The snakes are taking a beating

While I’ve been keeping an eye on the progress of the red-shouldered hawk chicks, I’ve been having difficulty recording it due to a lack of free time concurrent with decent weather – we’ve had way too much rain for my liking. Yesterday I finally got it together, and the hawks were happy to oblige me.

fledgling red-shouldered hawk Buteo lineatus stretching wings on edge of nestThe chicks are getting quite sizable now, able to move about with almost the same agility as the adults and often seen standing upright near the edge of the nest. The baby down is giving way to the flight feathers in the wings and tail, but the main body feathers (called ‘coverts’) have yet to appear, which means the parents still hover over them on wet or chilly days. The body feathers are primary protection against the elements, forming both a water-resistant barrier and an outer layer that can trap their own body heat within; lacking these, they will rely on the parents for a while longer. Yet the growing surety of their movements and the alertness with which they view their surroundings is a marked change from just a week ago, not to mention that they’re surprisingly close to the adults in size now. I haven’t watched them for a long enough period to determine exactly how much they’re eating, but it certainly isn’t trivial.

red-shouldered hawk Buteo lineatus chicks in tug-of-war over small snake
From the previous observation of their behavior, it appeared that the fledglings were starting to feed themselves, and they confirmed this during a shooting session yesterday morning. A parent appeared and dropped a small snake into the nest, not bothering to try and carve it up; to be honest, I’m not sure they even had the opportunity. Both younguns immediately seized it by either end and started a fierce tug-of-war that was delightful to watch. In the image above, the adult is to the left, one fledgling to the right, with the other just visible between them – the dark snake is easy to spot, but if you look close, you can see that the middle fledgling has a grip as well; the pale sharp curve of the lower beak can be made out just underneath the stretched body of the snake, right under the parent’s breast. I said it before: I would love to have a better view, but it’s not going to happen. I boosted ISO for this session to allow for a smaller, sharper aperture and a little better shutter speed, and the hit to image quality can be seen. This is almost full-resolution, a tight crop from the original frame.

red-shouldered hawk fledglings fighting over snake
While the beaks and talons are likely well-enough developed to chop up something as easy as a snake, the young have an instinct to gulp as much as they can before their sibling does, so biting through the snake would have worked against this. Instead, they simply tried swallowing everything they could while pulling it away from the other, and here I caught the back one in mid-gulp. But hey, I can do even better than this.

aimated tug-of-war over a snake between two red-shouldered hawk fledglingsWhen the action started I simply held the shutter release down and let the frames crank out. Later on, I took fourteen consecutive frames and edited them into this animated gif (pronounced “gorbachev”) because it shows the amusing struggle much better. Yes, video would be even better – drop me a donation through that ‘Feed the gator’ widget to the right and we’ll see what I can do. In the meantime, we’ll carry on with the still photos.

(Has it occurred to you that if the snake had suddenly separated, at least one of them might have been flailing madly trying not to fall out of the nest? It certainly occurred to me.) Through it all, the parent simply watched impassively, probably ready to help out if the young still needed their meat cut up for them, but otherwise secure in the idea that they had little to do except provide. There’s no chance for an adult to play favorites now; the game is all about who grabs what first.

But the day wasn’t over yet. I was about to remark that the morning wasn’t even over yet, but looking at the timestamp on the next photos, I find that it was just barely after noon, so…

I had taken a break myself after the young polished off the small snake, but came back out to my post when the cries of the adults came rushing through the tree canopy. I was able to see both of them wheeling along the same flight paths, and vaguely suspected that I was seeing a territorial dispute with an interloper. However, the lead hawk alighted on a perch about half as distant to me as the nest, and within sight, too; moving the tripod by less than a meter afforded me a quite-clear view of the adult.

red-shouldered hawk Buteo lineatus finishing off a captured black rat snake Pantherophis obsoletus
It’s obvious that the parent had yet another snake, this one markedly larger than the previous, and the hawk was intent on ensuring that the snake was dead – not at all surprising, since this one was big enough to make an escape if dropped live into the nest. From close examination of the photos I identify this as a black rat snake, and we pause briefly here for taxonomic trivia. Formerly known as Elaphe obsoleta (obsoleta,) the nomenclature has changed, but there isn’t a universal agreement on this yet. Overall, the species is now considered Pantherophis obsoletus, but there is some dispute over whether three separate regional species can be recognized; if so, that would likely make this Pantherophis alleghaniensis. Whatever – this particular one is hawk food any way you slice it.

