A monster under my bed

After a long break from updating this blog and some travels for fieldwork I am happy to return. And I have many stories up my sleeve. In fact, too many of them.

I have been extremely fortunate to travel to the rainforest in Ecuador, one of my favorite destinations. It is somewhat difficult to explain my attraction to the tropics – it is not a friendly environment, especially if one is actively seeking for “trouble” like I do. However, the opportunity to disconnect and escape from the noisy, crowded urban environment that overwhelms my senses with stimuli, and replace this with lush natural habitat, with equally overwhelming stimuli, but ones that actually make me think and not vice versa, is the meaning of true happiness for me.

I returned a third time to a reserve in Napo province within the Amazon Basin of Eastern Ecuador. Many things have changed since my last visit but it also felt like I never left. One of the only places I feel “at home out of home”.

On my third morning at the reserve, I could not help noticing that there are tiny spiders everywhere in my room: they were on the mosquito net, crawling on my backpack, climbing on my gear, and resting inside my clothes. They were everywhere. I knew there had to be a hatched egg sac somewhere close, and it seemed to be inside my room. After some time observing the baby spiders, I traced the source of the spiderlings to one wall, somewhere close to the floor, in the area where my bed stood.

You can imagine my surprise when I looked under the bed and saw this:

Female wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) and her thousands of babies under my bed.

Female wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) and her thousands of babies under my bed.

 

Not only there were literally thousands of spiderlings under the bed, right beside them rested one of the biggest “non-tarantula” spiders I have ever seen. Its body length was 45mm but with its leg span it could easily cover my hand. I immediately recognized the genus: Phoneutria, a wandering spider that belongs to the family Ctenidae.

Wandering spiders receive a lot of attention from the media mainly due to their medical importance but also due to misidentification of spiders that occasionally arrive with cargo originated in Latin America (a detailed explanation for this is here). Members of the genus Phoneutria are known to be harmful to humans due to their aggressive behavior and potent venom. However, this is usually over-exaggerated, and only two species from the genus are considered to be dangerous: P. nigriventer and P. fera. According to the distribution on the west side of the Amazon basin, I suspect the spider I found to be P. boliviensis, the smallest species of the genus, and also the least aggressive and dangerous.

This was not the first time I see this species, by the way. In 2007, I visited the same reserve with a colleague, and on our first night I saw an adult Phoneutria running across the outside wall of the very same room. At that time I had no clue what I was looking at, and it registered as a “huge ctenid spider as big as my hand”.

The Phoneutria boliviensis spider was feeding while guarding the babies. Good to know that there was someone taking care of those tropical roaches and kissing bugs under my bed!

The Phoneutria boliviensis spider was feeding while guarding the babies. Good to know that there was someone taking care of those tropical roaches and kissing bugs under my bed!

 

I slowly approached the spider, crawling on my belly, camera-in-hand. When I got close enough I noticed that the mother was feeding on a large insect. From bits and pieces that were scattered below the spider I realized the prey is a blattodean nymph, member of the genus Blaberus. These are among the largest species of cockroaches, so this prey was not only challenging to capture, but also provided a decent meal for the hungry female while guarding her offspring. In general, Phoneutria spiders are efficient nocturnal hunters that feed on large insects but also on vertebrates, such as frogs, lizards and small rodents.

The Phoneutria boliviensis mother enjoying her meal unalarmed by my presence

The Phoneutria boliviensis mother enjoying her meal unalarmed by my presence

 

While I was very happy to find this spider, I was a bit reluctant to sleep above one of the world’s most venomous spiders. I had a series of unfortunate events lately, and I did not want to add that kind of story to my résumé. I debated whether I should take the adult spider out of the room. I did not like the thought of separating the mother from her babies, but spiderlings are known to be independent right after their first molt, and most of them end up being cannibalized by their siblings anyway. In addition, there are several reports stating that Phoneutria females guarding an egg sac are a bit more toxic than females without egg sacs. For these reasons I decided to gently direct the spider into a container without aggravating it, and then release it into the rainforest.

Surprisingly, the spider was not aggressive during this short transfer. In fact, it was one of the most docile spiders I have seen. It is possible that it was relaxed from feeding, though. When I took a step back, the spider immediately erected its body and lifted its front legs, revealing beautiful aposematic coloration on its underside. It stayed like this for some time, allowing me to get a little closer and to experiment with photography. I started to get used to its behavior and got closer with my camera until I almost touched the spider with the front element of the lens. It seemed that the spider couldn’t care less for this. Then it scared me to death when it decided to climb on the lens.

Phoneutria boliviensis warns me to back off, and for a very good reason. This spider possess a highly potent venom and typically displays a defensive behavior prior to biting.

Phoneutria boliviensis warns me to back off, and for a very good reason. This spider possess a highly potent venom and typically displays a defensive behavior prior to biting.

 

By the way, spiders are not monsters and I am not afraid of them. But whenever I stumble upon a large invertebrate there is always a split second of sudden surprise and amazement. I guess it is one of those overwhelming nature-related stimuli that I mentioned above.

Insect art: Cordyceps cicada vase

I have always been inspired by art, and I try to express this through my photography or in my drawings (not that I draw much these days). It is therefore understood why I love artwork and designs that are directly connected to my other passions: nature and small creatures. It is not difficult to find nature-inspired art or designs; they are everywhere, especially nowadays, where the biomimicry concept has become very popular in engineering and technology.

Insect-inspired art/design is also found out there, but it is much more scarce. In particular, it is difficult to find pieces that represent species other than iconic ones (for example, the monarch butterfly, the ladybug or the stag beetle), or a biological phenomenon.

Since an early age I was interested in such artwork and representation of insects in different cultures. Luckily, there is an excellent blog dedicated to this topic, The Endless Swarm, which allows me to follow my interest. I recommend checking it out if you are interested in insect art. I hope to follow the same path – whenever I stumble upon artwork that I find interesting, I will present it in this blog.

In this first insect art post, I would like to present a beautiful product from Japan: The Cordyceps cicada vase.

