Per the ancient lore, part 40

compound eye of horseshoe crab limulus
It is Friday, which means it’s time once again for the Ancient Lore post – time flies, doesn’t it? This week it’s a selection from the Science/Miscellaneous folder, and so what you’re seeing here is the eye of a horseshoe crab.

Okay, that’s a bit misleading. First off, it’s not the eye of a horseshoe crab, but just the cornea, kinda, because this is from the molted exoskeleton, an empty shell from a juvenile found entangled in dead seaweed. Second, it’s one of the compound eyes, but horseshoe crabs have ten eyes, or really, a hell of a lot more, but we’ll just count the compound eyes as two because I’m too tired to count all of those little ommatidia right there and you don’t care anyway.

Now, if you know anything about horseshoe crabs, you know that they’re armored and spiky little bottom-dwellers that mostly scavenge, and their mouth is directly underneath their shell; so, not exactly pursuit hunters, and not exactly easy prey. Which raises the question of why they need so many eyes, when it would seem that they don’t actually need any. This might be like asking why anyone needs multiple homes or sports cars or Hummel figurines – they don’t need them so much as they have some neurosis about collecting them. The better answer, perhaps (probably not,) is that they’re actually arachnids (the horseshoe crabs I mean) and we all know how they are with eyes – why have two when you can have eight, you know? But curiously, while most spiders have both simple and complex eyes (you know, the kind with focusing lenses,) none that I know of have compound eyes like those of flying insects, so horseshoe crabs are definitely being optical hogs here. Most of their other eyes are simple, and dot the top of the shell, a few on the underside, and a selection along the tail. Because why have a blind tail? I mean, really…

And when the habits of horseshoe crabs have been studied, it appears that the primary uses of these eyes are for sex. I am forced by my own nature to surmise that horseshoe crabs must have a habit of saying, “Hey, my eyes are up here – and down here, and over here, and under here…” And now you’re wondering where a horseshoe crabs boobs are, aren’t you? You perv. Anyway, according to this article, even though the main eyes are unfocused compound jobbies, they still do a remarkable job of discerning details and contrast, at least if the computer simulation reflects any degree of accuracy. These are the kinds of rabbit-holes I find when I’m just looking to fill in some simple details for a post.

Anyway, don’t try to sneak up on a horseshoe crab, and don’t expect to get away with any sleight-of-hand tricks. And to provide a little more context and scale, I present this other image from the same time, my brother finding the crab and apparently sticking his fingers in its eyes…

juvenile horseshoe crab limulus molted exoskeleton
By the way, I have to point out that this is my 1,500th blog post; I would have liked to have done something a little more special for the occasion, but time and lack of new photos and this heinous schedule have all conspired against me. I took note of the 500th post, coincidentally another about an aquatic subject, but missed celebrating the 1,000th post, which is remarkably anticlimactic. Maybe I should simply stop drawing attention to these events.

Your Inner Voice

I have no photos to illustrate this, because I never stopped to take any – I know, a sorry state of affairs for someone who calls himself a photographer. So you’ll just have to contend with my narrative. Or, you know, skip it and go to a site with pichers…

For family reasons, I had to do a rather abrupt trip to New York, and for poor planning and gambling reasons, I ended up doing it as a driving trip rather than a flying one, even more abruptly (like, a few hours notice.) On the trip up, I was on a relatively tight timetable, but on the return leg a few days later I had a little more time to play – not a lot, mind you, and it required delaying my arrival home if I spent any of it, which I was ultimately disinclined to do. Right now I’m faintly regretting this decision.

I had to travel through the edge of the Catskills mountain range, nothing too dire, but definitely a surfeit of hilly regions. On quite a few portions of the trip, large areas of rock had been blasted away (literally, with dynamite) to present a more level driving surface – not level by any measurement of a bubble in green fluid, but not as far away from it as the original terrain had been. This meant that, very often, I was driving past steep and staggered rock faces, the walls of the manmade valley for the road itself. The weather was cold, and many of these walls sported frozen waterfalls, the evidence of a lot of water seeping directly out of the faces between layers of rock. It might have been a lot more picturesque with a bit of sun, but this was still upstate New York during December, so the sky was resolutely overcast (one of the many traits that made me move away from the state.)

