Tropical Birds of Costa Rica

Manakin Magic

Sun filtered through the verdant canopy. The air temperate was 80 degrees in the middle of January. It was hard to believe.

I was hiking with my girlfriend on an abandoned road in Nosara, Costa Rica. Soon, we heard a faint but mesmerizing sound from the underbrush to our left. Transfixed, we moved closer to peek through the thick tangle. We waited. Then we caught glimpse of a black bird smaller than a sparrow sitting on a low branch. Soon, we heard two, singing with each other in bubbly notes.

For a brief moment the bird sat in plain view, under the full light of the midday tropical sun—it was long enough to absolutely shock us both.

Continue reading “Tropical Birds of Costa Rica”

Time-Lapse Film: Autumn in Acadia

Without a doubt, autumn is my favorite season. Not only do leaves turn shades of red, orange, and yellow normally impossible the rest of the year, but the very composition of the air seems to change. Even inhaling becomes more interesting. In fall, every breath feels like a bite out of a perfectly crisp apple.

Because autumn is my favorite season, a fall spent inside is painful to me. The last few years, I’ve spent more time typing term papers than in Acadia National Park, which is right in the backyard. As I hit the keys of my computer with an anxious fever, I gaze out the window at the changing colors. In New England, the grand finale of fall doesn’t last long.

While I can’t change the number of hours I must type (for now), I can take full advantage of the rest of the possible daylight hours for enjoying this glorious season. This last fall, I tried exactly that. This video is the result:

Autumn in Acadia: Watch in 4k or HD 1080p high-resolution for best results.

Playa Guiones, Costa Rica

Surfers, Birds, & Turtles

Renowned for its steady waves and smooth beaches, Playa Guiones, on Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, has become a destination for surfers, yoga enthusiasts, and others in search of a tropical getaway.

Location

It’s a bit remarkable that so many people flock to the area’s beaches through the nearby town of Nosara. It’s not exactly easy to get to.

Nosara is a 6-hour bus ride from Costa Rica’s capital, San José. The final quarter of the journey is on narrow, dusty, and rutted dirt roads. But the dry tropical air, network of walking trails, and easily accessible beaches have made this area a hotspot nonetheless.

A Beach of Birds

Sandpipers at Sunset
Sandpipers forage on Playa Guiones as the sun sets.
Continue reading “Playa Guiones, Costa Rica”

Barnard Mountain – Trail Review

Maine’s Katahdin Woods &  Waters National Monument is one of the most recent additions to the National Park System. President Obama designated the monument by executive order on August 24, 2016. But the story begins long before that. As early as 2001, Burt’s Bees’ cofounder, Roxanne Quimby, began purchasing logging land with the intention of creating a national park. Despite years of planning leading up to the 2016 designation, the monument still faces backlash today.

I won’t dive into the complex politics of the monument, which lies just east of Baxter State Park in north central Maine, but to give you a sense:

  • Many people in Sherman, the town nearest the monument entrance, still have “National Park NO!” signs in their front yards
  • The logging company that manages timberland adjacent to the monument, Prentiss & Carlisle, mark their roads and bridges with large yellow signs :”This bridge owner says ‘National Park NO!’
  • More recently, Maine’s governor attempted to block the installation of road signs directing visitors to the new area managed by the National Park Service until a few weeks ago

Mount Katahdin
The monument provides a few great views of Mount Katahdin.

Yet, in Sherman alone, rental and, guide services are springing up, the gas station is expanding, people are coming and spending money in places that have been experiencing steady economic and demographic losses in recent decades. Maybe the monument isn’t such a bad thing?

More on this another time. Now, to the Barnard Mountain Trail Review!

