My favorite collecting spots. Part 2

I’m continuing my Earth Day Weekend series on places that have made an impression on me while I’ve been out doing fieldwork.

Aulavik National Park, Banks Island, Northwest Territories. This is a recent one, so it’s fresh in my mind, but I don’t think the impression will change any time soon. We spent 17 days at a field camp on the Thomsen River – the most remote field work I’ve done to date. I’ve already posted about our work on Banks Island; and it was a wonderful time. This place made a lasting impact on me in two ways (three, if you count things like eggs benedict for breakfast and tiramisu for desserts . . . ) – First, the Thomsen River valley is an oasis of diversity, given how far north it is. We struck the peak of arctic wildflowers, all the shorebirds were nesting, and the insect activity was beyond our wildest expectations. Insects were everywhere, and NOT just mosquitoes. Every Dryas flower seemed to have a fly or a stonefly or a bee resting in it, crane flies were skating across the tundra ponds like water striders, and clouds of midges emerged from the water to feed animals on the land. Every day of collecting turned up great new things. And it’s a little bit thrilling to watch herds of muskox instead of cows wander through your sample grids.

Above the Thomsen River

The second big eye-opener for me was that the “simple” structure of these arctic ecosystems makes them ideally suited to looking at some really interesting questions in ecology. In a mostly two-dimensional world, with simple food webs, you can tease apart networks of interaction that would be daunting or impossible in the tropics (but see the next example for a thumbs-up to the tropics!). Our trip to Banks Island generated more questions than answers, and I’m looking forward to another few years of arctic work.

A day in the field, Banks Island

Lamington National Park, Queensland, Australia. Many people who become infected with love-of-fieldwork pick up that infection in the tropics. And it’s easy to see why – the diversity is stunning, different, overwhelming. Every one of your senses can be overstimulated at the same time. A trip to Australia in 2002 was the first time I really spent enough time in the tropics to appreciate the nature of the place. We spent a few days in Lamington National Park, south of Brisbane, staying in a high elevation campground, with kangaroos and bower birds wandering past the tent, seeing lyrebirds displaying in the rainforest, and hearing the sounds of the forest. We collected insects along trails and streams in the forest during the day and found things I had only ever read about. And at night we went out for walks in the dark and discovered how bright the eye-shine of hunting spiders can be in the beam of a head lamp. Having a few days to just wander and watch meant we saw things that we would otherwise have just passed by – from gigantic wood-boring larvae to tiny moths. I’ve seen amazing new things on every trip I’ve made to Australia. If it wasn’t so far, I’d be there a lot more often. But maybe that distance is good – it makes it more exciting to contemplate my next trip.

In the next post, a special spot a lot closer to home.

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About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
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4 Responses to My favorite collecting spots. Part 2

  1. I love this series of “favorite collecting spots” – nice idea to celebrate Earth Day.

    With 30+ years of serious collecting under my belt (and childhood collecting before that), It would be hard for me narrow down to a few spots, but I think I’ll dig through my old slides and pick out a few. I think it’s less about the spot itself and more about where we were in our own development at the time we were there.

    • I agree, Ted. I’ve visited lots of places that are “great”, but it’s the interaction between the place and us, often at a particular time, that makes some of them “special”. I’m often curious about which places resonate with other collectors.

  2. Neal Evenhuis says:

    Excellent series, Terry. After some 40 odd years collecting it is readily apparent that heading to one’s favorite collecting spot is like a fisherman heading back to the ol’ fishin’ hole. There is a strong similarity between the two in that fishermen enjoy fishing to commune with nature the same as our insect collecting does for us. And Ted is right that often our favorite collecting spots as entomologists tie in to our formative years in entomology. For me it is the incredible hidden biodiversity and complexity of the desert. In particular, the Mojave, or as they called in in SoCal, “The Upper Desert”. As a grad student I enjoyed those Spring months so much heading out there to collect and observe my bee flies visiting desert annuals that I would schedule my classes to be just Tuesday and Thursday so I’d have Friday through Monday to camp out. The solitude and communing with nature was a meditative peacefulness that could never be equaled. The longing that still resides in me for those places, while here I am living in tropical paradise with teeming biodiversity at my feet, is a testament to how experience with a special place during one’s formative years will continue to resonate as special despite where one might have been since.

    • Well said, Neal, and I couldn’t agree more! I can see how you forged such a connection with the Mojave – I’ve only started spending time in those deserts in the past few years they have a power that brings one back.

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