could say? Hunger drove a normally sane Downy Woodpecker to hammer its bill, repeatedly, into an old black birch. White-breasted Nuthatches ran up and down the trunks of trees, scoffing gravity, and who knows what other laws of nature? That compelling force — hunger, undoubtedly pushed a Broad-winged Hawk into the air, where it whistled like a killdeer. An osprey circled over the pines. Was it looking for fish? Was it compelled by past success in finding fish in the upper canopy of the conifers?

On any other day, in any other place, I would not have even entertained such thoughts.

Sixteen people entered. Fourteen returned. Dean and Maryanne Rupp had succumbed to the whispered invitations of a path off the main trail. I could see in Maryanne’s eyes there would be no convincing them to leave the park. That was twenty-three hours ago.

I have not seen them since.

(Prepared for the New Haven Bird Club newsletter)

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book-coverMike DiGiorgio and I did an interview on NPR’s Faith Middleton Show. It was for our book “Guide to the Night-singing Insects of the Northeast” (Stackpole, 2009). I was at the tail end of a bout with bronchitis, and my voice barely held out, but managed to get through it.

NPR puts their shows online a few days later – you can hear it here –

Link to NPR Faith Middleton Show

About this book – We worked on this book for 8 years. I wrote “It started as a hobby, turned into an obsession, and then, when I decided to write a book, it became my job. As much fun as it’s been, I am looking forward to this becoming a hobby again…”

I figured the easiest way to tell you about it is by cutting and pasting the “Introduction”. Here it is:


We all hear them. The true katydids scratching out their raspy chirps; the crickets staging their choruses of trills. They are the sounds of summer. They have replaced the calls of the Spring Peepers and Gray Tree frogs, which have already seen to their nuptial duties. Come July, the night singing insects begin to sing. By the end of summer, they’ve reached their crescendo, filling the soundscape of every yard, meadow, woodland, and tree-lined street. Most of us take these sounds for granted. They are just there. But some of us listen. We hear these songs and are grateful for our ability to appreciate what they do for us. Sometimes the sounds create an aural thread to our past, bringing us back to another time and place. Sometimes, we just enjoy that very moment and realize there’s something going on outside our homes that may have little to do with us, but touches our senses.

But, what are making those sounds? While we can hear the katydids and crickets, we rarely get to see them. That cryptic ability allows them to survive. It’s not easy being a bug. There are so many other creatures out to eat them that evolution had to come up with ways to usher them to adulthood. Katydids took the path of cryptic shape and coloration. They look like the leaves and grass upon which they live. Field and ground crickets blend with the soil and dead leaves on the ground, and spend most of their lives under things. They possess a rich diversity of forms that allow them to look like what they eat and the habitat in which they live.

While most guides deal with the eyes – what things look like, this one focuses on the eyes and ears. I don’t know how this happened, but it appears orthoptering has arrived, and seemingly from out of nowhere! It helps that this new interest offers much of the satisfaction of the popular pastime of birding. For one, you have the songs, which can be used to identify the species. You also have the pleasing aesthetic quality of the makers of those songs. Add to that the advantages of having fewer species to learn and the fact that your subjects tend to spend their entire life in one area.

It could be that the growing interest in butterflies and dragonflies got people thinking that insects had more to offer in terms of “the hunt”. It is often the case that one interest leads to another. When you’re out looking for one thing, it is impossible not to notice what else is around. That’s what makes us naturalist types who we are. We’re curious. One answer leads to three questions. One pretty bug makes us want to see another.

However, while a swallowtail butterfly gets noticed as you walk down a trail, a bush katydid is just one of the many leaves along the way.

The purpose of this book is to make those leaves jump out at you. You hear them; now it’s time to put a face to the call. It’s time to see them.

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Board resting perpendicular to hill showing how much it has risen in the last few weeks.

Board resting perpendicular to hill showing how much it has risen in the last few weeks.

Something strange is happening in my yard. I’m not sure what to make of it. You see, there is a strip of lawn on the east side that was flat. In fact, it has always been the only part of my yard that is flat. Because of this, it’s the site where we set up canopies and chairs when we have get-togethers in warmer weather. I think we even did some lawn bowling there one summer. Why? Because it’s flat – real flat. Flatter than the proverbial pancake. You put a level on it and the bubble floats in the middle. It’s the kind of “broke” a person with absolutely no money would be. You know, like a giant skillet came crashing down upon it. Or like the sound a G string on a guitar makes when it’s a tad under-tightened. A straight line connecting two points on a plane, directly across from each other, would have nothing on this lawn. If you traveled back to the pre-Columbus years of the early fifteenth century and described this little stretch of grass to the average person, he would have said, “Oh, like the world, right?”

I just want to drive home the point that it was a flat level area. Always has been since we built our home here about ten years ago. Flat. Flat flat flat.

Then I noticed something when I pulled up to the house a couple of weeks ago. What was once a level strip is now a hill; a small hill, but a hill – and it’s been growing! The photo above shows that it’s about a foot high now. It runs along the length of that strip for about twenty feet. It was not there last summer! Believe me, I would have noticed. When I mow the lawn I save that area for last, because it’s the easiest to mow after about an hour of pushing the lawn mower up and down hills. You know, because of it’s flatness…

So what’s going on? Am I witnessing plate tectonics along the New England coast? Could this be the beginnings of a new volcano? Is there a really big mole tunneling beneath?

I have a theory, but won’t know if it’s correct until spring. This little area rests just west of an elevated area in the yard. That elevated area is often wet, in fact, I have cranberries thriving along its edge. When we first built the house, that level strip used to flood. I had to dig a trench to carry the water away from the foundation. I am thinking that water has collected beneath the lawn and froze in this long, cold winter. This is likely a wicked big frost heave.

So, I could be looking at one soggy patch of grass this spring. Time will tell…

Postscript: July 21 – Meant to tell ya’ll, it’s all been long flat a’gin…

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Betsy watching a Bald Eagle sitting on the ice.

Betsy watching a Bald Eagle sitting on the ice.

Betsy and I went eagling on Saturday. It was the first relatively warm day in a couple of weeks and we had to take advantage of it.

The Bald Eagles come to the Connecticut River from Maine and the northern provinces every winter. They seek out open water where they fish, and sometimes do a little duck hunting. It’s a regular phenomenon that draws thousands of eagle watchers every year.

This is the sub-adult Bald Eagle Betsy's looking at in the above picture.

This is the sub-adult Bald Eagle Betsy's looking at in the above picture.

I usually lead tours for different groups interested in seeing these striking raptors. There is nothing like watching someone see their very first eagle. This is a bird many have seen pictures of, and of course recognize as our national symbol, but have never imagined they’d actually get to see – and up close!

I took a break from leading trips this year, but still needed to get my fix in. The way I see it is if these birds are going to go through the trouble of migrating to an area within twenty minutes of my home, I owe it to myself to see them.

It’s good medicine.

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