Though still slightly bummed at lacking my Nikon SLR, I went out in search of some new wildlife experiences in Colorado. After doing some research, I found that Kremmling and the Radium State Wildlife Area were good places to spot elk and mule deer, and not too far away. So me and my handy four-wheel drive jeep drove about an hour through the mountains- no street-lights, no gas stations, and no one to help if I got a flat tire. Luckily, I know how to change a flat (thanks Dad). I will admit though, driving in snowy and icy conditions through the middle of nowhere is a little intimidating.
Once in Kremmling, to get to Radium State Wildlife Area you have to drive about 20 miles on a dirt road through the mountains- with even less around amazingly enough. A winter storm was coming through that afternoon, so I passed on the dirt road and will save it for a clear sunny day. Fortunately, I discovered the road through Kremmling actually has lots of deer along the side.
Mule deer- a new species for me! Admittedly, I had never even heard of a mule deer. Odocoileus hemionus, so named for their rather large ears, like a mule. Interestingly, hemionus is Greek for half-mule. With tanned bodies against a snowy white backdrop, I snapped a few photos. One even crossed the road in front of me- Brake for Wildlife! I’m still on a quest to photograph moose, coyotes, elk, and pronghorn antelope!
“There are some who can live without wild things, and there are some who cannot”
- Aldo Leopold
Where in the world is Bethany?! Seeing as I have been MIA, I decided to do an update… not that I have anything hugely profound to say. Alas- I have been living the life of a Colorado ski bum since January. Going from sea level and palm trees to 10,500+ feet, mountains, snow, ice, avalanche warnings and random elk herds crossing the road has been quite a change of scenery- though much needed.
Florida sunrises and sunsets are stunning, yet there is something about mountains that adds drama to the change in light. For example, here are three pictures from my backyard taken at different times of the day.
Disclaimer: while my Nikon is still being fixed- all photos are taken with my iphone4.
When I am not working, I am usually out snowboarding or snow-shoeing! Since being out here I have seen lots of red foxes, moose, elk, and mule deer. More on all of that in later posts. I would like to get a nice shot of a moose with something other than my iphone ….But really, sometimes I just can’t believe where I am living.
Merry Christmas! Last year around this time my family and I were out in Colorado on a ski trip. Christmas Day we spent at Rocky Mountain National Park and then up to snowmobile along the continental divide. So to celebrate Christmas, here are some elk on a white Christmas Day! Side note- this was the first time I had ever seen elk:)
I’ve left Florida for the time being and am now up in northern Virginia! I must say it’s nice to be in a different environment - cold weather and oaks and maples rather than palm trees and heat!
The other day I went to Mason Neck State Park, located in Lorton, VA. With swamps, forest, open water, and ponds, the area provides habitat for a lot of wildlife. It is also a particularly good spot for bird-watching. I was lucky enough to see soaring bald eagles.
While walking one of the trails I came across a large oak with a hollowed out area in the base. Inspired by the contour of the opening, I snapped a photo.
“A cold wind was blowing from the north, and it made the trees rustle like living things.”
― George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones
I first heard of slogging when I went with Garl’s coastal kayaking and since then have taken lots of friends myself. Upon hearing the word slogging people’s first question is usually ”what is slogging?” Once I tell them or they see the photos, the following question is “why on earth would you do that?!”
So what exactly is slogging you may ask? Slogging is basically walking off-trail through the swampy water of the Everglades and into the cypress domes. A cypress dome is an isolated forested area, where cypress trees grow in shallow standing water. The trees in the center typically grow taller than those at the edge and water level inside the dome varies with the wet/dry season. These domes are home to many rare plants, including orchids as well as alligators, tree frogs, water snakes, owls, storks, and herons.
