Sunday slide 17

Juvenile Atlantic ghost crab Ocypode quadrata showing off camouflage
I simply love the eye-bending quality of this one, and chances are you’ve seen it before. I think it was taken on the same beach trip as Sunday slide 5, early in the morning. That’s the best time to see Atlantic ghost crabs (Ocypode quadrata,) unless you like running around on the beach with a flashlight late at night. Getting this close takes some effort since, for reasons unknown and unfathomable, tiny crabs don’t like people looming over them. I know, right? So The Girlfriend ran interference, blocking this one from its burrow, as I skootched in closer on my belly to get this perspective. I’ve been wanting to redo it ever since, mostly to have a variety of perspectives with more beach in there (you know, a “Find Crabbo” kind of shot,) but so far the specific conditions have eluded me, even though I managed to snag a couple of shots of the species on the last Outer Banks trip. There are another two beach trips coming up this year, so we’ll just see what happens.

Too cool, part 35: A modicum of success

newborn Chines mantis Tenodera sinensis peering from home twig
The praying mantids have been an ongoing saga on this blog now for several years, and if you want to call it an obsession, no argument from me. While I am definitely motivated to capture sequences and behavior of any species that I can, I happen to like mantids, and I’ve had the opportunities to bear close witness to them. So here we are again.

Not having found any distinctive evidence of local egg cases this spring or past fall, I had ordered three online, and set them up in prime locations within the yard where I could observe them easily; my goal has been to capture the hatching in great macro detail, something I haven’t quite accomplished yet. Two of the egg cases, unfortunately, fell victim to some marauding shithead, likely grey squirrels, so only one remained unscathed. And that one I noticed was hatching out just as I was dashing out the door on a tight schedule. When I’d returned, the hatching activity had stopped and a bunch of newborns were scampering around on the twig to which I’d affixed the egg case, and several nearby plants. Well, shit.

Oh, well. I settled for doing some shots of the newborns, out and about in the immediate vicinity of the egg case.

a cluster of newborn Chinese mantises Tenodera sinensis
Bear in mind that they measure just 10mm in body length at this point; this is using the wonderful Sigma 28-105 reversed, and is full-frame.

But here’s another, cropped a little to show off the detail better.

newborn Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis showing fine detail
If the body is 10mm long, that would make the head about 1mm in width, and those tiny spikes on the forelegs… what? I’ll let you figure it out. Suffice to say that, despite the difficulty of working with a lens fixed at f16 (quite dark in the viewfinder) and with a working depth-of-field of 2mm or less, I’m quite happy with what it can accomplish.

And here’s a shot that demonstrates scale better:

newborn Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis with millimeter scale and dime for comparison
For everyone familiar with US currency, that’s a dime in the photo.

The next day, I was delighted to find that a second wave of hatchings was taking place, and I managed to squeeze out a tiny bit of time to devote to it. Now, if you found the pics of the newborns creepy in any way, well, you ain’t seen nothing yet. This is where I have my fun.

Chinese mantids Tenodera sinensis newly emerged from egg sac ootheca
The one thing that I have not caught (and thus remains on the list) is the actual emergence from the egg sac; every time I’ve seen them soon afterward, but never actually coming to light for the first time. These two are examples, apparently not long from the event, but still well out into the open. Something that I determined a few years back is that mantids molt almost immediately upon hatching; the exoskeleton remains anchored to the sac by a fine webline, and they have to draw free and get use of their legs over a period of time, my guess is about ten to twenty minutes, judging from what I’ve seen. A lot of the threads can be seen in this image, and these two are still anchored even while mostly free from the exoskeleton.

Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis drawing free from initial molting
This image is slightly confusing to me. While it appears to be drawing itself free from the old exoskeleton, thus the bound appearance with the legs and antennae gathered, two of the legs right at the top of the photo already appear to be free. It’s possible that the molt is only for the body itself, or even just the abdomen, but that doesn’t make sense to me. Questions still to be answered.

twp newly-emerged Chinese mantises Tenodera sinensis waiting to gain the use of their legs
What a wonderfully funky view. The bullet-headed appearance, especially with that bulging ‘forehead,’ is curious, and as yet I don’t have an answer for that either, just speculation (which we’ll get to.) And this shows a large collection of the molted and discarded exoskeletons, all that chaff between the two, with one dangling below the head of the mantis on the right – yes, they’re quite a bit smaller than the emerged mantids. Maybe it’s not a molting after all, but the arthropod equivalent of a yolk sac? I guess I could actually ask somebody…

But wait! There’s more!

