Sounds from the edge of Boreas’ kingdom

A raven flies to its roost at dusk, wingbeats audible between the calls. Just before this flight, the bird was amusing itself with half a dozen others of its kind by harassing a sluggard-winged eagle. The ravens wove and swooped; the eagle flopped its great wings, finally passing out of sight on the horizon.

I think the squealing call at the end is a younger raven, greeting its homeward-bound parent.

Spectrogram of the same sound. Time moves left to right, pitch increases along the vertical.

Spectrogram. Time moves left to right, pitch increases along the vertical. “Stacked” lines are harmonics.

Night came and with it a frost.

Fir at nightI lingered and was rewarded by the sounds of Northern Saw-whet Owls. These tiny owls are common in dense forests of Canada and the Western US, especially forests with rotten trees to supply nesting holes. In the winter, some birds move south, so Saw-whets can be found all the way to Florida in the right season. The bird gets its name from the supposed resemblance between its repeated whistled call and the action of whetting a saw. The analogy is stretched, unless your saw comes with a flute.

The owls were a distance away, so the following recording has some lower and higher sounds filtered out to make the call come through more clearly.


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Move over Gutenberg: Carved movable type from China

In the Western world, Johannes Gutenberg is widely celebrated for his invention of the movable type printing press. Gutenberg’s work certainly produced a major leap in the mechanization of the printing process, but movable type itself was invented four hundred years earlier by Bi Sheng who lived during China’s Northern Song Dynasty, just after the turn of the first millennium. He used both carved wood and fired clay to create his type, which he then temporarily fixed to an iron plate using resin and other glues.

Bi Sheng’s craft lives on in the work of a small number of wood carvers in China. At the IUFRO World Congress, the International Wood Culture Society invited Jianming Zou from the Ninghuan Cultural Center in Fujian Province to demonstrate and exhibit his work.

2014-10-10 Chinese block print 006The translator said that each block is hand-carved from walnut wood. The blocks were certainly hand-carved, but they did not look like walnut; the program notes indicated that pear and jujube are often used.

Unlike the limited number of graphemes in Latin alphabet, a complete collection of Chinese movable type includes thousands of logograms, 汉字. These displays show just a small selection:

2014-10-10 Chinese block print 0012014-10-10 Chinese block print 004A large brush made from palm fibers is used to transfer ink to the frame of blocks:

2014-10-10 Chinese block print 010Printing onto bamboo paper, with the help of a smaller brush:

2014-10-10 Chinese block print 007Jianming Zou signs each printed sheet in red ink:

2014-10-10 Chinese block print 011Would — wood — that all this craftsmanship was brought to you by hand-carved liquid crystals, illuminated by the glow of a polarized palm fire.

In moving away (for much of our writing at least) from direct sensory connection to paper, block, and ink, we’ve lost that beautiful congruence of botanical and zoological talents — wood, inks, our minds — and moved to something that makes the community of life harder to sense. Old, fossilized sunlight, turned to plastic, coal, and mining equipment is still “natural,” but those connections are mightily well hidden.

Take my word for it, I stamped my screen with a block of wood right here:





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Largest, oldest creature on Earth?

I took a circuitous route to a conference in Salt Lake City. One of my stops was in south-central Utah at Fishlake National Forest, home to a trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides) grove that we 20th Century humans call “Pando” (meaning “I spread” in Latin). The aspen probably has another name for itself. The root system of Pando may be eighty thousand years old, about thirty or forty times as old as Latin.

2014-10-08 Pando aspen 004This aspen grove covers about 44 hectares (108 acres) and is comprised of one “individual.” Through clonal growth, a founder seed has spread, amoeba-like, over the mountainside to create a forest of nearly fifty thousand stems, which look separate, but are in fact a single organism. The grove is reputed to be the heaviest and oldest creature on the planet, although some fungi likely nudge the aspen out of first place.

2014-10-08 Pando aspen 016

The story is not quite as simple as I have described, though. Through a few mutations in the clone (for biojargon lovers: somatic mutations) and perhaps a little sex, the spreading tree has managed to diversify its genetics. Like other big aspen clones, Pando also has an extra set of chromosomes (making it “triploid” instead of the usual “diploid”), all strategies that may have allowed it to defy one of ecology’s more rigorous rules: huge genetically uniform clones don’t last long in the face of environmental stress and disease (e.g., monocultures of agricultural clones are helped along by pesticides and herbicides; if left alone, they’d be eaten alive by fungi, viruses, and bacteria).

When this tree germinated, modern humans were found only in Africa (or so many think, our travel dates are hazy). The last ice age was just getting going. Now, though, the world is truly changed. Heavy grazing by cattle on National Forest land mows new sprouts (cows and their dung pats are everywhere); deer are also abundant. Humans have changed the rhythms of fire and animals. So, the old feller (yes, he’s a male clone), is now in a zoo-like exclosure fence and land managers are encouraging new sprouts to grow by cutting older trees. A flush of new growth has emerged from one of these zones.

