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Saturday, September 7, 2019

The Itch to Know What's There

While reading the Lost City of Z by David Grann  (note: I haven't seen the movie yet) I came across this quote from an unnamed member of the Royal Geographical Society.
Explorers are not, perhaps, the most promising people with whom to build a society1. Indeed, some might say that explorers become explorers precisely because they have a streak of unsociability and need to remove themselves at regular intervals as far as possible from their fellow men.
I understand this. I may or may not have a streak of unsociability. But I do like to get away every now and then to wander around and look at things. The extremes and privations that Percy Fawcett (historical protagonist of The Lost City of Z) and his ilk suffered appeal to me not at all. But I know that itch to get away from the most comfortable of creature comforts just to see what's there.

Seeing what lies in the lesser trammeled parts of the world is my major motivation behind my jaunts, mostly to the Badlands. But I also jaunt because the creature comforts are just that much more luxurious when you return to them. The soft bed, the hot running water, the ability to cook a meal easily and quickly seem almost miraculous after  a few days primitive camping. One of my favorite moments of camping is to step into a hot shower upon my return.

I've mentioned before that travel to exotic places is not a prerequisite to be an explorer. Even in the lap of comparative luxury known as my every day life, I will still get outside to look at things. In fact, I often will take my afternoon break, phone camera in hand, wandering the grounds looking for things to watch and photograph. Below are a few examples of what I observed the past few days. While none of these photos will win me an award they are nevertheless satisfying since they document what's there, scratching that explorer's itch.

Sept 6, 2019. Tiny bee on a black eyed Susan planted in our pollinator garden.

Sept 5, 2019 Bull snake just chilling (probably literally) under a leaky drain pipe.

Sept 5, 2019 Honey bee in flight. Good to see the pollinator garden attracting many types of pollinators.

1. Editor's note. I think here society means an organization although maybe it means the broader human connection as well?

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Frog and toad. And mosquitoes.

One would think that summer time is the best time to be out and about exploring. And one would be right.

My summer starting on June 6 or thereabouts included trips to DC, the Badlands (three times!), Jackson WY and Yellowstone National Park, Kyle SD, the South East passage of Alaska, and Omaha. All but one were work related though they were all pleasure trips as well. I took pictures whenever time and setting allowed. I even added a few observations to iNaturalist from my travels.

I am back home and will be for a while yet. I don't know when or if I will travel like that again. Fortunately, being an explorer doesn't rely on traveling as  much as it does on observing.

Today I took my camera out and about to see what I could see. And I saw quite a bit. The list includes
- A bumblebee with red stripes. I'm thinking it's a Hunt's Bumblebee. (Update: Hunt's Bumblee ID confirmed by an iNaturalist curator).
- Pelicans
- Norther Flicker
- A cicada molt
- A cicada killer wasp
- A leopard frog
- A toad (were the frog and toad friends?)
- Mosquitoes. Lots and lots of mosquitoes.

For various reasons there is a lot of standing water around and this means mosquitoes. At one point, near where I saw the frog and toad, I walked through standing water which had been standing for quite a time if the odor released by the muck I disturbed was any indication. Without a supply of oxygen, mud that has been inundated for a while will go anaerobic which smells about as bad as anything I've come across

But back to the mosquitoes. I had 25% DEET spray with me which is not my favorite item to use because of the sensitivity of amphibians. Generally, I use long pants and sleeves for protection but these mosquitoes were ravenous so I sprayed my exposed areas and shirt. Many landed on my DEET free pants (fortunately tightly woven). I finally began to jog to get away from them. I know from experience I can outrun mosquitoes but not butterflies. The mosquitoes followed me in a cloud for  bit. It was a relief to get back to dry land and out in the open where the wind swept them away.


And toad.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Following Up on Awe

I recently posted about how explorers and adventurers both seek after awe but that explorers don't have to rely solely on the "blockbuster" kinds of experiences to get to it.

Exhibit A of a "small" experience that yielded big awe was finding this wildflower while hiking around Badlands National Park. This is the Fritillaria atropurpurea more commonly known as the chocolate or leopard lily. I am told it is quite common in Alaskan parts but it is rather rare here on the prairie. A now retired state botanist told me they are hard to find. The guidebook Plants of the Black Hills and Bear Lodge Mountains which includes many prairie plants despite its title states "Leopard lily also occurs infrequently in the prairie surrounding the (Black) Hills area but nowhere is it common in the region."