Singing cicadas have been a part of the Japanese culture for many years. They are depicted in drawings and small figurines on pottery and wood art. This vase is a relatively new product, it was released in spring 2013. Surprisingly, the vase depicts a cicada nymph, in contrast to adult cicadas that are more commonly seen in similar artwork. The idea is to show an insect that is infected with Cordyceps, a genus of parasitic fungi that attack arthropods, and through complex mind-control alter their behavior to reach a preferred spot for releasing the spores. When the host reaches its destination, the fungal fruiting body emerges from its head, killing it in the process.

cicada_vase1

 

The cicada nymph vase come secured in a box that makes it look like it rests in its preferred habitat: underground, between roots of trees that are its food.
The box is decorated with beautiful artwork by Takuhiko Yokoyama, showing different insects infected with Cordyceps fungus. I highly recommend checking the artist’s personal webpage for more beautiful insect art (his digital paintings and insect food logos are especially recommended!).

cicada_vase2

Cordyceps artwork on the box by Takuhiko Yokoyama

 

cicada_vase5

Original Cordyceps artwork, courtesy of Takuhiko Yokoyama

 

The detail and finish on the vase is very impressive. It has the appearance of a big caramelized cicada nymph. Almost anything placed into the vase (even flowers and branches) makes it look like a Cordyceps fungus emerging from the cicada’s head. I decided to demonstrate this using something a little more faithful to the charismatic parasite – Buna-shimeji mushrooms I had in my fridge.

cicada_vase4

Almost like the real thing

 

cicada_vase3

Rear view of the cicada vase

 

BugShot Belize: Treat yourself to something good

I have been meaning to write about BugShot Belize straight after my return, while I was still excited about it, but upcoming deadlines and a small entomological ordeal took most of the attention.
But don’t get me wrong – whenever I think about this trip to Belize I get a huge grin on my face. It was THAT good.

If you have some interest in macrophotography, you probably heard about the BugShot workshop series – a get-together of photography and arthropods enthusiasts, over the course of several days, led by some of the best macrophotographers out there.
The notice about an upcoming workshop in Belize caught me while I was conducting my research fieldwork in New Zealand. I was thrilled to hear there would be four instructors instead of three: Alex Wild, Thomas Shahan, John Abbott, and, joining them for the first time, Piotr Naskrecki. I knew I had to secure my place in that workshop.

By the way, do not mistake this for an in-depth review of BugShot. This post is not going to be a list of what we did during the workshop. If you search online, you will find several such reports. I believe that if you consider going to one of these workshops, you should stop reading about them online and start working on getting there yourself. I will, however, highlight a few things that made the whole experience worthwhile for me.

I came to BugShot Belize with three main goals: to improve in taking photos in high magnification, to learn more about wide-angle photography, and to hear about high-speed photography.

Leafcutter ants (Atta cephalotes) carrying a leaf as food source for mushrooms cultivated inside their nest. These ants almost never stand still, and require some concentration to photograph. In addition, some backlighting helps to make the leaf "pop out".

Leafcutter ants (Atta cephalotes) carrying a leaf as food source for mushrooms cultivated inside their nest. These ants almost never stand still, and require some concentration to photograph. In addition, some backlighting helps to make the leaf “pop out”.

 

We stayed at Caves Branch, a beautiful Lodge set in the middle of the Belizean jungle. The owner attended one of the earlier BugShots, so we were lucky to have the best host one can ask for. Although being acquainted with only one other person before the workshop, I immediately felt connected to everyone else.

One of the questions I was repeatedly asked during the workshop was “is any of this new to you?”, and I have to say I found it a bit odd at first. I am not known as a photographer and at that time I had only a handful of photos uploaded to this website. But then it hit me – I do have some experience in photography (I started the photography hobby when I was 14, so I must have learned a thing or two since then), and I do have background in Entomology. Nevertheless many things were new to me – every person brings his own approach to photography and for being out in nature. It was interesting to listen to both the instructors and the people attending the workshop. In fact, here I feel I need to apologize before my fellow BugShotees (and anyone else I might meet in the future) – Most of the time I am quiet and I do not strike as being a very talkative person. But once I “break-in” I do not cease talking, and unfortunately I can get a little annoying then. So I apologize if I never interacted with some of the people, or was simply impossible to shut up when talking with others.

We had a small light trap to attract flying insects at night, which proved quite promising in the first night when we had no clue what to expect. One of the moths that arrived was so adorable that it led to a collaborative post with Nash Turely, who recorded a hilarious video of the moth settling into its resting pose.

Periphoba arcaei (Hemileucinae) aka bunny moth. Cute furry legs!

Periphoba arcaei (Hemileucinae) aka bunny moth. Cute furry legs!

 

Periphoba arcaei (Hemileucinae) employs a defense posture when camouflage fails, revealing aposematic colors to scare off predators.

Periphoba arcaei (Hemileucinae) employs a defense posture when camouflage fails, revealing aposematic colors to scare off predators.

 

But the main highlight for me was not waiting for the insects to come, but being able to go on night walks in a tropical jungle and actively search for whatever I could find. Man, how I missed doing this! If you like nature but have never done it, I highly recommend! Just be aware of all the possible dangers lying ahead and care for you own safety. And DO NOT do this alone, especially at night (speaking from personal experience, you can easily get lost).

A juvenile whipspider (possibly Phrynus parvulus) feeding on a caterpillar, found during a night walk.

A juvenile whipspider (possibly Phrynus parvulus) feeding on a caterpillar, found during a night walk.

 

Let’s get back to my goals though. Unfortunately, I did not give myself too many opportunities to photograph in high magnification. There were so many things to see and photograph in the jungle, that very often I found myself making the mistake of sticking with one lens throughout most of the day just for the sake of not missing a subject. In addition, the intense humidity made it very annoying to switch lenses because they would fog up very quickly.

Portrait of an assassin bug (Reduviidae) in the rain

Portrait of an assassin bug (Reduviidae) in the rain

 

Scales on hindwing of an owl butterfly (Caligo sp.) - it reminded me of a tiger!

Scales on hindwing of an owl butterfly (Caligo sp.) – it reminded me of a tiger!

 

One of the techniques I was eager to know more about was wide-angle macrophotography, and you can image my excitement when I realized I could learn it from one of the best. Good thing I was not lazy and decided to bring my tripod.

Piotr Naskrecki explaining about wide-angle macrophotography

Piotr Naskrecki explaining about wide-angle macrophotography

 

This was my first attempt to shoot wide-angle macro in BugShot:

Female canopy katydid (Tettigoniidae) resting on a Heliconia leaf

Female canopy katydid (Tettigoniidae) resting on a Heliconia leaf

 

It is OK, but could be better. Apparently I was doing a few things incorrectly, which led to a poor composition and lighting in the photos.
And below is the photograph I took while learning from the master, Piotr Naskrecki. Some people might actually prefer the previous photo. I like this one much better.

