Hello everyone and welcome to my blog! To those who have followed some of my previous blog attempts – welcome back! My name is Rick Simpson, and I am finishing my 3rd year of my Ph.D. at Arizona State University. Through this blog, I plan to share my thoughts, opinions, and stories on a variety of topics, such as life as a graduate student, my travels across Arizona and elsewhere, and my research experiences. I may also write about and discuss cool and interesting papers as they arise. Additionally, because I am interested in colorful and exaggerated visual traits in animals, I will be posting as many pictures and other visual media as possible throughout my posts. Some posts will be long, while others will be short. In some, I might rant about something that bothers me, but I will keep that to a minimum. Ultimately, I hope that this blog will be both entertaining and informative! Finally, please give me feedback as I go, so that I can continue to improve.
In the beginning of May, I traveled to Michigan to visit my sister, who took us on a great adventure while I visited. I had never been to Michigan and was not sure what to expect, but what I saw was a wonderful surprise to me. We journeyed to the Upper Peninsula (UP) and visited some national lake shores and state parks, all of which were quite beautiful! But as mentioned in the title, it was very cold in the UP – with windchill it was in the 20s F, so that was very different from the 90-100 degree weather from Phoenix! Despite this, I really enjoyed this trip and was able to see some amazing sights of sand dunes, lowland pine forests, and of course the Great Lakes,
Our first stop was Tahquamenon Falls State Park, which was an inland park in the UP along the Tahquamenon River. Along the lovely pine forests the river was full of beautiful waterfalls, with the lower falls being small and the upper falls quite large. We did a few hikes here and enjoyed the riverside forest and sound of the falls as we did.
Then we went to Pictured Rock National Lakeshore. We visited this place twice, once in the evening and once in the morning. Here we found small sand dunes, some blanketed with short and stout pine trees, and other bare or with some grass. After hiking along the dunes for a bit, I was given my first real view of Lake Superior. And wow was it a sight to behold! I still cannot believe that I was looking at a lake and not the ocean.
We also visited some of the more famous points of the lakeshore – namely where the place gets its name: the pictured rocks. These rock walls looked like the product of uncountable years of erosion from the lake’s powerful waves and the strong winds. They were very pretty and had the wind not been so strong (making it very cold) we could have stayed there for a long while. We also visited a few beaches along Lake Superior within the national lakeshore. These were just like those you would find in the ocean; smooth, soft sand glowing blue-green water. It was remarkable, because if the weather had just been warm, I would have thought I was somewhere in Southern California or Florida.
After Pictured Rock National Lakeshore, we left the main part of the UP and visited Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore/State Park. Here we climbed massive sand dunes that seemed to spring out of know where. It was quite strange seeing these massive sand dunes surrounded by temperate forests, but they were very fun to climb. We hiked across them for quite a ways towards Lake Michigan, and after a long hike, we finally made it to that lake’s beach. It was fun to see the different plant and animal life living in the dunes, including trees, which must have a rough time staying put as the dunes shift!
Overall, I had a wonderful time visiting Michigan and was blown away by its beauty and spender, especially with regards to its beaches, sand dunes, and forests. I highly recommend everyone to visit the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, though I would recommend you visit when it is a bit warmer! Finally, a want to give a huge thank you to my sister for showing us the wonders of Michigan and the UP!
Wow, it is amazing how time flies in grad school. It is hard to believe that is has been over four months since the last time I blogged! The main reason for my lack of blogging these past several months has been my work load. I ended up biting off a little more than I could chew, work-wise, this semester, which kept me from dedicating time to blogging. Luckily, I can say with confidence that I now have much more time to dedicate to this blog and it will not just disappear! Plus, I have a lot of exciting prospects in the future to talk about, so there will be no shortage of material to write about!
While most of the work things that kept me from blogging were not to exciting, I still had some very exciting events occur during that time. Firstly, I was awarded the National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant for $20,085!!!!! This was an amazing and huge success that will go a long way towards some exciting new research ventures. I was also awarded a United States Agency for International Research and Innovation Fellowship and an Arizona State University Graduate College Completion Fellowship!! Combined these grants and fellowships are allowing me to expand my research to studying hummingbirds in Peru and conduct electron microscopy on hummingbird feathers (both scanning “SEM” and transmission “TEM” electron microscopy). The electron microscopy work will allow me to quantify the surface and internal structures of hummingbird feathers that are responsible for producing the amazing colors hummingbirds exhibit, while the trip to Peru will allow me to study several new species for my dissertation work, such as the Peruvian sheartail and oasis hummingbird. Below are a few photos of some scanning electron microscopy work I have done so far.
