Friday, May 30, 2014

Purple Martins...and ants?

For the past week I’ve been in Southeast Oklahoma working on my newest project…involving birds.

I’m collaborating with Dr. Eli Bridge—ornithologist, professor, and general tinkerer.  As in Florida last summer, my physicist pal Aaron has come along to help out.  Rounding out the team is Tayna, a biology undergraduate volunteer from Ohio.

Together, we hope to learn how birds, ants and other insects use the air above our heads—the aerosphere.  Since my dissertation research revolves around ant flight, I suppose it was only a matter of time until I ventured into aeroecology, a field until now mostly focused on birds, bats, and a few swarming insects.  I hope to introduce ants into the mix.  Mating queens and males are, after all, an important part of life in our skies…we think.

With the help of ornithologist and inventor Eli Bridge, and some cooperative birds…

…I’m studying how ants travel through the air above our heads (Photo by Aaron Godfrey)

Tayna, an aspiring biology major, traveled a thousand miles from Ohio to help with the project (Photo by Aaron Godfrey)

So here we find ourselves—an ornithologist, a physicist, a college student and a myrmecologist—at the University of Oklahoma’s Biological Station on Lake Texoma.  Using altitude logging devices—“barologgers”—invented by Eli, for the first time we can measure the flight altitudes of birds and the animals they prey on.

Our aerial predator of choice is the Purple Martin.  Popular among bird enthusiasts across North America, Purple Martins are voracious hunters that fly to high altitudes to capture insect prey.

Purple Martins (Progne subis) are high flying hunters that bring their prey down to earth to feed their young (Photo by Aaron Godfrey)

Successful hunters bring back slimy gobs of fire ant (Solenopsis invicta) queens and males, like the ones we studied in Florida

By studying how high nesting parents fly and what they feed their young when they return to earth, we hope to get a glimpse into the unseen world above.  In essence, we’re adapting techniques developed by marine biologists to study life in the depths, and turning them upside down to study life at great heights.

By monitoring parents at their nests…

…and their chicks, we will study life at unseen heights

A harebrained idea, to be sure, but one that just might work…

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Rupununi ants

These are the ants of the Southern Rupununi.

In Oklahoma I’ve been piecing together a museum collection of the Rupununi ants we collected

The past couple months I’ve been working on the ants Leeanne and Samson and I collected in Guyana in the fall, when we joined a Biodiversity Assessment Team with Global Wildlife Conservation and WWF Guianas.  There we surveyed the ant communities of the Southern Rupununi savanna to guide future conservation efforts.

I’ve heard it said that for collecting work you need to allot ten days in the lab for every one spent in the field.  This is especially true of insect work, where field time is mostly spent just collecting the specimens.  Actual identification and counting take place in the lab.  Basically, as an ant collector, you don’t really know what you’ve captured until you take it home.  And figuring it out takes time—a lot of time.

First I remove the ants from the ethanol where they’re stored.  For ants caught in traps, this means separating them from all the bits of dirt, plants, and other tiny animals that also fell in.

Next, I sort them and choose representatives from each species and collecting event.  I mount those individuals by gluing them to a tiny point of paper and pinning the point, along with labels, into a tray.

Finally, I identify species based on the scientific literature and by comparing them with museum specimens.  In the case of our Rupununi ants, many (most?) of the species are undescribed, and therefore nameless and unknown to science—there is no name to give them.  So I make one up, assigning the species a number instead.  Moreover, some species are just plain difficult to identify.  I don’t have the expertise to figure it out.  Those also get numbers.

A few genera—unfortunately for me—are at once diverse, difficult to identify and poorly known.  Those genera have lots of numbers for species names.  For instance, I’m up to Pheidole sp.26 and counting.

The lab work for collections is time consuming and requires many hours at a microscope

It may seem odd or cruel—gluing tiny ants to tiny pieces of paper and arranging them in a cabinet drawer.  But this is the only way to discover new species, find out where they live, or do any kind of research on them.  Exploration collections like these are the first step to understanding and conserving the life around us.

Today, after weeks of effort, I’ve finally sorted, mounted and IDed half of the ants we collected in the Rupununi.  This weekend I leave home for my summer field season and won’t return until August.  Since I have to leave the Rupununi ants for a while, this is a convenient moment to enjoy the progress so far.

