But how? Part 20: Consistency

This episode of ‘But how?’ is going to deal more with observations than answering any specific questions through a secular outlook; as such, the title question itself doesn’t really fit, but there still may be a lot of things that become clearer nonetheless. So let’s take a look at consistency in regards to religion.

From time to time, I hear the argument that ‘science’ changes all the time, but religion (or whatever the speaker’s personal definition of it, anyway) remains the same, as it always has. There are two immediate observations that demand attention right off the bat. The first is, ‘science’ used in this manner is the body of knowledge gained through scientific means (rather than the process itself) – the facts, not the practice. But since science is a methodical process of learning, reflecting mankind’s horrific lack of omniscience, of course it changes, just like every human being changes every minute of their lives as new experience adds to their store of knowledge. Having it any other way would be remarkably dull and pointless.

But even to think that science (or our body of knowledge) ‘changes’ significantly is warping reality to leverage a particular viewpoint. Our knowledge expands constantly, but not very much of that consists of changing what we once believed into something else. It’s not hard to find changes in dietary recommendations, for instance – even though a lot of these are corrections to radical misinterpretations of scientific studies by popular media and agenda-driven sources – but this is a tiny aspect of scientific endeavor. Physical laws, engineering formulas, the functions of cells, the nature and behavior of electromagnetic radiation, the atomic table, and so on and so on… all hashed out long ago, few of them even being refined, much less changed. We knew, to a large extent, what DNA did before we even knew what it was. In fact, a large portion of scientific findings right now consists of confirming theories and suspicions, such as gravitational waves, the Higgs boson, and even relativistic time dilation. To say that science constantly changes broadly implies that someone who got their PhD fifty years ago would find it to be worthless now, which of course is far from the case.

The second point that must be highlighted with such an attitude is, to think that religion – any religion, or even any aspect thereof – remains the same only demonstrates a stunning ignorance of religious history. Religion doesn’t quite change as much as, say, fashion, but it’s a lot closer to that than to any charitable or even magnanimous definition of “unchanging.”

Even on very small scales, there is little consistency to be found. In a previous post I expressed significant doubt that any two religious people could agree on a majority of ‘facts’ about their religion, which is especially amusing since the structure of so many faiths is to follow the pronouncements of their religious leaders, regardless of how little sense they might make or any ability whatsoever to support such pronouncements with evidence; “faith” is itself a structure of unquestioning acceptance. Most religions are built on authority, and as we are told, there is only one authority to be found… well, okay, not to be found in any way, but there nonetheless. We know this because we have it on good authority – just, not the authority which is the only authority that counts; mouthpieces are enlisted instead, spokespeople for an omnipotent being, because. Seriously, we never get any better explanation than, “because.” This state of affairs results in more schisms, sects, and splinters than any other topic you can name; put this down to hyperbole if you like, but if you do find a topic that is more fractured and scattered than religion, the comparison still won’t be complimentary. Any devotee will be happy to tell you how correct their own version is without cognizance of the bare facts that a) their version is not followed by many people, and b) it did not exist a hundred years ago. That sounds enormously contentious, and anyone is welcome to dispute it; show me how the attitudes, proscriptions, practices, and rituals are exactly the same as they had been – I wish you the best of luck. In the meantime, we are expected to believe that billions of people over the history of mankind got it all wrong until right here and now, when this handful finally got it right. Even if there were some way to establish this ludicrous proposal as absolutely true, it’s rather damning of religion itself being able to fulfill the one function that it has.

More entertaining are the inconsistencies found within any given faction. We are often assured that scripture (any scripture you care to name) is god’s word and therefore irrefutable fact, but we somehow cannot find anyone that doesn’t willfully ignore those sections that they find inconvenient. At best, we get to hear that said sections are intended only metaphorically, but how this is determined is never fully explained – it’s certainly not a consistent set of rules or indicators that are followed throughout, applicable without fail to all aspects of scripture. Moreover, there is no agreement over which sections are metaphorical and which are literal Truth™, but there is a certain ironic trait to be noted: some of the sections largely considered metaphorical gained this current status because science demonstrated that they could in no way be literal.

[It occurs to me that a large number of religious folk may be entirely unfamiliar with this, since their perspective comes solely from their personal involvement in their church or temple or whatever, which not only fosters at least some consistency, but rarely involves any questioning at all. Yet as an outspoken atheist that’s quite active online, the huge variety of beliefs and practices is apparent. While I’m more than happy to consider any given viewpoint as a personal perspective, those presenting such perspectives never have the attitude that these are individual views, but rather representative of The One True Way – often enough with commensurate condescension over anyone who fails to recognize this. I shouldn’t need to remind anyone how frequently such attitudes result in bloodshed, either.]

