Life as a falconer, insect systematist, and double Masters Student (or a look into the mind of someone who is questionably sane).

30 November 2011


Driving from Alabama to Texas shouldn't involve 7 hours of snow.  From crossing into Mississippi, through Tennesse and Mousori (had to drop off the falcons), and until about 45 minutes east of Little Rock the snow was falling, in some areas quite heavily.  Dumas got to ride in the cab for most of it..  After a brief discussion about proper behavior for the regal hunting dog he is he did ok.  All that snow added hours to the drive so I finally arrived around 0430.

Often on these long drives I think about some really random things.  This time I was thinking about ways to document my life in some sort of non boring fashion.  My grandpa (he turns 96 next week) told me to write down a few sentences each day about what I did, so that way when I'm as old as he is I can read them and remember the fun.  I guess he's been doing this for decades...  Being a wildlife biologist though I thought it would be more amusing to sample myself at random times like we would doing a natural history study.  So each day I will record what I'm doing during 4 random 15 minute time periods during the day.  Because my sleeping habits are so weird I've decided to sample across 24 hours, not restrict myself to an 18hr stretch or something like that.  As such, some days the random points could be pretty boring...  I will also summarize the day with 3 things- a 5 sentence description of the day, my lunch/dinner menu, and some random fact I learned.  Should be at least moderately interesting I hope.

1043: sleeping.  Quite soundly.

1609: talking to Ira.  Apparently I have to grow up and become a productive member of society sometime, and I should start looking at the jobs out there now to get an idea on how to do it.  My post PhD future was a hot topic all day today. Apparently passing prelims causes this.

1738: putting leafhopper specimens to be returned to The (don't forget the "The" or they get upset) Ohio State University insect collection in unit trays, counting each specimen (over 1000...) and making sure the datebase matched reality.

2102: eating dinner at Bostons with Eric.  Probably talking about diesel trucks.

Nice to be back where I belong, AKA College Station.  Being I slept until noon, not much productive got done today, although I figured out why my database count didn't match reality and fixed it.  This means the OSU loan can get shipped back to OSU, and I can cross another loan off the list.  I need to start thinking more seriously about my plan for the real world.  Post docing in a conservation genetics lab seems like a good idea, and would keep options open for applying for jobs that are more conservation/wildlife oriented or more phylogenetics oriented.

Lunch- Dixie Chicken- Freddy burger on toast, with cheese, tomatoes, and mustard (they forgot the pickles and put lettuce on instead).  Cheese  Fries.  Dr. Pepper.  This meal is heaven on earth, and they were playing a good mix of Texas Country, College Station country, and country.  With Maria, sat on the porch, near where our names our carved.

Dinner- Boston's with Eric.  Had a pepperoni pizza, a shiner, and a Pepsi.  Funny how chordate anatomy resulted in multiple long term friendships.  What an amazing class.

Random fact: American alligators have unidirectional airflow in the parabronchi.  Previously only birds were thought to have unidirectional airflow (making avian respiration completely different from other verts). 

28 November 2011

Happy Thanksgiving [HRE}

Celebrated thanksgiving Catanach style- lots of food and football.  Since we don't like turkey we cooked up fillet mignon, twice baked potatoes, and stuffing.  The morning was spent working on my poster for the ConBio meeting next week on my Swaziland work.  Hard to believe in less than a week we'll be landing in Auckland.  I'm so glad I've talked my parents into coming.  My dad hasn't been on a real vacation since I was in 2nd grade, so he's more than due up for one.

One tradition was postponed to a few days after Thanksgiving.  My dad and I make a lemon pie every major holiday.  It's an old Catanach family recipe, so famous it's now found on the side of the Jello brand Cook and Serve Jello boxes.  My mom doesn't understand since it doesn't involve real lemons, but she humorous us.  This year for various reasons we weren't able to make it on Thursday, so we made it today.  It turned out good (as always, well except for the year I forgot to add the Jello mix...), especially with a homemade pie crust my sister made.  Its too bad she had to go back home already and didn't get to partake in pie.

