Needs something

One of my background projects, along with everything else that I’ve been involved with in the past couple of weeks, has been the attempt to capture images of comet C/2020 F3, mostly known as NEOWISE, which has been visible just before dawn for large portions of the northern hemisphere, and recently moved into being visible after sunset as well. The views are to the north, roughly at 30° at sunrise, and 235° at sunset (tracking diagonally and depending on your viewing latitude, so these are only rough directions.) Monday night I got out, but storm clouds on the horizon effectively prevented any views, so I tried again on Tuesday evening when the skies were much clearer. The comet is not terribly bright, but enough to be seen with binoculars (or a long lens or small telescope) once the twilight fades enough; basically, start watching for stars to appear in the region, and once they’re visible, the comet should be not far behind. Not seeing anything while I was out there Tuesday, I started to experiment, and shortened the focal length down to get a broader view of the sky, firing off a few long exposures at various regions to examine the image afterward. And then, there it was.

Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE in the evening sky
This is a 14-second exposure, f6.3, ISO 800, capturing the residual light about an hour after sunset. The horizon is just out of view below the bottom of the frame; between that and the phone app plot from someone who had chosen the same viewing area as I (an overpass above the interstate, about the best view of the horizon to the north within quite a few kilometers,) I’m pegging this at about 8° elevation. To give an idea, trees at a moderate distance tend to run between 5 and 20°, while common viewing around here never gets less than 25-40° – there really are a lot of trees and not very many open views here. I’d considered going down to Jordan Lake, but aiming north from there puts the city lights of both Chapel Hill and Durham into the sky, not the best of moves for a dimmer subject.

Now we go to 600mm, and cropped even tighter.

Comet c/2020 F3 NEOWISE showing motion blur from earth's rotation
This is now 9 seconds, f6.3, ISO 1600, and the motion blur of both the comet and the stars is apparent. This is from the earth’s rotation, and not a lot can be done about it without more specialized equipment. For instance, I could shorten the exposure time down a little with an f4 lens, which at 600mm runs, oh, about $13,000. Not gonna happen on this paycheck.

Or I could pick up a new body with expanded ISO range, but I was doing several frames at ISO 3200, and even then the exposure times weren’t short enough, so it would have to be something that pulled down 6400 to 12800, and sharply at that. And this is about the only use I’d have for that kind of ISO range.

Or, I could make a tracking mount, as I’ve mentioned before, which counteracts the rotation of the earth by turning in the opposite direction. Which is another, much bigger project that any I’m working on now, and is even a project just to align it for each shooting session (which wouldn’t have occurred this time around because the comet became visible before Polaris, the star used for alignment.) Someday, someday – but since I’d use it perhaps twice a year (partially just from not wanting to fuss with the alignment each time, and feeling obligated to be shooting night sky shots for a couple of hours once I did,) it’s never been a high-priority project.

And then there’s software, which can edit out motion blur like this to provide a sharper image. But I don’t have it installed, and right now, it looks like it’s gonna be another hassle, so it’s waiting for another time – maybe within a few days.

I may also do a morning run and see if the conditions are better – it’s still a matter of free time and adequate sleep. But if you want to try it, the best resource I’ve found so far has been Stellarium Web, which will use your location (once you provide it) to show you how to find the comet – click on the clock in the lower right to adjust times and see what’s best.

Good luck!

Reverse mullet

What? What kind of title is that? Well, there’s the semi-common-maybe-not-who-knows? description of the mullet hairstyle as “business up front, party in the back,” but at the moment, things are a little reversed here – the posting (party up front) is slow because I’m busy doing formatting for the impending switch, none of which you can see just yet. Okay, that was stupid, I know…

Right now, we have another important, definitive bit of trivia from my personal life that is now reflected for no good reason (other than to have some content that doesn’t require a lot of work) right here. To prove that I’m not neglecting my duties, even if I’m not taking them too seriously. Lazy, but conscientiously lazy.

snowy egret Egretta thula on edge of bay
This image dates back to June 16, 2004, but that day did not fall on a Wednesday this year, so it escaped attention as an ‘On this date’ post. But it is the last photo taken with the borrowed camera while in Florida, quite possibly on the same day that I shipped it off to its new owner. Well, perhaps not the very last, but the last that I retained in my stock folders, anyway. It represents the end of easy digital access to photography for a while, for me; I remained in Florida for a few more months before moving back to NC, and did not pick up my own digital camera for some months after that move. So there’s a gap in my digital stock folders, but I was still shooting slide film at the time (and continued for several years,) so I was remaining active, you just can’t tell by looking at the image dates in those folders.

