Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Fun in South Queensland

This note from March 1, 2011 was the first of my travel notes from that year to contain photos.  I have, however, added a photo and video.

This is my very first multimedia note!  It turns out at some hostels I can upload photos.  All of the photos in this note will be of arthropods, mainly because all the cool photos I've taken over the past three days are arthropods.

After my last note I've had a couple small adventures.  I visited Muttonbird Island Nature Reserve, part of Solitary Islands Marine Park in Coffs Harbour, New South Wales.  The island is covered in coastal heathland and laced with muttonbird burrows...and crawling with Eastern Blue-tongued Lizards—really chubby skinks with tiny stubby legs and psychedelic blue tongues.

Muttonbird Island was filled with eastern blue-tongued lizards (Tiliqua scincoides)

I then crossed into Queensland, my 4th Australian State, and stopped at the resort town of Noosa Heads.  Noosa National Park, one of the few undeveloped headlands in southern Queensland, is just a 1.4 km walk down the coast.  It's a mixture of savanna and coastal rainforest and promises easy views of koalas.  I arrived at the park around 1745 and the sun sets pretty early this far north, before 1830.  The question before me was this—to hike and get stuck out in the woods in the dark, or return to town?  Of course I chose to hike and I had brought my headlamp for just such an occasion.  Shortly into the hike the sun went down as planned and I was surrounded by the pitch black subtropical rainforest night.

A family of laughing kookaburras (Dacelo novaeguineae) calls eerily in the night in Noosa National Park
My headlamp on, I found the trail littered with giant spiders!

After sundown the trails in Noosa National Park come alive with spiders
Later I found a giant spider dangling from a single strand of web, waiting to ambush a passing flying insect.  The invisible thread and the surrounding blackness made for a perfect photo opportunity.

A spider dangles in ambush, waiting for flying insect prey

At some point I climbed down into a small ravine to search for frogs I heard calling in a creek.  A thought crossed my mind that went something like this:  Jackson, you are in a forest at night, no one knows where you are, you have left the trail and are playing in a creek—perhaps you should have at least SOME concern for your personal safety.  So, I begrudgingly climbed out of the ravine and walked out of the park.

The next day I went for a swim in the bay, then for a walk in nearby Noosa Woods.  I spent between one and two hours working on a technique to photograph really small animals by combining my geologist's hand lens with my digital camera.  By holding the two together, angling it just right so the flash isn't blocked, and taking a few dozen photos, I can usually end up with one good one.  My first real success was a close up of the aptly named golden-bum ant.

Australians appropriately call this Polyrhachis species the golden-bum ant

You can't really make it out in this photo, but it has four giant spines on its body.  After this photo I learned how to incorporate the zoom into the setup for even closer shots.  But photographing a moving ant is near impossible!  I finally got that photo when the ant paused for a brief moment.  Later that day I found some termite galleries on the side of a tree.  I broke one open and discovered my old friends, Nasutitermes!  These termites are so named because the soldiers have a nose-like projection that sprays noxious chemicals at enemies, mainly ants.

 A Nasutitermes soldier guards a broken gallery in nearby Noosa Woods

That evening I took a four and a half hour bus ride north to Hervey Bay, gateway to Fraser Island.  Today I woke up, packed up my stuff, put my main pack in free temporary storage at a hostel, and headed off to Fraser Island.  To get to Fraser Island you have to take a ferry from River Heads about 15 km to the south.  There is no public transportation.  The receptionist at the hostel told me flat out I wouldn't be able to do it.  Hmm, not acceptable.  I set off, knowing that I needed to hitch but not sure I would be able to.  A nearby gas station attendant told me of a courtesy shuttle that left from "down on the corner."  Uggh, I hate that phrase when Australians use it.  I think I've figured out that they don't mean it literally like we do, they just use it to mean "down the street."  Anyway, there were no corners on the street he mentioned but I did find the stop.  The attendant there told me the next shuttle didn't go till 1200, and my ferry would leave at 1015, so I wouldn't be able to make it...  Hitching it would be.  After walking a couple km I was picked up by a parachute instructor and a pilot on their way to the airport.  The parachute instructor actually dropped the pilot off at the airport, then drove out of his way about 15 min to drop me off.  What explains this unexpected kindness from an Australian driver?  He had been living in New Zealand for 6 months and just recently got back!  He warned me that Australians don't pick up hitchers, but he was used to New Zealand where everybody hitches.  I informed him that I had already figured that out the hard way.  He also told me there were two places I could go on Fraser Island—Kingfisher Bay, a resort stop with facilities and hiking trails, and Wanggoolba Creek, where there was "nothing."  I chose nothing, of course.  I bought my ticket and explored the parking lot for about a half hour.  Here's a great example of how species diversity increases drastically with decreasing latitude.  The parking lot is at the tip of a peninsula, surrounded by beach houses.  Around the parking lot is a tiny patch of remaining rainforest, only a few acres.  So, it was degraded, isolated and had already suffered plenty of extinctions.  But those few acres still contain over 780 butterfly and moth species and 96 known plant species!  What did I personally discover in the parking lot?  Only the awesomest, most gigantic stick insect I have ever found!

This little guy was hanging out near a bathroom at the ferry in River Heads

Finally, after a short voyage, with some dolphins on the way, I had arrived at Fraser Island, the largest sand island in the world.  About half the size of Long Island, with almost no people.  Stepping off the ferry I was faced with dense muddy mangrove flats stretching off as far as I could see in one direction, and sandy open Casuarina and Banksia woodland in the other.  No shelter and little shade and no comfort either way.  Perfect!  I climbed down into the mudflats, my boots squishing and popping in the mud every step and often getting stuck.  Shortly after I started walking I heard splashes and saw what looked like a frog jumping out of the water.  There was absolutely no way it could be a frog because this was saltwater.  Second, frogs don't jump out of the water toward you, they jump away.  Hurrying over to see what it was, I discovered... a freaking mudskipper!  Amazing and cute fish, capable of breathing air and even climbing mangroves.  Hitting a dead end with the mangroves, I then turned and walked into the woods.  A kilometer or two down a sandy four wheel drive track I came across two rainbow bee-eaters.  Attractive birds by any standard, they have a special meaning for me.  In Iraq, where I first started birdwatching, my favorite birds of all were blue-cheeked bee-eaters, a few of which would fly over my compound twice a day.  Being mainly Eurasian and African birds (there are none in the Americas, and one species in Australia), I hadn't seen another bee-eater for years...until today.  So it was a little sentimental for me.  There were some other great species too, as always, like brahminy kites, white-cheeked honeyeaters, predaceous diving beetles, bright green whirligig beetles, marine water striders (one of the few marine insects) and green-headed ants (Rhytidoponera sp.).

