Nocturnal Friends- A visiting photographer

A very long over due post…

This past summer I had the lovely honor of having a very talented wildlife photographer join me in the field to photograph bats and other creatures he came across. Michael Durham made his bed in the corner of our living room floor crammed between the couch and the wall attempting to sleep through the daily morning commotion of Porter Cove for the better half of the month. One of my techs named the dead end road we lived on, Porter Cove, as Mr. “Pappy” Porter seemed to own most of the land in Unicoi- his extensive family were scattered throughout the trailers sprinkled within the cove. Michael slept in his living room nest or in the forest with us in an extra tent. That summer we all slept on either air mattresses or sleeping pads on the floor in the house or on the forest floor. He battled the constant thunderstorms right there with us and with all of his fancy, expensive and non-waterproof gear.

Almost as soon as he arrived into town, we were out in the field, actually I think we left just 4 hours after he arrived to Unicoi, TN. It was the hottest and most humid night of the year and I also had to tell him that he’d be driving his rental car on a road that had begun to wash away down the side of the mountain. As long as it’s not raining…too much…we should be ok.

Every night we could go out, Michael went with us. We would set up our nets to catch the bats and other equipment to record bat calls, while Michael set up his extensive high speed camera equipment inside a family-sized tent on the edge of a dirt road, often surrounded by stinging nettles and poison ivy. Each bat we’d catch, we’d record the basics and if s/he was a species of interest, Michael would let an individual bat fly in the tent, catching their precise movements as they swooped around- their mouths open as they sent out calls too high for us to hear, the sounds bouncing back to their ears as they dodge every obstacle in their way. I’m not going to even attempt to go into his set-up because I would only fail to explain the details, but these details and his passion for wildlife photography are the main ingredients to the photos that allow us to witness the beauty of these nocturnal creatures that all too often escapes us.

Bats often only conjure up images of fear, or are rarely thought about. But I want to share some of Michael’s photos from my field season with all of you. Within those few short moments he spent with each bat, he captured what most people never have the opportunity to see up close. Maybe you are reading this because you already love bats, or you are curious, or perhaps you are an excellent friend and enjoy reading what I write. And maybe it’s something else all together. Either way, his photos offer a glimpse into the life of bats and their nocturnal friends- including wildlife photographers and biologists alike.

Male northern long-eared myotis (Myotis septentrionalis) photographed in the Cherokee National Forest, Tennessee. (digital composite)

Male northern long-eared myotis (Myotis septentrionalis) photographed in the Cherokee National Forest, Tennessee. (digital composite)

Visit his site,
photo captions taken from Michael Durham’s photo descriptions. Thanks!!


Study Site

I’ve spent countless hours becoming acquainted with my field site- Cherokee National Forest North (CNF – North) in Tennessee.  Even so, I have explored such a small percentage of it.  Thus far most of our scouting has consisted of pouring over maps and GIS, followed by driving for hours, attempting to match up “roads” to out of date USGS topographic maps.  This leads to trails that no longer exist, trails that are now roads, trails that are now driveways to private property, names that rarely match, wondering if you are going to fall off the edge of washed out roads, strategically turning a vehicle around on an old forest service road once you realize that nature has taken it back and a whole variety of other scenarios.  I actually love it!  We see some pretty incredible things and I’m obsessed with maps so it’s interesting to see how my imagination from looking at a topo map compares to the actual landscape.


