The Vancouver Water Resources Education Center

Coho Salmon alevin
A recently hatched Coho Salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) alevin, still carrying the egg yolk, at the Vancouver Water Resources Education Center, Vancouver, Washington, USA. February 22, 2014.

A couple weeks ago I went to an amphibian egg monitoring training at the Water Resources Education Center in Vancouver, Washington. While I won’t be participating in the program, which is centered in Clark County, Washington, I thought it would be nice to learn some more about the amphibians of the Pacific Northwest.

We started the day with a couple slideshows and a look at some captive salamanders, before heading out to a local wetlands to look for egg masses in the wild. The Water Resources Education Center was one of my favorite places as a kid, but I hadn’t been back in years.

Vancouver Water Resources Education Center

It’s an outdoor and informal education organization run by the City of Vancouver, right on the edge of the Columbia River and associated wetlands. The mission, as you might expect, is focused on water resources, particular the abundant wetland and river habitats of the Pacific Northwest. It’s a great place to learn about issues facing water resources in the region, as well as to see some of the native fish and amphibians you might not find in the wild.

Near the entrance is an area with a number of tanks and terraria, including salmon eggs and recently hatched alevins like the one above, as well as a bunch of native amphibians like this Pacific Tree Frog or Chorus Frog (Pseudacris regilla). We didn’t see any of these in the field, but we certainly heard them!

Pacific Tree Frog (Pseudacris regilla)

I find Western Toads (Anaxyrus boreas) and toads in general strangely charming:

Western Toad (Anaxyrus boreas)

Hanging above is a striking yet disturbing Salmon Lifecycle sculpture by local artists Maggie Rudy and Patty Maly, depicting the life cycle of the salmon in trash—such as that which ends up the oceans, negatively affecting salmon and other animals.

Salmon Lifecycle sculpture by Maggie Rudy and Patty Maly

Salmon Lifecycle sculpture by Maggie Rudy and Patty Maly

Moving towards the other exhibits, you pass a large fishtank, which usually has White Sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus) and other fish. Later on, some of the salmon may move to that tank temporarily before release, although they can be aggressive. White sturgeons are the largest freshwater fish in North America, at their largest reaching up to 1,799 pounds (816 kilograms) and 20 feet (6.1 meters) and living over 100 years. In addition to overfishing, dams along the Columbia and Snake Rivers threaten sturgeon populations by reducing spawning habitat and blocking passage to and from the ocean.

White Sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus)

I didn’t have time to poke around the main exhibit area, but I think it’s more focused on kid-friendly interactive activities and watershed education.

Vancouver Water Resources Education Center

A June outing to Lowell Ponds State Wildlife Area

A juvenile Red-winged Blackbird
A juvenile Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) at Lowell Ponds State Wildlife Area, Denver, Colorado. June 15, 2014

Last summer I didn’t get outside much for various reasons, but I did make it to a few places. Lowell Ponds State Wildlife Area is a relatively small streamside recreation area that mostly seems to be used for fishing, although there are some hiking trails.

Unfortunately, the evening I went turned out to be not very good for dragonflies (or photography), but there were a few interesting sightings, most notably the juvenile Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) above, whose parents were extremely displeased by anyone passing by on the trail, and extra-displeased by me stopping to take some photos:

Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), female

But more excitingly, I spotted a female thread-waisted wasp (Family Sphecidae) provisioning a nest with a caterpillar. I didn’t have enough light to get even remotely decent photos of a fast-moving wasp (I would really like to invest in a decent off-camera flash one of these days), but it was still a pretty cool thing to watch. Last year was the year I discovered sphecids, which I’d never really noticed before, and now every spring and summer I’ll be watching for burrows in dry ground.

Thread-waisted wasp (Family Sphecidae) with caterpillar prey, female

Thread-waisted wasp (Family Sphecidae), female

Hungarian Natural History Museum

A dinosaur diorama at the Hungarian Natural History Museum
A dinosaur diorama at the Hungarian Natural History Museum, Budapest, Hungary. January 29, 2014.

Most of my trip to Budapest was (unusually for me) focused on things other than nature and museums, but I did make it to the Hungarian Natural History Museum (Magyar Természettudományi Múzeum), which turned out to be one of the nicest natural history museums I’ve been to.

