Feeding Baby Hawks

Mama and Papa Hawk feed their baby chicks a good mousie. Watch how they tear it into pieces just the right size. This video is another great one from Cornell Ornithology Lab.

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Mark Willis on Photography

Rainbow by Mark Willis

Double rainbow with lightning strike–Photo by Mark Willis

Mark Willis, archeologist and photographer

Mark Willis, archeologist and photographer

I am delighted to have Mark Willis, an expert in emerging technologies in photography and archeology, as my guest today.

This double rainbow photograph is magnificent, Mark. Tell us about it.

This image of a rainbow was taken after a storm passed through the Lower Pecos region in early April, 2013.  Right at sunset the clouds parted and this beautiful double rainbow appeared.  I took a series of bracketed shots to capture the color depth.  That also helped to capture the lightning strike that can be seen in the right side of the image.

Your pictures are amazing! How do you get such wonderful shots? 

Thanks.  If I get a nice shot is normally because I’ve take hundreds of photos and one or two are keepers.  I enjoy experimenting with various types of photography to increase my technical skills.  Lately, I’ve been playing with landscape and nighttime photography.

Lightning strike at Shumla, Texas, by Mark Willis

Lightning strike at Shumla, Texas, by Mark Willis

This one was also taken the same night of the storm mentioned previously.  To get this shot, I took dozens of  long exposures looking into the darkest part of the storm.  The long exposures allow for the lightning to be photographed and it also allows the ambient light to illuminate the landscape and hence the dramatic colors.

Stars over Bunk House at Shumla, Texas by Mark Willis

Stars over Bunk House at Shumla, Texas by Mark Willis

The night sky out at Shumla is really impressive.  Most city dwellers can’t believe it when they see how incredible the stars are.  For this photograph, I placed the Shumla Bunkhouse in the foreground to add some interest to the image. It was taken a couple of hours after sunset and with a 20 second exposure.  The light area in the lower right of the image isn’t a sunset.  It is actually the light pollution from Langtry, Texas bouncing off of low thin clouds.  This type of photography is pretty tricky because you have to guess at all of the manual settings and just hope something turns out nice.

You are well known for kite aerial photography. What is that, Mark?

Kite Arial  Photograh of archeological site by Mark Willis

Kite Aerial Photograph of archeological site by Mark Willis

It is one of the cheapest and most innovative ways to take aerial photographs. Kite Aerial Photography (KAP) was invented in the middle half of the 1800s by the French.  A camera is attached a sturdy string and lifted into the air by a large kite. One of the earliest uses of KAP was to map topographic features of the landscape for military purposes.  In much the same way, I use KAP to create highly detailed maps of archaeological sites and excavations.  I have had the privilege of conducting KAP projects all over the world.  It is my favorite type of aerial photography.

You also use drones. Could you tell us a little about that?   

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or drone, flying over Ecuador

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or drone, flying over Ecuador

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly called drones, are the up and coming way to conduct aerial mapping projects.  Unlike KAP, the UAVs are autonomously controlled by an internal computer.  UAVs are true robots that fly themselves.  UAVs are perfect for mapping large landscapes as they can cover a much larger area than KAP in a short amount of time.  The disadvantage is the cost of the equipment.  KAP also tends to produces higher resolution images.

You recently completed an ambitious 3-D modeling project at Panther Cave. What did that entail?

The 3D modeling at Panther Cave is ground breaking.  It involved creating an extremely high resolution model from nothing more than a series of photographs.  Typically these sorts of models are made using extremely expensive and cumbersome laser scanners  The new method we used is called Structure from Motion. It is inexpensive and produces results that other techniques are not capable of.  I am excited the world gets see this site in an entirely new way.

Have you ever had any mishaps or close calls while shooting?

It wasn’t really a close call but one of the eeriest moments I had was working very deep in the rock art cave of Marsoulas in Southern France.  I was on a very steep muddy slope documenting Aurignacian era rock art with an underground river below me. My colleagues had exited the cave and I was alone with the ancient art when the generator powering our lights ran out of gas.  For several minutes I sat alone in the inky blackness listening to the slow flow of the water below me and imaging how many of our ancestors had done the same.

Your photography has taken you around the world. What are some of your favorite places?

I started backpacking the world alone when I was seventeen.  I haven’t found a favorite place yet but the more exotic the better.  I enjoy working in the Pacific at places like Palau and Kiribati but feel most at home on the left bank of the Pecos.

What drives you to do this?

Those that know me know that I work constantly.  I am either creating a new 3D modeling process, testing a new technique to document petroglyphs at night, or running an archaeological survey. Always doing something related to archaeology.  A friend of mine calls me the “James Brown of archaeology”.  Not sure if I would go that far but I get a thrill out of finding new ways to look at archaeological sites and our world in general.  It is my work and it is my passion.

This has been fascinating.  Many thanks for being with us today, Mark.  