Not too long ago, I picked up a camera body that could actually do video, and the preliminary tests with a macro lens were encouraging. So as this was happening, the system got its acid test, this time with the Mamiya 80mm macro and extension tube. So you not only get to see such exquisite detail, you now get to see all the writhing and creepiness in real time! Lucky you!

This is naturally my first time using a video editor and adding a voiceover track, and it will become more polished with time, so bear with me. But the results were better than expected and enough to convince me that macro video was not only feasible, but a useful addition to the skillset. Camera steadiness will be a distinct issue, however.

But if you thought that was bad, just try to imagine what kind of other shit I might find to video ;-)

Yay! It’s Earth Day!

red-bellied woodpecker Melanerpes carolinus launching itself from treeWelcome to Earth Day! I hope you get the chance to either go out and enjoy the natural (less human-affected) parts of our planet, or do something environmentally beneficial. I personally am going to have the chance to do neither, but I at least get the first option in fairly often, so we’ll go with some recent examples of that as eye-candy.

I was out with a student and wasn’t lugging around the long lens when this red-bellied woodpecker (which do not have red bellies, but the name red-headed woodpecker was already taken by one that is admittedly more fitting of the moniker, so we’ll just pretend the belly is red and anyway it’s a Melanerpes carolinus,) was peeking out from either side of a trunk just a bit too far off for good results from the Mamiya 80mm, before taking flight towards a more promising tree – I didn’t intend to capture this particular moment but I’ll take credit for my expertise anyway, and can I make this sentence just a wee bit longer?

Actually, several of these images are coming from outings with students, generally casual captures that I grabbed while they were working on their own compositions. This is one from two days back, a cluster of mountain laurel flowers (Kalmia latifolia) in various stages.

mountain laurel Kalmia latifolia beginning to bloom
I really could have done without that red stem down in the lower left, but whatcha gonna do? I mean, besides hacking the thing off, and that’s not very EarthDaylike, is it?

The following morning, which means yesterday based on the posting date but this morning as I type this, I would say Earth day eve except it wasn’t evening and Earth Day morn refers to actual Earth Day and not the day before so I don’t know what to call it for convenience, I was out trying for the sunrise, which as you might be able to tell from the sky and water reflections, really didn’t produce any notable colors.

weak sunrise shot
The sun was just high enough to shine through a gap in the trees I was standing within, providing a good example of natural light coloration – yellow for the sunlight portion at mid frame, but distinctly blue for the deep shade at the bottom. It was even more noticeable than this, but I tweaked it for fartistic effect. No, it’s not going to be in the Guggenheim anytime soon, I’m well aware of that, thank you for reminding me…

unidentified orb spider in web with backlighting and refraction
I don’t know what kind of spider this is, but I couldn’t go this long without putting up a spider pic – I was starting to hear those little voices again, you know? Anyway, this was from another student outing (I think the same as the woodpecker,) snatching the opportunity of backlighting and refraction off the web strands. I could have done without that tiny bright leaf trapped in the web though (I suppose we’ll just go over my failings for Earth Day, not like that distinguishes it from any other posting day.)

unidentified flowers in deep shade
Another student outing (I’ve been busy this past couple of weeks,) another moment of opportunity. I don’t know what these are (eye-candy, remember?) but they’re pink. I don’t care what you might want to call them – women, I’m looking at you – they’re just pink. We don’t need so many words for colors. Just use the RGB values if you want to differentiate so badly.

