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2018 Year of the Birds

8 Feb

Like Jonathan Franzen (author of this article), birds were just simple pleasures in my life until my fourth decade. Watching groups of evening grosbeaks chatter and bully each other in the large feeder outside my cabin’s picture window was often the amusement of my winter days in Maine. As was observing parental red-tailed hawks on fir tree branches teach their fledglings to fly by taunting them next to the pastures in Oregon.

Thinking back, the enchanting swans in the fog that occasionally visited the small ponds of spring melted snow in the field next to the house I grew up in, the majestic snowy owl that often perched on a large tree branch in our back yard looking at me while I sat in my snowsuit and looked at it……. These are still vivid memories that probably contributed to my path to become a biologist so many decades ago.

Learning about their evolution (and ties to dinosaurs), their adaptive biology and physiology, the unique complexity of colorful plumage, the often amusing social interactions with each other and within their ecosystems, their impressing tenacity to migrate thousands of miles, their inherent traits that we covet as amusing (such as the burrowing owls clownish movements), and even ornithologist’s taxonomy, which reveals more about ourselves than the animals; it all deepened my respect and wonderment for the world of birds.

Now, in my retirement and no longer in the whirlwind of academic life, birds have become more personal and intimate, which has increased my passion for them. Holding a six-week golden eagle nestling while working with two USFWS biologists to band and collect data was like holding an angel in my hands. Bird surveys allow glimpses into aspects of their lives: breeding, migrating, feeding, competing, parenting, and housekeeping. Handling birds while banding them with metal ‘bracelets’ is more than just data collection; it is a rare and privileged opportunity to share a moment of respectful interaction between bird and human.

This winter by a lake in west-central New York State has provided me with the same fascination and enjoyment of my childhood. Instead of purposeful counting, naming, banding, and poking, I have been simply a bystander observing and enjoying that simple delight. When the small group of four trumpeter swans expanded to 19 swans, I was out on the edge of the lake with binoculars searching for them every day. When an adult bald eagle swerved down from the air to instantly grab a fish from the water barely 25 feet from the side of my kayak, I was a giddy kid again. Watching the antics of house finches play hide and seek in the weeping elm tree next to the deck made me smile and laugh. While I stood on the edge of the Genesee River gorge this past fall, a male American kestrel flew and kited below me with the sun gleaming off its blue feathers. It was like watching a ballet in the air.

Many people share a passion for birds. For some its about ticking off names on lists, some fans have favorites and spurn other non-favorites, others travel around the world to see exotics, and many colleagues think about them mostly when they are a component of their research. Others delight in watching birds out their windows, and I know a few that give them their own names. Many avid birders organize and participate in bird watching groups, which sometimes amusingly reminds me of bird social behavior.

We all have our own source of what birds bring to our lives. And there is a growing number of us that work towards improving the world in which birds live. In today’s human-contructed world, we attempt in diverse ways to protect them from disappearing. Part of this mission entails educating people on how wonderful and important birds are, part is “boots on the ground” activism, such as volunteering with groups that rescue and rehabilitate injured and orphaned birds, or participating in bird counts that provide numbers from which we can estimate populations and movement. The importance of the latter is information to help us manage and improve habitat for birds.

This year is dedicated to the birds. Learn about birds, all birds. Let birds expand your world and share it with others. You don’t even have to learn their names. It’s just that simple.

Nature in Photography

6 Feb

A week or so ago on FaceBook I was nominated by two friends to participate in the #challengeonnaturephotography meme. Although I rarely participate in these memes, the thought “Why not?” prompted me to give it a try. The protocol is to post a nature-themed photograph, include the hashtag, give kudos to the friend that nominated you, and then nominate another friend in the caption.

I played by the rules for three days. Then life got in the way (long days in the field), and I got lazy. I posted when I had time, dropped the official hashtag, the nominators, and ran out of FB friends to nominate. I keep my FB friends to a relatively small number (up to 50 now!), and friends who are into photography have already participated once or twice.

Now I submit a story with the photograph instead. Why? Because photography to me is a storytelling medium. Today’s photograph is a glimpse into the secret lives on the ‘little people’.