The other adult seemed agitated by this whole behavior, perhaps because it disapproved of any dicking around that delayed food getting to the young, perhaps because it did not trust the other to deliver the food rather than keeping it for itself; I suspected this myself when I saw the hawk in possession avoiding the nest, as well as avoiding the other parent when they came crashing down on an adjoining perch. The second parent returned to the nest empty-taloned after the first flew off out of immediate sight, but this didn’t last long. Within another minute, the snake was delivered to the nest where the young had been watching the dance of the adults. And in fact, it took another close examination of my photos to ensure that the snake really had been brought in, since the young simply stared at it, perhaps too full to contemplate another bite right now, perhaps a little overwhelmed at the size which would prevent easily slamming it down; this one was going to have to be carved up first.

red-shouldered hawks Buteo lineatus presenting black rat snake Pantherophis obsoletus to young
It’s safe to say that these fledglings are not suffering from neglect in the slightest, and also that the local snake population is being visibly reduced. That decline isn’t likely to drop off in the next couple of weeks as the young start flying and collecting their own meals, but it might eventually spread further out as they leave (or are driven from) the area to avoid competition. Before then, I’m hoping to capture a lot of images as they start to learn how to fly; once again, we’ll see what happens.

Wake up, sheeple!

bumblebee on flowerIt seemed like any other day where I’d been neglecting my photo sorting duties and thus facing the daunting task of going through hundreds of images, but as they say, things can seem perfectly normal (if slightly guilty) yet suddenly turn dark and ominous. And of course, since I’d been putting this off, how much time has passed that could have made a bigger difference? How much farther along in an undoubtedly sinister plan have we been carried, due to my neglect? Or are we in the nick of time, now aware of something that might easily have passed, quite literally, under our noses?

I was going through the images of a bumblebee visiting a curious white flower, gathering nectar while distributing, as only an incidental by-product of the activity, pollen among the blooms. As part of my method of determining critical sharpness, I was examining the photos at high magnification – those that were too blurry under these circumstances would be discarded. And suddenly, right there in front of me, the secret was laid bare. Nothing can describe the shock that washed over me, the sudden shiver that caused my glasses to fall askew and knocked my R2-D2 mug over, spilling pens everywhere. In a moment, I was deep in the conspiracy, acutely aware that forces beyond my imagination were at work, industriously forging towards some unfathomable goal. And the responsibility to alert everyone, anyone, else rested solely on my shoulders, purely by happenstance. Naturally, a blog is the most efficient method of disseminating such crucial information. I wouldn’t expect anyone to believe me based only on my word, so I present the visual evidence, damning as it is.

There can be no mistake
It’s undeniable: what I took to be an average bumblebee foraging among the blooms was in reality a person dressed in a bumblebee suit. Had the disguise not slipped at the neckline, it could have gone completely unnoticed.

Complacency is our enemy, people! Get the word out at every opportunity – we ignore this cabal at our peril. Maybe this is just the first wave, or maybe there are no more genuine bumblebees left. Either way, it’s up to us.

If I disappear, rest assured there are contingencies in place, packages left in safe locations. This secret will not die with me.

A tiny bit of diversity

newborn Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis peeking from creeping jenny plant Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’

newborn Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis looking suspiciously at its hidden siblingThe hatched Chinese mantises (Tenodera sinensis) that I posted about earlier – and near-perpetually on this blog, really – have spread out across the front yard to some fairly remote locations; remote, at least, for something that measures 10mm in body length. Above, one stalks among the leaves of a creeping jenny plant, while at left another peers suspiciously at a glimpse of activity from the opposite side of its day lily leaf, apparently unaware that a sibling was perched there. They are, if nothing else, getting plenty of water, since we haven’t gone three days without rain since they’ve hatched, but as yet I haven’t seen them with any prey, related or otherwise. This doesn’t mean much – I have only seen mantids with prey a handful of times, but I’ve watched them grow huge in the meantime, so they’re obviously not waiting until I’m present.

On the back deck sat one of the remaining egg cases that I was watching, this one of a Carolina mantis, a differently-marked and slightly smaller species. That sentence is in the past tense, which isn’t entirely accurate since the egg case is still there, but this past Saturday it produced its own brood of newborns – naturally enough, I saw this as I was dashing out, unable to take any time at all to pursue the images. It was several hours later before I could sit down and apply myself to photography, and by then the activity from the egg case had largely ceased, and the newborns that I’d seen were already heading off into the world. Like their cousins, the Carolina mantises were naturally wary of my presence and that of the camera with overhanging flash and softbox attachment, so I had to go slow and look innocuous, which takes quite a bit of effort. Did I mention I was voted “Most Guilty-looking” in grade school? True story.