And so why would anyone want to go slogging? Well, many people have experienced the Everglades by walking along the Annhinga trail inside the national park and viewing gators safely from an elevated boardwalk above the water. And there is nothing wrong with that; you are nearly guaranteed to see wildlife. However, if you are daring enough to “enter the dome” get ready for a unique experience coupled with that slight adrenaline rush. Not another soul in sight and only the sound of wind and the occasional prehistoric call of a great blue heron. Lurking on any tree branch could be a cottonmouth, a venomous and semiaquatic pit viper, capable of delivering a fatal bite. My brother and I were slogging and brought our dad along for the first time. I warned him at one point that we were approaching a “snakey” area and to be particularly careful where he stepped or grabbed onto trees. His response… ” Gee thanks – this is crazy” (captured on video thanks to my GoPro)
If you come across an open area without any vegetation, keep an eye out as it is most likely a resident alligator’s “gator hole.” Adult gators use their mouths and claws to uproot vegetation to create space. Then, by slashing their tails they create a depression that remains full of water, even through the dry season. During the dry season or drought, these holes provide invaluable habitat to other animals such as fish, turtles, insects, snakes, and birds. Clearly, alligators are essential for a balanced and thriving ecosystem. So if you are slogging be mindful and make sure not to go aimlessly stomping through the hole. While gators are generally wary of humans, you never know if it is home to protective mother with her babies or a particularly territorial large male. Cypress domes are also home to a variety of web-building spiders, so to those afflicted with arachnophobia – be prepared.
Would you go slogging?
“Here are no lofty peaks seeking the sky, no mighty glaciers or rushing streams wearing away the uplifted land. Here is land, tranquil in its quiet beauty, serving not as the source of water, but as the last receiver of it. To its natural abundance we owe the spectacular plant and animal life that distinguishes this place from all others in our country.”
- President Harry S Truman, address at the Dedication of Everglades National Park, December 6, 1947
From el lagarto, the Spanish word for “lizard” we get alligator. The American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) is one of two species of alligators in the world, the other being the Chinese alligator.
I have always been fascinated with alligators, maybe because of their armored skin and powerful jaws, but maybe because it is for these characteristics that people tend to dislike them. I’ve never understood why people have such a strong hatred for predatory animals like wolves, hyenas, crocodiles, etc… when we ourselves are predators. At one point alligators were hunted for fashionable leather products to the point of near extinction. A species over 150 million years old, that survived beyond the dinosaurs, almost extinct because of humans. They were put on the endangered species list around the 1970s and subsequently made a huge recovery. They were removed from the list and now number in the millions.
Living in Florida, I have had my fair share of alligator encounters. From my experiences, they are relatively shy and wary of humans. I’ve come across sunning gators on banks while kayaking, get too close and they will slide away into the water. I’ve been walking near ponds and come across basking gators. Again- get too close and they just slide away. In fact, years of kayaking in their presence and I have never had a remotely threatening encounter with an alligator. I’ve even bumped them with my kayak and they remain completely unphased. The one exception however is when I have come across a mother with babies. In that case, get too close and she will start to puff up and hiss- a warning (and rather effective one) not to get anywhere near her babies.
Alligators eat generally anything from fish, turtles, birds, and muskrat to deer. However, a couple of weeks ago I was in the Everglades National Park talking to a ranger and she informed me that a large portion of their diet comes from consuming the endemic Apple snail. There is nothing that can take the ferocity away from a gator than learning that they eat a small and basically motionless snail. Having said that, I would never like to be tested against an adult gator- 1000 lbs of muscle with roughly 80 teeth. While they may eat snails and fish, they are also completely capable of grabbing an adult deer. They are a predator deserving of our respect.
You would never know it at first glance, but Blue Heron Bridge situated just a mile or so off I-95 in Riviera Beach, Florida is one of the best dives in south Florida (in my opinion). Marine critters like seahorses, octopus, eels, sea stars, crabs, lobsters, sea slugs, and many more all call this bridge home. Diving the bridge requires a little bit of planning, mostly regarding the tide. You want to dive the bridge at slack high tide for the best chances of good visibility and minimal current. Just park, head under the bridge, gear up and walk into the water. Aside from being free, another bonus of diving the bridge is that is super easy to navigate and shallow- which means a long bottom time, perfect for photography!
