Thursday, 30 September 2010

A Cuteness Factor of Ten!

The time has come. I can resist their cuteness no more. After those disgusting posts on the repulsive botflies, I need a little cute and fluffy. I need adorable and endearing, delightful and charming, cheeky and cheerful. So, I give you the Columbian ground squirrel.

And no, they are not part of a drug cartel and no, they are not FARC revolutionaries hell bent on kidnapping you and ransoming you for large wads of cash. Nope, they are British Columbian ground squirrels and therefore very friendly, polite and nice, as are all British Columbians. Actually, now that I think about it, these guys may have just a little FARC in them. Not that they are interested in blowing things up or kidnapping unsuspecting tourists, but they are sneaky little buggers. There I am, minding my own business, indulging in a little bit of carrot cake with some delightfully fluffy butter icing on top, when two of the cutest ever ground squirrels scamper right up in front of me. Now, I am not a believer in feeding wildlife, no matter how cute or gorgeous said wildlife is, so I put my carrot cake carefully down behind me and patiently explained to these two delightful creatures that butter icing really wouldn't help their waistlines. Meanwhile, another crafty little squirrel is carrying out a flanking manoeuvre and has sneaked up behind me. I turn around just in time to see the cunning little critter grab two huge pawfuls of icing and make off with it back to his burrow. The two decoy squirrels scurry off after him and I swear I can hear them sniggering away whilst chowing down on my carrot cake icing. Hmpppfff - outsmarted by ground squirrels.

Still, they are cute, aren't they?

PS This post was inspired by Johnny Nutkins, over at Count Your Chicken. She is the Queen of cute squirrel photos and I fear that we both suffer from squirrelphilia and the irresistible urge to take photos of squirrels, no matter how many photos we already have.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

What, More Insects?

Insects just lend themselves so well to macro photography, don't they? They live in their own miniature world that we rarely even stop to think about, let alone look at. Even if we do stop and look, we are just not on their scale and we do not see them in all their minute, exquisite detail. This is why I love to take macro shots of insects. That, and the fact that they are always beautiful, always fascinating and their complexity, variety and diversity is almost infinite.

Besides, who doesn't love a photo of a gorgeous butterfly or a splendidly hairy caterpillar?

Now that you have oooohed and ahhhed over my photos (at least, I hope you have), I am going to do something that I always promised myself that I would never do on my blog. I always said that I would never promote myself or beg for comments or try to boost my readership in any way. I am very happy when someone comes to read my blog, even happier when they comment (well, so long as it is a nice comment, obviously), but I always said that I would just take what came along and be happy with that. But, I guess I have decided that the time has come, for once in my life, to try blowing my own trumpet. I can't actually play the trumpet, so I have to ask your indulgence to help with this one, dear reader(s). So, as I hang my head in shame, blush awkwardly, clasp my hands behind my back while shuffling my feet nervously, I shall timidly ask you, with modest decorum ........ NOMINATE ME!!!!!!!!!

OK, OK, so I know I shouldn't ask, but, as my Grandma (or was it my Mum?) always used to say "Don't ask, don't get." So I am asking for your nominations for the Canadian Blog Awards 2010. Just go here to sing my praises ....... if you want to ......... but don't feel as though you have to or anything .......... but I would be ever-so-grateful and all.

I can't believe I just did that.

For more Macro Monday, go here.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Better......Better Get a Bucket.......

WARNING: You might not want to click on the videos below - they are just a tad icky (and that is the biggest understatement of the year!)

My last Macro Monday post was a bit of a challenge - you had to identify a disgusting looking specimen that one of my colleagues at work had found. Now this beast is not one of the ugly ducklings of this world, destined to metamorphose into a beautiful creature that we can all love and admire. Nope, this animal is repugnant as a larva and not-so-nice as an adult. However, the adult is still a vast improvement over the immature.

