But how? Part 25: This week’s explanation

I made it a point, throughout most (if not all) of the ‘But how?’ series, not to attack religion in and of itself, but to defend/explain the secular standpoint. This is not due to any kind of altruism – I have attacked religions just a few times in the past here – but instead to stay true to the subtopic itself, which is answering the questions posed so often from religious folk. I’m going to depart from this a bit here, by reversing the direction, and instead posing a leading question to religious folk in return: But how do the explanations keep changing?

While I’ve touched on this concept before, I was prompted to approach it more directly by the article ‘Path across the stars,’ by David MacMillan, a self-admitted former creationist. Within, he talks about a trait that is remarkably present in apologetics, which is the practice of turning to a new explanation every time a previous one works out to be dead wrong. In his particular case, it revolved around the radical disagreement about the age of the universe: 13.772 billion years by scientific measurements, but just a few thousand according to abrahamic religious scripture – that’s a really goddamn big difference. The scientific view is supported by countless actual measurements, not just of the speed of light, but also radiometric decay and gravitational measurements, which also tie in extremely well with geologic deposition and even DNA mutations rates (not mentioned within the article, but corroborating the numbers derived in other disciplines with trustworthy accuracy.) And many others besides – it’s this corroboration that gives us the confidence in these numbers to begin with.

The abrahamic figure (most often quoted) for a six-thousand-year-old universe comes from scripture, but not even directly – it’s an extrapolation of the various generations detailed within, and not completely in agreement even among the faithful within any given sect or splinter of those following that scripture. Which says nothing of all of the other religions the world over, which all have different claims for the age of the universe, and mankind, and all that. This is bad enough, but not even the topic that I’m approaching right now.

Since we have real measurements and dependable physics, which we use constantly, apologists are required to explain why the scripture says something so incredibly different, and this is where the fun begins. Note that scripture provides absolutely no explanations or even suggestions regarding this topic; it’s all outside speculation by apologists. And I’ll take a moment to comment on this, because speculation is just fine – it’s one of the ways that we start investigating our world and determining just what any given cause is. But there’s a radical difference between scientific and religious speculation. In science, a lack of confidence and solid supporting results is virtually always present; it’s almost a procedure to couch things in terms of, “This is a possibility, but we don’t know yet.” Within religion, on the other hand, such speculation is very frequently offered with utter confidence, no caveats or indeed any supporting factors. “God made it appear like there’s a speed of light, and an old universe,” and all that – no maybes or admissions that this might serve to explain what we see and measure.

And very frequently, it doesn’t. Most notable is how there is no agreement on any given explanation even among the faithful, who want to find a way to support scripture. Those that consider themselves christian may range from the young-earth creationists, who consider every scriptural passage to be unquestionably correct and the entire universe only six thousand years old, to the vague theists who believe in some kind of creation, but that science is mostly on the right track. I’ve personally been in countless discussions with people ranging throughout this spectrum, and it bears noting that the majority feel that their version is the only correct one, with little recognition of any other standpoint nor admission that any part of their own is speculative. Religion really does breed a shitass trait that humans don’t need at all, that of false confidence and assertion, causing people to veer away from an honest appraisal of any given situation, and/or from seeking support for an argument or standpoint. Much as I don’t like rules and proverbs, it’s usually a safe practice to automatically distrust anyone that assures you that something is true without bothering to demonstrate how or why.

Which is going a little afield, because in this topic, there are explanations – just, ones that don’t hold up, or that fail to account for everything we see. The explanations for the age of the universe have ranged from the speed of light being wrong (it isn’t – we use it to very fine decimal places,) to it having changed at some point in the past, to it being affected by local conditions. None of these hold up, and really don’t take much knowledge of physics or more than a little careful thought to establish as wrong. The same can be said for the fossil record, which not only provides evidence that the Earth is much older than scriptural accounts, it supports evolution and trashes the whole ‘created in final form’ thing. “No no!” say the creationists, “Geologic deposition all occurred during the great flood four thousand years ago!” or, “Radiometric dating is wrong,” or “Radiometric decay was different in the past.” Again, not hard to put the kibosh on.

But like anti-vaxxers and their various claims regarding the dangers of vaccines, once any given explanation of how the laws of physics really aren’t as we interpreted is shot down, there is no recognition that maybe, just maybe, they’re barking up the wrong tree. Instead, there’s the desperate attempt to find a new explanation, and the hunt goes off in another direction. And lest you think that I’m exaggerating a couple of isolated cases, there’s this link to a list of creationist claims – quite a few of them, some of them contradictory, and all of them answered or refuted. Now, in scientific circles if the theory doesn’t work, it’s abandoned, but within religion and fringe beliefs, the ‘theory’ (it isn’t, not by a long shot) is maintained while evidence to support it is sought after – cart before the horse and all that. Rational thought involves a chain of evidence that leads towards a conclusion, but rationalizing is the exact opposite, settling on a conclusion first and trying to make it sound like it works. This is generally the purview of people who are desperate to indulge in some desire at the expense of reality.

It isn’t even a matter of competing theories, even though the efforts are made constantly to couch things in those terms (you know, ‘teach the controversy’ and all that bilgewater.) Because the scientific model works just fine, and is used constantly to great effect – and really, there are very few who don’t know this in their hearts. It’s the reason why so many supposedly ‘scientific’ explanations are sought, and held up triumphantly – few people feel that they can argue against the solid results that we achieve every day (and rightfully so, really,) so they try to make it sound like science really does support scripture in some way. But it’s not like there are egregious flaws in the scientific models presently in use, and what we still seek, what we don’t know yet, hasn’t been replaced with assertions or explanations without evidence – we just say we don’t know yet, even if we append that it might be this or might be that. Our understanding of the universe and its physics, while far from complete, is overwhelmingly solid and undeniably useful. No alternative explanations are necessary, for the vast majority of our knowledge base, nor has any alternative presented by apologists served any function whatsoever, much less better explaining any given factor of evidence. It is abundantly clear that the only function that such explanations serve is to try and salvage the nonsense that is within scripture – and the only use for this is crass self-indulgence. Scripture doesn’t lead us towards a better understanding of the universe, or even human nature. It doesn’t provide a path towards any improvement, and in fact, it offers more excuses than knowledge, outright saying that we’re not supposed to understand what the creator is up to.

I have to sidetrack slightly, because I’m me. Anyone even passingly familiar with the abrahamic religions knows how often the adage that “we cannot know god’s plan” is repeated, and humility is very frequently promoted as well. Which makes it especially amusing to hear how unbelievably often any self-proscribed religious spokesperson will distinctly tell us how things are, despite the fact that nothing at all regarding their pronouncements can be found within scripture. You’d think this hypocrisy would be noticed more often.

A final aspect (that usually goes ignored) is the consequences, and this can be applied to virtually every religious argument there is. In short, the scripture tells us one state of affairs, and our examination of the world tells us something entirely different, and I want to stress here that these are not equally plausible scenarios; we use our scientific knowledge every second of the day in billions of ways, while in the entire history of mankind we have yet to see any miracle, any talking snake or bush, any worldwide flood, and so on. Our scientific knowledge has allowed us to predict thousands of new findings, from star formation to new periodic elements, while scripture has predicted jack shit. Yet if we, for the sake of argument and humoring apologists, accept the premise that all of the evidence that we have of an ancient universe is actually wrong – that everything that we’re not just measuring, but using to good effect, is a deception – then what purpose is this supposed to serve? Cause and effect, learning from what happens, is the primary way that we even survive. And the message from apologists – from, supposedly, the word of god himself – is that we’re supposed to ignore all of that in favor of something that really goes nowhere? Sure, the universe looks billions of years old, but that’s just a trick to… um… do… something, I guess. The typical response is that this is to ‘test our faith,’ because there’s some game that god must be playing where we’re not supposed to believe our senses – which seems extraordinarily useful. This becomes a nice existentialist dilemma, because where is that supposed to end? Should we start with not believing the senses that we’re using to read scripture?

Moreover, if we actually had taken such a message to heart, if we simply ignored all of this ‘false history’ and stuck with what scripture tells us, we’d still be in bronze age technology, if that. All of our scientific advances came about because we examined our world and learned from it, and that includes all of those bits that tell us that scripture is dead wrong. Mind you, it’s the same scientific methods that those funny little claims above, about how the speed of light is wrong and all that, are trying to glom onto to sound legitimate and trustworthy – it seems that even the uber-religious aren’t really buying that premise (or capable of seeing the obvious conclusions, which certainly makes their guidance so valuable.)

In parting, I present two observations:

1) If the explanations for any given standpoint or hypothesis are continually changing, the chances are overwhelming that the standpoint/hypothesis is horseshit;

2) The pursuit of knowledge can only accurately take place with a mind open to the evidence, whether we like it or not. If we are intent on trying to force a particular end result, we’re not after knowledge, but only self-indulgence. We should be bigger than that.