On my most recent dive I encountered several very active seahorses who were reluctant to pose for a photograph. Scrawled cowfish and sheepshead were also swimming about. A filefish came out of nowhere and attacked my mask and camera, though I am not quite sure what I did to upset the little guy! Unfortunately, I did not spot any octopus, but I have been lucky enough to encounter them on other dives. In fact, the bridge is so well-known for its octopus population that cephalopod researcher and behaviorist Dr. Roger Hanlon has filmed them at the bridge. His research and video collection can be viewed at http://hermes.mbl.edu/mrc/hanlon/. I finally saw a flying gurnard but the elusive stargazer still evades me!
This particular dive was my first time using a strobe (external flash) on my underwater camera. I had always been slightly intimidated to use one. However, I decided to just try it out and can say that I only regret not using one sooner, it makes such a difference in bringing out the colors!
The most interesting thing I saw on this dive was a feeding behavior called “shadow feeding.” This is when one predatory fish will use another to hide itself, allowing it to closer approach prey without being deteced. I observed this behavior between a yellow stingray and a bar jack.
Recently, I took a camping trip with a group of friends to the largest spring flowing directly into the Suwannee River- Manatee Springs. A 5 hour drive towards northwest Florida. Where South Florida is covered with palm trees and clear blue skies, the landscape of the springs has a different and almost gothic feel. Mist and fog coat the air, while knobby cypress trees are draped in spanish moss (not actually a moss- but a flowering air plant). Not to mention the constant presence of several hundred black vultures circling overhead. Amazingly enough, bald cypress trees that inhabit the springs can live up to 600 years. Makes you wonder what a 600 year old tree in Florida has seen and lived through….
At night, by scanning the woods with a flashlight you may catch the eyeshine of the more nocturnal animals- white-tailed deer, nine-banded armadillos, oppossums, raccoons, and if you are looking carefully – even tiny spiders. Eyeshine is a visible effect of the tapetum lucidum, a reflective tissue in the eye which improves vision in low-light conditions. We also heard barred owls hooting in the distance, distinguishable from other owls as it sounds like they are saying “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all?” (thank you Virginia Tech ornithology lab )
While the surface may feel eerie, underwater the crystal clear springs and penetrating light rays give an immedate feeling of tranquility. Florida springs have better visibility than a swimming pool with a constant temperature around 72 degrees. The warm water acts as a haven for manatees in the winter, escaping the cooler surrounding water. Warm for the manatees maybe, because jumping in feels….refreshing. The springs are also home to alligators, schooling mullet, catfish and other fish, as well as a variety of turtle species.
With clear water and abundant wildlife, the springs make for a great photography location, and in general, a nice place to get away from traffic and crowds!
” In a tree by the brook, there’s a songbird who sings…”
Growing up, I never had much interest in birds. Polar bears, wolves, alligators, and snakes were far more intriguing. My earliest memories of birds involve my grandfather, a poet and naturalist, who was a birder. He would point out (all summer long and much to my annoyance) that there is no such thing as a “seagull” when our family would spend our summer days at Jones Beach, Long Island.
Over time, as my interest in photography grew birds became the subject of my photos with increasing frequency. They were easy to find and by attempting to get different ’shots’ (flight, feeding, mating, portraits etc…) my technical and compositional skills became more developed. Aside from becoming a better photographer, the beauty in birds is their incredible diversity. The different bill shapes and sizes, eye and feather colors, wing shape, flight patterns, feeding behavior, calls and songs etc…By simply looking at their bill, you can likely figure how and where they feed.
