Thursday, March 27, 2014

Demands, down time & dragons

The last few months have been super quiet for me. It's been weird but it was by design. I needed the opportunity to get my savings plan on track, to earn some adulting points, to take a break from travel and plan a few things, and to just relax a bit. Tomorrow though it's back on the traveling bug and I'll be up to the usual Villani shenanigans starting with a trip to El Paso to see some of my favorite people!

They're pretty cool. 

In all this downtime I accomplished a lot - I bought a new car in January, and just sold my Tracker a few days ago. I have renewed my passport, found a place to live when my lease is up, gotten my savings plan on track, got the cat microchipped, planned to get scuba certified (thanks KC!), etc, etc. It's been an accomplishing few months. I got a lot of stuff in order!

I bought a new car!

In the middle of all the accomplishing stuff & downtime, I realized what stresses me out the most. I'm the manager at work, I captain a kickball team and a softball team, and I'm a commissioner in the kickball league. That's a lot of demands on my time. Most days, it's absolutely fine. I'm very organized and I'm very efficient so I can get a lot done like that. But there are days when it seems like everyone needs something from me all day long, and it gets overwhelming. I get tired of making decisions for everyone else. Sometimes, I just want someone else to decide for me. But when you're so often the decision maker, nobody else takes the wheel. I guess that's why I have a life captain!?

I've also realized what really relaxes me. Turns out a warm bath + an episode of "Cosmos" is pretty relaxing. Hammocks do the trick too. And naps. And beer. Not necessarily in that order or combination.  It's been a really great few months getting my act together and enjoying fun times.

More travel-y posts will start back up after my trip to Texas, promise!

And dragons? Game of Thrones starts next weekend!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

My Personal Astrophysicist (or so he says)

"In the vast ocean of time that this calendar represents, we humans only evolved within the last hour of the last day of the cosmic year." --Neil deGrasse Tyson

It's quotes like that and other mind blowing statements that make me love Neil deGrasse Tyson. And if you don't know who he is, you're seriously missing out. He's my generation's Carl Sagan. And if you don't know who Carl Sagan is, go forth & ask Google. I'll wait. If you have even the slightest interest in the universe, you should read "Cosmos" too - it's mind blowing.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is like a celebrity. He's got memes, imgur pages, Daily Show appearances, his own podcast called Star Talk, Cosmos, reddit AMAs, an incredibly educational twitter account, even a GQ cover. Not to mention scientific literature and books. Also his website is amazing and lists all these things I already mentioned!

Let's be honest, how many people get to take self portraits with the President? Seriously. Bill Nye, Barack Obama, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. It's hard to even look at.
from Twitter:

My friends and I have developed this intense following for him. I ran the Tough Mudder last year, and we named our team "YMFNS" after a NDT meme. And because of that, we are awesome. Also because we completed a Tough Mudder, but also because (sort of) promoting science!

And that's what NDT does - promotes science. No wonder he's pals with Bill Nye the Science Guy, who also is promoting science education. Science is one of those things that is fact based, not opinion based. One of my favorite quotes EVER - 

Seriously. The man is a genius. Not just because he's an astrophysicist but for what he's doing to make science popular again. And make science seem accessible and wonderful (which it is). I'm a compulsive listener to any interview he does, and I love his radio show Star Talk. I love it for the science, and for the co-hosts and guests. He has had everyone from astronauts to actors to comedians to Bill Nye on his radio show - all in the name of promoting science. He also does Cosmic Query episodes where he answers questions from fans. He really is our personal astrophysicist, he even says so on his show!  

"Everyone should have their mind blown once every day." --NDT on WNYC

So in the name of science and all that is mind blowing, go watch "Cosmos". Support science. Question everything.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Ice + Bridges = Louisiana is closed

A few weeks ago, Louisiana was effectively iced over for 3 days. We don't get a lot of typical winter weather, mostly its just 40 and raining, which is quite miserable. But it was cold (20s F), snowing/snow pelleting/icing, and not sunny at all. 

My car's windshield... about 1/4" of ice. A lot for Louisiana!

It was like an actual winter!

And to add to the problem, Louisiana has sooo many long bridges. Like.... 

Claim to fame: longest bridge continually over water in the world

Manchac Swamp Bridge (I55) - 22 miles
Claim to fame: Longest toll free road bridge

Atchafalaya Basin Bridge (I10) - 18 miles 
Claim to fame: Second longest bridge in the US (1st is the Causeway, above)

Leeville Bridge (LA 1) - 18 miles
Claim to fame: Why does this bridge have a 90 degree turn?
(LA DOTD photo)

Bonnet Carre Spillway Bridge (I10) - 11 miles
Claim to fame: You can see a CRMS site from there!

And those are just the long bridges! If you count all the bridges over rivers, creeks, overpasses, tiny streams, and anything elevated at all, you couldn't get anywhere for a few days. So naturally, the only logical thing to do is drink whiskey! With snow pellets for chilling. 

PS - I found all the bridge pictures using Google. They are not mine. The car & whiskey pictures are though. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

21 easy ways to identify a biologist out of the field

1. Sunglasses tan. Variable. Can range from super prevalent to barely noticeable depending on the season.

2. Sunglasses. Biologists always have sunglasses. Hence the tan line. And they're probably polarized.

3. Digital watch in military time. You know, 24 hour time that most people don't use.

3. Inability to dress appropriately for an office environment. After many hours of field work, biologists are unaware of proper office etiquette.

4. Frequent wind burn. Typical in coastal biologists that spend many hours on boats.

5. Pocket knife. Biologists always have pocket knives.

6. Pencils. They may be stashed on a collar, in a pocket, behind an ear, in a hat, or in their hair. But there will be a pencil somewhere.

