Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Equation of the White-tailed Kite

Seems like everywhere I go,
The more I see,
The less I know.
        ~ from the song Say Hey (I Love You) by Michael Franti

Late one recent night, accompanied by the white noise of a window AC that was barely beating back the summer’s heat and humidity, I listened to a recording of a talk delivered several weeks ago to a fossil club of which I’m a member.  Topic – one member’s adventure in Montana collecting the associated bones of a Triceratops that included a complete left back foot, apparently a very rare element from such a dinosaur.  Listening to his account was the closest I’d come to fossiling this summer since so much of it has been spent on Long Island (a lament about the absence of fossils here can be found in a prior posting).  This talk was a vicarious thrill.

Yet, as I listened to the end of the talk, I groaned.  In response to a question, the speaker said that some of the ranchers on whose property he’d hunted received cash for access, and agreements were struck with others, such as the one whose land had yielded the Triceratops, that they would receive 30 percent of what was realized from the subsequent sale of the fossils.  The speaker added that he hoped the Triceratops would bring big bucks.  So, in the end, it became about commerce and ownership.

A couple of weeks ago, in a summer ritual, I dropped in on a local gem and mineral show and scouted out the fossil vendors.  It was a curiously dissatisfying experience.  Examining fossils in this surrounding seemed like buying puppies from a pet store.  They deserve a good home yet the transaction only serves to encourage the practice.  Curious reaction since I’ve bought fossils before without compunction.

Fossil collecting involves acquiring individual specimens.  The equation here is fairly obvious since the resources are finite.  If it enters my collection, it cannot enter yours, and vice versa.  A zero sum game.  I think many of us enjoy that kind of game.  For some, it’s a competition and there are winners . . . and losers.  (Add a financial side to the fossil hunt equation and things can get completely out of whack.)  Still, collecting doesn’t always end up that way.  In particular, I am very fond of museums and the role they play in breaking apart this equation.  The collected specimens are shared, available to others to see, to study.

At one stage this summer (seeking to fill the fossil void), I turned my attention to the wild flowers growing along nearby roads and began recording what was in bloom, amazed at the diversity of species.  It’s hard not to be inspired when you think you spot the Evening Lychnis or White Campion (Silene latifolia) and read in the Peterson First Guide to Wildflowers of Northeastern and North-central North America (1986):

This introduction from Europe blooms at night, when its white flowers attract moths to perform the mystic rites of pollination.

Lovely language.  It is interesting that the full version of the Peterson guide to wildflowers has no such sentence in it.

But, another evening stroll to the same area, this time equipped with a camera, suggests things among these flora are not what they originally seemed. 

In all respects save one the flower pictured here appears to be a White Campion.  It’s the color of the petals that throws me.  My initial thought was that these petals have a purplish tinge.  If it’s truly purple, then I have no clear candidate for this flower’s identity.  If, instead, these petals can be considered pinkish, it could still be a White Campion.  The Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (Ohio State University) notes that the White Campion may “rarely” have pink flowers.  Alternatively (sticking with pink as the color), this may be a hybrid between the White Campion and the Red Campion (S. dioica).  (The flower is roughly 3/4th inch across.)

Curiously, many of the websites that put me on to the possibility that this flower is a hybrid were describing wildflowers in Britain.  The one I enjoyed the most was English Wildflowers:  A Seasonal Guide, created by Keith and Violetta Jones.  In their discussion of Campion species, they describe a Pink Campion as a hybrid between S. latifolia and S. dioica, noting that the calyx (the inflated sac below the petals) is green as it is with the White Campion (the Red’s is red).  One of their pictures of a Pink Campion is similar in color to this one.  Among the real pleasures of this wonderfully organized and written website is the authors’ description of themselves:

Dr. Keith Jones has recently retired after 40 years as a microbiologist at Lancaster University and has returned to his first scientific love, plants, showing that it is never too late to use your first degree (botany, Nottingham University, 1963). He is responsible for the pictures, identifications and the descriptions on the site.  Violetta, his wife, has given enthusiastic encouragement to the setting up of the web site and proof-reads every page. She was the first to realise the potential of the digital camera and it was she who made the suggestion that Keith would need a hobby on retirement and not get under her feet.

This collecting of wildflower sightings has a communal aspect to it.  It’s the sighting that enters my collection (assuming I get it right), not the object itself.  What’s spotted can be shared with someone else, a person accompanying me down these same road, some stranger who comes by on his own.  Nothing exclusive about it.  The math of this effort is great – the sighting can be divided infinitely.  Of course, there are those who would wreck that calculation and collect the rare plants, not just the sightings of same.  I’ve posted on this before, regarding Canby’s Bog Orchid.  Zero sum game again.

A few days ago I attended a birthday party at an Audubon center on the Connecticut shore of Long Island Sound.  It’s a heavenly place for anyone interested in nature.

A salt marsh stretches out before it, replete with osprey, heron, the usual denizens of this area, and, these days, somewhere in the vicinity, a White-tailed Kite (Elanus leucurus).  Had not most of those attending the party been birders, I would have had no clue that the sighting of a White-tailed Kite on the Connecticut shore was such a rarity that it would be the stuff of tales to tell future grandchildren.  This beautiful raptor appears in the eastern U.S. only along the southern tip of Florida.  As friends gathered, invariably the question was, “Have you seen the Kite?”  The answer seemed always to be “Yes.”  And probably with good reason.  This bird being found in this area was a rare event and apparently birders share information electronically with abandon.  Corey Finger, on the blog 10,000 Birds, which he co-authors, provides a great description of his pursuit of this out-of-place White-tailed Kite.  Sharing information is the watchword.  He also took superb pictures of the bird which he posted; I’ve reproduced one below with his permission.  (These birds are roughly 16 inches in length with a wingspan of some 3 feet.)

For non-birders, like me, I should note that Corey uses the word “twitch” in his account.  Sean Dooley, in his book Big Twitch: One Man, One Continent, a Race Against Time – A True Story about Birdwatching (2005) defines “twitch” as:  “The act of chasing after a rare bird.”  He notes that it can be used as either a noun or a verb.  My sense is that it also involves the willingness to join in that chase of a wayward bird regardless of the distance one might need to travel.

There is something to be said for this collecting of sighting or pictures.  The community bonds over the pursuit and it does not become the province of a single individual, the one first on the scene.  I wonder what that would be like.  Still, at the moment that is perhaps too civilized for me, part of the thrill of the hunt is the prospect of adding something special to my collection.

In thinking about the equations of these various collecting efforts, I realize that, at another level, there’s a decidedly unbalanced accounting possible here.  If, in this kind of pursuit, I am open to new ideas and challenges to my “facts,” the knowledge side of my mental ledger will probably build.  That’s good.  But, at the same time, my acknowledged ignorance will grow still faster.  And that’s good, too.

Reminds me of a Calvin and Hobbes exchange.  (Come back, Bill Watterson).  In it, as they watch a snake, they bubble with questions about it.

Hobbes:  Do snakes have eyelids?  Do they sleep with their eyes open?

Calvin:  Don’t snakes eat mice?  How could a snake swallow something bigger than its own head?

Calvin:  Hobbes, we don’t know ANYTHING about snakes.

Hobbes:  Maybe your mom would get us a book.

* * *

Calvin:  Hey, wait a minute!  It’s summer!  I’m on vacation!  I don’t want to LEARN anything!

Hobbes:  If nobody makes you do it, it counts as fun.

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