Friday, December 13, 2013

Diamictite has moved...

I moved my blog to Wordpress.  While all the old posts will still be visible here, if you want to continue reading new posts, please go to:


Sunday, November 17, 2013

Kinglets signal the return of winter

I realized that I only blogged 6 times this year - it was quite a busy and crazy year.  Ben and I got engaged, we found a wedding venue (it overlooks a secluded pond home to egrets and herons!), set a date (it's in early July up on Long Island, so things will be beautiful and blooming), arranged for our immediate families to meet each other, booked a photographer (the one thing I actually did book... sooo many other things to do!).  Then I headed off to Berkeley for a month for the CIDER workshop, returned to Rice, submitted my 3rd paper, then defended my PhD thesis.  One of my committee members said, "you're not supposed to do more than one big thing a year!"  It has been a big year indeed!

And a minor thing to add.  I achieved a small and personal goal in addition to the more momentous ones:  After 4 years of swimming recreationally at Rice, I can now swim 1 mile breaststroke in 30 minutes.  That's about 1 lap or 50 meters per minute.  When I first started swimming - I could barely swim 10 laps in 30 minutes.  I felt like a bloated whale foundering in the pool.  Not bowing to frustration, I vowed back then to be able to swim 30 in 30.  I'm inspired by my mom, who is a lifelong swimmer (in fact, she learned how to swim by being thrown off a houseboat with a rope tied around the waist).  Swimming has been such an important stress-reliever.

So finally, after months of not really having much or any free time, I find myself actually with a weekend all to myself!  But ever get the feeling after being accustomed to being without something for so long, and then suddenly getting it back, you don't know how to react?  You wake up with a surge of happiness that you have a whole weekend ahead of you with nothing really pressing to do - and then immediately a billion things that you wanted to do pop up and you have no idea where to start.  It's kind of overwhelming. 

During one of the recent cold fronts that passed through Houston, Ben and I indulged in some early morning birding on campus.  I haven't birded much at all this fall given how busy I was.  But it felt really nice to walk out in the fleeting crisp air.  Cold fronts never stay long in Houston.  The vast Gulf of Mexico and its legion of warm air see to it that no vestiges of the north remain for more than a day or two.  Occasionally, a snow falls, but the largest snowman ever made was probably 1 foot tall.  The cold never deepens like it does up north.  There's always an undercurrent of comfortable warmth near at hand.  It kind of wreaks havoc with my mind, because I keep expecting it to get colder, but instead the next day after a cold front it returns to 85 degrees.

There wasn't much out while we were making the rounds of campus.  White-throated sparrows were chipping.  Orange-crowned warblers.  Birds were few and far between, but then when we were in the grove of pines near Alice's Garden we heard the chatter of ruby-crowned kinglets.  When the kinglets return, that's the sign of "winter" down here in Houston.  For a split second, we saw one kinglet literally a few feet away, with its red crest up!  It was surrounded by some sort of hosta-like plant with bright green leaves, so the crest was even more stunning.  It's always amazing when a tiny bird that you normally only get to see as a speck in binoculars comes up to you that close.  

In a nearby live oak, we found a rather garrulous winter flock full of more ruby-crowned kinglets.  Sometimes titmice, chickadees and a blue-headed vireo might be found foraging with them too, but it was mostly all ruby-crowned kinglets.  But then we kept hearing this small, sweet squeak-whistle song which at first we couldn't identify.  It wasn't the ruby-crowned's song because that one has more notes and is more variable.  It turned out to be a golden-crowned kinglet, which, though they can be found down here in the winter, have a more northerly range so aren't as common as the ruby-crowned.

