The Green Monster is back!

It’s Red Sox opening day and we’re finally getting some sun and warm temperatures. Baseball fans aren’t the only ones defrosting down in the Fenway; I just got word that an Italian Wall Lizard, our “Green Monster,” poked its head out of one of the compost piles it most likely over-wintered in.

Go Red Sox and Hurrah for the Green Monster!

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Here’s an Italian Wall Lizard from last Fall in the Gardens. No new pictures yet this spring but stay tuned!

Heading out!

Alright, this is a little passé now that I’m back, but I think I’d be remiss talking about all of our adventures on Redonda, Antigua, and Great Bird Island without at least mentioning some of the preparations.

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Photo: Geoffrey Giller

Preparing for the Redonda expedition was some of the most challenging fieldwork prep I’ve ever done. Geoff, a science write and nature photographer friend from Yale was joining the team from NYC to help with data collection, Anthony (a longtime cast member on the blog) was flying to Antigua from Paris (despite mistakenly thinking he was heading to Anguilla). We were going to be camping completely off the grid for a week and had only one shot to get this dataset. Somehow we needed to be sheltered, fed, watered, and in lizard catching shape for the whole thing, and we had to bring just about everything needed to do that from our respective home bases.

That made for a lot of careful packing, lists of lists, and so much gear. That box I’m packing below ended up weighing 85 pounds at the airport. Sigh.

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Photo: Geoffrey Giller

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So much camera gear! Also, FYI carrying multiple pelican cases through public places is pretty fun. With the tripod on his back, Geoff got a lot of excited questions about what kind of nature documentary he was making.

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One of the big question marks of the trip was food on Redonda. We opted for these Backpacker’s Pantry dehydrated meals and boy was it a good choice! They’re delicious and so easy! You can see Pesto Salmon with Pasta there at the top – that was one of the best! We highly recommend them!

One of the big challenges of the trip was power. We knew we’d have lots of camera batteries to charge, a drone, and a spectrophotometer that needed an outlet and a computer to run. Plus myriad conveniences like walkie-talkies, headlamps, and lanterns. Whew the list went on and on. We ended up investing in this massive Goal Zero setup with multiple solar panels. Spoiler: it was amazing! We made it to the end with just enough power. Again, we really lucked out with good gear.

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Finally, preparations were made and Geoff and I made it to the airport just before 6 am. We were so excited, got on the plane, got our seats, and all of a sudden, fog rolled into JFK. The first leg of our flight, BOS to JFK got delayed. We deplaned. We were very sad:

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We had a tight connection in JFK so we were pretty worried at this point, but amazingly, after a total of about 3 minutes in the terminal and just after taking the photo, we heard an announcement that we all should re-board. They were going to try to get us in after all.

And we made our connection! We were very happy:

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Photo: Geoffrey Giller. (The medical emergency seemed to be well-resolved after a check-in with some paramedics)

From the plane we also managed to spot Redonda, our next destination.

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Photo: Geoffrey Giller

Yup, that little bump on the ocean is Redonda. Just you wait, the next pictures are from a lot closer.

 

The Boston Podarcis (part 2)

So last post was talking about a visit from October 2nd last year. Over the next several days, we made quite a few more trips to check on the lizards, and we kept finding more! Here are a few pictures:

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The whole group sees a lizard!

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The whole survey crew from Harvard, Boston University, and UMass Boston. Photo: Joe Martinez

All in all we’ve found over a dozen animals, pretty well spread out through the whole garden! What’s more, there were juveniles too so we know they’re successfully breeding. While no one can remember if they’ve been there for more than a year, it seems highly unlikely that they managed to spread so far afield and successfully reproduce just in 2016. My guess is that 2016 was their second year in Boston and they survived the relatively mild 2015-2016 winter by hunkering down in the garden’s many warm compost piles.

As to how they got there, now that’s a bigger mystery. The Connecticut and Hastings-On-Hudson populations we’ve previously discovered had railroad tracks right alongside them so the conduit for their northward expansion seemed pretty clear.

hastings-on-hudson-001Just to remind you, here’s a figure showing the Greenwich lizards (magenta dots) and the Hastings lizards (green square) and both are directly on major railroad lines.

