Spot the frog, again

green treefrog Hyla cinerea not hiding very well in Japanese maple tree
Okay, I don’t suppose that one was very difficult at all. Camouflage works a lot better if it’s the same hue as the background…

So let me fill you in on what’s been going on. Aside from being busy with other projects, largely car repairs, I’ve been trying to get to another podcast. But I haven’t been very happy with my audio quality, which adds a bit of time with post-processing, and have been considering other options. One that I stumbled upon was rather intriguing: I had this cheap little audio recorder that I got mostly for notes and sound bites while out in the field, but I didn’t really consider it podcast quality. I had forgotten that I had a little lapel mic for it, and tried it out the other day. To my surprise, the resulting combination produced much better audio that the rig I’d been using, so I figured, Why not? And went ahead and recorded the next episode.

green treefrog Hyla cinerea hiding in downspoutWhat I had also forgotten was that the recorder has a tendency to simply drop out at times, not even producing a gap or silence but just deleting a section of audio (more than a few seconds at a time) without even a telltale click – just this abrupt jump in the sentence to something later on. That’s kind if hard to deal with, requiring re-recording of at least some sections, and if you’ve never attempted this, matching voice quality and intonations can be pretty hard, especially if you suffer from winter sinus issues. Not really an ideal situation. I am still playing with options, so we’ll see where this leads.

It is also getting to the end of the season for much of anything around here, though I may still snag some fall color images within the next few days. Curiously, a selection of green treefrogs (Hyla cinerea) have been hanging around in various locations within the yard, so I do some portraits from time to time just for the sake of it. The one seen here would spend daylight hours in the truncated downspout, the bottom stub that remained after I rerouted the top part into a rainbarrel, while the one at top would switch perches every couple of days. With the temperatures dropping, I expect them to seek their winter hidey-holes soon, but so far it hasn’t happened.

green treefrog Hyla cinerea in Japanese maple
This is the same frog, same location, and same time as the one that opened the post, so if you compare the two images, you might be able to imagine the challenge in positioning that was required for this face-to-face shot – thankfully the Japanese maple isn’t that tall, but it was still a bit awkward. I’d like to think it was worth the effort, though. It’s actually a stack of two separate frames; in one, the eyes were in sharp focus, and in the other, the eyes slightly out but the nostrils in focus, so I just combined the two. This is what can happen shooting at f4 while on tiptoe, holding leaves out of the way of the camera.

green treefrog Hyla cinerea on potted dracaena grass
Close inspection of the coloration pattern has convinced me that this is the same one, even though two had been seen simultaneously in that maple. This time, it’s on a potted dracaena grass that sat on the front steps, the same plant that sported a tiny wet mantis in this post (it shares the pot with a geranium.) The debris it is coated with came from traipsing through the potting soil with perpetually-damp skin to get to this perch. Since this is a night shot, I used the flash rig at f16, providing a slightly different color rendition than the previous shot (under overcast skies) and a better depth of field. Meanwhile, a pair (at least) of darker-colored specimens, such as the last one from this post, has been seen at varying times around the back of the house, where the one in the downspout resides. To say nothing of the five or so green frogs (not treefrogs) that still reside in the backyard pond. If they’re happy, I’m happy.

Anyway, I’ll get the podcast finished eventually, through one method or another. Keep watching this space.

You see what I want you to see

Granted, that’s true of any photograph, and indeed any blog, but it’s just more fun to sound arrogant sometimes.

A hint of fall colors on University Lake
But what is being demonstrated here is a common trait of autumn colors, and something that can be applied to all photography. This area is unfortunately dominated by longneedle pine trees, which don’t change color and tend to be pretty ugly as trees go – and also tall. So there’s little opportunity for sweeping vistas of fall color, even if the deciduous trees were cooperative enough to all reach peak coloration at the same time, which they are not. What we get are splashes of color here and there, usually set against and among the pines. So to have images that express “autumn” to viewers, around here at least, one has to be selective in their approach. This photo kind of splits the difference: on initial glance it seems to show colors halfway decently, but after a moment it becomes clear that the colorful trees are few, set against the boring ones. Had I framed wider either horizontally or vertically, the few bright trees would have appeared even less imposing.

American sweetgum Liquidambar styraciflua in autumn colorsAnother example is this American sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) at the same location, a lone tree among a lot of greenery that showed off a patchwork quilt of colors all by itself. A broader landscape shot would only have diminished the impact of the colors and would hardly have expressed “fall” in any significant way, so going in close was necessary to bring the impact of the contrasting colors. The sweetgum, and a couple varieties of maple, seem to be the only species in the area that develop vivid reds before shedding the leaves, but I could be wrong about that – identifying trees has never been my strong point. Mostly, what we see are yellows and browns, so fall colors tend to still be almost monochromatic until we stumble upon one of the more colorful trees.