Every time I've seen a golden-crowned kinglet, they've taken me by surprised.  The first time, on Rice campus, I was staring at one through binoculars and then it took off and flew directly at me, and I saw the brilliant yellow flame of its crest.  That was cool.  Then another time was last year back home on Long Island.  Ben and I were walking around my street.  Because it was winter, there weren't too many birds around, but we did have a hermit thrush that kept furtively popping up around the neighborhood (once in my front yard and then another time right in the middle of the road).  But the highlight of that walk was all of a sudden seeing a golden-crowned kinglet in a rickety, windblown pine tree.  It was like this little glimmer of life in a cold and deadened world.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Natural history bits

Over the weekend, Ben and I went to the annual Houston Gem & Mineral Show (it was both our 2nd time going).  Mostly, it's to go and gape at the really amazing specimens offered, some that are spectacular enough to be in museums.  Obviously, such specimens cost 1000's, if not tens of thousands, of dollars, so if we do buy anything, it's small and cheap.  But it's still worth it to just go and look - how often will you get to see and touch 1-meter long prisms of selenite, huge blobs of malachite that look like broccoli and grapes, perfect smoky quartz crystals intergrown in amazonite?  It's a fun experience.  And because we went on the last day, some vendors were offering their specimens for 50% off.  We managed to snag a beautiful trilobite, a Mrakbina specimen from Morocco:

We put the new trilobite with Ben's rock collection, which, not surprisingly, is heavily dominated by biological and sedimentary things (except that beautiful piece of obsidian on the right).

Speaking of fossils, we managed to make one of our own (and continue to make it every time the cabinet door containing the coffee is opened and closed).  Here's a cockroach that got smashed and somehow ended up pretty well-preserved:

Here are some random biological bits I've picked up on various trips, now sitting on a shelf above my desk:

From the top left - a cowrie shell I found in Papua New Guinea, a box on top of a jar of random shells, a septarian nodule from the Atacama Desert, two limpet shells from the Chile coast, a nautilus (lamely, from a gift shop in Galveston, TX), a mermaid's purse from Long Island, and a snail shell filled with sand and bored through by another organism (also from Long Island).

And to finish off the weekend, we celebrated a bunch of recent nice things:  Ben's NSF DDIG getting funded, Ben getting the Vaughn Fellowship from Rice, me accepting the post-doc at Brown starting in January.  For that, we splurged on a ~$15 bottle of wine which we only splurged on because it had an ammonite on the label!  (And it wasn't too bad of a wine either).

Sunday, April 28, 2013


One of the best things about living down here in Houston is the proximity one has to amazing and diverse ecosystems (coastal wetlands, prairie, semi-tropical scrub forest, among others), and thus really cool animal and bird life.  Also, Houston is along a major bird migration route.  So things get pretty awesome here during the late spring.  With the perfect combination of winds, there can be some spectacular fallouts of warblers and other passerines.

Last weekend we headed out to High Island, which is on the Bolivar Peninsula down on the Texas Gulf Coast:

American avocets in full breeding plumage
I think these are stilt sandpipers (?) but not sure...
Eastern kingbird
Summer tanager

A glimpse of an indigo bunting, in the sun for a moment

It's really special when warblers like this one (prothonotary warbler, one of my favorites!) fly right in front of your face for just long enough to get over the shock and take a picture that actually turns out decent!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

A slow, cool Spring

It's been a couple months since my last post.  Many big, good things have happened:  I experienced my first real job interviews (both for academic positions), I accepted an post-doc offer (now I just need to defend my PhD by December), BEN AND I GOT ENGAGED (in my opinion, the best thing that's happened!).

Lots of small, good things have happened too.  More tangible everyday things, like finally sitting down after all the excitement and starting to write my third paper (almost 50% done with a rough and highly imperfect first draft), getting exciting new data from collaborators, and even the seemingly mundane process of re-reading a paper for the --> nth time and learning something new from it.  And in between, Ben and I have been enjoying the long, cool spring Houston has been blessed with this year.  After several weeks of anomalously hot weather (daytime temperatures in the mid 80s) in January, the temperature didn't continue to steadily ramp up to the usual high 80s - low 90s I've grown accustomed to in late April.  Instead we've had a serious of pretty cold cold fronts that blew in temperatures (even in the 40s), alternating with warmer days.  It's been kind of nice actually.  At heart I'm a northern soul and the cold invigorates me.

Some cool things seen and photographed since March:

Savannah sparrows in a yucca plant at Brazoria NWR.

Got really close to a pileated woodpecker at Bear Creek Park:

The equestrian trail was beautifully overgrown and devoid of horses or people.

A hooded warbler came really close to us, but as usual, only fleetingly.