Dehydrated, sunburnt, but satisfied, I took the ferry back to the dock.  Getting onto the ferry with me was a group of tourists in land cruisers who were part of a tour "safari."  They asked me to take photos of them, which I duly did.  After giving all their cameras back I asked if they had room in any of their many SUVs to take me back to town.  No, they said they did not.  Seriously?  You can't squeeze me somewhere in your convoy of over-sized trucks?  Even after I took all those photos for you?  Geez.  And for the record, if you're wearing bikinis, or skirts and flipflops, you are not on a safari, you are on a terrestrial cruise.  So, again I had to hitch back.  Over half an hour with no luck.  Finally I was picked up by a man who told me that Australians don't normally pick up hitchers.  Really?  He was very nice though and drove me to within a km of my hostel.  About 9 hours after being told getting to Fraser Island was impossible, I walked in the door, exhausted and dirty, but victorious.  It's definitely a pattern.  People tell me I can't do something which I certainly know I can.  I go out, do it somehow, and come back in the evening with a story to tell.

Birthday shenanigans

This post was first published February 26, 2011, and continues my New South Wales trip.  As before, I have added the photos and video.

A lot has happened.  For starters, a few days ago I took a bus from Newcastle to Urunga, arriving at 0300.  From there I had arranged a ride from the hostel I was going to stay at in Bellingen, but they weren't going to pick me up until 0730.  What to do in the middle of the night in a small coastal town?  Why, put on a headlamp and go on a night hike, of course!  I found more grey-headed flying foxes and watched them eat nectar from some eucalyptus flowers, and then found another bunch of them eating figs.  Then I accidentally woke up a sleeping kookaburra and it stared me right in the face with its massive bill only a few feet away.  I can only hope that I creeped out some suburban housewives by walking around their neighborhoods at night with a flashlight...  After that I had my first park bench sleeping experience.  I slept on a bench for about 3 hours.  Rather, I tried to sleep, it was pretty uncomfortable and I couldn't really sleep well.  Anyway, at 0730 a muscular barefooted middle-aged hippy in a pickup truck picked me up.  He was really nice and turned out to be the manager of the hostel.  When we got to Bellingen he knew I was tired so he put me up in a temporary room until my room was ready so I could sleep.  I walked into the temporary room and who did I see?  Why, it was Dan again, of course!  I hung out with Dan that night after exploring an island in the river through town.  Although the island is tiny, it is a nature reserve because at only 2.5 ha it is the largest tract of bottomland rainforest remaining in the valley...and I caught a new skink there.

At a measly 2.5 hectares, Bellingen Island is the largest remaining patch of lowland rainforest in the Bellinger River valley.  It's also filled with grey-headed flying foxes (Pteropus poliocephalus).

But the real fun started the next day, February 25th, my birthday.  Dan left in the morning before I woke up but left me a town map so I could find my way around.  I wanted to go to Dorrigo National Park, about 20 km west through a windy mountain highway.  Renting a bicycle seemed too dangerous with semis speeding around tight curves with no shoulders, so I resolved to hitch.  After walking about 25 min I was picked up by a Swiss family who were also going to the park.  After we parted ways I went off on my own to hike for 5 hours through a nearly tropical rainforest.  I've been visiting pockets of rainforest ever since southern Victoria and it's been very exciting to see them change as latitude decreases.  The rainforest gullies west of Melbourne have a handful of tree species and a couple tree ferns.  By now, near the Queensland border, there are over 140 tree species and around 60 vines in the one valley I hiked in.  There are also some typically tropical species like strangler figs, palms and bower birds.

Although still south of the Tropic of Capricorn, the rainforests in northern New South Wales begin to take on a distinctly tropical character

Strangler figs (Ficus sp.) add to the forest’s nearly tropical atmosphere in both Bellingen Island and Dorrigo National Park

The walking stick palm (Linospadix monostachya) is yet another tropical character found in this forest

That day was a day for the birds and I encountered several new families, like megapodes, and plenty of new species, including my first two bowerbirds.  For mammal lovers, I found two red-legged pademelons, small rainforest kangaroos.  But the real star of the day in my opinion wasn't the bowerbirds or the honeyeaters or the brush-turkeys or figs or pademelons—it was the land mullet, Australia's largest skink and one of the largest in the world.  I really hadn't expected to find one, but I ended up finding two.  The first one was shocking—my mind just didn't expect a skink to be that gigantic.  Land mullets are one of those organisms that simply demands attention whether you're interested in them or not.  Stumbling upon a land mullet instantly jars your eyes and mind away from whatever it was they were doing before.

At up to two feet long, the land mullet (Egernia major) is among the world’s largest skinks

Dorrigo National Park is much larger than the 2.5 ha forest fragment on Bellingen Island, but is still rather small and in many places the forest has been cleared for cattle ranches right up to the park boundary

After a hike worthy of a birthday I hitched a ride from a local woman and her two dogs to the main highway.  There, while attempting to hitch in the hot sun, something caused me to reach into my left boot.  Upon reaching down I discovered a large land leech bloated with my blood and feeding on my ankle.  Who knows how long it had been there?  It had given me a large dose of anti-coagulants as a birthday present and my sock was soaked in blood.  I have a giant dark blood stain in the bottom of my boot now...

This colorful land leech (Haemadipsidae) was fat with my blood by the time I noticed, and my foot bled until the next day

Well, as I stood on the side of the mountain road watching the sun start to sink, with my bloody foot, a small rental bus pulled over to pick me up.  I ran to the door, which opened to a mass of screaming singing Australian guys who instantly thrust two beers into my hands as I entered.  Before I even got settled they were singing and chanting and telling me to chug.  So I chugged a beer before we even said hello or anything.  Needless to say I was terribly confused, but happy and just going with it.  I mean, when life gives you a bus full of hooligans, drink up.  It was pretty similar to that scene in 'Eurotrip' where they ride on the bus with the British soccer hooligans.  After I started on my second beer I told them my name and they told me theirs, some of which were made up, I hope: Jim, James, Matt, Noz, Neville, Bullo, Donk, Pagey, Raptor and Todd (the leader).  They were all farmers from out west and had been driving for six hours.  They were on their way to the coast to Coffs Harbour for a "buck's weekend."  I asked what that meant and they said, "have you ever seen 'The Hangover?'  That's what it is, a stag party."  After some brief introductions Pagey out of nowhere asked me, "Do you think Robin Scherbatsky is the hottest girl in Canada?"  I quickly replied, "I think she's the hottest girl in the US OR Canada."  If that question wasn't a sign, I don't know what is.  They invited me to go to Coffs Harbour with them.  How could I refuse?  So we stopped in Bellingen so I could pick up my stuff and return my hostel key and we were off.  These guys were just freaking insane.  They swore with words that I had never heard before but just sounded dirty as hell, they were loud, they wore cowboy boots and John Deere hats, they shouted everything and I couldn't make out half of what they were saying.  One of the funniest things was a sort of ritual they had for peeing on the roadside.  First, everyone in the back would chant the following:

Wee, wee, wee
We gotta wee.
So you'd better stop for us
Or we'll piss on the bus
And in a little while
It'll run down the aisle.