And finally, a Canada goose family (Branta canadensis) hanging out on the same sunrise day – so, yesterday/not yesterday. I happen to like the gosling’s apparent preoccupation with its foot – it’s like when younger children get new shoes and keep sticking their feet out to examine them. I mean, I still do this, but it’s only to see how filthy my feet have gotten in the water sandals. You probably didn’t need to know that…

Canada goose Branta canandensis family on pond shore

We’ll start with the reptiles

New Hope Creek in Duke Forest
Yes, I know that’s not a photo of a reptile… or, is it? Your challenge is to find the six reptiles in the frame.

10mm shot showing width of viewAll right, don’t bother, unless you’re masochistic – there are no reptiles visible in the shot. I just picked up an ultra-wide lens, a Tamron 10-24mm aspherical, and I’m showing it off because I’m quite pleased with it. The ‘aspherical’ bit is key, because wide-angle lenses have a tendency to introduce wicked distortion, often called ‘barrel distortion’ in the trade but also described as a fisheye effect, where objects nearer the edge get more and more warped until it almost looks like you’re looking at a reflection in a christmas ornament (or a doorknob if that offends you.) This was due to the simple nature of lens grinding: no matter what the strength, they were always a portion of a sphere, and light coming in along the edges was bent more than light towards the center. This same trait is responsible for the darkened corners of many images when shot at widest aperture (again, called ‘light falloff’ among the cognoscenti, or simply in lens tests.) The ability to cast/grind lenses (I’m not sure how it’s done, actually) in an aspherical shape has improved that tremendously, however, correcting a lot of the distortion at the edges and rendering the photo much more realistically – not perfectly, mind you, but vastly improved over the previous examples. When you look at the image at top, note the trees at the edges, standing pretty damn straight (the ones closer to center don’t count, because they’re on the stream edge and erosion has caused them to lean towards the water naturally.) In the bad old days, the edges of the image in wide-angle photos would be badly curved and the trees notably warped – this is corrected so well it hardly appears to be an ultra-wide view angle. Which is why I included the vertical image to the right. You can see the ‘horizon’ at the top of the image, and that’s my sandal peeking in at the bottom, just to illustrate the width of the frame.

These shots were taken during a student outing to Duke Forest, and you can see how the trees are finally leafing out in earnest, while the weather has not only gotten comfortably warm, it occasionally gets uncomfortably hot. This particular day was mostly comfortable, and Duke Forest is a great place for water snakes (and occasionally others,) so we were on a quest to find them. Curiously, we’d done almost the entire session without seeing the faintest trace, and were close to wrapping up. Partially out of desperation, I put on a longer focal length and began scanning a likely area, a tangle of roots and snags at the edge of the water, away from where the dogs belonging to the people who feel they’re exempt from leash restrictions (Orange County is especially full of them) could scare the snakes off. That’s why I get the big bucks. Or should, anyway…

queen snake Regina septemvittata basking along waterside branch
Two queen snakes (Regina septemvittata) were revealed in this way, though neither of these images were taken with that same long lens. Instead, we clambered through the difficult footing to get better vantage points, greatly improving the results. Queen snakes are relatively small aquatic snakes, less common in this area than the northern water snake and far smaller, about the diameter of your finger and completely harmless unless you’re a minnow (in which case the finger thing doesn’t help I guess.) This one blended in so well with the twisted nature of the old snag that it was next to invisible just a few meters away, unless you looked hard. The next one was a little more obvious, but again, from its size it could blend in with saplings and vines.

queen snake Regina septemvittata in alert position on root tip
Both of these were less than two meters apart, and while shooting from a better light angle would theoretically have improved the results, there were some issues with this. Primarily, it would have required actually being in the water, not beyond our abilities or sensitivities by any stretch (we’d both already been wading that day,) but the bottom was especially rocky, making footing treacherous, and approaching from open water would have attracted far more attention, likely sending the snakes darting off for cover. Sometimes you take what you can get, even when you recognize that there might be ways to improve the shot. It’s not worth twisting an ankle or dunking the camera equipment.