Leaf-mimicking katydid (Mimetica sp.)

Leaf-mimicking katydid (Mimetica sp.)

 

Of course, in these techniques, practice makes perfect. There is still plenty of room to improve. But I am slowly getting there.

Apart from some interesting arachnids that we found, the best find in my opinion was a tiny scarab beetle (Ceratocanthinae, identified as Ceratocanthus sp. by Dr. Alberto Ballerio) that can roll into a ball. Unfortunately, I did not take a photo while the beetle was open and moving about. If anything, this is a good reason to go back to Belize, I think this animal is incredible. I have known rolling isopods, pill millipedes, pill roaches, even some flies and wasps evolved to roll up into the shape of a sphere for protection from enemies, but this animal was something that was completely new to me. This beetle is so tightly packed when rolled-up, every leg is inserted into a dedicated slot, that it almost looks like a transformer.

Pill scarab beetle (Ceratocanthus sp.)

Pill scarab beetle (Ceratocanthus sp.)

 

But my all-time favorite photo from the workshop was not of an insect (well, not entirely). One of the people who attended the workshop was Roy Dunn, an acclaimed photographer specializing in high-speed photography (and an avid arachnophile). I enjoyed listening to his and John Abbott’s comments about this technique, and we were lucky to have the opportunity to get a hand-on experience with it. While I was impressed with Cognisys demonstration, I was more interested in controlling the light using few accessories as possible while taking high-speed photos. When we visited a nearby butterfly farm we could not take our eyes off the stunning hummingbirds coming to feed on sugar water. Many people tried to photograph them from up close using a flash (to whom Roy remarked: “That’s not how you do it!”). Although macro shots of hummingbirds can be amazing, the flash created a harsh light. So I tried to photograph in ambient light using my telephoto lens (Canon 500mm) with no flash, playing with the settings in the camera. Carefully framing to get the light reflected behind the birds, I ended up with some impressive shots, one of them is clearly my favorite of all my BugShot portfolio. Actually, I consider it to be my best photo from 2013. And it even has an insect in it.

Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds (Amazilia tzacatl) and a paper wasp passing by

Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds (Amazilia tzacatl) and a paper wasp passing by

 

So my tip to you: if you have any interest in small creatures (they do not have to be insects!), and you like to photograph, go to one of these workshops. It does not matter if you are an amateur or a professional. Even if you think you have enough photography experience I still recommend attending – just being around people who share similar interests might spark you to try something new. There is already a new BugShot Belize workshop planned with similar content and instructors. If you read this far, you probably want to be there.

2013 in review: Good riddance!

In response to Alex Wild’s call in Scientific American, here is my list of “2013 photographic achievements”.

I thought about how I should start this. I want to say that 2013 was a crazy year. But if you read many of these “year-in-review” posts you will soon find out that they are very repetitive, usually starting with “this was a _______ year for me” (insert your favorite adjective: crazy, busy, intensive, productive). I would like to try something a bit different:

2013 was the worst year I have had. Ever. Here is a partial list of my mishaps – got a warning from my university department for trespassing overseas, got my face broken while doing research and went through a reconstruction surgery, had my luggage searched extensively by airport customs officials on my way out of NZ, got a warning for having 300ml 70% ethanol for research in my one of my bags prior to flight, was mistakenly charged the $1000 excess fee upon returning a rented vehicle (twice!) and got my credit card locked, had my PhD research terminated and lost my main source of income, dealt with overseas bureaucracy, broke my main flash unit a few days before a photography workshop, got the return flight cancelled a day before I left the country for the workshop, served as a host for six internal parasites, and the list goes on. I saved you from the gross bits.

So you can understand why I am eager to wave this year bye bye. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of good things happened too – I met new interesting people, I learned and experienced new things and I finally attended BugShot macrophotography workshop in Belize – an event that will surely remain as a good memory for years to come.

And now without further due, here are my best-of-2013:

 

The photo that got me into the most trouble

Ground weta (Hemiandrus pallitarsis) mating

Ground weta (Hemiandrus pallitarsis) mating

 

This is definitely not one of my best photos. I do not like the light, the composition could be a lot better, and I could have improved the focus. However, it is an important behavior shot.
This photo was taken during my PhD research trip in New Zealand, in which I was recording the mating behavior of ground weta. The male, under the female, has finished depositing the sperm ampulae on the female’s genitalia (white blobs) and is preparing for depositing a nutritious nuptial gift close to her secondary copulatory organ. Unfortunately, this series of photos caused a dispute regarding image use and copyright and had cost me great pain. [Stay tuned for “My NZ ordeal (part 2)”]

 

The most unpleasant subject

Botfly larva (Cuterebra emasculator)

Botfly larva (Cuterebra emasculator)

 

I have always been interested in the fuzzy botflies and their biology as internal parasites of mammals, and I have been waiting for an opportunity to photograph a larva. This year, I got my chance when a former student collected one from a rabbit. I think this creature is amazing, but I could not bring myself to accept that this larva was burrowing into the flesh of a live rabbit just a few days earlier. Little did I know that I would become a host of several such larvae just a couple of months later…

 

The best landscape shots

McLean Falls, Catlins Forest Park, New Zealand

McLean Falls, Catlins Forest Park, New Zealand

 

This photo was a real game changer for me. My photography has changed substantially through experimentation during the trip to New Zealand. I decided to make a quick rest stop from a long drive at the waterfalls, and took only my camera and a fisheye lens with me. This is ended up being one of the best photos I have ever taken. Not only it is completely hand-held with no help of filters, I also managed to squeeze in a sun-star in between the top trees. After this I realized how much I know about photography and that I am already at a good level (before this I always thought I was not good enough).

 

Wind struck trees, Slope Point, New Zealand

Wind struck trees, Slope Point, New Zealand

 

Slope Point is known as the southernmost point of the South Island of New Zealand. Because of its close proximity to the South Pole, extremely intense and uninterrupted winds from Antarctica blow and smash into the trees here, severely disturbing their growth and forcing them into twisted shapes.

