Sunday slide 21

unidentified dragonfly in short depth against bright background
I don’t even remember where I was when this was taken, but from the timeframe I suspect the head of the Neuse River, an area I used to frequent. The bright nature of the background caused it to almost blend in to the colors of the dragonfly – the wings are mostly transparent of course, but it almost appears as if the body is too. This is helped in no small part by being shot wide open at f2.8 with the Sigma 105 macro.

“Now hold on there, Mr. Pants-On-Fire,” you say, “how am I supposed to believe you can remember the lens and settings but somehow forget the locale?” That’s pretty rude of you, but I’ll tell you anyway: I don’t remember the lens and setting. I do remember what lenses I had to do this kind of work then, and the very short depth-of-field makes it clear that I was shooting with a very wide aperture; that makes it either the Sigma 105 macro or the Sigma 28-104 f2.8-4, and I almost certainly would have used the macro. So there.

This rounds out the color week nicely, even though technically it’s the next week now, which brings up something that I’d hinted at “yesterday.” I had actually been away this past week, out at the beach, and will have just a couple of pics to show for it. But I tend not to announce everything I’m doing online, especially something like, “the house will be empty,” and wanted a few things to post automatically in that time – I had internet access and could have done it more directly, but it was easier and more dependable to set up some to post on a schedule, and I used the color thing again. All of them were written well in advance – you couldn’t tell at all, could you? That’s what being a professional blogger is like…

Color week Saturday

sunrise colors over pond
And so we wrap up the color week with a relatively recent one – most of the rest had been prepared for 2015, when I was doing a weekly color post, and had never been used, so now I can remove the ‘Color’ folder from my blog records. There will still be photos/posts dedicated largely towards color, but it will be as I come across them.

This was sunrise at the end of April, the same day as the turtle abstract, but it’s a little unrealistic. First off, I had contrast and saturation settings up higher, the presets that I use for when the light is muted and low, just to make the colors pop a bit. But I also dropped exposure compensation down a little to enhance the sky – 1/3 stop below what I normally use. Bracketing exposure during sunrise is highly recommended, and you’ll likely find that under-exposing produces the best results, but a lot of that will depend on how bright the sky is and how the camera is reading the light – aim lower to include more below the horizon, and the sky will go brighter. Brightness is not always the key, because it can easily wash out colors. Also, and I can’t stress this enough, do not trust the LCD on the camera to tell you how the exposure looks; they’re notoriously inaccurate, not just poorly corrected and gamma-adjusted, but beholden to the ambient light conditions and sometimes even viewing angle. Take lots of images at different settings to be sure you get what you want.

By the way, there was actually a hidden purpose to color week, and I’ll let you in on it shortly.

Color week Friday

unidentified orange-spotted yellow flowersWe haven’t done yellow yet – let’s do yellow.

I have no idea what these flowers are – rubella lilies, maybe? They were in the rainforest-like aviary at the NC Zoological Park in Asheboro, and likely were intended to provide nectar to some of the bird species there – chances are they’re not local. But you don’t come here for my botany knowledge, or if you do, you’re sadly mistaken. From time to time when I’m out shooting, often after I point out some interesting trait of a particular frog species or similar, someone asks me what this tree or bush is, and I quickly start coughing loudly before they can finish the question and then change the subject like I never heard them. It doesn’t do to appear ignorant about nature as a nature photographer. I can get away with it here because, you know, not even you are reading this far…

Color week Thursday

slender crab spider Tibellus maritimus on geranium blossom
I’m fairly certain this is a slender crab spider (Tibellus maritimus) being as subtle as a teenage girl on her first beach trip after reaching puberty. Don’t ask me why this is considered a crab spider, since I would expect them to look, you know, crabby, but that’s entomology for you.

By the way, the depth-of-field is so short because I was actually shooting at night by the light of a flashlight, so the aperture stayed wide open to allow a fast enough shutter speed. Not the ideal method, but I was experimenting, and it worked better than expected.