It’s this kind of thing that almost forces me to select the autumn compositions that I do, but also that it’s a little trite to shoot nothing but landscapes of multi-colored trees; that’s what people expect, and what the vast majority of images from this time of year show. Areas with maples and aspens will always be more dramatic than what is available locally, but there are other ways of expressing the season and providing visual impact than broad landscape shots, and below sits another example. Though this style is enough of a favorite of mine that it is becoming ‘trite’ for me, I’m still please with how the green shoots framed the flame-colored leaf, and how the grey undersides provided a different color element not often seen. This was just a tiny patch of leaves on the surface of a creek, in a quiet area where the water grew still, and I could decide which leaves and how many appeared in the frame.

autumn leaves on water surface
Note, too, that the light conditions helped a bit, being under enough of a forest canopy to be ‘overcast.’ Brighter light would have increased the contrast and might even have bleached out some of the colors in places, but capturing a bit of clear blue sky in the water’s reflection might have made an entirely different composition. Different elements and conditions provide for different styles and effects.

Now we get to some of the critters. Almost all of the images in this post came from two visits to the same area, the one mentioned in the previous post, an old stomping ground of mine (actually, Florida should most be considered my stomping ground, since that’s where I usually encountered fire ants and had to dislodge them from my sandals and feet – maybe I should call Florida my stomping, slapping, and cursing ground.) And there are two traits of wooded trails at this time of year. The first is, the falling leaves are quite capable of obscuring any subtle trail, to the point where finding the path can be difficult and might require some esoteric trail-spotting tricks (such as the slight swales or hollows that come from foot traffic, or the easiest openings through the underbrush that people gravitate towards.)

black rat snake Pantherophis obsoletus in middle of walking trailThe other trait is, such ground cover can make it really hard to spot venomous snakes that have chosen to sprawl where one is walking. This image doesn’t exactly illustrate this, because this one is not at all hard to spot and also isn’t venomous: this is a black rat snake (presently Pantherophis obsoletus) that’s just shy of a meter in length. Paths are slightly more attractive to snakes at this time of year because they often present regions of low grasses or undergrowth and thus more exposed to the sun, which is important to ectothermic species when the nights gets much cooler; sidewalks and asphalt roads are more attractive still. So when it comes to species like copperheads with camouflage coloration, the risk of encountering one rises significantly, which meant I was watching my path very critically, and even more so after this one demonstrated that yes, the potential wasn’t just imaginary.

My subject here was much more cooperative than I imagined it would be. It was mid-afternoon, more than warm enough by this time, and I expected snakes to have all the energy they needed, but this one stayed put as I got the initial picture at right, then slipped slowly around it off the path and came in from the front, trying (as always) for my portrait angle. Very often, this takes some low and awkward positions, and it’s next to impossible to stay ‘clean’ when doing so, but I find the effort to be well worth it. I managed to get quite close to this one before it finally decided I was too threatening and bolted for cover. I’ve seen this kind of behavior when species are surrounded by a lot of open space, where getting into obscuring grasses takes longer and the unconcealed movement might attract predators, but this one could disappear within its own body length, so it was a little surprising. I appreciated the cooperation.

black rat snake Pantherophis obsoletus portrait
That sharp kink in the neck, drawing the head back, is a warning sign, and generally means you should keep clear, but I’ve been bitten by black rat snakes more times than I can count, despite the fact that they’re far from being a species that bites quickly (they’re much more likely to poop on you,) and the bites really are trivial. This one never attempted to strike, it was just suspicious of my slow approach from the front, which often fails to trigger the ‘danger’ signals within their brains. Had I moved faster I likely would have provoked a strike at least, even if just a half-hearted warning jab.

eastern box turtle Terrapene carolina carolina in patch of sunlightThe patch of sunlight certainly helped me spot this next one, which was holding perfectly still well off the trail. It can be easy to find eastern box turtles (Terrapene carolina carolina) at this time of year because they can make a racket, relatively speaking at least, plowing through the dry leaves, but when holding still they’re better camouflaged by those same leaves. The ‘bump on a log’ with its distinctive shadow was enough to gain my attention, and I once again maneuvered around to go in for the portrait shot; the only indication from this one that it even realized I was there was to draw its head back a little when I got very close. Turtles can bite of course, and tend to have much stronger jaws than snakes, but it’s not among their first choices of defense so the risk was nonexistent, especially since I remained out of range.

Before we get to the portrait, I’ll point out a couple of details that are subtly visible here. The repeating pattern on the carapace (back shell) of turtles are evidence of the scutes, essentially something like scales or plates. While interlocked, they grow individually, so each one forms a record of the turtle’s growth very much like tree rings. They’re born with the central portion, in this case marked with a backwards ‘E,’ but each year they add a ring around the outer edge that’s faintly ridged; bigger rings indicate more growth and thus a better year nutrition-wise. Some of those ridges are easily visible with the light angle, close to the turtle’s ‘shoulder,’ but they can also be seen immediately below that in the ‘sunray’ pattern – I can make out at least nine ridges, which means this one was a minimum of nine years old, probably more. One of these days I’ll provide better illustrations of this, but it’s more visible in the photos here.

eastern box turtle Terrapene carolina carolina portrait, with mosquito
Since this one was cooperative too, I was able to go around to the side with better light for the portrait, capturing a mosquito as I did so (just above the dark patch on the face.) The red eyes indicate that this was likely a male, since the females usually have brown eyes; another indication of the gender is the plastron (belly shell) which has a distinctive indent for the males, but I didn’t pick this one up to check. You can see faint evidence of a previous meal though I couldn’t say for sure what; probably mushrooms, given the conditions.

