Thursday, September 30, 2010

Florida Forever 2011 Conservation Photography Calendar

The 2011 Florida Forever calendars just arrived and they are BEAUTIFUL! It is such a privilege to be among the 11 other nature photographers from around the state to be selected for this project. The calendar highlights 12 potential project sites for Florida Forever from around the state. Flipping through the pages, you get a real sense of the diversity of natural areas at stake. With enough public support, the Florida Forever program will remain a priority and we will have the chance to conserve and protect our natural heritage. The calendars make great stocking stuffers and gifts for friends and family as we come into the new year. Help spread the word of awareness and share the beauty of our fragile state!

Florida Forever 2011 Conservation Photography Calendar with cover by David Moynahan 
at Dickerson Bay.

If you would like a calendar, feel free to use the ordering system below, you do not need a PayPal account to do so. 

Florida Forever 2011 Calendar

I was assigned to the hardwood uplands of Key Largo and had a wonderful time exploring and photographing this rare biome. A unique feature of this calendar, a caption below each photograph explains the ecological and social importance of each site and what is required to save it from development.

My photo in the calendar is of the endangered stock island tree snail found within
 Crocodile Lake Wildlife Refuge. 

Monday, September 20, 2010

Silence of the Fish

Heather Schorge lays out a board of rainwater killifish (Lucania parva) at the Tavernier Science Center

Biologists would make good serial killers. Not of the Jack the Ripper variety, but something more of a methodical, curious, and scientific brand like Anthony Hopkins’ character in Silence of the Lambs. Not because we enjoy killing people or animals, but because we enjoy studying them in great detail when they're not so squirmy. I’ve noticed a severe disconnect exists with biologists, like a synapse jostled loose which keeps separated the icky squishes and smells of dead things from the clean cut living world. We all know these people. They’re the ones who contemplate boogers - the ones that seem to originate in the frontal lobe of brain, and upon removal, essentially clear your sinus problem - they also pick scabs, covet long ingrown hairs, and with wide eyes, pop zits onto the bathroom mirror. Yes, they might wear a suit and tie to work, but they can’t wait to examine the chunk of earwax that tumbles off their shoulder onto their desk. 

An anatomy professor, my sweet little mom is a shining example of this double agent lifestyle. She may be pulling out one of her famous corn bread pies from the oven in her disarming apron, but just behind her warm smile and delicious baked goods rest eight pig hearts hardening in the freezer next to the Flintstone’s Push Pops. Things that would make an ordinary person's skin crawl are and were a topic of conversation at our dinner table, if not the center piece - quite literally actually, as my brothers and I have all been sewn up on the kitchen table from various injuries. Growing up, it was not uncommon for her to bring up stories during a meal about her newest cadaver. My dad, an OBGYN doctor, would ever so hypocritically gag, changing the subject to c-sections or something more appropriate like venereal diseases. Neither of which, I might add, went very well with meatloaf.

Clown goby (Microgobius gulosus) swallowing a rainwater killifish (Lucania parva) just before dying. 
We have to measure and weigh both of them, even when partially digested.

While this sort of environment could easily damage a young child, it only helped to develop my high tolerance for gross things. One day, my mom brought home a bloody pair of cow lungs attached to a rubber tube to show me how they expanded and contracted when she blew on the other end. Fascinated, I immediately carried the soft, heavy pluck over to my next-door neighbor’s house. Hiding behind a buttress I rang the doorbell and laid the bloody heap on their welcome mat. When the mother, Wee Ching, answered the door, I blew into the tube and shared with her one of the many miracles of anatomy. Not so impressed by the pulsing gob of veins and cartilage, she slammed the door screaming something desperate in Chinese. It’s always been like this. I try to bring others to the threshold of my biological discoveries only to have them shut the door in my face.