Further south into Pennsylvania, the sun managed to break free, and at one point I was looking at the terrain with some curiosity. This was a land, not exactly of rolling hills, but the kind of mountains you find in kids’ drawings: sharp peaks sporadically placed, very steep though not very high, perhaps a few hundred meters. And virtually no ‘ranges’ either, no ridges or lines, just points sticking out of the landscape. I looked sharply at one that I drove past, because the sides rose at something very close to a 45° angle, remarkably steep, yet still bearing a thick carpet of presently-denuded trees. I had to wonder exactly how something like that formed; I knew that mountain ranges tend to be collision zones of tectonic plates, but hills like this are more often large areas of erosion-resistant rock remaining behind while millennia of water carried away anything softer surrounding it. I also wasn’t far from glacial deposits, but in my experience and limited education, they also tended to be linear in nature. These sporadic and singular hills were a mystery to me.

And suddenly, I remembered Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin, the account of finding the transitional species between fish and leg-having things. The initial finds of some promising body structures, in fossil form of course, had occurred in a roadcut in Pennsylvania, so chosen because the entire region was made of deposits from a delta within the Devonian era – just the kind of place a fish deciding to check out the land would like. Now, when we talk about what kind of era forms the foundation of some geology, we’re talking the bedrock, which is usually under meters of topsoil (and perhaps glacial deposits,) so just picking a spot and digging is ridiculously labor-intensive. Which is where the roadcuts come in, because these are areas where not only the overlying soil has been tripped away, but nice cuts down through layers of rock have been made, with new portions eroding away all the time under the onslaught of the elements (like icy waterfalls.) Plus they’re remarkably convenient right alongside public access roads. So searching in the rubble within these cuts allowed for easy access to countless exposed time periods. And it was in one such cut that a colleague of Shubin’s found the pre-scapula which fostered the expeditions that would eventually find Tiktaalik. I wasn’t sure where this find actually took place, but I knew it was someplace in western Pennsylvania, which I wasn’t too far from right as I remembered all of this, and the bedrock should stretch across a significant region anyway.

The immediate thought was to pick a likely cut and stop, and spend just ten minutes poking around to see what I could find. I wasn’t thinking that I would find Tiktaalik or anything related, but just finding something would be cool enough – I don’t have much access to fossil fields of any kind, and I’m fascinated by them. Ten minutes wouldn’t take too long from the trip. The other side of the coin, however, was that I still had eight solid hours of driving ahead of me at this point, at least half of that after night fell – and the tail-end of it would be into the aftermath of the winter storm that had hit my home region. But I was also considering that I would pick a handy spot along the way to simply stop and overnight there, breaking the trip up, getting some rest, and allowing conditions at home to improve.

And while all of this was going through my head, the car rolled on, and I scoped out any rock faces that I passed on my side of the road. I wasn’t after bare rock, but a rubble field, someplace where any fossils might already have broken free from the rock matrix and be sitting there waiting to be found, taken home, given a good meal and a place to curl up. Many of the spots weren’t up to snuff, composed of pieces larger than my head, not nice pocketable fossil size. And then I passed a spot liberally strewn with gravel, nice small fragments about the same size as any fossil might be, the ideal conditions, or at least as far as I could judge in passing.

And I didn’t stop. The bulk of the trip ahead of me weighed too heavily, and the implied inertia of the car just carried me beyond. Even though it was extremely unlikely that I would ever be in this area again, even though I had a relatively open timetable and no one else in the car to accommodate, I passed on the opportunity.

After returning home, I started doing a little research into where Shubin and his team had made their find. I already knew the book hadn’t been specific about the location, but elsewhere I had come across something more detailed, and I started trying to pull it up again. It didn’t take much research to find this article (written by one of the people over there on the sidebar,) which provided a little detail into the locations. The pre-scapula had been found along State Road 120, which at its closest point fell a little over 20 kilometers from my path, though it stretched away towards the west. And then I read at the beginning of the very next paragraph:

Route 15 provided another bonanza.

