Let’s maintain some focus here

great egret areda alba showing deep shadows
I am presently deep within an investigation: what exactly is causing the autofocus on the Tamron 150-600 to be so undependable? Another outing chasing birds on Jordan Lake produced far too many images where focus wasn’t anywhere near where it was supposed to be, and I had made it a point to try and trip the shutter only when it seemed locked on. At times it would be bang on, and at times, like above, it would be close, but not what it should have been, and this is with no other subjects in the frame that might have fudged its locking point. It’s annoying, especially with images like this that had a great set of contrast conditions to produce that harlequin effect.

Right now I’m trying to determine if it might be a lens fault, a camera fault, or my fault. For instance, there’s no question that tracking flying birds is about the most demanding conditions for such a lens, and pretty demanding on the photographer too – the weight of the lens and the nature of the balance mean that handholding the lens and camera produce less-than-ideal conditions. The balance point, where one has the most control, sits a little less than midway out along the length of the lens, where at least there’s a tripod mount to brace with, but, the pivot point, the spot that the lens is moving around when tracking a subject, is back by the viewfinder; this is kinda necessary because otherwise you’re moving your head around a lot while trying to maintain the balance point more-or-less steady. It just doesn’t work that way.

osprey Pandion haliaetus, full frame
This is full-frame, by the way, what I was actually shooting, while we’ll get to the detailed crops in a moment. Now, one can always use a tripod or monopod for better stability, and these are highly recommended – but very problematic. The main issue is the restriction: you will only have a certain area where you can effectively shoot with them, and as the bird tracks high overhead, you simply cannot use either one. A very expensive gimbal head only helps balance the lens, but if anything reduces the range that it can swing within. Not to mention that you’re moving your head and body to some degree with either one, just staying with the camera as it pivots.

osprey Pandion haliaetus low over water
Now we see the detail crop – pretty close in focus, though not ideal, but perhaps not too unwarranted given the range and the small subject within the focus area. Unfortunately, the fish that the osprey (Pandion haliaetus) has in its talons is completely obscured.

So the goal with handholding such a lens is to get one’s grip out as far as possible, where leverage comes into play and minor movements are easier to achieve. The Tamron can technically be held out near the lens hood, but it’s always a bad idea to do this because of the strain it puts on the lens barrel and zoom ability, so a long brace attached to the tripod mount is better – I just don’t have one of these yet. And it would still be a bit demanding, because the leverage allows for more stability, but with the arm extended, different muscles come into play and there’s no propping an elbow against your chest or anything, so fatigue is likely to happen a lot quicker, worsened by the additional weight of the brace.

osprey Pandion haliaetus showing fish, without focus
And of course, the very next frame in the sequence, where the pose is great and the fish now plainly visible, shows that the focus just wandered off someplace useless – not even to the background, which I could understand.

The problem might be with the VC mode that I’m using, the optical stabilization function of the lens; it’s possible that the shifting of the subject by the twitching of the internal lenses causes the AF function of the camera to be fooled momentarily, so I have to do some extensive tests in other modes. There are three: one for general stabilization, one strictly for panning, and one that only turns on as the shutter is tripped. I’d been using the first, and it’s possible that the third would work better.

osprey Pandion haliaetus in water after having just caught fish
Another full frame shot – the osprey has just slammed into the water in pursuit of a fish, and I had no idea yet whether it had been successful or not. While I’ve tracked an osprey in full dive on several occasions, all the way down to entering the water, I have yet to catch a splashdown; the fucking system jumps focus as soon as the bird crosses the horizon line, every time. Supremely annoying.

The lens does have full-time manual focusing, meaning that you can grab the manual focus ring and tweak it as needed even while in active autofocus mode (without damaging anything,) and I have indeed tried this. First off, it’s awkward, because the focus ring isn’t close enough to the end of the lens or the tripod mount to slip a finger up to easily, so it requires shifting grip. Second, all I ended up doing was fighting the decision of the AF system: I’d tweak focus to where (it appeared, in the viewfinder image anyway) it should be, and the AF would immediately shift it back to where it wanted to focus. Again, with moving subjects that are changing distance, manual focus is very demanding and this is where AF should shine, but right now I’m not getting the results that I’m after.

This could be the camera’s fault, too. Right now I’m using either a Canon 30D or a Rebel T2i, and it’s possible that neither one has a robust enough AF system to handle the lens, which is considerably newer than the bodies. I’ve switched AF modes too, and focus points, without any noticeable difference in performance. At some point, I may borrow a newer body and see if that makes a significant improvement, before I bother to buy a new one just to accommodate this particular use – really, they’re both performing fine for about everything else I use them for, so replacement isn’t warranted yet.

same image cropped
This is the detail crop of the same image above – not quite as sharp as it should be, but close enough for blog purposes anyway. Was the bird successful? Is a shark closing in? Isn’t the suspense harrowing?

osprey Pandion haliaetus taking off after diving for a fish
Nice action shot as it starts to rise from the water, but we still can’t see if it made a clear catch!

And then there remains the possibility that the lens is at fault, unable to track focus very well. I picked it up used, but from a serious photographer and only a couple years old at worst – neither of these indicate abuse or age, but it’s still possible. And it’s possible that the lens was always that way, the reason why it was sold, or just not designed well enough for the demands. But I won’t know until I rule out everything else first.

This is the kind of troubleshooting that far too many photographers (or simply enthusiasts) never consider, instead throwing money around in the hopes that new equipment will solve the problem or magically produce the photos that they desire. That could easily spell a couple grand in expenses, and still not fix anything.

osprey Pandion haliaetus finally displaying fish, but nothing else
Ah, yes, there, it snagged a fish! And seems to be embarrassed by it, if the wings hiding everything else are any indication. Even when everything else goes right, the ideal poses and timing can still be difficult to pin down. For instance, being a lot closer would likely have improved everything overall, but try figuring out how to produce that routinely.

Not every shot was off – I got more than enough keepers to feel good about the day. For instance:

great egret Ardea alba and great blue heron Ardea herodias stalking shoreline
… this is the full-frame shot of a great egret (Ardea alba) and great blue heron (Ardea herodias) working the shoreline – I focused on the egret as it ventured into deeper water farther than I usually ever saw them go. But there was a reason.

great blue heron Ardea herodias watching great egret Ardea alba consuming snack
The higher-resolution crop revealed that the egret had snagged itself a small fish for its troubles, and in another frame it was gone.

