-By Todd Amacker, Tennessee, USA: I recently returned from a trip to rural Gaza Province, Mozambique, near Banhine National Park. Banhine is what people refer to as a ‘paper park’. Very little infrastructure, relatively few park rangers, and only small, skittish populations of megafauna. They certainly have reason to be skittish, after their animal kin were decimated during a brutal civil war that lasted for decades. The majority of locals living in the region rely on subsistence agriculture, which means that if their humble crops (mostly maize) fail, they go hungry. That’s why, in 2011, after moving back to the States from Africa, I founded MozCause. We’re revitalizing a small primary school in the village of Mafacitela, just outside of Banhine National Park. Such projects in this area are easier said than done. As an example, the cost and risk of transporting cinder blocks for a ten hour journey down a less-than-perfect dirt road was not on option, so we were left with one choice: to make our own cinder blocks on-site using river sand from the Changane River. But, by using local labor and limited building materials, we, along with the help of Búfalo Moçambique, a privately owned and operated wildlife reserve, replaced the school’s long-missing roof that until now has rendered the original school building useless. Small things like this make a world of difference to these undeniably resilient children of Mafacitela.
In between my visits to the school, where I was documenting our progress and chatting with the school’s headmaster, Gervásio Inácio Bambo, I spent my time at a bush camp at Búfalo Moçambique. Despite being the middle of the dry season, I was astonished by the amount of biodiversity found at the reserve, and elsewhere. Famed biologist E.O. Wilson describes insects and other invertebrates as being “the small things that run the world”. After a few hours spent looking for critters in this corner of Gaza Province, it’s no surprise that the world is still running relatively smoothly. There was no shortage of grasshoppers, katydids, praying mantids, spiders, frogs, and other small, fascinating creatures. In fact, my enthusiasm for these little things became contagious. Soon, every other person in camp was searching for photography subjects. The camp assistants, mostly local Mozambicans, proved to be the most effective critter getters.
I frequently scoured Ilala palms (Hyphaene coriacea) for frogs, as it seemed to be their favorite hiding place. But James, who I referred to as a ‘closet naturalist’, quickly showed me a short cut for attracting them using the same type of palm (above). Other camp workers brought me myriad grasshoppers of all shapes, sizes, and colors (below), and they even brought me a thick-tailed scorpion! This species is capable of spraying venom from its tail, so one must be careful when handling. Praying mantids from the genus Hoplocorypha also made for interesting finds. I can’t wait to return during the wet season (that is, if the maze of dirt roads leading to Búfalo Moçambique allows it.)
More of Todd’s images are at www.toddamacker.com.
Sometimes people ask, why should we care whether a salamander goes extinct? What value does it provide anyway? Well, I could go into details and statistics, but it comes down to the fact that our fellow creatures have just as much right to exist as we do. They have the right to simply “be.”
Please take a moment to read this message from Florida contributor Don Filipiak – Clay
“The beginnings of a species at its end. The Frosted flatwoods salamander (Ambystoma cingulatum) is a species in desperate need of a priority boost in the conservation world. This secretive mole salamander that once ranged along the Coastal Plain from S. Carolina to Alabama is now restricted to a scant four counties in Florida. Even with the remaining four locales being found in protected areas, misdirected management strategies may ultimately prove fatal for the Frosted flatwoods salamander. This caudate’s specific breeding parameters rely on intact ecotones (wire grass/cypress tupelo domes and flatwoods/coastal marsh) for egg deposition and larval development. Current management strategies in the area include prescribed burns that do not aim at restoring these ecotones, severely degrading the breeding site by allowing shrubby vegetation to invade. The few recent ecotone burns were conducted in winter (larval development period) which left the area exposed, burning away the grass matrix that the larva rely on for camouflage. The results are a paucity of breeding sites and increased isolation of local populations within the metapopulation. Compared to other endangered cases, this has the potential to be an easy fix. The remaining habitat is already protected, it’s not about expensive land acquisitions, it’s about restoration of existing breeding sites. We’re talking about ephemeral ponds, not an entire watershed. With a little man power and proper flatwoods fire, the restoration of a breeding site can be accomplished in one season. With more traditionally charismatic species (e.g. Red-cockaded Woodpecker) occupying the spotlight, the Frosted flatwoods salamanders may very well be overlooked into extinction.