 

The most perfectly timed photo

The break of dawn over Allan's Beach. Otago Peninsula, New Zealand

The break of dawn over Allan’s Beach, Otago Peninsula, New Zealand

 

I did not plan taking any photos that morning – it was pretty rainy with a thick overcast. I was walking a friends’ dog up a hill when I suddenly saw the sunrays breaking through the clouds. I ran back to the house and grabbed my camera. The only lens that was effective to record the scene was my Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro, so I panned and took 42 shots and stitched them together later to get a high quality super-image.

 

Best behavior shot

Paper wasp tending plant hoppers (Guayaquila sp.), Belize

Paper wasp tending plant hoppers (Guayaquila sp.), Belize

 

One of my main goals in documenting ants’ mutualistic relationships was to photograph an ant collecting a drop of honeydew from a tended homopteran (aphid, scale insect, plant hopper etc’). I have tried to do it many times, but was too slow to “catch” the drop. You can imagine my enthusiasm when an opportunity to photograph a tending wasp presented itself!

 

The best non-animal photo

Kidney fern (Trichomanes reniforme). Kiriwhakapapa, New Zealand

Kidney fern (Trichomanes reniforme). Kiriwhakapapa, New Zealand

 

I hate to admit it, but I am biased about my photo subjects. When photographing, most times I will prefer a small animal subject to a plant or scenery. I lost many good photographic opportunities in the past this way. But every once in a while I come across something so different, so unique, that it blows my mind. This species of filmy fern from New Zealand is such a plant.

 

The most cooperative dangerous subjects

Bark scorpion (Centruroides gracilis), Belize

Bark scorpion (Centruroides gracilis), Belize

 

This male scorpion was so tame while being photographed that it was tempting to try and handle it. Only afterwards I found out that this species possesses quite a potent venom, and is even responsible for several death cases in Central America.

 

Portrait of horned desert viper (Cerastes cerastes), Northern Negev Desert, Israel

Portrait of horned desert viper (Cerastes cerastes), Northern Negev Desert, Israel

 

One of my “most wanted” for 2013, and I almost gave up after looking for it unsuccessfully for several nights during my visit in Israel. Luckily, just when I was about to leave the dunes, I found this beautiful male snake a few steps away from my car. It did a defensive display upon noticing me but later calmed down and stayed still, allowing me to frame a nice close-up portrait.

 

The best photo of an elusive subject

Jewelled gecko (Naultinus gemmeus), Otago Peninsula, New Zealand

Jewelled gecko (Naultinus gemmeus), Otago Peninsula, New Zealand

 

This photo could be a deserving candidate for “the photo that got me into the most trouble” category, however the troubles found me not as a result of taking the photo, but more because I was hiking in the geckos’ highly protected habitat looking for them. All in all, I am very glad I got a chance to see these gorgeous reptiles, and hope they live long and prosper.

 

The best natural phenomenon observed

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymphs marching, Negev Desert, Israel

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymphs marching, Negev Desert, Israel

 

There were two recent outbreaks of desert locusts in Israel (originating in Africa): in November 2004, and March 2013. Unfortunately for me, I missed both. However, two months after the swarms were exterminated billions of locust eggs started hatching and feeding on any green plant, causing damage to several crops in their way. I was extremely lucky to be in Israel during this time, and I managed to photograph and record the juvenile locusts before the order to exterminate them took effect.

 

The best focus-stacked shot

Trapdoor spider, Belize

Trapdoor spider, Belize

 

I have been manually stacking images for some time now to get deeper depth of field in macro photographs, but had mixed results. This trapdoor spider came out very nice, revealing good detail in hairs and claws.

 

The best wide-angle macro

I had my eyes on this technique since 2005, but I never got myself to actually try it. Inspired by Piotr Naskrecki’s books and blog I decided to look more into it:

Male Wellington tree weta (Hemideina crassidens), Titahi Bay, New Zealand

Male Wellington tree weta (Hemideina crassidens), Titahi Bay, New Zealand

 

One of my first attempts to shoot wide-angle macro using a fisheye lens and a fill-flash. Now I know I was doing it “wrong” (or differently from my inspiration), but even so, the photo came out quite nice and received a lot of attention. The only things I wish the photo would also deliver are the strong wind and the loud cicadas singing in the background.

 

Ornate predatory katydid (Saga ornata), Israel

Ornate predatory katydid (Saga ornata), Israel

 

This is one of Israel’s largest katydid species (only Saga ephippigera is bigger). I always wanted to have a wide-angle macro shot of Saga, showing its large head and spines. However, in the end I decided not to move too close to the katydid, giving the impression that it is about to step out of the photo.

 

Male orchid bees (Euglossinae) collect fragrances from tree, Belize

Male orchid bees (Euglossinae) collect fragrances from tree, Belize

 

This photo would not have been possible without the help of Joseph Moisan-De Serres who gave me informative advice about orchid bees, and Piotr Naskrecki, who encouraged me to attempt a wide-angle shot of them. It took a lot of time and patience to get the “right” shot; I suspect this was also the time when I got infected with the human botfly.

 

The most exciting subject

Possibly new Charinus species, Israel

Possibly new Charinus species, Israel

 

To me, there is nothing more fun and rewarding than discovering something new. This is one of three potential new species of whipspider (genus Charinus), found in Israel this year and currently being described. Whipspiders (Amblypygi) have become one of my favorite groups of arthropods in the last years and I hope to learn more about them!

So in conclusion, out of these, which is my most favorite best photo of 2013?
The answer is none.

There is another photo that I like better than all of these, one in which I experimented in a technique I know absolutely nothing about and got a lovely result. However, I will leave that photo for my summary of BugShot Belize, which hopefully will be posted before the next BugShot event!

 

 

An unexpected encounter

Earlier this summer I spent a couple of weeks in Israel. I like these home visits – regardless of the joy of seeing my family and friends and catching up, there is something rewarding about coming to Israel as a tourist. Sure, it will always be my home country, but since things around are constantly changing, I feel that in many aspects Israel is a home far from being a home. And I love it. It is all mine to re-explore every single time!

In one of my free evenings I planned a herping trip to the dunes in the Western Negev region. I was hoping to find one of the country’s most elusive venomous snakes: the horned desert viper (Cerastes cerastes). But what I found was way better.

I arrived to the site two hours before sunset. It was disturbingly quiet, as if the desert was teasing you to reveal all the treasures hidden within it. I did what I always do before a night survey – I went for a walk. There were many footprints decorating the sand, a sign for busy activity of lizards, ants and darkling beetles. The few green plants around were crawling with insects, juvenile locusts to be more exact (this is a topic of a future post). At the top of one of the sand dunes I found a baby desert tortoise (Testudo werneri). This reptile is considered critically endangered according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, so you can imagine how happy I was to find evidence for successful breeding of this species!