Two newborn Carolina mantises Stagmomantis carolina perched warily on leaf
Carolina mantises (Stagmomantis carolina, which sounds like a jazz player) are marginally smaller when first hatched, and have a more bronzed and translucent appearance than the Chinese mantids, but it takes a really close look to determine this – lucky you have me around. The Girlfriend and I are still trying to identify this potted tree, a transplant from her mother’s place, but it was close by and became a favorite haunt of the newborns; for the first two days it was possible to find a few in close enough quarters to get more than one in the frame, though this option has largely passed now.

Two Carolina mantises Stagmomantis carolina in curious posesMany of these photos look like they were taken at night, which is generally not the case. The cause is the camera settings: at these magnifications the range of sharp focus is very short, so I opt for a small aperture, usually f16, to increase depth of field. Camera shake can also be an issue, so I shoot at 1/200 second shutter speed, and count on the flash to provide the light that allows both of these to be functional; without it, the images would be drastically underexposed. And in fact, they are – but only for the backgrounds where the flash doesn’t reach, dispersed by the softbox attachment. There are two ways to combat this: have the background very close so that it can be illuminated by the flash too (this usually means an added leaf or something,) or have a secondary light that illuminates the background at the same time. This can be done, but it’s awkward, and changing position means the light has to be moved too, which obviously limits the spontaneity and grabbing the brief but compelling action of the ambulatory subject. What I usually aim to do is have something that can sit immediately behind the subject, like a nearby leaf, but otherwise not worry about the rest. As you can see, it’s easy to have one’s subject framed against pure blackness, which only works for some subjects – darker ones, naturally, can nearly disappear in such conditions, so I’m often picky about my shooting angle, and won’t even bother with some shots because I know they won’t turn out very well.

newborn Carolina mantis Stagmomantis carolina with fingertip for scaleBy the way, The Girlfriend was present for this session, unlike most other times, and she provided a bit of scale by putting her fingertip in the path of one of the newborns as it made a circuit of the same planter that held the egg case. Had she moved her finger towards the mantis, it would have shied off in alarm, but leaving her finger in place while the mantis approached was just fine; shame I missed the focus. In my defense, their movement will bring them into and out of focus in a moment, and this was the only frame where the fingertip appeared – it serves its purpose here, crap though it is. We’ll need this impression (about size, I mean) as we go in even closer.

On the egg case itself, three newly-emerged mantises still remained motionless. What appears to me to happen is that the newborns emerge from the greater confines of the case as little more than pupae, almost wormlike, and then immediately molt from their first skins and extract their legs. Normally when an arthropod molts, it locks its feet onto a handy surface and then withdraws from within, leaving behind the exoskeleton still gripping the surface. In the case of newborn mantids, however, they may not even have ‘feet’ as such, or at least not adequate to the task of locking onto something, so a thread remains attached to the case like a toddler’s mittens, anchoring the exoskeleton to the case and allowing the mantis to draw itself free against that – one of my whole points in having egg cases around was so I could see this in great detail, something that has still eluded me.

The closeups of the remaining mantises hanging from the case revealed a probable reason for their presence and immobility. Once again, these are less than 10mm in body length, and even my view through the lens was hampered by the lens being permanently stopped down to f16 (I go into this all here.) Just nailing sharp focus is challenging, and usually I’m wavering in and out of focus by breathing, so noticing fine details like this just doesn’t happen. The flash reveals more than I ever see when shooting.

newly emerged Carolina mantis Stagmomantis carolina apparently entangled in threads
This one appears to have gotten entangled in the threads from someone else’s molt; that leg that appears next to its head is most likely its own. I am not averse to helping along one of my photo subjects in such circumstances, but I honestly never saw the details until I unloaded the memory card. I did see this one twitch a few times, and suspected that it was simply working its way free – molting can take a while, though I think it’s a lot faster in these circumstances.

Yet, as I watched these stragglers in the hopes of capturing more emerging images, I saw a tiny jumping spider, not 3mm in body length, stalking along the surface of the egg case. Easily outweighed by the mantises, it nonetheless crept up to one, only to be spooked back by a reflexive motion. As I watched, it slipped around to the head of the mantis pictured here, seized it in its chelicerae, and started hauling away at it, obviously intent on bringing the mantis home, and I doubt as an adopted pet.

minuscule jumping spider salticidae trying to carry off newly emerged Carolina mantis Stagmomantis carolina
A note about the lighting. First off, a lot of images that I got in this session simply didn’t work, sometimes through focus issues, but many of them through poor lighting, despite the amount of effort I’ve put into creating useful lighting rigs. In this particular case, it had a lot to do with the branch that the egg case was attached to. The case was on the stem of a stiff weed, one with a spray of tiny branches at the top, and I had simply collected the whole thing with enough beneath it to anchor it within a pot on the deck. But this meant I could only go in so close, and at certain angles, without disturbing the remaining branches, on some of which still sat newborn mantids (and, it must be said, the web of another spider even smaller than that pictured here, too small to be a threat to the mantids.) I was hoping that the flash was adequate, and it seemed so in the preview LCD on the camera back, but upon downloading them I found very few were illuminated properly. It can be a tricky thing.