MYN Contributor Shawn Miller has been photographing many of the species living in Okinawa, Japan over the past several months. Here is a selection of some of his discoveries photographed in the Meet Your Neighbours Field Studio.
-By Lech Naumovich, California, USA: When you step foot atop Twin Peaks in San Francisco, you imbibe sweeping views of a thriving metropolis nestled in nature. There are vast swaths of gray hugged by adjacent seas of green and blue. It’s not Brooks Range-esque wilderness, but as Bill Cronon professes, “what brought each of us to the places where such memories became possible is entirely a cultural invention.” Although I don’t always completely agree with Professor Cronon’s view of a necessarily anthropogenic wilderness – San Francisco undoubtedly stands as living proof that cultural intervention has allowed for these memories to be accessible (my interpretation) to the masses, not the few private property owners. Cultural intervention has also preserved a taste of wilderness, and the home of this unlikely resident of Twin Peaks, the Mission Blue Butterfly. MBB’s fly from about April to May, each year, a reminder of how delicate biodiversity can be, while at the same time celebrating the incredible resiliency of this tiny, ephemeral butterfly.
I’ve been blessed to work with a great group of agencies and volunteers on the restoration of habitat of the Mission Blue butterfly. With a regular commitment to this site, we can help preserve this population for many generations. Please read more at www.goldenhour.org.
- Twan Leenders, Jamestown, New York
This is the saddest Meet Your Neighbours shoot I have done so far. Let this be a reminder that we need to better neighbors! Biodiversity begins in your backyard, but it can end there as well if we don’t smarten up!
One hundred years ago this year, Martha – the last of the Passenger Pigeons – died at the Cincinnati Zoo. This may once have been the most abundant bird in North America but was effectively extinct in the wild around the turn of the 20th century, with only few sad survivors remaining in captivity. Roger Tory Peterson never saw one in the wild but did illustrate the species for his first guide in 1934. As was the case with most of his illustrations he used museum specimens as models.
The passenger pigeon mount and study skins shown here are part of Peterson’s collection (now curated at RTPI), which he acquired from commercial collectors. These birds were collected in the late 1800s in Massachusetts and are on display now at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History. To learn more about the amazing story of the Passenger Pigeon, come see author Joel Greenberg on June 6 during the RTPI Bird Festival. More information can be found on our website at www.rtpi.org
I’m really proud to be included as one of the featured photographers on Paul Hassell‘s excellent new project ALIVE. My video interview was released this afternoon. If you’re interested, you can check it out by visiting the link below and listen to me ramble on a bit about why I love being a nature photographer.-Clay
By Benjamin Olson, Minnesota, USA: I remember my first encounter with baiting owls quite vividly. During a week long trip to the Sax Zim Bog to photograph the resident Great Gray Owls I had an encounter with another gentleman who introduced a different kind of photography to me: Manipulation. For the first couple days I thought the use of live bait was an interesting method, and I even photographed the birds that other photographers were baiting. But as I began to think more thoroughly about consequences of using live bait, I began to feel remorseful and even began to regret that I had even taken the images in the first place. During that week I watched this man feed ~150 mice to the Great Gray Owl and a Northern Hawk Owl, and at one point I even saw the Northern Hawk Owl come grab mice out of his hands. This was my breaking point. I deleted all of the images I had captured of the two owls influenced by bait and began a project that has altered my approach to wildlife photography.
For the past year I have immersed myself into the habitats of the animals that I wished photograph, with the philosophy that if I spend enough time with these creatures they will become accustomed to my presence and allow me to photograph them within close proximity without the use of any baiting or calling methods. My goal is to create wildlife images without any habituation or association to humans as a food source, or to impart any negative repercussions on the animal or habitat because of my presence.
