The Value of One

This month has been the month of decisions and news. I was accepted into grad school and am preparing for the busyness that will be by trying to finish projects, line up jobs, and plan out volunteer work.  On top of that, I’ve been spotting a lot of neat and new [to me] creatures on the beach. Of course, it often happens that I spot them without camera in hand, but I was lucky one day in that the Channeled Whelk I found cameraless, I again found the next day when I brought my camera! First one I’ve seen, which I am a little confounded about since I comb the beaches at least twice a week. In the photo above, you can see its operculum is open and half under the sand. There is also a covering of perhaps algae on the top of the shell, making a soft, velvety carpeted shell.

I was surprised to find this fellow as well! Both of these mollusks’ shell fragments can be found littering the wrack line, but the inhabitants are often nowhere to be found.  This Banded Tulip was also the first live specimen I found this year. Attached to it were two small sea cucumbers.  There are still a large amount of tourists wandering the beach, plastic bags in hand, picking up any fragment and any creature that happens to be in a shell. Most of the mollusks I find poke above the sand as it dries and as the tide receives. It doesn’t take long for a tourist to figure this out, so as I find them I re-bury them closer in the swash with the siphonal canal [the ‘bottom’ or opening end] pointing up so that they may be covered by the incoming tide faster.  Of course, it always attracts attention when you dig something out of the sand, so you have to be prepared to explain why you’re allowing such a pretty shell to ‘go to waste’ [nevermind the creature that rather not get boiled out of its exoskeleton!]. These beaches are heavily visited, and there are ‘rolling’ laws saying the collection of ‘x’ species is illegal until numbers rebound [e.g. Sand dollars on Hilton Head Island].

The Sea Star below disappeared. We once got the question, while gathering specimens to show our school group, how would be the best way to dry out a Sea Star…hmm, asking the people about to give a beach ecology class how to kill something they are trying to conserve. That was an awkward conversation!

I am happy to see this fellow, I would like to fancy that it’s the same Piping Plover I spotted last year [solely based on the fact that it’s in the same spot, not that I can match the bands].  My guess, since it turned out to be true for the previous Plover, this fellow hatched from the Great Lakes breeding facility since the Atlantic breeding population has to compete with our tires…

I believe the fellow below is an unbanded Piping Plover. A slight glimmer of hope that we can all share the beach, mollusks, barrier island-breeding birds, and shell happy tourists alike!

It sometimes is hard to remember, as you walk the beaches and see hoards of people lounging in beach chairs, fishing, playing frisbee and building sand castles, that we’re apart of the beach ecosystem, or whatever ecosystem we decide to recreate or live in.  In fact, it’s hard to imagine that perhaps a whelk, just a predatory snail, or a Piping Plover, a tiny shorebird that can’t hold still, could be equally important to the ecosystem as humans are.  The value of one species over another is nearly impossible to decide [I’m not sure it’s possible to function in a world of just keystone species], but yet, we as humans decide on a daily basis that our recreational activities trump a bird nest, our decorative needs require calcium encasements from sea creatures, and our housing needs require an ocean view, dunes be darned!

To bad not all wildlife/human conflicts don’t have someone working so hard to find a compromise. Monarchs are lucky in the sense that someone is trying to save their wintering grounds. The trees that the monarchs roost in, the oyamel, are used by surrounding communities as a predominate source of firewood.  [For a great article, read this uplifting piece: http://bit.ly/9E5WgA] The monarch’s struggle to survive is intertwined with the locals’ need to be able to prepare food, essentially survive. Luckily, as mentioned in the article above, there are dedicated individuals working to find the middle ground for the butterflies and local families.

Unfortunately, the endangered Piping Plover doesn’t seem to have such a solution [read here for a brief summary on the conservation and conflict]. What is fought for isn’t the right to heat your home and cook your food, it’s the ‘right’ to drive over one of the most fragile and dynamic ecosystems in the world, the barrier island.  I’m pretty sure if if could be asked of the Plover, or Whelk, for that matter, they think they are the coolest ones on the beach and would agree that we need to find a balance between our recreational pursuits and their livelihood.

Catch Phrases

I’m sure you have found, just as I have, that when you try to learn every living thing’s name in your backyard [or region!], your brain fries or turns to the consistency of grits. But never fear! I have noticed a little trick, probably well-documented in a psychology journal with a technical name and all, that somehow keeps your brain on task. This trick is used so much that I am sure you’ve heard of a nature catch phrase at least once in your life. “The sun rises in the East, sets in the West” is a ubiquitous one, though I’m not sure how people remember it!

