The real May abstract

ginkgo Ginkgo biloba leaves against sky
For reasons unknown, I had it in my head yesterday that we were in June, with only thirty days, and thus had to post the month-end abstract yesterday. After midnight, a glance down at the date/time bar on the computer screen reminded me of my error, which I was willing to let go until I spotted a better abstract while sorting images just now. The blog auditors will be wondering how we ended up with extra abstract images at the fiscal year end, but by then I plan to be long out of the country.

These are the leaves of a ginkgo tree, Ginkgo biloba, and there’s a bit of trivia regarding this species in that it is a living fossil. Which doesn’t actually make any senses – it’s a stupid phrase, really – but what is usually meant by it is that we have evidence of very similar species going way back in the fossil record with very little visible change, and this is the only example we have; nothing else shares its class, order, or genus, which is exceptionally rare in the plant or animal kingdoms. You can see the difference in the leaf structure, not branching like most leaves, but the veins all originating directly from the stem. I have a book on curiosities of evolution that features the ginkgo, and once I actually set aside time to read it (I have a shelf of books I’ve been trying to get to,) I may be back with some more details. For now, it’s here as visual appreciation. So appreciate it, dammit!

Not completely irredeemable

Okay, after that last post we needed something a little more pleasant to look upon (which means, since they display in reverse order and I’m posting this almost immediately after the previous, that you’re receiving a warning of what will be found further down.) So how about a few images from one evening at the nearby pond? You even have the chance to express which one you like the most.

Let’s start with a green heron (Butorides virescens) that was hunting near sunset in a highly visible position. They’re notoriously shy birds and hard to get close to, but this one was intent on its hunting and we were able to creep closer than they normally allow. They’re not big birds, about the body size of crows, so many times smaller than the common great blue herons seen so often.

green heron Butorides virescens hunting at pond's edge
I wasn’t using a particularly long lens, so this was as good as it got – I’m pleased that, with all the distortion in the reflection, the eye itself stood out so well, and in such good light. Almost immediately after this shot, the heron took a stab at a minnow, missed, and flew off, having tolerated our presence for as long as it dared.

Only a few minutes before that, a trio of semi-resident Canada geese (Branta canadensis) decided it was time to wrap it up for the day and took flight, heading off to wherever they settled for the evening; others that were raising young on the pond spend the nights there. As they passed by at low level, wings whirring like faint bullroarers, I tracked them, panning the camera with their movement while firing off several frames. It’s not often that I have the opportunity to try out this technique, and most times it hasn’t produced anything worthwhile, but this time around I liked the results.

Canada geese Branta canandensis taking flight over pond
While it would be ideal to catch the wings in a particular position for best fartistic effect, this isn’t something that I can suggest pursuing – the wing beats are too fast that even catching one goose at just the right point would take exquisite timing; three of them would be entirely luck. These two images are at 1/100 and 1/125 second. Had I held still and fired off my frames as the geese crossed (or stopped my panning motion as I tripped the shutter,) they would have blurred from the lateral movement of the geese – this becomes clear when you look at the blur of the background, streaked horizontally from the camera motion. So I’m pleased that the geese are as sharp as they are. In fact, you can even find a hint of catchlight, sunlight reflecting off of the eye, in both images.

Canada geese Branta canandensis taking flight over pond
Now, I’m torn between these two in regards to which I like the most. I prefer the top one for the positions and clarity of the geese, but the bottom one for the background. Had I only posted one, it might be easy to judge it on its own merits, but with the two close together to compare how they could be different (which is something I do all the time when sorting images,) picking the one that’s best becomes a little trickier. Or it does to me anyway; you might have no problem with dismissing them both. Fine. Be that way.

The real mindset, the one that I encourage everyone to have (and not just with photography,) is to keep thinking of how it could be better. Good shot? Great – be proud of it! But go get a better one now…

A select few

It’s true; only a few special people would not only notice details like this, but photograph it in fine detail. I’ll let you supply your own definition of ‘special’ for these circumstances…

In clearing out some areas of the yard the other day, I disturbed some wet leaves and wood pulp and exposed my friend here, obviously suited to a hidden and protected existence. I had to include a scale shot – this is easily the biggest grub I’ve ever seen, and my best guess is this being a patent-leather beetle (Odontotaenius disjunctus,) judging from the size and the habitat. But the size isn’t the most interesting bit.

scale photo of grub, possibly patent-leather beetle Odontotaenius disjunctus
I don’t know if this image really conveys the correct impression or not (don’t worry – I’m on it,) but the grub was both seriously distended and almost completely transparent. This allowed me to illustrate two particular facets, which of course I will inflict upon present to you.

large grub possibly patent leather beetle Odontotaenius disjunctus showing internal anatomy
The entire hind-end of the abdomen, taking up 1/3 the mass of the whole insect, was engorged with a brown mass that was likely wood pulp under digestion, but resembled brains more than anything else, especially due to the bi-lateral ‘lobes’ appearance. If I’m correct in my assessment, this would seem to indicate that the digestive tract of the beetle (?) is bifurcated, and thus significantly different from our own – no surprise there of course, but it’s little reminders like this that carry us away from the assumptions of similarity that we’re prone to make. And while I’m here I have to say that, as I was getting these photos, the grub would perform an occasional ‘contraction’ and the brown mass would shift under the skin, and not all at once either, but in different sections. There’s something very different about seeing working internal anatomy.

