Hooting, drumming, flights so fine…will you be my (bird) Valentine?

Love is in the air! It swoops in graceful dark-winged arcs across the drooping tips of Western Hemlocks, rings through the forest in resonant baritone duets. Love hammers its name on strong bare tree limbs. And just before 5AM in yesterday’s misty gray morning, love hooted lustily in the cedar outside my bedroom window.

How do I love thee? the birds ask. Let us count the ways. The woodpecker’s valentine is a drum, its message of affection delivered in staccato rapping on a firm branch or tree trunk—or, unfortunately for you if you happen to be a noise-intolerant human, on your metal gutters or chimney.

Northern Flicker pair on light pole

Northern Flicker pair on light pole, male in front

As Beethoven knew, an unsterbliche Geliebte, the Immortal Beloved, can inspire truly creative expression: here’s a Red-breasted Sapsucker who apparently hoped he’d get more bang for his buck with this particular drum. Hopefully his “Mein Engel, mein alles, mein Ich” felt the same way.

Red-breasted Sapsucker at fire alarm. Pack Forest, Washington.

Red-breasted Sapsucker at fire alarm.
Pack Forest, Washington.

Don Giovanni himself, calling under his tesoro‘s window, couldn’t generate a richer baritone love song than these Common Ravens, calling back and forth across my park yesterday and today as they soared over the trees.

Common Raven. Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Common Raven.
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Common Raven. Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Common Raven.
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Surely their dramatic flights, diving, chasing, calling, weren’t so much about Nevermore, but rather, How about sometime soon? Like many longtime lovers, this raven pair—who’ve been showing up briefly in my park about this time of year since 2009—might want that special date in that special place each year to remind themselves of just how wonderful each other is.

Or maybe it’s more your style to just sit quietly together on your porch swing.

Crow pair on swing Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Crow pair on swing
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

At the beginning of his career, Shakespeare was ridiculed as an “upstart crow.” Crows are probably still chuckling about this compliment to Shakespeare’s  intelligence and verbal expressiveness.

Quiet companionship is a lovely thing. But oh, the intimate joys of 5AM hooting! “Then nightly sings the staring owl/Tu-whit; tu-who, a merry note,” says Winter in Love’s Labour’s Lost. But my owls, beyond merry, didn’t stop at tu-whit, tu-who—they were outright calloohing and callaying in their frabjous joy. Ha-ha-ha-ha-hoo-hoo-heh-aHOO! Ha-ha-ha-ha-hoo-hoo-heh-aHOO! One Barred Owl belly-laughed while his partner trilled, then they moved around the cedar branches and went at it again and again. Titania, Queen of the Fairies, shares her forest with “The clamorous owl that nightly hoots,” but I think Shakespeare must have misheard her adjective: they’re cl-amorous.

Caught in a kiss! Barred Owls, Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Caught in a kiss!
Barred Owls, Lincoln Park, West Seattle

And finally, I have to share this wonderful painting by my gifted friend and fellow Antarctic aficionado, artist Kate Spencer. Instead of chocolate or flowers, Gentoo Penguins offer their sweethearts small rocks (often stolen from a neighbor’s nest)—almost as “forever” as diamonds.

Valentine's Day gift in the Deep South. Gentoo Penguins, painted by Kate Spencer (katespencer.com)

Valentine’s Day gift in the Deep South.
Gentoo Penguins, painted by Kate Spencer (katespencer.com)

Take your choice—hoot, drum, soar, sit, or give a rock—and go show someone you love them. Happy (belated) Valentine’s Day!

Field Notes: Jewel Worlds in Teaser Season

Every year in late January or early February, we seem to get a week or so of lovely weather: sunny skies, temperatures in the 50′s that lure us out into the forest or onto the beach. And every year I succumb to the hope that spring is really on its way early this year, that the abiding gray will give way to blue, that the scent of moist air will get its floral infusion in February instead of April.

Cliff Mass’s weather forecast assures me that teaser season will soon be over; we’re due for rain in a couple of days. If past years are a good guide, we’ll then likely be under mostly gray skies through early June.

Teaser season’s clear afternoons often follow foggy mornings, since overnight clear skies allow the air to cool enough so its moisture condenses to form droplets.

Fog breaks over Vashon Island, WA January 25, 2014

Fog breaks over Vashon Island, WA
January 25, 2014

So after yesterday’s morning fog began to clear, it felt good to get out for a while yesterday in the sunlit forest, and to look closely at the new life that’s expanding sneakily under the radar.

The hellebore in my Easter garden is in full bloom, its broad pink blossoms facing coyly downwards where it’s easy to overlook them from our towering human heights.

Hellebore blossom and buds

Hellebore blossom and buds

A strategically placed mirror reveals the veined exuberance hidden beneath that green veil:

Hellebore blossom from below

Hellebore blossom from below

But it was a budding witch hazel in my neighborhood park that wore worlds of jewels, each a minuscule aquarium bearing a forest within.

Witch hazel offers a necklaced bud

Witch hazel offers a tiny necklaced bud
(Bud is ~ 1/8″ in diameter)

Dewdrop garland on witch hazel

Dewdrop garland on witch hazel

Dewdrop suspended from witch hazel. Brown area at top of drop is the inverted image of the twig above.

Dewdrop suspended from witch hazel.
Brown area at top of drop is the inverted image of the twig above the drop.

Forest on a pedestal. (Image is inverted; dewdrop was suspended from a twig.)

Forest on a pedestal.
(Image is inverted; dewdrop was suspended from a twig.)

And in a celebratory finale, this miniature Disneyland castle sprouts exuberantly atop a fencepost.

Mold mycelium with sporangiophores (about 1/2" across)

Mold mycelium with sporangiophores
(about 1/2″ across)
(Click here for closeup of lower part.)

Happy teaser season! May your senses open wide to its worlds of wonder.

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Speed and stillness: A contemplation

Yesterday the fastest creature on Earth stopped by for a visit. Ever the news-bringers, our park’s crows alerted us to a predator’s presence, and I was astonished to see a rare Peregrine Falcon up there on a high branch, lit beautifully by the winter sun as the crows called, annoyed or just gossiping.