In addition to getting these grants and fellowships, I also gave my first set of public seminars on my hummingbird dissertation research. I first gave an hour long seminar to the Maricopa Audubon Society (link) and then gave another hour long seminar through the Audubon’s Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch’s Potluck and Presentations series (link). Both of these talks were great experiences, and they seemed to be met with enthusiasm from the audience, which was very encouraging.
Outside of grants and talks I did some fieldwork in March on Costa’s and Allen’s hummingbirds, visited the Grand Canyon and Sedona, went on some adventures in Michigan, and visited my undergraduate university (Trinity University). I will try to make a post out of each of these, but here are a few photos from each.
I greatly appreciate everyone’s patients with my lack of posting, but I am very happy to be back and excited to start blogging again! I would also like to give a shout out to my old school friends from Houston – Gabe and Carl. Thank you for keeping up with my blog!!
Until next time!
Over the past few weeks I went hiking with our new one year old puppy, Paprika, trying to train her to become a great hiking dog. Luckily she is already a well behaved dog who walks well. We ended up doing two fairly long day-hikes (5+ miles) both on the same trail, but from different ends. We went to one of my favorite getaways near Tempe, the Mazatzal Mountains. In these mountains, there is a trail called the Ballantine trail, which is a really neat trail and it is one of a few where within less than 10 miles you can hike past both saguaros and pine trees.
The first hike we did was from the higher elevation end of the Ballantine trail, which seems to rarely be used. I can definitely understand why few people use it, as we spent 45 minutes on a rough, bumpy road, which Paprika was not the biggest fan of, especially on the way back. Once we got to the trailhead parking lot, I ran into a problem with this trail – I could not find the trailhead. After several attempts at hiking what looked like a trail, we finally found the trailhead. It is hard for me to call the first leg of this trail a trail, because it was more like finding where the grasses were slightly parted. As it turns out, Paprika is a great trailblazer, and she helped me find the trail many times.
After the first 1/2 mile or so, I started to find more cairns which helped us keep on the trail better. The trail was really neat, because we started in a windswept valley, which was mostly grass and shrubby trees, but as we climbed further up into the valley, more taller trees appeared. Paprika did very well even with the increasing elevation. She was always quite a bit ahead, smelling everything she could!
The trail had also recently received a lot of water, which was fun, but also meant someone got really muddy…. Towards the point where we turned around, the trail had pretty much become a pinyon pine/juniper forest, which I always enjoy hiking in. I eventually turned around because we got to a point in the trail where it become really narrow and was flanked by cacti, which I did not want the dog brushing up against. So we turned around and headed back down into the valley, and got to see some beautiful views on the way back. I also learned that Paprika does not have a full appreciation for steep valley walls and would sometimes try to go straight down instead of using switchbacks.
Now the second hiking trip I did with Paprika started at the lower elevation trailhead for the Ballantine trail with our friend Eric Moody (check him out here). This trailhead is right off of highway 87, so it is very easy to get to, but the problem is that you hear the highway for the first 1/2 mile to 1 mile. This trail is very well kept however, so hiking it was very easy. During this leg of the trail, we hiked in mid-elevation Sonoran desert, which was a mix of shrubby trees/bushes and cacti.
The coolest part from this hike was that the Mazatzals had recently received a ton of snow, so we were treated to seeing the high elevation peaks of the Mazatzals, the nearby Mt. Ord, and the famous Four Peaks all covered in snow. This made for some beautiful and juxtaposing landscapes with saguaros in the foreground and snowy mountains in the background. Arizona is pretty awesome like that!
Paprika did really well on this hike too, despite having stepped on a cholla ball. The only other thing that held her up was that some horse riders passed us early on the hike and she seems scared of the horses and reluctant to follow their trail. However with Eric and my encouragement, she carried on and completed her longest hike yet!
Now that I have tested the waters with Paprika and hiking, I plan to continue to hike and eventually camp/backpack with her, so more on that in the future!
Fieldwork is a wonderful thing! It allows me to get outside in beautiful places and study animals in their natural habitat. It can be one of the most rewarding experiences, but because very little is ever in your control – weather, animal’s behavior, animal’s presence etc. – many things can and often do go wrong. Sometimes they are entirely my fault, like when I was at Lake Tahoe and I drove to Reno to pick up my field assistant when she had actually flown into Sacramento (3 hours away….), but other times field work fails are not my fault at all. Today’s story, is a mix of both, but mostly not my fault.