And one last shot, from a slightly different location. While out with the impeccable Mr Bugg, we approached a pond edge slowly because we knew the conditions were right for the little frogs in the area, ones so tiny and well-camouflaged that they’re next to impossible to spot until they’re spooked and jump away. Then, of course, they’ve already been alerted to one’s presence and getting in close for the shot requires a very slow approach. I got lucky with this one, which landed in the top of a small weed and perched there; they’re usually ground-dwellers right at the edge of water, to which they can escape in a bound or two when danger threatens.

cricket frog genus Acris perched in weed stems
This is a cricket frog, genus Acris, but whether a southern or northern variant is hard to say because they can only be distinguished by a stripe on their inner thigh, which we did not see, or their call, which we did not hear. Given the locale, the probability leans towards the northern (Acris crepitans) rather than the southern (A. gryllus.) Some idea of the scale can be gathered from this image, but I can tell you this one was typical in size, about 15mm in body length so, you know, able to perch on your thumb. They blend in so well that, even when you might have seen them jump, it’s easy to miss them once they hold still again, so being sharp-eyed is important.

We’ll have to see how the fall colors develop, and whether I’ll be back with something more dramatic within a few days. You know where to find me.

Ah, yes! But then again, no

moody Morgan Creek cove
So, many years ago when I first moved to central NC, I quickly discovered various hiking trails behind the apartment complex, mostly skirting a local creek (you know, as opposed to an international creek – I suppose the adjective is unnecessary there.) This was before I was serious about photography – no, let me rephrase that: I’d been serious about photography for at least fifteen years before that, but never able to buy any kind of decent equipment so, depending on the year, what I had was either a basic Olympus or Pentax SLR, or most likely my trusty Wittnauer Challenger, an old meterless rangefinder that I no longer have and is next to impossible to find anymore. Despite the limited options provided by this camera, I still managed to take a few images that I liked a lot and hung prints of on my wall, and one of them is the image above – not especially artistic or fascinating, but a nice mood piece, giving the impression of a deep forest glade. Most people would define “deep forest” as being away from traffic noise and Cheeto wrappers, which was hardly the case here, but that’s part of the fun of photography – you can provide impressions wholly different from reality.

Now, in twenty-some years since, I’d moved out of the area, then out of the state, and eventually back in. Coming across the shot again in my negatives folder some time back, I realized that the spot where I took this has likely changed little and is really only a handful of kilometers away. I had it in the blog folder to feature at some point, but thought that it might be better to do a “then and now” thing with it, given that I could visit it again without much difficulty. But I just never got around to it. The general area has changed a bit of course, with new construction and all that, and I tried once to find an access to those trails with no luck, mostly because I’d have to park a car someplace now. Yesterday, however, I set out specifically to do this, and found myself (that’s where I’d been!) back on those trails after something like 23 to 25 years.

More importantly, I was sure I’d found the place where I took the shot; it looked right, and seemed to have details that I remembered from the original. It’s a totally different time of year right now, and it was likely even a different time of day, so I wasn’t expecting a perfect match even allowing for more stream erosion and a few different trees. But after I got back and compared the two frames, I realized I wasn’t right at all – these are two separate locations.

not the same cove on Morgan Creek
They’re close, so maybe I can be excused, but even allowing for a difference in focal length, that right bank is way too low, which can’t be put down to drastic erosion with trees of that size on it. So, not there yet. But I’m probably returning again today and going a bit further out on the trails, so we’ll see what happens.

But how? Part 22: Guidance

There is an extremely common debating/arguing tactic wherein, instead of defending a position when challenged, one goes on the counteroffensive, attacking an opponent’s position rather than explaining or justifying their own. I have made it a point to try and avoid such a stance in this topical series, because the whole premise is defending and defining a secular position. This one, however, is going to present both approaches because the perspective could be very useful. So let’s look into the atheistic answer to the question, But how does one obtain any moral guidance without religion?

First off, atheism does not, by nature or definition, propose any such guidance, mostly because it is presumed that none is needed, which highlights the curious attitude within nearly all religions that people (other people, at least) are aimless children. As detailed in part seven, many aspects of religion are cultural assumptions rather than necessities. More directly, atheism is simply a lack of belief, and is not an ideology. It’s like saying, “I’m not a dancer” – no rules or criteria are implied by this statement and few, if any, people would splutter, “But… but what do you do when the music starts?”

Secular humanism, which is often closely linked to atheism, is an ideology, and does provide some basic moral guidance; in short, one does what is best for others, using other people as the arbiter rather than any claimed authority figure. What’s curious about this is, secular humanism only exists because of religion, since it is the ground state of moral decisions in the absence of authority; I mean, morality is defined by how we treat others – that’s the entire purpose of the concept. And the notable aspect of humanism is, it’s not really an active thing: it does not codify behavior, it does not involve dictating or preaching or, really, much of anything beyond simple guidelines, and fully 50 percent of why those guidelines even exist is because religion has devoted so much effort into establishing an alternate concept: that the appeasement of some authority figure rates higher in priority than the people in our community. Expressed this way, it sounds like a dictatorship, and anyone is welcome to define the fundamental difference, especially in a way that makes religion “good.”