The Boston case is less clear cut. Yes, there are lots of railway lines connecting Boston to New York via southern Connecticut, but that’s a long scamper and we haven’t been hearing about sightings in between. It’s entirely possible a lizard hitched a ride on the undercarriage of a train, but for them to then scamper from South Station in Boston to the Fens (walking directions, google doesn’t have an as-the-lizards-run choice) seems like a long shot to me.

I have two more probable ideas, one is that the lizards hitched a ride with someone who grabbed them as potential pets and then released them into the garden when they got tired of feeding them. This is entirely plausible and is the cause of a lot of species introductions all around the world. Another option that I’m excited to test is that the lizards hitched a ride on some compost or mulch that was brought to the Gardens at some point in 2015. Lizard eggs move with plants and mulch all the time, even lucky adults could have made the trip without getting squashed or tumbled. One of my goals for this summer is to track down shipments coming into the garden to see if any might originate from sites with lizards. I’ll be sure to report back!

Another next step is to actually do some genetics work to try to figure out whether this population is related to the other Podarcis already in North America or if it could be a new introduction from the homeland. Those analyses are under way… I’ll report back as soon as we have an answer!

What is clear though is that the Italian Wall Lizard has made itself very comfortable in the Fenway Victory Gardens. Lizards were active all the way into the third week of November! Looking outside though we’ve just had another major snowfall, in amidst a week or two of serious cold snap, so we’ll just have to see if the lizards pop back up in a few months once we hit spring!

As they say down at the railway though, if you see something say something! As always, email me with tips if you see a flash of green in your garden or park!

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There are lizards in Boston!

I was keeping this under wraps while I was publishing the new finding and trying to pitch the story to local journalists. I’m giving a talk to the New England Herp Society this afternoon though so I think it’s time to tell you all about Boston’s newest “Green Monster” – Italian Wall Lizards!

As you may remember, I’ve been chasing Podarcis siculus in Connecticut and New York for a few years now. Upon moving from CT to MA about a year ago I’d resigned myself to having to take the train “all the way back to Connecticut” to see lizards in the wild. That was, until I got this email message:

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Look at that big beautiful male siculus! I was thrilled! After a few back and forth emails I found out that Elizabeth would be going back to her garden plot that afternoon and, as it was sunny and warm I decided to run home, get my gear, and head out there to meet her. Now, as you can see from the email, this was already October and high time for lizards to be hunkering down. I surprised that this one was out and about and I wasn’t sure I’d have many more chances to check out this potentially new population.

So! I ran home, grabbed my camera and telephoto lens (a picture with a confirmed sighting can count as a voucher record if an individual can’t be caught) and grabbed my trusty lizard pole that had caught just about all the lizards from my dissertation. I nearly jogged to the T and was to the gardens just as Elizabeth arrived.

This is when my excitement got the better of me and things started going wrong…

We couldn’t find the male – he’d run off by the time we got to the garden, but looking around in the compost pile next to Elizabeth’s plot I saw a familiar dash and heard the dry-leaf scurry that’s become music to my ears. There were lizards! Many lizards! Lady lizards to go along with that male and, even more exciting, baby lizards! I lined up a great glamour shot of an adult female in the afternoon sun and clicked the shutter. Silence. I’d checked battery levels on the camera before leaving (80% – no problemo!) but I’d left home without a memory card in my camera! (OOF! C’mon Colin!) I was too embarrassed to tell Elizabeth – what a rookie move. So, I knew I had to catch one to confirm the finding!

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(Me, happy to see lizards in Boston but as of yet unsuccessful in the hunt. Note my camera sitting in time-out. Photo credit to Elizabeth.)

Alright, but the female was still there – unperturbed by the lack of picture taking so I lined up, steadied the noose pole… swung… and caught a stick! (internal monologue: “Argh! I caught hundreds of lizards all over Greece… hanging over rock walls and out of car windows… How can I miss the first sighting in Boston?!”).  I collapsed the pole, reset the string, and telescoped it back out for another try. That’s when the pole broke. Seriously. I don’t know why, I don’t know how, but I managed to separate the final two segments of the pole (18 inches or so) from the remainder, and, here I was, holding two poles, one too short to approach the lizard and the other, incapable of anything more useful than scratching its back.

By this time the lizard had moved on.

