Today’s Monday color was shot exactly one year ago – tomorrow. I say this now so you have time to find a gift.
I almost used this for a previous Monday color, because that week was when I introduced the page of editing tricks that features the same image (meaning this is not its first appearance,) but then I had that other shot which merited a mention on white balance, so it was topical.
A brief note on positioning here: subtle changes can make significant differences in the photo. If you look closely at that blossom, you can see that the textures of the petals are very distinct, especially at the top – the light angle was just right to create some shadowing from the natural ridges, and thus give the flower a bit more definition and shape. It takes real effort to notice things like this, and I’ll be honest: I was concentrating on framing that flower against the clouds after I noticed the natural glow, and capturing the textures was only incidental. Still, it illustrates that a very slight change of angle can add some subtle enhancements to your images at times. Just something to be aware of while you’re, you know, concentrating on all that other stuff at the same time.
This is the last of the ‘Looking back’ posts – calm down, calm down, you knew it had to end – because I’m considering myself caught up now; these pics were taken the day before the first in the series. But now that we’ve gotten a little space and variety mixed in, we’re going back to the mantises – well, a mantis. While there are two that fit this appearance, I’m suspecting from its location that it was the same one that I photographed molting in detail.
When watering the garden one afternoon, I spotted a katydid on a tomato plant – they can be heard all over the place in the evenings, but mostly up high in the tree canopy, and I’ve only seen one other down within sight. Arrogantly interfering with the natural order of things (because we humans are unnatural and don’t belong on this planet,) I snagged it and took it around to place near the first mantis I could find. Armed with the camera, of course.
What followed was easily the most awkward capture I’ve seen, perhaps the most awkward ever witnessed in the history of entomology – well, okay, maybe not that bad, but it was bad. The mantis did not take long to recognize the katydid, which will go unidentified here to spare the family (and because there’s too damn many species to pin it down easily,) but the pounce was just pathetic. Honestly, how the mantis got this big is beyond me.
I’m not even sure how they managed to arrive at this position, which looks like some kind of bizarre exercise routine, but note the mantid’s left foreleg, down low, clutching not just the katydid’s hindleg, but also the edge of the leaf.
This image shows something that might be very curious – I watched this happen and I have no doubts as to the deliberate nature of the action. You can see that one of the hindlegs is now being held in the mantis’ mouth, and I can say that the mantis did this purposefully, using its mouth as an additional grip while switching its foreleg down to gain better control of the struggling katydid. There are a lot of species that won’t do this, just by nature; the legs are for gripping, the mouth is for eating. The local gray squirrels will never pick food up in a forepaw, for example, even when they will hold it there for eating – they always pick things up by mouth. But sugar gliders, a marsupial from Australia closely resembling a flying squirrel in this country, will easily pick food up in a forepaw (The Girlfriend’s Younger Sprog had them as pets for a long time, so I was able to observe them closely.) Seeing an arthropod using its mouth as a grip seems quite odd to me, though it might be typical for mantids and I’ve just never witnessed it before.
It was a mighty struggle, made ludicrous by the idea that katydids have two defenses: camouflage, and leaping away with those long hindlegs, both of which were effectively negated from the start. Yet the attempts by the mantis to immobilize the katydid were almost completely ineffective; here, the mantis is trying to end the struggles by beginning its meal on easily the least damaging part of the insect, the wings. You will note that it has bitten through the hindleg it had in its mouth, which lessened its control of its prey. This particular position, for some reason, puts me in mind of kittens gnawing on each other during playtime. Yes, I’m weird – we’ve established that long ago.
Now the other hindlimb has been detached, though the mantis maintains a fierce grip upon it still. That grip, in fact, was preventing it from moving forward and getting a better shot at the katydid, who still had four limbs left and was making the best of them, so the mantis is still playing Silly Buggers with the wings; to me, it even looked as if the outer wing sheaths were tough enough to withstand most of the mantid’s attempts to masticate them, but this may have been because it had to do both at once, since they were pinned together by the mantid’s own grip. I was embarrassed for both of us.
Here I switched vantage, standing above the combatants to shoot almost straight down, giving a better view of the awkwardness of the capture. The mantis looks like a harried mother with two kids pulling in opposite directions… except, one of the kids is just a detached leg clasped against a leaf, which was the only thing preventing the mantis from shifting position to do this properly. There is likely a level of instinct in there not to relinquish something recognized as part of its food, even though it was not actually controlling the primary target.
Finally, the mantis dropped the drumstick and the leaf to bring two limbs into the fight, and got a proper grip on the katydid – it’s been seven minutes since it first snagged that leg and leaf together, most of that spent holding a detached limb while the katydid struggled madly. But now, with perhaps a bit more useful instinct, the mantis started in on the head. Note, while we’re still here, the tattered nature of the katydid’s wings.
You would think that the struggles of the katydid would cease soon after the mantis started eating directly in the vicinity of the right eye; you’d be wrong, and I was startled at how long the damn thing kept kicking as the head was disappearing – I am sparing you those images, because they are indeed graphic. At one point, the mantis was calmly gnawing on the end of another limb while the opposite end, driven by the chewing, was bashing the katydid in the remains of its face with what I can only assume was a gruesomely taunting manner, the insect equivalent of, “Stop hitting yourself!” Yes, I agree, that was unnecessary – oh, you meant my comment? Well, okay…
I think we all understand that nature isn’t necessarily pretty, but at times it can also be ridiculously inept.
We continue our quest to catch up with these images from only nine days ago – yeah, make any comments you like – when a torrential rain came through not long before sunset, followed immediately by a break in the clouds. Knowing what that meant, I trotted outside and, sure enough, there was a prominent rainbow, probably the best I’ve ever seen. It was the classic full-on double rainbow right across the sky, except that it was difficult to get it all in view at once, and I didn’t possess a wide-enough lens to do it justice (though I should have grabbed the film body, which didn’t have the crop factor.) After a few quick shots right out in front of the house, I trotted over to the pond and tried for more fartsy shots there, not having a lot of foreground interest to work with – these Canada geese (Branta canadensis) served when the great blue heron refused to pose and I couldn’t find the cormorant.
