Goodbye January, goodbye snow

snow in crooks of branches
I really shouldn’t say things like that – it’s virtually guaranteeing another snowstorm will roll in for February.

But having said that, now there can be no snowstorm, since I’m so confident there will be! Hah! Fate, you stand no chance with a grandmaster such as I!

[I was remarking to someone the other day about how silly the phrase, “tempting fate” was. It’s fate! It’s gonna happen whether you tempt it or not – that’s the definition. We really can’t even handle our own language, so we’re totally screwed if we ever meet up with extra-terrestrials…]

Anyway, it’s time for the month end abstract. Our abstract this month is brought to you by the letter ‘Sonofabitch,’ and was naturally taken following the big-ass winter storm that we got. These twigs were only a few millimeters in diameter and still collected a half-kilo of snow in a nice pattern to set off their alternation, so there we go. In fact, it’s one of the scenic pics I took while waiting for the brown-headed nuthatch to return, so it has served a double purpose. Its mother would be so proud…

“No kill” is a myth that needs to fucking die already

Yeah, starting with the profanities right off the bat – that’s the way to scare off the little old ladies. But if you managed to make it all the way through the title without swooning, you’re invited to read on, because not enough people really understand this issue.

I’ll lead off by saying that I worked in animal shelters for years, and animal welfare programs even longer – some of them quite progressive. I was also responsible for doing a lot of research into methods and improvements, which included networking with some of the most knowledgeable and advanced people in the business. One of the shelters that I worked for was in the running (multiple times) for the Humane Society of the United State’s “Standards of Excellence” award – not a winner, I admit, but when you realize that there is generally at least one animal shelter for every county in the US, including those with much bigger budgets than ours, I think we were doing pretty damn good to be in that realm.

So I feel qualified enough to tell you: the idea of a “no kill” shelter is a complete myth – at least, in the manner that everyone imagines it to be. And it’s going to remain a myth, at the very least until attitudes go through a huge change in this country, but also as long as the goddamn phrase even exists. It actually works against the very idea, a self-defeating concept, and I don’t expect you to take my word for it – look it up yourself. I’m not the first to express these thoughts.

That would be Feralyn

Let me start by painting the picture. The shelter that I worked for the longest was, as far as anyone would be able to calculate easily, ‘average’ for North Carolina – servicing a medium-sized college city, but with plentiful rural areas. And we took in about 7,000 animals a year – that’s about 20 a day. Very few days could be considered ‘average’ of course – we might range from less than 8 animals on some winter days to over 50 in the height of the breeding seasons. Yes, a day. Mind you, these were of all types – everything from family pets surrendered because of a move (or much more likely, behavioral problems) to impounds from cruelty investigations. Mostly strays of course, some of which were obviously lost, owned animals, but more than enough were feral animals that had never had contact with people. I fostered several borderline cases, feral cats that came in young and stood a chance of being able to acclimate to humans and become pets. My little rule was, ‘about four months’ – if the cat was older than that, the chances of taming it down to become a pet were extremely slim. One of my cats, that I owned for sixteen years, was one such case – not at all sociable around strangers, and still capable of hissing at me neurotically if I entered the room too suddenly. She became mine when I knew that she couldn’t be returned to the shelter and be considered ‘adoptable.’

And that’s a very loaded word, ‘adoptable’ – it implies a demarcation that really doesn’t exist. There are levels of appeal for every animal, and it’s different for every human viewing them. But it’s safe to say that some animals simply would not, cannot, fall into that realm – too many were actually dangerous, and it would have been irresponsible to even try. Others were ill, often communicably so, or might have behavioral/mental issues. So we can start considering the idea that some animals just aren’t adoptable, and retaining them would take space from animals that were. Remember, 20 animals a day on average – that means that, barring those unadoptable animals, that’s how many have to be placed in homes a day to avoid euthanizing animals. For just one county. That’s a pretty busy program.

And I will sideline here to say, ‘euthanize’ is the word of choice (and frankly, respect) among sheltering personnel. Call it semantics if you like, but in a lot of cases, the subtle meanings of the words we use do have an effect, which is why the very phrase “no kill” even exists (more on this is a bit.) When we euthanized animals, and yes, it was a lot, it was done with an overdose of anesthetic injected intravenously, with personal attention and care, for every case where it could be safely done. Feral cats, for instance, had to be restrained pretty thoroughly to avoid danger to the handlers – and still, it was never done cruelly or even thoughtlessly. Nobody in there wanted to do it – we never would have hired anyone that did – but it was a duty and necessity of work in a shelter. The people that were there, that work in any shelter, are the ones who care about the animals and want to make a difference. And often enough, that means doing the tough parts as well.

So now let’s talk about kenneling, especially long term. First of all, with that number of animals coming in, how many cage spaces, do you think, it would require to house all ‘adoptable’ animals until they’re placed? No, wait – let’s correct a small problem in dealing with numbers, because the kennels didn’t magically empty out on January 1 to start counting again. Throw in a standard wait period for every stray animal – in our case five working days – to allow an owner time to show up, regardless of the appearance, health, sociability, or what-have-you of the animal, so even determining ‘adoptable’ by any standards that you like has to come after that period. Now, here’s a simple metric: it doesn’t matter how many cage spaces you add, because all it does is extend the period of time, from the shelter’s opening, that the kennels become full. Once full, you are, yet again, dealing with no euthanasia only by having the same number of animals go out the door as come in. That’s the only number that matters.

Which is, partially, where the claim of “no kill” shelters comes in. None of them, at all, take in every animal required for a given county – they decide which animals they take in, and can refuse anything they deem unadoptable, and may even have a waiting list for those that are still considered adoptable. As part of my job when a new shelter was going to be built, I did extensive research into such shelters to see how they did it – and found that they didn’t. Every one of them existed alongside another “kill” shelter, that in many cases took the overflow directly from the “no kill” shelters when they couldn’t place the animals. So, yeah, the meaning of “no kill” in such cases simply means, “not by our hands,” and not, “the animal is still alive.” Sound like marketing bullshit to you? Yeah, it does to me too.