The museum is located in a historic building near a large park, which was apparently in 2011 under threat of being converted to a military university. I haven’t been able to find anything more about that, so hopefully those plans changed—the building has been extensively renovated for the museum, and it’s a beautiful interior space. ETA March 6, 2014: Per the comment below and some other articles I found, apparently plans are still underway to use at least part of the building as a school, and the museum’s future is uncertain. I haven’t been able to find any really detailed explanations in English of what’s going on, unfortunately.

Of course, all good natural history museums need a giant whale skeleton:

Whale skeleton at Hungarian Natural History Museum

Many of the exhibits are fairly text-heavy, in part because everything is bilingual (Hungarian and English), more than I normally approve of in exhibits, but the exhibits are so beautifully designed from an aesthetic point of view that I felt they could be enjoyed on other levels as well. However, not everything was text-heavy, and there were some interesting aspects to the museums that I felt were counter to recent exhibit-design trends, at least in the U.S.

In fact, my favorite exhibit was the first one we passed through, a realistic coral reef diorama that surrounded you as you passed through the room, with the exhibit under glass floor tiles, extended up pillars and into the walls. A few tanks of live fish completed the experience. I don’t remember seeing any text here: it was just a beautiful, immersive display of biodiversity, the kind of exhibit I would have returned to over and over as a kid to look for new treasures.

Coral reef diorama/exhibit at Hungarian Natural History Museum

Coral reef diorama/exhibit at Hungarian Natural History Museum

They also had a temporary traveling exhibit on Argentinian dinosaurs, which was a bit more typical, including some interactive activities for kids.

The remaining exhibits for me nicely balanced informative with a more modern cabinet of curiosities approach, so they could be enjoyed on an aesthetic level or you could read the labels for more information.

Rocks and minerals

Rocks and minerals

Many Colors of Life exhibit on biodiversity

Many Colors of Life exhibit on biodiversity

Hungarian Natural History Museum

We finished up the trip with a quick walk through the outdoor Dinosaur Garden in the snow:

Dinosaur Garden

More photos on Flickr.

Boulder’s natural wetlands

Sombrero Marsh
Sombrero Marsh, Boulder, Colorado, USA. June 22, 2012.

Most of the wetlands areas in Boulder County, and along the Front Range in general, are artificially created. Sombrero Marsh, a little-known park in Boulder, is one of the few remaining natural wetlands. I’ve seen it described as an “alkaline salt marsh,” which I guess must be a definition of “salt marsh” that doesn’t require it to be coastal, but it’s known as a great site for spotting more unusual migratory wetlands birds.

Back in June, during a ridiculous heat wave, I decided to stop by to visit a former coworker now working at the Thorne Nature Experience, an outdoor education organization which manages Sombrero Marsh along with the City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks and the Boulder Valley School District. Sombrero Marsh is dry most of the year, filling with seasonal rain and snowmelt. In June I mostly noticed the heat–even at 6pm I didn’t want to stay out on the trails long. I did spot a few animals, including ducks, a Punctured Tiger Beetle (Cicindela punctulata), a Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella), a skipper of some kind, and assorted damselflies.

After the stormy weather of the last few weeks, I expect it’s pretty wet right now, and things have cooled off a little, so I’ll have to go back again. The marsh is open daily during the week (directions), although I believe it may be closed on the weekends.

See Like A Bee: Ultraviolet Flower Photography

European Honeybee (Apis mellifera)
A European Honeybee (Apis mellifera) at Sawhill Ponds in Boulder, Colorado, USA. April 22, 2012.

PLEASE NOTE that I am NOT the photographer, and you should contact him directly through his website (linked below) if you are interested in using these images. According to his website, most uses will require a negotiable fee.

Some flowers and pollens fluoresce in interesting and sometimes surprising patterns under ultraviolet light. Alas, while pollinating insects can see these patterns perfectly to find the nectar and pollen, the human eye cannot without some help. Fortunately, professional photographer Bjørn Rørslett has photographed many of these flowers, revealing their UV and infrared patterns so we can “see” the flowers as bees do (more or less–the colors in UV photography are arbitrary).