For my first hummingbird fieldwork trip, I spent the summer (2014) in Flagstaff, AZ working on broad-tailed hummingbirds. It was such an amazing trip, and I learned a lot about working on hummingbirds during that time. I also learned some of the difficulties of working in the American Southwest. One of my field sites was a pretty remote area, where I had to travel several miles on a not-so-great dirt road:
And, as you might have seen in my previous blog posts (here and here), late summertime is monsoon season in Arizona, and that is when I was doing this work. Typically at this remote site, I had a commanding view of the surrounding land:
which meant I could usually see when storms were coming from a distance, like so:
This was a good thing, because monsoon storms can be very intense with lots of rain or even hail. Whenever it rains on the dirt roads I was on, they become mud roads and very difficult or dangerous to drive on:
My story begins one day when I was at this remote field site. I was busy getting some work done, when suddenly I notice a storm coming over the mountains towards me. I quickly tried to pack up all my stuff, but I got caught in the initial downpour. I got completely drenched but managed to get everything in my car without damaging my equipment. Because I was completely soaked, I figured I would take my pants off while I drove to avoid getting my seat wet. In retrospect, not the brightest idea.
As I started to drive off, the road got really slick and muddy. I had some minor fish-tailing but was mostly getting out ok. However, when I was only a few miles from getting to the gravel road, my tires start spinning in the mud. Cursing, I got out of my car (without my pants on) to check out the situation. One of my tires was completely stuck. At this point, I only had a 2-wheel drive SUV, so this was not ideal. I tried to pry the mud out from between my tire and car, and then wedge things under my tire to get it going. I managed to get out of that mud slick, but also managed to get my legs covered in mud. Turns out getting on your hands and knees in the mud without pants on is a terrible idea… After epically failing to keep my car seat dry and clean, I drove a bit further down the road but got stuck again. This chain of events happened two more times before I finally was completely stuck and caked with so much mud. I actually broke a PVC pipe trying to dig the mud out from between my car and tire because it was so tightly packed in there. Oh and did I mention I was supposed to give a talk to an undergrad class that evening?
Well there I was pantless, covered in mud, car completely stuck in the mud, and many miles away from the field station. And annoyingly, the rain had stopped, so I could not even clean my legs in the rain. I called the instructor of the course to tell him the situation (leaving out some details), and luckily he was very understanding and sent help. However, this help could not get to me because of the road conditions; they could only get to the edge of the gravel road, which was still two miles away. So, I got all my gear, which included a 2x2x2 ft. mesh cage, put my soaking wet pants back on – over my mud caked legs, and hiked out the two miles. I ended up with several inches of mud on my shoes, which was not really an issue since I was already covered in mud both on top of and under my pants. When I finally got to my rescue party, I must have looked completely ridiculous. I was able to go back the next day to retrieve my car, and then I spent the next several hours chipping mud from underneath it and from my tires. Afterwords, I was much more careful of monsoon storms and never took my pants off in the field again.
Morals of the story: 1) do not get caught in monsoon storms when on dirt roads, and 2) if you do, don’t ever take your pants off!
Over Thanksgiving, I, with my fiancé Meghan, went and visited a former lab-mate (Brett Seymoure) in Fort Collins, CO. While we were there, we went and hiked in Rocky Mountain National Park. Now this park is mostly high elevation and mountains, so you can imagine that this late in the year the park was full of snow:
I grew up in Houston, TX, went to college in San Antonio, TX, and now live in Phoenix, AZ. While I have skied in the past, snow is not something I have much experience with, and I have certainly never hiked in it before. It definitely took some getting used to – learning how to not slip, trying to find footing that would not put my foot in deep snow, and other things like that. Plus the cold – it was very cold, but when you hike you get hot quickly, and so there was definitely a balance I had to maintain between not being too hot or cold. Luckily, the snow was not frozen or too rough, so we did not need any special footgear, but we did have to use hiking poles to keep us from accidentally slipping.
The hike ended up being very beautiful, though going uphill at high elevation in the snow was quite a workout. However, it was the day after Thanksgiving, so I will blame part of my slowness and struggle from eating too much the day before! The elevation definitely got to me, but it was totally worth it to see the amazing views.
We ended up hiking up to about 11,000 feet and got some pretty breathtaking views of the park and Rockies. Also, like with many National Parks, once you get 1-2 miles on a trail, you run into much fewer people, and so we had a peaceful, quite hike in the snow.
This was not my first time in Rocky Mountain National Park. I had been there several years ago, but in the summer. The park looked very different then as it did now, which was pretty awesome to compare.