Facing in the other direction on our way back much later on (this was during an outing with the Insouciant Mr Bugg,) I did a frame of… another? The same?… egret, which also captured a detail that I never could have seen in the viewfinder.

great egret Ardea alba blowing water from tip of beak
Don’t ask me to explain what’s happening here – I didn’t see it catch a fish, and I don’t know why it’s blowing water from its beak, but there you go. As for the exposure, recognize that most of the frame was that background color while the white egret itself accounted for very little for the meter to read, so the frame was exposed for the brown color and bleached out the egret. I was aiming in countless directions during the outing and did not try adjusting exposure for each situation, knowing that I’d forget at some point and have a bunch of badly-exposed images afterward, so I opted to cope with the occasional effect like this one here.

We’d been on our way back after hiking out to a point on the shoreline, when I saw a bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) approaching, and I watched it take a perch on a tree right on the point we’d just vacated. Not ones to pass up such an opportunity, we turned around and headed back out, but the eagle didn’t hesitate very long and soon left the perch to find another several hundred meters off. I fired off a few frames as it passed, with pretty much the expected results.

bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus in flight, full frame
Again, this is the full frame above, while the crop sits below. Not another damn thing in the frame to attract the AF onto, so this not being sharp is bothersome.

bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus in flight
By the way, I was in aperture priority mode the entire time, primarily locking the lens at f8, which I figured should have been sufficient while still allowing for some faster shutter speeds, but I’ll certainly try a few other apertures as well – the lens probably has a ‘sweet spot’ stopped down a bit more.

I can’t get too fired up over trying to capture a bald eagle just in flight, since they are probably the most over-photographed birds in the US. I’ll definitely go for some nice action shots or a distinctive perched portrait though, as the opportunity arises.

As some point around this time, I saw a distant splash in the water, followed by a bird emerging, but it was quite a ways off, almost as far as the eagle. I tracked it and fired off a few frames trying to make out what it was, suspicious of the low flight path just off the water. I was fairly certain that I’d spotted a few telltale traits through the viewfinder, when I heard the chittering cry just after the bird vanished from sight behind some trees: definitely a belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon.)

distant belted kingfisher Megaceryle alcyon with capture
This, on the other hand, is a species that I’m still endeavoring to get a good portrait (and several action shots) of, but it’s been a challenge for years now – and obviously I didn’t succeed on this outing. They’re remarkably shy birds and I generally never even get close to one, and as yet haven’t located a distinctive haunt. Back at the turn of the century (sounds dramatic, doesn’t it?) I was out on the Neuse River shooting time exposures of the running water with the camera on a tripod, when one landed in the tree directly overhead. Knowing how spooky they were, I ever-so-slowly tried to detach the camera from the quick-release head and aim it towards the bird only a couple meters straight above; I made it about halfway before the little snot took off again.

More cooperative was a great egret that gained a perch in a cypress tree overlooking the water, and largely ignored us as we approached. We could work at leisure to frame the shots – we just couldn’t get more than a narrow range of angles due to the waterline.

great egret Ardea alba posing complacently in cypress tree
I’ve never actually seen the nuts/whatever of a cypress tree before, but they made a nice framing element. And I’m pleased with how the shadow of the beak delineates the wing.

great blue heron Ardea herodias viewing photographer with disdainAnd so we work our way to the big finish, as usual. At one point we were surprised by a great blue heron taking flight from a tree very close by – we hadn’t spotted it before, but it tolerated our approach only so long before croaking its obvious displeasure as it flew off. It didn’t go very far though, and I marked its landing point right alongside our intended path back, so we stalked it slowly. As we got close, it got down to a simple drill: a couple of small and unobtrusive steps, fire off a frame or two. A couple steps more, another couple of frames, all the while keeping the cameras and long lenses aligned largely towards the bird to prevent flashing them around in radically changing profiles, essentially minimizing the movement of these as well as ourselves. We had pretty much gotten directly underneath the heron, no more than ten meters off, when it eventually got fed up again and moved further off, again with the hoarse croaking alarm call of the species, but we’d snapped more than enough frames by then. This one here is full-frame at 600mm, but the best bit is seen in detail below, cropped a bit tighter. And I’m certainly not complaining about the focus on this one.

great blue heron Ardea herodias reacting to perfidy
Read what you will into it; I personally get the impression of an elderly lady whose delicate miniature poodle has just farted loudly in public, but opinions may vary.

One word

Orionids

That doesn’t really cut it though, does it? Even if you know what the Orionids are, I didn’t say when they’d be occurring, and if you did know, you probably wouldn’t need me to tell you when, or even that they are occurring. I was just trying to, you know, counteract my tendency to write too damn much when only a few words would do, or go on and on about some trait that, really, nobody cares about and only serves to throw up a wall of text that makes people shy away from the blog and go someplace else with pictures or videos of someone’s dog doing something, or to do the ultimate in couch-potato apathy by watching someone else play video games, which even beats out watching sports for vicarious uselessness…

Meteor storm. Peaks Monday night. Half-moon rising late. Easy to spot origin point. Click for pointers.

That’s all – no more unnecessary words. I’m trying to improve. Don’t forget to subscribe, like, forward, comment, buy the sponsored product, include me in your will, and name your kids after me.

Storytime 42

the author's eye and reflection
It was probably about 20 years ago when I picked up a book on close-up and macro photography, and discovered some of the varied methods of obtaining a very high order of magnification without actually having a lens dedicated to it, such as lens reversing and lens stacking. I experimented a little, but didn’t tackle the techniques too seriously for a while.

Later on I was in Florida and using the borrowed Sony F-717, which had a fixed (non-interchangeable) 9.7-48.5mm zoom lens, or the “35mm equivalent” of a 38-190mm, evidence of how so many terms in photography suffer from inertia instead of thoughtful planning. Its macro performance wasn’t bad by itself, but the addition of an Olympus 50mm 1.4 lens reversed on the front, at certain focal lengths, could produce a serious amount of magnification, provided you were fine with some wicked focal vignetting (increased blurring in a circle towards the outer edges of the frame.) It was responsible for some of my more interesting shots.