Eastern fence lizard Sceloporus undulatus attmepting to hide from the papparazziOn the trek back to the parking area, I swept my eyes over another likely spot, a deposit of downed tree trunks, and pointed out another subject, actually two. Eastern fence lizards (Sceloporus undulatus) are especially fond of old, weathered and textured tree trunks where they blend in very well, but also of course find their food. This one was basking atop the trunk until we got too close and it scampered for cover, but lizards aren’t like snakes in this regard; they often slip just out of sight and wait only a short while, sometimes less than a minute, before venturing back out again, so a little patience can pay off easily. We didn’t really have the time, already running late on the session, so I settled for leaning in and finding the lizard sitting just out of normal sight on the back side of the trunk, where I could get a peek at its face in shadow. They’re wonderfully textured lizards, not as spiky in appearance as some species out west, but hardly smooth, and this is accentuated by their color pattern. They’re large for lizards in the area, running roughly the length of your hand as full-size adults, ranging in girth up to 3cm or so (which is like three fingers.) Again, no comparison to some western species or even our own hellbender salamanders, but more impressive than the green anoles.

Splitting the difference is the five-lined skink, another common one in the area. In fact, especially common in a park called West Point on the Eno (River,) where I went with another student yesterday. The place was crawling with them, provided that you paid attention. I present an example.

Two southeastern five-lined skinks Plestiodon inexpectatus on stump and fence
Did you see the lizard? Did you see them both? Not particularly hard, especially when I’ve led into it like this and framed the image in this manner, but you can probably imagine that, given the attention most people pay to their surroundings, they could have escaped notice easily. Southeastern five-lined skinks go by a variety of names in this area alone, and probably even more across their range, so the best thing is to stick to the scientific name of Plestiodon inexpectatus. Or maybe not; the taxonomy has changed not long ago, and there remains uncertainty as to how many subspecies there really are, so call them what you want I guess.

adult male five-lined skink Plestiodon inexpectatus peering around tree trunk
They come in a range of coloration, so much so that they are often mistaken for multiple species. This one, peering almost secretively around a tree trunk (I liked this image for just that effect,) is an adult male, where the head becomes noticeably reddish while the body, close in size to the fence lizards, becomes a burnished deep bronze with little evidence of the stripes. While the juveniles seen above further up will often show distinctive stripes and a brilliant blue tail, an interesting defensive mechanism. Given their propensity for basking in bright sunlight (at least until nosy nature photographers come around,) you’d think such a flag would act against them, but it’s pretty cool how it works. Like many lizards, five-lined skinks have detachable tails, easily able to separate from the body when something seizes it, which is likely given that, just as something strikes, the lizard darts forward and the predator gets only the tail. Bereft of its supportive organs, however, the tail can still writhe around in a furious manner, and to most predators, movement means life and the ability to escape, so they concentrate on subduing a little strip of meat and bone while the bulk of the lizard makes its escape. The tails can grow back surprisingly quickly.

Five-lined skink Plestiodon inexpectatus looking noble atop a fence post
Position is everything. This fence post was no taller than any other, so I had to get pretty low to get this perspective, but it works, doesn’t it? I tried to get him to wear the little Batlizard hood and cape, but he had the nerve to call it, “tacky.” More importantly, though, is that it took only a minor shift in position to put a bright spot breaking through the background foliage right behind the head in this manner, highlighting it very distinctly. Little things like this can help your images a lot.

That’s a start on catching up. The previous post gave an unsubtle hint about the next topic, but I have some video to edit first. Yes, I’m branching out.

They’re coming!

Newly hatched Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis trio on twig
I have at least three posts in the lineup, including a podcast, I just haven’t had the time to finish anything yet. But they’re coming – be patient, I’m trying to devote the time to them; do them right, you know? No sense in rushing and putting up low quality stuff. You expect more from me.

Sunday slide 16

small dead tree on flood plain holding small surprise
I was originally going to post this one back in the number three slot, but kicked it out because of the lack of color depth you see here – the winter needs no additional grey. Now that things are finally becoming dependably green around here (as you should see within another post or two,) I can go ahead with this.

Jordan Lake is a “manmade” reservoir in the area, with a dam stopping the natural drainage and thus backing the water up along numerous valleys. This meant that quite a few portions of the lake are slightly submerged forests, with the old stumps still visible, which I was pleased to express fairly well with this pic I think. Curiously, it seems like this tree started making another go at it – the branches appear to be newer growth than the roots and base imply, at least.