Odd memories 22, Storytime 23

Now I’m a little annoyed with myself, because I had this image in the folder last week, and could have run it then so the Odd Memories and Storytime numbers coincided, but didn’t even think about using both titles. Too late now.

And I now note that it was taken May 22, 2005, and we could have celebrated the 14th anniversary by posting it a couple weeks back, had I been paying attention to that. Just slacking off royally on the meaningless connection angle, here.

I was working for an animal shelter but had the day off when I got called at home with an odd little story. It was Sunday, so Animal Control wasn’t on duty, and the local sheriff’s department were investigating an abandoned car that turned out to have been stolen from another state. Within the trunk was a large storage bin, and on opening the bin they had been greeted with an exotic snake better than two meters in length. The bin was hastily closed again and taped shut, and transported to our shelter. That particular day, the staff there had no experience with snakes, and so I was called, to determine the species and re-house it into something more appropriate. I was unavailable until evening, so I ended up letting myself into the shelter after it closed to go see what we had.

The bin had been taped shut with perhaps half a roll of duct tape – the officers were taking no chances. Cutting it away and slowly opening the top with the snake tongs handy, I was greeted by a somnolent amelanistic Burmese python (Python bivittatus,) a fairly popular species among snake aficionados, bred to have a mottled lemon-yellow coloration. After initial tests to see if it was hungry (it wasn’t) and used to handling (it was,) I scoured the premises to see what we might have to house it within. My only choice was a humane trap intended for medium-to-large dogs, since it was the only thing with small enough mesh or openings to prevent the passage of the snake’s head; in most cases, if the snake can get its head through, it can squeeze through its body, or at least attempt it.

Working alone, I had a devil of a time locking open the door of the trap so it wouldn’t slam shut as I was placing the snake within, but the python itself was more than cooperative. I’d had the forethought to take my camera along, and wielded the remote as I lifted its bulk from the bin.

The author about to be consumed by an amelanistic Burmese python Python bivittatus
My grimace was only mugging for the camera, as the snake turned to face me – it wasn’t that heavy, nor the least inclined to make a meal of me, and transferred into the trap in short order. Within the bin were a few rags and towels, but nothing else, so I got a large dish of water and placed that into the trap too. A day or so later, we obtained a very large aquarium from someone and procured some food for our specimen.

The original owner of the car where the python had been found denied having a snake of any kind, so it likely belonged to the person that stole the car, and the police were quite interested in anyone that might come calling to claim our saffron serpent. Meanwhile, the following day I was removing the bedding from the bin and found an old sock that was suspiciously heavy and blocky, the reason being that it concealed a large box of .357 cartridges. We contacted the sheriff’s department and offered to let them interrogate the snake, but they were somehow only interested in the ammo.

Eventually, the python found a new home, one that did not involve being transported in storage bins nor being displayed to drug buyers, and presumably managed to turn its life around and start contributing to society in a meaningful way. That’s what I like to tell myself, anyway.

Let’s provoke this party to commencing

osprey Pandion haliaetus in diveI know we’ve all been looking forward to this holiday for the past month at least, so we gonna fire it up now! Today for Do Some Creative Editing Day, we’re gonna tackle some simple photo tricks.

I’ve covered converting images to monochrome before, more than once actually, and our first exercise is an extension of it. It’s best to start with an image that already has us going in the right direction. It’s funny; I had looked at the osprey (Pandion haliaetus) image to the right recently (which you undoubtedly recognize from a previous post,) thinking that I’d like to use that strong contrast in a new way, and boom! Here we are at DSCE Day (pronounced, “Doosh,”) by the most amazing of coincidences. Since those linked posts, I’ve changed over to a Linux operating system, which means that my photo editing program is no longer Photoshop, but GIMP now (which is still available for free for Windows and OSX too.) GIMP doesn’t have a simple function for deleting channels, but it’s almost as easy, so we’ll cover that variation now.

If you can go into each channel and reduce them to nonexistence through the Curves function, which was one recommended method of channel clipping, it reduces the overall brightness of the image as well, making it harder to achieve the contrast you want. But I’ve just stumbled on a better way (it’s funny: advice on the internet is easy to find, but good advice is a little harder.) Go to Colors/Components and select ‘Decompose,’ and when it asks, choose ‘RGB’ and ‘Decompose to Layers.’ This creates a new image where the color channels are instead separate layers, visible through the Layers palette. It’s an easy matter to select the visibility of each layer (the little eye icon) to see which layer/channel has the best contrast; just remember that, because they’re now layers, the top layer has precedence if it’s visible (Which means that the Red channel is what you first see as the image opens.) Once you’ve determined which channel has the contrast that you like, simply right-click on the others and delete them.

deleting color channel in GIMP
osprey Pandion haliaetus in green channelThe individual channels might look a little blotchy here, which is where GIMP probably suffers against Photoshop’s abilities, but then again I didn’t open this image in Photoshop to see how it fared. For our purposes here it doesn’t matter, because we’re going to wantonly eradicate those registers anyway. Right now it’s an acceptable monochrome image, but lower in contrast than we might like to see, and much lower than we’re going to take it, because we’re going for a different effect now.

We now go into the Colors/Curves function, and increase our contrast in a very specific way.

adjusting for extreme contrast in GIMP
Move both the upper right and the lower left pointers inwards, but just left/right, and not up or down at all, increasing contrast – see the nearly-vertical line in the graph (the 45° diagonal was the starting position, but we want the one with the little circles on the ends.) It’s hard to describe exactly what we’re doing here, in terms of brightness and pixels, but basically we gave it a smaller number of positions to fill between full black and full white, so more of the ‘bright greys’ became ‘white,’ while more of the ‘dark greys’ became ‘black.’ Whatever – don’t ask questions, just do it. But deciding where to do it – how far to take either of those top and bottom positions – depends on the image and the effect you’re after. I liked this one, but yours may differ.

osprey Pandion haliaetus in very high contrast
The effect is very stark, almost reducing the image to pure black and white – some of the feathers and the legs retained some grey, but that was because they already inhabited that range the we reduced the entire photo to. There’s just enough detail to betray that it’s a photo and not a pen-and-ink sketch, but not by much.

I played around with a couple of others, too.

American toad Anaxyrus americanus in extreme  contrast
The American toad (Anaxyrus americanus) above was first seen here, while the green treefrog (Hyla cinerea) at right made its debut here. For the treefrog, however, the white of the belly showed up as well, without being a nice distinct shape that filled out the form, so I just trimmed that out, overpainting it in black. The treefrog clearly has more greys in the end result, while the toad really could be reproduced solely in black ink; all that would have to be fudged is some greys along the nose and near the eyes. Both of these, by the way, were possible because the light was distinctly from one side and so the shadows were deeper and the shaping distinct.

More experiments are below, where I added a wrinkle. I almost never touch the Saturation palette, because usually I’ve gotten it where I wanted in-camera, and it’s easy to over-saturate an image and have it look cartoonish and, frankly, edited. Even in the camera, I have a setting with slightly increased saturation only for those days when the light is weak and low-contrast, which would make the colors a little weaker too; it just adds an edge. However, if the resulting image has very narrow color registers itself, not too far away from monochrome to begin with, boosting saturation can produce a richer effect, even though plainly edited. The one below is a experiment of seafoam, taken during the recent SC trip.

oversaturated seafoam
The contrast between the sunlit and shadowed portions was very narrow, while the bubbles were distinct, so boosting the saturation way up just gave it a moderate amount of color. And then it got the high-contrast greyscale treatment:

seafoam in extreme contrast monochrome
Slightly different crop, because it was now the shapes of the bubbles, and not the contrasting colors, that made the focus of the subject. And then we do it again, with an image originally found here.

dandelion and dew oversaturated
Only by comparing it with the linked version can you tell that saturation has been radically altered – as far as it could go, in this case – because there was very little color to begin with. It seems perfectly feasible as a natural image, but those out-of-focus dewdrops gain a bit of depth to them. And now the monochrome.

dandelion and dew in extreme contrast monochrome
Had you not seen the original, it might have been a little difficult to tell what you were seeing here, I suspect. I probably should have popped this one up first without the link, but I don’t feel like rewriting the post now.

green treefrog in extreme contrast monochromeAnd our last one, not just another amphibian, but another green treefrog to boot. This one is from the gallery, as well as the exhibit this past winter, and presently decorates the hallway here at Walkabout Studios (in its original form, not this one. Maybe I’ll add it later one.) While the two images above used the red channel for best contrast when converting to monochrome, I went back to the green for this one, which rendered it pretty pale even before the alterations. Really, it works in color or monochrome – it all depends on what you’re after (or how much you believe that monochrome must mean, “high art,” a viewpoint held by far too many people with artistic airs.)

So go celebrate this wonderful holiday and experiment on your own, see what you can come up with. Skip the routine filters and effects that come prepackaged with any editing program, and try to whip up something on your own. Have fun!

