Abstract twofer

raindrops beaded on leavesI realize I started a pattern with posting abstract images on the last day of March and April, then pathetically let this lapse for May. So, for June we will have two.

Neither of these need explaining, of course, so I will end the text here, and simply let the images speak for themselves. Stop raising your eyebrow skeptically – I have not been kidnapped and replaced with an exact duplicate.

stark branches against reflection of cloudy sky

Monday color 21

unknown Alaskan wildflowerOne more courtesy of Jim Kramer’s Alaska trip, which I saved for the Monday color post. I’m not even going to try to identify it – the botany is for someone else. Just appreciate the colors and contrast.

Chow’s on!

A couple of posts ago I mentioned coming back with more photos that followed the rains, and will repeat the warning here: this post is not just icky insects, but icky insects doing icky things.

The mantises have been growing at a noticeable rate, even though it varies among the many I can find. The ones on the Japanese maple tree seem to be finding the most food, and in some cases, it’s not hard to tell what it was.

Chinese mantis Tenodera aridifolia sinensis showing evidence of last meal
The ‘cotton candy’ visible on the limbs of this one show that its most recent meal was a type of planthopper we’ve seen a lot of this year, the citrus flatid (Metcalfa pruinosa.) They make plant stems look a lot like the mantid’s legs here, only more so. The fluff is the residue they exude from sucking up sap, and while it doesn’t exactly serve as camouflage, being visible from about half a kilometer, it does make it difficult to distinguish the exact location of the planthopper within. But not too difficult for the mantids.

citurs flatid planthoppers Metcalfa pruinosa with residue on plant stem
Curiously, it appears that the wings of the species develop before the final, adult stage, which is rare, even if they’re almost certainly not functional as such. For everything else I’ve seen, the wings only appear when they hit the last instar, the reproductive stage.

Both of the above photos were taken at night, so the eyes of both planthoppers and mantis show the color change that occurs then – red for the planthoppers, black for the mantis. As yet, I have not determined what purpose this serves, only assuming that it improves their vision while not giving a hit to their camouflage because it’s too dark to see the contrast.

chinese mantis Tenodera aridifolia sinensis on spearmint with unidentified spiderWhen we moved from the old place last year, we left behind a veritable forest of spearmint plants, one of our few regrets in that move – spearmint is, like, the best smelling plant ever. Sure, we brought along several with us to transplant, but none of them took – or so we believed, until one patch started coming back this spring. What you see here is not that patch, however, but one of two new plants we got started that is now thriving. The mantises have previously avoided them but this smaller one has been hunting on one for the past few days, and I spotted it when it was sitting in a provocative position under a spider. Naturally, I decided to wait this one out, making me immediately aware of just how hot the sun was beating down. But in counterpoint, at least the wind hadn’t kicked up the moment I started trying to focus with a macro lens, which happens more often than not. I think they should pay a bunch of macro photographers to live under those wind turbine farms and solve all of our energy problems…

Chinese mantis Tenodera aridifolia sinensis with suddenly appearing mealI don’t think it was because of any motion of my own, but abruptly the spider switched to the underside of the leaf (it was the heat I’m sure,) and the mantis stared fixedly at it. Yes, its mouth certainly does seem to be open – you don’t really expect much of any expressions to come from arthropods, but occasionally something appears anyway, strictly by happenstance. At this point the wait, which wasn’t very long at all, seemed perfectly justified, and I watched carefully, knowing that the strike would be too fast for me to time it usefully, but perhaps I could nab the aftermath.

Chinese mantis Tenodera aridifolia sinensis at moment of spider captureWith inordinate luck, I fired off a shot just as the mantis made its move – I had no intention of capturing the crucial moment, I was just grabbing another frame. Working with natural light, the surroundings look a lot better, but the action isn’t stopped by either the shutter speed or flash duration, so there’s some motion blur – which adds to the drama. There’s even a little blur from the spider’s legs, showing that it realized its peril in a fraction of a second.

But… who won the race? Is it getting all anxiousy up in here? Should I stop now, and continue in another post to let the tension ease a bit?

Chinese mantis Tenodera aridifolia sinensis snacking on spider leg
Well, technically, they both won. Or both lost – whatever, the glass is at midpoint. The spider escaped with its life, but not intact; this is why you see so many spiders missing a leg or two (or maybe I’m the only kind of person that notices stuff like that.) The mantis ended up clutching at least two of the spider’s legs, which the it consumed philosophically. Which makes me pause for a second, realizing that we’re probably the only species that does visible displays of chagrin when we miss a goal – cursing and stomping around and flailing our hands pointlessly. Was this something that was beneficial to our survival, a signal to the other hunters that the quarry was still at large or whatever? It certainly found a home in sports, along with the various displays of strutting when points are scored. We’re weird, aren’t we?

Chinese mantis Tenodera aridifolia sinensis snacking on katydid
Another mantis was found having moved to the rose bush out front, and was finishing off what I believe to be a katydid. It was down slightly into the depths of the bush rather than right on top, so I was trying a bunch of different angles for the detail shots, and happened upon one that worked for the action at the moment.

Chinese mantis Tenodera aridifolia sinensis eating katydid disgustingly
You know that first bite of pizza, when you pull away and the cheese is still gooey and stretches out in a long string? Or maybe a candy bar with caramel. Mmmm, just makes you hungry, doesn’t it?