We drive for hours in search of a site that qualifies as a potentially good net site to catch Indiana bats.  Indiana bats that have yet to be found in this region of the forest-  emphasis on the yet.  We find something with decent potential- take photos, measurements, GPS the location and record other useful information for our possible return to set up nets, acoustic recording devices (more on that later) and hopefully catch lots of bats and more specifically, lots of Indiana bats.  More on all of this later…

The mountains are never boring and the CNF has not let me down.  Many of you have been curious about where I’m living this summer, so perhaps this will help you.  CNF-North is located on the border of North Carolina, ranging from the Great Smoky Mountains andnorth to Virginia.  Previously I have worked in the Smoky Mtns and CNF- South, plus the Nantahala National Forest, which borders both of these in North Carolina.  The Forest Service summarizes this new region quite nicely:

Cherokee National Forest North

Unaka Ranger District

There are about 170,000 acres in the Unaka Ranger District located in Cocke, Greene, Unicoi, and Carter counties. Primitive camping is allowed anywhere in the district year-round unless areas are otherwise designated. There are over 250 miles of trails, including 30 miles of horse trails and 24 miles of trails for ATVs and motorcycles.

Watauga Ranger District

The Watauga Ranger District (approximately 170,000 acres) is mountainous, with elevations ranging from 1,500 feet in the river valleys to 4,321 feet on Holston Mountain, 4,880 feet on Rogers Ridge, and 4,329 feet on Pond Mountain. This district contains two wilderness areas, two scenic areas, developed campgrounds, 177 campsites, 181 miles of trails, including 20 miles of horse trails, 300 miles of U.S. Forest Service roads, seven developed picnic areas, three developed swimming areas, four boat ramps, and two shooting ranges. All this falls within the four northeastern counties of Tennessee: Carter, Johnson, Sullivan, and Unicoi.


(taken from US Forest Service)



Nerd Adventures

As I wonder if each snow fall will be the last of the season, my need to return back into the field grows.  I have spent the winter knowing that my job will continue onto the next season, all the while I have been patiently waiting on news for a possible new adventure.  Perhaps the grandest of them all…. thus far.  And finally my future adventures have been confirmed.

I have fed my cravings for nature with random hikes in nearby state parks.  Some to Raccoon Creek State Park to trudge through inches of snow on the trails and admire the layered icicles of the frozen mineral springs.  Another trip on that off day where the snow melted as the temperature rose to a warm 60 degrees in the midst of winter.  None of this has been quite enough to battle the 40+ hours a week of working in front of the computer.  Even now I feel guilty as I type this, as it only means that I am yet again, in front of my computer.  But then I cough uncontrollably for a moment, a reminder of the fatigue this bronchitis has caused- cough attacks are constant, and increasing as I breath in the cold air- making hiking next to impossible. But the cough will fade and hopefully it will be replaced with an increase of energy and ambition.


Next weekend I will return to the forest, as our searches for bat and bird carcasses will soon begin.  My return will also mark 1 year in Pennsylvania.  My time in Pennsylvania has been balanced with 2/3 of my time in the forest and a 1/3 of my time in Braddock.  Through the winter in Braddock, friendships have grown.  We’ve shared vegan meals, some large potlucks and many last minute dinners and lunches in one house or the next.  Laughter over cartoons while eating cookies, candy and breakfast anytime of the day.  Hikes through the forest and around the city.  Long talks with cats in our laps.  Bowls of popcorn and mugs of tea.  Punk shows in the city and in the warehouse with the sounds of skateboards between sets.  Lifting weights and holding planks.  Friendships that will last even though I have to add this place to the long list of places I have once lived.

Ready for a new chapter in my life.  One that I have dreamed of reaching since a very young age and now I have the opportunity.  The opportunity to earn a PhD in biology.  My field research begins in May.  Summer adventures (research!) in the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee in search of Indiana bats and then to Terre Haute, Indiana in August to study at Indiana State University under the advisement of Dr. Joy O’Keefe.  I have really missed academia since graduating with my master’s in 2010 and am looking forward to the challenges ahead.  More details soon, but this next month is going to be a busy one with moving around and training the new PA wind energy crew before I depart.  I am quite excited about all of this!

Jellyfish and The Soft Moon

Listen to this song:

While enjoying these photos by the marine biologist, Alexander Semenov. Yeah, really.

Cyanea capillata

Cyanea capillata

Cyanea capillata

Cyanea abstract

Сyanea capillata sun

Aurelia aurita.jpg

Cyanea capillata

There are more here. I suggest the slideshow option.

