Summer trip, the wild ones

Lest you get the impression that all I could get photos of during our recent trip were captive animals, I feel obligated to show off the beasts captured au naturel – which actually means “naked” I think, which also applies, but isn’t exactly what I meant. Anyway…

The NC Aquarium at Fort Fisher features an outdoor area of gardens, bogs and ponds, wherein resided the Yellow-bellied Sliders (Chrysemys scripta scripta) seen at top. Like every aquatic turtle I’ve seen, these spent a lot of their time basking on logs and rocks in the water, warming up and drying out some of the weeds and algae that grow on their shells, but always alert for danger. They’re kind of like the timid base-stickers during Tag games when I was a kid, never venturing far from a safe haven they could run back to at the first sign of being caught. Spoilsports. Two of these display a behavior I haven’t yet found explained (not that I’ve tried very hard,) holding their rear legs high and wide while basking. It makes it appear like two reckless sledding turtles are about to crash into the poor guy in the middle…

Plants, unless they’re very exotic-looking, don’t really hold my interest, but I’ll examine them carefully to find the insects that they host. Parsley plants in the garden were getting ravaged by Black Swallowtail caterpillars (Papilio polyxenes asterias), who seem to favor that plant above all others. They’re very brilliant in color, getting brighter as they get larger, and will make their chrysalises right on the plants they consumed if the time is right.

[Photographer’s note: As I type this late at night, I’m hearing thunder in the distance, and considering taking the equipment out to a likely spot to photograph lightning. After having left Florida, I’m in withdrawal from decent lightning opportunities – we have few electrical storms and even fewer good viewing locations here in NC. But the weather radar shows sporadic storm cover, difficult to plot a course to intercept the front, so I guess I’m staying put.]

The following day, after an abortive attempt to find a place to snorkel (I’ve about given up on this in NC,) we checked out River Road Park on the Cape Fear River, a place mostly distinguished by a small boat launch and fishing pier. I did a few scenic shots, just about the only ones on the trip, on the quiet river and bordering marshland. I also spent some time chasing pics of the Fiddler Crabs that ruled the area, but these are all on film, medium-format no less, so I won’t have these back for a while (especially since I’m waiting to finish off two more rolls before shipping them for processing.) The crabs were so numerous that the ground appeared to be alive at times as they scampered for cover, and it only took a brief wait, remaining motionless, to let them venture back out again. This was worth the wait, because they were displaying that morning, waving the larger of their two pincers (claws) in the air hypnotically. To the best of my knowledge, this both intimidates other male crabs and shows off for females, serving the same purpose as saggy pants among human males… okay, maybe not. But I witnessed one curious bit of behavior while there: one crab, lacking the large claw distinctive of the species, nevertheless actually chased another crab of similar size back down into its burrow rather aggressively. I guess it’s true when they say it’s not about size, but what you do with it.

The last day of our trip, we elected to take the ferry over to Southport, and while waiting we wandered around the public access area just beyond the ferry port. We’d been there the day before and chased a few obligatory pics of wading birds near the boat launch, but this time we went to the northwest side of the point onto a small beach area. Here, still early in the morning, the Thin-stripe Hermit Crabs (Clibanarius vittatus) were foraging at the edges of the peat where it gave way to sand. I think a lot of people miss this, because the crabs will retract into their protective borrowed shells as danger approaches, and the motionless shells in the beach grasses don’t attract attention. Again, a little patience pays off, and soon enough they’ll emerge slowly from the shell and return to foraging. Typically when they retract the shell opening is facing the ground, but I cheated a bit by rocking the shells backwards a half-turn, to get sequence photos of their emergence.

The one shown here had produced a nice little cluster of bubbles that filled the shell opening, which might have worked against it. Many species of crabs do this for a number of reasons, and I suspect this one was either keeping its gills moist, or performing an aggressive display. What it meant was that, as it slowly peeked back out to see if the coast was clear (Ha! Take that, Dave Barry!) it had to get its eyes past the froth.

