Posts in Category: Traveling About

A Day in Cambridge

Posted Jul 16th, 2009 at 10:41 am in Photography, Traveling About | 1 Comment

a church in Cambridge

On July 10th, we went to Cambridge for a day at the Museum of Zoology at Cambridge University, the Sedgwick Museum, and dinner at the famous Eagle Pub where Watson and Crick frequented during their time working out the structure of DNA. The entire album can be seen in the gallery.

My favorite picture of the day was the ceiling at the Eagle Pub. During World War II, U.S. and British airmen would leave notes on it using lighters, candles, and lipstick.

ceiling of the Eagle Pub

I would write more but I’ve gotta run as we’re headed out the door for an extended weekend of birding.

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Class by Morning, British Museum by Afternoon

Posted Jul 14th, 2009 at 7:28 am in Photography, Science, Traveling About | 2 Comments

My next installment of photos are up in the gallery, consisting largely of Amy and I’s short trip to the British museum on July 9th. In addition, I wanted to share a writeup about what the day was like. One of the requirements of the course is that we keep a journal each day. While I can’t promise to share this information every time (due to the time constraints), I wanted to give a picture of what a typical day is like.

Class in the Morning

In class this morning, Dr. Maxwell covered many of the most important naturalists of the 18th and 19th centuries. I especially found the French naturalists and the events surrounding the French Revolution fascinating as I know so much less about them than I do the same period in England. For example, I found it fascinating that the French scientists changed the name of the Kings Garden to Plant Garden (Jardin de Roi to Jardin de Plantes) in order to try and survive the French Revolution and the anger directed towards the king and the nobility. Dr. Dowler talked more about museums, how they acquire specimens, set goals and policies, and the role and responsibility of a curator.

Getting Too Smart For Our Own Good

After lunch Amy and I took the subway to the British Museum, getting off at Russell Street. It was here that I learned a valuable lesson about being a visitor in other people’s country. If you see a bunch of British people doing something a certain way and think to yourself that you have a better solution, you are, quite simply, wrong.

Here’s what happened. After getting off the tube, we followed a herd of people and found ourselves at a lift (elevator) that was absolutely packed with even more people trying to squeeze on. “Let’s take the stairs,” we said. The fact that not a single person had opted to do the same should have been our first clue. Perhaps 11 stories later after taking one enormous, never ending, twirling staircase (that lacked even a single flat section) we understood why.

The British Museum

The British Museum itself was incredible, if just a touch overwhelming. (You can steal some really nice stuff given a few hundred years.) We didn’t really have enough time, but I actually think that was a good thing. Everyone knows my attention span isn’t always the greatest, and I actually think having a shorter amount of time helps me take in a lot of things without going a little stir crazy.

Amy at the British Museum
Amy at the British Museum.

We spent most of our time looking at fairly early cultures in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Assyrian, and some Greek and Roman artifacts. There were many stunning objects, either for their significance in what they said about the culture that produced them or the quality of the artwork. For example, there were some Roman Egyptian paintings around the turn of the common era (0 A.D.) that showed a level of sophistication in their shading and use of light that were seen again until the Renaissance. You look at these things and could literally imagine the real flesh and blood of these people walking around in the room with you.

Another exhibit that struck me was some of the religious practices of the Egyptians. One contained mummified cats, which were held in cat-shaped containers and elaborately adorned, not unlike sarcophagi of the Egyptian pharaohs. In some cases, the cat had its neck broken before being entombed. The Egyptians apparently believed that animals (not just cats but lots of different animals) acted as intermediaries for certain gods. Another practice included small human figurines placed inside people’s tombs to assist with work in the afterlife. Initially, tombs contained only one or two of these figurines, but over time the number increased. At the height of this practice, 401 figurines were buried with a person — one for each day of the year plus 36 overseers to manage all the workers.

The Rosetta Stone

Of course the main thing that we went to see was the Rosetta Stone. Not that it’s that impressive to behold or that we can understand any of the languages on it. Rather the significance is really impressive.