The morning was just getting over a case of fog and the light was still quite vague, which might have contributed to the next bit, but that’s probably just making excuses. Because, while I stood there over this tree that wasn’t as tall as I was, I never saw the small water snake perched in the branches. It possibly didn’t see me either, being asleep, but when I did another version with the flash, I alerted it to the inordinate danger of photographers, and when I stepped closer I was alerted to its presence as it desperately shot from the branches and disappeared into the water. I really should have seen it sooner.

By the way, if you’re trying to imagine my reaction, it was less dramatic/entertaining than you might think. Such sudden movements or appearances by wildlife happens semi-frequently, and my response is far more of a half-step back and a, “Whoops!” than anything like leaping into the air with a, “YAAAHDAFUCKISTHAT?!?!?” or whatever. Seriously. I’m cool.

More of what the night holds

Last year at some point I purchased a couple of surveillance-type video cameras, units that can offer both live views and semi-autonomous recording. Only one is weatherproof, however, and it relies on a network cable, so the applications are a little limited. Nonetheless, I use it for monitoring areas in the yard that are likely to show something interesting – for instance, the frog activity in the backyard pond, or trying to see what kind of wildlife has been visiting. I have coupled the camera with a freeware program that will start recording when motion is detected in certain portions of the frame, defined at will.

You might think this could be set so that false readings are minimized, and it’s kind of true, but not exactly. Moths, for instance, are common enough throughout the area at night that I seem to have a false trigger (and thus a brief video clip produced,) roughly every 10-15 minutes. The cameras have their own infra-red illumination, which is handy (necessary, actually,) but all it takes is a moth within about three or four meters passing through the motion zones. If I let the program run overnight, I usually have dozens of clips to pore through in the morning, with very little of even passing interest.

Worse, however, is a simple trait: spiders balloon all over the place at night, throwing a strand of webbing into the breeze like a parachute and letting it carry them to new locations. Which means, in very short order, that no matter where I put the camera, it will be sporting at least a few web strands by morning. And if the spider decides to spin a web in front of the lens, well, I might have over seventy clips collected by sunrise:

As impressive as the size of that arachnid might seem, it’s only because it’s extremely close to the lens, which also explains the focus and heinous overexposure. To better illustrate, here’s the culprit in a normal photo; the entire front of the camera is roughly 5cm across.

unidentified spider perched in front of infra-red video camera lens
The staccato frame rate is courtesy of the program I believe, not ideal but sufficient for the purpose. But it’s also a product of the low-light sensitivity of the camera, producing just four or five frames a second in darkness rather than 20-30 in the day. At times, I would like it to be higher, such as when it appears a bat has crossed the field of view, but that would take a much more expensive camera.

Yesterday, when there was compelling evidence that a bluebird nest box in the yard was possibly playing host to a flying squirrel nest again, I set the camera up to try and confirm this. Flying squirrels are nocturnal, so the IR camera is a necessity. The initial setup was aimed just a little lower that optimal, and definitely a bit cockeyed – the camera is intended to mount to a wall or post, and does not possess anything useful like a tripod mount. Another spider happened along and, apparently aware that it was being monitored, offered a bit of direct communication, the punk:

You might take this to mean that arachnids are more intelligent than we give them credit for, but then you have to consider the nature of the communiqué and realize that insect-brained is probably pretty accurate. Or bird-brained.

As I was typing this post, I got another alert as something hurtled past right in front of the camera. Now, I have a clip which almost certainly contains a bat, but I’m not exactly sure about this one, so I’ll let you judge.

And here’s a screen capture of the crucial frame – still not detailed enough to be sure, but from the speed and flight behavior, I’m inclined to say it’s a bat myself.

screen capture from IR camera showing very close pass of something, possibly a bat
By the way, someone might speculate that I’d actually captured a flying squirrel in flight, but they’re gliders, and highly unlikely to be able to pull this kind of maneuver.

