Field Gal Gear

Grab Your Gear!

I have 20 years of field work experience under my figurative belt. I know what I like, and I like functional outdoor gear! I’m a bit of a gear collector in that aspect: I try new things as my poor palaeontology (and now self-funded science communicator through Bird Glamour) budget allows. On Field Gal Gear you’ll see my trials and triumphs in trying out the camping and hiking gear I used for field work. Of course, these are all of my personal preferences: you may like certain gear for your reasons and that’s all cool.

An ever-evolving process was refining my Quick Grab Gear system. What is my Quick Grab Gear? Rite-in-the-Rain notebook, mechanical drafting pencil – and I’ll argue that they are THE BEST writing utensil I have ever used outdoors on waterproof paper – compass, GPS unit, flagging tape, Sharpie markers, pocket digital camera, photo scales, sunscreen face stick, and a small snack.

If you’re like many adventurers, you head out into the wilderness with a backpack. On expedition-length adventures you will have an expedition-sized pack. We’re talking a +60 L pack that contains everything you’ll need for the next days: shelter, water, food, sleeping bag and pad, a change of clothes, rain gear, and tools to do your job. Chances are your pack will be mighty in weight.

I have two expedition packs that I use interchangeably. My first ever pack was a MEC Brio 60L (no longer available). My other pack is an older model Gregory Deva 60.

Imagine this: you’re on a field survey and you see something that you need to document. You need to do it quickly and efficiently: daylight is burning. If your Quick Grab Gear is in your big expedition pack, you need to take off that pack. And then put that pack back on. And take it off. And put it on. Tedious, right?

I’ve learned a hard truth about myself: I’m supremely lazy (I prefer to think of it as maximizing my efficiency.) I am less likely to go through the motions of accessing my Quick Grab Gear on a long hike if I have to haul off and on my expedition pack ad nauseum. Physically I can do it, and do. Mentally…sometimes it’s a bit much.

I’ve experimented with various auxiliary carrying systems to keep my Quick Grab Gear handy without the bother of de-packing. Here are my experimental successes (and abject failures).

  1. The Photography Vest

Photographers are veterans of the Quick Grab Gear world. They have to be: those amazing photographic opportunities won’t wait for you to haul off your big pack just so you can take a pic.

Pros: It has pocketses, precious! Lots of zippered and Velcro-ed pockets! Of various sizes! Photographer’s Vests are usually made of lightweight material, so they won’t add a lot of weight themselves (what you pack in them is up to you, weight-wise) and will dry out quickly when (not if, when) they get wet.

Cons: You’ll be wearing your backpack OVER TOP of the vest. If you’re using an expedition pack with a padded waist trap (a must!) you lose access to any pockets covered by those straps. Also, I haven’t found a water-repellent or waterproof version of this vest. You can wear it under your rain jacket, but then you have the hassle of undoing your pack and then unzipping your protective rain gear to access your pockets. Oh, and any gear in your pockets is going to get wet if you wear the vest as your outer (accessible) layer.

Example of a light photography vest here: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/196102-REG/Humvee_by_CampCo_HMV_VS_K_L_Safari_Photo_Vest_Large.html

vest

  1. The Side Satchel

My very first purse was a small side satchel from Mountain Equipment Co-Op (MEC). The MEC brand side satchel is no longer available (I bought it over a decade ago), but this bag is the closest in terms of style and pockets. Oh, and I only spent $30 on my MEC version because it was on sale at the time. https://www.mec.ca/en/product/5063-893/Lima-Shoulder-Bag

I thought that the side satchel would be THE solution. All I would have to do is sling the satchel over my shoulder and then put my pack on! The weight of the pack would keep the satchel strap from moving around. I was feeling pretty proud of myself for the first few kilometers (cue the ominous music.)

NOTHING stopped that satchel strap from sliding around. It defied the laws of physics and went EVERYWHERE except where it was supposed to be, which was on my shoulder. I was stubborn: I made it work for three full-day expeditions, but soon abandoned this solution.

  1. The Fanny-Pack/Waist Pack

“OK, shoulder straps,” I said. “I don’t need you! I’ll put everything on my waist!”

In saunters the Fanny-Pack.

Fanny Pack Dork
GIF from the series “How I Met Your Mother.”

 

Fanny Pack Dork 2
GIF from the series “How I Met Your Mother.”

I was way too invested in having this work, which made my disappointment that much greater.

Do you see the problem?

Expedition packs have a waist strap. Waist packs have a waist strap.

Layering the backpack strap over the fanny pack strap, plus the buckles for each strap, made for A LOT of waist chafing. It was functional, but uncomfortable. Do not EVER downplay your physical comfort with field gear. You’ll end up hurting yourself.

Fanny Pack 1

Now I use this waist pack for cross-country skiing.

  1. The Water Bottle Holder!

After cursing the existence of all waist straps, I finally decided to lean into making the most of my backpack’s waist strap.

Behold the MEC Water Bottle Holster! https://www.mec.ca/en/product/5038-399/Water-Bottle-Holster (no longer available.)

Bottle holster 2

REI has a similar item, but it’s missing the cinch-top to keep your gear inside.

Before I switched to a hydration system, I had two Nalgene water bottles holstered to my waist strap. I re-purposed them for Quick Grab Gear. One holds my notebook, pencils, and photo scales (if I’m not wearing cargo pants, see below) and the other holds my other gear. Their strong polyester material meant they were wear-and-tear resistant, and they dried out quickly in wet weather!

  1. Cargo Pants: The Photography Vest of Pants!

Friends, I LOVE Ex Officio Men’s Nio Amphi Pants for field work: they are quick-drying, protect you from the sun, and best of all are the SUPER LARGE AND DEEP SIDE POCKETS. https://www.campsaver.com/exofficio-nio-amphi-pant-men-s.html

Ex officio pants

Since I love them so, it came as no surprise to me that they were discontinued.

The side pockets EASILY fit a geological Rite-in-the-Rain field book with room to spare. Camera? GPS? Small hand-samples of specimens? These pockets say “No problem, Buddy! I’m here for you!” I have abused these pants for years and they keep coming back for more. Rest in Peace, Ex Officio Men’s Nio Amphi Pants. You were the Emperor of Lightweight Field Pants.

Tell me about your field gear solutions for your Quick Grab outdoor Gear! What worked? What didn’t? What are your favorite brands? What are they meant for…and what do YOU use them for?

Birds In Mud

Owls, Part 3: Giant Fossil Owls and Chickcharney

Hello Dear Readers!

We all know that Twitter can be somewhat of a cesspool of ‘splainers, sealions, and a haven for creeps in your DMs.

Twitter has also been a great place to connect with (good) people and share (good) information! I re-shared my previous post about Stolas and the Giant Cuban Owl Ornimegalonyx for International Owl Awareness Day. I was officially today years old when I learned about a legend of a giant owl and a giant extinct flightless owl.

Since I’m a big fan of big owls (and a big fan of small owls…and a fan of all owls, really) we’re going to run with the “giant flightless owl fossil and mythology” theme and talk about Chickcharney and the extinct flightless owl Tyto pollens, also known as the Andros Island barn owl, Bahamian barn owl, or Chickcharney.

Chickcharney, The Legend

Chickcharney (or Chickcharnee/Chickcharnie) calls the pine and hardwood forests of Andros Island, the largest island in the archipelago of the Bahamain Islands. Descriptions of Chickcharnies (there are more than one) tell of feathered bipedal creatures with a prehensile tail, three toes of each foot, and three visible fingers on each hand. Their red eyes are set in heads that can turn completely around. Around one meter tall, Chichcharnies are tree-nesters: if you see a tall pine tree with a fork at the top, that’s where the Chickcharnies will raise their young.

