Monday color 20

holly leaves and berries against blue skySince it is now ‘officially’ summer, we will perversely jump back to almost the only color to be found in wintertime, holly berries in full fruit against the brilliant green of the leaves and a rich blue sky. I will admit to being quite pleased that we can find skies like this throughout North Carolina winters; having grown up in central New York, the winters there spelled overcast conditions for the majority of the time, which could be very depressing. The few occasions when skies like this appeared, it often spelled a wicked cold front coming through and, instead of being pleasant, it was bitterly cold and windy. The decision to get the fuck out of the state came on one such day, when our water pump had failed and I was in our shack of a wellhouse trying to get it operational again in wind chill conditions down below 0°f. It’s very easy to start asking questions like, “What am I doing here?” in circumstances like that.

Years before, we had taken our first trip to Florida, visiting a water park in February and so on. Flying back, we were above the clouds of course, just as brilliantly sunny as Florida had been most of the time, but on the descent into Syracuse we plunged through the thick cloud deck, getting darker and darker, and emerged over a dim, dismal landscape of dirty snow spread over dead grass among bare trees, remarkably monochromatic – not the most welcome of sights at the end of vacation, and I’m more than a little surprised the pilot didn’t turn around and head right back to Florida. He had the audacity to smile at us as we were deplaning as well.

Anyway, enjoy the color.

Report from the field, part one

Steep valley in Juneau Alaska
As hinted at earlier this week, we feature the first set of images from the blog’s official, um, Noncontiguous Correspondent, Jim Kramer, and his trip to Juneau, Alaska. We can’t really use the term “foreign” since it’s still the US, and even the continental part – I had opted for “discontiguous” but Merriam Webster tells me that’s incorrect. And truth be told, “correspondent” isn’t even working since he’s sent me roughly two dozen words in relation to these, due to a schedule that is best not examined closely. So any text herein, which will be minimal, is mine and subject to wild inaccuracies. I mean, even more so than normal…

view of Juneau Alaska from Mt Roberts Nature Center
Alaska is many times the size of Texas while only one-tenth as egotistical (yet just as prone to grave errors in elected officials,) and Juneau is the unlikely placed capital, way down this little tail to the south and likely viewed as “not proper Alaska” by the residents in the rest of the state. I’m guessing, anyway. Juneau has every appearance of losing its share of the bed to the mountains, clinging desperately to the edge and having continual nightmares of falling off – in fact, the city continues around behind the mountain seen to the right, there being just enough room on the bed for a couple of roads and a shop that sells parachutes for hikers. The image above is taken from the vantage of Mt Roberts Nature Center, which is reached by a tramway visible below.

tram to Mt Roberts Nature Center, Juneau
steep valley in Juneau AlaskaI used the word, “precipitous,” in the teaser, and anyone that knows me can tell you that I don’t use that word lightly. Juneau is an area of ridiculously vertical landscapes, as are quite a few portions of Alaska – not a play where Frisbees are popular, I’m betting. But you can probably hang-glide to Seattle…

I cannot vouch for whether it is always this humid there, but I imagine it’s pretty frequent. I also imagine that the spring thaw season gets to be a real mess. I am not a cold weather person, but viewing these pics while we were in heat wave and drought conditions in NC was kind of pleasant.

Now, a small bit of info. The clouds seen in many of these pics seem quite low, but they may not be any lower than the clouds we see all the time – they only appear that way because the peaks are tall enough to jam through them. I had the experience one time of being in the Blue Ridge mountains of NC and seeing a thick fog boil in very dramatically. In moments it became clear it was not fog at all, but a storm cloud at ‘normal’ altitude, when the downpour began.

ridiculously steep slopes in Juneau
Now all of this is scenic enough, but right outside city limits, as it were, sits Mendenhall Glacier – actually, quite a few glaciers, if they can even be differentiated in any meaningful way, but Mendenhall is the one with easy access. Seriously, check it out in the mapping service of your choice – it’s a pretty dramatic landscape.

Mendenhall Glacier long shot
Scale is always a tricky thing with images like these, but to help you out, there are still trees on the slopes alongside the glacier. To help you out even more, it measures 650 meters (2,100 feet) across the base where it contacts the water. Look closely at the details and keep those figures in mind as we go on to the next photos.