Coming across an infrequent and uncommon plant feels like a gift. Literally on my knees and prostrate before this fading plant to take photos I felt gratitude that I got to see this small thing that most people in the world will never see in person here on the prairie. And when I consider that the flowers were fading (and good luck to me to find it without the flowers) and that I almost missed it-my husband's sharp eye spotted the plant-the gratitude swells to humility.

I get the lure of panoramic expanses. And I completely understand the almost visceral need to walk up to the edge of the majesty and power of nature. But finding an uncommon plant that is fading which I almost missed leaves me feeling humbled and awed and refreshingly without ego.

I don't know if I will ever again see a leopard lily. I saw one, just one, two years ago. It may be the same or longer till I see another one. The lily's power is not in its size or strength but in its uncommonness. Seeing a lily is a small thing. Knowing it is uncommon? That is  a big thing that creates awe.

Monday, May 27, 2019

In Search of Awe

NY Times caption:  A steady stream of mountain climbers lined up to stand at the summit of Mount Everest, on Wednesday. (5/22/2019) CreditCreditProject Possible, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

This photo has been heavily shared in traditional and social media with most of the articles discussing the impacts-including higher death toll-from the increased popularity of and access to climbing Everest. I'm not here to add to that particular discussion but with a blog title like Earth Explorations I feel like I would be remiss if I failed to address this picture.

In the About section of this blog, I make the following statement:
Being an explorer is mostly about having an approach to life that is based on curiosity about the unknown. That's the core requirement. The other things like travel to exotic places are nice but not necessary. And it's really not necessary to climb a mountain or traverse a polar region. That's being an adventurer which is different than being an explorer. They aren't mutually exclusive but they aren't the same thing, either.
If you were to make a Venn diagram of what is an explorer and what is an adventurer, you would find a lot of overlap between the two.  For many people they are practically synonymous. And, in fact, National Geographic did and still does support this perception through its coverage. You don't have to look any further than Alex Honnold and Free Solo to see that.

But I maintain that adventure alone does not and will not make you an explorer. Taking risks and pushing the limits of what is safe in and for the natural world has its place and certainly might happen in the course of being an explorer but it also might not. You can go in a different direction.

In the explorer/adventurer Venn diagram one of the attributes you would find in the intersection is that both seek and feel awe. Awe is the feeling of being small in comparison to something much, much larger. The expansive panoramas of nature cause us to feel awe. So does experiencing up close the force of nature like a towering summit or raging river.

But the world has more opportunities for awe than blockbuster experiences. When I work with students, I use a Beetles Project activity on making observations teaching them to zoom in, get low, and go slow. There is a lot of awe to be experienced in the small and quiet that comes not from the beauty or grand scale or overpowering force but from the mystery of the hidden.

This desire to uncover the mystery, hopefully in a respectful, responsible manner, is what drives the explorer. And that walks straight back to being curious, the core requirement and main attribute.

Look, I'm not here to quash anyone's Everest dreams. But I do encourage everyone to deeply reflect on what are they really looking for and if it can be found another way, namely through exploration rather than adventure. My experience is that in being an explorer you will have adventures (maybe not Everest adventures but adventures nonetheless) but I doubt the corollary is true; that in being an adventurer you will have explorations.

Saturday, May 11, 2019


Central South Dakota is a hotbed of bird migration and May is peak season. My bird photography skills (which I practiced all winter) are still meh. It's hard for me to get good photos of birds flittering about which means all the pictures of warblers look like this one.

See the tail feathers off to the center right of the photo? Maddening.

I have been able to capture a few photos of birds that are ground foragers. They tend to be a little easier to photograph because they are on the ground (no craning my neck) and they also take longer pauses between flits or hops looking for insects.

I'm very pleased with this photo. Thank you, White Crowned Sparrow. Your black and white crown feathers are so fetching.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Braiding Sweetgrass and the Honorable Harvest

About a month ago several people whom I know from different areas of my life, without collusion or coordination as far as I know, told me that I needed to read Braiding Sweetgrass. My track record with books others tell me I must read is a little spotty. I don't always like them which makes for awkward conversation.

Them: "How did you like that book that was terribly meaningful to me?"
Me: "Oh, uhm... it wasn't bad."

Our library had an e-version of Braiding Sweetgrass so I put myself on a wait list. I was hesitant to spend money on a book I was almost certain I wouldn't like since it would be too woo-woo and possibly cringey.


Every once in a while a book comes along at the exactly the right moment and influences your thinking to a profound degree. Braiding Sweetgrass is for me one such book, taking me further along a road I began when I read Song of Trees by David George Haskell and before that Other Minds by Peter Godfrey Smith.

