Friday, December 16, 2011

Winter Destinations

My piece about three great places to go this winter, in the current issue of Women's Adventure Magazine.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Quirky Quarters

My latest article for Texas Highways, about fun and unusual places to stay around the state. Pick up the January issue for the full effect.

Madrono Ranch

I was fortunate to spend a short writer's residency at this incredible place in 2011. Click on Residencies, then Residents to see the impressive cast of others!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Troubled Seas

One year after the biggest oil spill in American history, researchers study whale sharks to shed light on long-term devastation.

It’s the first feeding season after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and marine biologist Rachel T. Graham is looking for sharks in the crystal-blue waters off the coast of Belize. In this sliver of reef, schools of large fish – primarily snapper and jacks – show up, as usual, after the full moon. But what’s missing are the dozens of white-spotted whale sharks that feed on the eggs the fish lay. This year, only a handful of sharks show – and the ones that do behave strangely. “They looked really hungry, feeding more frantically than usual,” says Graham, a whale shark expert with the Wildlife Conservation Society who has studied the creatures in Mexico and Belize since 1998. “Like they just couldn’t wait to get food.”
The latest causes for concern for the whale sharks, which are overfished, poached, and have a declining food stock, are the 200 million gallons of oil and almost two million of chemical dispersant BP put in their path. “We have pictures of whale sharks in the middle of the oil spill,” Graham says. “We know that surely some died from oil coating their gills. Other may have ingested oil and dispersant, and who knows what that might have done.” The sharks, which have been deemed vulnerable (one step away from endangered) by the International Union for Conservation of Nature for years, are in danger. With their long, meandering migrations – from Belize to the US, Baja to the Philippines – they are hard to track and count, and there are few people dedicated to studying them. To save the sharks and their troubled ecosystem, Graham and other researchers are tracking them, raising awareness, and trying to influence policy.
Even before the spill, whale sharks had it tough. Plankton levels have declined globally for at least a decade for numerous reasons, including pollution, temperature change, and ocean acidification, which eats through plankton’s plates of calcium carbonate. Ship traffic and overfishing of spawning species also threaten whale sharks, as does the lucrative trade of shark fins and meat for the Asian market. To top it all off, whale sharks are slow to mature and bear few young.
In a typical year, these slow-moving sharks – the largest living fish species that weigh up to 79,000 pounds – follow schools of fish, sucking in great quantities of spawn and plankton at the ocean’s surface off the Mississippi Delta and the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula in summer, and near Belize and Honduras in the spring. Although researchers spotted whale sharks in the oil during the spill, there hasn’t been a single confirmed death-by-oil-spill of a whale shark; they sink when they die, and couldn’t be tracked due to restrictions on boats during the spill. So instead, researchers like Graham track the living – and hold out hope for the species.

Graham plunges into the warm, plankton-filled, pea-soup green waters off Isla Holbox, Mexico, with a mask, snorkel, fins and a six-foot-long pole spear, which holds a long dart with a $2,000 satellite tag attached. She looks for the spotted shimmer of the whale sharks moving in the cloudy waters. While these sharks don’t chomp their food like predatory sharks, instead filtering it through their tiny teeth, they’re still dangerous – the massive tails that make up a third of their body length could knock Graham out in an instant. She kicks carefully through the water, doing her best not to get in between the animals and their dinner as she dives down under the sharks to sex the animal so she can tag proportionate numbers of males and females. With her target selected, she closes in, hooking her thumb through the rubber tubing at the end of the spear and pulling it taught. She lets go, sending a dart and tag through the back skin of the whale shark, which doesn’t seem to notice.
The tags transmit data that help reveal where whale sharks go, what depths and water temperatures they prefer, light levels – which can be used to determine latitude and longitude – and how far and fast they travel. This knowledge has, in recent years, started to paint a picture of whale shark behavior, which helps scientists recognize changes in patterns, and problems.
This picture is key to assessing damage done to the sharks and the ecosystem on which they rely. Tags tell scientists that a whale shark, for example, might feed in Mexico and the northern Gulf, or travel from Belize to Cuba, or Florida, important information that helps policy makers and managers of natural resources make informed decisions.
Gauging the health of an ecosystem as big as the Gulf’s is not something scientists can do overnight. Oil entered the food chain in a big way last year, but how deep it went and whether it persists in marshes and sediments are unanswered questions. Some experts believe the spill reduced quantities of plankton and fish spawn in the Gulf, which may explain the feeding-frenzy behavior Graham observed off the coast of Belize. The plume from Deepwater Horizon overlapped with the Gulf’s infamous “dead zone” - an oxygen-deprived area where little can live, created by agricultural runoff from the Mississippi River.
Perhaps the greatest hope for the shark is tourism. Graham estimates the economic impact of whale shark tours for the area around Placencia, Belize, in the millions of dollars. Tourism also offers protection to whale sharks, as the physical presence of guides and tourists helps to keep poachers at bay. And public sentiment, inspired by whale shark encounters, can change shipping routes, similar to those made in the North Atlantic to protect right whales. All you have to do is see them, says Graham. “These are animals that evolved over millions of years, reaching perfection in predatory form,” she says. “Floating near a 10-ton, 40-foot-long wild thing in its natural environment can be a life-changing experience.”

