Throwing down the gauntlet

It took them a while to get to this, but yesterday’s Astronomy Picture of the Day is a taunting response to a post of mine back in February, where I talked about capturing sunrise on the Tycho crater of the moon. I mean, not personally (as far as anyone knows,) but remotely, viewing at higher magnification from Earth. Their version, also taken at sunrise, shows a huge boulder that sits atop the peak, and if you go back to the photo that I included with my post (I provide these links for a reason,) you can see that it’s even visible in that image – not mine, but NASA’s detail image of that peak. It’s 120 meters across, meaning it would more than cover a football field, the universal measurement of big things here in the states. They put it down to being a bit of landed rubble from the impact that created Tycho in the first place, but I personally suspect it’s a glacial erratic…

boulder on Tycho's central peak

Main image and upper inset courtesy of NASA, Arizona State U., LRO; Lower Inset courtesy of Gregory H. Revera

Now, it must be said that NASA did not capture this image from a ground-based telescope like any real man would, but was cheating and using the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, a satellite probe cruising by just 50 km above the moon’s surface. Sure, anyone could get super-detailed shots just by launching their own orbital satellite to the moon!

But is that the way you want to play, NASA? Well, fine – game on! Let’s see you–…

Okay, I got nothing.

Just because, part 26

mother Canada goose Branta canadensis with chick peeking from under wing
This little tableau presented itself as The Girlfriend and I made a circuit of the pond this evening. The light was dropping rapidly so conditions weren’t ideal, but you can still make out the unfortunate and bizarre tumor that this Canada goose (Branta canadensis) is plagued with. I imagine that it’s not long for this world, because even if it survives this growth I doubt flight is possible with that right there. The tragedies of the animal kingdom.

By the way, there’s the faintest hint, but I don’t suppose you can tell any more than we could that there’s actually four of them under there. Curious, too, because the night is quite warm.

And for that reason, there’s a slim chance that I’ll be back with more pics from the evening. I want to go out, but a kidney stone is suggesting otherwise…

Per the ancient lore, part 8

raccoon Procyon lotor and great blue heron Ardea herodias tracks in wet sand
It’s that time again, and now it’s a contribution from the Mammals/Carnivores folder. This is also from the Indian River Lagoon, but you need to understand: when I first obtained the loaner camera, that was the area I went to for experimenting. It was convenient and capable of providing plenty of subjects. In this case, we have some tracks in a saturated area of sand – I seem to recall that it was a small sandbank, something that would appear and disappear with every significant storm.

The collection of tracks was, almost certainly, less than 12 hours old, a record of activity in this tiny patch of sand. It’s easy to imagine that the two primary players were present together, but that’s unrealistic – for a reason I’ll get into shortly.

In fact, I’m going to let you determine what those tracks are from. One set I was certain of while the other had, in my mind, three possibilities with one prominent. That one was correct; when I double-checked the shapes of the suspects’ tracks, the other two looked significantly different than what’s seen here. So you tell me.

Give up? Then highlight the blank space below to reveal the answer.

The long, three-toed tracks are of course from a great blue heron (Ardea herodias) – slim chance it was a great egret, they’d leave about the same tracks with a trivial difference in size, but the great blues were far more numerous in the region. The smaller tracks, which is why this sits in the Mammals/Carnivores folder, are from a raccoon (Procyon lotor.) The other two options, in my mind, were opossum and river otter, because I knew both were prevalent in the area, but neither of those produce the same shape. Opossums leave tracks with stubby toes, almost like someone with their fingers curled a bit, and otters leaves tracks a lot more like a dog, without prominent ‘fingers.’ Not a hard one to figure out, but I realized I wasn’t exactly sure what otter tracks looked like.

And the reason why they likely didn’t occur at the same time? Raccoons are largely nocturnal, while herons are largely diurnal. Either can be present and active at other than their ‘preferred’ times, but it’s uncommon. We’ll go with the odds on this one.