There are a couple of traits visible in this frame: the secondary arc is visible to the right within the leaves, and you can see that the colors are reversed between the two. You can also see that the sky is actually a tad darker between the two bows than it is outside of them – this is typical, though not always easy to make out. Rainbow photographs can sometimes be a little tricky, especially if you’re after foreground details, because they almost always occur when the sun is low and this usually reduces the light on the foreground. As such, the sky is much brighter than the ground and the subjects thereon, and a proper exposure depends on how the meter is reading the scene. With the camera aimed largely at the sky, the sky might go a bit dark but the rainbow colors will pop; the foreground, however, is likely to go very dark. Aim at the ground more and the foreground looks better, but the sky may bleach out and even lose the rainbow entirely (I have a few frames like that.) So my advice is to frame a variety of ways, bracket the exposures, and dial in some exposure compensation if you’re familiar with it. Also, using higher contrast and saturation settings will bring out the colors much better, but worsens the difference between the sky and foreground (this image, by the way, was shot at a more saturated setting, but boosted slightly for web display as well.)
And now for something curious. When I first went outside, the rainbow was at its most brilliant, and there was a particular effect that was actually visible to the eye, though subtly – it was easy to think it might be imagined, but not only did others see it, I captured it in the images. It can, very faintly, be made out here, but stay with me because I’ll show you an enhanced version in a second. For now, look closely at the underside of the lower arc (the upper one is only faintly visible in this image, but it’s there.) Can you make out a faint band of green and a second band of violet down there immediately adjacent, ‘echoing’ the bow? It’s subtle enough here that it could easily disappear depending on your monitor/screen settings, so let’s take a look at an enhanced version from another frame.
This is a cropped and over-saturated view, but it makes it very clear: there are additional arcs of green and violet under the typical Roy G. Biv lineup (please don’t make me explain that) – in fact, there is even a suggestion of another pair. This is a supernumerary rainbow, and the most interesting thing about it is, we don’t actually know how it occurs [the second most interesting thing about it is, spellcheck didn’t even blink at that word, and it doesn’t even like “zig-zag.”] The only thing I can suggest about the cause of this effect is that the rain really hammered down only minutes earlier and undoubtedly still was at the source of the rainbow, so perhaps the size of the droplets or their proximity had something to do with it.
As I said, it was difficult to find a lot of foreground interest to put against the bow. The cormorant that I’ve photographed a few times on these very pilings was nowhere to be seen, annoyingly, but it was gratifying to note that the main bow reflected readily in the water at least; at no point did I see the secondary arc appear in the reflection, but it was high enough that the ability to see it might have required me to be standing in the water itself. I actually tried stalking the resident great blue heron, who wanted nothing to do with any portraits that evening, and couldn’t work out an angle to frame a trio of garden spiders against the reflection. But I’m pretty pleased with the image below, a tight crop from a wider frame. It does make me wonder if it would have been possible to see the rainbow within the raindrops if I’d gone for high magnification macro, but logistically, this might have been near impossible – focus has to be extremely precise in such circumstances and pine needles aren’t the most stable of subjects, bobbing in the slightest breeze. Maybe next time.
This one is born out of a post on Mental Floss – or at least, that’s the most recent thing to provoke the thoughts; the attitude is remarkably common and can be found connected to countless topics. In short: if a government agency or some otherwise official organization is keeping information from us, it is important that we know what it is. It must be something that we should know, something that is controlling us or depriving us or evidence of illegal shenanigans. In this case, the third “burning question” in that post refers to the CIA files regarding the Kennedy assassination which have not been released to the public. “Aha!” say the conspiracists. “This is evidence that the CIA was doing… something.” I mean, what other purpose would the CIA have in keeping information from public consumption and redistribution?
And just by asking that question, it virtually becomes rhetorical – we recognize that, for instance, national security pretty much necessitates that certain information not be freely disseminated. The same holds true for the military, of any country; making specific details of defenses readily available means circumventing those defenses becomes exponentially easier. The idea here is that the information is not exactly being kept from us, but from them. Since there is no way to share it only with us and not them, it is kept from both.
Certainly, this does not mean that the CIA (or the NSA or the FBI or the DAR) is not keeping stuff from us that we really should know, such as unethical and illegal practices. But that’s not really the issue – we’re not going to start playing a “guilty until proven innocent” game. The practice of not releasing information is not at all suspicious; it is standard operating procedure. Pointing out that files are being withheld is not support for any conspiracy in the slightest, since it occurs all of the time in countless topics and circumstances, and is to be expected. Still using the assassination as an example, Lee Harvey Oswald was thoroughly investigated following the shooting, and among many other things, it was determined that he not only spent time in the Soviet Union, in fact renouncing his citizenship of the US, he also made a trip to Cuba not long before the assassination. “AHA!” No, sit down – he was very well known as a dissident, as were countless other people in the US at the time. The information revealed that, even when he attempted to sell radar secrets to the Soviets, they wanted nothing to do with him – he wasn’t exactly low-key, nor connected any longer. He was, in fact, exactly the kind of guy you would never use for spying, because he was exactly the kind of guy you’d suspect and keep an eye on. Oswald’s trip to Havana was brief, and he didn’t even get the audience with government officials there that he was hoping for – just as any blue-collar doofus from any other country will not get an audience with any government official here when showing up unannounced and with nothing of compelling importance to show.
However, the CIA did not simply phone up the embassy in Havana and ask for this information, nor would it have been trustworthy in any way had something truly been going on. So the information came from… where? CIA spies in the Cuban government, ones that it would be a supremely bad idea to reveal? Exactly – that’s pretty much what the CIA exists to do. Moreover, this fits in precisely with the situation that we have, where there is a moratorium on the files, yet they can be made public past a certain date. Is that something that it would be a good idea to do if the files contained truly damning information? Or is it something that could be done once the operatives were long retired, the information long obsolete?
There’s a lot of common sense that gets ignored in such situations as well, such as how bloody stupid it would be to keep funding an organization that had any hand whatsoever in the assassination of the Chief Executive (and on whose orders?) Or the idea that Cuba actually arranged the hit, as if every President since would sweep that under the rug and not, you know, Iraq the shit out of them – for dog’s sake, Reagan was openly spoiling for a winnable war, to the point where he invaded Grenada because, you know, something. And no, the Soviet Union would not have stuck its neck out to protect its interests in Cuba, as massive as they might be (yes, that’s sarcasm.) It almost goes without saying that the justifications proposed for these heinous secret files shows a child’s understanding of foreign politics.
