Grab bag

newly adult decim periodical cicada Magicicada septendecim on rose leaf
Just a handful of recent images, some from before the trip, some from after – no real theme or coherence here, sorry. Above, a newly-emerged adult decim periodical cicada (Magicicada septendecim) poses on a leaf of The Girlfriend’s badly-damaged rose bush before heading out into the big bright world. Curiously, this was two weeks ago, which is early for cicadas, but more curiously, this was less than two meters from where I’d reburied the one I found in January. Same one? I have no way of knowing. This one, if I have the identification right, is a 17-year variety, spending nearly all of that underground attached to tree roots – unless, of course, they’re disturbed by someone doing yard work.

By the way, that rose bush is proving problematic. At the old place, I had mistakenly killed off a rose that The Girlfriend really liked, and vowed to replace it with a similar species (one that smelled lemony was the prime criteria.) The Younger Sprog found this one last year and I reimbursed her for it, but it was transplanted late and didn’t thrive. This year it got an early start and seemed to be doing well, only to get attacked by inchworms that decimated the leaves in two days. We all did routine worm patrols and stopped the damage, and it was recovering nicely, producing two new blooms. Then, apparently, a deer nibbled both of those off the other night, without touching anything else in the yard. Just to be perverse.

Last year, on two occasions, I’d found the shed skin of a smaller snake at the base of another rose bush alongside the mailboxes, but never got even a glimpse of the owner. Early this spring I found another shed skin, suspecting a garter snake from the size. I knew it wasn’t a venomous copperhead from the skin on the tail, and I’ll let you in on a little trick. On all non-venomous snakes in North America, the belly scales cross the entire belly, one scale across like a tank tread, down to the cloaca opening, after which they split into two staggered scales, providing a faintly braided look. The venomous snakes, however, retain the single crosswise scale down to the tail tip (or the rattle, if such a species, in which case the skin stops abruptly as if cut off.) But one morning, I spotted the owner sitting on the mailbox post soaking up the sun placidly.

prairie kingsnake Lampropeltis calligaster basking on fencepost
This is a prairie kingsnake, perhaps about 30cm (12 inches) long and the diameter of your finger – those diamond-shaped markings are a dead giveaway, though as they get bigger the markings may split up more. Completely harmless of course, unless you’re a rodent or another snake, which is their primary diet. This one is not yet big enough to take down any of the moles that are tearing up the yard, but it is still encouraged to remain for that purpose.

I did a quick trip down to the nearby pond this morning, collecting some water (and whatever little critters it might possess) and checking out the spring progress. The pickerel weed is coming along, almost big enough to start making the green treefrogs feel at home, though I spotted none yet. But the new blooms were out and the bumblebees were visiting.

bumblebee on pickerel weed pontederia flower
The bees were active enough to make nailing focus quite tricky, and I have a lot of images to throw out, but managed a couple of interesting keepers. I like the blur of the wings on this one.

Once back home, I started getting a bit of yard work done, which meant encountering several different arthropod species. I get the impression the cold winter slowed down the emergence of the insects this spring, but more are showing up every day. While doing some closeups of assassin bugs, I spotted this black ant industriously carting a dead leafhopper through the pine straw, apparently trying very hard not to ever come into the open where photographing them would have been easier, but somehow I snagged this image as they made a brief appearance in the light again.

black ant with dead green leafhopper

Back when I transplanted one of the new azalea bushes, the composted soil that we use sprouted, as usual, something else – it’s been largely pumpkins this year because we all did jack-o-lanterns last year, and now I know better than the let the seeds go into the compost. Anyway, I was about to remove the unwanted plant from right alongside the azalea when this little dude leapt away from my hand. It seemed more than happy with the new plant, so I opted to let them both remain.

young Chinese mantis Tenodera aridifolia sinensis posing near azalea

The Girlfriend has been trying to find the calla lilies that she likes, and we finally located a pair this past weekend. I had transplanted them into pots until we decide where they will go in the yard, and in going past one of them today, I spotted a little white jumping spider doing a patrol of the plant. The contrast was great against the large leaves, but my patience paid off even more, because eventually it jumped across to the deep maroon blossoms and provided this alert pose.

jumping spider Hentzia mitrata on calla lily Zantedeschia aethiopica
jumping spider Hentzia mitrata on legIn fact, I suspect the little arachnid was sizing up the gap between itself and the camera – they often do this, sometimes not at all bothered by this huge unfamiliar shape looming close, and I’ve seen the behavior they exhibit when getting ready to leap to a new location. This one made several jumps across the plant, eventually finding its way down to the planter and then across to my leg. I haven’t shaved in a while, and it seemed to find the experience distasteful, because it soon returned to the planter again. Yes, I’m embarrassed.

