Tuesday, March 29, 2011

My Backyard Trees

First off, what is a backyard?

For some people this is easy to define--it's the yard around their house. But what if you live in an apartment in the city on the twenty-eighth floor? If there's a nearby park, you can call that your backyard. Or your friend's yard out in the suburbs. Or the greater area. You can decide what to call your backyard for the Biodiversity Challenge.

So have you figured out what trees are in your yard? I was a little surprised when I listed mine: ash, elm, two different looking junipers, catalpa, apricot, peach, Lombardy poplar and white poplar. What surprised me? There are quite a few different species of ashes, elms, and junipers, and I'm not entirely sure what we have. I'm going to have to take a closer look.

That might not be the easiest right now, given that the trees have no leaves on them, but there are clues. Last year's leaves, the bark, the height, the shape, and more can be very helpful. Or I can just wait a few weeks!

Are the trees in your yard native? From a biodiversity standpoint, that's the best. Sadly, none of the trees in my yard are native. The only native trees around here at this elevation grow next to the creeks. If there isn't water, we don't have trees, we just have shrubs or grasses or other plants. I think it's very important to find out if species are native or not, so I encourage you as you make your list to put asterisks next to the species that are non-native.

Okay, I want to find out more about what's in your yard! Please leave a comment about the trees you find there, or what tree you would like to plant in your yard and why.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Backyard Biodiversity Challenge #1

Ready to explore what lives around you?

I hope so, because we're about to embark on the Backyard Biodiversity Challenge!

Together we can learn about the fantastic species that live close at hand.

I've just started doing some research about doing backyard biodiversity, and there are a variety of articles out there that I'm reading. There will be posts about biodiversity and how organisms are grouped, but I like to jump in with both feet, so here goes:

Challenge #1: What species of trees live in your yard?

Take a tour of your yard and write (or draw) what they are. If you have some that you don't know (I just realized we have an ornamental juniper that I'm not sure about), then see if you can find a tree i.d. book and figure it out. Maybe there's a neighbor who's good with trees, or a local cooperative extension agent that can help you. If all else fails, send me an email at desertsurvivorATlive.com, and I'll see if I can be of any help.

Our objective for the Backyard Biodiversity Challenge is to better appreciate what lives all around us.

Taking a little extra time to see what's so close to us will help us to see the wider world and the myriad of connections that make everything work.

So stop reading and head out into your yard!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Meeting E.O. Wilson

Most of the week while I was in New Orleans I wasn't seeing cool sights, but rather was in the Sheraton Hotel attending the George Wright Society biennial meeting. The George Wright Society focuses on preserving protected places, such as national parks.

There were countless great talks, and it was a bit overwhelming with about 16 concurrent sessions. I found out more about forest health issues, geographical information systems, hydrology, White Nose Syndrome, park management, and much more.

The highlight of the conference was when I was in a biodiversity session, and half-way through, Edward O. Wilson from Harvard University walked into the room. He listened to our discussion and had some very pertinent comments at the end. After the session ended, a bunch of us science geeks swarmed him like a rock star. I got his autograph and a photo of me standing next to him.

If you haven't heard of E.O. Wilson, here are a few things about him:
  • He coauthored a paper about Island Biogeography that helps explains why there are fewer species on islands that are small and far away from the mainland
  • He is an expert on ants, having started as a young child identifying them
  • He has won two Pulitzer prizes, for On Human Nature (1979) and The Ants (1990)
  • If he had to live his life over, he said he would focus on microbial biology
  • He studied the social behavior of ants, which helped him found the field of sociobiology
  • He found that if ants disappeared, so would humans
  • He is a champion of learning about the biodiversity around us, and encourages people to go out and find what lives in their backyard.
I happened to have a flyer for our Hymenoptera (bees, wasps, and ants) Bioblitz that I'm helping to organize, so I was sure to invite him to it. Yeah, the chances of him coming are less than one percent. But I'm an optimist! And just meeting him makes me want to go out and find what lives in my yard. So here's a heads up for the topic of some upcoming posts...

