A little winter activity, part 1

Great blure heron Ardea herodias perched by dead tree
Okay, technically, these are all fall photos, because they were taken before December 21, and because we’ve really only had a couple of overnight frosts while still having days with decent temperatures, but it looks like North Carolina winter around here, and the critters are largely behaving as if it is, so it counts within the realm of nature photography, okay?

Anyway, getting a few more images in while I have some time to write. These were all taken during two outings not too long back, while I have another that’s going to sneak in before the end of the year. I think. I mean, I’ve already done the outing, so I’m referring to getting the post done in that time frame.

Above, while doing some lens tests out on Jordan Lake, I fired off a couple of shots at a distant great blue heron (Ardea herodias.) The banner-style crop comes from the bare fact that there was a boat ramp not far behind that didn’t add anything to the composition. There really was only one position that I was able to shoot from since I didn’t have either a boat or a long ladder tucked in the bag somewhere (I know, right?) so this is what we have. I’ll try to do better next time.

But you can’t complain about the next shot, a lovely underside portrait of a black vulture (Coragyps atratus) peering down at me from its perch while it waited for some decaying opportunity.

perched black vulture Coragyps atratus seen from below
Well, sure, maybe you can complain, given the subject matter, the odd angle, the muted color, the twig in the way, the lack of other detail, and my unnecessary reminder of their diet, but seriously, look at that eye! Check out those lovely head caruncles! Look up the word, “caruncle!”

Moving on.

On a later outing with the Immoderate Al Bugg, we had some warm weather to contend with but managed to cope, because that’s how hardcore we are. I was still surprised to find some turtles out basking – the temperature was conducive at the moment, but usually they’ve buried themselves in the mud by this point because I’m sure the water temperature was holding somewhere below 10°c.

painted turtle Chrysemys picta basking alongside reflection in channel
Mr Bugg says he also shot the reflection, but this was taken 11 days ago and he’s had his chance, so…

But what I was surprised to capture was such a distinctive catchlight in the eye, because the turtle was in scattered indirect light within a patchy canopy. Then again, the trees are largely bare, so maybe not so surprising? Perhaps I was just lucky enough to get the turtle with its head raised enough. Here’s a full-res detail shot anyway.

basking painted turtle Chrysemys picta with catchlights and possible leech
… with a bonus capture of what might well be a leech, curled up on its cheek – turtles are favored targets of leeches.

Caruncles!

Fine – we’ll go cuter for a second, even if it’s a common-as-muck squirrel.

eastern grey squirrel Sciurus carolinensis posed fetchingly
Considering that this was the species of wildlife that we got the closest to and it was cooperating pretty well, I fired off a few frames. Not to mention that it says, “autumn” pretty well overall, even if this is a winter post. We can all thank Tamron’s Vibration Control for the sharpness of this in the muted light, 600mm at 1/100 second.

Nearby, the largest hornet’s nest that I’ve ever seen decorated a tree. I made it a point not to make a lot of noise in approaching and didn’t disturb the tree, but was later informed that such nests are only seasonal and it was almost certainly unoccupied. Which is a shame, because I would have returned in the spring for some action shots (no, not me running screaming from an angry swarm.)

large hornets' nest on tree
There was no way that I could include anything at all for scale, being two meters over my head, but I can tell you this was over a half-meter in length if it was an inch.

[Sorry, obscure reference here; an inch is an archaic unit of measurement only recognized by two incredibly backwards countries, roughly equal to 2.5cm.]

And while some of the birds still in the region were taking advantage of the warmer weather, they were also being remarkably secretive, and few posed for any kind of nice portraits. One eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) was slightly cooperative for the species, making a brief appearance in the open (kinda) while still shrouded in the gloom that had fallen as the sun dove into deep haze, and of course it posed against the sky.

eastern towhee Pipilo erythrophthalmus against hazy sky
I remarked earlier about zoology abandoning the name rufous-sided towhee for eastern towhee, personally liking the color reference better, but it appears that it was a taxonomical decision because the rufous name was found to be used by two different species. Yet instead of simply adding a new name for one of the species, they changed both, and for the boring too; this one is an eastern towhee, while the other is a spotted towhee. Sheesh.

However, knowing how the light was, I decided to fire off the dinky little on-camera flash, not for primary illumination, but for fill lighting to make the colors come out a little better.

eastern towhee Pipilo erythrophthalmus with fill-flash
inset of eastern towhee Pipilo erythrophthalmus showing catchlightNot a huge impact, mostly from the distance involved, but a slight edge – really, there isn’t a lot you can do with such conditions, and had I brought a proper flash unit, it still would’ve taken some careful exposure balancing to prevent the background sky from rendering too dark, and I doubt the towhee would’ve waited around for the shenanigans. But I’m including an inset of the same frame, just for the effect on the eye again – this time artificial instead of natural like the turtle’s. And it added a small defining sheen to the beak too. Still not a great photo of course, but a small demonstration of supplemental lighting – which also lit up the stubborn leaf right at the bird’s ass. At the same time, direct light is boring and can make your subject seem flat, so some degree of sidelighting works a lot better, and doing that with an external flash unit starts to involve some more elaborate prep, like light stands and flash triggers, or at the bare minimum an assistant holding the flash out on a coiled shoe cord. Again, not a spontaneous thing.

So no, not a hugely productive couple of outings, but as I said, it’s winter – there isn’t a lot to work with right now. As I said, some more will be along. Soonish.

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