Chickcharney 1
Artistic rendition of Chickcharney, from https://aminoapps.com/c/mythfolklore/page/blog/chickcharney-caribbean-folklore/jxdJ_wEuKu8ZbR4RPDa25j6Q81JYdkPJqJ

If you should happen to visit Andros Island and enjoy a hike in the forests, you would be best to carry a bright piece of cloth or flowers with you: this is said to charm the Chickcharnies. It is also best that one keeps a civil tongue in their head when they encounter a Chickcharney: they are neither “evil” (like the demon Stolas) or “good.” Chickcharnies are known mischief-makers. If you’re respectful to the Chickcharnies, you will have blessings and good fortune. Disrespect Chickcharnies at your peril, however: a lifetime of misery may follow. That may have been good advice for one former British Prime Minister to have followed, according to Chickcharney lore.

Chickcharney
Chickcharney from Cryptid Wiki.

Chickcharney and Neville Chamberlain

Neville Chamberlain was Prime Minister from May 1937 – May 1940, during the first eight months of the Second World War. Chamberlain is more well-known for the Munich Agreement of 1938 (the agreement that ceded western Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany to appease Adolf Hitler) than he is for his involvement with Chickcharnies, but he does make an appearance in Chickcharney lore.

When Chamberlain was around 20 years old, his father apprenticed him to an accounting firm where he later became a full employee. Joseph Chamberlain saw his family’s fortune declining, so in 1890 he put Neville in charge of establishing and managing a sisal plantation on Andros Island. Sisal, or Agave sisalana, is a species of agave that is originally from southern Mexico but has been cultivated in many places around the world for its stiff hemp-like fibers.

Plantsisal
Agave sisalana, the documented reason of the failure of Neville Chamberlain’s plantation on Andros Island. Sisal did not thrive on Andros Island, costing the Chamberlain family £4.2 million (adjusted).

In 1891 Chamberlain took out a lease on a 110 km square parcel of land on Andros Island for the venture. This was possible, of course, because Great Britain began colonizing Andros Island in 1783, complete with all that entails (a.k.a. slavery.) Great Britain wasn’t the first nation to colonize and exploit Andros Island. Prior to the arrival of Spanish colonists after the initial invasion of the island between 1499 – 1500, the Lukku-Cairi people lived on Andros. Thanks to the exploitation of the Lukku-Cairi people, by 1520 the population was considered extinct.

Chamberlain spent six years trying to make the plantation work. His efforts failed. The official story is that Agave sisalana did not grow well on Andros Island. That’s too bad for Chamberlain, because the failed plantation cost the family business a whopping £50,000 (or £4.2 million in today’s dollars). [Cue sad slide-whistle noise.]

What does this have to do with Chickcharney, you ask? Well, legend has it that during his ill-fated stay on Andros Island, Chamberlain openly scoffed at the stories of the Chickcharney (as European colonizers are wont to do at the legends and lore of the areas they colonize.) The Chickcharnies apparently did not take kindly to be openly laughed at. Despite the official story of sisal’s incompatibility with the area, the failure of the sisal plantation is credited to the intervention of the offended Chickcharnies. A nod is also given to the Chickcharnies for another event that will be forever linked to Chamberlain’s legacy: the Munich Agreement ultimately failed as it did not halt the invasion of the rest of Czechoslovakia by Nazi Germany as was hoped.

Don’t laugh at owls, my friends. Or legends/folklore of critters that resemble owls. It just isn’t worth the risk.

Tyto pollens, the Bahamian Owl

As we saw in the last OWLS! post about the Cuban Giant Owl Ornimegalonyx (Late Pleistocene: 126,000 – 11,700 years ago) and Stolas, the demon character from Collin de Plancy’s Dictionnaire Infernal, are likely a case of wonderful coincidence rather than the knowledge of the fossil influencing the art/mythology. However, that may not be the case for Chickcharney and its Quaternary doppelganger, Tyto pollens.

Tyto pollens, also known as the Andros Island Barn Owl, Bahamian Barn Owl, Bahamian Great Owl, and – not surprisingly – Chickcharney, is a recently extinct owl that is in the same genus as the Barn Owl. The Andros Island Barn Owl is estimated to have stood at one meter (three feet) tall, and was considered by Wetmore (1937) as much more robust and stronger than the Barn Owl. Tyto pollens, like all owls, was a predator. What does a 1 meter tall owl eat? Wetmore (1937) thought that Tyto pollens likely preyed on the large rodent Geocapromys.

Tyto pollens femur
Part of the type specimen of Tyto pollens (USNM PAL 283287), the femur (Wetmore 1937).
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Geocapromys, a large rodent endemic to the Bahamas and Jamaica that was likely prey for Tyto pollens. Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University 

Tyto pollens is younger than the Cuban Giant Owl Ornimegalonyx in that it was present in the old growth pine forests of the Quaternary. This means that Tyto pollens was most likely seen by the original population of Andros Island: the Lukku-Cairi people most certainly encountered a 1 meter tall flightless owl. The owl was reported to have still been present on the island during the colonization by the Spanish and the British, so it is likely that any sightings of the Andros Island Barn Owl by the colonizers of Andros Island would have only served to strengthen the lore of Chickcharney. It was once the old-growth pineyards were deforested that Tyto pollens lost its habitat and went extinct in the 1600s.

Tyto pollens is noted to be very similar to another fossil owl, Tyto ostologa (Wetmore 1922) from cave deposits in the Republic of Haiti. Tyto pollens is reported to be larger than the Quaternary-aged Tyto ostologa. This is what I find the most fascinating about the story of Chickcharney: giant owls were not an isolated phenomenon. 

Tyto ostologa
Type specimen of Tyto ostologa (USNM 10746), the top of the tarsometatarsus (Wetmore 1922).

The likelihood that Tyto pollens (and also Tyto ostologa) had inspired and influenced the lore of the Chickcharney is fairly high: the timing is right for the geographical and temporal ranges of T. pollens and humans to overlap. However, I really want to know for sure. The next step in investigating the Andros Island Barn Owl is to check documents written during the time period that Tyto pollens was still with us (a.k.a. extant) to see if there was any direct mention of a sighting of a giant owl or of a Chickcharney. I’ll be excited to see what turns up!

References:

Bahamian Folklore: https://web.archive.org/web/20070828074515/http://bahamian.dynamohosting.net/bol/index.php?option=com_jd-wiki&Itemid=98&id=wiki%3Abahamian_folklore

https://itsmth.fandom.com/wiki/Chickcharnee

Tyto pollens:

Wetmore A. 1922. Remains of bird from the caves in the Republic of Haiti. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections 74(4): 1-6.

Wetmore A. 1937. Bird remains from cave deposits on Great Exuma Island in the Bahamas. Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology 80(12): 1-7.

Marcot BG. 1995. Owls of the old forests of the world. General Technical Reports. Portland, Oregon. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station, 1-72.

Birds In Mud

Owls, Part 2: Giant Fossil Owls and Stolas

It’s time for the next installment of my OWLS! series of blog posts! This one is going to be a little bit different from my other posts…although, if you’ve read any of my Bigfoot or ghost posts you may not be surprised at the theme of this post.

My research takes me down a few interesting rabbit holes. One of these holes introduced me to J. A. S. Collin de Plancy’s Dictionnaire Infernal when I searched for “giant owls.” I was looking at adaptations that cursorial (ground-running or walking) birds have in the tarsometarsus bones. That is where I encountered Stolas.