So here it is.  Nearly a thousand mounted specimens, from 169 species, 43 genera, and 10 subfamilies.  And we’re not done yet.

A snapshot of the Southern Rupununi, this drawer contains most of our knowledge of the region’s ant life

Turns out, the Rupununi’s a diverse place.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Arrest on the Nile

In July and August 2012 I traveled to Uganda for a field course on ant taxonomy.  I arrived in Uganda a couple weeks early to travel on my own before the course started.  This post is one part of a long note originally written on August 5 to let my friends and family know what I’d been up to in that time.  It was my first public update since the final Around the World post one year earlier.  Although I’ve broken it up for M2M, the original long note attempted to tell the entire Uganda story in one sitting from an internet cafĂ© in Entebbe.  Despite some editing, the manic, rushed and unorganized tone remains.

I haven't written a note in quite a while, mainly because I have no reason to.  I once again, however, find myself compelled to put finger to keyboard and let the world know I breathe.  This is a note to my family and interested friends who may be wondering exactly what I'm up to mucking about Uganda, with no communication since I left the US.  It's true that I have been doing a fair bit of mucking about, but only in a positive sense, I assure you.

First off, I want to recognize my former classmate Tianna Madison who just performed in the women's 100m at the Olympics.  I first met Tianna in my hometown when I was twelve, and I never imagined then that in fifteen years I would be in Uganda watching her represent our country in the Olympics.  Seeing a fellow Elyrian on screen, in a room full of Europeans and Africans, was one of the highlights of my time in Uganda.  Tianna has proven that Elyrians can do great things after all!

Now, East Africa...

Perhaps the single most important thing to note about any visit to Uganda is that there have probably been humans in Uganda for as long as there have been humans.  That can be said of only a handful of places on this planet, and its significance is difficult to overstate.  Modern humans originated in East Africa.  This is the place that shaped us as a species and we bear its legacy today in our culture, art, and biology.  East Africa is the only place where one can put humankind in its proper context.  Uganda is not just home to the people who happen to live there today.  It is home to us all.  For any human, anywhere, a journey to East Africa is a pilgrimage, a step toward understanding oneself.  It is, after all, our only native habitat in the Universe.  If we "belong" anywhere, it is here.

Alternatively, speaking of German South Africa, Thomas Pynchon said that Europeans visit "colonies" because they "are the outhouses of the European soul, where a fellow can let his pants down and relax, enjoy the smell of his own shit."

Am I a pilgrim on a voyage of self-discovery, or am I just an imperialist enjoying an exotic and drawn out number two?

I spent a few days in the southwest, acquainting myself with the people, the landscape and the biology.  But everything felt too tame.  I mean, as tame as you can get with elephants and lions about.  I felt myself being drawn instead to Kidepo Valley National Park, the most remote park in Uganda.

I spent a few days in Southwest Uganda, exploring first the savannas and lakes of Lake Mburo National Park…

…followed by the grasslands and forest gorges of Queen Elizabeth National Park

Kidepo Valley lies in the Karamoja region in the northeast, on the border with South Sudan and only miles from Kenya.  The US government has this to say about Northeast Uganda: "U.S. citizens traveling to the Karamoja region in northeastern Uganda should also be aware of ongoing conflict and armed banditry in this region...the North suffers from a general lack of infrastructure... Cattle rustling, armed banditry, and attacks on vehicles are common in the Karamoja region of northeastern Uganda... U.S. citizens are advised to avoid travel to the Karamoja region given the frequent insecurity."

Likewise, the UK government weighs in with "If you wish to visit Kidepo Valley National Park we recommend that you travel by air rather than road... We advise against all travel to Karamoja... Lawlessness there is endemic (eg road ambushes). Tribal clashes are frequent and unpredictable. Small arms are widespread and deaths or injury from gunshot wounds occur regularly."

In addition, the area you have to pass through on the way only became stable a few years ago with the expulsion of Joseph Kony.  Naturally, I had to go, and I had to go by road.  I was sure I'd be fine.  After all, I don't have any cattle, and I have no beef with the Karamojong.

