The Farmscape Ecology Program * KYPP Nugget 23: 22 January, 2012

KYPP Nugget: Deep Diving

nighttime colors
This may seem like an odd photo to attach to this article, but it was taken by moonlight well after sunset using a long exposure. The light dots in the sky are stars and the glints on the hillside are from house lights, not sun reflections. I include it here because realizing that the grass is green and that the sky is blue during the dark of night when I see little more than vague shades of grey was definitely a discovery or 'deep dive' for me.

Next Week in The Columbia Paper: "Celebrating Ourselves: The Romance of the Mundane"

Reflections on the roles of non-farmers in a new agrarian society in FEP's next Perspectives on Place column in The Columbia Paper.

Deep Diving: Background Exploration

Until somebody publishes the complete field guide to the magic around us, we'll need to make do with excellent field guides to more practical topics.

My favorite book for literal deep diving (heck, the water's at least over one's boots) is Fish Watching by C. Lavett Smith. This book gives you some hints on the behavior and ecology of fish in our area. Dr. Smith also wrote the Inland Fishes of New York State, probably our best state-specific reference for freshwater fish; you can still get used copies for under $40. My favorite regional guide to freshwater fish is Robert Werner's Freshwater Fishes of the Northeastern United States; it's illustrated by excellent fish paintings originally made for NY State Department of Conservation (predecessor of the NYS DEC) over 80 years ago.

Salamanders and other amphibians are covered by many good field guides. Of particular local relevance are Thomas Tyning's Stoke's Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles (Dr. Tyning works in Berkshire County) and Kenney and Burne's Field Guide to the Animals of Vernal Pools, put out by Mass. Natural Heritage Program.

There are a couple of upcoming field guides that should help substantially with the moths and ants - David Beadle and Seabrooke Leckie have authored the upcoming Field Guide to the Moths of Northeastern North America; it is due out in April and, for the first time that I know of, will show moths as they look live, rather than with their wings pinned open. John Himmelman's Discovering Moths: Nighttime Jewels in your own Backyard isn't a field guide, but it's a great intro. to the world of moths. Aaron Ellison and colleagues have compiled a Field Guide to the Ants of New England, due out from Yale University Press in mid summer. Spiders have been too daunting for a practical yet detailed field guide, but Spiders of the North Woods by Larry Weber is a nice introduction. For ground beetles, there's no beating around the bush: Yves Bousquet's Illustrated Identification Guide to Adults and Larvae of Northeastern North American Ground Beetles: Carabidae (Coleoptera) is as intense as it sounds, but it's a great reference. Ground Beetles and Wrinkled Bark Beetles of South Carolina by Janer Ciegler doesn't cover all of our species, but it does hit most of our genera, but it's much less expensive than Bousquet's book and, in some ways, more accessible. For all around bug stuff nothing, in our mind, beats Stephen Marshall's Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity; this book provides a nice overview of each group and has an extensive photo collection of northeastern critters. Noah Charney and Charley Eiseman's Tracks and Sign of Insects and other Invertebrates is a great companion volume.

For night sounds, Michael DiGiorgio and John Himmelman's Guide to Night-Singing Insects of the Northeast (complete with CD) looks like it should be a lot of fun, as does John Himmelman's book Cricket Radio; I haven't actually used either of these two resources, but have really enjoyed John Himmelman's moth book (mentioned earlier) so I'd be optimistic.

For a neat approach to the passing of the seasons, see Janice Goldfrank's Field Guide to the Seasons. An Austerlitz resident, Janice has divvied up the year into 19 new seasons, which will help you sharpen your phenological eyes.