I shot several frames of the spider trying to make off with the mantis before I set the camera down and intervened; there might be a lot of perspectives on these actions, and hooray for them all – I am what I am. The spider was quite reluctant to give up its booty, but some gentle pressure with the tip of a pine needle not only caused it to release, I got the spider itself onto the needle and carried it well away from the entire pot. The mantis that appears here did not make any further progress while I watched, but the next morning when I checked on the egg case it was missing, while two of the others remained where they had been, unable to extricate themselves from their predicament. On two previous occasions I have come across mantises still hanging from an egg cases, both times only by a hind leg, and managed to gently release them from their bind; it might be something that happens a lot. As I said earlier, many arthropods overcome the high mortality rate among their young by producing lots of them, simply overwhelming the poor odds. Most of them won’t make it to adulthood, but I’m hoping that I can follow a few, at least, on a photographic record of their life cycle. We’ll just have to see what happens.

Let’s take a herpetology break

Because you know we’ll be back to the arthropods soon enough…

All of these, by the way, came from the NC Botanical Gardens, just not on the same day. There are reptiles and amphibians to be found elsewhere of course, but the conditions in the gardens are pretty welcoming to them, and they have enough human contact to be less shy than normal.

Green anole Anolis carolinensis in mid molt
On a fence where they’re frequently seen, two green anoles (Anolis carolinensis) were hanging out in reasonably close proximity. Yes, of course this is green – get your eyes checked. Actually, this dark hue is usually an indication of either a sexual or territorial display, more often aggressive – when the males are showing off for the wimminfoke, it’s usually with bright green colors and by flaring their dewlap, a fan under their throats that is brilliant pinkish-purple in hue. The pasty appearance of this one is due to molting; unlike snakes, most lizards shed their skin in patches and flakes, and at times it produces a very tattered effect.

common snapping turtle Chelydra serpentina peeking above surfaceOne of the two resident common snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) was peeking out of the water while I was around, one of the very few times I’ve seen this – their shyness is way out of proportion to their reputation and even just their appearance, but the ‘expression’ in this particular image is up for interpretation; I can see a lot of different possibilities, and I’m betting you could too if I were to merely suggest them to you, but I’d rather you take a good look on your own without the impressions. I liked the faintly eye-bending effect of the water’s distortion, where the portions above the surface look normal but everything below gets shifted in perspective and reshapes the turtle’s head – for a more natural view see here (and Mr. Bugg still hasn’t sent me my photos.)

American five-lined skink Plestiodon fasciatus drowsing on the rocksIn contrast to the startled appearance of the anole at top, this American five-lined skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) watched us creeping closer with little apparent concern, at times seeming to drift off into slumber. Eventually, we got close enough that it figured concealment was called for and it slipped into a crack in the rock sculpture that you see here, but not before we got a fine selection of images. It’s all about going slow, and getting the shots you can before you try to get closer. Not everything that you get is going to be a keeper, but it’s better to get an okay shot from a short distance than to try and get close enough for the best pics and scare the subject away instead, ending up with nothing at all.

red-bellied water snake Nerodia erythrogaster likely fast asleepWhile the skink was drifting off, this one was almost certainly well beyond that point. This red-bellied water snake (Nerodia erythrogaster) was sitting in plain sight right alongside the raised walkway, never even twitching as we leaned in close. Even with frequent exposure to humans, I find it hard to believe the snake was that conditioned to close approaches, but here’s the crucial factor: snakes have no eyelids. Basking as it was in a patch of bright sunlight, this one most likely was fast asleep, and our slow approach without throwing a shadow across its face wasn’t enough to trigger any protective response. Add in the raised walkway we were on the entire time, preventing us from producing any vibrations that the snake could feel (they don’t have ears, either,) and you get a distinct possibility that the snake was deep in Dreamland, or whatever passes for such with a snake (Carl Sagan’s book The Dragons of Eden gives some interesting speculations about how reptile brains actually work, if you have the interest – dreaming seems relatively unlikely.)