Route 15 was the road that I was actually on while dithering about whether I should stop and examine the talus or not. Well, shit. I’d taken it from the state line all the way down to Harrisburg, so it was very likely I’d driven right past the very spot where they’d found a pile of fossils. Now, again, these weren’t Tiktaalik or anything close, since they fell a little too late in development – you might say they were Tiktaalik’s great grandchildren. But still…

I’m not kicking myself too seriously here. I ended up doing a hard push and driving the whole way home that evening, running on too little food or sleep, but not having to worry about anything else the next day. And chances are, if I’d stopped to look for fossils I wouldn’t have found anything anyway, since fossil ‘veins’ tend to be very narrow and sporadic, so the time was probably spent best the way it was. Yet I’ll always wonder.

I said I had no pictures, but what the hell – here’s Google Street View for one of the many spots that might have held promise, just to give you an idea. You can even see grey stains from the seeping water that would create those frozen waterfalls that I’d passed.

Google Street View of talus along road cut, Route 15 Pennsylvania

Per the ancient lore, part 39

sea turtle skull on wave-washed rocks
Man, my timing is off. Last week we had the end of the month abstract fall on Friday and so coincide with the Ancient Lore post, but we’d only gotten up to the Reptiles/Amphibians folder. What follows (i.e. today) is the Scenic/Abstract folder. I should have thought about this at the beginning of the year…

Anyway, the removal of all color helps make this one a bit more abstract, perhaps enough to be kinda confusing. Maybe? I can’t tell, because I know what the circumstances were. The recognizable part is the skull of a sea turtle that I found one day washed up on the rocks; I also found several rib/shell pieces and some of the keratin outer layers of the shell, the part that provides all of the color, and I still have all of these, fourteen years later. But I can’t tell you what species of sea turtle this is, because as yet I have found no source that can provide distinguishing characteristics. I suspect loggerhead (Caretta caretta,) but there were also green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) in the region. Whatever, pick one – it doesn’t matter.

But what’s the backdrop? This is from my attempts to actually do some abstract images with the skull, none of which were particularly captivating to me, and I’m curious to find out if I ever sell any of them and, if so, for what purpose. If you’re still wondering, take a moment to try and puzzle it out while I continue.

Still unsure? Maybe if I tell you it was taken the same day and location as this, it might help. Or perhaps I should simply provide the color version, to generate a little more context from the right colors.

same image in color
Does this help? If not, I’m afraid we can go no further…

Oh, all right. It was a windy day and the waves were pretty violent in the Indian River Lagoon, so I picked one particular boulder that was just the right height for the waves to barely wash over the top, and perched the skull thereon. Timing the shot carefully, I fired off a frame as the top of the rock was awash, partially concealing the seaweed, muscles, and barnacles that coated the surface, making a nice juxtaposition with the sharp distinct skull.

By the way, a little note about position. The shape of the eye sockets, as well as the lines of the skull itself, provide a little glare that I was happy to enhance with converting to monochrome. However, shooting directly from the side eliminated this aspect, changing the mood a bit – now the suggested menace didn’t exist. Those frames have a different air, but they also lacked feeling to me; nothing else in the frame provided anything else either, no connection. I’m not saying this one was great, but at least it had a hint of emotion…

Odd memories, part 20

Photography remains nonexistent and my time remains thin and sporadic, with no change to these visible in the immediate future, so for now we’ll just have some nonsense posts. It’ll get better soon, I promise.

Every once in a while, these memories come back to me, vestiges of another life – my move from central New York to North Carolina (even is it was central NC) marked a decided difference in my experiences, attitudes, and living conditions.