I don’t want to be unfair, and will readily admit that a lot of religiously-motivated guidelines and proscriptions revolve around how we treat others; that’s excellent, and I say that honestly. There’s a big caveat that’s going to come up shortly, however, so right now I’ll simply repeat that the primary difference between humanism and religion is the overall goal: humanism puts people first, while religion puts authority first. That’s obeisance, not morality.

Which brings us to the heart of the matter, which is, we’re not stupid. We can actually figure out, with very little effort, good courses of action; benefit and detriment are not exactly advanced concepts far beyond the scope of our primitive little brains. And this is where it gets the most amusing, because a frequent lament from the religious, part of the rabid motivation behind decrying evolution, is that we would be savages, nothing but animals, without the guidance of a holy spirit. Savor, for a moment, the frequently-repeated idea that we were made in god’s image, and what this is supposedly saying. Even if we blithely ignore the idea that such a god must be a savage itself (the more literal interpretation of “in god’s image”,) we still come back to the nuanced idea that we were intended to be this way, for whatever reason, and yet still given free will to decide whether or not we could actually decide something. Yeah, figure that one out. Meanwhile, those that understand biology know we are animals ourselves, by every definition except the weird religious one, and those that understand animal behavior know of the community-supporting instincts that countless other species maintain, ensuring the cohesion of the pack or troop or hive; in a disturbing number of cases, it’s far better than what we humans get up to, despite our vaunted intelligence and guidance from on high.

In fact, far too often, it’s precisely because of this guidance. It is an ultimate authority that is invariably referred to when concepts such as heretics and infidels are resorted to, and it’s remarkably easy for people in this country to forget (or openly and forcefully ignore) that the violent response fostered by such concepts still goes on today in numerous parts of the world. But even if we consider these exceptions rather than common facets, the amount of religiously-inspired bigotry, throughout the world, is astounding, as is the blatant classism that’s due to religion. People do not flaunt religious symbols as reminders of how to behave, for themselves or others, but to define themselves as ‘special.’ And an awful lot of religious activity, supposedly to instill moral behavior, does not consist of making a convincing case for the benefits, but only of pronouncing what someone must do, on penalty of god’s wrath. Again, not guidance, and in fact, blatant arrogance and condescension towards others in the assumption that they cannot make decisions on their own, nor fathom a decent rationale.

It is instructive to examine the differences between sin and crime. Crimes are actions that deprive or injure others, or at least (in the case of traffic laws) stand the chance of doing so, and within most enlightened and progressive governments, are enforced without regard to class distinctions; that last aspect is where secularity comes in, establishing a more equal status among all residents. Sin, however, can be just about anything, and very often demonstrates no harm or even outward effect other than offending a claimed deity; think of homosexuality, masturbation, eating shellfish, building fires on the sabbath, taking the lord’s name in vain, and so on. Every religion has its own particular set, and outside of things that receive the title of ‘sin,’ there are countless more proscribed actions and attitudes in attendance. Many of them, however, are particular to only one religion, and often seen as irrelevant or downright goofy when viewed by others. Right here is where religious conflict arises, as those steeped in the ultimate authority angle take grave offense at those who do not follow or recognize such proscriptions, and rather than accepting the idea that differences in cultures are hardly anything worth worrying about, they insist that their own peculiar rules should be followed by all others regardless. The argument that atheism is “just another form of religion” is trashed by the simple fact that atheists, and humanists, claim no special status nor demand allowances for a personal culture; they just don’t think anyone else should demand them either, an emphasis on equality that is anathema to far too many religious folk.

We come back to the religious idea that obeying authority is what defines ‘good,’ which might initially sound reasonable – until, at least, we consider the huge number of authority figures throughout history that were vicious and loathsome. The moral lesson that we inevitably realize is that authority must be beholden to the higher standard of ‘good’ (or ‘beneficial,’ as I tend to say to distinguish it from the cultural belief that “god=good”) – if our leaders are incapable of maintaining a standard of beneficial actions to as many as possible, then they do not deserve a following. The utility and benefit of this simple criteria cannot be emphasized enough, since it was only in its absence that so many of history’s abominable events even took place.

Now we get the the part where it gets the most interesting. I’ve remarked before that I have never, ever, seen one perfectly devout religious individual, either personally or even heard tell of; without exception, all seem perfectly willing to ignore certain aspects of their faith and/or their scripture. And truth be told, the emphasis on the important aspects, the ones worthy of attention and devotion, changes frequently. Some of the sins and proscriptions mentioned earlier, while considered part of the religion held by any given individual, are nonetheless ignored as unimportant or irrelevant, as are many others. Most striking is the distance often implied or stated between the fringe elements, the zealous fanatics or terrorists, and the ‘mainstream’ religious cultures, because the aspects that the fanatics are frothing over are usually right there in the scripture; it’s the mainstream faithful that are ignoring those passages. Which is fine, and commendable really – most of those passages are batshit anyway. But if they are, as we are told, intended as guidance, then how does this even occur? Are we admitting that some of these words from on high are not only useless, they’re outwardly damaging to culture and individuals? How can we, poor ignorant savages that we are, dismiss the bits that condone slavery and child beating? How are we even capable of thinking that exterminating the heretics is something not worth pursuing?

