Storytime 39

white-tailed deer Odocoileus virginianus captured in shitty camera trap
This… is not a good photo. I know that; with my years of experience, I can spot this through all the little telltales. And there’s a story behind it.

Not long after having moved back into North Carolina, I was living in a small duplex in the woods on the edge of two ponds – pretty nice locale for a nature photographer, except the apartment was too expensive for the sparse amenities, and the ponds were abruptly posted with No Trespassing signs a few months after I’d moved in, so I decided not to renew my lease. But while there, I would frequently see evidence of nocturnal visits, and occasionally spot a few myself – just barely, anyway. The hills around the ponds blocked out most of the urban light pollution and there were few lights nearby, so the environs got dark. (As an example, one night I walked the longish hike up to my mailbox since I’d forgotten to check the mail while driving in, and actually walked past the mailbox without realizing it, having to backtrack and count the boxes off by hand to determine which was mine. And I have good night vision.) Knowing that several different species were cutting across the lawn right outside of my living room window, I decided that I needed to try my first camera trap.

If you’re not familiar with the term, a camera trap is where you set up a camera in an ideal location to be triggered remotely when something interesting is within sight – sometimes automatically, with a motion-detector, or sometimes manually with a remote cord. In this case, I set up in my living room window, but had one on-camera flash unit and a more powerful one down in the yard, a lot closer to the areas most-frequented by wildlife, to be triggered by a slave foot that would detect the light burst from the first flash. I sat in a completely dark living room behind the camera and waited for activity – granted, this was not exactly a remotely-triggered camera, but the second flash was at least.

The first issue were my cats, because I’d opened the window and removed the screen for a clear view, which meant they were unhindered from getting outside; they were strictly indoor cats and were not allowed out, so the open window intrigued them and made me keep chasing them off, as silently as possible. Ben, especially, thought the window was irresistible, and wasn’t impressed with the nudges and whispered scolding he was receiving.

The second issue, as you might have spotted if you were sharp-eyed, was the focus. When a couple of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) made their appearance, I realized that the viewfinder image through the Canon 75-300 I had affixed was waaayyy too dim to make out much of anything. Autofocus was already shut off of course, but manual focusing wasn’t going as smoothly as I’d hoped. My reasoning was, focus on the distant lights across the pond, then back off a bit and hope that I got fairly close to the mark, while watching whatever I might see in the viewfinder for cues.

Here’s what impressed me. I was sitting in an open window roughly fifteen meters from the deer, with whatever night noises were present. As I turned the focus ring, it made the barest scrape of plastic against plastic, little more than a hiss – and the first deer’s head snapped up immediately and looked right at me. Wickedly impressive hearing, as well as being much more alert to hazards than I would have thought in a species this close to people (there was a shopping plaza less than a kilometer away.) But as the deer started to move on, a little hastily it seemed, I fired off a single frame while one was still in view.

The lighting turned out to be pretty good overall, with the second flash triggering exactly as intended and illuminating the entire frame quite well. The light ahead of the deer is from a house on the other side of the pond, the point I’d used for the initial focus – but directly above it, in the tree, is something else, another critter’s eyes reflecting the flash. Proof of concept and viability, at least, and I vowed that, when I tried again, I’d post a couple of small reflectors at about the same distance as any likely subject, and focus on those ahead of time by flashlight.

Only, I never did try it again, anywhere, and about the closest I got was chasing some bats at night several years later. I really should make another attempt sometime soon.


I was alerted to a video clip this morning by The Girlfriend, who got it from a Faceblerk post by a mutual friend. I am linking to it here with great reluctance, because the origin is Faux News, and my atheistic and immoral conscience still doesn’t like to send anyone to their site. If you ever wanted proof that god doesn’t exist, or at the very least doesn’t give a fuck about dishonesty and utter bullshit, it’s that the network still hasn’t been eradicated in a plague of leeches. Regardless, while they provided an embed script, it failed to work, quite possibly because it appears on the same page as the words, “Faux News,” so I have to link it. I still provided the embed code below it in case it’s just simply my own (intelligent) browser that’s the problem.

The video link.

The news item itself, not to be dismissive or anything, is not the thing that I’m drawing attention to, but rather someone visible within, who you should certainly recognize. Did you miss him? Here’s a still image (slightly corrected for a videographer who did not know how to use the iris control of their camera):

Now you recognize him, right? Of course you do, given that he’s appeared on this very blog before. It’s none other that damselfly boy (not damsel flyboy, even though he’s in the US Air Force,) the guy demonstrating his insect-wrangling abilities from this post. It’s also the black ops guy mentioned in this podcast, and appearing again therein (well, the post, not the audio podcast that no one can appear within.)