Barnard Mountain Leaves
Maples changing color along the Barnard Mountain Trail

Barnard Mountain Trail

Distance 3.3 miles (one-way) Entry Fee No entry fee
Hike Type Moderate climb Dog Friendly? Yes
Special Challenges None Features View, lean-to, brook crossing
From Sherman, Maine, follow Route 11 south (a slight left at a near 4-way) for 5 miles. As Route 11/Grindstone Rd. takes a sharp left, continue straight onto the gravel Swift Brook Rd. This is where you'll want a detailed road map to continue into the monument, which is another 17 miles on logging roads with many offshoots and a 15 mph speed limit. (During my visit, the dirt roads were in good condition.) If you cross the gorgeous East Branch of the Penobscot River on the Whetstone Bridge, you know you're getting close. Basic map: Katahdin Woods and Waters Recreation
Starting at the parking lot off Mile 11.8 of the Katahdin Woods & Waters Loop Road, the trail follows a former logging road now converted to International Appalachian Trail. The trail is wide and dips down to a bridge and lean-to at Katahdin Brook, and back up a hill. After 2.5 miles, the Barnard Mountain Trail spurs off the logging road and continues another 0.8 miles uphill to the summit. The climbs are moderate and steady, but not especially steep.

Barnard Mt Summit Sign
Signage marks the way from the International Appalachian Trail to the summit of Barnard Mountain.

Ratings

Includes: Scenic Scale, for pure beauty; Wilderness Factor, channeling Stegner or Zahniser, government designated Wilderness Areas receive an automatic 10; Moose-O-Meter, how likely you are to find moose, or other wildlife; and some wildcards. All ratings from 1 to 10. A “perfect” score is 30.

logging road trail
The start of the International Appalachian Trail, a logging road converted to trail, features gentle slopes and wildflowers.

Scenic Scale

  • Near peak fall foliage: +2
  • Not many features of interest along the trail: -2
  • Prize-winning views of Mount Katahdin, Katahdin Lake, and points west from the summit: +5

Scenic Scale: 5

View from the Summit of Barnard Mt
Incredible views from the summit of Barnard Mountain and a picnic table make this the perfect lunch spot!

Wilderness Factor

Wilderness Factor: 8

Ruby-Crowned Kinglet
This ruby-crowned kinglet was one of many birds enjoying the shrubs along the logging road trail.

Moose-O-Meter

After three years, I finally saw a moose in Maine. The moose was not on the trail, but near the official entrance of Katahdin Woods and Waters, just past the Sandy Bank Stream camping area.

I was driving out of the monument after my hike, when suddenly a massive phantom appeared in the middle of the road only 100 feet in front of me. I stopped my car, lost my breath, and we stared at each other. Coming to my senses (as a photographer), I grabbed my camera and slowly opened my door ready to peek out. But before I could, the 7-foot tall bull moose vanished into the forest.

  • Moose potential in Maine’s north woods—high: +8
  • An interesting assemblage of migrating songbirds along the old logging road, including kinglets, warblers, and a scarlet tanager:+1

Moose-O-Meter: 9

Wildcards

Trail Boulder Bonus

An extra point for the trail crew that build the Barnard Mountain Trail! The trail goes between two giant granite erratics that look like a cracked egg: +1

Cracked Boulder trail Barnard
Hikers are encouraged to squeeze through a small gap between these two 12-foot tall (or more) slabs.

Final Score

24/30

This hike is a great introduction to Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument. However, next time I visit the protected area near Baxter, I’ll definitely go for more than a day and hike along Wassataquoik Stream or bring my canoe to see its full beauty!

Katahdin Woods and Waters is full of interesting beasts and incredible vistas, so it’s no surprise that it receives a high score from our judges. If you’re looking for a real north woods adventure, Barnard Mountain Trail should be near the top of your list.

Stay tuned for more trail reviews and pictures from your humble photographer. In the meantime, please sign up for the email list, connect on Facebook or Instagram, and discover more Maine wildlife and landscapes in my gallery.

Wetlands in Katahdin Woods and Waters
This wetland pond is near the entrance gate to the monument—when you visit, leave plenty of time to explore!

Any photo included in this blog post, or elsewhere on this site, is available for purchase. Find out more.

Tunk Mountain – Trail Review

During my last years of high school, after discovering the independence that a car can offer, I became comfortable hiking solo. I slowly sought out the unmarked state land, never ending US Forest Service roads, or off trail hideouts. Places to simply escape and explore. The thrill of discovering these new areas by myself was exhilarating.

Today, I felt like I was in high school again.

Follow the blue blazes!

At 4:30pm, I set off right from work. I took to the hills of the Blackwoods Road—a Maine Scenic Byway that stretches from Franklin to Cherryfield.