[I told you it was likely to be disgusting. I just didn’t tell you I was going to make it even worse than the visual aspect.]

Chinese mantis Tenodera aridifolia sinensis with moutful in its palps
I also managed another vantage, this one obviously from beneath and so getting a little color from the rose blossoms in there. I’ve said it before, but I wish I had mouthfingers. Okay, fine, the technical term is palps, which just goes to show you that scientists are too uptight sometimes, because mouthfingers is way cooler. I just know these would make eating while reading or typing so much easier.

Hey, listen: the internet is full of kittens. Someone has to branch out a bit.

On capital punishment

Capital punishment yet remains a contentious topic, even while we’ve found comfortable positions on many of the moral issues we struggled with for centuries – slavery and racism, women’s rights, legal adulthood, and so on. Perhaps the biggest reason behind this is, there are too many factors that motivate a response, most of them emotional, and most of those have been bred into us for centuries. I’m going to take pains not to portray any stance on the topic, which hopefully shouldn’t be too hard, because I’m undecided on it myself.

First off, we have the justice system in the US, which has the goal of preventing crime, especially further crimes, and to do this, it has three primary facets:

1. Rehabilitate convicted criminals so that they may re-enter society in a functional, acceptable way;

2. Impress any potential criminals with the consequences of their actions;

3. Prevent incorrigible criminals from continuing to commit crimes.

Unfortunately, too many people don’t feel facet 1 is even viable, and in practice, it’s not demonstrating a very good track record, at least in the US. But also in here is the hidden motivation held by a lot of people, which is vindictiveness. This is kind of an emotional version of facet 2, in that it often qualifies the criminal offense beyond legal definitions, sometimes in the manner of who the victim is, sometimes in recognition of how closely we feel the crime. Someone who lives next door to a child who was killed is far more likely to demand a death penalty than someone who lives across the country. And there are, in fact, very good reasons for this. No, let me rephrase that: there are viable explanations for this, but these explanations deserve no value judgment. They are neither good nor bad, they just explain.

Our moral, social structure is something evolved into us over millions of years; natural selection guided us towards reactions that would create the strongest drive towards reproduction – doesn’t seem to connect in any way, does it? But reproduction relies on both survival and a strong tribe, among other things, and so we have a finely developed sense of what’s acceptable behavior within the tribe, and what’s not. Children are naturally our genetic future, breeding (literally) a stronger sense of protection over them, and our ‘neighbors’ – or immediate tribal members – are more likely to both carry similar genes, and cooperate with us in maintaining a strong tribe. So yes, from an evolutionary standpoint, the death of a neighbor child is worse than the death of an adult far away. But of course, this means that criminal acts can become too subjective, relying on the qualification from individuals as to how severe they might be; laws are a recognition of this problem, a fixed value of severity to attempt to rule out subjectivity. This only works if we realize why they are this way, and how variable it can be to rely on our bare emotional reactions.

Our developed sense of fairness comes into play, often with a simple comparison: how come a criminal, who has taken the life/lives of someone else, is allowed to retain their own life? Often it seems a shame we can only kill someone once, and in times past, capital punishment was occasionally carried out in gruesome ways. It is now usually considered bloodlust or barbarism, but we cannot ignore the basic idea that someone who has killed a lot of people can only themselves die once – the scales could not effectively be balanced with a simple execution. At least, if we consider “life” a measuring stick.

A variation of this might be our concept of “future.” We tend to be optimistic about the future, at least from a personal standpoint – we will be making more money, we will travel to that exotic location, we will finish that book we’ve been working on. But when it comes to the worst criminals, we don’t like contemplating the idea that anything beneficial might happen to them.

And then there’s simple fear. To a certain extent, the belief is that a severe criminal cannot be rehabilitated, and continually poses a threat to us as long as they remain present – this is exacerbated by the parole system, where criminals can often be released without even completing the term of their original sentence. This rarely happens in any capital case, the ones where execution would be considered a potential sentence, but this distinction isn’t recognized by enough people. Influencing this is the peculiar genre of horror movies, where the villain continually, almost supernaturally, returns from apparent death to wreak more harm before being dispatched in some spectacular way – this has never happened in real life (even Rasputin’s demise was less dramatic and possibly exaggerated,) but again, this distinction remains vague.

There are a few other factors, such as the belief that life sentences mean a criminal is languishing in prison with free cable TV and no bills or worries, not exactly an accurate idea. Or that the costs of their continued existence, paid for with taxpayer money, would be eradicated with a death sentence – in reality, executions cost many times more than a life sentence, through the exorbitant price of our legal system and the statutory appeals process. This far outweighs the cost of incarceration, which is considerably less expensive than living independently in any community. Too many of the factors upon which many people form their opinions are not accurate or realistic.

