An autumn grab bag

fall colors over a bend in Morgan Creek
So, a few days back we finally got out and found some decent fall colors, emphasizing just how widely variable the area is. A week earlier, the ineluctable Al Bugg and I had visited a spot on a river just a handful of kilometers north, and found most of the trees by the water well past peak and, in fact, bare. Then the first part of our outing this past Friday, in Mason Farm Biological Reserve, provided only patches of color here and there, but nothing significant. Shifting to the trails behind the NC Botanical Garden, climbing a small hill less than two kilometers away, we found the colors at peak and plenty of opportunities to do some nice autumn shots. So, yeah.

Hillside colors on nature trails of NC Botanical Garden
The biggest challenge is, as seen here, the thickness of the foliage. What people like to see for fall shots are a broad hillside of varied colors, or trees overhanging a woodland path, but we were unable to locate good examples of these conditions, and often when the colors could be seen, there were a lot of foreground trees complicating the compositions. There are still some key elements that I am in search of locally: a nice spot for fall colors, an old barn, house, or cemetery for really foggy mornings, and a stark tree or old barn in the middle of an open field for thunderstorm shots. It’s important that they not be too far away, to be reachable when the conditions are optimum. This is the kind of thing that photographers mentally catalog when they’re out and about.

sycamore leaf backlit with low light angleOf course, I couldn’t pass up my typical (actually, pretty trite by now) approach to colors when they’re scarce, this time in Mason Farm – I just liked the way the light angle was shadowing the leaf while still providing some backlight glow. Since this was before we had headed out to the colorful nature trails, I was working hard to produce something of interest for the outing – even though I already had a few images that will be highlighted towards the end of the post. You know how drama goes.

By the way, this one is a good candidate for converting to monochrome, by eliminating the green and blue channels and adding a selective boost in contrast. I haven’t added anything to the recent images page in far too long, and I’ll probably dump the converted version in there shortly, along with a bunch of others. There, now that I said it I’ll be motivated to get right on it, and they’ll be up within a day or two. Right?

It gets pretty cool at night now, occasionally frosting over, which means that wildlife activity, especially arthropods, is greatly reduced. We’re entering the winter slump when the posts are liable to get a lot more philosophical and the images a bit thinner, at least until I’m making enough to head much further south and shoot in Costa Rica or something. Yet we’re still not quite into the ‘winter’ conditions, or wildlife behavior, meaning that warm days can still bring out little scenes, like a quartet of painted turtles (Chrysemys picta) basking on the protruding branches of a sunken tree in a small channel at Mason Farm:

four painted turtles Chrysemys picta basking on two branches
The turtles in the channels of Mason Farm were quite spooky, so getting close enough to frame this shot took a careful approach; I really wanted to be able to frame the reflection of a colorful tree in the water beneath them, but it was not to be. At least the sun angle was in our favor.

There was one more interesting find along the channel, immediately after seeing these turtles, but that’ll come later.

The insects are few and far between right now, to no one’s surprise. Initially, it took a sharp eye to spot the first few, but that’s what I do and I know what to look for. So after I’d laid back on the ground under a low-hanging oak sapling to do photos of the leaves against the sky, spotting the pale green assassin bug (Zelus luridus) lurking under a leaf wasn’t too difficult.

pale green assassin bug Zelus luridus skulking under oak leaf
After sighting the first, it became clear that the oak was being favored by the species, since we found several more, most of them on the undersides of the leaves like this one, but a few actually out in the sunlight. This is where I thought they’d be most likely to be found, gathering up the solar energy in the short time that it was available rather than trying to avoid it, but what do I know?

A short while later, a lone bug was partaking of almost the only flowers to be seen, small and brilliant yellow, proving that even in the off season, something is around to take advantage of the flowers that might appear.

broken-backed bug Taylorilygus apicalis on small yellow wildflower
This is, I’m almost certain, a broken-backed bug (Taylorilygus apicalis,) and I can say that because I’ve photographed them before and did all the legwork then. No real skill in finding this one, tiny as it is, because a cardinal rule of insect photography is to pay close attention to clusters of flowers – they evolved to attract such attention (I mean from the bugs, not the nature photographers.)

(I think.)

Moving on from both the Reserve and the nature trails, we did a quick pass through the gardens proper, curious to see what might be found. As I quizzed Mr Bugg on where we had photographed various species on previous visits, we examined the area where we’d spotted the small Carolina mantis, not really expecting to find it again but not completely ruling it out either. The joke was on us, however: there was no mantis to be seen on or near those plants. It had moved across the raised boardwalk to a stand of weeds on the other side, at least three meters distant.