Back to, um… the same as before

newly-emerged adult dragonfly, possibly blue dasher Pachydiplax longipennis, still on molted exoskeleton
As I said, it’s now time to resume my regular subject matter, but I’m not saying I’m back to normal because I don’t think I ever was. Meanwhile, I have to squeeze in just a couple more photos for this month, because the winter was so slow and because trying to beat this record is going to take some effort.

Anyway, poking around the neighborhood pond by headlamp very early this morning, I spotted a newly-emerged adult dragonfly, still resting on its molted exoskeleton, and decided I needed to do a quick photo session. Upon my return with the camera, I attempted to get into a good shooting position and damn near skidded into the pond itself, since the tree that the dragonfly had chosen was right on a sloping bank all covered (of course) with pine needles. In my contortions to prevent this and get a clear shot, I disturbed the dragonfly (which I suspect is a female blue dasher, Pachydiplax longipennis,) and it dropped its wings from the newly-emerged upright position, like a damselfly, to the flat-and-ready-to-fly position that we expect. It had quite a few more hours before it would be daylight and could fly, but it appeared ready at least.

Only centimeters away on the same tree, another was emerging, and in the time that it took me to get into position and fix the damn balky flash bracket (which has decided that it wants to slip and rotate routinely now,) the latter had changed position. When I first saw it, it had emerged about halfway, then as I was almost in shooting position, it was bent over backwards, dangling (as I’ve seen other arthropods do) from its lower abdomen still anchored within the exoskeleton. Before I could get off a shot, though, it bent forward, seized the forepart of its molted skin, and yanked itself free. Nuts. But I still had some decent shots to pursue.

unidentified newly-emerged adult dragonfly drying out
This is the bit that always fascinates me. We can see what it just emerged from, and there appears no way in hell that it could have fit into that skin. But also notice the shape change that it’s going through, from the aquatic nymph to the flying adult – head shape, body shape and length, and so on; the legs appear to be the only thing unchanged. And we all know the shape and proportions of adult dragonflies, and that abdomen has a ways to go yet. But like it’s slowly inflating, it will fill out that shape in the next hour.

But now, a detail (that you might already have seen) that I didn’t make out until I was looking at the images on my computer.

closeup of unidentified newly-emerged adult dragonfly showing transparent skin and wing muscles
The new exoskeleton is still soft and nearly transparent at this point, which allows us to see the freaking wing muscles within! Is that cool or what?

Meanwhile, it looks like it’s digging into its own empty headcase to find something left behind. A shitload of contact lenses, maybe…

By the way, have I mentioned recently that I love this lens? By that I mean the Mamiya 80mm macro. I’m lucky I’ve never been kicked off a flight with it, because it’s da bomb.

Another one, for comparison:

unidentified newly-emerged adult dragonfly unfolding its wings
It’s been ten minutes since the first frame of it emerging, two pics up, and notice how different the wings look. Someday, I’ll have my shit together and do a complete time-lapse sequence to animate this.

Back home, I chased a couple more subjects, just to make an evening/morning of it.

juvenile Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis on Japanese maple tree
With the ten egg cases spread around the yard, I figured I had to capture the emergence of the Chinese mantises (Tenodera sinensis) this year, but I still didn’t get my timing right – stupid me for holding down a job, I guess. But it means that we have young ones all over the place, so much so that I’m very self-conscious of where I walk, and finding one to shoot doesn’t take any effort at all. Now, having it hold still long enough – that’s a different matter. Yet I still have plenty of behavioral traits to capture, so there’s further subjects to pursue.

Meanwhile, a quick peek at the backyard pond yielded another find.

very small six-spotted fishing spider Dolomedes triton in backyard pond
I have nothing for scale to show how small this is, save for the hint of pine straw peeking in at lower left, but this tiny six-spotted fishing spider (Dolomedes triton) has the ability to get a hell of a lot larger. Chances are it won’t, however, because there’s still several resident frogs and they’ll likely make a meal of it as soon as it’s large enough to notice.

not a molting arthropodI saw this dangling from a plant, twisting randomly and spasmodically at times, and thought I was seeing another insect molting, so I endeavored to get a clear photo of it because I couldn’t quite make out what it was. Turns out it’s nothing more than some seed pod, I think, but definitely vegetable, not animated at all. If anyone needs a photo of this… whatever it is… feel free to get in touch, because I was wasting flash batteries getting several frames of it. Snicker all you want, but c’mon, it was about 8mm in length, and the focusing lamp is nowhere near as bright as the flash when it goes off, so identifying it in those conditions, especially with movement that seemed to originate from within and those little fibers trembling like antennae, wasn’t as simple as you want to think.

Okay, fine, be that way. Those dragonfly muscles are still pretty cool, though, so don’t forget about that.

May, or May not

Canada geese Branta canadensis taking off in dim light, blurred by slower shutter speed
For our month-end abstract for May, we have two offerings, because I had two that I liked taken within the month – actually, there were three, but one is a little too similar to another posted just a few days back, so I’m keeping that one for later on. For these two, we have a theme anyway.

Above, we have some Canada geese (Branta canadensis) taking off from the nearby pond just after sunset, when the light was dim. I was tracking their progress, waiting for them to cross the sunset colors in the sky, but fired off a couple of frames before they’d made it above the treeline. With so little light coming in from the deeply-shadowed frame, the shutter speed dragged a bit, producing a bit of motion blur both from tracking the camera and from the geese flapping their wings. It actually came out kinda cool, so I cropped it a little and saved it for now.

The same conditions produced the same effect for the next one, though in this case a long focal length contributed.

immature white-tailed deer Odocoileus virginianus doe during long exposure
While getting the images of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) seen here, I had more than a few discards – and one wonderfully cubist abstract. In fact, I would easily have said it was a multiple exposure, because there are three distinct images visible therein without notable blurring, but this was just a trick of conditions, and possibly the image stabilization of the lens (actually, that’s the most likely culprit in my eyes, now that I think about it.) The shutter speed had dropped to 1/4 second, while I was shooting at 550mm – too much for the stabilizer to overcome, but it tried. Nevertheless, the end result was compelling, so I saved it for today as well.

And this image prompts me to provide a follow-up to that linked post, because a few days back, The Girlfriend called me out of the office right before sunset; it seems the same deer were now traipsing across our front yard, just a handful of meters from the glass storm door. As I was getting the camera, however, a passing cyclist and car spooked the trio, and they beat a retreat down the path alongside the house to the backyard, again. We went out there, and as I was standing in the middle of the backyard, the same doe that had approached The Girlfriend so fearlessly marched through the open fence and approached me this time – very clearly aware that I was there, and her proximity was definitely intentional. I am left wondering if someone is feeding them in the area, or if she’s just remarkably complacent (the other two aren’t as inclined to approach.) It’s a bad idea to encourage wild animals to hand-feed, or even get too habituated to people, so we’re just observing at this point, but if it continues we might start gently discouraging this kind of stuff, as interesting as it is. They’re better off maintaining a healthy distrust of humans.

Storytime 22

leaves floating against fall reflections
Out chasing fall colors in a new, old location, about two-and-a-half years back (the same outing as this one,) I did a grab shot of leaves floating on a slow-moving section of creek, with the sun illuminating some trees in the reflections in the water, and upon returning home, I realized I really liked the shot, but should have done it better – better focus, for one, picking out individual distinct leaves, but also some playing around with the depth, and perhaps selecting focus on the reflections instead of the leaves themselves. But the appearance and colors and such were all pretty interesting, so a few days later I resolved to try again.

And I probably should have known better, because I can recognize how just about all of the elements in this image are dependent on conditions – most especially, the right light and angles and so on. There was probably, in fact, only a half-hour out of that day when I could have pulled this off, given the light angle and the trees and so on, but when I’d returned, the light wasn’t as bright anyway, being affected by scattered clouds, and the leaves were no longer falling upon the water. Too, had a stiff wind come up at any point in the intervening time, the background colors reflected in the water could all have changed as the leaves were stripped from the trees. I am left with kicking myself for not realizing the potential while I was there, and shooting a few more compositions with greater attention to detail.

Yeah boidy

sanderling Calidris alba running into surf
And now – now – we get to the birds! I bet this has been as anticipated as the finale to Game of Thrones!

To say that I shot a lot of birds during our week in South Carolina is an understatement, but it was a great lead-in to World Migratory Bird Day, which was the day we were to return, so I only had an opportunity early in the morning to shoot that day, but screw it – the week covered my ass nicely.