This is a snowy egret (Egretta thula,) by the way, standing maybe 30cm high, and no, that’s not a lakeside home for ants – I was just playing with forced perspective with a cooperative subject. Should’ve pushed the aperture to minimum for better depth of field, might’ve gotten the background in sharper focus; I’m not actually sure why I didn’t, given the subject matter and shooting angle.

Seriously, it will get better soon – I just can’t devote the time and effort to it right now.

On this date 28

calcium tube colony in palmFor those of you following at home, I am still working on the site migration, mostly because of WordPress, and PHP 7.2.29. PHP is a programming language, which WordPress runs on, and when it upgraded into version 7, it changed an awful lot of commands, which kicked out numerous scripts and options that were written before that time; this has been a source of much work and frustration on my part for the past several days. I’m still trying to get the blog looking the way I like, but some changes are inevitable – and as far as I’m concerned, not changes for the better, though I’m going to try and make it look that way. There will be a post that announces the changeover, that will only be posted within the new host, so when you see it, you’ll know you’re on the new site. Though I imagine it’ll be obvious anyway…

In the interim, I’m keeping the posts to a minimum, because they have to be double-posted to keep the old and new hosts current, and I could do without the extra work right now. But hey, I started this weekly topic, so I’m obligated to maintain it on schedule, because, you know, chicks are impressed with that kind of thing.

In 2007, I was experimenting and doing detailed illustrations of various odds and ends that I’d obtained years before, and this colony of some kind of tube worm was on the list – I’d done most of the shots the day before, but this one here was shot on this date just to show scale. If it looks familiar, that means you’re both a regular and a possessor of a sharp memory, because it was featured in a post two years ago. I include it because of a bit of trivia – I mean, even more trivial than the topic to begin with. But to do this, we’re going to have to go out of order a hair.

fossil coral underwater venting air bubblesTwo years later in 2009, I was doing some detail shots of a bit of fossil coral that I’d found in a tailings pit, which makes it, um, old. It’s actually hard to pin down, because it was found in sedimentary limestone, meaning former ocean bottom, that underlies the ‘topsoil’ of eastern North Carolina – that all eroded off of the Blue Ridge Mountains, themselves formed when North America was grinding against Africa, pre-dinosaurs. So how old the sea bottom underneath is, no one can say easily, and silly me, I never had this decay-dated (and not Carbon13, because it’s way too old for that to work.) Anyway, I show it here because I find it absolutely fascinating that I was doing detailed photos of old sea-stuff on the same date two years apart. I know, right?

But there’s more trivia to be had in this post! Remember last week’s entry? Well, one week later I’d met with success. Success in which part, you say? The one that required monitoring, of course.

newly-hatched ground skink Scincella lateralis next to empty and occupied eggs
I noticed, last week when collecting images for the post, that the ground skink (Scincella lateralis) eggs had hatched exactly one week later, so they worked well for the On This Date posts (meaning we’re talking about 2008 right now.) Here, a newborn poses alongside two snail shells, two empty eggshells (there’s a sibling hiding somewhere else,) and an egg not yet hatched. Look closely at it, there at the nose of the skink, and you’ll see the break in the leathery shell, which is actually the nose of the third one poking forth. This began a long saga of attempting to capture this emergence on film (this is all taking place in an aquarium, by the way,) which ultimately failed, in a very frustrating way. But that link includes a scale shot, at least, and if you’re thinking the lovely wet sheen comes from being newborns, stop – they all look like this, including the adults.

And finally, we go back a mere four years to 2016 – actually, it kind of startles me that this trip was four years ago.

view of the wetlands in Creef's Cut, Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge
This one has appeared before too, within this post – I like the area visually (“the area” being Creef’s Cut in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in coastal North Carolina,) but I’ll be honest, I also harbor distinct memories of just how horrendous the strawberry flies are there. So all such photos are colored in my mind with getting assaulted by bites and swarms. That’s the advantage, or sometimes disadvantage, the viewer has: they don’t have the associations that the photographer might, so the image stands alone. Or it would if I’d shut the hell up about it.

Please stand by

I have more than a couple of images to feature here, soonish, waiting on a little more time to write things up. They will be along eventually, but they may be delayed until after I’ve completed a large project, which is moving the site to a new host.

