Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Best of 2013: Favorite spots, favorite critters and my favorite kid

2013 was a weird and busy year, and though I spent as much of it as possible at my favorite nature spots, life conspired to keep me from going out as often--or sharing as many photos--as I would like. Still, no matter what life throws at me and my family, being out in nature is our medicine. And sharing it with you all has made me more awesome friends than I deserve. I love it.

One of those excellent people, the inimitable Alex Wild, issued his annual call for the best science and nature photos of 2013. I'm coming in a little late, as is my wont, and these are just the best of the ones I've managed to go through. There are thousands yet to be processed. But here are mine, all taken this past year, winners in the categories you'd probably expect from me. Happy New Year, everyone.

Best spider:
Of course it's a black widow. Did you expect anything else?

We have a lot of other arachnid goodness--giant fuzzy tarantulas, jumping spiders in fabulous colors, giant crab spiders, wolfies, lynx spiders, you name it. But black widows have a special place in my heart (as long as they stay in my figurative heart and out of my literal hair and clothes).
Western black widow spider (Latrodectus hesperus), our house (don't tell my husband).

Best Combination of my Favorite Things:
A roseate skimmer dragonfly (Orthemis ferruginea) during sunset at the Gilbert Riparian Preserve. One of my favorite insects, at one of my favorite places, during my favorite time of day? Yes, please! One of my favorite people (my son) was just out of frame, and later we got to have chocolate ice cream and watch Star Wars. A good day.
Roseate skimmer dragonfly at Gilbert Riparian Preserve.

Best Dragonfly:
Or, you know, one of them. I can't spend all night choosing. At the moment, I love this red saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea onusta), captured at Veterans Oasis Park in Chandler. I especially like the wings, as well as the fact that a few years ago, this shot wouldn't have happened--not because I didn't have the gear, but because I would've given up. I was chasing this dragonfly, and he insisted on perching way out of reach, directly above me and against a blown-out sky. I didn't get the closeup I was after, but I like what I got even better. And that's the great thing about my nature photography journey. Learning to use my gear? Please. Boring. But make the effort again and again and again (and again and again), and you start to learn a few things about focus and exposure in spite of yourself.
Red saddlebags dragonfly, Veterans Oasis Park.

Best Damselfly:
Not quite as flashy as the dragonflies, but they're just as gorgeous. This year was a great year for blue-ringed dancers (Argia sedula), and I got quite a few "mealtime" shots like this one, captured at the Gilbert Riparian Preserve.
A blue-ringed dancer (Argia sedula) munches a fly at the Gilbert Riparian Preserve.

Best Little Bird, Closeup:
If I'm not chasing insects and spiders, I'm probably watching birds. Here's an Anna's hummingbird (Calypte anna), one of my favorites, at the Demonstration Garden at Boyce Thompson Arboretum.
Anna's hummingbird (Calypte anna), Boyce Thompson Arboretum Demonstration Garden.

Best Little Bird, Full Body:
Mostly because I wanted an excuse to show off the broad-billed hummingbird as well. Also captured at Boyce Thompson Arboretum, which you totally need to visit if you're in the area.
Broad-billed Hummingbird (Cynanthus latirostris), Boyce Thompson Arboretum.

Best Big Bird:
Not the giant yellow alphabet lover. More like the giant grouchy fish stalker. A great blue heron (Ardea herodias) in early evening light at the Gilbert Riparian Preserve.
Great blue heron (Ardea herodias), Gilbert Riparian Preserve.

Best Bird That Everyone Thinks is Our State Bird:
The cactus wren, not the roadrunner, is the Arizona state bird (New Mexico gets the roadrunner). It's a local treasure nonetheless, and 2013 was a fantastic year for roadrunners in our neck of the desert. (Sorry, cactus wrens. You'll get play again when I restart Species a Day.) I liked this one because it showed off the insanely gorgeous iridescence in the bird's tail.
Greater roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus), Veterans Oasis Park.

Best Animal I Usually Suck at Capturing:
I don't know what it is about snowy egrets. I see them semi-regularly, and every single time I mess up the shot. The image is overexposed, or blurry, or I scare the bird away, or it's nothing but tail and legs. I think I've invented new ways of missing a snowy egret shot. So I was happy when this one came out kind of nicely (though it doesn't make up for the fact that my 11-year-old has more keepers of the bird than I do).
Snowy egret (Egretta thula), Gilbert Riparian Preserve.