Thursday, March 24, 2011

New Orleans for Kids

Bourbon Street is probably not the place to take your kids, unless they're too young to remember what they see (which hopefully mine fall into that category!). Fortunately, there are plenty of things to do around the New Orleans area that are great for kids, like the streetcars, ferry ride, visiting the National Park Service areas New Orleans Jazz and Jean LaFitte, and just enjoying the various scenes in Jackson Square.

If you want to mix some natural science education in with the fun, the Audubon Institute has an aquarium, insectarium, IMAX theatre, and zoo. Admission to each on its own is a little pricey, but you can get a combo ticket to all of them for $40 for adults and $25 for kids and seniors.

The aquarium, insectarium, and IMAX theatre are all located near Canal Street and the Mississippi River, so if you're staying near there can be seen in a couple hours each (or a long lunch hour). The lines for tickets at the aquarium were the longest; if you can buy them elsewhere, you can then just walk in the front doors and avoid the ticket line.

The aquarium was very busy, but with little kids and short attention spans, we weren't going to have time to read much anyhow. You enter under a tank, which is kind of cool. Desert Boy was fascinated with the sting rays. He later got to pet one, which was a highlight of the day.

A stingray's mouth is a little odd. Just saying.

Most of the exhibits house warm water aquatic species, but they did have a penguin exhibit.

Desert Girl was particularly enthralled.

We also enjoyed the seahorses, Amazon adventure, play area, and Mississippi River section.

These cool looking fish are paddlefish, found in the Mississippi River. They get to be several feet long and are so neat!

Next was a trip to the IMAX, but I had to get back to my meetings, so I don't have any insight into that. Apparently it was a good napping spot for a couple grandkids and a grandparent. They run three different movies, and they all sounded interesting.

Another day it was time for a quick jaunt into the Insectarium. Desert Girl sported her "I Love Dirt" bib. It was quite appropriate. She also enjoyed playing with her beads.

The Insectarium opened in 2008 and is the largest museum dedicated to insects only in the U.S.

They had a dark, underground section, where humans were reduced to the size of insects. The ants looked huge!

There were bugs of all kinds--and Desert Boy sure enjoyed this one!

Then we headed to the insect cafe, where we had our choice of cinnamon bug crunch, cajun crickets, southwest waxworms, vanilla covered crickets, mealworm salsa, and more.

I tried a couple different things. Not the best, but not the worst, either. It's worth keeping in mind that insects are an important protein source for some people in the world.

The Eat a Bug Cookbook is available for anyone who wants recipes.

Would you eat this cricket?

We really enjoyed the 6-minute insect movie which had lots of special effects. There were all sorts of hands-on exhibits, and I appreciated this Audubon place more than the others. The final part was a walk through a Japanese butterfly garden. Before all the schoolkids came through, it was quite tranquil and calming.

The zoo is located out by the Garden District, and we took Bus 11 to get there and the St. Charles Streetcar to return. It was interesting seeing all the beads on the wires and trees left from the Mardi Gras parades.

The petting zoo was a fave.

Desert Girl by an old fish fountain. (She really liked those beads!)

Desert Boy was so excited to find a live oak to climb. So were a lot of other kids!

We saw all sorts of animals, but the highlight was Monkey Hill, a play area for kids with this spiderweb, a big hill, and more.

The more included this water attraction. We had packed spare clothes for Desert Boy, and knowing that it was going to be a hot day, that included a swimsuit. He was delighted to get wet. So was Desert Girl. We spent about an hour there. I guess we needed a water park more than a zoo!

The zoo had great seafood gumbo, served in the swamp section. The alligators were lazing about.

Until one chomped on Desert Boy!

We walked around the small swamp. I would have loved to have gone and seen the real swamp, but there wasn't enough time to do it all. Our friends did go out to the swamp, and I can't wait to see their photos!

March was about perfect weather. I can't imagine visiting New Orleans in summer, it must be really uncomfortable. Nearly all the animals at the zoo were warm weather animals. The zoo is huge; we got too tired before we had a chance to see it all. I guess we'll just have to go back someday!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

New Orleans by Night

We had fun exploring New Orleans by night. After dinner one evening, we were meandering through the French Quarter when we heard people shouting and saw a flashing blue light from a cop car. We ran up to the corner and witnessed a two-float parade. I'm not sure what it was for, but they were throwing beads and seemed glad to have someone to throw them to, so we got a bunch. We were feeling in the party mood, so we ambled up to Bourbon Street.