The tails, or at least the rearmost part of the body, in many crustacean species serves some interesting purposes. In shrimp, crayfish, and lobsters, it’s a heavily-muscled escape mechanism, remaining stretched out relatively straight until danger looms – this is often determined by something contacting their long antennae. The tail then snaps closed against the belly, propelling the crustacean backwards at an impressive speed, taking it out of danger in an eyeblink. Hermit crabs also have long tails that usually remain hidden deep within the shells. Not only can they maneuver the shell around with it, but when threatened they do much the same thing that their cousins do, only in this case it pulls them back inside the safety of the shell in a fraction of a second. The ones I found here could all retract almost to the point of invisibility within the shell, unlike many of the land hermits you can occasionally purchase at pet stores and cheesy beach souvenir shops. I suspect this is because their smaller pincers provide less protection, as well as there being more dexterous predators in the waters here, but right now that’s only speculation.

It was a fun trip, but right now The Girlfriend and I are a little soured on the Wilmington area, because it’s become too urbanized and crowded – I never think much of beach areas where scenic shots are hard to find (and I don’t find beachfront highrises scenic.) The Outer Banks area is likely to be our next coastal destination later on this summer, though memories of the fantastic meal we had at Hieronymus Seafood restaurant might draw us back down from time to time ;-)

Summer trip, the captives

This past weekend The Girlfriend and I took a three-day trip out to the beach, in this case the Wilmington, North Carolina area. Wilmington is the shortest beach drive from the center of the state where we live, features the best aquarium, and is only a short distance from Topsail Beach. Topsail is of interest because it’s the home of the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, and while I have an interest in them, it’s outshone by The Girlfriend’s interest. We were hoping to witness the annual release of rehabilitated turtles, but we’d missed it by a couple days. As we found out, they don’t advertise this because they lack the means to control the crowds that would gather, but this was little comfort to us.

We also have no photos of it, because they don’t allow strobes and the lighting is too poor to operate without one – plus, these are turtles in rehab tanks which offer little in the way of opportunity or background. The image you see above actually came from the aquarium, but more about that in a sec. The sea turtles that make it to the rehab center receive most of their injuries from human contact – though they are preyed on by sharks, and this may account for more fatalities than human contact, the sharks also tend to finish the job and not leave the turtles crippled and disabled. The hospital sees lots of boating and fishing net injuries, and receives veterinary assistance from the NC State University School of Veterinary Medicine, abbreviated around here as the “Vet School.” Like most non-profits working with wildlife, their staff is almost entirely volunteer – donations go towards the cost of caring for the animals first and foremost, and state or federal funding for such pursuits is practically nonexistent.

We spent a lot more time at the NC Aquarium at Fort Fisher, which we consider the best of the three NC Aquariums. They have a sea turtle program themselves, mostly monitoring nest sites and protecting hatchlings – the photo at top is an 8-month old loggerhead (Caretta caretta.) We shamelessly played around with the hermit crabs, sea stars, and anemones in the touch tank, and I chased detail photos of species that I’m dying to capture in the wild someday, among them this octopus. Octopi are shy creatures who favor darker places, and this one was faintly put-out by the repeated flashes from my camera. I liked this shot for the “cave of skulls” look that the ersatz-barnacles provide – in reality, that opening is only about about 18 centimeters (7 inches,) making this octopus a respectable size, but not nearly as impressive as any Disney movie has ever portrayed.

Octopi, of course, have the ability to camouflage themselves with reactive pigments under their skin, and will also use this color-change ability to express some basic emotions. Here, I suspect it’s irritation at the flash – this was taken one second after the photo above. One tentacle stretched out and probed about the tank for a different hidey-hole to inhabit, one that would be safe from annoying photographers, but it found none and the octopus stayed put. I’m pleased with the quality of these images, because the tank was a cylindrical affair that’s great for putting in the middle of the floor and allowing access to groups of people, but plays hell with distortion, and this often gets worsened with camera lenses. I wish they’d switch to something like octagonal tanks for something like this.