Then Todd would pull over and all ten guys would rush out and piss everywhere and then hop back in.  All well and good on the highway.  But then we stopped in a neighborhood to pick up another guy they knew, Aubrey.  While Aubrey was getting in a bunch of the guys got out and started pissing in someone's yard.  Almost immediately a housewife, with an equally dirty mouth, came out chasing them, screaming, "What do you think you're doing, you f**king cunts?!  Pissing in front of my kids!"  The guys all hurriedly pulled their pants up and ran away into the van and we took off with the doors still open to escape.  Nuts.  After a couple of hours we arrived at a villa they had rented near the coast, where we changed.  My foot was still bleeding, all over the floor.  In fact, it was still bleeding a little this morning.  Anyway, we went to a place called The Coast Hotel because a shuttle driver told us that was where the cougars were.  These guys were equally crazy in the club, ripping their shirts off on the dance floor or mooning girls while playing pool.  They told me going to the coast was quite a novelty for them since they lived 10 hours inland, so they really cut loose.  It was like they had never seen alcohol or girls or public places before.  To add to that, the entire night they never really got over the fact that they "picked up a f**king yank on the side of the road."  They showed me off to everyone in the bar and kept telling me, "you picked the right bus, Jackson."  There are many more details I'll leave out.  After a crazy night I finally passed out around 0330.

Quite a random birthday, but a perfect one.  I got to hike and biologize and experience wildlife in the morning, and then instantly transitioned into a bachelor party with a bunch of rowdy Australian farm boys.  Very satisfying.  I think it's a contender for my craziest birthday ever.

This morning we all went to a bakery to eat some meat pies for breakfast and then we parted ways.  Before the trip they had a bunch of shirts made for the occasion—navy blue wife beaters that said "Buck's Weekend 2011."  Before I left they gave me one as a memento.  See?  You go on quests and you get rewards.

I think I should mention that the people I meet who are most helpful are often those who have travelled in the US and loved it.  Perhaps I owe a debt of gratitude to the US and the people in it for being so awesome so that when I go abroad people treat me nicely.  For instance, my bus driver to Hall's Gap insisted I sit in the front seat with him so he could talk to me.  He told me he had left Australia 13 times in his life, each time to go to the US, and he doesn't see the need to ever travel to any other country.  Once he went to an Amish market in Maryland to buy some cheese and the Amish owner insisted that the cheese was free, a gift because the Australian was a visitor to his country, and he couldn't imagine an Australian doing that.  Similarly, Jim, one of the guys last night, said the best part of his life was when he spent 3 months on a road trip across the US.  Interestingly, Jim said everywhere he went in the US people were very nice and Australia has a lot to learn from us.  He said that even in New York, where he heard people were rude, they were still nicer than in Australia.  There you have it, a native claiming that New Yorkers are nicer than Australians!  I feel vindicated.  Although I do hear bad things about the US.  A lot of people hate our airport security and I must agree.  Not once outside of the US have I had to take my shoes off or go through a body scan or get waved with a wand.  One German guy I met has a brother in California, and visits him often.  He claims that on these trips he frequently gets asked, "how far of a drive is it from Germany?"  Then I met an Austrian who went to school with an American exchange student who asked her if Hitler was still alive...  But yeah, American is a pretty sweet place to travel, and I'm glad we can leave such lasting positive impressions on foreigners.  It certainly helps me out over here when I meet them.

Tomorrow I have a bus at 0620 to go north.  The bus stop is a couple miles away so I have to wake up pretty early to walk there...

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Adventures in the Blue Mountains

This post is from February 22, 2011, again with photos and video added.

In spite of all the negative things a trip like this entails, more often things are perfect.  In reality the bad things are just as much a part of the experience anyway.  Well, after the disappointment of Sydney I had an amazing string of great days.  I spent three nights in Katoomba, a town surrounded by Blue Mountains NP, one of the more popular National Parks in Australia.  Now, the place is filled with tourists and my going there was in no way original, but that doesn't mean it was any less rewarding.  First off, the hostel was basically a mansion, with tons of couches and an awesome movie room, but, more importantly, the most well stocked free food shelf I have yet encountered.  Because so many tourists go there, especially families, there is a lot of free food that gets deposited when they leave.  I ate like a king two meals a day and the only food I paid for was the lunches I brought with me on the trail.  I ate pasta, cereal, beans, even smoked Gouda, all from people's leftovers.

But the National Park was breathtaking by any measure—scenery, hiking, wildlife.  The southern boundary of Katoomba is a giant line of sandstone cliffs, the border of the park.  My first evening there I took a 20 min walk to the south of town, knowing there were lookouts there but not knowing what to expect.  In one instant I was in a neighborhood and the next I was looking out over a vast deep green valley filled with eucalypt woodland in dry places and rainforest in gullies, the entire thing surrounded by smooth vertical brown cliffs.  I could only smile.

 Blue Mountains National Park is a stunning landscape of canyons, rock formations and waterfalls, all cloaked in open Eucalyptus woodland or dark temperate rainforest