Then when I got my first digital camera, the Canon Pro-90 IS, I resurrected the technique on its own 7-70mm lens (37-370mm equivalent.) The difference in lens properties didn’t produce the same quality in results, but it still proved useful in certain circumstances. As well as some foolish experiments.

Since the Pro-90 had a swing-out and reversible viewfinder LCD, it had a few more angles to exploit than the Sony, and one of them was photographing my own iris. This was still a bit challenging in that a) I had to remove my glasses to pull this off, which meant my focus wasn’t that hot, and b) I had to concentrate on one eye to see that viewfinder since the other was blocked by the camera and lens itself. I managed to get a couple of decently sharp images through all this, and more than a handful of rejects.

The subtle and unintended effect that popped up was the reflection of the reversed 50mm lens in my cornea, almost perfectly centered on the pupil, which gives a somewhat robotic look to my eye. If your monitor brightness and gamma are set decently, you can even see a hint of the black ‘steps’ of the lens ring going into the pupil, seeming to hint that something else might be down there.

I’ve never tried this since, mostly because I no longer use that camera for anything and none of my others have the necessary LCD to focus with, though it occurs to me now that I actually might have a way of doing it. Or I could simply shoot someone else’s eye, but I should probably pick one with more dynamic color depth than ‘grey.’ And get my hands out of the picture…

Not half

flight of brown pelicans Pelecanus occidentalis overhead at dusk
And so we get to part two of the recent beach trip photos and anecdotes, but I can’t say it’s the second half, because I have more pictures to feature here than I did on the previous post. And they’re not going to be in chronological order just to mess with the anal people.

sunset coloring windows on beach house under pelican flightI made a brief mention of this earlier, but while we had good weather for the three-day weekend trip, the days were disturbingly hot, peaking around 36 °c (97 °f,) which was enough to cut short some of our planned activities. On the day we were in Southport, we didn’t walk around as much as we’d aimed to, though my bothersome foot contributed to this, and on the day we went to Fort Fisher, we skipped hiking down the beach strand. We got enough done and it was certainly a nice getaway, but yeah, too damn hot…

On the second evening, however, we trotted down to the beach for sunset (the previous night’s sunset occurred while we were on the road towards a decent seafood restaurant.) And since the rising sun was shrouded behind beach houses, this meant that the setting sun would be out over the water – I’m easy, I’ll take either. As it lowered the sun reflected off of the windows of a nearby house, making it appear as if it was brilliantly lit inside, and I snapped this as a large flight of pelicans passed overhead.

Clouds down on the horizon were going to prevent any chance of a green flash occurring, but they added a lot of character to the sky, and as you’ll see, it worked pretty well.

sun setting through clouds over ocean, Oak Island NC
Rather than completely shrouding the sun, the clouds were thin enough to become very tempestuous in appearance while still letting the shape of the sun peek through – look close, and you can see most of the circle. It can be hard to judge what exactly is going to happen at such times, even though it might appear (like here) that the sun is going to disappear behind a cloud bank. So I just kept firing away as it descended, or the Earth turned – whatever.

Sunset distorted by humidity and clouds, Oak Island NC
The actual effect as the sun ‘touched down’ turned out pretty cool, producing a very fluid, attenuated appearance. And because of atmospheric distortion, the chances are the sun was already below the horizon, geometrically anyway, when this photo was taken – light tends to get seriously bent at the more oblique angles that occur at sunrise and sunset.

But admittedly, as the last vestiges disappeared from view, the humidity/clouds were a little too thick to show much of anything. We stuck around, though, both because I knew that the twilight (‘blue hour’ is coming to be a more frequently used term) might do something cool, and because I was going in for a short swim. The water was fantastic, and while the surf off of Oak Island wasn’t going to produce any nice boogie-boardable waves or thick curlers, it also means that it’s a nice beach for anyone, kids and adults.

There’s a very popular regional airport just inland from the intracoastal waterway, which placed it a handful of kilometers from us, and they host sightseeing tours and skydiving activities, which we saw on multiple occasions on our brief stay. And something else.

paraglider near Oak Island lighthouse at dusk
Looking east away from the sunset, we could see a handful of skydivers coming down towards the beach, and one that seemed to hang in the air for an unreasonably long time – this turned out to be because it was not a skydiver but a paraglider: basically someone with a parachute and a propeller strapped to their back (well, it has a motor, too.) This is definitely something that I have to try someday, and probably the closest I’ll get to being a pilot. You know, unless my legions of readers start buying a few more damn prints! Anyway, I couldn’t make this out for sure through the viewfinder, being several kilometers distant, but a close examination of the sharper photos revealed the cage around the propeller, perhaps faintly visible here. And cooperatively in line with Oak Island lighthouse, so it appears that they knew where I’d be shooting from. Slightly creepy, that.

Meanwhile, the sky developed apace.

crepuscular 'rays' at sunset, Oak Island NC
A massive cloud bank somewhere well over the horizon, many kilometers off, split the sky in a manner that almost mirrored the waterline (I tried marching back and forth, but couldn’t get the perspective right to line them up.) It might appear that this is caused by that little bump in the clouds on the horizon, but the real culprit was much farther away and many times higher, I’m sure, especially since it lasted until the light finally faded from the sky. This display definitely garnered The Girlfriend’s approval (I was pretty cool with it myself.)

crepuscular rays at sunset on beach, Oak Island NC
I probably should have shot some video right here, because as the foam from the breakers washed ashore, the sand reflected the colors of the sky for moments before the water sank in enough and turned the shore dark again, often occurring in patches and odd geometric shapes – you can just see one remaining spot, in the half-second before it vanished, to the right of the wet sand line here.

One more, as we departed the beach – it was just about the only foreground subject available other than the beach itself.

dune grasses against crepuscular rays at sunset, Oak Island NC
So you can effectively place everything, the last Storytime post photos were shot only a few minutes after this as we walked back to our room.