Mendenhall Glacier and iceberg
The colors and textures of the glacier are great, even in this muted light – perhaps they’re better because of it, letting more of the subtleties through without glare. I can’t help but wonder how old some of that snowpack is in there…

With a lot of math that I cannot do and perhaps a few details from Jim, I could estimate the size of that iceberg in the foreground. A faint hint may be gathered by comparing the ripples in the water, though it doesn’t help a lot, I admit. There’s a bit I can provide, however, even if I wouldn’t put any trust in my figures here: see the dark stain right dead-center on the glacier face, just a little above the center of the pic? That’s about 65 meters (215 feet) off the water, or roughly the height of a 21 story building.

texture and debris of Mendenhall Glacier
Even though this image overlaps the previous, you can see the difference in texture here, not just from the debris, but from the actual shape of the ice. I suspect a lot of it has to do with the fact that the darker debris absorbs more heat from sunlight and melts off the ice it contacts faster, smoothing away the surface more than splitting off icebergs, but that remains a guess.

By the way, this is a lake, with a tortuous path down to the bay – I have no idea how many icebergs actually make their way down to open water, but it’s quite a path to travel.

cascade alongside Mendenhall Glacier
I have no idea whether any path exists up to the glacier itself, but from seeing these images, I suspect not – it would likely be treacherous as hell just getting to it, and the crevasses thereon not something you’d want to fall into. Though it presents some interesting speculations from an archeological point of view…

I will close with one of my favorite images from this batch, which Jim has not identified for me. Geologists out there can tell me what produces all those colors in the rock, especially the foreground pebbles, but for now I’m just going to enjoy them mixed with the different textures in the photo.

unidentified stream near Juneau with whitewater and colorful rock

Call it a plus

hoverfly on unknown flowersAnd then, the rains did come.

After making that last post early in the morning and going to bed, I was awoken by another storm, this one centered right overhead – at least, if the explosion of thunder that loosened my fillings was any indication. This one brought rain with it, a good soaking, so I’m no longer conflicted.

I have not been neglecting my arthropod subjects, even though I’m trying not to post the same things over and over again, and for the past few nights I’ve gone out and misted many of the plants that they’ve been living upon, almost entirely for their benefit. Thus, some of the photos you’ll see here are from the real rain, and some from my shamelessly staging a fake rain for the benefit of the bugs, taking advantage of the circumstances to get a few pics while I’m at it. Yes, I’m that crassly opportunistic.

I don’t even know what bush these flowers are from, and have little to search on, but the aroma is pleasant, and this hoverfly was quite happy. Whether the rain provoked the flowers into opening or not I cannot say – it appears like it might have, if this and two of the rose bushes are any indication.

Most of the time, after the plants have been misted (which I usually do at night to let it last longer, since the sun will evaporate it in minutes,) the arthropods will become visibly active, seeking out the moisture.

harvestman Opiliones Leiobunum taking advantage of dewdrops
This little specimen, known as a harvestman or daddy longlegs or more properly from the order Opiliones, probably genus Leiobunum, scampered into the spray as it was occurring, which is fairly rare – most species seem to avoid it when it’s coming down but will emerge soon afterward.

unknown minuscule orb weaver spider in wet webSpiders most often seek shelter, usually at one of the upper anchors of the web, but will resume position quickly, sometimes gathering drops that adhere to their bodies as they do so, though whether this is intentional to make it easy to drink, or incidental as they clamber past, is something I haven’t determined yet (and quite possibly won’t – who could tell if a spider is snagging dewdrops intentionally as it crawls across its web?) I have seen some spiders purposefully dislodging drops from the web, presumably to keep it invisible, while others seem to ignore it in the knowledge that it will evaporate quickly. Actually, there is probably no such knowledge – they just never evolved an instinct to worry about it because it never affected their survival. Let’s not credit too much cognition to the class.

There are still half a dozen or so mantises that I can find at any given time, and they noticeably take advantage of the moisture when it appears, which is usually demonstrated in one of two ways.

Chinese mantis Tenodera aridifolia sinensis cleaning dew from leaf
The most common seems to be when they slurp the dew up directly from the leaf, though getting a really good angle on this is hard, since they tend not to do it when a camera is looming at face level right in front of them – go figure. However, you can see where this one has already cleared a portion of the leaf from the adhering drops. I missed an opportunity the other night, when another had climbed up to a leaf and poked its head over the edge to sip up the moisture – I did not have the camera in hand at that moment.

Chines mantis Tenodera aridifolia sinensis cleaning mist from forelegs
The other method is usually employed if they get caught in the mist, but not always. They’ll use a foreleg to clear the water from their eyes first, then from other areas of their body or just snag it from a surface, then suck it up off the leg. Perhaps because they’re in a more ‘ready’ position while doing this, but I’ve found it a lot easier to get these kind of images – they seem less self-conscious about danger nearby.

