Various and sundry

sunrise on Big Hammock, shamelessly edited
It occurred to me, as I was thinking of this title, that I wasn’t absolutely sure of the meaning of “sundry,” and looked it up – it means, “various,” so this common usage is actually redundant and repetitive. However, I also like the alternate concept of “sun dry,” which is how my clothes were at least half of the time, so we’re good. But while I’m confessing, I’ll keep going and admit that the image above is edited: when I was shooting the houses across the sound in the sunrise light, the ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) in the nest weren’t posing at all. The male was out wheeling around someplace and the female was so low only the top of her head was visible, so I dubbed in the pair from a photo that The Girlfriend took later in the day, partially for artistic effect, and mostly because she’s going to paint this image later on; I’ll show it to you when she’s done. There, now she’s obligated to get on it, and not take too long either, because all of my regular commenters will be asking about it…

By the way, both the ospreys and the barn swallows seen in the previous post were sitting on eggs, which has me curious since it seems way past that season; the titmice young had fledged out while we were away, and I watched starling fledglings chasing a parent around on the lawn in the place we stayed at, learning how to find their own food. But it’s the beach, which means timetables are strictly casual (a nice oxymoron.)

longish exposure, moon reflected in wet sand with surf rolling outThere’s going to be an entire post dedicated to just one subject soon, so for now, we’re going to jump around with several different subjects encountered during the beach trip. The moon was a little past full when we arrived, dropping to last quarter during our stay, so as a scenic element it wasn’t perfect, but it was still very visible and so appears in several of my photos. Here, I was waiting on sunrise while it shone brightly off to the south, so I set up a quick composition with its reflection in the wet sand at the tide line. The low light meant letting the shutter drag for a few seconds, which turned the receding foam into a ghostly blanket. I have it as a goal to do a very long exposure of the breakers in moonlight, but due to astronomical timing that would have meant in the 1 to 5 AM range on this trip, and it wasn’t happening – better to catch the moon approaching full when it’s high and bright before midnight.

Another goal has been to see the “green flash,” a curious meteorological phenomenon. When the sun is just over the horizon with the barest peek of light coming right at the edge of the earth, the atmosphere can, at times, produce a deep green color from the sun, but it takes place for less than a second right as the sun disappears. To see this, you not only need the right conditions, you need an unobstructed view of the lowest horizon, and this generally means over water. Here on the east coast, about the only opportunity you get is the gulf side of Florida; everywhere else, there is something that makes the horizon too high/close for the effect. But it can happen at sunrise too, you just have to really have your timing down for the first appearance of the sun – and of course know right where it’s going to appear.

On my first two attempts, it wasn’t hard to tell where the sun would appear, since the humidity provided a nice highlight practically pointing at the sun, and all I had to do was be ready. But the conditions didn’t quite come together, so while I got the moment of appearance above the horizon, I got yellow and not green.

first appearance of sun over horizon at North Topsail Beach
And then, I screwed up. I did a couple of days in other locations, where I couldn’t see the immediate horizon – well, okay, let’s be pedantic. You can always see the horizon, even if it’s the roof of the house right in front of you. That’s kinda how horizon is defined: where the sky stops. The goal is to see the most distant horizon possible, so the flattest landscape that can be found. And I skipped it for a few days, going for other locations (like the sound behind our condo,) before returning again Friday morning, and this time The Girlfriend accompanied me. And as we waited, I was chatting with her and taking other opportunities for pics, like the silhouette of a distant sandpiper against the orange beach. Then I suddenly spot the light, but I’d been looking away at the crucial moment, and also had focus slightly shorter than it should have been. Because, dammit, I probably would have caught it this time.

slightly out-of-focus sunrise showing distinct green edging
This is increased saturation, but white balance set for sunlight so essentially no correction/alteration, and that’s pretty distinctly green at the edges. Shit, anyway.

But, see that blob over to the left? That’s the lead of a trio of fishing boats (they probably got the see the flash) heading out from the inlet. This time I got focus corrected, as they passed in front of the still-rising sun. Okay then.

fishing boats seen in front of rising sun, North Topsail Beach
No, that’s not the only one I have. The Canon 100-300 L was mounted, so I kept shooting.

fishing boat silhouetted against rising sun
This is a tight crop of the original frame, with a slight contrast tweak to keep a faint detail when sized down for web use: if you look closely, you can see the two deep sea fishing rods rising diagonally off the back like whip antennas. Knowing these boats were almost certainly coming out of the New River Inlet, the estimated distance is 2.5 kilometers. I can live with that.