While at the beach, I naturally chased a few shots of the ubiquitous sanderlings (Calidris alba) – actually, the name is simply “sanderling” and not “ubiquitous sanderling,” even though the latter not only sounds better, it’s pretty descriptive to boot. I didn’t get anything too exciting featuring them, really – see what I said earlier about boring beaches – but the above frame is notable in one regard. See the streaks in the background, especially the highlights on the foam? That indicates a panning shot, the camera moving that much laterally while the shutter was open, also evinced by the blurred legs – but check out the sharpness in that eye and beak. That’s a pretty decent pan, if I say so myself… and it was another taken on Nail The Pan Day. We celebrate holidays right here on Walkabout.

white-winged scoter Melanitta fusca chillin on beach
On that self-same beach, three days later, I was walking the surf line right before sunrise and watched a duck ride the incoming breakers up to the barest shallows, then stand up and walk, wearily it seemed, out of the water and take a stance on the sand. It ruffled its feathers a few times, flapped once, then plopped down and refused to budge; the impression that I got was it having landed on the water from exhaustion and simply floated to shore, but it’s anyone’s guess how accurate that might be. In that vein, however, the duck simply didn’t care about the beach walkers that passed, several of which paused to take photos (or some pathetic excuse thereof) with their smutphones. I maintained a respectful distance and shot some identifying frames with the 100-300 L lens.

white-winged scoter Melanitta fusca not giving a damn
I didn’t recognize it, but referring to my Sibley Guide back home, I pinned this down as a white-winged scoter (Melanitta fusca,) just transitioning into adult coloration. Scoters are primarily coastal, so perhaps this is standard behavior for them.

I mentioned wanting some decent brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) portraits, and this was certainly not the area to pursue them in – they could be found, but few and far between. One evening as The Girlfriend and I were walking the beach failing to pick up shells, I saw a small flight heading our way against the post-sunset sky. I knew it would only be silhouettes, and the sky was almost entirely devoid of color, with the one exception being a high-altitude smear of clouds turned pink by the sun over the horizon. They were headed in the right direction, so I tracked them carefully and waited for them to get into the color.

flight of brown pelicans Pelecanus occidentalis against boring sky
Only, right before they would have entered a nice background, they turned towards us together, and started backing in the air, slowing almost to a stall – almost as if they were trying to draw our attention. The problem was, this took them away from the only color in the sky, the edge of which you can see in the above pic.

flight of brown pelicans Pelecanus occidentalis ruining my shot
We have no idea why they changed direction and slowed, because they were a decent ways away from the water and couldn’t possibly have seen any fish or anything, nor was there any apparent difference in the landscape that might have drawn their attention. But having come to a near-hover overhead for a moment, they then turned and resumed their path – naturally now having passed well above the little bit of color that would have made the shot worthwhile. Thanks, guys.

flight of brown pelicans Pelecanus occidentalis after ruining the author's shot
Eventually, a few mornings later as I was watching the excavation of the loggerhead nest, a pair passed overhead and gave me a few decent views. I would have liked the light to have been a little bit better, but this is what we have for now, and nicely detailed all the same.

pair of brown pelicans Pelecanus occidentalis gliding overhead
Brookgreen Gardens provided a few opportunities on its own. One of the features within was a small zoo with local wildlife, and part of that was an aviary, primarily containing white ibis and black-crowned night herons (Nycticorax nycticorax.) Fully habituated to people, they were easy to photograph, which takes most of the fun out of it, but I did fire off a few detailed portraits just for the sake of it.

black-crowned night heron Nycticorax nycticorax with provided meal
This isn’t even a decent capture of a capture, as it were, because the minnow it has was one of a dozen of so dumped in strategic locations around the aviary to feed the birds, so despite the heron’s careful stalking behavior, there was no chance of scaring this fish off. But I’m posting it for the detail, and after all, I already posted the one with the smooth panning technique, so…

Not to mention, I already have some nice closeups of the wild white ibis that used to visit our pond when I lived in Florida, and their beaks weren’t all muddy from rooting for shellfish.

wood duck Aix sponsa portrait showing iridescence of head feathers
In another region was a duck habitat, permitting ridiculous closeups of the residents at times. Again, captive animals aren’t really an accomplishment, but you can use the opportunity to show off traits like the wonderfully iridescent feathers of the male wood duck (Aix sponsa.) At a botanical garden near home there is often a semi-habituated pair providing the occasional photo op, but wood ducks in the wild tend to be pretty secretive, and my goal remains to catalog the nesting and fledging behavior without such benefits. I’m not exactly sure why; it’s not like it drives up the value of the images, but we’ll call it ego and self-challenge and leave it at that.

But there were wild examples over the gardens as well.

red-tailed hawk Buteo jamaicensis with almost-hidden red-winged blackbird Agelaius phoeniceus
Wheeling overhead, a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) provided a few choice poses – and there’s a detail hidden here, visible if you look closely and know your bird anatomy. I’ll pause and let you figure it out.

Take your time.

Got it? I knew you would. Under the far wing is the silhouette of its harasser, a red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) that was none-too-happy about seeing a hawk in its breeding ground; in fact, there was a pair chasing the hawk, which was largely ignoring the smaller birds and was only riding the thermals over the park, as were some turkey vultures a little farther off. At one point, the blackbirds were joined by an American crow (Corvus corax,) all diving on the hawk as it circled.

red-tailed hawk Buteo jamaicensis pursued by American crow Corvus corax and red-winged blackbird pair Agelaius phoeniceus
It was a fun show, but as the hawk turned into deeper blue sky, I got a couple of nice portraits.

red-tailed hawk Buteo jamaicensis banking against scattered sky
This is a fairly good guide towards identification, because they’re don’t all have the distinctive red tail, but they all have pale bellies with a band of darker speckles across the breast. And they’re big, among the largest of the hawks in North America. One more:

red-tailed hawk Buteo jamaicensis showing catchlight
I include this one because I got the catchlight, that little reflection in the eye. Not bad for about 40 meters distant.

We now move on to Huntington Beach State Park, pretty much across the road from Brookgreen Gardens (and formerly part of the same family’s estate.) Lots of bird ops there.

semipalmated plover Charadrius semipalmatus on mud flats
Near the mud flats that played host to the fiddler crabs, a few semipalmated plovers (Charadrius semipalmatus) foraged alongside sanderlings. While I recognized the birds, I didn’t really know until now where the name came from, and so didn’t endeavor to illustrate it then; it comes from their partially-webbed feet. But they are cute little birds, and quite small – just a little bigger than a wren. It’s easy to believe that the black-tipped bill, like the feet, is evidence of playing in the mud, but no, that’s natural coloration.

long-billed dowitcher Limnodromus scolopaceus wading
Very close by, as the water got a little deeper and revealed a different class of foodstuffs, some long-billed dowitchers (Limnodromus scolopaceus) tried to prevent me from getting a good angle, and almost succeeded entirely.

We saw some great egrets right off the bat, and as we followed the boardwalk out, there was a sign telling what species might be spotted; The Girlfriend asked me to describe what a tri-colored heron looked like. I provided this, but it was much easier to wait a few minutes later and point alongside the boardwalk to simply say, “Like that.”

tri-colored heron Egretta tricolor stalking with distracting backdrop
Tri-colored herons (Egretta tricolor) are fairly distinctive in color and size, but much more coastal-oriented than great blue herons, so I don’t see them that often. This one was stalking, mostly unsuccessfully, along the edge of a channel, too close to be able to let the background reeds drop out of focus, and my timing was off so I caught this reed going right through the eye, as it were. I’m hoping it’s not too noticeable and just one of those things that I fret over, but feel free to tell me I’m wrong.

A little later on, it stepped further from the reeds and gave a better pose.

tri-colored heron Egretta tricolor looking curious
Their coloration makes them seem cross-bred, or transitioning from fledgling to adult, but this is what the adults look like – pretty cool, really.

Down at the end of the boardwalk, a double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) provided the best portrait I’ve gotten of the species, and among the top ten bird portraits that I’ve ever taken (judged by an independent, unbiased group of indifferent hyperactive schoolchildren):

double-crested cormorant Phalacrocorax auritus in profile on wood piling
This one spent some time preening and fidgeting around, so while it obligingly remained where it was, catching the pose was a matter of patience and timing – nothing elaborate of course, but I’m happy with it. A little better light would have shown off those deep green eyes just a bit more, though.

If you’re looking for the double crest, don’t bother – it’s already gone. It’s a little paired ridge of feathers on the head only during breeding season, and I have yet to see it, myself. It’s hard to tell from the coloration, but this one might even be a juvenile, too young to have them yet.

Leaving the boardwalk, we passed a bird feeding station where we got our first look at painted buntings – gorgeous little birds, way too tropical-looking for this region, but unfortunately both hyperactive and unwilling to pause without a feeder blocking our view, so none of my images passed muster. So it goes.

Anhinga Anhinga anhinga drying out in marshsubmerged anhinga Anhinga anhinga surfacingOut on the trails of the park, getting possessive over trees and scaring gators, we didn’t see too many birds, but I got a distant shot of an anhinga (Anhinga anhinga) drying out after a swim, more silhouette than anything. These birds are marvelous swimmers, remaining completely submerged as they chase fish, and I got a basic illustration as one (perhaps the same one, several minutes later,) surfaced a couple of times during its fishing. They come up just long enough for someone to know they’re not seeing things, but it can be pretty startling, especially if you don’t know the species, because there isn’t the faintest hint of the bird before or after – no splashes, swirls, or disturbances. My first encounter, probably twenty years ago, was almost exactly like the trash-compacter monster in the original Star Wars. Except without the tentacle attack…

Looking out over the same brackish pond, I spotted a willet (Tringa semipalmata) cruising over the water and fired off a few frames. I would have credited this to the Tamron 150-600 with its Ultra-Sonic Drive and Vibration Control, but no, it was the unstabilized, 32-year old, noisy autofocus Canon 100-300 L instead. How it picked the bird out against that background, I don’t know, but do you hear me complaining?

willet Tringa semipalmata flying past
At this point, we’re 21 pics in, and a long ways from done – this is probably gonna set a blog record for the most photos in a single post [actually, it tied], and I know it’s got the record for the most photos uploaded in a month. I could break this up to a second post, but naaah – I’m on a roll. So now, we go to the ‘local’ shots, meaning the birds found within the resort where we stayed.