Nearly every day for three months last summer, I was privy to an entire world few of us see in depth and detail. I felt like a giant studying, learning, and enjoying a network of soil, water, plants, and insects……….at their level. Sometimes I was so giddy with childlike delight, I forgot who and what I was. And I was full of anger and intense sadness when part of this magical world was destroyed by humans. That, too, was a lesson I won’t forget.

Revealed below is a monarch butterfly larva and several cobalt blue beetles all ‘doing their thing’. They use milkweed as a common food source. Yet they tolerate each other. I have watched members of both species consume leaf material, side by side without conflict. Here, two beetles are copulating, undisturbed and unfettered. While the monarch voraciously chows down, preparing to form its chrysalis. This, however, is only one tiny window into the lives that live in the ecosystem in which I immersed myself.

Most nature photography depicts landscapes of empty agents and actors. Or portraits of animals, still and silent in pose like a person sitting for a photograph. To me this is an injustice to the inhabitants of the landscape as they live out their drama and narratives in those spaces. Few ‘nature’ photographs reveal the complex interrelationships within the landscapes and with their fellow animals. They fail to show the communities of life in places other than within our own human preconceptions and expectations. As if we strive to capture and show only a snapshot in time and space that suits what we want to see.

In addition to the beauty, the silence and solace depicted in landscape and wildlife portrait photography is a dynamic world of creatures living their lives just like we do. The drama, the beauty, the good and bad, birth and death, at every level; from micro to macro. There are stories out there that are not of our own.

And we can learn from them: About their lives, their interactions with each other and how we interact with them. We can even learn about ourselves.

Think about that the next time you are out in the natural world. Take time to observe before you press on that shutter release button. You never know what you might find.


Fifth instar monarch larva and cobalt blue beetles on showy milkweed.

Letter to a tree

9 Nov

Dear Tree,

I want to thank you for guiding me along the path I have followed for nearly six decades. More accurately, the many paths I have taken. Consequently, this letter is to all of you; all the trees. Because I have met many of you since I was but a sapling myself. And I know that many, perhaps millions of you, most I have never seen or touched, have also guided me along, and still do.

Although my six decades are but a blink in time compared to the decades, even centuries, that many of you have lived, you might remember me. Possibly as a toddler hugging your rough bark. Maybe as an adolescent climbing up into your arms, sometimes sitting in your embrace for hours at a time while watching life below and the skies above. Perhaps as a young adult when I built a small cabin of your wood amidst a northeastern forest of you all, both those that hold on to your leaves all year and those that hibernate in the winter.

It was during those years, a span of a decade or more, in that cold but beautiful area, that you and I became close. I would sit on your feet that were buried under the soil and listen to your stories. I watched closely all the insects, birds and animals that lived in and around you, as you fed and housed them, just like you did me. And it was then that I fell in love with the marriage between the ephemeral but cyclic nature of things. It all became a process within processes; never-ending cycles that overlap with others. Which evolve into a constant turning and churning of systems and context. In which we all live and die on this planet.

I watched and learned without trying to ascribe a name to everything I was aware of. Names weren’t necessary. Until I discovered that trying to communicate my observations and your stories to other people was unsuccessful. Humans like names so that everything has a label and can be categorized. And while I understand that now, I didn’t back then. Mainly because it seemed that once it was named, when the name was learned, everything else lost its importance. Especially that which was named. And to me, that seemed wrong.

But I decided to play the game and enroll in university to learn the names, and learn about the names that were attached to all the trees. Then possibly I could impart a sense of knowing about all of you that was greater and deeper than the names they gave you. And perhaps the more they got to know you, the more they would care about you. All of you. So I began my university studies in Forestry, which is the science of trees.

But that was fraught with issues, too, as I later discovered. The primary focus in my studies was not how trees take care of themselves and interact with their environment, but how people should take care of them so they can get the most out of them as fast as possible. Yet, I did find a few people who sincerely cared about you. They studied how you grow, what makes you sick, how we can help you avoid diseases and assist you in achieving and maintaining a healthy environment for yourselves and all the other creatures that share it. Including us humans. I followed them and learned much. Such as preventing overcrowding so that you can all share the same resources, reducing disease, and encouraging saplings underneath. We also learned when to just leave you all alone.