Being serious for just a few seconds to fulfill my annual obligation, I am admittedly not very supportive of our military, which hasn’t been involved in defending our country for decades, and I don’t think that enlisting is a path towards a future of any kind. Nonetheless, Black Ops here opted to pursue the medical fields when he joined up, which not only gives him an unarguably beneficial role while in the military, it provides him with viable career choices if and when he decides to leave. So yeah, he’s doing more than okay, even if he still pronounces my name with a wicked accent…

Any given definition of “stranger”

The International Holiday Approval Union, finding that nothing whatsoever notable happened on this day – no prominent or noteworthy events, no worthwhile person born or died – has thus chosen this date to represent Beware of Strangers Baring Gifs Day, because something had to be jammed into this barren spot in the month. As far as I’m concerned, we should completely ignore such blatant machinations, but I’m under pressure to find some other holiday to celebrate this month and coming up blank, so…

Anyway, I present a small collection of the best gifs (pronounced, “dawayitspeld,”) ever created, as a reluctant nod to this manufactured and insipid celebration. I’d love to give credit for these, if I had the faintest idea where they came from but, you know, interwebs. Page loading times are going to go to hell I’m sure, and if you’re dumb enough to be on a phone with a data plan or something, better leave now.

I really am going to get one of these shirts:

No comment needed:

Note the roof and the lights:

The acting in this is superb:

This, however, is probably not acting:

Took me a few passes to figure out what I was seeing:

Uttering fowl slurs in the wrong part of town:

I believe when I came across this, it was captioned, “First sip of Coke,” or something like that:

And finally, the best gif ever made, period:

Okay, I’ve done my part. Let’s move on.

Macro photography, part 13: More than illustration

day lilies in varying focus
Once again, we’re going to delve into this deal where I tell you to work on mastering something that I haven’t mastered myself – do as I say, not as I do and all that. Except, I don’t really believe that anyone masters anything in photography; there are simply different levels of skill, so let’s use the word ‘improve’ instead, and we can all stand to improve, so my ass is nicely covered now. But yeah, don’t aim to emulate me – aim to surpass me. Fair enough?

What I’m talking about is a trait that macro photography falls into far too often, which is simply illustration. Illustration is all well and good, because we’re often fascinated by seeing the little details on critters and plants and so on that we don’t normally see in our big hulking everyday world. But illustration has a relatively narrow range of uses, and there’s no reason to view macro photography any different from scenic or fine art or even portraiture, and these can even be combined; we can produce illustrative images that are still fartistic, even able to be sold as art prints.

little flower against lily pads

The shadow was an important element, but I also chose a position to put a single pad behind the entire flower to frame it, avoiding the dark areas

In fact, this can be easier with macro work than it is with other aspects of nature photography, because the scale is so much smaller and easier to manipulate. With small subjects up close to us, we can easily maneuver around them for different angles, selecting from a variety of backgrounds and framing options, and even change the backgrounds to suit us at times (for instance, by placing a better leaf back there.) Macro subjects often can’t get away as easily, or move as far, and can even be coaxed into position – try that with any given bird subject. Even altering the lighting is a whole lot easier. Given all of this, it seems odd that so much of macro photography reflects a fairly simplistic approach, though I suspect this is just what we’re used to seeing and so we reproduce it without thinking about it. So my advice is, whenever possible, don’t just take the photo, but compose it.

The first part is even a useful aspect of illustration: choose a background which works best for the subject. In many cases, a small change of position may place a color that contrasts better behind the key facet of any subject, making the details stand out better. Natural elements in the background can serve to frame or highlight the subject. And the same rule still holds true through all aspects of photography: be aware of what’s back there and if it’s distracting or not. Remember that, even though we’re typically working with a greatly reduced depth-of-field because of the magnification, this does not mean that the background is always blurred into insignificance. Distracting colors and harsh contrast are still going to show up, even if wildly defocused, and patterns such as fences, brick walls, and distinct edges will still be visible – depending on our aperture settings, a whole lot more visible than what we’re seeing in the viewfinder as we focus, since the aperture typically does not stop down until the shutter is tripped. Thus, what didn’t show too clearly as we framed the shot suddenly becomes a more noticeable part of the image, so this is where the depth-of-field preview function, if your camera has it, comes into play.

The smaller apertures and commensurately reduced light often requires us to use supplemental lighting rather than natural, yet the light from a flash/strobe drops off quickly and can render the background into darkness easily, making most of macro works look like it was taken at night regardless of when it was actually taken. There are multiple ways to help prevent this, and having a second, brighter light just to illuminate the background is one of them. This starts to sound like studio work and a lot to lug around, but portrait photographers do it all the time; we tend to think nature photography is ‘field’ work, and while we might have a lot of lenses, lights and stands are not part of the idea. But you use what it takes to get the images that work.