Best Look Everyone; I Can Photograph Mammals Too!:
It's not all bugs and birds (it's just mostly birds and bugs). This young male elk (Cervus canadensis) watched us as we were surrounded by half a dozen of "his" females coming out of Bear Canyon Lake after a camping trip this year. It was the most wonderful thing--another young family, with a 3- or 4-year-old girl, was there as well. We were afraid she'd scare them away, but she learned from her parents, who were splendid examples. Everyone was still and quiet, and the elk knew we weren't a threat. That's how to appreciate nature.

Best Scenery:
Snow on the Superstitions this past winter. Also a runner-up for Best Shot I Ran Out to Take Even Though I Should Have Been Doing Other Things. Rare snowfall, followed by a short-lived break in the clouds for some afternoon sunlight, all topped off with our iconic saguaros. I took a detour just to take the shot. I don't remember what my excuse was for being late to my actual appointment, but I think it was worth it.
Snow on Superstiton Mountain, February 2013.
Best Water and Best Sunset:
I'll probably share entire posts on both sunsets and water soon, but this shot as the sun set at Veterans Oasis Park in Chandler captured the goodness of both at once. The great thing is, this is just a 15-minute drive from our house. The nature opportunities around here are pretty awesome.
Sunset reflected in the pond at Veterans Oasis Park, Chandler.

Best Kid Holding Insect(s):
We attended the grand opening of Butterfly Wonderland, the largest butterfly atrium in North America. Many people just slowly but constantly made their way through and around the huge enclosure. Not my kid. He sat for ages in humid corners, gazing at the huge insects. At one point this mating pair of blue morpho butterflies fluttered from a shaken branch to his finger. He quickly made a more comfortable perch for them, sat down, and hosted the pair (and fascinated bipedal onlookers) for several minutes. Never have I seen someone so thrilled at a designation like "the boy with the mating pair on his hands."
My son holding a pair of blue morpho butterflies (Morpho peleides) at Butterfly Wonderland.

Best Kid Not Having Much Choice About Holding Insect:
Silence of the kid? Actually, it was, and you have no idea how rare that is. This yellow-edged giant owl butterfly decided to perch on his nose for ages. He was quite thrilled, even though it was surprisingly heavy and its legs plucked and pulled at his skin, and the butterfly showed no sign of wanting to move. He might still be there if we hadn't coaxed it onto a nearby bush.
Yellow-edged giant owl butterfly (Caligo atreus) and a happy kid. 

Best Kid Holding Arachnid:
It's not an insect, so I totally get to share this too. We went to the University of Arizona's annual Arizona Insect Festival in September, and this was a favorite of both of ours. My favorite thing as my son held this giant vinegaroon (Mastigoproctus giganteus) was that his face doesn't say "Ew, gross!" or even "OMG; there's a monster on my hand!" but rather something like affection. Indeed, he said he found the docile creature "adorable." What's that they say about apples and the trees from which they fall?
Giant vinegaroon (Mastigoproctus giganteus) and very happy boy (Homo sapiens), Arizona Insect Festival, University of Arizona.
Best Macro:
I didn't have the stellar macros that I was able to get last year when I rented the heavy-hitting MP-E 65 mm lens. Still, even a kit lens and a cooperative widow skimmer dragonfly do well to show off some of those 30,000 facets.
Female widow skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa), Gilbert Riparian Preserve.
Best "Secret" Spot:
One of my son's favorite spots on the planet. At the riparian preserve, if you veer slightly off-trail at a spot he is insisting I keep quiet, there are some really inhospitable bushes. If you tunnel through them--after picking stickers out of some very uncomfortable places--you come to a shoreline clearing that doesn't disrupt a single animal, but is beneath a huge tree full of egrets. We sat there for a hour the first evening, watching them soar in and listening to their barks and belches. It's not all that secret, but it's secluded, and it's nature, and it's special to us. The best kind.
Great egrets (Ardea alba), Gilbert Riparian Preserve.

