I am helping with a nature documentary!

In some very exciting news, I will be helping a nature documentary crew film hummingbird displays for PBS Nature!

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It started several months ago when Ann Prum, producer of Coneflower Studios, contacted me about filming broad-tailed hummingbird displays. She wanted to film the whole life history of broad-tailed hummingbirds from courtship to nesting to fledging, and I was to help elicit male dive and shuttle displays. Ann had previously worked with my Ph.D. committee member and hummingbird expert Dr. Chris Clark, who passed my name onto her. Chris has not worked as much with broad-tailed hummingbirds as I had, and I have a good field site to film them. So we made the arrangements to start filming this summer. I’m super excited for this opportunity to help with with this award winning documentary team!

Coneflower Studios has already produced an amazing documentary on hummingbirds called Magic in the Air, which I highly recommend. More recently, they produced another great documentary on ducks (An Original Duckumentary), which won an Emmy, and a three part series called Animal Homes. Something that I really like about this studio, is that they not only film some amazing natural history, but they contact and feature scientists in their films. While I am not going to be featured myself, there will be several people that I know in this new documentary.

Stay tuned for updates on how everything goes!

Middleton Place – A National Historic Landmark

Before I came back to Tempe after our family reunion, I spent a couple days in South Carolina and was able to tour a bit of Charleston. Charleston is a very historical city with a lot of revolutionary and civil war history. While in Charleston, I visited a nearby historic plantation area with my family, called Middleton Place. There are several preserved plantations around Charleston, each offering something unique, and the special thing about this place was its formal gardens. Formal gardens were very fancy and carefully constructed gardens that were featured in many places throughout our early history, and at the Middleton Place, we were able to see what these gardens would have looked like back then.

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These gardens actually reminded me somewhat of the Japanese temple gardens I saw in Kyoto (will post about this later!), but with a different style. They were both about order and everything was specifically placed where it was, as you can see in some of the pictures. Symmetry was something big in these gardens, as well as having different areas with different themes/ideas.

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In addition to the gardens, this former plantation showcased many of the crafts that slaves worked on, aside from working in the fields. In fact, the slaves brought over a vast wealth of knowledge that helped many of these plantation owners become successful, especially in terms of how to grow and cultivate rice. Below are some pictures of various historical reconstructions/re-enactments of the slave crafts.

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Here they were demonstrating the process of making several different types of candles. The machine with all the hanging candles involves repeatedly dipping string into hot wax and spinning it. It apparently takes forever!

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Here was a barrel making demonstration. They would take logs or pre-cut boards and notch them into barrels, tying them together with string or metal – depending on what was to be stored in them. This was also a labor intensive and time consuming process.

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A blacksmith station, where someone could make a huge variety of things, such as gardening tools, horse shoes, and barrel fixtures.

Overall, it was a very educational and interesting visit, where I not only was able to see some beautiful gardens, but also learn a lot of history that I might not have found in my high school textbooks!

Two quick notes!
1) In case you didn’t know, you can click on any picture I post to see a full sized version of it.
2) Please check out my twitter (@rsimpson235), as I am posting many fun science facts as I study for my comprehensive exam in three weeks.

Bahamas family vacation: Part 2 – Grand Bahama and Lucayan National Park

Here is part 2 of my recent trip to the Bahamas! Our second stop on the cruise was at the island Grand Bahama, which contains the city Freeport. Now Freeport is a very unique city, because it is a privately owned city. I believe it is the only privately owned city in the world, but don’t quote me on it. However, we did not visit Freeport at all during our trip off the boat, so that is all I’ll say about it.IMG_9450

Instead, we did a kayak/beach/nature tour of Lucayan National Park. We were put in a small group with about 10 other people, and drove off to a beautiful mangrove forest. This part of the mangrove forest was full of red mangroves, which also means that it was covered with water. This is where we kayaked.