And finally, I close with a photo from the botanical garden a few days back, a green anole that had been trying to drink from one of the ponds there until my approach spooked it. I closed in on it while it sat among the leaves and obtained a nice portrait, cropped tighter here to show off the detail of the scales. I don’t know why, but I like the mosaic texture of lizard skin. The head, by the way, is probably about 15mm in length, smaller than the end joint of your little finger – macro work is fun.

green anole Anolis carolinensis portrait

Monday color 16 1/2

jumping spider Phidippus with unidentified beetle
I’ve been busy largely with yard work today, but I stumbled across this one and had to feature it. A quite large jumping spider, likely Phidippus audax, was contemplatively grasping some iridescent beetle that was still struggling, and the flash rig brought out the collection of colors pretty well. By the way, “quite large,” translates to, “about the length of your thumbnail.” It’s all relative.

It occurs to me as I type this that I have never looked up why some jumping spider species have such brilliant green chelicerae, and it’s possible that no one has determined that yet. Also captured in the image is the green sheen to the anterior median (front and center) eyes, which I’ve seen numerous times before and also cannot explain. Hey, I just takes ’em – someone else can explains ’em. This post is for displaying the lovely complementary colors, and interior decorators are welcome and invited to base their decorating themes on this image. I suggest calling it Phidippus Audacity

Monday color 16

closeup of Delta pure red pansy Viola x WittrockianaWe haven’t done red in a while, and it’s a color fairly well underrepresented in my stock, mostly because I dislike it – which is weird. Why should we like or dislike any one color over another? What thing in our brains is responsible for this? I mean, I can see the evolutionary benefits of recognizing bright colors as signifying ripe fruit or good weather and so on, but why any one particular color? In my case at least, it has nothing to do with not liking strawberries or tomatoes…

By the way, the previous Monday color was posted specifically because it was taken years ago in central New York, and was scheduled ahead of time to post then because, at that moment, I was once again in central New York, probably less than 15 kilometers from the same spot. It’s that kind of meticulous planning that makes this blog what it is.

But how? Part 18: A vague creative force

I would be remiss if I did not talk about this particular aspect of religion, the belief in a vague, indeterminate source of creation – and, honestly, I have, numerous times in the past, but always while dealing with something more specific. It deserves its own dedicated post, which will be many times more specific and detailed than the topic itself has ever been, so let’s delve into the question, But how about a vague and indefinite creative force?

My guess is that some variation of this belief is held by a large percentage of religious folk – or at least, held in part, and we’re going to come back to this shortly. It encompasses deism and weak theism, and can supposedly incorporate not just any particular religion, but all of them. Thus, the conflicts between various religions, the contradictory supreme authorities, and all such difficulties are resolved, so it seems, by the idea that none of them are quite true, but have the right underlying idea. Often enough, the idea itself is vague and subject to a lot of interpretation. The common denominator is usually a creative force or being that is responsible for “starting it all.” Other ideas, such as something or someone with a plan, or something/someone who wants humans to accomplish… something… come up from time to time, and what we start getting into is each person’s individual concept of what this force/being might be. Suffice to say there’s no chance of answering the millions of these and I’m not going to try.

The point I’ve made before is, so what? Such a vague definition doesn’t really support religion at all. We’re talking a truly huge gap between some ill-defined starting point and whether masturbation is a sin or what should be eaten on Fridays, much less whether children should be taught evolution and whether or not I can consider myself good, and worthy of some afterlife reward. There is, in fact, no connection to anything at all, without further distinctions, so it’s not support for any behavior – or if you like, it’s support for any behavior whatsoever. Both are equally worthless.

Which is where the “in part” fragment above comes in. Because even complete and abiding belief in a vague creative force provides nothing upon which to build or support an ideology – something else is necessary on top of that, but this deficit is never recognized, most likely because it doesn’t actually exist. Pretty much every time the argument for vague creation comes up, it’s to dodge all of the flaws in the specific, organized religions that people actually believe in. If some concept of creation or supernaturality can escape the flaws in logic, then perhaps religion is not completely corrupt – you know: they’re not wrong wrong. And of course, it works very well with the much-abused concept that you can’t prove it doesn’t exist. In this way, belief and faith are considered salvaged from total failure, even though the vague creation idea doesn’t actually support them. I always thought religion was supposed to provide something for humans, and not just serve as partial credit for a wild guess, but maybe I was wrong about that. Well, not completely wrong…

We can ask what there is to actually support the idea of this vague force, why the concept even exists in the first place, since obviously scripture can’t be used. And there are two primary answers to this. The first is, so much of the world is religious, so even though there are countless variations all over the world, changing throughout history, they remain evidence of something, the one commonality among all of them. This has been expressed as a sensus divinitatis, a proposed ‘sense’ of the human body to recognize the divine. Which is a bit like saying that humans all over the world strive for more money, so this is our ability to sense Scrooge McDuck. C’mon, how else could you explain this?

