The special joy of Spring in Australia

Spring is almost here. I could wax about flowers (and hayfever), about politics (and political fatigue) about having to wear my knee rug as a toga for late night meetings because my heater doesn’t do the job. Or I could talk about magpies.

Australian magpies are scary-bright. If you feed them, they will take care of you. They will watch over you and they will attack intruders in spring. If you don’t, one in ten (or may one in a hundred, maybe fewer) will simply attack. An ornithologist told me once that it’s probably a male testosterone thing. Whether it is that or not, they’re always protecting their turf.

Attacks are not random. People are attacked strategically. If your face is a known face (if you provide minced meat to the magpie every day of your shred life), you’re safe. If you’re a cyclist, you’re not so safe. If you’re in a pram, you’re not so safe.

By ‘not so safe’, eyes have been taken out, on occasion, and there can be contusions and… you don’t leave a baby alone in the park in magpie season and have a conversation 30 metres away unless you’re certain there is no swooping.

That’s only for a few weeks a year, and it’s only one out of a great number of birds, so any American who puts magpie attacks on the list of reasons to avoid Australia is helping us avoid people who don’t understand the real dangers to tourists in Australia. Dehydration, for example, is more likely than being successfully attacked by a magpie. If you’re after birds that defeated an army, you should look up “Emu War”, not “attack magpie”.

Why have I meandered to “Australia as a dangerous place?” I wanted to talked about the intelligence of magpies, not about Australia’s secret plot to scare away US tourists.

This year we have two new signs of magpie intelligence. First, they were traumatised by the fire and there are more swoops this year and the swoops started earlier. Magpies get PTSD.

Second, if you’re wearing a mask, it doesn’t matter if you’ve fed a magpie for twenty years, you’re likely to be swooped. This made me think about the one year in my life I’ve been swooped: I’d changed my hair style and my glasses. Magpies employ facial recognition.

Also, their song is more complex than most birds, and it changes in different ways to different circumstances, but that’s not new. It is, however, extraordinarily beautiful. Magpies are one of the great song birds. Like opera singers with rapiers, really.

‘Bird-brain’ means something else entirely with Australian magpies to any other bird I know.

Marine Life Thrives at Mote Aquarium in Sarasota, FL

Everyone who knows me knows how I feel about wildlife and nature. I don’t support old-fashioned zoos that keep animals in cages, but I do support wildlife conservation efforts and study. I completely support organizations like the Mote Aquarium in Sarasota. The Mote says,

We are guardians of the sea and all living things that depend upon it

It’s a wonderful place, and they’ve put good procedures in place to ensure that visitors, staff, and resident sealife can continue safely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Visitors are allowed as long as they wear masks and follow safety procedures. Many “hands on” experiences are not possible at this time, but as Dr. Oliver Sacks pointed out to his friend Shane Fistell in one of the videos we used to watch in class, “We see with the eyes, but sometimes we see with the hands.” Right now for everyone’s safety, it’s important to keep “seeing with the eyes,” especially when we’re near living creatures who might get sick if we touch them.

Just like people, animals have personalities, and the personalities at Mote Aquarium are remarkable. One of the first animals I met while visiting there was a sprightly small turtle.

Very calm and interested, he swam for a bit, then settled back on a rock to watch the interesting, strange creatures peering into his home.

Here’s a link to the Manatee Cam so you can see what a great environment the Mote provides.

I’ve seen several manatee since we moved to Florida, but the Mote manatee, Hugh and Buffett, are “movie stars” compared to wild manatee. Their skin and tails are spotless and perfect. In the wild, manatee are covered by all manner of sea creatures and usually as well as sadly, many scars. Despite laws to protect them and lots of education, they are still injured by boating mishaps. They still suffer because of boating destruction of the sea grass they eat.

This is my best manatee picture from the aquarium – is it Hugh or Buffett – I don’t know!

I also had an interesting visit with one of the sea turtles that lives at the aquarium. They care for several sea turtles, all of which are rescues and which have different injuries or other circumstances that mean they won’t be able to safely return to the wild. Again, as everyone who knows me knows, sea turtles are among my favorite living creatures. One of the high points of my life was swimming alongside of one while snorkeling in Kauai.