The rational argument often comes into play: there is nothing that can be done to reverse the crimes or ever make them ‘acceptable’ in some way – the families will forever feel the loss and anguish. From that viewpoint, the bare prevention of repeated crimes is the sole function, especially among those who recognize that capital punishment has never been shown to be an effective deterrent. In like vein (okay that was inexcusable, I admit it,) comes the argument that killing criminals makes society no better than those it wants to eradicate. Countering this, however, is the argument that it is not the action necessarily, but the reasoning behind it; consider that we celebrate Veterans’ Day here, essentially glorifying death as long as it’s “for our country.” Criminals, however, may act from a sense of selfish entitlement, unbridled rage, or even dysfunctional empathy, while capital punishment is intended to address how unacceptable this is within our society, as well as preventing it from happening again. If someone on the street stabs me in the bicep, this is a hell of a lot less damage and risk to my system than a surgeon removing my appendix; we have to be careful with how we’re measuring or viewing these topics, and why.

All of these, and likely a lot which I haven’t enumerated, crash together into the debate, everyone involved having their own personal recipe of motivations and considerations. Lately I’ve been considering an additional point, one that I haven’t seen mentioned yet I suspect more than a few people feel, at least subconsciously: capital punishment is not just for the criminal, but for the victims and families as well. It may be seen as demonstrating that we do hold the victims in higher regard, something that can often be lost when we see how oddly our justice system treats the matter. The accused are often guaranteed more benefits than the average citizen, from healthcare to attorney’s fees, concerns over humane conditions and even quick, painless deaths, while the families of such victims have to initiate their own legal actions (often at their own expense) just to obtain funeral costs or adequate compensation for the loss of a provider. There are also the rare cases when the accused is considered a victim themselves, suffering from mental illness, functionally incompetent, or (again, not often in capital offenses) a product of social failings. These – again, rare – cases may be taken well out of context, but more importantly, the problems with our legal system have no relation to what we argue for in regards to capital crimes, even when they’re intertwined.

Or, do they? There’s the perspective of a guilty person escaping “justice” (whatever that is,) but also the perspective of an innocent person being punished – this is where the failure of a justice system has a much bigger toll, and one that isn’t considered often enough. Very often, law enforcement personnel find fulfillment of their job duties in convictions, and elected officials will even run on their record of such. Yet convictions are not the key; accurate convictions are, and there is no worthwhile method of measuring these yet; perhaps there never will be. Juries can be biased over whether someone simply looks guilty, and we’re all familiar with the idea that an arrest means, “they got the guy” – before a fair trial has even taken place. This says nothing of the myriad issues with eyewitness testimony and the glossed-over weaknesses of various forms of evidence, ignored because they weaken the case (and thus the record) of prosecuting attorneys. Our legal system is not a game, but you couldn’t tell that from the attitudes and actions of most of those involved, who feel that a case can be won. The human element is a remarkably weak aspect in the whole affair, emotional and improperly focused and unable to wield, or even fathom, complete objectivity. We cannot even determine guilt, the truth of what occurred; all we can do is decide on what we believe occurred.

There is likely no easy answer to all of this, but to even guide us towards viable options, we have to agree on what we’re trying to accomplish, something that has yet to happen. Going back to the three goals of the justice system, we usually rule out rehabilitation as having any potential at all; that’s why capital punishment is even considered. Consequences are still often believed to be of some importance, even though this is most likely a kneejerk reaction; capital punishment does not demonstrate any deterrent effects, especially when those who we find most deserving are often socially dysfunctional anyway (that’s why they can commit such crimes in the first place – we’re usually not talking about the average member of the public and their social mores.) And when it comes to preventing further crimes for the individual, capital punishment and life sentences are equally effective.

But that’s not enough, is it? We want more, and I’m comfortable saying that this is because we have a drive to maintain a strong society; we want to weed out the bad elements, both by direct action and indirect threat (consequences.) We want to define our lives as being protected, mutually cooperative, and precious. There’s nothing wrong with this – we wouldn’t have survived without it, I’m betting. But how do these drives translate into an effective reaction to major crimes? Is it possible that we are driven, in part, towards execution for our own peace of mind rather than because it serves a specific function?

Most especially, is there a balance point between having a working justice system and believing it is performing as usefully as possible? It’s safe to say there is no perfect society on the horizon, no way that all such crimes will be forever eradicated, no matter what. But can we find something that a majority of people will agree is an adequate response to capital crimes? We easily recognize there is a debt, if you will, that can never be repaid. Or, is there? Is a portion of the problem solely in our perspectives?

Someone who loses a loved one over cancer may be motivated towards eradicating cancer, but overall, the loss is largely accepted as being something that just happened. Auto accidents are sometimes viewed much the same way, or sometimes seen as evidence that we are not accepting high enough standards for vehicular safety. But a murder usually becomes personal, and for far more people than the immediate family – this isn’t something that happens, but the actions that someone performed, deliberate and intentional; the more intentional and the more vicious, the stronger the demand for retribution. This is, again, those functions long bred into us for a cooperative society – we want to shape acceptable behavior for the tribe, and we can’t do this for cancer or random events, so these are viewed differently. But of course, beyond a certain point we can’t do this for people either; we just rarely recognize the futility of the emotional drive. Not to be too weird, but consider the woman who murders her husband for the insurance money; chances are, it’s not going to happen again, so the prospect of anyone else being in danger is not really an issue. Does that make it better? Yeah, didn’t think so.

