Spring is in the air, but the water’s pretty funky

Yesterday, The Girlfriend and I attended a party back near where we used to live, and afterward I wanted to visit one of my old haunts. The purpose of this was to see if I could find some praying mantis egg cases (‘oothecas’ if you want to be technical or sound pompous,) because I’ve found none in our region, and in this we were quite successful – I have ten in hand now, so we’ll see just how many photos this produces in the real spring. I had plenty last year too, but none of them seemed to have hatched, so I’m hedging my bets.

The haunt that I refer to is Gold Park in Hillsborough, and while there, we found plenty of other activity in the small pond, something that I’ve witnessed before. The weather was fairly warm, getting up to about 17°c, and the American toads (Anaxyrus americanus) had things well in hand, as it were. As we approached the pond, their calls were in distinct evidence; unprepared to do this properly, I nonetheless recorded a short snippet on my smutphone. Bear in mind that this pond borders a dog park and a kid’s play area a little further off, so there’s extraneous background noise; I edited some out and boosted the volume, but it’s not ideal:

Mating calls of American toads Anaxyrus americanus

Of course, I fired off a few frames.

cluster of American toads Anaxyrus americanus in amplexus
Most of the ones that we saw were paired in amplexus, which is the term for the male grasping the female from behind and essentially riding on her back, before and during fertilization – “mating” is perhaps a misleading term, in that they don’t maintain a pairing outside of fertilization, and fertilization doesn’t involve coitus. Instead, the female deposits her eggs and the male expresses sperm in the immediate vicinity, fertilizing the eggs in the open. Generally, it’s still among two individuals, but occasionally there are stacks of three, and ‘mating balls’ have been observed. So yeah, if you’re a toad, asking about your dad isn’t kosher.

submerged American toads Anaxyrus americanus in amplexus
Most times it’s at the surface, but at least before things get too involved, the pair may submerge at signs of danger or if another male gets too obnoxious. Now, during this time, they’re not too spooky overall, and close approaches aren’t difficult – they seem to be preoccupied or something. I’m a little amazed, given these habits, that they’re not consumed buffet-style by any predators in the area, but there are mitigating factors. Toads tend to have mating season a little earlier than the migratory birds have arrived, at least in my experience, and while I’ve seen a few red-shouldered hawks already (whose favorite food is frogs and toads,) this particular pond’s proximity to the dog park is probably a good deterrent for those. Sometimes it’s a confluence of factors that make for a popular, and populated, area.

obnoxious and unlucky American toad Anaxyrus americanus
I included the one above in particular because of our observations. First off, this one, definitely a male, was notably lighter than the others, even with the wide variety of coloration visible, and this may have made him less desirable among the females – it’s a bad trait to stand out when you depend on camouflage. But he wasn’t complacent in his lack of success, and continually tried to get in on the action with every couple that he came across, continually getting kicked away. Toad habits and ‘culture’ are of course much different from ours and we can’t judge by our own standards, but we couldn’t help but see this as obnoxious, and I dubbed him, “Frat Boy.”

Getting closer to the water allowed some details to become more evident.

American toads Anaxyrus americanus in amplexus on huge bed of toad eggs
In places, the clusters of eggs were quite obvious and abundant – that’s all of those little beaded tendrils. It’s pretty clear that, in a few weeks, this pond is going to be brimming with tadpoles – perhaps I’ll return to do a follow-up.

But yeah, if there’s that many eggs, imagine the sperm count. Not a place to go swimming.

Storytime 11

inverted thinstripe hermit crab Clibanarius vittatus blowing defensive bubbles
This week, we travel out to the shores of the Cape Fear River near Fort Fisher, just south of the ferryboat landing, to a little marshy area that The Girlfriend and I visited many years ago (and once since.) Wasting some time before the ferry to Southport came along, we abruptly realized that the whole region was literally crawling with thinstripe hermit crabs (Clibanarius vittatus) – or at least, that’s what I believe the species is. I would encounter them regularly in Florida, but there they seemed to live wholly aquatic lives, while the ones here were doing extensive time on shore. The bubbles that this one is blowing are a clue that it’s an aquatic species however, since they have to at least keep their gills moist while foraging on land, and this moisture also serves to produce a defensive display of bubbles that helps keep out the smaller predators. In this case, I might ignorantly speculate that it could also have been caused by being inverted, changing the water level within the shell, but I wouldn’t bank any money on that.

As hideous as this might seem, this close and with those pointy hairy legs and so on, they were actually quite cute, ambling all over the place through the marsh grass, retracting suddenly, and usually quite briefly, when spooked. Wait a minute without making any movement, and they would reappear slowly, checking for further action, before re-emerging and continuing on their way, which is how I got that image. I cropped it down for detail, but maybe it’s not as bad when it’s further back in more of a setting, without as much spiky creepy detail?

thinstripe hermit crab Clibanarius vittatus, wider view
I also attempted a few to show just how many crustaceans there were in the immediate vicinity, but the small size of the crabs meant that I could show something actually identifiable as a hermit crab, or a landscape dotted with things that might be stones or shells or whatever, but not both.

As I remarked within the second linked post, I returned to the same spot to try and get more and better photos, a year-and-a-half ago, but did not have much luck. I credit this to being there much later in the day, but maybe this one had spread the word since then and I was too recognizable.

Now, here’s a funny (but ultimately pointless) bit of speculation. I grew up mildly arachnophobic, and can’t really pin down how or when this might have occurred, with there being some debate in scientific circles that it might actually be genetic to a degree; the number of legs and the actions thereof spark off some kind of instant recognition thing deep in the recesses of the mind, and at times I can believe this, because certain actions of spiders can still give me the willies.

Crabs, however, are not that different, and have the same number of legs (if you ignore the pincers anyway,) yet I find crabs adorable and fascinating. Even though I’ve had a couple draw blood on me, something no spider has ever done. Make of that what you will.

That’s a little more like it

collection of basking turtles
The past few weeks, the weather has been wildly variable – still with more rain than normal, but with temperatures and conditions fluctuating almost daily and just about the only dependable bit being, when it was nice, I was busy with non-nature-photography things and unable to take advantage of it. This changed a little on Tuesday, when I actually got out for a little hike, but did not find what I was looking for (more on that in a later post) and only shot a couple of unimpressive frames. On Thursday, however – it’s still Thursday as I type this bit, but it likely won’t post until after midnight – the Prompt and Dependable Mr Bugg and I did an outing which produced more than expected, especially given that it’s been dropping down close to freezing overnight. We weren’t at all sure what might be found, but I was fairly certain that we’d see some turtles, with a slim possibility, given that the temperatures were to hit 23°c or so, that a snake might make an appearance. As you can see above, the turtles did not disappoint, and could be spotted in abundance. They were quite wary, though, and tended to bail their basking spots for deep water at the slightest approach.