Not quite the illustration

At one point last summer the Incorruptible Mr Bugg and I did a photo session in pursuit of sunset shots, which is the kind of thing that always makes me a little uncomfortable. Let me explain. As a photo instructor and an “experienced” nature and wildlife photographer, I am expected (or at least, I believe I am expected) to demonstrate how to accomplish certain styles of images. When it comes to, for instance, good shots of a great blue heron, there’s a bit of leeway, because everyone understands both the variability of finding one, but also the bird’s own attitude towards close approaches, and the “hit or miss” aspect is known – if we see nothing at all, well, that’s how it goes, and this is recognized by everyone. But then a student tells me they want to learn how to shoot good sunsets, and that pretty much takes having a good sunset – and this isn’t something that you can plan. Even a perfectly accurate weather report (I can’t even type that without twitching) isn’t any kind of guide, because good sunsets rely on skies that are not perfectly clear – you want a little high scattered cloud cover to catch the different colors, and a certain level of humidity to induce those color changes in the first place. Not long after a storm is often a good time. But predicting these, to the point where I can say, “Thursday looks good – let’s aim for that evening”? No way. It’s much more likely that nothing is going to come of it.

By the way, it’s the same discomfort that has made me shy away from the prospect of arranging group photo tours of, for instance, the Outer Banks – I don’t want to be held responsible for, or judged on, what turns out to be a shitty outing that people have dropped a chunk of change on. But guaranteeing a productive outing pretty much means a ‘safari tour’ type of experience, using someplace where the animals are captive and more-or-less always photogenic, and I don’t consider that very appealing or authentic. So would the majority of people who sign up for a guided tour be okay with the possibility of a weak outing? You’re welcome to offer your feedback on this idea.

Anyway, on this particular session, we had a mixed bag. There were some colors, even though the sun had technically ‘set’ without making a direct appearance. Witness:

moody sunset sky over Jordan lake
That’s… okay, but nothing to write home about (a blog post is just ducky though.) Even getting this involved a certain amount of luck as the sun ducked out from underneath a scattered overcast, someplace way off in the invisible distance, to shine onto the undersides of the cloud cover we had locally. But it was this little patch on the horizon, and this image was only achieved with a slight telephoto focal length (72mm,) rather than a wider one that would have shown more of the landscape. And I was conscious of all of this while I was there, because I purposefully shot some wider angle frames to illustrate what the overall sky looked like:

wider angle view of sunset sky and cloud cover
Now, this kinda works to illustrate how little of the sky was sunsetty, but it doesn’t covey the specific illustrative value that I was after, because the cloud layer directly above us, unable to capture the sunlight when it emerged from under the overcast someplace beyond our horizon, nonetheless set up a contrasting blue color that kept the photo from being as bland as the sky appeared while we were there. With this framing, the clouds have a very low appearance, with even a hint of direction from their shapes pointing down and to the right in the direction of the missing sun. To me, there’s now a faintly oppressive and ominous mood that comes from it, a Mordoresque pall chasing the sun and/or the filthy hobbitses. More expressive than I’d intended it to be, anyway.

Another student outing was specifically aimed towards sunsets, and at almost the same location, we got good enough conditions to experiment with and to demonstrate techniques, while still not producing anything worthy of hanging on a wall.

okay sunset colors over Jordan Lake
At this point, of course, I’m simply trying to drive the image count higher for April, my own personal measuring stick of bloggish value. The colors aren’t bad, but they’re a combination of very selective framing, underexposure to enhance their depth, and boosted saturation and contrast in-camera because that’s how you shoot for such conditions. Nobody standing out there would have been saying, “Wow, what a gorgeous sunset!”

And one more.

clouds and lake ripples at sunset
For this one, I selected an angle that caught the lines of the clouds and the ripples on the water in a more-or-less complementary way, though looking at it now I tend to feel that the lines going in opposite directions would have given a ‘mirror’ feel to the photo, though of course this wasn’t an option at the time. Aiming solely at the water would produce some nice abstract shapes, but I’m obligated to point out that what you see here is a fraction of a second captured in time, and while standing on the lakeshore, the shapes and colors of the water were constantly changing and not giving this impression at all; sometimes you have to recognize what the conditions will produce when the camera freezes the motion. In the same way, shooting something within the water will prove to be markedly distorted the vast majority of the time, because our minds piece together the averaged visual aspect through the ever-changing ripples into something that we recognize, but the camera will once again only get a tiny portion of that.