So, here are two of the sea turtles at the Mote Aquarium, and the one on the right took an interest in me. Shortly after I took this picture, she took a swim around the tank, fixed me in her gaze, and swam swiftly back in my direction, at the last moment slapping the water with her right fin. Not only did she achieve a mighty splash, getting me and my phone wet, I’m certain she was laughing heartily in her turtle way at her excellent trick.

I understand that some people won’t like this picture, but I also have some friends who will love it. These are three Southern toads, who should be distinguished from the cane toad, which is an invasive species in South Florida. These three pals were just hanging out taking it easy when we walked by.

Have you ever seen such a large hermit crab? I haven’t, either, but a note – I’ve seen “adopt a hermit crab” displays in tourist areas recently and a word – just don’t. Leave them on the beach or in a facility like Mote Aquarium. Don’t try to take animals like this home and force them to live in painted shells.

This is a really nice, curious, and friendly cuttlefish. Not only does he share his ability to change his skin color and patterns instantly, he seems as curious about human onlookers as we are about him.

The Mote has a number of active, friendly pufferfish, so here’s a tip. YES, they can be poisonous. Do not touch them if you see them washed up on the beach. I’ve seen several and fortunately, what little common sense I have told me “Don’t touch it,” because they do contain toxins. Pufferfish can be blown ashore during storms and this just a sad fact of life.

So, of course they also have axolotls at the Mote Aquarium. And this delightful snapping turtle, ready to catch me with the lure inside his mouth.

As I was warned as a child, don’t play around with these snapping turtles: they can take your finger off.

I was talking to a native Floridian the other day and told her how sad it was the environment in California had deteriorated so much, even with so many environmental efforts and so much education. She said that Florida had also experienced severe environmental degradation, and that in recent years, things had been improving because people recognized the problems and made changes on their own. So, the beautiful environment that we enjoy so much today is the product of immense efforts on the part of many people. I think institutions like the Mote Aquarium are vital. The Aquarium educates everyone who goes, and they haven’t stopped with the COVID pandemic. They’ve added many virtual programs for all ages. They also have eco tours on the “Mote Boat.”

I’m poor at describing the deep emotion that washes over me when I’m in nature or around a large number of animals that are – for lack of a better word – happy. I know it’s not particularly sophisticated, but I have a measure to judge if a place like Mote Aquarium is “good” or “not so good.”

A couple of years ago when I visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium, they have an exhibit which includes hundreds of sardines swimming in a tank that encircles the viewer at eye level. The environment isn’t constructed to force the fish to confront human visitors, it’s shaped in a way that allows you to stand amid the fish in their normal behavior without disturbing them. Anyway, these hundreds of fish were doing their thing and as I stood there, I felt this overwhelming joy emanating from the hundreds and hundreds of silver, flashing, slender sardines.

I felt similar feelings from nearly all the animals at the Mote Aquarium. The Mote, and a place I’ll write about soon, Theater of the Sea in Islamorada, primarily have animals that cannot survive in the wild. They are teaching, conservation, and education institutions. They do not engage in capturing animals in the wild to force them to perform for paying customers like a sea park I won’t name. They take injured animals, rescued animals, abandoned animals, or orphaned animals and care for them. So, the animals are happy because they are cared for by people who care about them, and because they are living their lives — if not for the Mote, they would probably not survive. They also live in environments that are made as healthy as possible for them, and human visitors are constantly cautioned not to harass, bother, and certainly not harm them.

I was feeling “the feeling” of well-being at the Mote long before I met the saucy, mischievous sea turtle. When she splashed me, I knew she was living in a safe place where she could, as much as possible, be herself. There are many more special turtles that I met at Theater of the Sea — I’ll write more about them soon.