Baby desert tortoise (Testudo werneri). Super cute!

Baby desert tortoise (Testudo werneri). Super cute!

 

When I reached down to check an Artemisia monosperma, I noticed movements in the sand at the base of the bush. With a small spade I managed to “fish” out the reptile, it was a cute Wedge-snouted Skink (Sphenops sepsoides). This elongated skink almost never shows up on the sand surface. It has very short legs, and prefers to “swim” inside the sand in snake-like movements, like a terrestrial eel.

Wedge-snouted Skink (Sphenops sepsoides)

Wedge-snouted Skink (Sphenops sepsoides)

 

Sunset over the Western Negev desert. Soon the fun begins!

Sunset over the Western Negev desert. Soon the fun begins!

 

The sun started disappearing behind one of the dunes. I armed myself with LED flashlights and tweezers and set out looking for trouble.
And trouble found me alright. At the loess grounds leading to the dunes I stumbled upon a painted saw-scaled viper (Echis coloratus). This is a venomous snake I do not like to meet up close, because of its typical aggressive behavior. It was hiding in a deserted rodent burrow, and did not pose a serious threat though. A few hundred meters away I found a second snake of the same species, juvenile. I always feel like I am safer with smaller snakes even if they are venomous, but this is just an illusion. The juvenile snakes are as unpredictable and dangerous as the adults ones, and I would not want to find myself in a situation where I am getting bitten. Fortunately for me, this snake was just not in activity yet, so it was slow and sluggish. I could carefully examine it from a close distance.

Painted saw-scaled viper (Echis coloratus)

Painted saw-scaled viper (Echis coloratus)

 

Juvenile painted saw-scaled viper (Echis coloratus). The pink and white patches serve as camouflage between the rocks.

Juvenile painted saw-scaled viper (Echis coloratus). The pink and white patches serve as camouflage between the rocks.

 

Short-fingered geckos (Stenodactylus sthenodactylus and Stenodactylus petrii) were out and about in search for small prey insects. Their color blends so well with the sand that I had to be carful not to step on them while walking. These are some of my favorite geckos, with their wide heads and big colorful eyes they look like animated plush toys.

Lichtenstein's Short-fingered Gecko (Stenodactylus sthenodactylus)

Lichtenstein’s Short-fingered Gecko (Stenodactylus sthenodactylus)

 

Anderson's Short-fingered Gecko (Stenodactylus petrii). Their "hands" looks like human hands!

Anderson’s Short-fingered Gecko (Stenodactylus petrii). Their “hands” looks like human hands!

 

It was getting late and even though I saw many interesting reptiles and arthropods, I failed to find the snake I was looking for. I decided to walk even further, to another area with tall dunes. It was not there, too. I reached down to photograph a fat-tailed scorpion (Androctonus bicolor) when I suddenly heard the alarming sound of heavy breathing behind me.

Fat-tailed scorpion (Androctonus bicolor) - one of my favorite scorpion species in Israel. Now while watching this, imagine someone breathing heavily behind you.

Fat-tailed scorpion (Androctonus bicolor) – one of my favorite scorpion species in Israel. Now while watching this, imagine someone breathing heavily behind you.

 

I quickly snapped a single photo and stood up. The breathing sound became louder. This is not the best scenario one would like to find himself in – alone, in the dark, in the middle of the desert and far from any human settlement. That breathing sounded so heavy, that I blindly assumed I was being watched by a large mammal. My guess was that there is a striped hyena standing behind me. Another one of those animals I do not want to meet up close and personal.

I turned around, but there was nothing there. Suddenly I heard the breathing again, from a few meters away. I aimed my flashlight, and saw this guy:

Desert monitor (Varanus griseus)!

Desert monitor (Varanus griseus)!

 

The desert monitor (Varanus griseus) is a lizard one really does not see very often in Israel. I consider myself extremely lucky, because I have seen it on several occasions (thanks to my military service which I spent in one of the country’s best locations for observing Varanus) but it is unbelievably impressive every single time. This individual was about a meter in length including its tail, and I presume it is not even an adult. The monitors feed on invertebrates and small vertebrates such as rodents and ground-dwelling birds. They spend most of their life in a large underground burrow, only coming out to feed and reproduce. In fact, the reason this individual was so upset (hence the defensive breathing/hissing) was that I was standing right above its burrow entrance. Once I moved away following the lizard, it took advantage of the situation and quickly rushed inside.

The desert monitor (Varanus griseus)

The desert monitor (Varanus griseus)

 

The desert monitor was my prize for the night. I had already forgotten what else I was looking for. On my way back to the car, while feeling exhausted and ready to call it a night, I suddenly saw it. Hiding between two small Artemisia bushes, trying to blend in.
The horned desert viper (Cerastes cerastes).

Horned desert viper (Cerastes cerastes)

Horned desert viper (Cerastes cerastes)

It was a small male, but it was beautiful nevertheless. Tiny azure scales decorated his back, and two devilish horns extended above his cat-like eyes. It flattened its body and started rubbing its scales together, producing a loud Velcro sound. G-o-r-g-e-o-u-s snake. This is Israel’s most beautiful snake in my opinion, and can easily make a fine candidate for one of the most beautiful snakes in the world. I will definitely come back to find it again sometime in the future.

Horned desert viper (Cerastes cerastes). Here, kitty kitty.

Horned desert viper (Cerastes cerastes). Here, kitty kitty.

 

** I bet you are asking yourself – why does someone who present himself as an Entomologist spend so much time posting stories just about anything but insects?? Well, the truth is I have plenty of stories to tell about insects too, but I do not limit myself to six-legged creatures only. I like to appreciate all nature wonders, especially the small and cryptic organisms we tend to ignore/miss. I hope you would do the same.

In two days I will be joining BugShot, a macrophotography workshop in Belize led by some of the world’s finest macrophotographers. I hope to return not only with more photographs and stories but also with better skills, both as an Entomologist and a photographer.