Now the next bit, and this is the problem with not having much time to post. I recorded this audio clip several nights back and had it about half-prepared to put up, then forgot about it entirely. But one quiet evening I started hearing familiar noises outside, and went out with the little audio recorder to see what I could capture. The sounds were of a pair of barred owls (Strix varia) getting territorial nearby, and while I suspected there were a few hundred meters away near the big pond, it turns out they were in the neighbor’s yard only about thirty meters off. Despite this, and despite my ability creep closer (while remaining out in the road – I probably should have chosen different wording there,) the audio was very weak and had to be amplified significantly, which also amplified the recorder noise and the interstate traffic. But you still get a good example of their “monkey calls.”

Barred owls arguing

I believe they eventually caught sight of me, none too challenging for owls of course, and when the calls hadn’t issued for a couple of minutes I chanced shining a flashlight in the direction I’d been hearing them, seeing nothing. Only a minute or so later, I heard them resuming the calls from a greater distance. At some point I hope to snag some photos, but unless I catch them right at dusk, we’re talking flash photos from a notable distance, pushing the limits of even my most powerful flash unit. So we’ll just have to see what happens, both in regards to any owls and especially with capturing any images or video of the flying squirrels. You know where to find me.

The days of yore, part four

It’s only been two and a half years since the last days of yore, I know – I apologize for banging them so close together like this…

An SLR (single lens reflex) camera is a great thing. In a nutshell, what you see is what you get, since as you aim the camera, you’re looking through the same lens that takes the photo. Sure, it increases the size and complication of the camera body a little bit, but the benefits greatly outweigh this. Imagine trying to frame an image properly if you couldn’t see through the 300mm lens, and were trying to estimate focus and framing based on a tiny rectangle marked within the ‘normal’ view of the camera, without the magnification of the telephoto lens.

Argus C3 rangefinder "brick"At one time, this was actually the case. Before SLRs, we had rangefinder cameras, and you didn’t focus through the lens that took the photo, but through a viewfinder lens above the film box. Seen here is an Argus C3, and to focus, you had to look through a peephole on the back of the camera that came out through those little rectangles near the top of the camera (also, through a round window that forms the center of the ‘rangefinder’ dial at upper left.) With the magic of a semi-silvered mirror and a couple of lenses, you could see a dual image of the subject that would resolve into a single image when the focus was proper. I would explain how this works but it’s not immediately germane to the topic. What is germane is that, since you were not focusing through the lens that captured the shot, it was possible to take photos while the lens cap was still on and never realize it – this was, in fact, a standing joke in the fifties and sixties. My first 35mm camera was a rangefinder (not this one,) and I only forgot the lens cap once…

images of the surface of Venus from Soviet probes Venera 13 and 14Now we come to the early eighties – 1981, to be precise. What was then the Soviet Union had launched a series of probes to orbit and eventually land on the surface of Venus – with varying success. Some crashed, some failed. The primary difficulty was, Venus is wickedly hot – like, 460°c (860°f) at the surface. Aluminum melts at those temperatures, and while you can construct a probe of better materials than aluminum, it still has to have delicate electronics within, and eventually the heat penetrates to the interior and shit stops working. And during the journey through space and the descent through the upper atmosphere, the cameras have to be protected – you can’t just have the lens poking out there.

Venera probes 9 and 10 had two cameras each, but only one of each sent back photos; the lens cover for the second camera was flawed and would not release, and they did not include a little robotic arm to jiggle the damn things. Veneras 11 and 12 were worse: both sets of lens caps stayed in place, and no photos were sent back to Earth. So, for Venera probes 13 and 14, they redesigned the covers to ensure that they would eject free from the lens ports.

The results you see here: nice color images of the surface of Venus, taken in the few hours that the probes were operational (they were intended to last just thirty minutes, but both continued transmitting info for much longer than designed.) Venera 13’s view is at top, and 14’s below. In the upper image, that’s not a broken Native Venusian bowl in the image, but the probe’s own lens cap sitting where it had ejected from the port. Yes, I know they make those little cap-keeper leashes, but that’s tourist stuff, and the Soviets wanted to look more professional. The arm to the left of each frame is the soil compressibility tester.

In fact, if you look close at the bottom frame, you’ll see where the lens cover for Venera 14 ended up. That’s it, sitting right smack underneath the compressibility arm – the probe sent back information on the density of its own lens cap. Sometimes you just can’t win. But at least they got the pics this time.