Another option is to get low enough to use the bright sky as a background element, and this can also produce some dramatic angles at the same time. Or you can ensure that your background is close enough to be illuminated by the same main lighting unit, which can sometimes be achieved easily, or sometimes might require doing captive work in a tabletop ‘studio’ setting, which can solve a lot of other problems as well. This raises the question of how much ‘staging’ is acceptable for our work, and I’m not going to answer that one for you – it’s a personal decision, and might even depend on end uses. I’ve covered the topic before a few different times anyway, so I’ll link to them below.

juvenile Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis taking more water from a leaf's surface
There are another two aspects to consider: habits, and ‘personality.’ Habits are self-explanatory, for the most part; capturing some behavior, or even some transitional trait, just adds to the interest and uses that the images can be put to. Personality is a little different, since most of our subjects don’t really have any personality to speak of, but humans are a species that can infer it from simple details, such as head or eye position, and capturing an image that seems to indicate some particular emotion, attitude, reaction, or whatever, can make it a lot more appealing. This means being alert to the possibilities, and being willing to get the right angle to emphasize such ideas. Seriously, even an insect looking up tells us something, or as I said, seems to. But we’re not going to get this impression by shooting down from above.

copes grey treefrog Hyla chrysoscelis looking menacing somehow
In a lot of cases, this takes either waiting for the subject to achieve some particular pose, or maneuvering around until a perspective that produces a wanted expression is obtained – which a lot of subjects won’t be too cooperative about. I’ll admit that most of my ‘expressive’ images are more happenstance than planned, capturing a fleeting moment, but many still required both a decent angle and the dedication to be shooting enough images and watching for opportunities. Don’t abandon a subject too quickly, and especially watch the eyes; they give us the most recognizable ’emotions,’ and may also twitch only momentarily to catch the sunlight and get that extra sparkle.

By itself, macro work is a tool for fartsy images, because there remain some great subjects and effects only available at high magnification – dew and raindrops, for instance, and the sparkles off of them or the panoramas visible through them. The delicate and sometimes intricate shapes and details of flowering plants, or even just the transition of colors among individual autumn leaves. The latticework of spiderwebs that becomes visible with the right light. The iridescence that may be found in feathers, or insect wing sheathes. Even the camouflage patterns or mosaic textures of reptile skins can be fascinating; all it takes is being open to the possibilities, and maintaining a watchful eye.

Malachite butterfly Siproeta stelenes ready for action
Some related posts:

The first post about staging images, and the second.

Using a macro tank for aquatic subjects.

A few examples, part one.

And part two (or is it part one?)

One of my favorite anole images.

A gallery example.


One more?

Storytime 38

It was March 2006, and the infamous Jim Kramer and I had taken a weekend trip out to the coast to explore some new areas photographically. We had no itinerary and only a rough route planned out – basically, we were winging it to see what we might find, which as far as I’m concerned is the best way to do it.

We were following a sandy access road down among some farmed fields that were interspersed with irrigation channels and scrub brush, which meant at times we could see for hundreds of meters, and shortly afterward visibility dropped to a few car lengths. I had remarked a little earlier that there remained a possibility of spotting American black bears (Ursus americanus,) because I had seen some before in very similar terrain. But at this moment, we’d stopped at a promising spot and had been out of the car, exploring some ditches and copses for wading birds, turtles, and hawks when I turned back towards the vehicle and happened to glance down at the sandy road. And abruptly registered what I was seeing.

tracks of American black bear Ursus americanus on sandy lane at coastal NC
“Hey, Jim?” I called out, and when he turned to see what I wanted, I gestured down at the road. I can’t recall if I unnecessarily said, “Those are bear tracks,” or not – it seems likely, even though I knew damn well he would recognize them as easily as I did. If nothing else, the size of them against the tire marks left no doubt.

Immediately, I was struck with how many places within a short sprint from us could possibly conceal something the size of a bear, as well as realizing that it had rained the night before, so the unobliterated tracks had to be less than eight hours old. Black bears are not particularly aggressive – quite the opposite, really – but then again, it was birthing season, and even still you never really want to be within a few dozen meters of one while lacking, say, a nice thick zoo fence in between. Our focus was still about trying to spot something before it spotted us, but now less from an accomplishment standpoint and a bit more from a self-preservation one.

We never saw any bear at all, and I couldn’t tell you how close one might have been at any given time, but it was clear that the possibility was more than passing, and it lent just a hint more drama to the day. It’s true that, any time one is in bear country, there will be a jamboree you could be crossing recent paths, but seeing the direct evidence makes it more immediate than possibly just imagination, you know?

Just because, part 32

Still a little busy, but I wanted to get something up so the blog dies not lie fallow, as they say (actually, nobody ever says that, except me now.) So a couple of quick pics and a video (not mine,) while we wait for me to put some actual effort into this whole thinly-veiled-narcissism thing.