The various schisms shouldn’t be surprising, however, when we recognize that few, if any, collections of scripture maintain any consistency within – not in message, not in tone, not in guidance and ideals for humankind, not in portrayal of events nor their connection to other historical records, and most especially not in concordance with demonstrable physical properties. One would think that Truth™ would be easily demonstrable, certainly not in disagreement with the world around us – and yet, these disagreements, such as promises of otherworldly realms and the assurance that miracles do indeed take place, are almost what defines religion. While physical traits and laws are dependable, repeatable, and predictable, concepts such as ‘supernatural’ and ‘metaphysical’ exist as departures from this consistency, unable to be demonstrated or even defined firmly; as such, anyone can use them virtually at will. The vague nature of these terms means that they can only serve the purpose of self-confirmation, since there are no standards to be met and thus no way to actually rule them out.

As a small aside, note how often the people who find ‘supernatural’ influence in everything from being uninjured in a car accident to finding their lost sweater somehow manage to show how their god is caring. When the bad things happen, these are never ‘miracles’ – a curious set of evidential standards. On those rare occasions when death comes to someone they know, there is often no hesitation in claiming this is still part of a plan, with the assumption that this is a beneficial plan, though how this could possibly be determined remains unknown. Faced, however, with the overwhelming evidence that things on this planet can in no way be considered universally good, a lot of religious folk quickly point the finger at people being flawed – despite their assertions that we were all made by a perfect being. If this is all part of a plan, doesn’t this mean that it makes no difference what we do or how we behave?

Even ignoring those overriding issues, there is the simpler one that most scripture cannot even agree with itself, featuring countless contradictions within. Coupled with imprecise passages wide open for interpretation, as well as the tendency among to faithful to choose only those passages that fit a specific purpose, we find that scripture can be used as justification for just about any behavior imaginable, bringing us back once again to how often the practices of any given religion have changed over time. Take a quick look at the hotbutton issues of any religious group, and compare them to what was considered important just three decades ago, much less one hundred, two hundred, or five hundred years ago. It is especially amusing to see how many women are openly religious, given the fact that all of the abrahamic scriptures dictate how little influence females are permitted to have. Those sections aren’t actually part of the plan, I’m guessing.

As you might imagine from the other subject matter on this blog, I have a lot of exposure to those that try to argue against evolution, and the inconsistencies in these discussions are vast. They range from the simpler, “evolution takes place, but it was all started by god long ago,” to the fundamental creationist standpoint that the Earth is only 6,000 years old and every other interpretation is fostered by satan – good thing the religious have it all spelled out for them and can agree on this issue. Even intelligent design, a concept claimed to be scientific in nature that nevertheless shows how god must exist, has two interchangeable definitions of ‘irreducible complexity’ that don’t logically intersect. And yet there is a notable consistency among many religious debaters – not perfect, mind you, but transcending most demarcations among the religious that anyone cares to make – and that is the standards of evidence and proof. Evolution, naturally, is proven completely false by any inconsistency found therein, any lack of direct evidence, any two factors which do not seem to agree, and this is regardless of how little the religious debater actually understands about evolution (which is most often very little indeed, despite how simple it really is.) Holding any religion at all up to the same standards would trash it instantaneously, which is naturally why it is never done. This appears very distinctly in many arguments, often revolving around those people who blindly follow the pronouncements of scientists or the dogma of science itself, despite the fact that religion is built upon these two concepts and could not exist without them – faith is good when the religious do it, but not when it’s perceived to be done by anyone else. That science is, by nature and practice, diametrically opposed to the concept of faith is simply never grasped in such conversations.

More amusing is how science is actually used in the same discussions, far too often. An oft-repeated canard is that the second law of thermodynamics disproves evolution, demonstrating how little the person using it actually understands about physics, but much worse, the first law of thermodynamics trashes gods in every named form. This selectivity in finding science useful or delusional occurs quite often (and not just among the religious, it should be said.) In discussions on the studies that found portions of existing DNA in dinosaur bones, the religious arguments often revolved around a) it being impossible for DNA to exist that long, and b) that testing would show that the bones weren’t really that old. Both of these, naturally, are scientific processes, ones that weren’t ignored during the original studies, but apparently one can pick and choose the science that they find dependable (I think it revolves around how conveniently it supports a pre-existing view.) Don’t get me wrong: scientific findings do indeed clash, and can be used to prove previous studies wrong – it happens quite frequently. But such changes in scientific knowledge take place with careful demonstrations, rather than the typical religious argument that if we evolved from monkeys we shouldn’t still have monkeys. I’ve said it before, but there’s something precious about the faithful soul that thinks their cute little canard somehow would never have occurred to the thousands of scientists who have been working with the same concepts for decades.

I’ve also remarked before about the hypocritical double-standard of personal choice and ultimate authority, shown far too often by religious folk. When confronted with much of the same stuff above, or the combined nonsense and pointlessness of most of their scripture, the defense is that religion is a personal choice, and even a right that they possess (it’s not – it just cannot really be denied, like whether or not one likes vanilla ice cream.) Personal choices, however, are never used to influence legislature, to dictate how children should be raised, or even to slaughter infidels. Personal choices do not extend beyond one’s own brain; anything else obviously isn’t ‘personal.’ And if we are recommending (or forcing) any course of action for anyone else, we should be able to rationally support such with the overriding beneficial aspects, rather than some childish appeal to writings several thousand years old that do not even present the planet in the correct shape. But note, too, that the argument of religion as a personal choice vanishes as soon as the individual leaves the arena of debate, and becomes Truth™ everywhere thereafter.