The driver I had hired for the first few days—a jolly and hyper man named Nicholas—agreed to drive to Kidepo.  So we set out in his Land Cruiser to cross the country from southwest to northeast.  The psychological first step for a trip north is to cross the Nile.  In this part of Uganda the Nile flows east to west and forms the traditional border between the often unstable north and the main population center of the south.  A single bridge links the two sections of the country, crossing the Nile where it flows over a series of rapids called Karuma Falls.

After a few days in Southwest Uganda, Nicholas agreed to drive me to Kidepo Valley in the northeast corner of the country

The Nile here differs from its northern sections where it flows through the Egyptian Sahara.  At Karuma Falls it is lined on the north bank by lush tropical spray forest in Murchison Falls National Park, and on the southwest by similar forest in Karuma Game Reserve.  The southeast bank is human-cleared grassland containing an infantry barracks and military base.  A handful of lanky undisciplined Ugandan infantry guard the bridge…if you can first make it past the troop of aggressive olive baboons.

A National Park, a Game Reserve and a military base all meet at the bridge where the Nile flows over Karuma Falls

Apparently the Ugandan Army doesn't appreciate tourists photographing Karuma Falls.  I took a few photos out the window while driving, and a Sergeant saw my camera and pulled us over.  He came to the window and against Nicholas's protests demanded I get out of the truck.  Of course, I refused.  So then he demanded my camera.  Again, I refused.  He reached in the window and grabbed my camera and tried to force it from my hands, but I didn't let go.  Thus went our first of many tugs-of-war.

The Sergeant said he had to arrest me and had me get out of the car and stand on the side of the road with his underlings—a Corporal and two Privates—standing by.  At some point he finally explained why I can't take photographs—about two kilometers to the east, two artillery guns are visible on the south bank and show up as tiny specks in any photos of the falls.

With his underlings surrounding me, he felt more confident and tried a few more times to take my camera.  Again, I didn't let him.  The ordeal went on for minutes, him telling me I was under arrest, demanding my camera and trying to grab me, and me asking what I had done wrong.  The Oregonians in Sulawesi taught me a useful lesson about getting arrested.  They told me that as a tourist, unless you do something really criminal, you can only get arrested if you let them arrest you.  I kept that in mind as I struggled with the soldier every time he put his hands on me.  I mean, if a US Marine Sergeant can't hold his own against a Sergeant in the Ugandan Army, he probably isn't trying hard enough.

The Sergeant eventually gave up on me and told me he was going to arrest Nicholas—a native Ugandan—instead.  They pulled Nicholas out of the truck and brought him over.  Somewhere along the line the conversation devolved into bribe negotiations.  What the Sergeant didn't know is that few Ugandan soldiers will underbid me on the value of my own life.  He initially asked for 50,000 shillings ($20).  Nicholas protested that I had no money.  He said I spent it all to hire him, and that was true.  Fortunately, I was wearing my worst shirt—an old skivvy shirt, threadbare and full of holes—and hadn't shaved or washed my hair in some time.  I pointed out to the soldiers that they had nicer clothes than I did.  They seemed to agree and settled on 10,000 shillings ($4).

I paid a small bribe to keep this photo, taken through the window of our moving truck.  The cleared area with communication towers on the south bank is the military base the Army doesn’t want tourists photographing.

We might’ve gone lower but Nicholas gave in.  So I had to pay $4 and waste some time in exchange for the photos, but it was worth it.  Back on the road and across the bridge Nicholas and I vented to each other and laughed about it.

We had entered the north.

On the down side, if I can convince a Ugandan soldier I’m poor I must look pretty terrible...

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Trip end

This is my final Around the World post.  I first wrote it on August 20, 2011, two days before starting grad school at the University of Oklahoma.  I had returned to the US after leaving Egypt a couple months before and spent the summer traveling with friends in my home country.  It marks the end of a formative phase in my life—eight months of homeless wandering between college and grad school—and is an important link in my journey from Marine to Myrmecologist.

After a couple months of traveling in the US and spending time with friends and family, I'm now settled into my new home in Norman and getting ready to start grad school on Monday, ending my nomadic phase of 2011.  Eight months of homelessness was exactly how it sounds—pure awesomeness—but now it's ending...hopefully to give way to more great things.