It’s easy to think that the lobed appearance might indicate lungs or something, but that’s completely on the wrong track, and the second facet that is being illustrated. As I’ve posted about twice before, here and here, arthropods have an entirely different respiratory system. In most cases, they have little openings along the thorax and abdomen, called spiracles, that feed into a branching network of tracheoles that carry oxygen to the tissues directly, without having to use a circulatory system like mammals do. I was lucky enough to find some caterpillars that showed this visibly through their skin (the first link above,) but this guy didn’t even require magnification – the networks were easily visible by eye. And in fact, so visible that, under magnification, the bigger branches actually had a translucent appearance.

visible tracheole network of grub possibly patent-leather beetle Odontotaenius disjunctus
[Yes, there’s a little piece of bright blue fiber next to a rust-orange spiracle that looks like somebody was being careless with a pen – don’t ask me where it came from, and I didn’t see it when taking the photos.]

There is no muscular mechanism for pumping air in and out of the body for insects, or at least the majority of them – it just comes in largely through the flexing of the abdomen and internal organs. Arthropods don’t actually need much oxygen, both because of their size and because their metabolism doesn’t require it as a catalyst as much as mammals do – a little goes a long way. This is why exterminators that treat a house must evacuate everyone and seal it up, since the concentrations of pesticide that are required are a lot higher than what would affect us, weaklings that we are.

The spiracles themselves were also big, larger than I’ve seen on any arthropod, and peculiarly-shaped – right now I could only speculate as to why, so we’ll just leave my ignorance sitting quietly in a corner rather than parading it around for all to see.

spiracle detail for grub, possibly patent-leather beetle Odontotaenius disjunctus
The exoskeleton around the spiracles seemed to take on a thicker and more opaque appearance, giving the impression of being ‘reinforced’ there for some reason, but on very close inspection it looked more like a spray of tiny tracheole to feed the closest tissue. Where would you be without people like me to present the wonders of the arthropod world to you? Probably sleeping better at night, is my guess…

While those chelicerae (‘fangs,’ ‘jaws,’ whatever you like) in the top photo look capable of dealing a serious pinch at least, I never encountered them in that manner, and the grub stayed mostly curled up tight in a defensive posture, not helped at all by me shifting it to a better angle for images every time it decided it was safe and started unrolling again. After these photos, and grossing out The Girlfriend, I returned it to where I had found it. It might have been interesting to see what it eventually morphed into as an adult, but I don’t really have any method of housing it for such. And I think it was actually too big to consider feeding to the resident green frogs, who seem to be keeping the spider populations in the yard down anyway.

Month end and Monday color

Fritillary, perhaps Speyeria hydaspe, against streaky green backgroundAnyone is free to pick on me regarding my definition of ‘abstract’ for this one, and I won’t argue – it doesn’t really fit with my own definition. But it’s what I have from a month that included few choices for a month-end abstract. This fritillary butterfly, which might be a Speyeria hydaspe, went well against the streaked background, which is actually a stand of pitcher plants in the botanical garden, same location and day as my copperhead encounter from the previous post. I spotted this butterfly from the other side, and it was patient enough (or whatever quality you’d like to assign) to wait while I switched sides for a better view. You get to see the results when this works out; many times it doesn’t, and my subject vanishes before I can compose the image to my liking. So it goes – there will be other subjects and other opportunities. But I do have to say that I’ve gotten a lot better at stalking, having a decent grasp of what will spook off a living subject and what won’t – it’s not perfect, but it has increased my capture rate. Patience and moving slowly are extremely important, and just have to be a constant habit of any nature photographer.

And since it’s Monday, I will include another image from the same outing, an American five-lined skink that was arrogant enough (hey, might as well assign some fun anthropomorphisms if we’re going to do it) to remain in place where the sunlight would have the best effect on its skin hues. This one is likely a young adult male, since the blue tail is common in the juveniles of both sexes but the red head is a sign of adult males, so ‘arrogant’ might be pretty appropriate. The color range is great though, especially when considered from a temperature standpoint – you can just hear the locals commenting about this being one hot-headed, cold-assed skink. Or at least I can…

American five-lined skink PLestiodon fasciatus basking in sunlight
There will probably be a few more images from the same session coming along shortly, but first, we must take a break to feature more supremely creepy content, because I cannot capture images of that nature without generously sharing them with as many people as I can. Grotesquely magnanimous, that’s me…