Once again, I have to stress that none of this suggests the CIA is innocent in any way, and their track record is not supportive of this either, nor will you ever find me blindly defending the agency. The point is, such secrecy cannot be considered suspicious behavior if it’s exactly what we should expect to see in any given situation. While investigation of any potential wrongdoing or coverup is commendable and encouraged, it should only be undertaken with a commitment towards objectivity, and certainly not an effort to establish a preconceived notion. We have, or like to think that we have anyway, a remarkably open government, but this should not be extrapolated to mean that it is completely open, or should be.
There are a lot of potential motives for those who embrace the idea of conspiracies, and it’s likely a deeply involved and convoluted field of study, but in some cases the prevalent attitudes carry over into popular culture. The very question, “What could they be hiding?” not only assumes dastardly intent, but the unwarranted concept that they shouldn’t be hiding anything – it’s a good example of a leading question, and one that we should always be wary of. In fact, sowing doubt is often the only purpose in such circumstances, as if doubt supports any case at all.
[And by the way, it’s a lot of fun to give an immediate, matter-of-fact answer to such questions and deflate the whole thing right from the start.]
Another common aspect to be wary of – in fact, it’s almost impossible to avoid – is the desperate attempt to propose a scenario that fits the idea of something being hidden; in essence, this is picking a conclusion and then trying to find support for it. But this is not a fiction-writing workshop; trying to rescue a weak idea is a pursuit only for the obsessive. “It’s possible,” is, as I’ve posted about before, the lowest bar we can create; we should be concerned about what’s probable instead, and efforts to establish that it’s more probable than any mundane explanation. That means evidence, and plenty of it. Suspicion is not evidence, and suspicion because it fits with some personal indulgence is especially lame. Righteous indignation is a very common trait, and all too often, the struggle to maintain it fosters a lot of bias.
Much is often made about the reports of UFO investigations obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, which permits details that may be detrimental to security to be redacted – frequently, when such reports are received they are so edited that little information can be derived from them. Isn’t this evidence of… something? Well, yes, it’s evidence of something, but something unexpected? Hardly. Let’s consider an imaginary example. Say that, in investigating a sighting, there was information from an Air Force Base, but most of it was cut out. Why? Well, for starters, anything airborne stands the potential of being an unauthorized and possibly hostile incursion, and we’re not talking about aliens here, but the proven-to-exist other nations which may be probing our defensive systems, as happens pretty much constantly. Details in the report may give the type of radar, the range of its effectiveness, the speed of the response, and so on. In fact, if this was an actual incursion, then it’s valuable information concerning how effective the mission was. Even the mention of a commanding officer means that any further appearances of his/her name pins down what base is being referred to and that it is a defensive installation. None of this is the faintest indication of alien life, but all of it is information that we might not want to make freely accessible.
Which starts coming around to a key point in a lot of these topics: if someone doesn’t want us to know about something, then no amount of whining or petitioning or demands for satisfaction are going to accomplish jack. Good or bad, it’s being withheld for a reason, and that reason is not going to be outweighed by even a large percentage of the public getting pissed off – indeed, that might even be what they’re trying to avoid. But most assuredly, going through official channels isn’t going to produce evidence of a conspiracy or a coverup or whatever; organizations don’t set themselves up to shoot themselves in the foot. To find anything of the sort, we’re going to have to dig deep, and not just voice suspicions.
And most especially, if there are secret files that contain seriously damaging information, no one’s going to be stupid enough to tell us they exist. Sometimes, just the barest hint of common sense is all that’s needed.
Catching up is taking a lot longer than anticipated, but a lot of that has to do with being busy with other things, among them updating the materials for the photo students, who come first (well, no, The Girlfriend comes first, but the students are still ahead of the blog.) I’ve also tried to space out the photos with a couple of critical-thinking posts, but the flow of writing is not to my liking so far, and if I can’t pass my own editing standards, as loosely as that word may be used, then it’s probably best not to put it up.
While out doing the shots from part one, I found a pair of jagged ambush bugs, genus Phymata – I wasn’t going to be able to do them justice out in the field, so I collected them for a studio shoot. I’ve done a fair amount with them previously, but that was all with the early nymph
forms, while these two were adults. “Adult” does not mean “big” – the specimens seen here were a whopping 10mm in body length, and it was only through experience with the species that I even spotted them at all.
Ambush bugs are predatory ‘true bugs,’ or Hemipterans, and usually find themselves a perch on a likely flower and await the appearance of pollinators. To say that they are sedentary is perhaps understating it; I have never seen one actually going anyplace, and even when provoked they are reluctant to give up their position. Both of these (if you can’t tell them apart that’s okay, neither can I) possessed wings and yet never made any attempt to fly away. This leads me to speculate that they rely almost entirely on their camouflage and caruncular exoskeleton for defense; usually they blend in much better than this, but we had no yellow flowers around to use as a setting. Also, since a lot of species count on movement rather than appearance in spotting prey, the tendency towards immobility that these bugs appear to possess might be sufficient all by itself. We’ll see more about that shortly. Right now, we’ll go in for a little closer look at the business end of things.
From the inordinate size of the base of those pincers, I have to assume they’re quite strong, but despite what appears to be visible serrations, they’re for holding, not cutting. Hemipterans are, of course, sucking bugs, using a long proboscis to draw their nutrients – you can see it in shadow under the insect’s ‘chin’ – so they would derive no benefit from breaking up their meals in any way; indeed, it would reduce the fluids they eat. And from other images that I’ve gotten in the past, I can say that one of those surfaces on the pincer is actually flat. Note, too, the fine hairs arranged along the edges, which allow the ambush bug to feel their prey and know whether it is perfectly immobilized or not. These can be found on many species of crab, which are also arthropods, and I can tell you from experience that disturbing them usually triggers the pincers to slam shut automatically (much to my chagrin with a sizable pet hermit crab, many years ago.)