There are more amusing bits. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard variations of the argument that there are too many religious people in the world, so they can’t all be wrong. Aside from the simple response of, “why can’t they?”, there is the curious double-standards of category that arise every time this argument appears; all of a sudden, every religion can be joined together in harmony – the Native American who believes in a trickster god somehow supports the concept of karmic rebirth, it would seem. The argument also somehow skips over the bare fact of how many people the world over believe in all of the scientific findings we’ve made over the centuries, like the age and origin of the earth and how long life took to develop. It also ignores the plain, simple fact that it doesn’t really matter what anyone believes, since opinion does not establish reality; what kind of results can be produced? We’re still waiting for that, from any religion…

Also, curiously, a lot of religious folk seem to somehow believe that everyone who promotes the concept of, you know, physical laws and life as happenstance is forwarding an agenda, yet their church, which wouldn’t even exist without both a faithful flock and a shitload of donations, is only interested in promoting Truth™. And let’s not forget the argument that atheists and their ilk never tackle sophisticated theology, despite the fact that 99.9997% of religious folk have absolutely no knowledge of such themselves and never produce it when making their own stand. Add in how atheists never pick on the reactive and bloodthirsty religions, but only the peaceful and non-reactive ones like those that the arguer belongs to – despite professing that there is only One True Religion.

[Another aside: in the aforementioned case, islam is usually the ‘reactive’ religion in mind, demonstrating how few people understand that islamic terrorism is a tiny, radical subset of a larger faith that is no more violent than christianity – all of them have their extremists. And while extremism can have many root causes, the concepts of ultimate authority and deity-approved actions certainly aren’t detrimental, are they? Nor are they specific to any religion, imagine that.]

I could go on, but I suspect the overall claim of consistency is effectively trashed. There is a more interesting concept that can be found within, however, and that’s how often the rules and standards and practices exist only as far as they support the religious standpoint. If one already has a preferred answer and selects only the stuff that supports it, then a case can be made for anything at all. A consistent set of practices and standards, however, especially ones that predict results, are the only things that will tell us when we’re on the right track – anything else is self-indulgence.

Green greeting

green treefrog Hyla cinerea on scouring rush Equisetum hyemale
More stuff will be along soon, but right now I just wanted to post this one. From a short outing yesterday to the NC Botanical Garden while the weather was nice, this is the first green treefrog (Hyla cinerea) that I’ve seen this year, pretty early as far as I’m concerned. It is perched upon a clump of scouring rushes (Equisetum hyemale) growing in a small pond liner. From what I’ve just heard about that plant, I may have to come back later and talk about it some more when I have further info; right now I can say it’s a goal of mine to have this growing in my local pond.

The slightly surreal effect was partially intentional, and partially unavoidable for this particular angle on the frog – it comes from shooting through a very narrow gap in the rushes, so most of the hazy effect seen is caused by stems close to the camera and so far out of focus that they provide only a green cloudiness (see here for a detailed explanation of how it occurs.) The blue in the background, however, is sky being reflected from the surface of the pond.

It’s not hard to use this creatively in photos, but it does take the right conditions, and it’s usually better to have a sharp focal point to anchor the image, in this case the frog, but in this case it’s a flower blossom (or two.) Thus it’s important to have a gap where a clear view is possible, and of course cooperative light; if it’s much brighter on your defocused portions than on your focused subject, the brightness of the ‘haze’ might overpower the image.

Or you can just drink in the scene without dissecting it – that works, too, especially if you find the various green hues as pleasing as I do. For scale, the rush that the frog is clinging to is about the diameter of a pencil – not a big guy at all.

Still got the creepy thing going on

Limenitis larva snacking on azalea bloom
One of the problems with ornamental plants is how much maintenance they might require. The Girlfriend has a new rose bush that she really likes, and last year it got decimated by an early and earnest attack of inchworms – this was in contrast to another rose that came with the property, that remained almost entirely untouched. This year we were ready, and as the season started, we began routine examinations to keep the little buggers at bay. Shown here is not one of the principle inchworm hooligans, but what I believe is a Limenitis instead, the larva of some species of Viceroy or Admiral butterfly. I collected this one to pose on the azalea blossoms, because you gotta love those horns (which were completely harmless, by the way, or at least I was immune.)