The common theme among all of them is our human connection to the natural world.

I am still processing Braiding Sweetgrass, trying to not just understand but absorb what I am meant to learn. While there is deep work happening the concept of honorable harvest has rocketed to the top. Just as the book came to me from different directions in a short period of time, I've been able to send it on to others in the same way.

These are some of the ideas that are resonating with me.
  • Gratitude is the first component of our emotional soil.
  • Other parts of the natural world even the abiotic parts are our relations because they are made of the same sky dust we are.
  • Think first of what you can give to the Earth before you take from it
  • Ask permission before you take, and even then take only what you are given.
    • Do not take the first you see. Do not take the last you see.
    • Take no more than half.
I'm not sure how this philosophy expresses itself in modern society but I want to live a life that harvests honorably.

Sunday, March 24, 2019


I've been at this blogging thing a while. Every once in a while, I go back to an old blog on a different platform to revisit my posts and say hello to past Me. I'm always a little surprised at what I find. You do forget details.


For example, I'd forgotten that I took this photo with my phone, a low end Samsung. Not a bad photo. It's not a great photo either but it makes the case that you don't need even a middling good camera like the one I have now, the Lumix, to take pictures that help tell the story of an experience.

The experience was detailed in this long form piece, A Cold Night, A Long Hike, A Good Story. This photo was taken at the end of my unintentionally long hike at the Castle Trail head. Good times.

Thursday, March 21, 2019


Robins have been slow to make themselves known this year. I blame the snow and the cold. They started to get active a couple of times earlier in the month and whoom! a storm would move in. I can't blame them for being hesitant.

But lengthening daylight and more seasonal temperatures are prevailing, causing them to spread out and start occupying territories even if they aren't in full voice yet. My robin watching network on FB has been reporting robin activity for a week and a few days ago I saw one for myself as I left for work. After work today, Lu and I went out for a walk about the property (aka my front and back yard) to try my hand at robin photos.

I actually had to leave the property (i.e. walk halfway down the block) to get a  photo even though I eventually did see a male in the trees on my front lawn.

ƒ/4 1/400 ISO100 106.6mm

I did not filter or edit this photo. It could probably use some cropping though I like the way the tree branches frame the bird with the blue sky behind it. I think this demonstrates the value of evening sunlight to show the color and what was it? The shape? Or was it the features? I'm taking a mini-course from National Geographic on photography and I'm learning how different light has emphasizes different features.

The light in this picture clearly emphasizes the orangey red of the breast which is one of the things I think people appreciate about robins here in the north. After a winter of varying shades of white, gray, and brown, it's nice to have some color.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Sharp-shinned Hawk

I had just finished watching Into the Okavango when it happened. My mind was filled with hippos, elephants, red ball suns and paddling when out of the corner of my eye I saw two birds fly towards the dining room glass door. One I thought might be Eurasian Collared Dove as it was big and light under the wing. The other bird was dark. Oh no, I thought. The thunk was barely audible. I hopped up, hoping that if a bird were injured it would be the Collared Dove.

There was a bird injured. It wasn't the Collared Dove. In fact there was no Collared Dove on the scene. The bird I thought was a dove was actually a juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk and it had firmly pinned a Starling to our snowy deck. The Starling was in rough shape but was trying to fight back, pecking at the hawk every time the hawk lowered its head to bite.

I did the only thing that there was to be done. I ran and got my camera.

I knew that getting a good picture would be a challenge. As mentioned previously, snow is a challenge for me. (Still haven't figured it out) Also, the sun's position was not directly opposite but opposite enough. Fortunately the sun was high enough that the birds weren't back lit but the shadows, oh the shadows. And finally, I was shooting through a window in a bathrobe recovering from viral crud on a bitter, blustery day. 

But you shoot the scene you are handed. Unless I was willing to go outside and creep around in the snow and risk scaring the bird away, this is what I had to deal with.

So I dealt. I dealt by taking 585 photos. The vast, vast majority were crap or worse than crap. But a few came out good and with a little help from Google Photo Auto filter and some Instagram magic two came out quite good.

This photo was auto adjusted by Google Photos. I also cropped through Instagram and added the Lark filter.

Original photo ƒ/2.8 1/2000 105.1mm ISO100

I did some mad Instagramming on this one. I again used the Lark filter but fiddled with the light, brightness, color, and saturation. I was particularly interested in making the bars on the tail pop because that is an important identifying characteristic.

Original photo  ƒ/4 1/1600 36.1mm ISO100

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Red bellied woodpecker.