In elementary school I was chastised for my dirty clothes. Not for the difficult stains, but for the wriggling lizard’s tails and daddy-long-legs bodies (which I meticulously separated from the legs) my mom would uncover in my pockets. Or the time in middle school when I was nearly grounded for borrowing her kitchen knives to dissect a toad, carefully compartmentalizing its organs in Tupperware containers in the fridge. Coming home from Honduras, I risked customs and smuggled my insect collection into the states, only to be scorned for the breaking the law. However, now, the colorful bugs are proudly displayed in our living room. And recently, my roommate in Wyoming complained the numerous sandwich bags of dried animal scat I collected were health hazards and general female deterrents.

A rotting tarpon head sits out near the scrap wood and water hose. One of my coworkers' treasures
from the field, this will be sure to rest on a mantle somewhere.

When I came to Tavernier last fall and stepped foot into the downstairs lab at Audubon, I finally found that long lost asylum where other like-minded explorers came to uncover secrets of the natural world. Shelves lined with vials of fish and other animals floating in formalin led to freezers stocked to the brim with birds, snakes, and anything else you might find in the Everglades. Jackpot!

A woodstork head has found refuge in the auto garage. 

In a biologist’s office, empty space is valuable real estate to put maps and skeletons of unfortunate creatures. The more exotic and rare the artifacts, the more accomplished the biologist. Who needs a metal paperweight when you can safely stack your documents under a monkey skull? These little treasures aren’t restricted to the lab or the offices either. When going to wash off your boots by the hose, make sure not to step on the massive tarpon face, which has been decaying for a good part of the year. Oh, and if you need some brake fluid for the truck, it should be on the shelf in the garage right next to the preserved woodstork head.

Michelle Robinson measures some day one goldspotted killifish (Floridichtys carpio) 

This summer I had the chance to put my so-called seasoned tolerance to the test. We are in the field eight months out of the year. Four of those months, then, are dedicated to processing the data in the lab. Data, in this case, means dead fish. And processing means thawing, identifying, measuring, weighing, and counting. We study the fish populations in terms of seasonality to determine population densities in relation to water depths and salinities. Some days we come back with forty fish, some days we come back with thousands. No need to worry though; these minnows are the prey base for the wading birds and they fornicate more than rabbits.

A typical summer sample board of over 400 rainwater killifish waits to be processed.

Since starting in November of 2009 I had been warned about summer in the lab. Horror stories of stifling temperatures and ungodly smells. Mountains of juicy Gambusia (mosquito fish) and slimy eels, their skin peeling off like burn victims. Yes, it would be an unforgettable summer. Upon thawing my first site and opening the Ziploc bag, I nearly vomited. I was struck with the same disbelief as when driving down the interstate and the lingering aroma of a paper mill wafts into the air conditioner. How could anyone get used to this wretched stench? I tried everything. I wore a surgical mask, when that didn’t work I sprayed the inside with lavender perfume which proved more caustic than the dead fish. I tried breathing through my mouth but my nose started to hurt after the second hour. Eventually by the third week, olfactory fatigue set in and by mid July I was eating chips and pizza at the lab table, as if the fish were my dinner guests.

The first sheepshead minnow (Cyprinodon variegatus) is a Day 1 fish.
The others that follow are varying degrees of Day 2 sheepshead minnows. 
If only this blog were scratch and sniff. 

The summer sample months of April and June prove the most unnerving to sort and i.d. When we go out into the field we have two days of sampling. The first day, the fish are fresh and recently dead and we quickly put them on ice to preserve them as well as we can. By the second day, however, the fish we missed the first day have been exposed to the blazing sun, warm water, and crabs, which enjoy picking at their stomachs. Day two fish, as they are called, exact their revenge by taking the form of scaly globs and we must pick through the masses to find their severed heads and tails.

Thawing a fish popsicle. It's hard not to try and give these little
guys voices and names with all those frozen expressions and personalities.

While this may sound miserable, we find ways to enjoy ourselves. My favorite prank is placing a day two fish on the rim of someone’s Coke, primarily Erin’s, because she never notices until the last minute. Eighteen years have passed since dumping the cow lungs on Wee Ching’s doorstep, and I’m still the biologist I ever was. This time, however, I can put it on my resume. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

5 Hour Soul Energy

A bottlenose dolphin breeches the water in the Florida Bay. 