It’s a sense, so this means it has some survival value to us, right? And we would be able to tell when this vague creative force is not around? That’s what a sense is, right? I’m willing to bet the immediate answer to this is that the creative force is always around us, so it never shuts off – which calls into question how you could consider it a sense, but also means we are proposing more properties for this creative force without any evidence of such. And we must assume that atheists don’t have it, is that correct? What about those of us who once believed? Does it go away, like after an accident? Funny, mine seemed to go away the more I thought about how little sense (a ha ha) it made. Perhaps it’s something you grow out of…

The second primary answer to why we are to believe in this vague force is the hoary old argument that everything has to come from something. Except the creative force of course. I’ve covered this feeble argument before, but basically, who says everything has to start somewhere? Demonstrate the creation of matter, in any way that you like. No, the Big Bang was not the creation of anything (look it up if you need to) – matter and energy remain here no matter what, just changing form or transferring to another location. The only thing that starts, to be perfectly honest, is consciousness, the collection of memories of living things, even as the matter that supports comes from someplace else, not even bothering to carry this consciousness with it. It’s an exceptionally short-term function, unable to even pass along to offspring, but because it’s a distinct property of our lives, we feel it applies to everything.

This same bias in perspective may be what leads us to think that nothing is a default state, leading to the “why is there something rather than nothing” questions and so on. Or it could simply be that for a few thousand years we’ve been hearing the same old creation stories and have had the concept drilled into us. No matter what (god I’m on fire,) matter and energy can be found every place we look, and we have a firm understanding of the vast majority of its behavior, so assumptions about a necessary beginning come only from ignorance of this.

Now we come to the even more vague deities, the ones that are “all of everything,” or natural laws, or life essence itself, and all such claims – often characterized by the misuse of terms, e.g., Deepak Chopra’s perversion of the word, “quantum.” Most of these are so vague that one can only derive a value from them by enjoying the sound of them – sentence structure without internal relation. Seriously, god is nature? What does that even mean? I thought god was supernature? But without any properties or effects, these remain just words. You might as well say god is matter, or god is the space within atoms, or god is bacteria; what does this change, and why should anyone find this important?

Given that establishing either evidence for or a source of such concepts is exceptionally unlikely, we’re forced to conclude that what someone is working from here is simply feelings of spirituality – perhaps after other concepts of gods either failed to stand up under examination or were in some way dissatisfying. I realize I’m at risk of playing armchair psychologist, but if this isn’t addressed, the vague spiritualist will happily proclaim that those know-it-all atheists didn’t disprove their special version of god, as if there was such a thing as a burden of disproof – apparently, the default “nothing” state doesn’t apply to creative forces. Go figure. Regardless, if we have no properties and no explanatory power from such concepts, where else could it stem from except for self-indulgence? Even an overactive imagination isn’t going to provoke someone towards belief – that only occurs in mental illness.

‘Spirituality’ is an ill-defined concept in itself, mostly just covering feelings of awe from someone already inclined to seek a religious experience. The same feelings are easy to provoke in any number of ways, including meeting celebrities and being under the influence of drugs, but apparently these don’t count. Supposedly, if we feel awe when looking out over a majestic landscape, or when contemplating the interaction of life within the ecosystem, that’s our ability to recognize this evidence of creation. Aside from the fact that we have very good reasons for appreciating a fertile, habitable locale as opposed to an abandoned lot, it strikes me as far more awesome that such things arose through simple physical laws rather than being planned. Moreover, the idea is supposed to be that everything – including criminally-inclined and destructive humans with all of our pollution, including viruses, including species that eat other species alive from the inside – would have to be created too, so where are the spiritual feelings over those? And if anyone is accepting the entire universe as it is, well, fine – this is no different than accepting it without such creative influences. When both states – a creative force and the total lack thereof – fit the evidence without issues, how do we suggest that creative properties even exist, and why?

I keep coming back to this, but it’s key: there must be something that the idea of a vague creative force provides to us for it to have any value or point whatsoever. If we assume that creation is a ground state of being, akin to a physical law, so what? It’s not a law that we can use to either manipulate anything (like all other physical laws) or even predict; it is a definition without a purpose, like saying that I smacked you upside the head because porfodooti, porfodooti being the necessity of smacking you. Making up properties isn’t an accomplishment; young children do it all the time. What it invariably amounts to is, “argument for vague creative whatsit; therefore, I’m privileged.” Nobody ever argues for such a concept as if it’s a simple fact, like saying there’s a discarded cup on the street. It has some importance to them, in some way – most often, I think you’ll find, in a way that they know they can’t support with a rational argument, so they resort to a vague indefinite thing that can’t be disproven and consider that a win. They are convincing themselves that this curious force doesn’t need any properties yet still provides for their desire, whatever it might be.