The guidebook said it is not typical New Orleans, but due to its notoriety, we wanted to see it anyway. It was definitely a party street, with lots of bars, strip clubs, food, and music. It sort of reminded me of the bawdy Las Vegas strip, but with more culture thrown in. They close the street at night so it's easy to walk.

Thursday was St. Patrick's Day, and the New Orleans website said they were going to have a parade and had a map of the parade route. It was supposed to start at 6, but the map showed several beer stops along the way, so we figured it might take a while to get to us.

We started walking from our hotel at 6:45 down the parade route, with the idea we'd try and find some dinner. People were lined up all along the sidewalks. One restaurant had an hour wait. Then I noticed the almost-empty balcony on the Hard Rock Cafe, and we went over to see if we could eat there. They said yes!

While we were waiting, we saw this cool banana bicycle-for-two go by. The parade watchers hooted and hollered. But alas, we were still in for a long wait for the real parade.

It was getting darker, but there was still traffic on the street below. We ate our dinner, and still no parade.

Emma was getting a little tired.

Darkness had fallen over the city, and yet still no parade. The crowd on the street grew. I was so glad we had decided to eat first!

Finally, about 9 p.m., some cops on motorcycles came by. Then a bunch of little dune buggies. They had beads, and the crowd swarmed them to get the beads. Then there was a long delay as we waited for a fire truck to get back to the nearby station.

The balcony gave us a great vantage point, and it wasn't crowded. That was good for us rural folks, who needed a little extra elbow room.

Finally the floats started coming, and Desert Boy wanted to get some beads, so I took him down to the street.

We saw this bagpipe band.

We also did quite well collecting beads. Some of them may make a reappearance at an upcoming parade in our area.

Happy St. Patrick's Day! The parade was a little different than others I've seen. Lots of people were walking and handing out beads. And drinking beer. I've never seen so many kegs in a parade. Or a port-a-potty. I guess that beer has to go somewhere.

Our last night we went out to dinner with friends and then took the free ferry across the Mississippi River. The city looked really neat.

Some of the feral cats that live under the ferry station. Someone feeds them, as there were several big bowls of food.

Grandmas and their grandbabies!

On the walk back from the ferry station we stopped to play in the fountain at the casino.

Ava was ready to get wet!

Emma and Isaac were content to hang out in their strollers.

Desert Boy and Ava were happy to play together.

They had fun goofing off.

And getting wet.
And getting wetter.

Finally it was time to leave.
It was a good time! There is still so much more of New Orleans that I'd like to visit.

Monday, March 21, 2011

New Orleans by Day

If you guessed New Orleans as the mystery location, you're right! I attended a conference there last week. I didn't really wanted to be separated from my kids for that long, and Grandma and Grandpa were willing to check out the Big Easy, so they flew down and watched the kids while I attended the conference.

I still tried to get out and do as much exploring as possible, as I had never been to New Orleans before. In a nutshell, it was really interesting, and I'd like to go back to see even more. March weather was wonderful.

One night we went and had dinner at Jackson Square in the French Quarter. We were entertained by the white man, who played a song when someone tipped him.

Tarot card readers were set up in several locations. I liked that this one claimed to be 98.5% accurate. I wonder how he evaluated his success.

We walked around a bit, enjoying the sights, sounds, and smells of this unique spot.

I went for morning runs to see a bit more (and to keep training for some upcoming triathlons). I found a nice path along the Mississippi River.

The Segway tour provided an amusing sight.

I also enjoyed this interesting horse post. Other early morning sights included plenty of delivery vans, street sweepers, and relatively few people. I didn't see any other runners except on the path by the river.

Desert Girl got so worn out by some of the activities that she literally crashed--right into her stroller.

The grandparents and grandkids took the free ferry across the Mississippi River several times. They also became pros at riding the streetcars. Desert Boy was delighted to ride "trains."

Here's another view from the path along the river on a different morning.

I liked this statue.

A close up showed she had her beads, too.

This is yet another photo of the Mississippi River, with a big oceanliner on it. But it was all fogged in that morning!

Next I'll show some of the night scenes of New Orleans. We had some interesting experiences!
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