The answer, of course, is that culture defines our guidance and acceptable actions more than scripture in these cases, and for most cases; in times past, it was culture that made us feel we should be following them. And culture is us – we define it and shape it, often all by our feeble little selves. Let’s face it: if we’re trusted to drive vehicles and fly aircraft, raise kids and even possess sharp objects, we’re probably capable of making a few nuanced decisions.

Which is not to say that we can do without any form of guidance and trust in our sense of community; we are still a conflicted and subconsciously-motivated species, prone to justifying base desires in myriad ways. But neither are we so abysmally stupid that we cannot reason out good courses of action on our own without the input of any supposed higher power, especially when we can see countless aspects of this input that not only serve no beneficial purpose, they’re actively harmful to others and inhibit a respectful and mutually supportive society. [It is, unsurprisingly, this aspect that fosters the abandonment of faith in many people, since it’s hard for any thinking person to look at guidelines for the appropriate treatment of slaves and believe that this came from a higher being and not some self-important priest back in the bronze age.] Most importantly, useful guidance is going to come from having the goals of a strong and supportive community, an attitude that is not fostered by obeisance or the self-imposed status of being devout.

If we can look back at history and be appalled at the actions of the authority figures therein, then we have everything we need to make decisions without special guidance; we already know what constitutes good and bad. And when the inevitable argument that “god must be good” comes up, we have the simple criteria that we can easily see what’s good, and what’s not, for those around us – redefining “good” is unnecessary. And I should never have to offer this reminder, but usually do anyway: it is not god that is dictating actions, but some lesser authority figure, often while interpreting scripture rather cavalierly. We are frequently told that god has the power to do anything, so no help from us is necessary, is it? Meanwhile, the same people tell us god wants us to be good, so we have the power to make these decisions, correct? And as a final point, the very first thing that any authority figure bent on manipulation insists upon is utter, unquestioning servitude – don’t think, don’t speak up, don’t deviate from the status quo. Yeah, great – that’s always proven to be beneficial.

[I insert here a peculiar reflection. The foremost path to holy damnation is, naturally, failure to accept god in one’s heart and all such variations. However, valuing people around us in defiance of this, while earning one a place in hell, still stands to benefit others – a rather selfless pursuit, with of course one person earning punishment while perhaps many others gaining benefits; this is why I have often pointed out that being concerned with one’s own salvation is remarkably self-centered and anti-social. Curiously, however, this is exactly what jesus is said to have done, dying to absolve others’ sins. But then, the message we are repeatedly told this provides is, “be blindly faithful.” Seriously, what the fuck? Now, while this is solely a christian issue, it demonstrates a very common trait throughout all religions, that of abandoning thinking and careful examination for parroting scripture, no matter how hypocritical or pointless it may be – and these same people want to tell us that this is a useful path.]

Here’s a final aspect that bears examination. Throughout the world, there are countless religiously-motivated efforts to control the actions and choices of others, ranging from trying to suppress science and biology education in public schools through anti-homosexual legislation to outright beheadings; the influence of religion is far-reaching even when being completely pointless and, in many cases, highly detrimental and damaging. Now, numerous religious folk could read this and assert that this does not describe their particular sect of religion. But quite frankly, who gives a shit? No one is concerned with who ignores which passage, and it’s pretty damn cowardly to try and protect one’s status by simply saying, “It wasn’t me.” If the guidance is what is supposed to set religious folk apart, where is the guidance to act against such abuses, to instead emphasize beneficial works and goals? Why do these distasteful ‘fringe’ elements still exist, and who’s going to take responsibility for it?

And why is it, whenever anyone actually speaks out against such abuses, the vast majority of religious folk begin to whine and froth that it’s an attempt to destroy religion? Suddenly, they want to be closely associated with such elements? They want to be defined as abusive, manipulative, and unstable? I would have thought that eliminating such elements – cleaning their own house, as it were – would be the kind of good actions that they keep telling me their god wants them to do, but what do I know?

A more appropriate abstract

spider in dewy web
Happy Halloween!

Now you see why I wanted to space it out a little? Trying not to get into too much of a rut…

October’s abstract and Monday color

A twofer today, in more ways than one. While looking through the image folders to see what was going to qualify, I couldn’t fully decide, so I settled for two to feature for October.

dried seed pods of hibiscus flowers
Actually, I lie – I settled for three. But the other will come later, partially in recognition of this momentous holiday, and partially just to space it out. So one more will be along in a bit. For now, we have the dried seed pods, or the ‘fruit,’ of a hibiscus above, and a morning glory blossom below. Nice and flowery and botanical and all that. Quite unlike what’s coming…

vivid blue morning glory blossom

Humidity and arachnids

American sweetgum sapling Liquidambar styraciflua showing early fall colors
It’s still early in the fall season here and only a handful of trees are showing any color, but if one is selective, they can find examples and frame them to make it seem much more dramatic than, as was the case here, a single small tree in the middle of a still-green landscape. This is a Liquidambar styraciflua, otherwise known by a large number of common names but most often as American sweetgum, one of the few in this area that develop bright colors. The copious morning dew had enhanced this significantly, and featured prominently in just about all other images from this outing as well. “This outing” being last Friday at Mason Farm Biological Reserve where we got out soon after sunrise, “we” being Mr Bugg and I. The remaining photos, as indicated by the post title, are not going to make arachnophobes happy in any way.