unidentified inchworm about to be discovered by black antThe larva above, one of two such that I found, was assisting the numerous inchworms in raiding the weeping cherry tree, another ornamental that we didn’t want savaged. In that case, however, the ants were helping out an awful lot. The cherry tree came into blossom only a couple of weeks ago, and is now leafing out as well as starting to produce cherries, while the inchworms are partaking of the new leaves. Some of the leaf damage can be seen here alongside the culprit, at center near the bottom of the frame. Directly above it sits a black ant, and the two species demonstrated a paired behavior enough times to know it wasn’t a fluke. As soon as an ant would draw near, before visual contact appeared possible, the caterpillar would bail the leaf to hang beneath on a thin web strand, unable to be captured by the ant. Eventually, once the ant had moved on, the inchworm would draw itself back up to the leaf to resume eating. I never did see an ant actually capture an inchworm, and I’m not even sure that was their main goal, so you might think they were doing little to protect the tree. However, there were a lot of ants, and the ability of the inchworms to eat uninterrupted was seriously hampered by this. While dangling, of course, the inchworms remain vulnerable to any passing bird, or even being carried away by a stiff breeze. They also remain vulnerable to humans with pans of soapy water, which is how a lot of them met their demise.

inchworm showing defensive behaviorThe ant hadn’t even drawn close, but apparently set up some telltale vibrations along the leaf; the ant has moved out of view behind the leaves here. I’ve found that shaking the branches is often enough to trigger the defensive drop, which makes it a lot easier to find and remove the inchworms.

Unlike spiders, inchworms do not produce their web from the hind end, but from their mouths instead; this makes it easier for them to spin their cocoons when the time comes. In many cases, they raise themselves on their hind set of limbs and do a decent impersonation of a twig, which probably works a lot better when they’re perched on a branch itself and not the middle of a leaf, but when they do this, they’re usually attached to the web already, able to drop away in a flash, and I have witnessed numerous specimens sticking up into the air with a gossamer thread anchoring their head to the branch. They also travel while dangling from webbing, carried along by the wind, and on some gusty days I find myself carrying a few hitchhikers, even when I come back into the house.

red-shouldered hawk Buteo lineatus sitting on nestI mentioned earlier about watching a red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) trying to interest a female in his newly-constructed nest, and he was successful; she is now occupying the nest regularly, and I suspect eggs are soon to arrive if they haven’t already. The distance is a little extreme – this is a tight crop from a frame shot at 500mm – and the light angle is terrible, since my view is due south, so it’s hard to say how much I’ll capture, but I’ll keep watching. You know I’ll keep you updated with any decent pics, and perhaps even some indecent ones.

fishing spider Dolomedes tenebrosus and green frog Lithobates clamitans on night vigil
Fishing spider Dolomedes tenebrosus with fingertip for scaleA pair of green frogs (Lithobates clamitans) wintered over in the bottom of the ornamental pond in the back yard and now make nightly appearances, but what startled me was the fishing spider, which joined them a few nights ago. I could tell you that the frog, at lower right in the image above, is 5cm long and the spider is 2.5cm long in body length (so much more in leg spread,) but it’s more illustrative to show scale. No nature photographers were harmed in the making of this image.

This is not the largest fishing spider that I’ve seen, but it’s not far from it either, and fishing spiders are easily the largest genus to be found in the area. I have yet to witness it using the pond for fishing, but it’s still early, especially since few water insects have made an appearance. This is a female, probably full adult, and she may be waiting to mate and form an egg sac, which I’m fairly certain they do suspended in the leaves and branches of nearby plants, such as seen here, though that’s not the same species. This year I have some water plants in pots springing up in the pond, so she should have something to work with in that regard.

By the way, you have to love BugGuide.net. While they have a remarkable community of both amateur and professional entomologists that can help identify arthropods, some of their guidelines are not exactly easy for anyone else to follow:

Additionally Dolomedes tenebrosus features an inverted “v shaped” black mark beginning at the AME extending to the edge of the clypeus enclosing a light spot on the anteromedial margin compared to Dolomedes scriptus which is dark only around each eye with a homogenous medium gray clypeus.

Oh. Okay.

But given all that, I’m inclined to say this is a female Dolomedes tenebrosus, because it’s referring to the ‘face’ of the spider. “AME” is “anterior median eyes,” the front center ‘main’ eyes of a spider, while “clypeus” is a facial plate more or less where the upper lip would be in humans, and in this case “anteromedian margin” means right at the upper edge of this plate. So it refers to the dark marking around the eyes seen here:

Fishing spider Dolomedes tenebrosus close portrait
This image, unlike the hawk above, is full-frame; moving carefully while the spider was dazzled by a bright flashlight on a tripod, I was able to get in very close with the 80mm macro and extension tube. A short time back I’d picked up a clamp that had a tripod-socket in it, and this has been invaluable for such pursuits – I highly recommend finding one, like this. It should soon see use in holding the USB microscope too.

By the way, I said I had to move carefully, not because of any aggressiveness on the part of the spider, but because she is shy as any of them, and would take shelter in a crevice whenever she felt threatened, as had happened twice before.

The smaller green frog, seen above, had been trapped in position when I moved between it and the pond, so it had simply hunkered down and played possum, but the larger frog was in a better escape position and hurtled into the water as I approached. Immediately after getting the ridiculous closeups of the spider, though, I found it watching from the surface of the water, and went in for a ridiculous closeup of the frog (but less than half as close as the spider.)

Green frog Lithobates clamitans peering from water surface
I doubt that I might see anything happen, given that all species involved are nocturnal yet change their behavior when observed by the bright lights I need to observe then, but the fishing spider might well be a prime food source for the frogs – it will be interesting to see if she remains. I expect to see frog eggs soon too.