Let me take this opportunity

Cruising through the botanical garden early yesterday morning, the very first thing I happened across was something that I’ve, honestly, never spotted in ‘the wild’ before. Which is pretty surprising to me, considering how often I specifically go out not just into prime habitats, but actually looking for snakes. You can put this down to rotten observation powers if you like; without someone else present who did spot all the snakes I missed to provide a necessary baseline, I can’t rationally argue it, but I seem to see a hell of a lot that others miss, so I personally put it down to just weird luck. This one was smack in the middle of a footpath, and its coloration made it subtle but not really camouflaged.

copperhead Agkistrodon contortrix spawled defensively in footpath
This is a copperhead, Agkistrodon contortrix, the only venomous snake in the area. By all accounts, there are a fair number of them around, meaning people stumble across them from time to time, but there are not so many that a serious hazard is presented. This particular one saw me at least as soon as I saw it, and instead of moving off the path (which it could do easily, into excellent protective cover,) it began giving warning displays. The first was the vibrating tail, which occurs among more than rattlesnakes, and it often presents a drumming, buzzing, or rattling sound depending on the material that it contacts – in this case it was silent. The second display is the classic and ominous one, the raising of its head from the ground and rearing back as if preparing to strike, which can be seen here – my position didn’t permit the best view of the head, and there wasn’t a lot I could (safely) do to remedy this. What concerned me was how easily someone who wasn’t paying attention could have stepped right up to the snake, which clearly wasn’t inclined to abandon its position. An awful lot of snake bites occur from people doing stupid things, and occasionally from not considering that they’re disturbing a prime habitat like brush piles, but in this case, it was clear someone could have been bitten just by not paying attention.

copperhead Agkistrodon contortrix abandoning the path
Now, I feel obligated to clarify a few things. Copperhead bites are rarely fatal, and the encounters few and far between; as such, they don’t really pose much of a threat, despite the reputation a lot of people want to impart to venomous snakes, and often every snake. Crossing the road is dangerous, and much more likely to result in a fatality. Playing with your stupid toy phone while driving a car is more dangerous still. We cope with these dangers by recognizing them and (usually) by avoiding doing the really stupid things, like walking out into the road without looking. And that same behavior pretty much eradicates all dangers from venomous snakes. Watch where you’re walking. Don’t leave brush piles in high-traffic areas. Don’t poke around blindly in the woods. It’s not hard.

But in a lot of cases, there is a perceived difference between dangers like cars, and venomous snakes. The snake is an example of agency; it can decide to attack you. Which is not exactly true: it decides to defend itself. While this might seem like semantics, it’s an important distinction, because the defensive behavior will only be displayed if the snake feels threatened – no snake can eat a human, nor do they have any vestige of animosity or ‘pre-emptive strikes’ or whatever (those belong solely to our own species.) To avoid snake bites, leave the snake alone. It really is that simple.

Plenty of people will tell you of truly aggressive snake attacks that they’ve heard of, which is fine if you’re inclined to believe every story you hear. The people who actually work in emergency rooms, and who catalog the reasons behind snake bites, tell a different story: most bites occur when someone initiates contact, either by attempting to ‘remove’ the snake, or by showing off in some testosterone-fueled idea of what’s necessary. I convinced the ‘aggressive’ snake here to leave the path, without even getting close to it – by stomping my feet. It felt the vibrations (they don’t have ears) and considered this a bad sign, slipping into the undergrowth out of harm’s way. That’s what the second photo is showing. And as much as I might have liked getting some better shots, I knew they weren’t worth increasing the risk (and I’ve handled more snakes than I can count, including copperheads when I worked animal rescue – that’s what that distinction of in ‘the wild’ meant up above, since all of my previous encounters were from initiated calls from the public, and not a random discovery like, seriously, 99% of my photography.)

By the way, a huge percentage of copperhead encounters are actually with anything but copperheads, and the same can be said for all venomous snakes. People that can’t tell a crow from a hawk will confidently tell you exactly what a venomous snake looks like; it’s much more dramatic than telling everyone they came across a corn snake in their yard. So for the purposes of safety, I will (once again) tell anyone who comes across this post how to identify a copperhead, quickly and dependably. And I do this not as much to protect people from copperheads, but to protect every other species from over-reactive nitwits.

copperhead Agkistrodon contortrix in detailHow to identify a copperhead. Copperheads have a distinctive pattern which can be easily discerned in multiple ways. The dark part of the pattern is hourglass-shaped, with the ‘waist’ of the hourglass falling along the spine. Seen from the side only, this may look like Hershey’s kisses. The pattern has a very ‘airbrushed’ look, fading rapidly from the edges, more so than any other species. Alone among North Carolina snakes (and possibly North America – not sure,) the dark portion of the pattern is thinnest along the spine; in every other species, the dark portion is broadest. And finally, the top of the head has no markings whatsoever, and is all one color. All of these can be seen immediately from any distance, and often with only a portion of the snake’s body visible.

