Thursday, December 4, 2014

my 2014 project, part 1

December 4, 2014
(photo series)

I have now visited Pinnacles at least once every week for 35 weeks (8 months), a lot longer than I thought I would when I first set out to test some ideas.  It's either been a massive waste of everybody's time and gas for a midlife crisis fantasy, or I'm onto something brilliant... maybe? Sigh.

I'm hoping to face a fear head-on.  I'm not the best self-evaluator, so I figured I could use my blog space to practice writing out my ideas, reasonings, and discoveries, which for the most part I haven't shared with too many people.  I tend to be oversensitive to any perceived criticism, because I already feel like I'm not up to par.  I understand many female graduate students also feel this imposter syndrome, which is partly why I shied away from graduate school back when I had the chance, even though I was a straight-A student through college.  I swing from periods of inflated ego to crushing self-doubt, which is not very easy to live with.  Eh-hem.  Andy has been encouraging, but even he admits he can't follow all the details.  I'm pretty sure there are a few of you who might find this interesting.  For others, it's probably all a total navel-gazing bore, especially without the standard-issue plethora of pretty pictures.  You've been warned.  I'm shifting gears on Nature ID.  As always, I welcome feedback via public comments or private email.

This project basically started formulating during my February 25 Pinnacles visit, after Art Shapiro challenged me to "Go find them!" with regards to a butterfly I had asked about.  Around the same time I was meeting up with fellow nature bloggers and observing what they do for a living behind their public blog personas.  I was intrigued, because I recently had a couple crappy job interviews and was basically disappointed in the work options locally available to me.  I'm not willing to relocate, and I don't want to commute more than half an hour away.  It's a quality of life decision for me.  Then it occurred to me, why don't I create the job I want.  Why not?  This sense of I want to do something new, something yet undefined, something of my own creation took a month to incubate while I obsessed over my discovery that Annaphila day-flying moths look remarkably like jumping spiders.  I have Paul Johnson to thank for sharing his enthusiasm and extensive knowledge of Pinnacles.

It was during a second Pinnacles visit on March 9 that I started discussing these thoughts with Andy, my favorite person and life partner.  A passion project like this and its inherent financial uncertainty will affect him as much as me.  As a couple, we've gone from being DINKs, traveling for work to New York and Boston (me, educational publishing) and India (him, dot-com customer service) and traveling for fun, like a 5-week vacation in New Zealand, through job changes, lay offs, and returning to school (him, teaching credential), to living like college students again, solely on a teacher's salary.  I watched Andy reinvent himself and do something he always thought he wanted to do.  Come to find out, he loves teaching (not everybody does).  I'm proud of him... and, I'm envious.  I want to love what I do, too. 

We've been extreme about cutting down our expenses to make budget, especially when compared to some of our compatriots who are struggling under mounds of debt (hey, it's the financial times we live in).  We don't have children, which makes things easier.  We decided it was better to make just enough to be happy by being clear about our needs vs. wants, rather than to be stressed and grouchy spending all our life's time and energy working at things we don't even like doing and going after more money (it's the new god, unless you live in Bhutan) just to keep up appearances, which is ironic.  For the most part, we still live a good life.  I'm thankful.  However, we're not quite at enough to be comfortable and build a nest egg for potential poor health and/or old age, which is the responsible thing to do.  The question for me then becomes, do I gamble our financial future with the hopes that someday I will make some money, somehow, by doing what I love?  Remember, crushing self-doubt.  Ugh.  Andy is totally open to whatever possibilities and refuses to be my excuse for why I don't do something.  Dang him.  Ha!

I am not an expert at much of anything, but I'd like to be.  Eventually.  I figure I have 20-25 good working years left in me to get there.  When I've sent inquiries around for Nature ID, I've been fascinated how so many people reply with, "I'm not an expert, but..."  It's curious.  I've also noted when people reply with things that can be found in most any decent reference book, or second-hand from someone else, or from first-hand experience.  The second-hand accounts are fascinating, because so much miscommunication and misunderstanding happens, that what gets translated ends up being the game of telephone.  I'm totally guilty of doing that in casual conversations, and I try to avoid it as much as possible on Nature ID (see my copyright notice at the bottom of all my pages).  I have indeed found true experts in their fields, and most are past retirement age.  So, now is the time to pick their brains before death or dementia.  That sounds harsh, but it happens.  In my mind, the way to become an expert is not to regurgitate someone else's account, but to experience it first-hand over the course of years. Actually do it, experience it, study it, know it. Gotta start somewhere. And, I am. 

On April 8 I began the first of what was to become many consecutive weekly Pinnacles visits.  I started out with a vague notion to do a long-term butterfly monitoring project along my butterfly highway (a term I coined back in May of 2010).  For those that don't know, in a previous life I assisted in the establishment years of The Ohio Leps' Long-term Monitoring of Butterflies and I co-authored a handful of papers from a long-term moth survey.  That experience helped create and shape the peculiar format of Nature ID.  For someone who jokes about rain curses and rarely plans beyond a week, long-term monitoring programs have both intrigued and tormented me.

My plan was to address the design flaws I've observed in other programs and see if I could set up my own strict methods from the get-go to avoid the statistical issues that bubble to the surface when theory meets the reality of actual long-term data sets.  This was a problem that stumped me 15 years ago when I failed to publish on the field effects of Btk and the then experimental Gypchek within the framework of Sonja's 10-year regional moth survey.  I thought I was too stupid to figure it out.  Come to find out, it's really, really hard to do.  New stats tools are now being invented just to get a handle on the long-term data sets.  Art pointed out I don't have to do it all and suggested I team up with someone who digs the stats, like he does with his collaborators.  There are questions that have haunted me for a very long time, and it's amazing that enough time has passed that other people are now looking at them, too.  I no longer feel so alone in the not knowing.