He-whose-name-we-do-not-know is being taken firmly in hand, gardened and managed, by the recently-arrived primates from Africa. Check back in 80,000 years to see who is still around.

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2014-10-08 Pando aspen 0522014-10-08 Pando aspen 043


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One tiny part of the rainforest song

Twilight is brief in the tropics. The sun drops with none of the lingering obliqueness of its behavior in temperate and polar areas. My visit to Ecuador placed me almost directly on the equator, so after I watched the sunset from a tree canopy, I hustled to get back to the camp. The trail turns completely dark within a few minutes of sunset.

As I jogged along, a song stopped me in my tracks: a pure tone from the rainforest, then another seemingly in answer, then one more from far across the stream. I’d never heard such a sound. The purity of a thrush, the loudness of a goose. Close.

I captured a few seconds (turn up your volume!):

Here are the spectrograms, with time moving horizontally and pitch (frequency) increasing vertically. The whistles are the low dark marks; all the rest of the sounds are insects and distant birds:

TinSpec2These are the calls of tinamous, ground-dwelling birds found only in the New World tropics (first, the variegated tinamou, then the great tinamou, I believe, but neotropical bioacousticians please feel free to correct me). When I studied their biology in zoology classes I never thought I’d be in their presence. Here they were, though, singing within a few meters of me in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Stunning.

Tinamous have strange habits, at least by the standards of other birds. The males defend nests into which multiple females lay astonishingly glassy eggs. The male incubates the eggs, broods the hatchlings, and guards the young. The females wander from male to male laying more eggs. Tinamous seldom fly, and then rather poorly, preferring to strut in the undergrowth of their forested territories.

Recent molecular research strongly suggests that tinamous are the relatives of the extinct New Zealand moas. This grouping is clustered within the larger “family” of ostriches, emus, rheas, kiwis, and cassowaries. So tinamous are a zoological echo of the ancient southern continent of Gondwanaland, a continent now fragmented into many parts, each carrying biological stowaways. The tinamou song is the closest we’ll come to hearing a moa.

In their biogeographic wanderings, the tinamous seem to have picked up the quena from the mountains to the west, slicing through the acoustic tumult of the Amazon with their melodies. Or perhaps the quena, a recent arrival by zoological standards, is inspired by the Andean tinamous?

Tinamous sing at dawn and dusk, so their music rings out only briefly, bracketing  Amazonian nights and days.





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Eastern Ecuador: Amazonian forest

Leaving the frontier town of Coca, our journey took us several hours by motorized canoe and truck, following roads built by the oil companies and rivers built by the prodigious rains. After a day’s travel, we arrived at Tiputini Biodiversity Station, located in what ecologists believe is the richest place on the planet for plants and animals. In one hectare of forest, a team of good taxonomists can find more species of plant than live in all of North America. A walk along a kilometer of forest trail will yield the same for birds. Nine or ten species of primate live here. Invertebrate animal diversity is phenomenal, but mostly unquantified. Humans have lived here for thousands of years, building cultures beautifully adapted to the forest. And now: oil. This area, along with similar places in Peru and other parts of the western Amazon, sits atop some impressive reserves of fossilized sunlight, a commodity valuable to any country, but especially to places that are not wealthy and are striving to keep their economies and governments thriving. So human culture, the forest, and all the connections within and among these are in rapid transition.

A few images from my visit:

Flaring gas from an oil production plant on the banks of the Napo River:2014-09-01 Ecuador 034

Climb the tower to the rainforest canopy, forty five meters up:

2014-09-02 Ecuador 022Looking down from high in the canopy:

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Rainforest vista refracted through a water drop: 2014-09-04 Ecuador 061i

Zebra bromeliad in canopy:

2014-09-02 Ecuador 033

Toads the size of dinner plates:

2014-09-04 Ecuador 127

2014-09-04 Ecuador 130

“Scorpion spiders” the size of Thanksgiving serving platters (unless I have misidentified this, the common name belies its taxonomy; the creature is neither scorpion or spider, but and amblypygid, or “tailless whip scorpion,” a member of a strange and ancient order of arthropods):

2014-09-04 Ecuador 141Ants of many kinds, including leaf-cutters:

2014-09-03 Ecuador 120

And bullet ants, reputed to be the most painful of all insect bites, a hypothesis I was able to test when one dropped down my shirt collar and nailed me (they sting and bite simultaneously), then got me again on my finger as I yanked the ant off my shoulder.