The weather has been wintry of late. Not surprising since this is February and of course winter. But temps have been well below normal and it's been gray. Truthfully, getting out has been a challenge.

I do find that having been to the Arctic makes the cold more bearable. I turn my face north and think about polar bears and whales and Arctic fox. That and good snow pants and thick socks (I had a non-freezing cold injury on my feet when I was a teen so in my middle age I find I have to be extra careful about these things) help get me through.

I also enjoy my little forays when I can. I did go to the Farm Island bird feeder recently where I finally got a photo of the red bellied woodpecker. It's belly isn't brilliantly red, at least this female's belly in February isn't. If you zoom into the photo where she's facing the camera you will see the faintest blush of orangey red on her breast, a paler version of the color around her beak.

I feel particularly fortunate to get this photo as the bird was quite active when I pulled up. I didn't have as much time as I would have liked to make sure the camera was focusing. Sometimes, you just have to shoot and hope the picture works. I'm pretty happy with the photos.

Sunday, February 3, 2019


Mild weather, needing erosion pictures for a class I'm teaching, and Polar Vortex induced cabin fever sent me to the Badlands yesterday. That and a vague worry about the how the park, particularly the bison, fared during the shutdown.

To set your mind at ease, the park looked in fine condition. The campground was not vandalized in anyway that I could see. The bison, the few that I saw, looked good. Plump. Relaxed.
Lounging in the sun on a warm winter day.

I had hoped to get a lot of close ups of the bison as this was my first spin in the park with my new camera but other than this pair basking in the sun by the side of the road the bison were all far afield, visible only as tiny bison dots through my binoculars. Perhaps a super high end digital single lens reflex camera, the kind with a two foot lens, might have gotten a good picture but I was pretty sure this was beyond what my little camera could handle.

No matter. There were plenty of things to photograph.

Like this.

This caught my eye as I was driving so much so I turned around to have a second look. The contrast of the fresh wood with the black bark was striking. What was this?

I got out of the car and inspected the tree from the shoulder of the road. Getting up close would have meant clambering down a steep, brushy hill. I have learned that when something catches your eye to do a slow visual sweep of the area to see what else is going on which is how I found a similarly marked tree across the road. This tree required no clambering to get up close.

I noted the following: that the bare wood had teeth marks and the tree was an elm. (Again with the elms! This time in the Badlands!)

Teeth marks and fresh wood.

My conclusion: a porcupine had been dining on this bark.

I have seen porcupine in this area of the park before. If I had been so inclined to do some bushwacking (I wasn't) I probably could have found it in that copse where the tree originally caught my attention.

While wandering around in that area, I also found Lakota prayer ties, not surprising since the Badlands juxtaposes and lies within the Pine Ridge Reservation. The ties were worn; the black had faded to gray, the red to pink, the yellow and white almost indistinguishable from each other. I wonder who stopped to pray there and hope that, whoever it was, had their prayers answered.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Jolly Good Fellow

That is me, the woman on the left in a blue shirt. I am a 2019 National Geographic Education Fellow. This blog really isn't about my work with National Geographic but when you put yourself out there as an explorer even of the every day variety and you end up working with National Geographic some explanation is in order.

My work with National Geographic is to build out their citizen science resources for teachers.  Being a citizen scientist myself I think this is important, essential work to getting to a Planet in Balance. I won't be going any place exotic like the Okavango (unless National Geographic thinks they need an education fellow to go to help with... I don't know what I could help with but I'm game to go).

My fellowship work may or may not show up in this blog and if it does it may be direct i.e. talking about it specifically or indirect talking about an experience because of that work.

This blog will still be about my observations and the work I'm doing to understand and tell the stories of world as an everyday explorer.

I just thought you should know.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Old Blogs Never Die

If it's on the internet, it lives forever.

I had half forgotten about an online nature journal I kept about four years ago which was something of a precursor to this one. I eventually replaced it with iNaturalist, never to return to that work.

I won't reactivate it but I do think it belongs as part of the archive for this blog. This is one of my favorite photos from that blog taken with an old phone. This was taken on the causeway from Pierre to La Framboise Island.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Bird Land

I am enjoying my new camera. I am practicing the same skills I was when I last posted which means there are features on my camera I still don't know how to use. No matter. For the moment I am enjoying learning how to take pictures of birds at the feeder maintained at a nearby state park by volunteers from the Audubon Society. When I am ready to learn more about the camera, I will move on.