First off, a video that The Girlfriend linked me to this morning, a wildlife camera on a particular log in the woods of Pennsylvania (you know, the woods in Pennsylvania – we all know where those are.) Quite a range of patrons.

This is the original link, in case it fails to play or if you want more info. This comes courtesy of Bush’s Pennsylvania Wildlife Camera (which is more credit than you’ll typically see on Facebook, for sure.)

Meanwhile, I’ll throw up a photo of Mr Bugg from a recent outing, since he doesn’t seem inclined to post any damn thing himself anymore – I’m not even sure why I’m linking to him at this point (and he certainly doesn’t link back to me, as much as he trash-talks me.) Anyway, he’s after the carpenter bee in the foreground there. The hat, you ask? Oh, that’s just an amateur nature photographer thing, where you apparently stuff your hat under your pillow when you get home, because crumpling it up makes it work so much better. Or something. We’ll go with ‘something.’

I have more photos from this outing, but they’ll require time to write them up a bit, which is lacking. I was also going to include the photo coming below with more exposition, then I realized that it doesn’t really need a lot. You’ve seen a variation before. When my brother visited, we had time for just a couple of hours out at Jordan Lake, which proved very quiet until this guy landed in the trees above our heads (not Mr Bugg there to the left, but the bird below all this stuff.) To get this image, I had to wade out into the open lake away from the tree to have a clear view, and my brother, unfortunately, was wearing the boots that he was going to have to wear on the plane in a couple of hours, so he couldn’t emulate me. As a result, he never really did get a good look at this cooperative and mellow great egret (Ardea alba.) And since he eschews virtually all internet use, he’s likely still not seeing it.

great egret Ardea alba in tree overhead
Anyway, more will be along, before the sun boils off into space.

Storytime 37

southern banded water snake Nerodia fasciata fasciata in staged photo
I’ve actually featured this photo here before, with perhaps a portion of the story but not all of it. It’s time to rectify that and set the record straight.

While living in Florida, there was this undeveloped sand road that was basically an access lane out to the edge of the lake, bordered on both sides by drainage channels. It wasn’t far outside the city, but the farthest I could get without serious driving and thus the spot I chose when I was doing some long-exposure night sky photography. During one exposure, probably aiming for twenty minutes or better, I had locked open the shutter and was poking around well away from the camera with a flashlight, this now being about 1 AM. Hard as it may be to believe, I wasn’t inclined to sit there and stare at the sky the entire time the exposure was progressing – I know, right?

Anyway, at the edge of one of the drainage channels I spotted a snake’s head, lifted from the water and holding perfectly still. I knew snakes were primarily night hunters but still rarely saw them at night, and while I was in Florida for a couple of years and doing a serious amount of exploring, this represented only the second snake that I’d seen the entire time – very peculiar, as far as I’m concerned, but there you go. After observing it for a few minutes and not seeing any movement, I began to gradually shift my position. I knew the light from the flashlight was largely masking my own position and outline, but I could still spook the snake if, for instance, I cast a shadow from the reeds across its eye.

Eventually, I determined that the snake hadn’t moved because it couldn’t; it was seriously ensnared in someone’s discarded casting net, having slipped through several loops and eventually caught itself as the nylon bound itself tighter around the snake’s body. I wasn’t about to let this slip by, so I carefully edged down to the water and disentangled the entire net, with the snake within, from the weeds and twigs and brought the whole ball up to the car, then set about trying to work the snake free. For its part, the snake helpfully bit me several times as I tried to slip the loops free from its scales.

It wasn’t long before I realized that, between the number of openings it had gone through and its general inability to hold still while I concentrated on each loop, I wasn’t going to accomplish a lot in this manner, especially without help, and chose a different tactic. I had a sharp knife on me as usual, but the nylon was fine enough that simply slipping the blade into a loop and pulling wouldn’t work; the nylon was tough and took a lot of pressure to cut, more than the snake’s skin did, and all I would do was pull the loops deep into the snake before they ever separated. Instead, I found a small piece of wood and used that as a cutting board on the trunk of the car, pressing the junction of numerous key loops of the net under the knife blade to cut through them. It required a lot of this and was tedious, but eventually, I freed the snake entirely from the net without injury (well, to the snake at least – I had several bites and a few nicks from my own knife as I performed this entire operation with the flashlight held in my teeth.)

This was, however, a species that I had never seen before, much less photographed, and I couldn’t let this opportunity go, though I was unprepared to exploit it at the time. This mean that I dug through the trunk of the car until I found something to secure the snake within to transport it home; not the most altruistic of actions, I admit, but hey, I’d just saved it from dying by scavengers or exposure – it could cope with a little posing. The next day, I constructed a ‘set’ of sorts in the bathtub, using palm fronds, and did a few portraits and detail shots in controlled conditions, one of which you see above; if you look closely, you’ll notice the white enamel peeking through at one point. Once I’d gotten a handful of shots (and another bite or two,) I took the snake back to where I’d found it and released it into the water, checking carefully to ensure that there was no more dangerous debris to be seen.