So, today, we are talking botflies. I am pretty sure that this monstrosity is one of the best arguments against the existence of god or, if there is a god, against him being a benign, loving and forgiving sort. For the botfly really is disgusting. As an adult, it is a large, hairy fly whose sole mission in life is to reproduce. It has no functioning mouthparts, does not eat and only lives for a few days. Once mated, its goal is to find a host for its impending offspring. There are a couple of ways that it can do this. Some species lay their eggs directly on their intended victims or close by to where the victim will be. The eggs are stimulated to hatch by the warm bodies and the carbon dioxide breathed out by the soon-to-be incubators. Other botflies are even more cunning. Since they are large flies, if they land directly on their targets, they will often be felt and brushed aside. So, instead of depositing the eggs directly on the host, they actually catch a smaller fly. They grasp this fly with their legs and attach their eggs onto the fly's abdomen. When this fly lands on a likely candidate, it is less likely to be noticed and, once again, warmth and carbon dioxide cause the eggs to hatch. Pretty cunning, uh?

Adult botfly, photo is from here.
OK, so now we come to the really gross part. The larvae. These maggots live just underneath the skin of their host. Once hatched, they bury themselves headfirst in the host's body, just leaving a small hole for the tip of their abdomen to peak through. This hole gives them access to air and, since they really are disgusting, what better way to breathe than through their bums. Each segment of the botfly maggot is encircled with a row of backward pointing spines to make sure that the little bugger is firmly held in place and is very difficult to remove. The maggot can now happily munch away on the oozing flesh of the poor unfortunate critter whose misfortune has led it to be infested by this delightful creature. Once it is full grown, it will pop out, Alien style, drop to the ground and pupate, eventually emerging as an adult fly.

Young botfly maggot, photo is from here. As you can see, the young larvae are soft and yellow, with lots of spines.
Mature botfly maggot

So, there you have it. If the above has not disgusted you quite enough, then have a look at these videos. The second one was very "kindly" sent to me from Katherine, over at The Last Visible Dog. Thank you Katherine, that was so sweet of you - NOT!

What kind of god could come up with these things? I mean, really!?! Oh, and don't forget - DON'T watch these videos if you have a weak stomach. If you do and you still want to watch them, go and get a bucket first, just in case.

Are you still here? Crikey! Perhaps you didn't watch the videos. Anyway, I thought that I should point out that my specimen, found here in Beautiful British Columbia, belongs to the genus Cuterebra and is a parasite of mainly rodents such as squirrels and rabbits. The main place for human botflies is Central America and some of South America, so you can sleep tight tonight, unless you live there or have recently been there ............. oh crap......... I would have noticed one by now, wouldn't I?

Sunday, 19 September 2010

What is in Your Fridge?

So I get this email the other day that starts like this:

"I found this really disgusting thing the other day and I thought of you."

Well, really, that is quite the insult, is it not?

As it turns out, it is not quite as insulting as it first sounds. The reason this person thought of me is that they hoped, due to my vast sum of knowledge and experience with disgusting things, that I might be able to identify the disgusting thing. So, she was after my disgusting expertise. Not quite so bad, after all.

And here is the disgusting thing, in all its glory.

Disgusting Thing - anterior

Disgusting Thing - posterior

The question is, is there anyone out there that can match my skill and proficiency in disgusting things? That is your challenge for Macro Monday this week. Answers in the comments section please and the prize? ........... That's right, you can have the disgusting thing! Well, I don't really want to keep it, do I?

Just to help you on your way, here is some information passed onto me by the owner of this delightful specimen:

"My son's cat caught a rat somewhere yesterday afternoon. BJ has always wanted a pet rat, and this one seemed like it might recover, although it wasn't mobile at the time thank goodness, so he put it in his old terrarium.  Last evening, however, he checked to see if it had perked up any, and it was lying partially in the water dish, not looking good at all, and it had apparently sh*t out a big thing that was moving around in the water."