We lived in the same house in NY for seventeen years – well, “we” is relative. My mother was there even longer, while my siblings had all left at various times earlier. But that house was a large, old farmhouse. It had been appended to an original two-story house that was built around the turn of the century – as in, 1900 or so – but that portion was not heated nor adequately insulated, so it mostly served as storage, while we lived in the more modern section that had been built probably around the 1940s or so, and admittedly updated a little since then. One of those updates was the eradication of a fireplace in each room (including upstairs bedrooms) and the installation of hot water baseboard heating. This consisted of hot water pipes that ran along the outer perimeters of the rooms down at the floor, with radiation fins along them to help dissipate the heat into the air; all of this was concealed behind tasteful metal housings. Bear with me, since this is germane. The heating system was spastic, and especially prone to uneven heating, though I still can’t imagine exactly how one room would be cold and the adjoining room, on the same damn water line, approaching sauna conditions.

One of the traits of an old house, unsurprisingly, is how rodent-proof they aren’t. Mice could often be heard scampering around on the ceilings and having the occasional squabble up there, and would venture into the main living quarters whenever they had a ready access. Having cats helped prevent this from getting out of hand, and the kitchen was well-sealed against such incursions, so we didn’t have pantry-raids, at least. But over the years, we escorted plenty of mice and several bats back outside, and in the summer we routinely had to release starlings from the attic after they got in from dog-knows-where.

One night, I woke from a deep slumber suddenly, with the immediate urge to turn on the light on the nightstand. I recall no noises, nothing at all to indicate why I should be awake, just the demand that I should. As I lay there on my side, pondering this unexplained impetus, my eyes caught a bag of walnuts on my nightstand, handy for snacking while reading. It was a paper bag from buying them in bulk, and the top was crumpled and curled over where it had been rolled up but then slowly opened itself under the stiffness of the bag. I was in such a position were I could look straight down the length of the rolled portion – and noticed a tiny face staring back at me. A mouse had been endeavoring to make its way into the bag (without, for some reason, simply gnawing through it,) and had been trapped by my sudden stirring. I can only surmise that I heard it, and without registering the exact reasoning, had been forced awake by this.

We stared at one another for a few seconds, separated by no more than 40 cm, neither of us moving – then I gently snaked my hand out and closed it over the top of the bag, effectively capturing the mouse within the roll. There was no reason to kill it, so I simply carried it downstairs (this is probably about 2 am) and out the back door. It was, at least, not a cold night so I didn’t have to get dressed to do this. I took a few steps outside the back door and opened the bag to release the mouse.

Unfortunately, one of our cats, a lightning fast hunter named Dusty, had heard the door open and had come up to be let in for the night. Dusty announced his presence immediately after I opened the bag, and saw the mouse spring from my grip and bound off into the grass – for not two leaps. In a fraction of a second Dusty had pounced before I could do anything sensible; I never would have released it in front of the cat, but I hadn’t noticed him until I had already opened my hand. At that point there wasn’t anything I could do, and Dusty was no longer interested in coming inside, so I just went back into the house, though some measure of how bad I felt releasing the mouse to its immediate doom can be derived by the fact that I still distinctly remember this little story.

The other recollection is more upbeat and amusing. On another evening, I was sitting in my easy chair reading and heard a soft rustle from the trash can. I lowered the book and otherwise remained still, listening for it to happen again, unsure if I had merely heard something settling in the trash. In a moment it came again, then again, sharper, and a tortilla chip vaulted from the can and hurtled across the floor to disappear under the bookshelves.

I should explain that I had discarded a bag of old Doritos, and such bags are even less prone to staying tightly crumpled than paper ones. An enterprising mouse, finding no movement or noise in the room (since I was reading and I had by that time learned not to sound out the words,) had smelled the nacho goodness and gone foraging in the trash bin. Having selected a prime stale chip, it had leapt out to carry this treasure back to its access, which was the hole that permitted the heater pipes to enter the room, opportunistically widened by the mice over the years. This one had followed the pipe under cover of the metal baseboard plate until even with the trash can, then crossed the open floor and jumped into the can. Once in possession of its food, it was taking it back to a safe eating location.