Now I have to tell you about Dan, my fellow North American.  Dan is a graphic designer from Vancouver Island who works from his computer while he travels so he really never has to go home.  He's been travelling east from Canada for 10 months now.  He's older, with shoulder length gray hair and two kids older than I am, but very fit, and with a tattoo of the sign of the Camino del Santiago on his calf.  I first met Dan in Merimbula when we were roommates.  Then he left.  A couple days later we happened to be on the same bus from Bateman's Bay to Canberra.  Then a few nights later we were both at the same hostel in Katoomba.  This isn't that amazing; a lot of the travellers go to a similar set of towns or follow the same roads on the east coast—we're practically forced to.  Anyway, Dan and I decided to hike together.  So on my 2nd day in Katoomba we hiked for seven and a half hours.  The conversation was great, the weather was great and we saw amazing wildlife at every turn.  Dan told me he was a birdwatcher, it was hobby he used to help quit drinking a few years ago.  So I let him use my bird guide.  Almost immediately we found two giant red and blue terrestrial crayfish that Dan promptly caught.  Then I found an attractive blue and yellow land leech.  Then we started finding spider burrows.  I showed Dan how to use a twig to stroke the silk lining and lure the spider out.  Being afraid of spiders, he was instantly fascinated and stopped to do it himself at every burrow we found.  He was really good at it and even got a spider to pounce on a blade of grass he had.  But the real treat came later in a patch of temperate rainforest.  There we spotted our first superb lyrebird.  In addition to being fascinatingly beautiful, and having an important ecological role as a soil mover, the superb lyrebird has a world-famous ability to mimic sounds, perhaps unmatched anywhere on earth except for modern technology.  The first one we saw we had to climb up a fern and boulder-studded green cliff to see.  But the second one was near the trail and very tolerant of humans.  It was a beautiful male.  First we watched it scratch in the dirt feeding, but then it jumped onto a gnarled moss-covered tree trunk and began calling and shaking its tail feathers.  We watched it for quite some time, got awesome photos, and I even have a couple recordings of its complex calls.  Needless to say, we returned exhausted and completely satisfied with our hike.  Dan was very grateful for my company, as I was of his, and said he had never before experienced so many organisms on a hike, and he bragged to everyone that he had the pleasure of hiking with a scientist.

 Early in the hike Dan caught an Australian freshwater crayfish (Parastacidae)

Dan and I were lucky to enjoy a performance by a superb lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae), perhaps the world's preeminent sound mimic

Dan left the next day but I stayed on to do even more hiking.  I took a train to nearby Blackheath and walked a few miles to a trailhead to go on a three hour hike through the Grand Canyon of the Blue Mountains.  Deep gorges, savannas and rainforests all mushed into one place.  In those three hours I found and identified no fewer than five skink species without even trying.  Of course, Australia does have an extremely diverse skink fauna, with around 400 species.  I also found three eastern water dragons, plenty of new birds and another superb lyrebird.  For the less wildlife-oriented, there was plenty of eye-satisfying scenery as well, with dramatic cliffs, sweeping vistas of green canopy, and gorges so deep, narrow and inaccessible they looked like black vertical caves.

 The Grand Canyon of the Blue Mountains is filled with Eucalyptus lined gorges and cliffs

Katoomba was the first place on my entire trip where I had a strong urge to stay longer than I did.  Alas, my time is limited and I had to keep moving.  I'm now in Newcastle on the coast.  I have an overnight bus tonight from 2100 to 0300 to Urunga and then another bus from there inland into Bellingen.  The time is inconvenient and you miss out on so much travelling at night, but it was the only available time.  The upside is that at least I don't have to pay for accommodation tonight since I'll be spending it on a bus.

I have to balance out the positives of Katoomba with a rant about Australian directions.  No one warned me about this and I was quite surprised by it.  For some reason I am unable to follow Australian directions.  It's like their manner of giving directions and my manner of expecting or interpreting them just don't sync up.  Mainly their directions are just really vague and uninformative.  My first day in Australia a girl told me that an information center I was looking for was 'right down the street, at the corner.'  Of course, in standard English that means, 'go to the next corner.'  Well, it wasn't there.  So, in frustration, I asked another person.  They said the same thing, 'right down here on the corner.'  Again, it wasn't there.  I found out what they really meant was, 'down 5 corners, about a half a mile.'  That was just one of many examples.  I usually have to ask more than once, ask very very specific questions, or ask more than one person to ever find my way, usually after a bit of wandering around.  The other day I asked a receptionist if there were any bookstores around.  He was trying to be very helpful but just wasn't.  His reply: 'yes.'  Ok, 'where are they,' I had to ask.  He said, 'down there,' with a wave of his hand out the hostel door.  Ok, so now I know I have to leave the hostel to find them, that's a start.  So I ask which direction, and he tells me north.  I asked how far, he says, 'oh, not too far.'  The funny thing is he wasn't being sarcastic at all, but was genuinely trying to help me.  My favorite part was when he said there was a store with 'a big bristly sign out front' that I couldn't miss.  Bristly?  As in covered with stiff hairs?  This only confused me, but I did find the store eventually.  Last night I asked three separate people for directions to this hostel before I finally found my way here.  The first guy said, 'around the corner to your left, by the pub.'  Well, 'by the pub' doesn't literally mean by the pub, it only means, 'in the downtown area,' which I painfully learned.  The next guy showed me where to turn off the street and said I would see it after I turned the corner.  Well, I couldn't, it was actually a little distance away.  The third guy was also vague, but it worked.  He said, 'around this corner, you can't miss it.'  I had a friend in New Zealand who told me he once asked an Australian tourist information receptionist for driving directions.  She answered by giving him a disgusted look, saying, 'you don't need directions; Australia is very well signposted,' and calling up the next customer in line.  I've sort of just learned to deal with it, but it's still frustrating when people give you vague answers like 'over there' or 'a short walk.'

Travelling like this, and probably all of life, really is like a role-playing game.  Every person is a character with a level, a job class, and special skills, and they occasionally join your party.  You get tips from townspeople and characters you meet, and following those tips leads you on quests.  Upon completing a quest you gain rewards, experience, sometimes a new skill, and every once in a while you go up a level.  You collect maps, food, and random items from people.  You can go to shops to buy equipment, or exchange it, and you stop at inns to recuperate.  There is always at least one course of action available to you, and upon completing one course of action at least one more always opens itself to you.  It's kind of an odd way to think about it, but also fun.

Sydney, meh...

This post is from February 19, 2011.  The photos and videos are new.

Nothing much has happened the past few days but here's a quick breakdown.  While waiting for my bus in Merimbula I decided to go walk in the mangroves and mudflats since the tide was out.  After catching a few crabs I remembered that I was supposed to throw a rock into the ocean for a friend, so I picked one up and walked to the water's edge.  Then I heard a loud scuttling sound coming from multiple directions and looked around.  I was in the middle of a swarm of thousands of blue soldier crabs scuttling along the beach.  They were ridiculously adorable and I dropped the rock to take some photos and catch one.  Unfortunately, I forgot to pick the rock up again and have yet to throw a rock into the ocean.  On the way back to town I caught a new skink species.  That evening in Narooma I walked down to the town lagoon and saw a few giant stingrays, about 6 feet long, swimming under the wharf.  There was a kayaker there with his little boy on board and the boy was terrified because the dad kept paddling over the stingrays and they would bump the bottom of the boat.