And then I screwed up (again.) I had a borrowed underwater camera, and wanted to try for a fartsy shot that I’ve seen variations of: a pic down the inside of a curler, a wave just before breaking. And the conditions were ideal, with medium-small waves coming in at about waist height, almost perfectly aligned to place the rising sun at the end of the tube. I can’t see well without my glasses, and wasn’t planning on swimming or even getting wet much above the waist, so I kept my glasses on and dodged back and forth in the surf for opportunities. You can see this coming, can’t you?

I feel I should tell you, this is way harder than it sounds. There is a crucial second where the wave is the right shape, and these occur in many different positions along the beach; just sit and watch some day to see what I mean. It’s very easy to be just a little ahead of or behind optimum position, to say nothing of waves breaking several meters from where you stand. So no, I didn’t get what I was after. And then a larger-than-average breaker caught me at the wrong time and I stumbled, getting half-submerged. When I stood back up, the glasses were gone.

This was bad – I can’t drive without them, and can only read if it’s held close to my face. Our plans to visit the aquarium that day faded, as did just about everything else. I quickly told The Girlfriend, and we started walking the surf line back and forth, hoping to see my glasses washing up (in my case, made much harder by my inability to see shit.) In my head, I was planning to find an ophthalmologist nearby as soon as it hit 8 AM, then seek out a place that could do glasses quickly, since my spare pair was over 200 kilometers away. The tide was coming in, which was more promising, and I concentrated my search in the direction that the waves were rolling up the beach, which meant walking and looking into the sun.

And after a half-hour, not quite a hundred meters up from where I’d lost them, I saw my glasses tumbling in the foam right in front of me. Yay! They were, and are, quite a bit more beat-up now, with a lot of little pits from collisions with beachy material, but I needed a new pair anyway, so this is more incentive. But yeah, that could have been much worse. And we did get down to the aquarium.

green sea turtle Chelonia mydas in NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores
A couple of days before all that, we had gone down to the southern tip of Topsail Island, an undeveloped area of thin beaches bordering an expanse of scrub grass and dunes. On the sound side, the water is placid but possesses a noticeable current (as I was to find out when snorkeling.) And for reasons unknown, several bizarre specimens of sea life were being brought right to the water’s edge, in a couple of cases washing onshore. I did not recognize them, so I circumspectly pushed them back into the water with my sandal, where they started swimming gently with a fascinating motion. And supported within the water, the photographs of them came out much better.

Mottled sea hare Aplysia fasciata swimming

Mottled sea hare Aplysia fasciata swimming
This is, I believe, a mottled sea hare (Aplysia fasciata,) with an overall length of roughly 20-22 cm; closed up, it was about the thickness of my wrist, but with ‘wings’ spread it became nearly as wide as it was long. And kindly excuse me for this next bit, because it was taken with [*shudder*] a smutphone, but it’s what I had available. When I returned the next day with a camera that could do proper video, the sea hares were nowhere to be seen.

Freaky, right? But there’s something else. Back in Florida, I captured a tiny, paper-thin aquatic animal smaller than your pinky nail, and wondered about it ever since. A few years later, I ran across some images that led me to believe it might have been a juvenile nudibranch, and even put up a page on the main site about it. But now, I suspect that I found a juvenile stage of sea hare. Check the video that I got way back then in Florida (with something even worse than a smutphone):

So let’s step away from the beach awhile, and cover a couple other subjects found in the region. As I said in the previous post, the sound’s edge behind the condo was shrouded in in dense reeds, nearly twice as tall as I was, and I expected to be able to find treefrogs in there, but there wasn’t the faintest sign, visually or aurally. In fact, the only amphibian that I saw on the entire trip (save for the aquarium) was found on two evenings on an upper deck chair. I’ve got plenty of pictures of green treefrogs (Hyla cinerea,) including residents of the property right here, but I needed to record the encounter anyway.

green treefrog Hyla cinerea hanging out on deck chair
And while wandering around the edges of the reeds one evening, just to see what might be residing there, I spotted a small green anole (Anolis carolinensis) trying to sleep deep among the fronds of a spiky plant that might have been a yucca; something like that, anyway.

green anole Anolis carolinensis hiding within fronds of plant, possibly yucca
It was a significant challenge to get the flash at an angle to illuminate the narrow space it had chosen for shelter, but eventually I got a couple of pics that worked while the lizard eyed me with sleepy suspicion.

green anole Anolis carolinensis watching me attempt to get a decent photo
I have other shots where it’s more fully illuminated, but I liked this one for the position of the leaves and the faintly menacing impression. At least, if you didn’t know how docile anoles are.

