Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Avatar: Seeing the Natural World Anew

The Hammerhead Titanothere from Avatar

During a coffee break at a meeting with my colleagues last week, the conversation turned to Avatar, arguably the greenest (or bluest?) mainstream film to date. One of my friends commented, "Great! Now we're not "green" enough! How are we going to capture the public's attention about the frightening loss of biodiversity unless we've got bioluminescence and floating jellyfish?"

Then, I read a slightly different take on the topic in an article by Carol K. Yoon in the New York Times ("Luminous 3-D Jungle Is a Biologist's Dream," 1/19/2010). Here's an excerpt:

Please excuse me if I seem a bit breathless, but the experience I had when I first saw the film shocked me. I felt as if someone had filmed my favorite dreams from those nights of sleep when I wander and play through a landscape of familiar yet strange creatures, taking a swim and noticing dinosaurs paddling by, going out for a walk and spying several entirely new species of penguins... Less than the details of the movie, it was, I realized, the same feeling of elation, of wonder at life.

Perhaps that kind of potent joy is now the only way to fire up a vision of order in life. Many of my fellow Gen-X biologists were inspired to careers in science by the now quaint Time-Life series of illustrated books on animals or by the television program Wild Kingdom. But maybe that isn't enough anymore.

Maybe it takes a dreamlike ecstacy to break through to a world so jaded, to reach people who have seen David Attenborough here, there, and everywhere... Maybe Avatar is what we need to bring our inner taxonomist back to life, to get us to really see.

And waking up and seeing is what Avatar is about...
Personally, I don't think either take on the topic is exactly right, but I'm leaning toward Ms. Yoon's sentiments.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Astonishing (but Natural) Disappearance

Early one morning last week, I came out of the house to get the morning newspaper and immediately smelled a skunk. Skunks are often roadkill victims or prey for Great Horned Owls in my neighborhood, so I didn't give the odor much thought. On my way to the curb, I saw the source of the odor, lying dead alongside the driveway and--just out of the corner of my eye--a Great Horned Owl swooping off into the woods next door.

Then, about a half hour later, on my way out the door en route to work, I noticed that the skunk (and odor) had disappeared. Had I dreamt or imagined the whole thing? (Key some X-Factor theme music...)

About three days later, I was working in a brushy part of the yard and came across the tableau pictured in the image above. The skunk carcass had reappeared, this time accompanied by a huge owl pellet full of skunk hair. Mystery solved.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Winter Getaway: Riviera Maya in January

Waiting for bottlenose dolphins to surface in the Caribbean Sea at Si'an Ka'an Biosphere Reserve,
Quintana Roo, Mexico

For over a decade, I have pleaded with my wife to devote some of our vacation time to the Riviera Maya, the 60-mile stretch of beaches south of Cancun. We almost went several times, but every time we tried to book an eco-friendly hotel, it seemed like it had gone out of business, or had retreated to a new location further and further south of the burgeoning development spreading from Cancun, so we never committed. My wife is a university administrator and only has certain windows of time when she can get away when the university is not in session, and the time between the holidays and the Martin Luther King holiday is one of those times. She always complains that she has time off that she can't take, and that she hates winter, but we never do anything about it. So, this year, I took the bull by the horns and marched her into a travel agency between Christmas and New Years, and we booked a 6-day, 5-night trip to the Riviera Maya. Because it was so late (we planned to go before January 18), we didn't have much time to do research on accommodations, so we relied on the travel agent (and some quick reviews of Mexico travel guides), and chose an all-inclusive resort just outside the city of Playa del Carmen, about 30 miles south of Cancun. We're not "all inclusive" type people, and this was our first exposure to such a resort (sort of a mega-cruise ship concept on land), but I don't regret the decision.

We had a great time.

It could have been warmer (upper 60s and low 70s; typically, it's about 80 this time of year), and it could have been sunnier (partly or mostly cloudy nearly every day, with one full day of rain), but compared to the deep freeze gripping the eastern half of the United States while we were there, it was paradise.

We took two excursions, one to Si'an Ka'an, a national park/UNESCO biosphere reserve at the far south end of Riviera Maya, just north of Belize, and a second to Chichen Itza, the excavated Mayan city in Yucatan state.

Before we left the United States, I frantically tried to find a birding guide to Mexico. There isn't a single good field guide. The guides that are available are (1) too large to carry into the field, (2) too poorly illustrated, or (3) limited only to the birds indigenous to Mexico, excluding those also present in North America and migrants from North America wintering in Mexico. So, I express-purchased from Amazon the Peterson guide to Mexican Birds, and carried along my copy of All the Birds of North America. It was mostly all for naught, anyway; we saw very few birds--except for the utterly ubiquitous Great-tailed Grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus), which were everywhere.
Alex, our guide to the Si'an Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, scouting for dolphins and sea turtles. Alex is a transplanted Italian from Rome who fell in love with the Yucatan.