I hope everyone had a wonderful year, or at least some wonderful parts of it. Happy New Year, and happy nature watching.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Random thoughts on responsibility, running, and family on a late-night errand

Even after a decade of parenthood, sometimes it's easy to forget that you are a parent. Not to forget about your kid, or your spouse -- just that you are a parent. Sometimes you even think it's kind of nice.

Maybe you'll be driving at night, probably on some last-minute errand because you and your spouse still suck at remembering to pick things up until the last minute, and now you have to run to the store across town at 10:30 at night, only you don't mind because you really just wanted an excuse to drive anyway; to get out on a long desert road and just drive, alone. And for a while, the antenna in your head that's constantly tuned to parenting duties is drawn in, and the reception is fuzzy and dulled. You turn west on the long, empty road -- your favorite, with cornfields to one side and widely spaced ornate houses to the other, with horses and cattle and goats in the yards. You can't see the horses or cattle or goats, but it makes you feel happy to know they're there, somehow.

So you're driving, with the windows down even though it's summer because it's 10:30 so it's only 92 degrees and the wind feels great, and it smells like dirt and rain clouds and farmland. The radio plays an old Cranberries song that you listened to for two straight years in high school, and now you're 17 again, and you don't have student loans or job searches or stories to write or an overdue mortgage payment. You don't get tired or worried, you don't fight for just one minute of solitude each day, and you definitely don't fight with another adult over how to discipline a child for being a punk at bedtime. There's no sluggish plumbing to fix, no HOA fines, and certainly no dirty shorts in the laundry with dirty underwear still stuck inside. You belt out angsty lyrics and it's all music, and you, and crickets, and sharp desert air. And it's kind of nice, forgetting you're a parent.

Eventually you get to the drugstore. You go inside and buy the few items you needed -- double the price, because you forgot to get them before the cheaper store closed -- and wander back out. As you leave the artificially cold, bright drugstore to return to the dark, airy night; you see a roadrunner. It's not running; just peering at you, looking prehistoric with its harsh reptilian gaze. It raises its crest, clacks its beak once, and trots off.

Your kid would have loved to see that.

And all of a sudden, the antenna goes back up, and the reception is crystal clear again. Kid husband bills job insurance OMG-what-are-we-doing. Errands. Dirty underwear. Scary official envelopes in the mail. Stupid bedtime fights.


And sometimes moments like this make you just want to run away, run away forever, or at least for a long while. Not that you don't totally love your kid and spouse and life, not that the mortgage and squabbles and underwear are that bad; it's just that you kind of love the notion of running away. Or maybe it's just running. Running, and taking off, and exploring, and forget all that regular bullshit.

Maybe it's running back. To when you were 17 and psyched about life, really beyond all reason.

You lived another life, then. You pretended to be a philosopher and recorded an audio diary and thought that being a writer would be about being "discovered" somehow. You had an X-Files poster on the wall, for god's sake.

So, no. Not-An-Adult-Yet-Hood was pretty great. But you were also kind of a douche.

And then clouds move in front of the moon so that it illuminates a whole milky patchwork of them, and you remember, I watch the night with my kid and husband. And a beetle moves across the pavement, all thorny collar and segmented antennae and body armor, and you remember the time your husband brought home a giant beetle from a parking lot, just so you could all forget daily life and retire to the backyard to release it and watch it. And you remember, I already do run away, for moments, every day. I explore. I leave almost everyone and everything behind all the time. These are the people with whom I make my escapes. And suddenly, you want nothing more than to return to the house, even with its shackles, because that's where the keys to the shackles are too.

At least, those are the things I think about while buying juice pouches and overpriced insulin late at night. Your mileage may vary.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Father's Day

My husband. Our son's father. He doesn't always say the right thing. In celebratory fashion (I swear!), here are some actual quotes:

"Haha; you look just like a shark! No, I mean your face looks like a shark's face, in profile ... why are you upset? You love sharks!" (To me, in what he claims was complimentary intent.)

"You're definitely not my mom." (To me, in a come-hither voice, following a conversation listing various traits of family members, and thinking he was using a good line to come on to me.)

"No more than usual." (After I asked if a skirt I was trying on made me look fat.)

