The scorpion and the fly

Whilst meandering about the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area, I strolled along one of the old gravel roads that had become overgrown with little bluestem and Indiangrass and other native Blackland Prairie flora intent on reclaiming the area.  In some places, the trail vanished beneath a sea of growth waving vigorously in the day’s strong winds.

Fresh deer and coyote tracks marked the wet soil, deep tracks showing not so much weight but overwhelming dampness from heavy rains.  Migratory and resident birds filled the air with song and flitted about the hardwood forest bordering the old road.  The strong smell of musk forced me to detour around what could only have been a skunk hiding in the shadows.  And as the sun climbed over the trees and warmed the cool morning, insects swarmed into the light.

A red-shouldered hawk exploded from the trees nearby and made an immediate u-turn, quickly vanishing between ligneous arms heavy with falling leaves.  I held my breath momentarily, watching after the large bird, letting the chatter of cardinals and kinglets and a cacophony of avian voices cloak me in greeting.

Yet as I stood looking up, gusts of wind brushing tall-grass stems against my legs, a brief flash of color on the ground caught my attention.  Something lurked beneath the still verdant cover, something walking about in deep shadows.  So I knelt to take a closer look.

A male scorpionfly (Panorpa nuptialis) standing on gravel (2009_10_18_032482)

Not a real scorpion.  Not a real fly.  But reminiscent of both.  A male scorpionfly (Panorpa nuptialis).  Even in a place where flash would have been useless and little light penetrated, its distinctive colors and telltale tail made clear I was facing one of the more unique insect species to be found in Texas.

Though I wished for a better view, for better light, I chose not to disturb him lest I chase him away from his meal, the remains of a crushed grasshopper already too far gone for identification.  As I looked at his unique and unmistakable profile, a second scorpionfly scampered out from the grass.

A female scorpionfly (Panorpa nuptialis) standing on gravel (2009_10_18_032492)

A female.  His mate?  Or just a friend?  No matter the relationship, the two seemed more than tolerant of each other.  She never moved close to the grasshopper meal, instead walking along the edge of the gravel.  All the while, he stood guard over the dead insect.

A male scorpionfly (Panorpa nuptialis) standing near a dead grasshopper (2009_10_18_032497)

My presence, camera and head stuck beneath the waving grass, seemed less than acceptable to both, yet I felt neither wanted to leave the banquet laid out before them.  Mind you, I probably would react the same way if unwelcome paparazzi sat at my dinner table while I tried to eat.

A male scorpionfly (Panorpa nuptialis) standing on gravel (2009_10_18_032483)

So why would I put my face in such a position when dealing with an insect as menacing as this?  That scorpion tail no doubt could deliver quite a sting.

Actually, scorpionflies are harmless.  Only males have the scorpion-like abdomen, and it’s not a stinger at all.  That happens to be his genitalia.  He holds his family jewels above his body in what resembles the typical defensive posture of scorpions.  Females lack the tail.

Kleptoparasites in that they are known to steal prey from spider webs (without getting caught in the web themselves), scorpionflies also take live prey by capturing other insects with their legs.  In addition—and obviously—they consume dead insects.  Hidden at the end of their long snout are chewing mouthparts.

A male scorpionfly (Panorpa nuptialis) seen from above (2009_10_18_032503)

I backed away from their bower while keeping an eye on them.  Only then did the female move away from the road’s edge and toward the grasshopper.  The male, meanwhile, turned to watch her—and that put him into a position that offered me one good dorsal view between blades of grass.  Standing above him, I snapped that image before leaving them to their feast.

Stalking gophers

OK, not really gophers.  In fact, gophers are easier to photograph.  I’m actually talking about stalking meadowlarks.  More specifically, eastern meadowlarks (Sturnella magna).  But looking for them falls within the purview of looking for gophers: move slowly and wait for heads to start popping up.

An eastern meadowlark (Sturnella magna) hiding in the grass (2009_10_23_032908)

These birds remain invisible until the last minute—when you’re already too close—and only then do they reveal themselves.  From the moment one or more faces rise over the grass, the clock starts ticking.  The countdown can end within seconds or a few minutes depending on how close you are to the birds and what you do while they watch.

An eastern meadowlark (Sturnella magna) hiding in the grass (2009_10_23_032701)

People usually see meadowlarks perched on low tree branches, power lines, fences or brush.  Collectively, the eastern and western meadowlarks remain the singular avian species most associated with open country, whether farms or ranches or prairie.  And in autumn and winter they become much easier to find as they congregate together in small flocks.

An eastern meadowlark (Sturnella magna) hiding in the grass (2009_10_24_033814)

Both western meadowlarks and eastern meadowlarks are year-round residents in Texas, and their seasonal and yearlong territories overlap in several places around the continent.  But don’t be fooled into thinking you’ll know the difference between the two if you see a meadowlark in the field.  The two species are so similar that most people will never know which one they’ve seen.  The only reliable way of differentiating them is by their vocalizations, not their plumage.