The Rosetta Stone

I also got a handful of really cool pictures of random people looking at the Rosetta Stone. This first is of the crowds that never stop trying to press in and get a closer view.

Crowds around the Rosetta Stone

Looking at the Rosetta Stone

The Enlightenment Room

The last thing that Amy and I looked at was a collection of items in the Enlightenment Room that were in the first holdings of the British Museum when the Crown purchased the collection of Sir Hans Sloan in 1753. This exhibit included many natural history objects (most in fairlypoor shape, small, or fossilized). Also included were other items and books from 18th and 19th century England, placed in shelves along the entire perimeter of the room. Maroon velvet paneling adorned the room’s walls, which was made with wooden floors, a yellow and white ornate ceiling, and gold brass trimmings. The entire atmosphere was of a “cabinet of curiosity” as one might have seen just before the dawn of the modern museum era.

I found myself enthralled by the experience and decided that this was easily my favorite room in the museum. The reason is that it contained two histories. That of the objects themselves — Roman soldier helmets, Egyptian artwork — and that of the people and the entity that had cared to collect these objects in the first place. And as I reflected, it became apparent that every object had a story of how it came to be at the British Museum (or indeed any other museum). I imagine that some of these stories are quite mundane. Others however are not, like the Rosetta Stone itself which was apparently recovered by Napoleon in 1799 in Egypt and captured two years later by British soldiers. I felt that so many of the other rooms and exhibits in the British Museum completely lacked this context. They felt sterile.

Amy and I walked back to our rooms stopping at a cheap place for a dinner of fish and chips.

Birding in Hyde Park

Posted Jul 11th, 2009 at 8:14 am in Birding, Traveling About | 4 Comments

I wanted to share a little more about the birding we’ve been able to do thus far. We went to Hyde Park the other day, as seen in these pictures which I mentioned previously.

I didn’t bring the big lens for bird photography. It’s too darn heavy for a whole day’s trip, and it’s best to photograph birds in small doses if Amy’s with me, as being a spectator quickly gets boring.

There were a few birds however that were extremely cooperative, such as this immature Great Crested Grebe that came up close enough to get a picture even without the big lens.

Great Crested Grebe

Pigeon, It’s Whats for Dinner

Rock Pigeons

We did witness one of the most spectacular events of predation I have ever seen. A Yellow-legged Gull (our life bird) was standing amongst a group of Rock Pigeons that were being fed by tourists. The gull had a small wad of feathers in its bill, which struck me as odd. I asked Amy, “Is that gull hunting pigeons?” Seconds later the gull grabbed a Rock Pigeon in it’s bill, getting a hold of it by the top of the wing near the pigeon’s body, and flew out to the lake where he proceeded to drown the pigeon and ultimately eat it. The struggle took a good five to minutes before the pigeon finally succumbed. It was utterly amazing if a little hard to watch.

Habitat is Key

As any birder can tell you, habitat is the key to finding a diversity of different species, and as one might expect, London itself doesn’t have many open spaces. Hyde Park is great though. Even if a little manicured in places, it has lots of big trees and vegetation along Serpentine Lake that sits in the heart of the park.

Trees like this really gave one the feeling of being in England, sneaking around on the King’s land despite the penalty of death. Of course England has changed in the last 600 years, so such fears were entirely imagined.

Forest at Hyde Park, London Read the rest of this entry »

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London Pictures

Posted Jul 10th, 2009 at 8:36 pm in Photography, Traveling About | Comments Off

Pictures from our first two days are now online.

Our first day we wandered around and ended up in the Wellcome Collection, a museum that has art and artifacts related to the history and science of medicine. On our second day, we went to Hyde Park to get the birding bug out of my system so I could enjoy the rest of my time in London’s museums and other attractions.

I’ve managed to get a couple of really fun pictures too, even if I had to make myself look like an idiot to do so.

Here’s a picture of the train pulling into the station. I used a really slow shutter speed with the camera on my mini tripod. The train’s movement rendered it a blur of color and light.