I failed to notice, as I selected a weed stem to use as a prop, that the plant was home to numerous aphids and, in turn, several tiny black ants that were ‘milking’ them. This meant that every couple of minutes an ant would venture up to the top and usually right across the ambush bug. You might imagine this would be bad news for the ant, but the ambush bug largely ignored the impertinence, save for producing some sharp jerks of its head when an ant traipsed thereon. You can also see the natural groove that the antenna fits into when drawn back; ambush bugs seem very protective of their antennae, and it took some time without disturbance before it would extend them again, slapping them back as soon as I loomed too close with the camera.
I gave them both a misting while I had them, only partially for the photographic possibilities, but more because they’d been in a film can for hours and I figured they might need the water (neither of them showed the faintest interest in gathering any of the moisture.) I included this image because one of the droplets formed a nice lens on the compound eye, magnifying the underlying ommatidia. I can’t tell you what affect this might have on the perceptions of the bug, except that they’re likely used to it, because it can happen during any rain and overnight dew. But there’s one other detail that I want to highlight, because I apparently haven’t featured it here before.
If you look closely at the base of the proboscis in the image above, right at the point of the ‘nose,’ you can see a little gap with a paler, ridged something in there. The proboscis is actually a multi-part appendage, as I discovered by accident in some previous macro pics, prompting me to seek more like the one at left. There is a hard outer ‘cutting/stabbing’ sheath, often articulated, called the labium. Fitting within it are the bits that do the actual drinking, looking like a fine thread even though there are actually four parts, collectively called the stylets, separately a pair each of mandibles and maxillae, terms you might recognize from just about any anatomy lesson, otherwise known as the lower and upper jaws respectively. The separate nature of the labium and stylets is nicely shown with this scentless plant bug (Niesthrea louisianica) that obligingly posed for me while feeding from a leaf. Diagrams and explanations of all this can be found here.
After the photo session, I took both ambush bug specimens out and tried to find appropriate places for them. One went onto the flowers of the spearmint plants, and the other onto a geranium bloom – like I said, we don’t have any yellow flowers around here. The geranium was apparently unacceptable, since I haven’t seen it there since, but the one on the mint seemed to be okay with the choice, considering that it is still there as I type this, a week since its release – that’s it in the pic, obviously not camouflaged terribly well, yet still in flattering colors (if I’m any judge, which I’m probably not.) Faintly visible in this image is the red spot on the back of the ‘skull,’ also visible in one of the photos above and the one with the scentless plant bug. These are small simple eyes called ocelli, primarily believed to help flying insects maintain stable flight. If you roll back a few posts, you can see them on the mantises and the cicada as well.
It is unfortunate that I discovered the ambush bugs after this next subject, since it might have meant a nice meal for them, one I wouldn’t have begrudged at all. But on the same spearmint plant one evening, I spotted a peculiar outgrowth on the flower spike, quickly revealed as not growth at all.
As hard as this is to make out, this is the caterpillar of a wavy-lined emerald moth (Synchlora aerata,) demonstrating their typical active camouflage defense. These caterpillars detach bits of plant matter from the plant they’re feeding upon and attach it to their backs to blend in, which works surprisingly well, unless you spot the break in the expected pattern. Here, the caterpillar is sporting larger brown mint leaves, obviously drying out, and some of the mint flowers; the natural color of the caterpillar is displayed along the inchworm arc to the left. You can see other illustrations of them here, and here – it’s plain that they can also adapt their body color to fit in better.
It took several attempts, since the inchworm was alert to my presence and hid its head every time I leaned in for the detail shot, but I managed to get the barest photo of it feeding – the ones at the second link above are better. There are three pairs of forelegs, two plainly visible and one in shadow but betrayed by the hint of texture. These little guys can do a surprising amount of damage, and I was first alerted to their presence by the turds deposited on leaves below, even though it took another day to find the ninja pooper. Since the spearmint plants are my favorites, messing with them is not allowable, and it’s a show of extreme tolerance that I even got these images first. Immediately afterward, this and another caterpillar were detached and tossed far afield; I can only hope the ambush bug is at least protecting its own flower spike from a return.
No exact species for this one, just a crocus planted by The Girlfriend’s Younger Sprog at the old place last year, a welcome bit of early spring color while nearly everything else was dismal. But for giggles, we’ll boldly defy the topic and go monochrome, in a special way.
This is the same image, converted to greyscale, but with one important distinction: it is solely the blue channel. The red and green channels, the others that comprise RGB image files, have been deleted. I discuss this is greater detail here, but basically, some images look better in monochrome when only one channel is used. Most times it’s not the blue channel, which tends to be blotchy (on the cameras I’ve used anyway,) but in this case it had a distinctive effect. The complementary/opposite color for blue is yellow, so in the blue channel, anything that had significant blue in the original image will appear bright, while anything yellow will appear dark. Thus the deep contrast between the purple petals and the orange pollen. Since the original image wasn’t very contrasted in brightness, simply converting it to greyscale with all three channels produced a lackluster effect. Just one of those things to experiment with.
I still like the color version better, though.
Our attempts to catch up continue, as we hearken back to six days ago and a visit to a nearby pond. A variation of this view was seen earlier, but I also like this version for the additional isolation. The pickerelweed plants seem to stretch for a significant distance, accentuating the idea that the eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) is all alone, but if you look close you can see that the patch stops towards the top of the frame. In reality, it was roughly eight meters long and perhaps half that wide – somewhere around the size of two cars end-to-end, not something one could get lost within even if they were short enough not to see over the tops. And while the swallowtail was far from the only pollinator attacking those flowers (as proven by the earlier photo,) it was the only one visible in this frame. I actually stalked the butterfly for a short distance, trying to capture the wings at the right angle as it rapidly circled the blossom clusters taking the minimal nectar available. This was made more interesting by the fact that I was semi-wading at the time, not-quite ankle deep in cloying mud that was doing its best to suck the sandals off my feet. Step too lively in conditions like that and you’re going down, as your feet refuse to move in time to arrest your forward momentum.