By practicing methods every week, I discovered a tenable butterfly monitoring project is at least 2-3 years down the road for me... um, if ever.  My initial plan was to practice this year and get it officially going in 2015.  Ha!  I'm simply not familiar enough with the local butterflies, which took me a while to admit to myself (remember, ego), and indeed this year was the first time I saw many of them.  I need several more seasons to observe them.  This relatively long set-up period, which coincidentally does not fit well into any standard graduate school time-frame (3-5 years just to begin + 10 years minimum for actual data collecting), is standard among those who have designed long-term projects (Sonja, Mark, Art, Matt, etc.), a fact that I forgot about while I felt pressured by my site contacts to start right away.  And, yes, money also factors into getting started sooner rather than later.  I'm suspicious of anyone who claims they can ID by sight even half of the butterflies they see right out the gate.  It's also why I'm not a big fan of organized counts for the general public, which are great for PR, but they also fool folks into believing they're collecting better information than they really are.  I worry it takes citizen science down the wrong path.

Also lurking in the background is the genetics issues.  There are enough examples of mimicry that visual-only IDs are always going to be suspect.  And, as much as I've tried to convince myself that I must, I simply do not want to collect specimens.  Period.  I know, I know, pretty butterflies are basically just bugs, as the local guys like to tease me.  I don't think I'm that kind of soft, frou-frou girl.  For me, the not collecting part has more to do with the fact I'm a lazy lepidopterist.  I don't like having to carry a net on long hikes through tall grass and burrs that stick and tangle (particularly bad on former grazing land) for only a couple samples, and while envelopes are sufficient, killing jars are preferred for the quality of the final specimens.  Yah, I can see myself inadvertently gassing myself in 100+ degree heat.  Oof.  Paul claims he can chill his with ice packs, but I wonder about the effect of condensation and jostling on the final specimens.  Then there's the pinning and spreading and storing away from other bugs that like to eat dead, dried bugs and more chemicals.  Been there, done that, and I don't want to do it anymore.  Besides being boringly tedious, I don't want to kill for a living.  Plus, I've seen one too many entomologists end up with neurological damage from exposure to the chemicals of the profession.  Erm, not really for me.  No thanks.  I might be convinced to selectively collect if another researcher is actively needing specimens for a current genetics project (that rumor about only needing a foot is hogwash; the thorax is used and the reality is you need to keep the entire specimen for documentation; problem is no one ever double-checks anyways).  Otherwise, collecting for some day in the future with the hope someone unknown might eventually look at the specimens has shown to be a modern-day burden and a million dollar challenge in the museum world.

As for the practice part, I tried various modifications of the standard Pollard walk (set-box, multiple-set boxes, as far as the eye can comfortably see, passive pace, active disturbance, etc.).  I also used macro shots and zoom shots (tested from a couple different pocket cameras) as replacement for using a net to catch actual specimens.  I think I have a better success rate with pictures.  Plus, they offer a decent indication as to actual wear and tear of the individual to estimate the age of the adult, rather than any wear and tear from sloppy netting and specimen prep.  Have you ever tried catching a fleeting butterfly with a net over rough terrain?  Ha, good luck!  Better watch out for snakes, too.  I also examined my own presence/absence numbers compared to actual count or some combination thereof on various set trails, because the reality is I have to be extraordinarily efficient during the prime butterfly flight window (usually 10:30am-2:30pm at Pinnacles) if I am to cover enough representative ground.  And, I looked at first flight accounts under the framework of climate change (note to self: check whether the few univoltine autumnal species are ignored in first flight winter-spring month studies, since Pinnacles has a whopping fall metalmark population).

Aha!  Climate change.

As has been pointed out to me many times, Pinnacles, at 40 miles inland, isn't exactly right next to where I live along the Monterey Bay.  A once a week visit breaks out to a standard 16-minute commute, which is totally doable.  I could even visit twice a week and essentially meet my half-hour commute requirement.  I adore the drive to the west side, because the farmland I pass through reminds me of my favorite parts of childhood.  Unfortunately, driving to the east side is not nearly as pleasant through a very dangerous section of Hwy 101, and it's made me rule out observing that side of the Park with any regularity.  I'm keeping open the possibility that if I get my methods down pat, I might be able to train someone to do the east side.  The thing that makes Pinnacles ideal for me is that it's different enough climatically from home that when I go once a week, I believe I can note distinct changes better than someone who lives immersed in the gradual daily changes.  Does that make sense?  I become a better monitor by not actually living there, which conversely makes any monitoring closer to where I live a bit harder to record as well.

I've taken copious pictures and notes of changes along timed and GPS-marked trail sections, all the while brainstorming for ideas.  Initially, I focused on learning the local butterflies by practicing the previously mentioned modified Pollard walks.  Then, it became clear to me that I need to know the plants just as well as the bugs that feed on them.  As Paul pointed out, lepidopteran host plants are often not the brightly flowered ones that catch my attention (my fave delphiniums are useless to leps), which was a bit of a shift in thinking for me.  Many butterfly enthusiasts have no clue about the plants, and I'll admit I was one of them.  I'm working on correcting that.  Funny thing, after staring at tiny 1/2 inch butterflies that look alike, plants are a piece of cake to ID in relative comparison.  Plus, plants don't move, unless it's windy.  As the seasons progressed, I also noted other easy to observe events as they came up, e.g., the status of surface water in the creek beds, the timing of cicada and cricket calls, the mating flights of ants and termites, and the arrival and departure of select birds and mammals.  I did a cursory preview of the USA National Phenology Network, but I find their protocols to be a bit cumbersome.  I believe I have the potential to carry out an amazing long-term phenology project, but I'm still not clear how to shape this into a more formal project.  Yet.

To be continued...