Wild garlic bursting forth.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Winter Birding Down South

Before the semester fully revs up and things got too busy, Ben and I decided to take a short half-day trip down to Quintana and Surfside, hoping to see a Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrow, which neither of had seen yet.  Since they winter in saltmarsh down on the Texas coast, we had a good chance.  And indeed we did see not one, but several!  We stopped along Crab Road in Surfside, where they had been reported.  While looking at reddish egrets, tricolored herons, a bubblegum-colored spoonbill, and great egrets, we kept hearing this one-note metallic clink-chip.  We didn't even think it was a bird at first, because it sounded kind of weird.  The sounds were everywhere around us.  Then all of a sudden we looked into the marsh and there was a Nelson's sparrow sitting in the reeds staring straight at us!  Encounters with Ammodrammus sparrows tend to be of this startling, "whoa moment" nature.  I think it's because the birds have such striking faces, yet they remain so still and quiet and hidden.
Can you find the sparrows here?

Surfside town viewed from Crab Road

Winter colors at the Quintana bird sanctuary

Great egret in winter saltmarsh.  A year ago, I took a very similar picture 

Forster's tern.  Around this time last year I also photographed one at Lynchburg Ferry.

Mist shrouds the empty, palm-lined street.
Some leaves holding onto their summer colors

Milkweed in various states (buds, flowers).

An Eastern phoebe.

Orchard oriole nest.

Reddish egret.
Turnstones on the Quintana jetty.


When you look up close, even the great-tailed grackle, one of the most common birds around here, looks striking.

Winter Birding up North: Long Island

Winter is definitely something I miss living down here in Texas.  Perhaps it's because I was born in the winter that I have always felt like it was "my season."  But as a kid, I didn't always appreciate winter.  I had what one would describe as a "love-hate" relationship with it.  While the quiet of snow-laden meadows, icicles dripping from boughs, the dark skeletons of black trees against gray skies were all beautiful things to behold, there was also the reality of shoveling snow, driving on icy roads, sunset at 4 pm, and the cold.  Down here in Texas, though, winter is more like an extended autumn.  Temperatures rarely drop below 50 F.  Strange as it may sound, I sometimes miss the bite of the northern wind, and whenever a wind like that blows down here from up north, I relish it and try to imagine the scent of pine terpenes blowing in too.  The Texan winter leaves something missing - perhaps the anticipation of spring is diminished, because the days, being so mild, lack a stark enough contrast to make one long for warmth and green things.

But in terms of birding, the mild Texas winter means much more bird life compared to the Northeast.  Even in January, flowers are blooming and there are even butterflies and dragonflies.  The wetlands don't freeze, so herons, egrets, spoonbills and lots of other wading birds are still around.  But up North you get a different sort of winter birding.  Over New Years, Ben and I drove out to Jones Beach on Long Island.  The West End was a particularly good spot for birds.  We got red crossbills there - but the best part was walking right into a winter flock of nuthatches, chickadees, a downy woodpecker, and a hermit thrush stalking around on the ground.  There are small groves of pine trees at the West End which provide shelter out of the wind and cold, and here the birds were feeding like crazy.  The nuthatches were so loud, it sounded like several tiny car horns honking up in the trees.  The chickadees almost got stepped on by us, they were probably so hungry and cold and dazed by the sea wind all they cared about was food.  When you walk into a flock of birds like that, it's just such a cool experience - it's like being one of them almost (or at least seeing what they're doing from up close).

 View of Jones Beach - West End.

Red-breasted nuthatch

 From left to bottom:
A tiny windblown red-breasted nuthatch.
A chickadee foraging on the ground.
A grove of pines - perfect nuthatch habitat.
A downy woodpecker.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Wintery Ohio

Some photos I took on various walks in central Ohio over the winter break.

A hike in a beautiful mossy place called Conkle's Hollow in Hocking Hills, Ohio

Left: Fungi on tree
Right: Cup lichen and reindeer moss
Freshly sprouted fungi glowing orange.

Walking through Prairie Oaks Metro Park

Left: Pistia (?) water lettuce amidst dry snags
Right: Can you find the Carolina wren in this scene?
Prairie Oaks

Darby Creek
Ben birding in a field in Hocking Hills