I also decided to build a bigger pheasant cage.  I always forget pheasants are escape artists (Eddie compared them to rats, and it really is pretty accurate), luckily I had them in the garage.  But trying to catch a flock of birds flying around the garage isn't super fun.  After 2 hours without success building an escape proof cage I decided to leave them in the transport box another night and get some more appropriately sized wire since the big stuff didn't contain them and they kept getting their heads stuck in the small stuff.  The next day my mom and I spent another couple hours working on it, and after strapping a screen door to the top of the cage it was finally escape proof.  In the process we had to chase a couple pheasants so my mom got to experience the explosive power of these birds.  By the time we were done I was thinking we should just eat the pheasants. 

Football will not be mentioned.  Only one game turned out as I had hoped- Roll Tide [HRE].

24 November 2011

The perfect meal

My brother and I were talking a few days back about what a perfect meal would contain if there were no logistical concerns.  Being the ultimate day to contemplate eating here is my perfect, and rather large, meal:

I would start off with some fresh out of the pot Alaskan shrimp.  Most likely caught in about 320ft of water (that's the depth of the magic hole), in an undisclosed location in southeast Alaska.  I boil mine in salt water for about 3 minutes, they come out perfect.  Eat these shrimp and you'll never eat commercially produced shrimp again. 

Next I would have a small "salad".  This would consist of cherry tomatoes (in Catalina dressing), croutons (in Thousand Island dressing), sliced and skinned cucumbers, and skinned lima beans.  None of these items will touch either cause that's just strange.

The main course is a tough one.  I think I would go corned beef and potatoes.  This is my family's go to meal for occasions such as Easter, birthdays, and treats when were well behaved.  This corned beef comes in a can (make sure you get the imported variety, made by Libby).  Cube up some potatoes, add some oil and fry.  It's a slice of heaven, and a staple during field.  Learned the hard way it's better to drive an hr and pay the extra 4 dollars to get the imported South American corned beef instead of the cheep locally manufactured variety.  It's disconcerting being able to identify parts of the heart in your dinner. 

But there are competitors.  I had an amazing steak one day in South Africa.  It was also grilled, but in a way I've never seen previously.  An empty (I assume) oil barrel was coated with some sort liquid, I think gasoline or something similar, and lit.  A flash fire occurred and the steak was instantly thrown on top of the barrel.  About 5 minutes later you had a perfectly cooked steak.  This is quite different from the BBQing I grew up around, where any sort of lighter fluid or gas was a mortal sin, and multiple BBQs were involved in the grilling process.  If this meal had to be chicken biased I would pick Zaki's Fried Chicken in Sur, Oman.  If you ever find yourself in Sur, be sure you check ZFCs (not the restaurant, I didn't go there since its too fancy for me, but the walk up window where the locals eat) I'm not a poultry person, and yet this chicken really excellent.  It probably didn't hurt we got our chicken to go and ate it on a wall overlooking the ocean.  The final option would be a hamburger.  And what Aggie would not identify the Dixie Chicken as the best burger place around?  I get mine on toast with pickles, tomatoes, and mustard.

Dessert is easy.  My mom makes a cake known as Texas Chocolate Sheet Cake.  It's chocolate awesomeness.  This cake is so good people who have never met her contact her to request them.  If I'm not home for my birthday I get them mailed to me.  Cake isn't complete without ice cream and the best ice cream out there is Bluebell's Triple Chocolate.  This is a seasonal ice cream (don't as me why) but if you are at an actual ice cream shop you can get it year round.  Back when I worked for the P-fund we would go to Ft. Davis and get ice cream at the Caboose- the only place out there to get Bluebell.  Jodie knew my order- 3 scoops of triple chocolate- and I was so predictable even if they were out up front she would keep enough in the back for me to get my order.  To this day I still known as the triple chocolate girl.

My drink of choice is not so easy. 