What I was really after with this brief trip, however, were green treefrogs. The night had been cool and damper than usual, a nice break from the long periods of heat and dry conditions that we’ve been having, and the morning was overcast – the frogs, which are primarily nocturnal, can cope with this much better than with bright sunlight, since they have to remain moist. So misty, cool, or damp mornings provide the opportunity to see them before they seek deep shelter from the day’s heat, and the pickerelweed plants are a favorite hangout, as I found out last year. But for a while, I was finding nothing, both curious and frustrating. Then I spotted a subtle telltale.
The light was just barely bright enough to shine through the broad leaves, and this suspicious little oval shadow is something that I’ve seen before. Only about the size of the top joint of your thumb, it was the right size and the right shape for a typical position of a treefrog, since they often sit with their legs tucked tightly in, much like cats. This was deep in a thick patch of the water plants, however, and while I could manage a decent view from this side, the other side was going to prove difficult.
While we wait for Past Me to make his way over there, I will speculate on this trait. The frogs match this coloration fairly well, so just about any place on the plant is camouflage enough, but there are likely a couple of reasons why this position is preferred. The first is that it sits in a slight fold of the leaf, so any dew or rain is channeled directly to them. The leaf is also strongest near the stem, so less chance of it either drooping over or the frog having to vault off from an unstable surface when trying to escape something. And finally, their arch enemy is the green heron, but up on the middle part of the leaf like this, the frogs are farthest from any surface that will support the small wading bird, so least likely to be eaten there. I can presently confirm none of this, so don’t go confidently repeating it to your class or anything.
In time, I managed to get to a position that was just barely adequate, seeing through a gap in the surrounding plants right along the edge of the leaf, but enough to reveal that the source of the shadow was exactly as suspected. I told you the color was a close match. This green treefrog (Hyla cinerea) was about half of adult size, being less than 3 cm in body length. I wanted to work with the lower contrast and specific colors of natural light, so I left the flash in the bag, but the overcast conditions meant I was once again shooting mostly at largest aperture (f4 in this case, the wonderful Mamiya 80mm macro that fits on my Canon cameras with a custom mount.) This had the effect that, with the short focus, the frog almost seems to blur into the leaf itself. I might have to do some more experiments with short depth-of-field in these situations…
Once I found the first, I began spotting others, though I noticed that overall, they concentrated in one area of the pickerelweed and not, of course, the area that I’d begun in. What prompted this differentiation I cannot tell
because I’m sworn to secrecy because I haven’t the faintest idea. All areas seemed identical to me, and the separation wasn’t that great at all, but I am not a treefrog. The difference was noticeable enough, however, when I soon found three clustered remarkably close together.
I did a lot of playing, trying to get all three in the same plane of focus or, alternately, to stop down enough that the depth covered them adequately, but it simply wasn’t happening – in this frame I focused on the two closest together. It’s easy to see that all three are on their own leaves or stalks, and this is typical too; whether this is a territorial thing, maintaining their own feeding grounds, or simply not to overburden their perches is all open for speculation. The one on the right is well aware of my presence and warily perched to make an escape, though it soon relaxed when I held still long enough. Notice that it is slightly darker in shade than the others, not blending in quite as well as My Cousin Vinny, and this is a variation I’ve seen a lot – it’s an integrated neighborhood.
While all of this was going on, I was often in the middle of bumblebees feeding from the flowers, and what I suspect was a solitary clearwing moth, seen several times over. I did not get a close enough image to pin down the exact species (the color of the legs is the key trait,) but I think it was Hemaris thysbe – certainly genus Hemaris, anyway. They’re fun insects to watch, but hyperactive enough to make good photos challenging, not helped at all by the fact that they never land when feeding, instead hovering at the flowers like the hummingbirds that they often mimic. They also mimic bumblebees, and this trait is enough to distinguish them easily because bumblebees always land on the flowers.
[I’m still undecided on this crop, because I don’t like that distinctive disembodied branch in there, but cropping it out would have meant cutting off or too close to the background flower on the right, which I think balances the frame – overall I like the placement of the four blossom spikes. I suppose I could just ‘shop the damn thing out…]
And finally, the last frog captured that morning, in a session that lasted all of fifteen minutes – I just stopped briefly to check on things while running other errands. Yes, this was the last stop before returning home with my filthy feet – I have a little decorum left, and won’t go to public places looking like some derelict. Or even more so than necessary, anyway.
This one I had missed until it hopped away at my approach, clinging to a stalk with those wonderfully sticky toe pads they have, but moving slowly thereafter, I was able to close in for some tight shots without spooking it away again. That background is wonderfully vague.
For a long time, this was the only really decent photo of a green treefrog that I had, since I simply wasn’t finding many, and when I did I couldn’t achieve a superior frame. But like many shots I once treasured, I eventually surpassed it, mostly with last year’s crop, and it’s nice to have images that aren’t of captives. The photo stock expands, the selection improves, the favorites get replaced; that’s how it should be. Now, is it happening as fast or as dramatically as it should be? That’s a different question altogether…
In the past week, I shot about 600 images in four sessions or so, which partially explains the lack of posts. So we’ll play catch-up over a couple of days, and in the process see the difference in approach used, depending on the subject and circumstances.
For instance, in meetings with students, most times I’m not shooting at all, concentrating instead on instruction. However, in some cases I do working photo outings where I will do some shooting – usually about half as much as the student – but still won’t go whole hog. The most noticeable difference in the resulting images is that I’m usually not carrying the serious macro rig, which consists of two different macro lenses and a bulky lighting unit: flash bracket, mini-ballhead supporting a flat-panel flash, and specially-made softbox. The results from this rig are quite nice, but it’s awkward to carry around and takes a lot of time to set up and pack away. So I’m usually shooting in natural light, which means a much larger aperture than the typical f11 to f22. This means images with lower contrast and less saturation from the lack of a dedicated light, and significantly shorter depth-of-field. It also means, very often, a slower shutter speed, which combined with the short depth means a lot of images to toss out, not quite passing muster.
And since detail is not the most dependable of traits in such circumstances, and it’s not cool to sit down for long periods and do a sequence of behavior, the images tend more towards the fartsy end (not to be confused with artsy.)