Near the marsh rabbit’s foraging ground, on two separate mornings, a red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) actively sought a mate in a low tree right alongside the path.

red-bellied woodpecker Melanerpes carolinus calling for mate
I had initially taken it to be simply marking territory, given that this was early May and usually past breeding season, but then it revealed its nest opening, as well as getting some answering calls from an alleged female not far off, so I’m pretty certain this was breeding behavior. It was enough to make the bird none-too-concerned about how close I was, anyway.

red-bellied woodpecker Melanerpes carolinus in front of nest opening
Both days that I encountered it, I was returning from sunrise on the beach, and the sun wasn’t yet high enough to make it through the trees and I was working in dimmer light – I have lots of blurry frames, especially since woodpeckers are hyperactive and don’t tend to hold still, so between it and my own unsteadiness handholding a long lens, I’m lucky to have what I do. But at one point, I finagled a little different angle against the sky, and the bird held position for just long enough.

red-bellied woodpecker Melanerpes carolinus against colorful background
Certainly looks like he’s been overdoing the blush, doesn’t it? But presumably the females like it.

Most mornings I was catching sunrise alone, but coming back from viewing the loggerhead nest, The Girlfriend and I heard a curious sound from the thicket of trees bordering the path, which we knew formed a small barrier before a water channel. I didn’t recognize it, because I’ve never heard it before; it sounded faintly like a cougar’s growl, but from its location and position, I was fairly certain it was a bird. With some careful maneuvering and peering, I eventually located the culprit, which was a green heron.

green heron Butorides virescens on perch in thicket
I only knew green herons from their alarm calls, which sounds a lot like a sneaker on a basketball court, so I was delighted to now add another to my knowledge (yes, I really should be doing more studying of bird calls – a friend of mine made me aware of this recently.) I know these as shy birds, about the size of crows, but this one was aware of our presence, through the little gap in the leaves, and didn’t care. This seemed to be a pattern in the resort, probably because the hunting was so good that the birds had gotten used to people being around.

green heron Butorides virescens in noce pose in patch of sunlight
The dark foggy shadows around the edges are leaves close to the camera, well out of focus, giving an indication of how narrow my shooting window was, while the sun peeped through breaks in the trees for selective highlights, which the bird had luckily perched within. I could have done without that one damn little twig, but otherwise I’m not complaining, especially when the heron turned on its perch for a better view.

green heron Butorides virescens giving territorial call
And then, it offered up its territorial call as we watched and I fired away. The Girlfriend and I were whispering to each other, but so close that I have no doubt the heron knew we were there, so I was pleased that it was so dismissive of us that it continued calling – most times birds will stop if they suspect it will draw more attention to themselves.

No no, not even done with the hour yet.

Just a little further along our walk, as we approached an inlet, I saw another bird cruise in and land, and we crept closer, hoping not to spook it. Eventually, we discovered that this stealth was wholly unnecessary.

black-crowned night heron Nycticorax nycticorax perched over fishing ground
This little inlet came almost up to the road, with only a grassy knoll between it and the asphalt of the inter-resort drive, and that’s where The Girlfriend and I eventually ended up standing, and while we were backlit by the sun to some degree, this black-crowned night heron certainly knew we were there. Close examination of those brilliant red eyes showed that, occasionally, it was looking at us, but most often it was looking down at the water. We didn’t seem to be hampering its efforts at all.

black-crowned night heron Nycticorax nycticorax spotting potential prey
Its perch was roughly two meters off the water, and we already knew countless critters could be found therein. So we waited to see what would happen.

black-crowned night heron Nycticorax nycticorax preparing to strike
It didn’t take long. The extending of the neck and the intentness and slight fidgeting told us the heron was getting ready to snag a fish.

black-crowned night heron Nycticorax nycticorax launching itself at prey
And in a flash, it launched itself down at the water, while I tracked it and fired off continual frames.

great egret Ardea alba crusing across inlet
This seems as good a time as any to show that a great egret (Ardea alba) also considered this a prime spot, and came cruising in for a landing, again, while we stood there in plain sight. Really, a good place to spot birds.

black-crowned night heron Nycticorax nycticorax striking water unsuccessfully
We return to our hero the heron, and its contact with the water in a strike that kind of surprised me, because I’ve never seen any of the waders strike with their feet – it’s always with the beak. However, this might have been a factor of the shallow water and its perch high above it, since other herons I’ve seen strike while standing in the water, which probably allows for a bit more control (and not, you know, spearing oneself into the bottom like a dart.) However, this was a miss, and the heron immediately looped back.

black-crowned night heron Nycticorax nycticorax gaining new perch
It landed and crawled deeper into the tree, perhaps wanting a little more shelter from our prying eyes, or maybe this was simply happenstance, since it could have flown to a different tree or even region easily enough. But I liked this portrait among the foliage.

black-crowned night heron Nycticorax nycticorax taking up new fishing position
And in moments, it was back in position and watching the water. All told, we witnessed two attempts, and I a third after The Girlfriend had returned to the room because coffee; the night heron never did catch anything during this observation, but two great egrets and a great blue heron all appeared around this one little inlet that was part of a pond in the middle of the resort. On another day when I didn’t have the camera immediately at hand, I’m pretty sure that I saw a bald eagle cruise over almost the exact same spot, so, yeah, it’s for the birds.

That’s gonna be it for the featured birds from South Carolina, but let’s see, that’s thirty-five photos in this post, of seventeen different species, which is not all of the species seen or even photographed during this trip – just the ones that I felt good about featuring (and we all know how my judgment is.) I would say that’s an adequate showing, though. But what the hell, let’s do one more of our hero, because I’m liable to make this one a print someday (well, probably among others.) And while a couple of other photos might sneak in here or there at times, this pretty much marks the end of the push to feature the trip, and we’ll return to our regular content forthwith. Cheers!

black-crowned night heron Nycticorax nycticorax peeking from foliage

Not the birds

We now come to that time of the month where we talk about things other than avians, and lucky us, I have a few such topics available from the buttload of pics that I got while on vacation in South Carolina. Let’s dive in, shall we?

marsh rabbit Sylvilagus palustris foraging unconcernedly
On multiple occasions, during the hike back from the beach after doing my sunrise thing, I encountered a mellow little marsh rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris) that seemed completely unconcerned with my presence. I’d credit this to my remarkable stalking prowess, but seriously, it was so used to activity at the resort that it considered people just background noise. Marsh rabbits are closely related to the extremely common eastern cottontail, but have shorter ears and legs, and of course inhabit the coastal plains and wetlands. I’ve seen them a couple of times before at the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and gotten a few pics, but none as close as I got this trip.

The camera was still set for full sunlight balance after the beach pics, and it captured the open shade twilight (the sun still being behind trees in this area,) rather bluish. So as an illustration, I include a version of the same pic, tweaked more towards a balance as if the light was white, because the difference is notable, and I think that any aspiring nature photographer should be able to spot when the color register is off automatically.

marsh rabbit Sylvilagus palustris color corrected
By the way, when I say it was mellow, I’m not exaggerating. One of the mornings, it was being stalked by a feral cat that lived nearby, and was only slightly more alert.

marsh rabbit Sylvilagus palustris being stalked by feral domestic cat
That’s the cat at right, the rabbit being that blob to the left near the post – in this light, there was no way to get a higher depth of field without significant camera shake. You might think this is a dangerous habit for the rabbit to have, but it massed as much as the cat and nonetheless seemed aware. The cat would draw a little closer, centimeters at a time, but before it got within easy pursuit distance, the rabbit would causally hop another couple of meters away. The cat was so intent on this pointless endeavor, however, that after observing it for a few minutes, I was able to continue on my way past it and do some shots from the front. Is this expressive or what?

feral domestic cat in stalk mode
By the way, I said the beach was the most boring I’d been at, but I still made the effort to do something with it. For instance, I tried to catch the morning light and the rainbow refraction from the foam a couple of times.

erly sunlight refracting from seafoam
Not really as distinct as I would have liked, and I’ll have to pursue it a bit more, next beach trip. But then I turned my attention to the incoming mini-waves and how the early sunlight was interacting with them, trying for a little more abstract golden splashiness.

incoming breakers backlit by new sun
That’s… okay, but I’d still like better on this front too. This is a tighter crop, and the out-of-focus droplets at upper left get more distinct in a wider pic, but then the focused waves become less dominant. We’ll return to this someday.

