What’s in the package?

It’s funny – I’ve been thinking for years that I should perhaps look into leading a weekend nature photography outing to some promising locale, for instance the Outer Banks of NC, but always hesitate over two things: that I could find enough people to sign up that would at least cover the expenses; and that I wouldn’t be blamed if the weekend turned out unproductive, which is one of those wild variables that occur in such pursuits. Or at least, it does for me – I honestly can’t say if, you know, competent nature photographers always come back with lots of photos, but I suspect luck plays a role with them as well and some days are just crap. I’d like to think that, if such an outing really did pan out with few subjects, people would be understanding, and I could still make it worth their time in imparting some useful information.

This made me reflect on what kinds of things that I am talking about during, for instance, routine student outings, the couple-hour-long ones done locally, and decided to give a few examples in a post. Naturally, I talk about camera controls and won’t reiterate them here; I find composition is much more important (and have another composition post in the works,) but most students need help knowing how all the little dials and options work first, so I spend more of my time concentrating on those. But when it comes down to outings, actually out on locations and chasing natural subjects, these are some of the things that I’m yammering about:

Good hiking habits. Dressing appropriately, of course, and I often stress carrying a disposable rain poncho in the camera bag, always. Layers of clothing if, like this time of year, there can be a wide range of temperatures during an outing – chances are, going back to the car for anything is more effort than it’s worth. But a lot of it has to do with having to spot copperheads, which camouflage really well in leaves and undergrowth, and always watching one’s footing. In really high risk areas, this means a habit of surveying the ground closely for a meter or two immediately ahead, then allowing oneself to look for subjects elsewhere for just a couple of steps before returning one’s gaze to the ground, and anytime a promising sound is heard, stopping immediately. Most especially, not walking around with the camera raised to your eye – that’s asking for trouble, even just from camouflaged holes.

It’s actually very easy to get focused on a subject and start jockeying for position, forgetting that we’ve never checked the immediate region for danger or unsafe footing, so I stress this often – never let your guard down in high risk areas. But even just being aware of twigs and leaves, because they’re noisy and can alert potential subjects to our presence, and because leaves will camouflage a hole, as well as hiding dangerous critters better. Another example is logs. Never, of course, reach under one or even blindly loop fingertips under an edge, and when stepping over one, we make sure that our legs don’t get too close to the far, blind side and be in a prime location to get bitten or stung by what lurks there. And when rolling one over to see what kind of fun stuff might be underneath, we roll it towards ourselves; this ensures that the suddenly-open gap is facing away, so startled snakes don’t have a clear shot at us.

Orienteering. Not to any serious level, to be honest, because I’ve never led any outings to great distances away from known areas – usually we’re in parks or small plots where ‘civilization’ isn’t far away. But once we go off the trail, I make sure we’re paying attention to how to get back. People have a wicked tendency to believe their phones are useful in this regard, but this requires three distinct things: 1) that their phone is in working order, not damaged and not suffering from a dead battery; 2) that their phone is receiving an adequate signal, and this is crucial, because cell signals tend to be weak in just the areas that anyone may be hiking; and 3) that they actually know how to use the functions in the first place. A compass, or even a set of GPS coordinates, tells us absolutely nothing if we don’t know where we’re supposed to be, and most downloadable terrain maps are on a scale that does not assist hikers in any way, nor will they usually show the trail we’re trying to regain. So I more often point out orienting by the sun, and reading the lay of the land (such as the valleys that lead down to creeks and rivers,) and even knowing what the region looks like ahead of time, by getting familiar with maps. Any time someone relies on one factor, like a working phone, that means only one failure and they’re screwed.

Sounds, of course. This ties in multiple ways. For orienteering, the sound of the river or distant traffic can be helpful in finding a way. But mostly it’s to assist in finding subjects. Not only knowing the calls of the wildlife in the region, but what alarm calls are, can help point towards photo subjects. Even a small rustle near our feet can alert us to lizards, snakes, or rodents, and a plop in the water can indicate turtles, snakes, waterfowl, and so on. Some of this comes from experience, and knowing what typical sounds are (rustle of leaves and the creaking of tree trunks in the wind) and what isn’t normal background noise. Naturally, the moment we hear anything of the sort, we stop and assess it, or start to home in.