My study took place in 2006, I believe, when there were two “no kill” shelters that were triumphantly championing their own cause – one was San Francisco, a very distinct city area with very limited opportunities for feral animals and ‘barnyard’ breeding, and it existed right across the street from the county “kill” shelter! The other was Ithaca, which shipped its overflow animals better than 500 kilometers out to Long Island each fucking week to manage their numbers. Hey, I’ll admit that maybe, in the interim, some county has found a way to make it work, and perhaps there really is a “no kill” shelter out there that actually handles all of the animals that a county produces without unnecessary euthanasia – but even then it’s going to be bullshit, because not every animal is adoptable. Period. And of course, when you include that keyword, then you’re free to define ‘adoptable’ as you like, right? I’m not being disingenuous; this happens all the time, including at another shelter that I worked for.

But okay, let’s get back to kennels. Even ignoring the whole idea of the sheer numbers, let’s talk about long-term care. We all know that the ideal situation is a loving home, which means plenty of space and exercise and good food and medical care. Super. That’s not what any kind of kennel can provide – even the expensive boarding kennels, charging a premium rate while the owner goes on vacation, cannot meet these criteria easily – it sure as hell isn’t happening on any county budget or any nonprofit structure. The overwhelming majority of shelters, regardless of claims, house their animals in relatively small spaces, with very limited outside access (forget about gamboling on the lawn,) limited social interaction with other animals or people, and rudimentary food and medical attention. Think ‘jail,’ only with less yard time and interaction – ‘solitary confinement’ is a bit closer to the mark. And it doesn’t matter what intentions are, or how dedicated the staff is, because there are a lot of animals to take care of. And that staff wants to pay their own bills (the selfish fucks) so add that into your budget. Yeah, volunteers, I know – I’ve worked with volunteer programs for years, so let me give you the real numbers. About ten percent of volunteers are worth the time – the vast majority just want to “cuddle” or do “fun” things, so good luck finding dependable people coming in to clean up shit for free. Meanwhile, they all have to be trained to do things right, and who’s going to do this? Believe me, we did a lot with volunteers, but they require a ridiculous amount of effort and the turnover is much higher than fast food workers.

Now let’s talk about disease. Hospitals (human ones) are known for being on their game, and the bare facts are that a lot of communicable diseases actually get spread through hospitals – despite fierce disinfection routines, that’s simply the place people go when they’re sick. Shelters are even worse – at least in hospitals, the majority of patients shit into a toilet, or are isolated from others when they have stuff that can be spread through the air. In shelters and kennels, it becomes ridiculously easy, no matter how fierce your disinfection routine is (and even if every one of your volunteers is doing things exactly as told,) to have illnesses spread throughout, at least a room or wing, but sometimes throughout the entire shelter. So, medical treatment. Yeah, imagine the veterinary costs of that. One of the nastiest canine diseases, parvovirus, is incredibly hardy, able to be tracked between kennels with a speck of feces on a boot, and when infection takes hold, requires very specific veterinary care to prevent the animal from dying of diarrhea and thus dehydration – we’re talking constant intravenous fluids. We saw parvo every year, usually multiple times a year, because it’s very common out in the wild and not every dog (a ha ha ha ha ha ha!) is vaccinated against it. So how, exactly, is the “no kill” shelter handling such cases? Usually, by a) taking only vaccinated, owned animals, and b) having that little criteria of ‘adoptable’ in there, so they can euthanize the parvo victims without “killing” them. Read the fine print.

Even ignoring all of that, there’s the simple thing that long-term kenneling isn’t healthy for animals – there have been more than a few studies on this as well, not to mention that I can tell you firsthand because I’ve seen more than a few. “Cage crazy” was a term we used for when animals weren’t coping well with extended exposure to such limited environments, and it varies for every animal, just like it does for every human. Generally, a month was considered too long, and while this might be extended for some animals with better, more enriched environments than we could provide, extending it out to several months or years almost certainly isn’t going to work. Behavioral and developmental problems are virtually guaranteed, and in a lot of cases, this won’t reverse. Think about it: if a dog spends six months in a typical kennel space, with only occasional human contact, how house-trained do you think they are? And once this lack of training is established, how easy is it to eradicate and get the dog into asking to go out? I’ll answer this one for you (because I have more than a little contact with dog training, and trainers, as well): Not very easy at all. It may never happen. So, what’s going to happen to that dog, once the new owners decide that they’re tired of carpet-cleaning bills? Heh, not the “no kill” shelter – now it’s a problem animal with very low chance of adoption, and they can’t afford the hit to their reputation… even if they actually caused it in the first place.

We’ll delve into the realm of suffering now, and what exactly counts as cruelty. Deprivation, inadequate medical attention, inadequate exercise, and so on – they don’t have specific lines that can be crossed, and again, it may vary from animal to animal. Too often, however, this isn’t the line that’s being considered; it’s whether the animal is “alive” or not. That’s a pretty shitass criteria, and I’m not alone in that sentiment. Dead animals don’t suffer or feel pain or neurosis – that’s can only take place in living animals, and it’s the reasoning behind euthanasia in the first place, most especially when we consider a family pet that’s in failing health. “Quality of life” is a prime consideration, and it should remain a prime consideration at all times – shelters, no matter what they claim, are not exempt. I’ve also worked as an animal cruelty investigator (this was a checkered few years of my life, I admit,) and I got to see firsthand the effects of ‘hoarding’ behavior; people with the best of intentions, that truly loved animals, but their criteria was, “avoiding death” and not, “avoiding suffering.” You would be horrified, and it happens more often than you might think. I did the photographs and the impound procedures on a case where 66 large dogs, mostly greyhounds, were kept in one three-bedroom house. The smell of ammonia from urine made me reel as soon as the door was opened, and I endeavored not to touch anything in the house because feces was every-fucking-where – I am not exaggerating. The dogs were in varying states of ill health, because who can pay vet bills of that nature? And mind you, this was an approved foster home – just one that the rescue group never checked up on. But, it certainly qualified as a “no kill” environment. Sometimes (all of the fucking time) you have to be less superficial about your standards…

That would be Apple – and you can kind of make out the condition of her teeth. Despite that, she had quite a few happy years with us

[One of those dogs became The Girlfriend’s pet for years, by the way. Despite the fact that they all came in at once into a “kill” shelter, only a couple of them were euthanized due to extremely poor health, and most were adopted.]