In a couple of locations, the fiddler crabs were prominent, and at one point I actually attempted video of their territorial displays, but it didn’t really pan out. They’re very spooky, so drawing close enough for detailed video sent them diving into their burrows, and it took some time for them to come back out and start displaying again – this consists of waving their biggest pincer in the air like a newsboy selling papers in a depression-era movie. I tried waiting them out, sitting cross-legged on the ground at the edge of the marsh area, but I’d just drastically pulled a muscle in my side, by running into the sideview mirror on the car while putting the kayaks back on top, and I was too uncomfortable to wait them out. So we’ll settle for another view, two days later in Huntington Beach State Park.

fiddler crabs genus Uca in mud flats, Huntington Beach State Park SC
I’m only going to say that these are genus Uca, because I don’t have enough details to positively identify them and it’s pretty hard anyway. These flats were tidal, with some significant water level changes during the day, so this activity was very likely short-lived while the water was low – we weren’t there long enough to witness the full tidal shift. But, there were just a couple of them out there at that time.

broad expanse of fiddler crabs genus Uca on tidal mud, Huntington Beach State Park SC
Yes, every one of those little ‘pebbles’ is a crab, and in places, they were marching along ridges of higher ground in a mass migration towards the good mud. There were so many that it was hard to imagine enough food to sustain them, but they seemed to be doing quite well. I’ve never seen an emaciated crab, to be honest.

A little further off, there was other activity.

blue crabs Callinectes sapidus in possession of unidentified jellyfish
Where the flats gave way to channels, we saw a blue crab (Callinectes sapidus) nibbling, or so we thought, on one of the many jellyfish that dotted the area – they all seemed to be the same species, but I’m not making the effort to look it up right now. We started photographing several birds in the immediate vicinity, and looked back down again to find that it was two crabs, likely mating, and merely clasping the jelly negligently in one pincer; as they scuttled slowly along, they dragged the jelly with them. I got the impression this was the male’s offering to the female to convince her to, you know, dance, but I have no idea if this is how blue crabs work. They don’t, after all, have that huge pincer to wave around flamboyantly like the fiddlers do, so perhaps this is compensation. You really shouldn’t come to me for nature education…

Now, as we casually leave that subject matter behind, a little backstory. Mr Bugg has a tendency to refer to a particular tree, in a local hiking area, as my tree (and a few others as his own,) simply because I shot it twice in different conditions. I continually correct him that I don’t lay any claim to trees, or indeed any other subject – I just shoot what works for me.

Until now. This is MY tree.

the author in front of elaborate multi-trunked twisted tree in Huntington Beach State Park SC, by The Girlfriend
Hiking a little forest trail along a brackish pool in the same park, I spotted this as we approached and announced that I was going to find a way to take this home. I’m as positive as I can be (see the above bits about nature education) that this is all one tree, multiple trunks springing from the ground together and twisting around in a fantastic manner. I don’t know what it is, and welcome anyone’s identification of it, but what a marvelous tree it is, practically a grove by itself, and we shot numerous compositions of it. Buggato has said that he’s going to find it and photograph it himself, because he’s motivated by that kind of thing, and I wish him the best of luck in that endeavor.

One of the things that I had on my list for this trip was photographing, or at least seeing, a cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus,) often called a water moccasin, one of the venomous snakes in such areas – I’ve never seen one in the wild yet, despite many attempts. And so in this same region I was attempting yet again. Not far from the above tree was a very narrow path, almost overgrown by weeds and water reeds, that led to the edge of the brackish pond, and I very gingerly followed this, watching my footing intently because the location was ideal for such but the visibility pretty bad. I saw no signs of any snakes, but as I reached the edge of the water, something only a few meters to my left hit the water with a hell of a splash. In a minute, my suspicion was confirmed, as the alligator that I’d spooked while it was basking resurfaced and watched me warily.

American alligator Alligator mississippiensis waiting for us to leave
As American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) go, this was a moderately small specimen, perhaps a little smaller than the one we’d seen previously, so not a threat to anything larger than a muskrat despite its ominous appearance; the exposed area of the head measured maybe 25cm, less than the length of my foot. But doesn’t it have the best damn shaping and texture? Alligators, along with sea turtles, are species that sculptors tend to minimize or stylize rather than depict accurately, and it’s a shame, because it’s the details that provide all of the personality, as far as I’m concerned.The Girlfriend keeps encouraging me to get more into sculpting (it’s extremely minimal right now,) and I might have to, just to produce proper renditions of such species.

unidentified small grey-brown cicada on stumpNow, despite taking advantage of an entirely different environment and class of subjects, I did not completely neglect my normal pursuits. On a cut-off stump not far from the previous two subjects here, The Girlfriend spotted what she initially took to be a moth, wonderfully camouflaged against the dry wood. But a closer look said otherwise.

This was easily the smallest cicada species that I’d ever seen, and almost perfectly camouflaged in color and texture. I made a quick attempt to identify it through BugGuide.net, but didn’t initially find it and am not going to take the time for an idle pursuit – maybe later on when I’m cataloging. We’re heading down the page to a more detailed, profile shot as I type, while I mention that I did not come loaded for macro work, so the flash and softbox attachment were still sitting back in our room – this meant working with natural light under a forest canopy, so it’s actually a good amount of luck to have what I do. For the most part, this was a fairly lucky trip, really, with a couple of exceptions that I’ll be getting to in the upcoming bird post. And of course, I never did see any cottonmouth. Nor scorpions, though I admit I barely tried at all for this one, but one of these trips I’m going to rip the place up until I find and photograph one. I won’t admit to doing so until I’m successful, though – that’s a nature photography blogger’s tip.

unidentified small grey-brown cicada in profile
I’m getting in the habit of doing the ‘strong close,’ or what I like to imagine is one, anyway, so we’ll return to the beach and sunrise, to feature a tighter crop of a telephoto shot, taken while waiting for the sun to come up after spotting a distant fishing boat. The sky was nicely textured, so I included a significant portion against a very small boat, and the end effect (to me at least) is one of the sky practically looming over the boat, as if they would look behind them and see this huge red wall instead of, you know, the same kind of sky that I was seeing without the lens.

distant fishing boat against tumultuous pre-sunrise sky
All the birds from this trip (well, not all of them) are on the way. Gonna be a big post.

Order! Order!

If I could effectively communicate the mental turmoil that I’m going through right now, the seething internal struggle, with mere words, I would, but I sincerely doubt that you’re understanding it on an emotional level. However, with at least two posts in the pipes regarding the South Carolina trip, I’m not only going to talk about photos obtained after said trip, I’m going to put them up in reverse order of when they were obtained. I know, I know, but sometimes I just feel a little reckless, and damn the consequences.


No, I’m sorry, I can’t fully commit to this. I’ll give a distant nod to propriety and post the very most recent photo last. Some things you just don’t toy with.

common snapping turtle Chelydra serpentina surfacing in morning twilight
A couple mornings back, I was up early and saw what might have been promising colors starting in the sky from the imminent sunrise, and I headed over to the neighborhood pond to see what would happen. The sky never really developed anything useful, there being low-level clouds blocking most of the light, and I simply grabbed a few photos of opportunity. In this case, a common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) was poking around in the shallows under the moody grey sky, and I managed a couple of frames before it realized how close I was and moved off. At first light, lots of turtles were poking their heads out (I’m sure most of us can relate,) but getting decent photos of them was challenging, given the conditions. This one, however, stayed still enough, in just barely enough light, to allow me a dramatic portrait with the 100-300 lens. There’s something to be said about the whole color register.

common snapping turtle Chelydra serpentina peeping from water
If you want a scale, the portion of the head appearing here was maybe 3cm in length, the overall length of the carapace falling somewhere around 30-35cm, I would estimate. Which is way bigger than my next subject.

unidentified juvenile turtle climbing isolation nettingAbout to meet with a student in a botanical garden, I was just poking around and had to shoot this minuscule turtle, who seemed miffed that it was being excluded from the pond lilies within a net barrier. Actually, it’s much more likely that it was simply looking for a basking spot in a pool with few opportunities for such, but yeah, if you’re getting the impression of a toddler trying to scale the baby gate during a party among the grownups, I cant blame you.

During an earlier outing with the Iconoclastic Mr Bugg, we were wandering a less-than-productive section of Jordan Lake when I suddenly spotted an eastern kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula) – despite the promises, about every place I’ve lived, that kingsnakes are common, it’s been decades since I’ve seen one, and I think this is the first that I’ve ever photographed. Don’t ask me how that happens. Maybe I’m naturally kingsnake repellent (there are a few people I know that would say it’s not that specific.)

eastern kingsnake Lampropeltis getula chilling
Buggato has had more than enough time to scoop me on these with his own photos, since he seems to like doing that, but it’s been twelve days since we obtained them, and I can assure you that there is no such post on his site as of this writing – now that I’ve mentioned it, something might, somehow, pop up from the past, but right now, zilcho.