Copes grey treefrog Hyla chrysoscelis on downspoutOne little surprise appeared the other sweltering night, spotted on the downspout just after I misted the plants below, so I provided its own misting. This is likely a Copes grey treefrog (Hyla chrysoscelis) and they need the moisture, so it’s rare to see them out when it’s been so dry. Just to demonstrate my dudeness, not only did I provide a decent soaking, I turned on the deck light right overhead and left it on for a few hours in an attempt to provide more food for the little spud.

Not too long ago something laid eggs in the pond I’ve been working on out back, but it proved incredibly elusive so I never got to see what it was. I wasn’t sure if any of the eggs survived the mosquito larva filter, but there are tadpoles in there now so we’ll just have to see what develops. It could also be chorus frogs, peepers, or cricket frogs, all of which are common in this area.

This was a small average specimen, about 4 cm long, so that will provide a little scale for the next bit. As I was circling around to get a variety of photos, I noted a tiny grey arthropod of some kind up near an eye, small enough that I could make out no details either by eye or through the viewfinder, so I went in as tight as I could to get images that I would be blowing up later on.

some arthropod on Copes grey treefrog Hyla chrysoscelisThis little stowaway couldn’t be much larger than 1mm in body length, and by flashlight it remained hard to make out, though it could be seen perambulating around on Mt Frog here. If you look closely, you can see that it has its own supply of water, a tiny droplet adhering to its leg. But in a moment, it turned to face me, and the resulting tight crop confirmed what the other images had hinted at.

newbron jumping spider on Copes grey treefrog Hyla chrysoscelis
If the body shape wasn’t enough, that eye pattern determined that this was a tiny jumping spider, almost certainly a newborn. While I should have used the reversed 28-105 for this shot, which would have provided much better magnification, I was already pushing the limits in terms of position and lighting – not every macro subject is in ideal conditions (in fact, very few are.) The frog was completely unconcerned with the rider, only blinking once when the spider wandered to the corner of its eye, and wasn’t terribly concerned with my presence either, but they rarely are anyway – they’re a pretty easy species to photograph when they’re not actively hunting or looking for mates.

Returning to this morning immediately after the rain, we have a bizarre catch, which happens far more often than we probably imagine. The surface tension of water is an entirely different thing when you’re tiny.

assassin nymph Sinea bearing huge water drop
This assassin bug nymph, probably genus Sinea, was all set to weather the next week’s worth of irrepressibly hot conditions. While it was probably helped by the spiny body structure, when you’re 3-4mm in length, you can get away with carrying a water droplet the length of your entire body, though I suspect it wasn’t intentional. And it wasn’t just hanging there, because the bug was actively trying to avoid me and kept moving to the far side of the stem. But you have to appreciate how the water acts as a lens to show the plant behind it.

No, seriously, you have to. There’s no choice in the matter.

Plus or minus

clouds lit by electrical storm and city lights
The weather here has been rather oppressive, since we’ve been having temperatures into the thirties (or the nineties if you’re still using Fahrenheit) with no rain for over a week, and the plants are struggling, to say nothing of humans doing anything outside. Last night, we finally got the conditions for a thunderstorm, and I unceremoniously dumped a phone call with a friend to trot down to the pond to do some more photos – yeah, they’re used to it; storms are rare. While there was a decent breeze, I was still sweating while out there, standing almost motionless alongside the tripod.

Above, the layers of clouds become evident with the mixed lighting, the purple-white flashes of lightning contrasted against the amber of the sodium city lights, lending a lot of depth to the sky – the light in front of the house saved the foreground from being just a flat cutout against it.

commercial flight in front of active thunderstorm
My little trick of counting off the seconds between flashes to get a rough idea of when to open the shutter was completely trashed by the storm, at least in the first twenty minutes or so – I would have needed a stopwatch that provided time in hundredths of a second. Seriously, the flashes were nearly constant, with two primary areas of activity in the sky. Above, a straight line at far left denotes a commercial flight into Raleigh-Durham airport that was skirting the thunderheads on approach, which must have been a hell of a view. Though also quite possibly bumpy, and I imagine if you didn’t like flying the view wasn’t reassuring. I was hoping that the lightning flash would have silhouetted the plane against the clouds in that moment, but I suspect the city lights against the clouds washed out any evidence of that.

helicopter flying towards storm
There was also a pair of helicopters that passed low overhead and were headed right towards the thunderheads, which also should have been a great view.

