Category: nature

here come the squid

IMGP0386-1day 4 out with mbari.  this guy is one of my absolute favorites to observe: Taonius borealis.  a small cousin of the colossal squid (same family, cranchiidae, or ‘glass’ squids), it’s one of our best insights into what the colossal squid might look like alive, and what it looks like is, quite simply, remarkable.  almost every part of the body is completely transparent, with the exception of a few viscera and the eyes, the silhouettes of which are masked from underneath by the ink sac and very large light organs on the eyes.  the squid can change from transparent to dark red within in a split second and has a wide range of appearances in between, with incredibly fine control over each individual pigment cell (chromatophore) on its body.  this one was at about 468 m when we found him, hanging out in the classic ‘cockatoo’ pose (see images and video link here).

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holy mola!

DSC_0400-1i know, the photo is not that spectacular… but we were treated to a Mola mola (ocean sunfish) sighting this morning under rather difficult conditions to capture well.  all was grey and the fish (two of them actually, surrounding by ogling albatrosses) were about 50 m from the boat.  they were small by mola standards, maybe a metre from fin tip to fin tip, meandering around in their strange sideways fashion, occasionally poking an eye out of the water to stare back at us, flapping their fins awkwardly and just generally looking like a pretty unlikely animal.  in addition to the black-footed albatross, some ?shearwaters (positive ID to follow) and northern fulmars were dabbling nearby.

tomorrow, photos of undersea creatures!

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whale, whale, whale

DSC_0289-1what have we here?  i’m back at sea!  i’m out on mbari‘s western flyer once more, ready for a week of deep-sea squiddy goodness.  we’re just getting ready to put doc ricketts into the water, but already we’ve seen some spectacular wildlife: the summer-resident humpback whales (plus otters, dolphins, sealions and murres) put on quite a show to send us out to sea!  more soon from far, far below the waves…

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a few days ago, just as the sky began to get light, we were awakened by a crash. my first thought was that a kereru/native woodpigeon had flown into one of the windows of the next room. if it were a bird, it would almost certainly be injured, given the force with which it had hit the glass (we felt the impact as well as heard it). so i padded downstairs to see whether anyone was lying stunned (or worse) on the ground. in the grey early light, it was difficult to see, but eventually i did make out an unusual shape sprawled among the pale green leaves of the juicy succulent that is slowly claiming the ground outside our guest-room window. when i folded the wings back in and turned the bird over, this is what i found.

20150330_071910this is a ruru or morepork (Ninox novaeseelandiae), new zealand’s only remaining owl (the laughing owl, along with about half of our other native bird species, became extinct between human colonization of the islands and the end of the 20th century). i had seen them before (and we hear them reasonably often–they make over 20 different vocalisations) but never in the wild, and never this close. his mottled rust-brown and cream feathers were smooth and silky on the wings, incredibly soft on the belly, and almost spiderweb-fine down the legs, to the surprisingly yellow feet. when i picked him up, his head lolled and his eyes were closed, but one foot grasped a fallen cabbage tree leaf, he was breathing, and to my great relief, the remaining tension in his neck showed that it wasn’t broken.

i gathered him in to hold in one hand, pinning the wings to the body. i’ve studied wild birds in the past but the usual hold, with the head supported between first and second fingers, would clearly not work for a bird longer than my forearm. even a small owl has wicked talons and an effective beak, so i hoped i wouldn’t have to explain a slashed wrist to our local emergency facilities (although, good story!). he seemed far from a vicious panic attack, though, so i took my chances. i carried him up to our small deck and sat to examine him more closely. as we walked through the door from the house back outside, his wide yellow eyes popped open and looked around, and he turned his head a bit to get a better look at his surroundings—and me.

owl eyes are unlike most other birds’ eyes; they are proportionally very large, forward-facing and set in flat facial discs and supported by the bony rings common to all raptors. up close, their size and vivid color make for an intense, piercing stare; the bright yellow-orange irises and extraordinary large black pupils of this morepork seemed to convey a much higher awareness than the eyes of most smaller birds. this is probably why owls have their reputation for wisdom across many cultures; in the traditional facial moko/tattoos of the maori, women wear a stylized ruru on their chins for wisdom. i was glad to see that the pupils, although remaining large, expanded and constricted together. the owl’s clear gaze continued to hold mine as i debated whether to test his ability to stand, or check him for injuries.