Anyway, as we moved quietly around the snake, it decided it should seek cover, but in a remarkably mellow way. With elaborate casualness, it started slipping forward and wended a meandering route through the undergrowth, disappearing under leaves or logs before reappearing again on the other side, seeming to have no inclination to remain hidden.

eastern kingsnake Lampropeltis getula idly moving along
It was later afternoon on a pretty warm day, so none of the behavior could be put down to morning torpor, but the snake sure looked completely unconcerned, as if bored and deciding to poke around a little. However, I suspect there was a different explanation.

eastern kingsnake Lampropeltis getula crossing over logThe kingsnake actually came around in a broad curve, almost emerging from under a log at my feet (being literally 10cm from my sandals,) before it looped over top of the same log and slipped around the end into a hollow, where it disappeared and remained hidden, despite our waiting for a few minutes. I believe that, as we approached, we got between it and its sleeping spot, and so it had to take a circuitous route back home, as it were. Given the coloration (which works much better for hunting at night,) the species may be inclined to move slowly in daylight to avoid attracting attention, unless danger is distinctly imminent, and we were being quite innocuous ourselves. That’s my guess, anyway.

By the way, overall length was about a meter, which is half of their maximum length, give or take, and they’re completely harmless.

Later on that day, we hit another portion of the lake because the initial one had been so slow, and it was there that Mr Bugg captured his excellent bald eagle shot – I looked up in time to only see it disappearing behind the trees, so no pic for me. However, hanging out for a few minutes more netted me a nice sequence of another species, and I’m pleased with the dramatic poses, so no skin off my nose. Actually, that’s a stupid phrase, isn’t it? Strike that.

osprey Pandion haliaetus beginning predatory dive
An osprey (Pandion haliaetus) was doing its thing, cruising around between 10 and 40 meters up, looking for stupidly shallow fish. Focus tracking was just slightly off at times, but then bang on at others, as I watched it begin its dive after some fish that it had spotted. Later in the afternoon now, the sun was lower for more dramatic lighting, good for shooting birds (because they don’t look very impressive when backlit,) and yet still not turning yellow.

osprey Pandion haliaetus pausing and dropping
These are all tightly cropped from the original, because I really wanted to highlight the body positions. I was firing off a sequence, hoping to catch a really dynamic shot of the osprey seizing its prey, so these are fractions of a second apart.

osprey Pandion haliaetus in dive
There’s a fair amount of luck involved, because the osprey had to be in the right position for the best lighting and appearance, but then again, I’d been tracking it in the viewfinder for several minutes at this point, waiting for the chance of something cool, so I’ll take credit for that, at least.

osprey Pandion haliaetus in dive
Note the turning head, watching its prey, and the talons dropping into readiness. Why aren’t they named, ‘ospredators?’ Stupid ornithologists.

os[rey Pandion haliaetus in dive
The lovely line from eye to wingtip, the fanned tail, the intensity. Clean living and pure thoughts – they had absolutely nothing to do with this capture sequence, so don’t believe what anyone tells you otherwise.

osprey Pandion haliaetus abandoning dive
Annnnddd the intended prey made its exit, so the osprey abandoned the dive – which still looked pretty cool. Osprey are strictly fish eaters, by the way, and pretty common around Jordan Lake, but I’ve never staked them out for a long session dedicated to birds. I’ll have to correct that soon.

osprey Pandion haliaetus resuming circling
The osprey resumed its circling, looking for more opportunities. If you look closely, you can see the head is still tucked and turned, searching – there’s the tip of the beak and a little pointer of dark feathers atop the head that indicate where it’s looking (which makes me wonder if this provides some benefit to the species, perhaps indicating to other birds where their attention is.)

osprey Pandion haliaetus in spread-osprey pose
Notice the difference in background color here – less than a minute after the above sequence, it had moved to a different patch of sky to give me a brilliant underbody view. Well, no – while it was quite well aware of our presence, I’m sure, it probably wasn’t interested in accommodating our paparazzism in any way.

Okay, now we get to the most recent, taken just two nights ago at sunset. The sky again didn’t fully cooperate, but there was a lone patch of cloud colored peach by the disappearing sun, and I used the reflection of it in the neighborhood pond as a backdrop for a dragonfly that briefly perched on a bare branch.

unidentified dragonfly perched on branch against sunset reflection
And, just to show off, I include a full-resolution inset of the same frame. By happenstance, the dragonfly had perched almost directly facing away from me, putting its wings in a nice plane flat to the camera for maximized sharpness, because it was just a few days full of cooperative critters.

full-resolution detail shot of dragonfly
And we will now resume our SC pics. Maybe – I never know for sure what will strike me to post, but they’re coming at some point anyway. And you know how I said a bunch of bird pics were coming soon? These were not them, or any portion thereof – I gots lots more on the way.

Red light, green light!

sunrise in cloud bands
crescent moon over palmWe now resume our adventures in coastal South Carolina, and if you’re at all familiar with the state, you know that it is symbolized, on license plates and numerous other materials, by a crescent moon over a palm tree; naturally enough, presented with the opportunity while there, I had to provide my own rendition.

I confess, again, that while out at the coast, I am usually up well before dawn with the intention of catching sunrise on the beach. There are several reasons for this: my own area isn’t very conducive to sunrise shots, dawn on the beach and water is overall a very pleasing image, the colors are simply the best at these times, I’m out there before any beach gets too crowded, the sand is often pristine from the overnight tidal flow, and so on. And one other thing, that’s long been my goal to capture: the green flash.

Most people that know of this associate it with sunset, which is curious, because it can occur at sunrise too, and that’s a lot easier to capture on this coast. The gist is, given certain atmospheric conditions, just as the barest sliver of sun is on the horizon, it will be brilliant green – this happens for just a moment or two, and granted, it’s easier to time when the sun is going down because you know exactly when it’s going to reduce to that tiny bit. For sunrise, you have to be looking at the precise point on the horizon where the sun is going to pop up, to capture that bare moment of appearance rather than disappearance, but really, this isn’t that hard to do; the glow on the horizon just before sunrise easily pinpoints where the sun will rise.

So each morning of this week-long trip, I was out on location. We were staying at a ‘beachfront’ resort, so this should have been easy, but in reality we were a solid kilometer (6/10 mile) from the beach, the farthest accommodations available at that resort, it seems, and pretty austere at that. But I’ve had to do much worse, so I simply made sure I was up at least 45 minutes before astronomical sunrise so I could hike out to the ocean.

First hint of sunrise on horizonThe weather was notably clear for almost the entire week, which is good and bad; good for the opportunity for the flash, but otherwise it doesn’t produce much in the way of colorful skies and cloud patterns and all that. The first morning out there, I was standing ready with the Canon 100-300 L affixed, and dutifully fired off numerous frames as the sun peeked through. It looked green in the viewfinder, but the resulting photos didn’t support the idea very much, and I am forced to conclude that either my eyes interpreted it as green after seeing nothing but red-orange before, or the lens and exposure rendered it more yellow than it was. Call it a miss.

After this attempt, I wandered the sand for a bit, concluding (and not being contradicted in the entire week) that this was the most boring beach I’d ever been on. Shallow slope, so the tide rolled a long ways in and out, and the waves were all ridiculously small, under half a meter at all times. Nothing ever washed up except for an occasional jellyfish, and even the shorebirds were scarce. With the new long lens, I was after nice detailed pelican shots, among anything else that I might find, and I have to say that I saw fewer pelicans than at any beach in the south, ever. The only species that I saw most days were the omnipresent sanderlings (Calidris alba) and a few least terns (Sternula antillarum.) Sheesh.

least tern Sternula antillarum against sunrise glare
The next day I was out again, only this time with the long 150-600 lens and a tripod; even if I missed the green flash, I was hoping to get some nice bird portraits later on. Observing the horizon and my watch carefully, I waited for the sun to peek through, and the moment it did, I fired off numerous frames.

animated sequence of green flash at sunriseI don’t think anyone can deny it – that’s freaking green. This is significantly magnified of course, and I’m not sure whether or not anyone could have seen this by naked eye.

Before I go any further, I will point out that the first frame, held longer, was taken about a minute before, and what you’re seeing in there are fishing boats just over the horizon. I timed the pause between frames to match the frame rate of the camera, so this is as ‘real time’ as I can make it – maybe next time I’ll shoot video.

But what I suspect is that, like what I captured on a previous attempt at North Topsail Beach, the conditions for a green refraction are there more frequently than we suspect, but it requires special conditions to make it more visible without magnification, lasting longer and as the sun rises slightly higher. It might still be brief, but not as brief as this.