Now we get to the actual harm that the “no kill” ideology does, and like I said, exactly counter to what is actually effective. Believe me, the vast majority of people think “no kill” shelters are the way to go, actively denigrating those shelters that do not adhere to such a policy, despite the fact that it’s completely impossible. The overall beliefs seem to be that, if shelters were done right, all of them could be “no kill” – those that don’t “just want to kill animals” (that’s in quotes because I’ve heard this directly more than once,) or are trying to save money, or don’t care about the animals, or various other demonizations that make the operators subhuman. We’re a species that thinks in terms of opposites, so when there are “no kill” shelters, then all the others must be “killers” of course – just like you have gluten-free yogurt, so any that doesn’t say this must have gluten in it (gluten is not only a non-issue unless you have a very specific and rare disorder, it’s found in wheat and so isn’t in yogurt anyway, but it’s exactly that kind of stupidity that prevails in marketing, and “no kill” is a marketing term and nothing else; even the word “kill” is chosen for its impact.) Not to mention, animals are remarkably polarizing, and people get all frothy really quickly – and not very rational. But here’s part one: as long as people believe that things are under control, that such “no kill” shelters exist to make everything hunky-dory, that their own animal is assured a wonderful life when they give it up (including, and this is a big thing, unwanted litters,) then the problem doesn’t really exist.

That’s part two: the problem is, very simply, too many animals to find homes for. I started off quoting those numbers for a reason, because they’re overwhelming, all across our country and in most others besides. Unwanted litters, pets that “aren’t quite what I wanted,” situations where it’s easier to get rid of a pet, animals that aren’t interesting or fun or cute anymore, and so on – they all add up, hugely. And the only way that it’s going to get better is to reduce these numbers. That means spaying or neutering all pets. That means no designer pets or breeding programs (cross-bred animals have way fewer health problems than pure-bred anyway, and what the fuck do you think “pure-bred” even means, anyway? Do you think there’s some kind of genetic superiority among animals, and it reflects on you to own one?) That means no impulse buys or superficial considerations over getting a pet – including how cute it was in a goddamn movie. That means controlling the animal populations on farms and rural areas. That means an animal is for life, a companion that stays with you through thick and thin – friends aren’t ‘disposable,’ especially not when you never did the research to see just what ownership entailed for that breed. And it’s not until everyone is on board with this idea that it’s going to change.

This flies in the face of human desires. There’s no simple solution, no one direction to point fingers, no class of person or particular agency (“kill shelters”) to demonize, no one place to make donations to ‘fix’ the problem; in short, no way to feel superior. We just don’t like it when we can’t say, “All you have to do is this,” and then feel like we’ve accomplished something. The problems are cultural, and systemic.

And none of this is helped by the kind of knee-jerk emotional responses that dominate our attitudes to animal welfare. Animals – the cute, cuddly ones anyway – are our child substitutes, and can trigger our base instincts in countless ways, most of which we try to pretend are ‘rational;‘ this underlies so many things like veganism and anti-fur campaigns and insistence on free-range whatevers and on and on and on. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong in particular with any of these, but use them as examples of how humans can get ridiculously and blindly emotional over the issues, more so than any given situation warrants. It’s way back in our hind-brains, and it has the ability to skew everything we do or believe. And of course, there’s no shortage of organizations that happily prey upon this trait, asking for money while having no actual solution that could possibly work.

Which of course means that the organizations, the advocacy groups, and the outright attitudes that really are aimed towards fixing all of this don’t get the attention; worse, they’re often considered the enemy, and are labeled with attributes that simply don’t belong. You might notice that I’m not providing you with places that are effective to give your money to; I want you to figure this out on your own. And money certainly helps, but the more effective solution is attitude and advocacy; that means us, our efforts, our attitudes, our behavior. We’ve got an entire culture to change, and it doesn’t happen with finger-pointing.

*     *     *     *     *

Some posts regarding, or inspired by, my sheltering days:


Flashback, part two

Odd memories, part two

Odd memories, part three

Odd memories, part 11

More than a few of the Amateur Naturalist posts

Doctor Domoore

And, for a bit more animal-related philosophy, Animal ethics

I’m betting there’s gonna be a parade

Yes, it’s finally arrived! I know you’ve been anticipating this holiday just as much as I have, and I could barely sleep last night. So get your flashlights, unlock that one door in the basement (you know the one,) go check out that particular narrow alley on the bad side of town, and have a happy Find Something Hidden In The Shadows Day!

To get in the spirit of things, I present to you a photo from six weeks ago, when I was out at the airport. Another frame from the sequence was featured in a post back then, but as I was skimming the folder I noticed something.

AS-350 against clouds
I said at the time that I was pretty sure this was WTVD’s “Chopper 11,” and it certainly fits the configuration. But as I went past it again, I realized there was the faintest hint of details that could be seen in the versions that were against almost solid clouds, the medium-tone of the background keeping the exposure from going too dark (as opposed to those against a sunnier portion of sky, where the exposure meter adjusted for the greater amount of light and used that as its middle-tone, which made the helicopter commensurately darker.) Anyway, I popped the frame into the editing program and bent them Curves around a bit to bring out that shadow detail, and produced this result from it:

AS-350 registration N36CC
That’s… not Chopper 11, which has a big “11” on the side of the fuselage. But since the registration number could be seen now, I ran that through the ol’ webbernets, the place to go for useless trivia. Turns out it’s registered to Helicopters, Inc out of Cahokia, Illinois. As they tend to say around here, “You a long ways from home, boah.”

So what, exactly, do these Illini, these sand-hillers, think they’re photographing around here, hmmm? I’d recommend paying close attention to the skies if you live here, because I can’t imagine any valid reason why a midwestern eggbeater-jockey should be cruising our skies with cameras on their French-made puddle-jumper. Just be warned.