Color week Wednesday

pink cherry blossoms against blue skyToday we go back to February 2014, as the cherry trees in a local park came into bloom. Seems like a simple shot, but it required finding a photogenic branch with a blossom catching the light from the right angle, and a short depth-of-field to have the other branches present but not distracting (enhancing the idea of a full tree instead of a lone branch,) and of course the blue sky for contrast. Not an elaborate composition, but just putting a little thought into it. The goal is to be able to do this automatically, to make it look easy.

Compare this to yesterday’s shot, and notice how the colors in this one are mostly at either end of the spectrum, either bleached out in the sun or becoming dark in the shadows – bright, high-contrast light will do this. But of course, the blossoms against a grey sky would have had far less impact, so…

Color week Tuesday

raindrops on orange rose blossom
Trite, perhaps – I know I personally take enough photos of rain and dew on things, but does that make it a bad or boring image? (Or just make me a bad and boring photographer? Good thing no one ever comments.) It usually helps a lot if the drop catches something distinctive and contrasty within, such as the sky providing the white edge in this case – notice how different the prominent drop appears from the others below.

But this is also a good argument for using muted light, such as heavy haze or even overcast skies like this day, to pursue colorful subjects. The subtlety in hues and textures tends to come out better.

Doctor Domoore

Like many people – actually, a ridiculous number of them – I grew up with this idea of being a “friend” to the animals. I can remember, from a very early age, going on a camping trip and sleeping in a pop-up camper, wishing (now that I was out in nature) that a raccoon would slip into the camper and curl up on my back to sleep; this was my way of thinking that I was “in tune” with the animals.

It probably had a lot to do with how I grew up. My parents and grandmother (whom I never met) were some of the founding members of the local Animal Welfare Association and worked with wildlife rescue – in fact, one of our kayaks had an AWA identifier on it – and my older brothers were Boy Scouts and had plenty of tales of wildlife encounters; one of them raised snakes and picked up wild skunks for amusement. Without the obvious retribution, I might add. So while I was too young to participate in any such shenanigans, I was still immersed in the environment and mindset. I can remember, very distinctly, being along with my dad when he was out trying to spot an escaped flamingo in the marshy area of a local pond, in south Jersey where I grew up. He saw it and tried pointing it out to me, but at that time I had not yet been diagnosed with Ludicrous Myopia, and as he attempted to direct my gaze to the subtle pink shape moving at the waterline, all I could see in the dusk were the taillights of the cars on the road behind it; I was trying to figure out how flamingos could glow as brightly as that.

Later on in my adolescent years, I began reading nonfiction books about wildlife rehabilitation and encounters, such as the Durrell books and Frosty: A Raccoon to Remember. These started to give me a more realistic impression, that wild animals have their own habits and attitudes, for want of a better word, and these do not revolve around being buddies with people – even when they’re raised in a human environment. You don’t turn any animal into a “pet” just by getting them when they’re young. Sure enough, some animals can be habituated to view human contact as non-threatening, perhaps even beneficial, but this does not translate into domestication, which takes many generations. We’ve had cats and dogs for thousands of years now, and still find that they have specific behaviors that don’t disappear.

But it was funny. Far from being disappointed, I was fascinated by the aspect of working with animals, even when I recognized that I was unlikely to do so routinely, much less for a living. But soon after moving to North Carolina, I got involved with a local humane society that performed animal rescue services, including wildlife, and was soon immersed in wildlife rehabilitation. While I attended all of the volunteer workshops for the species that could be found in the area, I received specific training for raptors at a dedicated facility in the state, the Carolina Raptor Center outside of Charlotte. This allowed me to work with the injured birds of prey that came through our door, and I started noticing little details.