Si'an Ka'an (the Mayan name for the area which means roughly "where the sky was born" or "contemplate the heavens") is a mangrove swamp-upland dry forest-coastal strand complex. We took a boat from the fishing village in the preserve, Punto Allen, in search of common bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), sea turtles (loggerhead [Caretta caretta] and hawksbill [Eretmychelys imbricta]), and a Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata manificens) rookery, all of which we saw. We also got to snorkel in the reef off Punto Allen, and to loll in a 4-foot-deep natural sandy Caribbean "swimming hole."

A group of six Italian tourists who accompanied us on our tour of the Si'an Ka'an Biosphere Reserve. We're all waiting for a sea turtle (visible just under the surface) to come up for air--which it promptly did just after I made this image.

Visiting Chichen Itza was something I had always wanted to do, but never thought I'd actually accomplish. It's probably in that book of 1000 Places to See Before You Die. It's really a remarkable place and, even though we were there for three hours and it was not particularly crowded, I could have spent at least several more hours there. I felt like we just scratched the surface of what's available. One aspect of the visit was a little disconcerting: there are hundreds of native craft vendors everywhere--outside the gate, inside the gate, and lined up along every inch of the periphery of the site. All are hawking their wares, and all have about the same kinds of items, most (but not all) of which are junk.

Yours truly at the great pyramid at the Mayan city of Chichen Itza.

Our daylong tour to Chicken Itza concluded with a stop at a cenote (water-filled sinkhole) for a swim. The Yucatan peninsula is underlain by limestone, which dissolves readily and collapses into sinkholes connected with underground rivers.

The beach at our resort, the Iberostar Tucan. In the center background, at the edge of the water, a huge, dark fabric bag filled with sand is visible. These erosion control devices, which we nicknamed "beach whales," were deployed all along the beach to try to retain the sand.

The beach at sunset on a rough day. The hotels on the island of Cozumel, 12 miles off the coast, were glowing in late day sunlight in the center of the image.

Tropical image: The tile grillwork on the stairwell landing between floors at our hotel.

The developers left a small area of native habitat on the grounds of the hotel, then introduced some of the region's animals. This is a Great Curassow (Crax rubra), which lives in the Yucatan. I'd never be able to get an image like this if I were out in the forest.

Resident free-ranging wildlife takes advantage of the hotel grounds, too--even the developed portions; capybaras (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris) roamed the hotel lobby, and howler monkeys (Alouatta palliata mexicana)made homes in the trees outside out hotel room. The hotel complex includes numerous interconnected ponds and watercourses containing huge goldfish--and many "minnows." This Great Egret (Ardea alba) (and several Snowy Egrets [Egretta thula]) knew a good thing when they found it. Breakfast is served (to humans in the dining room in the rear, and to the waders in the front).

Rivernorth Chicago Dance Company: Superb, As Always

Rivernorth Chicago dancers Cassandra Porter, Christian Denice, and Hanna Brictson in Tuscan Rift

Rivernorth Chicago came to town this week and gave a performance that affirmed my contention that this company is among the (if not the) most consistently inventive, delightful, and technically skilled contemporary dance companies performing today. The entire evening of seven dances was wonderful (with maybe one exception--Ella--danced to an energetic scat medley by Ella Fitzgerald), but two stood out above the rest: the first dance, Evolution of a Dream (2009), and the fourth, Forbidden Boundaries (2009).

Evolution of a Dream was a wee bit too frenetic and spastic for my anal-retentive demeanor, but the music was great, the energy was intense, and dancers were spot on. My wife turned to me after the applause died down and asked, "How are they going to top that?"

Well, they topped it with Forbidden Boundaries, a high point in a many splendored evening. The dancers were clad in sheer white blouses over white Speedo-tight shorts and halter tops. The bodies were perfect--especially that of Christian Denise (pictured above), who is incredibly well built but yet almost impossibly flexible. The dancers' blouses billowed like clouds that instantly transformed into restraints as partners yanked the blouses over the heads and shoulders of the dancers or bound their arms with the stretched sleeves. The piece built to a dazzling climax as the dancers finally rejected their restraints and boundaries, casting them onto the floor

I've seen Rivernorth Chicago three times before and have never been disappointed. The standing ovation they received on Saturday evening was more than well deserved.

Monday, January 4, 2010

New Year's Eve (2009) Walk

After leaving work at noon on New Year's Eve, we went for a walk on the rail-to-trail at the county park downstream of my usual natural area. It had snowed an inch that morning, and it was cold, but not cold enough to freeze the soil, so I didn't want to walk the trails in my regular haunt because it's very soggy there. We came across these massive icicles in the railroad cut called "The Gorge."

Along another part of the trail, we came upon another icicle formation.

I liked the way the water almost appeared to have congealed as it flowed over the rock.

Finally, we came to Harper's Run. In addition to the image I made on New Year's Eve, I've re-posted an image I made in the autumn from the same vantage point.