So with this surprisingly small (for this time of year) Chinese mantis, a species that I apparently cannot escape even if I wanted to, I took a couple of different approaches, and in fact this green image was originally shot vertically, but I went for a tighter crop for blog usage and changed it to horizontal. With both, however, the deep shadow it was posing within wasn’t going to allow for a lot – I would have had to compensate exposure by at least +1.3 or 1.7 because the exposure meter could not read a subject that small, but then everything else would have been bleached out very bright. So I aimed for silhouette instead, picking angles that sharply outlined the mantis with bright contrast.
I have a few images of this eentsy treefrog that show the face better, but this one gives a dramatic impression of scale with the entire leaf visible. This is likely a squirrel treefrog (Hyla squirella,) and probably the same species captured exactly three years ago (from the date the images were taken, anyway,) but bigger than that one. Soon afterward, wary of the attention and the heat of the morning sun, the frog elected to delve deeper into the foliage and disappear.
This dragonfly, an eastern pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis,) was the first species captured that day, before the sun had risen enough to break through most of the trees and evaporate off the dew – while I admit to plying a misting bottle in situations where it can add to the image, the moisture here is natural, and fairly common with dragonflies in the right conditions. And since dragonflies need a good level of warmth in their wing muscles along the thorax to fly (the reason why they’re always found perching on reeds in bright sunlight,) any this covered in dew are unlikely to fly away at a close approach. However, with a very slow approach, you can actually get them to perch on a fingertip at any time, because they view speed as a threat and glacial movements simply don’t register in this way. Go straight in towards the head, and gently push up against the face or forelegs when you make contact – no, they don’t bite.
And we needed a break from the green in the middle, so here’s a morning glory blossom against the blue sky. I also have variations taken from a slightly different angle that eliminated the clouds, presenting a perfectly blue sky, but I favor this one. Naturally, it took a lower shooting angle than standing holding the camera at eye-level.
Another early dew shot, this time of a small planthopper, genus Rhynchomitra. By the way, leafhoppers look like leaves or buds, while planthoppers look like thorns – just so you know. I admit to this being a shamelessly ‘shopped photo, but that’s not the politically correct way of putting it anymore, so now I have to call it a ‘stacked’ image. At f4, I did not get an image where both the eyes and the dewdrops on the wings were in focus at the same time, but I got images with either, so two were combined to make this frame. In order to do something like this, though, the shots used need to be as similar to each other as possible – no changes in perspective or focal length or exposure. This is where shooting several images of a tricky subject can come in handy, especially handheld where sharp focus can be altered by your own breathing.
In fact, there is another stacked image in this post – see if you can determine which it is.
The dew had already boiled off by the time we found several nursery web spiders (Pisaurina mira,) all perched in similar positions atop their own stalks of raspberry plants. To me, there’s something evocative of the early morning sunlight shining through yet the spider appears to be shunning it. While this is likely true, because it will help them avoid birds, I cannot say this definitively, especially since we only had the one angle to work from, so couldn’t test the theory by finding any others on the sunny side of the plants.
We close with another spider, this one a jumping spider, likely genus Pelegrina judging from the markings on the abdomen (seen much better in another image.) I had initially identified the plant it was on as a mimosa, but then found that a similar-looking plant with yellow flowers nearby was a partridge pear, so don’t trust me. Once again, framing for a more fartsy look than for identification, or behavior, or anything else, so I waited for the spider to turn and face me, which also caused it to line up with the plant stem and generate a little cohesiveness in doing so. The framing left space below it, accentuating both its diminutive size and isolation. It may have been better from the other side, having the spider face into the light and perhaps generating an image where it was looking up instead of down, but the thick undergrowth meant even attempting this would have spooked the spider away because of the movement of the plants, so this is what we have. It’s one of those things I consider constantly: not just, “Is it good?” but, “How can it be better?” At times this can be a little discouraging, especially if you feel that you missed an opportunity or ‘blew’ the shot, but it also makes you think about the image and always try to top it, which is no bad thing. Any one of the images in this post could be better, and who knows how many I would use in, for instance, a gallery exhibit, but these are illustrating just one outing, and not even a dedicated one at that since it was with a student. I have enough keepers from the session that I’m satisfied.
I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I lost track of what day it was and was concentrating on other things, but that’s just pathetic whining under the looming threat of the whip. To try and make up for it, however (now that your day is already off to a bad start,) I humbly offer this remarkably current image, taken less than an hour ago. It’s almost like a Twatter account (or Instagrump or Pisinterest or whatever the hell applies,) but without the soul-destroying lameness.
Note, too, the bonus Hemaris in the background, the hummingbird mimic. And you’ll probably see the green treefrogs that I was primarily down there to capture shortly. So don’t beat me…
Seriously, I really need to stop doing titles like that…
This is going to be the longest post on the blog. Not in terms of words, but in terms of images, since I am going to show a long sequence from the other evening, and they’re nearly all vertical format, so the linear dimensions of the post are going to be exceptional. This may result in some gaps between text blocks, so please excuse the formatting. Plus, this will easily be the most images for a single post, and by itself will exceed the uploads for many previous months. And, this is about the mantids, again. But don’t go yet, because you may never have seen this, or anything like it.
The Chinese mantises (Tenodera aridifolia sinensis) have distributed themselves throughout the yards, front and back, and can usually be found in a particular area that they’ve claimed as their own, even though they might change their minds from time to time. Here, one has taken up residence on the spearmint plants right alongside the front walk, and I took advantage of the ability to frame it against the sky, shooting almost straight up.
About 48 hours ago as I type this, I was out watering the plants, which have been struggling in the heat and drought conditions. As usual, after the soaking of the roots, I applied a light mist to the leaves, almost entirely for the benefit of the arthropods. You know how it goes: keep the talent happy. Right afterward, I switched on the headlamp (I can water by ambient light) to check out and see what was going on, and found the brown mantis on the rose bush had molted out into an adult not long ago, showing off wings that were still in the process of drying. This, as I’ve said before, has long been a process that I’d like to capture from start to finish, but felt it might be very difficult – not just from knowing when this would take place, but from the idea that, seeing a looming nature photographer nearby, any arthropod might opt to put off the extended vulnerability that molting entails, if this is even within their power. So, seeing this newly-emerged adult, I sighed inwardly and told myself I should have checked on it earlier. Doing my typical rounds, I went over to the Japanese maple to see how the occupant thereof was doing.