But the truth is, dewy mornings are great times to photograph spiderwebs, and even just to drive home how many spiders there really are around us, most of them remaining completely unseen because of their size and subtlety. It’s easiest to see when looking out over a field on a misty morning, but even easy to spot on a well-mowed lawn, as the dew collects on every strand of web in the area and reveals, not just the entrapping webs themselves, but even the draglines left behind by the wandering varieties of spiders; it becomes apparent that very few plants don’t show any signs of arachnid activity.

backlit dew in webbing cluster across weed stems
Now, I’m not even sure this is from a spider – it might be a protective shelter or cocoon of a caterpillar – but it served to capture the dew quite well, and there’s the faintest hint of the lens effect that water droplets will demonstrate; you can see the outline of the horizon inverted in the drops. To make the best of this takes very high magnification, and most importantly, no wind motion at all, which does not describe this day. Not to mention that a close and distinctive subject makes this a whole lot better.

All right, let’s get down to the spiders themselves. We’ll ease into it.

trashline orb weaver genus Cyclosa with lambent web lines
This was a curious find, and as yet I have no explanation for it. There is a subset of spiders known as trashline orbweavers (genus Cyclosa) specifically for the reasons that you see here: not only do they spin the wheel-style “orb” webs, but they arrange the desiccated corpses of their past meals in a line down the center of the web, then sit among them camouflaged from predators. The spider itself is in the middle, right where the bright horizontal bar cuts through, legs tucked in to disguise its true nature – these are very small species. But the key detail is the bright lines of the web itself. This is not dew, and appears to be a different composition than the primary strands, since you can see those in the center, thinner and much more subtle. I have been told that the sticky strands of web are the spiral portions, while the ‘spokes’ are not sticky, allowing spiders to scamper across their webs without ensnaring themselves, and so this would certainly appear to be illustrating the different composition of the webbing. However, I’ve never seen it before, and it seems that being this much more visible, despite the rare backlit conditions, would work against the idea of a web in the first place. But at least it shows the path the spider took a lot better than normal. In a couple of places it also shows the iridescent trait of spider silk that can be captured with just the right conditions and approach – it’s tricky, believe me.

banded orbweaver Argiope trifasciata reweaving web after dew conditions
I was hoping to see one of these, though in truth I figured it’d be a slightly different species that’s far more common in the area. This is a banded orbweaver (Argiope trifasciata,) and they’re among the bigger spiders in NC, getting up the 3 cm in body length with the leg spread expanding that to 8 cm. Argiopes love tall plants and spin their large webs at roughly waist-height in the thick of things, often making encounters an abrupt and startling thing (more so if you don’t like spiders.) And while most spiders can show this trait, it becomes very visible on the Argiopes: dew will form on the bodies of the spiders themselves as well as on the webs, and sometimes you find them completely dripping with it. This one was close to that – I’ve seen much worse – but ignoring the burden while industriously re-weaving its web in the early morning light. There’s a possibility that it dismantled and ate the previous web not long before, collecting the moisture while recycling the material, and you will note that the web is showing no signs of dew, being spun after the conditions had passed. In this case, the glow comes strictly from the angle that I was shooting from, since the same strands disappear as they become more vertical, unlike the other example above.

Now let’s get really creepy.

green lynx spider Peucetia viridans mother and young in backlit dew conditions
Green lynx spiders (Peucetia viridans) are fairly common around here, though ambush-hunters by nature instead of web-spinners. The primary exception is the cluster of haphazard lines drawing together a collection of leaves which is used as a nursery for the hatched young, and these clusters are easy to spot on such mornings. I couldn’t resist going in for this shot, but I’ll confess it’s actually a stack of three images to bring out varying details, since shooting with a larger aperture at macro magnification meant a very short depth of field; each frame had select details while the rest went soft, so I had to combine them for this family portrait. So yes, that’s mamma in the center and one of the young off to the right, but really, a lot of young off to the right – you can see the legs up there, dozens of little babbies. The mother has completed her primary task, that of reproduction, and isn’t long for this world, living out the rest of her days protecting the young in their earliest stage. She’ll die, and the young may remain in the same shelter throughout the winter or may move on a short distance, but come spring they’ll start actively hunting on their own. Spiders are remarkably cold-resistant, becoming active immediately upon receiving some nice sunlight, even after a snowfall. It’s impressive.