First we should do beers.  My favorite beer is Shiner Bock, or if you can find it Shiner Black.  However, there are 3 other beers that hold special places in my heart.  The first is Guinness.  Since I was a kid this was my family's beer.  Back when we were young there was a math formula (my dad loves formulas) that calculated how much beer we were allowed to drink on special occasions.  After Easter Vigil we drink Guinness and watch the Pope's Mass while eating corned beef and potatoes.  Castle Milk Stout is an awesome beer I get in Africa.  I have yet to find a good milk stout in the US, something that bothers me to no end.  The last option would be Quilmes Black.  A beer in Argentina.  When I was down there in 2008 the first thing we did was hit a grocery store and bought supplies.  Along with my corned beef and tuna I bought 2 six packs of beer.  We drank most of that the first night but then I decided I should ration the rest, packed it up carefully, and hid it away in my backpack.  A couple weeks later we were all gathered around a light sheet in Calilegua National Park, and I asked who wanted beer.  Chris told me he was impressed that in the middle of nowhere Argentina I could produce beer and that that was the mark of a good grad student.  Probably why he took me on for my Ph.D.  When I left Argentina I wanted a Quilmes shirt so badly, but hadn't seen any anywhere.  In desperation I went to the skateboarding shop in the mall (the only place that remotely looked like they might sell beer shirts) and in my very lacking Spanish asked if they had any ideas.  The guy didn't, but decided to make me one.  Talk about copyright infringement.  He pulled the logo off the internet, I picked the shirt I wanted it on, and 4 USD later I had a Quilmes shirt. 

Non beer drinks would be either chocolate milk (made from US or South African cows, the rest all taste funny), an orange juice from this small place we found in Muscat, Oman (and went back to on our way back through Muscat), or strawberry juice from hole in the wall place in the Bur, Dubai, UAE.  I had never had strawberry juice, but quickly decided it was amazing. 

I would then finish it all off with a shot of single barrel Jack Daniels or some good single malt scotch. 

And that would be my perfect meal, now if I could just teleport it would be possible to eat it. 

18 November 2011


Today was a solemn day in Aggieland- 12 years ago today 12 Aggies were killed when our Bonfire collapsed.  A&M had been building and burning a bonfire in preparation for our big rivalry game with t.u. (university of texas for the uninformed) since the early 1900's.  Aggies are very tradition minded folks and a number of traditions were built into Bonfire.  Maybe one day Bonfire will be back on campus, but with our move to the SEC and t.u.s decision to not continue our rivalry as a non-conference game I guess it wouldn't be the same anyway.

As life goes on, today was also Ring Day.  If there was a field guide to identifying alma matars the key character would be the Aggie Ring.  Incoming students are told stories at orientation about people seeing THE RING while in some obscure part of the globe and having an instant friend.  I've run into ringed individuals myself and it's always a great feeling.  Ordering (and then later receiving your Aggie Ring) is something Aggies look forward to for years.  My friends who attended other, lesser, institutions are intrigued by this.  They think of it like a high school ring- something that's personalized to celebrate your awesomeness and individuality.  Aggie Rings however are all virtually identical.  There are 4 choices- male or female, gold or white gold; antiqued or natural, diamond or not.  The design is identical- the only difference between my ring and one made in 1894 (the first year aggie rings were not designed for each corps company) is the class year and the change in school name from "A&M Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas" to "Texas A&M University".  As a side note when Bonfire fell a number of seniors left their Rings at the memorial for the victims who had not yet received their own.
My sister and I on her Ring Day
Upperclassmen who have taken enough credit hours order there rings then receive them on one of four ring days.  My ring day was a bit different then most.  Hurricane Rita was forecast to hit the Houston area on Friday, and instead of heading to Wisconsin for the Wildlife Society my roommate Annaliese and I were not allowed to leave College Station.  On the bright side it meant we got to pick up our rings on Ring Day.  Rather than a huge event with much fanfare however we just ran in and picked them up as so many people had gone home to escape the potential hurricane.  Friday classes were canceled and the football game against Texas State was moved up to Thursday night.  As we hadn't been planning on being in CS for the game neither of us had pulled tickets so pulled pretty late.  We ended up on first deck (the only level of Kyle Field with actual wood seats and when you stand on them they rock back and fort).  I realized later there weren't many Aggies who had gotten their rings and gotten to watch A&M BTHO a football team on the same day.  Rings are worn with the date facing the owner until Ring Dance (shortly before graduation).  At this point they are flipped- signifying the wearer is ready to face the world.

While we reflect on the past and those Aggies lost on this day 12 years ago, we also must enjoy the present and look forward to the future.  Having a Ring Day on the same day Bonfire fell seems like a perfect way.