During this year’s Snowy Owl irruption I ran into the same problem with people baiting, just as I did the year before. People were feeding the owls directly on the roads, using “fake” mice tethered to fishing poles to lure them, and even putting mice into hamster balls and under aquariums to prevent the birds from obtaining them. I was infuriated, to say the least. I almost gave up searching for the white owls, let alone photographing them because the way people were behaving out in the field. I couldn’t stop my search, and persistence finally paid off. Over the course of two and a half months I spent a third of my time working with a single female Snowy Owl. At first, she wouldn’t allow me within 200 yards, but as the winter progressed and I monitored her body language, I was able to get her accustomed to me. By the end of my time with her, she would allow me within 10 feet, all of which was done without feeding her or calling her once.
After scouting out a couple of locations on Day 1 of our time in San Francisco for the 2014 National Geographic BioBlitz, Neil Losin and I were on a mission to photograph as many species as possible before the event actually began. We knew that we could find lots of great subjects back at Tennessee Valley, but on our way there, we decided to stop at Fort Point, just beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, to search for the San Francisco Fork-tail Damselfly (Ischnura gemina). This beautiful little insect is a rare, locally endemic species that can reliably be found in grassy ditches near the Fort Point parking area. Though it was a bit early in the spring, we had high hopes of finding an adult damselfly. Sadly, we had no such luck. However, while we were there I became rather obsessed with making a photograph of one of the many bumble bees in flight in front of the bridge and of course, MYN portraits of some of the species. After a few hours of this, and a bit of success, we moved on to Tennessee Valley.
As expected, this area was a goldmine of subject matter for us both. We began by finding what would be the first of many California Slender Salamanders (Batrachoseps attenuatus). These fascinating, rather quirky Plethdodontid (or lungless) salamanders are equipped with extremely long tails and very tiny legs and feet. Adorable, yes, but these adaptions allow the small amphibians to move easily through the moist leaf-litter that they inhabit. A study published in 2013 suggests that rather being a single widespread species, B. attenuatus is actually a group comprising 39 species or more! We don’t know which of these provisional species our finds in Tennessee Valley represent, so we’re going to have to call it B. attenuatus for now!
From the outset, we had one species that we wanted to discover above all others: Aneides lugubris, the Aboreal Salamander. Its eastern relative, Green Salamander (Aneides aeneus), has fascinated me for years, so the chance to see a western cousin was a real thrill. Couple this with the fact that the Arboreal Salamander has teeth (you read that correctly) and I was hooked! Well, as luck would have it, about an hour into our shoot, Neil rolled over a log and found what we were looking for! I was tempted to do a cartwheel but previous experience told me that this wasn’t a good plan. However, we were definitely both in a celebratory mood, to say the least!
This fascinating animal showed no signs of aggression towards either of us. However, its powerful jaw muscles definitely hinted that if it decided to bite, it would do the job well. To residents of California who are familiar with this species, our excitement might seem silly, but there is something very satisfying about setting your sights on a target and finding it, particularly early in a trip.
This special species wasn’t the only cool thing we found at Tennessee Valley that morning. We also discovered a Coast Garter Snake (Thamnophis elegans terrestris), some cool centipedes (including one guarding a clutch of eggs), a nice Eumininae wasp, and several other nice invertebrates. What a way to start off Day 2!
After lunch, we traveled back towards the city to the meet up with National Park Service botanist Tanya Baxter at the Marin Headlands. Tanya had graciously agreed to help us locate some very special plants that were unique to the area. Marin County has an interesting blend of different habitat types, which makes it possible for a diverse spectrum of plant and animal life to co-exist there.