Peregrine Falcon with crows. Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Peregrine Falcon with crows.
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

My first Pacific Northwest peregrine encounter, 27 years ago, had involved only sound. I had just sweated my way to the top of Little Si (at 1500′, higher than almost all of the eastern state I’d just moved from).

Snoqualmie Valley, WA

Snoqualmie Valley, WA

I was sitting there on the rocks, munching granola and admiring the vast glaciated valleys and the two forks of the Snoqualmie River merging below me, when suddenly the air vibrated with a sound I couldn’t place; I caught a blur of movement out of the corner of my eye. It was all so quick that I had no time to pay closer attention, and there was nothing to look at afterwards that I could find.

Fortunately, I was with friends who’d lived here longer, and one volunteered, “I think that might have been a Peregrine Falcon.” I wasn’t a birder back then, so he went on to explain that they can dive at up to 200 mph—OK, now I was impressed. Little Si’s rocky face made a great launch platform for that avian rocket.

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrines are built for speed. Their tapered wings let them maneuver quickly in pursuit of their prey of smaller birds, their bodies are aerodynamically shaped, and their hearts are capable of beating extraordinarily fast to provide their muscles with the oxygen needed for rapid movement. That dark area beneath their eyes may help reduce glare when they’re winging after fast-moving prey. They even have a cone-shaped structure (called a baffle) in their nostrils, which keeps the air they’re flying through at such incredible speeds from piling up so they can’t breathe.

Peregrine Falcon cleaning talons. Note baffle in nostril. Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Peregrine Falcon cleaning talons. Note baffle in nostril.
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

I, in contrast, am not built for speed. Air does not have any problem making it into my lungs and the word “aerodynamic” does not apply to any part of my body. My heart beats so slowly, and my blood pressure is so low, that I always have to explain to physician-assistants that it’s OK, their equipment is functioning just fine, I just have genetically slow metabolism.

This is a blessing as far as I’m concerned. To a remarkable degree, all mammals get the same number of heartbeats in a lifetime, from mice to whales: about 730,000,000. So I’m planning on living a really long time.

More importantly, my slowness can enrich that extended life in a special way: by its usefulness in the naturalist’s toolkit. At four years old, Jane Goodall was fascinated by the fact that hens could lay eggs, but she couldn’t find an opening in a hen that could accommodate an egg. So she snuck into a henhouse and waited. And waited, holding perfectly still so she wouldn’t scare off the hens. Finally, it happened—and when she finally emerged, thrilled with her new discovery, she learned that her frantic family had been searching for her for the past four hours. Pretty good for a four-year old. Goodall’s remarkable gift for stillness later opened new windows into chimps’ lives in the wild, allowing her to witness behavior hidden from more restless scientists.

We slow ones, we who have stillness instead of movement as our default, get left behind a lot. I always end up being the last one on the trail, sometimes to the serious annoyance of fellow hikers who feel most alive when they’re stretching out their stride, breeze in their faces, toned muscles comfortably warm with exertion.

But nature presences herself in different ways to those who walk slowly or sit in contemplation. Creatures emerge from the shadows, go about their daily tasks; we can experience them for who they are at peace, not who they become in fear or escape. We in turn quiet our internal chatter, letting ourselves see our natural Others face to face rather than through a glass darkly.

Years ago I sat at a riverside camping spot while my companion went exploring for the afternoon. I sketched, or just sat. After a while a subtle movement on a nearby branch caught my attention. At first I couldn’t make out what it was, then after a while I saw that it was a hummingbird on a nest. Looking more carefully, I was astonished to see it opening and closing its beak—I had thought hummingbird beaks were like tubes, lacking hinges as they sucked nectar from flowers. A while later, another hummingbird arrived, then began feeding the one on the nest: I had been watching not only the smallest hummingbird species in that area, the Calliope Hummingbird, but a baby of that species, the tiniest gem of all, only because I stayed put.

* * * * *

I spent a long time yesterday with the falcon. From time to time we locked eyes; I felt I was being calmly assessed, taken deep into those huge dark eyes that see so much better than I can even dream of, enveloped in that timeless, hooded gaze.

Peregrine Falcon Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Peregrine Falcon
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

* * * * *

After a year of sabbatical followed by several months of a research fellowship, I’m back at work. I’d forgotten what it’s like to be busy.  Busyness is addictive: it gives us an injection of adrenaline, makes us feel important—and, as Darlene Cohen points out in her lovely little book The One Who Is Not Busy, it also serves to distract us from the emptiness we’re afraid our lives might hold, from the suffering around us. I now have to struggle to regain that precious sense of open time: time for play, meandering thoughts, open-ended sketching. Tasks I should do and projects I want to do compete for limited mind-space.

The Jesuits have a marvelous term, contemplatio in actione, expressing the integration of a contemplative heart in an active life. I’m not very good at that. I’m happy for a bit of actione here and there in my week, but I’m much better at contemplatio in inactione.

* * * * *

Yesterday’s falcon wasn’t clocking 200 mph or even moving much. He occasionally stretched his elegantly pointed wings and striped tail, preened his talons, or just drowsed. Even the fastest of all Earth’s creatures must balance speed with stillness.

Peregrine Falcon stretching. Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Peregrine Falcon stretching.
Lincoln Park, West Seattle



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Field Notes from the Season: Winter

(Field Notes is a new section of Natural Presence, comprising short glimpses of the natural world in different seasons.)

In a day full of administrivia, even a quick walk in the woods can refresh your spirit and wake you back up to what it is to be alive. We’re due for a big storm tonight and tomorrow, and when my neck and eyes began to protest that they’d been screen-focused for way too long, I strolled over to the bluff near my house for a dose of the real world avant le déluge.

The Pacific Northwest paints winter in muted shades of gray, soft green, dark brown, with watercolored skies and trees sketched in charcoal. Spray from the whipped whitecaps of an incoming storm, along with low-scudding clouds, blur boundaries: Salish Sea, glacier-smoothed islands, rocky Olympic Peninsula diffuse one into the other.