The argument also comes up, surprisingly frequently, that we don’t know everything, so we can’t say that a vague creative force, or a monster in a Scottish lake, doesn’t exist. Both parts of these are purposefully misleading, however. No one that I have ever heard of in my life makes any claim of omniscience, or even close to it, while yes, actually, we can claim such things don’t exist, based on the very simple fact that we have no definitive evidence of them existing. That’s how our entire sensory system works, how our memory and learning processes work – everything is evidence based. Anything else is imagination, which is distinctly different, not just from the ‘reality’ standpoint but even distinguished quite well in our minds. Imagination occasionally plays a part in insight and theoretical science, but only insofar as it points us in a direction to look for evidence; without that evidence, it’s a dead end.

Even that is going off on an existential tangent to treat the idea with rigor, because it doesn’t matter at all. Anyone proposing any concept or trait has the burden of proof, the necessity of showing how their proposal is valid, applicable, and relevant. Plenty of things exist that we are unaware of, I’m sure – and the reason we remain unaware of them is because they have no affect on our lives. We can use our imaginations to propose a literally infinite number of possibilities, just like we can imagine plenty of fairy tale plots and whole new words (I’m still fond of ‘porfodooti.’) What about a vague destructive force? Shouldn’t that follow as well? And has anyone stopped to consider the logical necessity of a force for humor? It’s universal among humans and even some other mammal species, so it must have meeeaning. A significant percentage of the species on this planet reproduce sexually, so there must be a vague fucking force. Seriously, I can do this all day.

That hints at another interesting aspect of such arguments. To continue with that example, there are useful, beneficial traits of sexual reproduction (as opposed to asexual reproduction like bacteria,) and it’s easy to be ignorant of such traits. But to, first, assume that this ignorance is shared by everyone, and second to believe this opens the door for any explanation that can be imagined, is not exactly a path to solid results – yet it happens all the time. “How did it all start?” is a valid enough question, while often laden with assumptions that there must have been nothing before. Yet this doesn’t automatically permit, or even suggest, any kind of creation. If that’s the specific answer that we’re seeking, then it’s easy to believe it’s a logical, perhaps even inarguable, solution. Proceeding without such a personal bias, however, has been what has produced the vast amount of info that we do have regarding the formation of the universe, none of which points in any way towards a creative force.

And there’s one more aspect that demonstrates the bias inherent in such arguments, because even the assumption of such a force does not support the idea, pretty much universally held, that such a force is beneficent – it could just as easily be openly hostile to us, or manipulative, or any of an infinite number of other possibilities, with ‘indifferent,’ ‘oblivious,’ and ‘completely without any emotion or intention whatsoever’ having more than a little logical support as well. Again, hardly the stuff to build an ideology around. I’m fully on board with the idea that something provoked the expansion that we call the ‘big bang’ – but intentionally? There remains nothing to support that, and only personal reasons to believe it over the stunning amount of evidence that the universe is governed by simple physical laws. No one prays to gravity, or even expresses a belief in such – it just is. To go any further than that requires some emotional desire for it to be different, and that’s just self-indulgence.

Where’s Aldo?

unidentified snail on grape vines at sunrise
I should probably let the cutesy titles slide on occasion, especially when I’m reaching…

I mentioned the posts being thin, and this reason for this was that I was traveling – I mean, not the reason for mentioning it, but the reason for the thin posts… let’s leave my poor sentence structure behind and move on. Actually, we’re probably not going to leave it behind at all. Anyway, I had to do a trip to central New York, and was gone for just over a week. I don’t have a laptop, actually detesting the damn things, and the tablet is simply not the interface to even attempt something like posting, even if I had access to my images and a decent editor. I lined up two quick posts ahead of time and let them appear on schedule.

wild turkey Meleagris gallopavo under rhododendronsThis was family-related stuff, so there was little opportunity to chase photos – I would have liked to have gotten back to Watkins Glen and done a better job, but it was not to be. So I just grabbed a few wherever I had the opportunity, like the semi-domesticated wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) seen at right walking through yards where my dad lives, or the unidentified snail on the grapevines outside the motel room, visible at top. The snails were out in force, and I don’t remember anything of the sort when I used to live in the area, so I suspect they are a new arrival.