Up in the Marin Headlands, overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge we had the privilege of finding some of the special plants of the area. We photographed several species of breathtaking wildflowers, including the Franciscan Paintbrush (Castilleja subinclusa ssp. franciscana), Blue Dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) and the Silver Lupine (Lupinus albifrons), which is a larval food source of the federally protected Mission Blue Butterfly (Aricia icarioides missionensis). We photographed in the headlands until after sunset, when the Golden Gate Bridge was aglow with lights of passing cars. What an incredible end to the day!
by Clay Bolt, MYN Co-Founder and Contributing Photographer
For the past three years Meet Your Neighbours photographers have participated in National Geographic’s annual BioBlitz events. For this year’s event in San Francisco’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area, longtime MYN contributor Neil Losin and I were brought on-board by National Geographic to once again document some of the incredible plant an animal species that are native to the focus region. Washington contributor Les Meade also made the trip and kindly shared his knowledge of local reptiles and amphibians. Neil and I headed out to San Francisco with a wish list of species that we wanted to discover in mind and while we didn’t find everything that we had hoped for, we certainly found several that were at the top of our list.
Our shoot began on Wednesday afternoon shortly after we arrived in San Francisco. Neil and I had an early afternoon appointment to meet with National Park Service Aquatic Biologist Darren Fong who had previously agreed to point out several key species to us. One highlight was the Tomales isopod (Caecidotea tomalensis), a globally rare species that is only known to exist in a small number of ponds in California. We arrived at an area in the park called Tennessee Valley, which is good starting point for locating amphibians as well as a number of other species such as the Tomales Isopod. Since we were a little bit early, we started out by photographing some of the beautiful California Poppies (Eschscholzia californica) that covered the hillsides near the parking area. Although many photographers have photographed this species, countless times before, we both couldn’t resist making a few quick shots before heading into a nearby wooded area in search of amphibians.
After photographing some cool species including an interesting, well-armed Hacklemesh Weaving Spider (Callobius sp) that we found sheltering beneath the bark of a moist log, we spotted a California Newt (Taricha torosa) navigating its way up a small stream. Since this was our first herp of the trip, we were obviously very excited to photograph it. We had no idea that we would soon be seeing dozens of the prehistoric looking creatures later on that day so great care was made to do our best to photograph it well. Next we moved onto a small pond on the property. Within minutes after arriving at the site Darren had already netted several of the rare ispopods, which are essentially aquatic relatives of the pill bugs that most people are familiar with. The challenge, of course, was photographing such a small, rather translucent organism in the MYN style.
Neil placed the isopod in a small container with a small amount of pond water, and after a bit of experimentation, was able to make several beautiful portraits of an animal that most people will never have a chance to see. I photographed a beautiful pair of damselfly nymphs (Zygoptera sp) and various stages of horsetails that I would later use to build the composite that you see below. As the night began to settle in we heard the first chirps of Pacific Tree Frogs (Pseudacris regilla) and suspected that if we were to come back later in the evening we would be rewarded with several opportunities to photograph the beautiful frogs in the MYN field studio.
At around 10 pm, Neil and I arrived back at the park. The night was fairly cool and we had the immediate pleasure of being serenaded with the “beep-beep-beeping” of a small Northern Saw-Whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus) I, for one, had desperately hoped to see the bird since it was my first encounter, but I would have to be content with its song that was intermingled with the howls and yips of several coyotes who hunted close by. As we walked up the path towards the pond, the sound of the tree frogs began to grow louder and louder and we had to watch our steps as to not step on the multiple California Newts that were crossing our path. It had rained earlier in the day, which made this evening perfect for amphibians, and for eager photographers!
The sound at the pond was nearly deafening, and while we could hear many, many frogs, finding them was still quite difficult. Neil bravely waded into the surprisingly deep pond to photograph a male Pacific who was too busy looking for a mate to be camera shy and in doing so surprised an unidentified garter snake that was also interested in the frog for very different reasons. From time-to-time we heard a couple of different frog calls but we were unable to see or verify if they belonged to another species. We knew that California Red-legged Frogs (Rana draytonii) were found in the area, but unfortunately, we were unable to locate one.
After our time at the pond, we discovered some really unusual crickets including a stunning Jerusalem Cricket (Stenopalmatus sp) and this beautiful gray Cave Cricket (possibly Tropidischia sp) near where we had parked. Unlike true crickets, Jerusalem Crickets are wingless insects that primarily feed on roots and tubers, thought they will occasionally consume other insects as well. All in all, it turned out to be a very successful day and we were already on our way to finding some great species ahead of the BioBlitz!