The amusing bit happened almost immediately after it disappeared under the bookcase. The end plate of the heater housing had been removed, for reasons that I can’t recall, the the bare pipe was exposed right at the corner where the pipe passed between rooms. I heard a rapid and musical tinkatinkatinkatinka from the chip rattling along the edges of the radiation fins as the mouse sped for cover, then as the sound reached the corner, the Dorito reappeared again by springing out into the middle of the floor; the mouse had failed to account for the size of the chip, and being much larger than the hole, the chip had been ripped from its grasp by the wall as the mouse made it through successfully.

I waited, knowing this wasn’t the end of the drama. All was silent; the world held its breath. Then, after about a minute, a small grey nose appeared from the shadows of the missing end plate. The mouse surveyed the room warily, ensuring that the kidnapped chip had not alerted any authorities, then started out into the room. After only a second in the open, the little grey scavenger went for broke and sped across the meter of open floor to where the chip had fallen, seizing it and racing back to the hole in the corner. The Dorito, however, had not shrunk at all during its time out in the open air, and I watched a comical dance as the chip, paler than the mouse, could be seen banging frantically and repeatedly against the wall while the mouse uttered desperate little squeaks, rivaling just about any Three Stooges gag. Eventually, a compatible position was found, and with one last wobbling clatter, the chip disappeared into the wall. All was well; the world started breathing again. I went back to reading, and somewhere behind the sheetrock a mouse family began their history of MSG hallucinations and flashbacks.

Per the ancient end of 38th November abstract lore… thing

brown anole Anolis sagrei on drier side of screen
It’s the end of the month, just in case this escaped your attention somehow, and also Friday, which is Ancient Lore day here at Walkabout Studios (that sounds so much more snazzy than “on this largely ignored blog” or “in this corner of a shared office,” doesn’t it?) And so we are doing double duty today, especially since I took practically no photos during November and certainly nothing worth calling an abstract. It’s been that kind of month.

We’re back in Florida, “we” being the imaginary beings who are present for this image as it is taken, or perhaps it means this brown anole (Anolis sagrei) and I, who actually were there on this rainy day back in 2004. The place where I lived had a screened-in porch right at ground level, and in Florida this means lizard territory, primarily these guys and the newly-christened Carolina anoles, formerly green anoles. This particular one had gotten in along the edge of the door and was on the inside of the screen, so staying relatively dry during the downpour that had completely saturated the screen – it’s unclear whether the reptile is pleased about this state of affairs or not. But while we’re here, check out the length of those middle toes in the back.

Oh, yeah, we’re in the Reptile/Amphibians folder now, in case you’re keeping track. Of course you are – don’t mind me, I’m being silly.

Very often, the main door into the apartment remained open while I was home, at least if the temperature permitted it, which meant that such exploring herps could venture into the main living area, where they became fair game to Meerkitten, who was much more of a hunter than Ben or Feralyn. I suspect the rainy conditions of this day kept her well away from the porch so she never found this interloper; at another point in time, I’d watched her spot one on the other side of the screen, and spent a frustrating minute attempting to bite it off of its perch. Frustrating to her, I should add – amusing to me, and providing no apparent impact to the anole, who stayed put with only casual glances around at the landscape as the cat on the other side, millimeters away from its belly, tried vainly to bite through the screen.

Right after moving in, Keet’n was out on the porch taking in the new smells, and saw one of the resident Muscovy ducks approaching. Beside herself with anticipation, she endeavored to crouch behind the small windowframe to ambush this oblivious bird that was waddling ever closer. Now, Muscovies, in case you are unfamiliar with them, are not ‘duck’ sized, instead being more along the lines of a small goose – in other words, about three times the mass of a cat; it was apparent that Keet’n’s depth perception wasn’t all that good. She became aware of this too as the duck came closer and its size more defined: she stopped crouching and sat up for a clearer look, then completely upright as if to say, “No, I wasn’t trying to ambush you – perish the thought!” In reality, I suspect she was preparing to flee should it prove necessary. The duck ambled past without notice, and Meerkitten watched it go incredulously, never having seen something that spelled out all the traits of ‘bird’ but fit into the ‘overfed lapdog’ weight class…