Then there’s this little aspect that I don’t even have a decent name for, and forgive me for using this case example. It takes no effort whatsoever, at least in the US, to find those who have a strong opinion on the OJ Simpson trials, most especially the first; very often, you can find those who are quite sure what the verdict should have been. Curiously, none of the people I’ve ever spoken with about the verdict can enumerate the evidence presented and how it affected their decision – yet they’re perfectly willing to pronounce how the trials should have gone, and the flaws within. It’s not like the functions and purpose of our justice system are unknown or poorly illustrated, nor is it unclear why this is in place. But it’s disturbing just how few people accept this. From the incredibly ignorant practice of ‘trial by media’ to the fatuous argument, “Who else would have done it?”, our species is incredibly incapable of grasping the simple concept of, “Let’s see the evidence before coming to a conclusion.” These are the same people who make up juries. Is it even viable to believe we are capable of deciding fairly who lives and who dies? If and when a mistake is made, what do we decide to do in response to that? Are the same people who feel that wrongful death is punishable by death ready to step forward and strap themselves onto the table to atone for their incorrect verdict?

There are numerous contributions from our culture that affect our judgment as well. The phrase, “an eye for an eye,” is scriptural and extremely old, mixed in with passages about subjugating women and avoiding shellfish, but we can still hear it now, and a lot of decisions are based on a variation of it. Closely related is the idea of the ‘scales of justice,’ and how a punishment must fit the crime; this is nonsense on two levels. The first is, what purpose does this serve, and who stands to benefit? And the second is, we often don’t believe it anyway – employers routinely check into criminal records, and there are even laws requiring convicted child molesters to notify their neighbors, both of which demonstrating quite clearly that we don’t actually believe in either the ‘scales’ or rehabilitation (again, at least as practiced, or abjectly avoided, by the US legal system.) And then we have the peculiar currency of ‘life,’ often considering death the worst thing that can happen – yet when we’re dead, we’re not feeling anything at all, as opposed to any form of ongoing punishment. There are lots of ways to make people regret their actions, none of which will take place after death – and many of which impinge into the realm of barbarism. Once again we get into subjective ideas of what’s appropriate.

What if we ignored all of the aspects of punishment and revenge and deterrence, and instead simply focused on balance from a functional standpoint? There is no way, of course, to bring back someone who was killed, but what about seeing that the person responsible provides a positive contribution? Put them to work on projects that improve the community, or any community. No concerns over the cost of incarceration, no worries about criminals lounging around with free cable TV – and even a wrongful conviction doesn’t seem quite as bad then. This is actually practiced now, but to a very limited extent and, to the best of my knowledge, never with capital offenses. It isn’t exactly rehabilitation, but then again, neither is anything else currently in place for capital crimes, and in this manner there is a greater benefit than nothing at all.

Again, I’m not leading towards a conclusion; the entire point is to illustrate how many factors compete for attention, many of them emotional, some of those poorly applicable to the issue at hand. Like so much of human interaction, there is a broad emphasis on reacting rather than considering goals or functionality, usually without any realization that this is taking place. What we feel should be done is probably not as useful as establishing a goal and determining the most effective way to reach it – and this applies to a hell of a lot more than simply capital punishment, or any aspect of our legal system. But to go out on a limb here, I’m going to say that if we have a strong and immediate answer, it probably wasn’t reached by careful and objective consideration.

More precipitation

Near sunset yesterday the thunderstorms rolled in, with conditions too bright to do any time exposures, and after two hailstorms, the rains came again. It’s only been a week since the last, but with sweltering weather that’s causing the plants to wilt in between, and watching the level in the rain barrel declining drastically, it’s something I pay attention to. However, the day after the last we’d installed a second rain barrel, and they’re both brimming now, so it’s good.

The Girlfriend’s Younger Sprog pointed out the visible structure of one of the hailstones we picked up, and I saved it in the freezer for a quick photo illustration, done today when the temperature had returned to “steamy,” so it was melting rapidly as I got the shots, but it still illustrated the layered nature of the stone, less than a centimeter across at this point.

melting hailstone showing layers of ice buildup
The first storm deposited ice pellets slightly bigger than candies, but the second one following less than an hour behind dropped misshapen, ugly chunks up to 3 cm across, twisted and gnarled – I’ve never seen anything like it.

After the rain and the sunset, the critters came out to play, notably the treefrogs. The Copes grey treefrogs (Hyla chrysoscelis) were calling enthusiastically, one from the region of the backyard, so of course I had to go out and find it. While it stopped calling as my light approached, it got suckered into a false sense of security when I shut the light off and stood still for a few minutes. I’d suspected it was near the pond, and with a loud creeeeek it revealed itself on the fence immediately adjacent, quite a small specimen.

Copes grey treefrog Hyla chrysoscelis posed on fence
At higher magnification, the peculiar swollen shape of the toe pads is more visible, but if you look carefully you can see the toes of the farther (right) foreleg are actually propped up on a spiderweb – yes, they’re very long and attenuated. The ubiquitous pine needles can be seen adhering to the wet fence slat behind it, to give an idea of scale – I’d estimate this one to be no more than 4 cm, not much bigger than the gnarly hail.

