Spring Fever

A stand of purple crocus flowers.
Spring crocuses at the Budai Arborétum, Budapest, Hungary. March 8, 2015.

I’ve been thinking lately about why nature photography is important to me, and I decided there’s good value in putting together illustrated narratives even if the individual photos aren’t all portfolio-worthy and the writing isn’t elegant. I often find I enjoy other people’s nature-documentary narratives more than I do technically and artistically stunning individual images. Context and story are import, and I’d like to be able to look back in a few years and remember what I saw.

The last few weeks, I’ve managed to take a few study breaks to enjoy spring a little—last Sunday I went to the Budai Arborétum, a botanic garden and arboretum attached to Corvinus University’s horticultural department. I had tried visiting last fall and got rained out, but last weekend the spring weather was lovely, although unfortunately only the lower part of the garden is open on weekends.

As always, I was hoping for some birds other than the great tits which have been the most entertaining common resident bird life all winter, but other than some very uncooperative crows, all I saw were some nearly as uncooperative Common Blackbirds (Turdus merula), a type of thrush not to be confused with North American blackbirds:

A common blackbird perched in a bush

Crocuses and irises were abundantly planted in many areas, and heather was in bloom as well—a very purple effect overall.

A stand of blooming purple irises

Spring is bringing the re-emergence of insects, which makes me very happy! Firebugs (Pyrrhocoris apterus) are one of my favorites—a common but striking species, albeit extremely uncooperative photography subjects. Looking them up just now, I realized that they are also the species used in a famous (in entomological circles) accidental discovery about hormone regulation and insect life cycles.

A red and black firebug insect

Two mating firebugs

There were also a lot of small bugs swarming in the crevices of tree bark, which at first I thought were firebug nymphs, but on a closer look, they’re not similar at all. I saw a few of these last summer, but not in these quantities, and my Google skills are failing me. If anyone knows what these are, please leave a comment and let me know!

Hemiptera

On the way home, I stopped briefly at Feneketlen-tó (Bottomless Lake), a nearby artificial lake which is apparently home to all three introduced North American slider subspecies as well as (somewhat surprisingly) the one native European species of turtles. Alas, the native species is rather shy, and all the turtles taking advantage of the spring sunlight were sliders like this one, which is probably a yellow-bellied slider (Trachemys scripta scripta):

A turtle sunbathing by the edge of a lake

I do feel like my macro photography skills are very rusty after a long break—I need to spend some quality time rebuilding my flash diffuser and get some good practice as it warms up more!

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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.

A long hiatus, and a cave

Pál-völgyi Cave
Dripstone formations in Pál-völgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary. January 28, 2014.

It’s been a long time since I posted—during that time I made some pretty huge life changes, including moving from Colorado to Oregon and applying to graduate school (again)—and I haven’t had a lot of chances to get outdoors or do much photography. But I’m back now, with some not very good camera-phone photos of Pál-völgyi Cave outside Budapest in Hungary, and hopefully I’ll get back into the habit of posting—and finish that Iceland travelogue eventually….

For various reasons, my trip to Budapest was a strange one for me. Although I took my SLR and a point-and-shoot, I mostly used my phone camera, and I can’t say I took any stunning photos—but I had a great time, and they’re certainly good enough for memories.

Most of the trip I spent in the city itself, where pretty much the only wildlife I saw in a rather chilly January was pigeons, but one day a friend and I went to Pál-völgyi Cave (more information in English) at 1025 Budapest, Szépvölgyi út 162, one of the easiest caves to get to from the city, and also the largest in Budapest. It’s part of Duna-Ipoly National Park, one of the most diverse national parks in Hungary. The cave itself stretches over 29 kilometers, and many of the chambers are actually underneath the residential districts of Budapest. The cave is open from 10 a.m. – 4.15 p.m. every day except on Monday, and later in summer. Regular tours start quarter past. Full price tickets cost 1300 forint (~$6 US) per person.

After a short metro and bus ride from the city center, we stopped briefly to warm up and buy tickets for the ~1 hour guided tour through the developed part of the cave, which is relatively easy aside from a bit in the middle involving a ladder and some very steep stairs. This is not a wheelchair-accessible tour, and I’d think twice if you have knee problems.

Outside Pálvölgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary

On the bright side, the temperature in the cave stays about 10 ºC year-round, so in January it was actually an improvement over outside! However, if you want to do the longer, crawling tour through the non-developed part of the cave, I’d probably do it in warmer weather to avoid getting chilled when you emerge.

Pálvölgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary

The cave complex is large and labyrinthine, mostly full of dripstone from the thermal waters which formed parts of it, as well as Budapest’s famous thermal baths. It was discovered in 1904 by a farmer looking for a lost sheep, which had fallen into a cave-in. Exploration followed, with some passages opened up with dynamite, and during World War II, the cave was used as an air raid shelter, resulting in damage to many of the formations.

Over 13 kilometers of the cave have been surveyed, and it hosts a population of bats, which were hibernating deeper in the cave when we visited.

Many of the cave formations had been given names, for example a “scorpion” and a “crocodile”:

Pálvölgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary

This was the first limestone cave I’ve been in—I had never seen stalactites or stalagmites before!

Pálvölgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary

Peeking into a narrow crevice:

Pálvölgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary

I have to confess I paid less attention to the very knowledgeable guide than I should have because I was too busy gawking, but I think these large dents represented gas bubbles of some kind:

Pálvölgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary

Aragonite crystals, I think:

Pálvölgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary

Looking up some of the steep stairs midway through:

Pálvölgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary

And down…

Pálvölgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary

But the 500 meters of the short tour is quite developed and artificially lit:

Pálvölgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary

Many parts of the cave are wet, and dripstone is still forming. It’s important not to touch the walls, as this can interfere with the process.

Pálvölgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary

And as a lovely bonus, there are fossils, including clams and a sea urchin which I think the guide said was 40 million years old:

Fossil clams

Fossil sea urchin

Of course, I couldn’t leave without petting the adorable cat in the little coffee stand attached to the ticket office:

A cafe cat at Pálvölgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary

The rest of my photos are up on Flickr, and I’d definitely like to go back someday with a better camera, as well as go back and do the longer tour (probably not at the same time).

Next, I’ll post some photos from the Hungarian Natural History Museum, one of the nicest natural history museums I’ve been to, and then I can say I have if not finished a travelogue for once, at least finished the natural-history-related part of one!