This very trait may owe its origin to the Doctor Doolittle stories by Hugh Lofting, which I read in my adolescence. The good doctor is taught how to ‘speak’ with many different species by his parrot, and (to Lofting’s credit) she indicated that most animals communicate through body language and behavior, rather than through sound – accurate to a degree at least, because while it serves a purpose of indicating mood and intention at times, it likely isn’t intentional or conscious; that’s just the way things are. However, after introducing this concept, Lofting appeared to have forgotten about it forever thereafter…

[Time out for a favorite but distantly-related rehab memory.] We had an adult American kestrel (Falco sparverius) in once, possibly from an encounter with a car but with no broken bones. Nonetheless, it was unable to fly, and for birds that depend on flight to obtain food, this is often a death sentence. It came to us in poor condition, probably not having eaten for several days, and we set upon bringing it slowly back up to speed; it has to be done carefully, because a full meal when the condition has dropped that low can simply kill the bird.

After a couple of days of fluids and blended proteins (a vitamin supplement and the soft parts of mice, yes, blended – rehab is not for the squeamish,) the little falcon should have been able to take solid food on its own, but it was refusing and being stubborn. I still worked the desk in the busy shelter and couldn’t devote a lot of time to the task, so I decided to take the bird home in a carrier and tackle the task there when time was more lenient. Kestrels are small for raptors, a little bigger than an American robin or thrush, and that evening I wrapped it firmly within a small towel, to immobilize the wings and talons while keeping the head and beak free. I had prepared several choice sections of mice on a small plate, and grasped one in a set of forceps and attempted to ease this into the bird’s beak. It remained just as stubborn and was having none of this, and I struggled with this task for quite some time – failing to notice that the towel was slowly loosening.

American kestrel Falco sparverius perched on cassette rack

Okay, okay, it looked back once

At one point the kestrel seemed to have gotten fed up (without yet having gotten a speck of food,) and seized the forceps in its beak, then shrugged fiercely and burst free from the towel. I remained calm and made no hasty moves, because it would be very easy to injure the bird trying to immobilize it, and it would be far better to let it escape into the apartment and capture it again than to try and subdue it when it was struggling. But the bird did not fly or hop off, or even attempt to leave; instead, now perched freely on the towel draped across my left arm, it wrenched the bit of mouse free from the forceps, then to my great surprise, bent down and slammed a talon down onto the fragment of meat, tearing off a portion and swallowing it without the faintest sign of this being extraordinary. Fascinated, I retrieved the forceps slowly and grabbed another mousepart, offering it to the falcon, which accepted it like I was its butler; in this manner it consumed a small but complete meal without any struggle at all. I was growing a little concerned, because the towel had slipped and the bird was now pinning down bloody mouse bits directly on the base of my thumb, but the imagined mistake never occurred and I remained intact. When it finished its meal, I quickly flipped the towel back over my patient and slipped it into the carrier with a minimum of fuss. From that point on the kestrel never looked back, and in fact performed its return to flight within a day or so in the same apartment.

At the same time as the raptor work, I was also close to the dog training programs, and learned how a lot of dog behavior ties in with the pack dynamic, the necessities of interacting with other dogs as part of the social structure that the canids have. This carries through into how a dog interacts with a family, and illustrates a blind spot that we humans often have: we like to think of other species in our own terms, like “friend” and even “obey,” failing to recognize that other species have their own interactive structures (or lack thereof) and see everything in those terms – a mutual blind spot, if you will. Seeing things from this pack perspective helps us to realize that, despite our best efforts at training, some things will fall outside of the reward and status structure that we use as training methods, such as when a squirrel appears. This is why I often smile indulgently when someone tells me their dog can be off-leash because it is on “voice-command” – there really is nothing that completely overrides some basic instincts, loathe as anyone might be to admit it.

Throughout this, I was building my photography skills and starting to do more and more wildlife photos. By now, I had come to realize how other species all have their own dynamics, reflections of the factors that are key to their survival. I would watch the seagulls competing over perches, and recognize which one was considered the ‘alpha male.’ I noticed that a lot of species could be approached obliquely, allowing someone to get closer as long as they did so on a diagonal. I had known for a while that the mere appearance of humans isn’t as disturbing as sudden movement but found, to my delight, that mimicking the species’ behavior could quell their distrust to some extent.