Copes grey treefrog Hyla chrysoscelis in mid-callMore calls were coming from the cattail-bearing ditch alongside the main road nearby, so I naturally checked that out too. There were several in the low branches of a tree right above the ditch, calling exuberantly, though they typically halted as the light struck them, so getting an image of one in mid-croak, as this one is, took a few attempts. It would have been an amusing spectacle, as well: the ground sloped sharply directly under the tree, and as I was trying for a good vantage I would attempt to be higher up the slope, which was extremely slippery. With care and patience I would achieve a stable position, but then I’d raise the camera and shift my balance, often as not abruptly losing my footing and doing that sudden eruption of flailing arms at odd angles in an attempt to maintain balance. This was punctuated by both a headlamp and a focusing light on the camera, which would also thrash around in all directions. It must have looked great…

I had thoughtfully brought along the voice recorder, so I did a few recordings of the frogs sounding off, one of which was in a branch directly overhead, maybe a meter from the recorder. To get a real feel for it, boost your volume up a bit – the call should almost make you wince.

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My favorite photo remains this one, however, taken before another graceless skid down the incline.

Copes grey treefrog Hyla chrysoscelis in action pose

There were other critters out taking advantage of the humidity as well – the cattails in the ditch sported a variety of insects, including more mantids and this lesser meadow katydid nymph (genus Conocephalus.) It’s easy to mistake it for a grasshopper – I did, anyway – mostly because they’re closely related. You’ll see more of this species – kinda – shortly.

lesser meadow katydid Conocephalus on wet cattail leaf

I took another quick trip across to the local pond, spotting several bullfrogs and an untold number of long-jawed orb weavers, spurred into action by the recognition that the rain would produce more flying insect activity as well. It’s also been a very good season for mantids, which can be found everywhere. This minuscule specimen was parading proudly on another patch of cattails, different from the previous.

unidentified tiny mantis on wet cattail leaf

steaming pond by moonlightObserving the mist rising from the waters of the pond by the light of a half-moon, I went back and got the tripod to do a few time exposures. While I didn’t get anything exciting, and the low-lying steam can only faintly be made out, I did at least capture a firefly in the frame, the streak faintly visible against the sky – one of these days I’ll have to go to a location where they’re very active and do some more long-exposure shots. This one also captured a bit of depth among the background trees – other frames rendered them more of a single-plane silhouette. The green glow from the right is evidence of a mercury street lamp, the kind that are blue to our eyes. Even when I can selectively block the bulb itself from appearing in the frame, it’s hard to eradicate the light spilling from them. I’ll just have to locate a pond without any nearby lights, which could be a challenge.

By the way, see the faint smudge just off the leaves in the top right corner? That’s one of the aforementioned spiders, not quite holding still for the five-minute exposure. I actually did another shot of one above the moon (creative positioning,) using the light from the headlamp to illuminate it for a short exposure against the glare of the moon, but it didn’t come out quite the way I wanted, so that remains a project for a little later on.

tomatoes still showing raindrops from 15 hours earlierAt midday today the evidence of the rains still remained in places (I mean, aside from the debris knocked down by the wind and hail,) despite the temperature. Which is good – it will all vanish soon enough. In a little bit I’ll be back with more photos from today, but I’ll inform you ahead of time – all insects, and some may be considered pretty disgusting. I probably don’t have to worry about that anymore, since anyone likely to be affected by that learned their lesson long ago and hasn’t returned.

Report from the field, part three

raven Corvus corax portraitAnd so, we conclude our photo tour of Juneau Alaska, courtesy of Jim Kramer, unless he complains that I didn’t feature a particular image that he thought I should (you’ve seen fewer than half of what he sent me – I’m playing the editor game here.) It was a business trip with only three days of photo opportunities, so he accomplished a lot, despite the weather.

Seen here, a raven (Corvus corax) poses for a portrait. While their territory covers an awful lot of the North American continent, they aren’t to be found in Kansas, where Jim lives, or much at all in NC – I think I’ve seen them at a distance while at Pilot Mountain, but that’s it. They appear to be plentiful in Juneau, however, if the photos I received are any indication. These are pretty good light conditions to tackle subjects of this nature, by the way – the textures and subtle coloration of the feathers would likely have been lost in brighter, higher-contrast light, plus the associations we have with ravens tie in well with somber and moody conditions. A raven in a field of daisies just isn’t going to cut it.

view of Gastineau Channel from Mount Roberts
In recognition of Jim’s flat Kansas residence, we shall gaze upon more of Alaska’s ridiculously implausible heights and mountains, such as this view from the Mount Roberts Nature Center looking across Gastineau Channel to Douglas Island and the town of Douglas, just across from Juneau, the barest hint of which appears at bottom. This is from an altitude of about 550 meters (1800 feet,) which is less than halfway up Mount Roberts itself.

misty mountain near Juneau
I have no idea what peak this is – we shall call it “Squishy.” Don’t look at me that way, just because you’ve forgotten your classic literary references…

runoff down mountainside in heavy mistIt’s safe to say that if you prefer dry air, open fields, or lots of sunlight, Alaska is not for you. But that’s minimizing the dramatic and rare vistas, and even if you don’t want to live there, it can be a fascinating visit – I admit I’m envious. It’s the kind of remote and impressive landscape that you expect nature photographers to be inhabiting, instead of, you know, college towns in North Carolina…

Gold Creek, Cope Park, Juneau, Alaska
Jim’s comment on the part one post now has me identifying this as Gold Creek in Cope Park, probably named appropriately because Juneau was primarily established by the gold rush – there aren’t too many other reasons to form a city in the margin between the channel and the steep mountains, way the hell away from everything else. If Jim found any gold there, he’s been keeping it mum – I’ll wait and see what kind of new photographic equipment he suddenly acquires…

some Alaskan viewI am thinking this is looking northwest from Mount Roberts, and that splash of green is the marshy area of the northern part of the channel where the airport sits, but that’s the best I can do until Jim pipes up. I like the framing, especially with the trees reaching for the distant peak, and notice the depth provided by the layering blue haze.

wildflower in Alaska
Yeah, I know, now we’re getting into the kind of stuff I normally show here. It’s not exactly intentional, it’s just that there are too few nice scenic landscapes to be found anywhere in this area at all, so I’m forced into doing semi-abstract little tableaux. Lucky for you that the traffic noise never comes through.