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There was a very nice stream path through the forest, which took us right out to the ocean. The stream featured a light current, which sometimes helped us along the way, but sometimes caused a bit of trouble for the less experienced. Along the way, I took pictures of what wildlife I was able to see (some members of our group were quite loud). I managed to see a few birds along the way, such as red-winged blackbirds, which we have all throughout the states as well, grey kingbirds, and loggerhead kingbirds.

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Red-winged blackbird, sporting some nice jewelry!

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Loggerhead kingbird watching us pass

The kayak trip was awesome, because at times the mangroves completely enveloped us, and it was like traveling through a tunnel of trees.

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Our guide was also very knowledgable and helped provide information on the forest and animals around us. After a roughly 2 mile kayak trip, we emerged from the forest onto a stunning beach.

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This beach was particularly special, because it was where the 2nd and 3rd Pirates of the Caribbean were filmed! After a light lunch along side some raccoons,

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we were able to spend a few hours at this isolated beach, swimming and enjoying the beautiful scenery.

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However, a storm started heading our way, so we eventually got out of the water and did a brief nature walk, where our guide pointed out various plants and how they can be used. This part of the forest basically contained a pharmacy, with plants that helped digestive issues and even served as antidotes to certain poisons. In fact, there were a pair of tree species that grew next to each other. One was poisonous to humans, and the other was the antidote! Here are a couple pictures of various plants we saw:

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Flowers of a red mangrove tree

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During this walk, I was able to spot some birds, which I had never seen before, like the common ground dove (also found in some parts of the US) and the red-legged thrush, which was very cool looking!

Common ground dove enjoying some leftover bread

Common ground dove enjoying some leftover bread

A red-legged thrush staring me down

A red-legged thrush staring me down

Our walk ended up being short, which turned out for the best, because as soon as we got into the van to drive back, the sky opened up. Luckily our guide was a very good driver, because it was almost like driving through a tropical storm. As we headed back to the boat, we stopped by the shops along the dock to grab some last minute Bahama souvenirs and some more conch fritters! Then it was back on the boat for our last day at sea as we cruised back to Charleston, South Carolina!

All-in-all it was a fantastic trip, where I was able to both see the cultural and natural sides of the Bahamas, while also experiencing the beautiful Caribbean beaches!

Bahamas family vacation: Part 1 – The boat and Nassau

I just returned from a great family reunion in the Bahamas. Originally I was going to make this one post, but it started getting a little long, so I decided to split it into two. Our family went on a short Carnival cruise, which stopped at Nassau, on New Providence island, and Freeport, on Grand Bahama island. We also had two busy but relaxing days at sea, where we were able to enjoy beautiful views of the ocean and the sunset.

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During the two days at sea (the first and last days), we took advantage of many of the activities on the boat. There were several musical shows and comedians, as well as multiple bars/lounges with live music. Another fun part about the cruise was that the crew members came from all over the world. I met people from Jamaica, Indonesia, South Africa, Croatia, India, Canada, and Australia. But the best of all was the food, which was delicious and aplenty!

Now our first stop was to Nassau, which is the capital of the Bahamas. For a little background information, the Bahamas are made up of around 700 islands with about 2000 rocks and reefs included. However, only around 30 islands are actually inhabited. The population of the Bahamas is roughly 320,000 people, and around 250,000 of those people live on New Providence island and Nassau. New Providence island is only 21 miles long and 7 miles wide, so that is a lot of people in not a lot of space, which is felt when you arrive on the island. Nassau is a crowded city full of both locals and tourists, with congested streets everywhere. While Nassau might be a crowed place, there was still a lot of interesting things to see, so we found a local tour guide to show us around. This guide added a little flavor to his tour and did a sort of Cash-Cab game while we drove around. He would ask us various trivia about either the Bahamas or United States and give us Bahaman coins as a reward. I managed to win a unique 15 cent coin, which was square.

This tour started us in downtown Nassau, which is full of shops from both simple straw markets, which sell basic Bahamas-branded tourist souvenirs, to upscale stores such as Prada and Gucci. From there, our guide took us to a local restaurant/bar, which specialized in conch. Conch is a staple of the Bahaman diet, and this place we went to was actually built on a foundation of hundreds of thousands of conch shells.