And to close the post, we’ll go a little less creepy, more fartsy. You may recognize the subject from Mr Bugg’s post, and this shows both the limited angles we had to work from that morning, and the subtle differences from two photographers shooting the same subject.

garlands of dew-laden web with subtle sunburst
I got quite lucky with mine, I’ll admit it. While shooting directly towards the sun was necessary to bring out the dewdrops in these diamond-like points, it also requires a dark background for best effect, and keeping the sun out of the lens itself is paramount unless you really like glare. In this case, either my hand or my outstretched hat – I don’t recall which – was blocking the sun from the lens just outside of view, but it produced a nice little set of sunburst accents across the top of the frame. I probably couldn’t produce this on demand if I tried, but I’ll happily accept it when it happens.

Make mine a double

Carolina mantis Stagmomantis carolina peering from deep cover
The other day I commented that the immortal (so far) Mr Bugg had failed to beat me to the punch in posting something from our mutual outing before I did. What I was forgetting was that he apparently lives across two international date lines, so while it was Sunday here, it was Friday there. Thus, he still managed to post a day ahead of me, we just had to wait another day to see it…

Regardless, yesterday’s outing (or was it Wednesday’s?) netted us only a small collection of images, one of those slower days that you (now) read about, and I’m largely going to skip this one to talk about the previous, which had at least more fartsy stuff going for it. For now, I’ll simply show an image of a still-small Carolina mantis (Stagmomantis carolina) that peeped out from a stand of tall native plants in the NC Botanical Garden. Despite it being less than 4 cm in length, which seems quite small for this time of year, I was able to spot this one without too much difficulty since it was in largely the same place that I’d seen it 20 days earlier. Mantids may do this, hanging out in almost the exact same location for a few days to a few weeks, before moving on to another location not far off. Of course, I may be assuming a lot here, including that it had not moved off and come back through, or that this was the same mantis. I’m bad enough recognizing people I’ve met only briefly, and won’t claim any better skills with arthropods.

Meanwhile, I’ll add in another perspective, showing Mr Bugg (the human) in action getting his own shots. I was careful to frame the mantis against his shirt so that it stood out noticeably, but even then you have to be paying close attention. It shows scale nicely, though.

The timely Mr Bugg Homo sapiens photographing a juvenile Carolina mantis Stagmomantis carolina

Just because, part 20

red-bellied water snake Nerodia erythrogaster basking before molting
I have a handful of pics from a recent outing to post, and while this one came from the same outing, it is notably different from the others and kinda “out of theme,” but I liked it too much to let it go. This is a red-bellied water snake (Nerodia erythrogaster,) a good-sized specimen, basking in the morning sunlight at Mason Farm Biological Reserve. Now that the nights are getting pretty chilly but it’s not yet hibernation time, this is a more common sight, as mostly nocturnal snakes bring their body temperatures back up to assist in their digestion. This particular one was very close to molting, as indicated by those cloudy eyes – in a day or so, it would shed its skin and become much more brightly-colored for a while. While their vision is hampered by this state, snakes tend to be much more defensive, and with water snakes this is a typical temperament anyway, so handling was out of the question – escaping without getting bitten would have been next to impossible. This species is harmless, by the way, and a bite would have drawn little droplets of blood and nothing further, but there really wasn’t a point to picking it up.

More will be along shortly, but I didn’t want to deprive you of the lovely textures brought out by the low sun angle any longer than I had to. You can thank me later on.

It’s not that hard to drive safely

… but you wouldn’t believe it from looking at an awful lot of drivers today.

Sorry, this is way off topic, but coming right after getting rear-ended in a stupid and pointless manner, I just feel the need to point some things out. I also walk alongside the road semi-regularly, and observe the really poor handling of pedestrians and bicyclists too, at least in this area. Seriously, driving safely really isn’t a difficult thing at all, and I can’t fully fathom why it seems to elude so many people. So here are a few little items just to kind of get the reminder out there.

First off, of course,

Put the fucking phone down. You are responsible for a large, heavy vehicle that, even at slow speeds, is capable of doing a shitload of damage. It deserves your undivided attention. There is absolutely nothing, at all, that comes ahead of maintaining a proper level of attention to its control and the surroundings you are within. The call will wait until you are not busy with driving, but even if it’s of extreme importance, then pull the fuck over. Texting, it should go without saying, is not only completely unnecessary in virtually all regards, it is the stupidest goddamn thing to risk anyone’s life over. You don’t need to be playing with your My Little Pony action figures either, which rate the same level of importance and usefulness…

Chill the fuck out. Nobody cares if you’re late for something, or don’t like being held up in rush hour traffic, or whatever. If you’re late, it’s your own fault – own it. And traffic is traffic – if you’re in it, you’re part of the problem, aren’t you? But madly switching lanes, cutting people off, and tromping on the accelerator can provide, at best, a fractional improvement in the situation while exponentially increasing the risk. Worse, if you think that any of these things are going to correct the situation, then you’ll just get even more irritated when you inevitably find out that they don’t do shit.

It’s not a competition. I’m not sure how this idea got started, but speeding, especially through town where we all travel between traffic lights, cannot provide more than an immeasurable difference – nobody is doing time trials, Andretti, and your dick isn’t bigger than the guy you have to pass. I know how satisfying it must be to get to the next traffic light ahead of someone else, almost as satisfying as being first on the playground for recess, but nobody is keeping track or actually gives a fuck. I mean, organized sports themselves are pointless and childish, but carrying this idea over onto the road is especially asinine.