Nugget Falls on Mendenhall Lake, Juneau, AlaskaThis is Nugget Falls, which empties into Mendenhall Lake not too far from the base of the glacier. Probably not a place to go tubing, no matter how xtreemcooldood you are.

mist on the mountainside, Juneau, Alaska
Serious humidity. I doubt anyone there is going out each night to keep the plants watered…

unknown mountain on flight from Juneau to Seattle
Jim extended the camera up on a really long selfie-stick for this one… no, huh? All right, fine, it was from the plane on the trip back, as Jim says, about 40 minutes into the flight between Juneau and Seattle. Playing with the map, I have a faint suspicion that this is Mt Ratz, but it’s only a guess. Pretty dire-looking peak though, ain’t it?

And I close with a photo that appeals to the humor that both Jim and I possess – since we’re both atheists, a lot of people figure this is right up our alley anyway. The figurehead over the door is great, but don’t ask me why the windows are mismatched, or why the European spelling of “centre” is used. Just for class, is my guess…
Unspeakable Acts Research Centre, Juneau, Alaska

Well, I still don’t know

unidentified smallish frog
After making the previous post, I went out to water the plants (yes, at 2 am, don’t judge me, I’m not judging you) and was able to creep up on the frog in the pond with the use of the headlamp. The bright light doesn’t register as a danger to them, so even though this one was the wariest I’ve seen in a while, I could do a nice portrait – despite scuffing my foot on the first attempt and sending it hurtling into the water (the frog, not my foot, which remains resolutely attached.)

The problem is, I still don’t know what species this is. In size and body shape it appears to be a green frog (Lithobates clamitans,) but with the lack of a ridge extending back from the eye along the body, called a dorsolateral ridge, it would seem more like a bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus) – both of these are common here, and found at the proper pond nearby that serves as the foreground to lightning pics. It’s a small specimen, about 4 cm in body length, so it’s most likely a juvenile, and no source that I’ve found has told me whether the ridge develops later in life.

You might think a nature photographer should know all of this automatically or something, and perhaps this is true for some definition of “should.” But here’s how it works for me: I have shot several hundred different species, from mammals to arthropods to flowers, and the distinctions of many are known mostly to specialists within a given field, such as herpetologists in this case – NC has at least 30 species of frogs and toads alone, probably more counting subspecies. What happens fairly frequently is that I shoot something and find out later what it was – or, also frequently, that I did not capture the necessary detail that would distinguish one species from another, such as belly coloration or the stripe along a leg. But considering how many species I can recognize on sight now, across multiple Kingdoms and Phyla, this method hasn’t been too shabby from an amateur naturalism standpoint.

Report from the field, part two: The catchupening

female Eastern box turtle Terrapene carolina carolina portraitI had actually planned to have a post regarding the summer solstice pop up Sunday, nothing elaborate, but at least containing current photos, but then life happened in the form of emergency surgery. No, not for me, but for The Girlfriend’s Younger Sprog who, in a fit of impetuous infection, callously threw away her plans to retain her appendix throughout her life. She’s fine, but we have confirmed that she doesn’t come out of anesthesia well.

Monday’s color post had been written weeks back and simply scheduled to appear – I haven’t been logged into WordPress since early Saturday morning. So briefly, I’ll mention the little girl seen here, an Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) that I discovered Sunday struggling in the pond in the backyard; this is notable in that it is a terrestrial, tortoise species that is not aquatic and thus not at home in water that’s 30cm deep and more. Which means my happening along was probably fortuitous, because she couldn’t climb out and was unable to tread water for very long. Despite the gratitude she should ethically have bestowed upon me, she was reluctant to pose for portraits, especially where the light was ideal.

Eastern box turtle Terrapene along foot for scale - yes, we have no bananas
This was clearly a female, about ten years old or so, determined by the brown eyes, the lack of a deep indent on the plastron (the bottom shell,) and the ridges on each scute (the textured pattern of the carapace, or upper shell.) She was likely seeking hydration in the hot weather, so I’m going to have to put a log or something into the pond to assist escapes.

small shy frog peeking from pondWhile retrieving her, I also spotted a frog submerging in the pond, and sat down after the turtle portraits to wait out the frog’s re-emergence. It did so only briefly, and not in a position where I could identify the species accurately, so this will remain a project for later. The pine straw seen here is ubiquitous in the yard, requiring daily removal from the pond, while the discoloration of the water is courtesy of the rains from a few days ago carrying in silt from the red clay – it will take days to settle out, and is one of the reasons why snorkeling in North Carolina is well-nigh pointless. Soon after this image was taken, The Girlfriend’s Younger Sprog said that she thought she should see a doctor, which sparked a 26-hour adventure. We’re going to ignore her next time she says that…