Disappearing Stars and Other Cool Science Stuff

A ‘monster’ star 2 million times brighter than the sun disappears without a trace

In 2019, scientists witnessed a massive star 2.5 million times brighter than the sun disappear without a trace. Now, in a new paper published today (June 30) in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, a team of space detectives (see: astrophysicists) attempt to solve the case of the disappearing star by providing several possible explanations. Of these, one twist ending stands out: Perhaps, the researchers wrote, the massive star died and collapsed into a black hole without undergoing a supernova explosion first — a truly “unprecedented” act of stellar suicide.

Long-term exercise impacts genes involved in metabolic health

This suggests that even short training programs of 6–12 months are enough to positively influence the health of people suffering from metabolic disorders,” says last author Carl Johan Sundberg, professor at the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, Karolinska Institutet. “The study identifies important ‘exercise-responsive’ genes that may play a role in metabolic diseases. Continue reading “Disappearing Stars and Other Cool Science Stuff”

Treading Lightly: Growing Greens

Here in the Treehouse, we have to get by on what’s at hand. This series explores simple, nature-friendly alternatives to conventional products and practices.

When you’re in a treehouse, in the middle of the woods, there is no popping down to the corner store for last-minute whatevers. Our excursions are few and far between, so we are coming up with ways to compensate for the lack of easy access. We find this has also led us to try some more eco-friendly methods – in this case, for acquiring greens.

Gardening at the base of the tree is not an option. Never mind the climbing up and down; anything we might try to grow on the forest floor would be quickly snarfed by the local fauna. But I want lettuce. Fresh green things to eat. Greens that I know are uncontaminated.

Hydroponic tower garden

So I started growing lettuce in my office. This tower rack sits in the corner, taking up a 2’x3′ footprint. It’s got lettuces up top, seedlings in the center, and bok choy and basil plants on the bottom. All of these (well, not the seedlings yet) produce amazing amounts of wonderful leaves.

Fresh veggies, especially greens, start to lose nutritional value the moment they’re picked. In 24 hours, they’ve lost 90% of their nutrition. By growing them here, I have clean, absolutely fresh greens year-round, with a carbon footprint of…well, probably zero. The lights are LEDs and are powered by our solar system. Each lettuce plant uses around two gallons of water during its lifetime, compared to more than twenty-five gallons it takes to grow a head of lettuce in the ground.

The low carbon footprint is important to me, almost as important as the clean food. That Romaine heart that I used to buy for a couple of bucks had to travel from California, and was probably over a week old, maybe a couple of weeks old, by the time I brought it home. And while a couple of bucks seems fairly inexpensive, it’s a lot more than the cost of my lovely home-grown lettuces.

Growing these darlings is a bit different. You don’t wait for the lettuce to get big and then yank it from the garden. Instead, as soon as it’s big enough, you start harvesting the outer leaves, a few at a time. (I have been known to snack on a leaf now and then.) The plants get harvested this way for two or three months. When they’re tired, they bolt, and I retire them with thanks and a bit of ceremony. Each plant has probably given as much lettuce as two or three commercial lettuce heads, by then.

It’s a different way of gardening, and a different way of interacting with food. I’m very aware of the interdependence between me and my plants. I feed them and make sure they have enough light and don’t get too hot, and in return they feed us. Mutual giving.

 

How Many Alligators Are There in Florida? 1.25 Million!

So, what happens when you take a 5th generation southern California native and uproot her 2600 miles away to the semi-tropical southwest Florida gulf coast?

Well … these are the “selected” shells. I limit myself to one handful per trip, only ones I’ve never gotten before. I now know the names of many of these. The orange ones are scallops. Like the little ones we eat.

So I really like Florida. It reminds me of when I was a kid in California. It’s not crowded like L.A. and Orange County have become. There’s still plenty of room for enthusiasm and exuberant displays of individualism.

This here is Gatorz in Port Charlotte. A homey, down to earth kind of place.

 

This here below is a “gator” as in 6-foot alligator I saw crossing a divided 4 lane highway in Englewood. We have a small one that lives in one of our nearby ponds.

So I was driving down the highway on the way to walk around downtown Venice, FL and this car is stopped in front of me. Why is he stopped? What’s going on … Continue reading “How Many Alligators Are There in Florida? 1.25 Million!”