So, yeah, I’m always happy to provide guidance on how to capture sunset colors and conditions, but I’d far rather do it with pre-existing examples rather than on demand during an outing.

Thirty days has September, Ap– ah, okay

tight crop of yellow azalea blossoms I think
Since it really is the last day of the month, we fall back, once again, on creating meaningless content with the end-of-month abstract. This time our featured image was indeed taken within April, so I feel better now – it’s from a brief trip to the NC Botanical Garden a couple of weeks back. This is a tighter crop from the original image, which was shot with the Mamiya 80mm macro wide open at f4, so you can see just how short the depth of field can get in those circumstances. It’s almost cheating to be using it in this way, because it’s pretty easy to create abstract images through very short DOF, but I wasn’t trying to shoot an image for the end of the month, so I remain blameless in this regard. It’s not often that I’m actually aiming to shoot abstracts (usually because when I try, they rarely come out as intended,) but I’m happy to grab them if something catches my eye. The flowers (azaleas I believe, but I’ll deny it if anyone asks) set off nicely against the blue sky – once I got into a position that allowed it, anyway.

Per the ancient lore, part 7

unidentified weird tree or bush or weed or something
This week, we’re poking into the Leaves/Plants/Trees folder, to showcase this… something… found occasionally in Florida. The shooting angle implies that it’s tall, but not terribly so if I remember correctly; no more than five meters, but I think between three and four. What it really is, I couldn’t tell you. I shot it because I found it bizarre and rather prehistoric-looking, or so we have imagined such things to be from the fossil record, but it’s also notably geometric, vaguely asparagus-like (blerk,) and not exactly healthy in appearance to boot.

Yes, it has all of those qualities, and is not a boring, simple pic that I shot on a whim while passing. I don’t do that kind of thing. It’s just like all those examples of literature that you couldn’t see the appeal of: you’re just not sophisticated enough to understand the deeper meaning of it.

Milking the day

I’ve made two mentions of it now, but on a particular day last week I really and truly got out and did a little shooting – not anywhere near enough to make up for the poor showing in the first quarter of the year, but more than, say, nothing. And then the following morning I got some more, with both days contributing to the recent slideshow, but for this post we’re only talking about the first.

Unfortunately, a lot of the images didn’t pass muster, for a variety of reasons – poor light and shooting macro photos handheld among them – so we’re just going to review two of the other subjects from the outing. We’re still waiting for the boom that warm weather brings; I think most species have had their faith in spring completely ruined now and are hedging their bets, so subjects are still a bit sparse. A five-lined skink played tag with me around a tree, but one of the pond sliders bravely maintained its basking spot as I ambled much closer than I normally could – that’s the image in this preliminary post. I was kind of expecting to see it blind in the eye facing me, since that was the only way I’d gotten this close to one last year, but I could see it blinking in that eye at least, so I can’t offer a better explanation.

Near an inlet to the pond, however, I spotted a suspicious-looking tree root – suspicious in that I didn’t think a tree root had been there before. Attaching the longer lens confirmed my suspicions; it wasn’t a root, but a northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon sipedon,) delving industriously among the rocks and rootlets to make a burrow for itself.

northern water snake Nerodia sipedon sipedon looking for a home
I’ve seen one in the same location a couple of times before, and it’s likely this was the same individual – it was certainly sizable enough, roughly a meter long but up to 7cm in girth. We’d had an absolute deluge a few days previous to this, and it’s possible that the inflow right past these rocks clogged its former burrow with mud and debris, which it was trying to excavate. Eventually, it brought its head out of the shadows, but not in the most photogenic manner.

northern water snake Nerodia sipedon sipedon making an appearance
Due to the light and the path the snake appeared to be wending, I realized I’d probably do better coming from a different angle, which required getting to the opposite side of the inlet channel, a detour of a few dozen meters. On the way, I spotted another potential subject, but knew it wasn’t going anyplace soon while the snake might disappear, so I stuck with my first subject. Unfortunately, the opposite side of the channel wasn’t as good a shooting angle as I’d believed, with too much underbrush in the way, and I was left trying to maneuver for a clear shot while not alerting the snake to my now much-more-visible position. I succeeded, but for one frame only, and this is a tight crop from the original.

northern water snake Nerodia sipedon sipedon peeking out
Almost immediately after this, I shifted position for a slightly better view and caught the attention of the snake, which launched itself towards me with obvious malicious intent shot into the water and disappeared, as they are much more inclined to do – you pretty much have to corner or grab them to get any kind of defensive response, and even then it might be half-hearted. I knew from experience that the snake would re-surface within about two minutes, being far less capable of going without air than turtles or frogs are, but it would also peek out among concealing cover, and wouldn’t venture from the water for several minutes more, so I let it be and went back to the other subject I’d found.