7. The odor of sunscreen and/or bug spray and/or Amber Romance. This aspect varies on the biologist's environment, and can sometimes include all 3 which is quite the vile mixture.

8. Footwear. Biologists have more rubber boots and hiking boots and Chacos than any other group.

9. Clothing material. In the summer, they shift to light weight quick dry sunproof clothing. In the winter, wool and fleece. The transition may happen gradually or immediately depending on the biologist's surrounding environment.

10. Water carrying devices. Camelbak backpacks and reusable water bottles are common, and often adorned with an outdoorsy sticker or two.

11. Camouflage. Biologists are great at camouflaging. They can sometimes be hard to see. They can display camouflage for all situations and environments.

12. Waterproofing. For phones, gear, and self - biologists can waterproof anything!

13. Impressive shade finding ability. Common in open area biologists. Even if they have to make their own shade, there will be shade nearby.

14. Rite in the Rain paper. Everything will be written on this. They can't predict rainstorms and they can't risk lost data!

15. Inability to not identify birds/plants/sounds/frogs while in the presence of non-biologists. Often leads to silly looks, blank stares, and disbelieving remarks.

16. The ability to be awake between 0300-0500. It is a defining characteristic of the biologist. They might be out working, or they might still be up drinking whiskey. You never know, but they excel in that window of time!

17. Mud trail. Biologists invariably leave a trail of easy to follow footprints. When looking for biologists, just look for muddy prints. These prints will likely be in the shape of LaCrosse boots as well.

18. Miscellaneous attachments. You can often identify a biologist from afar by the random items still attached from the field. Binoculars, compass, GPS, permanent markers, and flagging are all examples of things to look for.

19. Headwear. Depending on the environment, your biologist will likely have one of the following - dorky shade hat, beat up baseball hat, bandana, headband, or just plain windblown hair because they lost their headwear somewhere in the field.

20. Rogue bits of nature. Leaves, dead mosquitoes, moss, fur, animal poop, and feathers are all common items to find on a biologist. Usually in their hair and they had no idea it was there.

21. Less obvious signs of the field. Your biologist will be sunburnt, wind burnt, tanned weirdly, mosquito bitten, gnat bitten, covered in poison ivy, have weird scrapes and bruises, be scratched by vines, bitten by wildlife (stupid northern cardinals), and will have loved every minute of it.

Thanks to Dr G for assisting with this list! 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

That time I saw California condors

In 2007, I was graduating college. My family wanted to take a trip, so they asked me where I wanted to go. Immediately I responded - the Grand Canyon.

Easy to see why, right?

So off to the Grand Canyon we went, shortly after my college graduation. When we first arrived at the park, I was eagerly scanning the sky looking for birds. (Have I mentioned I like birds?) I don't even remember who was driving, but as we were parking, I spotted two very large, very conspicuous birds soaring above the canyon. California Condors. I literally jumped out of a moving vehicle with my binoculars, darted across the parking lot, and watched the condors for as long as they were in sight. 

gratuitous canyon shot

They were beautiful. Gliding around, being amazing. Their massive wingspan is downright impressive. I'm used to seeing bald eagles (wingspan ~6.5ft) in Louisiana, but these condors just dwarfed all memory of them with their wingspan of 9+ ft. Even a golden eagle I saw later didn't seem that impressive after these condors. Don't get me wrong, golden eagles are also super impressive in their own right but the condors set a really high bar. I probably only saw these condors for 5 minutes, but it's a memory I'll have forever.

Honestly, even getting to see a condor in the wild is a testament to the efforts of wildlife biologists to save the species. At one point, the population was rapidly declining from lead poisoning, poaching, and loss of habitat. The species almost went extinct... and did go extinct in the wild. The population plummeted down to 22 individuals by 1987, and all were in captivity. Efforts at captive breeding were made, and successful, and the ultimate goal is to re-establish viable wild populations. But with the population of the species being so low, biologists couldn't risk losing any birds to untested conditions in the wild. So instead, they released female Andean condors initially to test the viability of a release program. 

Andean Condor at the Bronx Zoo, 2007

Andean condors are quite similar, and these efforts were pretty successful. Once they determined that the plan would work, they recaptured the Andean condors and re-released them in their native South America. California condors have been released into the wild since 1991, only a few years after they went extinct in the wild. 

Current populations in the wild are just over 200 birds, which is a vast improvement over only 22 individuals total. There's also a captive population of around 200 birds. Captive bred young condors are released into the wild to supplement the wild population. Wild bred condors are few and far between but at least they are actively breeding in the wild now!

Despite these valiant efforts and the amazing improvement in the populations, condors are still at risk. Lead ammunition has been banned in condor territory in California since 2007, with a statewide ban going into effect in 2019. Condors, being scavengers, would ingest lead when scavenging carcasses of game animals. By banning lead, a hugely important step to protecting condors has been completed. Wildlife biologists also provide non-contaminated carcasses for condors to scavenge on, as well as monitor birds for lead poisoning. They also check nests and young birds for ingestion of trash, which is a massive problem in condors. This problem is not isolated to condors (seabirds are also massively affected) but causes a huge problem for the wild population. Diligent monitoring by wildlife biologists and protected habitat have made maintaining condor populations possible. 

Today's condors live in partially protected areas like national parks, national forests, and designated refuges. I've often said that national parks are one of my favorite things, and not just because I like parks. They also have a functional purpose - protecting wildlife. Even if I never see another wild condor in all my traveling days, just knowing they exist in our national parks makes everything worth it. 

The moral of the story is support wildlife conservation, visit national parks, and don't be a dick.