This is a southern banded water snake, by the way, or simply a southern water snake, but the scientific name is Nerodia fasciata fasciata – I believe, anyway. I keep finding conflicting identifications of species, and previously identified it as simply Nerodia fasciata. I’ve never seen one above Georgia, which is a shame, because I like their coloration much better than the species that I find around here. Meanwhile, cleaning out the debris from the tub was a whole lot more involved than I’d initially imagined, but I’m kinda glad that I took the opportunity, because it would be something like 12 years before I was to find another.

Finger Lakes: The scenery

broad view of water in Cayuga Lake
Now we come to the scenic images of the region of central New York that I visited – wow, about a month ago now. That’s disturbing. I had a couple of things planned for this trip, and most of them I got to, and some I didn’t. The image above is a small reminder of one that I didn’t, which was snorkeling in the lake. As I said in the podcast, I’d started snorkeling in Cayuga Lake in the summer months of my late adolescence, and only managed to indulge sporadically after that – a whole bunch while I lived in Florida, but otherwise I had gone years at a time between short sessions since I left New York in 1990, mostly since North Carolina waters are really poor choices for this. The image illustrates the difference to a small extent: clear, shallow, with a varied bottom, and plenty warm enough at this time of year, though it usually took until late May before it reached a comfortable temperature, often later than that. Unfortunately, the one time I had set aside during this trip as perfect for a dip, the wind had come up and the water turned choppy, poor conditions to attempt it.

However, this was relatively minor, and I accomplished a few other things. One of which occurred, I think, on the very morning that this photo was taken, and that was to hear the ‘Lake Guns’ or ‘Seneca Guns’ again (even though this was Cayuga and not Seneca Lake.) The full story is here, but in short, something about the lake produces distant, single booms, like artillery rounds a long ways off, and I would hear them occasionally when out walking at night, back when I lived there. On this morning, I heard two spaced about ten seconds apart – but I can’t be absolutely sure that I heard the brontides, as they’re called. Before, I’d always hear them late at night, maybe up to 1 or 2 AM, when virtually nothing existed that would make any sounds at all, but on this visit they occurred just after sunrise, leaving the possibility that I was hearing some kind of human or industrial activity. It’s unlikely, because no such sounds are heard throughout the day and anyway it’s far from being an industrial region or anything of the sort, plus they were exactly the same as I remembered: a single thump, from very far away, aimed southwest down across the lake. And they still don’t know what causes them.

Another goal that I achieved was a trip back to Watkins Glen, since I hadn’t been since 2006 and hadn’t done it justice then, due to poor light conditions. But let me explain. The Finger Lakes of central New York were all glacially cut, with the glaciers finally receding about 11,000 years ago, so they exist in gentle valleys which makes the area quite scenic. In places, the glaciers ripped through deep beds of shale, making areas of steep cliffs along the lakes, and these occasionally produce waterfalls. Watkins Glen State Park is one such area, on neighboring Seneca Lake, only the river that cuts through it has been etching a deep groove in the rock for thousands of years, and it created a lovely gorge that now sports bordering pathways. It’s not a strenuous hike at all, and provides great views of the cascades and waterfalls that are still shaping the gorge.

tourists at Watkins Glen, New York
It was a fairly busy day when my host and I were there, which is a mixed blessing: people can provide scale to the images, but too many makes it appear crowded and ‘touristy.’ On my previous visit, people were scarce because the day was drizzly and chilly, but then again, the light was poor for the same reason, so ‘ideal’ conditions can be tricky to obtain.

By the way, the Glen is reshaping itself fairly rapidly. Shale is brittle, but most especially, water can get into cracks and freeze in the winter, expanding and breaking away chunks of rock routinely, which are swept downstream and serve to scour away other surfaces in passing. The relative age of certain pools and cascades can be guesstimated by how smooth the sides are; the smoother the edges, the longer the pool has been in place. Eventually, the lip under any given waterfall breaks away, causing the cascade to ‘step back’ and leaving the rounded edges of a former turbulent section still sitting downstream.

juxtaposition of smooth and rough surfaces at Watkins Glen, New York
Near the entrance to the park is an educational display, and within the exhibits sits a comparison between a painting done in the 1800s and a recent photograph of the exact same spot; the changes in the river’s ‘steps’ are plainly visible, and highlight how quickly the landscape changes.