"Haha! Take THAT." (After placing son's Sorry! pawn back in start and beating him at the board game, when son was 4.)

"What does the wrestler have to do with anything?" (After I'd made a Sid and Nancy reference, gotten a blank stare, and clarified, "You know, Sid Vicious?")

Him: "Mmm; I love when you've showered." Me: "Thanks a lot." Him: "No, not that. I mean, I like that I can tell you showered!" (He thought this was better, somehow.)

"We had a good time while you were on your vacation!" (About time spent with our son, when I'd come home from two weeks of intense work toward my master's degree.)

"I'd like the TV to myself for a while, if you have other things to do. Sometimes I like to watch more grownup shows." (Then he turned on Dragon Ball Z.)

"No. I know it's a spider. It's always a spider." (After our son told him to open a drawer and "see what's in there." He was wrong. It was two spiders.)

"Look, if we're trying to leave and be polite, and we say it's past bedtime and you're really tired, YOU ARE." (To our son, upon finally leaving a social engagement after many attempts.)

"Careful with the food container on the shelf. It's not food. I found a giant beetle at work, and I figured you guys would like it." (OK. That one was pretty cool.)

"Awww, fat little legs!" (As he looked at the warped reflection of my legs in a car window.)

"If you don't finish getting ready for bed RIGHT NOW, you're gonna..." (To son, threateningly.)
"What was the punishment for that?" (To me, whispered.)

"I'm never, ever, ever, ever going to like Jar Jar, and talking about him only makes me hate him more."

"You promised to tell me the abridged version of that cartoon. Nine minutes is not an abridged version."

"No, see, Optimus Prime was originally Orion Pax. He was kind of like a librarian. He didn't become Optimus Prime until he got the Matrix of Leadership. At least in one version." (To son, earning major cool-dad points and starting a looooooong discussion about Transformers lore.)

"That's pretty much all I know about Optimus' background. Like I said five times already." (To our son, an hour later.)

"I don't really know why Alpha Trion has different roles. I don't know why Galvatron changes sometimes and I don't even really know who Ultra Magnus is. I also don't know why their transformations don't make sense to fit their robot bodies sometimes. I've told you everything I know!" (To our son, 30 minutes later.)

"I'M DONE TALKING ABOUT TRANSFORMERS; EAT YOUR PASTA!" (To our son, some time after that. This is how most of these conversations end.)

He has a hard time saying the right thing, sometimes. It must be hard dealing with a couple of overtalkers, overanalyzers, over-everything-ers. Maybe he's a glutton for punishment. He's also a good sport, though, who would probably admit that he did, indeed say "Aww, fat little legs," and that it's not a good idea -- no more so than, say, expecting your 11-year-old to leave an interrogation at one question and answer.

He does, however, nearly always do the right thing. He provides. He works his ass off. He brings home bugs. He brings home that cake we like with the cookies on top of the frosting. He actually likes grocery shopping. He makes a conscientious effort to show love and start conversations with our son (even after past experiences of never-ending conversation traps). He horse plays (which I suck at) and keeps us grounded (which I'm not too great at either); all the while playing to my strengths as well. We make a kick-ass parenting team, and we're lucky to have him.

Happy Father's Day, babe. I love you. For your present, I promise not to share any of the really bad quotes, including that poem you wrote me in high school.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Adventures in Butterfly Wonderland

Sometimes, in the course of exploring Arizona with my son, I set out to try something totally foreign -- something I’m not even sure we’ll enjoy.

I'm sure you already know where this is going.

This was not one of those trips.

Kid + me + insects + cameras = heaven, pretty much.

Anyone who knows our family knows that we -- and especially my son and I -- are huge nature nerds. The more informative, the more nature-friendly; the better. So the question on our trip to the grand opening of Butterfly Wonderland wasn't if we were going to enjoy it. It was how much.

Taken by David. He's gunning for my job, I think.

The answer: A whole lot.

Butterfly Wonderland just opened May 25 in Scottsdale on Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community land, and is now the largest butterfly pavilion in America. We’re already looking forward to our next visit and to the growth of this new destination.

Plus, the residents looked so eager to see us!