helicopter flying towards storm
I’m reasonably certain they were Air National Guard flights since nothing else flies together around here like that, and also judging from the sound – probably AH-64 Apaches. Sure, the pics make it look bright, but these are time exposures, and all I could make out were anti-collision lights.

anticipated lightning flashAs the storm started to settle down a bit, I could start using the timing trick; lightning seems to follow a rough pattern, with a certain amount of time between strikes occurring from the same area of cloud. Count off the seconds between strikes, then lock the shutter open about ten seconds before that time is reached again. Like I said, its rough, and it’s entirely possible that it’s merely my own confirmation bias and the strikes are more random than that – I’d need to keep some pretty specific records to be sure either way. But this image here is a successful attempt, at least. I didn’t want the amber glow from the city lights in the clouds, so the only way to accomplish that is with a short exposure that captures a flash at just the right moment, and this one was a seven-second exposure timed for the reappearance of the flash. I’m pleased.

The breeze was enough that the water was choppy, so no nice reflections of the storm within, but at least I had a little foreground to work with – that’s something that I’ve had a lot of trouble achieving in the past. Too many trees, and ugly things like poles and wires, nearby make it hard to frame the lightning against something useful, and dashing out to another location is very hit-or-miss, mostly miss. The pond nearby is quite handy, and these are all facing in the opposite direction from this session a bit earlier this year.

Lightning over pond
I was switching back and forth between vertical and horizontal shots; the thunderhead on the left side was producing the best vertical bolts, while the area on the right kept showing off these branches that stretched across the sky, visibly extending. This frame is actually a crop from a horizontal. I was wishing I’d been shooting some video because the frequency of the flashes, and the arms shooting across the sky, would have been quite dramatic, but no, I’m using older bodies without video capability and left the cheesy little camcorder sitting on my desk. So you get stills instead, using the pilings exposed by the lowered pond level as a foreground element. Is that rain stretching down out of the clouds? Quite possibly, but not a drop of it fell on us here.

dramatic cloud glow
And that’s what produced my conflicted response to the storm. I’m always pleased to get decent lightning pics, and this past year has been unprecedented in my successes in that area – I’ve gone for several years without any at all. But we really need the rain, so while I’m quite pleased with the opportunity, and the shot above most of all, the storm didn’t accomplish anything else, and I still had to go out afterward to water the plants again.

Worse, the imperturbable Al Bugg has been jonesing for the opportunity to get some lightning pics, but he’s now away being a camp counselor so I couldn’t even call him to come by and get some practice in. One of these days, though…

Curious definition of “secret”

I started thinking about this idea when I read this article on Mental Floss about various conspiracy claims (they do not deserve any proximity to the word “theory”) regarding Denver International Airport. And it reflects the same thing that can be found in virtually every conspiracy idea: that some secret society will go to great lengths to create some master plan that must remain secret, and then leave clues all over the fucking place.

Seriously, what the hell purpose is this supposed to serve? Does it not somehow count as a secret unless it’s hinted at extensively? Is it more fun this way? Does those who are in on it need to be signaled because they’re not sure where or what it is, or do they simply need reminders? “Oh, yeah, Denver Airport, that’s the one we’re launching the revolution from. I keep thinking it’s Des Moines…”

Sure, just mentioning it makes it obvious, but apparently it’s not clear enough on its own, because the belief is widespread, enough that it is almost a cultural assumption that ‘conspiracy’ means ‘lots of subtle symbols and indicators.’ People think the flight numbers of the 9/11 planes are rebuses, and dollar bills have secret symbols on them. Such beliefs are necessary for conspiracists to believe they’re clever, able to fathom the puzzle, but it’s safe to say it would be phenomenally stupid to put a bunch of hints around, if the intention really were to remain secret. Mystery novels do not reflect real life, and sinister cabals of the type that feature so prominently in the fevered dreams of conspiracists would have no desire to play fucking games.

But that’s really how it must be viewed, when it comes down to it; they can’t possibly be taking this seriously. If someone really believed that the symbols and sniglets they were finding pointed to a secret society or whatever, the last thing that anyone sane should do would be to smugly announce it – that would be a great way to get disappeared, wouldn’t it? What do they think would happen, some shadowy figure is going to come up to them some night to shake a finger and say, “Oh ho ho, you got us, you little scamp! [Sigh] What are we going to do with you?”