 The mangroves and mudflats of Merimbula, New South Wales, crawl with waves of blue soldier crabs (Mictyris longicarpus), as flocks of unseen bell miners (Manorina melanophrys) chime along the shore

I stayed in Narooma one night and then took a bus to Canberra and then to Sydney.  From my very first night in New Zealand a month and a half ago I had been hearing how awesome and how much fun Sydney was.  So my first day there I walked around (for 7 hours) waiting for the awesomeness to hit me.  For the most part, it never did.  At one point I was walking through the Royal Botanical Gardens and heard a lot of chatter in the tree tops.  I looked up and found hundreds of grey-headed flying foxes.  After walking around some more I found thousands of them and got some good footage of them flying around.  These bats are freaking huge!  They have a wingspan of over 1 meter and are Australia's largest bats.  So that was one cool thing about the city—giant hawk-sized bats flying around in the middle of the day.  Sadly, I think I just really don't know how to have fun in a city.  There are a lot of ways to spend money but not much to do for free.  I don't know enough about architecture or the history of the city to appreciate anything I see.  However, I was told Sydney was awesome so I felt obligated to spend at least 2 full days there.  The 2nd day was pretty boring, a lot of reading and wandering aimlessly.  I'm sure if I were with someone I knew I would have enjoyed it.  I have the same experience with pretty much every city, except D.C.  D.C. is tons of fun and for the most part free.  I think the best way to experience a city is to live there.  I really like Columbus, but just because I have friends there.  I can't imagine what I would do there as a traveler.  In the 2 1/2 years I lived there I went to the downtown area a total of 4 times—once for a homework assignment, once to see a notary, and twice to vote.

 Though the Opera House is worth seeing, Sydney's real stars are the grey-headed flying foxes (Pteropus poliocephalus) which fill the trees and dominate the skyline


So this morning I left the city, my spirits thoroughly crushed by the oppressive crowd and boredom, on a train to Katoomba in the Blue Mountains.  Tomorrow I plan on taking a train and a bus to a trailhead and then hiking along "the Grand Canyon."  So far the scenery here is pretty fantastic, as is the atmosphere.  It's probably my favorite Australian town so far.  Four book stores on the main street, most of them cheap, and guys playing harmonicas in the streets, not to mention the massive cliffs only a twenty minute walk from downtown.  I walked down to the cliffs a couple hours ago and another hiker had caught a massive skink the size of his arm.  Maybe I could have similar luck tomorrow...

I'm feeling sort of guilty because I've camped only 3 nights so far in Australia and have stayed in hostels or lodges the rest of the time.  Some of these places are really nice, basically hotels where you make your own bed.  Am I getting soft?  Trips like these are supposed to involve hardship and deprivation.  The reason is that it's just so difficult to get to campsites without a car and the hostels are often closer to trailheads than the campsites anyway.  Maybe I shouldn't feel bad, I do have my share of problems.  My bad knee has been pretty painful, I think I have ANOTHER bruised rib and it hurts to cough or sneeze, and I still have unhealed bright purple spots on my feet from the biting flies in New Zealand.  Plus I'm always hungry, my weight has been fluctuating wildly and I'm craving foods I normally never touch (chocolate milk, ice cream, dessert stuff).  Everyone knows I don't like dessert, except now I do.

One of its less appealing claims to fame, the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island swarms with biting sandflies (Austrosimulium sp.).  These purple reminders of my month in New Zealand lasted weeks after I left.

Everyone wants to hear about insects, as they should.  By far they are the most consistently interesting and rewarding organisms so far on my trip.  If I had to pick the single coolest find, it would have to be an Auckland tree weta in New Zealand.  Wetas are Orthopterans endemic to NZ that resemble giant flightless crickets.  The largest species, the giant weta, now extinct except on one small island, can weigh more than a thrush!  They are all nocturnal and I had little hope of seeing any.  However, shortly before leaving the country, on a trip to the island of Tiritiri Matangi, I found one inside a cutaway log on a tree and got a great photo of it.  Truly unlike anything I'd ever seen before and not something you can see anywhere outside of New Zealand.  Orthopterans usually aren't that interesting to me but I've found some great ones on this trip.  Along with the weta I've seen swarms of plague locusts, some big katydids and the ever elusive mole crickets.  Well, I haven't yet seen a live mole cricket.  For those of you who don't know, mole crickets are really interesting in that they dig tunnels of a specific shape that act to amplify their calls.  They sit deep in their burrows and call and the sound comes out of the end of the tunnel, incredibly loudly.  At night I often hear them and I can find the burrow entrances pretty easily by holding my ear over the ground and tracing the sound, although when your ear is that close the call is loud enough to be painful.  Then I try to dig up the burrows but never find the crickets...  It's actually the only thing I've used my plastic shovel for so far.  I have seen their exuviae on the surface multiple times but the live ones keep eluding me.

 The best insect find so far, this Auckland tree weta (Hemideina thoracica) was inside a cutaway log on New Zealand's Tiritiri Matangi Island

Until next time, in the Blue Mountains...

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

On the hunt with the lace monitor

This was the first post from my trip in 2011 to focus on natural history.  It dates from February 14 of that year.

Warning!  Parts of this note are graphic, like a true nature documentary...

A couple days ago I caught a bus from Lakes Entrance to Merimbula, officially crossing the border into New South Wales, my second Australian state.  Merimbula is a coastal fishing and tourist town surrounded almost entirely by some sort of conservation land—3 national parks, at least 2 nature reserves, and a ton of state forests.  Yesterday, my first full day, I decided to go to Bournda National Park, site of Bournda Lagoon.  The only problem, as always in Australia, was that it was a few miles away and the only way to get there was by car.  This has been a continual thorn in my side, so much so that it's become routine.  So, I walked a few miles on the side of a hot dusty highway with semis blowing past on a dirt frontage road meant for people on horseback, to get to the park boundary.  Then I had to walk a couple more miles on unimproved dirt roads through a construction site to get to the trailhead.  But, again like always, the rewards were worth it.

Right off the bat I found some of the largest termite mounds I've seen yet, about 5 feet high.  I spent a few minutes trying to break open one of the entrances to get a look at the termites but it was just so freaking hard!  I barely made a dent and gave up.  Then I found an awesome swallowtail, of which there aren't many in Australia.  I went on a loop hike around Bournda Lagoon, its billabong, and the creek that feeds it, Sandy Creek.  Near the beginning of the hike, while walking through tea-tree scrub, I surprised at least one swamp wallaby and watched it jump off into the undergrowth (you can actually feel the thump through your feet when they're that close).  I also found two Azure Kingfishers, beautiful turquoise and reddish birds, fishing in the creek, as well as my first Australian water striders.  The hike continued through a pocket of temperate rainforest and through moist eucalypt forest.  But the real treasure on this trip came later...