In the end, we had a great hike and got to see some amazing views. Not much wildlife was out unfortunately, but that is what you get in high elevation places in the winter. I cannot wait until the next time I can get to Rocky Mountain National Park. It is such a beautiful place, and I have much more to explore!
Wow, I cannot believe it is already halfway through December! Time really does fly when you are super busy. Sorry to everyone for the lack of posts of late; November and December got away from me work wise. Between research and teaching, I ended up having a pretty full schedule, but I was able to accomplish quite a bit! I managed to go to New York City to meet up with my former lab mate, Rusty Ligon, and photograph a bunch of different hummingbirds for a comparative study. I also took a for fun trip to Fort Collins, CO, to visit another former lab mate, Brett Seymoure. And I graded a lot, and I mean a lot a lot. But the good news is, I am done teaching for the next few weeks. Now its time to catch up on some research stuff and more importantly, blog more! I have quite a bit of backlog for blog post ideas, so here are a few things I will write about over the next few months (in no particular order):
– Hummingbirds at the American Museum of Natural History
– Field work stories (and fails!)
– Advice on how to write grants
– Hiking in the snow of Rocky Mountain National Park
– Birding around Phoenix
– Advice on how to balance work and play as a graduate student.
I plan to have the first one out by the end of the weekend and then one a week from there. I look forward to getting back into this, and I hope you all enjoy!
I have never really grown up somewhere with four seasons. In Houston and San Antonio, there were really only two seasons: hot + humid and less hot + humid. Now in Phoenix, we have seasons, but it is more of a wet/dry seasonality, with two monsoon seasons a year (summer, winter). And it does actually get consistently cold in Phoenix, unlike what I remember about growing up in Texas, where one week would be in the 40s and the next in the 90s.
This is not to say I have never experienced seasons though. Summer I have nailed down quite well at this point…. Spring I have seen too, as every place I have lived does have a spring-like season, in that flowers bloom, animals start becoming active and breeding, and it starts to “warm up” (aka. go from warm to hot). Winter is tricky. Like I said, it does get cold and stay cold in Phoenix (cold for us at least!), but I’ve never had a true snowy winter. There were the occasional bouts of snow in Houston or San Antonio (see picture above), but it would only snow 1/4 inch and be gone the next day. Whenever I went skiing, I saw snow of course, and I have been to Flagstaff, AZ in the winter where I saw plenty of snow, but I have never lived in it. So I have some experiences but much.
However, Fall is the season I probably have the least amount of experience with. I’ve lived in places with the occasional tree that would change color, but mostly leaves went brown and did not look pretty. Here in Phoenix, there are not many deciduous trees, so nothing really changes color, but luckily there are plenty of places in Arizona where you can go to see fall colors! It may not be as colorful as New England, but it is still pretty amazing.
When Fall approaches, the first places to visit are the high elevation mountains of Arizona. Either Flagstaff or the White Mountains (especially around Greer) are particularly beautiful! You will only see one tree change color, the aspen tree, but it can range from a orangish-yellow to a neon yellow. Aspens are my favorite tree, because regardless of the color of their leaves, their leaves contrast so strikingly against their white bark, which I think is very beautiful. They also grow in strands, so you will get huge bursts of color dotting the landscape. Sometimes when you are hiking in the pine forests, you will find singular trees, which seem like torches lighting up the place. All if it is beautiful, but my favorite is when aspen strands take over large swaths of land and the bright yellow is everywhere.
Another excellent place to visit is the riparian areas of the sky islands in Southeast Arizona. I visited Ramsey Canyon in the Huachuca Mountains one Fall, and there I saw a great diversity of trees change color. My favorite was the Arizona sycamore, which would turn a bright orange that also contrasts beautifully against its white bark.
Later into Fall, the lower elevation riparian areas start changing as well. One of my favorite places to go is Oak Creek Canyon, however it is a lot of people’s favorite place, so it will be crowded. Sometimes it is enough to just drive through that canyon during fall, because you really get to see such a diversity of colors as you go from roughly 4000 ft to 7000 ft. You get the Arizona sycamores again, but also many other trees and many other colors. This might be the most color-diverse place I’ve been into Arizona so far.
I have heard of other places to visit to see fall colors, but I have yet to go there. Prescott is supposed to be a great place to see colors, and I still need to visit the Chiricahua Mountains and Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains. The North Rim of the Grant Canyon is supposed to have some beautiful strands of aspen trees as well. If you know of any other good places to visit in Arizona to see Fall colors, please let me know!