Hey, listen, I’m on board with solving crimes by catching the subtle mistakes and traces of evidence accidentally left behind, but that’s not at all what we’re talking about here. And at some later point, I’ll deal with the backwards process of creating a scenario and then finding the evidence to fit it, which can be done for just about anything that can be imagined. No, this is specifically the idea that these items are purposefully placed, daring someone to put it all together. As if wondering about something mysterious or hard to understand takes some kind of elaborate skill…

There is a lot of psychological fodder in the whole thing: the idea that whoever is behind the conspiracy must be stupider than the one who “discovers” it, the pattern-seeking nature of humans that makes us invent such scenarios in the first place, the overwhelming desire for there to be something going on behind the scenes. And of course, the way that no one seems to realize that if some arcane society left behind such specific details, they obviously intended for them to be found, meaning they would have nothing to do with any real conspiracy. Naturally, that would just send the conspiracists off on another quest…

But this next bit is something that I had originally set aside for later, and have now decided to tackle right here, because a 500-word post is too short anymore. Occam’s Razor is a common tool in critical thinking, but with subjects such as these, it seems to actually support the idea of a conspiracy. To continue using this example, given all of the little details of the airport’s design and decoration, there could be a lot of reasons that explain how each came about – but ‘conspiracy’ is a single answer that addresses all of them. Thus, the simplest answer is probably the correct one; isn’t that how it goes?

Well, yes and no. The first thing to recognize, as mentioned above, is that once the idea of a conspiracy has been introduced, many of the further examples of ‘evidence’ were selected solely because they fit, or could be made to fit, while ignoring all of those bits that did not fit, or pointed specifically away from such an idea. We can’t be selective about what we address and what we ignore – explanations have to cover all of it.

More importantly, however, “conspiracy” is a simple word, but hardly a simple concept. It doesn’t even mean anything all by itself – conspiracy to do what? Which is usually where things fall apart, because it tends to be as diverse as, “making the runways look like swastikas,” and, “being partially funded by Freemasons.” You can conspire to throw a surprise birthday party too, and that’s just as illegal as the previous two, which is to say, not at all. Even if we posit that something truly illegal is going on, or planned, it helps a lot to actually specify what. It helps even more to have the ‘evidence,’ you know, lead towards the idea – Nazis and Freemasons aren’t exactly related in any way, and of course, the statue that caused the death of the artist is, um… what, now we’re dealing with some kind of mummy’s curse or something? Is coherence a bit too much to expect? Believe me (or don’t, and check for yourself,) but a really stunning number of conspiracy claims are exactly this scattered and bewildering, buttressed only by the idea that something “doesn’t seem right.” Yeah, I guess if you find connections between a failed baggage system and Navajo symbols on the floor, there are a lot of things that aren’t going to seem right to you…

Ignoring all that, however, and simply going with the prominent claims that some secret organization exists, again, we’re talking about a simple description for a ridiculously convoluted and detailed idea – an entire airport built because of, in service of, or to promote the future plans of this organization, which involves billions of dollars and who knows how many hundreds to thousands of people, all loyal and dedicated to whatever sinister plan is being imagined, and this is evidenced by, you know, creepy murals. A picture is worth a thousand words I guess. Yet this hardly qualifies as the simplest answer in any way, and even a separate explanation for each individual bit of ‘evidence’ is less involved, and requires less machinations, than one conspiracy. An umbrella standing in a corner could be a spy’s signal to his confederates to meet at that spot when it rains, but it’s a hell of a lot more likely that someone simply forgot their umbrella. And I hardly think I need to point out that artists and decorators can be wildly imaginative and more than a little flakey – their goals are usually not to be normal.

As a comparison, the military of any country tends to have a lot of secrets; it’s the nature of security, since if you know your opponent’s defenses you can subvert them easier. Do military operatives go around dropping clues and providing puzzles regarding their secrets? It’s a ludicrous thought, isn’t it? Misinformation is occasionally planted, perhaps best evidenced in the planning of the Normandy Invasion of WWII, and even that wasn’t as obvious as most of the things seized on by conspiracists as ‘evidence,’ not to mention that none of it was evidence at all – it was simply bait. But it’s safe to say that the big painting in the lobby of the Pentagon does not show all of the missile bases around the world if interpreted correctly, because not only is there no freaking point to that, it’s inviting trouble.

Moreover, there have actually been very few conspiracies, ever, throughout history, throughout the world. And of those, most of them have been very small scale, precisely because the fewer people who know something, the better, and huge plans have too many variables to function smoothly. Even if we assume that some organization is capable of controlling so many aspects of life in even a small city as to make some elaborate plan viable, then we’re to believe that some mook with a cheesy website is going to blow the lid off of it? Please.