The sound played host to a species of fish that habitually leapt from the water, virtually always three times. I never got a close look at them, and had I hung out there long enough I might have framed something really scenic, but the initial challenge was just to snag an image in the first place. One began its series of jumps while I was out trying to photograph the ospreys better, and I managed to anticipate the location of third jump. Still not enough to identify it, or at least not enough for me, but if you think you know what it was feel free to chime in.

fish leaping from Big Hammock Sound
And so, we will return to the ocean for the closing shot, another experiment that didn’t come out too badly. One night I’d been out on the beach casually chasing crabs (which will feature in a later post,) and noticed that I’d just missed moonrise, blood-red and right smack on the horizon like the sun was, even though it was way off in another position – I admit to being a little surprised at how far separated their rise positions were. So the next night I went out to capture it, before it got too late and before the moon got too small; not only does the phase keep changing, but the moon rises an hour later each night. But somehow, the clear days had produced a bank of clouds on the horizon by moonrise, and I didn’t see a hint of it until a half hour after it had risen. While it was still painting the edges of the clouds, I did some quick exposures over the surf line, illuminating the water close to me with an LED flashlight. It took a few tries to get the light levels balanced, but I like the effect.

gibbous moon over clouds and surf, North Topsail Beach

The week of mellow

The "author" hanging out at sunrise
Let’s see, where to begin, where to begin. As mentioned in the previous post, we just spent a week out at the beach – notice how it’s never “a beach” but a singular title, like there’s just one beach? I mean, there’s like 367 beaches in North Carolina alone. But anyway, we were at that one, the one you’re all familiar with. At least if you’re familiar with North Topsail Beach, one of the many barrier islands but not actually the Outer Banks. This wouldn’t have been my first choice, because I believed it to be a bit too developed, but actually it wasn’t bad at all. And we had extraordinary luck, in many ways, while there; the weather was great, all sunny days, not too hot nor the least bit cold, save for the first evening when it got a bit chilly. The place we rented was just a hair removed from the beach proper, being across the road from the ‘beachfront’ houses, which meant not quite as much view of the ocean and an arduous 45-second hike to the sand, but the back fed directly onto the sound, a placid tidal marsh area well removed from the inland waterway, so you know I was in my element. And of course, I have a shitload of pics to put up, so some of the upcoming posts may be notably lacking in verbiage. I know, the thought pains me as much as it does you, but sometimes sacrifices have to be made.

And here’s another sad note: There are almost no insect photos to be found from this past week. But, curiously, that does not extend to arthropod photos, of which I have many. I’ll let you dwell on that as I move on.

The area I live within isn’t the best for scenic and landscape photos, so I take advantage of the possibilities when I travel, and of course sunrise and sunset shots are virtually a necessity – I think there was just one day when I wasn’t up at sunrise.

Sunrise on North Topsail Beach, NC
So, a quick bit of advice, which I’ve offered before: if you’re shooting sunrise or sunset, bracket your exposures. This means shooting purposefully over- and under-exposed, several frames at different settings. If you’re not sure how to do this, I have a page that explains a bit about it, though you might have to check your camera manual to know exactly how it works on your own camera. Or, if you’re close to the Triangle area of central NC, I give personal lessons. It’s also not a bad idea to have the contrast and saturation boosted a bit, to make the colors vivid. And finally, white balance should be set to sunlight – do not use auto white balance (AWB), because it may alter those lovely golden hues that come along at these times. And finally, be warned that on clear days, the light may be high contrast not too long after sunrise, or for a while leading up to sunset; the thick atmosphere near the horizon will soften the light, but when the sun is away from the horizon this softening effect will fade and you may start getting the harsh highlights and shadows from high-contrast light, whereupon you might want to reduce contrast and saturation settings to manage the conditions better. In other words, your camera settings should be the opposite of the light conditions, to keep the images manageable. For the surf-and-sunrise shot above, I had the saturation and contrast boosted (not very much – subtlety is important) and the exposure set 1 full stop under normal.

sanderling Calidris alba running along the tide line
For reasons unknown, the birds were pretty thin while we were there, and it kept me from getting too many photos of them. Even the sanderlings seen here (sandpiper isn’t the right term, though they’re related, but Calidris alba for the scientific name) were few in number, and only the occasional flight of pelicans could be found, so I didn’t get the desired opportunities for fartsy shots of them. Maybe it was simply the time of year, maybe it was the beach itself, oriented more east-west than north-south as you’d expect, since pelicans often use the prevailing winds and the minor updrafts kicking over the wave crests to glide without expending the energy to flap. I’m skeptical of this though, since we had a near constant breeze through the rental place that negated any need of air-conditioning, which was great! Well, okay, it had one particular negative point, in that sleeping with the sliding glass doors open meant the Carolina wren that perched on the deck railing each and every morning to vent its territorial claims, at first light, made it hard to sleep past that time, something that The Girlfriend noticed more than I since, as I said, I was usually up at that time anyway.