Two other ‘coppery’ colored snakes in this area get mistaken for copperheads routinely, solely because nobody has taken the thirty seconds required to know how to tell them apart. They are both harmless, but you know what? That’s not even an issue. If anyone encounters a snake and cannot be assed to distinguish the species, a broom will convince any snake to move on. Not even whacking it, but a simple push (which is far less likely to provoke a defensive response from the snake – seriously, why piss it off if it’s not already?)

“But someone else will encounter it! Think of the children!” Yeah yeah yeah – see above about the number of actual encounters to begin with, and also about roads. We’re surrounded by speeding cars; we keep kids safe by teaching them some simple rules. A snake that has been chased from an area has already established the area as not safe; the likelihood of it returning (especially if the ideal hiding places have been cleared from the property) is low. Most snake bites do not occur in children, despite how oblivious they are to their surroundings. It’s the idiots that are trying to protect everyone else that get bitten far more often. And that’s when bites even occur, which really isn’t often at all – feel free to look at your own news reports and compare the snake bites to the pedestrian accidents…

Northern water snake Nerodia sipedon sunning itself on rock by creek
Seen above is a northern water snake, Nerodia sipedon – not venomous, despite their willingness to bite if provoked. I’ve encountered dozens of these, and only been bitten when I grabbed them. Copperheads do not hang out in the water – they eat things like mice, so they prefer woods and brush.

corn snake Pantherophis guttatus and two copperheads Agkistrodon contortrix
These are corn snakes, Pantherophis guttatus, housed with copperheads – you should easily be able to tell them apart. Corn snakes also aren’t venomous, and in fact are ridiculously mellow. I haven’t seen one of these in the wild either, come to think of it.

But overall, here’s all the guide you’ll need. Leave them alone – they’ll go about their own business, because they really don’t want any interactions with humans. If they’re in an area with enough human activity that you think an accidental encounter might occur, shoo them off – it’s trivially easy to do from a safe distance. Any other actions pretty much qualify as, “being stupid,” and you know what? We’re supposed to be the smart ones…

The snakes are taking a beating

While I’ve been keeping an eye on the progress of the red-shouldered hawk chicks, I’ve been having difficulty recording it due to a lack of free time concurrent with decent weather – we’ve had way too much rain for my liking. Yesterday I finally got it together, and the hawks were happy to oblige me.

fledgling red-shouldered hawk Buteo lineatus stretching wings on edge of nestThe chicks are getting quite sizable now, able to move about with almost the same agility as the adults and often seen standing upright near the edge of the nest. The baby down is giving way to the flight feathers in the wings and tail, but the main body feathers (called ‘coverts’) have yet to appear, which means the parents still hover over them on wet or chilly days. The body feathers are primary protection against the elements, forming both a water-resistant barrier and an outer layer that can trap their own body heat within; lacking these, they will rely on the parents for a while longer. Yet the growing surety of their movements and the alertness with which they view their surroundings is a marked change from just a week ago, not to mention that they’re surprisingly close to the adults in size now. I haven’t watched them for a long enough period to determine exactly how much they’re eating, but it certainly isn’t trivial.

red-shouldered hawk Buteo lineatus chicks in tug-of-war over small snake
From the previous observation of their behavior, it appeared that the fledglings were starting to feed themselves, and they confirmed this during a shooting session yesterday morning. A parent appeared and dropped a small snake into the nest, not bothering to try and carve it up; to be honest, I’m not sure they even had the opportunity. Both younguns immediately seized it by either end and started a fierce tug-of-war that was delightful to watch. In the image above, the adult is to the left, one fledgling to the right, with the other just visible between them – the dark snake is easy to spot, but if you look close, you can see that the middle fledgling has a grip as well; the pale sharp curve of the lower beak can be made out just underneath the stretched body of the snake, right under the parent’s breast. I said it before: I would love to have a better view, but it’s not going to happen. I boosted ISO for this session to allow for a smaller, sharper aperture and a little better shutter speed, and the hit to image quality can be seen. This is almost full-resolution, a tight crop from the original frame.

red-shouldered hawk fledglings fighting over snake
While the beaks and talons are likely well-enough developed to chop up something as easy as a snake, the young have an instinct to gulp as much as they can before their sibling does, so biting through the snake would have worked against this. Instead, they simply tried swallowing everything they could while pulling it away from the other, and here I caught the back one in mid-gulp. But hey, I can do even better than this.

aimated tug-of-war over a snake between two red-shouldered hawk fledglingsWhen the action started I simply held the shutter release down and let the frames crank out. Later on, I took fourteen consecutive frames and edited them into this animated gif (pronounced “gorbachev”) because it shows the amusing struggle much better. Yes, video would be even better – drop me a donation through that ‘Feed the gator’ widget to the right and we’ll see what I can do. In the meantime, we’ll carry on with the still photos.