But bullet ants are not quite as painful as rainforest DIY dentistry:

2014-09-04 Ecuador 181Back in the canopy, a cocoon spun by a moth larva:

2014-09-02 Ecuador 373Saki monkey (genus Pithecia), seldom seen here. Primatologists disagree about which species this is:

2014-09-03 Ecuador 248Woolly monkeys:

2014-09-02 Ecuador 252Crested owl:

2014-09-02 Ecuador 196Paradise tanager:

2014-09-03 Ecuador 363Young caiman in the Tiputini River:

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Huck Finn’s spirit is still alive on the Napo River:

2014-09-05 Ecuador 085Oil depots are expanding, as Ecuador moves ahead with opening Yasuní National Park and surrounding areas to road-building, seismic exploration, and drilling.

2014-09-01 Ecuador 067Much of the oil will reportedly be used to pay down high interest loans from China (Ecuador has, in the past, suspended paying part of foreign commercial debt, so now enters into these other forms of borrowing). The oil also fuels human motion, making photos like this possible, the Andes on my return:

2014-09-05 Ecuador 182My thanks to Universidad San Francisco de Quito and the Tiputini Biodiversity Station for their welcome. Especially Dr. Esteban Suárez, Pablo Negret, José Macanilla, Mayer Rodríguez, and the students from the Institute for the International Education of Students, led by Eduardo Ortiz, René Bueno, and Gladys Argoti in Quito and Lee L’Hote and Melissa Torres in the US. All the opinions expressed here are my own, not those of hosting institutions.

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White pine wood for breakfast

You can hear them from twelve feet away. Rhythmic grating sounds from within a dead white pine tree in our neighbor’s yard. Sarah heard them first on her early morning walk. We returned later in the day, but the munchers had fallen silent. It seems that their appetite is keenest at dawn.

Here are the sounds, with a labeled spectrogram of the same sound. I suspect that the crunching sounds are coming from large Cerambycid larvae (long-horned beetles). The hairy woodpecker that was diligently extracting them from under the bark would know for sure. Beetle larvae that live under bark can thrive on seemingly indigestible wood using a combination of detoxifying enzymes produced by their own guts and through use of cellulose-digesting enzymes that the insects derive from the fungi that live inside the wood. This is a bit like digesting moldy cornflakes by harnessing the power of the mold. A clever strategy, but one that I’ll leave to the beetles.

Spectrogram (time moves left to right; frequency (pitch) is on the vertical axis):


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Young treefrog

We’ve had a consistently wet summer in Tennessee, great for plants and even better for amphibians. Pools and streams that dry up in most years have remained wet, allowing many larval amphibians to grow up without their lives being cut short, as they so often are, by dry spells. Once metamorphosed and on land, the youngsters find a moist world. Most welcoming.

A careful eye will discern legions of young frogs and toads loping and bouncing in tangles of vegetation. Here is a young Cope’s Gray Treefrog (Hyla chrysoscelis) warming itself in the sun before plunging back under the shady leaves. The animal is small enough that it could sit comfortably on a penny. For photos of the adults and eggs, and sound recordings of the breeding males, see my previous posts here and here.

2014-08-24 Young Copes Gray Treefrog 0012014-08-24 Young Copes Gray Treefrog 004



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Young vertebrates enjoying the South Platte River in Colorado

High in the mountains, in Eleven Mile Canyon:

A Common Merganser with her brood. She incubated the chicks in an old woodpecker hole and will stay with them as they learn to forage. These “sawtooth” ducks dive under the water to snatch fish. They’ll also feed on invertebrates such as snails and mayflies.


American Dipper fledgling. This young bird left the nest a week or so ago. It waits for the parent to appear…

dipper1…from beneath the fast-flowing water. Dippers dive into mountain streams and walk along the bottom, gripping with their toe-nails for all they’re worth, plucking stream insects from rocks. Once emerged, the adult is met with the youngster’s loud whistles, sounds that cut through the roar of the water. When food is stuffed into the gullet of the noisy birdchild, the sound changes to delighted chirping.



And when the feeding is done, it is time for more piercing begging cries, delivered at the water, below which the parent feeds.

dipper3Another gullet-stuff, another flurry of chirps:


Downstream, in the heart of Denver:

At Confluence Park, in the center of the city, the South Platte has been engineered to provide a series of chutes and rapids for the amusement of Denverites. In the photo below a youth leader takes one of several disabled kids on a paddle ride down the rapids. I’ve blanked the faces because I was not able to ask whether it was OK to post these two water-lovers’ faces on my blog (sorry, dippers and mergansers, speciesism…). As he lurched through the spray, the kid’s face went from apprehensive frown, to a big O of surprise, to a grin of delight. A (mile-)high-five ended the ride.


In the 1960s and 1970s, this stretch of river was the most junky, polluted part of the whole city. Old cars, tires, and mattresses were heaped along the banks; factories piped effluent directly into the river; oil oozed from every bank. Thanks to the very hard work of the Greenway Foundation, The City of Denver, and many other partners, this is one of the most popular places in town for people of all races, incomes, and levels of physical ability. One hundred miles of riverside trails radiate out from here, punctuated with parks of all kinds.