Okay, it was likely just a loaner aircraft while one of the local owners, possibly WTVD itself, was having their own aircraft serviced – it happens often enough. But still…

Land-o-goshen, that one’s done!

juvenile Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis on azalea budYou ever do one of those projects big enough that there’s no real “Done!” feeling? You know, there are enough details to miss, enough functions to check, that you’re never sure you got them all, and there’s no real point when you’re completely confident that you’ve finished? That’s how I feel about website updates.

And yet, I will still come in here and say, “Okay, check it out!” and simply deal with any issues as they’re found. So, feel free to go peruse the updated image galleries in the main part of the site – I’m not even sure how many I’ve added, to be honest, but nearly all galleries have been expanded; the exceptions are The River gallery, because I haven’t been back to the Indian River Lagoon in Florida since 2005, the Sets gallery, and the In The Tank gallery, because the one addition I would have made to that went into Insects & Macro instead, which got very expanded to reflect the increased amount of efforts I’ve been concentrating in that direction. Even the Tips & Tricks gallery got that new page on cropping images (with video because, hey, you know me – always ready to broaden my horizons. Or something. It might be my vocabulary of expletives.)

Okay, I just counted, because I wanted to know myself: 56 new pages, 57 if you count the cropping page which went up a couple of weeks ago, and even more photos than that because a few of those pages had multiples. But that was more than I imagined. The image seen here, by the way, was one of quite a few that I passed on – this one mostly because I already have enough mantis photos, and the ones that I added this time around were stronger. There’s a surprising amount of thought that goes into such a project: which ones are strongest, which seem too much like the others, how do they balance in the galleries, is there a good variety, is there too much of one color, and on and on. This is on top of the writeups I do for each page, not to mention all of the tags, links, and meta-data that has to be included. Suffice to say I’ve been working on this, off and on, for months.

And there were a few of the old pages pulled down too, ones that no longer passed muster. Sometimes I look at photos from years past and, not really cringe, but definitely find them lacking in appeal anymore. There’s this faint underlying aura of embarrassment, kind of a, “Why is this even on the site?” thing – not too strong, but I’m definitely happy to replace them. Yet, I think that’s the kind of thing that anyone should be feeling if they’re progressing in their skills and efforts; it’s a mark of improvement, isn’t it? Dog only knows what I’ll feel if I start tearing into the slide files with the same thing in mind – they could probably stand it.

But anyway, that’s one major project down, by far the biggest. I’ve still got several more on the burners, though I’m not sure any of them will be reflected here in any way. I may be able to get back into more regular posting now.

And to that, we add “blue”

super clear sky over snowy pond
Now, here’s one significant advantage North Carolina winters have over New York. New York will be largely overcast and grey throughout the winter months, I mean like almost constantly, and the tendency is, if the sun does actually appear, it’s because a pressure system (don’t ask me whether high or low) moved in and dropped the temperatures like a bitch. But here in NC, it’s fairly common to have brilliantly clear sunny days almost immediately following a storm, and it does make for better shooting conditions.

snow-laden longneedle pine conesIn fact, while the temperature was lower this morning than it was during the storm yesterday, the sun was doing more than its part and got a head start on melting this all off, but it’s got a long ways to go. Notably though, when I was out in the direct sunlight, I actually started getting a bit hot, and I think I may have picked up a little color today; granted, only on my face, but that’s all anyone’s going to see of me for a few months anyway. I can save a little on the spray-tan.

It was also a damn sight easier to keep the equipment dry, but one still had to be wary of sudden tiny avalanches as the heavy loads broke free of branches and came cascading down, usually without any warning whatsoever. There was still no breeze, so generally the collapses occurred at random, though occasionally when disturbed by a bird.

Speaking of birds, the geese and ducks from yesterday were nowhere to be seen, which is just as well, since the pond had frozen solid by this point. And not even skatingly so; it was partially from accumulated snow and so not terribly smooth, and I’m sure not very thick at all. It likely wouldn’t have supported the weight of an average dog, much less a person. But I wasn’t interested in skating anyway (and in fact, haven’t ice-skated since I was five, which pretty much means “never” since you couldn’t call what I did “skating.”)

bright sun over frozen pond
snow cascading off of trees right into cameraIt should be obvious that I under-exposed the above image, by 1 1/3 stops, in order to keep the sun’s glare from overpowering the sky, and I touched out a little bit of lens flare too – nothing very serious. More curious is the warped starburst around the sun, which I’m guessing is an artifact of the aspherical lens.

Not far away, I got caught in one of those snow showers, and quickly pointed the camera directly into it – made for a dramatic photo that illustrates the conditions, but of course I had to clean a lot of snow off the camera and lens, and out of the lens hood. Still not half as bad as the deluge yesterday (can I use the word “deluge” when referring to snow? Somebody call Merriam-Webster and see if it only applies to liquid water.) But yeah, Douglas Adams’ advice applies extremely well to nature photographers: always keep a towel handy. And don’t take the disposable rain ponchos out of your bag for any reason.

And then, not far from that, I pointed the camera straight up to take advantage of the branches framing that sky. Once again, none of this is ice, or even adhering to the branches very well; just a liberal coating that has so-far remained undisturbed. In fact, right there at the top of the opening, you can see another little cloud of snow breaking away from the branches.

clear blue sky framed by snow-covered branches
All of that was well and good, and opportunities for more compelling landscape pics than I normally get around here, but the real captures were yet to come. Rounding the pond and passing by a small dead stump, I started hearing the taps of a (I thought) woodpecker, and could tell from the direction that they had to be coming from that very stump, not four meters away. I still had the wide-angle lens attached, and though I didn’t see any sign of the bird yet, I started switching to the longer lens. Before I had fully completed this operation, the noisemaker appeared from a very subtle opening near the top of the trunk and watched me suspiciously.