Stolas is my favorite (is favorite the right word?) character of Collin de Plancy’s demon mythology from the perspective of both an owl fanatic and a palaeontologist. Collin de Plancy describes Stolas on page 635-6 of the Dictionnaire Infernal:

“Stolas, grand prince des enfers, qui apparaît sous la forme d’un hibou ; lorsqu’il prend celle d’un homme et qu’il’se montre devant l’exorciste, il enseigne : l’astronomie, ainsi que les propriétés des plantes et la valeur des pierres -précieuses. Vingt-six légions leire connaissent pour[;] general.”

Here is my extremely rusty high school French (with a double-check in Google Translate) translation:

“Stolas, great prince of Hell, who appears in the form of an owl; when he takes that of a man and shows [himself?] before the exorcist, he teaches astronomy, as well as the properties of plants and the values of precious stones. Known for Twenty-six legions; general.”

Stolos
Stolas: “Go ahead: run. I dare you.” Image from Collin de Plancy, Dictionnaire Infernal.

If Stolas were real, he’d likely be a great resource of information for many in astronomy, botany, and geology. The geology link of Stolas is what makes the connection of Stolas to paleontology even more interesting. As a field palaeontologist I would find a twenty-six-legion strong field crew very useful.

Most of the demonic entities in the Dictionnaire Infernal (and earlier works on the same subject) appear as human-animal hybrids or large versions of familiar animals. Collin de Plancy does not give us a sense of scale but one’s brain does jump to “large,” or at least larger than life, when talking about demons. The dimensions of Stolas are fascinating: the woodcuts of Collin de Plancy show an owl with rather long legs, standing on the ground. The legs are longer than the body. There’s a lot going on with the appearance of Stolas that suggests he is a walker. It is unlikely that Stolas’ teeny owl body with those teeny owl wings and itty-bitty tail could haul around those legs during flight (especially while wearing his resplendent crown.)

Bestiaries and Owls

Owls appear frequently in the medieval literature, particularly in bestiaries. Bestiaries (no, not bestiality, although the root of both words is the same) depict animals both real and fanciful, from the Amphisbaena (a serpent with a head at either end), to odd interpretations of real animals. Did you know the Barnacle Goose grows from trees, dangling from their beaks? According to the Harley Bestiary (c. 1230-1240), that’s where Barnacle Geese come from!

Barnacle Goose img4465
British Library, Harley MS 4751, Folio 36r

Or how about bees: did you know that bees come from the decay of the putrid flesh of calves or oxen (Isidore of Seville, 7th century CE)? Some explanations are implausible, others are darn ridiculous, but they were interpretations based on observations made at the time. The prevailing wisdom of the day, according to the bestiaries, was that owls were dirty, slothful birds that pollute their nests with their own dung. Barn owls do build up a layer of pellets in their nests when the young are still in house and feeding, but most birds are pretty good at keeping waste out of their nests. It was common knowledge that owls frequent graveyards and tombs, and their cries are harbingers of an impending death. It’s not a glowing letter of recommendation.

Owls and their portrayal in bestiaries is a whole other post, but these bestiaries were written in the 12th – 16th centuries. Bestiaries were not immune to the prevailing attitudes of the day. Some of these ideas were, well, racist and antisemitic as flock. With the negative interpretations associated with owls, it makes sense that someone with an interest in both the natural and the spiritual world would have a demon appear as a larger-than-life owl, ready to run you down if you lost your nerve during a demon summoning. We can safely say that Collin de Plancy and Friends didn’t actually summon Stolas (or any demon) to pose for a sketch artist. We can chalk up mystic depictions of demonic giant walking owls as a stroll down Imagination and Theology Lane.

The Giant Cuban Owl

Fast forward to Cuba, 1954, where we actually have knowledge of a giant owl. The Cuban Giant Owl Ornimegalonyx was an owl of the Late Pleistocene (126,000 – 11,700 years ago, also known as the Ice Age). Ornimegalonyx was discovered on January 2, 1954 and was recognized as the remains of a large predatory bird. The discovery site was a large cavern called Pio Domingo Cave located in the Sierra de Sumidero, opposite Pica-Pica Valley in Pinar del Rio. Ornimegalonyx was originally described by Oscar Arrendondo (1958) in a publication called El Cartero Cubano. Oscar Arrendondo originally used Ornimegalonyx arrendondoi as a provisional name, and he later uses Ornimegalonyx oteroi as the official name in his 1958 publication describing the type specimen. Arrendondo used the name “oteri” in honor of speleologist (scientists who study caves) and expedition member Juan N. Otero (Arrendondo, 1958). The type material (the bones that everyone has to look at if you want to work on fossilized giant owls) consists of a fragmentary femur (thigh bone), three fragments of a tibiotarsus (shin bone), an incomplete tarsometatarsus (the lower part of the “backwards-looking-knee” of a bird – it’s the same as our ankle), and some toe bones (phalanges).

Cuban Owl legs
Image of leg bones from Ornimegalonyx (Arrendondo 1976)

Original descriptions of Ornimegalonyx have it belonging to the group Phorusrhacidae (also known as “terror birds”) because of the large size. Back in 1958, large owls were not on people’s radar. This small collection of bone fragments doesn’t sound like a lot on which to base the naming of a new critter, but there are parts of owl leg and foot bones that are Classic Owl. Ornimegalonyx was estimated to have stood about 1.1 m (3’7”) tall and likely weighed around 9 kg (20 lbs).

ornimegalonyx
The best Ornimegalonyx image ever. Twilight Beasts introduced me to this image (link here) and blog where this and other great images come from (link here). Check out the Terror Bird image when you visit (because of course you’re going to visit the site)!

As owls go, Ornimegalonyx (orni = bird; mega = large) lives up to its name. Let’s look at its size in comparison to a fairly well-known and our largest owl alive today, the Eurasian Eagle-owl (Bubo bubo). The leg bones, the femur (thigh bone) plus the tibia (shin bone) plus the metatarsals of an Eurasian Eagle-owl are 10.8 cm, 15.5 cm, and 8.4 cm, respectively. We can estimate the leg length of the Eurasian Eagle-owl (give or take some soft tissue and cartilage) at 34.7 cm (or about 13.6 inches) long. The leg bones of Ornimegalonyx are 15.4 cm, 25.0 cm, and 14.7 cm. The estimated leg length of Ornimegalonyx is 55.1 cm (or 21.7 inches). This is how Arrendondo estimated the height of Ornimegalonyx at about 1.1 meters (3`7”)! Compare that to the height of the Eurasian Eagle-owl at 75 centimeters (around 30 inches). That’s a big owl! Most artistic reconstruction of Ornimegalonyx show a critter similar in shape to a Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) due to the long legs and the interpretation that Ornimegalonyx spent more time running and walking than flying.

Was Ornimegalonyx unable to fly like our present-day owls? That’s an interesting question that’s still being examined. It’s definitely not the overall size of Ornimegalonyx that would have kept it grounded. The Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius) is slightly taller than Ornimegalonyx at about 1.3 meters (4.3 feet tall). It is not even the estimated weight of Ornimegalonyx (uncited at around 9 kilograms) that would have made flying untenable: the Andean Condor weighs in at 15 kilograms.

Ornimegalonyx was not taller than a Secretarybird or heavier than an Andean Condor. Ornimegalonyx may have not been a “feathery death from above” kind of owl, but more of an “I will run you down” owl. Arrendondo (1976) states that the sternum (that’s the breastbone) doesn’t have a large enough keel (the bony projection in the middle of the breastbone) to hold the chest muscles required for a flying bird. Think of carving up the white meat of a turkey breast during the holidays: those are the flapping muscles of the downstroke of the wings, the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor. There’s enough of the sternum preserved of Ornimegalonyx to make a decent reconstruction.