Identifying species. I’ll be honest, I can’t pinpoint everything, even in my own area, and I’m only so-so at birdsong, but I contribute what I can. And if there’s any trivia connected to them, I’ll add that too. When on the more popular hiking trails, I’ve told more people about snake species and how to identify them than I can count, usually with a live specimen on hand to illustrate. But this also extends to ‘spoor,’ the catch-all term for evidence of a particular species, whether it be feces, tracks, fur, or specific behavioral traits. Sometimes I can even provide a rough time frame of a visit, from the dampness of the muddy tracks or the freshness of the chewing marks.

Composition, naturally. While the blog is devoted to showing particular species and expressive animal portraits, more often than not, I stress the fartistic and communicative aspects of photography as much as I can, without trying to impose my ‘style’ (word used with wild abandon) onto others. Often, this means pointing out the backgrounds and how a change of angles accomplishes something different, or reminding people what effect some particular trait has. When I’m shooting, it’s often not immediately obvious that I choose position more than casually, and try to illustrate or demonstrate this when I can. I don’t push students towards particular activities or session goals, which might be to their detriment because I feel that the post-shooting examination of the images is important too.

Further along those lines,

Purpose and expression. By this I mean, what is the goal of the image? What are we trying to say with it, or what use is it intended for? As I said, much of my stuff tends to be illustrative, with the occasional nod towards being fartistic (which may not actually be acknowledged anyway.) So, if the idea is art, is the image balanced? Is it direct, with a strong focal point? Does it contain distractions or detractions? Or if the purpose is illustration, does it show what’s necessary? Scale, setting, behavior, enough detail? This is one of the benefits of digital, in that we can immediately ascertain (to a point, anyway) whether we captured the right lighting or focus. And one of the trickiest aspects of taking photos is the detachment from our inherent sense of place. Standing there out in the field or wherever, we know where we are, but are we communicating this through our images adequately? Are we illustrating the conditions or climate as needed? Or (and this is a useful aspect all by itself,) are we giving a purposefully misleading idea of ‘place’ to the viewer, for instance hiding the fact that the image was shot in a planter or at a park?

Fairly frequently, I realize that something I’m shooting may make for a decent blog post (I said, “may,”) and this starts me composing it in my head, which often leads to ensuring that I have all of the images that I anticipate needing. It doesn’t always work, but it works much better than coming up with a post idea at home and then realizing there are things that I’d like to illustrate but never got any images of. A little forethought while on-site can help a lot.

Professionalism. In some cases, this means considering all of the different uses some potential future editor might have for photos of a particular subject, and attempting to meet as many of those as possible. In some cases, it means taking the time to ensure that we’ve captured the best photos of the subject that we can, given the conditions, and even pointing out how different conditions will change the photo. And in some cases, this means behaving with respect to the subject, environment, and anyone else in the area. If we see someone else shooting, we stay out of the way, and if we detect that someone else is hoping to get the same perspective as we have (for instance, at zoos or aquariums,) then we move aside as quickly as we can to allow them their own chance. Very often, I spot a potentially spooky subject and coach the student in their approach while foregoing my own shots, knowing that there’s probably only one chance before it flees. I have occasionally encountered other photographers who are arrogant, selfish, and even snide, and I have no time for that kind of bullshit – it certainly doesn’t define ‘professional’ in any way.

I reiterate, from time to time, the simple criteria of, ‘Stay safe.’ Too many people feel that getting the good photos involves some risk, and that there’s a certain cachet to danger. Utter horseshit. The professional knows that risk is a gamble that invites negative consequences, the bad shit that’s eventually going to happen, and it adds nothing to the image. When we take on the practice of nature photography, we take on the knowledge of negative consequences and the behavior to avoid them, and it’s getting the good photos while maintaining these standards that earns our prestige – not betting that we can get away with something stupid like some YouTube mook.