 Protecting a section of New South Wales coast, Bournda National Park contains a complex of lagoons, forests, dunes and rocky heaths.

 Near the coast the forest becomes a stunted thicket of coastal tea tree (Leptospermum laevigatum) with some scattered needlebushes (Hakea sericea) and Banksia species

Salt-tolerant tea trees grow in a dense wall along landward sides of the lagoons

 Near the end of the hike the trail opened out onto the beach surrounding the lagoon, covered in dune vegetation.  Almost immediately I found tracks in the sand that obviously belonged to some kind of monitor lizard—notably, there were distinct claw imprints and a thick heavy tail line.  I followed the tracks hopefully but they disappeared into the vegetation.  Further down the beach I found similar tracks and followed them until they disappeared up a hill into some heathland.  I gave up hope and started hiking through the heath, just admiring the rocky coast, when suddenly I heard a harsh, repeated, ear-splitting call coming from a clump of tea-trees to my right.  It sounded like a parrot or cockatoo but no adult bird would call like that.  There was something wrong with the call and it was too heedless of my presence.  I almost walked on but decided to check it out.  I approached the tea-tree cautiously with my binoculars...  Suddenly there was a SNAP! of breaking branches, and out of the tree, in a swirl of scales and fur, tumbled a four-foot long lace monitor with a brush-tailed possum in its mouth, hitting the ground with a heavy thud.  The possum was frantically struggling and calling and the monitor was whipping it around and clawing it.  The fight raged across the undergrowth and I tried to keep up while pulling out my camera.   I got the video recording just as the monitor pinned the possum against a log and the possum made its last call.  It was still alive but it had a huge gash in its abdomen and some of its guts were visible—there was no hope at this point.  Within a minute it was dead and the monitor dragged it into a sheltered spot, ripped off most of its fur with its claws, and then began tearing it open.  It ate a large chunk of its innards with a gulp and then swallowed the rest of the body whole headfirst.  I was close enough, maybe 25 feet away, to hear the crunch of bones and see the bulge slowly move down its throat as it cautiously looked at me every couple minutes.  When it was finished the monitor sluggishly moved away into the undergrowth.  The whole ordeal took about 20 minutes.  Now, it was certainly a sad event for the possum, but a necessary one for the monitor, and by any account I feel privileged to have witnessed it.  I've seen similar things before—assassin bugs stabbing bees, deer browsing young plants, skinks eating windscorpions, but this was on a larger scale than the others and the fact that the possum so audibly suffered made it different...  It was a valuable experience and worth sharing with you all.

 I stumbled upon a lace monitor (Varanus varius) killing a common brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula)

Anyway, today I am to get on a bus to Narooma, the only town north for which I could get a ticket.  I will hopefully be in Sydney within a few days.

The Great Dividing Range

I first published this note on February 12, 2011.  I've added a few photos.  My Australian adventure continues…

So, I paid 8 dollars for an hour of internet, and have about 45 min. to write this... I hope I don't disappoint.

The Australian accent is so much easier to understand than the Kiwi one, but less friendly.  In NZ I just nodded my head and said 'okay' to everything, even though I didn't understand it.  But even though I couldn't understand it, it was such a happy accent, and they use cute words like "chilly bin."  But I love that Australians are so irreverent and use the f word like crazy.  In NZ they just say bloody, which to an American is cute, not threatening.  In fact, no Kiwi is threatening, precisely because of their speech.  It often happened that I would come upon a giant Maori man covered in tribal tattoos, including his face.  Very intimidating based on appearance.  But then they would open their mouth and out would come that high-pitched, singsongy, clipped accent, and instantly the Maori giant went from scary to adorable.  Same thing in the New Zealand ghettos.  How can you do anything but smile at someone with that accent?

A few days ago I took a train and a bus to Bright, a ski town in winter and a paragliding town in summer.  I roomed with two Finnish paragliders, Ari and Yari, who were surprisingly not related.  My goal was to go hiking in Alpine National Park to see what Australia above treeline is like.  Well, no buses cross the mountains and the only way to get to the trailhead was to hitch the 24 km.  I walked for 2 hours before someone picked me up!  Not just that, but no fewer than 5 drivers angrily signalled for me to get away from the road...  Anyway, the guy that picked me up was another awesome Australian—a nicely dressed businessman who dropped the f bomb at least once a sentence and complained about Australia not doing something about global warming.  Here are some great quotes:  "Most of our f**king country's already uninhabitable, we can't let it get any worse," and "When a capital city [Brisbane] is under f**king water, if that's not a sign that something's wrong I don't know what is."  Anyway, after 3 hours of hiking and hitching I finally reached the trailhead and began another 4 hours of hiking. I finally camped on a ridgetop near an emergency hut built for hikers who get stranded.  There was a rainwater tank at the top for water since the area is so dry.  But get this: the sign on the tank, which is there to provide drinking water, said not to drink.  There was also a sign indicating a nearby creek for drinking water, with a warning not to drink.  Australia is very much a country of mixed signals!  They just love telling you 'no,' even when the answer is really 'yes.'

The lower slopes of the range are covered in open eucalyptus forest with a fern understory

Snow gums (Eucalyptus pauciflora) dominate the upper slopes, where I pitched my tent just below tree line

The next day was cold, foggy, overcast, windy and threatened rain.  I hiked along a ridge to another emergency hut, this one alongside the road.  I stopped in the hut to escape from the terrible weather and discovered a trash can.  I threw my trash away and found a treasure.  Someone had thrown away perfectly good hiking food.  Don't judge me!  After 6 weeks of eating the same thing every day, and very little of it, I am constantly starving.  Here was a gift from heaven, mashed potatoes and pasta and some vegetarian sausages.  I put the potatoes and the pasta in my pack and ate 1 of the sausages.  But the sausages were supposed to be refrigerated and they tasted kinda bad... So I ate half of a second one and threw the rest out.  So, I have stooped so low as to eat out of trash cans...

Alpine areas in the range consist of montane grassland and heath

My plan was then to walk 3 km to an abandoned ski resort in the hopes that there would be a place to stay.  But no sooner had I started walking than I was picked up by Wolfgang (German) and Nico (French), 2 paragliders on their way to Bairnsdale looking for farm work to wait out the coming rainy weather.  I didn't even signal for a ride, they just saw me and stopped.  The only thing was, they didn't really have the room... They were driving a campervan, which is a minivan with a mattress instead of back seats.  I had to squeeze my pack in somewhere, and then sit on top of their dishes and silverware with my two feet poking into the front.  It was terribly uncomfortable, but an awesome ride.  Nico drove the mountain roads like a madman, blasting Avril Lavigne on his Ipod.  Surprisingly, I enjoyed it a lot, and they drove me all the way to Bairnsdale, near the coast.

