Friday, November 7, 2014

Diversity in the Workplace

A workboat is a pretty self-contained and limiting environment. While the boat itself may touch down in three different states (or, alternatively, sit in one place) over the course of a month, the crew members typically don't leave the vessel.

Pink-spotted hawk moth, Agrius cingulatus.
Sometimes we have to to hike across a cement or gravel logistics yard to deliver paperwork to a dispatcher. But that's about it.

And for someone like me -- someone who has always been curious about the world around him -- that is sometimes a hard way to live.

My paternal grandfather was an enthusiastic taxonomist and amateur naturalist: plants, fungi, rocks and minerals, artifacts ... he enjoyed searching for, identifying and collecting found treasures.

My favorite activity with my father, as a youngster, was "going to the flats" (the tidal marsh across the street, on the banks of the Intracoastal Waterway) or to Padre Island National Seashore where we could find everything from horned lizards and king snakes to olive and sundial shells to glass fishing floats.

There are some professional taxonomists in the family as well, and they served to heighten my interest in the natural world over the years.

In college, exploring the Trinity River bottomlands when I should have been studying, I was delighted to find beavers on campus, in the heart of one of the nation's largest metropolitan areas.

Black Witch, Ascalapha odorata.
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When I lived in deep South Texas I was charmed not just by the austere beauty of the Tamaulipan thorn forest and the vast Laguna Madre, but also by the rich procession of tropical species, many of which are found nowhere else in the United States.

I was so enthralled with the flora and fauna of South Texas that I enrolled in a program sponsored by Texas A&M University and the Corpus Christi Convention and Visitors Bureau and became one of the early certified wildlife guides in the area.

On the boat we spend a lot of time in South Louisiana, which is an interesting landscape, but aside from resident bald eagles and black bear crossing signs on the highway doesn't offer many s)urprises. That is to say, it's not so different from where I grew up: the same Gulf of Mexico, the same spartina and black mangrove marsh, largely familiar and predictable shorebirds and marine life ....

Banded sphinx moth, Eumorpha fasciatus
Being stuck on a boat for 28 days does offer two advantages, though: the first is a couple of 1,000-watt halogen work lights illuminating our deck.

The second is that for 27 nights in a row I have nowhere else to go and nothing else to look at, other than what those lights attract.

And what they attract are moths. Sometimes hundreds, sometimes dozens, sometimes just a handful, but every night it is not pouring rain, there are moths on the deck.

Often there are scores of tiny moths, "micromoths," that are probably intricately patterned or delicately formed, but are too much of a chore to identify with my 45-year-old eyes.
Tersa sphinx, Xylophenes tersa

Sometimes, maybe once a week or so, there are macromoths -- hummingbird- or even sparrow-sized insects that are intricately and beautifully patterned.

Until recently I hadn't thought much about moths. I was familiar of course with a couple of the large and obvious hawk moths from home, and I certainly paid attention to the occassional saturnids -- luna moths and imperial moths -- that came to a porch light.

But I always sort of assumed that butterflies, the daytime showboats of the order lepidoptera, where more interesting and glamorous than moths.

I've recently learned, though, that of the roughly 175,000 species of butterflies and moths, the former account for only about 18,000. All the rest are moths.

And while plenty are drab or vaguely patterned (the mostly nocturnal moths typically find their mates through pheremones rather than color and pattern, as do the diurnal butterflies), many sport incredibly beautiful colors and patterns, particularly on their often-hidden hind wings.

Ello Sphinx, Erinnyis ello
There are two fun groups on Facebook that I turn to for entertainment and education; the first is a group of working mariners and ship spotters called "Supply Boat History."

The second is a collection of amateur and professional lepidopterists called "Mothing and Moth-Watching." Both have active members from around the world.

Who knew?

The moth-watchers have been particularly helpful and encouraging, mostly confirming IDs (Mississippi State University has a terrific resource in their Moth Photographers Group site).

One morning a week or so ago, I was excited to post some photos of a new-to-me moth that I had proudly identified as a rare-ish Louisiana endemic.

Louisiana eyed silk moth, Automeris louisiana
A couple of hours later, the fellow who first described the insect back in 1981 was commenting on the photo. How cool is that?

Out here in the oil patch, it's mostly (though not exclusively) white men working on boats. And our view of the natural world, while sometimes stunning (especially at dawn and dusk), is necessarily circumscribed.

With that in mind, I can view the moths only as a gift, renewed every night under the aft deck worklights.

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