A different kind of adventure that I have yet to experience but need to…. diving. Another obsession of mine: jellyfish. Add them to bats, owls, porcupines and mushrooms.

Changing Into Their Fall Wardrobe

I’m not sure how I managed to get degrees in science when so much of it involves remembering names of things.  I struggle to recall the actual name of something but can describe at length its characteristics or key points.  For three days I could not remember the name of a particular tree, only to realize that I left my tree book at the tattoo shop in Michigan.  Using the internet isn’t as fun, so I decided to wait, to see if the name would come to my mind.

This is what I could remember:  I couldn’t get black locust out of my head even though I knew the tree wasn’t a black locust.  I also kept thinking it has something to do with sugar or candy in the name, something sweet but I obviously knew that it wasn’t a maple.  I also know that they are the first in this region to turn such a bright, magnificent red and I often see them on road edges.  I remembered identifying them in TN/NC and shouting out the pretty scientific name to the person recording the data.  I could almost hear it and see it scribbled onto our data sheets.  The key characteristics of the bark, the shape of the leaves, the size of the tree and the way it grows is all in my head.  But the name simply was not there.

Matt has always told me that conversations with me can sometimes be like playing Jeopardy.  Too often I would describe the simplest and most complex of things, not recalling the name.  It’s embarrassing when I forget friends’ names that I know quite well or when I can’t remember the word for the thing that people sing into- microphone.  Getting through school, I had to come up with ways to help me remember, sometimes involving writing terms over and over on a dry erase board.  I remember writing a full paragraph on a molecular biology exam in an attempt to convince my professor that I knew what I was talking about but couldn’t think of the specific term- even though I knew how many letters it had and how many of the letters were tall like an or k and I knew all of the details.  If you know me really well, you know that I have a stack of 230 self-made flash cards with bird names on one side and an image on the other with their key characteristics.  The same goes for salamanders. Can I self diagnose myself with anomic aphasia?

I fear that not recalling names and nouns may also attribute to my digression.

Returning to this tree… I finally used the internet and there in front of me, like a punch in the face: BLACK GUM (Nyssa sylvatica).  Now I could hear myself in my memory saying “Nyssa” and remembering how much I love that name- not because it sounds similar to my name, Nessa.  Clearly black locust was in my head because of it being a black gum and well thinking of candy or sweet things matches up perfectly with gum.  Brains are both intriguing and frustrating.

If you made it through this annoying post, or if not, enjoy this photo of what I have been driving past a couple of miles of every morning to and from work.  In my mind it’s officially fall when the Nyssas are radiating their magnificent reds.  I write this in hopes of never forgetting the name of this tree now, and perhaps you learned something new as well.

The first to wear their autumn colors- Nyssa sylvatica.


This evening after returning from my short hike, lying on my back in the backyard next to my little potted garden looking up at the sky watching swallows coasting through the air high above me I couldn’t help but reflect on my current and past backyards- and the lack of.  And of course as I lie there, I hear and then see my hummingbird friend.  He zips back and forth from one tree to the next and to the feeder as well.

Just beyond the small portion of mowed grass awaits a state forest.  I can walk out my back door and within in a couple of minutes I’m hiking on trails, some muddy and some overgrown with laurel and ferns.  It smells so good back there and I take in deep breaths along the way.  As I step around some muddy areas I notice that a black bear recently chose this path as well, my footprint is left next to hers after the heavy rains.  As I head back, I cross a small creek and decide to look under some stones for salamanders, but something else quickly distracts me.  Just up the creek I catch something bright red and it’s not a cardinal.  I scold myself for not bringing my camera nor my binoculars because it’s a scarlet tanager bathing in the creek.  He’s flapping his black wings in the cold water, they contrast so sharply against his scarlet red body and head.  He’s distracted so I keep moving closer, until I am within a 10 meter distance.  Scarlet tanagers are usually high up in the tree canopies and I’ve only spotted them through binoculars after hearing their calls so it’s such a privilege to see one so closely.  I stood still, watching him for at least 5 minutes, until he became lost in the tree canopy once again.