brown-headed nuthatch Sitta pusilla watching warily from hollow trunkThat’s a brown-headed nuthatch (Sitta pusilla,) a bird that I’ve never seen in the wild, though I’d handled one during my wildlife rehab days. It was, apparently, doing some work on its nesting hollow, which is quite gratifying to see since this is within easy access and visibility (if not exactly at the best sun angle.) I had the chance for just one frame before it hopped from the opening and flew up high in a nearby tree, and I knew it wasn’t likely to come back down while I stood there, so I quietly moved on. My intention was to return a couple of minutes later to see if I could get a few more images of it, and I amused myself with more landscape pics before I made my way back, getting the 100-300 L lens affixed before I came into range, and watching the opening carefully. My efforts paid off nicely.

brown-headed nuthatch Sitta pusilla in profile at nest opening
The bird wasn’t missing the sounds of the camera as I was firing off my shots, but I was remaining motionless and it didn’t seem to be making the connection between the sounds and this unmoving person nearby, looking around in all directions while I loaded the memory card.

brown-headed nuthatch Sitta pusilla still not sure what to make of the situation

brown-headed nuthatch Sitta pusilla hanging upside-down from nearby branch
It even hopped up to a nearby bush and hung upside-down in the wonderfully gravity-defying way of nuthatches, before returning to its nest hollow; I hadn’t moved. It disappeared into its hollow and re-emerged a couple of times, curious but never so alarmed that it felt the need to fly away, and even flashed its telltale pale head spot. I can, unfortunately, relate.

(mostly) brown-headed nuthatch Sitta pusilla showing identifying white mark on back of head
After, really, quite a few frames, I moved on while it was inside its hollow again. We’ll have to see what happens – whether it finds a mate and if eggs are laid, but it would be nice to be able to check on some young in the spring, and with luck I’ve got a little head start on habituating them to humans nearby.

Now, remember how I said yesterday that it would be better to have bright light on the snow-covered berries? Of course you do; I’m being insulting. Those berries sit right alongside the entrance to the pond area, so naturally I was checking them out. On entry, the sun wasn’t quite high enough to throw light onto them, so I saved them for when I was about to leave. As I approached however, I could see another bird sitting nearby, and it soon revealed itself as a mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos.) I had to go for this particular pose, since it wasn’t turning to face me – or at least, not aligning its body in my direction anyway. I’m not sure what motives to ascribe to this.

mockingbird Mimus polyglottos being rude
I fired off a few frames and watched to see if it would do anything interesting before I moved on to the berries, and the bird was more than obliging, and again not too concerned with my presence; there’s even a chance it was the same one I’d photographed about two weeks ago, since the shooting locations were only about 75 meters apart, well within a territorial range. And my patience paid off, because the bird popped down to a cluster of berries and started picking out a couple.

mockingbird Mimus polyglottos selecting a choice berry
And I just kept the frames firing.

mockingbird Mimus polyglottos with berry
No, I don’t know what kind of berries these are, and I would have thought they’d have been polished off long ago, but perhaps there’s something about freezing temperatures.

mockingbird Mimus polyglottos starting to swallow berry

mockingbird Mimus polyglottos with berry almost gone
And there it goes.

mockingbird Mimus polyglottos and no more berry
Ya gotta appreciate it when your subject is so cooperative. I waited around a little longer, but after two berries, the mockingbird seemed to think I was now a little too threatening and went back to the wire to keep an eye on me.

And yes, I did not neglect the berries myself. It only took three attempts over two weeks time.

unidentified berries with snow cap, bright light, and blue sky

The color of the day is “white”

voluminous snow around pond
We did not escape the clutches of the storm that passed across the country, though it did arrive a bit later than anticipated; I had the IP camera set up to run a time-lapse overnight, which captured nothing but rain. Instead, it turned to snow around 9 AM and continued all through daylight hours, which is a good amount for any location, but what we call “slammed” in NC. Thankfully, the pond is within easy trudging distance, so I was still able to get some pics without contemplating any driving.

The biggest challenge was keeping the equipment dry; it was a sub-freezing equivalent of a downpour. I wouldn’t call it a ‘blizzard’ myself, having grown up in central NY and seeing what that really means, plus there was no wind at all. But the snow accumulated in seconds, literally, and I had to keep drying off the camera and lenses.

Canada geese Grus canadensis in freezing pond with snow-covered backs
The Canada geese (Grus canadensis) seemed to be bearing up stoically under their shawls of snow – not very active and not looking happy, but coping. Shooting across the pond with the 100-300 L, the density of the falling snow can be seen easily.

The pond, almost rid of the ice a few days before, was gradually starting to freeze over, the snow becoming slush on the surface, which the waterfowl were cutting paths through, little channels of open water that they followed mostly single-file. During my animal rescue days, I’d gone out a couple of times to free domestic geese that didn’t have sense enough not to roost on the ice, thawing a small patch before it refroze and pinned their feathers, and thus them, to the ice surface; the wild geese apparently know not to do this, but I can’t look at them sitting in the middle of the thickening slush and feel comfortable with it.

mallard ducks Anas platyrhynchos following channel through slush
The funny thing was, with the air as still as it was and the temperature sitting just below freezing, it wasn’t half as uncomfortable as some of the days in the past couple of weeks, though you did have to be wary of snow dropping from branches down the back of your neck, and I was in a constant battle to keep it out of the camera bags. The Girlfriend and The Sprog accompanied me out there, so I can present an exciting action shot of yours truly, which at least shows off the snow piling onto my chapeau – I’m glad I had the foresight to double up with the broad brim hat and not just use the wool cap.

The author looking intrepid. Or something
But, admittedly, it was a losing battle, and before too long I called it quits solely because the camera equipment was getting too wet and I was afraid of moisture seeping into the electronics. We headed back and I quickly dried off the stuff and put it in front of a fan to help evaporate anything else away, letting the bags dry thoroughly as well. But I did have the chance to revisit an earlier shot and do something a little more along the lines that I’d envisioned. A bit brighter light would have been nice, but that wasn’t going to happen today. So it goes.

snow piling on unidentified berries
Maybe, if I get my shit together, I’ll be back with some macro snowflake images. We’ll see how it goes.

So what did 2017 hold?

Of course, with the replacement of a small stack of bound pages with kitten pictures on our walls and the practice of crossing out the incorrect date on our checks (neither of which actually occurs anymore,) it is time to examine the previous twelve months and try to figure out what went wrong, just so we can feel better about what the next twelve months might hold. And since I’m too self-absorbed to pay any attention to “world events” and nonsense like that, we’ll be doing this from the perspective of the blog itself – what else could you possibly need?

