Thursday, July 12, 2018

Incidental Fauna of the Southern California Coastline, July 6th 2018

It's so nice to be here just talking to you.

The water off the coast is now (finally!) warm; very warm, very comfortable. You can swim for a long time, especially in a suit

this was the morning I'm writing about
I'm writing about some animal stuff that happened in/at it.

A little before 8 a.m., and there's a shorebird on the empty beach. Rather: there's a shorebird on the nearly-empty beach. An older man who's living rough on this patch, and whose wake-up my arrival frequently coincides with -- he stretches out of the sleeping-bag (I think) that's laid over himself, resting amidst a few bags of stuff and a mountain bike with thick tires. He's fine to me; I'm fine to him. We say good morning. No other people.

Not that many animals, either. At least not visible. But: this one bird. Pecking and scampering, doing its thing. And it's a really interesting bird: it's not a sandpiper; it's not a seagull. It's not an egret or heron. I watch it doing its thing; its thing is neat. It scampers back-forth with the waves, 'Piper-like. It clearly is hunting: it searches, it pecks. It has a long bill, it has long-ish legs. It's not a bird I've seen before.

It pecks, it hunts, and its hunting takes it gradually down the break towards where I am standing, watching it. After it gets pretty close--15 feet--it hunts for a couple of waves then takes flight; flies just twenty feet or so, to the far side of me, and continues its pecking and hunting progression.

I go for my swim (more on this below, hold on). After, later, I try to figure out what the bird was. The Internet is a weird place to figure things out; once you get there you see how winding your path was. But after a bunch of search-adjustsearch-blahBLAHblah, I settle: I'm pretty sure that it was this.
Frank Lehman / Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology
I actually...I'm embarrassed to say I imagined at one point that the story of how I figured this out would be interesting. It is not. I won't tell it. But the bird was fantastic. If that's what it was. I think that's what it was: a Marbled Godwit. The name is apparently an attempt to represent their call, rather than some extraordinarily bizarre act of antiquated sacrilege. Anyway, my bird was silent. Focused!

Now, back/forward to the swim. I'm out, swimming; it's gorgeous, a pretty still day with no big scuffling or swells once I'm out past the break and the surface is glassy.

On the glassy surface, I see one of those disturbances--very small--that at once you're quite sure is some thing. I swim up; it is. It is one of these.
It is flopped on its back, doomed (I think) on the water. I've kind of often wondered this: when I lived in a building with a pool, I probably saved two to five bees/wasps a day from that pool. It seems like a majorly maladaptive trait: to need water (as all living things do), but to...die? If you get to close and your wings get caught? I guess I'm saying it always surprises me that these charismatic Hymenoptera haven't kinda evolved out of this watery-doom thing. But:

The wasp is on its back, well out on the water. I lift it up from below and it's now on my finger. What's exciting about this is the super close-up view; wasps, you don't usually get to see really, right? They are zipping around, tiny threatening aerialists -- you don't get to study them up close, mostly. This one, obviously, wasn't zipping anywhere. At least not for the moment.

So then I'm faced with this question, which strikes me at once. How long am I willing to wait, for this wasp? I immediately see that the only good option is to hope it can sort itself out on my hand here--do what it needs to get going, and go. Because: (a) swimming all the way back to shore with my hand up and a waterlogged wasp sticking to it seems both kind of annoying and not very feasible; would take a long time, would suck, might not succeed (wasp washed off). (b) Just being like...f*ckit: sorry wasp-y. U die, also didn't feel right. I in general feel that way, about things like this. I'm way far from perfect, in terms of my local and broader impact on the earth and it's creatures. But whenever it's one of those choices, like: I could interrupt my swim or not; this wasp could live or die. I could get out of bed to rescue this fly or not; this fly could or die. I could run through this dumb bush, get a little cut up (or not), avoiding this lizard; this lizard could live or die. It always just seems so weak and small to choose the small comfort / ease thing for myself when the animal's stakes are existence or not. Which is how this choice felt.

But how long would I wait?

Did the wasp even have a chance? Was it too...saturated?

I watched it.

It surprised me by "preening" itself. Well: first I gently (careful of wings) kind of used the stick from one damp hand to set it right (i.e., not flat on its back with its wings plastered down) on the other, which I'd air-dried as well as I could. So but then: if I were a wasp in this spot, I think I'd be like: "sh*t: I am drying my wings." Not this wasp. No. It preened. This was a cool, cool thing to see close. Holding it up almost right to my face, I saw its tiny frontal legs making those "running forward over the carapace of the skull piece"-type motions; like it was doing its hair or cleaning its face off or something like that. I still can't explain it (and haven't revisited the research-weirdness that is trying to research these things on the web). Was it assuring the patency of its airways? That, I believe, would be really important. It had to be something important, I guess; that or I just got this very vain wasp. It did that for a while, though -- like most of our time. Preened, little front-arms rubbing over its face.

This whole time its wings were like...man. Just a mess. They were all wet and sideways and f#cked up and...that's the thing I (not I as a hypothetical was; I) was worried about. Cuz if its wings didn't work, then I did not know what.

Its antenna were awesome. So ar-tic-u-lat-ed.

So okay then it did its wings, and they took like thirty seconds. First, it messed up. It tried to extend them and flap them off--I could tell it was doing this; once I was watching it closely, over time, I was struck by how 'animal-like' it was. I tend to think of insects as strange alien things in this alien tinyworld; once I dropped down into it, this one just seemed like a creature--anyway the first time it tried to extend and like flap off its wings it screwed it up totally, tipped sideways and again plastered itself to my hand, which of course was not fully dry because we are a freaking 1/4-mile or whatever out bobbing on the ocean this whole time, wasp, wut r u doing here anyway?

So it's stuck to my hand again.

So I do the thing with my other hand, again; edge of my thumb, gently as I can, lifting its stuck wing from flush to my skin. It's at this point that it occurs it to me that yes, this is wasp; yes it is now oriented to sting. For some reason, this just occurs to me. I'm not worried about it. It is not like I'm super-tough about wasp stings or something. No way do I want that. It hurts like a lot. But I somehow feel sure that that's not how this goes down; also I have some vague trivia factoid back of my mind that maybe not all wasps even can sting (only the females? or something? I still have not checked this out because...meh. I will. Soon.).

So but then, after I thumbed its wet-plastered wing up from first failed attempt...then the whole rest of it took like ten seconds. It splayed them out: two pairs of wings, bigger-smaller. (I really saw this! Or: I thought that I saw it! This whole thing was my own tiny (wet) nature show).

And then it kind of whuzzzzzed them for not long, two seconds at most

and leapt off my hand and was gone.

That was it.

Compared to the dainty extent of its ministrations to its head / face / mandibles / ?, the whole wing thing--which I would have thought would be hard and mission-critical--took two seconds. Maybe, once it was out, it wasn't worried at all. I was a magic piece of wood or whatever (what does it care? I'm not eating it. Sure fine I am wood); it knew its wings would be fine; it wanted to sort itself out before flying.

I checked, really searched, all the water around me. In case it had dumped itself plop back in ocean. The water was glassy, and I could see several feet; I cautiously started swimming again, looking. Didn't see anything.

The whole episode took longer than three minutes and fewer than ten.
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