My symphony

A male great-tailed grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus) standing on the pier and staring at me (2008_12_07_001404)

To live content with small means, to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion, to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich, to study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly, to listen to stars and birds, to babes and sages, with open heart, to bear all cheerfully, do all bravely, await occasions, hurry never, in a word to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common, this is to be my symphony.

— William Ellery Channing

[male great-tailed grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus)]


I could smell it from twenty paces away.  It didn’t help that the gentle breeze coming off the lake picked up the perfumed cloud and carried right to me.  It settled over me like heavy fog, an olfactory assault of such magnitude that it made me want to run away.

The limbs of Mexican Plum (a.k.a. big tree plum or inch plum; Prunus mexicana) covered in bunches of brilliant white spring flowers (2009_03_08_012583)

As I approached, I could see the tree was abuzz with insects drawn by the brilliant white blossoms and the sticky scent hanging in the air.  Every branch held countless bunches of spring flowers, together the mass of them producing a siren call to pollinators far and wide.

The brilliant white spring flowers of Mexican Plum (a.k.a. big tree plum or inch plum; Prunus mexicana) with insects buzzing around (2009_03_08_012589)

A woman passing by mentioned how she loved the tree, adored the subtle and spicy aroma of its show.  Subtle and spicy?  I would hardly have called it that.  The longer I stood in its presence, the more nauseated I felt from the overbearing sweetness of it, as though I swam in a pool of licorice-scented perfume.  It could only be called subtle if Rush Limbaugh could be called subtle.

A close-up of the white spring flowers of Mexican Plum (a.k.a. big tree plum or inch plum; Prunus mexicana) (2009_03_08_012591)

Though I tried to approach for some closer shots, especially of the hoard of buzzing insects flitting about the branches, I simply couldn’t stand it any longer.  I was overcome with the pungent, heavy air.  I had to get away.

Several days later as I walked with a friend, we passed that same tree.  I pointed it out, noted that it remained a cloud if insect activity, and mentioned the potent smell.  My friend smiled and said, “Oh my yes!  I love Mexican plum.  In spring it smells like fresh corn tortillas.”

I shook my head in wonder at how three people could have such disparate impressions of the tree’s bouquet.

— — — — — — — — — —

Photos of Mexican Plum (a.k.a. big tree plum or inch plum; Prunus mexicana).  It does generate its own insect cloud in spring, in large part due to the abundance of flowers and the strength of its redolence.  It also seems to demonstrate how people can have widely different impressions of the same stimuli.

In the first and second photos you can see small portions of the veritable swarm of flying insects buzzing about the tree.


A nutria (a.k.a. coypu; Myocaster coypus) looking playful as it climbs the bank of White Rock Lake (2009_04_10_014727)

A canine friend ready for a frolic.  A puppy prepared to pounce.  A million other familiar references.

This picture has always tickled me, always put a healthful smile on my face.  A trick of angle, sure, for anyone watching from a different vantage would have seen nothing more intriguing than a nutria (a.k.a. coypu; Myocaster coypus) climbing the inclined shore of White Rock Lake in Sunset Bay.

Yet my vantage, lying prostrate on the ground uphill from the water’s edge, made it look as though this behemoth rodent was in fact getting ready for some rough-and-tumble play.

The lineup

I began this morning wanting to talk about the vulgar phrase “trash birds,” but unfortunately I have neither the strength nor energy to do so.  I promise to kick the tires of that lousy clunker at a later time—when I feel up to it.

In lieu of what no doubt will start yet another war between me and a portion of the naturalist community, let me instead share a few of the images I came across as I searched for illustrative photos to go with my rant.  Here are some rock doves (a.k.a. common pigeons; Columba livia), one of the top three “trash bird” species in North America.

Rock doves (a.k.a. common pigeons; Columba livia) lined up on the pier (20081101_14291_n)

These were taken more than two years ago with a point-and-shoot camera, which I since bequeathed to my mother.  At the time, I was playing with a polarizing filter (along with the ever-present UV filter).  A UV filter is an always thing: put one on each of your lenses and leave them there at all times, putting all other filters on top of the UV filter.

But the polarizer?  Well, when shooting in direct sunlight especially, a polarizing filter works wonders to increase color saturation and contrast, not to mention minimizing reflections.  Yet it’s the former part of that—color saturation and contrast—that matters most.  Because direct sunlight not only causes harsh shadows, but also it’s so potent that it tends to overpower colors, leaving them washed out and lifeless.

You can actually get better colors on a cloudy day.  Still, a polarizing filter does a great deal to fight off sunshine’s overbearing disposition.

Rock doves (a.k.a. common pigeons; Columba livia) lined up on the pier (20081101_14290)

Thus, as I sat on the pier in Sunset Bay, my favorite haunt at White Rock Lake, this dule of doves, or flock of pigeons depending on your avian vernacular in this case, came to rest near me.  They all lined up on the edge of the pier, some even getting so close that I could no longer focus on them because they were within the minimum focusing distance of the camera.  I shot many photos of them as they relaxed with me on that warm and sunny November day.