And even,

Good organization and maintenance. If there isn’t any subject immediately visible, I might start talking about the before and after. For instance, a distant subject like a bird or a raccoon might be visible for mere moments, while a macro subject like a frog is more inclined to stay put. To this end, having the longer lenses affixed most of the time increases our chances of capturing any given subject; the macro subjects will wait for a lens change more readily than the distant, fleeting ones. Too many lens changes, however, increase the dust within the camera and on the sensor. Most-often used equipment should be easy to get to, but our bags should also have a selection of the handiest accessories. And putting the equipment away securely before tackling any kind of treacherous footing is paramount.

This also carries to the post-shooting habits. Do we have good organization and sorting of our photos, and the ability to catalog them well enough to find them again as needed? Are we recording all pertinent information? Are we determining correct species? And are we maintaining routine backups? Are we ensuring that we never edit an original, but only copies? Are we routinely cleaning and maintaining our equipment? Some of these questions actually become embarrassing, but that’s okay – that’s what goads us towards better behavior, sometimes. I don’t try to be a hardass, but I will make my students aware of the potential consequences, and I’m not above saying, “I told you so.”

Now, here’s something that occurred to me, as I was typing this. I occasionally wonder just how I come across, and how I should be improving my approach. You see, a lot of students are brief, one or two sessions and that’s it, and I can credit this to three separate things:

1) They found out the crucial things that they needed and didn’t have further use of my services;

2) They lost interest in the pursuit, or got too busy with other things; or

3) They didn’t like my method, approach, or style, or thought I was overcharging, or something of that nature.

I virtually never hear direct negative feedback or even indirect for that matter, which could mean there isn’t any, or it could simply mean that people wouldn’t ever say this directly. Naturally I worry about not meeting students’ needs or expectations the most, but I’m never sure that this is the case (or how often – I can’t imagine that it’s never occurred.) But here are two things that I am aware of:

A) I get plenty of direct compliments, and people usually seem quite engaged when I’m working with them. I don’t say this out of ego (much, anyway,) but to demonstrate that, no, I can’t feel too insecure about what I’m doing;

B) I have never had an openly angry, disappointed, or upset student. At all. I mean, being in the public service, just about anywhere, you can certainly expect it to happen occasionally, and I’ve definitely fielded it enough in other jobs unrelated to my photography, some of it deserved, most of it just overreactive (or manipulative) people. But not here. Which is startling, but gratifying.

So, yeah, maybe I should start looking into leading some bigger field trips. Let me think about this.

And now it’s official

There are all sorts of ways that people determine the “official” start of spring: the vernal equinox, the calendar, the first species of some damn songbird, spring break, the first whatsit flower, and so on. They’re all nonsense, as far as I’m concerned (and who else’s opinion should you need?) The real sign of spring is the appearance of the treefrogs.

first sight of green treefrog Hyla cinerea for 2019
Last night, I spotted this one in the usual and accustomed location (which means, on the rainbarrel) while checking out the yard not long after nightfall. This is a green treefrog (Hyla cinerea,) which seem to appear just a little earlier than the Copes grey treefrogs, at least in my experience. As noted a couple posts back, other frogs and toads may be out quite a bit sooner, often before we’ve had our last snow for the season, and to be honest, I’m not sure this one has it down right yet – we’re expected to drop down to a few degrees Celsius overnight just a little later in the week. We’re doing that warm day/frigid night thing right at the moment, though last night when I captured this it was still fairly pleasant.

But yeah, I hear ya – if the critters are going to keep choosing the rainbarrels as a perch, maybe I should make the effort to find some nice aged, wooden barrels instead, and at least give them a more rustic setting. Let me see what I can do about that.

