Thursday, March 26, 2009

Disappearing Act

Somewhat like me regarding this blog, my research subjects are also pulling a disappearing act...

I've spent this week -- "spring break" as it were -- at the Oregon State University Hermiston Agricultural Research and Experiment Center in northeastern OR. Other than plaguing my advisors with questions out here, I am processing 54 crayfish (Pacifasticus leniusculus) that I collected along the Umatilla River late last summer just after moving to Oregon. My task with the tasty crustaceans this week: digesting. Acid digesting. It sounds so much more benign than what it is: the dissolving of dried flesh in concentrated, heated acids. Creepy, yes. And not just because I'm perpetually afraid of getting burnt.

In a magic elixir of nitric acid, hydrogen peroxide and hydrochloric acid,
these crayfish dissolved in less than three hours.

The purpose of doing this: trace metal analysis. The pure liquid sample of dissolved cray body can be "read" for dissolved metals by running it through a large, expensive machine that I don't yet understand (ICP-MS). I'll measure levels of lead, cadmium, zinc, iron, and copper in each sacrificial, cute crustacean.

I know, I know. I'm an entomologist!! At the very least, a burgeoning ecologist... How did I wind up with a toxicological project? I dunno. There are a lot of scientists who start out elsewhere and somehow wind up as entomologists, so maybe it's the universe trying to balance itself. But I won't go willingly into toxicology. While the crays are a required part of my graduate research, as per my funding source, I'm still hopeful funds will be found for me to incorporate at least ONE insect genus. Hopefully my grant writing will produce, but no luck so far there. Meantime, I go aquatic insect collecting to cheer myself up, and I'm trying not to think about graduating with a MS thesis on freshwater crustaceans (wondering who'll hire me as an "entomologist"). Admittedly, there are worse things to stew over these days than the fate of one's career now aren't there? At least I am in graduate school...

Me collecting aquatic insects along the Salt River
(3.01.09, McCredie Hot Springs, Oregon)
Photo by Yvan Alleau

Monday, March 16, 2009

Thrush Magic

"Cheese n rice, you are a spectacularly majestic bird!"
These are the words that escape me each time I view this:

The Varied Thrush. The brilliant orange-against-black of
this, my most favorite of winter birds, rivals our
occasional sun breaks.
Photo used with permission by Mike Yip

It has been some time since I've seen this bird -- mainly because I've been living in the Sonoran Desert for the last five years. Now back in the Pacific NW, I am treated to the awesomeness of the Varied Thrush whenever I choose to brave the wind and rain.

Delicately curious and always composed (in spite of being a noisy flyer), they flitted in the branches overhead as I crouched and spied with a grin from the Oak woodlands of Bald Hill this past weekend. They knew I was there. Everything did. And in crouching I was promptly visited by a scolding Ruby-crowned Kinglet at arm's length and a Winter Wren full of schmotsy.

You're not likely to forget your first encounter with the song of the Varied Thrush. My first was the summer of 2003. I was employed by the University of Washington as a field wildlife technician surveying birds in the forests of Fort Lewis. After a week of intense training to identify all birds in the area by sound, and several weeks of on-the-job training that followed, I was quite comfortable with every bird song and call in those woods. And to my surprise, the work also familiarized me with the dense variety of underbrush, trees, mammal scat, and the subtle difference between the croak of a tree bough in the wind versus the Pacific tree frog. With long days hiking and working alone in the woods, I could identify and name nearly every living thing around me.

Or so I thought.

One morning, not unlike any other, I stood in the dark, dense woods at pre-dawn waiting for the official minute of sunrise to begin my point count. My clipboard illuminated by the blue light of my watch as the countdown ticked by. That's when I heard it: a sound so completely new, so foreign and so incredibly close it might well have been an alien on my shoulder gurgling salutations. A single steady note like a long metallic trill bore out strong and loud, unyielding through the darkness. Neither in training nor in my weeks of working had I heard or been prepared for anything quite like this. The first note was followed by a pause, and then another long, loud trill of slightly higher pitch...then a second pause in which all the woods seemed to now be listening, and a third final note. Something surreal in the darkness was near me, paying attention to me, and I couldn't imagine what it was -- I, who was so comfortable naming everything around me!

That evening, my crew mates and I were rehashing the excitements and frustrations of our day in the woods, much as we did every evening. From one of them, I learned that the sound I'd heard was the song of the Varied Thrush. It is rare to hear one sing in "our woods", as we'd come to call them, so they were left out of our training. Furthermore, there is apparently a "story" behind the song of the Varied Thrush, so it goes: they choose the listener of their song carefully, for it transports them to another place and time filled with magical and mythical adventures...only to return to the same spot, devoid of any memory of the journey.

I don't know about any adventures with elves or fairies, but as for a magical moment to go with their song? Every time.