In fact, from more than one species. The Copes grey treefrog shown twice earlier has been hanging around on the deck, less than a dozen meters from the pond, so if that’s a female, she may be depositing her eggs there as well. I’ll close with one more photo of that one, when she (?) presented a mellow pose on the edge of a potted plant.

Copes grey treefrog Hlya chrysoscleis on edge of potted plant
I should probably just let this sit as it is, but I can’t resist giving my own impression, which is that she is waiting patiently for you to admit to that obvious lie you just told. Perhaps this says far too much about me…

A quick survey

Just a moment of your time, for statistical purposes.

A friend of mine is suggesting I reactivate my FaceBook account (Facebook? faceBook? faCebOoK? Whatever.) I had one, many years back, started just to see how social media would advance interest in the place where I worked (Answer: it couldn’t.) I dumped it because it bored me to tears, and I couldn’t find any personal value in it either.

But everyone is doing it, right? So, for instance, it would advance knowledge and interest in this site itself (which predates FaceBook,) right?

So, all you have to do is reply is you’ve ever been brought here by a FaceBook thingy, or even linked to anything here yourself. Or, simply if you presently have something on your own wall or tree or whatever that fits right in with my expressed interests here, that I would be interested in forwarding or commenting upon. Sorry, I don’t have any buttons to click, because that’s not really involvement, is it? I want to hear real comments, something that shows neurons were engaged. A random number doesn’t mean anything to me.

I even waited until April 2nd, because.

Fire away! I’ll be taking replies for the next 60 days.

This post has 286,473 “Mehs” from people who never followed the link to it.

Beware the Abstracts of March

unidentified seed pods against sunset sky
Okay, okay, I’m finally starting to get something interesting to post, so more content will be along shortly. For now, we do our month end abstract, a quick exploitation of the sunset colors a couple of weeks ago. They were on their way out here, vanishing completely within minutes, so I was lucky to get even this. No ducks or geese wanted to cooperate and fly off against that sky, forcing me to improvise with some early seed pods.

Ah, what the hell, here’s another from the same evening, as the colors reflected in the water were almost gone. You know I can’t leave the spiders alone…
spider against  muted sunset colors

It’s official

budding redbud branches in foreground of bridge Duke Gardens
… even if it’s nonsense for the most part. Today marks the first day of “spring,” as I am the very first to inform you of because of course you start your day right here. Most people associate spring with flowers and pollinators and trees in bud and birds nests and all that, of which we are slowly seeing the signs of here, just not today, which is rainy and overcast. So all of the images from this post were taken in “winter,” though only a few days ago. On a trip to Duke Gardens, I danced around in various positions to place the redbud branches, among the first buds to appear in this area, framed around the iconic red bridge – no ducks or geese were inclined to cooperate in the composition. Cultivated flowers were able to be found elsewhere, but they don’t count.

unidentified blue wildflowersDoes this count? I have to admit I’m not sure, since they were growing in a patch of lawn in the same garden, and I can’t vouch for whether they simply appeared there on their own or were planted – I’m leaning towards “natural,” for whatever definition of that vague term you like. I have not identified these yet; you know, most of our more specific names for colors actually come from flowers, so trying to narrow the search choices down from “blue” or “purple” is hard to do without skewing the results towards something that you know isn’t right.

But while I’m here without any further trivia about these flowers, I’ll insert trivia about the season instead. The more distinctive trait about the day is being the vernal equinox, when the amount of daylight and nightdark hours are the same, one of only two days in the year when this occurs, and the sun rises and sets directly east and west – when it’s not overcast and rainy. This is an effect of the axial tilt of our planet as it revolves around the sun, so it’s more specific and much better defined than “spring.” Ancient cultures that paid attention to such details used this as an accurate calendar, resulting in Stonehenge and similar structures rather than relying on Google Doodles to clue them in; they were much more likely to notice the position that the sun rose in the morning than the fact that day and night hours were equal, since clocks were still centuries in the future. And yet, I imagine bosses of some kind would still look at their employees arriving and hold a hand up judiciously against the sun and the horizon, coldly informing them that they were “a finger late.”

European honeybee Apis mellifera got it going onDuring the same trip, the pollinators were still pretty scarce, but one (yes, unidentified) bush was attracting most of those to be seen; this is a tight crop of one frame while a European honeybee (Apis mellifera) displays its pollen collection. Now, a curious thought as I’m typing this. Most of the stinging insects, as well as numerous other species, display the high-contrast, aposematic coloration (usually black and yellow) to make them memorable to species that might eat them; combined with the stinger, these are evolved traits that protect them from predation. Curiously, the coloration on honeybees is much more muted, and at the same time they are the only species with a barbed stinger that typically lodges in the flesh of whatever they sting, getting ripped out and resulting in the death of the individual bee. I suspect that the lack of more distinctive colors is related to this trait, preventing the genes from the more brightly colored individuals from passing along, but I’m not sure this follows directly. I suppose I could look up what educated people have to say about it…

blue lungwort Pulmonaria officinalis blossomsI’m going to consider these cultivated, given their location, which was in a planted area in the NC Botanical Gardens about a week later, back on Thursday. While Duke Gardens are a decorative and display area, NC Botanical Gardens are an educational facility that typically features native plants, so these blue lungwort blossoms (Pulmonaria officinalis) might actually be found growing wild at this time of year, not too far away. However, I just liked them for the delicate mix of colors, a tiny patch of variety among the sparse plants making their first appearances – it’s still early. You can see how the dappled sunlight provided a mix of lighting, but direct sunlight might have washed out some of these colors. ‘Low contrast light for high contrast subjects’ is a good starting guideline.