(Has it occurred to you that if the snake had suddenly separated, at least one of them might have been flailing madly trying not to fall out of the nest? It certainly occurred to me.) Through it all, the parent simply watched impassively, probably ready to help out if the young still needed their meat cut up for them, but otherwise secure in the idea that they had little to do except provide. There’s no chance for an adult to play favorites now; the game is all about who grabs what first.

But the day wasn’t over yet. I was about to remark that the morning wasn’t even over yet, but looking at the timestamp on the next photos, I find that it was just barely after noon, so…

I had taken a break myself after the young polished off the small snake, but came back out to my post when the cries of the adults came rushing through the tree canopy. I was able to see both of them wheeling along the same flight paths, and vaguely suspected that I was seeing a territorial dispute with an interloper. However, the lead hawk alighted on a perch about half as distant to me as the nest, and within sight, too; moving the tripod by less than a meter afforded me a quite-clear view of the adult.

red-shouldered hawk Buteo lineatus finishing off a captured black rat snake Pantherophis obsoletus
It’s obvious that the parent had yet another snake, this one markedly larger than the previous, and the hawk was intent on ensuring that the snake was dead – not at all surprising, since this one was big enough to make an escape if dropped live into the nest. From close examination of the photos I identify this as a black rat snake, and we pause briefly here for taxonomic trivia. Formerly known as Elaphe obsoleta (obsoleta,) the nomenclature has changed, but there isn’t a universal agreement on this yet. Overall, the species is now considered Pantherophis obsoletus, but there is some dispute over whether three separate regional species can be recognized; if so, that would likely make this Pantherophis alleghaniensis. Whatever – this particular one is hawk food any way you slice it.

The other adult seemed agitated by this whole behavior, perhaps because it disapproved of any dicking around that delayed food getting to the young, perhaps because it did not trust the other to deliver the food rather than keeping it for itself; I suspected this myself when I saw the hawk in possession avoiding the nest, as well as avoiding the other parent when they came crashing down on an adjoining perch. The second parent returned to the nest empty-taloned after the first flew off out of immediate sight, but this didn’t last long. Within another minute, the snake was delivered to the nest where the young had been watching the dance of the adults. And in fact, it took another close examination of my photos to ensure that the snake really had been brought in, since the young simply stared at it, perhaps too full to contemplate another bite right now, perhaps a little overwhelmed at the size which would prevent easily slamming it down; this one was going to have to be carved up first.

red-shouldered hawks Buteo lineatus presenting black rat snake Pantherophis obsoletus to young
It’s safe to say that these fledglings are not suffering from neglect in the slightest, and also that the local snake population is being visibly reduced. That decline isn’t likely to drop off in the next couple of weeks as the young start flying and collecting their own meals, but it might eventually spread further out as they leave (or are driven from) the area to avoid competition. Before then, I’m hoping to capture a lot of images as they start to learn how to fly; once again, we’ll see what happens.

Wake up, sheeple!

bumblebee on flowerIt seemed like any other day where I’d been neglecting my photo sorting duties and thus facing the daunting task of going through hundreds of images, but as they say, things can seem perfectly normal (if slightly guilty) yet suddenly turn dark and ominous. And of course, since I’d been putting this off, how much time has passed that could have made a bigger difference? How much farther along in an undoubtedly sinister plan have we been carried, due to my neglect? Or are we in the nick of time, now aware of something that might easily have passed, quite literally, under our noses?

I was going through the images of a bumblebee visiting a curious white flower, gathering nectar while distributing, as only an incidental by-product of the activity, pollen among the blooms. As part of my method of determining critical sharpness, I was examining the photos at high magnification – those that were too blurry under these circumstances would be discarded. And suddenly, right there in front of me, the secret was laid bare. Nothing can describe the shock that washed over me, the sudden shiver that caused my glasses to fall askew and knocked my R2-D2 mug over, spilling pens everywhere. In a moment, I was deep in the conspiracy, acutely aware that forces beyond my imagination were at work, industriously forging towards some unfathomable goal. And the responsibility to alert everyone, anyone, else rested solely on my shoulders, purely by happenstance. Naturally, a blog is the most efficient method of disseminating such crucial information. I wouldn’t expect anyone to believe me based only on my word, so I present the visual evidence, damning as it is.

There can be no mistake
It’s undeniable: what I took to be an average bumblebee foraging among the blooms was in reality a person dressed in a bumblebee suit. Had the disguise not slipped at the neckline, it could have gone completely unnoticed.

Complacency is our enemy, people! Get the word out at every opportunity – we ignore this cabal at our peril. Maybe this is just the first wave, or maybe there are no more genuine bumblebees left. Either way, it’s up to us.