Cuban owl sternum
Sternum and keel of Ornimegalonyx (Arrendondo 1976).

The keel of Ornimegalonyx is not as large as that of a Burrowing Owl or of the similarly-sized Secretarybird. Even vultures have a comparatively larger sternal keel than that of Ornimegalonyx, and vultures are more known for soaring on thermals than for dive-bombing stealthy death from above. Given that Ornimegalonyx didn’t have a lot of room on its breastbone to attach flapping muscles, it likely spent a great deal of time on the ground, terrorizing the Ice Age mammals. However, new specimens and more investigation will shed light on this in the future.

secretary bird
Skeleton of the Secretarybird (similar in size to the Giant Cuban Owl) on the BHL Biodiversity Heritage Library by Eduard d’Alton for his & Christian Heinrich Pander, Die Vergleichende Osteologie (1821-38). Contributed for digitization by Smithsonian Libraries (@silibraries). You can see the keel is pretty deep on the sternum.

Did Ornimegalonyx Inspire the Idea of Stolas?

Would Collin de Plancy have known about Ornimegalonyx, or preserved remains of creatures that would have inspired visions of demons, when he wrote Dictionnaire Infernal (1818; illustrated version in 1863)? We don’t have any reason to assume Collin de Plancy himself had any knowledge of giant fossil owls. As far as I know, there is no documented contact between Collin de Plancy and Cuba (I’m still looking.)

Theological interpretations of the natural world happened at late as the 1800s. Fossilized meat-eating dinosaur (theropod) footprints were described as the footprints of Noah’s Raven by Elihu Dwight as late as the 1800s. Edward Hitchcock later described these same tracks as those belonging to an extinct bird in the 1830s. Scriptural-based interpretations of natural phenomena were still prevalent when the Dictionnaire was written. Heck: these types of explanations for natural phenomena still happen today, so we really can’t side-eye past historians and naturalists too much if they assumed that demons appeared in owl-form.

The likelihood of Collin de Plancy having heard tell of fossils of Ornimegalonyx, or skeletons of a Stolas-like demon from Spanish colonies is possible. Spanish colonization of Cuba began during the 1492 expeditions, and was briefly colonized by Great Britain in 1762. French colonization of Cuba began in the 18th century and increased into the 19th century.  People were aware of fossils during this time. In the 1400s there was recognition that the phenomena that we call fossils were the remains of ancient life. Fossils were even described by Aristotle (348-322 BC) as being once-living organisms that were “petrified.” Unfortunately, I haven’t come across records of pre-1900s discoveries of fossils on Cuba. Columbus was likely aware of amber (http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/p/poinar-amber.html) as amber was used by the indigenous peoples who Columbus viciously exploited on the island of Hispainola. However, it seems unlikely that Columbus would have paid much attention to fossilized animals of Cuba, and there certainly has never been a report of a fossilized giant owl encased in amber.

Just because colonists may not have heard about giant fossil owls doesn’t mean they were unknown. People may have encountered Ornimegalonyx. There are records of people from the Palaeolithic Periods after the Ice Ages (Guanahatabey and Siboney cultures) living in Cuba.

It’s not often we have a real-life version of a mythical character such as Stolas. It doesn’t “prove” that Stolas is the real deal, or that owls represent demons. We still have a lot of work to do to shake off some of the negative associations people have with wildlife. Wolves, bats, owls, ravens, vultures: these are animals that are still associated with hunting, death, night, and evil doings. These animals are not evil: it’s only our associations and biases that interprets them as such. The more we learn about how wonderfully complex our natural world is the easier it will be (I hope) to exorcise the demons of our biases from these misunderstood animals.

References:

Arrendondo 1958. Aves gigantes de nuestro pasado prehistorico: El Cartero Cubano, v. 17, no. 7 (July), p. 10-12, unnumbered text-figs.

Arredondo, Oscar and Olson, Storrs L. 1976. “The great predatory birds of the Pleistocene of Cuba.” in Collected Papers in Avian Paleontology Honoring the 90th Birthday of Alexander Wetmore, 169–187.

Birds In Mud

Owls, Part 1: Fossil Owls

Hello Dear Readers!

Live nest cam season is here (and sadly it is now past: too many major life changes happened that put this blog post on hold)! Nest cams are windows into the wonderful world of a very important time in the lives of our present-day theropods: mate interactions, nesting, brooding, and raising young.

Besides being completely fascinating, watching owls (and hawks, and osprey, and albatross) nest and raise young is that we know that Cretaceous theropods also courted their mates (1), constructed nests, laid eggs, and cared for their young. Here’s a link to an earlier blog post where I cover theropod nesting, brooding, and determining the sex of a theropod: http://birdsinmud.blogspot.com/2017/04/theropods-or-tender-pods-softer-side-of.html  There is a lot that we can learn about the lives of extinct theropods by studying our present day theropods!

Other than the previous blog post on the tender side of theropods where I link to owl nest cams I realized, while watching the Barred Owl snooze in her next box, that I have never written about owls as their own topic.

7fcdfc3045bb2898c9d93fd25784d52e
I think I may have ruffled some feathers on this Barred Owl.

So let’s talk about owls! I want to do a series of blog posts that highlight all that is fascinating about owls – I find everything about owls fascinating, so who knows how many posts this will be!

To start our conversation about owls we have to start at the beginning, which means we’ll be looking at the fossil history of owls!

Owl Features…In Bones

To talk about owls we have to talk about what features make owls what they are. If we don’t know what makes an owl an owl, we can’t figure out when owls first evolved. I’m only going to talk about owls as we recognize them from their skeletons because that’s what we have to work with as palaeontologists.

Owls belong to an order of birds called Strigiformes. This term was first coined by Wagler in 1830. To get into Club Strigiformes, you’d have to have the following characteristics:

  • Large, round, front-facing eyes (can fossilize),
  • Bony ring in the eye socket (sclerotic ring) is a solid, elongate tube (can fossilize),
  • Eyes in a circular or heart-shaped disk of radiating feathers (not skeletal),
  • Relatively large head (can fossilize),
  • Holes in the neck vertebrae where the arteries run through are about 10X the size of the artery (can fossilize),
  • Sharply hooked beaks (can fossilize, but shared with other birds of prey),
  • Hooked talons (can fossilize, but shared with other birds of prey), and
  • Feathers with serrated edges to reduce noise in flight (not skeletal).

Those are very general characteristics of an owl’s body. When we get down to the nitty-gritty of “How do I know my fossil bird is an owl?” we are dealing with parts of a bird skeleton that are more likely to fossilize than others. Skulls, with their thin braincases and thin bony struts, may not fossilize well (but it does happen). Bones that are relatively more sturdy, typically limb bones, have a better chance at fossilizing. This is why many of the oldest owl fossils are just that: limb bones or parts of limb bones. The most common limb bone of fossilized early owls that shows up in the scientific literature is one of my favorite bones, the tarsometatarsus.