The next day we drove up around the big loop and back down to Fort Fisher (it would have been a lot less driving and a little less time to take the ferry, but as I said it wasn’t running.) Whenever we’re in the regions, we always have to hit the North Carolina Aquariums, of which there are three: Roanoke Island nears Nags Head, Pine Knoll Shores near Morehead City, and here at Fort Fisher – you know you can follow along with the mapping service of your choice, right? The unfortunate thing about aquariums, from a nature photography perspective, is how hard it is to get any kind of decent photos. The light is usually dim, both in and out of the tanks, and the glass produces a lot of distortion that’s difficult to avoid. So most times, what you end up with is not too impressive.

likely lined seahorse Hippocampus erectus in NC  Aquarium at Fort Fisher
This image underwent some slight tweaking to counter its shortcomings from just those shooting conditions mentioned above – I really didn’t attempt many shots at all. But I will also add, make sure that you shoot whatever ID is available while you’re present, because it will save you the efforts that I just had to go through to pin a species on this; I’m fairly certain this is a lined seahorse (Hippocampus erectus,) and a female at that, due to the absence of the brood pouch at the base of the tail – yes, it’s the males who carry the young after the female introduces the eggs into his pouch. Stop looking at me like that – I didn’t design ’em.

I also have to feature a starfish that was attached to the glass, because it’s the sharpest thing that I could shoot and anyway, it was a starfish that kickstarted my efforts to photograph aquatic subjects without underwater cameras and scuba gear and all that.

possible common starfish Asterias rubens on glass at NC Aquarium at Fort Fisher
I am tentatively identifying this as a common starfish (Asterias rubens,) and it looked a lot like my initial subject so many years back. Mostly, I just like all of the cool anatomical details – I wish I had pseudopods (actually, there are no ‘pseudopods’ here; the pale yellow protrusions down the center of each arm are simply called, ‘tube feet.’)

So, okay. Many years back, I lamented that I was spending too much time doing insect photographs, because that’s what I was finding most often, before I finally decided to embrace this state of affairs and concentrate on them – not entirely, but I have expended a bit of effort into refining and expanding on my arthropods. This reputation precedes me now, because even indoors at the base of a huge viewing tank, I was able to find an impressive insect specimen – there was a moment of doubt before we determined that it was outside of the tank, on the glass within easy reach, instead of some aquatic species within. After checking to see if an employee wanted to escort my find outdoors (they didn’t,) I scooped it up and carried it out to the outdoor cafeteria area myself, drawing absolutely no attention in doing so even though I walked past countless kids with a pretty damn big insect; everyone’s attention was on the tanks and such. Probably a great place for pickpockets, provided they’re after, I dunno, Pokemon cards or something. Once outside, I handed it, actually them, over to The Girlfriend so I could do some detail shots.

mating pair of southern two-striped walkingsticks Anisomorpha buprestoides on hand for scale
This is a mating pair of southern two-striped walkingsticks (Anisomorpha buprestoides.) The Girlfriend’s been taking her cues from me lately and handling some things she normally wouldn’t even have considered – as long as I do it first, anyway. And while I was pleased to capture them in the act, just about every photo of such species that I found shows the exact same thing – apparently this is a common sight. Either they’re the horniest little devils to come along, or mating season causes them to become much more visible.

[Actually, it would seem to be the latter. Also, several of the colloquial names for them include the word “devil,” which I did not know as I typed the above, and the potential reason for that is forthcoming.]

mating pair of southern two-striped walkingsticks Anisomorpha buprestoides within tree
I’m used to scooping up arthropods gently so as not to injure them or provoke a defensive response, which is probably good, because I only found out afterward that this species can spray a caustic substance that can damage the cornea. The Girlfriend did not react as negatively to this information as I imagined she would, but then again, I haven’t been to sleep yet…

And so now, we’ll backtrack a day. On our way over the bridge across the intracoastal waterway, I reflected that it might just face the right way for a decent sunrise shot, and almost concurrent with this thought, spotted a shipwreck near shore – actually a swamped and abandoned fishing trawler. Intrigued by the photographic possibilities, I pulled up a mapping service later on and realized that it might be very possible to reach the wreck. Still later (after the visit to Southport,) we followed an access road down to a small shipyard and asked permission to cut through down to the wreck; the guys we spoke to were amused at our asking, since they admitted that everyone went down there anyway. Access to the boat was easy, and I began considering it for the next morning.

Bright and early – no, dark and early – we drove out to the same spot and I made my careful way through weeds and rubble to set up the tripod. The first set of shots, very long exposures by first light, were assisted by my pocket flashlight adding a little fill light to the ship, which came out pretty well, if I do say so.

swamped fishing boat at predawn on intracoastal waterway, Oak Island NC
Once again, I was using my phone as both a sunrise plotter and a compass to determine exactly where the sun would appear – not quite along the river as I’d preferred, but I’d cope. As it broke the horizon, there wasn’t a strong foreground element to work with, so I just used the semi-distant marina.

sunrise on intracoastal waterway, Oak Island NC
A word about conditions. For the most part, it was as quiet and serene as it appears, with the faintest breeze and a twittering of awakening plovers along the water’s edge nearby. Fishing boats would race down the river every few minutes, though, and the little biting gnats, typically called no-see-ums, were horrendous. We had repellent on after the first couple of minutes, but the little fuckers were undeterred, finding the regions where the repellent stopped, like right at the hairline or up on my bald wisdom spot. Not the most comfortable of mornings.

swamped fishing trawler at daybreak, Oak Island NC
On our way back towards the motel room, we decided to stop by the pier we’d been seeing for the past two days and determine what it cost to go out onto it. Turns out, it was free and open, and we’d missed an opportunity to watch the sunrise from a point where we’d actually see it on the water. It wasn’t that long after sunrise, so we still had a nice low angle to work with.

glitter trail and breakers at sunrise from Yaupon Beach Fishing Pier, Oak Island NC
This, as I said in the earlier post, was Yaupon Beach Fishing Pier, and it extended well out over the water, past the breakers, with a decently high perspective. In minutes, we’d determined that it was a great vantage to watch pelicans, because it actually cut across their preferred glide paths near the breakers (which push the wind into small updrafts that help their glides,) so they would detour just around the end or up over the pier itself.

trio of brown pelicans Pelecanus occidentalis cruising low over the water
We still had stuff planned for the day, as well as the return drive, so we didn’t spend long, which was a shame because I’ve long been after nice, detailed shots of brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis.) Nonetheless, in a half-hour I snapped quite a few dozen frames as they passed, and managed a couple of nice portraits.

brown pelican Pelecanus occidentalis in flight  just after sunrise
I like the one above, partially because of the light angle, and partially because of that little glimmer from the eye, but I would have liked the sky to be a better color. Pick pick pick, I know.