Storytime 12

This is more of a missing story, one that might have been, had I pursued it. Or simply one that lay underneath, that I was never going to determine.

unidentified pink hornworm caterpillar
This was taken back in September 2012, and it might be obvious that this is not the usual appearance of such critters. The pigmentation hides some of the characteristics that would help identify the species, but I’m inclined to say that it’s a tobacco hornworm, or more specifically the larva of the six-spotted sphinx moth (Manduca sexta,) but I’ll happily take correction on that. The reasons that I give for this tentative identification are a) I know we had the species around, earlier in the year in fact, and b) that curved horn instead of straight, which would indicate the other common hornworm. And no, it shouldn’t be bright pink.

What I believe is the case is a genetic mutation known as erythrism, also as erythrochroism, that seems to be most prevalent in katydids, which are pretty far removed from hornworms. Both of the common species of hornworms in the area are tomato-eaters, and their predominant color of lighter green blends in quite well with the stems of the plant, so this kind of color is obviously not very good camouflage. However, in some cases a lack of chlorophyll in the diet can lead to other pigmentation, so perhaps this was at work?

I don’t recall the exact circumstances of finding this one, and what I do remember seems rushed at best – I think I was heading somewhere and had almost no time to pursue this as a detailed subject. I’m almost certain that I found it on the porch, which was not close to any decent food plants, but really only about ten meters from the tomato plants in the garden, so there’s not a lot of excuse for this. I gathered the caterpillar up and posed it on a massive mushroom in the yard, getting some scale help from the blowflies, but I don’t think I even deposited it into the garden when done.

This is what kinda bugs me now. I would have liked to have had more information on it, and could have pursued two different actions: either put it onto the tomatoes and try to follow its life into pupation and emergence as an adult, to see if the pigmentation continued, or simply popped it into a jar of alcohol and brought it to the nearest entomologist – we have several universities nearby, so this wouldn’t have been difficult. Instead I just set it loose and never saw it again.

I almost certainly had my reasons at the time – I wasn’t that naïve, even seven years back – but since I don’t remember them now, I can curse my younger self for not doing the appropriate legwork.

You damn kids

Today, March 22, is International Reflections on Mortality Day, which naturally is the day we ponder our imminent demises and get all somber and maudlin for a bit – you’ll probably notice this going on around you if you look. It’s also the day where we consider what a shitass design “aging” actually is.

One curious trait that I’ve been noticing has been, apparently, that hair considers the nose and ears to be Florida, at least for males. As retirement nears, it ends up moving down there from the northern climes. Unfortunately, there the analogy ends, because instead of remaining sequestered in small enclosed communities and then dying out, keeping the population more-or-less stable, it seems to thrive and overrun, and the amount of maintenance that I now have to devote to areas that are by nature hard to groom has exploded, introducing a new anxiety that I have forgotten to police them for too long and some erratic questing tendril of oldman-vine will be waving impudently at anyone that I may encounter that day. And yes, I actually have one of those little specialty groomers (no, not The Girlfriend, I’m talking about a little electric trimmer you jackass,) but they’re haphazard at best, and I usually accomplish more with forceps. However, I was soon to discover that, as minor as it seems, plucking nose hairs can be amazingly painful. Don’t ask me what this is all about, but that kind of eye-watering pain should mean you’re supposed to leave them alone, which implies that there’s some purpose therein. Yes, I know they serve as a filter for some airborne gook, but as someone that suffers from fierce allergies, they don’t do shit in that regard, and anyway I can’t imagine that a tentacle that curls out of the nose and starts getting into your eye is fulfilling that role. At least the mustache can serve to camouflage them occasionally when I have neglected my routine mowing.

By the way, if the nose and ears are Florida, then my shoulders are, like, the Caribbean Islands for the really successful follicles, since they have sprouted a select few hardy specimens. Listen, all my life my hair has been brown, straight, and relatively soft, so the emergence of jet black, wiry, and twisty-curly individuals makes me wonder what latent genes are at work. Seriously, I have to make sure I wear a shirt around heavy machinery, lest they get ensnared in a mechanism and I’m dragged to my death by these Mediterranean monstrosities.