It’s actually the first stage of “Odysea in the Desert,” a 522,000-square-foot entertainment complex that is planned to include the largest aquarium in the southwest, a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum, and more. For now, it’s all about insects, and that suits us just fine, because Butterfly Wonderland makes an immersive encounter out of the experience.

Immersive to the senses, and immersed in butterflies! Here, a twin pack.

The first stop after checking in is the 3-D film Flight of the Butterflies, which follows a monarch family over multiple generations. I won’t spoil it for you except to say that it’s so well done, I almost got choked up over the insects’ fates.

Then again, we might be just a little more attached than usual to insects.

If kids are old enough to understand the information and story, they (and you) will be enthralled like we were -- and even if they’re not, it’s an absolutely gorgeous film, making use of 3-D effects to surround visitors in a swarm of monarchs taking flight, or to glide just over the “shoulder” of a single butterfly.

I know, butterflies don't really have shoulders. But didn't you ever daydream about riding those upper wings like big, fluttery shoulders when you were a kid? No? Just me?

The first stop after the movie is the Butterfly Emergence Gallery, a stage where visitors watch through a window as hundreds of butterfly chrysalises mature.

The actual moment of emergence -- a rare sight anywhere else -- is commonplace here, as butterflies enter their adult stage before our eyes.

A scarlet Mormon butterfly (Papilio deiphobus rumanzovia). 

More than once I heard a chorus of excited voices calling out: “Ooh! This one is shaking! I think it's ready to come out!” (OK. One of those voices was probably mine.)


A freshly emerged blue morpho butterfly (Morpho peleides), before its wings had fully hardened and straightened.

A Malay lacewing butterfly (Cethosia hypsea hypsina) pushing out of its chrysalid shell as we watch. Very cool.

Special highlights included watching a blue morpho butterfly flex its newly unfurled wings, inspecting the huge fibrous cocoons of atlas moths, and witnessing the release of “excess metabolic fluid” (kind of like butterfly pee; always a kid favorite) as the insects emerge.

After it pooled, my son repeatedly compared it to Diet Coke. Guess I'm drinking water from now on.

And now, because I have no self control, some more shots from the Emergence Gallery:

Another blue morpho, ready to move to the Conservatory.

The opaque chrysalises still have a little while to go, but when they turn transparent and you can see wing patterns and colors, it's almost time. Keep your eyes on those.

One of many giant owl butterflies to emerge as we watched.

Blue morphos again -- one just emerged, and one just a few minutes later, with wings straight and strong.

Even more impressive than the huge, fibrous Atlas moth cocoons? The huge, striking moths themselves! Also, have you ever heard a species name cooler than Attacus atlas?

I forgot this species! Someone tell me! But hey, how pretty is that?!

More newly hatched giant owl butterflies. We're being watched.

A blue morpho butts in on a giant owl conference.

Blue morpho says hey!

When we managed to tear ourselves away from the Emergence Gallery, we went through an “airlock” of sorts to ensure that no butterflies get in or out of the next stage, and then we entered the Conservatory, the centerpiece of Butterfly Wonderland.

Seriously, it'd be gorgeous even with no butterflies.

The Conservatory is a glass atrium, a greenhouse covering over 10,000 square feet and planted with tropical trees and bushes. It housed about 1,000 butterflies when we visited. They added another 3,000 for the full opening June 1, to coincide with National Butterfly Awareness Day. A small waterfall, large koi pond, benches, and sloping walkways complete the area.

I want that bench.

The atrium is a veritable showcase of the quirky wonders of biology; from knobby or feathery antennae, to eye spots on butterfly wings, to moth wingtips that look for all the world like snake heads.

Seriously, I'm waiting for a forked tongue.

Workers circulate to point out sights both bizarre and beautiful, and to teach visitors about the insects. You and your kids can learn about mimicry, metamorphosis, evolution, predators, and more. Get a close look at a butterfly’s curlicue proboscis, or the dainty feet, or its rainbow of shingle-like scales.

Yellow-edged giant-owl butterfly (Caligo atreus). They have striped eyes!

Look at that proboscis!

Or you can just lounge and watch the pretty butterflies with your loved ones. There are certainly much worse ways to spend an afternoon.

And it'll be a whole afternoon, if you have a partner in crime like mine.