Because birds are so commonplace, they are often under appreciated. We can see them everywhere – in the parking lots, at the beach, lakes, the park or outside an office window. Part of appreciating birds is about staying connected with the environment and my surroundings. It’s the same reason I like knowing the weather, trees, stars, and the planets in the sky. By stepping out and noting the egret flying overhead, or the osprey calling in the distance I’m reminded of the natural world still around me, despite the bleak concrete, train noises, and iphone constantly in my pocket. Whenever I hear the melodic call of the song sparrow I think of Spring, they were always the first birds to start singing.
A juvenile roseate spoonbill swings its bill through the water to catch small fish and insects
A great egret leaves the nest to find a suitable twig for his mate during breeding season
A baby green heron begs for food
A yawning burrowing owl
I recently took a trip with my family to Isla Mujeres, a tiny island off the east coast of Mexico. We were there for one reason- to swim with the world’s largest fish, the Whale Shark.
We arrive in Mexico on a Wednesday, go through customs, take a cab to the ferry station, take the ferry to Isla Mujeres, walk with our luggage about a half a mile and finally arrive at our condo. It was hot, sunny, and beautiful. This however, did not last. Little did we know, the next 4 days would be spent sunless, with torrential rains and wind. Thank you tropical storm Debby.
After cancelling our trip to swim with whale sharks on Thursday morning due to weather, we begged our captain, Captain Tony, to take us out Friday morning. Waves, rain, thunder, lightining, water spouts and as my dad put it “pretty much the worst conditions imaginable.” But we were there to swim with the sharks and so that’s what we were doing. As we headed out north of the island to find the sharks, holding my fins up in front of my face proved to act as a good shield against the stinging rain. Along the way we saw dolphins, mating sea turtles, a school of cownose rays, and giant manta rays.
We were just about to jump in the water with the mantas, when we noticed a shadow that appeared more long than wide.
Luckily for us, after two hours of driving we were rewarded with a whale shark sighting!
Once a shark is spotted, everyone gets ready with their snorkel gear and two people enter the water at a time. My dad and I jump in. Where is the shark? The water is so GREEN and MURKY. Suddenly, I notice a mass of white spots about 5 feet below me, and realize it’s the shark swimming under me. I hear my dad yell in excitement through his snorkel as he freedives alongside it, dwarfed by the 25-30 foot animal. I dive down and look it in the eye. Incredible. Their spots look like they are painted on canvas.
Some people may wonder why on earth you would get in the water with a giant shark!? This species is harmless. They are not predatory, but instead slowly cruise at the surface of the ocean with a gaping open mouth to feed on plankton, much like a whale (hence their name). They migrate to the coast of Isla Mujeres to feed on the eggs produced by spawning fish. Most of the sharks that come here to feed are juvenile males.
Similar to a human fingerprint, the spot patterns on a whale shark are unique to each individual. Because of that, in an effort to understand more about them and their movement patterns, there is a global photo-identification database run by ECOCEAN where anyone can submit a photo of a whale shark sighting. By matching spot patterns scientists can track individuals and their locations. The program started around 2003 with just a couple hundred photographs, and in 2011 had nearly 19,000 submitted! I plan on submitting a photo of the shark we swam with to see who it was and contribute to the database.
I’m hoping to go back at some point when its sunny with hundreds of whale sharks in clear blue water. But then again, what is travel without a little adventure and adrenaline. If you want to go out and experience nature, you’re going to have to face the elements.
To read more about ECOCEAN and the whale shark photo-identification database go to www.whaleshark.org
Sometimes it doesn’t take much to step out of our everyday lives and into an entirely different world- all it takes is a little exploration and sense of adventure. Sometimes it doesn’t even have to cost anything. For example, 100 yards offshore in Deerfield Beach and you can swim with ancient marine reptiles, sea turtles. No lines, no entrance fees, and no crowds.
Deerfield Beach is a popular snorkel and dive spot because the reef is so close to shore. However, just before you reach the reef there is a seemingly uninteresting bottom type made up mostly algae. This is exactly why the turtles are here.