My NZ ordeal (part 1)

Entomology has a small component of risk that comes with the job. You might get stung or bitten by an insect or several insect soldiers defending a colony, you can catch an insect-borne disease, or you can serve as a host for a small parasite. The chemicals used by Entomologists to kill and preserve insects are very often harmful also for humans. In addition, fieldwork can get you into a lot of trouble – you might unintentionally find yourself being accused for trespassing, you can get lost or stranded in an unknown place in a foreign country, or you can accidentally hurt yourself while working.
I hate to say I have some degree of experience in each of the cases mentioned above, but it is the last one that scared (or maybe I should write scarred) me the most.

I have been working alone for two months already in NZ. I decided to survey a well-known hiking area in Canterbury for potential night fieldwork. This is something I always do before night surveys – hiking the area at daytime to make sure it is safe enough for night work and that there are no “surprises” like loose rocks or hidden abysses along the path.
At first the area looked very promising for tracking ground weta activity – I found many occupied burrows. After about 3km of zigzagging between steep slopes and wide riverbeds I decided that this track is far too dangerous to repeat in the dark. And to make things worse it was raining all morning so most of the path was slippery. I turned around and started walking back. I was less than 5 minutes into my return trip, when it suddenly happened.
I lost my step.

At first I thought I stepped on a loose rock but the more I think about it I recall I felt no resistance back when placed my foot, so I believe this must have been a part of the path that was missing, washed down to the river as runoff by the rain. But how it happened is not really important.
The weight of my backpack (lots of heavy photography gear) pulled me down, I fell several meters into a riverbed and felt a strong hit to the right side of my face. Apparently my head was knocked against a large rock. But the funny thing is – it was the simplest stupidest accident ever. A stupid fall. Actually my first fall ever while hiking. I was not taking any photos, I was not running. I did not even reach down to look at something on the ground. Nothing. The pain was unbearable. I did not pass out, but I noticed my nose was bleeding like crazy. “I can’t believe this. How could this happen to ME?” Two thoughts immediately came into my head: first, are my teeth still in place? They were. Thank goodness. Second, what am I going to say to my girlfriend and my family? I promised them that I will be safe and that nothing bad can happen. How will I even let them know?! Only then I realized that I was in the middle of a river, off track, and that it was already afternoon. “I might get stuck here!” However, I was extremely lucky – two kiwi hikers saw me and came down to help. They concluded that I had a broken cheekbone and we tried to walk back together but I could only walk a few hundred meters before losing my balance. I guess I might have had a minor concussion. They decided that it is better to split – one of them took my backpack and went uphill to get cell phone reception, the other one stayed with me. While we were waiting in the river, swarms of sandflies (New Zealand’s version of blackflies, Simulidae) were sucking every single drop of blood I had left in my body. I was so desperate I was ready to walk back at any cost. But deep inside I knew I was just being a pain in the neck to my helpers. I felt the remaining blood draining from my face when the first hiker came back without my backpack. He left it somewhere on the track because it was heavy. My camera gear!!! Aaarrrggghhh!!! Now I was really desperate to walk back.
We waited a couple of hours for a land Search and Rescue team to show up (with my backpack. Thank goodness again). They were very nice and professional, and I was surprised to learn that they were all volunteers. They decided to call a chopper because we were too deep into the steep track, and carrying a stretcher was out of the question. I think the waiting was the worst part. It was already getting dark, the wind was chilly (left my coat in the car) and the sandflies were having their feast on our bodies. Eventually the chopper did arrive and pulled me up on a stretcher. We landed at Christchurch hospital, where the doctor congratulated me on my broken face. The first time I break something, and it had to be my face?? Wow, seems like I am really good at getting into trouble. Surprisingly, my nose has survived the hit, but I had a broken cheekbone and a swollen black right eye. I looked hideous. I could just as well say I got into a street fight. Apart from that all was well, no harm done to my already shaky mental state or to my vision. The car with all my stuff (including my weta) was taken to the local police station, so the following day I had a nice police escort to reunite with my belongings. I drove back to Christchurch in weepy eyes – they were super sensitive but I was also so happy to be alive and well to tell this story.

WARNING: Disturbing and gruesome image. But you know you want to click it. Go on, click it. And while you’re at it, look into my eye and watch the beautiful sunrise at Marfells Beach. 

 
Fast forward a few days, after resting and stuffing myself with pain killers I had to go through a small surgery to restore my face back to normal. They did a good job. I think. You might not believe it but I actually looked worse before the accident! My right eye socket now features a metal plate. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d get one of those.

skull

…and the moral of the story kids: Don’t go banging your head on hard surfaces. Unless you want a metal plate and a cool x-ray like this one.

 

I had to stay in New Zealand as planned and could not fly to Canada earlier because of potential damage to sinuses. This has also screwed up my research plans for the end of the trip – so I did not have enough weta material collected.

I cannot thank enough to the kind people that helped me through this horrible accident and nursed me back to health. I am indebted to you all and I hope our paths cross again sometime in the future, no accidents involved of course!

One last thing I want to say: if you have a hiking accident, New Zealand is one of the best places in the world to be at. ACC took responsibility for the rescue and treatment expenses. Again my luck – I could have ended paying more than $20000 for the chopper and surgery. Yikes.
Now you realize how important it is for entomologists to have high risk insurance!

Unfortunately for me, the story does not end here. There is a second part to this ordeal, much worse than the accident, and it happened after I returned to Canada. I am still recovering from this mess so I do not feel confident enough to write about it. But things are starting to look up recently, and I do intend to come back and share my experience, because I think many grad students may find themselves in a similar situation.

New Zealand – the sad side

I cannot end my NZ report without mentioning one sad truth.
New Zealand is full of invasive species.

At first I was not sure if the European blackbird I saw when I landed in Auckland was indeed the one I know from home or some NZ-specific species. Soon I learned that there are so many introduced birds species in New Zealand. Moreover, New Zealand has no native terrestrial mammals (except for two bat species), yet many introduced mammal species are widespread and frequently seen. The same goes for other groups of animals as well as plants.
New Zealand, being a group of islands, is exceptionally prone to such species “invasions”. Many non-native species, introduced deliberately by man or naturally by immigration from nearby continents, found suitable environmental conditions to colonize the country and in absence of their natural enemies there is no control on their population growth.

One of the best examples is the Common brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula), introduced intentionally from Australia by European settlers in the 1850s. The reasons behind this were to use the animals as a source for food and to use their soft fur for clothing. However, some possums escaped from the farms and established wild populations, and by the 1980s they were widely spread throughout NZ in a variety of habitats. Possums are herbivores, feeding on leaves, fruits and seeds. They have some negative impact on the NZ flora by reducing the diversity of plant species in a given habitat, in addition to damaging agricultural crops. But their main impact is transmitting diseases to other mammals. They are vectors for bovine tuberculosis, which is a major threat to farm animals. Department of Conservation (DoC) as well as several other agencies are putting substantial efforts to control and reduce the numbers of possums by trapping and poisoning them, with some success.