I had to note with some wryness how verdant the area is, because sheer rock walls were nonetheless covered in most areas with lush botanical life, making me wonder why it’s so hard to get plants and a decent lawn established in our yard, but then again, we don’t have a significant river cutting through it, so that’s probably a factor. But yeah, it was a decent time of the year to hit the park, anyway.

abundant plant life on walls of Watkins Glen, New York
Places like this are done to death photographically, of course, and it’s hard to get something truly unique, especially when people that live nearby can visit any time they like, but I still made the occasional fartsy effort, like when I aimed straight down from one of the bridges at a fern that grew from the wall directly above a cascade.

ferns about cascade in Watkins Glen, New York
And no, the position of the leaves among the water highlights was not coincidental, thank you very much. Give me a little credit.

I’ve remarked before, more than once, that the region is pretty damn good for fossils, and the place where I’d stayed was a great example. Some of the retaining walls and such were built with rock quarried only a few hundred meters away, and among those were a truly stunning number of fossils. These are all very old, like 416 million years, which is before land plants even had leaves (respiration basically took place through pores on the stems,) so what you’re seeing here is very rudimentary sea life, more molluscs and corals and so on. Trilobites can be found, if you look carefully, but this trip involved no time for fossil-hunting, so we have grab shots of quarried rock alongside the lake.

local central New York stone showing countless fossils
I neglected to include anything for scale, but this is not a small rock – the face you’re looking at is at least 30cm high by over a meter wide, and the stone weighed well over a hundred kilos. Darwin’s first publications were in the middle 1800s, basically introducing the idea of evolved life forms to the world at large, so I have to wonder what people thought of such fossils before that time. Some, like the precursors of scallops, were reasonably recognizable, but others like trilobites and, I imagine, just about everything in these rocks, bore no resemblance to any species that could be found. But then again, worldwide communication was just starting at about the same period, so before that most people just weren’t very knowledgeable about any species other than the local fauna, and potentially didn’t wonder about it much – they simply weren’t aware that there were no living species, anywhere, that resembled these.

distinct layer of fossils in local central New York stone
I admit that most fossils are fairly subtle and can be overlooked if you’re not paying a lot of attention, but these kinda jump right out at you. This also illustrates a typical trait, which is that fossils tend to be found densely only in narrow layers, and not throughout any given rock; evidence of the rare confluence of events that provide the conditions to even fossilize organisms in the first place. In most cases, just like now, dead species never got preserved, instead decaying away, but at times something happened to seal them in bacteria-free conditions that never eroded away until well after the mineral exchange took place.

And for scale, the little rounded ‘cup’ just right of center in the frame would comfortably seat your fingertip, being about 15mm across or so. But don’t ask me what it is, or looked like when alive.

flowers, vines, and accommodations
Just a brief break, being fartsy with the place I was staying at on the lake – that’s my room in the background. I didn’t ask for permission to use any images of the place, and it’s private property, so this is all I’m going to show (and all that I can legally – I’m very big on permissions and respecting rights.) When I say “Gatsby mansion,” I may be overstating the case a little, but it’s definitely estate-sized, and built around that period – gorgeous, and desperately in need of becoming a wedding reception hall or something similar. The shower for the master bedroom has ten shower heads in it – no, not like a gym, but like a car wash, sluice someone down in seconds. I think the living room alone has the same floor space as the entire house here. And as I said, right on the east side of Cayuga Lake.

Which means I was in a good location for sunsets, and I took full advantage of this, helped by the fact that central New York is pretty damn good about producing them.

sunset with torn clouds on Cayuga Lake, New York
Where I sit now in North Carolina, the skies have too much of a tendency to be perfectly clear when the sun lowers, even if the clouds might have been interesting all day, and clear skies are boring for sunsets. You need something to color the light, and to capture and reflect it, as seen above. Granted, this often occurs because it rains much more frequently in NY than NC, and in comparison, it tends to be gentle but lasting rains, rather than the sudden torrents that Carolina and Florida get. My old rule was that, if the meteorologists reported 60% chance of rain in NY, that meant it would rain 60% of the day. It rained at least twice while I was there for only four days, but not too long either time, so it was mostly clear weather, and of course a bit cooler than down here. And even the clear skies still produced a little bit of interest when the sun went down.

deep-colored clear sky sunset over Cayuga Lake, New York
I include these two photos, taken a few minutes apart, to illustrate the difference in coloration that occurred. This happens pretty often at sunrise and sunset, but it’s so subtle to our eyes that we rarely notice a thing, so it’s not a bad idea to keep shooting the ‘same’ thing if you’re making the effort in the first place.

color change within a few minutes during sunset over Cayuga Lake, New York
Have I made you want to visit yet? You should, at least in summer or fall, because it’s a wonderfully scenic area and pretty mellow, and most of it is fairly rural so the driving is actually smooth and easy. On the way to Watkins Glen, we were passing through Mennonite country – think Amish if that helps – which meant the occasional horse-and-buggy on the roads. And notably, there is not this horrific aversion to putting shoulders on the roads like there is in NC.