Around the world there are 7 different sea turtle species. These are green sea turtles, so named because the fat under their shells is actually green. Green sea turtles are herbivorous and they come here eat the algae. While adult female sea turtles use the beach for nesting, the ones in the algae beds are juveniles. Just little guys.
Yet, it’s not like there are signs posted or instructions on how to get here. In fact, I discovered this population of sea turtles accidently. My friends and I would come to snorkel the reef, generally looking for fish and corals. While swimming back into shore we would always see the turtles in the shallow water. A few more trips and we realized they are pretty much always here in the algae beds eating- go figure. Usually, when you find one you find at least 5 or 6 more.
Unfortunately, most sea turtles are listed as endangered or threatened, due to threats from human activity, such as beach development, bycatch from fishing, and illegal black-market trade in eggs and meat.
After being in the water for hours, eventually I just stopped to watch and observe them rather than focus on taking photos. I jealously watched as they glided through the water effortlessly, obviously built for the aquatic environment . Meanwhile, there I was getting tossed around awkwardly in the waves, surfacing every minute for a breath. It is humbling to swim with a species that has existed for over 65 million years.
To celebrate Earth Day 2012, I decided to post a few animal portraits.
Upon arriving at the sanctuary, Dr. Bezner, the staff veterinarian, comes to give myself and Jessica a tour of the grounds and to meet the chimps. As we are driving around on a golf cart, I catch glimpses of them sitting in the open grass or under trees with loud “hoots” in the distance. The sanctuary includes 12 different cage-free outdoor islands that are each home to a family of roughly 25 chimps, led by an alpha male and grouped together based on compatibility. The islands connect to a hurricane proof house, where staff can observe and interact with the chimpanzees up close, in addition to providing food, medical care, new toys, and other enrichment.
We first stop to visit an island led by the alpha male Garfield, whose family is characterized as the” wise elders, strong-willed, and entertaining.” The chimps immediately sense the arrival of new people and come over to observe us. With their piercing eyes, I can tell they are sizing me up. Sure enough, to my delight one decides to spit right on me. Why would he do this? My reaction answers my own question. While this chimp, Billy, jumps onto the fence right in front of me and screams loudly, I make a high-pitched girly squeal. Meanwhile, while Dr. Bezner sits next to me, calm and composed. Obviously he was looking for a reaction- which he got. Clever boy. I am lucky to have only been spit on; Jessica was a little less fortunate. As Dr. Bezner and I were casually talking, Billy stood up tall on two legs about 20 ft away from the fence, with something in his hand. Then in a full on sprint, charged at the fence, jumped up and threw…. his poo, which landed right smack of the side of Jessica’s face. Splat. If you ever heard of monkeys throwing their poo- I can say at least for chimpanzees, it is true.
Among the chimps I met, Dana has a particularly fascinating story. Dana is an older female in her 50s, with an almost cartoon-like appearance, cross-eyed with large round ears. Her features remind me of Dobby from Harry Potter. She is one of the original Air Force chimpanzees. In 1966, at approximately 5 years of age, she was captured from the forests of Sierra Leone. As a younger female, it is likely that she witnessed the murder of her entire family so she could be taken. She spent years in various captive facilities as an Air Force chimpanzee. During this time, she had her right kidney taken out (and transplanted into a baboon). She was also anesthetized weekly with Ketamine and received numerous liver biopsies. She spent about 35 years of her life in this type of living situation. In 2001 she was rescued by Save the Chimps, along with 20 other Air Force chimps. Now you can see Dana living in an outdoor island, where she has room to run, play, and socialize with her family in addition to getting fresh fruit and veggies, and the occasional treat like PB&J sandwiches.