Blackwoods stretches into post-glacial terrain encompassed by the 14,000 acre Donnell Pond Unit of Maine Public Reserve Land—a treasure trove of hiking trails, fishing holes, and swimming and boating spots. Almost entirely undeveloped, Blackwoods Road winds between erratic boulders much larger than cars and old pines and oaks whose boughs drape over the pavement’s margins. At any point, you feel as if a moose could appear along the roadway or a bear might peak out from behind a boulder.

The Blackwoods Road is one of the most well-kept secrets in Maine. The Tunk Mountain Trail is one of Blackwood’s gems.

Tunk Mountain Trail

Access

From Ellsworth, take Coastal Route 1 east 4.7 miles (toward Hancock or Milbridge). Turn left onto Route 182 or Blackwoods Road after the gas station and continue 6 miles. In Franklin, stay on Blackwoods Road for another 8.4 miles and the trailhead parking lot is on the left, marked by a large blue sign.

Tunk Mountain and Hidden Ponds Trail Intersection
The Tunk Mountain and Hidden Ponds trail intersection.

Difficulty

From the parking lot to the Hidden Pond loop trail, elevation gain is minimal, but roots and rocky ground may slow down your hike. After reaching the Hidden Ponds and skirting around the shallow western side of Mud Pond (about 0.7 miles in), the trail takes on a steep and rocky turn upward. The remaining 1.1 miles is strenuous, but even if you can commit to 0.4 intense miles, you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views.

Map: 1.8 miles, one-way, to the summit of Tunk Mountain.

Witch-Hazel and Roots Tunk Mountain Trail
Exposed roots and rocks in the trail make for a typical Maine hike. Witch-Hazel, here turning yellow, is abundant along the trail.

Ratings

Includes: Scenic Scale, for pure beauty; Wilderness Factor, channeling Stegner or Zahniser, government designated Wilderness Areas receive an automatic 10; Moose-O-Meter, how likely you are to find moose, or other wildlife; and some wildcards. All ratings from 1 to 10. A “perfect” score is 30.

Scenic Scale

  • A mountain (granted, this is Maine: Tunk Mountain is only 1,157 feet above sea level) with a panoramic view of pocket ponds, scraggly peaks, and even the islands of distant Frenchman Bay: +6
  • Beginning of fall foliage: +2

Scenic Scale: 8

View from Tunk Mountain lookout
The view southeast from a lookout on Tunk Mountain.

Wilderness Factor

  • Not a designated wilderness, but remote (miles from the nearest town): +3
  • Easy to find on a map or by accident: -1
  • A largely contiguous chunk of conserved land, managed as an ecological reserve, allowing all sorts of wildlife to roam free: +4
  • Some cell phone coverage: -2
  • A fraction of the people who visit Acadia National Park (I was the only hiker during my visit): +3

Wilderness Factor: 7

Mud Pond on the Tunk Mountain Trail
Mud Pond on the Tunk Mountain Trail.

Moose-O-Meter

I have yet to see a moose in Maine. When my dreams come true, we’ll have a 10. Until then, this is an estimate of moose potential and other wild creatures encountered.

  • Moose potential—shallow ponds and wet woods away from the coast—high: +5
  • Frogs at Mud Pond are a half-point each: +3
  • Few birds or other wildlife: -2

Moose-O-Meter: 6

Mud Pond hobblebush
Hobblebush turning bright red by Mud Pond.

Wildcards

Bug Bonus

In the spring, this trail is probably pretty buggy. Today, it was spectacularly bug-free: +1

Bubble Bum Bonus

Pit toilets are bad news: putrid scents wafting from the underground chamber, hoards of flies, obscene drawings on the walls, and if you’re lucky you can maybe get a few scraps of toilet paper. But that’s not the case here. The pit toilet in the Tunk Mountain parking lot was clean and a pleasant smell of bubble gum filled my nostrils: +1

Big Tree Bonus

Sentinel trees stretch taller here than most of coastal Maine: +1

These popples (or apsen, which are in the genus Populus) are just some of the big trees along the trail.

Hummus Wrap & A Pickle

A perfect after hike meal from Flexit Cafe in Ellsworth: +1

Final Score

25/30

This hike inspired a possible series reviewing local trails, so it’s no surprise that it receives a high score from our judges. If you’re in Downeast Maine, looking for a half-day inland hike, Tunk Mountain Trail should be near the top of your list.