Let’s start with the ol’ tag roundup – I won’t be explaining this again, so see here or here or here if you need to, but otherwise we’ll go straight into some of the [really, there’s a] shitload of one-time-only tags that have been used. And we won’t be sticking to 2017, because reasons. I will say that the featuring of so many of Jim Kramer’s images last year produced a lot all by themselves, and if those below aren’t enough, feel free to click on the James L. Kramer tag to see even more.

more goddamn dew-covered webs – Not to be confused with more goddamn spiders in dew-covered webs. Shut up – let’s see you shoot something new and unique every. Damn. Time.

save a spot on the wall anyway – One day. One day.

you shouldn’t buy any of this except for the names – I’ve been called all of them – Granted, most of them were from my school days, but it’s the only part that’s not a lie.

etiquette demands smaller trees always go to the left – Also, “only dumbasses make that mistake.” A little guide for your composition.

interfering with the natural order in heinous ways – I’m sure someone out there is in total agreement.

Mongolian Cluster Fuck – Also, “seriously what the hell New Jersey.” Apparently I forgot I could put punctuation in tags. But check out that last illustration, at the very least.

she noticed – I’m betting it’s never been described this way before.

Look! Nipple bumps! – What? No, there’s not a theme going, piss off.

spellcheck doesn’t like “Batlizard” – Who programs these dictionaries anyway?

dammit Jim I’m a photographer not an entomologist – Also, “creepy creepy creepy.” And not that Jim – c’mon, don’t make me explain pop culture references.

Cleveland 2024: This time it’s personal – Will we fare better then? We’ll just have to see…

or maybe a bacon flute – Not even going to try to explain it.

the leaf’s even hand-painted construction paper – Shamelessly revealing a nature photography secret.

not only that but I’m a libertarian – Nobody’s even reading this, so…

leave a comment and I’ll send you a print – Safe to say I didn’t have to send out any prints. But say the magic word and maybe you’ll still get one.

The Vistas of Naughtiness – You gotta admit it has more class. Let’s start a petition.

no it’s not a stretch shut up – That one kinda ties in with…

for realsies this time – Because this really is a holiday. Not a widely accepted one, true, but it’s authentic. And then there’s…

I said on the solstice I would do this – That was this post, and I kept my promise. Though, granted, I had a tendency to forget about it, sometimes until it was technically too late. Which resulted in a rather interesting list of holidays for 2017. We had:

  • National Coincidence Day, February 11
  • National Contrition Day, February 12
  • National Fishing Spider Day, March 18
  • National Do It Thrice Day, April 30
  • National “What The Fuck Did I Just Eat?” Day, May 30 (which has perhaps the best blog title I’ve ever written – at least it’s vying for that spot with ‘Booger Nights‘)
  • International Feature A Photo Series From The Previous Month Day, June 24
  • National Treat A Nature Photographer To Dinner Day, July 28 (yeah, thanks for that, everyone)
  • National Miss An Astronomical Event Because of Shitty Conditions Again Day, Aug 12 (curiously, this was intended as kinda-foreshadowing of chasing the total solar eclipse later on in the month, for which I, at least, had excellent conditions.)
  • International Dive Into a Gas Giant Day, Sept 15
  • National Celebrate A Holiday From Earlier In The Year Day, Sept 24
  • International Time Warp Day, October 6
  • Annual Make Up A Bogus Holiday Day, November 30 (unfortunately, I missed this one.)
  • Kill Three Birds With One Stone Day, December 31
  • Naturally, you shouldn’t neglect the tags on any of those, either.

    So now we’ll feature an image from each of the previous 12 months, along with my top choice post(s) from each. Of course this isn’t saying much, but hey, whaddya want? Should I pick the worst posts? Or perhaps the posts with the most egregious grammar mistakes? Hell, if I made them, I probably couldn’t spot them, so I’ll leave that one up to you…

    We’ll go with Nothing too serious, for a couple of images from the dead season and some editing tricks on another. Which means the featured image is going to look familiar; January didn’t exactly have a busy shooting schedule. But can you find what I added into the deep fog?

    deep sunrise fog across field
    unidentified early blossomsThis month’s pick is again applicable, because it’s Podcast: What to do in the winter. And don’t ask me what kind of blossoms these are, because I don’t know, but they were at the nearby pond.

    See, this is why I don’t often rate things, or pick the bestest and all that: I often find it hard to choose, or want to define criteria. So I’m going to go with I’m back baby!, but only by the tiniest margin over Friday color revisited, which probably appeals to a broader range of people because it doesn’t have a snake appearing ready to strike within it (the snake was most likely fast asleep, and anyway it’s a freaking photo so what’s the big deal?) For the feature photo, we have some double-crested cormorants wheeling overhead at sunset.

    double-crested cormorants Phalacrocorax auritus against sunset sky colors
    Hands down, the post has to be Too cool, part 35: A modicum of success, for some really close pics and even video, something I’ve been wanting to incorporate into my macro work for a while. Such examples will be increasing in number, trust me.

    For the image, one that’s been sitting in the blog folder waiting for me to feature it, because from the moment I saw the scene I was thinking, “That’s one damn strong spider.”

    spiderweb in stretched fence
    Another dilemma: do I feature Various and sundry, the middle entry of three regarding the enormously productive trip to North Topsail Beach, or do I promote Doctor Domoore for its reflections on a changing attitude towards wildlife and our considerations of it? I’ll have to get back to you on this one.

    There were plenty of choices for the feature image, too, but I’m going with a pair of unidentified juvenile katydids playing peek-a-boo on a flower, one of the very few true insect images taken during that beach trip. See? I can branch out a little.

    unidentified juvenile katydids on unidentified flower and really did you need this description for all the good it did?
    juvenile black-and-yellow argiope Argiope aurantia in webFill frogs is my choice, but the scoring system remains my secret. Meanwhile, the photo is of a juvenile black-and-yellow argiope (Argiope aurantia,) whereas an adult can be seen here. I have no photos of this one as an adult, because it disappeared soon afterward, one of the reasons the pic simply stayed in my blog folder. I’m guessing that the camouflage didn’t really work this time around.