Meanwhile, The Girlfriend prefers the one below more, which I don’t disagree with (not if I know what’s good for me.)

brown pelican Pelecanus occidentalis portrait in amber light against azure sky
A quick note here, since I was shooting with the white balance set for full daylight, so no compensation, which kept the golden morning light on the feathers, setting it off nicely against the sky. Also, that stippling along the belly is pretty cool – I’d never seen it before.

But I’ll close with my favorite, a nice little abstract. I’d seen the pelican approaching almost dead on to me, and I followed it carefully with the lens, tracking it as it rose and banked back and forth, undecided on where it wanted to be. This eventually carried it to within a smidgen of the sun itself, and I fired away as it passed close, to be rewarded with this lovely composition. With the semi-erratic flight path, it’s doubtful that I would have realized how close it would pass to the sun in time to raise the camera, had I not already been following it – I couldn’t call this an anticipated shot, but I’d been watching for something to happen. Works for me.

brown pelican Pelecanus occidentalis banking with wingtips against sun

Oh, no, not again

I know you’re gonna blame me for this, because that’s just what kinda shitheads people are like, but Tuesday, October 15th, is National Grouch Dayno, really. The one day out of the year dedicated to us, and I’d like to tell you how happy that makes me, but it doesn’t. Know why? Because nobody ever makes the cheery motherfuckers leave the country, or at least stay home locked in a closet. So much for a national holiday.

I have provided plenty of methods of celebrating the holiday before, and true to form, not one of you assholes bothered to tell me whether you tried any; I’m fairly certain you’re all them, so bite me. We true grouches are used to getting shafted, so you didn’t even raise the bar for the day.

Oh, hell, you know what? I’m gonna drop some quick suggestions, because I don’t wanna hear you complain (yeah, right,) and you can do what you want with them, safe in the knowledge that whatever it is, I won’t like it.

  • Glitter (shit gets everywhere)
  • Single-ply toilet paper
  • Music earworms
  • Pay by check with a long line
  • Wet toilet seats
  • You know that old charger that initially makes a connection, but for no reason later on simply gives up and stops charging? Right
  • Make weak coffee
  • Bad perfume
  • Pick the cookie or chip bag that’s obviously been manhandled
  • Loosen a speaker wire until it crackles
  • Rearrange the cupboards randomly
  • Buy the bargain brand foods
  • Put something sticky in your purse/pocket
  • Grease every ballpoint you can get your hands on
  • Drive anywhere in NC
  • As I’ve said before, the goal is to equally share the wealth, as it were – you should be taking no delight in these, so even on the activities that don’t directly affect yourself, make sure everyone knows it was you so they can respond in kind. Everyone should be grouchy, even though it’s the cheerful people that enhance our own grouchiness – that’s the sacrifices we have to make.

    Worst of luck to you (shithead.)

    pissy painted turtle

    A reminder if you need it

    Horrifying opilione
    Just wanted to make sure you were remembering that Halloween is also All Hallows Read, and if you’re in an area that gets plenty of trick-or-treaters (or is that trickers-or-treat?) that you have a selection of books to hand out. The Girlfriend is so enthusiastic about this holiday now that she plans months in advance, and has had a pack of kids’ books set aside for quite some time. Mind you, we don’t purchase them new, but get them from the thrift stores, secondhand book shops, and a book recycling warehouse not too far off. This makes them pretty inexpensive, as well as continuing the recycling thing and, as they say, re-homing some books.

    Or if that’s not going to work for you, just pick a few kids that you know and drop a couple of books their way, or find an outlet online to send some books to deserving children somewhere. From our experiences over the last two years, it’s more appreciated than you might think. It’s easy to believe Kids Nowadays all have their noses pressed to their phones and/or the TV, or would be far more motivated by the candy than by dumb ol’ books, but this was definitely not the case on our front steps; just about everyone seemed delighted, kids and adults, and nobody passed on the opportunity. We cleaned out, two years in a row now, and have actually gained a reputation for this practice. This is not a close-knit community, and no one but our immediate neighbors knows us by name or on sight, and even my arcane prowling around the yard late at night with a headlamp and camera flash has not produced ugly rumors about my mental health (to my knowledge, anyway) – but we’ve gotten positive feedback on the Halloween book thing, now and again, from unsuspected quarters.

    selection sample for All Hallows ReadWe’d do it even if we didn’t get this gratification, because let’s face it, it’s a great idea, and really needs to become a more regular practice across the country – but yeah, the positive reinforcement helps more than a little. While the original intention was to hand out spooky books of course, thematically matching the holiday and all that, The Girlfriend makes sure that we present a mix, even for the toddlers that aren’t reading yet (not a lot of spooky books aimed at that age, dog knows why. There may be an untapped market here…)

    Credit where it’s due: it was The Bloggess that first brought this to our attention – not personally, mind you, because we’re still not on speaking terms since that incident where, you know, we’ve never met, but through her blog (Hey! Maybe that’s where she got that title!) which you should be checking out routinely anyway. Halloween at her house has got to be totally warped…

    New kitten getting into act

    Monster not included


    * Just had to note: the opening image has been sitting in the blog folder for years, and is a daddy-longlegs, or opilione, that drowned itself in a bucket, but I tweaked it a bit for impact here.

    Beach bookends

    juvenile sanderling Calidris alba on Oak Island NC beach
    And so, without further ado, we reach the first of the beach posts. No, wait, there’s gotta be at least a little more ado, because I’ve been trying to figure out what aspects to feature in which order, and I’m starting to think, screw it, just put ’em up in whatever order seems to follow.