I’ll close with one last sunset pic, tightly cropped to make it fartsier. You recall me mentioning the uncooperative herons in the previous Finger Lakes post, the ones that cut across the very dock I was standing on while my back was turned? They flew around the point and landed on the shore nearby, just out of sight, so I stalked them. Before I could get close enough, they took off again – really, much spookier than around here – but I managed to lock focus on one as it wheeled past again, crossing the glitter trail of the sun; it was the only frame that had tight enough focus. I can live with it.

great blue heron Ardea herodias against setting sun on Cayuga Lake, New York

Just a little update

wheel bugs Arilus cristatus getting it on, I think
These are wheel bugs, so named because of that big cogwheel-like thing on their back, and seriously, don’t ask me what purpose that serves. But do you know what they’re doing?

They’re making a third wheel!

Okay, that was terrible, I admit it, but you already know that I can’t resist (don’t you like how I always make comments like that [and this], as if this blog has a following? I have an active fantasy life.) Plus the fact that wheel bugs actually produce a shitload of eggs at a time, so a more accurate comment would be about a third through 237th wheel. But what really happened was that I was going to include this image in the Latest Images gallery, but decided the caption was a little too long and unwieldy, which is what the blog is for. So here we are.

Which is a very left-handed way of saying that I finally updated the Latest Images gallery, after it sat dormant for [very embarrassing length of time redacted]. And part of the reason that I even got around to this now is that, I really have way too many images that I intend to feature here, and too little time to tackle them – so much so that they may be stretching into the winter. Which might be okay, given that I often have too little to post then, so I guess a backlog now is perhaps useful to some degree. Plus, you can be sitting home during an ice storm and hearing me complaining about the sweltering temperatures…

Anyway, I decided to dump some of the potential-post images into the Latest Images gallery and clear out the folder a little, but there are still quite a few left that deserve more than a brief caption, so the advantage was minimal, I think. It did not help that I noticed some html formatting errors which appeared here and there in the site while doing this, and that I had not updated the page on Composition posts in [another embarrassing period of time redacted]. They were bugging me, so they’re all fixed now, but it didn’t improve my posting schedule at all.

So basically, even if it seems like I’m not posting a lot, it’s due to time constraints and not a lack of photographic efforts or topics. Just be patient – you’ll get your money’s worth.

Finger Lakes: The animals

I have a serious number of images from my trip up to the area where I grew up, which is the Finger Lakes region of central New York, but haven’t had a lot of time to write anything up about them, so I decided to split the posts into two and make them relatively brief. For me, anyway – this might mean upwards of five-thousand words or so, but you should already know that this is what the site is like, and the “TL;DR” crowd have long since scampered away up their own ignorant asses, so…

This post, as the title says, is going to be dedicated to the animals that I encountered – nothing too exciting, and certainly nothing exotic, but I also only spent a handful of days there in the first place. One of the reasons that I was up there (among several others) was that my brother had been sighting bald eagles quite close at an estate where he worked, the aforementioned ‘Gatsby Mansion’ in the holiday post. The owners were extremely kind in allowing me to stay there, so I was able to check out the conditions at all hours of the day, and since it sat right on Cayuga Lake (only about ten kilometers south of where I used to live,) there remained a variety of things to see. Unfortunately, only one eagle made a brief appearance early one morning, keeping just below the treeline and thus obscuring any decent view, and the other birds in the area were being almost as shy. While I watched several osprey (Pandion haliaetus) well over a hundred meters off, I was never able to get anything too close, and thus nothing too impressive – this is despite the fact that there was a sizable osprey nest on one of the chimneys of the very house that I stayed in, but we were well past nesting season and I was told it was probably last year’s nest anyway.

osprey Pandion Haliaetus perched in tree over lake
I was staying on the east side of the lake, on a cove, so the best views of the birds came at sunset as the sun was low and almost right behind me. I would have thought that the fishing done by osprey would take place long before sunset, as the higher sunlight was able to penetrate the water significantly, but they proved me wrong several times as I watched them diving while the sun was invisible over the horizon, so their eyes are far better than I originally gave them credit for. One, perhaps the same as seen above, cut across the cove and eventually alighted in a tree in the yard, during the twilight after sunset, and I was able to stalk up and get a few dim frames before it took off because of our presence.