After 5½  months overseas and mostly alone, I got to reconnect with my home country with friends and family, in places like Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument…

… Grand Canyon National Park…
…and Bryce Canyon National Park

At 0205 on the morning of June 28, I arrived at the starting point of my trip in Durant, Oklahoma, completing my global circumnavigation.  I've been back in the US since June 15 and I'm still in a bit of culture shock.  I guess returning to a country after a long absence is similar in some ways to going there for the first time.

But mostly there's a feeling of accomplishment that comes from bringing a long adventure to an end.  The idea for the trip was born nearly three years ago in fall 2008, right after I began my studies at Ohio State.   Seeing the entire process, from proposal to planning to implementation, come to a close is satisfying.  I mean, it's not raising a kid or anything, but it still took commitment, involved hardship, and brought in its share of rewards.

Now I'm going to boast a bit.  I left Durant on January 5 and returned June 28.  Over those 175 days, with the exception of Thailand, for the most part I worked my ass off.  I traveled by almost every means of transportation I knew of, and a few that were new to me.  Planes, long distance buses, city buses, minibuses, shuttle buses, tour buses, ferries, speedboats, sailboats, motorized canoes, outriggers, trains, rental cars, taxis, tuktuks, ojeks, bemos, motorcycle rickshaws, a patrol elephant, a rickety old jeep, hitchhiking, and over 1,000 miles of old-fashioned walking.  I met new people from different cultures every day, ate lots of new delicious food, and stayed in a different place almost every night.  Even sleeping was diverse—I slept in hostels, my tent, lean-tos, private homes, boat decks, buses and ferries and trains, losmens, messes, homestays, benches, cheap hotels and a research hut.

Nearly every day was spent in hours of fieldwork.  I identified 400 bird species, 100 plants, around 50 mammals, dozens of reptile and amphibian species, and countless invertebrates, for a grand total of about 1,000 identified organisms.  Many of these I photographed as well.  Among the invertebrates were many famous and exciting ants, in all sorts of exotic colors like velvety blue, shiny silver, bright gold, and iridescent green.

And I didn't just look, photograph and identify.  I got to experience quite a few organisms on a deeper level.  Aside from eating the few odd edibles (jelly puffball fungus, weaver ants, drinkable lianas), I was touched, bitten, stung, scratched, sprayed, sucked, stunk on, poked, poisoned, infected, discolored,  gooed, or generally hurt by orangutans, ants, beetles, fungi, wasps, stick insects, resin bugs, grasshoppers, lizards, mites, leeches, mosquitoes, biting midges, horse flies, spitfires, rattans, pandans, spinifex, needlebush, plenty of thorny plants, stink bugs, jewel bugs, giardia, jellyfish, coral and some others that I'm sure I'm forgetting.  All this in addition to experiencing and learning firsthand about other natural wonders and phenomena, and the general geography and culture of the places I visited.

While exploring, traveling, doing fieldwork, taking thousands of photos, making new friends and circumnavigating the globe, I also learned a language, at least to the conversational level.  In short, the entire trip was about exploration and learning, and that's exactly what I did, in so many ways.

Boasting complete, now come the thanks.  One lesson I learned from my trip is how to ask for help.  I asked for help all the time and wouldn't have been able to make it without the many kindnesses shown to me by strangers.  Hitchhiking, a new trick I picked up and often relied on, is at its core a direct request for help.  From simple advice and directions, to gifts and food, to offering me a free room to spend the night, people throughout the trip were generous and helpful, especially in New Zealand and Indonesia.  Starting with my very first day in New Zealand, when an overly-friendly bus ticket vendor helped me get to downtown Auckland, there is a long list of often unnamed people who deserve my thanks.

Thanks especially in New Zealand to Helmut and Cornelia, a German couple who picked me up on the side of the road and adopted me for a couple days.  Also in New Zealand, thanks to all the strange and interesting people who gave me rides.  Some of the more memorable ones are the beer brewer/cleaning agents maker, traveling German photographer-who-lived-in-his-van, migrant farm worker, crotchety old Korean war vet/sheep farmer, and Tahu the large Maori rugby player.  There were some others who gave me rides, plus plenty of other helpful New Zealanders, from park rangers to bus drivers to hostel managers.