While touring the sanctuary and meeting the chimps, you cannot help but get a sense of their distinct personalities. Thoto, for example, spent 20 years as a circus performer, where had had his teeth removed to make him less dangerous to work with. However, as an adult male he became too strong and powerful, and was sent to a facility to spend the next 15 years used for medical research. At 150 pounds, an adult male chimpanzee is 7 times stronger than the average human male. We pull up to meet Thoto, and his attention immediately turns to my feet. Dr. Bezner informs me that he fascinated with feet (I wonder why?), and the fact that I am wearing sandals with toenails painted blue is very exciting for him! Dr. Bezner also likes to greet each chimpanzee with a treat, usually child-safe chapstick, a chimp favorite. As she pulls them out from her pocket, the chimps all stretch out their hands. Some came over a little too late, and she had run out. We observed those without chapstick who watched their friends smearing it all over their faces, lips, and playing with it in their mouths, hoping someone would share with them. At this point, Dr. Bezner also states that the chimpanzees have an “incredible sense of fairness.” They know exactly how many pieces of fruit each of them has, and if someone has more or less than they do.
What is fascinating about Dana, Billy, Thoto and the other chimps, and a testament to the people at Save the Chimps, is that these animals coming from a variety of abusive and traumatic conditions can successfully live and behave together nearly like wild chimps with minimal human intervention. Many of them were taken from the wild and raised for 40 years in isolation, with repeated medical testing. No one to communicate with, no way to receive the comforting touch of a companion, and no way to see sunshine. In the wild, chimpanzees are highly social living in incredibly complex societies, led by an alpha male. While at Save the Chimps, a fight broke out on one of the islands. Loud screams and hoots could be heard, and an increase in the activity level. Save the Chimp employees immediately got on walkie-talkies to discuss what happened and who was involved. The chimps are allowed to work out these natural conflicts on their own, and we observed the large alpha male banging his fists on the side of the hurricane house as well as banging a large piece of cardboard. A staff caregiver stated that this was how the alpha male took control of the situation to calm everyone back down. As Jessica puts it “it was truly incredible to watch these intelligent apes, who had little to no social interactions with other chimpanzees for most of their lives, successfully work out a conflict without human intervention. It was an opportunity to see chimpanzees acting truly as chimpanzees in every aspect of their lives, no exception”
Recreating such large complex and social units in captivity is challenging and highly stressful, especially considering the backgrounds for most of these animals. The meeting of two chimps is unpredictable, and there is always the possibility of a fight. Dr. Carole Noon, the founder and director who passed in 2009, clearly had a gift for understanding chimpanzees. Nowhere else in the world are there facilities with such large numbers of chimps all living together. 12 different islands with large family groups all coexisting, it is the next best thing to being in the wild.
An endangered species that can be bought for $50,000 as a pet, used for biomedical research, or used as part of the entertainment industry. Chimpanzees are our closest relative on this planet and we are actually more closely related to chimpanzees than chimpanzees are to gorillas, sharing roughly 98% of our DNA. So close in fact, that we can take blood infusions from them. Chimps are great apes that inhabit the continent of Africa, where their numbers have declined to due to habitat loss, disease, and hunting. While often referred to as monkeys, apes including chimps, gorillas orangutans and even humans, are not actually monkeys. The biggest difference is that monkeys have tails while apes do not.
What do we owe these animals that we have ripped from the wild, stripped of their freedom and stuck in cages? If places like Save the Chimps and people like Dr. Carole Noon and the other dedicated staff did not exist, these chimps would likely be euthanized after spending years enduring cages, injections, surgeries, and solitary confinement. After giving up their freedom, do we not owe them a peaceful retirement, where they have choice, companionship, grass below them and sky above? This is part of the reason Save the Chimps is not open to the public. Dr. Noon believed that these animals, having served human benefit for decades, deserve to be in an environment as close as possible to their natural one.
To read more about Save the Chimps and the incredible stories for each of the chimpanzees or to make a donation, check out their website at www.savethechimps.org
To read more about wild chimpanzee research check out the following websites :
If you are interested in Great Ape research, I recommend the following books:
The Third Chimpanzee
Shadow of a man
Gorillas in the Mist