osprey Pandion Haliaetus being semi-cooperative
The great blue herons were being even less cooperative and slightly perverse, since a pair of them flew over the base of the dock that I was standing on while my back was turned getting the last rays of the sun, and my hasty turn failed to get any worthwhile photo in the dim light, though a couple of minutes later I snagged a decently-fartsy pic that will appear in the second post. We were also visited by a pair of common terns (Sterna hirundo) that were actively fishing within the cove, but again, in crappy light at a great distance, and what I have is pathetic – my identification of the species only comes from having gotten much better details shots of some about 20 klicks north in Montezuma Wildlife Refuge a few days earlier.

probably common tern Sterna hirundo immediately after capturing a fish
My street cred as a nature photographer was taking a serious hit with these birds, let me tell you. Above, the tern is rising from the water just after catching a sizable (for the bird, anyway) fish, while below, I caught a curious composition as the tern shook itself in the air, a few moments after climbing from the water, to rid its feathers of excess water. I probably should have just been shooting video, since the low resolution is more acceptable there, but then again, I’ve already demonstrated how I am with tracking a moving subject. And we wouldn’t have these little water droplets hanging in the air like that ‘Cathy’ comic strip…

probable common tern Sterna hirundo shaking water free from its feathers after a fish capture
unidentified fish leaping from waters of Cayuga Lake in early morningI feel a little better about the next morning, when the sunrise was largely obscured by clouds, as I snagged a fish jumping from the water. After the first two jumps, spaced well over a minute apart, I started ‘stalking’ the fish with the long lens since there seemed to be a weak pattern: between 50 and 200 seconds apart, getting a little further offshore each time, but within a ten-degree arc or so. I think I got this at the fourth jump, and I wasn’t so lucky with subsequent ones, but given the brief nature of the subject I’m cool with this, as tightly cropped as it is. Naturally, I want to get such images in better light within a useful and scenic setting someday.

Meanwhile, on the same morning a flock of Canada geese (Branta canandensis) cruised low enough that I could frame them against the brighter water without losing them in the darkness of the trees.

Cananda geese Branta canandensis flying low over lake at sunrise
Out investigating the property one morning, I spotted some movement on a nearby tree, and followed it up by eye as I crept closer by foot. Initially, the thin tail and the muted overcast light made me think that I might have actually found a northern flying squirrel, a species that I have yet to see, but eventually I determined that it was an American red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) instead, something that I have seen before, but not for the past three decades since I left NY.

Amercian red squirrel Tamiasciurus hudsonicus viewing the photographer with grave suspicion
American red squirrels are very small, just a little larger than a chipmunk and so about a third or less the size of the common grey squirrels visible everywhere, both of which (with poor tolerance) shared our yard when I was growing up. I witnessed a territorial dispute once, with a grey taking off in hot pursuit of a red across our yard, blindingly fast, until the red pulled an abrupt 90° turn in complete disregard of the laws of physics, causing the grey to overshoot by a solid two meters before it realized that it was no longer pursuing the intruder, but that was much too late to resume its chase. Personally I was impressed with a turn that should logically have given the squirrel an aneurysm…

The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) were by far the most cooperative, as there were several families living on a large parcel of untouched land, so they were reasonably mellow; it’s a shame that there are only a few billion deer photos out there (well, there’s a few billion bald eagle photos as well, but I haven’t added those to my stock folders yet, so…)

white-tailed deer Odocoileus virginianus doe and fawn
I saw one family – buck, doe, and twin fawns – a few different times, and my brother told me they were common around the property, but for this session they were nicely colored by the setting sun.

white-tailed deer Odocoileus virginianus buck with velvet antlers
The buck distinctly showed the velvet of the developing antlers in anticipation of rutting season in the fall.

white-tailed deer Odocoileus virginianus family taking cover
Eventually, they decided our approach in my brother’s car was a little too suspicious, and they fled – but not far, since we spotted them again within the hour and not a hundred meters away.

Earlier, I’d watched another doe and fawn crossing the lengthy driveway as I’d driven back in, and slowly approached while aiming the camera out the window, letting the car drift forward without benefit of steering or looking, hoping that it wasn’t heading towards the ditch. But it was necessary to try and get the obscuring bracken free from both of their faces for the shot.

white-tailed deer Odocoileus virginianus doe and very young fawn
This, by the way, is only an 85mm focal length – they were just a handful of meters off the driveway. Would have been nicer if the osprey or eagles had been so complacent…

And I close with a more typical offering from me, the first morning that I was there after it had rained at sunrise. Some of the bushes were liberally strewn with spiderwebs, to catch all of the mayflies and midges that the lake produces and the flowers and berries attract – at times you could actually hear the bushes hum from all of the activity. But here a long-jawed orb weaver (genus Tetragnatha) takes shelter alongside some unidentified berries, and I’m even doing it a disservice showing it at this resolution. because the eyes are quite distinct. Drop me a line and a few bucks and I’ll send you a print suitable for framing and displaying proudly on your living room walls.

long-jawed orb weaver Tetragnatha hiding among berries