BAsking American bullfrog Lithobates catesbeianusIf one looked close, some of the leopard frogs that resided in the garden could be found, as well as a handful of tadpoles, but this is an American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus,) usually hard to spot because they’re both secretive and primary nocturnal. None of the amphibian species were sounding off yet, save for one isolated call – they were simply basking in the sun, absorbing energy after their winter hibernation. There was nothing I could get into this image to show scale very well, but if it helps, I would have recommended keeping small children and lap dogs away from this specimen, notably larger than my fist. Given the very small size of the pond it was within, this is likely the only frog species to inhabit it, since bullfrogs will readily eat other frogs, as well as just about anything else. However, it was successfully avoiding two massive snapping turtles that also inhabit the pond – it’s a little surprising the balances that can take place even in very small habitats. It’s also quite possible that the presence of both species successfully prevented the increase in population between them, each preying on the offspring of the other. Either way, dabbling one’s fingers in the pond is not a recommended activity…

green anole Anolis carolinensis being coyWere either of those species responsible for the foreshortened state of my next subject? It’s impossible to say, though in this area, birds are far more often the culprit. Since the garden is a prime habitat where they are frequently seen, I had been watching carefully for any sign of my friends the green anoles (Anolis carolinensis,) wondering if it was still too early for them to be out – obviously not, though it might have been the first day this year. This one scampered around with only moderate shyness, though often remaining in the shade, and it took some careful observation and timing to capture it when it turned enough to produce a reflection of the sun from its eye, known to photographers as a catchlight – that little spot of white on the eye is enough to make any species seem much more vibrant and ‘alive,’ and it’s a goal most nature photographers should at least keep in mind, especially among those species that have dark eyes with no visible iris. It’s not quite as necessary when the subject has detailed irises, like this next one.

Copes grey treefrog Hyla chrysoscelis hiding away from the sun
This is the same specimen seen in the previous post, only the following day. After being out for a while to warm itself up, it decided that it was getting too much sun (it really did get pretty warm those days,) and nestled down within a crevice to shade itself as much as possible. I liked the baleful look that this angle provided, though I admit it was hard to get an ominous feeling from something as long as the top joint of my thumb.

And I close with another image from Duke Gardens, more cultivated decorative flowers – I just liked the contrasting colors of the daffodil and the grape hyacinth. Actually, the daffodil was a lone specimen among the thematically blue flowerbed, and I suspect it was a stray bulb that got mixed in – if so, it’s a shame because the colors work well together. But either way, enjoy the vernal equinox!
daffodil Narcissus and grape hyacinth Muscari in Duke Gardens

Everyone has their own sign

When you live in the northern reaches of the US, the “first sign of spring” is usually considered the American robin, or perhaps certain flowers – not daffodils, since they often came up just to get dumped on by snow. Here at the mid latitudes, we can see robins throughout January, and a few flower species can appear in February. So for my own sake, there’s one appearance that I treat as the harbinger of warm weather and the beginning of the good photography season:

Cope's grey treefrog Hyla chrysoscelis making its first appearance this season
The common grey treefrog and the Cope’s grey treefrog are identical, but I’m going to consider this a Cope’s (Hyla chrysoscelis) because they do have distinguishable calls, and that’s the only call I’ve ever heard in this area. Since it was daylight this one wasn’t making a sound, and was basking in the bright sun, firing up its system after the winter temperatures. Its perch is a piece of ornamental cedar treestump that we currently have sitting on the deck before it gets placed someplace else as an accent, so the frog couldn’t have been much more convenient to photograph (realistically, anyway – I suppose sitting on my desk next to the keyboard would be better.) I’d last spotted the grey treefrogs back in October, so this is my cue to keep an eye out now.

Several local plants are budding out now, including The Girlfriend’s cherry tree and my almond tree, but this next one is a potted flower, a hyacinth belonging to The Girlfriend’s Younger Sprog. In the warm weather, a jumping spider was casting web lines into the breeze to try and snag another perch, and when I interrupted this by passing my hand through the wafting strand, he (yes it’s a male) began reeling in the web, quite possibly to recycle the material by eating it, thus conserving his limited resources until more meals presented themselves.

jumping spider Salticidae pulling in drifting web strands
There’s also a red-shouldered hawk with a new nest in plain sight out the back door, presently trying to get a female to approve of his handiwork… beakiwork… whatever. We’ll have to see if this produces more interesting scenes in the near future.