On the trunk of a tree a few meters from the water’s edge, a newly-emerged adult dragonfly was still pumping up and drying out its wings before being able to fly, perched on its just-molted exoskeleton. I liked the juxtaposition, but was working without the macro flash rig, so getting focus and depth together was a challenge, and most of the shots that I attempted were crapola, but I yet managed what I was after.

recently emerged adult dragonfly on exoskeleton
Now, the caterpillar to butterfly metamorphosis is pretty damn dramatic, when you compare anatomy, but it takes place over a period of weeks within a protective cocoon. The difference between the aquatic nymph and flying adult stages of dragonflies and damselflies is pretty significant too, and it becomes apparent in a period of minutes. Yes, it had emerged from that brown husk not half an hour before, seemingly at least three times larger already, but it’s the head that I get the biggest kick out of. The old exoskeleton is split apart along the edges of the eyes and down the middle back of the head, outlined by the white interior surface, but just look at how dramatically larger both the eyes and the ‘face’ are. And I can’t tell you where all this extra mass comes from, because the insect isn’t even drinking water for this to occur, and is in fact drying out slightly; at best, it might be expanding its interior organs with air, but the respiratory rate for insects is remarkably slow. I don’t doubt that the molted skin is drying out and shrinking slightly itself, but I’ve seen this occur with other species and the amount of shrinkage isn’t significant, or even noticeable.

As yet, I still have the full molting sequence, start to finish, on my list of photography goals, since I still haven’t come across one right before it begins to emerge, though I’ve had a few close misses. Let’s put that goal down specifically for this summer; that seems reasonable. What it’s likely to require is getting out early in the morning when I have plenty of time and watching the water edges carefully, then staking out any nymph that appears until the process is complete. We’ll have to see how that goes.

You can count on me

It’s the fourth Thursday in April, and you know what that means? It means it’s Put Something Off Until The Last Minute Day, and so I’ll let you guess about what time this is actually posting on that date. Chances are, you’re not reading this soon enough that you can actually take advantage of it, unless your timing is good or you actually have this blog in an RSS feed – does anyone even use them anymore? Did anyone ever, especially for Walkabout here?

But hey, just in case: if you are reading this while it is still Thursday, you have a special opportunity. Drop me an e-mail before, oh, a certain amount of time passes, and I’ll send you a free 11×14 print of your choice. It’ll be our way of celebrating the holiday. Act now – e-mail servers are standing by!

backlit morning dew on dandelion blossom
This is another of the images that I decided against when doing the gallery updates, though it was close, and by no means intended to imply that this is the print you will get, I just wanted an image for this post, though if you like it then feel free, but otherwise you can have your choice, just drop me that e-mail and we’ll figure out what you want.

Because a slideshow worked better

So, a pair of recent photo outings netted remarkably similar photo sequences, and putting them all up in a post would have made it disturbingly long, so I opted to make a slideshow/video. This also served as further wringing out of the new Linux operating system, to see if I could perform all of the functions necessary. Seems to have worked out well enough.

The players, in order of appearance:

Canada geese, Branta canadensis

Red-shouldered hawks, Buteo lineatus

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

Red-headed woodpecker, Melanerpes erythrocephalus

Bald eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

I will take this opportunity to (once again) stress the development and utilization of some basic skills, all of which came into play to permit these images.

Listen – And know your species calls. Your ears can often tell you when something is about to happen, and allow you to be prepared.

Use your peripheral vision – A tiny flash of movement or color is sometimes all you’ll have, but it can tell you where and when to seek a better vantage. The osprey, for instance, was first spotted from under a full forest canopy when it passed against a tiny patch of open sky, and that movement in turn pointed out the nest.

Patience – It should go without saying, but sometimes you have to wait around for something interesting to happen.