Great-horned-owl-Bubo-virginianus-right-tarsometatarsus-posterior-Abel-collection-600x600
Great Horned Owl tarsometatarsus, seen from the back. This is a stout, sturdy set of three fused metatarsals. http://www.boneid.net/product/great-horned-owl-bubo-viginianus-right-tarsometatarsal-posterior-view/

If you picture a bird leg, you are probably familiar with the “backward knee” look that they have. That “backward knee” isn’t the knee at all: that’s the equivalent of our angle joint between the tibiotarsus and the tarsometatarsus. Remember those “if dogs wore pants” memes that circulated a few years ago? Well, if birds (and extinct theropod dinosaurs) wore shoes, they would look something like this:

theropod shoes
This glorious bit of artwork was painstakingly sketched over the course of five minutes using a page from my quasi-bullet journal. Theropods likely wouldn’t want to wear high heels: it would interfere with the “spring” in their step.

The tarsometatarsus is one of my favorite bones in a bird skeleton because there’s a lot of identifying information in the area where the tarsometatarsus connects to the tibia and where the toes connect to the tarsometatarsus. I focused on the tarsometatarsus of shorebirds for my doctoral thesis because I wanted to understand the link between footprint shape and foot bones. [Results in progress.]

One of the obvious features of a bird of prey tarsometatarsus is the huge roller surfaces of the distal end – where the toes attach. Birds of prey are a lot like their extinct meat-eating dinosaur cousins: they do a lot of their prey catching with their feet. Those toes gotta be able to grip it good, so the roller surfaces are nice and robust. Check out the tarsometatarsus of a Bald Eagle.

BAEA-tarsus-12154-back-DSC_4157
Bald Eagle tarsometatarsus. The inner toe (digit II) is LARGE, and the roller surfaces are all in a line. https://royalbcmuseum.bc.ca/Natural_History/Bones/Species-Pages/BAEA.htm

Now, check out the tarsometatarus of a Great Horned Owl! Do you see the one roller surface – the outer roller – that is twisted?

Great-horned-owl-Bubo-virginianus-right-tarsometatarsus-posterior-Abel-collection-600x600

This is a bony feature of a special owl foot trait, called the zygodactyl foot. Check out the feet of the Eurasian Eagle Owl coming in for a landing. Do you see how the outer toe is facing more backward than forwards? That’s a zygodactyl owl foot.

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Even long-legged owls like the Burrowing Owl have a fourth/outer roller surface that is twisted!

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Burrowing Owl. https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/burrowing-owl
Burrowing Owl TMT.jpg
Burrowing Owl tarsometatarsus from Aves3D. It doesn’t really sit straight because of the fourth distal metatarsal “twist.” https://aves3d.org/public_images/show_image/5654?specimen_element_id=473&specimen_id=152

One feature that diurnal (active in the daytime) predatory birds have is a built-in sun-visor over each eye. This sun-visor is called the supraorbital process. In diurnal birds this ridge can be very pronounced, but in nocturnal birds this visor is smaller. In diurnal owls (Great Horned Owls are an example) the ridge is well-developed!

Skulls unlimited Great Horned Owl skull
Great Horned Owl skull from Skulls Unlimited. See the flange of bone above the round tube of bone? That’s the bony “sun visor.” https://www.skullsunlimited.com/products/replica-great-horned-owl-skull-bc-072

In the Boreal Owl skull, we don’t see that bony sun visor: the edge of the upper eye socket is rounded and smooth. But check out those asymmetrical ear openings! This feature allows sound to come into the owl’s ears at two different levels, giving the owl precision targeting of small furry/feathery/fluttery prey. If you’re hunting at night, you need to pull out all the tricks to get a tasty meal!

Boreal Owl Skull

These are two out of MANY features that make an owl an owl if all you find is the skeleton. That’s what we deal with when we talk about fossil owls.

Fossil Record of Owls: The Wise Oldest Owl

You might find this surprising, but owls have been around for a long time! We don’t yet have any definite owls from the Cretaceous Period, but in the time immediately after the Cretaceous – Paleogene extinction (when non-birdy dinosaurs went extinct 66 million years ago) owls are there! This suggests that owls – or very early versions of owls – may have evolved in the latest Cretaceous Period (2). Why is this? It’s because the “owly” features are fairly well-developed, and bony features take time to evolve in groups of animals.

That’s not to say that people haven’t thought they had evidence of Cretaceous owls. Bradycneme draculae (3) was described by Harrison and Walker in 1975 from the Maastrichtian (70 – 66 million years ago) age deposits of Transylvania (yes, they went there.) Following the description of Bradycneme as a Cretaceous owl, many researchers started to compare the end of the tibia (that’s the shin bone) to bones of theropod dinosaurs. It is very likely that Bradycneme is actually a funky little theropod called an alvarezsaurid (4).

Here’s an image of Patagonychus, an alvarezsaurid. Check out the wee little arms!

220px-Patagonykus
Patagonychus. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alvarezsauridae

Our first Wise Oldest Owl comes from the lower Paleocene deposits of Colorado, USA (Tiffanian: 60.2 – 56.8 million years ago). Ogygoptynx wetmorei is known as a “protostrigid:” it’s really really close to being an owl it’s scary, and it has features that are seen in both typical owls (like Great Horned Owls) and the Barn Owl kind of owl. Ogygoptynx is known from a tarsometatarsus (5).

Ogypt tmt
Ogygoptynx wetmorei tarsometatarsus. There’s a slight twist in the outer toe roller surface (you can tell the outer tarsometatarsus because of the small hole between metatarsals III and IV). The outer metatarsal roller surface is also slightly separated from the rest of the “bundle” of fused metatarsals (5).

Our next Wise Oldest Owl is Berruornis, which comes from the upper Paleocene deposits (59 – 56 million years ago) of the Reims area of northeast France. Berruornis is known from – surprise! – a nice sturdy tarsometatarsus! One of the owly features of Berruornis is seeing the fourth distal tarsometatarsus – the roller surface – starting to get that zygodactyl twist! Berruornis fossils are also found from the Late Paleocene rocks in Germany.

Berruornis
Tarsometatarsus of Berruornis. If you check out the middle image, you can see the small “twist” in the fourth roller surface as it peeks around the shaft (6).

This kickstarts my blog series on OWLS! The next post will focus on one fossil owl in particular…and this owl has some interesting mythological connections! Stay tuned!

References

1.  Lockley MG, McCrea RT, Buckley LG, Lim JD, Matthews NA, Houck KJ, Gierliński GD, Surmik D, Kim KS, Xing L, Kong DY, Cart K, Martin J, Hadden G. 2016. Theropod courtship: large scale physical evidence of display arenas and avian-like scrape ceremony behavior by Cretaceous dinosaurs. Scientific Reports 6, Article number: 18952 (2016)

2. Harrison CJO, Walker CA. 1975. The Bradycnemidae, a new family of owls from the Upper Cretaceous of Romania. Palaeontology 18(3): 563-570.

3. Naish D, Gareth J. 2004. Heptasteornis was no ornithomimid, troodontid, dromaeosaurid or owl: the first alvarezsaurid (Dinosauria: Theropoda) from Europe. Neues Jahrbuch für Geologie und Paläontologie Monatshefte 7: 385-401.

4. Kurochin EN, Dyke GJ. 2011. The first fossil owls (Aves: Strigiformes) from the Paleogene of Asia and a review of the fossil record of Strigiformes. Paleontological Journal 45(4): 445-458.

5. Vickers-Rich P,  Bohaska DJ. 1981. The Ogygoptyngidae, a new family of owls from the Paleocene of North America. Alcheringa 5(2): 95-102.

6. Mourer-Chauvire C. 1994. A large owl from the Palaeocene of France. Palaeontology 37: 339-348.

Birds In Mud

Wake Up, Discovery: #ItsOurWorldToo

Hello Dear Readers,

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted: there have been Things (TM) with which I have had to deal (and as with most Things they are Not Without Ordeal), but I now find myself with some time to return to sharing what I find interesting and fascinating and just plain cool with you, such as my planned series on All Things Owl.