Evening light show

Sunday evening, the promised rain rolled in, the first of the real spring storms – the weekend weather had been excellent, and I’m still sporting a sunburned face from being out too long without a hat Saturday. With the rain came some electrical activity, but I could do little about this with the downpour; aside from the difficulty of having camera equipment out in the rain, there’s the bare fact that once the rain starts, all that usually happens is a generic illumination without any visible lightning bolts. So, the best thing to do is to catch the approaching storm. Or the receding one.

The rain had stopped, the sky had cleared, and I went outside to put something in the car when I noticed all the activity to the east. Knowing a nearby pond would have a good view of that sky plus allow some reflections, I quickly stuffed the equipment in the car and sped over to the water’s edge.

distant electrical storm over pond
Despite some nice visible bolts while driving over, initially all I could see once I set up the camera on the tripod were flashes within the clouds, but eventually some inter-cloud activity became visible and I began getting some decent frames. There wasn’t a sound to be heard from the storm, being many kilometers distant by then, and the sky directly overhead was showing stars and a crescent moon. I settled on roughly 12 second exposures with only a second or two in between, since the activity was near constant at that point, and ended up shooting 123 frames. Of those, quite a few showed distinctive bolts, even though the dramatic ground strikes (like a year and a half ago in the same location) weren’t really visible. I put together 27 frames that were taken without changing the camera position and made an animated gif (pronounced “fig”) out of them, seen below.

animated gif consecutive frames of electrical storm
First off, note that these are consecutive, without any frames being pulled – in other words, yes, each one got something in it. Second, look at the thunderhead to the right that gets revealed as the low-level clouds nearby, colored yellow by the city lights, drift off. It is solely illuminated by lightning, which was so consistent in that area of the storm that the appearance of the thunderhead remains practically unchanged. Compare that against the gif (pronounced “ifg”) seen here, and how the layers of clouds seem to change with each bolt.

One of my (many) photographic goals is to capture a red sprite, and I watched this storm carefully to see if any indication of such a display was forthcoming, with no luck. It probably goes without saying, at least if you’re familiar with red sprites at all, that conditions have to be just right to capture them. Still, with the number of storms that I’ve had enormous luck with in the past two years, it seems more likely I’ll snag one of them over a tornado or a frozen waterfall, also items on my list.

There was another photo outing this past weekend, so more pics may be forthcoming shortly. I’m trying to get back into more regular posting, I really am…

Gang aft agley

So. A friend contacted me about two weeks ago, wanted to see if I could come down to Atlanta airport to film the wedding proposal of her son to his girlfriend; they had met at a particular gate there, and he planned to propose at the same place. How sweet!

[I’m not a sentimental type, so yes, there’s a certain amount of sarcasm there, not at the idea itself, but at the number of people who would actually respond that way.]

Anyway, my friend was covering the airfare, and I’d only be gone a day, so I agreed. I ended up getting too little sleep the previous night, but I knew I’d catch up within the day, so no biggie. The plan was, the girlfriend (no, not The Girlfriend we all know, this is a descriptor rather than a title) would be coming in on a later flight by herself, so the three of us – my friend, her son [who is also my friend, but again] and I – could plan out how we were going to capture the event. I had never met the girlfriend in question, so I would just be “random airport person” to her and could hang around with a camera as long as I didn’t act too suspicious/creepy – yes, this would require great acting skills on my part, but you don’t doubt I was up to this, do you? Meanwhile, my friend, the future mother-in-law, was of course well known to the future fiancée and would have to remain incognito so no suspicions were aroused, and she accomplished this with a heavy flannel shirt (something she never wore) and a huge wool camo hunting cap, or “beanie” I think is the current vernacular. And sunglasses. It was hideous, and thus hilarious, but I’m not sure “incognito” is exactly the right word.

Anyway, we talked over where everyone would be for the best views, especially to capture the look of surprise and such, not get too many people in the way, and so on. We semi-staged positions, and enlisted the airport staff’s help in a couple of details – including, one of the gate agents would do video on a smutphone, while I was doing video on a DSLR and the friend was doing the still shots. With great luck, the entire gate became deserted between flights, only ten minutes before the future fiancée’s flight was due in at another gate. The son went off to meet the intended and bring her back to our trap under some pretense or another, and the rest of us got into position.

Almost immediately, the area flooded with people; seeing an unused gate, Delta decided to put it to use and switched another flight into it. Word that the couple were returning came very quickly and I raised the camera and tried to get them into frame. Only, the future fiancée paused too far back, not framed against the proposal banner and actually blocked from my view by a column and several people. I could see that her boyfriend was already down on one knee and I maneuvered for an unobstructed view, struggling with autofocus which tried to capture everything that crossed my frame, and when I finally got into the clear, the gate agent with the smutphone repeatedly blocked my view, trying for his own good vantage. Meanwhile my friend, taking the still photos, also had a bad angle initially and had to shift around everyone else, hampered by poor indoor light and her own excitement which didn’t help her steady hands at all.