Winter study in black and white

Winter study in black and white
(Painted with ArtStudio on iPad Air)

I spent a while looking off into the blended distance while the air waltzed around me, not yet the gale force due tonight, but still fresh and gently swaying. I turned around to head back home, musing about how simple the scene had been in its tones of light and shadow, when a movement in a bush caught my attention. While at the bluff, I’d listened for our resident Northern Flicker deepening his nest inside a rotting madrone branch, but he seemed to be napping. I didn’t see any of the busy little juncoes and chickadees who usually forage in the oceanspray and salal, nor even hear the gull and crow regulars. So a wiggling branch stood out.

The creature in the shrub descended to the duff hidden beneath the shrubs and rustled there for several moments. Finally it revealed itself: a gray squirrel, not burying or searching for snacks of nuts as I’d seen in recent weeks, but collecting a mouthful of dried leaves to haul up a young Douglas Fir. Less than two minutes later, he was back down for the next load, then disappeared a second time into the high foliage. Up and down, up and down: hard work, but good work.

As placid as the place seemed at first, better attention revealed its midwinter aliveness. Even behind that overcast western horizon, the setting sun is moving inexorably northward, and the gradually increasing moments of daylight signal the impending busyness of leafing, flowering, fruiting, nesting. A few buds swell, a flicker chips a bit deeper into an arboreal burrow, a little squirrel buttresses his nest against a storm or for future babies. I go back inside to write and sketch and listen for the first gentle drops on the roof.

Winter storm

Winter storm

Passings: The Ghosts of Pleasure Beach

Volcanic mountains rise in rough white-capped waves below as the jet stream carries me eastward in my metal cocoon. We pass the sharp drop of the Colorado Front Range, and I reread its geology with the familiar pleasure of an old book: a massive fault system along which twisted ancient rocks have been thrust by circumstance into aerial performance. Still further east, a formless blanket of cloud extends from horizon to horizon, obscuring rocks, rivers, towns, burying geologic and human history alike.

* * * * *

It was December 19, and I was flying from Seattle to New Jersey to help my family celebrate the life and acknowledge the passing of my uncle Ernest a few days earlier. He wasn’t a believer in God or a churchgoer, but growing up in the core of Manhattan, he and his siblings were nature lovers. Central Park was steps from their front door and, with their father and sister, the boys who were later to become my uncle and my father examined glacial scars on rocks, unearthed salamanders, watched leaves sprout in spring, glow with autumn, wither with winter. Until shortly before his death at 92, my uncle loved to walk through the arboretum in the town where he lived all of his adult life. He adopted a trail near his home and helped clear it of invasive plants, learned the birds, monitored its health.

* * * * *

In these dark circum-solstice days, I haven’t been monitoring the news. I already know that things are terrible and getting worse in Syria; that the Sudan is in crisis; that Egypt is undergoing new violence; that a year later, we’re still not sure why twenty first-graders were murdered in their Connecticut classrooms. The world’s agony leaves me gasping for breath and grasping for hope in the face of evil’s vast scale and scope.

My uncle Ernest, with more courage than I, faced human suffering and death straight on. He worked for decades as the county medical examiner, helping to solve murder mysteries. (At his memorial, a younger neighbor who’d gone into the family business of wildlife rehabilitation noted that my uncle’s dinner table was the only one he knew of where the conversation was even more graphic than at home.) Ernest loved his work, his scientist’s mind fascinated as he mulled evidence and assessed explanations for each life’s end.

* * * * *

My flight’s 3-hour delay at the Seattle airport had given me time to recover from my 4:30 am wakeup and to witness dawn from a new perspective.

Predawn fog with eagles End of Concourse B, SeaTac Airport

Predawn fog with eagles
Taken from end of Concourse B, SeaTac Airport

The delay also allowed me to read a New York Times article reminding me that eBird reportings were tracking Snowy Owls in their Northeast irruption. Snowys aren’t usually found this far south, but something—perhaps a bumper crop of baby owls last year, possibly a rodent shortage—has caused them to expand from their Arctic home. Rechecking eBird the next morning at my father’s Connecticut home, I found that Snowys had been sighted along a nearby stretch of Long Island Sound, and I was hungry for a dose of nature, so my father and brother joined me in a late-afternoon search party.

Our destination was Pleasure Beach, a sandy spit south of Bridgeport. An overconfident navigator (me) erroneously sent us first to an industrial dock where doves perched cooingly, silhouetted against cathedral-sized tanks of petroleum by-products destined to be transformed into new roads through the Hudson Valley, additional parking lots for New England malls.  Remains of past organisms, exhumed from their stone crypts, wait here to be called to eliminate more trees, seal more soils, so that we might move and park a few more cars.

Doves, Peckham Asphalt facility Bridgeport, CT

Doves, Peckham Asphalt facility
Bridgeport, CT

The spit’s tip seemed near through the dock structures, but we couldn’t see how to get to it from where we were, so we gave up and returned to our trusty GPS, which we could almost hear whispering “I told you so.” Finally arriving with its help at the beach parking area, I was thrilled to see a good clue to unusual-bird presence: a guy with a big spotting scope. (Size matters in the world of birding.) He pointed us down the beach, and other birders returning from their afternoon owl-watching confirmed that a Snowy had spent the afternoon snoozing on the spit.

Wetland, Lewis Gut, Bridgeport, CT

Salt marsh, north side of Pleasure Beach, Bridgeport, CT

We finally saw a second guy with a big lens and made a beeline for him—only to watch him fold it up just as we approached, saying the owl had just flown off “that way somewhere.” I gave up any real hope of finding it, but at least we’d had a good nature walk with a lovely sunset impending. Enjoying the search for its own sake, we ventured a little further, scanning the wetlands and grass for a Hedwig-shaped white blob just in case. We passed some old benches, stone jetties, rusted bits of archeology from some deceased culture.