Incoming Train

After getting off the tube (as they call it over here), I got the following pictures with a sign for London’s Underground (the subway) and St. Pancras Chambers in the background.

London Underground

London at Night

We’ll publish more as time allows.

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Crossing the Pond

Posted Jul 8th, 2009 at 10:20 pm in Traveling About | Comments Off

It’s 3:30 in the morning as I write this, but I couldn’t sleep. There’s a blackbird singing in the dead of night outside my window. And not some two-bit Icterid, Corvid, or Starling that people back in the States call blackbirds. No sir. This blackbird is the real McCoy, as made famous by The Beatles.

That’s right, we’re in England! London to be specific. We’ll be here for two weeks, followed by a week in Paris and a week in Germany.

Jay and Amy

So far so good, though we were in trouble within five minutes of landing. The good folks at customs got a little peeved at us for taking this picture.

Jet lag has been a little hard. We made ourselves stay awake the entire day and that night we slept hard. But now I can’t sleep and I’m finding myself up all night. Amy’s sleeping like a log. Tomorrow’s going to hurt.

As far as pictures go, I’d like to post some while we’re over here, but I may not have a lot of time to get that done. I’ll just have to play it by ear.

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399 and One To Go

Posted Feb 5th, 2009 at 8:37 am in Birding, Traveling About | 2 Comments

Last weekend, Amy and I went up to Abilene to be with my folks. We were able to do a little birding on Saturday morning at a local park that includes some of Lake Fort Phantom. I had recently given my dad an old camera of mine, and he happily took a few pictures.

One of the great joys of getting my wife into birding has been to experience things first hand all over again. I imagine this is a joy that any mentor or teacher feels. My wife has been steadily adding new birds here and there as we’ve travel about, and at the start of the day, she had seen 398 species. Not too shabby, though then again, she has a great personal guide. :)

One of the mythical creatures that has been eluding us all winter is Wilson’s Snipe. Yes, for you non-birders, there really is such a thing as a snipe. (I once had a reporter who simply would not believe that such a bird was real, even when I showed him pictures in a book. He was convinced that the whole thing was an elaborate hoax and he wasn’t going to fall for it.) Well, based on a good tip from my mom who’d just seen several at the park within the week, we finally caught up to the critters.


So now Amy needs just one more bird to hit 400.

In addition to the park, we stopped by the local landfill, where gulls by the thousands come in to feast on the endless buffet our trash provides. It came as a surprise to me that Abilene has two landfills, side by side, though apparently not managed by the same companies. One landfill let us right in and we happily scanned the gulls and ducks on several ponds. The other landfill wasn’t so accommodating, and the guy there informed me that if we’d been to the landfill next door, then there was nothing different for us to see at his landfill. I tried, very nicely, to explain that everything’s not the same and that we were in effect, looking for that needle in a haystack, the rare gull amongst the thousands of Ring-billed Gulls. Not buying it, and to back up his authority, he explained that he’d been here for 27 years and that “it’s all the same seagulls.”

What a dump!

Update, Feb 7, 2009

As we later realized, Amy has already seen Wilson’s Snipe. Several times in fact. That doesn’t deminish the enjoyment of the bird. And all’s well that end’s well.

Star Cacti, Starr County

Posted Dec 8th, 2008 at 9:58 pm in Photography, Traveling About | Comments Off

So start to things off well, I’ve put up a photo gallery as a penitence for my absence. In March, 2007, I and several others accompanied a friend to Starr County, Texas, where he was conducting research on an endangered cactus, the Star Cactus1 (Astrophytum asterias).

The study involves marking as many cacti as we could find in a quadrat, and then revisiting the areas occasionally to monitor what’s eating the cacti. Other efforts included trapping for small mammals to get a picture of what’s in the area, and using cameras that are triggered by tripping an infrared beam to catch herbivores in the act…

While reaching out to place a flag near a cactus, I noticed an odd rock at arms length. Turns out it was a Common Poorwill sitting on the nest. I had to sprint back to the car to grab my camera, but the shots were pretty amazing.