Mark can be reached via his occasionally updated blog, http://palentier.blogspot.com/ , or on Google+https://plus.google.com/u/0/117833894683564726361

10 Deadliest Plants: How Many Are in Your Garden?

This video focuses primarily on plants of European origin, but here in Texas we also have to watch out for the red seeds of common Mountain Laurel, which can also cause violent illness. See my blog from January 2013 on Mescal Beans (Mountain Laurel) for more. Also see my post on moon flower, also called Angel’s Trumpet, from February 2013 for more information.

I love white baneberry, don’t you? It looks like little white eyeballs on red stems. What could be creepier than that?

Aches and Pains: Lower Pecos Medicine Chest, Part I

Common white willow

Common white willow

Headaches, fevers, and those general, ever-changing, daily aches and pains we all experience are not new to the modern world.  They are, in fact, one of the things we have in common with the people who lived thousands of years ago. Today we generally reach for the nearest pill to dull painful sensations. But how did archaic people of the Lower Pecos deal with them 4,000-6,000 years ago?    For the next few posts, I will write about medicinal herbs that were likely available in the ancient Lower Pecos and how they were possibly used. Think of it as the archaic Lower Pecos Medicine Chest.asprin

One of the most frequently used natural remedies for general pain found in the Lower Pecos was likely the common white willow.  The bark, and to some extent leaves, contains salicylic acid, the same active ingredient in aspirin, truly one of the wonder drugs of the world.  The bark from a twig (not the main trunk, which is rough and hard) could be scraped and boiled to produce a tea for pain relief.

I remember seeing a large willow tree years ago, I believe in Rattlesnake Canyon. It was huge, and spread its branches like a giant umbrella over the canyon floor. Light was coming through the leaves, pale and beautiful.  The twigs from that very tree could have been used by people long ago to make their headaches go away.

Mariola

Mariola

Another plant that could have been used was Mariola. A dry, carefully folded  specimen of this plant was recovered from Fate Bell Shelter in Seminole Canyon State Park during past archeological excavations. Ancient people could have made a tea for general pain relief.  Many people are allergic to the latex and sap of this genus, so please, do not try using this plant at home.

A little plant called dogweed, or fetid marigold, could also possibly have been used in ritual healing for fevers and general pain. The Navajo considered dogweed to be “red ant medicine,” and used it to treat illnesses attributed to swallowing red ants. Again, I’m warning you right here, please do not ingest red ants as part  of any perceived “natural” diet or practice.  No. Don’t do it.

Dogweed, or Fetid Marigold

Dogweed, or Fetid Marigold

For more severe injuries and illnesses in archaic times, the ministration of a shaman was most likely involved. This person was trained to sing the appropriate songs and perform the appropriate rituals necessary to comfort the patient and the family. Ethnographic accounts of shaman healing practices describe elaborate rituals that can last many hours or days. Anthropologists suspect that shamanistic practices were part of the ancient culture in the Lower Pecos, but we shall never know exactly what the ceremonies were or how they were performed.

The final plant I will mention today is the Buttonbush. T.N. Campbell (1951) recorded that the Choctaw used the bark and stems in an unspecified manner to treat fevers.  Buttonbush contains very active, bitter glycosides that can cure or harm. Therefore, people should not use this plant except with the assistance of an experienced herbalist.

Buttonbush

Buttonbush

The ancient people  had  extensive knowledge of local plants and their medicinal uses. This knowledge must have been gained over a long period of time and handed down from one generation to another, a remarkable feat. Without writing, without “science”, without Google, they determined the ways in which various plants could be useful to human kind. Such knowledge was likely  passed on to younger generations through explicit teaching.

Both the “discovery” and the “teaching” imply various things about cognition among ancient people of the Lower Pecos. Someday when I can wrap my head around it, perhaps I will write about that. To me it seems pretty clear that the extent of their knowledge, distributed and maintained through an oral tradition and remembered in the head, was impressive by any standards.  But I digress.

Many of the plants I will discuss in future posts had more than one use, and some could be lethal if mishandled. So the knowledge had to be precise, and all aspects had to be transmitted and understood in order to preserve the health of the people. Botany was a serious thing, and accuracy–or “getting it right”– could be a life or death matter.

Thanks to Dr. Phil Dering for his articles on the website Texas Beyond History, where I cribbed most of this information.  If you want to learn the real truth about these plants, go to Phil.

Birds of Central Texas: 264 in One Day!

This video is from the Cornell Ornithological Laboratory.  See what a team of crack bird watchers spotted in one day of April 2012 near San Antonio, Uvalde, and Houston!

Texas is a great migratory highway for birds from North and South America. Ancient people of the Lower Pecos probably knew many of these birds (except the ocean shore birds), plus a good many others that only inhabit the western part of the state.  How many can you name?

Recommended Links:

http://www.birds.cornell.edu

http://www.allaboutbirds.org