I must take a moment to give a shout-out to the desk clerk at our motel; I cannot remember whether it was her or I who started the good-natured ribbing war, but I’m more than willing to put the blame on her. She (purposefully, I’m sure) wasn’t wearing a name tag so I can’t really call her out here, but it might have been Theresa. Or Karen. Something feminine, anyway. Stay on top of the orange juice, whoever you are…

I took the opportunity to slip in a side-trip to visit some friends as well, enjoying some homemade roasted red-pepper pasta during my stay (which helped make up for some of the ridiculous time spent in airports.) And root beer floats – let’s not forget them. We also got out to see Mad Max: Fury Road, because, well, we had to. My knowledge about the film had remained at an absolute minimum, purposefully because of the project at that link, and I admit to having some misgivings about The Road Warrior being reimagined. Much of that vanished when I found out that the same director was in charge, and the rest dissipated not twenty minutes into Fury Road. I’m not going to spoil anything, and I’m not much for offering movie reviews, since so much of it is personal taste – I’ll do it for books with the assumption that, in being here, you have some vestige of the same interests, but the movie is pretty far removed from all of the topics I’ve dealt with herein. Suffice to say that it is not The Road Warrior, and it is not the CGI-laden superherofest that defines too many movies anymore, while still being heavy on the action – some of it, indeed, over-the-top. There are many subtle references to the previous films, more than I imagine either my friend or I have caught so far.

I am peripherally aware of some hullabaloo regarding feminist agendas and all that, and I suppose, if you’re stupid enough to find strong female characters to be unrealistic, the film might be interpreted this way. Can’t see it myself, nor am I very impressed with what many people claim lies under the surface of fictional works. But the internet is the official meeting hall for righteous indignation and teapot tempests, and it keeps our street corners less crowded. Jonathan Rosenberg at Scenes From a Multiverse has (as of this writing) a three-part take on that aspect.

More will be along shortly, as I get things a bit better organized, but I wanted to get this out before the date changes, because that’s important. Somehow. Keep watching this space, anyway.

Monday color 15

sunset over small lake in Weedsport, NY
Taken years ago while visiting the area where I grew up, this was a grab shot, seeing the sunset colors and hastening out to a spot where I could take advantage of them; a small lake just down the road from where my dad used to live fit the bill perfectly. Had I gone much farther in my quest, I might have missed out – when the colors come up in the sky like this, they don’t last, and ten minutes is usually too long to spend trying to find the right foreground.

For some reason, we don’t get many sunsets like this in North Carolina. I’m guessing it’s the humidity. The result is that my sunrise/sunset image folder is the weakest one in my stock, often only added to when we take trips elsewhere.

There’s a reason for this particular shot right now, which I’ll explain a little later on, perhaps in next Monday’s color post. Stay tuned.

On the negative side 3

teeth on unknown extinct ungulate
So, this is one of those regrets from my past – admittedly minor, and when examined it becomes more a matter of perspective than anything. Let me explain.

In 1993 I think, when visiting a friend who lived on the edge of a bog in Georgia, I had been wandering the bog in pursuit of the little crabs there when I stumbled across an odd object, and soon afterward another. They were lying right on the surface, having been exposed by the flood-and-subside action of the area, and I spent some time examining them to determine what they were – obviously, perhaps, because that’s what you’re seeing above. Notably, there were ‘cores’ within those rippled sections that almost resembled insulated wire, but no metal to be found. The interesting part was, they resembled bone in texture and coloration, but fairly dense stuff, not the porous and light femurs that I’ve found before. I puzzled over these for a long time, well aware that my impressions and guesswork were only that.

My cousin eventually took them into the college where he worked and found someone in one of the departments that was familiar with fossils, who recognized them as teeth – I had never seen the prodigious molars of either a cow or an elephant, so the resemblance to those was out of my experience. Moreover, this gentleman pronounced them as being between ten thousand and five million years old, which was the timeframe that the species, some cloven-hoofed ungulate, had been pushed that far south by the North American glaciation. He provided a family or order name, which I remember was close to an existing species in word structure – and that’s all I can remember.

Worse, I lost them several years later, and this is the only photograph I have of them. So I’m not likely to have them identified again, and of course don’t have them to fiddle with while deep in thought. This is very annoying.

And because I’m that way, I ask myself why I’m annoyed. They are items of interest primarily because of their age, and if I didn’t know that I would find them a curious shape and nothing else. They were in a location that virtually guaranteed no other remains being found, either of the owner or even of other examples of the teeth. I find it cool that I stumbled across something so old, but really, that’s about it. Minor conversation pieces. Nevertheless, I still wish I had them.