Stay tuned for more trail reviews and pictures from your humble photographer. In the meantime, please sign up for the email list, connect on Facebook or Instagram, and discover more Maine wildlife and landscapes in my gallery.

Any photo included in this blog post, or elsewhere on this site, is available for purchase. Find out more.

Searching for a Swamp Monster

The sun was setting and my friend Kali and I walked into Acadia National Park in search of a swamp monster.

You think I’m joking? This creature—recently seen at our very location—features the three key swamp monster identifiers:

  1. a love for  wet, buggy, decomposing lowlands. It’s found in these wetlands almost always alone. Who knows why? That unexplained solidarity must be monstrous
  2. an impeccable ability to conceal itself at all times
  3. and an unusual cry that strikes fear into any living being

The thrill of the chase made our hearts beat quickly with nervous fear and expectation. Although we stopped frequently, scanning and listening, to try to catch a sign of the swamp monster, we were unsuccessful. That is, until we trod on the famous Hemlock Trail, a classic path fenced in by crooked white birch trees and surrounded by tiny flowing streams and watery meadows.

The thrill of the chase made our hearts beat quickly with nervous fear and expectation.

Suddenly, we stopped, craning our heads toward the right—but the sound was just a few deer, who hopped away swiftly, white tails waving like flags behind them. With hope of monster discovery vanishing, we finally resigned to failure in our search, until Kali stopped dead in her tracks—she heard it.

Glug-glup glug-glup glug-glup

Faint, but distinct and audibly near. We made for the edge of the path, peering through the gaps in the birch rows. Maybe the monster was telling us to keep away.

We waited for it to repeat the warning cry.

A search for the swamp monster
Kali searching for the swamp monster.

A minute passed. We squinted toward the thick shrubs of the boggy meadow. Did we imagine it?

Glug-glup glug-glup glug-glup

We found our monster!

Unfortunately, our footwear was unfit for either swamp searching or tree climbing (I tried both). And already late for appointments that night, with the darkness looming closer,  we went away with only the monster’s song to haunt our dreams.

However, the next morning I came back prepared.

Swamp sparrow
A denizen of wet and marshy areas, the aptly named swamp sparrow shares many qualities with the swamp monster.

The “monster” we heard the night previous was in fact an American Bittern. These herons do live alone in wetlands (the only bird in their family that doesn’t nest in large colonies), but their song isn’t exactly harrowing, nor is it an evil warning cry—it serves the same evolutionary purpose that all vernal displays serve —it’s all about mating.

Singing swamp sparrow
Swamp sparrows, like many animals, “sing” or use other vocalizations to attract mates and defend territories.

The next morning, as I slowly trudged into the soupy mud of Great Meadow in hip waders, the sounds of spring only grew louder as I moved further toward the swamp’s center.

The songs of sparrows and warblers flooded the air accompanied by the dulcet croaks of wood frogs. The emerging scarlet leaves of red maples and deep greens of alders accented the glowing leatherleaf bells and the watery blues and bright grassy greens of the wetland.

Leatherleaf flowers
A common bog plant, leatherleaf, shows off white bell flowers.

Despite wetlands’ bad reputation, as I gently moved deeper into the swamp monster’s lair, I again discovered why bogs and marshes hold so much charm.

Maligned for much of American history — settlers and politicians alike favored land that could “do something” like grow crops or support homes — wetlands were often exploited or simply overlooked.

Besides, people saw swamps as the place of monsters, disease, and other evil, devilish things. For a long time, swamps represented an untamed and savage place that needed to be improved and cultivated.

Aspen trees
The fresh new leaves of the aspen trees glowed in the morning sun.

After an hour wading through the thigh-deep water and carefully stepping over flattened cattails, I finally heard the bittern sing out again.

Glug-gulp glug-gulp glug-gulp glug-gulp

Great blue heron
Swamp monster, is that you?

I spent hours that morning stalking my bittern. Eventually, I came into an opening within view of Acadia National Park’s loop road. Some people stopped their cars, got out, and peered into the picturesque meadow.

A few took out binoculars and cameras and pointed them my direction. As those people watched from the roadway, did they look at me, or the bittern that I couldn’t see, or just the scenery? Did it matter? After that morning, I felt as much part of the swamp as the swamp monster.