I’m fairly certain I’ve spotted this individual once before in the garden, but didn’t identify it then because they’re pretty rare in this area, at least in my experience – mostly it’s the queen snakes and northern water snakes. Back when I lived near the mouth of the Neuse River and visited frequently, I think I saw the juveniles from time to time, but never an adult. They don’t get quite the size/girth of the northern water snakes, but they average over a meter in length and perhaps a little more than 3 cm in girth – so, shorter but slightly thicker than the black rat snakes. In other words, big enough for those that fear snakes to react sharply, despite their harmlessness.

unknown frogs' eggs, as the filename says
I had to throw in these eggs, likely from some unknown (to me anyway) species of frog – I just liked the way the light worked on them, especially highlighting the borders where individual eggs were sticking together. I’ll try to keep checking back and see what develops from them.

But in closing, we’ll have to return to the anoles. I mentioned the dark coloration at the beginning of the post, and it was spotting another such anole sitting atop a fencepost that helped me find this one – the dark color told me another was likely in the area, and an incautious movement on its own part let me zero in. At that point it was consuming a caterpillar, but on my next pass around the paths it provided a nice, alert pose that seems rather unanolelike (given that anole is pronounced, “a-noley,” saying that word aloud is guaranteed to defy comprehension from anyone except a herpetology enthusiast.) Patience and timing allowed me to capture both the pose and the light hitting its eye, and I’m pleased with the image, but I’ll let you consider what it puts you in mind of the most.

green anole Anolis carolinensis ready to fetch

From octal to heximal

While I have a ridiculous number of images to sort through, mostly due to the hawks (I fire off a lot of frames to try and capture specifics of behavior as well as ‘something cute’) and I am behind on posting several photos of interest, this one jumped ahead of the stack for no good reason. I know, if I had to do this I could have gone with something much more appealing, but I’m me…

Fishing spider Dolomedes tenebrosus missing left middle legsRemember when I said that it would be interesting to see if the fishing spider managed to live peacefully in close proximity to the frogs? Of course you do – forget I asked that. Well, checking it out late last night, I found that something had changed since my last sighting a few nights before. I didn’t see this happen, so I can only speculate, but when I got this photo, a green frog was sitting not two meters away.

I see similar physical states among spiders frequently, and even watched one specimen lose a couple, and another with only three legs. Most don’t seem too affected by the loss, showing no visible reduction in mobility or dexterity (save for the three-legged one.) I would like to say I have the opportunity to observe this one’s behavior rather easily, but I have seen just two types of behavior from my resident here: sitting motionless in the flashlight beam at night, and hurtling under cover at first glimpse by day. So I wouldn’t be able to tell much, I suspect.

I’m curious as to whether this affects the spider’s ability to walk on water, but I’ve never seen this one close to the water, much less using it, and most times it’s on the opposite side of its rock-mound ‘home’ (what will eventually be a small waterfall, if I ever finish the damn thing) from the pond itself – they don’t need to be near water, but they tend to be.

Do they learn anything from such experiences? Does the spider feel pain? We honestly don’t know. But let’s think about it for a second. Obviously there’s a sense of touch that helps them find prey and avoid danger. But pain, to us, is a signal that something’s wrong, telling us that we’re bleeding or that we need to allow an injury to heal. For spiders, once the limb is gone, nothing’s going to happen – they don’t bleed, they won’t be waiting for it to heal, there’s no benefit to feeling pain in such circumstances, so our best guess answer to the question is, “Not as such.” Obviously, the loss of the limbs is not as life-threatening to them as it would be for us, so our instinctual reaction is probably quite inaccurate.

Fishing spider Dolomedes tenebrosus showing stumps of missing legs
(The spider was actually vertical, like the above pic, but it’s easier to look at this way.)

A quick update

There are quite a few photos that I’m trying to get around to posting, some of which I might simply throw out here with little explanation – I know, shocking, right? Right now, however, I’m going to post a brief update on the red-shouldered family.

Previously I mentioned that I had never seen the hawks bringing in what was reputed to be their preferred food, which is/are frogs. Apparently they read the blog, because I’ve seen them bring some in twice since; here’s a peek at one of those times.

red-shouldered hawk Buteo lineatus pair with frog bounty
The one with the red belly has just arrived with the frog, and is transferring it to the other to feed to the young, one of which is peeking up between them, that little shape directly under the one on the left. Initially, I had said that the one on the right was the female, but I’m not so sure about that now. The coloration isn’t any indication because it varies among the species for both genders, and while I’ve seen both feeding, the one with the brown belly seems to do it more often. Females are noticeably larger than the males, but it’s usually hard to tell even when they’re both on the nest together because of their positions; they’d have to be sitting side-by-side to get a good idea, and that hasn’t happened on my watch.