Which also means that things might go a little screwy, on the blog or on the main site itself, but anything should be rectified in a day or two. Provided that I actually get this all together, and right now it’s being a bit problematic – too much so, and I’ll dump the new provider and find a better one, which will delay the changeover a little longer. Regardless, if any part of the site is borked, just wait it out. As hard as that may be.

animated gif of bloggingIn the interim, I have to post a meme found online, which exemplifies my thoughts about blogging better than I could ever express in writing. Much as I hate using sports references, this one works well.

Thanks, everyone! I couldn’t do it without you!

On this date 27

So here we are, halfway through the year, and I haven’t missed a deadline yet. I deserve a raise…

sculptured resin bee Megachile sculpturalis
Going through the folders to see what I should post, I found this little guy, included not so much (at all) because it’s a great photo, but because it made me pause and look carefully, not having seen anything of the like since this photo was taken. I popped into BugGuide.net and searched under “bumblebee mimic,” because I was sure it wasn’t a bumblebee or carpenter bee – the coloration is suspect, the head and eyes are wrong, and the antennae wrong. My searches turned up nothing, so I eventually uploaded this and another view. Full credit to BugGuide, because the answer came back before I had even logged out, literally within two minutes – this is the wonderfully named sculptured resin bee, Megachile sculpturalis. You even gotta love that scientific name – I get this mental image of a young creole superhero, Mega-Chile…

This was from 2007, by the way, and right down at the same Jordan Lake where I’ve been several times this past month. if you click on the Info tab on that linked page, you’ll find that they’re an introduced species from east Asia, first recorded in North Carolina only 12 years previously (but not by me.) We’ll leap forward a mere year now.

nest and eggs of ground skink Scincella lateralis
I’d been visiting The Girlfriend before I’d moved in with her, poking around in the yard when I uncovered this nest of eggs, later determined to be those of a ground skink (Scincella lateralis.) Scale is hard to determine here, but if it helps, there are some snail shells in the image too – I’m estimating the eggs as about 6-7mm in length. Ground skinks are very secretive, often staying hidden and blending in well when they’re not, so I see them rarely, even though I know we have at least one in the yard right now (I mean, I can’t say right now, because see above, but you know, this season.) This was the beginning of a project, by the way, but we’ll go into that later.

Now we go to 2012.

unidentified black ant with unidentified red ant head clamped onto leg
While it’s not hard to find insects with missing legs or antennae or damaged chitin, occasionally you come across something more expressive, like this. This unidentified black ant has had some past encounter with a red ant species, and while the red ant was clearly the loser in that encounter, it still managed to score some points. I have to wonder how embarrassing this is for the black ant; do the others tease him about this? Is the wife mad? How does this affect handwriting?

And a last one from 2015.

spearmint patch with hidden details
Don’t feel bad – I had to look at this for a few moments to figure out why I’d saved it in the first place, and I knew what folder it had come from. We’d had such a great crop of spearmint growing at the old place that we we obligated to reproduce it in the new, but the soil had other ideas. For this year, we had a decent little patch, but it never reproduced itself well and the best we have are sporadic plants popping up here and there. Still, it was popular when it lasted, as you’ll know if you look hard.

The more the… abbier…

blue dasher Pachydiplax longipennis on twig against sky reflections in pond
So, I sit here at the end of the month with over 1800 images shot therein, and find that too few of them really fulfill the idea of abstract, or at least my idea of it anyway – a couple would probably do better than these, but I have other plans for them. You might have even seen them already, since I’m writing this on the 29th and I’m not sure what else I’ll get done today. So we’ll go ahead and feature three month-end-semi-abstracts, partially because I want to use these but they won’t fit into any theme presently in mind, and partially to reflect just how damn many photos I have to sort yet. The thing I like about the above image is that it’s slightly disorienting, because that’s not the sky that you’re seeing behind the dragonfly (a blue dasher, Pachydiplax longipennis, by the way,) or not per se, but the reflection thereof in the pond. Eventually that sentence will give up its secrets under that torture…

No, those spots are not dust on the sensor, but things on the surface of the pond. So there.

And then, one from a whole three meters out the door.