Some of the resident insects are shy, but many seem to be -- dare I say it -- social butterflies. They may even land on you, as I discovered when one hitched a ride on my hair, or as my son learned when two blue morpho butterflies decided his fingers were a prime spot to, as he delicately put it, “make more butterflies!” He sat down with the pair for several minutes, and became temporarily known as the mating-morphos host, a designation he relished.

Probably the only context in which repeatedly announcing "LOOK EVERYONE! THEY'RE MATING!" is considered endearing.

Later, after we’d gently ushered the pair into a shady spot, a yellow-edged giant owl butterfly perched on his nose. I’ve never seen him so happy about an itchy nose.

Momentary silence of the kid.

[You can check off exotic butterflies and practicing identifying them here] Here (because I really do have no self control at all), just a few more of the Conservatory's residents:

Blue morphos, mating, again. They did this a lot.


A great eggfly butterfly (Hypolimnas bolina), perching on the ground. Make sure to watch where you step!

Blue morpho, wings open! 

Same species, wings closed. It's like a different butterfly. 

Check carefully through the foliage. No one but me spotted this butterfly. (Until it landed on the rear end of a fellow patron. I spared you and her that photo.)

Forgot this species too! I need a bigger field guide if I'm coming back here.

A clipper butterfly, another that went largely unseen in the bushes.

Seriously, these guys are massive. Can you imagine them flapping around at night? 

A lone blue morpho, probably about to hook up.

This was one well-photographed butterfly. This is a great place to practice your photography!

Blue morpho, showing off both sides of the wings!

Owl butterflies like to perch on hands as well as noses! (Make sure not to pick them up. They'll come.)

Aliens have landed! And they're beautiful.

I know a lot of wildlife advocates, enthusiasts, scientists, photographers, and just general nature lovers. And yes, the general consensus is that we prefer our wildlife, well, wild. Still, Butterfly Wonderland, from what I've seen so far, does a great job keeping these insects in as an environment as close to their native habitat as possible.

A lacewing butterfly, as close as it gets to Southeast Asian rainforest habitat in Arizona.

The butterflies are likely to live out their full lifespans (only a few weeks in many cases; these beauties are fleeting), as long as they don't get too overcrowded and as long as patrons are careful where they step. (While we were there, everyone was. It was actually pretty heartening to see kids and adults alike counseling one another to be gentle to insects.) So yes, the "real" wild is best, but I'm not likely to get free time and a budget to go trekking to Costa Rica and the Philippines any time soon, so this is the next best way to see these exotic insects.

You just knew I took a thousand photos of this moment.

The atrium is hot and muggy -- they keep it tropical for the butterflies -- so you will get sweaty. Wear cool, comfortable clothes and get something to drink beforehand. (Also, take family photos right away, before everyone's dripping.) It lets out into the Butterfly CafĂ©, which is a nice cool rest stop even if you’re not planning to buy refreshments.

Assuming you don't get your refreshments through a proboscis.

Next, we explored the other resident insects -- a beehive where we could watch the queen lay eggs and workers fill honeycomb with honey; and a large see-through ant colony.

Honeybee with honeycomb. And actual honey!

Look near the upper right for the queen, with a green dot.

The last exhibit is the Rivers of the Amazon area, with a wide variety of colorful fish.

Also available in every other color of the rainbow.

The area also included a pool with spotted freshwater rays, which visitors were invited to touch gently (after having their hands sanitized). The half-dozen rays, juvenile and still small, mostly stayed at the bottom of their pool, only coming up now and then to investigate visitors, but we liked it, as it seemed the rays had plenty of room and weren't stressed.

I'm happy because I don't have to hang out in a bathtub with 50 other rays!

The tour ends, of course, in a gift shop. Still, the Butterfly Treasures Gift Shop has some great (if pricey) souvenirs, and even if you're not inclined to buy (we weren't), the only thing your kids will probably pester you about upon leaving is your next visit.

Last one like this. Promise.

Butterfly Wonderland is located at 9500 E. Via de Ventura, Scottsdale
Admission: Adults: $18.95, Children ages 3-11: $9.95, Students: $16.95
Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily
For more information, call (480) 800-3000 or visit  www.butterflywonderland.com

Come now!