Within minutes, naturally, I spotted a small eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis,) which made me think a little. We were at one of the parks on the Eno River, which is the almost the only place in North Carolina that I’ve seen garter snakes, something that I find curious. Back in central New York, they were by far the most common snake around, and we had oodles in the yard, and I had up to a few dozen in a terrarium at once (mostly due to a pregnant female dropping a brood overnight one time – before that it was only 13.) Regardless, it was an auspicious start, but I have no photos because I was holding the specimen while Mr Bugg took some shots, so perhaps you’ll see them over on his blog.

The session was only a few hours long, and we could barely call this ‘spring’ despite the daytime temperatures – there’s still a chance some cold weather will blow through like last year – but you wouldn’t know it from the herpetological activity. A little later on, I happened upon a northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon sipedon) basking on a tree root alongside the water, which is very typical behavior.

Northern watersnake Nerodia sipedon sipedon basking
This one was quite alert, and upon first seeing it I backed out of sight to change lenses, then took a few longer shots. As I stepped cautiously closer while whistling for Mr Bugg to come over, it started sliding prudently from its perch, ready to slip into the water. It paused long enough to allow us both to get a few shots, but vanished entirely as I slipped around the other side of the tree to try and get a shot from directly above. As water snakes go, this one was medium-sized, perhaps a little bigger around than my thumb. The Eno River is a favorite haunt of the species, but the last time we were there they seemed to be scarce.

As it was, we spotted seven different snakes all told, of (at least) three different species; there was a chance one of them was a banded water snake (Nerodia fasciata) because they’re nearly identical and require a halfway-decent view of the markings to tell apart, which we didn’t get for one of them. And of course, the other very common water snake in the region is the queen snake, not too different from a garter snake and not at all fierce looking.

A bit later in the session, we heard the calls of some chorus frogs up in the forested areas bordering the river. The first time they seemed a little too distant to try and pursue, especially since we had more areas that we wanted to explore, but the second time the calls were closer and we were approaching the end of the session, so I figured it was a nice opportunity to seek them out. I knew they’d be in some shallow pool or pond area and would cease calling on our approach, but it was a bright sunny day and we stood a chance of seeing the diminutive amphibians if we looked close, or if we spooked them from the water’s edge (which is many times more likely, really.) It turned out that not only were they closer than I suspected, they were easier to find as well.

unidentified chorus frog in water
First off, I liked the little starburst on its shoulder, so much that this image is named “Brigadier.jpg” (a one-star general is also known as a brigadier general – I’m too clever for my own good.) However, I have to admit that I do not know what species this is, even after more than a little research. The markings do not match any photos nor descriptions that I’ve found, and while I’d like to consider this a juvenile and not in possession of adult markings yet, it’s really not the time of the year to find such things either – too early for this year’s hatchings, and last year’s should have been fully adult before they hibernated in the mud for the winter. So, if you know what this is, shout it out, don’t be shy.

unidentified chorus frog
It goes without saying that all calls had ceased long before we even got close, so no help there. I’d say 20-25mm in body length.

unidentified chorus frog
This one was remarkably cooperative, really. After first attracting my attention by jumping into the water (first shot,) it stayed put in clear view and bright sunlight even as I switched to the other side of the little basin it was in, and then swam to the edge and clambered out right in front of me. Even more astounding, it accepted a gentle nudge from me when that twig shadow was falling right across its eye, shifting to a slightly better position. I think it actually knew that I’d go crazy trying to determine its species, and so impishly posed so cooperatively to let me think I was being lucky, knowing the payback would come hours later. That’s playing the long game, that is.

either upland chorus frog Pseudacris feriarum or southern chorus frog Pseudacris nigrita floating upright under surface
Mr Bugg supposedly got photos of me taking this shot and promised to send them to me as soon as he got home, but hasn’t yet done this even though I gave him two reminders, so… yeah. This is either an upland chorus frog (Pseudacris feriarum) or a southern chorus frog (Pseudacris nigrita) – their ranges overlap in this region and no guide that I have found gives any help in distinguishing the two, save the calls which, again, weren’t. I saw this one just floating upright under the surface… can it be floating if it’s submerged? It obviously wasn’t supporting itself on the bottom. Anyway, it stayed put, again quite cooperatively, while I stretched out on a limb that crossed the little pool and aimed straight down from above, only centimeters from the water’s surface, one of the odd things that macro photographers do even though I can’t show it to you because Mr Bugg. After my shots, I slipped a hand into the water and gently nudged it and it swam a short distance away, proving that it just wasn’t afraid of me enough to disturb its meditation.

Another of the same species (maybe) swam to the edge of the pool right beneath me and paused there, almost hidden, and when I tried to gently nudge it out into the open it instead crawled onto my hand. Okay then.

either upland chorus frog Pseudacris feriarum or southern chorus frog Pseudacris nigrita perched on author's fingers
You want a better look at those eyes, don’t you? Of course you do.

same image cropped tighter
Notice how that dark band is semi-replicated right through the eye. Presumably this contrast marking accomplishes something, though to me it just made them easier to spot.

Leaving that little pool, we returned to the river’s edge with just a few more minutes before we had to head back, and I announced that we’d try to add another water snake to our tally for the day. This took all of three minutes, I believe.

nothern water snake Nerodia sipedon sipedon sleeping on exposed roots
Another northern water snake, this one was easily twice the mass of the previous finds, and I could see through the viewfinder that the eyes seemed to be either muddy or clouded, perhaps both. I surmise that it had just freed itself from the winter’s mud, but it could also have been approaching a molt, which causes the eyes to cloud up a bit. This one was almost certainly fast asleep, because it didn’t twitch in the slightest even though I approached to within a meter – much closer than the other snakes of the day that beat a hasty retreat. Come to think of it, maybe snakes can’t “beat a retreat” – you need feets for that. I’ll have to look it up.