    No long story here; I just wanted to get in another summer trip before we lost the good weather, and was prepared to just whip out on whatever two days I got free, but then The Girlfriend said she wanted a trip too (sometimes I’ll simply go it alone,) and so we coordinated a three-day weekend and headed out. The closest coastal area to us is Wilmington (NC, not Delaware,) but that’s a little too developed and urban, so we aimed southwest a bit and hit Oak Island, just inland from Southport, which was a lot more the type of area that we like. And for a quick and largely unplanned trip, it worked out pretty well.

    Above, the first few minutes out on the beach itself, I was taking the opportunities that the shorebirds presented and chased one of the ubiquitous sanderlings (Calidris alba,) probably the most common shorebird on the coast, or at least the Atlantic side – I can’t vouch for the Pacific. The coloring pegs this as a juvenile, and this one let us pass pretty close, so I could go for more of a portrait:

    juvenile sanderling Calidris alba on Oak Island NC beach
    You know, one of the ways to identify sanderlings is by the dark leading edge to their wings when folded, sitting at the shoulder as it were. Of course, it helps if the bird isn’t embarrassed by these and hiding them under its breast feathers as if it were a bald spot…

    Oak Island is a little too much like the South Carolina beaches from earlier this year, in that there isn’t a lot to be found thereon, shells or critters or birds or such like, but at least there were a few more birds than the previous, even if they were the same old ones that I see at every damn beach. I was just shooting casually here, not really intent on building up stock.

    juvenile willet Tringa semipalmata with reflection on wet sand, Oak Island NC
    This is also a juvenile, only a willet, twice the size of the sanderlings yet almost as common. Like the first pic, I was framing to use the reflections in the wet sand, though the sand wasn’t cooperating by being nice and perfectly smooth – stupid sand. But you didn’t miss the beak, did you? That’s a cool beak.

    As I said, this was not, like, an area for collecting shells, and only the occasional bits of flotsam could be found, shown below. But what it did have, in overabundance, was the washed-up remnants of some aquatic plant life which somehow sectioned off into stem fragments of roughly the same length, and these littered the beaches just above the tide line in great hulking masses. By themselves they weren’t too hard on bare feet, but they could mask all sorts of things beneath, so walking across them had its risks.

    light bulb washed up in sea foam
    possible pelagic gooseneck barnacles Lepas anatifera on washed-up wine bottleOn the edge of one such mat, I espied a green wine bottle, and as I picked it up I found it decorated on the end with goose barnacles. I did a couple of quick frames by the early morning sunlight (I was out for the sunrise of course,) but then carried the bottle back to the motel room with me for better photos within my macro aquarium. You’re damn right I come prepared.

    To the best of my research right now, I’m placing these as pelagic gooseneck barnacles (Lepas anatifera,) but you know how stupid it is to trust me in matters of the Pedunculata. What I didn’t know at the time was that these, unlike the acorn barnacles, do not sweep their cirri through the water, but simply hang them out and allow the currents to bring them food, which is why they often attach to floating or moving objects: trash, ships, turtles, and so on. My vigil in the motel bathroom for activity wasn’t going to pay off.

    possible pelagic gooseneck barnacles Lepas anatifera with extended cirri
    Nonetheless, I was still able to get some detail photos – actually, much easier than if they had been moving, to be honest (you didn’t check out that acorn barnacle link, did you?) One of these days, there will be plaques in various beach motel bathrooms declaring that Al Denelsbeck Photographed Here…

    possible pelagic gooseneck barnacles Lepas anatifera showing extended cirri
    Or maybe not.

    There was even one case, not long after I’d gotten them back into the water after finding them at the high tide line, where something was discharged. I’d taken it to be sand, but the photo showed more uniformity in shape and color than you’d expect from sand, and it’s possible that I caught the birth of new barnacles.

    possible pelagic gooseneck barnacles Lepas anatifera potentially discharging eggs or young
    It’s funny how much of my knowledge of naturalism and critter habits and so on stems directly from seeing something happen through the camera and wondering just what the hell it was. Followed by researching it to find out, as well as seeking better photos of it later on. And now, you were here at the start, at least for this aspect. Just imagine where we’ll be in five years.

    But we’ll leave the maudlin (or pathos or whatever) behind for a bit as we carry on with the trip pics. The barnacles were discovered while out for the sunrise, but I already knew this wasn’t going to be quite the way it was on, for instance, North Topsail Beach, because I’d done my research with the help of a phone app that I’d downloaded the night before in the room. The beach at Oak Island runs mostly east-west, but more east-southeast by west-northwest, and we’d just passed the vernal equinox which would have put the sun almost due east at sunrise – all this means that the sun was rising behind the houses up the beach instead of out over the water, so I wasn’t expecting a lot, but hey, you make the effort anyway. The Girlfriend had heard my alarm go off and accompanied me out there – something that doesn’t always happen.

    sunrise off Oak Island NC
    That tiny little light atop the tower at right is the Oak Island lighthouse, which is slightly tricky to time in photos because of how rapidly the light flashes. And those dark masses on the beach are the aforementioned vegetable matter, which stretched as far as I could see, even when up on that pier the next morning.

    But anyway, I played in my own manner.

    sunrise on Oak Island NC beach
    Just a quick note, but yes, I waited for a wave that would push the foam into my frame, because it’s the little touches. High tide had passed a little before sunrise, however, so I was no longer likely to get waves that pushed up through that ‘inlet’ in the foreground. And in the immediate vicinity, there was not a whole lot of foreground subjects to work with, but we corrected for that the next morning.

    A few minutes later, the sun had disappeared behind some thin clouds for a short while, and I did a telephoto shot up the beach because I liked the effect.

    sunrise on Oak Island with Oak Island lighthouse and Yaupon Beach Fishing Pier
    No, it wasn’t misty or foggy at all, and was quite a comfortable morning; this is just the salt spray, concentrated by seeing down along it ‘lengthwise,’ as it were. The pier is Yaupon Beach Fishing Pier, and we should have researched it the night before when we first saw it, because we’d kind of assumed that there was a fee to be out on it (like in North Topsail,) and skipped it as a sunrise locale, not even sure if it’d be open yet. There wasn’t, it was, and it will show up here later on.