I've never been good at sleeping. I'm not an insomniac, just sometimes my mind kicks into 5th gear around 1:00 AM. This last Wednesday, wide awake at four in the morning, I dreaded the 5 AM wake up call for sample day. After three months of office work, getting back into the field with an hour of sleep proved a poor decision. I made plenty of mistakes and took severely longer than usual getting back into the swing of things. Tired, frustrated, and overheated, all I wanted was my bed.

Just when I had thrown in the towel, day dreaming of air conditioning, our massage chair, and jersey sheets, I spotted a pod of six bottlenose dolphins. The previous week, Luis Canedo taught me how to summon nearby dolphins simply by giving them a playground. Trimming up the motor and revving the engine, I created the largest wake possible behind our 17' Mako. Immediately, the dolphins changed directions and began drafting our boat, jumping and spinning in the waves.

Lucky, lucky, lucky. I have no idea if I'll ever get this close to a wild dolphin again.

For twenty minutes adrenaline took over and I felt as alert as ever. The high lasted until 2 AM that night as I edited the photos. Who needs energy drinks when you have the Florida Bay in your backyard? It just goes to show that even on the bleakest of days, nature can find a way to inspire, enrich, and awaken the soul.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Is it Worth It?

The modern digital photographer has thousands, if not tens of thousands of images stored on their hard drives. I'm one of the latter. Before adding another twenty or thirty photos to the vault I ask myself, is it worth it? Will I use this photo? The very idea of unpacking my camera bag, changing lenses, composing, exposing, and working the subject until I get the shot is sometimes enough to trigger a complacence so grand it can only be mistaken for arrogance. "Oh, another barred owl? I've got one of those."

It seems like such a simple task - pulling out a camera, pointing, and shooting, but laziness is a devout polygamist and married to any number of excuses. The light is wrong. I don't want to get my camera wet. It'll be gone by the time I'm ready to shoot. The camera will just be a burden to bring along. My brand of indolence tends to walk hand in hand with familiar places. Once I've made a substantial portfolio of a particular location, I become increasingly picky as to what I will shoot. This blatant hubris never seemed so clear to me until last week when a friend, Garl Harrold, called to report he found a juvenile southeastern five-lined skink and would hold on to it so I could take pictures. I stammered on the phone, trying to be polite while dropping subtle clues that he shouldn't have gone through the trouble for something so common as a skink. "No really, Garl, you shouldn't have gone through the trouble..."

When I came into work the next morning, a water bottle containing a small lizard was sitting on my desk with a note from Garl. It sat there for half the morning haunting me, whispering to me, now you owe it to him, Mac. As we all know, guilt is a formidable force. Even laziness, with its posse of vindications, is no match for a guilty conscience. With heavy steps I carried the skink down to the lab and the gears started to turn. Suddenly, I had an assignment. Placing it on a piece of porcelain I used a strobe to blow out the background and hold fast to color. During the ten minutes of trying to keep the wiggling reptile on the porcelain, the once burden became a challenge, and the common skink evolved into an other-worldly creature. So excited by the outcome, I immediately rushed home to upload the image onto my computer.

I owe it to Garl for rekindling my artistic wonderment of nature, which is the whole reason I started photography. Now, the first thought isn't "is it worth it?" Instead, it's, "will this be fun?"

A Southeastern Five-lined Skink (Eumeces inexpectatus) shot in various positions on porcelain 
and merged into one frame. 

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Happy Labor Day Weekend!

Labor Day sunset off the Florida Bay in Islamorada

I can't think of a better way to spend Labor Day weekend than watching the Gators win, however sloppy, their first home game. The only thing that could top that of course would be a smooth paddle under a vibrant sunset. Behind me, from the balcony of a bayside home, a family yelled over a bull-horn "Happy Labor Day weekend!" to all the passing boats. I guess I wasn't the only one enjoying the wonderful view.