Our attention to this one was noticed by some passing hikers, who got to hear me mouth off about the species before one of them pointed out another snake that was just a couple meters away in plain site atop some moss, one that we’d both missed. This one was another queen snake (Regina septemvittata,) coiled smartly and also not twitching.

queen snake Regina septemvittata basking on riverbank
I included this image because I like how the light brought out the textures of those scales, but it’s ridiculously deceptive – this one was many times smaller than the northern water snake preceding it, only about as big around as my little finger at most. Snakes don’t have eyelids so you can’t tell when they’re asleep except for their lack of response to a close approach, but if you throw your shadow over them they’ll take off in a flash. This one didn’t move until I had actually grasped it, and unlike the other named species, queen snakes aren’t in the least aggressive, so all it did was struggle in a very half-hearted way, and I soon released it after a few pics; getting ahold of it was partly to confirm that it really had been asleep, and partly to demonstrate how harmless most snakes are.

And finally, I close with a non-herp image, one of the many small wildflowers that were making their first appearance throughout the park. This is a Virginia spring beauty (Claytonia virginica,) which along with some winter speedwell and trout lilies were the first bits of color to appear – well, let’s not dismiss the daffodils, but seriously, they don’t count. Don’t ask me what a Virginia flower is doing way down here – probably just trying to get some greater distance from DC, and who can blame it?

Virginia spring beauty Claytonia virginica blossom

There’s a reason it’s called a “conclusion”

I’ve had this subject sitting in the folder for some time, waiting for the right mood to tackle it, and diving down a rabbit hole earlier prompted me to give it the full treatment. Okay, that was all rather vague, wasn’t it?

The thing that provoked this was running across a reference to James Earl Ray, the man who assassinated Martin Luther King Jr, and realizing that I knew very little about the situation, so I did a quick check to fill in my knowledge. Or intended to, anyway – it appears that, like the Kennedy assassination, there are more than a few conspiracy wild-ass-guesses floating around out there. No, I am not using the word “theory” because it in no way applies, to either situation; a theory is a potential explanation that fits all of the known facts and usually serves to predict further findings, and nothing that I have come across, in either of the named situations and countless other ‘conspiracies’ as well, even comes close to such a thing.

For brevity, here’s the basics: while all evidence points to Ray working alone as a disgruntled and openly racist lifetime loser, one with a superb track record of being a criminal dipshit mind you, King’s family is insistent that he didn’t actually pull the trigger, and was not working alone. Interesting enough, of course, and worthy of looking into. Except, no source that I have yet located managed to produce anything more than hearsay and witness statements from decades after the killing – ones, moreover, that suddenly sprung up when it appeared that media would pay good money for a new spin on the story. The real guilt, according to the King family, lies with the FBI, that masterminded a program of discrediting and even extortion over King, and eventually manipulated the events to unfold as they did.

There are numerous problems with this, among them the great remove in time from the actual events, the wildly variable stories from all of the supposed eyewitnesses and players, and the bare fact that no incriminating physical evidence of any kind seems to have been presented at all. I could go into it in more detail, but before I did that I’d want to do a lot more research than a couple of hours worth of second-hand accounts; right now I’m concentrating on a different aspect, because it seems distinctly relevant in this case as well as plenty of others. In fact, it seems a key factor in just about every claim of conspiracy that exists (which is why the subject has been awaiting my writeup.)

In short, an awful lot of people seem to settle on the idea of a ‘conspiracy,’ and then go about trying to find evidence for it, or factors that support it. Just stating it this way makes it obvious, I suspect, but somehow it’s not that obvious to the myriad people that engage in it constantly. I’ve seen it often enough to know that, all too frequently, there’s a fixation on the idea itself, way out of proportion to the evidence that suggested it in the first place, and this fixation is the impetus to keep pursuing it and finding ‘clues’ that, objectively, aren’t very supportive of the WAG and could easily be explained in other, mundane ways.

Moreover, when faced with a lack of supporting evidence in a certain quarter, evidence that should certainly be present if the conspiracy really did exist, the ubiquitous response is that the conspirators destroyed or covered up the evidence. This is nothing more than a feeble excuse; while it remains possible, it goes without saying that there is no evidence of such actions either, and being ‘possible’ isn’t something to pin any kind of investigation on. As I am fond of pointing out to people, it is also possible that there was no evidence to destroy in the first place, because no conspiracy actually happened. Ya gotta do better than that.

And it’s not just conspiracies that rely on this, but far too many esoteric, supernatural, mystical, paranormal, and suchlike ‘explanations’ rely almost entirely on such a feeble tactic. If you’re dedicated to finding support, you’ll be able to drum it up out of the weirdest and most unrelated events. “I heard strange creaking noises from my house! It must be a ghost! I wonder if someone died here?” Well, depending on the age of the house, the chances are halfway decent that someone did, because people do die – it’s a habit. If we extend the criteria to the plot of land throughout history, then the chances become virtually guaranteed, and if we relax them even more to count people that lived there even if they died elsewhere – in a hospital, for instance (which should be rights be the most haunted edifices ever,) then we sure gots that evidence that we was after.

It seems to be a combination of confirmation bias, where we pay attention to the factors that support a viewpoint and ignore all of those that fail to, and a very relaxed set of standards for evidence. Starting from a premise and working backward to find the ‘clues,’ especially when we have a very loose idea of what should constitute a clue in the first place, will virtually always yield results, but that’s hardly how an effective investigation should be run. There are always lots of possibilities, and all of them should be weighed without bias or preference, just to begin with. And anything considered ‘evidence’ should, of course, have a distinct connection to the premise. But the part that’s most frequently missed is something that the majority of people have no exposure to unless they’re actually working a degree program in college: how many other ways can a result be produced? The suspect may claim someone else was involved because there’s a sinister cabal – or because he’s an inveterate liar who doesn’t want to be executed. Or because it’s simply amusing. Scientific studies, and proper investigations, will attempt to account for as many scenarios that thwart the premise as possible, not just producing positive evidence but ruling out alternate explanations. Which is often a pretty tall order, and certainly not half as affirming as simply finding support for one’s favored conspiracy. However, if there really is a conspiracy, then it should be able to stand up to such exacting scrutiny, and if it can’t, then there’s no reason to be supportive of it in the first place.