I was mentally prepared for a lot of things such as high traffic or crowded areas, noisy neighbors, expensive restaurants, and all that jazz, none of which appeared in the slightest – even our unit of three condos was otherwise empty for most of the week, and quietly occupied otherwise. But there was one thing I hadn’t anticipated at all, and that was the military presence. There was a US Marine base not too far northwest of us, and Monday through Thursday they were showing significant activity, which meant that the distant rattle of helicopters was near-constant, as well as the occasional thump of artillery or some such related explosives. A few times a day, the helos would pass close by, and since I’m a helicopter enthusiast (I actually have a trivial amount of time logged at the controls,) this means you get the list: primarily the CH-53 Super Stallions, but also some V-22 Osprey tiltrotors, and occasionally an AH-1W Super Cobra and UH-1Y Super Huey (or Venom) seen below. Yeah, this was the 170-500mm lens, but they passed pretty close sometimes.

Bell UH-1Y Super Huey Venom passing low over North Topsail Beach
Tuesday and Wednesday I think (the days just kind of ran together, which was fine, because who needed to know?) a deeper and more resounding set of thumps joined the festivities, ones loud enough to actually rattle the building: a guided missile destroyer, the USS Arleigh Burke I believe, was offshore firing its 127mm (5 inch) deck gun, and even at better than 20 km off by my estimate, it was impressive. Now, I still found all of this less annoying than leaf-blowers or country/western music, but The Girlfriend was more affected.

USS Arleigh Burke DDG-51, probably, on maneuvers off North Topsail Island
This is full-frame with the 500mm, by the way, and what I’m referring to is that ghost in the background, specifically that little nub sticking up from the front deck, which is the 127mm gun. The sign at right foreground is on the dune at the beach access, better than a hundred meters from my shooting position.

Knowing what the area was going to be like (geographically, I mean,) I had finally gotten my hands on a one-person kayak right before the trip. Like I said, the property backed right onto the sound, and even had a deck and gazebo sitting on the water (seen in the opening shot,) so perfect, right? Well, not perfect – the gazebo had a tiny dock of sorts, but much higher off the water than really worked for the low draft of a kayak, and the water’s edges were all thickly shrouded in dense reeds. After a bit of scouting, I determined I could gain an access of sorts by going alongside the deck a ways and then using a little inlet channel, knowing the kayak only needed a few inches of water to float out in, and I was cool with wading through a little muck to get launched. The Girlfriend was down there watching, and unfortunately didn’t get her camera out for all the fun, because it would have been entertaining, at least. What I considered “a little muck” was a deep layer of oozing mud, which I sank into by about 30cm, so badly I could barely move. I had thoughtfully used the old, beat-up wading sandals, which was good, because I damn near left them behind – I eventually just pulled out one foot, leaving the sandal buried, then jammed my arm down and slowly retrieved the footwear with a lot of wiggling and cursing. After far too much playing around, I got the kayak out, and myself into it, then spent a lot of effort pushing it through the mud to deeper water – turns out it was sitting lower than expected and grounding itself on the ersatz “bottom.” Once I got a little actual flotation going, it then began to catch on the oysters attached to every available reed stem, and I still had to work it past them. Eventually, I hit open water, and could start proper paddling.

The "author" looking dashing in his intrepid whitewater excursion
Most of the mud has been rinsed off the kayak by the time of this photo, and you can’t see my caked legs or the blobs of the sandals sitting within. I only did a short excursion to get the feel of the kayak, and also because I’d expended a lot of energy just getting the damn thing out to open water. I found that most of the sound was ridiculously shallow, easily able to be waded if it weren’t for the mud, and oysters were everywhere, not to mention how often I spooked fish when going up one of the many channels between tussock islands. When it came time to return, I opted to get out at the gazebo dock, which presented a whole new challenge since, like I said, it was too high for those kind of shenanigans. Eventually, and with help, I got back to dry land, but it meant that was the only time the kayak went out, and without the camera at that. There are plenty of places to use it around here, so you’ll see more evidence of it eventually, once I feel comfortable taking a camera (enclosed in waterproof bags during travel) out with me.