Eventually, I came to Cromwell Brook, which bisects the meadow, and at this point I could go no further in the singing bittern’s direction. As I stood at the edge of the gently flowing stream for some time, disappointed at not coming closer, I again heard the bittern repeating its eerie gulping just from the other side of the brook.

After that morning, I felt as much part of the swamp as the swamp monster.

But I never got a glimpse of it that day. And maybe that’s okay.

This video of an American Bittern signing comes courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s site All About Birds.

Thanks for reading this field note! You may notice that the style of my website has changed. These changes showcase top photographs while giving adequate space to these field notes that tell the stories behind the photos.

For more bird photos (and maybe a few “swamp monsters” of their own), check out the wildlife section of my gallery.

New Cards!

The past few months I’ve been perfecting the art of the photograph card. How thick should the card stock be? Where do I order supplies? How do I cut out a hole for the photo? Does the spacing need another eighth of an inch? My family and friends gave helpful suggestions to improve the design from the first not-so-perfected cards to the final product.

After much ado, I finally made the ideal card.

Austin making cards
The labor-intensive handmade card process.

In the convenient form of a blank note card, these fine art photograph cards are handmade and the highest quality—an impressive medium to send your own thoughts or congratulations to your friends, loved ones, or anyone who loves the outdoors. Now you can send a physical copy of your favorite photographs, on premium card stock, with your handwritten message.

Card details

• Photographs are printed on high quality 4 x 6 inch glossy photo paper.

• Cards measure 5 x 7 inches.

• Off-white, premium, smooth card stock cards are blank inside for your personalized message.

• The card back includes the photograph subject and location handwritten by Austin for a personalized touch.

• Matching envelopes are included. Cards need only one stamp to mail.

• Cards are protected in a rigid envelope for mailing. I’m proud to ship with environmentally responsible plastic-free packaging.

The back of each card includes a handwritten title and location.

How to order cards:

Choose from my listings on Etsy.com.

Sets of 4
  • National Parks – beautiful landscapes from the iconic Yosemite, Yellowstone, Mt. Rainier, and Acadia National Parks.
  • Spring – detailed and bright photographs symbolizing the season of spring. Including flowers, butterflies, and ducklings.
  • Sea Birds – portraits of birds in action, including puffins, a guillemot with its catch, and the black oystercatcher in its rocky beach habitat.
  • Wildlife – dramatic shots of bighorn sheep, Kaibab mule deer, a great horned owl, and a snowy egret.

Single Cards
  • Green Heron – A stunning green heron in Wood’s Hole, Massachusetts.
  • Slot Canyon – Spooky Slot Canyon in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah.
  • Looking through the Flowers – A sparrow sits in a bed of black-eyed susans in the College of the Atlantic garden in Maine.

OR

Choose your own cards and submit a custom order of a single or set of four. On Etsy.com, I offer custom orders, all you have to do is mix and match! You can choose from the photographs already available or visit my gallery and specify your chosen cards in the online order comments or through the custom order button on Etsy. I’ll print and assemble your favorite photographs on demand for your custom card!

Thinking bigger?

Want a photo a bit larger than 4 x 6? I sell prints in common framing sizes like 8 x 10 and enlargements. Fill out the form below with the photograph you have in mind and I’ll respond with pricing information.

Photos and Words from the Great West

If you’ve followed my Facebook page recently, you may have noticed new photos from Utah and Arizona. This fall, I took my usual Maine-based classroom into the Great West.

Starting in September, I spent two months traveling through Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona studying ecology, public lands, and people’s senses of place. With a small group of students from College of the Atlantic, we visited some of the most spectacular places in the country. But we also spoke to some of the most passionate people I’ve ever met. While I took many pictures along the way, I also took pages and pages of notes. With these notes I’m writing a book, or a collection of essays, about conservation in the American West.

Now West, What’s Next?

Coming soon: the book, now titled “Why Conservation Matters: Exploring Human Ecology in the American West” will be completed in January 2018. Stay tuned for more photographs and special excerpts on this site, my Facebook page, and on Flickr.

An Ode to Gulls

Before I arrived on Great Duck Island, a few people asked me “why on earth would you want to study sea gulls? There are so many of them. They’re like rats.”

I usually answered with a version of “…it is important to study every aspect of an ecological community. Gulls influence many other species…” But such a vague, abstract answer always fell on deaf ears.