That line about affirmation, above, has a lot more impact than many people give it credit for, because the more we like any potential explanation, the more weight we give to anything that could support it, and the less likely we are to recognize flaws or alternatives. This occurs so frequently that there’s actually a little proverb within scientific circles: if you get the results you were expecting, be very suspicious. What this says is, you’re too likely to be missing something, or not testing rigorously enough. And it’s easy to see how this is almost diametrically opposed to most conspiracy enthusiasts, who can find support in a total lack of evidence…

There’s another common trait that should be telling all by itself, but somehow gets overlooked constantly. Almost every time that some conspiracy is claimed, there is a plethora of supposed culprits or parties, a wide variety that no one can ever seem to agree on. Now, it is the discovery of a potentially guilty party other than the original suspect that should suggest ‘conspiracy’ in the first place – the concept of a conspiracy should not precede who is actually conspiring. You’d think a huge disagreement on explanations would be pretty damning to the whole idea, but apparently not. It suggests rather strongly that it’s the idea that’s so compelling, and not any evidence itself.

Along similar lines, there’s the common practice of nothing ever weakening the idea of the conspiracy, no matter how many dead-ends spring up, and this is a very common trait among UFO proponents and anti-vaxxers as well. Each and every bit of ‘evidence’ that turns out to be wrong, or failing to support the premise, should by all rights weaken the case, but conspiracy enthusiasts rarely ever seem to doubt themselves or the premise, and simply move on to the next possibility, and even when all of their stated reasons have died out, they will usually remain adamant that there’s something else remaining to be found (or, like anti-vaxxers, fall back on idiotic little proverbs and egregious misunderstandings of chemistry.)

The solution is simple: favor any given scenario only after the bulk of the evidence is pointing in that direction. Start out with no preconceptions. Question everything, including your own motives/desires and whether you were rigorous enough in considering alternatives. And remember (as so many forget,) that the goal is to produce an explanation that could, for instance, stand up in court, rather than creating the plot of a novel or proving one’s own cleverness.

And if it helps, know that virtually no conspiracy claims have ever proven viable. Which is a pretty shitty track record.

*     *     *     *

An additional word about the Martin Luther King/James Earl Ray case that I started out with. There is more than ample evidence that Ray operated alone and without assistance or guidance, and no investigations have turned up anything to the contrary, save for some distant ‘eyewitness’ testimony, which wasn’t even detailed enough to merit criminal court attention. None of those eyewitnesses ever produced even a shred of physical evidence backing their claims, and weren’t even consistent in those claims. Not only is eyewitness testimony about the weakest that can be admitted, there’s also the distinct motivation of getting paid handsomely for just the kind of stories that conspiracy enthusiasts so dearly love in the first place. It’s a lot like psychics and astrologers, really: people will pay good money to be told what they want to hear.

King’s relatives had some reasoning behind suspecting the FBI, true enough: there has been ample evidence that the FBI had an active campaign of discrediting King and trying to reduce his influence, mostly due to Hoover’s policies, but some consideration can be given to the idea that race riots were a distinct possibility. This is not to excuse such actions, merely in recognition of motivations. However, the very same documents that outlined these activities failed to make any mention whatsoever of assassination, or indeed any other machinations. Assuming that “if they did this, they certainly could do that” is a common fallacy, known as the slippery slope argument; it’s the same as arguing that, because you lied to your parents about which friend you were out with, you could also be lying about your lack of involvement in child pornography. When it comes to accusations of assassination, it would help tremendously to have just a little bit better evidence than inferences…

I could certainly talk at length about suspected motivations behind the King family and their pursuit of this premise, but that has little merit and no educational or professional support, and proves nothing anyway. The point is, without some really solid evidence, as well as some damn good explanations for all of Ray’s actions and statements, there remains no rationale behind their support of this premise; anyone may view various details with suspicion, but to go beyond that should, reasonably, require a lot more supporting evidence than has ever been presented. And it is exactly that kind of evidence that should be well in hand (as well as the rigorous attempts to rule out alternatives) before anyone even utters the word, “conspiracy.”

Storytime 10

trail in ice of waterfowl takeoff
I’ve always liked this image, or to be more specific, the series of images that I have of this particular scene – I took several, because the sunlight and reflections were an integral part and I was trying for the best effect, so I have multiple angles. Just glancing at it without paying too much attention to the details, it would be easy to believe this was the wake of a boat on a lake, seen from a significant rise above the water, but a longer examination soon disproves that. This is solid ice, during one of several winter storms from the 2013/2014 winter season, but when it was created it wasn’t quite as solid. As the temperatures dropped and the water began turning to slush, some variety of waterfowl (I’m guessing a duck from the curve, since heavier geese usually go straight) performed a typical running takeoff from the water. What would normally have been a fast-disappearing wake instead retained its shape due to the slush, and soon froze completely over to preserve the action, as it were.

As we know from last year, the birds will still swim a bit as the water starts to coagulate, but at some point in time will abandon the water and stick to the land, so this occurred in that period before it solidified too far. Seen from other angles, the surface was fluid enough to smooth back down followed the bird’s passage and present a nice sheet, but the evidence remained in the different colors/densities within the ice – what I imagine to be a fairly narrow time frame. I considered it a neat little find.

As for the rainbow band in there, I’m not quite sure what caused that. I’m fairly certain it’s an artifact of shooting towards the sun, because of that blue ghost above it, but this kind of refraction isn’t common – I suspect it comes from getting just the right light angle on the edge of the lens. It’s a nice accent, though.

Well, that took far longer than it should’ve

Every once in a while I run across a short series of images in my Miscellaneous folder that make me pause, or at least they did. I’ve mentioned at least once before that I’m a helicopter enthusiast, actually falling just shy of ‘fanatic’ – I can usually identify the common models in the area at a glance, and can even tell a few just by sound. So spotting this one passing way overhead a few years back, I fired off several frames for a closer examination when I got home. And that was where it all started.

unidentified helicopter passing overhead
Before I go any farther, I’d just like to point out that this is a tight crop, about half of full resolution, from the original frame, itself taken with the 80mm macro so representing a slight telephoto view, maybe about 2x magnification; by naked eye it was pretty small. This is the full frame.

same image uncropped
So it wasn’t until I unloaded the memory card at home that I got the best look at it, which started the mystery that lasted nearly five years. Because I did not recognize the model seen here. Moreover, trying to find it proved to be more than a little difficult. Most helicopter photos are from the side, profile, so some of the details that will be seen from underneath are not readily visible. What was throwing me off was the tailplane, which appears right at the very end of the tail boom (rare in itself) and those large appendages to either side of the body, which are not landing skids. The other details that I was trying to match up were the four-bladed main rotor and the very abrupt end to the main fuselage, with a narrow tail boom.