Shooting captive animals in zoos and aquariums is a great way to get detailed photos of marking and behavior, but it still doesn’t guarantee good results, and it’s often hard to get images that don’t show evidence of the cage or tank, like all of these do. It can take repeated trips, lots of dodging for a good angle, and still plenty of patience. Perhaps the most important thing to remember, though, is to be considerate of others that are enjoying the exhibits. Don’t stay too long while blocking people’s views, and allow others to jump in once you’ve gotten the shots you wanted, while the animal is still displaying. Sometimes, it even works better to stay back and wait for everyone else to leave – shy animals may venture out or change behavior when the crowds thin.

Coming up soon: the wild-caught pics from the same trip.

We Are Not Alone?

I treated the idea of finding intelligent life elsewhere in the Milky Way Galaxy in three parts earlier, starting here. But something that I kind of blew past is the idea that we have already been contacted – let’s face it, a lot of people can argue that this really is the case. So, I’m tackling that aspect now. And yes, it’s another long one. Nature photography will return at its regularly scheduled time.

Continue reading “We Are Not Alone?”

Wanted: Atheist, must be Noble

There are people who find every baby adorable, and every young fluffy animal to be cute. I’m not one of them, though I can find certain behaviors to be amusing. But this – this is just too cute for words!

There is a new initiative from the catholic church now – they’re reaching out to atheists and agnostics to try and improve church relations. That article has, to my mind, the right angle on it – the church needs some improved relations desperately, after the long string of cluelessness it’s spewed recently. However, it does not appear that they’ve hired experienced help.

They’re hoping to stage a series of public debates next year, and are reaching out to atheists and agnostics – kinda. It’s not really clear how they’re reaching out, but they’ve set some specific ground rules already:

The foundation, [Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi] said, would only be interested in “noble atheism or agnosticism, not the polemical kind – so not those atheists such as [Piergiorgio] Odifreddi in Italy, [Michel] Onfray in France, [Christopher] Hitchens and [Richard] Dawkins”.

I’m left wondering just what exactly “noble atheism” is – I’ve spent enough time trying to understand what “New Atheism” is. I’ve finally determined that it’s the kind that actually speaks out rather than hiding under a rock. I can only guess that the noble kind is probably pretty close to the opposite.

But it’s nice of them to reach out to somebody, I guess. I’m just wondering why they think this is then going to be a debate. I suppose having god on their side won’t weigh the odds in their favor enough to handle the out-of-control and vociferous Richard Dawkins? I mean, this is the catholic church itself sponsoring this – I can only guess their resources won’t stretch enough to bring in a heavy-hitter for their viewpoint.

Let me be fair – Ravasi goes on to explain his concerns:

Such atheists, he added, only view the truth with “irony and sarcasm” and tend to “read religious texts like fundamentalists”.

Umm, hmmm. Can someone explain how Christopher Hitchens reads religious texts like fundamentalists? Does this mean left to right? Or that he reads religious texts in the same manner that he reads fundamentalists? Because it damn sure can’t be that he reads them as if the texts are the literal word of the one true god, which is how fundamentalists are actually distinguished from the merely religious.

But hidden within that short sentence fragment is an even bigger indication of how badly this is going to fail, and exactly why the church has so damn many public relations problems in the first place. It’s the bit that says, “…only view the truth with irony and sarcasm.” You see, you’re not really ready for a debate when feel your standpoint is “the truth” – that’s actually arrogant, and insulting to your debate opponent. And you’re certainly not ready if you can’t handle irony and sarcasm. What is actually being said here is that the church wants to find someone that won’t argue against them, and make this a big media event. I have to wonder what they’re paying to take a dive…

More cluelessness follows:

“When we speak of a New Evangelization, these people are perhaps taken aback. They do not want to see themselves as an object of mission or to give up their freedom of thought and will. Yet the question of God remains present even for them, even if they cannot believe in the concrete nature of his concern for us.”

Translation: We know the approach is a big turn-off, but we’re going ahead with it anyway because our way is right. Using an approach that isn’t condescending would be silly.

No, Sparky. The question of god does not remain present for atheists – that’s the definition of atheism. And I, for one, certainly believe in the concrete nature of god’s concern for you – or to be more specific than this tortured sentence, I certainly believe that you think it’s important. The kind of debate that I’d be willing to see is how you establish its importance, or even relevance, to anyone else. That’s how a debate works: you attempt to demonstrate why your standpoint is stronger. This, however, doesn’t seem to have registered.