The gazebo itself hosted a barn swallow nest under the roof, and they were often wheeling around us when we were out there, returning to the nest when we held still enough or moved far enough from it. But this allowed me to do a couple of close pics while they posed.

barn swallow Hirundo rustica pair sitting on railing
Barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) can often be found near water, since they’re insect-eaters and closely related to the various martins, but we had them in the barn at the farm I grew up on in central New York too. They’re very agile little birds with distinctive V-tails and pointed wingtips, often flitting at low level over the water or fields where the insects can be found.

barn swallows Hirundo rustica in a fortunate momentI couldn’t pass up posting this one, could I? They’d been sitting together just like you’ve seen, and one took flight and landed again repeatedly, not sure what to make of me being there. Like most birds, they’re reluctant to go straight to a nest and lure predators there, so they check the surroundings first, and I happened to capture a nice composition as I snapped away. I need to mention that this was with a newly-obtained Canon 100-300 f5.6 L lens, a surprising little gem not produced anymore, small enough to carry around easily, but much sharper than the current offerings of consumer lenses, and it performs quite well even given the slow noisy autofocus and archaic push-pull zoom. There are better lenses, but they’re bulky and quite expensive, while this one can remain in the bag for just about any situation. Canon really needs to restart production of it, preferably with a ring ultrasonic focusing motor, and just do away with their line of 75-300s.

boat-tailed grackle Quiscalus major ready to steal DoritosOne of the species of which there was no shortage, and which we had a couple of memorable encounters, were the boat-tailed grackles (Quiscalus major.) They’re generally a coastal bird, but more because of marshes and wetlands where they nest, though this doesn’t stop them from checking out the beach if they think they can find something to eat there. On our first day, The Girlfriend’s Sprog had found a bit of coral that resembled a portion of a dog biscuit, and had left it sitting on her clothes while she was enjoying the ocean waves, and I watched a brazen female grackle land nearby, scurry purposefully up to the clothes pile, and snag the coral before immediately flying off – she’d done this kind of thievery before. I can’t vouch for how much frustration a bird might feel when it finds its valiantly-obtained meal is actually inedible, but the bird deserved it nonetheless. Two days later, The Girlfriend and I were sitting on the kitchen deck snacking on Doritos, and another female grackle, or perhaps even the same one, landed right next to us on the railing and sat eyeing the bag intently – it couldn’t have been clearer that she knew exactly what it was. I’m not the kind to encourage this kind of begging/scrounging, but The Girlfriend wanted to see just how daring the bird was, so I ended up putting a portion of a chip on my bare knee and just waited. The grackle needed no further urging, and with little hesitation worked along the rail, then over to the chair alongside me, up to the arm, and quickly hopped across to my knee to snatch the chip, consuming it only a meter away on the railing. She did this twice, until a male appeared making a fuss, which made her uneasy, while the appearance of the male set off a pair of mockingbirds that were apparently nesting nearby, who harassed them both until they flew off.

sunset over sound with gazebo
And so I close, for now (there’s a lot more coming) with sunset over the sound and intracoastal waterway, showing the very gazebo that we used – this was taken from the upper deck of the rental property, at 17mm so it looks a lot further off than it was. The scattered clouds, always a useful factor for cool sunset shots, were the product of warm days with moderately high humidity, and vanished by morning each day – like I said, we got lucky with the conditions of the trip. I’ve got a lot of images to sort through and catalog…

Sunday slide 21

unidentified dragonfly in short depth against bright background
I don’t even remember where I was when this was taken, but from the timeframe I suspect the head of the Neuse River, an area I used to frequent. The bright nature of the background caused it to almost blend in to the colors of the dragonfly – the wings are mostly transparent of course, but it almost appears as if the body is too. This is helped in no small part by being shot wide open at f2.8 with the Sigma 105 macro.

“Now hold on there, Mr. Pants-On-Fire,” you say, “how am I supposed to believe you can remember the lens and settings but somehow forget the locale?” That’s pretty rude of you, but I’ll tell you anyway: I don’t remember the lens and setting. I do remember what lenses I had to do this kind of work then, and the very short depth-of-field makes it clear that I was shooting with a very wide aperture; that makes it either the Sigma 105 macro or the Sigma 28-104 f2.8-4, and I almost certainly would have used the macro. So there.

This rounds out the color week nicely, even though technically it’s the next week now, which brings up something that I’d hinted at “yesterday.” I had actually been away this past week, out at the beach, and will have just a couple of pics to show for it. But I tend not to announce everything I’m doing online, especially something like, “the house will be empty,” and wanted a few things to post automatically in that time – I had internet access and could have done it more directly, but it was easier and more dependable to set up some to post on a schedule, and I used the color thing again. All of them were written well in advance – you couldn’t tell at all, could you? That’s what being a professional blogger is like…

Color week Saturday

sunrise colors over pond
And so we wrap up the color week with a relatively recent one – most of the rest had been prepared for 2015, when I was doing a weekly color post, and had never been used, so now I can remove the ‘Color’ folder from my blog records. There will still be photos/posts dedicated largely towards color, but it will be as I come across them.