Common brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) in Fiordland National Park, South Island. Do you think this guy is cute? Not only it defoliates trees and damages crops, it can also transmit diseases to farm animals.

Common brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) in Fiordland National Park, South Island. Do you think this guy is cute? Not only it defoliates trees and damages crops, it can also transmit diseases to farm animals.

 

Another interesting example for an invasive species in New Zealand is the rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus). Rabbits were initially introduced as a food animal by European settlers, but were later liberated from farms to use as game for the export of skins and fur. They have multiplied and reproduced well and by the 1870s, they were reported as a serious pest. The rabbits depleted the soil through erosion and negatively affected the diversity of plant species. In farming areas the rabbits reduced the sheep-carrying capacity by competing with sheep on food sources.

Do you think this guy is cute? Well he is, but he is also responsible for eroding the soil and reducing vegetation cover, ultimately changing the landscape (Otago Peninsula, South Island).

Do you think this guy is cute? Well he is, but he is also responsible for eroding the soil and reducing vegetation cover, ultimately changing the landscape (Otago Peninsula, South Island).

 

Soon after the establishment of wild rabbit populations, farmers demanded a solution to the problem. They suggested introducing the rabbits’ natural enemies as a means of population control, and in the 1880s mustelids (stoats and weasels) were introduced from Britain into New Zealand. It was not long before the mustelids learned that instead of wasting time and energy chasing rabbits, they can easily prey on the native ground-nesting and flightless bird species. These birds have evolved in the absence of mammalian predators and were essentially sitting ducks (pun intended) for the mustelids. And soon enough, a drastic drop in numbers of several New Zealand bird species was recorded.

Today mustelids are widespread in New Zealand and there is a DoC program to control their populations. Traps for mustelids can be seen in many nature reserves and national parks. In fact even Fiordland National Park, which is considered one of the world’s heritage nature reserves, is not immune to invasive species and during my short visit there I observed dozens of possums and a baby mustelid – a bad sign that they are breeding in the park, despite DoC’s efforts to trap and hunt them down. In one of my hikes in Fiordland I found a small base harboring two small choppers. My first thought was that those were rescuing choppers and I felt relived that if got stranded in the park I would have a good chance of coming back alive and in one piece (and how ironic is it that I actually needed such a rescue a week later?). But when the DoC personnel showed up they explained that every couple of months DoC sends hunters into the park to go after wild roaming deer, mustelids and possums, and those choppers are used to transfer the hunters in and out of the park.

Choppers used to bring DoC hunters in and out of Fiordland National Park

Choppers used to bring DoC hunters in and out of Fiordland National Park

 

These are just several examples for invasive animal species in New Zealand. There are hundreds more. I did not mention rats, mice, cats, Australian magpies, german wasps, as well as other notoriously-known species.

European goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis) were introduced from Britain in the late 1800s and since then have become extremely common throughout NZ. I have never had a chance to photograph a group of goldfinches in my home country, so I find it ironic that I succeeded only after traveling to the other side of the world (Okiwi Bay, South Island).

European goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis) were introduced from Britain in the late 1800s and since then have become extremely common throughout NZ. I have never had a chance to photograph a group of goldfinches in my home country, so I find it ironic that I succeeded only after traveling to the other side of the world (Okiwi Bay, South Island).

 

An introduced slug species from Dunedin, South Island (all native NZ slugs have a characteristic leaf-vein pattern on their dorsal side).

An introduced slug species from Dunedin, South Island (all native NZ slugs have a characteristic leaf-vein pattern on their dorsal side).

 

On the topic of invasive plants, New Zealand border control is doing the best it can to prevent visitors from introducing unwanted species. After you land you are greeted by a nice officer that inquires about the contents of your luggage (including gifts!) to make sure you are not carrying any fruits. Then he takes a good look at your shoes for any sign of dirt, soil, or seed stuck in your shoelaces. If something looks suspicious, you are asked to remove your shoes and after a short inspection you receive them thoroughly washed and clean. Very impressive and reminds me of my visit to the Galapagos Islands when my bags were searched and I was asked to dip my shoes in some sort of disinfecting solution. Unfortunately, invasive species are a global problem not limited to islands only, but still in most world countries such ‘visitor checks’ are relatively minimal. I have more to say about this but it will have to wait for another post.

The land of amphipods

In my earlier post I mentioned that New Zealand is often referred to as the “land of birds”. I can understand the reasons behind this, but I cannot say I agree.
In the three months I have been traveling around New Zealand I got to explore many nature reserves as well as some disturbed habitats and I have to say that while birds seem to be very common and very diverse, they do not appear to be (at least in my opinion) the dominant animal. If I had to choose one living organism that thrives in almost any spot on these islands, it would be amphipods.

An amphipod climbing a leaf in search for food (Dunedin, South Island)

An amphipod climbing a leaf in search for food (Dunedin, South Island)

 

Amphipods are small crustaceans (usually less than 10mm) that occupy both aquatic and terrestrial habitats. I do not know much about aquatic amphipods, but when I studied amphibians in the past I have seen amphipods roaming the muddy banks of ponds and scavenging in urban gardens. As crustaceans, they breathe through gills and as a consequence they are restricted to very humid niches, such as leaf litter on the forest floor, or under stones.

Amphipods share the habitat with many invertebrate predators, such as flatworms. If the two meet, even the fast-moving amphipod does not stand a chance against the tight grip of the worm (Otago Peninsula, South Island)

Amphipods share the habitat with many invertebrate predators, such as flatworms. If the two meet, even the fast-moving amphipod does not stand a chance against the tight grip of the worm (Otago Peninsula, South Island)

 

In New Zealand, it seems that amphipods have a significant role in the ecosystem, as either detritivores or herbivores. The high humidity and frequent rainfall in New Zealand allow them to exist in many types of habitat. They are abundant in extremely high numbers, and in addition to their effect on the vegetation and soil composition they serve as food for many predators. I remember several times when I was out on night surveys and heard a continuous crunching noise in the background. When I shone a light on the ground I saw hundreds of amphipods chewing on plants’ leaves. They were just everywhere. Some NZ species are “giants” among the terrestrial amphipods and their bodies reach the whopping length of 14mm!