The Girlfriend's rose in full bloom
After many struggles with marauding insects and uncertainty over its fortitude, The Girlfriend’s rose starting thriving this year, and I captured this bloom in its very narrow peak window – another day, maybe less, and the petals would have started to droop, and in fact if I remember correctly, it rained heavily later on that day and caused the whole stalk to bend under the burden of the raindrops. More to my purposes here however, is how the bloom stands out sharply from the background, both in focus and apparent lighting, making it seem ‘shopped in, but no, this is just how it appeared. And yes, the framing with the bud and leaves in the background was not coincidental.

unidentified twisted tree with sunburst
There was a little less planning in the composition of this one, because while I did aim to have the trunk of the tree filling the frame this way, and the sun peeking through the leaves, I didn’t think about the sun coming right at the tip of the branch in this manner, so yeah, I’m cool with that. I get the impression of the tree in the process of falling over, the branches trailing as if it’s a lot more flexible than reality, but what exactly caused it to shape in this manner I couldn’t say. So when we meet in person again, remind me and I’ll mime it to you…

The golden hour

great blue heron Ardea herodias skimming over Jordan Lake at sunrise
You know, poetic license is all well and good, but you’d think photographers could be more specific and descriptive. The periods where the sun is low on the horizon are usually called the “golden hours,” but the colors are often not just gold, and spend more time in the various orange hues than yellow or gold. We could have the amber minutes, and the saffron, the apricot and the pumpkin…

Anyway, the Obsessive Mr Bugg and I caught sunrise at Jordan Lake and chased birds, and for once, the sunrise colors were pretty deep and vivid, remaining that way for a decent period too; the upper sky was largely cloudless, but the horizon had enough humidity to last a while. And a handful of great blue herons (Ardea herodias) were being semi-cooperative.

pair of great blue herons Ardea herodias on shoreline with reflections in sunrise light
Our entry point was fairly distant from their fishing locale, save for one that was almost beneath us down the embankment – that was the one that flew off soon after our arrival, seen in the first shot above. We begun slowly working towards the ones we could see, keeping our eyes open for ospreys and eagles at the same time, but they were remaining resolutely scarce. No biggie – the herons kept us occupied for a while.

And just so you know, the white balance was set for Sunlight, which means no corrections, which is the way to keep these lovely hues.

great blue heron Ardea herodias with small fish capture
One heron took up a position closer to us and was enjoying the abundant activity of the small fish along the waterline (which we could see where we were as well.) This one deserves a closer look, so let’s crop and enlarge.

same frame with tighter crop showing small captured fish
Hey, when I can make out the pupils on the fish, I’m pleased.

By the way, in case you’re unfamiliar with great blues, they stand a little over a meter tall in their average stance, but can easily stretch up almost to two, and their wingspan often exceeds that; they’re not small birds. The fish seen here probably measures about 10cm in length.

We’ll do this more-or-less in order, so in between we have a long-jawed orbweaver (genus Tetragnatha) hanging out in some low-hanging branches over the water, as they do. I shifted to put the bright sky behind it, which brought out some nice detail even in silhouette. Overall length is probably 4-5cm – pretty big for spiders, but exceptionally shy.

long-jawed orbweaver Tetragnatha against morning sky
The heron closest to us started to get antsy at our approach, and eventually flew off for further downshore where the other two were foraging. Normally, I see things like this all the time and nobody seems concerned, but this time, one of that pair farther off seemed offended at this approach, and took flight to convince the intruder not to hang around. This happened twice while we watched, and it was fun to see the chase take place.

a pair of great blue herons Ardea herodias in territorial dispute
Unfortunately, the light wasn’t all that bright yet, and the lower contrast made the herons hard targets, so between shutter speed, subject movement, and focus tracking issues, too few of the many shots that I fired off actually came out; this one is only acceptable at this size and no larger. And this is as far as they got off of the water, knowing that climbing would take more energy and slow themselves down, not something you want to happen if you’re fleeing or chasing. If you look at the water behind the one on the left, you can see several patches of disturbed water, evidence that the heron as actually tapping the water with its wingtips as it flapped.

However, when they got out to where more light was reflecting from the water, the exposure meter could set for that and get a better shutter speed, though at the cost of silhouetting the birds, but at least these started coming out sharp.

pair of great blue herons Ardea herodias silhouetted against sunrise colors on water
There’s a little detail that I especially liked with this frame, and it’s how the eye on the lower heron has caught the sunlight. But it was also nice that the upper heron dropped low enough not to be against the darker trees on the horizon. And the reflection is a good element.