* * * * *

More people let go of their lives in winter than any other time of year. (In my own small world, I know of at least five other deaths in the past ten days—no, now six, with a new death since I began writing.) Why? Cold makes our blood vessels constrict, meaning our hearts have to pump harder. Cold also makes us more susceptible to viruses. And if you’re elderly and perhaps already in ill health, you may be poorer and less likely to turn on the heat; you may also be more isolated and less likely to have someone notice if you’re not doing well. But I think also, the darkness must take a toll. It’s just so much to deal with, trying to keep up your spirits in the face of the weight of night.

Ernest, thankfully, was neither isolated nor poor, but he did know he didn’t have long. Adventurer to the end, though, he’d recently been trying to convince my father to come along on a February riverboat trip down the Amazon.

* * * * *

If I’d been paying better attention during our walk to what was actually around me rather than looking only for the owl, it might have occurred to me to wonder about the spit’s flattened top and the random sticks and metal poles emerging from the russet grass and shelly sand. I’d missed the clues that we were walking through what had once been Connecticut’s largest ghost town. For over fifty years, a carousel, theater, bumper cars had thrilled children and their grownups; our desolate, darkening spit had once been a vacation destination.


Pleasure Beach, about 1955.
(Click for link to source.)

Like so many other manufactured human pleasures, the thrills faded after a while, and finally a burned bridge near the dock we’d seen earlier ended Pleasure Beach’s amusement-park heyday. Children’s cheers have been replaced by gulls’ screeches. Federal regulations and a system of wildlife refuges have given threatened piping plovers and least terns a fighting chance through human detritus, and the birds are beginning to recover.

* * * * *

Ernest and I both turned toward the small places of nature after careers of scientific investigation of suffering and death. Like him, I’ve loved my work, but engaging with tragedy for a living—in my case, environmental disasters of climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution—takes a deep toll.

* * * * *

Suddenly I saw the Snowy Owl. It was scanning the beach from the top of a nearby snag, preening and scratching as it prepared for a long hunt during tonight’s extended midwinter darkness.

Snowy Owl on snag Industrial Bridgeport in background

Snowy Owl on snag (upper right),
industrial Bridgeport in background

Snowy Owl at sunset Lewis Gut, Bridgeport, CT

Snowy Owl at sunset
Pleasure Beach, Bridgeport, CT

As the sunset’s glow faded and true solstice night descended, we watched the owl until the darkness rendered it a gray smudge against the dark-blue sky, city lights in the background. We started the long walk back along the chilly beach. As we crossed the last jetty, we caught a ghostly movement: the owl had been accompanying us unseen.

Snowy Owl Bridgeport city lights across salt marsh

Snowy Owl
(Bridgeport city lights across salt marsh)

It finally flew on beyond our vision, a living light adventuring into the
longest night.

Last sight of Snowy Owl

Last sight of Snowy Owl


In Memoriam: Ernest E. Tucker (1921-2013)

EET, always young at heart

EET, always young at heart

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Dinosaur-Shaped Eyes

An animal’s eyes have the capacity of a great language.

Martin Buber, I and Thou  [1]

Barred Owl Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Barred Owl
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

These owl eyes speak the language of the night, where owls live and move and have their being. In the morning, under this owl’s winter perch, I find the small gray pellets that are the story of the previous night’s successful hunt: tiny jaw fragments interlaced with fur, a femur, a scapula. Silently sailing through the dark forest, scanning for signs of prey, owls read a visual language lost to us in our diurnal speech.

Can imaginative presence help us glimpse the owl’s language? Let’s look at a scene from the forest at night, first through our own eyes, then through the eyes of the owl. Here’s the human image.

2013-9-29_0041-v2-Mouse (b) in darkened scene, human vision-Trileigh Tucker

Forest scene to human eyes

Not a lot of information here that we can use, right? Here’s how an owl might see the scene.

Owl perception of forest night scene

Simulated owl perception of forest night scene

Like other animals that are fluent in night-language, owls have eyes that are beautifully equipped to read light and shadows. How do they do this? Eyes have two different ways of interpreting light: rods are the cells in eyes that are activated just by receiving photons, and cones are tickled by specific wavelength ranges. In owl eyes, the rods are much more densely packed than those of diurnal creatures. Since color isn’t that important at night, evolution has benefitted owls by allocating more retina real estate to those cells (rods) that give them helpful night information.

Here’s another way that owls’ eyes are adapted to help them read better at night. Look at the shape of this young Barred Owl’s cornea:

Juvenile Barred Owl showing corneal curvature

Juvenile Barred Owl showing corneal curvature

His eyes’ dramatically curved shape, in combination with the widely expandable pupils you can see in the first photo, helps him gather light from many directions. When all those photons get to the very large retinas at the back of his eyes, they provide lots of information to his brain to help him read the forest to find food.

Owl eye structures

Owl eye structures

Given how important they are, it’s not surprising that the owl’s eyes take up so much space in his head that there’s only a thin divider between them—so thin that light from one eye can filter through into the other. Jerry Waldvogel has pointed out that if our eyes were proportionally the same size as the owl’s, they’d be as big as tennis balls in our heads! [2]

Finally, our owl is unusual even among birds in that the place on his retina with the sharpest vision (the fovea) is packed with rods, not cones, giving him enhanced sight where he focuses. So when the owl’s amazing hearing helps him focus on a movement in the forest scene above, he might see something like this:

A mouse in the forest!

A mouse in the forest!

And once his attention becomes riveted:

Fleeing mouse

Tonight’s dinner?

While it is the owl’s exquisite hearing that lets him finally decide where to pounce, his remarkable night vision helps him read the forest, so that he can navigate his way through and hone in on his prey’s location.

* * * * *

We used to be creatures of the night, too. Our earliest mammal ancestors lived their lives in the Mesozoic darkness—and our eyes tell that history.

As I’ve noted previously, most humans’ eyes contain three different types of color-sensing cells. Each type is most sensitive to a particular light wavelength (medium blue, green-yellow, or orange), and our brains interpret the combination of signals sent by all types to yield our sense of color. This gives us a wonderful visual dimension beyond what many mammals can perceive; for instance, dogs and cats have just two types of color sensors.