I don’t know if I managed to cover this misstep from Elizabeth. In my mind I was sure she was wishing she’d emailed an actual lizard expert. She was unreservedly cheery though as we continued scoping around for more lizards but soon after had to leave for a meeting. I opted to stay and started working on my lizard pole. After a good deal of poking and prodding (and some colorful exhortations) I got piece 1 sufficiently jammed into piece 2 that it was worth giving capture another try. I found that female again, lined up the shot, and…img_4161 caught her!

I didn’t try any more catching that day but in all, saw 7 lizards – a remarkably healthy population!

Next post I’ll tell you about the next visits!

 

Whale Watching

Photo by Claire.

Last weekend Claire and I cruised out of Boston Harbor in search of the mighty migrating mammals swimming the nice cool, food-filled waters off the coast of the cape. I haven’t been whale watching in years and I was looking forward to this trip so I could get some practice with my new camera (I suspect that’s going to deserve its own post one of these days), soak in some fresh sea air, and most especially, show Claire her first wild whale!

We set off out of the dock behind the New England Aquarium (the cruise is actually run through the aquarium). On shore the weather was a sunny 75, soon to be pushing 80, but as soon as we got through the islands and the captain opened the throttle we were happy for our jackets. With wind whipping our hair and muffling our conversation I excitedly took pictures of anything that moved (and a great number of things that were only moving due to our speed). I won’t bore you with a hundred photos of the old civil war fort in the harbor or every single sailboat, lobster boat or other floating passer-by, here’s just a shot of the Boston skyline looking back.

Once we cleared the islands around Boston our speed increased and we began feeling the swell of the ocean. Claire and I strategically positioned ourselves right at the front of the boat to best see whales. This had the indirect advantage (?) of enhancing every dip after each roll of the sea. While the first several elicited excited squeals from the youngest passengers, the rolling action soon had me fixedly staring at the horizon “searching for whales.”

Our boat. Claire and I were perched on the boat’s starboard forequarters. (I have no idea if that’s correct use of nautical jargon but more exactly, we were watching from the front corner nearest the camera).

Eventually we reached our destination, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. It wasn’t long before we spotted our goal far out on the horizon. It was hard to hold back a hearty “Thar she blows” in the spirit of our Boston whaling predecessors, as the same thrill of the hunt was upon us. We all too slowly motored closer to the whales so as not to disturb them overmuch, and began to watch the leviathan ballet that was feeding time.

These were humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), healthy and, to my eyes, mature. While likely not yet tipping the scales at a full 40 tons (give them another couple of months of replenishing their fat stores), these creatures were every bit of 30 feet long and their slow, unimposing massiveness was humbling to behold. Three of the whales nearest the boat were cooperatively feeding by blowing a large, but ever-shrinking, net of bubbles around a school of fish. Eventually, upon some signal beyond our capacity, all three whales would come rushing to the surface, mouths agape, swallowing thousands of the little baitfish that will help generate the reserves that will sustain them through a winter of fasting. The whales would then loll at the surface, sometimes slapping their fins in seeming pleasure, straining the water through their several hundred baleen plates.

Those ghostly white fins can sometimes each reach up to 20 feet long!

I could have watched the whales all day but all too soon it was time to head back to Boston. In all there were some 15 humpback whales within eyesight with a minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostratadarting around the boat from time to time. I made good use of the camera’s 8 frames of continuous shooting per second (sorry, dorky camera excitement seemed necessary at some point in this post) and got many a picture of whale backs and whale tails. Here are a few more to wrap up the post:

 

Boston

Hello Everyone!

This is my first (and last) post from the States! I’m in Boston doing some last minute re-organizing and packing and will be heading to the airport in a couple of hours!

I’ll write more about my actual plans for this summer while I’m in the air (I’m going to have plenty of time!) but for now I’ll just fill you in on my travel itinerary so you can know where I’ll be over the next couple of days.

I fly out of Boston this evening at about 7:00 pm to arrive in New York, JFK Airport at about 8:30. I then have a long night in the airport waiting for my next flight at 11:00 AM the next morning. On Sunday I’ll leave JFK for a VERY long flight to Dubai. I’ll have a few hours layover in the Dubai airport (unfortunately between about the hours of 2am and 7 am local) and then hop on another plane taking me to my final destination, Nairobi, Kenya.

I’ll be in Kenya for the summer and return to the states on August 28th. I’ll leave the details of my actual plans for my next post but with any luck I’ll be able to report some fun and exciting stories from this summer. Until then, look around and enjoy the site or send me an email at colindonihue <a> gmail.com.