If I disappear, rest assured there are contingencies in place, packages left in safe locations. This secret will not die with me.

A tiny bit of diversity

newborn Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis peeking from creeping jenny plant Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’

newborn Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis looking suspiciously at its hidden siblingThe hatched Chinese mantises (Tenodera sinensis) that I posted about earlier – and near-perpetually on this blog, really – have spread out across the front yard to some fairly remote locations; remote, at least, for something that measures 10mm in body length. Above, one stalks among the leaves of a creeping jenny plant, while at left another peers suspiciously at a glimpse of activity from the opposite side of its day lily leaf, apparently unaware that a sibling was perched there. They are, if nothing else, getting plenty of water, since we haven’t gone three days without rain since they’ve hatched, but as yet I haven’t seen them with any prey, related or otherwise. This doesn’t mean much – I have only seen mantids with prey a handful of times, but I’ve watched them grow huge in the meantime, so they’re obviously not waiting until I’m present.

On the back deck sat one of the remaining egg cases that I was watching, this one of a Carolina mantis, a differently-marked and slightly smaller species. That sentence is in the past tense, which isn’t entirely accurate since the egg case is still there, but this past Saturday it produced its own brood of newborns – naturally enough, I saw this as I was dashing out, unable to take any time at all to pursue the images. It was several hours later before I could sit down and apply myself to photography, and by then the activity from the egg case had largely ceased, and the newborns that I’d seen were already heading off into the world. Like their cousins, the Carolina mantises were naturally wary of my presence and that of the camera with overhanging flash and softbox attachment, so I had to go slow and look innocuous, which takes quite a bit of effort. Did I mention I was voted “Most Guilty-looking” in grade school? True story.

Two newborn Carolina mantises Stagmomantis carolina perched warily on leaf
Carolina mantises (Stagmomantis carolina, which sounds like a jazz player) are marginally smaller when first hatched, and have a more bronzed and translucent appearance than the Chinese mantids, but it takes a really close look to determine this – lucky you have me around. The Girlfriend and I are still trying to identify this potted tree, a transplant from her mother’s place, but it was close by and became a favorite haunt of the newborns; for the first two days it was possible to find a few in close enough quarters to get more than one in the frame, though this option has largely passed now.

Two Carolina mantises Stagmomantis carolina in curious posesMany of these photos look like they were taken at night, which is generally not the case. The cause is the camera settings: at these magnifications the range of sharp focus is very short, so I opt for a small aperture, usually f16, to increase depth of field. Camera shake can also be an issue, so I shoot at 1/200 second shutter speed, and count on the flash to provide the light that allows both of these to be functional; without it, the images would be drastically underexposed. And in fact, they are – but only for the backgrounds where the flash doesn’t reach, dispersed by the softbox attachment. There are two ways to combat this: have the background very close so that it can be illuminated by the flash too (this usually means an added leaf or something,) or have a secondary light that illuminates the background at the same time. This can be done, but it’s awkward, and changing position means the light has to be moved too, which obviously limits the spontaneity and grabbing the brief but compelling action of the ambulatory subject. What I usually aim to do is have something that can sit immediately behind the subject, like a nearby leaf, but otherwise not worry about the rest. As you can see, it’s easy to have one’s subject framed against pure blackness, which only works for some subjects – darker ones, naturally, can nearly disappear in such conditions, so I’m often picky about my shooting angle, and won’t even bother with some shots because I know they won’t turn out very well.

newborn Carolina mantis Stagmomantis carolina with fingertip for scaleBy the way, The Girlfriend was present for this session, unlike most other times, and she provided a bit of scale by putting her fingertip in the path of one of the newborns as it made a circuit of the same planter that held the egg case. Had she moved her finger towards the mantis, it would have shied off in alarm, but leaving her finger in place while the mantis approached was just fine; shame I missed the focus. In my defense, their movement will bring them into and out of focus in a moment, and this was the only frame where the fingertip appeared – it serves its purpose here, crap though it is. We’ll need this impression (about size, I mean) as we go in even closer.

On the egg case itself, three newly-emerged mantises still remained motionless. What appears to me to happen is that the newborns emerge from the greater confines of the case as little more than pupae, almost wormlike, and then immediately molt from their first skins and extract their legs. Normally when an arthropod molts, it locks its feet onto a handy surface and then withdraws from within, leaving behind the exoskeleton still gripping the surface. In the case of newborn mantids, however, they may not even have ‘feet’ as such, or at least not adequate to the task of locking onto something, so a thread remains attached to the case like a toddler’s mittens, anchoring the exoskeleton to the case and allowing the mantis to draw itself free against that – one of my whole points in having egg cases around was so I could see this in great detail, something that has still eluded me.