16 November 2011

Why my parents should have name me Peregrinus

When I got my passport back in 2005 I had no idea how I would come to rely on that little blue book.  I had decided to go on a study abroad trip to the island of Dominica in the summer of  2006 (check the archives if you're interested).  Before that trip I had figured the tallgrass prairies of the central US was what held my research interests and other than this one trip (which I was going on since a number of my friends were also going on) I had though I'd be spending my field work running around the southcentral US.  Boy was I wrong.  It quicky became apparent I inherited the Tokar traveling gene.  Many of my aunts and uncles on my mom's side have spent large protions of their lives wandering the globe for work and play.  As many of them are into developing agriculture in underdeveloped nations these locations were usually less resort style vacation and more wild adventure.  I grew up listening to stories of finding cobras in trucks, getting diseases most US doctors have at most read a paragraph about, and landing on dirt runways where a mistake sends one into the canyon walls or ocean.  When I told my parents I was going to Dominica the first responce was talk to Matt, he's been there a few times.  In the process of that trip I found a calling.  Even though that trip was overseen by a couple professors who had been working on the island for over a decade, field work in a developing nation is never predictable.  This unpredictablity, presence of situations that require quick thinking, and need for ingenious solutions made for an incredibly exciting time, and something I found I was pretty good at.  International field work has become my addiction. 
Falconry, being the rather rare and idiosyncratic passion that it is, has given me a way to interact with locals in a way most field biologists don't get to.  Often, before I head off someplace I get in contact with the local falconers and when it works out we meet up and go hawking or at least talk birds.  If I've learned one thing it's that falconrys the same the  world over.  As soon as company shows up the birds fly off, the dogs run amuck, and the quarry fails to fly fair.  But when it all comes together the joy is the same be it sage grouse in Idaho or frankolin in South Africa.  Even more amazing is the ability to cross the language barrier.  I don't understand a word of Arabic, but walking into the falconry store in Abu Daubi was walking into the merchants room at a NAFA meet.  Once I pulled out my phone and showed the shop keeper a picture of my peregrine I was instantly "in the club".

So now that passport I wasn't planning on using more than a time or two is literally full.  I already don't have enough blank pages to enter many countries, and once I get back from my December trip to New Zealand (and Australia) I think it will officially be full.  It's more cost effective to get a new passport instead of adding pages to my existing one it'll soon be replaced.  Since it has been my trust companion for the last 6 years the prosepect of getting a new one is a bit sad.  As Peregrinus means wandering (and is the name of a bunch of early Saints, my parents major critera for names) it would have fit quite nicely.

15 November 2011

Lets try this again

So I've toyed with the idea of starting this thing again for a while now. The timing seemed right (and I really didn't want to work any more tonight) so here it goes. In the last 2 years I've almost filled my passport up wandering the world (including a revolution for spring break), defended my first masters (Entomology), passed my prelims for my Ph.D, bought an old ford f-250, trapped a beach bird, and navigated a boat through the Inside Passage from Seattle to Wrangell, AK just to hit a few of the high points. With the highs come some lows too. I've lost a few birds, gotten malaria, wrecked a truck in Africa (but was lucky my tech and I walked away without injury) running into a cow, and learned snow and I are not friends. I'm a little bit older, hopefully a little bit wiser, but definitely not any saner than I was when I wrote that last post back in 2009. I'll try and fill in the blanks as I go as I like to think I've done some pretty cool stuff over the last few years. Here are a few pictures...
Marabou storks (Leptoptilos crumeniferus) at the Simnuye dump (Swaziland). We use to prebait them every morning back in June and July 2009 for a research project.  In the process I learned to call down the storks in siSwati, leading local residents to belives 1) I was crazy and 2) i spoke siSwati.
Picture by Laura Sands (December 2009)
Light collecting at Malolotja, one of the National Parks in Swazliand. This national park is one of the coolest places in Swaziland.  It features high elevation grasslands, with really neat rock formations.  More pictures to come.
Picture by Laura Sands (December 2009)

 Trapping peregrines is one of those things falconers have been dreaming of since they were first listed as endangered species.  Starting in 2009 a few lucky falconers got the chance to trap a bird.  I tried (and failed, more on that later) in Oklahoma duirng the 2009 season.  In 2010 I was drawn for a Texas permit.  Here is my passage tiercel peregrine, Diablo, trapped on South Padre Island. (October 2010)

The outcome of 2 hours of war driving in Muscat, Oman. This was the only place we found wifi, and I really needed to send an e-mail. 
Photo by Thomas Catanach (March 2011).