I think the problem lies with the brain’s craving of structure. Unless your name is Carolus Linnaeus, you may not be able sort animals by orders and families, let alone genus and species, so you rely on the common name. The tricky thing about common names is that sometimes they vary by region [what I call a garden spider is called a writing spider down here]. Probably the most problematic feature of the common names is that sometimes they seem to have nothing to do with the actual animal or plant!

Take for instance the lightning whelk. I see nothing that really strikes me as electric about that shell versus the shell of the knobbed whelk, but someone clever said that lightning whelks open on the left, so alliteration helps one differentiate between these two similar species.

I remember in college hearing my first mind-altering catch phrase, something to help you tie the name to the plant or animal. This one was quite the doozy since it worked slightly the opposite–upon hearing the phrase, your brain would object, but you’ll never be able to rid yourself of ‘burnt potato chips’. We were walking somewhere on a field trip in my field ecology class, the place wasn’t so important as the trees and my interesting professor’s take on them. When passing a massive black cherry, whose bark is difficult to assign any descriptor, she noted “It looks like burnt potato chips” and then walked on. After a few quiet steps she said that was the worst description in the history of man, because of course that bark doesn’t look like carbonized potato chips, but, she said matter-of-factly, you’ll never forget that tree. Oddly, she was right…

There are some more intuitive catch phrases for trees, like red oak species have pointed lobes on the leaves, as if they could draw blood, whereas the white oaks have rounded lobes. So the catch phrase would be something like Point = Blood = Red Oak.

I think these catch phrases work best when someone you perceive to be more knowledgeable than yourself is standing there when you see the species. Once they blurt out a phrase, it seems to get stuck in your head associated with the sight of that species until you have enough observations of your own to replace that phrase with other facts. Several of mine recently have come from coworkers.  We watched some birds ride thermals so high up that we had trouble identifying them.  They were elegant fliers, noted my coworker, so probably wood storks, but they are not the most elegant-looking while on the ground.  So beautiful in flight, so ugly on the ground.  A catch phrase good enough to remember them by, until you learn that they are the only breeding stork member in the United States.

Catch phrases can get you into trouble, though. A coworker mentioned that Mississippi kites have a very distinct pyramid-shaped tails. With this catch phrase embedded in my head, I spotted a bird that wasn’t a kite, but assumed it was because I could only see the tail well. I’m still not sure what he is; I guess northern harriers are gone for the summer. Catch phrases can be great learning tools, but they can limit your brain and lull it into patterns, barring you from IDing that one oddball that comes your way.

So while catch phrases are helpful, they aren’t the means to an end. They are just the beginning of cracking open field guides and reading up on natural histories. 

Those were some of my favorites, share some of yours!

Beach Scenic Sunday

For more beautiful photography, please visit Scenic Sunday!

Wow, time flies! I missed Sepia Scenes this week and somehow it’s already Sunday!

Have you ever wondered what’s under your feet when you walk on the beach? Beside the sand, of course! I guess there is a whole mirco-world down there, just waiting for you to take a peek.  And there are the things you can see easily, as well, if you just dig some. Lots of beach worms are below your feet, as well as whelks and 5 hole key-holed urchins [live sanddollars!] and ghostshrimp and crabs.  When the weather warms and my fingers won’t freeze, I’ll start digging, but for right now, I’m going to settle with what’s above the sand.

Folly Beach is a good place to collect fossilized shark teeth! Here’s an odd fact: fossils will stick to your tongue, rocks will not. Best way to get a laugh out of a group of kids is to demonstrate this!

More Folly Beach

Maybe a periscope worm tube? No one was home since it was detached from the sand.

HUGE horseshoe crab! Probably was a female by the sheer size of it.  I don’t have small feet, by the way, those are size 8 shoes!

Someone is home in this whelk, so back to the ocean it went. Maybe it was trying to deposit the 50 beach cents at the bank?

A nice place to sit on the Isle of Palms and it seems the mockingbird agrees! The mockingbirds seem a little quiet and lethargic this time of year.

By the way, if you ever want a really good, in-depth book on South Carolina’s coast, try “A Coast for All Seasons: A Naturalist’s Guide to the Coast of South Carolina” by Hayes and Michel.