Wind At The Back

Just next month, a new edition of Lyall Watson’s Heaven’s Breath: A Natural History of the Wind.

The title is iffy and I question its dependence on the Gaia hypothesis for its overarching theme. This seems par for course of Watson, who was a prolific popularizer of science who verged into the paranormal and New Age foolishness, where he seems to have confused curiosity for credulousness.

But, the woo-woo aside, there’s much to be gleaned in this encyclopedia of fascinations. By all means take a ride in its swirling currents.

The book originally came out in 1984, which perhaps explains why, for something about the thin but all important layer between rock and space, it takes its time getting to the greenhouse effect. Watson was… optimistic about the coming climate shift: “This is bound to affect economic and political stability and to change our coastlines and our lives, but it could also be the making of a new world — one worth getting excited about all over again.” Like many a peppy prognosticator, he is no longer around to check his opinion.

What I most take away from the book are the pages on aeroplankton. The air is its own ecosystem. It’s absolutely packed with lifeforms. Insects, of course. Tons of them. What else are the swallows and swifts gobbling up overhead? And spiders, lots and lots and lots of spiders, although I’ll wager less than in Watson’s day. Ditto the other insects. (Windshields used to be covered with dead bugs after night drives, but no more, cf: Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm.) There’s pollen, too, as your nose knows, from ten thousand species of wind-pollinated plants.

And there lots of bacteria and viruses. Also spores, of fungi, lichens, mosses, liverworts, ferns. Then there’s the dust, from plowed field, desert, volcanoes.

From more recent research: 56 million metric tons of dust per year crosses the Pacific to North America, and that’s just one pathway; “the earth’s atmosphere is like a conveyor belt for microbes”; “it is now understood that even dead cells can play a functional role in weather and climate as cloud and ice condensation nuclei.”

Don’t forget the pollution which settles on the ice of the poles, reducing its albedo, meaning less reflection and more heat in the atmosphere.

“”…the latin root anima, meaning both ‘wind’ and ‘spirit’ — which leads ultimately to animus the ‘soul,’ animare to fill with ‘breath,’ and ultimately ‘animal.’ And the root spirare to ‘breath,’ from which comes ‘spirit,’ ‘aspire,’ and , in the end, ‘inspiration.'” [Not to mention ”conspire,” to breath together.]

A dictionary of wind blows through the final pages of Watson’s book. Oe, Halny, Williwaw, Waltzing Jinn, Chinook. I remember the latter from my year in Calgary: sudden thaws would pour down from the Rockies in winter. Spring came early, for a day or two.
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Hey, fun for the kids: how the world has warmed, down to the local level, and predictions on increasing warming in the place where you live.

Mind Your Bees Wings

I rarely get a chance to illustrate the four-wingedness of Hymenoptera. The pair of wings on each side of the thorax mesh together in flight, making them look like one wing per side. This Eastern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa virginica) is the biggest local bee species. And bigger makes things easier to see. One wing set is disconnected on this leaf-cutter bee.

American Dagger

There is so much going on “in” an oak tree. The biologist E.O. Wilson has written that you could spend a lifetime voyaging like Magellan around a single tree, discovering all the interrelated life associated with it. Quercus is definitely one genus where this applies very well.

This British study found 284 insects associated with oaks. There isn’t a lot of oak diversity in the UK. Meanwhile, searching the combination of insects and oaks on-line gives you a lot of information on pests, as we define them. A lot of things eat oaks, to be sure. Migrating songbirds know it well: an oak in spring is rich with caterpillars. The hungry birds hunt and feast within the emergent leaves, gobbling up caterpillars in the canopy — things we rarely ever see, yet are quite clearly there.

There’s a row of Swamp White (Quercus bicolor) and Pin (Q. palustris) lining a street nearby. I look up into them when I pass. The trees are young enough that the leaves are still within reach. Flies, ladybugs, aphids, galls can all be seen in the trees. This is recent sighting: the caterpillar of the American Dagger moth (Acronicta americana). They can be rather yellower as they grow. Here, several days later, is an even smaller one.
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The New York Times finally gets around to an obit for Florence Merriam Bailey, author of what was probably the very first field guide for birds. Shall we review the gendering of bird-watching/birding?

The Bee’s Tongue

Never mind the knees, how about those tongues? Check out the tongue between the down-turned antennae. (Those antennae, by the way, are hugely important sensory organs: they can touch, taste, and smell.) There are short-tongued and long-tongued bee species.This leaf-cutter bee seems to be tasting this stem.This one explored numerous leaf edges. The tip of her tongue looks very rough… it’s hairy. I guess she’s looking for the right leaf to cut? She uses these pieces of leaf to line her nest. This Univ. of Florida site gives good information on leaf-cutters, but then says “Leafcutting bees can be considered a pest because of leaf cutting on ornamental plants.” No, no, no! Isn’t this infuriating? It’s nineteenth century gardening nonsense in the 21st century. Human aesthetics, another thing killing the planet. Wear those circular cuts in plants as badges of pride!This poor Bombus didn’t make it. She died with tongue out (unless it’s a male?). With some magnification, the tip of the tongue is seen in all its roughness. The flanking parts are mouth bits, maxilla perhaps, or palpi?

By the way, the wings are hairy too. Sparse, short black hairs.

Raptor Wednesday

Look, up in the sky! It’s a… oh, let’s cut to the chase, comix book fans. It is a mature Bald Eagle. A pair have been nesting in the area for a couple of years now. (Remember, in 1974 there were no breeding pairs in New York State AT ALL. In 2017, there were 323 breeding pairs in the state. With their assault on the environment/health/the future, Republicans are driving hard to return to that zero base-line.)

This is the way this flyby went down. In the distance, we saw an Osprey coming inshore with a fish. The eagle intercepted it. As Ben Franklin noted, our national symbol is a pirate and scavenger. The Osprey dropped the fish, but the hump of beach ahead of us blocked our view of what happened after that. Several moments later, however, the eagle flew along the narrow beach right over our heads. There was some prey clutched in those hand-sized talons.Heading towards the nest, I’ll wager, with lunch. The prey is pretty mangled in that mighty grip, but seems to show a lot of scales. Fish is the one of the main foods of this sea eagle.The width of the plank-like wings when one of these flies over is unbelievable.

Another Snout

This makes four American Snouts, Libytheana carinenta, I’ve seen so far this year in Brooklyn. That’s four times as many as I’ve ever seen. This one, unfortunately, was dead on the sidewalk.

More Exuviae

An emergent damselfly next to the husk of its former, aquatic life stage. When they first emerge as their adult, flying form, they don’t have much color. Their wings unfurl and harden off, like their new exoskeleton. They can’t fly immediately.When they can fly, they will sometimes take shelter in trees, bushes, etc., to finish up. The wings are milky at first, make them look a bit like craneflies in flight. More exuviae. This all happen to be from dragonflies, not damselflies.These all seem to have a good grip, but they are very insubstantial. They’ll blow out of your hand at the hint of a breeze.


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