    It’ll be Eclectic and farraginous, showing astonishing breadth of subject matter – you didn’t imagine I had it in me, I know, much less such a command of vocabulary. The photo really needs no description, except for the species of dragonfly and I’m too lazy to look it up so there. And yes, those are raindrops, a brief summer shower.

    unidentified reddish dragonfly on stump against blue water
    Flip a coin: Heads, it’s Podcast: Yeah, me too, and tails it’s About time to get out of the water. No cheating.

    [“Tails,” did you catch that? Oh, the depths!]

    Image-wise, we have a skipper butterfly posed fetchingly on a leaf, and if you’ve seen my cropping video you understand why it’s framed this way. You might, by some remote and freaky chance, agree.

    unidentified skipper butterfly on leaf
    They are if I say so features a fine collection of strong images, and by ‘fine’ we’re talking ‘very small’ and by ‘strong’ we’re referring to things like cheese that’s been left out all week, because I’d hate for you to get the wrong impressions.

    Meanwhile, a student outing netted this long-jawed orb weaver (genus Tetragnatha, and I’m leaning towards T. elongata but they’re hard to tell apart,) quite vicious-looking but very timid and very common around water sources. Their abdominal patterns can be remarkably detailed for something that relies on camouflage to avoid being eaten.

    long-jawed orb weaver Tetragnatha possibly Tetragnatha elongata in profile on leaf
    We’ll stick to my typical subject matter, and go with Macro photography, part 11: The lengths, the lengths, which even has a brief video clip to illustrate why you should leave this up to the professionals and pick something more relaxing, like ice-road driving. The same month featured a couple of posts on WWII aircraft, like the feature image, so perhaps you’ll want to argue my choice. Go ahead and try.

    fuselage of Boeing B-17G "909" of Collings Foundation
    curious autumn coloration on saplingToo cool, part 36: Better than a lava lamp features a computer-generated video illustration of air currents across the hemisphere, which is fascinating, and very little input from me so there you go. And my fall shooting was extremely limited this past year but I thought this little grab shot was cool. Big fat hairy deal, I know.

    And to close off, we’ll go with a long-winded philosophical post, because there haven’t been many recently and I don’t want you to think I’m getting soft. So go read The measure of humankind cover to cover, or don’t, and try to bluff your way through an essay about it – you should know by now that never works. Yet it still might be a useful perspective on our goals so give it a shot. You can always come back and tell me I’m full of shit.

    For the final image, we’ll get this closeup of a herring gull (Larus argentatus) cruising past overhead and managing not to poop on me somehow. I was shocked too.

    closeup of herring gull Larus argentatus in flight overhead
    And that wraps up the year-end retrospective. Join us again next January to see what you missed by not coming here regularly. And enjoy the next year but, you know, only the next 348 days – I’m not wishing you benefits beyond that point.

    The camera’s getting rusty

    early evening fog over pond
    Yeah, that title’s a reference, not to the humidity as you might expect from the opening photo here, but to the general lack of use that my photo equipment has been seeing of late. However, I still managed to get a few pics recently, and a trip to the butterfly house is on the agenda this month.

    So, jumping in the car the other evening, I looked out at the pond across the street and saw that it was entirely socked in with fog, due to the sudden change in temperatures. I trotted back in and grabbed my camera, and even in that brief delay some of the fog had dissipated, but there was still enough for a few hurried shots before I had to be someplace, and that’s one of them above.

    mist and rain drops on cedar leaves against foggy pondThe next morning the fog came in again, so I did a little bit longer session then. The conditions were a little misty and there was even a brief and very light rain, nothing that would penetrate the camera bag much less force me back indoors, but it added some more humidity to the shots that I was taking, so, good! I won’t include a lot of exposition here, since I’m still busy with two big projects (both of which you’ll hear about when I finish them,) so I’ll throw them up here just to prove that I’m still alive, my version of holding a current newspaper I suppose. Ask you grandmother what a newspaper was…

    heavy mist drops on unidentified leaves
    dew and spiderwebs on unidentified berriesI was shooting handheld with no flash in some fairly low light, so doing the extreme macro stuff was going to be difficult, but I still managed to capture a little bit of the scene in one of the hanging drops, above. I had to be very careful when doing some of these, because going in close to the subject meant a high likelihood of bumping a branch, and even if it wasn’t a branch on the same plant as the subject, the two plants might still be in contact and could thus share the vibrations, which would likely dislodge any nice hanging drops. This happened more than once, despite my efforts, so you will just have to imagine the breathtaking images that I never captured due to my clumsiness.

    Meanwhile, I find it interesting how quickly the spiders can rally from the bitter cold that we had recently and have new webs out as soon as it gets warmer. And it got quite warm, like no-jacket-at-all weather, before the temperature began dropping again (it’s hovering just above freezing as I type this mid-morning.)

    I still have no idea what kind of berries these are, but it’s the same plant as the leaves above, so if you know what they are, feel free to laugh at me derisively. Or you can just tell me – that works too. Meanwhile, you did catch the splash of color that another branch added into the background, didn’t you? I framed it that way on purpose so I’m hoping it helped the composition.

    a pair of mallards Anas platyrhynchos and a male hooded merganser Lophodytes cucullatus cruising through fog
    This pair of mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) and a male hooded merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus, in the rear) were on the opposite side of the pond from me, shot through the fog with the 100-300 L, so this was as good as it was getting in those conditions. Still, I was pleased to see a pair of mergansers – the female was trailing too far back for good framing – and here’s hoping they decide to nest there this spring.

    The ice still hadn’t quite completely cleared, so I lowered the camera with the 10-24 lens set to 10mm just above the ice and shot a few frames blindly, finding that I have no feel whatsoever for holding a camera level while vertical and out at arm’s reach. Yeah, I have dared to call myself an experienced photographer…

    remaining ice on foggy pond

    Eventually, something happens

    I remarked in the podcast yesterday that we’d had some cold but boring weather recently, which is fairly typical for central North Carolina – it’s not a region that sees a lot of snow, but too far north for foliage to remain growing and green throughout the year. This means most of the winter sees grey and brown grasses and bare trees, and not a lot to photograph.