Or so I thought. If you’ve been on Twitter during the last couple of days, you may have been exposed to Discovery Channel’s latest promo. I link it here for your review.

Did you notice anything? More specifically, what did you not notice? If your answer was “Hey, that promo seems to feature only dudes,” then you noticed what many of my science and science communicator colleagues have noticed: Discovery is A-OK with only men (and predominantly white men) saying that #TheWorldIsOurs.

The initial reaction was for people to point out to Discovery that there are MANY people in the sciences other than mostly white men (who were doing very little science in that promo, let’s be honest) that could be featured and promoted by Discovery if they so choose.

This has happened before. A large platform company like Discovery promotes a very narrow view of who is A Science/Exploration Authority, and we in the actual science community respond by sharing and promoting who we think should be promoted for a change. However, we end up repeating the same cycle anywhere from six months to a year later when the next promotion comes around, and during all of that time we don’t see any noticeable change in who Discovery and similar large platforms choose to deliver their content.

Nothing seems to change.

This is where this morning’s Twitter thread comes into play. I noticed that there have been a few comments with regards to the Dudescovery promotion along these lines:

“If you want to see more representation in science communication, be the change you want to see and do it yourself, and then it will happen!”

There are several glaring issues with this theme of comment, and because of these issues, we will continue to see Dudescovery promotions from large platforms.

Issue 1. Underrepresented and Under-promoted People Are Already Creating Discovery-Level Content.

If you have not noticed or have not been exposed to science communication content created and delivered by people underrepresented on the big platforms that is both educational and entertaining, it is not because that content does not exist. Quite the contrary. Scientists and science communicators from underrepresented groups have been creating this content for years. If you, someone who the large communication platforms want to attract as viewers, haven’t seen this content it is not because it does not exist. It is because large communication platforms like Discovery Channel choose not to promote or elevate this content. It’s not an accident or an oversight (how can it be simply a matter of oversight when they are reminded each and every time they make these apparent oopsies?) It’s a choice.

These large platforms can choose not to address this bias they have when it comes to promoting underrepresented people because there is still a pervasive bias in the public that…

2. Underrepresented Groups in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) Are Still Expected to Fix Problems They Did Not Create.

The “just make your own content” comments place the burden of fixing representation on large communication platforms on the very people who are already not being promoted or supported by these platforms.

Large platforms have, for decades, promoted who they view as An Authority on their programs. These platforms have a long reach. We as the public have, for years, been conditioned to have a very narrow view of who we view and respect as An Authority. It’s no coincidence that the Venn Diagram of “Who Is Traditionally Viewed As An Authority” and “Who Were The People Who Set Up the Foundation of Our Current Science System” is basically a large white circle.

Experts

Who Discovery chose to promote in their Dudescovery promotion was no coincidence. The Adventure Scientist Explorer trope (think Indiana Jones) has been promoted for decades by these platforms. Exploration as we know it, and as we have it portrayed to us by media, is rooted in Western European colonialist idealism. We still have this idealism portrayed by large communication platforms, and the public accepts this because it’s what we’ve been taught is normal. It is not.

Who sets up the system sets up who the public sees as the experts. But who exactly is The Public to these large Discovery-level platforms?

3. Large Communication Platforms Don’t See the Entire Public as Their Public.

Discovery-esque platforms speak to what and who they know, and who they know are people exactly like them. Those are the people they relate to, so they treat their narrow view of what their audience is as the Standard. Anything that does not conform to this standard is Other, and therefore not their concern. They are A-OK alienating the rest of the population because their narrow view of who their target audience is doesn’t complain.

To then say “Make your own content” is telling underrepresented groups to fix this problem on their own after being told for years “Oh sorry, there’s just no appetite for that kind of content.”

Which brings me to the fourth point.

4. Underrepresented Groups Are Expected to Fix This Problem For Free.

“Just do it yourself” comments are blatantly ill-informed on how much darn work it takes to do a Discovery-style version of science communication. The science-exploration hosts we see promoted by Discovery-style platforms are supported with resources, people, and money. However, underrepresented people are expected to do the same level of work in the absence of such support. This brings us to the fifth point…

5. Underrepresented Groups Are Still Expected to “Prove Themselves” and “Prove That They Belong.”

How often have we heard some version of “Oh, if there’s an appetite for seeing X as an expert, they’ll create their own following AND THEN they’ll get noticed!” This is pretty steep coming from platforms that are set up to create followings for the people they choose to promote.

I find this “prove yourself” mentality quite distasteful: it reeks of “separate yet equal” nonsense that should have been discarded in the rubbish bin decades ago. The “just do it yourself” people are – whether they know it or not – supporting the message sent by large platforms to the rest of the science communication world. That message is “Make your own following because we don’t value or respect who you speak to and who you represent.”

This is a system that brings us to the sixth point…

6. Created Contempt for Underrepresented Creators.

Not only are underrepresented creators expected to do the work of large platform hosts with no support from the platforms they do have access to, such as blogs and YouTube for dealing with abuse.

Anything that is perceived as different from what the large platforms have promoted – and given their stamp of approval to – is treated as “politics” or a “stunt.” It’s not viewed as what it really is, which is an attempt to address the cavernous void of who is not represented by these platforms. The public has been taught to NOT respect the non-platform experts. For example: have you ever read YouTube comments on videos created by and featuring women? That’s a symptom of a systemic problem of who the public has been taught to respect as an expert.

So rather than placing the burden of increasing visibility on those who are systematically not supported by Big Platforms, do the world a favor and demand that the Big Platforms change. Promote creators you respect to them – they’re already there. Be consistent and persistent. Squeak that wheel. Squeak it with your voice and your wallet. Show them that who speaks for science and discovery matters to you.

 

Birds In Mud

Eye of the Field-Worker

Happy 2019, Dear Readers!

This was not a post that I was expecting to write. Honestly, who really wants to hear the gory details regarding eye surgery. Well, apparently my Twitterverse is as morbidly curious as I am about such details.

For good reason. In my personal experience, having to wear prescription glasses while doing field work is a huge pain in the sclera: sometimes literally in the event that I got something in my eye. As an aside, I used to have a panic-like reaction to people’s fingers near my eye. I could barely touch my own eye when trying to remove the inevitable cat hair, but someone else’s fingers TOUCHING MY EYE?!?! My poor husband, colleague, and fieldwork partner remembers an incident that involved trying to get a piece of dried leaf out of my eye on a field survey. Despite the seeming protection of my glasses, a bit of crumbled leaf got caught in my eye as I scrambled under a dead fallen tree. Rinsing my eye didn’t dislodge the offending leaf crumble, so he tried to physically remove it. I knew exactly what was happening. He told me everything he was going to do before doing it, but that didn’t stop the illogical panic reaction. I still went into panic mode.

You can already guess that contact lenses were not a comfortable option for me. I wore glasses for the majority of my fieldwork days, with regular summer fieldwork starting in 2003. For a decade I did surveys and excavations while wearing prescription glasses.

The plus side of wearing glasses in the field is that they do act as a bit of an eye shield, although they are NO substitute for actual safety glasses. They acted as a barrier to twigs and tree branches while hiking. There were downsides, however.  One, it was a pain in the pupil to find safety glasses that would fit over my glasses and not fog up while providing full coverage. I ended up having to wear most safety glasses without my prescription glasses to prevent fogging. Two, prescription glasses are expensive, and my lenses would be a scratched pitted mess after every field season, requiring that I drop at least $300-$400 every year on a new pair. I tried having a pair of prescription glasses that I only wore during fieldwork, but they would become un-useable after two seasons. That would leave me the choice of either using my “good” pair of glasses (condemning them to inevitable damage) or stumbling around in a fog of blurry objects.