But you really have to be clueless to actually come out and say that your standpoint involves giving up freedom of thought and will. C’mon, how can anyone not be sarcastic when faced with that attitude? I’m trying, really hard, not to let it slip out.

Aw, fuck it: “Oooh! Become an automaton? Where do I sign up?”

Are We Alone? (Part Three)

Yeah, I’m still at it – there are links where you can find Part One and Part Two of this extended essay to catch up or keep continuity. Meanwhile, I’ll keep going with the idea, which basically is, what are the chances of us contacting intelligent life elsewhere in the Galaxy? This time, I talk about long-distance life affairs.
Continue reading “Are We Alone? (Part Three)”

Another interlude

I’m just doing this to break up long strings of posts unrelated to nature photography. You know that means that yet another will be coming up next, I’ve just been taking my time completing it.

Just remember, no matter where you are, an insect may be watching you. Whether they’re judging you or not depends on how mellow they are.

Which makes me wonder what could horrify a damselfly, but with a name like that, I imagine it doesn’t take much…

Are We Alone? (Part Two)

This continues a rather long-winded essay on my part. In Part One, I talked about the idea of extra-terrestrial life from the standpoint of cosmology, the planetary conditions that might be needed to produce it. In that post, I went out on a speculative limb, always a dangerous thing from the uneducated. Here, I’m going to compound the error as I talk about the definition of “intelligence.” Please turn your irony meter off before proceeding.

Continue reading “Are We Alone? (Part Two)”

A brief interlude

The other day I chased a pair of Southeastern Five-lined Skinks as they ventured around the opening of a hollow tree outside my place. I was hoping to catch some feeding behavior, but it was not to be.

However, on examining the photographs in detail after unloading, I noticed that the breeding male (distinguished by his bright red head) had done exactly what I have, far too many times when walking through the forest. I have to give him a bit of credit, though – he appears to be dealing with it a lot better than I ever do. Despite having gotten (mostly) over my phobia of spiders over the years, I can’t walk through a web and not flinch. I certainly can’t go without peeling the damn thing off, especially if it’s as laden with past meals as this one. But to Joe Cool here, it ain’t no thang.

That’s Lizard Cool, that is. I’ll have to work on it…

Are We Alone? (Part One)

I’m warning you ahead of time, this is going to be long, as evidenced by the “Part One” bit above, but hopefully it’ll be interesting as well. I’ll do my best.

One of the staple topics of all-night bull sessions, and not just in college dorm rooms, is the concept of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, or to keep it simpler, elsewhere merely in our own Milky Way Galaxy. And you can’t discuss the topic properly without bringing up two “key” factors: Drake’s Equation, and Fermi’s Paradox. Both of them, however, do more to bring up questions than provide any answers. I’ll state right off the bat that this was actually the intention of both, though they typically are used exactly the opposite way. I’ll be brief, though.

Continue reading “Are We Alone? (Part One)”

I’m not sure what happened

So, here’s the scene. Several years ago, I was living in Florida and trying to get steady income, and one of the avenues I explored was working as a wedding photographer. I was working alongside a couple of established photographers in the area doing backup and creative shooting – photojournalistic style, candids, B&W, that sort of thing.

One particular morning, ten minutes before I was to be picked up by the photographer for a wedding, she called me and asked what I was wearing. Ummm, standard black shirt and slacks, why? Then I was asked, did I have any leathers? This photographer was a biker on the side (no, really) and did custom leather work, so I knew what she meant, though my answer was still in the negative – even though I used to ride for quite a few years, I never liked the Harley/biker style and didn’t dress up to use my motorcycle.

“Well, I just got reminded that this is a biker wedding,” she told me.

“Uhhhhh,” I said alertly.

“Don’t worry about it, as long as you’re in black. I’ve got some leathers you can wear.”

“Uhhhhh,” I repeated, in case she had misinterpreted me.

“It’s cool, it’s just a theme wedding. I’ve got you covered, and I’ll be there in a few.”