In Bairnsdale I found out there were no hostels.  So I checked the only 2 hotels in town, which were really pubs.  They were both full...  But then I found an RV campground in town and got a spot on a lawn next to a street.  I ended up staying for 2 nights because the weather was rainy and stormy, and I didn't want to pack up or travel around in wet weather.  On my first night there, at around midnight, a brush-tailed possum fell on my tent, scaring the crap out of me.  It hit the top and rolled or bounced off onto one of the stakes with a loud metallic clang and ran away confused.  I went outside and watched the family of them for about a half hour.  I think it purposely jumped on my tent, as if it were a bush or something.  This morning, in the same site, I was awakened at about 0600 by a couple of sulphur-crested cockatoos coughing up their lungs in the trees over my tent!  They are pretty birds, but they have the most ear-grating calls...

Anyway, I got a bus from Bairnsdale to nearby Lakes Entrance, on the coast, which is where I am now.  I drank a beer with some Swiss guys in my room and then walked a half mile to an internet cafe to pay 8.00 to write this hasty note.

Stranded by stormy weather and missed buses, I spent a couple nights on a lawn in Bairnsdale

Now a question:  Should I include in these occasional notes the things I see, and natural history stuff?  Or should I just stick to where I've been and who I've travelled with?  Cuz I've been seeing some awesome natural things, like spitfires and mantisflies and nankeen kestrels and flame robins and snow-gum eucalypts and mole crickets and plague locusts and ant-mimicking hemipterans and bull ants, jack jumper ants, meat ants and things of that sort.

This was a boring note, but I'm tired and rushed.  I don't know where I'll go tomorrow.  The weather is still cold and overcast, like it has been the past few days, and it might rain tomorrow.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Dancing with Cyclone Yasi

I first published this entry on February 7, 2011.  I’ve added some photos to the original.

After a train ride and two bus trips I finally made it to Hall's Gap, a tourist town nestled in the Grampians National Park.  The first person I spoke to told me I couldn't camp, even though there were campsites, because "it's going to rain, and if you camp in the rain, you'd get wet, wouldn't you?"  Seriously?  He thought he had to explain to me that when you camp in the rain you get wet?  What is with these Australians?!  The upshot is that I walked about 3 miles in the blazing hot sun to get to an out of the way Aborigine-run hostel, just to find it abandoned...  Get this, everyone in Hall's Gap is complaining that travel agents in Melbourne have been telling people not to come.  I feel so vindicated.  The reason is that Hall's Gap and the National Park were hit with major flooding "a fortnight ago," 200 mm of rain in 48 hours, and many of the roads and trails in the park were destroyed.  Then, not kidding here, the town was hit by a plague of locusts.  So when I got there I was one of the few travelers, hence the hostel being closed.

I hiked back to town to a hostel called "Ned's Place."  Again, abandoned.  I asked a nearby sweaty shirtless man who was digging a trench to protect some houses from floods if he was Ned.  "No," he said, "but Ned's mum and dad and sister work at the pool," with a look on his face that suggested it was common knowledge where Ned's family worked, and I was an idiot for not already knowing it.  Off I went to the pool, not entirely convinced that I would find Ned's mum, and leaving my pack on Ned's porch.  Sure enough, when I got to the pool, the first person I met was a woman in a uniform polo with the words, "Mum of Ned" embroidered on the front.  She called her son on his cell, and in a motherly way chided him for not being at his place.  What a quaint and strange place... Then out of nowhere it started to pour, and I sprinted back to Ned's place to bring my pack inside.

Once I got a bed, Ned delivered the sobering news that the remains of Cyclone Yasi were bearing down on Hall's Gap, and part of the town was being evacuated.  I was welcome to relocate for free to a hostel down the street, but Ned was "not fuckin' leavin.'"  Finally, my kind of Australian.  I opted to wait out the impending flood with Ned, while outside people filled sandbags in the street.  Floods, locusts, rivers running red with sediment.  Just when I began to feel like I was in ancient Egypt, I met Honda, a Japanese Egyptologist who reads hieroglyphics for work, and his friend Saito.

The next day it was sunny, with no rain in sight, so I went to the National Park.  There, a ranger told me "the park is closed."  I was stunned.  What did he mean closed?  Did the mountains and rivers and trails and wildlife just disappear?  You can't close an area of land.  It's not like it's a store with a door and a lock.  This is where my egalitarian American mind, with the ingrained idea that government land equals public land, fails to comprehend the Australian park system.  There, public lands are crown lands, they belong to the queen, not the people, and they can close them if they feel they are unsafe.  Honda and Saito had come all the way from Sydney to see the park, and were disappointed, so I made them an offer.  I would take them into the park anyway, on a trail I knew was safe from talking to the locals.  What was my punishment for braving angry travel agents and floods and locusts and disgruntled park rangers?  I got to have the entire park to myself!  Honda and Saito and I hiked, alone, through open savannas with grazing herds of emus and kangaroos and Australian wood ducks, and then climbed a mountain, without seeing any other hikers.  At the end of the day, when they had to drive back to Melbourne, Honda offered me a plastic souvenir katana in gratitude for my services!  Oh, and the rains never hit Hall's Gap.  Instead they destroyed Melbourne, and part of the city was flooded and closed off.  So leaving Melbourne was a blessing after all.

Grampians National Park was deserted because of recent flooding, so we had the place to ourselves

Eastern grey kangaroos (Macropus giganteus) and emus (Dromaius novaehollandiae) grazed the park lowlands

That night I met two Polish business teachers, Przemek and Bart.  I traveled with them in their car for two days, and together we climbed a mountain, visited Aboriginal rock art sites, and drove along the Great Ocean Road, where I got my first views of the Southern Ocean.  We hiked through oldgrowth temperate rainforest, saw giant Mountain Ash trees (the second tallest tree species in the world), and passed buttloads of koalas.  It was slightly annoying, because they were absolutely terrible drivers and insisted on stopping at every single scenic turnout and taking hundreds of pictures.  They said they were sightseeing "the Japanese way," where you take a lot of pictures and enjoy them at home, instead of enjoying the moment at the time.  Also, not only were they not great at reading maps, but seemed positively confused by them.  At one point their GPS, the road signs, the map, and myself all said to go one way, and Przemek was still not convinced it was the right one.  But it was a free ride and a free trip on the Great Ocean Road, so I can't complain.