Of course, the most amusing bit is that those who earnestly promote these ideas then get quite indignant when they’re not being taken seriously

Monday color 19

short focus Chinese mantis Tenodera aridifolia sinensis consuming katydid on butterfly bush Buddleia davidii
This has appeared before, but it remains a nice color image so I’m using it again. Plus it has callback value!

The surreal effect was generated by shooting in natural light at f4, which produced an extremely short depth-of-field that let most of the frame go into soft focus while only a few portions of the subject stayed sharp. But there’s another detail to the effect that is visible – or, specifically, not visible – one that I actually talked about just shy of a year ago. You see, mantises display a ‘false pupil’ dark spot, making it look as if their compound eyes are actually more like our own, and this shows in nearly all photos of them. However, it isn’t a surface feature, but one at a slightly different focal distance than the eyes themselves – different enough that, in the short depth-of-field in this shot, it all but vanished. It can just barely be made out right towards the tops of the eyes, easily missed among the indistinct reflections from the overcast sky.

It shows up again with a little higher depth of field as seen here, taken at the same time, but with a flash unit and at f16.
Chinese mantis Tenodera aridifolia sinensis eating katydid on butterfly bush Buddleia davidii
Since the head is at a slightly different angle now, the false pupil has shifted down, producing a seemingly-startled look from the mantis. It’s also easier to make out the raindrops on the eyes from the brewing storm, one that chased me inside shortly afterward. It’s easier to believe in the storm from the lighting of the top photo than the unnaturally bright flash lighting here, though.

A teaser

Chicken Yard Park, Juneau, AlaskaThis is just a tiny preview of posts yet to come – I think. I’ve learned not to bank on such things now, but we’re off to a good start, anyway. It’s likely to get a bit more precipitous around here.

Just because, part 17

a narrow fishIt’s been a long time since the last ‘Just because’ post, and I am truly ashamed. Or something. I am truly something…

This one has been kicking around in my blog images folder for a long time. It had been sized this way for a particular post, and I can’t even remember which one now, or what it was intended to illustrate. Other than, of course, being weird-looking as hell. And that’s the interesting bit, because this is not edited or distorted or anything – it’s simply a face-on portrait of some unknown fish species, shot in an aquarium. It gains an edge to its surreality by the contrast in lighting on the sides, but that’s about it.

While our pareidolia can detect faces from some pretty farfetched subjects, there is also an aspect where faces that aren’t quite right can be disturbing – many people find that the attempts to make dolls and robots seem lifelike produces seriously creepy results. I think this one falls someplace in the middle: quite far from what we’d expect a face to look like, yet realistic enough in the eyes and mouth to trigger the shivers in some. It has this distinctly disillusioned expression, as if discovering that there are no snickerdoodles left in the jar after all. I’ve always liked it for those aspects, even when there are too few uses for it.

Because I’m me

I actually took all of these photos before I shot the fossil rock for the previous post, but I intentionally posted them in this order to break things up a bit. It probably doesn’t help, but I get credit for the effort, right?

leaf rolled into shelter by jumping spiderAfter the heavy rains Monday night and Tuesday morning, I went out to do a walk-through of the yard, and one of the first things I noticed was what you see here, a leaf of a sea oat plant (I believe, anyway) that had been rolled into this shape. I am quite sure that this had happened within the past several hours because it had not been this way when I went past earlier – the plant has been playing host to a few resident insects so I’m pretty familiar with it. Several different arthropods will do things of this nature, for differing reasons, but this one wasn’t hard to figure out at all, only requiring a peek down the end of the tube.

jumping spider in shelter created by rolling leaf
A jumping spider (unknown species, family Salticidae) had created a shelter by attaching webbing to the edges of the leaf and pulling it into this shape. Curiously, I’d seen this particular one less than two meters away the night before, recognizing from her swollen abdomen that she would be laying eggs soon. Naturally, I wish I’d been able to watch her make this shelter; this would require a lot of time spent simply following a spider around on her perambulations, with the very real possibility that she never would have started construction with the threat of a nature photographer hovering about. Plus I’m not sure I have the patience.

close up of jumping spider in leaf shelter
But since this is on a potted plant, I can probably follow along with progress from this point on, watching for the egg sac to appear and seeing how long it takes for them to hatch. The adult is in the range of a centimeter in length, so the newly-hatched young are going to be tiny. If it works out I will, of course, fill the blog full of more icky pictures.