The closeups of the remaining mantises hanging from the case revealed a probable reason for their presence and immobility. Once again, these are less than 10mm in body length, and even my view through the lens was hampered by the lens being permanently stopped down to f16 (I go into this all here.) Just nailing sharp focus is challenging, and usually I’m wavering in and out of focus by breathing, so noticing fine details like this just doesn’t happen. The flash reveals more than I ever see when shooting.

newly emerged Carolina mantis Stagmomantis carolina apparently entangled in threads
This one appears to have gotten entangled in the threads from someone else’s molt; that leg that appears next to its head is most likely its own. I am not averse to helping along one of my photo subjects in such circumstances, but I honestly never saw the details until I unloaded the memory card. I did see this one twitch a few times, and suspected that it was simply working its way free – molting can take a while, though I think it’s a lot faster in these circumstances.

Yet, as I watched these stragglers in the hopes of capturing more emerging images, I saw a tiny jumping spider, not 3mm in body length, stalking along the surface of the egg case. Easily outweighed by the mantises, it nonetheless crept up to one, only to be spooked back by a reflexive motion. As I watched, it slipped around to the head of the mantis pictured here, seized it in its chelicerae, and started hauling away at it, obviously intent on bringing the mantis home, and I doubt as an adopted pet.

minuscule jumping spider salticidae trying to carry off newly emerged Carolina mantis Stagmomantis carolina
A note about the lighting. First off, a lot of images that I got in this session simply didn’t work, sometimes through focus issues, but many of them through poor lighting, despite the amount of effort I’ve put into creating useful lighting rigs. In this particular case, it had a lot to do with the branch that the egg case was attached to. The case was on the stem of a stiff weed, one with a spray of tiny branches at the top, and I had simply collected the whole thing with enough beneath it to anchor it within a pot on the deck. But this meant I could only go in so close, and at certain angles, without disturbing the remaining branches, on some of which still sat newborn mantids (and, it must be said, the web of another spider even smaller than that pictured here, too small to be a threat to the mantids.) I was hoping that the flash was adequate, and it seemed so in the preview LCD on the camera back, but upon downloading them I found very few were illuminated properly. It can be a tricky thing.

I shot several frames of the spider trying to make off with the mantis before I set the camera down and intervened; there might be a lot of perspectives on these actions, and hooray for them all – I am what I am. The spider was quite reluctant to give up its booty, but some gentle pressure with the tip of a pine needle not only caused it to release, I got the spider itself onto the needle and carried it well away from the entire pot. The mantis that appears here did not make any further progress while I watched, but the next morning when I checked on the egg case it was missing, while two of the others remained where they had been, unable to extricate themselves from their predicament. On two previous occasions I have come across mantises still hanging from an egg cases, both times only by a hind leg, and managed to gently release them from their bind; it might be something that happens a lot. As I said earlier, many arthropods overcome the high mortality rate among their young by producing lots of them, simply overwhelming the poor odds. Most of them won’t make it to adulthood, but I’m hoping that I can follow a few, at least, on a photographic record of their life cycle. We’ll just have to see what happens.

Let’s take a herpetology break

Because you know we’ll be back to the arthropods soon enough…

All of these, by the way, came from the NC Botanical Gardens, just not on the same day. There are reptiles and amphibians to be found elsewhere of course, but the conditions in the gardens are pretty welcoming to them, and they have enough human contact to be less shy than normal.

Green anole Anolis carolinensis in mid molt
On a fence where they’re frequently seen, two green anoles (Anolis carolinensis) were hanging out in reasonably close proximity. Yes, of course this is green – get your eyes checked. Actually, this dark hue is usually an indication of either a sexual or territorial display, more often aggressive – when the males are showing off for the wimminfoke, it’s usually with bright green colors and by flaring their dewlap, a fan under their throats that is brilliant pinkish-purple in hue. The pasty appearance of this one is due to molting; unlike snakes, most lizards shed their skin in patches and flakes, and at times it produces a very tattered effect.

common snapping turtle Chelydra serpentina peeking above surfaceOne of the two resident common snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) was peeking out of the water while I was around, one of the very few times I’ve seen this – their shyness is way out of proportion to their reputation and even just their appearance, but the ‘expression’ in this particular image is up for interpretation; I can see a lot of different possibilities, and I’m betting you could too if I were to merely suggest them to you, but I’d rather you take a good look on your own without the impressions. I liked the faintly eye-bending effect of the water’s distortion, where the portions above the surface look normal but everything below gets shifted in perspective and reshapes the turtle’s head – for a more natural view see here (and Mr. Bugg still hasn’t sent me my photos.)