Being greeted by this spectacle, I realized I had caught one still in the process of molting – check out those wing stubs. I had missed most of the details, but could see the wings spread out at least, so I grabbed a bottle of iced Tang and sat down to shoot a sequence of photos. I have provided the times at which the images were shot to give an idea of how long this process, and indeed this session, took. I also want to add that it was still 29°c (84°f) and incredibly humid, so even while sitting largely motionless, I was sweating steadily.
The ideal thing to do in such cases is to shoot regularly-spaced images that can then be sequenced into a time-lapse animation, which is much better than shooting video – this process takes place over such a period of time that it’s only slightly better than watching paint dry. However, the mantis wasn’t inclined to hold one particular position, and I shifted several times, as well as removing a couple of blocking maple leaves, to maintain a decent vantage.
After some minutes and no small amount of twitching and wriggling, the mantis freed itself from the old exoskeleton and turned to face upwards. I have seen a few different arthropods at roughly this stage, and notably they all remained suspended from their abdomen, attached somehow within the exoskeleton anchored to the plant. The feet all have little claws, and these can apparently be locked in place as the feet are withdrawn, but how the abdomen is anchored within I cannot say for certain, though it seems it almost has to be either by genitalia or cloaca. Yeah, I know – sounds real uncomfortable, doesn’t it?
We’re going to skip a lot of images here (there’s a reason) and show the almost completely-extended wings – note the time difference. No movement is actually seen from the wings at all, though the mantis does the occasional leg and abdominal flex while this is taking place, and is free to shift position. I knew that the only thing to see from this point on would be the settling of the wings into position and their slow change into the normal adult coloration – checking on the brown mantis that I had first seen, I knew this might take an hour or more to occur, with few images to shoot during that time, so I elected to wrap it up here.
The same mantis seen at top was still perched on the spearmint plant, but I took note of something: the eyes were not black, as they typically are at night, and the only times I’ve seen mantids without dark eyes this late at night has been when they’re very young, or as seen with the others in this post, when they’re molting. I remarked in a previous post that I’m not sure why this is, but it seems to be under some control. I watched this one for a short while, taking a close image of the back where the chitin will begin to split as the molting starts, then went inside and unloaded the memory card. I figured, if I left the mantis alone until it felt safe enough to begin, I could then capture the sequence after it was committed. Close examination of the image showed no hint of spreading or stretching of the chitin that would indicate the process had started already.
I came out and checked about 20 minutes later, to find no change in condition (though a possible change of position from the mantis,) and went back inside for a while. Then I got involved in a project and spent more time than intended before I came back out to check again. Ominous music here.
You knew it was going to happen, didn’t you? But I defend my reasoning in not making the mantis feel threatened before it began, and can only admit to taking longer than I should’ve between checks – with no real idea how long the full process lasted. But yeah, stupid me.
Now, if you’re wondering, no, there is no ‘coordination’ I know of where mantids molt into adults on the same night, and the latter two were both notably smaller than the brown one, who I would have thought would have reached adulthood before the rose bush mantis. Moreover, the pattern I seemed to see from earlier molts has been that it often takes place after a rain, and we were as far as possible from rain that night. So, is three of them all molting within hours of one another just a coincidence, or provoked by something? I can’t tell you (because you don’t need to know.) If someone does know, however, please fill me in – forewarned would be so much better.
Before we move on, compare the wings before and after – we’re going to be getting a closer look at them.
Seen from the side, we now know why the head was tucked so tightly to its chest, since the antennae still aren’t free. In fact, the forelimbs are still working their way out, only clear to the elbow, while the hind limbs are barely started – the blob right at the first joint is the head portion of the exoskeleton. We’re going to keep watching without comments from the Peanut Gallery (briefly – c’mon, do you really expect me to shut up for any length of time?) as the process continues. Again, check the times.
This is where it got really interesting, and I had to show a cropped detail shot. No, mantids do not have that many joints in their limbs – this is showing the softness and flexibility of the new chitin as the mantis struggled to free the hind leg from the old exoskeleton. You can see from the color within that now the middle limbs are pretty much shed (upper right,) but the hind limbs are still visible within the old chitin, between the middle limb skins and the abdomen. You can just barely make out the split seam of the old exoskeleton, with the wing sheaths plainly visible, and something more. As I found out last year, arthropods shed not only their external covering, but the linings of their ‘lungs,’ or more specifically, the tracheoles along the lateral margins of their abdomens that feed air almost directly into the tissues through a branching network, akin to a circulatory system. Thus, the little white squiggle you see right alongside the wings is likely the old tracheoles, with more of them visible towards the top of the frame.
In fact, let’s take a close look at those. The little pale puckers you see to the left of the red line are the spiracles – all the oxygen that the mantis needs comes through them. Yeah, arthropods use air much more efficiently than mammals do. As for the ragged, tattered appearance of the abdomen along the red line? Got me – sure doesn’t look watertight, does it? My best guess is that this closes up as the chitin hardens and the flexing necessary for molting has ceased.
The hind limbs seemed to take a while to get free, and I cannot tell you if this was normal or not, but I’ve had almost as much trouble trying to get out of a wet long-sleeved sweater, and performed much the same maneuvers. Albeit with less creepy limb bending.
Ah, there we go! And exactly as you’d expect, the mantis spent a bit of time stretching out the newly-freed limbs, though much slower than you might imagine. This is roughly the point where I happened along on the earlier mantis that evening (well, okay, the previous evening now, if you want to get technical,) so I suspected there would be a delay, probably from waiting for the limbs to harden enough to function dependably and support the mantis’ weight. So while we wait, we’ll go in for another closeup. Isn’t macro work fun?
We really needed a close look at the wings, and it was informative to me at least. I kind of expected them to be folded or rolled – I mean, even flowers form rather geometrically – but the wings looked like they’d been jammed into the sub-adult exoskeleton like a sock that’s worked off and sits in the toe of your boot. Very brainlike appearance. Also note, while we’re here, the translucence of the still-soft exoskeleton and the faint details visible within. Is this cool or what?
Though the night wasn’t over yet…
[Okay, it was, but that sounds better than, “The morning wasn’t over yet” – let me have my poetry.]