The ongoing expense of prescription glasses is what helped me make the decision to stare down my fear of people playing with my eyeballs and undergo corrective laser surgery. Well, not just the expense, but this next reason is directly related to the cost of glasses. I was trying to “tough out” my damaged glasses by wearing them for longer than I should. I gave myself eyestrain trying to look through and around the scratches on the lenses. One of my eyes started to overcompensate by focusing on the wrong area when I looked at objects in the distance. My reasoning (at the time): I was simply feeling too insecure financially (with the ever-likely threat of our project losing its funding and becoming unemployed) to drop a few hundred dollars on glasses every year or two.

The conclusion I eventually came to was this: yes, laser eye surgery is an initially expensive procedure, but no matter what happened to me employment-wise I would not have to worry about glasses again for a long time.

In 2012 I started doing my homework.

LASIK versus Photoreactive Keratectomy (PRK)

LASIK – The most common type of corrective laser eye surgery (when I was looking) was LASIK surgery. In this procedure, the laser cuts a little flap in the outer layers of the corneal tissue. Once the little flap is cut, the surgeon lifts up the flap and the laser-ing of the cornea happens underneath. Once the reshaping is done, the flap is put back in place. The flap ends up acting like a bandage for the area, and no stitches or additional coverings are needed. Patients usually heal within 12 – 48 hours, and the whole procedure takes about 15 minutes to complete.

I initially liked the idea of LASIK because of the short healing time. However, during my reading, I came across some cases where the healed edges of the corneal flap can potentially “pop” back up, especially if you take a whack to the head. At the time I was in karate – whacks to the head happen by accident, but they do happen. Also, if I was in a serious accident during fieldwork, the absolute last thing I would want to deal with would be parts of my eye flapping around.

Photoreactive keratectomy (PRK) – I choose photoreactive keratectomy or PRK surgery. There are two tissue layers of the cornea that are involved in the surgery. The epithelial layer is the one that is removed by an instrument (more on this part later). This epithelial layer is the one that regenerates and heals. The underlying layer called the stroma doesn’t regenerate, so this is the layer that gets reshaped by the laser.

After the PRK surgery is complete, your stroma is basically open to the elements like a scrape or a cut, so you need a soft contact lens bandage to cover the altered area while the epithelium layers heal over. This contact lens bandage is left in place for a few days while healing occurs. The recovery process for PRK is apparently a bit more uncomfortable than for LASIK (more on this later).

My Experience with PRK Surgery

Those are the basics of the surgery. Now I’ll tell you about what I remember of the process. We stayed at my sister-in-law’s Julie’s place for the duration of my procedure and the recovery. She made a special treat for us in honor of my surgery.

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The image is a little fuzzy, but these are sugar cookies decorated to look like infected eyes made by my sister-in-law Julie They were delicious!

Pre-Screening and Examination – The process takes two days, even though the surgery itself is completed in 15 minutes or less. Day 1 is set aside so that the technicians can perform an eye exam prior to the surgery. I filled out a complete medical history and went through a series of very thorough vision tests. This was to establish what needed correcting for my vision. The examination took most of the morning. One of the things they test is your corneal thickness: if your corneas are too thin, there’s not enough cornea to remove for the reshaping. There are other reasons that you may not be a good candidate for corrective laser eye surgery: your regular optometrist will answer your questions on this. My optometrist had a corneal thickness measuring device, so even before researching my surgery options, he was able to tell me that I might be a good candidate.

Usually, the technicians give the OK to officially book you into an official surgery slot that week right after the examination. However, during my examination, the technicians discovered that my eyes weren’t focusing the way they should be: one eye was skewing a little to one side. In my opinion, I blame this on my trying to see through damaged glasses for three years. The technicians said that they had to get the surgeon to look over the test results and that they would get back to me that afternoon with the decision.

That afternoon Rich and I met up with our advisor (we were both still in graduate students at the time) to catch up. I honestly can’t remember what we talked about. I was angry at myself for mucking up my eyes and ruining my chances at receiving this surgery just because I didn’t want to drop money on new glasses when I needed them. I must have obsessively checked my phone every two minutes. This went on for about two hours, and then at around 2:30 pm I received the call: I was cleared to have my surgery that week.

With the surgery, you can decide to have one eye done at a time (two separate surgeries) or to have both eyes operated on at once. I felt as though I only had enough nerve to go through this process once, so I opted to get both eyes done during the same surgery.

Surgery Day – I remember this being an all-afternoon event. We were at the clinic at around 2:00 pm. I was both nervous and excited: nervous because PEOPLE WERE GOING TO TOUCH MY EYEBALLS, and excited because this procedure would allow me to be glasses-free. Rich and Julie came with me for moral support. Before the surgery, there were a few more forms to fill out (I filled out a lot of forms during this process). We saw a lot of people coming and going, both patients and their support systems. The clinic began to empty. My surgery was scheduled as one of the last ones for that day.

About 20 minutes before my surgery, a technician came out to meet me and my team. I was given a small dose of an anti-anxiety drug: apparently, it’s normal for people to be nervous before this surgery. The technician then asked Rich and Julie if they wanted to wait in the waiting room, or if they wanted to sit in the observation room and watch the surgery on a monitor.

My family is the best, and by the best I mean their eyes lit up at the chance to witness this eyeball-themed spectacle. There was a resounding yes to the offer to watch my surgery. Both Rich and Julie said that they were going to give my surgery a proper Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment.

normal view
Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode of “This Island Earth.”

Movies are a big part of our family, and Rich, Julie and I are huge MST3K fans. Just knowing that they were going to be there, riffing every gory detail of my surgery, was supremely comforting for me. That’s love.

At this point, I was led into the pre-surgery room. I changed into a hospital gown and waited for the surgeon to arrive. When the surgeon arrived he examined my eyes, and then took a felt-tipped pen and drew on my eyeballs. Yes, you read that correctly. I didn’t feel any of this thanks to the anesthetic drops, but seeing the felt pen come towards my eye was a bit disconcerting. We made small talk whilst he drew guidelines on my eyeballs, and then I was ready for the surgery.

I was led to a comfy reclining chair in the surgery room. However, above the chair was a huge apparatus. I’ll admit: my brain did briefly jump to those alien abduction shows. I laid back in the chair. The surgeon asked if I had anyone here with me. I said “Oh yes! My husband and sister-in-law are in the observation room. They’re going to MST3K my surgery!” I think I confused the poor man.

Then came the eye stabilization equipment. There are several videos on the clinic’s website that show you, step-by-step, the procedures and describe every detail so that there are no surprises. However, personally experiencing this equipment is different than watching the procedure as a third-party. An eye speculum was applied to the first eye: it’s a metal ring clamp that holds your eyelids open so you can’t blink. It also holds your eyeball in place. Next, a small ring was placed over the cornea. The ring was there to act as a cup to hold a solution that was then squirted on to my eye. This solution was applied to soften the epithelial layers. At this point, I have to take Rich’s word for what happened because everything went blurry. I didn’t see any scary equipment coming to touch my eyes (thus sparing me potential nightmare fuel).

Why did this area need to be softened? Here comes the fun part (and the part were Rich and Julie’s riffing apparently kicked into high gear). The now softened epithelial layers are scraped off with what looks like a tiny metal hockey stick. Once my epithelial eye gloop was scraped away, it was time for the laser to reshape my stroma. Again, all I saw were blurry movements, and I didn’t feel anything.