Where to Swim with Whale Sharks
Belize: Avadon Divers, Placencia
Baja: Baja Expeditions, La Paz Mexico
Cancun: EcoColors Tours, Cancun, Mexico

First published in Men’s Journal Vol 20 No. 09, Sept 2011.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Hatchling Releases

Another turtle-related piece, this one for Culture Map Austin about hatchling releases at Padre Island National Seashore.

State of the Gulf of Mexico Summit

I attended this jam-packed conference this week in Houston. Here's my blog post for Nature News about the announcement of $50 million from USDA to improve water quality in the Gulf of Mexico by working with farms and ranches in watersheds that drain into it.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Hiking in Israel

My latest piece, about the Negev desert, on FarewellTravels.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Science Goes to the Dogs

Here's my first post for Austin Culturemap, about scientists using dogs in the field. Cute dogs and even cuter sea turtle hatchlings!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Austin CultureMap

I'm now contributing to Austin CultureMap, mainly science-related topics.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Perspectives on Dandelions

Every spring, my neighbor emerged, sharp spade in hand, to attack the dandelions in his yard. Sometimes he came after the ones in ours, too, before they could blow up like tiny bombs, their feathery shrapnel spreading offspring that know no property lines. Like most adults, he saw dandelions as unsightly and unwanted, bumps on the road to a pristine lawn of grass.
My children, though, viewed dandelions in an entirely different way. A yard that looked ugly and unkempt to the grown-ups was, to them, a wonderland of shimmery orbs just waiting for a breath to turn them into floating fairies. When I wheeled the stroller around our neighborhood, they stretched out their arms to grab dandelions growing along the curb. Holding the fragile spheres to their faces, they blew with all their might, cheeks puffing out, to scatter the snowy seeds. I remembered doing the same thing when I was young, back when I, too, thought of dandelions as marvelous inventions. For a time, my son blew on every flower he encountered.
This spade-wielding neighbor adored my children and went out of his way to share the wonders of nature with them – baby birds hatching in his birdhouse, squash flowers in his garden. Yet, he frowned every time he saw down blowing on the wind. “Hey!” he would yell over the fence. “Stop that!” To him, those seeds represented only more work.
It is one of those “Oh!” moments of parenthood, to realize that a bane of adult existence can be a charm of childhood. My children forced me to take another look at the world, to rethink some of what I had come to accept as given. To see some things in a new light. I recommend it highly.
Take doggie poo. We had a large yard and a large dog, with obvious consequences. Periodically, my husband or I made a sweep through the yard with a shovel, removing the offending byproduct of doggie kibble and digestion. It wasn’t a task we particularly enjoyed, especially in the summer when heat seems to hold the smell. But this little ritual became great fun for the kids. I can still see my oldest daughter at a young age, toddling along after her father and his shovel. She reached down and triumphantly held up a little trophy, calling to dad, her satisfaction at being so helpful plain on her face. Her younger brother dashed about the yard with delight when he saw one of us with a shovel. When he’d hit pay dirt, so to speak, he would stop and yell “Poo! Poo!” until we dutifully scooped it up. Neither of us adults could fathom why “poop patrol” was so much fun, but I must admit, their participation made the chore less of one.
The entire family enjoyed the trees that shaded our yard, but the adults weren’t particularly crazy about raking up the leaves they shed every fall. But, again, for the kids, their cousins and friends, a pile of leaves represented not hours of hard labor, blistered hands and sore backs, but a colorful playground, nature’s trampoline, a fort, or any number of other places their imaginations could take them. They ran full-speed and flung themselves into the piles, grabbing handfuls and throwing them gleefully into the air and all over each other. They burrowed into the largest ones, creating caves from which came peals of laughter and squeals of delight. Their fun ultimately meant more work for us, re-forming those piles of leaves, but it was hard not to laugh along with them.
I remember being struck, as a new, first-time mother, by how small, everyday things brought wonder to my baby’s face. Leaves blowing in the wind. Clouds. Stars. Noisy grackles. Birthday candles. When we get older, it takes so much more to thrill us. We need comets, flocks of flamingos, riotous colors on thousands of trees.
Why do we lose the thrill of the ordinary, and when does it happen? It must be a process so slow that we don’t even notice. We just turn around one day and there we are, real adults, jaded and skeptical. Digging up dandelions instead of blowing on them.
I wonder if children come to us partly to force a change in our outlook, to allow us to take pleasure once again in simple things. Maybe I’ll leave a few of those dandelions in the yard this year, on the side farthest from my neighbor.