Many years later, I realized I needed to learn about other creatures and organisms, because they share your home, too. When I left my favorite woods and trees, I grieved at leaving you all behind. I still do. I moved thousands of miles away to a place where the Grandfathers live. Where trees are so tall and big around that the only way to see them and hear their stories was to lie on my back for hours. Even then, I could not see all of them. They were grand, many so old that their stories betrayed our presence on this planet as mere badly behaved babies. And, after seeing what we did to them, we were certainly due for a good punishment.

On that side of the continent, I learned more about the microscopic world in which you live, right down to the smallest particles of energy. I learned the stories of how you acquired the machinery, in chloroplasts, to harness energy from the sun. And how the powerhouse organelles inside our own bodies, the mitochondria, are not that dissimilar from yours. And how even they originated from microscopic organisms, eventually incorporated into our bodies during a time we can’t fathom. In fact, the more I learned about all the other organisms, the more I felt closer them, and they to us. Most importantly, I learned that we are more alike than different.

In that time, and thereafter, I felt a kinship with all of you and all the other organisms around me. And around us. I also learned how we are all related in many ways, and interconnected. I dare say, my friends, that I realized why I couldn’t live in the large synthetic places where humans are packed together. Not enough trees, other plants and animals. Our manufactured contrivances cannot substitute for the natural places you thrive.

Later, I moved to an entirely different environment, where in many places, trees don’t grow. Those that do are dwarfed, contorted and often sport thorns that catch and scratch. But these are merely adaptations that help them survive in a harsh environment. Severe climate, harsh sun and scarce water have dictated their adaptation and evolution to favor survival here. Some plants have even evolved to use more than one photosynthetic pathway to efficiently conserve water and produce nutrients. If only we humans could adapt as easily.

This past summer, after forty-two years, I visited the trees of my youth. I felt like a little fairy meandering about your big stems anchored in the soil. I felt your bark again, stared up at your giant heads in the sky, and gathered your fallen leaves like they were drops of blood that dripped on the ground. I know you were done with them and let them go, but to me they were precious jewels. You reminded me of my youth, and I walked hand in hand with my own childish self. You reminded me of my young adult admiration and dreams. And my older self, now losing my own leaves as they dissipate into the air where no one will gather them to remember.

I want to be buried at your feet, where my organic self might feed you. I want to give back the essence you have given me. Part of me wants to be tossed out as carbon ashes into the wind of the desert, where the small contribution might somehow be gathered up the xylum of a desert flower as it struggles to propagate in fantastic color. And I want to ride the wind, in song and ash, to blow around the world singing this letter to all the trees. And thank them all for giving us so much when we give back so little.

When you whisper in the wind, hear my whispers that I love you.  And I thank all the trees, shrubs, flowers and grass, the fungi, lichen and insects, the mammals, fish, and birds, all that live in your world, for making me who and what I am.

Your friend,


Column 2: Tricksters Visit Closed Canyon

27 Jan

In Closed Canyon along the Rio del Norte, TX

Second column for Alpine Daily Planet. Byline:

Editor’s note: Elzi Volk, the Alpine Daily Planet’s newest columnist, offers a trickster story about a visit to Closed Canyon, a revision for context outside of the series “The Green Lizard Cafe.” Volk says she likes this for several reasons: “It is informative in our scientific acceptance of the field of geology, and it contains a version of an Eastern Native American creation story that I revised with respect to offering a myth that counters scientific narratives, but is valid (and applicable to our location in Big Bend). The style is in itself a trickster to the Anglo conventional styles of stories, in which animal voices are not ‘acceptable’ (pah, I say!). And because, in the trickster fashion, it questions our philosophy about and our views of ‘Nature’ — innate [intrinsic] versus anthropomorphic value. I may be a scientist/biologist, but I love stories. And even science, all science, is comprised of narratives and contains many stories that are subject to interpretation and change. I like to be, and am known for being, the Trickster in science, as well as in other subjects; I like to challenge people to think. And we need Tricksters now more than ever. For how else can we ask questions of each other and ourselves?”

eep, eep!