But most birds have four-color vision, generally including a separate kind of cell that is sensitive to ultraviolet. They inherited this rich way of seeing their world from their dinosaur ancestors, who probably also could see a much more colorful world than we can. Although there’s currently no way we can truly envision or simulate how it would be to see this way, I imagine that the forest scene in daylight might look something like this to such a bird (right), compared to human vision (left):

Forest view-human (L), bird (R)

Forest view-human (L), bird (R)

These birds’ eyes speak a syntax of saturation, words of hues: the ultimate “colorful language” of which we can only dream. Why did we mammals lose some of our ability to sense colors?

Because we were scared of dinosaurs.

Back in the Mesozoic when they first appeared, little mammals would have made a nice snack for a hungry dinosaur—most of whom hunted during the day.

Uh-oh. (Simulated early mammal and dinosaur. Photo and art by Trileigh Tucker.)

(Simulated early mammal and dinosaur.
Photo and art by Trileigh Tucker.)

So our ancestors scuttled into hiding places during the day and waited until darkness to emerge (tiptoeing carefully around snoring dinos), learning to hunt by night. Because our little fuzzy forebears’ fancy color vision wasn’t much use at night, space in their retinas was much more valuable for rods that could help them see in the dark, and they eventually lost two of the four types of cones they’d started with. We began our own mammalian history with vision shaped by dinosaur appetites.

Once that handy meteor winnowed out a lot of those big pesky predators and turned the rest into birds, though, mammals could creep out of the darkness and relearn how to live in light. Genetic mutations in many primates and some marsupials recreated a third type of cone, and we humans got lucky and evolved from those lines.

But our history, our dawn in Mesozoic roots, is still told by the stories in our dinosaur-shaped eyes, eyes that once spoke the “great language” of the night. As we encounter the deep gaze of the owl, we can see traces of a shared history, echoes of an ancient intimacy—an eye-Thou relationship of epochal duration.

[1] Buber, Martin, and Walter Arnold Kaufmann. I and Thou by Martin Buber; a new translation with a prologue and notes by Walter Kaufmann. Simon & Schuster, 1970, p. 144.

[2] Waldvogel, Jerry A. “The bird’s eye view.” American Scientist 78, no. 4 (1990): 342-353.

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Gifts of Fogmaggedon

Carl Sandburg’s fog may come on little cat feet, but mine comes on the muffled blast of the ferry foghorn, telling me even before I open my eyes in the morning that our annual autumn mist has arrived. Here in Honnalee, the fog moved in 2-1/2 weeks ago: mysterious, atmospheric, giving presence to still air whose existence we usually no more notice than fish notice their placid water. Sunbeams filtering through foggy autumn forests inexorably pull my camera, with me attached, into the forest, and those first couple of days I danced around the park taking photo after photo of the moody woods and enchanting dewdrops.

Fog in Lincoln Park West Seattle, WA

Fog in Lincoln Park
West Seattle, WA

Lincoln Park West Seattle, WA

Lincoln Park
West Seattle, WA

Dewdrop on cedar needles

Dewdrop on cedar needles

A few days later, the fog still swirling through the trees, I left to spend a week back home in Virginia at my high-school reunion, celebrating with dear friends from way back, then showing my father my old haunts in my college town. (Well, most of the haunts; some were better left back in the past along with my profoundly immature 20-something self.) The remnants of Tropical Storm Karen literally dampened both occasions, dumping her remnant Gulf Stream moisture on us all day, every day. But the joy of being with old friends and my beloved dad lit the days, and one afternoon’s sunbreak gave me a few bird-photography opportunities.

Northern Mockingbird Williamsburg, VA

Northern Mockingbird
Williamsburg, VA

Northern Cardinal Williamsburg, VA

Northern Cardinal
Williamsburg, VA

Do East Coasters realize how amazing cardinals are?

Anyway, as my evening flight took off from Dulles at the end, I was looking forward to returning to Seattle’s glorious blue-sky autumn days, the woods aglow with our brilliant yellow Bigleaf Maples and the occasional stunning red Vine Maple.

I woke up late the morning after, having mercifully been able to sleep off jet lag—to the sound of the ferry foghorn. Still? After a week and a half? No sun for twelve straight days, no sense of the changing light that tells time’s passing, just monotonous gray skies all day, not even a good storm to make it interesting. It would be 10 am, then suddenly 4:30 in the afternoon, time for a nap.

Lincoln Park beach in fog

Lincoln Park beach in fog

After yet an additional three days of this, even our eternally enthusiastic resident weather guru, Cliff Mass of the University of Washington, got grumpy. “Fogmaggedon!” he called our record-setting string of foggy fall days; a “boa constrictor” of an inversion. (As always, he has cool photos and diagrams – check them out.)

Cliff hightailed it to Eastern Washington to get a sun injection to his psyche, but I just stayed in place, not even venturing into the forest for a couple of days—which tells you something’s way off. I just couldn’t summon up the energy.

Then this afternoon, Rob called me a few minutes after he left for orchestra rehearsal. He’d reached the top of the hill near our house—and it was glorious up there, sunny and warm. The boa-constrictor inversion meant that at our house, 200′ above sea level and near Puget Sound, the air was cool enough to keep moisture in vapor form—but a mile away and 300′ higher, the sun had warmed the air enough to vaporize those foggy droplets. He could see all the way to the mountains.

Given this news, I couldn’t stand being indoors any longer. I grabbed my cameras and headed out. I got to the edge of the bluff just as the sun broke through near the horizon.

Color! Glowing yellow light through the trees! Bright orange leaves lining the soft red-brown path!

Path to beach, Lincoln Park West Seattle, WA

Path to beach, Lincoln Park
West Seattle, WA

I hadn’t realized how much I’d been missing color during the days of monochromatic mist. I raced down to the beach, suddenly full of energy, to immerse myself in the palette of post-fog sunset.