More Hikes

A few more hiking routes great for winter outings that I mapped for backpacker.com:
Part of the 4C Trail in East Texas
Canyon of the Eagles Juniper Ridge Trail
Enjoy!

Great Winter Hikes

Some hiking routes I mapped for backpacker.com, great in winter:
Death Valley Mosaic Canyon
Palo Duro Canyon State Park Lighthouse Trail
Arizona's San Pedro House

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Trinity River Center

The Trinity River Audubon Center near Dallas turned an old dump into a beautiful treasure. Read part of my story about it from the April, 2010 issue of Texas Highways.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Driving a plug-in

I spent some time driving a Prius plug-in hybrid and wrote about it for Texas Co-op Power Magazine. Read it here.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Weekend trip

Three Days in the Field: Bryan/College Station. My latest article for Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Fall at last

My article on fall foliage for Texas Highways, with delicious photos!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Crude oil and fish

My latest news piece for Nature, on a new paper showing how Deepwater Horizon affected marsh fish.

Monday, September 5, 2011

What works for motion sickness?

An article I wrote for Scientific American online, looking at research on motion sickness. Thanks to NASA and the military!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Research subs dry docked

Read about a loss to ocean science in the Gulf of Mexico in my latest Nature news article here.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Three Days in Brownwood

In the latest issue of Texas Parks & Wildlife, my weekend in Brownwood, Texas.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Summer Destinations

Summer fun in Alaska, Michigan, and Maine - my piece for the summer issue of Women's Adventure Magazine.

Border wall threatens wildlife

My news piece for Nature on the border wall and how it harms wildlife.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Sea Turtles in SciAm

My piece for Scientific American about how fishing practices and plastic trash threaten sea turtles.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Rigs and Research

Latest short news item related to the oil spill, for Nature. Read it at: http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110704/full/news.2011.396.html.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Dive Therapy

I wrote about scuba diving programs for disabled soldiers in the July issue of Texas Co-op Power Magazine. Read it here.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Brothers, Rivals

A fun little piece I wrote about brothers who are superintendents at rival districts, for Texas School Business.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Search for Dogtooth Violets

"Wildflower Center seed collector Michael Eason also advises Texas Highways magazine on the best routes for viewing wildflowers. This year he enlisted the help of those highway-driving readers in locating the elusive populations of dogtooth violet (Erythronium albidum), an uncommon plant usually found in woodlands. The result was a number of enthusiastic reports about dogtooth violet populations, some in East Texas and one in Dallas. At least one of these populations had not been previously reported or recorded in plant databases. Once again, native plant lovers are on the job helping us conserve plants!"
From the Summer 2011 issue of Wildflower - about my article in the April Texas Highways!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Fun Sea Turtle Science

My latest piece for Nature News, about tagging small turtles.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico

A news piece I did for Nature about the reporting system for oil spills, and how such spills are probably routinely under-reported.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Closed Canyon Hike

Backpacker featured my write-up of this hike on its Hike of the Day blog way back in 2009, but I never posted it. A very photogenic slot canyon.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Invasive Cane

This cane is taking over Texas! Read about it in my story for Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine.

Kayaking in Texas

I wrote about a few favorite kayak trails for the April issue of Texas Highways.

Science at sea

Conducting research far from shore has unique challenges. I spent two weeks with scientists studying the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the Cape Hatteras last summer. Here's a short piece I wrote about those challenges for the UT College of Natural Sciences.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Urban Coyotes

This isn't a new article - I wrote it for the Austin Chronicle in 2008 - but the issue of coyotes in urban areas is still a hot one!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Dolphins and the Oil Spill

A short blog piece I wrote for Nature's The Great Beyond on a study showing that we have likely grossly underestimated the dolphin and whale death count from the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Ten Wild Animals

My article in the March issue of Texas Highways about ten wild animals every Texan should see.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Spring wildflowers

Third annual wildflower drives piece I've done for Texas Highways. Enjoy!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Yellowstone and Haleakala

Both places are featured in a short piece I did for the spring issue of Women's Adventure Magazine.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Oil and Water

Read my story about the effect of the oil spill on coastal plant environments in the spring issue of Wildflower Magazine.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

My story about research at The University of Texas Brackenridge Field Lab on controlling invasive fire ants with phorid flies. Check out the wild cover of Texas Coop Power's March issue for the story.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Oil Spill Talk

I'm speaking at the monthly meeting of the Travis Audubon Society about my experiences writing about the Deepwater Horizon disaster.