The chaser returned to its fishing spot after a pursuit of a couple hundred meters, and we worked slowly along the curve of the shoreline, approaching both (the other had stayed in place during all the hoohah.) Over time, we could put together some nice portraits.

great blue heron Ardea herodias posed on shore of Jordan Lake
trumpet flower in sunrise light against deep blue skyAnd while we approached, over a period of several minutes, we kept our eyes out for other items of interest, like this trumpet flower against a deep blue sky opposite the sun, still catching a little yellow light. It might be hard to believe these were shot within the same time frame, but it all depended on which direction one faced, in this case much closer to vertical with the sun at our backs. It was imperative, of course, to set the flower against this deep sky for maximum color contrast, so I had to pick a particular blossom and shift position until I got a nice clear opening behind it. Such opportunities can just happen, but it’s better to recognize when you can make it happen as well. The same may be said for the heron above, where the head stands out against the bright log distinctly, which is far better than setting it against the clutter than can be seen to the left and above it. A couple of steps, maybe a little crouching or stretching, is often all it takes.

It took a little more to line up the next shot, but not a lot. We had to wade out into more open water, attracting more attention to ourselves, so this was done slowly and casually, which the herons really do respond to. Staring is always a bad move, because that’s predatory behavior.

paor of great blue herons Ardea herodias lined up along shore
You can see now that the light is finally getting closer to the standard daylight white hue, putting some of the proper color on the herons now. So you know, this was shot better than half an hour after the pair with the tree reflections (the second image in the post,) and almost an hour after the first image in the post, which was pre-sunrise. That’s actually a good length of time to retain these colors so, yay.

And in there somewhere, we were treated to a flyover by an osprey (Pandion haliaetus,) who decided not to do any diving for fish while we watched.

osprey Pandion haliaetus cruising overhead at sunrise
The difference in shooting position should be clear from the shadows, though again, I’m glad I caught some light on the eye – you realize, of course, that there are other frames that did not catch this detail, which is why I selected this one. But the extensive shadows and the angles thereof tell us we’re aimed more toward the sun, and notice how the sky has lost a lot of the color it had with the trumpet flower – this has nothing to do with changing conditions, just the way the light scatters with angle.

And back to the herons.

great blue heron Ardea herodias portrait, fishing at sunrise
The light’s not just hitting the eye here, but also telling us that, despite our closing approach, the heron was still intent on fishing, not terribly spooked by these two stalkers. I suppose that ice pick attached to the front of its face might have had something to do with this nonchalance.

I want to draw attention to another detail that I liked, which is the striped reflection from the water on the wings of the bird, not quite mirroring the ripples in the water itself. No, I did not notice this at the time.

Eventually, we had drawn too close and both herons opted to seek other hunting grounds; we would have let them be but we suspected there might be some more subjects further along the shore, and the land at that point was actually a narrow band between the lake and a flood pond, a strange bit of geography created many years back when a rail line crossed this branch of the lake right there. This meant it was impossible to avoid spooking them, but the lake sees so much activity from bathers, fisherfolk, and boaters that there are almost no ‘safe’ areas anyway. Much worse, far too many of these people seem incredibly incapable of picking up their own fucking trash, and portions of the lakeshore along our hike were embarrassingly filthy, even with numerous posted signs reminding people to clean up after themselves. It’s pathetic.

Our further investigations turned up almost no more photo subjects, and after a while we turned back to check out other areas. In the distance, a lone osprey was calling occasionally but disinclined to take wing, and no eagles showed at all. But getting close to the parking area, Buggato spotted a black vulture (Coragyps atratus) sunning itself on a low branch, soon joined by another, and again, a little careful positioning put the blue sky to good use.

pair of black vultures Coragyps atratus sunning themselves on branch
We never imagine such things, so it was slightly surprising to see the two nuzzling for a moment as they drew together. It just doesn’t seem like behavior carrion eaters would engage in, but there’s no reason why they shouldn’t.

I’ll close the post with my favorite image from the day (after opening with my second favorite – strong bookends, you know,) though we’re well out of chronological order with this one; too bad. As one of the herons cruised past, its wingtips were again touching the water on the downstroke, and I caught a newly-made wake just after it happened, purely by happenstance.

great blue heron Ardea herodias at sunrise just skimming water with wingtip
If asked, however, I’ll invent some story about staking out the birds for days trying to time just the right moment with the sunrise, because properly fartsy images always come with hardship. I can admit it here because nobody’s read this far anyway.

Lead the way

Yes indeedy, it’s another holiday, and this one is brought to you courtesy of the Insouciant Mr Bugg, reminding us all that today is Throw Down The Gauntlet Day. In his own post on the subject (where he apparently forgot to announce the holiday,) Buggato had the temerity to accuse me of chimping. ‘Chimping,’ should I need to inform or remind anyone, is the practice of looking at the LCD of the camera after taking a photo to see if there really is a picture there. As I’ve said, that’s all that it could possibly tell you, because the LCD is far too small, without color or gamma correction, to tell you anything else about the photo. Plus it makes you look like an amateur.