Even location can be deceiving.  People east of the Mississippi River can guess most meadowlarks are of the eastern species; likewise, those west of the Rocky Mountain states can guess they are seeing the western species.  In both cases, though, vagrant birds and territorial overlap make the guess nothing more than an assumption.  And some assumptions are safer than others: Pacific states can more correctly assume the western species than can Atlantic states assume the eastern species.

A very close look at plumage can offer little help with identification.  Although the western and eastern species have accepted differences in appearance, those differences exist wholly on paper since natural variation and the variation of subspecies create birds who look exactly like the other guy.  No, if you want to know which meadowlark species you’re looking at, you need to stop looking and start listening.  Generally speaking, no meadowlark identification from the field in North America can be 100% accurate unless based on song, and that even if in a state with no record of “the other” species.

An eastern meadowlark (Sturnella magna) perched in a tree (2009_10_23_032869)

Finding these birds in my area becomes a simple task this time of year.  Some of the rarest remnants of the Blackland Prairie ecosystem exist only at White Rock Lake, hence the native plants harbor some of the few places where native wildlife feel truly at home.  This brings in sizable groups of meadowlarks in autumn and winter (though individuals can be found here all year.)  One need only stroll through one of the native meadows to stir up little avian gopher heads who watch from behind shields of native grasses and wildflowers.

An eastern meadowlark (Sturnella magna) perched on an overhead wire (2009_10_23_032743)

Get too close and off they go, short aerial sprints carrying them to a new spot where they quickly vanish behind the plants that harbor them.  Once in a while they fly up to a tree or power line, but mostly it’s a vision of fluttering wings and that identifiable white-striped tail as the bird flits low to the ground and disappears 10-20 yards/meters away.  And in most cases, when one takes off several others follow—some of whom you never knew were there.

Remiss and remorse

Written for and posted to The Clade, but shared here because it matters.

I have been remiss.  A dereliction not so much because I stopped caring, but more because I cared too much.  About myself.  About my family.  About my future.

Does a mother with skin cancer stop the world from needing protection?  Does unemployment mean I can no longer tend the flock of biophilia?  Does a father’s battle with tumors and failing health, both circling him closer to the flame, somehow relieve me of the beauty I need share and the call to action I need sound?

Nay, I have been remiss.  In a depression once reserved for the fate of our planet due to uncaring masses, I let myself become lost in pity.  Pity for me.  Pity for family.  Pity for my cares and needs.  But no more.

Life unfolds in great blossoms of being, petals touching and reaching as buzzing creatures visit to taste our essence, each one taking a bit of our life’s pollen before they journey to the next flower, the next being.

And all the while in lonely places we hope to be touched, to be noticed.

The world through eyes other than our own becomes a different thing.  When seen from someplace else, we become alien, different, unrecognizable.

That’s because we see things as we are, not as they happen.

Want to know what your life is like?  Ask those who observe it, participate in it yet do not own it.

We are what we do, not what we feel, not what we believe, not what we think.

Tinted by my own sense of self, life as I know it becomes unfamiliar when viewed from a perspective not defined by me.

Would that I might once see the world through the eyes of someone else, see the beauties they see that I miss, see the marvels they ponder that I ignore.

But I cannot refuse human nature.  I see things as I am, not as they are, and I must live with the difference.

The flowers of my soul never will appear to me in the same hues others see.

I can only hope the petals are as soft.

Originally spilling from me more than a year ago, that brief introspection took on new life today as I tried to remember that which deserves attention.  It was not my own needs, though I tried hard to convince myself otherwise.  The needs I refer to are best captured in this photo:

Duck with plastic six-pack tabs wrapped around its head and beak

Posted [at The Clade on May 1, 2009], this image came back to life today when I was contacted via Chris by an organization hoping to license the photo (and others in the same entry) for use in a cause I myself would champion.  To wit (sans editorial marks):

I am currently working on a documentary program profiling (and awarding) young people who are doing amazing things in their communities. one of the people we are profiling is a 17 year old girl from Santa Monica, CA who is working to raise awareness about the effect of plastic in our oceans as well as trying to change people’s habits when it comes to plastic use. I am interested in using these photos to help illustrate just how dangerous plastic debris can be for animals.

In later missives on the subject, this company with a name you would most certainly recognize made clear their seriousness in publicizing the efforts and achievements of young people who are trying to make a difference, who are working for a better tomorrow, a better world for everyone.

I felt embarrassed.  Where had my passion gone?  Was it so wrapped up in me that it no longer appeared as vigilant as the mockingbirds challenging each other outside my window?  Had the world seen through my eyes become irretrievably lost within the reflection of self staring back at me?

We do indeed see things as we are, not as they exist.  Often it behooves us to accept that, to acknowledge the differences between what is and what is thought to be in our own minds.

Though I will share the company name and documentary information at a later date, for now I stand in awe at the behest of a 17-year-old girl in Santa Monica, along with her fellow environmental advocates, for reminding me of what had been lost.  And for calling me to arms in a battle I walked away from simply because my rose-colored glasses blinded me.

“We are what we do, not what we feel, not what we believe, not what we think.”  I hope I understand my own words now…