So, on to the travels and travails of Jim Kramer, the official Walkabout Noncontiguous Noncorrespondent. As is required by law when visiting Alaska (punishable by three years astonished disbelief from friends when told you didn’t go,) Jim went out on a whale-watching trip in [Al: fill in proper name here before posting] Bay. And, judging from the images, photographing whales is as tricky as photographing dolphins.

single fluke breaking surface
Everyone, naturally, thinks of whale watching by imagining a humpback whale breaching majestically a good eight meters out of the water before crashing back down in a mini-tsunami, usually while hearing the trumpets of the Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom theme* (which seems to be unavailable everywhere I look so I can’t provide an example for you young whippersnappers.) Such behavior, however, is rare, and normal activities of cetaceans consists of brief appearances to accommodate the necessity of breathing – the top of the head, where the blowhole is located, is usually what is seen, and then only long enough to exhale and inhale again.

orca killer whale Orcinus orca blowing
Here, an orca (Orcinus orca), more commonly known by the misleading name of killer whale, produces a noticeable spray from having water still present over or in the blowhole when it exhaled. If they’re anything like the Atlantic bottlenose dolphins that they’re related to, they appear unpredictably, meaning one has to be scanning the empty water for the faintest signs and quickly bring the camera to bear when they appear, with luck nailing the focus within a second. Nice portraits are challenging, to say the least.

orca killer whale Orcinus orca providing a brief portrait
I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who doesn’t instinctively keep the camera body level – maybe that’s a thing with Canon bodies and/or the additional battery packs – but at least I correct and re-crop them before posting…

orca killer whale Orcinus orca family of dorsal fins
I don’t have to ask Jim what species these are, because it’s obvious – not just from the color pattern above, but from the distinctively-shaped dorsal fin, which seems to droop only when retained in captivity. Jim was lucky enough to see several families it appears, and you have not missed the mist in the air from the recent exhalation, right?

However, the first of Jim’s images, above, I’m fairly certain is not an orca, but a whale’s pectoral fin instead – my guess is a humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae,) but this is only a guess based on just a handful of images and the knowledge that they frequent the area. Originally, the change in light conditions and species led me to believe that they were photographed with some separation, but the time stamps are intermixed with the orcas above, which means so much for my judgment. The image below remains my favorite, and also clear evidence we’re not dealing with orcas since they have vertical tails.

whale fluke breaking surface
Speaking of light conditions, pay attention to the drastic difference in appearance with the next two images, which are the same subject.

California sea lions Zalophus californianus chilling on a buoy
From the artistic standpoint anyway, I like this image better than the one below, largely for the contrast of colors, but the composition is pretty solid too, especially given that it was taken from a tour boat where control over positioning could only be achieved with timing. Personally, I’d love to take a kayak out into conditions like this, but the risk to the camera equipment is pretty high. I mean, I could survive a dunking easily, but even the humidity and spray could trash a body and lens.

close up of Califonia sea lions Zalophus californianus on buoyThese are California sea lions (Zalophus californianus,) not to be confused with seals, which are actually a different classification of pinniped – look for the ear flaps, just barely visible here, and the orientation of the hind flippers to tell them apart. Or if it’s noisy, it’s a sea lion. But anyway, notice the difference in color and lighting compared to the one above, especially the color of the fur and of the water. Mostly, this is due to changing position between the two, switching the angle from which the sun is coming at the sea lions and the water, but likely also due to the varying cloud conditions, which thinned a bit for the second image while not actually allowing direct sunlight to come through. Thus the shadows remain soft and contrast manageable, but the latter image doesn’t give the deep overcast impression of the former. While you might suspect the exposure meter of the camera had its say in the matter, there’s only 1/3rd stop difference between the two – it’s definitely the light.

By the way, as ragged as it looks, the condition of the fur is typical, and not indicative of illness or injury. The topmost sea lion, meanwhile, sports what I call the “chute didn’t open” pose, usually associated with sleeping cats.

Jim got extremely lucky with the next one, in capturing the elusive Alaskan man o’ war, the rare arctic version of the dangerous jellyfish/siphonophore found in tropical waters, vastly bigger than its warm water cousin.

jellyfish or iceberg? You decide
Okay, not really, I’m just foolin’. They’re actually pretty common.

* Seriously, there was this great triumphant, um, trumpet theme, a very distinctive fourteen-note volley, but the show dates from before video recorders and so few people would have a sample of it. It does not seem to have made it to any of the much-later DVDs and reboots, so I’m guessing the producers never secured the rights to it for subsequent use.

Monday color 20

holly leaves and berries against blue skySince it is now ‘officially’ summer, we will perversely jump back to almost the only color to be found in wintertime, holly berries in full fruit against the brilliant green of the leaves and a rich blue sky. I will admit to being quite pleased that we can find skies like this throughout North Carolina winters; having grown up in central New York, the winters there spelled overcast conditions for the majority of the time, which could be very depressing. The few occasions when skies like this appeared, it often spelled a wicked cold front coming through and, instead of being pleasant, it was bitterly cold and windy. The decision to get the fuck out of the state came on one such day, when our water pump had failed and I was in our shack of a wellhouse trying to get it operational again in wind chill conditions down below 0°f. It’s very easy to start asking questions like, “What am I doing here?” in circumstances like that.