I’m embarrassed to think that it took this long, and any of the more knowledgeable helicopter people out there might be shaking their heads, but there was one particular detail that stuck in my mind, up until I got a closer look at the top-down view. Very few helicopters of any kind have large appendages like that out to the side, including a fully-armed military model – having something out that far is a weight-and-balance issue, so most times armaments are kept close to the fuselage. There’s one notable exception, and that’s the UH-60 ‘Blackhawk’ and its variants – long-range models may have sponsons with big external fuel tanks, but space inside the sponsons, between the tanks and fuselage, for arms as needed. I ruled this out quickly because the UH-60 has a very thick tail boom tapering back from the fuselage.

Australian Army Black Hawk Zhu-2.jpg
By Duan Zhu – http://www.airliners.net/photo/Australia—Army/Sikorsky-(Hawker-de/1839548/L/, CC BY 3.0, Link

And so I searched through countless images, occasionally having a moment of inspiration before another image search dashed it – the tailplane was too far forward or noticeably swept, the main rotor had five or more blades, and so on. Seriously, I tackled this at least three separate times, including tonight.

Until, suspicious, I did another search on the UH-60, which I’m pretty damn familiar with. And discovered that the thick, tapering tail boom was as seen from the side – from underneath, it was much, much narrower, as little as a third the size in horizontal cross-section as vertical. And in fact, there are those damn sponsons and tanks.

US Army UH-60 Black Hawk.jpg
By U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communications Specialist Greg Bingaman – http://www.northcom.mil/Images/Images_2007/index.html, Public Domain, Link

The other thing that was getting me was mistaking the flare of the turbine exhaust treatments (heat suppressors, mostly) with the abrupt end of the fuselage, a blunt hindbody (a ha ha, “hind,” get it? Oh never mind) which usually spells a cargo door, such as the various medevac models used by the hospitals around here. In vertical silhouette like this, I was reminded of the BO-105, with some possibility of the BK-117 and EC-145 (all closely related,) but it wasn’t really the fuselage that I was looking at. Plus the tailplanes were either too far forward, too small, or swept a bit. And let me tell you, I looked at the MD-900 (no taper to tail boom and notable extension past tailplane,) and SA-330, AS-332, and AS-532 (all variants of same base model, with one-sided tailplane,) and so on and so on, immediately ruling out quite a few more from knowing that the number of rotor blades or the tail configuration were wrong. So it galls me a bit that I recognized certain details right off the damn bat but made a mistake over how the tail boom appeared.

Worse, I have an unbuilt model kit of that very helicopter sitting on a shelf just a few meters away – had I gotten around to building it, I might have had enough familiarity with that body shape. Ah well.

Odd memories, part 21

This one still kinda startles me a little, but at the same time, it’s strangely vindicating.

Back in the early nineties, I had been working for a humane society for a couple of years at the most, and had gotten involved in wildlife rehabilitation and advice (as I’ve mentioned before, several times.) Back then I was quasi-knowledgeable about wildlife, but most of it really came from the people I worked with and the networking that I was doing – it was simply the nature of the job. And one aspect, that I kind of fell into (because I’d expressed a mild interest and no one else was doing it,) was getting involved in what we called the Beaver Project.

Yeah yeah, snicker all you want, get it out of your system. Where I lived and at that moment in time, there was a fair amount of activity from North American beavers (Castor canadensis.) My first encounter, which might have even occurred before I began working for the humane society, came one afternoon as I was walking along the banks of the creek that ran behind the apartment complex. Hearing some soft noises in the tall grasses, I crept stealthily closer, and happened upon simply the largest beaver I have seen in my life, easily three times the size of what most people imagine them to be (I was later to find out that they can continue to grow all of their lives, so this was likely an elderly specimen.) Memory is, of course, a volatile and untrustworthy thing, but I would estimate its weight at better than 18 kg (40 lbs) and overall length better than a meter (don’t even make me translate that for you.) Its head looked almost as big around as mine, and there I was, perhaps four meters from it. It soon became aware of my presence, which provoked the abrupt and alarming momentary pause in its mastication of some vegetable matter, ensuring that I wasn’t about to scold it or anything, before it resumed its meal without twitching from the spot. Eventually, as I watched, it turned casually and ambled down into the water, clearly not at all impressed with my hulking presence (which at that time scarcely massed three times its own.) I was to later learn that beavers, overall, are pretty damn mellow unless provoked, which is usually accomplished by dogs. People they generally don’t give a damn about.

Anyway, in the humane society, the purpose of the project was to inform people about how to help prevent beaver damage to their trees, try to alleviate flooding by beaver dams, and deal with a lot of public ire and misinformation. This was my first experience with the angry homeowner and the bandwagon effect – once an article ran in the paper, there would be countless “me toos” that escalated in scale until it was a positive epidemic, and of course it all came down to the humane society to do something about it because it was obviously our fault that the dam things existed here in the first place. Now, there was no epidemic, and for the most part only passing activity in a few select areas, and I know this because I’d been out to examine numerous reports and complaints. Mostly, it was people that had lost an expensive exotic sapling that they’d had planted while purchasing property on the edge of a lake or waterway – again, this must have been our fault. I have very little patience for such idiocy, really; if you want a natural vista or landscape or whatever, it comes with animals, because that’s where they fucking live. You can eliminate this entirely by living in a seventh-floor walkup in NYC if it bothers you that badly.

Before I oversell this injustice, let me clarify by saying that a lot of it was our doing – specifically, advocating for humane control methods and not trapping. A little background is in order. North Carolina is still largely backwater (No! Really?) and hunting and trapping gets a lot more attention than humane management or even just ignoring the critters in the state; the NC Wildlife Resource Commission was started entirely to maintain game lands and still keeps this as a primary focus, only reluctantly embracing the idea that maybe not everyone wanted to shoot something. And there was a peculiar law on the books: while beavers could be snare-trapped (usually by a barbaric little Spanish Inquisition castoff,) they could not be relocated, so even if you live-captured them in a humane trap, you weren’t allowed to release them again somewhere else, even onto parks or reserves or game land. The idea, so I was told, was that you were simply relocating the problem. Which is true enough, except for the bare fact that it if wasn’t homeowners’ land it wasn’t a problem anymore. But yeah.