Buggarino somehow failed to post any images that he might have obtained of me actually engaging in this behavior, but that’s okay, because I have a few myself. So, having been challenged, I will present some of those, so you know what it looks like.

You likely remember this one from February, though it was taken last December instead.

Mr Bugg shooting from low on boat ramp at Jordan Lake in December 2019
Buggato certainly not chimpingThat was certainly a special outing, because he was in rare form that day. To the right is another from, literally, not five minutes later.

The light was going blue for those, because the sun had set and the color was draining from the sky, so let’s have another from before that time, while the light is better. That’s down below.

maybe not - benefit of the doubtYeeeaaahhhh, maybe he was just getting up from his prone shooting position and happened to glance in the same general direction of his camera, and is not actually looking at the LCD. We’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for this one. That’s okay – we have more.

Buggarino getting the undersides of mushrooms - definitely not chimping
This is from a few years back, when Buggosa was after some large shelf fungi on the trunk there. You might want to argue that we can’t tell what he’s doing here, but since he was shooting the undersides of the upper fungi, his nose is pointed in the wrong direction. You can trust me or not – I may simply start shooting video of it.

And don’t ask me what’s going on with his hat, because I’ve asked, and still don’t know.

How about the Eno River?

just clearing off splashes I'm sure
Okay, maybe he’s just comparing the settings in the camera menu with the crib notes written in his palm – I’ll let him explain this one.

And if you’re seeing a pattern of dress here, that’s because he has a couple of shirts dedicated to our outings, to remain more low-key. He is not color-coordinating the rubber band on his long lens case yet, though.

okay no doubts hereOne more? Okay, one from a foggy morning out at Mason Farm Biological Reserve.

So we see one of the problems with taking the lead on Throw Down The Gauntlet Day, because then, anyone so targeted has the opportunity to up the anté, especially if you’ve been obnoxious. But if you haven’t seen enough photos of this behavior yet, let me know, since we have another outing tomorrow and I’ll be sure to watch for more opportunities – maybe I’ll do the video thing, especially if I can find a pocket air-horn to fire off and mark exactly when it occurs. Not only that, but since he wants to lead off, I’ll also let him walk in the front on our hikes, clearing away all of the spiderwebs stretched across the path and doing the snake-watching duty. Far be it from me to hog all that fun for myself.

;-)

On this date 26

thunderheads illuminated by setting sun
This week, we’re reminiscing about 2006 (to begin with,) a summer with a series of fierce electrical storms. These growing thunderheads were catching the light of the setting sun, so peaks of different heights and distances were getting contrasting colors dictated by the atmosphere; you’ll notice that the very bottoms, and the foreground details, had already witnessed sunset, while that back peak was still catching full sunlight from several thousand meters higher up, peeking around the curve of the earth. This somehow looks familiar…

[For your amusement, I can tell you that this is being written before the previous post was even started, but I know what I’m going to post about.]

You almost certainly noticed the curious detail down at the bottom, where the trees were emulating the cloud banks a little too well, with one small patch at bottom center breaking free before it evaporated. Though trees shouldn’t do this.

little orphan branchyA close look at the full resolution of that now-ancient camera shows the reason: we’re just seeing an oddly-shaped bough, the supporting branch having disappeared at the lower resolution used for blog display. Damn. I thought I’d discovered some new physics.

Oh well, on to 2009.

newborn Atlantic horseshoe crab Limulus polyphemus under high magnification and dark-field lighting
On this date 11 years ago, we’d just returned from a beach trip, where my cavorting in the surf had produced a distinct stinging sensation on my arm – not too sharp, but more than a random itch. First glance and scratch turned up nothing, but when it returned, I looked harder and found what appeared to be a freckle but wasn’t. Having come prepared that trip, I managed to scrape it off and incarcerate it within a film can for collecting specimens, and back home, I set up a super macro rig – the first time I started using the reversed 28-105 for macro, if I remember correctly. With the detailed shots, I was able to determine that this was a very young Atlantic horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus,) of all things, remarkably tiny when first hatched. They don’t sting, but the exoskeleton is already pretty hard and I was likely getting stabbed by the tail. Anyway, details are here, but know that my ‘extension tube’ was actually a piece of PVC pipe with adapters glued onto the ends, painted black inside.