I was using an Olympus OM-10 for this photo, if I remember right, and didn’t even have a flash for it at the time, much less a decent macro lens, so this is likely taken with a 50mm f1.4 – I distinctly recall positioning a desk lamp to try and illuminate them adequately. I’m pretty sure you’re looking at the top of the teeth, the occluding surfaces that did all the grinding – they stood on edge in the creature’s jaw. If you recognize them, feel free to enlighten me, and at least alleviate that aspect of my frustration.

Three frog night

Copes Grey Gray treefrog Hyla chrysoscelis perched on pond iris
This next week is promising to be a little thin on posts, though I’m going to try and finish a few currently in drafts. But here’s a quickie.

So, on stepping outside Tuesday night, I heard the treefrogs calling not far away, and I decided I needed to try and record their calls. I grabbed my little digital voice recorder and the camera and began following the sounds, confirming my suspicions that they were in the ditch alongside the nearby main road – or at least one was, others being across the street. The recorder certainly isn’t even close to professional equipment, but it served its purpose here. You see, there are two species of grey treefrog in this area, and they’re pretty much identical; the only good way for a non-biologist to tell them apart is by their call. There is the common grey treefrog, Hyla versicolor, and then there’s the Cope’s grey treefrog, Hyla chrysoscelis – the latter has a higher-pitched call. I’ve heard the calls and suspected we had the Cope’s in this area, but it required recording the call for comparison, and I was finally successful at this. My amplified recording is below, which you can compare against this YouTube video.

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The photo at top is from the ditch, and that one knew I was mucking about and wasn’t going to do any calling for me – it had already hopped to a slightly less exposed position, thus the curious pose. The recording was made after I crossed the street, so it’s possible the guy above is the one you hear in the background. One of the foreground ones is seen below, since I pinned down its position by the call. Helpfully, this one was just below eye level in a cedar tree.

Cope's grey treefrog Hyla chrysoscelis perched in tree
By the way, I should say that both of these were typical size for the species, which is to say, 4-5cm in body length – fairly small as frogs go, and slightly smaller than the green treefrogs I showed off last year. But since I was now getting close to the nearby pond, I kept going, seeking the massive bullfrogs that I’d seen there a few times. By day, they’re extremely spooky and won’t allow close approaches, but at night, revealed by a flashlight, they’re less aware of the danger. Thus, I could get nice and close.

American bullfrog Lithobates catesbeianus posing along pond at night
American bullfrogs (Lithobates catesbeianus) can get pretty big, quite a few times the mass of the treefrogs. This one is about 10-12cm in body length, about the size of your fist – unless you have a small fist, in which case you should use mine as a guide. You won’t see any of these climbing reeds, that’s for sure.

And while I was there, I snagged one of their calls too, but this one was more distant and had to be amplified significantly, enough to register the sounds of the interstate in the background.

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After doing images of a few individuals, some of which realizing I was close and subsequently launching themselves back into the water, I headed back, spotting a green frog along the way, the same species that had been removed from our pond just a few days ago by the opportunistic red-shouldered hawk. This one wasn’t calling, and as yet I’m not sure I could identify the call if I heard it, but here’s a pic anyway.

green frog Lithobates clamitans
If you want to distinguish green frogs (Lithobates clamitans) from bullfrogs, look for the dorsolateral ridge, that veinlike wrinkle extending from the eye along each edge of the back – the bullfrog doesn’t have them. Plus, if it looks big enough to eat a chihuahua (we can always hope,) it’s a bullfrog.

Anyway, that wasn’t too bad for less than an hour’s casual shooting. And I did some wolf spiders too, which makes me recall that we haven’t had an arthropod post for a bit, and you must be wondering what’s wrong with me. Be patient – I’ll get something creepy up eventually.

Monday color 14

Amercian sycamore Platanus occidentalis bark with autumn leafIt took me a while to determine what this tree is, even though it resides in our backyard (the former owners didn’t provide a tree legend, if you can imagine that.) It’s an American sycamore, Platanus occidentalis. Though the background doesn’t really give that impression, this was taken on a rainy day in the fall, when the rain had brought out the curious coloration of the bark sharply – I won’t swear that’s one of its own leaves hanging off the flaking bark, but it looks about right.

I’ve suggested to The Girlfriend that she use the copious bark flakes from this tree in some artistic project – they’re almost like thin cardboard in nature, with a wide variety of colors, and are easily gathered from the ground beneath the tree.

The interesting thing about the color of this image is, it’s only the small bright patches on the trunk and the leaf, contrasting against the immediate surroundings, that make it seem ‘vivid’ – take them out and the impression of color drops off.

Good habits and bad

American toad Anaxyrus americanus camouflaged behind black ant on leaf
So for today’s topic, let’s talk about good nature photography habits – and bad ones too.