Having done quite a few weddings in my past, I can say that this was hardly unexpected; the ‘serious’ portraits tend to be elaborately staged and lighted, kept under strict control because that’s the only way to guarantee results, while the reception photos and candids are often dicey, especially those portions which are not part of the routine wedding events. When there are a lot of variables not under anyone’s control, a lot can go wrong, and the best you can do is plan for as many contingencies as you can imagine and adapt to anything else as it occurs. And it sometimes means that the nice situation that you had planned doesn’t come to pass at all.

This is all, naturally, from a photographer’s perspective, which is not the most important one in any such situation; the future fiancée was completely taken by surprise, and overwhelmed by the proposal. The various people around the gate, passengers and staff, were delighted, and applauded happily. Delta Airlines was enormously generous and showered the couple with various gifts before they caught their connecting flight back out, and we wish to extend our heartfelt thanks to those staffmembers at the gate who helped make it all work out. Right at the moment, I am maintaining my usual policy of not naming names or picturing people without express permission, but perhaps later on there will be actual photos.

And of course she said, “yes.” Congratulations, Drew and Allanah – we wish you all the best for your future together! And for my part, it was a lot of fun, despite the issues described here.

The post title, should it be unfamiliar, is better known by a slightly ‘translated’ version – I am not completely without literary knowledge…

First come the spiders

wolf spider Lycosidae being shy
Back on the evening of March 1st, the weather was remarkably warm, and walking around with a bright flashlight held near my eyes revealed numerous arachnids taking immediate advantage of the conditions. Well, to some extent, anyway – there wasn’t much activity to be seen, just their presence, wallflowers at the spring dance; leave it to me to come up with ridiculously inappropriate phrasing. The easiest to spot with the flashlight technique are the wolf spiders of course, which live in burrows, and nearly all of those that I found were remaining on their ‘front porch,’ ducking inside at the slightest sign of danger like the nosy neighbor in a sixties sitcom.

wolf spider Lycosidae caught too far away from its burrowThere are too many species of wolf spider to identify any individual in situ, especially when it might require examining the stripes on the underside, so these will simply be classed in the family Lycosidae. The one seen here was caught too far from its protective burrow, so it simply hunkered down with its legs drawn close for protection when I loomed in for the portrait. As nasty as they might appear, they’re quite shy, but notably I only got these images because these two, both appearing to be males, were less wary than the large female I approached numerous times, one who retreated into her burrow before I could ever get her in the viewfinder. The gender might actually have something to do with this, the males having to weigh discretion against not actually finding a female to mate with. Much as we might like it to be otherwise, there are very few species where the males can just wait for the females to come calling…

unidentified spider, possibly nursery web Pisaurina mira, consuming mealThis one I spotted initially when I didn’t have the camera in hand, perched on the pole supporting a bird feeder. After chasing the wolf spiders, I came back past to find it still in the same position, reluctant to move even as I positioned myself underneath for the portrait. The reason for this can just barely be made out if you look close, since it had already captured a meal and was lethargically gnawing through it. This is another male – the ‘boxing glove‘ ends of the pedipalps, those little leglike appendages, are a giveaway. I found this slightly curious in that, by far, what I see most are females, but maybe I just haven’t been watching enough early in the season to see the males in their active times. This one I’m going to tentatively identify as a nursery web spider (Pisaurina mira,) but I stand to be corrected on that – there are several species with a similar appearance. Nursery web spiders, unsurprisingly, feed on stray packets of information found on the internet network for arborists and orchard staff; nursery web, get it?

Let’s just pretend I never said that…

The final arachnid for this post (but certainly not for the year, rest assured, or agitated, whatever) is one that I haven’t even come close to identifying, perhaps because it’s a juvenile and thus not in adult coloration. It’s tiny, which is understating the case; it measures no more than a millimeter in body length. The backdrop is lichen, the fuzzy stuff that is found in small patches on tree trunks sometimes.

Unidentified minuscule spider doing gymnastics
I tried to shoot it perched on a fingertip for a better scale shot, but it clearly did not approve of this surface and hyperactively scrambled around trying to get off, preventing me from even catching it in the viewfinder, much less in focus; the lichen at least caused it to clamber across the tendrils and slowed it down a little. The best way to start identifying spider species, the eye pattern, is next to indistinguishable against the black carapace. From body shape and what little I can see about the eyes, I’m only going to guess that it’s a juvenile orb weaver. I would also guess that the coloration is aposematic, the bright and contrasted ‘keepaway’ signal indicating that it’s toxic or otherwise unpalatable – being bright red doesn’t seem to be the best of traits when one is that small, but there remains the possibility that whatever is likely to prey on it cannot see the same hues. If it’s not obvious, I’m just spitballing here, so chime in and correct my ignorance if you like; you have the advantage that, if you sound like you know what you’re talking about, you can completely bullshit me and I’ll buy it anyway, unable to correct you from my own ignorance.

Spring is coming, and with it I expect to be posting more and, wonder of wonders, maybe something other than spiders. Bear with me (I know it’s hard.)