Just so you know if you’re ever asked, I purchased that Sigma 28-105 in 1997 I believe, and the aperture failed in 2004 while in Florida; I hung onto it in case I ever found the way to repair it. So here in 2009 I started using it backwards as a high-magnification macro lens, for which it still does duty, which means it’s had a longer shooting life while broken than it had in good shape. The frustration over this and another lens’ failure, which was known and too common with Canon cameras, almost had me switching to Nikon. Turns out, the EOS system of controlling both aperture and focus motor electronically rather than physically meant that zooms had to have frequently-flexed ribbon cables within, and these are a point of weakness; I even found the damaged cable within the 28-105 later on, when I’d dismantled it and set the aperture to a fixed f16, where it remains today.

On to 2012.

giant stag beetle Lucanus elaphus from the front
I’d captured this giant stag beetle (Lucanus elaphus) while out and brought it home for an extended photo session which, as you might imagine, it bore with exceedingly bad grace, but I still managed not to get pinched. Which means I fared better than with the horseshoe crab (you know, that’s a difficult word to type instinctively, “horseshoe.”) Giant stag beetles look horrendous, but know that the ‘horns’ are more for mating than protection, and used more often on each other than anything else, especially since the females don’t actually have them. Better not to ask any further questions.

giant stag beetle Lucanus elaphus on photographer's handI took a lot of photos, including a couple of attempts at scale, and one of them told me a little more; that’s my right hand in the shot, which means that I’d fired this off with my left. This had to be fun, since the shutter release and grip are on the right of the camera. Meanwhile, that big ugly wound on my hand is not courtesy of the stag beetle, which did no damage whatsoever, but our washing machine instead, when the lid slammed down just as I was reaching inside. I still have that scar…

A year later, I was getting fartsy with a spider. Don’t act so surprised – you know what the blog is like.

green lynx spider Peucetia viridans almost blending in to spearmint leaves
In 2013, we had a bumper crop of spearmint plants and several green lynx spiders (Peucetia viridans,) so it’s only natural to assume that they could have come together at some point – actually, quite often. This was the beginning of watching almost the entire life cycle of the lynx spiders, including the appearance of egg sacs, the birth of several broods, and even monitoring them over the winter. I had also planted the spearmint myself, which grew into an enviable patch big enough to hide even me; we have had no such luck here at the new place, but the soil at the old (where this was taken) was super rich. So I have to play around with something more than detail or identifying shots every once in a while, and shooting by natural light with a large aperture produced this effect. Yet somehow, I still don’t have my prints up in the best galleries, even just in North Carolina. Go figure.

Another try

developing cumulonimbus clouds showing Belt of Venus
So, Monday night I went down to the lake to try again on those focus and tracking tests. The light was again ideal, only this time, it remained that way until the sun disappeared behind the trees. Unfortunately, I saw even fewer birds than before. I may be partially to blame here, since we’re now past nesting season and the adults have much less to do with no babies to feed. Some blame might also be placed on the ridiculous number of boaters that were out there, mostly kayakers, paddleboarders, and related; there weren’t too many open patches nearby where an osprey might feel safe to dive. So while there, I settled on shooting some of the developing cumulonimbus clouds lit by the westering sun, like the oddly tumescent one above, happy to see someone, at least.

But then again, it didn’t last long, and I’ll leave you to speculate with whatever indelicate explanations come to mind. I’m certainly above all that. Unlike this cloud.

developing cumulonimbus with evaporating tower
What does show here, though, are the range of colors that extend in layers as the sun sets, cutting through thicker and thicker portions of the atmosphere. It became a little more evident as the evening wore on.

developing cumulonimbus clouds and Belt of Venus
This coloration, as I’ve said before, is known as the ‘Belt of Venus,’ and is essentially the shadow of the earth itself being cast onto the clouds as the sun disappears over the horizon, the shadow leaping up from the horizon. Of course, some of this might also be from the other clouds in the area blocking the sun, but it’s pretty much the same effect, and same color progression. There were no high altitude clouds at all, so nothing to really color the sky, just these fluffy monsters clustered down low in various places. I was watching them with interest, knowing that they often turned into thunderheads, and being down on the lake I’d have a good view.