    I don’t normally shoot the houses along a beach, partially because they’re private property and the owners might not really want the staggering publicity that the blog will bring them, but mostly because they’re not, you know, nature and wildlife. But I’ll take the occasional composition.

    catamaran in front of colorful beach houses, Oak Island NC
    The catamaran would prove to be a useful landmark when we were up on the pier the next day.

    I made a few attempts to snag some brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis,) which at least were more in evidence than the previous beach trip, but that morning wasn’t being the most productive in that regard, and I did much better later on.

    flight of brown pelicans Pelecanus occidentalis over breakers at sunrise, Oak Island NC
    We spent a lot of this first full day exploring, including around the galleries of Southport, until my gimpy foot dictated that we’d better knock it off for a while. We’d intended to go across to Fort Fisher on the ferry, but for reasons unknown and apparently unadvertised, the ferries weren’t operational that day, so we cut things shorter and opted to get a quick nap in. It is possible to drive around to Fort Fisher, but the nearest bridge across the Cape Fear River and inlet was kilometers north of us, so we put it off until the next day.

    Now, from our experiences in the region, I was going to point you to two outside websites, but I can’t recall the name of one of the people, a sculptor, so we’ll go with the photographer for now and link to the sculptor in the next post. We ended up buying a print by photographer David Frank, though, so check out his work. You’ll see a lot of beach images there, and my understanding is that he lives in the immediate vicinity.

    For now, I’ll close with yet another Carolina anole, because. This one was slinking around on a potted plant by the motel office and I had my camera in hand, so…

    Carolna anole Anolis carolinensis on unidentified potted plant

    Storytime 41

    Today, we’re going just two weeks back, to the beach trip; Oak Island, NC, a quick getaway while we could, and while it was still warm enough to do so – okay, that was kind of misleading, because I’ve done beach trips in NC in the dead of winter. Some days are pretty nice, about like most people picture New England beaches, sweater or light jacket weather. So let’s just say, while it was still hot enough to enjoy swimming. We, meaning The Girlfriend and I, were coming back from the beach itself after a fascinating sunset (which will be forthcoming,) up a couple hundred meters of convenient access road to the motel where we were staying. This short path passed through back-dune scrub, marshland, a small housing development, and a patch of woods before getting out to the main road, all in a five-minute walk, and we were nearing the patch of woods when I heard the call of a barred owl (Strix varia.) Barred owls are easy to distinguish, because they have the “who cooks for you?” cadence and tone. The light was late twilight, just a little glow left in the sky, which is about the earliest they start calling, and I knew from the sound quality that the owl wasn’t too far off – they have a soft and faintly echoey quality to their voices, which will give the impression that they’re a lot further away than they really are (which means if you hear them really clearly, you’re probably directly underneath them.) I voiced my suspicions to The Girlfriend, and as we walked onward and the calls kept repeating, we were able to triangulate a bit; I was pretty sure I knew almost exactly where they were coming from, and I watched the trees for a break in the foliage that might provide a view. Within a few more steps, I got both the break I was looking for and a vindication of my stalking skills, as a dark shape high in a bare tree was revealed. Boosting the ISO and purposefully setting to underexpose, I managed to get a couple of decent frames with the 100-300 L lens.

    barred owl Strix varia in tree at twilight
    Listen, 1/10 of a second at 300mm is not at all what anyone should be attempting handheld, so I’m pleased that I actually got what you see here. But it occurred to me, as we watched, that I’d never seen a barred owl calling, only heard it in the darkness, because as we watched and it continued, we could see that it hunched forward and raised its tail slightly with the effort, as if passing a troublesome mouse skull.

    barred owl Strix varia during call
    I had thought I had an audio clip of one somewhere, but all I have are the ‘monkey calls’ of a late-night argument, so I’ll direct you over to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where you can not only hear the calls, you can see the position they adopt while doing so, since Timothy Barksdale captured some (daylight) video of one.

    author with barred owl Strix variaBy the way, these are not small birds; they can stand about 30cm or more from the perch, with a body width in the 20cm range (it varies a lot, especially since it’s mostly feathers,) and can weigh up to a kilo – this is yours truly with a permanent captive, back from a training session on safe handling for presentations, as opposed to safe handling during rehab which requires a bit more restraint since jesses (those little leg leashes) were never used. But birds are deceptive since, again, they’re mostly feathers, as well as conserving weight to be able to fly, so they’re one-third or less what they appear to weigh. The talons and beak, however, are just as nasty as they appear to be, if not more so, and I have a few scars from my rehab days to prove it. Barred owls don’t have that kinda stern, no-nonsense expression of hawks, but they are actually more enthusiastic about communicating their displeasure, which will involve their handler’s blood if they have their way.

    Get out of the way!

    This is, I believe, the last gout of photos that I wanted to cover before moving on to the beach trip, which will probably encompass several posts. It will be a little reptile-heavy, so prepare yourself as you see fit. Gird your loins, or whatever. Maybe make a pot of tea. Whatever it takes.

    juvenile copes grey treefrog Hyla chrysoscelis in local park
    We’re opening with a juvenile Copes grey treefrog (Hyla chrysoscelis) that the Indisputable Mr Bugg was happy to spot during an outing many weeks back, and I’ve given him the chance to post his own images of it but we all know how that turns out. Yes, it’s tiny, but we know it’s a grey treefrog from the pale blotch under its eye, and we know it’s a Copes subspecies because… well, we don’t, actually, because about the only way you can tell is from their calls, and this one wasn’t calling and is probably too young to be thinking about that anyway, but the Copes variety is the only one that I’ve ever found in this area, so we’re going with that with less misplaced confidence than your average preacher.

    On the same outing, I witnessed some peculiar behavior from a selection of carpenter bees. It started by finding a solitary one just hanging out on a salvia plant, which was slightly odd because it was a plenty warm day and there was lots of apidaen activity around. I was leaning in to see if it had run afoul of a crab spider or the like (this was the same outing with most of the lynx spiders,) when another appeared, hovering around with some apparent interest in its companion and not the flowers.

    unidentified carpenter bees demonstrating odd behavior
    The second bee had only a moment to hover very specifically around its motionless brethren, before a third appeared on the scene, with the same focus on the first.

    unidentified carpenter bees demonstrating odd behavior
    This was a state of affairs that was unacceptable to the second, and in a flash there was a schoolyard scrum taking place in midair, while the first slumbered on (or whatever) peacefully.

    unidentified carpenter bees demonstrating odd behavior
    It would be very easy to believe that I had witnessed some kind of mating behavior, except that the first was clearly not a queen of any type, and anyway I’m moderately certain that takes place in the hive. Perhaps it was a thwarted mugging.