Fog clearing at Lincoln Park beach West Seattle, WA

Fog clearing at Lincoln Park beach
West Seattle, WA

I’ve been doing a lot of research recently into animal vision and the science behind it. Although we humans have three kinds of color-perceiving cells called “cones” in our eyes, many other mammals just have two kinds of cones, so the world looks very different to them. For instance, here’s how a dog might perceive the Lincoln Park path and the Northern Cardinal:

Simulation of dog's view of path and cardinal

Simulation of dog’s view of path and cardinal

All this research has been fascinating—bird vision, for instance, is astounding—and I’ll tell you more about it in future posts. But it took Fogmaggedon to get me out of my head and back into my body, for my spirit to wake up once again to how utterly remarkable it is, living in a world shimmering with hue and tone and vibrancy and saturation beyond the imagining of most other mammals.

If it doesn’t last too long, the quieting blanket of fog can be a blessing, providing an introverted interlude necessary for recharging the soul, bringing its own magical depth to the world. But too-persistent fog—from atmospheric inversion, midlife crisis, depression, self-centeredness, busyness—keeps our spirit from joyous aliveness to the multicolored world. When the time comes for the mist to dissipate, we welcome the brilliant earth back, alive again, rebaptized.

Autumn grove Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Autumn grove
Lincoln Park, West Seattle


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Traces of Hidden Presence

Yesterday, in the darkness at exactly 6:00 am, I heard a high-pitched screech outside my window, which turned into a squeal. Finally the call evolved into one I recognized: a Barred Owl, the familiar denizen of my park. After a short but fierce inner argument between the Voice That Wanted To Stay In My Warm Bed, and Naturalist Voice, the naturalist won and I dug myself out from under cats and covers, pulled on pants and a jacket, and ventured out into the dark street to try to spot the light-gray owl in the thick trees.

Unfortunately, the conifers along my street were too dense and tall for me to find the owl, who stayed quiet after that. So after my brief foray into the dark morning, I (quite happily) went back inside and crawled back under the covers to read for a while with tea and juice, knowing contentedly that the owl was somewhere nearby.

We humans, as you may have noticed, are pretty much diurnal: we’re active during the day, and if we’re out and about at night, we go where there are artificial lights. You can tell this is what we’re made for by looking at our faces.

Portrait of Nick

Portrait of Nick

Can you see the sign of diurnality yet? By contrast, here’s another image, of a creature who’s nocturnal, active at night:

Philippine Tarsier (Tarsius syrichta) with baby Caption and photo from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Babytarsier.jpg

Philippine Tarsier (Tarsius syrichta) with baby
Caption and photo from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Babytarsier.jpg

If we put these two handsome faces side by side, we see the clue: how much larger a proportion of the face the eyes take up in the nocturnal mammal.

Eyes-in-face comparison - Trileigh Tucker

Eye proportions in facial dimensions

Making a living in the world of night requires large eyes (or, if you’d rather live by another sense, huge ears). These eyes may allow you to find your prey—

Barred Owl (left), possibly the one who called at 6 am; Northern Saw-whet Owl (right)

Barred Owl (left), possibly the one who called at 6 am; Northern Saw-whet Owl (right)

—or to spot night predators, hoping to avoid becoming prey.

House Mouse Lincoln Park, West Seattle

House Mouse. Note her big ears, also helpful for nocturnal living.
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Why would a creature choose a nocturnal world rather than hunting in daylight like we humans do? One reason is that we, and other animal daylighters, just aren’t around as much in the dark, meaning you’ve got the world more to yourself, avoiding some competition for scarce resources.

Another reason became apparent a year ago at this time, when I spent a glorious two weeks rafting down the Grand Canyon. Barely two hours after we launched on our first day, we came across these.

Ringtail cat (Bassariscus astutus) footprints, Grand Canyon

Footprints, Grand Canyon.
Rear (on left) and left front foot (on right).

We never saw this creature. Still, we can learn a lot about her from the traces she left behind.

The creature who pressed her feet gently into the red sand had small oval corn-kernel toes, but her claws were recessed enough that they didn’t make impressions. Canine claws don’t retract, so this must have been another species.

Why the difference in pawprints? If you’re a canine—which in the Grand Canyon means a coyote or gray fox—your thing is running. Your legs and feet are built for chasing prey over long distances, and your claws help you grip the ground as you run, and to dig after prey that may be lucky enough to find a burrow while you’re after it. So having those claws ready to go for the long haul really helps you out.

But if you feed yourself by leaping and climbing after prey, you need different paws. For example, imagine you’re a cat. Cat hips, shoulders, loose skin, and musculature are designed to propel you up after arboreal prey that scampers along branches, or aerial prey that’s a bit too oblivious of your sneaking presence as it feeds near the ground. Keeping your claws sheathed keeps them nice and sharp for the sudden attack; if you regularly let them drag on the ground, they’d be too dull to work well for your purposes.

So our pawprints belong to a kind of creature that isn’t a canine. The only Grand Canyon mammal that has five toes fore and aft, and whose claws don’t always reach the ground, is the ringtail cat (Bassariscus astutus), a member of the raccoon family. She’s a marvelous creature, agile and with those endearingly huge eyes.

Ringtail cat (Bassariscus astutus) by moonlight, Grand Canyon.  Photo and painting by Trileigh Tucker.

Ringtail cat (Bassariscus astutus) by moonlight, Grand Canyon.
Photo and painting by Trileigh Tucker.

The ringtail has done a good job making a living in a hard place. Her species is so well adapted, in fact, that it hasn’t needed to change its basic characteristics for over two million years, since it first appeared in the late Neogene. What does it take for a small mammal to make a good home in a desert? Well, when you think of the Arizona desert, what words come to mind? Dry. Hot. So our little ringtail, like other desert-adapted animals and plants, has had to find ways to deal with heat and desiccation. I’ll leave desiccation for another time, but let’s think for a bit about what it takes to deal with heat.

Look again at her face.

Ringtail cat at night. Painting by Trileigh Tucker.

Ringtail cat at night.  Painting by Trileigh Tucker.