This was sunrise at the end of April, the same day as the turtle abstract, but it’s a little unrealistic. First off, I had contrast and saturation settings up higher, the presets that I use for when the light is muted and low, just to make the colors pop a bit. But I also dropped exposure compensation down a little to enhance the sky – 1/3 stop below what I normally use. Bracketing exposure during sunrise is highly recommended, and you’ll likely find that under-exposing produces the best results, but a lot of that will depend on how bright the sky is and how the camera is reading the light – aim lower to include more below the horizon, and the sky will go brighter. Brightness is not always the key, because it can easily wash out colors. Also, and I can’t stress this enough, do not trust the LCD on the camera to tell you how the exposure looks; they’re notoriously inaccurate, not just poorly corrected and gamma-adjusted, but beholden to the ambient light conditions and sometimes even viewing angle. Take lots of images at different settings to be sure you get what you want.

By the way, there was actually a hidden purpose to color week, and I’ll let you in on it shortly.

Color week Friday

unidentified orange-spotted yellow flowersWe haven’t done yellow yet – let’s do yellow.

I have no idea what these flowers are – rubella lilies, maybe? They were in the rainforest-like aviary at the NC Zoological Park in Asheboro, and likely were intended to provide nectar to some of the bird species there – chances are they’re not local. But you don’t come here for my botany knowledge, or if you do, you’re sadly mistaken. From time to time when I’m out shooting, often after I point out some interesting trait of a particular frog species or similar, someone asks me what this tree or bush is, and I quickly start coughing loudly before they can finish the question and then change the subject like I never heard them. It doesn’t do to appear ignorant about nature as a nature photographer. I can get away with it here because, you know, not even you are reading this far…

Color week Thursday

slender crab spider Tibellus maritimus on geranium blossom
I’m fairly certain this is a slender crab spider (Tibellus maritimus) being as subtle as a teenage girl on her first beach trip after reaching puberty. Don’t ask me why this is considered a crab spider, since I would expect them to look, you know, crabby, but that’s entomology for you.

By the way, the depth-of-field is so short because I was actually shooting at night by the light of a flashlight, so the aperture stayed wide open to allow a fast enough shutter speed. Not the ideal method, but I was experimenting, and it worked better than expected.

Color week Wednesday

pink cherry blossoms against blue skyToday we go back to February 2014, as the cherry trees in a local park came into bloom. Seems like a simple shot, but it required finding a photogenic branch with a blossom catching the light from the right angle, and a short depth-of-field to have the other branches present but not distracting (enhancing the idea of a full tree instead of a lone branch,) and of course the blue sky for contrast. Not an elaborate composition, but just putting a little thought into it. The goal is to be able to do this automatically, to make it look easy.

Compare this to yesterday’s shot, and notice how the colors in this one are mostly at either end of the spectrum, either bleached out in the sun or becoming dark in the shadows – bright, high-contrast light will do this. But of course, the blossoms against a grey sky would have had far less impact, so…

Color week Tuesday

raindrops on orange rose blossom
Trite, perhaps – I know I personally take enough photos of rain and dew on things, but does that make it a bad or boring image? (Or just make me a bad and boring photographer? Good thing no one ever comments.) It usually helps a lot if the drop catches something distinctive and contrasty within, such as the sky providing the white edge in this case – notice how different the prominent drop appears from the others below.

But this is also a good argument for using muted light, such as heavy haze or even overcast skies like this day, to pursue colorful subjects. The subtlety in hues and textures tends to come out better.

Doctor Domoore

Like many people – actually, a ridiculous number of them – I grew up with this idea of being a “friend” to the animals. I can remember, from a very early age, going on a camping trip and sleeping in a pop-up camper, wishing (now that I was out in nature) that a raccoon would slip into the camper and curl up on my back to sleep; this was my way of thinking that I was “in tune” with the animals.