Years before, we had taken our first trip to Florida, visiting a water park in February and so on. Flying back, we were above the clouds of course, just as brilliantly sunny as Florida had been most of the time, but on the descent into Syracuse we plunged through the thick cloud deck, getting darker and darker, and emerged over a dim, dismal landscape of dirty snow spread over dead grass among bare trees, remarkably monochromatic – not the most welcome of sights at the end of vacation, and I’m more than a little surprised the pilot didn’t turn around and head right back to Florida. He had the audacity to smile at us as we were deplaning as well.

Anyway, enjoy the color.

Report from the field, part one

Steep valley in Juneau Alaska
As hinted at earlier this week, we feature the first set of images from the blog’s official, um, Noncontiguous Correspondent, Jim Kramer, and his trip to Juneau, Alaska. We can’t really use the term “foreign” since it’s still the US, and even the continental part – I had opted for “discontiguous” but Merriam Webster tells me that’s incorrect. And truth be told, “correspondent” isn’t even working since he’s sent me roughly two dozen words in relation to these, due to a schedule that is best not examined closely. So any text herein, which will be minimal, is mine and subject to wild inaccuracies. I mean, even more so than normal…

view of Juneau Alaska from Mt Roberts Nature Center
Alaska is many times the size of Texas while only one-tenth as egotistical (yet just as prone to grave errors in elected officials,) and Juneau is the unlikely placed capital, way down this little tail to the south and likely viewed as “not proper Alaska” by the residents in the rest of the state. I’m guessing, anyway. Juneau has every appearance of losing its share of the bed to the mountains, clinging desperately to the edge and having continual nightmares of falling off – in fact, the city continues around behind the mountain seen to the right, there being just enough room on the bed for a couple of roads and a shop that sells parachutes for hikers. The image above is taken from the vantage of Mt Roberts Nature Center, which is reached by a tramway visible below.

tram to Mt Roberts Nature Center, Juneau
steep valley in Juneau AlaskaI used the word, “precipitous,” in the teaser, and anyone that knows me can tell you that I don’t use that word lightly. Juneau is an area of ridiculously vertical landscapes, as are quite a few portions of Alaska – not a play where Frisbees are popular, I’m betting. But you can probably hang-glide to Seattle…

I cannot vouch for whether it is always this humid there, but I imagine it’s pretty frequent. I also imagine that the spring thaw season gets to be a real mess. I am not a cold weather person, but viewing these pics while we were in heat wave and drought conditions in NC was kind of pleasant.

Now, a small bit of info. The clouds seen in many of these pics seem quite low, but they may not be any lower than the clouds we see all the time – they only appear that way because the peaks are tall enough to jam through them. I had the experience one time of being in the Blue Ridge mountains of NC and seeing a thick fog boil in very dramatically. In moments it became clear it was not fog at all, but a storm cloud at ‘normal’ altitude, when the downpour began.

ridiculously steep slopes in Juneau
Now all of this is scenic enough, but right outside city limits, as it were, sits Mendenhall Glacier – actually, quite a few glaciers, if they can even be differentiated in any meaningful way, but Mendenhall is the one with easy access. Seriously, check it out in the mapping service of your choice – it’s a pretty dramatic landscape.

Mendenhall Glacier long shot
Scale is always a tricky thing with images like these, but to help you out, there are still trees on the slopes alongside the glacier. To help you out even more, it measures 650 meters (2,100 feet) across the base where it contacts the water. Look closely at the details and keep those figures in mind as we go on to the next photos.

Mendenhall Glacier and iceberg
The colors and textures of the glacier are great, even in this muted light – perhaps they’re better because of it, letting more of the subtleties through without glare. I can’t help but wonder how old some of that snowpack is in there…

With a lot of math that I cannot do and perhaps a few details from Jim, I could estimate the size of that iceberg in the foreground. A faint hint may be gathered by comparing the ripples in the water, though it doesn’t help a lot, I admit. There’s a bit I can provide, however, even if I wouldn’t put any trust in my figures here: see the dark stain right dead-center on the glacier face, just a little above the center of the pic? That’s about 65 meters (215 feet) off the water, or roughly the height of a 21 story building.

texture and debris of Mendenhall Glacier
Even though this image overlaps the previous, you can see the difference in texture here, not just from the debris, but from the actual shape of the ice. I suspect a lot of it has to do with the fact that the darker debris absorbs more heat from sunlight and melts off the ice it contacts faster, smoothing away the surface more than splitting off icebergs, but that remains a guess.

By the way, this is a lake, with a tortuous path down to the bay – I have no idea how many icebergs actually make their way down to open water, but it’s quite a path to travel.

cascade alongside Mendenhall Glacier
I have no idea whether any path exists up to the glacier itself, but from seeing these images, I suspect not – it would likely be treacherous as hell just getting to it, and the crevasses thereon not something you’d want to fall into. Though it presents some interesting speculations from an archeological point of view…

I will close with one of my favorite images from this batch, which Jim has not identified for me. Geologists out there can tell me what produces all those colors in the rock, especially the foreground pebbles, but for now I’m just going to enjoy them mixed with the different textures in the photo.

unidentified stream near Juneau with whitewater and colorful rock