The river flows onward from here, east through Colorado and Nebraska, hopefully encountering a few more young lifeforms reveling in its waters.

Posted in Archosaurs, Travels, Water | 8 Comments

Humanitarian assistance for Gaza: where to donate.

My last blog and facebook posts have been a little bleak. On a more proactive note, here are some ways to help people in Gaza. These organizations help people directly, using money for humanitarian assistance, not for arms.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, working under the mandate of the UN General Assembly. UNWRA’s work “encompass education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, microfinance and emergency assistance, including in times of armed conflict.” I saw UNWRA’s work during my visits to the refugee camps in the West Bank: they run schools and clinics. Many people in Gaza are currently crowded into UNWRA’s schools, hoping for shelter, but sometimes getting bombed anyway. UNWRA has launched an emergency appeal. For US donors, the US Friends of UNWRA provides a mechanism to donate within the US tax code (i.e., 501(c)(3) tax credits).

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF): Operate clinics in Gaza and work in the Al Shifa hospital. They also work in many other parts of the world and are very highly rated in Charity Navigator.  “MSF observes neutrality and impartiality in the name of universal medical ethics and the right to humanitarian assistance and claims full and unhindered freedom in the exercise of its functions” (from their Charter). Donate here.

(For US residents, the bill for arms comes due on April 15th: about $3 billion each year flows from US taxpayers to the Israeli military. US AID spends about 5% of that amount in non-military spending in the West Bank, often on projects mitigating the consequences of Israeli military rule. For example, when the Israeli military closes roads to all Palestinian cars, turning the roadways into settler-only routes, US AID builds another road to connect major West Bank cities. Hamas’ funding sources are less clear, but their rockets come from Iran, Syria, or are “home-made”; various Middle Eastern states have been implicated in funding their military wing.)

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Jerusalem mourning. Fracture.


This is what the busiest street in the Old City looked like today in the midafternoon. Shopkeepers have shut down in solidarity with the people of Gaza. Normally this street is so utterly packed that movement from one end to the other is like walking against the crowd in a New York subway station, with the added complication that every ten paces a merchant is ready to sell his wares. These guys (all men) could squeeze oil from the most shriveled olive, so good are they at the fine arts of persuasion. That well-pressed oil keeps many a family fed in beliguered East Jerusalem.

The streets’ silence and emptiness felt dark. All the bitter ghosts of Jerusalem’s bloody history could seep out into the quiet and join their new companions. I don’t normally get frightened on daylight streets, but I quickened my pace in this grim quiet. The few shopkeepers sitting in small groups at corners had the unseeing, unmoving gazes of the shocked and weary. The carnage in Gaza is felt as a very close, deep wound indeed. All the Arabic papers run front page pictures of families in the rubble. One Palestinian I met studies the papers to look for his cousins.

As many have pointed out, this war has an outrageous asymmetry of who is shedding blood. The world’s most advanced war machinery is ploughing through one of the poorest, most caged-in places on the planet, a place where guerilla gunners intermingle themselves by design and by circumstance with civilians. Here in Jerusalem, the war is echoed by another asymmetry, heavier military pressure in Palestinian neighborhoods. I see Palestinians pulled off the sidewalk all the time for ID checks. Among civilians, anti-Palestinian sentiment is in plain view. I had a man stop me on the street and fill me in on the evils of these “immigrant thieves”.

On the west side of town, across the 1967 Green line, the malls and restaurants are a-buzz with local shoppers and a few tourists. It feels like Paris: sidewalk restaurants, strolling couples, high-end jewelers next to trendy clothes stores. But the surface jollity belies a deeper unease. Unlike US wars which have lately been fought without the draft and therefore keep many social classes disproportionately out of harm’s way, here everyone has to serve, with an exclusion for most Arab Israeli citizens and some ultra-orthodox Jews. Today, the Hebrew newspapers had front page pictures of yesterday’s fallen Israeli soldiers. In a country born out of European genocide and surrounded by hostile nations, the feeling of threat is deeply personal and rallying around the flag takes on a degree of fervor that rivals even the nationalistic vigor of the US. Unlike the US, the shadows of past and possible future annihilation are very real here.

One of war’s many tragedies is that it pushes both sides into the pit of pain. From what I see and hear — and my view is, I admit, biased by the particularities of my travels and my own preconceptions — this pain is feeding extremism on both sides. Paradoxically, the radical violent wings of both sides benefit from the worsening situation. Blood and bombs feed their narrative of the subhuman nature of “the other”. It is hard to see how more terrorism and military thuggery will not emerge from the  darkness of Gaza.

The old “Holy City” is indeed shut for business today.

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