    Only hours after that, however, the threatened winter storm finally rolled in and deposited roughly 5 cm of snow within about an hour. One small upshot of this was, with the bitter temperatures that we’d had leading up to it, the snow didn’t melt in contact with surfaces; this meant it swept off of cars effortlessly, and didn’t get that underlying layer of slush on the roads that makes them so slippery. I had to drive that evening but didn’t have to face either a long session clearing the car nor any real difficulty on the roads. Granted, I was still taking it slow.

    So yesterday morning The Girlfriend and I got a brief chance to do some photos before a busy day, and checked out the nearby pond. We hadn’t seen it earlier, when I imagine the ice was nearly complete but clear; by this time, it had a healthy coating of snow, and the geese that were flying in seemed more than a little put-out that there was no water to be seen.

    ice and snow on local pond
    unidentified finch and bare limbs silhouetted against skyI’ve mentioned before, I’m not much of a songbird person, but there isn’t a lot else to photograph right now, and they were notably active around the pond. Most of them were reluctant to let me approach very closely, but I took what opportunities I could. Most of them were also trying their damnedest to remain within the thicket of branches at every opportunity, so nice portraits were difficult to obtain.

    The sky was inordinately clear, the wind was gusty, and the snow could be dislodged instantly, so there was still a lot blowing around, and on occasion it would whip off of the ice in curling waves or even tiny tornadoes, ‘snow devils’ if you will, very cool to watch but too brief for me to capture with the camera. Because of these conditions, the scenic images of snow on branches or berries or pine cones weren’t really available, it all having blown off long before. And since the snow had rolled in during the night, I wasn’t going to get them when it was coming down, either. So it goes.

    The sparrow below was one of many, but the only one out in the open enough to make a semi-decent image from. Like all of those that we saw, its feathers were fluffed out against the cold, creating nice insulating layers of air beneath. I’m tentatively identifying this as a chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina,) but there are several species that have similar markings and can at least pass through the area, so I’m not putting it in writing.

    sparrow, possibly chipping sparrow Spizella passerina, on bare branches looking suspicious
    Northern cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis  feeding on dried berriesMeanwhile, this Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) absolutely refused to adopt a striking pose or even peek out from behind the branches, but it wasn’t until I downloaded the pics and had a nice close look that I realized this was because it was feeding on some diminutive unidentified berries. Like I said, the patches of snow on branches were virtually gone, so no opportunity for a nice composition with the red cardinal, blue sky, white snow, and perhaps deep green pine needles (about the only use they can be put to.) But at least the light angle was decent. That’s not really enough to save the image, is it? Fine – be that way.

    The best luck I had was with a northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos, which is perhaps the most expressive scientific name I’ve come across.) Clearly not concerned about my stealthy approach and more than accommodating about letting the sun hit its eye, I got a wide variety of shots and a few different poses, but settled on the one below both for the catchlight in the eye and for the flakes of blowing snow that can be seen in the air behind it. And yes, those are some really early buds on the branches back there – the weeping cherry in our yard has them too, don’t ask me why.

    Northern mockingbird Mimus polyglottos giving nice profile with blowing snow behind
    Examining this photo, I was struck by the negligible grip the feet seemed to have on the branch, not at all in tune with what I’d expect from such a gusty day. But as I was writing this post, a potential reason behind this occurred to me: the bird just might be minimizing its contact with the branch because the branch is so cold, and it’s thus conserving the heat in its toes. Someone with a greater knowledge of bird habits can tell me how (im)plausible this is…

    And finally, a splash of brilliant color, with the barest hint of retained snow. I have no idea what kind of remarkably fecund berries these are, and they were in a neighbor’s yard so I was shooting from the road with a long lens, but I like the color and the shine. What I didn’t like was the telephone line cutting across the sky, out of focus in the background, so I crassly edited it out. Really, those damn things need to go.

    unidentified brilliant red-orange berries against rich blue sky

    Podcast: But anyway…

    And so, things finally come to a culmination, or at least most things. I’ve been deeply involved in several projects, some of them offshoots of others, some of them needlessly, but here we are. I’ll let myself explain it orally. Or aurally. One of those is correct.

    Walkabout podcast – But anyway…

    The first and foremost thing that I have to include is the link to the new page that I added on cropping images. And the reason that this took so long is that it’s a video, and not a casual one at that. I mean, music and dissolves and everything! Now I can add Producer and Director to my résumé.

    crop example of ruby-throated hummingbird Archilochus colubris at salvia blossom
    The other major project, which I completed just a couple of days before my deadline, was re-recording the first generation of podcasts, dating from 2012 and 2013. Those had just been audio versions of posts and not off-the-cuff like the current versions, but they had also been done with shitty equipment and I personally found them painful to listen to anymore, so just out of this frustration/embarrassment (frustrassment?) I redid them with the setup I’m using now, and they sound so much better. You can find them at the ‘Podcast’ link just beneath the banner image above, or by clicking here. I will note that the first few ‘casts from the new format, started in mid 2016, still suffer from bad equipment – they’re kind of stream-of-consciousness and not really conducive to being redone, so they’re gonna stay that way.

    I cannot recommend Audacity enough for audio work – a wonderfully versatile and easy to use program, and it’s open-source so it’s free.

    HitFilm is the package that I used for this particular video, and it seems to work pretty damn well, though so far I only have the one project that I’ve done with it – we’ll have to see if it holds up as well over time.

    By the way, I mention early on that the weather “wasn’t even producing snow” and was thus too boring to be shooting in. That changed only eight hours later, so there might be something to show for it soon. Which is my way of obligating myself to get out, shoot something, and post about it. We’ll see how well this works shortly, I guess.

    P.S. Oh, yeah – I mentioned the previous collection of podcast fuckups in there, and they can be found here. I imagine it’s pretty clear that I have no lineage to Puritans in any way whatsoever…