"On one trip, Honey-Dog caught a gopher or something - she hadn't killed it but when she dropped it on the dirt it didn't get up and run or anything.  In fact it didn't look too good at all, so I bent over it to see how bad it was hurt.  Suddenly its side started rippling and moving, and then this really big "thing" burrowed out of the side of the poor little animal and started "crawling" away across the dirt.  Horrible -- I've never forgotten that."

She finished by saying:

"I have that disgusting specimen -- it's in a baggie in the fridge in our office, "keeping cool"."

How lovely. I do wonder if her office colleagues had any idea about what was lurking in their fridge. And now I am wondering if mine have any idea what is lurking in our office fridge................

For more Macro Monday, go here.

P.S. Sorry about the not-so-good photos this week, but it is Mr. DBM's birthday today and due to all that celebrating, I seem to be running a bit short of time. Also, the subject matter was a little disgusting......

Thursday, 16 September 2010

A Moment of Crisis - the Bear Truth.

Since I have many, several, may be one or two? astute readers out there, I am sure that most of you have noticed that I have a new header for my blog. Just look at those lubbly jubbly bears up there. And look at the face of the poor, long suffering mother bear. You can almost hear her thinking "Don't make me come over there..........if I have to come over there......." Alternatively, she could be thinking "Four!?! FOUR!?! One would have been plenty, thank you very much!"

So, I have been to Alaska, to Katmai National Park, located on the Alaska Peninsula. This wilderness park, the size of Wales, is the place to go if you want to see brown bears, aka grizzly bears. The whole brown bear / grizzly bear thing is all a bit confusing, but as far as I can work it out, the grizzly bear is a subspecies of the brown bear and it is this subspecies that is found in Alaska and British Columbia. There, that is enough educational content for this post. Let's move on to the photos.........

To get to Katmai National Park, you need a float plane (or a boat and lots of time and seasickness medication). Now, I am not overly fond of small planes that have a habit of tipping over when they land on water, entombing you and dooming you to a cold and watery grave, but then I am even less of a fan of hours and hours of stomach churning sea faring, so we opted for the plane. The flight was flawless and we landed without a single hitch - that is until we noticed that our luggage, which was on a slightly later flight, seemed to be taking a very, very long time to arrive.

Me: "Excuse, but I don't suppose you know where our luggage is, do you?"

Guy who looks like he might know something: "Is it not here yet?"

Me: "Nope, just checked. It isn't sleeping with the fishes, is it?"

Gwllhmks: "Oh no, nothing like that, I suspect it is just being held up."

Me (rather sarcastically): "Oh, what might cause a luggage delay here? The baggage handlers haven't gone on strike have they?"

Gwllhmks: "Oh no, nothing like that. Go down to the beach and have a look. That will probably answer your question."

Hmmmmm, what kind of answer is that? So, slightly mystified, I trundle off to the beach and, sure enough, there is my answer. It is large, brown, very hairy and softly snoring right behind the plane on which my luggage is ensconced. Well, I have to admit that that is the best excuse that I have ever heard for delayed luggage.

"I am sorry, Ma'am, but there is a bear preventing us from off loading your luggage."

And so we arrived in Katmai. Our luggage was being safely guarded by a sleepy bear and we were then met by the welcoming committee - one mother bear and her four cubs. We had only been there 10 minutes and I already had enough photos to fill five editions of National Geographic (I am talking volume here, not quality). But just look at these adorable little characters...........