The other morning added some amusement to my vigil though. I was watching the red one feeding the young, which were responding with enthusiasm and more than a little competition; some snatching was going on, as well as a brief tug-of-war over a morsel that they’d both snagged at the same time. I can’t be sure, but I suspect the adults are subtly encouraging the young to be aggressive. I have seen them, more than once, tear off a morsel and sit with it in their beaks for a moment, not offering it to the young but not out of reach. After a moment, the parents will simply swallow it themselves, but the younguns might reach forward and grab it on their own before that occurs, and I’m not sure this isn’t intentional. I have watched some favoritism going on, the one closest to the adult getting the bulk of the food, but I’ve also watched the underprivileged one getting more aggressive and leaning in to grab what it can, and this may be nature’s way of encouraging such behavior.

While this feeding session was going on, the other parent arrived at the nest with, for reasons known only to itself, more nesting material, a pine twig with needles. The adult who was feeding seemed a little put-out, shifting to one side as the other crowded into the nest, then sidling up onto the limb to the right, before finally deciding to just vacate the nest for a bit. The new arrival settled in and began trying to pick a choice location for this obviously crucial bit of reinforcement material.

The young, however, weren’t done feeding, and as the parent lifted the twig again for proper placement, both of them simultaneously seized onto it. Whatever instinct or senses they might have to differentiate food from lumber apparently isn’t developed enough yet, because neither of them were letting it go, and the parent performed a little dance, lifting and stamping down one foot repeatedly in an attempt to pin down the twig and wrest it from their beaks. I have regretted not having video capability several times before, and this was another data point pushing me towards a camera body with that function. I watched this little drama with great delight and, somehow, no audible giggling.

red-shouldered hawk Buteo lineatus parent trying to take twig back from both offspring
There wasn’t a lot to see in the still photos that I obtained of the struggle, but if you look close, you can see the twig passing in front of both white-feathered young, with the adult still gripping it. It was eventually removed from their eager little beaks and placed lovingly within the nest, and I cannot vouch for whether the adult learned its lesson about crucial timing or not. I have mixed feelings about this all, too – I feel quite lucky to be able to watch the ongoing drama, but really want a better view.

More will be along shortly – I can already see the first adult feathers peeking out on the wings when the young stand up and stretch on the nest, so soon enough we’ll be seeing notable changes in coloration, size, and behavior. Keep checking back.

Monday color 128

unknown fly on unkown flower, whaddya want from me?
… or something like that. I’ve lost track anymore.

But this is from today, and it’s colorful, so it fits. And it probably goes without saying, but those flowers are pretty small, maybe a little over a centimeter wide, so the fly is eentsy. Not as eentsy as this, but still insignificant. Except to its mother, I’m sure.

It’s hard sometimes

I’m not going to put on any airs about being a professional, or possessing expertise, or knowing how to do photography right – I see a wide variety of skills, occasionally offer small pointers when I think it will be well-received, and don’t otherwise concern myself with it too much.

Make it stop, oh god make it stopThere’s a limit, however. When a friend comes to visit, one who has been shooting longer than I have, that routinely visits places like Belize and the Alps, and her most treasured travel accoutrement is a selfie-stick… well, it’s hard to keep the bile from rising.

And then – and then – she’s like, “No, c’mon, get your hand out of the way, I want a picture of us together!” No, seriously, don’t ask me to take part in this horror. I hadn’t even grabbed my hat so I could shield half of my face in deep shadow. And look! Look! She’s got a real camera right there! I can’t deal…

No, the proportions can not be credited to horrendous smutphone lenses – she’s average size, but I really am a hulking huge mass. She held the camera up high just to get both of our heads in the frame, since I’m two feet taller than her. The placement of the sign in the background is also all hers.