  Przemek and Bart gave me a lift along the Great Ocean Road

Now here I am back in Melbourne.  I'm going to try tomorrow to find a way to the northeast, to the Great Dividing Range.  I hope it's easier than last time...

Escape from Melbourne

I originally wrote this note on February 3, 2011, soon after arriving in Australia from New Zealand.  It started off as a Facebook post and marks the first time I assaulted the internet with one of my stories. I didn’t envision it turning into a blog.  It’s more a disgruntled rant than anything and I apologize for that.  It does, however, set the stage for future entries and is worth including.

When I arrived in Melbourne at 2030 approximately 21 hours ago, I was exciting about the prospect of travelling around Australia.  Today, however, I was in for a rude awakening, as I found out how nearly impossible it was to get a bus ticket out of the city...

The first travel agent I talked to hurriedly explained that she only dealt with transportation within the city, and pawned me off on another agent down the street.  Fair enough.

Agent #2 asked me where I wanted to go, and I replied, northeast, out of the city, either to Yarra Range National Park or Alpine National Park.  "Oh," she replied, "so, like, to New South Wales?"  Me: "No, both of those places are here in Victoria."  At this point a nosy fellow agent in the background butted in with, "you don't want to go to any National Parks."  Really?  I don't want to go to any National Parks?  Wow, I'm so out of touch with my own desires all of a sudden.  He said all the good trails are washed out from storms, so I don't want to go anyway.  The original Agent #2 then quickly said, "for more information, go down the street to the Information Center."  I'm so confused.  I don't want information, I just want to buy a bus ticket.  You don't want to sell me a bus ticket?

Off I went to the Information Center, where I was greeted by a snarling middle aged woman, Agent #3, who simply asked in an annoyed voice, "yes?"  Me: "I would like to go to Yarra Range National Park.  How can I get there?"  She wrinkled her face into a look of utter disgust and said, "I've never even heard of it."  So I pointed to the giant wall map right behind her desk, which she must see about a thousand times a day, the most prominent feature of which is a giant green blob right outside the city, labelled "Yarra Range National Park."  "It's right there," I say.  She then told me I don't want to go there, instead I wanted to go 3 hours west.  First you've never heard of it, now you know that I don't want to go there?  What's with Australians telling me what I want?

Off to Agent #4.  She was nice, but not very helpful.  She told me the only way to get out of Melbourne was to rent a car, which they could conveniently do for me there, the cheapest of which was over 50 dollars a day.  No, thanks.

Enter Agent #5, a couple miles away.  When I told her I wanted to go northeast she assured me I couldn't.  But I could take a 10 day guided tour 2200 km to the northwest to Alice Springs for the low, low price of 1200 dollars.  It was a true "outback experience," a guided tour including prepared food, prepared campsites, and wine tasting.  Sounds like an authentic wilderness experience to me.  I asked her where the campsites were, and what kind of campsites they were.  Her reply: "they are all under the open desert sky."  Could she have given an answer that conveyed any less information?  She guaranteed to me that the only trips I could get out of town would be guided tours, which I told her I wasn't interested in.  Even if I were to find a bus ticket out of the city, "they don't go to National Parks."  Technically I could rent my own vehicle, but that was far too dangerous.  One time she had taken a guided tour along the coast, and so she knew what it took to survive in the outback, and I just wouldn't be able to make it driving.  For one thing, "distances in Australia are very far" and if I didn't have a driving buddy, I would fall asleep and die.  REALLY?  Last time I checked the US was pretty freaking huge, and so is Canada.  She was so condescending that she actually suggested I couldn't rent a car and drive anywhere because I would fall asleep at the wheel!

Anyway, I finally made my way to Agent #6, about another mile away.  There I got a bus ticket to The Grampians National Park for the next day, no hassle, for a measly 26 dollars.  She wasn't very friendly, but she smiled, gave me exactly what I asked for without telling me it was impossible, and didn't tell me what I really wanted to do.  Finally.  In your face Agents 1-5!  And all it took was 9 hours of walking around Melbourne in frustration.

Around the world in 2011

I’m back in Oklahoma after a fruitful summer.  I’ve got an eventful few months ahead and hope to write some interesting posts.  For now though, as I settle back into my lab routine, I’ll post some older pieces.

Many of you followed my updates in 2011 when I spent six months in a homeless overseas ramble.  I had just finished my undergraduate work and wanted to explore a bit before jumping into grad school.  That formative trip tested me in new ways, taught me valuable skills and introduced me to a host of landscapes, organisms and people.  As such, it was an important link in my journey from Marine to scientist.

Eventually I’ll transfer all those posts to M2M.  Their tone may be a bit different and they may read more like a travel blog.  Like M2M, however, the guiding theme of place weaves the stories together.  Thanks again to those of you who followed along and encouraged me back in 2011, and I apologize for rehashing old material.  For the rest of you, I hope you enjoy these past adventures!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013


M2M has been light on the Marine and heavy on the Myrmecologist.  It’s been an exciting year and I’ve focused on the present.  But the story arc of this blog is meant to bridge my life as Marine to that as biologist.

I’ve never told a Marine story in a public forum and I’m not comfortable with the idea.  I’m guarded about my experiences and memories from that time.  They tend to be powerful and difficult to understand.  Some stories I will never tell here.  So how do we proceed?

Though my experiences form the story, a guiding theme of this blog is place.  A good start would be to share a bit about the place that started it all.  Iraq was where I reconnected with my love of nature and firmly decided to be a biologist.  In fact I wrote my first notes about an ant in Iraq.  In Fallujah in October 2005 I described “big ants with long legs for walking in sand.”  I know now they were a species of Cataglyphis.

Anyone who’s spent a spring in western Iraq is familiar with the Khamsin, although they might not know it by that name.  “Khamsin” is the Arabic word for fifty and refers to hot dry winds that blow for about 50 days each year.  They start around April and carry sand north and east from the Syrian Desert.  Rather than having a cooling effect, the Khamsin winds are like a blast from a furnace, and they often bring sandstorms.

In the spring Khamsin winds bring sandstorms from the Syrian Desert

Browsing through my notes I find references to seven sandstorms, six of which occurred between April and June.  Sometimes they’re accompanied by a thunderstorm and are called haboobs, from the Arabic for blowing or raging.  During one such storm it was so dark I wrote I could hear thunder, but “didn’t manage to catch a glimpse of any lightning.”  Storms like these inspired some of my most descriptive journal passages.  I write about pink skies, booming thunder, roaring wind and pouring rain or hail.

During the worst sandstorms raging winds and poor visibility bring human affairs to a halt

Storms remind us how small we are.  Iraq had some of the best.