After the obligatory safety talk (don't feed the bears honey or pic-a-nic baskets, don't poke the bears with sticks and, whatever you do, no matter how tempted you might be, don't go up and try to hug one or try to squash one of the baby bears into your bag to take home), we headed off in search of bears. This proved to be surprisingly easy, and before we had even crossed the bridge to head out to the river and the falls where the bears like to gather, we had spotted several. Crossing the bridge, however, proved to be a little more tricky and things all got a bit dicey a couple of times. At the safety talk (I was actually listening, honestly), we were told we had to stay at least 50 yards away from all bears and that bears always have the right of way (like I was going to be arguing with a 500lb stinky ball of hair covered in teeth and claws). So, when we saw a bear approaching us, I calmly turned around and told Mum that we should head back down the path. Oh, wait, there was another bear walking up the path behind us. Ahhh....hmmmm, perhaps we should nip into the woods a bit? Oh....oh dear.....there seems to be a bear heading towards from that direction too.

Have you ever wondered exactly how you would react in a real crisis, where lives might be on the line? Do you imagine yourself being all cool, calm and collected, saving the children and the pregnant women first and sacrificing yourself for the greater good? Well, here was my reaction:

Me (while grabbing my mother and pushing her between me and the nearest bear): "Take her. She is old. She has lived her life. I am still young; I have my whole life ahead of me! And I am one of her beneficiaries!"

Mum (not to be outdone): "No, take her; she is still young and tender. I am old and stringy. She has much more flesh on her bones."

Mum (as an aside to me): "Right, that is it; you are out of the will!"

Luckily for us, one of the bears decided to head off the path, down to the beach, leaving us an escape route. So, I pushed past my mother and made my escape. To be fair, I did pull her along behind me and did not completely abandon her to the other two bears. Not that any of them looked particularly interested in eating either one of us - they had salmon on their minds.....

Anyhoo, we did finally manage to reach the bridge and, after about half an hour of patiently waiting for the lounging bear to remove itself from the ramp leading onto the bridge, we finally made it to the viewing platforms above the Brooks River Falls. This is where all the heavyweights of the bear world were ..........

At its busiest, I counted 17 bears at the falls or just below them. The biggest and strongest bears got the best spots, right on or in the falls, while the smaller, younger bears were relegated to slightly less desirable real estate just downstream. Each bear seemed to favour its own fishing technique, probably related to how it was taught to fish and the location of the fishing site.

Here we can see what I term the "snorkelling" techniques, where the bear shoves its head under the water and wanders around looking for salmon.

Seemed to work for this guy.........

Then we have the "watch and leap" technique. All very energetic and entertaining, but not so successful.

The most successful of all of the bears was this one, who used the "wait until it leaps into your mouth" technique.

This guy was so patient, just staring into the water, not moving a muscle until, bam, a fish jumped close enough and his jaws slammed shut. And so ends the monumental and epic journey of a salmon........

........and the bear enjoys another salmon supper.

Another technique is the "sitting in the jacuzzi" technique.

Quite a few bears favoured this technique and they appeared to just be sitting there, but they must have been doing something under the water to locate the fish, since every-so-often a head would dive under the water and a salmon would be caught........

..........or perhaps not.

Now, bears are generally solitary animals, a little bit grumpy and a lot antisocial, so having so many bears in such a small area inevitably lead to a couple of arguments over fishing rights and territory. Many of the bears show wounds and scars to attest to the ferocity of some of the fights.

And, of course, you have to start training even while very young.......

There was also competition with the idiots fishermen who go to Katmai in search of a prize salmon. Quite frankly, I think you have to be a bit soft in the head to willingly stand around surrounded by salmon and a lot of hungry bears.

Just a couple more photos to finish off this post. Of course, if you want to see even more, you can always go to my Facebook page. Just remember........enough photos to fill five editions of National Geographic....... Don't say I didn't warn you..........

Spot the Bear

A Bear Bum.........snigger.....sorry, I couldn't help myself.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Macro Monday - Drop

Hola amigos!

Yes, I am back from Ecuador and, before you ask, no the renovations are not complete. In fact, if you value your life, you will not venture down that topic of conversation. We still do not have a functioning bathroom. Enough said.

So, I have decided on a nice peaceful, zen kind of photo this week. One to calm my nerves and soothe my spirit. I need a lot of calming and soothing, along with a lot of money. And then some more money .......... sigh.