People’s distaste for gulls had me thinking: how can ordinary people begin care about gulls; how can people come to feel the same love for this bird that comes naturally to field researchers who witness the majesty, grace, and care these bird exhibit daily?

juvenile black-backed gull
A juvenile greater black-backed gull.

After much thought, the answer came to me in three parts.

1. Poems.

2. Pictures.

3. Realizing that gulls are more human than you might think.

An Ode to Gulls

Flying Rats

Why do psychologists study people?

There are so many.

They are like rats.

 

Why do we study gulls?

They are so varied.

They are like people.

Immature gull.

Eyes Bigger than Your Stomach

My grandmother has a saying,

“Your eyes were bigger than your stomach.”

It is reserved for the occasion

When you couldn’t finish all

Of a hefting meal where you took too much meatloaf.

 

I’ve seen herring gull chicks

With eyes bigger than themselves.

Trying to swallow whole fish:

Head, tail, bones, scales,

A hefting meal larger than the weeks-old ball of down.

herring gull chick
A young herring gull chick sitting on its haunches (probably after a large meal).

Migration

Some people live

In the same town their entire life.

 

Other people can’t stay in the same town

For more than a few years.

 

Some gulls live

In the same state, from winter to summer.

Frequenting local sand bars,

Exploring the inland scene,

And always flying back to the island to nest each summer.

 

Other gulls live

In many states, from winter to summer.

Frequent fliers visiting distant shores,

Exploring more tropical lands and seas,

And always flying back to the island to nest each summer.

Sparing herring gull.
A herring gull soars over the colony.

Parentage

Like a human child,

Young gulls mature in stages.

 

Baby chicks stay near the nest,

Adolescent chicks wander,

Teenage chicks explore—

Until the island’s berms give way to a boundless world,

As their young wings form their first flights.

 

But like a human child,

Young gulls always know where to beg for food.

Adult and chick
A herring gull parent with its chick.

Carl the Gull

Villages band together,

For safety.

 

Gulls nest together,

For safety.

When a predator nears the colony,

You hear it before you see it.

But you don’t hear the eagle,

You hear the sound of hundreds of birds,

That always have each others’ backs.

Gulls chasing eagle.
Herring gulls chasing a bald eagle away from the colony.

Larus Lessons

People can learn from gulls.

Learn to see themselves in others,

Learn to appreciate beauty in the usual,

Learn to stand up for themselves and each other.

herring gull bellowing
This herring gull bellows a warning.

More than Gulls

I was lucky to study gulls on Great Duck Island, but that’s not all I did.

Learn more about the island’s history, see how the landscape changed over the summer, and find photos of songbirds, puffins, and wildflowers from the island off the coast.

Time-Lapse Video of Great Duck Island

I primarily studied songbirds and seabirds as a field researcher on Great Duck Island. But I also documented the island landscape. In a series of time-lapse videos, each captured by taking hundreds of photos over the course of a few hours, the remote Maine island shines. Watch the high definition video below or on Youtube.

See more of my photographs from Great Duck Island, from puffins to plants, by following this link. 

The Summer Visitors of Great Duck Island

A Summer Sojourn

On Great Duck Island, the field researchers from College of the Atlantic are just temporary summer visitors. But they are not the only ones. Almost all of the birds who rely on the small protected island in the Gulf of Maine for breeding, nesting, and raising young are only summer visitors themselves.

June 2017. The end of my second year at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. After I wrote my human ecology essay and finished spring term, I hopped on the M/V Osprey and rode out to Great Duck Island—a haven for nesting seabirds. The island is about 10 miles southeast of Mount Desert Island, Maine, where College of the Atlantic and Acadia National Park are located.

Herring gulls on Great Duck Island
Many herring gulls nest on the rocky berm of Great Duck Island. Their nests are marked with orange flags by College of the Atlantic researchers at the beginning of the season.

The professor of ecology at College of the Atlantic, John Anderson, manages the college’s Alice Eno Research Field Station on Great Duck Island. The 1890 Coast Guard light keeper’s residence houses the research station.

Lighthouse Staircase
The iron spiral staircase on the inside of the brick lighthouse on Great Duck Island.