I imagine the info from the compressibility test came back before the photos, leading the scientists to believe that the surface was remarkably hard (the lens covers were titanium,) before the images explained the results. Then, I imagine the Russian expletives uttered when the photos came up on the screens – I think I personally would have tried sending commands to bang that arm up and down a few times just to bounce the cap out of the way (or simply vent some frustration.)

I don’t want to give the wrong impression; I have a lot of respect for the Soviet/Russian space program and the accomplishments that they’ve achieved, as we find ourselves at the anniversary of the first human in space: Yuri Gagarin went into orbit on April 12th, 1961, only fifty-six years ago. In fact, I don’t even like nationalistic demarcations, since this isn’t a competition; while too many of the politicians and citizens viewed it that way, the scientists and engineers were more concerned with how than with who. And that’s the way it should be – scientific advancement benefits us as a race, at the very least, but even more so as a planet. Ego should always take a (distant) back seat to progress and problem-solving.

What the night holds

Spring is being a little tease this year, flirting with us for a few days before mock-coyly disappearing, leaving us with her ugly sister Near-Freezing Temperature, who doesn’t even have a good personality. From time to time the conditions seem like the good shooting season has finally arrived, but I’ve been stung often enough that I don’t really believe it anymore; it’s like being back in high school.

Nonetheless, on a few different nights recently, more interesting things could be found than during the days, so I managed to get a little shooting in. The first on the list is a goal of mine, but I haven’t actually achieved it yet – this is only evidence that I missed, yet again.

magnolia green jumping spider Lyssomanes viridis in later stage of molting
Aiming a flashlight up from underneath the leaves of the low gardenia bushes, I was presented with an odd silhouette against the backlit leaf, and was obligated to contort myself below for a detail shot, as much as I could get given the nearby leaves that would be disturbed by getting any closer. Still, I was able to photograph our old friend, the magnolia green jumping spider (Lyssomanes viridis) during a molt – the legs have recently been drawn free of the old exoskeleton while the tip of the abdomen is still attached; its head is to the right. My goal, of course, is to catch this as a sequence from the very beginning, with the chitin splitting along the back and the first emergence, something that has yet eluded me. But this might be very difficult, since any arthropod that feels it is imminent may be alarmed by my presence and avoid putting itself into such a vulnerable position. Every time that I thought it might be about to happen with other subjects and waited around patiently, nothing came of it.

Magnolia green jumping spider Lyssomanes viridis in final stage of molting
When I had returned a little later, the spider was in a slightly more natural position, but still not done with the process and obviously waiting for its chitin to harden. Between the two pics you might be able to make out the hints of the protective shelter of web strands that encloses it; magnolia greens are wandering ambush spiders, not using a web for capturing prey, but they still construct shelters for molting and egg clusters.

On another, much wetter evening less than two meters away, a different nocturnal rover was found, this one a juvenile Copes grey treefrog (Hyla chrysoscelis.) It occurred to me this year that the fence around the backyard might actually confuse the treefrogs, which leave their winter shelters down close to the ground and make their way further up trees come spring, but the fence doesn’t really go that high, and they find themselves having to locate another “tree” that actually climbs a proper distance.

Copes grey treefrog Hyla chrysoscelis perched on fence edge
While I can often draw close to the treefrogs, night or day, to do detail shots, this one seemed very aware of my presence and was shifting to avoid me. But it also seemed to figure out the fence puzzle, since shortly after being spotted it jumped across to a nearby oak, where the camouflage coloration had the best effect. It took me a bit to spot it even when I knew it had to be close. Bear in mind that its body length is less than 3cm (he says defensively.)