Anyhoo, it will be lovely when it is finished. There, I have said it, so you don`t have to.

For more Macro Monday, go here.

Monday, 6 September 2010

And the Winners Are .............

The cloud forest lies before me, like a woman reclining in a steamy bath, filled with foaming water. All curves and hollows, hills and valleys. The mist collects in the valleys, like the foam enveloping the woman, moulding itself to her shape. The water gently laps against her body, constantly shifting and changing, never still, just as the mist ebbs and flows against the hillsides, swirling in amongst the branches, rising up into the canopy, evaporating into the air, condensing on the leaves and branches.

The cloud forests and lowland rainforests of Ecuador. Full of life, full of movement, full of sounds never heard before. You may not get to see all the life contained within these mystical forests, but you will certainly get to hear much of it. The toucans call to each other from the tops of the trees, while the Inca jays click and rasp back and forth, these harsh sounds interspersed with clear, bell like notes that puncture the heavy, humid air. A noisy group of oropendolas invade first one tree and then another, constantly chattering, their song a liquid harmony, like fresh water bubbling up in a small, refreshing spring, starting on its journey down a mountain creek on its way to bigger, faster streams to eventually join that mighty river, the Amazon.

As you walk along the muddy path, surrounded by towering trees all smothered with their hanging gardens of bromeliads and ferns, an insistent buzzy screech begins to build up around you. The noise increases, building up to a wall of sound that completely engulfs you as it reaches its nearly deafening crescendo. The sound vibrates every cell of your body until, suddenly, all the cicadas stop their screaming and the jungle returns to its relative peace. Now the only humming that you can hear is the softer, more peaceful hum of a humming bird as it whizzes right past your ear and up into the canopy. In the cloud forest, the mist gently caresses your skin, clinging to your hair and eyelashes, slowly permeating your clothing to cool your skin. In the lowland rainforests, the moisture comes from within, as sweat oozes through all of your pores, drenching your clothing, which clings and sticks uncomfortably to your body. Water is the life giving force of these forests. At times the rain thunders down on the canopy, crashing through the leaves and down to the forest floor. Once the rain has finished, the dripping has just begun, as the water makes it way, drip by drip from a million leaves, percolating its way through all the layers of the jungle until it reaches the leaf litter below. The jungle is never quiet.

Now, since there is no way that I can write about all the wonderful creatures that we have seen in the forests on this trip to Ecuador, I have decided to give you some of the highlights (and perhaps lowlights) of the fascinating fauna of Ecuador. I have picked five categories and awarded winners in each. So, here we go:

1). Most Beautiful. This was probably the hardest category (along with cutest), because nearly all animals are beautiful in some way. But since we have spent rather a lot of our time looking at birds (some might label us with the term “bird nerds”), I decided to go with a bird. And the winner is.............. the Inca jay. This gorgeous creature is a social bird, always chattering away with other nearby jays. They are also very intelligent (as far as birds go), one of the few known species that make use of tools, using sticks to probe into crevices and holes to retrieve insects to eat.

2). The Ugliest. OK, so I realise that I just said that all animals are beautiful in some way, but I am struggling to find the beauty in this one – the golden silk orb weaver. These skin-crawling, stomach-lurching, sweat-inducing giants are everywhere, building huge webs that I swear are big enough to capture some poor, unwary biologist. Actually, that is what is beautiful about these spiders, their webs. If you look at them with the light hitting them in just the right way, the silken threads of their webs look like finely spun gold. In fact, I believe that their silk has been used to craft one of the most intricate, delicate and fabulous piece of cloth ever made. It was made from the silk of over a million spiders and is now on display at the American Museum of Natural history. Oh, and I thought that I should just mention that the females generally eat the males after mating. Talk about dangerous sex .........