But I also fired off a few test shots here and there, such as at passing airliners, which are quite small in the viewfinder and thus not bad for focus targets in that regard, but far too easy to track so not the kind of test I was really after.

focus test on passing airliner with additional detail
Now here’s the serendipitous part, because I knew conditions were right for something in particular, that I actually captured in that frame, but I didn’t know it until I got back and unloaded the card – if your monitor is not well-corrected it would be easy to miss. Let’s go a little closer.

passing airliner and very thin crescent moon
See it? There’s a super-thin crescent moon in the photo. Amusingly, I started actively looking for it immediately after firing off that frame, but took another couple of minutes before I snagged it. I knew we were just past new moon and the crescent would be visible soon after sunset, but it was a little more advanced than my previous shots done some months back, which became evident as the evening wore on. Had I been out the previous night, it likely would have been too thin to discern, closer to the sun and swallowed up in the glare, and it wasn’t until he sky started to darken a bit before it could be made out.

But we’ll pause here for a little curiosity, because I spotted this as I was looking, before I even made out the moon.

unidentified planet-looking sky spot where no planet should be
This is cropped down to full resolution, but even in the viewfinder I could make out that it was larger than a star, and the subsequent frame showed it as distinctly round. Not current on my orbital times, I initially identified it as Venus, then thought better of it and considered Jupiter instead. Upon my return, I booted Stellarium to confirm – and found neither. There were, in fact, no planets at all anywhere in the vicinity, and this is way too big and round to be a star. So what did I capture? There was no visible motion, but I don’t recall seeing it again either, so I’m leaning towards a high-altitude object reflecting the sun, such as, yes, a weather balloon – they’ve been proven to exist, unlike just about every other explanation certain types of people tend to put forth. I’m going to have to go onto some astronomy forums and see what can be found. The worst part is, I have only a rough idea of altitude and azimuth, which would have helped significantly.

Back to the moon.

3% crescent moon showing hint of lunar detail
I did a lot of focus bracketing with these, not trusting autofocus at all, and managed to get a few frames that actually show a vestige of lunar detail, so I’m cool. Stellarium pegged this as 3% illuminated, while that time back in January was about 1%, but in order to get it less than that, I would have had to have caught it sometime during the morning, when it would have been impossible to make out without a telescope. As I said in that January post, it varies a lot.

Not knowing that I already had one, I got lucky and fired off a few frames as a jet passed nearby.

high altitude airliner passing near crescent moon
Notice how the contrails are colored red by the sunset, long gone from my perspective but still visible to those passengers and crew. The moon was of course below them and not visible at all.

(All right, we all know that’s bullshit – the moon was in the same position for them as it was for me. But likely not visible to them, because they still had some sunlight glare in the sky that probably overwhelmed it.)

Now it gets a little bit cooler.

3% crescent moon showing earthshine close to moonset
When I first saw it in the viewfinder, I wasn’t sure I wasn’t just imagining it, but as it got a little later, the earthshine became evident. I did a little playing around in GIMP with the two images above, and in the one with the plane, I couldn’t coax any evidence of earthshine out of the image at all, but in the one immediately above where it shows distinctly, I could actually make out the lunar mares if I pushed it to extremes. Now I’m annoyed that I didn’t switch over to RAW mode for a few frames, because this is exactly where that additional range and info would come into play.

As the moon was approaching the trees and about to disappear, I resolved to shoot video of it to show the actual speed of movement, but I was still glancing around, and one of the many developing thunderheads was now showing regular activity. I watched it but shot no photos or video, wanting to time things just right for the moon, and as it turns out, the resulting video is dark enough not to show much of any light from the sky at all, and no earthshine (I didn’t expect a lot from 30 frames per second, even with widely expanded ISO,) and I was missing the peak of activity from the thunderhead. When I finally turned to shoot it once the moon was out of sight, the sky now being dark enough for some longer exposures, the activity was tapering off.

distant thunderhead at night showing lightning ground strike
It’s kind of a shame, because this thunderhead was actually drawing a little closer, and I might have gotten some nice shots out over the lake, but it simply evolved into rain, and none of the others were putting in quite enough effort. I could only guess how far south this was from my position, but that guess is a couple dozen kilometers or better.

Yet I did get one nice capture.

cloud lightning from thunderhead over lake
I don’t pretend to understand why lightning would loop around like this, but it’s cool-looking, so I’m groovy. Notice the difference in the clouds, where portions are illuminated by the dim lingering twilight and show the motion of the clouds during the long exposure, while a portion is illuminated by the brief lightning itself and is thus sharp in that burst of light. And yes, there’s a lot of sensor noise present, because I didn’t do any noise reduction tricks for this post, but we’ll all just have to cope.

One of these days, I’ll get some birds to practice on. I promise to let you know when I do – it’s starting to feel like some epic quest now. Geez, I just want a few birds