At some point in there, we were contacted by a homeowner in Norfolk, Virginia, a few hours away by car. It seems that the same thing was happening there: an expensive plot of land newly-given over to housing, on the edge of a Norfolk River tributary, was seeing beaver damage and many of the homeowners were up in arms, demanding that the city do something about it. It became quite contentious, with advocates on both sides going at it hammer-and-tongs, and finally the city council decided to hold a hearing where everyone could present their case and they would make a decision. The reason we were contacted? We had an active humane program regarding beavers, and so they wanted someone from our organization to come speak at the hearing.

Now, let me paint the picture. I had been providing advice over the phone, and had helped with a couple of our public programs, which meant a total of 30 attendees or so. That, and a couple of school plays, rounded out my public speaking experience. But I imagined it was a relatively routine thing and, since there was presently no one else in the program that was available or experienced enough, our director encouraged me to go. The humane society had a vehicle that I could use, the homeowner who contacted us would put me up for the night, and so, when the time came, off I went.

There had been no time to plan much, and I intended to get as much information from my host as I could so I could address things directly. Meanwhile, I found out that the little meeting I had imagined was nowhere near accurate: there would be perhaps a few hundred people in a large auditorium, and the major TV news crews would be present. We would have five minutes to speak, no questions or back-and-forth, from a podium standing in front of the raised dais where the twelve council members sat. If you’re picturing this medieval judgment tribunal situation thing, I can say there were no robes and the scene wasn’t lit by guttering torches, but otherwise that’s accurate. Nothing like getting thrown into the deep end. I had, at my host’s urging, brought along a dress jacket at least, something suitable to be buried within.

Did I mention that I did not, in fact, have my speech written out? I had a lot of notes and odd-and-ends, and my own basic experience on hand, but nothing was rehearsed and I had no idea how long my scribbled notes would actually run when spoken. I was lucky enough, however, to be the second-to-last to speak, which allowed me to hear all of the cases being made before me, and so I was in the enviable position of being able to rebut these directly, and I actually wrote the entire speech up to a few minutes before I was to go on. When called upon, I stepped smartly to the podium, activating (so I thought) the microcassette recorder in my pocket to save my stuttering and rambling for all eternity.

And… it went without a hitch. For anyone that has actually listened to my podcasts, this is probably impossible to believe, but it’s true nonetheless. I might have stumbled over a word or two, but considerably less than some of the speakers, and nothing untoward or even memorable. I was still young and hardly an imposing specimen of any kind, much less what you’d expect from “an expert,” but it went amazingly well. I finished with about fifteen seconds to spare in my five-minute allotment, and regained my seat over a hearty thumbs-up from my host.

The last speaker was someone from a nationwide animal advocacy group based in DC (no, not PETA, or even in the same ludicrous ballpark – PETA really is a bunch of dipshits); someone with a hell of a lot more experience in the matters than I had, and well-used to public speaking. After we all finished, the council adjourned for a brief deliberation, while some of the speakers (including my host, but thankfully not including me – I have a face for radio) provided interviews for the TV crews. Not too long afterward, a couple of the council members approached the last speaker and I and asked if we’d be available to attend a small private meeting the following morning. We weren’t in a position to say no, really, after the effort we’d done to be there that night in the first place, so we agreed. I made the stupid mistake of confirming that I did have a place to stay, which meant I spent the night in my host’s spare bedroom rather than in a lovely downtown Norfolk hotel. Idiot.

The meeting the next morning was basically to reassure the council that trapping was pointless, and not something that the city needed to be spending its money on (especially since that trappers would have been charging $50 a head, and there was no assurance that this would actually accomplish anything nor that it would not be an ongoing expense – if you have a habitat, animals will use it, and the possibility of beaver populations perpetually coming down from further up the tributary was distinct enough.) The council elected to leave the matter up to the individual homeowners as, “what to expect when you live on the waterfront.” I have to say, it felt pretty damn vindicating.

After that, the guy from the nationwide organization and I had breakfast together, comparing notes and experiences, and he admitted that he was faintly chagrined to have to follow me, because I said virtually everything that he’d had planned. Which was great to hear, you betcha, but not terribly surprising; the information remains the same, and I pointed out that hearing two disparate sources reiterating the same info may likely have cemented the council’s decision, since most of the other speakers varied wildly on both expectations and the heinous damage that they claimed was being done. But overall, I still look back on this episode with a little disbelief – there were plenty of ways how, and plenty of reasons why, my speech could have gone awry, and it was by far the most public thing that I’ve done, even today. And yet, it helped with matters since, because I knew that I handled that well enough and so taking control of a wedding party or jumping onstage during a technical glitch stirred nothing in me more than a momentary nervousness.

By the way, somehow I never did trigger the cassette recorder when I thought I did, so I didn’t have any record of how it went other than my scribbled notes. Ah well.

Now, since I’m on the subject, I have to add part two.

Sometime after that, we’d received several complaints about flooding and so on along another creek in the area, one that we knew had the occasional mid-size beaver dam on it, because that was one of the projects I’d worked on; there are numerous methods of trying to ensure that beavers do not stop up too much of the water flow, all of them labor-intensive and none of them particularly effective – beavers detect water flow and try to stop it, because deep water is protection and access to their food plants. Wanting to determine the extent of the damming and the actual population of the rodents, we figured the best bet was to check out as much of the creek as possible, and this meant kayaking it. I’d done more than a passing amount of kayaking on our homebuilt models while back in NY, but did not possess one here, and so had to rent a whitewater performance kayak from the neighboring town. This craft was a far cry from what I was used to, which was a multi-person open-topped model where you could carry a small amount of cargo; instead, this was a seed-shaped needle of a craft with one of those skirts that you wrap around your waist and snap over the lip of the single-opening itself, to keep water out. This was the kind that you can eskimo-roll, a term that still exists even while “Eskimo” is being considered racist. Anyway, I had no idea how to, um, “E-word-roll” a kayak and wasn’t about to try it.

I want you to bear in mind that this was in February, so the water was still quite cold and not something that you wanted to splash about in. I endeavored to get into the kayak without setting foot in the water, finding in the process that these sport models are very laterally unstable, and also that the foot pegs pushed me up onto the seat back. This isn’t as egregious as it sounds, because the seat back rose all of six centimeters, I believe, but it was still uncomfortable. I pushed away from shore into the middle of the creek and started to turn.