Copes grey treefrog Hyla chrysoscelis on wet oak bark
Later on, when I found a green treefrog (Hyla cinerea) on the crossbar of the fence, I moved it to the trunk of the nearby sycamore tree – after the brief portrait session, naturally. Priorities.

green treefrog Hyla cinerea perhaps confused by fence
On the same wet night, a short distance away by the pond, I spotted something I don’t see too often, a salamander. Given the condition of my hands as soon as I’d managed to capture it, I have to say this is a slimy salamander (Plethodon glutinosus,) an appropriate name no matter which you use, though since there are apparently 13 subspecies another modifier is warranted; I’m just not going to tell you what it is, and let you figure it out on your own…

slimy salamander Plethodon glutinosus peering over leaf
[If you do, let me know, because telling them apart is tricky.] So, here’s the challenge, one that I encounter frequently enough that I’m trying to improve my technique: subjects such as this are too spooky to photograph easily, and generally go for cover the moment they feel threatened – that usually means under immediately available leaves, which is why I captured it in the first place rather than photographing it where found like the frogs and spider. Any ‘studio’ shot needs to look plausible and realistic, while still preventing the subject from scampering off or simply hiding within the plausible realistic setting. For these shots, it meant a deep plastic bowl intended to place potted plants within for water retention, and a single layers of leaves carefully arranged to cover all of the plastic. The salamander still had to be coaxed out into the open from time to time, as well as towards the center of the bowl so the sides wouldn’t show in the frames. This one was somewhat more cooperative than some subjects that I’ve tackled in the same conditions, but the session still took a while.

What I didn’t alter was the lighting, which was a mistake. Such shiny dark subjects work best with a large diffuse light source, such as bounce flash from a white ceiling (or overcast skies,) while I was still using the latest macro rig, which wasn’t large enough to spread out over the subject as much as needed. The sharp bright spots really don’t work, and I’ll have to try a different lighting system, which I’ll illustrate if it works as intended.

slimy salamander Plethodon glutinosus in setting showing stray hair
Some of the shots had to be discarded because the bowl was showing, in one way or another, and technically it shows in these frames too, underneath the leaf at lower right, but it’s subtle enough that I’m not worried about it. The hair just above that point was unacceptable though, a hazard with home studios, especially if you have cats – the salamander was kind enough to hold still as I carefully snaked my hand up close and plucked away the hair. Considering that it was about the size of my finger (the salamander, not the hair you doofus,) this was notable patience indeed.

possible long-legged sac yellow sac spider Cheiracanthium on white azalea blossomA few nights earlier when the white azaleas had first come into bloom, I scouted around a few of the blossoms looking to see if any spiders could be found – because I know what I’m doing. One of the blooms did indeed sport a very small specimen, what is quite possibly a long-legged sac spider, often called yellow sac spider (genus Cheiracanthium.) Yellow sacs have a reputation as being a dangerous spider, as in, with a strong enough venom to make humans sick – not as big a reputation as black widows and brown recluses, but the folklore is there. And folklore is all that it might be; with all the work that’s been done in entomology and biology, there remains doubt that the bite has the effects attributed to it, especially the necrosis so often reported. Regardless, I’m not at all bothered by the presence of such minuscule spiders; it would take a very specific set of circumstances to be in a position to be bitten without actually crushing the spider in the first place, and given the large number of this genus within the US, we’d be much more certain of the properties if this could occur easily.

A few nights later, the same post-rain evening when I was pursing the frogs and salamander, I found an azalea bloom artfully dripping with water, and did a quick fartsy shot. I didn’t realize at the time that it was the same blossom, or at least, another that the spider had moved to.

wet white azalea blossom with bonus long-legged sac yellow sac spider Cheiracanthium
What do you mean, “Where’s the spider?” Right up there at the base of the stamens, upper left. Geeezzz…

I close with another green treefrog, quite likely the same one seen in this post (the one in blue,) this time perched on the flexible downspout that connects the gutters to that same rainbarrel. The frog seems to have a noticeable gut on it, but it might simply be trying to maintain good contact with the uneven surface. Or maybe it had an especially lucrative night bugwise. I’m not judging.

green treefrog Hyla cinerea on flexible downspout

Sunday slide 15

I’m having a really hard time getting my shit together right now, with very little free time, and I cannot predict when this is going to change – let’s just say I haven’t abandoned the blog, and will be back into a more regular posting schedule sometime soon.

For now, a sleepy ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) at the zoo.

sleeping ocelot Leopardus pardalis closeup