Common Poorwill

I’ve put up a handful of pictures of this bird and some other neat highlights from this trip in the photo gallery.

I’ll put up other shots of other trips as time allows.

1 Incidentally, the names Starr County and star cactus are entirely coincidental. The county is named after James Harper Starr, Secretary of the Treasury of the Republic of Texas. The cactus is named for its star-like appearance.

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Bertha Rides Again

Posted May 18th, 2007 at 10:30 am in Birding, Traveling About | 2 Comments

Today I leave for the Davis Mountains to continue my second (and last) field season of thesis research. Last year my adviser was gracious and allowed me the use of his vehicle. This year however, he wasn’t feeling so altruistic. And who can blame him? I had a whole year to arrange for another vehicle.

The problem of course is that I drive a Corolla. She’s light and nimble on her feet and gets a near miraculous amount of miles to the gallon, but she aint exactly renowned for her off road abilities. Her name is Betsy.


I needed more of a bastion of transportation to handle the mountainous terrain. I needed Bertha.

Bertha - soon after arrival in Mexico

Bertha - deep in the bowels of Mexico

Bertha has a long and storied history. A 1988 GMC suburban that belongs to my parents, she’s like that relative that everyone respects for all they’ve seen and been through, yet no one wants to sit next to at the dinner table because of the smell…

A few years ago in what was expected to be her last hurrah, Bertha embarked with five young gents on a trip deep in the southern bowels of Mexico. She made it all the way to Oaxaca and back. True, she got her gas cap stolen and there were four flat tires in the first six days, but Bertha can hardly be faulted for Mexico’s hooligan youth, shoddy road conditions, and below standard spare tires.

No, Bertha will do quite well for me this summer. She’d better. I just spent $250 to get one of her four windows working (she has no air conditioner) and glue the fabric ceiling back on. She’s just got the right constitution for field work.

I’m really looking forward to these next few weeks. In addition to the research, I’m going to be pulling out the camera in my spare time, catching up on processing all my pictures, and reading lots of books. If my internet connection cooperates, you can expect to see plenty of pictures.

Oh, and by the way, if you’re in the market for a 1988 GMC Suburban with one working window and a glued on ceiling lots of character, I’ll have one for sale in about five weeks.

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Colorado Pictures Are Up

Posted Apr 3rd, 2007 at 8:27 am in Birding, Photography, Traveling About | 3 Comments

My wife and ventured to southern Colorado for spring break. I’ve finally gotten around to throwing up the pictures from the trip. They’re heavy on Sandhill Cranes in flight. Why? Because literally tens of thousands of these birds migrate through the San Luis Valley and use it as a staging area on their way back north, and the birds are just about impossible to sneak up on when they’re in the fields feeding. So it’s much easier to take pictures as they fly by.

It was really a magical experience. Most cranes in the world are endangered. These ancient birds haven’t coped well to the changes people have brought. And while it wouldn’t take much too see Sandhill Cranes get in trouble, their populations are currently large and stable. Like all cranes, they’re quite vocal and frequently display towards one another by jumping in the air and flapping their wings. In short, they’re sexy.

Other highlights of the trip included a couple of Burrowing Owls sitting in the rain on the drive up to Colorado, my first Snowshoe Hare (I now understand why they’re in the same genus as our jackrabbits), and an amazing place named the Great Sand Dunes National Park.

I’ll leave you with a selected few pictures. (Click on them to see slightly larger versions in the gallery).

Burrowing Owls

Sandhill Cranes in flight

Sandhill Cranes in flight

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Sandhill Cranes in Flight

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Week Seven Pictures

Posted Jul 4th, 2006 at 9:45 am in Photography, Traveling About | 1 Comment

Week seven, the final week’s pictures, have just been put up in the gallery. While not as impressive as last week, there are at least a couple of highlights.

Davis Mountains sunset

Following an afternoon rainstorm, I experienced a gorgeous sunset. Not for it’s color — it was all white and blue! — but rather for it’s texture.

I also caught a wonderful shot of a Sleepy Orange.