And I was involved in critical thinking, and studying evolution, and no small amount of philosophy of the mind. This was the latest of steps towards my current perspective, and hopefully not the last. Evolutionary psychology is the concept of how the behavior of species is dependent on the same selection that built their body structure, and how animals (including us) have predetermined importance, emphasis within the brains and emotions themselves, that reflect the survival pressures faced. As such, most species have no reason to be “friends” with humans in any way; if they have any social functions at all, it’s in support of their own species, because that’s what evolution favors. You see, we have the concept of friends because our tribal interactions were part of our development, group hunting and shared shelters and farming and so on; we thrived with an interactive and cooperative community. Some other species have variations, but they’re specific to their own needs, and rarely bridge the gap to a species other than their own, since there’s just no need. And this may apply especially to bridging over towards humans: we’re pretty good about hunting other animals as desired, and often don’t see much benefit towards mutually cooperative relations. While there’s a peculiar trait within us that fosters the idea that we may get a worthy companionship with species like dogs and cats, they do not necessarily have the same ideas; we cannot really say how they view us. But this little trait of ours becomes more than problematic when we apply it towards wilder species, thinking we’re in tune with bears or that if we’re non-threatening to the deer that visit the backyard that they’ll feed happily from our hands.

Which is where this whole post is going. With what little impact I have, my explanations and advocacy for more realistic expectations from wildlife, my pointing out behavioral traits to students and occasionally just passers-by when shooting in a public place, my efforts to rehabilitate animals without any belief or desire that they would even view the situation fondly (much less without terror or loathing,) I have become more of a “friend” to the animals than I imagined in my youth – this time defining it as a mutually-beneficial relationship. Because yes, I get something out of it as well, the fascination in working with other species, the good feelings from seeing previously debilitated animals released back into the wild, the pride in getting some shot that illustrates a trait or even just provides a mistaken impression of ‘personality’ or ‘mood.’ We should never expect to be buddies with another species, even when it can happen with domesticated animals – the wild ones have their own ideas of proper behavior, and will remind us of our mistakes, sometimes in very unfortunate ways. Anyone that I reach when I say, “Respect them, and maintain safe distances and responsible behavior,” becomes more beneficial to them than anyone who thinks they’re bonding in some selfish and na├»ve way.

When that kestrel up there was released, it flew to the top of a nearby telephone pole and perched there for about two minutes, producing the most complicated serenade that I’ve ever heard from a raptor, before flying off and vanishing into the distance. And by “serenade,” I’m being poetic but unrealistic: I have no idea what the purpose was, but I’m pretty damn sure it wasn’t intended as any communication to me – that’s not what bird song is for. Far too many people would have viewed it differently, and could have believed that I was being thanked, or perhaps even scolded for the captivity, but those are human ideas, and should go no further than us.

Color week Monday

juvenile katydid with early morning dew
Early one morning, before the sun was breaking through the trees and clearing away the night’s dew, I caught this juvenile katydid warily eyeing the drop off the edge of the leaf.

[No, that’s not true, look at those hind legs. These insects can leap ridiculous distances – they’re not scared of heights. I doubt the concept even exists within the brains of the arthropod phylum.]

Color week Sunday slide 20

Let’s use today’s slide to start off a whole week of color posts, okay?

double-crested cormorant Phalacrocorax auritus in profile against blue sky
I have referred to the Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center as the Avian Modeling Agency, and with good reason: on my one visit there back in October of 1999, I obtained a load of portraits of birds that, until then, I had never even gotten close to. Sure, they were captives, only, not exactly. Everything that I took was either of released birds that were hanging around for handouts before they rejoined their flocks, or of perfectly wild birds that were hanging around for handouts because it was much easier than hunting on their own. Or birds that simply liked that the property was backed onto the Florida Sound and weren’t too concerned with my presence. In fact, one of my business card images, as I was settling on the name of ‘Wading In Photography,’ was taken there too.