another spider genus Mangora shelter with nearby leafhopper
On a Virginia creeper vine (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) along the fence I found another shelter, this one not quite as concealing – and a close companion. The spider is most likely genus Mangora, though which species has yet to be determined (it’s very reluctant to give me a good look at identifying characteristics.) I know this will be a shock to you, but I went in for the portrait shot like I did with the jumping spider.

spider genus Mangora peering out from shelter
Going out later at night to try and gain more identifying characteristics, I discovered this one dangling from a short length of web beneath this shelter leaf, right alongside its newly-molted exoskeleton. Unfortunately, in setting up a light to be able to focus usefully, the spider panicked, dislodging the molted skin and scrambling back up to the shelter again.

unknown leafhopperWhat I took to be a lacewing nymph nearby was, on close examination, a disguised leafhopper nymph, possibly a sharpshooter of some type. The tail is to the lower left, but I had taken this for the head, and it was contributing to this impression by waggling it slowly back and forth like a caterpillar foraging. When I looked at the images I’d gotten (this is a crop of the other photo further up) and realized I should get more detailed shots, the bugger had wandered off and was nowhere to be found on the vine or fence. You’d think it was sooo much to ask for a little cooperation…

As usual, I’m keeping close tabs on the various mantids around the yard – the count had been up to five, though two have moved to different locations now and one, a tiny specimen that I suspect is a different species, hasn’t been seen for a few days. I suppose I could rename this blog to something mantis-related, seeing as how the tags of “Chinese mantis” and “Tenodera aridifolia sinensis” (the scientific name) are the most-used on the blog, but then I couldn’t feature treefrogs and religion-bashing. Better keep it the way it is. But anyway, after getting all of these shots I wandered out front to check on the mantids, without any intention of photos since I have a million. But one of them was in possession of a newly-captured black ant, still struggling in its clutches, so naturally…

Chinese mantis Tenodera aridifolia sinensis with black ant prey
When it saw me, the mantis scrambled for cover, but not very far, and as I leaned in closer it ignored me in favor of its meal, so yeah, the mantids are cool at least. The mantis was completely unconcerned with dispatching its meal before starting in, so the ant was struggling throughout this whole photo sequence.

Chinese mantis Tenodera aridifolia sinensis with black ant prey
I have yet to determine what governs the coloration of mantises. This one had been hanging out on the Japanese maple tree, which is deep reddish brown right now, before moving to the phlox underneath that you see here. It has remained this tan color for at least one molt, probably more. Another on the same tree, slightly bigger than this one, has remained a brilliant green, well able to blend in with the phlox but so far never seen on it at all. Well, here – why describe it when I can illustrate it?

Chinese mantis Tenodera aridifolia sinensis demonstrating poor camouflage
I used to think that they’d change color at molting to something that blended better, but the evidence is pretty strongly against this in my experience, so feel free to enlighten me.

Now let’s get back to the slaughter.

Chinese mantis Tenodera aridifolia sinensis with black ant prey
I got just enough frames for good detail, then left my subjects in peace (or pieces as the case may be.) I know that things tend to whittle down the mantis numbers routinely, and of course last year a stupid deer blithely dispatched my last subject, so I’m just going to keep an eye on things as they go along. Such is wildlife.

In old New York

So, in the recent trip to New York (the state, not the city,) the schedule was tight and there were several obligations, so I had only tentative plans to get out to a couple of areas to do some exploring and/or photography, and they never came to pass. One of those plans was fossil hunting, since there are several areas close to where I was that were surprisingly easy to find fossils within.

However, when out with family on Owasco Lake, there was a channel bordered by huge stones piled up for erosion control, and my brother and I entertained ourselves by skimming over those to see what could be found, my brother taking the time to point out to my nieces and their kids how to spot likely fossil-bearing stone. I came up with a moderate-sized rock with an interesting pattern, a long narrow band crossing the surface with a distinctive difference in coloration and texture. On turning the stone over, I found a matching band of white crystal, and so, with a couple of heavy whacks against a big rock, I managed to split the stone open along the fossil which passed clean through it, revealing a probably-coral growth that had crystallized into something resembling white quartz, but with a couple of tiny patches of purple which put me in mind of amethyst – I’m not at all into geology or crystals, so these are only impressions. The half bearing the fossil had broken as well, and so one half went to my niece, and I kept the other. Unfortunately my niece got distracted and mislaid hers within the hour, so I gave her mine.