I imagine it’s akin to high school English teachers looking at the social media of their students a few years after graduation. “‘Your not coming’? ‘Shouldn’t of’? ‘Bigger then that’? I’m wasting my life…”

Mother’s day redux

Monday I observed (and posted about) the newborn Chinese mantises (Tenodera sinensis,) while wondering if the all of the viable eggs had hatched – I’ve seen cases produce multiple ‘broods,’ for want of a better word. I was up late Monday night, so didn’t get out as early as I should have Tuesday morning. Nature has a way of making one regret such actions; the twig that supported the egg case was literally covered in newborn mantids by the time I checked it, with no apparent activity from the case at that time. It would be nice to think I’ve learned my lesson, but I probably haven’t.

newborn Chinese mantises Tenodera sinensis clustering close to where they hatched
You have to appreciate the one up top, who appears to be directing operations…

newborn Chinese mantises Tenodera sinensis on day lily leavesTo say that the front garden is loaded with baby mantises now is selling it short – it looks like an invasion, and one does not have to look hard to find them anymore. In fact, it’s a challenge to find a plant that doesn’t have one on it, including a potted flower on the steps, which is an indication that some of them had to cross the steps to get there, making me even more self-conscious of where I walk. But at the same time, a lot of arthropod species reproduce in vast numbers because the loss rate is high, the newborns being too vulnerable to survive on average. If each offspring has a 5% chance of survival to adulthood but 100 are produced in a brood, this means five will (again, on average) make it through. I’ve seen several hatchings now, and despite the large numbers at first, by the time egg-laying season rolls around I can only find two or three at best.

It might seem harsh to us, especially with how protective we are over baby anythings, but if we really did have most mantids surviving to adulthood, the impact on the ecosystem would be severe. They would, of course, be eating a much greater number of other arthropods, including pollinators; we tend to label certain insects as “beneficial” because they consume the “pests” that damage the plants we like, such as vegetables and decorative species, but this is a narrow and egocentric perspective, and mantids don’t feed solely on the species we’d prefer. Nature doesn’t make value judgments, it just tends to balance out excesses.

Come to think of it, in all my time observing I’m not sure I’ve seen more than one of two mantids actually meet their demise; one of them was from another mantis, very close to egg-laying time. It’s obviously happening, but what factors are most responsible for culling the numbers, I cannot say. I’ll have to keep my eyes open.

The light was on-and-off today, vacillating between sporadic sunlight and overcast, and most of the time when I was observing the hawks’ nest it was overcast. When some sunlight finally did start hitting it, the neighbors (in whose yard the tree actually sits) were mowing and the parents had vacated the nest, though one of them would pass through the area periodically, calling loudly; whether this was typical territoriality or in protest over the noise and proximity of the mower I can’t say. Once the noise stopped I kept an eye out, as well as an ear; the parents tend to issue some calls as one approaches with food. It wasn’t long before dad had returned bearing a gift, and I was ready.

red-shouldered hawk parent Buteo lineatus bearing snake to feed offspring
I’m fairly certain that this is the male, and the female has a notably red breast (see yesterday’s post,) but I could be mistaken – usually it’s the males that are more colorful in the avian kingdom. I like the coloration of the other better, but this one was a lot more cooperative in standing aside and letting me watch the feeding process.

The principle diet of red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus) is considered to be frogs, and we have a pond very close by that should be able to provide plenty – not to mention another source even closer – but so far I haven’t seen such being presented to the young. Granted, I’ve only seen three feedings in detail, but two of them were small rodents such as voles, and a casting that I found in our yard supported this diet. And this is the second time I’ve seen them snag a snake. I really shouldn’t link to those posts since the hawk photos are so much better.

But then again, they don’t show the fuzzy little bobbleheads stretching their wings after feeding, either.

red-shouldered hawk Buteo lineatus nest with nestling spreading its wings
This photo made me pause, because if you look closely at the nestling on the right, you’ll see that something seems to be in front of it. I went back through dozens of photos, trying to determine if there was any evidence of three newborns, without any confirmation – I’m fairly certain, even from my photos of the feeding behavior of the adults, that there are only two. So what I think we’re seeing is the outstretched wingtip of its sibling on the left.

fishing spider Dolomedes tenebrosusWhile I’m still on the subject of motherhood, I’ll just throw this one out there. The fishing spider (Dolomedes tenebrosus) that I first introduced a month ago disappeared for a while, only to be found again a few nights back. Just this evening I photographed her again, and suspected that she looked a bit smaller in the abdomen than before; comparing the images offers tentative confirmation. Now, this could be because the cold weather forced her and any handy prey back into hiding for a bit, or it might be because she has now produced an egg sac of her own, likely hidden down in the crevice that serves as her home. I know the six-spotted fishing spiders suspend their egg sacs in the leaves of pond plants, and I have a nice selection of such that could serve that purpose, but perhaps D. tenebrosus is different? We’ll just have to see if the property explodes with tiny newborn fishing spiders, I guess.

[I have not said anything like the above sentence to The Girlfriend or The Younger Sprog – neither of them would really want to hear it. It’ll be our secret, okay?]