Some of my favorites:

+Potentilla anserina L.
+Coreopsis sp.
+Crepis biennis
+Rudbeckia hirta
+Taraxacum vulgare
+Jasione montana
+Oenothera biennis
+Ranunculus ficaria
+Potentilla erecta
+Angelica sylvestris

Want to photograph your own UV flowers with a digital SLR camera? It’s complicated and not for the faint of heart or light of wallet, but Rørslett has kindly provided a tutorial if you decide to give it a try.

A version of this post was originally published on May 4, 2006. Somewhat bafflingly, this was by far the most popular post on my old blog, so I’m republishing it. Again, I am not the photographer of the linked images of flowers and I cannot provide permission to use them.

So long, Lonesome George

Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island Tortoise
Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island Tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni), in captivity at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island, Ecuador. October 24, 2009.

Today I found out from Lee at Worm Salad that Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island Tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra abigdoni) died this morning. George was found on Pinta Island in the Galápagos of Ecuador in 1972, after the subspecies was believed to be extinct, and was probably between 100 and 120 years old.

George had been the focus of a lot of breeding attempts over the years, but none were successful, and even if they had been, they would have produced hybrid tortoises, not more Pinta Island Tortoises. But George had become something of an icon of vanishing species, a tragic survivor. Every day species die out, many small and uncharismatic, many unknown to us, and many because of our actions–George’s kindred, the Pinta Island Tortoises, died out because introduced feral goats (still a major problem in the Galápagos) destroyed the native foliage.

I visited the Galápagos Islands in 2009 with my mother and saw Lonesome George at the Charles Darwin Research Station. The park has an active breeding program for giant tortoises, and a successful one (George aside), judging by the number of baby tortoises we saw. George really did look lonesome, and our naturalist guide from Galapagos Travel, who had worked with him before, told us he could be rather mean to the other tortoises in his enclosure.

I’m sad that he’s gone, and that his subspecies is gone, but if tortoises can be happy, I’m not entirely sure he was a happy tortoise. He was a pretty old tortoise, and it looks like he died of natural causes, although we won’t know for sure until after the park performs an autopsy.

And I hope that we can avoid having many more Lonesome Georges in the future–that his memory will continue to serve as the powerful icon for conservation that he was in life.

So long, George. We’ll miss you.

The High Park Fire and Wildfire Recovery

High Park Fire from Estes Park
Smoke plume from the first day of the High Park Fire, seen from near Estes Park, Colorado, USA. June 9, 2012.

A few weeks ago, my partner and I went to the Wool Market in Estes Park. On our way there, taking the scenic route through the mountains, we saw this huge smoke plume to the northwest, but no one seemed to know what was happening.

The following Monday, the Front Range was blanketed in fire haze, all the way down to Denver, and we learned about the High Park Fire, which at 75,537 acres and 45% containment (down from about 60% a couple days ago–hot, dry, gusty weather conditions have made firefighting much harder) is now the second-worst wildfire in recorded Colorado history.

I’ve seen a lot of people talking about how it’s tragic, but it’ll solve the pine beetle problem and forests need fire and the forest will come back healthier. To the first–maybe, although pine beetles will continue being a problem in the future if winters don’t get colder again. To the second, yes, western forests are on the whole fire-adapted.

But the problem with the third is that we’ve practiced fire suppression for so long that between that and the beetle-kill, fuel loads are extremely high, resulting in fires that burn longer and hotter and travel faster. A fire that burns quickly through the undergrowth but doesn’t harm larger trees is one thing. A fire that burns everything to ash…well, up in the mountains of Colorado, where growing seasons are short and dry, a relatively small ponderosa pine can easily be a hundred years old. As dry as things have become, trees grow even more slowly now.

I spent a lot of time in the Cascades of eastern Oregon as a kid, and I saw the results of post-suppression subalpine forest fires after a few decades had passed. The forests weren’t back. There were trees, to be sure, but they were small trees scattered through a dry, non-native-grass-dominated high desert ecosystem, not a forest.

No matter how much mitigation and planting we do, we haven’t found a way to accelerate tree growth significantly.

There will be forests again eventually where the Hayman and High Park Fires have burned, probably–but not on the 20-year timeframe people seem to be imagining. Not even in our lifetimes.