26 Jan
Happy Retired Chimps

Happy Retired Chimps

Following the foot and hand steps of my ancestral primates, I have voluntarily retired from academia and moved to my Sanctuary. Luckily, my Sanctuary meets the proposed NIH standards: “requirements that they live in groups of at least seven, have a minimum of 1,000 square feet per chimp, room to climb, access to the outdoors in all weather and opportunities to forage for food.” You can find me, and other local primates, grinning and laughing just like the chimps in the photograph. On the other hand, the retired chimps from the NIH labs will be hard-pressed to find their own Sanctuary. I say let them loose outside. They could teach all of us a thing or two, especially humans that live in city jungles.

As for me, my career amongst the other cloistered research primates is decidedly over. However, I do look forward to occasional forays with a few research primates and other species outdoors as we teach and learn from each other. Hopefully we can extend that knowledge to the other primates that live in their city jungles. We might even learn how to all get along with each other.

eep, eeeep!!!

Living in a Sunset

13 Dec

Sunset in Big Bend, Texas.

Seems no matter where one is, even in town, one can see the greatest starts and ends of the day as the sun rises and sets on the horizon. It always fills me with warmth, power and awe.

In his book, Unweaving the Rainbow, Richard Dawkins discusses at great length that understanding nature’s mechanics need not destroy the beauty and passion of life. John Keats, one of the classic poets, complained that Newton’s experiments with prisms and his discovery that explained the physics of colors in light destroyed all the poetry of rainbows.

But in biologist Dawkins’s world, and mine, science is poetry. The world as rich and full of wonders. And, if one lets it, it is a source of pleasure. Even the interplay of the tiniest molecules, the orchestration of DNA with its environment, and the show-stopping color-plays as light and atmospheric refraction.

In my scientific pursuits – science of the natural world- science does not destroy, “but rather discovers poetry in the patterns of nature.” The millions upon millions of patterns of snowflakes, the undulating folds of the mountain side, standing on the top of a jagged uplift looking at the flat valley below and hearing the piercing scream of a hawk coasting below your feet. Knowing that millions of years ago, this lifted ground was thrust upward violently and ripped apart while the earth shook, like a planet giving birth. Looking at thousands of years of evolution swirling around in the white viscous DNA in the test tube held between your fingers.

Sunrises, sunsets, rainbows – these are but a few of the many wonders of science, nature and poetry.

“A Keats and a Newton, listening to each other, might hear the galaxies sing.” (Dawkins)

Every Day Counts

10 Dec

What does one do when retired in Occupied New Mexico?

Hike and walk in the arroyos.


Watch the sun rise.

Practice with new camera.

Go for meandering rides.

Drink iced tea.

Watch sun sets.

Visit with ghosts at odd hours of the day.

Relax with friends around the campfire.

Play with the dogs.

Photograph and ID plants of the Chihuahuan desert.

Sit outside with cuppa joe in the cool mornings and relax in your pajamas.

Every day counts.

The Green Lizard Cafe

9 Aug

Stories are the magic of life. They translate everything we see, feel, touch and hear into meanings that are often open to several interpretations. But that is what reality is; interpretations of what we experience, despite how real or unreal they may seem. Storytelling, and stories, are the conversion of life into meaningful experiences. They provide a connection between ideas, thoughts, meanings, and all the stuff of life; life of ourselves and others that surround us. Even rocks tell stories.

Early in 2011, I uploaded several stories written about living in the desert of Big Bend, Texas. Not just humans, but all the other life forms with which we share the desert. And that is what it should be; shared. As Firesign Theater touted decades ago, “We’re all Bozos on this bus!” We are. So let’s share it with each other, and have a good time doing so.

Welcome to The Green Lizard Cafe. Links on the main page access Episodes 1-6. I’m sure that when I move Home, more episodes will follow.

Green Lizard

Photograph by Elizabeth (Betsy) Langley

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