In Australia the list starts with Ned, of Ned's Place fame, from Halls Gap, who let me stay at his place in spite of impending flood warnings, and continues to Przemek and Bart, the two Polish business teachers who took me along the Great Ocean Road.  There were plenty of other ride givers, and then Dan the British Columbian who I met in four different cities, and the wild Buck's Weekenders who took me to Coffs Harbour.  Thanks to the Marine tour guide in Cairns, and the amazing guide Owen in Litchfield National Park.  Thanks to all the people I traveled with, especially the girls in Merimbula and Melissa and Ellie in Mount Isa.  And thanks especially to the multiple aboriginals who welcomed me to their country.

Indonesia is where the help really kicked in.  Thanks to Rati at in Jakarta for helping me with so many things when I was new to the country, and also to Ervina and Imam for taking care of me in Kalimantan.  The primate researchers at Setia Alam were also generous in allowing me to stay in their camp and see their work in action.  Agus in Sulawesi was the best guide I've had, and I'm still wearing the bracelet he made me.  Also in Sulawesi, the Oregonians took me in when I was sick, and then showed me an awesome time for the next week of travel.  In Ternate Opan and his family took me in and treated me as one of the family, and Ari in Halmahera helped me with translations and in the field.  And thanks to all the random Indonesians who treated me like I was somebody, and gave me food and help as if it were an honor, without any expectation of anything in return.

In Thailand, thanks to Robert for the ride, even though you ran over my foot, and thanks to our many guides and drivers in Egypt, even though you always demanded baqshish.

I would also like to thank my mother and the Dillow/Powell family for subsidizing my trip by buying or loaning me gear, sending me some money to help fund internet cafes, or helping out logistically.  And thanks again to the citizens of Ohio for funding through my veterans bonus.  Of course, I can't forget Durant Leung, who not only bought me new socks and brought me replacement gear, but actually came out and traveled with me for the last month and a half!

This is the last of these entries I will write, my traveling being over for a time.  My primary purpose in writing them, not having a cell phone, was to keep my friends and family, who were thousands of miles away, in the loop about where I was and what I was doing and reassure them about my health.  But I started to get positive feedback and helpful advice and inspiration from a lot of other friends and family who also read them.  The feedback helped keep my spirits up and motivated me to continue working and traveling.  So thanks very much to everyone who read or enjoyed any of the notes I wrote.

It’s great to be back in the US!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Egyptian relicts

I first wrote this post in Egypt on June 14, 2011.  It was the last overseas post from my Around the World trip.

If Thailand was a vacation, Egypt has been the harsh return to work afterward.  Whereas we slacked off in Thailand, in Egypt we've actually been doing things and spending a lot of time on trains and boats.  Of course the biggest difference between Thailand and Egypt is the language.  In the former English was fine for just about any purpose and I never felt the need to learn any Thai.  Egypt wouldn't be English, of course, but I know Arabic so things would still be easy, right?  It turns out that while two months is enough time to learn a good bit of Indonesian, it's also enough to push all the Arabic I thought I knew out of my mind.  I'm sure three years of not using the language also played a role...

My first two days in Egypt were humbling and the chaos of Cairo didn't help.  A good humbling every now and then is healthy, and this was no exception.  Still, there was a time in my life where I identified myself largely by my Arabic, and to have the reality of my loss of that skill thrust in my face was a shock.  After a week, however, of translating for Durant and myself, and the occasional fellow traveler, and arguing with countless agents, drivers, hawkers, etc., the language came back, with plenty of new knowledge as well.  Few things teach a language as quickly as argument.

In general the people of Egypt are welcoming.  Strangers shout "Welcome to Egypt."  The only other people I've encountered who were in the habit of vocally welcoming me to their country were Aboriginal Australians.  But there's also a downside.  Whereas Indonesians and New Zealanders have a knack for helping you when you need it most, many Egyptians sprint to help you when you need it least, and then demand things from you in return.