The Coast Guard automated the lighthouse in 1986, making the lighthouse keeper’s job unnecessary. The government then sold light stations across the country like the one on Great Duck to other government agencies or colleges and universities. In 1997, College of the Atlantic acquired the light station and residence to establish the Alice Eno Research Station. Today, College of the Atlantic owns a few acres on Great Duck Island while the Nature Conservancy owns almost all of the remainder.

Herring gull and chick
A herring gull banded by College of the Atlantic and its chick.

Continue reading “The Summer Visitors of Great Duck Island”

After Yellowstone, In Search of Nature

Every student at College of the Atlantic earns a degree in human ecology. The following piece is my final human ecology essay, a place where each College of the Atlantic senior reflects on what they learned during their schooling and presents a snapshot of their view of “human ecology.”

As long as I can remember I have loved nature. My mother recalls three-year-old Austin rescuing earthworms from puddles after rainstorms and running around the house turning off lights to “save the penguins.” Before I entered elementary school, television shows featuring lion prides and herds of giraffe made me dream of becoming a world-traveling wildlife photographer. As a teenager, I led my parents on a grand summer vacation visiting national parks in Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, California, and Oregon. I’ll always remember how I felt exploring Yellowstone National Park for the first time—like every footstep deserved to be placed with a gentleness and respect for hallowed ground.

While visiting Yellowstone, I was entranced with the natural and human history of the region. Firsthand experience watching bison swim with their heads barely bobbing above rushing rivers, seeing coyote puppies play with their mother in a sheltered glade, and observing wolves’ tracking a scent and howling through the twilight inspired a sense of natural wonder. The park, steeped in the legacy of American conservation, served as an ideal place to spark my imagination.

At Yellowstone, I felt the environmental vigor of my childhood again. I felt sensations that spurred the first champions of the conservation movement. This is a movement that has made great strides since the creation of Yellowstone, but given the current climate—one where humankind’s impact on Earth’s environment is more pronounced than at any previous time—there has never been a more opportune time to take bearings and consider if conservation requires a new direction forward. I wonder if Americans struggle to separate modern conservation from the preservation values of the 19th and early 20th century, a period when many beloved parks were protected. In an era of climate change, we need a new wave of environmental thinking because our environmental dilemmas require national leadership and international cooperation—not national isolation and international division. To reach a new plateau in conservation, we need a national effort to assess how our current relationship with nature falls short and what new routes we need to take.

Rising And Falling
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Continue reading “After Yellowstone, In Search of Nature”

Leaves: A Fall Project

red maple
Red maple (Acer rubrum).

Of the many enchanting parts of plants, leaves may be the most wonderful. They add color, form, and oxygen to our world. The sheer amount of variation in leaves is mind-boggling, especially when you consider that most true leaves have one basic function: photosynthesis. This is a function so critical to life on this planet that you would assume plants would not want to mess around. But they do. The result is an almost incomprehensibly wide variety of shapes, sizes, arrangements, margins, venation patterns, pubescence, and almost any other characteristic you could imagine.

red oak
Red oak (Quercus rubra).

This fall I undertook a project to highlight my favorite part of autumn: the amazing variation in leaves. This was my final project for a class at College of the Atlantic that focused on the taxonomy and identification of woody plants.

Pressed leaves in Lightroom
After photographing 250 individual leaves, I had a plethora to choose from for the final video. Shown here: Quercus rubra (red oak, top), Fagus grandifolia (American beech, middle right), Acer pensylvanicum (stripped maple, bottom).

When I began this project I did not have a great idea of how the final product would look. While I had a stop-motion style video in mind after only a few weeks into the term, how I would carry out this video remained unknown. So during the fall I gathered and pressed any leaf that caught my fancy. This lead to a shortage of some types of leaves and an abundance of others, but overall I was happy with my collection through late October, when I individually photographed over 200 pressed leaves.

Using a light board to photograph leaves.
Using a light board to photograph leaves (not the final setup).

The final video I made is not a complete collection of these photographs, but merely a short clip meant to feature some of the diversity in leaf form. If you enjoyed the video, which draws from only six taxonomic families (Acer, Betula, Fagus, Populus, Quercus), I made a special gallery to showcase the most interesting leaves of all kinds that I photographed this fall, including the purple compound leaves of Fraxinus americana, white ash.

Video