Curiously, there was an additional aspect captured as the sun fully rose above the horizon.

same sunrise showing red effect underneath sun
To give you an idea of the magnification from that lens, the image above is the full frame. Below, we take a better look at that trailing edge as it separated from the horizon:

magnified portion of same frame showing magenta band
I find it interesting that this is pretty much the opposite of green on the color spectrum, and it’s probably a whole lot harder to spot due to the brightness of the sun. To lend some perspective, the exposures for the green flash were 1/320 second at f11, while this one was 1/400 at f25; almost eight times brighter for the fully risen sun (while still able to be viewed by eye without being blinded. Spotty, maybe, but not blinded.)

By the way, those don’t seem very sharp because of the exact same conditions that produce the colors in the first place: too much air and humidity. Everything is being distorted seriously, so much so that the sun may not even be above the horizon at all for these pics. Instead, this is actually a mirage, light bent by the atmosphere, while the sun is still just below the lip of the planet.

pre-sunrise colors
Before and after these attempts, I was still on the lookout for something that would make a decent scene, and took whatever opportunities presented themselves. Framing can make a big difference in such cases; here, the colors stopped just outside of the top of the frame, so I was trying for more foreground interest to be able to aim lower. One of the many jellyfish that would wash up served in one case.

washed-up jellyfish and pre-sunrise colors
If you look closely at the background clouds, between these two shots, you can see the minimal advancement, but also how two different layers/patches were moving at different speeds (this is probably a lot more visible when you’re flipping through the folder of images prepped for posts.) And if you look at this image and get an impression of where the sun is going to rise, you’re absolutely right.

One morning, I got slightly lucky in finding something else to work with on the sand.

common spider crab Libinia emarginata tracking across sand
One of my old friends from Florida, a common spider crab (Libinia emarginata,) had been brought in by the tides, and sometime in the recent past had been attempting to make its way back to the water – they’re not at home on land, unlike a few other species in the area. It was motionless when I discovered it, perhaps starting to dry out and unable to breathe very well, so I only took a minute to snap a couple of quick, dramatic shots.

common spider crab Libinia emarginata against sunrise on beach
It still struggled feebly when I picked it up, so I went down into the breakers’ edge and deposited it into the water, making sure it got swept out into deeper water. And yes, that’s another jellyfish at the edge of the frame – I wasn’t carrying them back into the water because I have no inkling about the various species or the dangers thereof, so they were on their own.

I’m going to add a couple more shots in here, mostly just to thumb my nose at Mr Bugg, who was telling me how many pictures he was going to get on his beach trip, without having the faintest inkling how many I’d already gotten on mine.

unidentified tern against pre-sunrise orange sky
Both the image above and the one below were taken on the same day, all of six minutes apart, and demonstrate what kind of difference focal length can make. Above, 300mm, and below, 33mm.

sun pillar before sunrise on beach
I wasn’t exactly sure how distinct this sun pillar was going to come out, because sometimes small variations in brightness just aren’t captured in the narrower dynamic range of photos – rainbows can be notoriously hard to make as impressive as they might appear to us – but I’m pleased with the result. Sun pillars come from high altitude ice crystals that are almost all oriented the same way, providing a few million airborne mirrors to bounce the sunlight over to us.

Going down to the beach at night can prove interesting, as well, and the first night there, I had out my ultraviolet flashlight just for giggles. Because of this, I determined by accident that Atlantic ghost crabs (Ocypode quadrata) will actually fluoresce in UV light – or to be more specific, the ‘hairs’ along the legs of the larger specimens will. It’s still pretty dim, so photographing such an effect means a long exposure, and on that first jaunt I wasn’t prepared with a tripod in hand. So a couple nights later, I set out with the mini-pod and started looking for crabs, hoping to get at least one to hold still for the several seconds it would take to get a sharp image. I could only judge from the LCD on the back of the camera afterward, and none of them were looking too promising, so I was pleasantly surprised to unload the card later and find what I did capture.

Atlantic ghost crab Ocypode quadrata fluorescing under ultraviolet light
This is a four-second exposure, so my subject here was remarkably well-behaved. This is also altered a bit, because the camera captures UV light differently than our eyes see it, so this is color-corrected as close to what I remember it to be. Imagine those yellow hairs glowing a bit brighter, and you get the proper idea. There were a few people wandering the beach while I was out there, and I certainly piqued their morbid curiosity with my aberrant behavior, but I’m used to that by now.

a pair of mating Atlantic ghost crabs Ocypode quadrata
I’m fairly certain these are what mating crabs look like, and it was far from the only pair that I found that evening; this frame was shot by the light of the headlamp, and worked pretty well for that. Sure, call me cruel, but this was right out in public, when there were plenty of sand burrows to be found, so what did they expect? Freaking exhibitionists.

But I also made a mistake that night. As I was entering the beach area over the access boardwalk, I spotted some people with red flashlights poking around several dozen meters off to the left; I just figured they were busy with their own projects, and proceeded in the opposite direction so I wouldn’t bother them with my lights. Later on as I was returning up the beach, I was stopped by a kind gentleman who asked that we use the lights at a minimum and keep them aimed low and away from the water, because they’d had a loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta) come up on shore earlier and lay her eggs. As you might recall, this was one of the things our summers trips have revolved around, because The Girlfriend is a sea turtle enthusiast, and I’m not blasé about them either. The man was speaking in the past tense, so I figured things were well over, and I was pretty much done for the night anyway and went back to our room soon after that.

The next morning, after doing my sunrise chasing, I glanced up to where I’d seen the red lights the night before and noticed a few people standing around, so I wandered up there; turns out they were volunteers for the South Carolina United Turtle Enthusiasts (SCUTE,) and were minding the nest until an experienced nest person could arrive. I took the opportunity to photograph the trails that the mother had made, going to and fro, and called The Girlfriend down to see them for herself.

trail of loggerhead sea turtle Caretta caretta going inland towards nest site.
In the interim, I was talkng to the volunteers, and they asked if I was going to hang around for when they excavated and relocated the nest to a safer spot – it’s safe to say that my answer was in the affirmative. I also found out that the turtle might have been in the process of laying at the time that I first spotted the red lights, and I might have witnessed it had I gone over to investigate. Me and my un-nosy decorum.

nest site of loggerhead sea turtle Caretta caretta
This is what the nest looks like, and what most people end up seeing, since virtually all of the laying takes place in the wee hours of the morning, like 2 AM or so – an hour after dusk was pretty rare, but it allowed a couple of the volunteers to watch the process on their own. Shortly afterward The Girlfriend arrived, just a couple of minutes after the nest expert had shown up, and we got to watch the whole process.

Jeff McClary of SCUTE probing nest of loggerhead sea turtle Caretta caretta to determine dimensions
The guy in the foreground with the professional turtle nest probe (which looks remarkably like a pool cue) is Jeff McClary, co-founder of SCUTE, while immediately behind him is Glen Campbell, another member and the one who had approached me the night before, after having witnessed the actual laying. They’re probing the nest itself to determine the exact size and location, and as you can see, it’s not in the hollow where you might suppose – that’s where the female turned around after laying, which she did while facing inshore, so the nest is always offset towards the water (this is my understanding, anyway – don’t quote me on details.)

Jeff McClary and Glen Campbell of SCUTE feeling down to top of loggerhead sea turtle Caretta caretta nest
Now they’re carefully digging down until they feel the top of the nest – yes, it’s surprisingly deep. The young, when they hatch about two months later, will dig their way up through all that to the surface, then trek down to the water – you can see the distance in the previous pic (though this might vary a bit with the tides.)

Glen Campbell of SCUTE collecting eggs from nest of loggerhead sea turtle Caretta caretta
Here, Glen carefully collects the eggs, taking care to keep them oriented the same way and keeping the original surrounding sand with them – there is a chance that it contains something from the mother that aids in their protection or hatching. The eggs are then moved to a safer location, less prone to being disturbed, and placed in a replicated nest, then marked carefully and GPS tagged – they’ll be monitored up until hatching. And yes I, at least, am toying with the idea of returning around that time. It’s a bit of a drive, and gestation period isn’t exact (some of it depends on conditions and temperature) so, maybe…

By the way, all of this was done with their permission, and I wasn’t crowding anybody – for the above frame, I held the camera out at arm’s length, aimed down, and shot blindly. It’s cropped slightly but otherwise well-aimed – I ain’t no amateur.

But for giggles, scroll back up and pay attention to the changing color cast, as the sun got higher and whiter. I had the camera set for full sunlight throughout, so no correction or compensation, and this was exactly how the light was colored as the morning progressed.

Our last dawn there was the only one where the sky didn’t fully cooperate, and I still managed to do something with it.

slightly cloudy morning on beach
That certainly doesn’t look very promising, but I’ve been fooled before, and hung in there. Nonetheless, the sun did not appear until it was well above the horizon, fighting through the clouds. No green flash this time.

sun barely peeking through clouds on horizon
I could still do another post just with beach pics, while I have two more regarding this trip in the lineup – one solely dedicated to birds. So I’ll close with just one more dramatic shot, and be back as soon as I can. This post was only 2700+ words, 22 pics, and an animated gif (pronounced ‘gchechgchth,’) so, you know, about 15 minutes worth of work. No biggie.

partly cloudy sunrise on the beach