Amphipods nibbling leaves at night (Titahi Bay, North Island)

Amphipods nibbling leaves at night (Titahi Bay, North Island)

 

A huge amphipod from Fiordland National Park (South Island)

A huge amphipod from Fiordland National Park (South Island)

 

One can definitely get an amphipod “fix” just by being exposed to so many species in one place in such a short time. After this trip, I will never look at NZ as a haven for birds. In my opinion, it should definitely be called “the land of amphipods”.

My two favorite NZ birds

New Zealand is home to an astounding high number of endemic birds, for this reason it is often referred to as the “land of birds”. As the end of my research trip approached, I tried to think which of the bird species I came across left the most impact on me.
To my surprise it was not any of the famous NZ birds; I never had a chance to get to Maud Island to see the Kakapo; the Tui and the bellbird are beautiful but I didn’t find them that interesting, the same can be said for the yellow-eyed penguins and the giant NZ Pigeon; and kiwi reminded me of a beaked rat with bad case of platfus. Could it be that something happened to me in Canada that was clouding my judgment?

You see, I was born in Israel, and the most common animals I saw in the vicinity of my house were crows, stray cats and rats. Do not get me wrong: I am not saying that Israel does not have an interesting fauna, on the contrary! The biodiversity in Israel is amazing (and from many aspects even much more interesting that that of… New Zealand). However, if you live in a big city, these animals I mentioned are the ones you will see most frequently.
But I had already been living for a year in Canada before I took the trip to New Zealand, and being surrounded by tame squirrels, brave chipmunks and fluffy rabbits had its effect (well actually, I always had a thing for rabbits). I am not even going to talk about the freakishly tame deer that are all over the place. So when I got to New Zealand the first animals that left an impression on me were the ones who were not afraid to check me out from up close.

I met the first bird species on my first night alone in New Zealand. I left my PhD supervisor at the ferry terminal and drove to a town called Okiwi Bay, a lovely place. I found a good spot to pass the night in the forest, looking for weta. In the morning, I woke up to an amazing view of the turquoise blue water of the bay, peeking through the canopy. Just as I was appreciating this magnificent sight, I heard a loud “Nee! Nee! Nee!”
Of course the first thing that came into my mind were the knights from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but I set out to look for this mysterious animal. And it was sitting on a branch right above my head. First I saw a white hand waving to me from the branches and I had to pause for a second because I wasn’t sure what I was seeing.

New Zealand fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa)

“Nee! Nee! Nee!” (translated: hello!)

 

Then I saw that this was actually a bird the size of a swallow.
It was a fantail.

New Zealand fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa)

New Zealand fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa)

 

The New Zealand fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa) is probably the bird you are most likely to see if you come to NZ. It is a very common, relentless bird, constantly moving and calling. These birds are not afraid of people, and very often approach to feed on flying insects that hover above your head. This behavior made it very difficult to photograph the bird, because when using a long telephoto lens the fantail would often come too close for an appropriate working distance. When I think about this, I kick myself in the head because these birds are everywhere in NZ, and I cannot believe I do not have a single decent photo of a fantail… They are grey in color with a white or pale grey tail, which they display open almost all the time. There is also a “black version” of this bird, I got to see it twice throughout my trip, but it was too concealed to get a good photo.
I immediately fell in love with this bird. There is something so adorable in its rapid movements and cutesy calls that it looks like it came straight out of a cartoon.
Do check that link by the way, you will not regret it.

New Zealand fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa), displaying its tail

New Zealand fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa), displaying its tail

 

The second bird species took interest in me while I was searching for Holacanthella springtails. I was digging inside a rotten log when suddenly I saw a beak snatching a spider that I exposed while working. I raised my head, and saw a small grey songbird standing 15cm from my face. I cannot even describe the feeling to you. The fact that this wild bird, which I have never seen before, was interested in what I was doing and decided to join me. It was priceless.

South Island Robin (Petroica australis australis)

South Island Robin (Petroica australis australis)

 

I soon learned that the South Island Robin (Petroica australis australis) is another brave bird that will often come to check what humans are doing in its territory.  I took advantage of this, and experimented just how close the bird would get. The answer – pretty darn close! If you are exposing prey items, or better, if you are offering the robin a prey item, it will come fearlessly to take it from your hand. Unbelievable. This is a wild bird, I remind you!

Feeding South Island Robin (Petroica australis australis) from my hand

Feeding South Island Robin (Petroica australis australis) from my hand

 

South Island Robin (Petroica australis australis)

South Island Robin (Petroica australis australis)

 

This behavior also creates excellent opportunities for some macro photography, something that is sometimes difficult to achieve with small birds. It is very rewarding to see all the tiny details in head feathers. At the end of the day I felt bad for leaving the bird alone in the forest. It really felt like there was someone else there with me. This is probably something that only people who work alone in the field can relate to.

Working together in the field to discover arthropods, me and my new buddy

 

I will probably write a post about the other NZ birds that I mentioned, or at least post some photos of them. But if you like birds, the best tip I can give you is – go to New Zealand. You’ll feel like you’re in heaven.

SIRobin7

Oh my god is it that post already???

In almost any blog I have been following, there is a point when the blogger, due to various reasons, must take some time away from his blog/website. After this necessary period of time in absence, which can be rather short or extremely long, what usually follows is an apology for the lack of updates. Now I have seen this occurring many times, but all these cases had something in common – they happened after the blog has established itself a reputation and good readership.

Here I am, essentially at the same point in the blog’s history, after not updating for over five months. I never thought it would happen so soon. What I am wondering about is whether I need to apologize to my readers for neglecting the blog. The thing is, I don’t think I have readers that are subscribed to this blog, I don’t even have that many posts here, so won’t it be like talking to myself? Isn’t blogging in general talking to oneself until some other voice starts echoing back in the distance?

So – no. This is not an apology post. A lot of things happened since my previous update. Some bad, some even worse, but some pretty good. I will do my best to share most of the stories here because I think many people, especially young scientists, can learn from my experiences. And this was one of my goals in starting this blog in the first place.

However, first I have to finish writing about New Zealand. Unfortunately, these stories will now be mixed with more current stuff I planned to write about. I was not very motivated to do it and I guess this is part of the reason it took me so long to go back blogging.
Why? Read on.