Really unstable. Almost immediately the kayak decided on its own that we should E-word-roll, and turned turtle in a flash. I was in about a meter of water, not really the depth that you would make the attempt even if you were so inclined, and all I pictured was getting upside down without any knowledge of how to right myself and getting trapped within the kayak. Before I got fully horizontal on my way over, I’d slammed one paddle tip into the bottom, in an attempt to halt my inversion, and kicked madly out of the kayak and skirt. While this was happening I know I was uttering some desperate, unmanly, and extremely unintelligible sounds, even worse than when someone fishes their phone out of the toilet. It was over in seconds of course, and the water wasn’t remotely deep enough to pose a hazard even if I couldn’t swim (which I could,) but now I was soaked to the skin in 5°c weather.

Annnnddd that was it, wasn’t it? I’d have to go home and change, and still wasn’t sure how to handle this unstable piece of shit, and should probably just give it up and settle for hiking the creek edges as far as I could, some other day. As I mentally planned all of this, I got pissed off, and noticed that the wet clothes weren’t bothering me as much as I thought they would (though soaked, it was still a winter jacket, and of course a good mad-on does wonders for body temperature.) And at some point, while thinking about throwing the kayak back on top of the car, I noticed that the foot pegs were adjustable and set for someone about a meter shorter than I was. Eventually, I decided to give it another go.

Let me tell you, in those itty-bitty performance kayaks, center of gravity is important, and readjusting the pegs so I could sit in the seat improved the stability quite a bit – it was still quite tippy if I leaned at all, but manageable with just a little presence of mind. And so, I completed my mission, or what I could of it anyway, which was enough to answer all of the questions that I had. Because the dams that I encountered were feeble little things that didn’t raise the water level 30cm, while the water was perpetually stained orange from the ubiquitous Carolina clay, indicative of extensive runoff from areas where all the topsoil had been removed – the flooding wasn’t coming from the beaver activity, but from improper stormwater management from the nearby road construction efforts. Far too much of my journey was spent out of the kayak anyway, dragging it over snags and shallow areas because the creek wasn’t capable of supporting a single kayak’s passage, much less flooding out someone’s property, and a rise of a couple of handspans would have completely swamped the minimal beaver dams that I did encounter – the population couldn’t have been more than a dozen or so in a kilometer stretch. Certainly not an epidemic.

And the following year, I had the bandwagon effect confirmed, because then the papers had moved on to other topics and, while the beaver populations appeared unchanged from the year before, we received about 10% of the calls that we had previously. People are weird.

Some winter progress

Okay, here’s the backstory. For some time now, I’ve been thinking of noodling around with photomicrography – photography through a microscope, you know, serious macro work. This requires having a microscope – surprise surprise – and I’ve been watching for one for years, since I wasn’t going to drop the serious money for a new one for something that I might not get into all that much. The local college surplus store had a few at one point several years ago, right at the edge of my price range, and I dithered and lost out, since they all went within two days. Since then, I never saw a decent microscope for sale anywhere.

Then not quite a year ago, I happened across one in a thrift store, complete except for the lighting unit, a serious four-objective binocular lab scope from Bausch & Lomb, which means price range new would be in the $500-$1000 range. Price on this unit? Eleven bucks. I actually went to check out with some trepidation, thinking they were gonna catch their mistake or even accuse me of switching price tags, but I walked out the door at that price. I can live with that.

Replacement light sources get expensive too, and I wasn’t finding a match anywhere, but we’re at this really cool point in tech now, and I simply fitted an LED light source. First unit burnt out within five minutes during the initial experiments, telling me that a heat sink is necessary immediately, but it was too bright anyway. Second unit was meticulously constructed to fit into the microscope housing with a generous heat sink, even feeding into the metal body of the scope – snazzy little job if I say so myself.

Finally, the other night I fired it up and started playing, finding that it was working just ducky. Then I couldn’t find the camera adapter that I’d purchased some time back. Located it the next morning, and later on tried again. I’m clearly going to need some slide cover slips and perhaps a top light source as well (the only one right now is the standard bottom light,) but you might start seeing more stuff like this (only better):

These came from a couple of different sessions as I experimented, just noodling around right at the moment, but proof of concept and all that rot. I also have to do a meticulous cleaning of the lenses all through. At some point, I’m going to figure out how to get a measuring scale in there – I imagine that they can be purchased someplace, and that they’re not cheap.

The other thing that appears in the middle clip is, I believe, a molted exoskeleton from another unidentified arthropod, found floating on the water sample – I included it as another subject to practice on, but did not explain this in the audio. All of these are from water drops merely resting on a slide, no cover slips or preparations or anything.

By the way, you can compare this with my results from using a bellows unit in place of a standard lens, several years back – daphnia come in a variety of sizes so I cannot say these are a direct comparison.

What prompted all of this was searching for something to photograph during the lean months, and doing a little poking around in the backyard pond. I turned up an egg case of some kind on the underside of a floating leaf, suspecting that they were snail eggs but honestly not sure. The remaining photos are all more-or-less ‘routine’ macro, taken with the reversed Sigma 28-105.

unidentified aquatic eggs from underside of leaf
The entire blob was about 10mm in length, so you can figure out from there how small the eggs were. I include a detail inset from the same frame so you can see those eggs as well as we’re able right now (save for attempting to slice open the blob and get an individual egg on a slide, which i considered more likely to fail than succeed, but I also thought about getting some hatching sequences and so wanted to leave the blob undisturbed.)

unidentified eggs in detail
There! That’s certainly… multicellular. If you can identify the species from those misshapen blobs, let me know – I think someone scrambled those eggs in the shell, myself.

After taking these, I returned the leaf to a small bucket where I could monitor things, but was unable to check back as routinely as I would have liked, and it appears they all hatched out in the interim. I still suspect snails, given how many are in the pond itself, but haven’t ruled out other things like that wormlike something that appeared first in the video.

One of the water samples that I gathered had a ride-along, a small insect that perched nonchalantly on the water surface and made no attempt to leave the 20ml sample jar that I was using, so I did a few shots of that one while it was being so cooperative.

smaller water strider genus Microvelia cleaning proboscis
I had no idea how to start looking for identification images, knowing this was not a truly aquatic bug, just one that was at home on the surface, so I uploaded the images to BugGuide.net, always a useful resource. But as I did so, I was looking at the anatomy again and realized it was like a short, squater version of a common water strider. In moments, I’d confirmed that this was indeed what it was, though not an immature nymph as I’d suspected from the lack of wings or elytra. The subsequent reply from BugGuide’s volunteers reinforced this discovery: it’s from the genus Microvelia. In this image it is cleaning its proboscis – striders are predatory hemipterans.