American five-lined skink Plestiodon fasciatus drowsing on the rocksIn contrast to the startled appearance of the anole at top, this American five-lined skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) watched us creeping closer with little apparent concern, at times seeming to drift off into slumber. Eventually, we got close enough that it figured concealment was called for and it slipped into a crack in the rock sculpture that you see here, but not before we got a fine selection of images. It’s all about going slow, and getting the shots you can before you try to get closer. Not everything that you get is going to be a keeper, but it’s better to get an okay shot from a short distance than to try and get close enough for the best pics and scare the subject away instead, ending up with nothing at all.

red-bellied water snake Nerodia erythrogaster likely fast asleepWhile the skink was drifting off, this one was almost certainly well beyond that point. This red-bellied water snake (Nerodia erythrogaster) was sitting in plain sight right alongside the raised walkway, never even twitching as we leaned in close. Even with frequent exposure to humans, I find it hard to believe the snake was that conditioned to close approaches, but here’s the crucial factor: snakes have no eyelids. Basking as it was in a patch of bright sunlight, this one most likely was fast asleep, and our slow approach without throwing a shadow across its face wasn’t enough to trigger any protective response. Add in the raised walkway we were on the entire time, preventing us from producing any vibrations that the snake could feel (they don’t have ears, either,) and you get a distinct possibility that the snake was deep in Dreamland, or whatever passes for such with a snake (Carl Sagan’s book The Dragons of Eden gives some interesting speculations about how reptile brains actually work, if you have the interest – dreaming seems relatively unlikely.)

I’m fairly certain I’ve spotted this individual once before in the garden, but didn’t identify it then because they’re pretty rare in this area, at least in my experience – mostly it’s the queen snakes and northern water snakes. Back when I lived near the mouth of the Neuse River and visited frequently, I think I saw the juveniles from time to time, but never an adult. They don’t get quite the size/girth of the northern water snakes, but they average over a meter in length and perhaps a little more than 3 cm in girth – so, shorter but slightly thicker than the black rat snakes. In other words, big enough for those that fear snakes to react sharply, despite their harmlessness.

unknown frogs' eggs, as the filename says
I had to throw in these eggs, likely from some unknown (to me anyway) species of frog – I just liked the way the light worked on them, especially highlighting the borders where individual eggs were sticking together. I’ll try to keep checking back and see what develops from them.

But in closing, we’ll have to return to the anoles. I mentioned the dark coloration at the beginning of the post, and it was spotting another such anole sitting atop a fencepost that helped me find this one – the dark color told me another was likely in the area, and an incautious movement on its own part let me zero in. At that point it was consuming a caterpillar, but on my next pass around the paths it provided a nice, alert pose that seems rather unanolelike (given that anole is pronounced, “a-noley,” saying that word aloud is guaranteed to defy comprehension from anyone except a herpetology enthusiast.) Patience and timing allowed me to capture both the pose and the light hitting its eye, and I’m pleased with the image, but I’ll let you consider what it puts you in mind of the most.

green anole Anolis carolinensis ready to fetch

From octal to heximal

While I have a ridiculous number of images to sort through, mostly due to the hawks (I fire off a lot of frames to try and capture specifics of behavior as well as ‘something cute’) and I am behind on posting several photos of interest, this one jumped ahead of the stack for no good reason. I know, if I had to do this I could have gone with something much more appealing, but I’m me…

Fishing spider Dolomedes tenebrosus missing left middle legsRemember when I said that it would be interesting to see if the fishing spider managed to live peacefully in close proximity to the frogs? Of course you do – forget I asked that. Well, checking it out late last night, I found that something had changed since my last sighting a few nights before. I didn’t see this happen, so I can only speculate, but when I got this photo, a green frog was sitting not two meters away.

I see similar physical states among spiders frequently, and even watched one specimen lose a couple, and another with only three legs. Most don’t seem too affected by the loss, showing no visible reduction in mobility or dexterity (save for the three-legged one.) I would like to say I have the opportunity to observe this one’s behavior rather easily, but I have seen just two types of behavior from my resident here: sitting motionless in the flashlight beam at night, and hurtling under cover at first glimpse by day. So I wouldn’t be able to tell much, I suspect.

I’m curious as to whether this affects the spider’s ability to walk on water, but I’ve never seen this one close to the water, much less using it, and most times it’s on the opposite side of its rock-mound ‘home’ (what will eventually be a small waterfall, if I ever finish the damn thing) from the pond itself – they don’t need to be near water, but they tend to be.

Do they learn anything from such experiences? Does the spider feel pain? We honestly don’t know. But let’s think about it for a second. Obviously there’s a sense of touch that helps them find prey and avoid danger. But pain, to us, is a signal that something’s wrong, telling us that we’re bleeding or that we need to allow an injury to heal. For spiders, once the limb is gone, nothing’s going to happen – they don’t bleed, they won’t be waiting for it to heal, there’s no benefit to feeling pain in such circumstances, so our best guess answer to the question is, “Not as such.” Obviously, the loss of the limbs is not as life-threatening to them as it would be for us, so our instinctual reaction is probably quite inaccurate.

Fishing spider Dolomedes tenebrosus showing stumps of missing legs
(The spider was actually vertical, like the above pic, but it’s easier to look at this way.)