Rock doves (a.k.a. common pigeons; Columba livia) lined up on the pier (20081101_14289)

It seems obvious that the entire lineup would have been perfect had there not been that one outlier: the dimwitted numskull in the background facing the wrong direction.  I remain unclear on whether that particular bird was just being contrary or if it was thicker in the head than this species is known for.  The empty “Who?  Me?” look I received each time I fussed about it makes me believe the latter more than the former.  But who am I to question the synaptic potency of any creature?  I’ve certainly had my share of “Duh!” moments.

Fuzzy turtle travelin’

In June 2009, during a walk at White Rock Lake, I stood on the footbridge spanning the inlet to Heron Bay (the lagoon behind the paddle boat house).  Sweat ran down every part of my body as I stood smothered in Texas summer: oppressive heat and humidity.  I had already decided to get in the car and go home, if for no other reason than to turn on the air conditioning in the car before I melted into a puddle.

Walking across the bridge, I noticed something swimming near the surface.  It paused even as I turned to snap a few photos.  It turned out to be a red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) with algae growing on its shell.  Yet I forgot about the photos, something I do often considering the volume of pictures I take.  It wasn’t until April 2010 when I stumbled across those pictures again and posted about the fuzzy turtle.  I included this photograph:

A red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) with algae on its shell (2009_06_21_024620)

That happens to be a crop of a larger image.  Here’s the original:

A red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) with algae on its shell (2009_06_21_024620 original)

As has been the case with every photo I’ve licensed, I gave nary a thought to the image after I posted it.  Then in October 2010 I received an e-mail that said, in part,

I have seen your photos of a turtle covered with algae on the web (‘fuzzy turtle, april 15, 2010). The algal growth represents one of the algal species (Basicladia spp.) I have been working on during my PhD, which I just completed as a draft. I would like to use the image of the turtle for the introduction chapter of my PhD thesis (Leiden University, the Netherlands)…

Of course I was interested.  When contacted about licensing a photograph, anything for nonprofit, conservation, education and/or science garners my immediate interest.  And it helped to see this in the initial request: “I would send you a copy of the book once it’s printed.”  I always like to see how my work is used and I appreciate that consideration being understood, especially when it’s understood at the time the initial request is sent.

I eventually agreed to the request and sent the original unadulterated image file.  It seemed my fuzzy turtle was traveling to the Netherlands Centre for Biodiversity Naturalis.  And I never asked if it spoke Dutch before I shipped it overseas.

Only a month after originally contacting me, Christian sent a new request.  Though originally intended as the introductory image for the first chapter, she said she liked the image more than expected and wanted to use it on the book’s cover instead.  She wanted to be certain that was OK with me.  Um, let me think about that.  YES!

Then less than two months after she originally contacted me, Christian sent another e-mail, this time asking for my mailing address.  I was excited.  I couldn’t wait to see the book, to hold it in my grimy paws, to read it with that inner tickle that screamed, “Hey, dude!  Your frackin’ photo is on the cover!  Look!  Look!  Loooooook!

After enough of our ice storm double whammy melted last week and it was safe enough to walk to the mailbox, I was pleasantly surprised to find a package from the Netherlands.  And inside the package: a copy of “Phylogenetic, taxonomic and biogeographical studies in the Pithophoraceae (Cladophorales, Chlorophyta)” by Christian Böedeker.

Cover of 'Phylogenetic, taxonomic and biogeographical studies in the Pithophoraceae (Cladophorales, Chlorophyta)' by Christian Boedeker featuring a photograph of mine on the cover (HPIM0034)

That photo scarcely does the book justice (photography isn’t my strength at the moment, I assure you).  The cover has an underlying color scheme that makes it look like it’s painted on canvas, thus giving it great visual texture.

But what about the contents?  Oh, it’s a delightfully heavy bit of science that made for a wonderful read.  And when I say a heavy bit of science, I mean that in the most complimentary way.  Christian has done some fantastic work in an area that lacked serious study, and her book shows just how much this science was needed.  To wit (from the back cover):

The confused taxonomy of the Aegagropila-clade was clarified using methods of molecular phylogenetic inference, resulting in the re-instatement of the Pithophoraceae, descriptions of two new genera and several nomenclatural changes.

With ample color images, maps, tables and illustrations to complement hundreds of pages of research, I feel a great deal of pride seeing my photograph on the cover.  As science is a dear passion of mine, licensing this photo gave me satisfaction beyond measure.

I’m eternally grateful to Christian Böedeker for contacting me and letting me play a small part in her work.  I’m also thankful for her consideration in sending me a copy of the book once completed.  Of all the photos I’ve licensed to date, this one has the most meaning.