Saturday, June 5, 2010

In Memoriam: The Gulf of Mexico

In Loving Memory of the Gulf of Mexico
Birth - Several hundred million years ago --- Death - April 20, 2010:

***I have no way of helping to plug the catastrophic leak of the Deep Horizon oil well in the Gulf and I cannot go help clean the marshes or beaches or help clean the feathers of the unfortunate birds. But, I feel I must do something to show my support for the people and wildlife of that area. I have my memories and photographs from my visits to the Gulf Islands National Seashore, Navarre Beach, St. George Is., Crystal River and Sanibel Island that I can share with my readers. My hope is that these photos will help those who live far away appreciate the beauty and delicate balance of nature that may soon become nothing but a beautiful memory...

Once upon a time the waters of the Gulf of Mexico sparkled like a precious jewel of emerald, diamond and aquamarine! Birds, such as sandpipers, Snowy Plovers, Pelicans, gulls, terns, Black Skimmers, herons fed on the fish and tiny creatures in its waters and along the sugar-white sands of the shoreline. Sea turtles came ashore to lay their eggs in the sand above the surf line each summer. The beaches were alive!

Sargassum weed, seaweeds, surfgrass and other plants from distant waters floated on the currents and washed ashore along the beaches providing food for countless numbers of tiny creatures such as Beach Hoppers (left) and beetles. These often overlooked, but extremely important minute animals provided food for numerous other animals like crabs (right) and shore birds including Red Knots, Black-bellied Plovers and Sanderlings. Many of these birds used the beaches, sandbars, estuaries and saltmarshes along the Gulf as "fast-food joints," filling up on fuel as they flew from their wintering grounds in Central and South America to their breeding areas as far north as the Arctic. Sadly, even if they do not get covered with the sticky oil, these birds may slowlystarve as their food supply vanishes beneath the toxic sludge.

Most visitors to the beach are not aware of the unseen ecosystem beneath their feet as they walk along the surf. Those tiny holes that apear in the sand often form from bubbles that rise as the water flows back with a retreating wave; animals such as mole crabs, clams, beach hoppers, tube worms and even microscopic animals living on individual grains of sand depend on the food and oxygen provided by the constant ebb and flow of the waves. Shore birds, stingrays, and small fish glean these animals from the sand. These small animals make up the base of the food web, without them, the "strings" of the web begin to break and whole ecosystems collapse.

Just offshore sand dollars, starfish, sea urchins, scallops, oysters, mussels, clams and other shellfish filter plankton from the water and they in turn provide food for others. It is not hard to understand how toxic chemicals from the oil and the dispersants will eventually kill all of these creatures and those that feed on them; before long the marshes and beaches will turn into graveyards reeking of dead fish, birds, crabs, plants. and on and on.

A lot of emphasis has been placed on the impact of the oil on the islands, mouth of the estuaries and marshes off the Louisiana coast. The estuaries, where freshwater rivers meet the sea, and salt marshes are very important nurseries for fish, crabs, birds and other animals. These areas also serve as feeding areas for numerous birds and other animals.

It is heartbreaking to see the photos of oil-covered pelicans, gulls, terns and others on the news each evening. As the oil gets into the loop current in the Gulf and begins to spread eastward the tragedy will be repeated in marshes, on beaches and mangrove swamps over and over again. The schools of dolphins that feed just off shore each morning will have to move on or be in danger of being poisoned or suffocated by the floating oil. I worry about the manatees as they will eventually have to return to the warmer waters of the rivers next fall. Will they be able to find the seagrass they depend on for food? Will they be smothered in gooey oil as they surface to breathe?

Anyone who has ever walked the beaches of the Gulf, eaten the delicious fresh seafood, fished from a pier or boat far from shore, appreciates the beauty and natural bounty of the area. For the people who live along the coast and have to make a living from the fishing the waters or from catering to the tourists, my heart goes out to them. As a visitor to the Gulf beaches, I can only keep wonderful memories of the animals and plants I have enjoyed over the past 50+ years. I hope I can live long enough to see the Gulf return to its former glory! I hope my fears are not realized, but it is not encouraging knowing the size and severity of the oil spill. I hope these beautiful birds of Florida do not become nothing but a memory in a few months!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Moths and more!

Yesterday I bought a cheap white twin bed sheet, a clamp light base and a black light bulb for less than $20. Last night I set it up out on the carport and porch to see what kind 0f critters I could catch. The black light is almost like a "drug" for many insects, they can't resist it! Attracting them is the easy part, photographing them and then identifying them is the hard part. Some of the moths are very pretty, others a bit nondescript. The long-horn beetles came out in droves last night! Here are a few of the insects I photographed:

The variety of shapes, sizes, patterns and colors of moths is so fantastic! Take time to look more closely at the insects that land on your windows at night, they may amaze you!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Memorial Day memories

We had an interesting Memorial Day! We were to meet our friends, Terri and Rod, in Knoxville at 10 AM. As we were leaving Oak Ridge, I noticed something moving in the middle school yard. It was a large Snapping Turtle! We turned around a parked on the driveway so we could go and get a better look. Of course, I couldn't see something like that and not get a few photos! Soon, another car parked and a lady also came over to look at it. This turtle became quite a celebrity! As we were driving to Terri and Rod's house I spotted 2 large wild turkeys in a field off Schaad Rd. It was becoming quite a day for wildlife!

Since it had been raining, we decided not to go too far out of town. We decided to go to Ijams Nature Center and hike the trails. I love the pond near the Visitor Center, it has so many frogs, dragonflies, water spiders, etc. I got such a kick out of seeing this green frog, it had such a comical expression! These frogs make a sound like an out-of-tune banjo string being plucked!

Later on the hike we went down to the old, abandoned Mead's Quarry. It was once famous for its pink marble. I spotted a beautiful purple and blue damselfly on a rock at the beginning of the hike. I truly appreciate my patient friends and husband for putting up with me stopping to change my lens on the camera and then taking numerous photos. I was happy with the photo of this beautiful insect! Later, as Terri and I looked at the old graves in the Mead Cemetery, I felt something tickle my leg. No, it wasn't a funny ghost, it was a Question Mark Butterfly drinking sweat! When it went onto my finger I was able to get a good, close-up of it!

There are some nice overlooks of the lake below. I got a shot of Terri, Rod and Kenny at one of them. Not many overlooks on park trails are made of pink marble! The trail has a fairly steep grade to the top, but it is not too difficult. There weren't many wildflowers blooming in the woods at this time of the year. It must be spectacular when the invasive Wisteria is in bloom, it was quite prevalent on one end of the quarry.

My biggest thrill of the day was at the end of the hike when I heard a familiar bird call and spotted a flash of blue. It was a male Indigo Bunting! I quickly changed lenses, dropped my pack and asked Terri to watch it, sneaked across the abandoned railroad track and started snapping. I could not believe my luck when he flew closer to me and landed on a large Queeen Anne's Lace plant! Wow, what a shot! This is a bird that has eluded me for years. I had one really lousy shot that I took in the Smokies several years ago, but it was very blurry. Now I have a shot that people can actually tell what the bird looks like! :)