Today is National Bird Day so I will share a few bird photos. I find taking halfway decent photos of birds unexpectedly gratifying, especially when I share them on iNaturalist. The photos I'm sharing below aren't my best photos but the ones that I am learning from.

What I've learned so far:

I've learned that snow is hard to get the right light. The birds in the photos I took on a snowy day come out a little dark. See the American tree sparrow photo one below.

I've learned that autofocus may or may not always pick the right thing to focus on. I've had more than one picture with the sunflower seeds in the feeder in crisp detail while the bird an inch or two in front of that ever so slightly out of focus. See American Tree sparrow photo two.

I've learned that you have to take a lot of photos to get one or two good ones.

I've learned that cardinals are shy and flitty this time of year.

I've learned that birds are sometimes done with the feeders by 3:45 or so which is a disappointment when you get there at 3:50.

American Tree Sparrow One in Snow

American Tree Sparrow out of focus

Female Northern Cardinal. She never did hop into the sunshine.

Male Northern Cardinal. Lucky shot. He didn't stay long.

Male House Finch

Black capped chickadee

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Early morning eagles.

I am learning that one of the things you do as a photographer is chase the light, particularly the golden hours around sunrise and sunset. I know a man who specializes in photographing sunrises. He regularly gets up at or before 4 am to check the weather, make coffee and decide if it's worth a drive to the spots that he knows will yield stunning sunrise photos.

I am not there yet, particularly with that getting up before 4 am business. However, I did find myself getting up and out before 7:30 am on a Sunday morning to take pictures of eagles. I feel that this is sort of the same thing.

Finding eagles is easy around here as eagles overwinter by the Oahe Dam about six miles out of town, attracted by the open water and cottonwood trees. Eagles are large, photogenic birds that unlike their smaller cousins don't flit. Generally if you are quiet and still they will be as well until something calls them to take flight. In populated areas they move if there is too much human activity below them. But sometimes they move for reasons known only to them. Hunger perhaps. Or maybe they want a different view.

One of the common roosting sites at the Dam is viewable by car which serves as a blind of sorts as cars don't seem to disturb eagles.  Even though finding eagles here is easy photographing them is not because this vantage point faces west. A west facing vantage point means the light is behind the eagles in the afternoon golden hour. This does not make for great photos. In fact it doesn't make for good photos or even ok photos. To photograph these eagles you have to go out in the morning.

I used to verify that early morning sun would bathe them in a golden glow. The sun rose slightly to their south so first rays of morning light would illuminate them on one side which would mean shadows. But it was golden light and besides I had no choice.

I arrived at the vantage point in the cold gray of civil twilight. The moon was brilliant, almost full. I spotted three eagles, one of them well within range of my zoom. Huzzah! I might get an extreme close up. I rolled down the window and set up the camera, attaching it to a Gorilla tripod and perching the tripod on the door.  Snuggled under my down coat with an insulated tumbler of hot tea, I was ready.

It had been a few months since I was outside to watch the sunrise and I can't remember the last time I did so during the winter. First, the sky changes from gray to a light blue. Then, the tops of the trees blush with the pink light. The trees glow as the brightening light slips towards the ground and the blue in the sky deepens, steadily, silently until all of a sudden, the sun is up and everything is illuminated.

Just before this solar culmination, the eagle that was nearest to me flew to other eagles a little further away. The other eagles were within range of my zoom but they weren't well within range. No extreme close ups, sadly. That eagle shortly thereafter moved on.

I spent the next hour or so snapping away. As usual I got a lot of duds but I did have a few highlights. The first was I got a nice series of two eagles joining the eagles in the not so close tree. Even though I didn't get the extreme close up you can see the open beaks as they vocalized to each other.

Also, two of the eagles seemed to enjoy being in close physical contact. They stayed right next to each other. It was kind of cute.

Eventually I decided to call it good and slowly and I hope quietly (my next car is going to be electric for precisely these kinds of moments) I drove away. I spied more eagles flying as I left and of course I had to follow.

It wasn't a great shot what with branches in the way and the eagle not facing me, but I did get my extreme close up.

I cropped this one to focus in on the eagle but I think the light came out pretty good.
f/4 1/500 108mm ISO100

And when the eagle turned its head, it cast a shadow. A little far even with the zoom. Needs cropping. f/4 1/640 108mm ISO100

These two eagles really liked each other.
f/4/ 1/1000 108 mm ISO100

I made a gif of two eagles joining other eagles. I like how you can see the vocalizations. f/4 1/500 108 mm ISO100

Extreme closeup, Cropped. f/4 1/640 108mm ISO100