At the same time that I was obtaining that image, I went in close to one of the two resident frogs (which are so far avoiding the red-shouldered hawks, mostly by being nocturnal.) While I had long thought we had two green frogs (Lithobates clamitans,) I’m now fairly certain this one is an American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus) – it’s still a juvenile, but now bigger than typical adult green frogs and showing the bullfrog coloration. The other, however, remains a green frog. They’re both growing in size so apparently finding plenty to eat; if they like the massive millipedes that frequent the yard, I suspect they’ll be able to grow to the size of Clifford…

American bullfrog Lithobates catesbeianus posing for portrait
In closing, I offer another mantis photo, but this is more to be fartsy rather than illustrative. Taken about a week ago before the big hatching (thus from another brood, an egg case I’ve never spotted,) I snagged this one after a heavy rain, the drops acting as nice magnifiers for the leaf veins. If we get the expected rains tomorrow – uh, later today – maybe I’ll be lucky enough to do that raindrop-lens thing with a mantis as the subject.

newborn Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis on day lily leaf with water drops

A mother’s day post

I mentioned earlier, I believe, that I had a few mantis egg sacs that I was watching to see if they’d hatch, the intention being (of course) to photograph their emergence in better detail than before. One of the sacs was in the front garden where most of my mantis images from the past two years have been shot, and a couple of young-uns, not apparently from any of the sacs I was watching, had been spotted several times on the day lily plants. Early Sunday morning, as I was attempting to point them out for The Girlfriend, we realized there were even more than we suspected – a lot more. A close examination of the sac showed a thin clump of the telltale chaff that signifies a hatching. Which is about as close as I’m ever going to get to motherhood.

Later that day, The Younger Sprog came around with some calla lilies for her mother, and one pot of these was placed in the front garden behind the day lily plants (not yet budding out.) So this morning as I was checking to see if the sac might be producing more eruptions, I glanced over at the calla lilies in the vague hope that one of the newborns would be perched on a blossom, since it would make a great setting, and I’ll be damned if one wasn’t there! Couldn’t let that opportunity pass.

newborn Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis on calla lily blossom
This little sprog was well aware of my presence and noticeably agitated by it, so I was struggling for good framing; within a handful of images the mantis leapt away onto a nearby leaf, so I’m glad I was able to take advantage of the opportunity.

newborn Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis on calla lily blossom
Scale should be fairly apparent with these images, but I’ll say again that the newborns are roughly 10mm in length, easy enough to miss with casual inspection. Since the lilies that they like so much are right alongside the front walk, I’m always self-conscious about even walking past, but to my observations they tend to maintain safe perches and almost never appear on the ground; even when they end up there after leaping away from danger, they quickly scramble for height on anything handy.

newborn Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis on calla lily blossom
This is my favorite of the handful of frames, nicely positioned among the curves of the blossom; it would be nicer if the mantis had been facing me, but whatcha gonna do?

True to my word, I have been keeping an eye on the red-shouldered hawk nest (Buteo lineatus,) and yesterday morning we also had confirmation that the young had hatched, getting a distant peek at two fluffy white heads poking above the rim of the nest to receive fragments of food from the mother. With the foliage fully developed now the light has gotten a tad worse, but this is hardly surprising; hawks are smart enough not to place their nests in broad sunlight where their chicks would be susceptible to overheating and being spotted by other marauding birds. So the images are not likely to get a lot better than this, unless I snag a sharper 500mm lens (or longer.) Don’t hold your breath.

mother red-shouldered hawk Buteo lineatus with newborn peeking from nest
It’s always hard to gauge distance in such circumstances, but the lens focus ring seemed to believe the nest was about 40 meters distant, ten meters shorter than my guestimate, so you can decide who you trust. Nevertheless, the female appeared to be well aware that I was standing in the backyard behind the tripod and watching her, because she kept her back to me every time she was feeding the babbies, looking back frequently to ensure that I wasn’t creeping closer. At one point after feeding, she stood on the rim of the nest and looked for all the world like she was peering at the bowl judiciously; she flew off a short time later and came back with a sprig of fresh leaves that she added to the nest.

My goal, of course, is to be around when the fledglings make their first attempts at flight; we’ll just have to see how lucky I get.

Just to round out the post theme, I have to include an image from the previous weekend at the nearby pond. I have way too many images of Canada geese (Branta canadensis,) but I couldn’t resist firing off a bunch of frames as a family took to the water in the glow of the setting sun; a little ducking and dodging afforded me an almost-clear view through the foliage. I got the geeseling, and that’s what counts.

Canada goose Branta canadensis family taking to the water