If you have large eyes for the size of your skull, your eyes have bigger pupils and lenses that let more light into your eyeball, where your large retina can collect more of that precious light to provide useful information to your brain. Of course, the space taken up by those big eyes in your head mean there’s less room for other things like eye muscles—so in order to look around for your dinner, or for someone such as an owl, coyote, or bobcat who might make dinner out of you, your neck has adapted to let you twist your head widely around.

Your eyes also have many more rods (which are sensitive to low light levels) than those of daytime hunters, but far fewer cones to help you see color and focus precisely. That means your color vision’s pretty bad and you need a large-screen TV—your big retinas—to give you enough information to interpret an image.

In summer, when our ringtail left those tracks, it’s hot as heck out there in the daytime. So, many creatures of the desert protect themselves from the heat by hiding in shelters during the day, venturing out only at night when the temperature may drop to a relatively chilly 95° rather than 110°. All these visual adaptations ultimately mean that you can capture prey at night, when it’s cooler, and that’s a big plus in this Hot Dry Place.

* * * * *

We diurnal creatures usually know the night-dwellers only by their traces: a ringing call before dawn, small footprints in soft sand. We share the same place but on different cycles, different wavelengths, like AM and FM radio channels in the same atmosphere.

What else are we unattuned to? What other presences permeate our perimeters, recognized only by accident or fortune?

I once bemoaned to a dear friend my sense of having been misled, when I was a child, by adults who told me the world was full of pixies, Santa Claus, brownies who hide behind curtains: pervasive magic. His wise reply was that perhaps every spiderweb, salamander, soaring hawk, sparrow’s song, were the living manifestations of such mysterious spirits. Presences clear in the light of day and those hidden by night, keeping us alive to mystery, if we can listen for the echo of a call, find the shadows of tiny toes in the sand, catch the trace of a tail, feel the soft breath of Presence whispered in our ear.

Lizard tracks at busy intersection, Grand Canyon.

Lizard tracks at busy intersection, Grand Canyon.

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A Scientist is Surprised By a Tool Long Known to Artists

Maybe it’s my training as a scientist, with its requirements for precision and accuracy, but it’s always felt like my most natural fine-art form is photorealistic drawing:

Portrait of Agnes Adámy

Portrait of Agnes Adámy

I drew all through childhood (didn’t we all, in those pre-electronic days!), and in my teen years found the pure joy of doing portraits. The human face—expressive, alluring, textured, with character in curves, stories in wrinkles, soul in eyes—

Portrait of Arthur Wheeler

Portrait of Arthur Wheeler

—it’s unendingly interesting, no matter whose it is. It is a deeply sensuous pleasure to shape the curves of someone’s face or body with your hand, sketching in shading to bring out their infinite depth and character, a caress in carbon.

I didn’t really start experimenting with watercolors until I was an adult. Water in all its forms takes you with it on its fluid journeys, washes you out of your mold, pours itself into your rigid ideas and softens them, blurs and diffuses your boundaries. Watercolors have a life of their own, and I was drawn to them because I couldn’t control them as I could my pencils. And since you pretty much can’t erase with watercolors, being in relationship with them requires you to commit to their serendipity, to be open to new directions you hadn’t anticipated. I knew I needed that.

The watercolors I’ve been happiest with were those where I stopped in time rather than overworking them, but these have been few and far between:

Galapagos Tortoise (I think)

Galapagos Tortoise

Generally I just get frustrated because I keep trying to get it just right, with all the lines in the perfect place just like they are in reality, and all the colors exactly right with the precisely correct shape. I either overwork the piece until it seems ruined (remember, no erasing), or give up in frustration over the details before it feels finished. That’s what happened with this sketch, which I began while sitting on a bench in a Lincoln Park clearing that I’ve nicknamed “Dragonfly Field.”

"Dragonfly Field," Lincoln Park, West Seattle (unfinished)

“Dragonfly Field,” Lincoln Park, West Seattle (unfinished)

So many branches, so many leaves! It was just too hard.

Trying to get a grasp of this literally-ungraspable art medium, I took a watercolor course recently with marvelous artist and teacher Ruthie V, who teaches at South Seattle Community College. She really gets watercolor.

“Look, aim at just the big patches of color. Don’t worry about all the little bits,” Ruthie suggested as I struggled to portray every single leaf in view in the SSCC Arboretum. But I just couldn’t un-see the details, and once I noticed them I couldn’t not try to get them right.

* * * * *

Getting the details right is a big part of the scientist’s job description—and not only that, but a thrill as well. A continuing-education biology instructor who started out as a geologist once told me with great pride, “There’s not much about ultramafics[1] that I don’t know.” As a grad student, I loved knowing tons of details about crystals, their architecture, how the atoms fit together and influenced each other, how a crystal sings and dances.

Of course, that’s not all you need to be a good scientist. You also have to be able to find patterns, preferably ones that are both interesting and significant. As with art, it’s easy to get bogged down in the details. I remember when I finally got my first big data set from my grad-school research and was faced with All Those Numbers: yikes! Now what?

I managed to find some interesting-enough patterns in those data. But how to do that in art? Especially when I’m not in my 20′s or 30′s anymore, but my 50′s —late 50′s at that—when my brain doesn’t function at quite the speed (that I seem to remember…) it did back in school?

* * * * *

I’ve had poor vision since fourth grade. In fact, I remember the exact day when the big blue numbers on Miss Stein’s classroom calendar looked different. She was teaching some lesson, finished up, and asked if we had any questions. I raised my hand and said, “Why does the calendar look fuzzy?” (She annoyedly clarified that she had meant questions about the lesson she’d just given. Oh. Sorry.)

I used to love lying under the Christmas tree and taking off my glasses, enjoying the wonderful soft haloes of colored light above me, our tree transformed into an arboreal fairyland by the hovering glowing light-balls. (I still do that now…don’t tell.) I think part of the joy I’ve always felt swimming might be partly because, wearing no glasses, I can’t see when I’m wet: a freedom from tracking what’s happening, freedom to trust to the sensation of wet and coolness on my body rather than the information from my eyes.