American five-lined skink Plestiodon fasciatus male with red head on tree trunkFirst off, let me just say that in the time I’ve been doing this blog, both of the species seen here have had their scientific names changed, because I guess taxonomists get bored. Actually, I know it’s because new information regarding relation and genetics and all that is discovered and the changes are made for accuracy, but for those of us who strive to include the scientific names, it does get rather taxing (Ha! Did you catch that? Taxing. Taxonomy. Why am I withering away here when there are all these comedy clubs begging for such talent?) The fellow at top (the one out of focus – I’m being fartsy again) is still an American toad, but now known as an Anaxyrus americanus rather than a Bufo americanus, while the embarrassed dude at right, an Amercian five-lined skink, went from being an Eumeces fasciatus to a Plestiodon fasciatus. Yes, a dude – the red head denotes a male. But notice, they’re both specifically ‘American’ species. What do you wanna bet it’s those Europeans who are provoking these changes?

All of that has nothing to do with habits, however, so let’s get back on track, people. Nearly everyone knows that nature photography takes sharp eyes, but hearing is also important too, especially being alert to the sounds that aren’t typical. Both of these critters were photographed on a recent outing not because I spotted them, but because I heard them as they darted for cover. Neither was particularly loud either – both times the sounds were the faint rustle of leaves as I approached. By looking immediately down at the sounds as they occurred, I caught the flash of movement which pinpointed their position even as they stopped moving to count on their camouflage.

The other example of this came up several times today, once even as I was writing this post. The windows are open, and scatterings of birdsong can be heard at just about any time, including the mad demands of fledglings from the nest box just outside the window. But at times, the bird calls would get frantic and quite close, with several different species taking part, most noticeably the sharp chirp of the robin’s alarm call. This prompted me to go out armed with the long lens. After this failed to be of any use, I attached a camera to it.

red-shouldered hawk Buteo lineatus perching and irritating the local songbirds
I got several glimpses without enough to identify it, but the protective songbirds kept pinpointing its location, and I finally got a good enough view to peg it as a red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus.) This was no surprise, since I’ve seen them countless times in the area and hear their territorial calls often, a repeating cry that sounds rather forlorn. But the way it was staying down low and cutting between houses, I was suspecting a bird-hunting accipiter, like a Cooper’s or sharpshinned hawk. It’s also a good habit to know what the local species are like, where they live, how they behave, and so on – this can (sometimes, anyway) help establish what you might be seeing.

red-shouldered hawk Buteo lineatus profile in greenNow, I may be partially to blame for the hawk’s behavior here, though wholly without intention. I have been working on a small pond in the backyard, partially ornamental, partially to attract photo subjects. It’s far from done, but I’ve placed the pond liner and filled it with water to get it settled in place, adding a filter to help control its use as a mosquito breeding ground. A few days back, I was made aware that it was already serving its purpose when I heard a loud plop as I approached, quickly determining that we now had a resident frog – I took it to be a leopard frog at first, but the markings indicate that it’s a green frog instead. I think it’s going to be one of those days – green frogs used to be Rana clamitans, but are now Lithobates clamitans

Within a day or so, I determined that we had two, one of which was exceedingly mellow and would often sit at the pond’s edge without moving, even as I did yard work very close by, or when I moved in for a tight portrait. Such habits can be very helpful to nature photographers, but aren’t exactly the kind of trait that any wildlife should develop. You see, one of the dietary staples of a red-shouldered hawk is frogs…

green frog Lithobates clamitans being far too mellow
In fact, I first heard the frenetic alarm calls of the local birds yesterday, and went out onto the back porch to see the hawk take off from the ground right near the pond, clutching something. It looked bigger than this frog, but then again, I haven’t seen it since. But now the hawk has been doing a lot of flying around at low level within the tree canopy of the immediate area, so I think that, in a rather indirect way, I fostered this behavior of the hawk. We have three occupied nest boxes on this property alone, two titmouse and one chickadee nest, and who knows how many robin’s nests up higher; none of them are happy with this development themselves, since red-shouldered hawks will also eat baby birds.

So now, on to my bad habits.