There are numerous good books about the theme of exploration and discovery in one's backyard; I'll include only one here: John Stilgoe's Outside Lies Magic; more a dive into the human created world than the strictly natural one, it is still a great example of really looking at what we see.
Nov. 2011 column: "Deep Diving"

by Conrad Vispo


It is invigorating and disquieting to realize all of the unbroken surfaces and unseen depths that we are surrounded by. Don a diving mask and snorkel and plunge into just about any stream and, provided its waters are clear, you will envelope yourself in a world known to relatively few - dace quiver and rock in fast eddies; suckers lie on the bottom like the underwater equivalent of beached whales; and large-mouth bass shark in the water column. Your body is nearly weightless and “down” is suddenly downstream rather than towards the center of the earth. Your ears, which seconds before may have gathered the dull grind of some engine, a clutter of human voices, the familiar exclamations of birds or the whistle of the breeze, are now filled with the currents' drone which is occasionally cracked by your hollow breathing. You have broken through a surface and, although it may be in water no deeper than your knees, have plunged to new depths.
 
Such streams of novel experience are all around us: take up the time-honored (by children at least) habit of stone-flipping, and you'll find bright-eyed, lithe-bodied salamanders; swarming colonies of ants intent on the complex business of being ants; hairy spiders clutching egg pouches; iridescent ground beetles who have mastered scuttling. Set up a bright light and white sheet, then pull up a lawn chair to watch and listen: you will soon intercept a fluttering stew of night fliers - moths the colors of lichens, leaves, bark, and stone; bandy-legged crane flies that look like giant mosquitoes; carpets of midges; stoneflies with over-sized wings; and more of those ground beetles. Meanwhile, the night around you is filled with clicks, trills and rhythmic rasps thanks to a community of insects intent on conversation.
 
Indeed, the surfaces of liquid unknowing are even closer than that. Spend time walking a familiar path with a dedicated birder or avid botanist, and you’ll soon realize that they are living in a very different world from you. In the distinct depths that they inhabit, unseen birds proclaim their identities, and sometimes more, from hidden perches; leaf patterns talk of soil and human history; and comparisons of calendar dates and bird song repertoire or flower color palette hint at changing seasons, changing climates. The surface your companion crossed was not between air and water or even between night and day. It was, instead, a boundary of friendship with parts of the world that many don't even realize can be befriended; it was a pin-prick of knowing that popped an invisible, thin skinned, yet utterly smothering bubble that had once encircled their heads and still encapsulates yours.
 
Popping these bubbles, breaking those surfaces is worth doing for the personal rewards it can bring - quite suddenly you find yourself listening to an orchestra of beloved tunes or visiting an exhibition of familiar paintings. But there is more than those immediate rewards which beg us to undertake such exploration: there are robbers in the museum, kidnappers with muffling socks stalking the orchestra pit. All of the worlds so far described - life below the water, nocturnal insects, flitting birds, flowering plants – and many more have changed dramatically over the past centuries, decades, years. Some of those changes have been biological ripples from the moving of geology's immense snail; they have been changes to which we are little more than befuddled spectators. However, many of the more recent changes have stemmed from our own hand. And yet, despite this personal responsibility, we very often do not have the eyes to see what we have wrought.
 
In these days of seething clouds of information, it is difficult both to find the peace needed to prick bubbles and also to accept that the multiplication of words, numbers and keystrokes represents more a turning up of the volume within our own head phones than it does exploration of truly new worlds. In an era when we seem to know everything, how do you convince someone that we have little knowledge of where those minnows go when floods, perhaps exacerbated by our own doings, transform clear creeks into mud-filled torrents? How do you show someone that the bounds of zoological knowledge are at our backdoors where some of the tiny moths at the light are unnamed by science, mystical in their ways, and yet buffeted by our reworking of the land? How does one express the urgent need for such apparent trivia when society has positioned pursuit of it so far from the prestigious cutting edge? We are marching loudly on the Earth but not taking the time to listen to our own footfalls. We are splashing across streams in our protective rubber boots without ducking below the surface to see what we are stepping on.
 
I am getting old enough to see behind me my own short path of wandering. Old enough to regret certain choices and wonder at which ones I will still have the luxury to make. But if there is one theme, one strain, one melody that I hope will not fade from my future and that I hope young people will continue to embrace, it is the sound of listening to the unknown; the sight of seeing the unseen. It is the very act of deep diving, of realizing for the sake of humility, for the sake of responsibility, for the sake of the glorious exhilaration of exploration, that we are surrounded by the rippling surfaces of uncounted lakes of inviting infancy.