It probably had a lot to do with how I grew up. My parents and grandmother (whom I never met) were some of the founding members of the local Animal Welfare Association and worked with wildlife rescue – in fact, one of our kayaks had an AWA identifier on it – and my older brothers were Boy Scouts and had plenty of tales of wildlife encounters; one of them raised snakes and picked up wild skunks for amusement. Without the obvious retribution, I might add. So while I was too young to participate in any such shenanigans, I was still immersed in the environment and mindset. I can remember, very distinctly, being along with my dad when he was out trying to spot an escaped flamingo in the marshy area of a local pond, in south Jersey where I grew up. He saw it and tried pointing it out to me, but at that time I had not yet been diagnosed with Ludicrous Myopia, and as he attempted to direct my gaze to the subtle pink shape moving at the waterline, all I could see in the dusk were the taillights of the cars on the road behind it; I was trying to figure out how flamingos could glow as brightly as that.

Later on in my adolescent years, I began reading nonfiction books about wildlife rehabilitation and encounters, such as the Durrell books and Frosty: A Raccoon to Remember. These started to give me a more realistic impression, that wild animals have their own habits and attitudes, for want of a better word, and these do not revolve around being buddies with people – even when they’re raised in a human environment. You don’t turn any animal into a “pet” just by getting them when they’re young. Sure enough, some animals can be habituated to view human contact as non-threatening, perhaps even beneficial, but this does not translate into domestication, which takes many generations. We’ve had cats and dogs for thousands of years now, and still find that they have specific behaviors that don’t disappear.

But it was funny. Far from being disappointed, I was fascinated by the aspect of working with animals, even when I recognized that I was unlikely to do so routinely, much less for a living. But soon after moving to North Carolina, I got involved with a local humane society that performed animal rescue services, including wildlife, and was soon immersed in wildlife rehabilitation. While I attended all of the volunteer workshops for the species that could be found in the area, I received specific training for raptors at a dedicated facility in the state, the Carolina Raptor Center outside of Charlotte. This allowed me to work with the injured birds of prey that came through our door, and I started noticing little details.

This very trait may owe its origin to the Doctor Doolittle stories by Hugh Lofting, which I read in my adolescence. The good doctor is taught how to ‘speak’ with many different species by his parrot, and (to Lofting’s credit) she indicated that most animals communicate through body language and behavior, rather than through sound – accurate to a degree at least, because while it serves a purpose of indicating mood and intention at times, it likely isn’t intentional or conscious; that’s just the way things are. However, after introducing this concept, Lofting appeared to have forgotten about it forever thereafter…

[Time out for a favorite but distantly-related rehab memory.] We had an adult American kestrel (Falco sparverius) in once, possibly from an encounter with a car but with no broken bones. Nonetheless, it was unable to fly, and for birds that depend on flight to obtain food, this is often a death sentence. It came to us in poor condition, probably not having eaten for several days, and we set upon bringing it slowly back up to speed; it has to be done carefully, because a full meal when the condition has dropped that low can simply kill the bird.

After a couple of days of fluids and blended proteins (a vitamin supplement and the soft parts of mice, yes, blended – rehab is not for the squeamish,) the little falcon should have been able to take solid food on its own, but it was refusing and being stubborn. I still worked the desk in the busy shelter and couldn’t devote a lot of time to the task, so I decided to take the bird home in a carrier and tackle the task there when time was more lenient. Kestrels are small for raptors, a little bigger than an American robin or thrush, and that evening I wrapped it firmly within a small towel, to immobilize the wings and talons while keeping the head and beak free. I had prepared several choice sections of mice on a small plate, and grasped one in a set of forceps and attempted to ease this into the bird’s beak. It remained just as stubborn and was having none of this, and I struggled with this task for quite some time – failing to notice that the towel was slowly loosening.

American kestrel Falco sparverius perched on cassette rack

Okay, okay, it looked back once

At one point the kestrel seemed to have gotten fed up (without yet having gotten a speck of food,) and seized the forceps in its beak, then shrugged fiercely and burst free from the towel. I remained calm and made no hasty moves, because it would be very easy to injure the bird trying to immobilize it, and it would be far better to let it escape into the apartment and capture it again than to try and subdue it when it was struggling. But the bird did not fly or hop off, or even attempt to leave; instead, now perched freely on the towel draped across my left arm, it wrenched the bit of mouse free from the forceps, then to my great surprise, bent down and slammed a talon down onto the fragment of meat, tearing off a portion and swallowing it without the faintest sign of this being extraordinary. Fascinated, I retrieved the forceps slowly and grabbed another mousepart, offering it to the falcon, which accepted it like I was its butler; in this manner it consumed a small but complete meal without any struggle at all. I was growing a little concerned, because the towel had slipped and the bird was now pinning down bloody mouse bits directly on the base of my thumb, but the imagined mistake never occurred and I remained intact. When it finished its meal, I quickly flipped the towel back over my patient and slipped it into the carrier with a minimum of fuss. From that point on the kestrel never looked back, and in fact performed its return to flight within a day or so in the same apartment.