Cayuga Lake at Union Springs, The BriarsThe following day at Cayuga lake, I was poking along a shoreline made up of more erosion control, only older and more haphazard, this being done by a homeowner quite a few decades ago to form the base of a dock. I was barely trying, but abruptly spotted a stone simply oozing (okay, wrong word) with fossils, about 15 cm across. The image here is not exactly where I found it, being a handful of meters to one side, but shows the conditions. The stones used were very likely all locally found, but not necessarily evidence of local geology; the Finger Lakes are glacially-cut, and some of the stones to be found in the area had been carried a long way by the glaciers. So while any rock found in situ, or at least near a matching rock face that it broke away from, will be from a rough time period, this cannot be considered indicative of anything loose, especially something that is noticeably different in makeup from other rock in the vicinity. The bedrock in that area of NY is from the border of the Devonian and Silurian periods, somewhere around 416 million years old, but the glaciers cut through much, much later than that. I made sure to take my find along with me, which got the attention of TSA because there’s no doubt it was noticeably opaque to X-rays – in fact, I would have liked to have seen what they came up with.

Rock with beaucoup fossils
Seriously, it looks like some kind of tribal paint all over the surface, haphazard and with little cohesion, but a closer look starts to reveal the actual structure to be found.

spiral shell fossil among others
That one in the center is pretty obviously a spiral shell cut through the middle, too uniform to lend weight to anything else, but those surrounding it are a bit harder to fathom. These are in line with the time period of Central NY bedrock, where much of the sea life was not too developed yet and land life was only simple plants and the first terrestrial arthropods – we’re talking waaayyy before the dinosaurs, and even well before Tiktaalik. Here are a couple of links for Silurian (older) and Devonian periods. However, shellfish of this nature have existed ever since those periods as well, and their durable calcium shells are quite commonly preserved, so I can offer no confidence in the age of this rock.

curious fossils

curious fossilsWhen examining the fossils above, I thought I had an inkling of what they were, but now realize that I was wrong. I had suspected they were cross-sections of either the typical spiral “snail” shell or the conical kind, but neither of those would produce such shapes, so I’m presently stymied. And all bets are off for the examples to the right. Yes, I’ve already considered trying to free them from the matrix they’re within, but this may take some time; it’s definitely stone, the consistency of concrete, and isn’t going to come away easily. Telling, perhaps, is the stone visible in the middle of the rings above. While almost certainly just in shallow troughs, it hasn’t fallen free on its own, even through all of the erosion that has produced the cross-sections in the first place.

curious fossils
Your guess is as good as mine in these cases, probably better. There are a lot of not-quite-random shapes to be found in this one stone.

curious fossils
This one has a crucial detail, I believe. See the rod-like fossil to the right, with the rust stain? That very likely is rust, and is one of the ways to spot fossils in the first place. Iron is a great element in a bloodstream, and so living organisms tend to collect it in greater concentrations than average, and it remains trapped within the rock until exposed millions of years later. This is one of two such stains visible on my find.

But the coolest part came when I turned the stone over.

very curious fossil
No, it’s definitely not a snake, and probably not anything closely resembling one either. My first guess is a type of coral, but perhaps a plant stem. While nearly all of the fossil traces to be found on this specimen are even with the surface, wearing down in equal amounts from erosion, there are still some ideas to be gleaned from examination and considering things in three dimensions.

detail of curious segmented fossil
For instance, there appears to be some sort of internal structure revealed in patches to be found in those segments, but it may not go very deep within, since the neighboring portions look like the structures might have already eroded away. If we assume (perhaps rashly) a uniform thickness of the organism, the places where it gets narrow probably means it curves deeper within the stone there. I initially thought that the shape of the worn-away segments just right of center gives some indication that the segments are convex, each bowed out, which is why the stone has that little curved shape along the bottom (from our perspective) of each segment; the rpoblem with that is, such a shape is not reflected along the body of the whole organism, where it should also have shown. Along the top, there is a suggestion of some notch or indent in each. I am interpreting it that the stone also fills the hollow ‘body’ of the organism, largely because the segments still have very distinct separations, which shouldn’t be there if, for instance, the organism simply lies deeper within the stone and hasn’t been revealed yet in those sections. Of course, I could be entirely wrong; this isn’t exactly my area of expertise (nothing is, when it comes down to that.)

If I ever sit down to start digging it away with dental picks and actually make any progress, I’ll come back and show off what I found. In the meantime, if anyone finds a good resource on identifying such things (or personally knows a lot more about this than I,) feel free to chime in.

See also What I did over summer vacation.