The very first things to appear, usually well before winter has gasped its last, are of course the daffodils, and there are only so many ways you can photograph them, but then again, what else is there? So when The Girlfriend had cut a few to put in a vase, I borrowed them one night to at least keep my hand in with the macro rig – I was beginning to think I’d forget what I was doing.

center of daffodil blossom
No no, of course that’s not where I stopped. Please.

stigma and anthers of daffodil
Nothing like a straight-up-the-middle shot, eh? That stigma all moist and receptive, surrounded by eager ‘one-eyed’ anthers crowding around. I’ll let you pick your own appropriate soundtrack music…

I remembered something from my childhood, one of those elementary school experiments that are supposed to show – something, who knows what – but mostly just look cool. One of those things that you read or hear about, but never actually try, you know? So, given that I’m in my mid-fifties now, I figured it was time to get to this long-neglected task, and cut a new flower to put in its own vase on my desk, adding a few drops of food coloring to its water.

The idea is that the flower draws up the water for a few days and the food coloring stains its petals, creating unnatural hues in the blossoms (it supposedly also works with celery.) My plan was to get it fairly unique in color and then sneak it into The Girlfriend’s own vase and see how long it took her to notice. But perhaps daffodils are the wrong choice for this, because while some coloration did indeed occur, it was to a very limited extent before the flower dried up, too subtle to be of any real use. Ah well.

daffodil fed by colored water
Given those, you should now know what the end of the month abstract image was; as the flower started to dry out, I took a section of a petal to pop under the microscope, naturally picking a portion that was showing the color. And it might be showing some evidence of this, if you look closely at the image at that link – there are faint hints of cyan here and there, but that could also just be refraction of the light too. Still, I’m just getting started, so we’ll see what kind of funky stuff I can dig up later on.

Storytime 9

stupid driver
Some 14 years back while house-sitting for some friends who lived near the interstate, I went out for a walk one evening and noticed, off in the distance, a collection of flashing lights from emergency vehicles. At this point I was still largely shooting film, but my friend had left behind his Sony F-828, an upgrade from the F-717 that I’d used for a while in Florida, so I gathered that up with a tripod and hiked down towards the lights to see what was happening, with the thought that maybe I’d get something I’d long been after, which was a time-exposure with passing emergency vehicles in the frame.

Long story short: the accident looked minor, with not even an ambulance visible and just one disabled vehicle (looked like a spin-out, which people tend to forget is extremely easy to accomplish at highway speeds.) However, to allow access from both fire and wrecker vehicles, one lane of the interstate had been closed off with flares. The visibility of this extended for perhaps a thousand meters – I’d been that far away when I first spotted it, I believe.

I set the tripod up on the shoulder well away from the emergency vehicles themselves, but still within the region of lane closure and away from the road surface, so I was clearly not in anyone’s way, nor at risk myself. Well, much risk.

I was reminded how stupid people can be when, almost right alongside me, I heard a desperate squeal of brakes and locked tires and looked up to see a pickup truck fishtail to a halt within the closed lane. Either the idiot had approached the traffic ahead of him at way too high a speed, or had figured he’d duck into the ’empty’ lane to go around all those slowpokes. While he wasn’t too close to rear-ending a police cruiser, he also wasn’t far enough from it (again, highway speeds,) and somehow did not register the road flares that, really, couldn’t be missed unless you were unfathomably stupid. I quickly spun the camera around on the tripod and fired off a shot, so that’s what you see in the frame up there: the pickup is still rocking, with one of the road flares visible just beyond its rear tire, while a rig passes by in the correct lane. The blue ripples are reflections from the side of the trailer of the police cruiser not far out of the frame, strobes active (as they had been for the previous twenty minutes at least.) In fact, you can see a faint haze above the trailer itself, at the right end of the streak from the running lights, which may very well be the smoke from the idiot’s burned tires – I know I could both see it and smell it when I was there.

How close did he come? Well, here’s another shot that was a tad wider (shorter focal length) from the same position:

time exposure of car carrier passing police cruiser at night
There’s the flare, and the police cruiser that was outside the previous frame. The other thing you’re seeing is a car carrier rig, illuminated by the blinking lights as it passed – cool effect. The flare looks closer or brighter than in the first photo, but I think that’s only because it wasn’t partially blocked by the idiot’s tire here – both exposures were only one second long.

A quick note about how hard it is to express field of view and focal length. Back in the day, as they say, it used to be relatively easy; with 35mm film cameras, each 50mm of focal length was about 1x magnification, so a 50mm lens was ‘normal,’ about what you’d see in person, while 100mm was 2x and so on. Everyone knew a 28mm lens produced a nice wide-angle shot. Then came digital, with much smaller sensors and commensurately shorter focal lengths, so this rule disappeared, and no guideline could be used among the different cameras. Eventually, the “35mm equivalent” started being used, and the Sony F-828 actually had such markings on the barrel of the zoom lens. Except, what’s saved in the EXIF info of the file isn’t the equivalent, it’s the actual focal length, so as I see that the top photo was shot at 37.7mm focal length and the middle one at 26.2mm, some translation is in order. It took a little research and a couple of quick calculations, but the equivalent is, top to bottom, roughly 100mm and 150mm – both short telephoto, meaning I was farther away than the photos make it appear, but not hugely.

I’ll close with one more, which only vaguely fulfilled my goals for that evening. As the wrecker pulled away with the accident vehicle (the original one,) I was prepared, up on the slope and dragging the shutter as it pulled into the lane. Interesting, but not quite what I was after – which I have yet to accomplish, but seriously, it’s not like I go out and try several times a year.

time-exposure of wrecker leaving with accident vehicle

February has left the building

I'm not telling you
Well, not yet it hasn’t, but within a day it will – it is, naturally, the end of the month abstract. Once more, I’m not revealing what this is (though someone will likely know,) and all I’m going to say instead is that it is topical, very current, and a hint of things to come.

Oh, yeah, and this image has undergone a little sharpening, because it needed it. I’m in largely uncharted territory here (for me at least.)