Switching subjects for a moment, I’ll note that this time around, the video editing package was OpenShot, largely because HitFilm isn’t available for Linux. Worked very well and was pretty much a breeze to set up the slideshow, but I already had the images edited and sized and the audio recorded, so…

I’ve got a few more images from the same sessions to put up, which I’ll hopefully get around to soon – maybe even later on today since I have the time. If not, well, they’ll be along shortly.

Per the ancient lore, part 6

waves crashing against rocks
This week’s entry, or entries I guess, come from the Lakes/Streams/Waterfalls folder, categories I had created long before I was using digital. But it’s inaccurate for this, because this is not from a lake, or a stream, or a waterfall. I suppose I should have a Lagoon or Sound category, which would have seemed superfluous when I first created them but became much more useful when I moved very close to the Indian River Lagoon, the largely-saltwater sound between the barrier islands and the mainland (which hardly seems appropriate itself – maybe “mainswamp”) of Florida’s Atlantic coast.

Now, think about this. As a peninsula, Florida has technically two sides: an Atlantic coast (meaning facing the Atlantic Ocean) and a Gulf coast bordering the Gulf of Mexico. But of course it’s all one body of water. For our human naming purposes, supposedly there’s a technical border or differentiation, but where is it? I would think, on initial introspection, that it falls on the southernmost tip of Florida, but Florida doesn’t just point southy, it trails off into the Keys which extend like a trail of bread crumbs mostly to the west. So should we count, like, the southernmost point of Key West to be the border? Or maybe, the westernmost point since it’s a string of islands heading in that direction? Do the southern beaches of, for instance, Vaca Key and Bahia Honda Key still count as bordering the Atlantic? And this says nothing of the variously-named sounds between the Keys and the mainswamp. Is there a point in the middle of the water someplace where you can float splayed out and be in four or five different bodies of water at once? I’m not gonna get any sleep tonight…

[By the way, as you already know I have a Beach category, but I don’t feel these images match that idea too well either, so for now, they’re remaining as they are.]

Where was I? Oh yeah, pics. So, the image above was from a particularly rough and windy day in the very area that I did most of my snorkeling while living in Florida, right off one of the causeways in the Indian River Lagoon. It was far too choppy to try and snorkel, but I was on a photography outing that day anyway, and shot several frames capturing the waves crashing against the rocks. These rocks did not occur naturally there, but were strategically placed as a breakwater and erosion control, and this illustrates why very nicely: the violent impact of the waves would be dissipated against these and not the actual foundations of the causeway visible just a couple of meters beyond, keeping the soil, plants, and supporting rocks therein in better shape.

We don’t think a lot about what’s in the water when we see waves like this, but I can tell you that the Indian River Lagoon is chock full of life. Most of it likely survives getting slammed against the rocks without issue, but I have to believe at least some doesn’t handle the collisions well. The green blankets of seaweed (lagoonweed?) that you see here were actually handy for me, because they blanketed and cushioned the underlying layer of barnacles and oysters that gathered very quickly on any available surface; I could sit on these very boulders and put on my flippers and mask without cutting myself to ribbons, because oysters are extremely sharp, and barnacles only slightly less so.

barnacles and oysters on small rock in Indian River Lagoon
To illustrate a little better, this rock was from the same location, a few dozen meters away but on a much calmer day.The scale is deceptive: I could, if I was careful (or maybe reckless,) just fit my hand through that hole. I’m not sure any portion of the underlying rock actually shows in the photo – this is all barnacles, oysters, and dried lagoonweed (one oyster is visible hanging off at bottom center, while another mostly-round one can be seen a little above it and to the left.) Such creatures congregate quickly in the lagoon, borne in on the water and attaching themselves as the opportunity arises. Barnacles, in fact, are fascinating little crustaceans, and yes, I have that right – they’re not molluscs, and actually spend the early stages of their live swimming; you really should check them out. The plethora of these hard shells means that even casual contact can produce cuts, and I usually gained a few nicks with each snorkeling trip. And on occasion, more than nicks – I still have a few scars.

I still like the macabre, ‘mountain of skulls’ effect that this angle provides, though. I really should have come back when the clouds were tumultuous and forbidding.