* * * * *

Right after I wake up every morning, I have a daily write-of-passage: three pages in my journal that take me from dreamland into reality, my treasured liminal time. And it was in that liminality yesterday, for no apparent reason, that I had a sudden insight into my art conundrum.

Because of my gift of poor vision, I can choose how well to see! What a wonderful tool in my artist box: to be able to simply take off my glasses and paint what my 20/450 vision sees: large fuzzy blots of color and hazy shapes. Take that, perfectionist tendencies!

This morning I went back to Dragonfly Field, sat on the same bench as before, took off my glasses, and iPad-painted what I saw.[2]

Dragonfly Field sans glasses (Used iPad app called Art Set)

Dragonfly Field sans glasses
(Used iPad app called Art Set)

It’s a scene, a whole scene, how about that? No tiny leaves to worry about, a few big shapes of shadows and shrubs and grass; can you make them out? The splotches of color seem to define a space, a place, in a way my thin lines couldn’t. It’s almost like having a whole new medium to explore.

Funny how at this point in life, occasionally the things you’ve been thinking all along are your weaknesses suddenly flip over and become resources. A tendency to move slowly, formerly known as laziness, starts to look like contemplativeness. Having no ability to deal with shopping malls (a sore disappointment to my mother) gets transformed from “hypersensitivity” to an affinity for the earth. Insecurity about having something valuable to say becomes a desire to listen more deeply. Bad vision can sometimes help you to see a little better.

Artists have long known to take off their glasses, and I’ve just discovered this tool. So maybe that’s another bounty of aging: delight at newly encountering the old wisdom of others. Here’s to many more such surprises.

[1] An igneous rock type sort of like basalt, but more so.

[2] (Unfortunately, not seeing well also meant that I inadvertently painted on a tiny little portion of my canvas, ending up with a teensy and highly pixelated image, but I can fix that next time. Live and learn.)

The Weavers’ Tale

KEEP BACK, the sign said.

2013-7-16_0032-Wasp nest warning sign

That inviting package was wrapped in bright yellow ribbons saying “CAUTION,” so of course I went right over to check it out. **

Wasp nest Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Wasp nest
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

A construction of remarkable beauty hangs from the drooping branches of a Western Redcedar in our neighborhood park. The size and shape of a football, it was finely crafted by the social wasps who built this nursery to house and raise their young. They’re called Dolichovespula arenaria, or aerial yellow jackets. Thankfully, our park’s management made the decision to let their nest stay rather than removing it.

Dolichovespula arenaria (Aerial yellow jacket) wasp nest Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Dolichovespula arenaria (Aerial yellow jacket) wasp nest
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

The outer sheath looks like a watercolor painting: fibers of different tones from a brown palette woven together into diffuse stripes. (Or perhaps like bacon, if you’re reading this in the morning before breakfast.) The meandering colors evoke a landscape of flowing rivers or rock strata warped into waves over eons.

Woven fibers of wasp nest Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Woven fibers of wasp nest
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

The nests are made, like so many homes here in the Northwest, by utilizing timber from our local forests. In the wasps’ case, unlike ours, the homebuilders don’t fell the trees; the workers harvest snags or chew wood that humans have already cut and put to use as sheds, fences or decks. In fact, if you’re sitting quietly in your backyard in spring or summer, you might hear a tiny gnawing that, with good eyes and an attentive mind, you can trace to a small yellow-and-black insect working at the nearby fence. (Click here for a video of a different kind of wasp chewing wood.)

Where do these colors come from, I wonder? Perhaps each brown or tan or buff stripe represents the type of wood gathered by one particular wasp at one particular place: your neighbor Mary’s beautifully weathered gray fence, or the dead dark-brown Douglas Fir that provided a home to last spring’s Pileated Woodpecker family. The foraging wasp has chosen a harvest site for her own reasons—maybe she thought its hue especially beautiful, or she found its taste exquisite. She flies back to the nest, chewing the fibers and mixing them with her saliva, then deposits the paste on the rim left by the last worker, creating a band whose color tells the story of her journey, her destination, her work.

Wasp at nest entrance. Note her vertical mandibles.

Dolichovespula arenaria wasp at nest entrance (note her vertical mandibles). Is she laying down a new band?
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Look closely at the photo below, and you can find tiny slivers of wood in the saliva paste, each color band a memoir, the multi-toned sheath a tale told in layers, as all good tales must be.

Aerial yellow jacket nest closeup Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Aerial yellow jacket nest closeup
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Within its protective cover, the nest holds the precious young, one larva in each cell. Here’s what the inside of this nest might look like:

Nest development for aerial yellow jackets. (a) Nest starts with twisted stem and initial cell. (b) Queen nest with beginning of layered envelope. (c) Mature nest with many cells, enclosed within sheath. Figure (14.62) and information from Wenzel, John W. "Evolution of nest architecture." The social biology of wasps (1991): 480-519.

Nest development for aerial yellow jackets. (a) Nest starts with twisted stem and initial cell. (b) Queen nest with beginning of layered envelope. (c) Mature nest with many cells, enclosed within sheath.
Figure (14.62) and information from Wenzel, John W. “Evolution of nest architecture.” In Ross and Matthews, The social biology of wasps (1991): 480-519.

Skilled caregivers go out and capture insects, then feed them to the growing young. After the larvae have extracted their own nutrition, the remnants then become concentrated food for the adults. Children feed their parents in diverse ways in many species, before they leave home to become part of new colonies.

A wasp nest in the forest: a finely bound book of family stories, quests and adventures, children raised and launched—all set in a particular landscape that is quite literally embedded in the woven text whose fragmented and rewoven pieces hold a community together. A good reason for an orange cone and some yellow CAUTION tape; we surely want to keep it safe in our natural library.

* * * * *

** Footnote: Please be very, very careful around wasp nests! If you disturb the nest, the wasps are likely to come out and spend their energy defending the nest instead of maintaining it and taking care of their young. They may also label you with a pheromone that, as you’re running away, will alert any other wasps along your path to come after you…not a good way to spend a sunny summer afternoon. For you or the wasps.