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As the restaurant continued to sell conch, they would chuck the shells in the bay, and after many years, they build a new restaurant onto of the new land they made from the shells! In addition to showing us this interesting place, our guide had us try some conch fritters, which were like hush-puppies but with conch meat. They were very good! He then showed us how to get the meat out of the shell and prepare the conch. Our guide also ate some strange gel-like substance that the conch produced, which I am afraid to discover what it actually is.

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After that, we used the non-eabile part of the conch to attract a bunch a fish and other animals in the bay.

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Then we went through the rich area of the island and saw a bunch of large and expensive homes. It made the tour feel a bit like a real-estate show, but it was ok. We were able to then see the new giant hotel that is being built on the island, which is supposed to compete with the Atlantis resort, another big and famous hotel/resort on the island. Nassau is pretty highly developed, especially for tourism, but luckily the rest of the tour, except for the end, was more about the history of the island. From the developing hotel, we went to the other side of New Providence, to a small cave. This was a special cave though, because it is believed that the first people to arrive on the island lived in the cave. Then the cave was a hiding place for contraband, such as rum, during prohibition. Now the cave is home to many bats, such as the buffy flower bats.

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Aside the cave, was some of the beautiful Bahaman beach, which is the main attraction to the islands.

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Then we continued our tour across the island to the old fort, built by the English to protect the colony of Nassau from French invasion. Fort Fincastle was never used, but has had to stand through many hurricanes.

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Next, we went to another historical site called the Queen’s Staircase. This was originally built by slaves as a quick passageway from the fort to the town of Nassau, but was later renamed in honor of Queen Victoria, who abolished slavery. The staircase was cut directly from the solid rock wall, which now create a really neat passage way full of lush vegetation.

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The end of our tour took us to the Atlantis resort, which we didn’t stay at for long. To get to Atlantis, you have to travel across a bridge to a small island called Paradise Island. Now something funny about this is that to get to the island you have to pay a toll, which has toll booths on the left side of the car because the resort was built by an American. However, in the Bahamas, they drive in the British fashion, with drivers sitting on the right side of the car. So when people go to Paradise Island, they have to awkwardly reach across their cars to pay the toll. Great planning there… My family and I then walked to a nearby beach, Juckanoo beach, to relax some, before heading back to the boat. We had a full but great day in Nassau and were able to really see the whole island! In my next post, I’ll talk about our off shore adventure on the Grand Bahama island, which was quite different!

Meet the lizard crews!

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Pot-luck dinner with the two lizard crews! Photo credit – Matthew Lattanzio

While I was doing my work on black-chinned hummingbirds, I was fortunate to share the field station with two awesome research crews studying lizards. The first crew, consisting of Anthony Gilbert, a graduate student from Ohio University, and his field assistant Cassie Thompson, who recently finished her undergraduate at OU, are studying ornate tree lizard (below) color polymorphism (when individuals in a single species are colored differently) and climate change. The other crew is lead by Matthew Latanzio and Kortney Jaworski from Christopher Newport University who are studying the evolutionary ecology (how the interactions between animals and their environment shaped their evolutionary history) of ornate tree lizards and Yarrow’s spiny lizards (below).

The lizard crews in the field. Photo credit - Kortney Jaworski

The lizard crews in the field. Photo credit – Kortney Jaworski

For more information on either crew, check out Matthew’s website (here) and Anthony’s advisor’s website (here). I had a great time hanging out with them while I was doing my fieldwork and look forward to seeing them again in the future!

Here are some pictures of the lizards they are studying that I managed to take.

A slightly washed out picture of an ornate tree lizard displaying its hidden colors.

A slightly washed out picture of an ornate tree lizard displaying its hidden colors.

An example of how the ornate tree lizard can really blend into its surroundings.

An example of how the ornate tree lizard can really blend into its surroundings.

Another view of a Yarrow's spiny lizard

Another view of a Yarrow’s spiny lizard

A Yarrow's spiny lizard showing off its under-neck color.

A Yarrow’s spiny lizard showing off its under-neck color.