I’m fairly certain this double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) was a former patient, and if you’re looking for the crests in the name, don’t bother; they’re only present during breeding season. It’s a simple profile pic, nothing exciting, but the eyes carry it, don’t they? Cormorants are the only birds I’ve seen with eyes even remotely this color – brown or yellow are the norms (and occasionally red.)

This image shows a common trait of lenses, more pronounced in some models over others: light falloff. Due to the nature of spherical lenses, there is often a loss of light in the edges when the aperture is wide open, seen as the darkening towards the corners. Mostly, anyway; there were some clouds in the sky, way out of focus in this image, that changed the background tones, and you can see the evidence of it faintly in lower center. Regardless, I knew better, and there was more than enough light to stop down to f8 or lower, which would have eradicated the effect – I’d just forgotten about it. Or maybe the bird was moving around too much and I’d opted for a faster shutter speed to combat this. Yeah, that’s probably it…

All aflutter

male tufted titmouse Baeolophus bicolor making a fussThis Saturday, May 13th, is National Migratory Bird Day, and I know that’s got you as excited as this guy here. I will be on the road at least part of that day, so I don’t know whether I’ll get the chance to do any appropriate shots or not – we’ll just have to see. But I figured I’d get a little head start on it, because I have the time today and a pair of semi-cooperative subjects.

Due to taking down a few of the damnable longneedle pine trees in the yard and my inherent laziness in selecting a new location for the birdhouses that had been affixed thereto, we only had one birdhouse mounted when nesting season rolled in, and it was occupied by a tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) family, despite my initial suspicions/hopes that it was a flying squirrel. At present, the young are hatched and growing both older and more noisy, at least when a parent arrives with food but, as you will soon hear, even when they’re not there yet. I could easily sit up on the back deck with the long lens and do a few shots as the parents came around, though they were aware of me and not in an approving way.

Both sexes take turns feeding the young so it’s not hard to get comparison photos – the male tends to be a lot noisier though. The day’s overcast and that area of the yard is usually in mixed shadow anyway, so I have a lot of blurred shots as the hyperactive birds moved faster than my shutter. I also missed the opportunity to get one of the parents removing feces from the box; the nestlings produce a lot of shit, but it comes out coated in mucus and the folks just snatch it up in their beak and carry it away (otherwise I think it would lift the roof off the box.) If you really want to see this though, let me know and I’ll do a doody stakeout.

male tufted titmouse Baeolophus bicolor with orthopteran meal
Like above, this is dad again, watching me warily before deciding I was holding still enough (despite the shutter noise) and popping down into the nest box. The tree is an American sycamore, but it’s not the one that the nest box is attached to, it’s just a neighbor with handy lower branches, since titmice like to pause nearby and scope out the surroundings before revealing where their vulnerable young are. Often the meals they bear are small and subtle, so I was glad to capture this one with a more prominent meal, an orthopteran of some kind, likely a young katydid. They also adore inchworms, which is fine, because those little larva do too much damage to plants that we’re trying to keep intact.

But I couldn’t stick to just photos – not when I have the little audio recorder. I tried one session where the recorder hung on the side of the tree a short distance from the nest box, but the audio was too faint, so I attached the lapel mic and poked it through a hole in the box.

female tufted titmouse Baeolophus bicolor on side of nest box
I had to include this image, both because it shows the position of the mic and because it seems like the female is eyeing it curiously; I’m pretty sure it’s out of her line of sight however. And it worked very well. The recording opens with the young inside responding to the adults outside – if you listen carefully you’ll hear their seemingly-distant calls (“distant” in this case meaning a handful of meters, still within the backyard.) And you should be able to tell when the male (with the meal you saw above) enters the nest. You might even pick out when he leaves if you’re listening closely.

Titmouse nest noises

And by the way, Wednesday May 17th is Endangered Species Day, of which titmice admittedly don’t count. Again, we’ll have to see if I can scare up some appropriate photos, but it will be a lot more challenging, partially from the very nature of it – they’re scarce if they’re endangered, duh!, so finding any of the North Carolina species on the list could be difficult. But you know I’m up to the task.