Carolina mantis Stagmomantis carolina peeking among dried flowers
As you can tell from the linked images taken three weeks earlier, this is quite a small specimen, and I consider it likely to be the same one. This time around it was on a plant well off the boardwalk where we weren’t permitted to walk, so it had to be shot from a short distance; this is a tighter crop from the original frame. Carolina mantises (Stagmomantis carolina) are smaller than Chinese mantises, but this one was less than half adult size, curiously still a juvenile this late in the year. It’s possible the weather was responsible for this, since the other mantids that I’d photographed hatching in the spring were late too, but it’s safe to say that this one doesn’t stand a chance of mating.

More surprising was another find, this one on a stand of pitcher plants in a cultivated planter. I’d spotted the thin legs sticking out, not at all like the plants in the vicinity, and this anachronism caused me to look closer and move around to a better angle. Remember what I said about patterns?

pregnant Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis on pitcher plant
The surprise wasn’t so much finding another mantis, but finding one so obviously pregnant; I would have thought they’d all have created their egg sacs by now. The last one I’d seen, in fact, had been quite close to this location, and also pregnant, but that was six weeks earlier. This Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis) was many times the length and mass of the Carolina mantis, probably measuring only slightly shorter than my hand, and was well aware of my presence as I leaned in at the edge of the planter to do my portrait shot.

portrait of Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis on pitcher plant, showing damaged eye
As you might have noticed, both mantids were sporting truncated antennae, likely evidence of close encounters with either predators or feisty prey, and this one also shows damage to the compound eye. What’s subtler, but quite important, is that I framed the head against the bright plant behind it to make it stand out better, and I’ll be talking about this in an upcoming podcast. Little tricks, little tricks…

I have to speculate on the position of the mantis here, since such plants are not good choices to attach an egg case to, seeming to indicate that the event wasn’t imminent. But it was – at least a little earlier in the season – a good place to find prey, leading me to believe that the mantis was more in feeding mode. They don’t last long after laying their eggs, but she really didn’t have a lot of time to get to this before the colder weather would do her in, so the timing was getting crucial.

Had she moved less than a meter away, though, she might have found an easy meal, since the pitcher plants also sported another occupant.

eastern carpenter bee Xylocopa virginica under overhang of pitcher plant
I’m going to go ahead and call this an eastern carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica,) since the eye color is right and I think I see a hint of that telltale white facial spot. This one was just perched there as if still struggling with low temperature torpor despite this being late afternoon. You likely know that pitcher plants trap small insects by attracting them into the slippery tube with enticing aroma, but the chances are the carpenter bee wasn’t in any danger, since the prey species are usually much smaller. At least one species of wasp even seems to place its larvae within the pitchers which are then plugged with leaves, and the emerging adults make their escape by chewing a hole in the side; I’ve seen these holes and the plugging behavior, so I think this is what’s happening, anyway.

And finally, the image I hinted at earlier, actually the first decent capture from the day. As we were following the path alongside the channel in Mason Farm, I spotted a small heron staring intently into the water. Keep in mind the distance was six meters at the most when we came into view, almost head-on with the heron, and we stopped dead and shot a few frames each as we watched for any movement. Eventually, we started moving forward a bit and could get a side view, narrowing the distance down to three meters, while the heron didn’t move a muscle, not a twitch. It was almost disturbing, and I vaguely suspected someone had placed a decoy, but it would have been the most intricately and accurately detailed decoy I’d ever seen in my life.

juvenile great blue heron Ardea herodias hunting in channel with attendant reflection
I also, for more than a few moments, thought it might have been a tricolor heron, which just aren’t found in this area; it was the right size and the coloration seemed more like that than anything else. Eventually, it struck at its prey and missed, whereupon it demonstrated that it was quite cognizant of our presence (we were impossible to miss, really, being in plain sight and still conversing in whispers three meters away,) by stalking off away from the channel. As it stood up and displayed it plumage in more natural position, it became clear it was a juvenile great blue heron (Ardea herodias,) but half the size of an adult and lacking some of the classic coloration. I decided on this particular frame, however, because I’d shifted position enough to capture the reflection of the face and eye in the water; had you caught that before I mentioned it? That was the best I could do in the circumstances, and not half as distinctive as the shot of the real tricolor heron in the masthead image, but hey, still better than nothing. And a pretty good day overall, I’d say.

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