For decades, I never had to give any thought at all to my eyebrows – just about the only part of my body that required no maintenance, you know? Until a few years ago, when the mutations began. Now, routinely, there are four or five Olympic hopefuls that extend well beyond the rules of decorum and do this kudzu thing; occasionally they get caught in the breeze from open car windows and I think something’s about to crash into my face from the side. I’m afraid to pluck them, because I have this suspicion that the follicles would cease production, and I’ll end up with chemo-patient eyebrows. Let me tell you something: I am not resorting to eyebrow pencils, so if it ever gets to that point I’m simply having eyebrows tattooed in place. Right now it’s just an additional charge at the barber…

We can’t forget the ghost hairs: less than a third the diameter of regular hair and completely transparent, they hatch from entirely random locations and grow several centimeters in length (I am not exaggerating) and are generally only found when they interfere with something else – again, the ones emerging from the space between my eyebrows and eyelids are the most noticeable, especially when the sun catches them. Spiderman had to make mechanical web-spinners, but mine are all natural, if rather slow and placed in awkward locations. Give it time.

At least guys can get away with greying without difficulty, and can sport a head of perfectly white hair and still be considered handsome – not me, mind you, but Danson-like people. The best I can say is that I’ve gotten no worse in appearance, in that regard, and occasionally people treat me like I actually know what I’m talking about, which is cool. A little tip: a neatly-trimmed beard is the difference between being “wise” and being “homeless.”

But you didn’t come here to hear me talk about my rainforest – or maybe you did and I’ve been selling this thing all wrong for ten years. We’ll assume the former and move on.

I have reached that age where I have to face the idea that there are things I’m not going to do anymore. I mean, besides mixing Tang in milk. I occasionally see someone doing elaborate bicycle stunts and think that, if I practiced, I could handle that, before recognizing that such days are past now – there remains a part of my youth that used to bike around a lot, jumping ditches and diving down really steep hills, and it beckons to me from what seems to be the recent past, and then I remember that this was when Ford was president. I’d also taken judo when I was younger and, truth be told, could pull off a wickedly smooth diving forward roll, regaining my feet in one fluid motion, and I still have to tell myself that this would be a bad thing to attempt now. Unless there were a lot of people around to impress.

“Fluid” is certainly not the word that’s going to spring to mind, either – I suspect it would be more like the rattle of musketry. I can hear the bystanders asking, “Did he just land on a bunch of maracas?”

Naturally I withstand, with remarkable and certainly-not-age-related good humor, various taunts about my advanced years from certain students who shall remain nameless, the same students who repeatedly forget to follow certain key bits of advice and cannot maintain a simple posting schedule. As much as I rag on smutphones, I grudgingly recognize the value of electronic reminders and storage, and the bare fact that we don’t have to remember everything, or indeed anything; we can simply record it onto the devices in our pockets. Back in my day, of course (my day being May 10, 1982 – most people missed it,) we had to use wall calendars or little frayed paper notebooks. So yeah, it’s much easier now, and we don’t even have to look at the entries to be reminded of them. Thus it’s appalling to me how few people can actually take advantage of this, but that’s probably the lumbago talking.

But, BUT, it’s one thing to rag on “kids these days,” even though we should pretty much expect all of that. The really frustrating, annoying, kick-you-in-the-teeth bit is seeing people who are much older than you are and doing much more – mountain climbing and singing lead and swimming the English Channel and all that. That’s just being sadistic, when I have to walk gingerly for the first few minutes after I wake up until all the bones in my feet find their proper alignment. I suppose I should feel proud of them, and motivated and all that jazz, but all I can find myself doing is screaming, “Act your age!” at the screen. Fucking spry geezers.

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

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

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

Mating calls of American toads Anaxyrus americanus

Of course, I fired off a few frames.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Storytime 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s a little more like it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virginia spring beauty Claytonia virginica blossom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *     *

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

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

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

Storytime 10

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

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

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

Well, that took far longer than it should’ve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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