I think I asked, “Aren’t you going to strap down my head so that I don’t move and mess up the surgery?” The surgeon replied that there was no need to worry about that. Heck yeah, I was worried about that! I wanted my head strapped down using medieval-looking devices so that there was no chance of me flinching. But no, my head was free and mobile.

The laser began to snap and crackle. I felt my nerves jumping at every snap. The surgeon must have seen the flinching because he, very gently, placed a couple of fingers on my forehead. THAT’S IT? I thought, That’s how my head is going to be restrained? It seemed to do the trick despite my incredulity. While I found the sound unnerving, the smell was fascinating. Oh yes, there was a smell. It smelled a bit like burning hair.

Once the surgery was complete and my contact lens bandages were in place (my first time wearing contacts) the technician said that I could take however much time I needed to sit up and move around. I felt fine, but I guess people can be a bit shaky after the surgery. I waited about a minute before getting out of the chair. I changed and met up with Rich and Julie in the post-operating/waiting area. A technician followed along with me to make sure I didn’t have the post-operation shakes and collapse (I suppose), and I waited in the recovery area while the prescriptions for my eye drops and pain medication were completed.

I could technically see at this point, although things were a bit fuzzy and bright lights were uncomfortable. I waited for my prescriptions and drank orange juice while Rich and Julie regaled me with Tales of The Gloopy Eye Scraping. I filled my prescriptions and we were out of the clinic by 4:30 pm.

Post-Surgery Care – I had three prescriptions for my post-operative care. One was the pain medication. Another was a bottle of steroid eye drops that I had to apply a few times a day. Another was a bottle of numbing eye drops that I could apply as needed (up to a few times a day). I was also sent home with breathable eye shields. I was instructed to tape these over my eyes at night for at least a week so that I didn’t scratch or rub my eyes in my sleep. I looked (and felt) like a giant insect. I was told to avoid screen time (computer, TV, smartphone, etc) and reading for at least two weeks, and to limit screen time for another two weeks after that.

I slept a great deal during the day for the next two days. My eyes were closed for the most part anyway, and the pain medication made me drowsy. While I was drifting in and out of sleep I listened to audiobooks. Julie found an awesome soft headband with built-in headphones that I could wear as an eyemask (over my buggy eye shields) while I was dozing. After the third day, I didn’t feel as though I needed the pain medication: the prescribed schedule of numbing drops seemed to do the job. I wore sunglasses when we would head out during the day.

On the third or fourth day Rich, Julie and I went out for dinner. We were chatting and laughing, when OH MY OWLS THERE WAS SOMETHING IN MY EYE. It was quite uncomfortable. I figured that something this uncomfortable would have to be visible, so I excused myself to the washroom and checked my eye. I saw absolutely nothing in my eye, other than the thin line of the contact lens edge. The initial discomfort was gone, so I really didn’t think much of it. I was sure that my blinking had worked out whatever it was. I felt fine…until my progress check-up.

The Post-Surgery Check-Up – I had my five-day progress checkup at the clinic. The technician examined my eye.

“Hmm,” she said, “There appears to be something behind your contact lens.” She brought out her large magnifying ring light. “Oh dear! There’s a hair caught behind your lens!”

“Oh, THAT’S what that was!” I exclaim.

“This must have been so painful! You didn’t go to the emergency room?”

Honestly, I was a bit baffled. “It really wasn’t that bad after a few minutes.” I had spent a lifetime fishing cat hair out of my eyes, so this seemed like no big deal to me. I was about to change my mind.

“I’ll remove your contact lens and use these nasty pokey tweezer-looking things (that’s not its technical name, but that’s how I remember the tool) and lift off the hair.”

I was more nervous here than I was throughout the entire surgery. Some numbing drops were applied, but it wasn’t the surgery-level anesthetic. My flailing and flinching started when the lens was lifted off. I don’t think that I impressed anyone with my stoicism at that moment. It took the technician several tries to remove the hair. I’m sure that my fingers left permanent divots in the armrests.

The epithelial layers of my cornea had started to heal around the cat hair and was in danger of leaving a permanent hair-shaped scar across my surgery area. I was instructed to stay on the steroid eyedrops for an additional few days to completely heal the hair-affected area. They changed my contact lens bandages and scheduled my next check-up.

I was given the all-clear on my second follow-up to have my one-month checkup by my local optometrist. When you leave the clinic after receiving corrective eye surgery, your driver’s license will still say that you need prescription glasses for driving. You are given a card by the clinic that provides an update to show police (until you get your license renewed) and to present when you get your license renewed.

Rich drove the entire 8-hour trip (I did most of the driving on the way out to the clinic) back to our home base. I settled in for a two-week period of being at home…with limited screen time and limited reading. This was difficult: my downtime consists of reading, watching movies, and knitting. I passed the time by making cheese (wearing a huge pair of safety glasses just in case I splashed my eyes) and listening to Planet Earth.

My one-month checkup was good. My eyes were healing well. There was still a faint hint of the cat hair scar, so my optometrist wanted me to stay on the steroid drops for an additional week as a precaution. Otherwise, my vision was a little better than 20/20.

Was It Worth It? – It has been six years since I had corrective laser surgery, and all I can say is HECK YES. I should have done this years ago, but realistically I wasn’t in a position until 2013 to finance such a surgery.

I have noticed some minor side effects. My eyes dry out more easily than they did before the surgery. I make sure to carry a small bottle of regular eye drops for long driving trips. I also have a little trouble focusing when I am driving in twilight conditions: oncoming traffic lights have large light halos. This one may not be related at all to the surgery, but I also have to be careful to not spend too much time staring at my phone screen (my computer and tablet are fine) as it gives me eyestrain. Other than that, I have not experienced any negative side effects.

I do have to be more careful while I am hiking, as I no longer have my glasses acting as an ersatz eye shield. In 2014 I was doing a field survey in a remote mountain creek canyon. The terrain was full of boulders and twiggy understory growth. I grabbed a dry branch to push it aside, and then WHACK! a bunch of dried bark flew off of the branch and hit me in the face. My eyes were open, so the bark also hit me in the eye. I immediately let Rich know so that he could pull the bark out of my eye. He looked and looked…but there was no bark in my eye. I rinsed my eye several times, but could still feel bark in my eye. It was uncomfortable, but it wasn’t getting in the way of doing the survey.

Once we got back to the vehicle, my eye was still bothering me. We had a second leg of the survey to explore, but the drive would take me past the house, so I asked to be dropped off so that I could examine my eye in a controlled setting (my bathroom). I STILL couldn’t see any bark in my eye, so when Rich returned I requested a drive to the emergency room.

The doctor put a temporary dye in my eye, and Rich could immediately see the scrape that the bark had made on my cornea. It took about a week to recover from the scrape, and I needed to be on antibiotic and steroid eye drops during the healing process. I also had to wear either an eye patch or an eye shield over an absorbent gauze pad. I opted for the eyepatch this time.eye patch

The moral of this story is to PROTECT YOUR EYES. It might feel goofy hiking with safety glasses, but if you are going to be plunging headfirst into dense undergrowth it’s a decent safety precaution (if it’s not already required by your institution.)

These, of course, are my personal experiences with corrective laser eye surgery, and your mileage may vary. I’m glad that I had the procedure and feel it has improved my quality of life, especially with fieldwork. If you’re considering a similar procedure for similar reasons, I hope that this post will provide a bit of information as you make that decision.