While just waiting for the mantis to start freeing itself from the exoskeleton completely, I glanced over at the other spearmint plant right alongside. Seriously, what the hell was going on that night?
Less than a meter away, a cicada of unknown species was molting out as well. In fact, it was close enough that, with some angles, I had to be careful not to bump the mantis with my head while lying on my side to get photos of the cicada.
I want to take a moment to paint this picture for you. The spearmint plants are less than a meter in height, and both the mantis and the cicada were at the same distance off the ground, 30 cm or so. Depth of field with macro work is very short, so it works best if you get the length of the subject’s body nice and flat to the camera, so all of it gets into a range of sharp focus – compare the first, daylight image at top to see the effect, though hugely magnified in that image since it was shot at f4, rather than f16 like nearly all of the rest in this post. Depending on the angle that the insect was at, I needed to be flat on the ground on my side, often aiming slightly upwards, and for many of these pics I had to hold my head about 10 cm off the ground. It doesn’t take long before this really starts pulling on the neck. Thus, between shots I was often lying flat on my back on the grass to loosen the neck muscles, and thankfully no one was walking past on the road to wonder what I was doing lying there with a bulky camera rig after midnight, staring up at the sky…
Those curled wings were simply fascinating, like overcooked bacon, and the flash was really bringing out the curious coloration of the translucent chitin. A few days previously I had inadvertently stepped on a cicada, newly emerged from the ground and ready to attach to a tree and molt into an adult. I felt doubly bad, since I try not to step on any insects if I can avoid it, but also since this was exactly what I’d been watching for: an arthropod immediately before molting. And in fact, that accident had occurred not two meters from this spot. That one, however, had been about half the size of the one pictured here, which is the largest cicada I think I’ve seen.
Keeping an eye on the mantis, I started working with the fourth molt that I’d found that night, at about an equal point in the process. Makes me wish I’d been looking around more, earlier, and caught this from the beginning. These were, more or less, in range of the porch light, which I’d turned on as soon as I’d started watching the mantis on the spearmint, but easy enough to lose in the shadows as well, so most of the detail I could see was shown by either my headlamp or the focusing lamp on the flash unit. In fact, I went through a significant number of batteries that evening, between the headlamp and dozens of flash discharges, but that’s why I have stacks of rechargeables.
In time, the cicada started stretching out its legs, and I was pretty certain this was preparatory to snagging a perch and freeing itself from the old chitin so, ensuring that the mantis wasn’t doing anything yet, I stayed with the cicada and watched carefully. But let’s take a closer look at that belly while we’re here.
Isn’t that a lovely palette? Very tastefully done, though The Girlfriend suggested that this was where some of the creatures from the Men In Black movies originated. And she might be right.
As expected, the cicada soon bent over and grabbed its own exoskeleton, pulling itself free from it with considerably less effort than the mantises seemed to need. And abruptly, almost escaping my attention, those wings had started to unfurl.
Watch those times, since you’ll get to compare them against the mantis; the wings popped out remarkably fast.
You might expect to see some pulsing of the wings as fluid pumped into them, or flexing or something, but arthropod circulation is not like ours, and the wings simply grew like leaves, not visibly moving but always further along when you looked back after turning away. The abdomen would twitch from time to time, but that was about it for deliberate movement.
You might also expect the wings to, at some point,stretch out to the side, maybe do a few slow test flaps or something, but neither the mantids nor the cicada did anything of the sort, probably because the wings needed to harden thoroughly before anything like that was attempted. I have seen insects with malformed wings, possibly due to some disturbance or damage immediately following molt, but I presume genetic defects are also a possibility.
The mantis could be seen extending its legs and perching onto the spearmint plant, so I switched back to that position – credit to them both for alternating their activities so, now that I was finally on the ball, I wasn’t missing anything.
I am assuming this specimen was a male, since it was performing agitated wriggles and shifts almost identical to myself when the shorts have been holding in too much of the day’s heat. With a wrench of obvious effort, the mantis removed itself from the embrace of its old skin and immediately turned around to face upwards, letting the wings hang down; I am guessing this assists in their expansion.
The thin stalks and sporadic leaves of the spearmint plant, while a delightful smell to be working alongside for this extended session, were not the ideal perch for the mantis, who often probed the air in an anxious-looking manner trying for a foothold.
I was still keeping an eye on the cicada, and this flash angle brought out some great colors from the wings and abdomen.
Pay attention to those wings, as well as the times…
[This post is taking as much time to write as it did to shoot, and the images were already edited before I started this…]
As this took place, the mantis started doing some ‘pullup’ motions, perhaps intent on finding a better perch, perhaps only provoking the circulation to help the wings extend. Its weight was bending over the mint stalk, so it would have needed to switch to another if it wanted a sturdier support. Should have thought of that before it commenced…
Dum de dum de dum dum…
This is better than a half hour after freeing itself from the exoskeleton, and ninety minutes since I found it already well along in the molting process – obviously this is a time-consuming thing. Two and a half hours earlier, I’d looked at this one and speculated about whether it was going to molt. Nature photography is not for those with short attention spans (or a nervous bladder.)
The wings are almost at full extension here, and at this point I took a quick look around just to see if anything else was about to start molting, even though I was tired enough that I might not have followed through if I found something. I was sweaty and hot, itchy from lying on the grass, and had a seriously stiff neck – but a pile of images that I’d never gotten before. I don’t think I got a bad deal.
The next morning (from my personal “day” definition,) the mantis was still largely in position, but the cicada appeared to have moved on… until I found it in the grass practically underneath the mantis (suspicious, that.) I have never seen one with this coloration, and so far have not been able to turn up the species. I let it be after this photo and it was gone the next time I checked – just my luck it’ll be something rare that entomologists would pay thousands of dollars to obtain (that happens, right?) But as the rains finally arrived yesterday evening, the mantis sought shelter and was soon found perched on the edge of our front door, so I was able to go out and do not just an adult shot, with the wings now showing their typical coloration, but a scale shot as well. The mantis wasn’t exactly thrilled about this, but not too panicky either.
So the next phase is mating (actually, that doesn’t sound right following an image of a mantis on my hand, so let me assure you that I am not involved in this process.) I have to wonder if I’ll get the chance to capture images of that, too – I haven’t managed it yet. Keep checking back.