3). The Most Bizarre. This prize just has to go to the tail-less whip scorpion, aka a whip spider, that we saw on one of our night hikes. The photo does not really do it justice, since you cannot see just how long its legs and “antennae” are. These arachnids, relations of the spiders and scorpions are, despite their sinister, nightmarish looks, completely harmless to humans. Of course, if you are some small bug, trying to make a living on the forest floor, you might not want to meet this guy on a dark night. You can see that its first pair of “legs” are large and grasping, covered in spines that can catch any unwary, unlucky creature that strays too close. These “legs” are, in fact, mouthparts. If you then look at the next pair of legs, you will actually find a pair of very long, slender “antennae” that wave back and forth, their incredibly sensitive tips seeking out movement of any kind. Following this first pair of legs that act as antennae, you can then count another 3 pairs of walking legs, giving this most bizarre of creatures the eight legs required of an arachnid. Whilst these animals may look like your worst nightmare, they are one of the few arachnids that show any sort of social behaviour and parental care. When the young hatch, they climb onto their mother’s back, who then carries them around and cares for them (unless they fall off, then she eats them ........ there are apparently limits to the tender loving care of this mother).

4). The Cutest. Ahhh, now this one was quite the competition. Bear in mind that I am the judge and I find weevils to be cute, so I had quite the hard time with this one. I ended up with a runner up – a most gorgeous tree frog, all goggle-eyed and legs and elbows with a mouth a mile wide. How can you not go “Ahhhhhh.....” when you see this little guy?

But then, something that even I have to admit is even cuter came along. We are driving down the road with a very knowledgeable guide who suddenly decides that we really should stop on the corner of a mountain road with very limited visibility. Hmmmm, is this really a good idea, given the way Ecuadorians drive? I ask myself. And why are we stopping here anyway? The guide hops nimbly out of the vehicle, I fall out. He starts to climb a small, overhanging cliff, reaches up and picks something off the wall of the cliff. I can’t quite see what it is, due to the veil of water that is dripping down in front of the overhang. He comes back down with his precious haul and opens his hand to reveal two of the cutest baby hummingbirds that you ever did see. He pulls out his notebook, ruler and balance and starts taking measurements of the birds. He then places them gently into the palm of my hand and I have a little teary moment. These tiny, delicate, gorgeous creatures are just sitting there, looking up at me, turning me into one big, soft smile. There goes my heart again, melting into a little pile of goo. A bird in the hand may be worth two in the bush, but two baby hummers in the hand are priceless.

5). Comedy Face of the Week. Now, this prize was hotly contested, mostly by Dr. G. I particularly liked the “Bloody hell, this is cold!” face that he pulled when he leapt into the Napa River, and came up spluttering something about how cold the water was. Then there was the face he pulled as his new girlfriend, Yolanda, started to chew on his ear. But, despite his best attempts, he has been pipped at the post by the stick insect with its novelty jumping act. Taking this photo was quite the challenge, since every time I got too close, this leggy insect would leap up into the air. If he was so inclined, he could even throw in a backward somersault, with a half twist.

So, there you have just a few of the creatures that we have encountered while on our travels in Ecuador. We have met many people and even made a few friends. Here is one of mine – Rain. She is probably one of the most spoilt dogs in Ecuador, but she has quite the talent for pulling the most hard done by, please feel sorry for me faces. Just look at her. Anyone would think that she was beaten three times a day and never fed. Still, being the sucker that I am for a sad face, I let her curl up with me on my bed every afternoon for a little cosy nap. As for Dr. G, well, his fine feathered friend was Yolanda, a parrot that we met at the Yachana Jungle Lodge. She was rescued from the pet trade and now lives at the lodge, terrorising the guests. She likes to stalk feet and dangle on the corners of the table cloth. I am not sure that she is quite all there, but she seemed to take quite the shine to Dr. G. and the feeling was mutual.

And then there was my roommate. I was not quite so sorry to say goodbye to her......