At the same time as the raptor work, I was also close to the dog training programs, and learned how a lot of dog behavior ties in with the pack dynamic, the necessities of interacting with other dogs as part of the social structure that the canids have. This carries through into how a dog interacts with a family, and illustrates a blind spot that we humans often have: we like to think of other species in our own terms, like “friend” and even “obey,” failing to recognize that other species have their own interactive structures (or lack thereof) and see everything in those terms – a mutual blind spot, if you will. Seeing things from this pack perspective helps us to realize that, despite our best efforts at training, some things will fall outside of the reward and status structure that we use as training methods, such as when a squirrel appears. This is why I often smile indulgently when someone tells me their dog can be off-leash because it is on “voice-command” – there really is nothing that completely overrides some basic instincts, loathe as anyone might be to admit it.

Throughout this, I was building my photography skills and starting to do more and more wildlife photos. By now, I had come to realize how other species all have their own dynamics, reflections of the factors that are key to their survival. I would watch the seagulls competing over perches, and recognize which one was considered the ‘alpha male.’ I noticed that a lot of species could be approached obliquely, allowing someone to get closer as long as they did so on a diagonal. I had known for a while that the mere appearance of humans isn’t as disturbing as sudden movement but found, to my delight, that mimicking the species’ behavior could quell their distrust to some extent.

And I was involved in critical thinking, and studying evolution, and no small amount of philosophy of the mind. This was the latest of steps towards my current perspective, and hopefully not the last. Evolutionary psychology is the concept of how the behavior of species is dependent on the same selection that built their body structure, and how animals (including us) have predetermined importance, emphasis within the brains and emotions themselves, that reflect the survival pressures faced. As such, most species have no reason to be “friends” with humans in any way; if they have any social functions at all, it’s in support of their own species, because that’s what evolution favors. You see, we have the concept of friends because our tribal interactions were part of our development, group hunting and shared shelters and farming and so on; we thrived with an interactive and cooperative community. Some other species have variations, but they’re specific to their own needs, and rarely bridge the gap to a species other than their own, since there’s just no need. And this may apply especially to bridging over towards humans: we’re pretty good about hunting other animals as desired, and often don’t see much benefit towards mutually cooperative relations. While there’s a peculiar trait within us that fosters the idea that we may get a worthy companionship with species like dogs and cats, they do not necessarily have the same ideas; we cannot really say how they view us. But this little trait of ours becomes more than problematic when we apply it towards wilder species, thinking we’re in tune with bears or that if we’re non-threatening to the deer that visit the backyard that they’ll feed happily from our hands.

Which is where this whole post is going. With what little impact I have, my explanations and advocacy for more realistic expectations from wildlife, my pointing out behavioral traits to students and occasionally just passers-by when shooting in a public place, my efforts to rehabilitate animals without any belief or desire that they would even view the situation fondly (much less without terror or loathing,) I have become more of a “friend” to the animals than I imagined in my youth – this time defining it as a mutually-beneficial relationship. Because yes, I get something out of it as well, the fascination in working with other species, the good feelings from seeing previously debilitated animals released back into the wild, the pride in getting some shot that illustrates a trait or even just provides a mistaken impression of ‘personality’ or ‘mood.’ We should never expect to be buddies with another species, even when it can happen with domesticated animals – the wild ones have their own ideas of proper behavior, and will remind us of our mistakes, sometimes in very unfortunate ways. Anyone that I reach when I say, “Respect them, and maintain safe distances and responsible behavior,” becomes more beneficial to them than anyone who thinks they’re bonding in some selfish and na├»ve way.

When that kestrel up there was released, it flew to the top of a nearby telephone pole and perched there for about two minutes, producing the most complicated serenade that I’ve ever heard from a raptor, before flying off and vanishing into the distance. And by “serenade,” I’m being poetic but unrealistic: I have no idea what the purpose was, but I’m pretty damn sure it wasn’t intended as any communication to me – that’s not what bird song is for. Far too many people would have viewed it differently, and could have believed that I was being thanked, or perhaps even scolded for the captivity, but those are human ideas, and should go no further than us.

Color week Monday

juvenile katydid with early morning dew
Early one morning, before the sun was breaking through the trees and clearing away the night’s dew, I caught this juvenile katydid warily eyeing the drop off the edge of the leaf.

[No, that’s not true, look at those hind legs. These insects can leap ridiculous distances – they’re not scared of heights. I doubt the concept even exists within the brains of the arthropod phylum.]