Doormen and porters expect tips for offering to help you with your bags, even if you don't let them.  Random people stand outside bathrooms and ask for money on your way out, even though they didn't clean them.  One guy followed Durant and I down the street, unasked, and insisted on pointing out a good restaurant.  Later that night I saw him and he asked me for money in return for his favor.  When I politely, but firmly, refused, he told me I had a black heart.  That's a new epithet for me.  Some of these things are obvious scams and all it takes is a response in Arabic for them to leave you alone.  For example, one guy guarding a bathroom in Edfu asked me for a tip.  I responded, "Why?  I pissed by myself.  You didn't help me."  He accepted that as me knowing I owed him nothing, and he laughed and left me alone.  But even with a few days' experience and decent Arabic on my side, I still get swindled at least once a day.

Another phenomenon, not unique to Egypt, which I find hilarious but Durant finds irritating, is people's response to his ethnicity.  In Indonesia, Thailand and Egypt, hawkers and passersby can't seem to resist pointing out that he's ethnically East Asian.  He most often gets asked if he's Japanese, but he's also gotten Chinese, Korean and Thai.  When he says American they aren’t satisfied and pursue the matter further, until he says his parents are from China.  It's like they think only white people can be from the US.  The funniest was a hawker in Aswan, selling cheap plastic guns.  He yelled to Durant, "My friend, look!  Made in your country!"  That one angered Durant pretty badly but I couldn't help snickering.  So lately he's given up trying to explain that he's American when people ask where he's from, and he just makes up random countries, like Mexico, which satisfies them more than saying USA.

Overall, Egypt has been satisfying in its own way.  Finally, for the first time, I get to explore Egyptian, Greek and Roman ruins.  Or even Egyptian ruins with the unfortunate, yet exciting, Greek and Latin graffiti.

Durant and I visited a lot of the normal tourist attractions in Egypt, like the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx of Giza…

…the Temple of Kom Ombo…

…the Temple of Edfu…

…and the Karnak Temple Complex.

There are few better places for someone with a hobbyist's interest in the ancient Mediterranean.  Today we explored the legendary city of Alexandria—an entire city devoted to Alexander the great.  One of the main streets is Alexander the Great Street, and there is a sculpture of him outside the modern version of the Library of Alexandria.

We also spent some time on the Mediterranean in Alexandria

Our time in Egypt has been shuffling unceasingly from ruin to ruin, temple to temple, with not a full night's sleep throughout.  I'm exhausted but happy.  It helps that I'm a fan of arid lands.  It's hard to pick a highlight from the past week, but mine would actually be sailing lazily on the Nile in the South, reading, bird watching and observing traditional Sa'idi or Nubian villagers.  The deep blue of the river and green of the marshes and agriculture, contrasting with the pale pink sand of the Sahara surrounding everything, appealed to my love of arid landscapes, and everything, from the barren weathered rocks to the baked mud huts, conveyed a sense of antiquity.

With Egypt’s dense population and long history of human use, most of the Nile Valley’s vegetation and wildlife has been replaced by farmland.  Just about every animal featured on the walls of the old temples is now extinct from the area—sacred ibis, elephant, hippo, lion, leopard, gazelle, oryx, cheetah, crocodile.  Modern Egypt is a different world from the land the ancients experienced.  But there's still a lot of natural beauty and harshness, and even a bit of wildness, left in a few places.  A bit of Old Egypt can still be found in those fragments.

Egypt is densely populated and most of its natural vegetation has been replaced by agriculture, but one can still find small pockets of semi-natural grassland and savanna

Rocky islands dot the Nile’s first cataract near Aswan

Remnant marshes line some of the Nile’s banks

The Sa’idi of Upper Egypt live along the Nile and its marshes

The transitions between bare dunes, managed date palm groves, and the Nile can be sudden

In some places tall dunes extend right to the river’s edge

Saharan silver ants (Cataglyphis bombycina) were common on sandy banks

This is my last night abroad.  We'll travel in the Eastern US for a couple weeks and my trip won't officially end until I finish my loosely-defined circumnavigation in Oklahoma.  But returning to the US tomorrow will be a major milestone.  I've been away from my home country for over five months and have met only a few Americans in that time.  Other than Durant and electronic media I don't even hear American English.  Durant pointed out today that my language has changed since I left.

How do I feel about returning?  Excited, of course.  But also afraid, sad and already nostalgic for my time spent abroad.  But I'm really not sure, I haven't devoted much time to reflecting on how I feel.  Perhaps I'll do that before bed tonight.