in the end, his improving head control (i only rotated him a little—for science) and the foot continuing to grasp the cabbage tree frond convinced me to let him try perching. i positioned him behind a bamboo gardening hoop on the deck and touched the perch to the top of his feet; he flailed a little and then grasped, crouching a little lopsidedly and continuing to peer around. while his coordination showed he was not yet fully recovered, nothing seemed obviously broken, although he did slowly tip forward until he hung bat-like from the underside of the perch. i re-collected him into a tea towel so i could isolate each limb and sat down to examine him more closely. i felt along his legs and feet; tension was good, i couldn’t feel any broken bones and he didn’t flinch at my prodding. his ribs, sternum and skull all seemed fine, so although his eyes had closed again, i thought he had a good chance of recovering after some peace and quiet.

20150330_071922i carried him inside with me (to the cats’ consternation—as indoor dwellers they don’t get to see birds on their side of the windows very often), procured a wooden beer crate and brought it back out to the deck with some fat sticks to make perches. i set the box with the open side facing out, positioned the sticks, and gently inserted the owl behind a one, planning to retry the perching prompt. he grasped one of the sticks with a foot, but fluttered his wings and made an awkward hop that brought him out of the box. once in the open, he looked at me, sprang into the air, and made a smooth, swooping, perfect flight over the deck rail, around the corner of the house, and off into the trees. so he was clearly… owl right!

big, fat, hairy christmas


do you see how jolly this avondale spider (molt) is?  i’m pretty sure she’s grinning from chelicera to chelicera… and i might even know why.  partly because i took this photo aaaaaaages ago and am finally posting it, but also for a more exciting reason: santa claus is bringing me tarantula molts for christmas!  long story short, one of my grad students was working with someone studying the genus Poecilotheria (arboreal tarantulas, how cool is THAT) and it came about that he had some molts he’d be interested in examining by SEM.  guess what–i can help :)  so they’re on their way, some large, empty, hairy skins of some of the most exquisitely beautiful (and sadly, at risk of extinction due to habitat loss) tarantulas i’ve ever seen.  i mean, look at this (borrowed from wikipedia here).  it’s BLUE!

File:Poecilotheria metallica.jpg

i’ll be looking at a few things on the molts including some systematic characters, which may even help understand this genus’ diversity a bit better–which could ultimately help in making a case for their, and their habitat’s protection.  i hope so!

i think 2014’s going to be a good year.  ::::)  all the best to you & yours!

an unexpected party


the elf and i like to go walking some afternoons in a beautiful and unexpected patch of forest called smith’s bush.  the 1km-long loop boardwalk weaves between many different kinds of native trees, some of impressive stature, and none more than the giant puriri (Vitex lucens) that tower over one section of the walk.  these trees are always amazing, with their knots and gnarls and resident giant puriri moths (which i have never seen but keep hoping to), but in this bush block they have reached a size i never previously knew was possible.  one group of four trunks in particular, all part of a single tree, is simply too massive to be imagined without standing next to them.  the canopy of these trees is also full of astelias (or ‘tank lilies’, or ‘widow-makers’), making standing around too long in any one place perhaps unwise.

we were making our way around the loop late last week in the slow, thorough stroll of new walkers who intermittently want to be carried, or perhaps practice walking backwards, or touch all the leaves close enough to the boardwalk (glad nz doesn’t have native cacti or skin-irritating climbers), when we discovered something new.  and rather than try to describe our whimsical find, i think i’ll just show you.




kanaloa smiled on us


while the views of the hawaiian landscape were mighty fine, some of our best memories are from the water.  we were able to snorkel right in front of our hotel on oahu, and it was warm enough to be in for an hour or more comfortably.  little pockets of reef hid darting butterflyfish and wrasses, staring triggerfish and bumbling boxfish, and even a white-mouthed moray eel.  large, intensely blue trevally wandered past while we dove down for glimpses of the shadow-dwellers, and it isn’t much of an exaggeration to say that i could happily have spent all day, every day in the sea.

luckily there was also a chance to show its wonders to the elf–we were walking distance from the waikiki aquarium, which offered arguably even better views of some of the same fish, plus seals, jellies, hermit crabs, and even the elf’s new favorite word, an OPOTUS!  (so.  proud.)