Braking isn’t painful. Seriously, it’s not – try it and see. And believe it or not, it’s far safer to do so when approaching stopped cars on the roadside, or bicyclists, or pedestrians. You’re going to get where you were going, in extreme situations, perhaps 45 seconds later than intended, but most often it’s down to ten seconds or less. If your time is that valuable – oh, bullshit, it isn’t, so get over it. Slowing or, god forbid, even stopping to prevent a close encounter or potentially dangerous situation is not going to count against you in any way. Moreover, if the hazard is in your lane, then oncoming traffic actually has the right of way. This means, to spell it out in small words, you wait for them.

Between the lines, all the time, every time. Why do I even have to mention this? The lane markings are there for a reason, and it’s as a guide to prevent, you know, little inconveniences like head-on collisions. Staying within those guides, as opposed to cutting corners or sweeping wide, takes literally an immeasurable amount more effort – you might have to bring the other hand into play and will have to stop playing with yourself, but so be it. If you’re physically unable to remain in the lane, you’re undoubtedly going too damn fast. It’s a really stupid thing, and I have no idea how people justify it to themselves, but I see it a lot. There’s even a thing here where, when a painted divider widens between lanes, people feel this is extra space for them to use in cornering (and even on perfectly straight roads, and try to figure that one out,) never actually realizing that it’s a bad situation if the oncoming driver behaves in exactly the same way.

It’s not a matter of special privilege. We’re all on the same roads, we all have the same importance behind being there, we all have the same frustrations. There’s nothing that makes you special – I’m sorry to be so blunt and direct about it, but you’re old enough to drive, you can handle it now – buck up. There are a lot of drivers, it seems, that rely on everyone else on the road obeying the laws so that they’re free not to. And there are plenty that feel that their presence on the road is somehow more important than everyone else. I know this is hard to believe, but there is no royalty in the US at all, and especially not in North Carolina.

If the traffic light has stopped working, the intersection has become an all-way stop. Seems like simple logic, but there are much simpler people out there, a lot of them. I think they believe that, if there is no red light, then it’s somehow safe to enter an intersection, again, never really fathoming that anyone else believing the exact same thing means lots of mangled metal and pooling blood. It never seems to register that there is no green light – you are not denied permission, you have never received it in the first place.

Turn signals are not an advanced skill set. This is apparently a well-kept secret, but pushing up on that little lever, as fatiguing as that might be, means turning right, while down means left. This applies to all turns, and even lane changes. Again, a reminder about competition and privilege, but it’s actually a good thing to let others know what the fuck you’re about to do, and follows this arcane concept called courtesy. Look it up if you need to. And you might, because a turn signal is not considered permission to cut someone off or change lanes without safe clearance – nothing is, actually. If you need to get out of the lane you’re in, you wait until it is clear and safe to do so. It might take as long as the average YouTube video of someone crashing their skateboard, and we all know how excruciating it is to sit that long – it’s like waiting for the microwave to finish with that damn burrito. Agony!

The laws of physics will make you their little bitch if you need the reminder. No matter how much in control you believe yourself to be, no matter what kind of driver you tell yourself you are, simple physics still rules and couldn’t care less about your ego. The faster a vehicle goes, the more effort it takes to stop, and the more likely it is to break traction. And the more sudden you have to maneuver, the more likely the vehicle is to tell you to go fuck yourself. Truly experienced drivers never believe they are in control, only that there are situations where the chances of losing control are far less than others. Such situations include safe following distances, safe maneuvers, and speed appropriate to conditions.

All bets are off. We are a betting species. We believe, constantly, that while something bad might happen, as long as it doesn’t happen right now, then we are ahead of the game. It’s okay to leave our lane on a blind hill or curve because the chance of an oncoming car coming through right now is low enough to save us the supreme effort of having to slow down. Too many people really do believe that if it hasn’t happened yet, it will continue not to happen. These same people keep buying lottery tickets, so apparently they aren’t consistent in these beliefs, but then again, they’re special, so who cares what physics, experience, or logic tells us?

What’s disturbing about this is, how simple it is to avoid it all. The best technique is usually called defensive driving, but there are probably a lot of sports-minded chuzzlewits out there who don’t like the idea of pussy defense, so it’s better to just call it accepting the risks. At any time, something bad might happen, and believing that is the first step towards handling it. But more importantly, driving a vehicle means having the responsibility of an inherently dangerous mass of metal, one that there is no perfect control over. And when something goes awry, the potential for fatalities is significant – just ask any emergency responder. It’s really, really hard to weigh the likelihood of killing someone, including ourselves, against the horrible inconvenience of driving a bit slower or being a little considerate of those around us. I know, right?

And worse, so much of the irritation with other drivers comes from them behaving exactly like us. Too many people seem to believe that hey, if they aren’t going to drive respectfully and safely, why should I do so? Which is the same as saying, “If they can be stupid, why should I be the smart one?” Funny, I always thought that was kind of the goal in the first place, but if you’re the type to resent being better than the fucktards, well, I know a few that aren’t even allowed to drive, so…