    Another frog.

    green frog Lithobates clamitans peeking from duckweed
    The same outing was a two-parter as we switched locales, so while the first four photos were in Gold Park in Hillsborough, the next few were in the NC Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill, and in fact, this particular photo is a revisit of one from many years ago that I’ve used to illustrate a lot of different things, but primarily the nature of selective framing. What’s in the frame gives us the impression of the setting, and what’s outside of the frame doesn’t count – in this case, it’s the edges of the pond liner that this green frog (Lithobates clamitans) was hanging out within, a very popular spot for amphibian species. A slow approach will often net you better closeups than can typically be achieved in the very setting that the viewer imagines this to be. Was that sentence tortured enough?

    Just in case you didn’t know, it’s anole season around here, “here” being, “within the confines of this blog,” so we have a few more to feature, and they won’t be the last either. Part of this is because I like the little buggers, and would love to get some established in the yard but as yet I don’t think we have the kinds of plants they prefer. So for now, I seek them out in other locations, like below.

    juvenile Carolina anole Anolis carolinensis hiding among banana leaves
    This juvenile Carolina anole (Anolis carolinensis) was wary of our presence as it flitted about the leaves and stems of a favored banana plant – which makes me wonder, because the NC Botanical Garden is specific about using native plants, so this tells me that this variety of banana tree, at least, is from North Carolina, which seems odd. But whatever – I can research that later. For now, we take note of the tail of this one, showing a detail that I failed to observe at the time until the anole was being too spooky to get close to, keeping me from getting a good photo of it. Having shed recently, or presently in the process thereof (is there a beginning and end to such things?) the anole was showing a tattered sock of dead skin down the length of its tail.

    Then I went back through the images after getting home, and saw that I had captured some better detail, but hadn’t realized it at the time.

    juvenile Carolina anole Anolis carolinensis with shedding tail
    In my feeble defense, I’m usually concentrating on the eyes, since those are what we typically focus upon and so should be the sharpest part of the image, plus I was timing a decent pose from a fairly active small reptile. But that’s just whinging – I should have spotted it sooner.

    As you should be able to tell from the lighting here, the sun wasn’t bright enough to provide that silhouette I am now after.

    We’ll go a bit older for the last two, all the way back to August 3rd, a couple of images that I’ve had waiting in the folder. I spent a long time only seeing the Chinese mantises (Tenodera sinensis) occasionally in the yard, nowhere near as often as I might have expected given the large number of egg cases that I’d distributed in the spring, but this may only demonstrate that there’s a point where the population hits saturation, especially since I suspect they’ll prey on one another. But one made an appearance while I was armed, so to speak, so I shot it.

    Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis looking a bit condescending
    The dark eyes tell us that this was taken at night, and the sardonic expression tells us the mantis wasn’t too impressed with my stalking skills. At least that’s how I’m interpreting it – maybe it simply doesn’t think much of Canon equipment. In which case it’s a doodyhead.

    That wasn’t the only wry look I got that night either, as I found a tiny juvenile Copes grey treefrog (I’m absolutely sure) perched on the flexible downspout; this one is even smaller than the first, and in such a position that I could maneuver around for the portrait.

    juvenile Copes grey treefrog Hyla chrysoscelis looking unimpressed
    Did you grow up on the Peanuts comic strip? That rippled mouthline is pure Charlie Brown, though the wall-eyed look is more Spongebob. Or maybe Marty Feldman.

    By the way, I feel the need to point this out to those who have never had the fortune of handling either. While snakes may be as shiny as this, they are always smooth and dry, often surprising people that handle them for the first time and expect them to be slimy, like a worm or slug. But treefrogs rely on moisture to give them grip (at the very least,) and so really are damp and a little sticky, which the flash reflections bring out accurately enough. Like most amphibians, they’ll become even more so with handling, because a primary defense is to pee on you. Just so you know.

    Too cool, part 41: Can’t get much smaller

    I know, I just did a ‘Too Cool’ post, but then I came across this and it certainly deserves to be in here. Neatorama linked me over to an article on Quartz about a rather intriguing accomplishment in macro work, which is that little purple dot in the center of the image below, because this is apparently a single atom, captured with a conventional camera as well.


    Really, check out the article, because it tells the details, but just so you know, the gap between the two electrodes flanking that dot on the sides is 2mm, slightly less than the shaft of a cotton swab.

    Now, if you’re thinking like I did that this seems a little huge for an atom, which defeats even electron microscopes, well, here’s the deal as I understand it (you know, quantum physicist me.) It took a certain wavelength of laser to illuminate the atom, as well as a long exposure. Atoms are too small to reflect light, or more specifically, for individual photons to bounce off of because they’re little more than photons in size in the first place, and the energy of the photon typically affects the atom. It’s part of the whole quantum indeterminacy thing, because just trying to figure out where an atom is in the first place is virtually guaranteed to alter or move it. In this case, it seems that the strontium atom was absorbing photons into its structure temporarily, essentially converting the photon into energy along the electron shells/orbits/paths, which would bump the electron into a higher shell/orbit. Shortly, the electron drops back into its original position in regards to the nucleus, re-emitting that energy again as a photon, and that’s what the camera was capturing. Only, a single photon isn’t enough to register much on the digital sensor, so it had to keep happening over time, which is why it took a longer exposure. What you’re seeing isn’t an atom per se, but a collection of emitted photons, which may well not be as pinpoint precise as we’d like. There also remains the chance that the effects of the atom curve the photon paths a little, and/or that the ion trap holding it suspended can’t keep it perfectly still, but that’s just me speculating.

    This is why science is so damned cool. We’ve known for decades that atoms are too small for photons (“visible light”) to reflect from, and even very small details take an electron microscope, because electrons don’t have wavelengths and don’t need focusing as such. But this guy just thought, Fine, I’ll make it glow on its own, and there you have it. Slick.