on kauai we also took advantage of a wide range of swimming opportunities, from a glorious snorkel along the na pali coast (one of the best i’ve ever done, and of course the camera was at home charging, so i can’t show you the sapphire depths or large sea turtle we ran into) to dark intrepid swimming holes in the forest, accessible by rope swing or zipline.  we kayaked up the huleia stream past the menehune fishpond (its alleged origins make a good story) and spent an afternoon playing with the elf in the shallows of another estuary.  some days we woke up, put on swim suits, kept them on all day never really got properly dressed…



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oh, HI


as usual at the moment, new material here means: recent travel!  we went to hawaii for our fifth wedding anniversary, bundling up the elf (well, actually, stripping her down since it was pretty warm, but holy CRAP does traveling with toddlers require a lot of luggage) to journey up to the sandwich isles, where we also met up with my mom and aunt.  we spent three nights in oahu — one of them not really a ‘night’ since our plane was delayed 5 hours and we got to the hotel at 4am — and four on kauai.  and it was BLISS.  lush forests, craggy mountains, dense and jungly vines, sparkling seas.  a little kid to introduce to sand and waves; babysitters on hand for when we wanted to to other things.  fresh fruit.  coffee-flavored everything.  shave ice!

i think i’m going to split the photos into a couple of batches, so i’ll start with what we saw on land.  we did some driving and some hiking, taking us along coastlines, through forests, and up mountainous terrain, so we got a nicely varied tour of both islands.


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sequoia national park

let’s have some arm-chair travel!  the pebbles has gone off to canada and england for a few weeks, and while i am partly jealous (he’s spending the weekend on vancouver island – hard not to be), i can’t say it would have been a terribly good idea for me, with just ~10 weeks to go until dragon baby arrives.  (yay! but also OMG NOT READY!)  so, with my old laptop intermittently playing nice, and a shiny new version of photoshop, i will try to wrap up the california trip from the end of 2011 (three national parks to go!) and console myself with the memory of some pretty good recent travel of my own.

the day after we drove through death valley, we awoke early in panamint springs and took stock of our plans.  our room had warmed up substantially overnight (it was about 4C/40F when we arrived the night before), so we were slightly reluctant to face the chill outside, but knew we had a big day ahead: we planned to drive to and through sequoia national park, hopefully seeing some impressive trees along the way, and staying on the far side – about 6 hours on the road, plus stops.  although our gas tank was nearly empty, we opted to skip filling up before we got underway, since the local price was $5.48/gallon ($2 higher than anywhere else we’d seen).

we were on the road in good time and enjoyed our final vistas of death valley, then turned southwest and skirted the strange, salty owens lake.  as happened often on this trip, we were amazed by how rapidly the landscape could change, as we passed stony, scrubby mountains backdropping lowland fields (with a few coyotes in one, playing among a herd of unperturbed cows) and then found the rather gorgeous (if artificial)  isabella lake nestled in a golden hollow, followed shortly by a little mountain town called kernville where we stopped for additional information about sequoia national park.  here we encountered our first and only real glitch of the trip – the road we had planned to take through the park is apparently closed in the winter, or at least unpassable to most vehicles.  i confess that i had naively not anticipated the possibility of california roads being only seasonally accessible.  a helpful ranger did point us in the direction of ‘some large redwoods’ by continuing along the road we had planned to take but then branching off toward a dead end; this would be about an extra hour in each direction but the scenery was lovely as we followed the kern river.  the higher we climbed, the more apparent it became how the roads could truly be problematic to normal vehicles; we passed iced-over waterfalls and, toward the end of the road, enjoyed a few exciting moments of skating along icy ruts in the shadiest parts of the woods.  the rock formations around us became increasingly dramatic and the trees larger (though we didn’t see any that really fit our mental image of ‘giant sequoia’ — apparently this tree was around there somewhere, but we didn’t find it, and from a political standpoint: good riddance), and the people fewer (from already not many).  when we reached the end of the road we parked and went for a short forest walk, crunching through the thin layer of crusty snow and hearing nothing other than our own footsteps, a few jays and crows, and the wind sighing in the tops of the trees.  while not as spectacular as we had hoped on the tree front , it was still gorgeous and peaceful.

the rest of the day was largely food-centered, which was not a bad thing — we had a delicious late lunch at the big blue bear cafe back in kernville (toasted pide wrap of pesto, goat cheese & fresh tomatoes, with my umpteenth arnie palmer to take advantage of the land where ‘lemonade’ doesn’t mean sprite), then made our final driving push to visalia, where a large and colorful mexican dinner finished the day off.  many miles covered, much scenery taken in, and more to do in the morning!


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