I dug out some black boots, but that was the best accessory I could scrounge for my ensemble. When she showed, I complemented those with a black Harley cap, black fingerless gloves, and a dark brown leather vest that said, “Property of Robin,” on the back. If I’d had even just a little more forewarning, I would have skipped shaving. This was before I had the beard, and trust me when I say I was more mistakable as a Best Buy salesman than a scooter-jockey.

On the way to the wedding in the photographer’s white hearse with a skull on the dash (you think I’m making this up, don’t you?) I drew more than a few interested looks from passing motorists, undoubtedly due to the dashing figure that I cut in my manly duds. Our first stop was at a motor lodge to pick up the bride, since she wanted to arrive in the hearse. No, wait, listen: the wedding was at a park pavilion and there were no facilities for getting ready, so the parties had to get dressed off-site, and the motor lodge was already in use for some of the guests, okay? And some people just like to be different.

So, I’m in the front part of one of the rooms, waiting for the bride and ‘maids to get ready, and of course the dresses are still around. My keen senses alerted me to the fact that the bridal gown and bridesmaid dresses didn’t really have much of a biker flair, and wouldn’t have been out of place at any other wedding I’d been to. I started wondering about this, but then caught sight of myself in the full-length mirror and almost scared myself, I was that bad looking. No, I lie, the biker thing wasn’t working at all, and I have to say the vest and cap put me more in mind of a National Geographic photographer. I have a friend that wears a photo vest all the time when meeting with clients – the vest serves no serious purpose, but it seems to say “professional” to them. Nevertheless, I have yet to purchase a photo vest.

So, we bundled the bride into the hearse (she had the sense to ride up front, so I stretched out on the platform in the back) and headed to the park. Once there, I noticed a curious absence of biker gear, or even bikes. I pointed this out to the photographer, who said that other guests would probably be arriving more thematically. Now, let me outline something from shooting a few dozen weddings, at least in Florida. No matter how upscale, no matter how old or young the happy couple, some guest would show up in camouflage pants and a cap. We always had to shove them into the back of the party pictures and get them to hide the cap.

But not this wedding. Even the guests that wore cowboy hats were in nice slacks and a dress shirt. The entire wedding party was in tuxes and dresses – appropriate to their gender, even. There was just the photographer and I making our hoodlum way around the proceedings. Even worse, a videographer that I knew from photographers’ club meetings was there, and pointedly asked me what the hell I was wearing. All I could say was that I was told this was a biker wedding.

Nothing in that wedding was “biker,” with one tiny exception: a pair of plastic motorcycles on the wedding cake. Not the happy (and perhaps giggling) couple, not the minister, not the ceremony, not the guests, not the reception music, not a damn thing. Yes, I was undoubtedly set up, but I really don’t know by who. The only saving grace was that the photographer who had contracted the job was in her own leather getup and bandanna.

Now, here’s another little thing: photographer’s assistants get to do things like prepping the couple for the formal shots, which means straightening the bride’s dress and arranging the accent flower bouquets. Are you picturing this? The groom certainly didn’t miss his opportunity to point out how good I was at flower arranging, but he couldn’t keep a straight face through it.

And because I know you don’t believe me, I provide proof. That’s me in the shot, though I’d shucked the vest by this time (the reason you see bikers wearing a vest over their bare torsos is because the damn things are hot.) You can’t even tell that I wear glasses, which of course simply added to my badassedness. This is the only memento I have of that occasion, and it’s a scan from a weathered print. The awkward position I’m standing in, besides showing off how badly my slacks were cut, was to try and get the best framing possible. The background down the dock wasn’t working too well, but across the dock, aiming downriver, was much better. I had to stand with my heels on the edge of the wood and lean back to get the framing right, and the happy couple was instructed, should I go backwards, to catch the camera as I threw it into the air. Hell, being soaking wet at that wedding wasn’t going to make anything worse, but there was no way I was taking a chance on losing the camera.

I have little doubt that somewhere, one or more of those guests show off their own photo of me to their friends when flipping through pics, and have a nice giggle over it. That’s okay, I’m cool with that, have your fun. But I charge a lot more for theme weddings now…