In the past couple of years my literal backyards jumped around from being two different national forests, a national park (Smoky Mtns), Detroit city backyards and well, no backyard except for the alley.  I’ve also traded in having a backyard for a backpack.  It’s hard to know where I’ll go when my 8 months are up here.  I’m in the habit of jumping back and forth from extremes… so perhaps another city.  It’s difficult to think of all of that and I’d rather just enjoy what I have now.

My current backyard.


Auditory Explosion

I can enjoy the fact that the highlight of my day off was watching the ruby-throated hummingbird enjoy his new feeder I hung up for him this week.  About a week or so ago I caught my first glimpse of him through the living room window.  Throughout the week I spotted him again at the back porch checking out the herbs in their hanging pots.  Then again as I was about to step out the front screen door but paused when I heard buzzing and unique squeaks.  Something flew past me diving down and swooping back up, the buzzing sound increasing as it swooped closer-  the hummingbird again!

As soon as payday arrived, actually that very day, I went into town and picked up a humming bird feeder and some sugar. And the very next day, in less than 24 hours he was at the feeder sipping away.  Not as quickly as while staying with Joy, she spotted a hummingbird in her back yard that morning and moments later we were driving around the town trying to find a decent hummingbird feeder.  The task was completed and just hours later while eating pizza on her back porch the hummingbird joined us for dinner at his feeder.    I wish that when people saw me hanging around in their backyards they would immediately put out a plate of delicious vegan treats and wait around for me to come by to find and eat it.  And like with the hummingbird feeder, it wouldn’t even have to be a full meal, just a tasty treat to give me a little boost but I would still continue along my way and find more meals loaded with the nutrients I need.  I just had an image in my mind of the cliche of cherry pie cooling in a window….. a drifter sniffing it out and leaving something for trade in the windowsill.

While out getting the bird feeder I also picked up some supplies to grow some of my own food since my hopes are dashed on people just leaving treats out for me.  Ok, so it may be a bit late to get started, but I really miss gardening.  With doing field work, traveling and not really living anywhere for for more than a few months at a time, gardening hasn’t been a very practical idea for the past few years.  But I decided to just go for it, and try a new method for me, of growing it all in pots.  Tomatoes, bell and jalapeño peppers, kale, collards, spinach and mixed greens are all on the list.  I’m starting all of the leafy greens (except the one kale plant I came across) by seed which I’ve had previous success with but wish I would have started earlier.  Ohhh well!

It’s almost 21:00 and I’m waiting for the whip-poor-will to start calling.  He’s not always on time.. somewhere between 20:35-21:00 he’ll be in our driveway singing his heart out.  Sometimes I’ll hear the woodcock down at the end of the road singing and dancing as well- a distinct call for each of his ascending, descending and call on the ground.  One night, upon first discovering him, Michael led the household out to our neighbor’s backyard so we could listen and watch the woodcock due is nightly ritual.  Currently the grey catbird is meowing and chattering imitated calls in the backyard.  He hangs out in the backyard most days and always has so much to say.  I’ll admit sometimes I laugh to myself hearing him meow and squabbling away, and sometimes I meow back…

Just the other day while planting my little garden I heard for the first time in my backyard (which is a forest!)… a veery.  I heard them out at our worksite the other week, but it’s more exciting to hear them while sitting on the deck.  They have the most beautiful sound, I really love thrush calls though and actually for the past couple of weeks have also been hearing the wood thrushes calling.  The veery call reminds me of the sound of swirling around a corrugated plastic straw in the air, where as the wood thrush sounds like a robot imitating a flute call….something like that.

Spring time out of the city is a an auditory explosion for me- of natural sounds.  All of the sounds above are linked to their respective bird calls that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology shares with us.  It’s an amazing collection and a great site to help you ID some (or all) of the birds in your area by searching and browsing around on their Bird Guide.