Al Bugg and black rat snake Pantherophis obsoletaOn an excursion to the river the other day with the unimpeachable Al Bugg, one of the things I was keeping an eye out for, again, were the snakes. Surprisingly, we’d been out for a couple of hours before I spotted a 1.5 meter black rat snake (Elaphe obsoletano, goddammit, it’s now a Pantherophis obsoleta. I mean, come on!) Now, I know wildlife should be left alone and not disturbed, but I’m rather bad about snakes; if I can capture them, I often will, just to examine them, and will take any given opportunity to demonstrate to anyone who should be around that few species present the faintest danger. If they appear to have eaten recently, or are engaged in amorous pursuits or things of that nature, I’ll leave them be, but if there seems little chance of interrupting them during crucial times I often won’t hesitate. The rat snake was quite mellow, as they often are, and made no attempt to bite, so we did a quick photo opportunity. And yes, I’m working on getting Mr. Bugg to dress more appropriately for stalking wildlife – he’s a UNC fan and often wishes to make this unmistakeable.

It wasn’t the rat snakes that I was expecting to find, especially not swimming along the rocks even though they’re perfectly comfortable with this, but the water snakes instead. We’d spotted a small queen snake (Regina septemvittata) early on, but I was after the more impressive species. Eventually, I came across one sprawled among the rocks in a rather obtrusive way. Once again, not a good habit here – too far from protective water and a very inviting target for hawks and herons.

northern water snake Nerodia sipedon being obvious
Once again, this is a northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon – still,) not quite a meter long; not huge but certainly noticeable. I was able to lean in pretty close without it getting spooked, which was a bit curious given how fast the ones at the closest pond will hurtle away before I can even see their heads.

northern water snake Nerodia sipedon portrait under shade leaf
This one didn’t quite let me get close enough to do a self-portrait in the reflection within the eye, but not far from it either, and it was certainly aware of my presence. Eventually it decided discretion might be a good thing after all, and it made quickly for the water – as quickly as it could, being four meters or so away among the rocks, anyway. We watched, and it swam straight out completely across the river, probably about eight or nine meters at that point. We moved on.

same northern water snake Nerodia sipedon in almost the same locationOn the return leg a half-hour later, I pointed out the spot as we passed it, and was asked if we would see the same snake. My answer was negative, because we’d spooked it enough to make it think the area was hazardous, and besides it had crossed over. So much for my behavioral predictions. This was waiting about three meters from where we’d had the first encounter.

I’ve compared several of the markings in the photographs and am quite sure it was the exact same one, not to mention that it still had that brightness from being damp. This time around, I was able to block it off from escaping, and picked it up, not quite getting the grip right behind the head that I’d wanted to, at least at first.

Author holding northern water snake Nerodia sipedonMy grip is not half as fierce as this photo makes it seem – basically, firm enough to prevent it from escaping but not even enough to prevent it from squirming. I mentioned before that this species is aggressive, and because I didn’t initially grab it where I should’ve, it was able to demonstrate this trait nicely, biting me three times as well as smearing my forearm with feces (a very common defensive act of snakes, as well as a few other species.) Snake teeth are sharp but ridiculously short, only used for gripping in the non-venomous species, so there was blood as proof, but that’s about all. Snake shit, on the other hand, has a very distinctive odor and does not go away easily, so I received the benefit of that until I got home.

People always ask, “Are you sure it’s not poisonous?” Yes, I’m sure. The markings are not even close to a copperhead, and those stripes along the lower jaw (seen very well above) distinguish it from a cottonmouth – which aren’t found much in this area at all (like, only once confirmed.) Those are the only two venomous (not poisonous) snakes in this region. Moreover, the habitat is what water snakes prefer, which includes the cottonmouth, but not at all what copperheads prefer; another aspect is simply knowing what is likely to be found in any given terrain. I think everyone should see examples of the local species early on, especially side-by-side if possible, so they feel comfortable telling them apart. There are far too many overboard reactions to snakes around here, especially considering the trivial risk – dicking around with your toy phone in the car is hundreds of times more dangerous.

trivial bite injury from northern water snake Nerodion sipedonUnfortunately, the autofocus wandered to the background on Mr. Bugg for this shot, and he didn’t get any others for security, so the detail is lacking here, but you’re seeing the horrendous damage to my hands from the bites. Actually, you can only see one, the slow-oozing blood on the middle finger of the right hand; there’s another bite on the base of the left thumb, which is why I’m holding my hands close together like that, but with the focus off you can’t even make out the tiny red spots. I did more damage to myself working in the yard earlier. In other words, big fat hairy deal, and this was with a provoked bite. Had I not grabbed it, it might have happened only if I’d stepped on it instead.

As for my interruption of its ‘natural’ behavior or whatever? First of all, humans are as natural as hawks, so any distinctions in such a topic are arbitrary, period. Second, considering the large number of people that would kill it, throw rocks at it, let their fucking unleashed dogs at it, and so on, we’re not talking serious impact from handling. And then there’s getting eaten by hawks, which is frequent and typical. If I convinced this one to be a little less blasé about where it sits and how close an approach it permits, that could very well be all for the better. Judge me as you wish.