By the way, I say she was a better hunter above, but that’s relative. She had spent the first few months of her life feral, but had been strictly indoors for the following eight years, so her ‘hunting’ consisted only of what slipped into the place, which was generally lizards and once a frog. On another rainy evening, however, I was in my bedroom and heard her calling from the living room, that peculiar tone that cats have that basically says, “I have captured something.” This, naturally, brings the other cats around to see what’s happening, forcing the captor to growl meaningfully to protect its meal; it seems rather inefficient overall, but I believe the call is meant to summon kittens, and the bare fact that she was no closer to having kittens than I was did not bear on this instinct. Nonetheless I had to go out to see what she had run down across the savannah (living room carpet,) to find her proudly standing over an earthworm, one that had likely made it way onto the concrete slab of the porch in the sodden conditions. I admit to being vocally derisive of her carnivorous prowess, and did not allow her to keep her prize – cruel, I know. I could have mounted the head on the wall proudly I suppose…

Let’s dig into the stockpile

This is not going to go down into my records as the most productive month that I’ve had – I think I’ve forgotten what some of the controls on my cameras do. So I’ll feature a couple of images from earlier just to keep things moving along.

By the way, I have to get into the habit of flipping through the stock more often. Immediately after unloading the memory cards, I’ll see some images and know I can make a post out of them, and usually do. But on occasion I’ll mentally set some aside for later; the problem arises when I sort the images into the appropriate folders without editing them for a post first, because then they’re out of sight and mind, and I rarely go back through the various folders looking for ideas, even ones that I’d already had. Meanwhile, I admit, the Blog folder presently has over 300 images that I had edited for use but never posted…

Moving on. While sorting, I found the following little detail, only because I often look at the images at full resolution to examine them for critical sharpness. Here’s the full frame image, from this outing last month, a little contrasting color composition:

fartistic composition in the botanical garden
You’ve spotted it already, haven’t you? Sure, but only because I told you there was something else to see. And in all seriousness, it’s this kind of thing that helps you find interesting nature subjects – just, you know, if it’s a little more obvious than here.

spider leg peeking out from behind phlox blossomHere’s a better look. No, right there, the little brown thing poking out from behind the purple petals. This is a full resolution inset, what I saw as I checked out the frame for acceptability, and that brown thing is likely a spider knee. I say this not from being anatomically obvious, but because there’s nothing brown that should be cropping up right there, and because the details fit, and because this is the kind of habitat that spiders like, which is illustrated by the image below from the same outing (different patch of flowers though.) It’s entirely possible that the spider saw me coming and slipped out of sight, but remained unaware of how badly its exposed knee gave it away. See, that’s the thing about growing up on hide-n-seek: when we do it, we can learn from it. When most others species do it, losing tends to be a bit final.

crab spider possibly Mecaphesa on phlox blossom
The entire blossom is about the width of your thumb, so no, I don’t feel bad about missing this, and I’ve spotted enough things that might typically have been missed, so I’m ahead of the game. I think – who knows? Perhaps real nature photographers are reading this and scoffing…

banded water snake Nerodia fasciata peeking from hiding spot
From another outing on the Eno River with the Tardy Mr Bugg, we twice saw the same banded water snake (Nerodia fasciata) hurtle from its basking spot on the roots of a tree on the bank and down into the water. The first time around, I skipped down the small embankment and sought it out, finding it as it peeked from its hiding spot among the roots. Water snakes prefer this kind of habitat, with plenty of hiding spots but easy enough to climb out and bask for warmth, and they camouflage well among the roots. In fact, it saw us before we saw it, and it was its hasty movement that caught our attention. This is also a good illustration of their habits, because snakes cannot hold their breath as long as, for instance, turtles, and when they escape into the water they usually have to surface within two minutes or so, which often isn’t enough time for danger to have moved on, so they usually seek some kind of cover or camouflage to poke their heads up among, within obscuring branches or alongside rocks where they’re not obvious.

I have seen exceptionally few of the banded variety in this region – by far the most prevalent is the northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon,) which can be distinguished from the banded by [I’m not going to tell you because it’s Mr Bugg’s assignment to identify the one in the photos he took.] I would point out that the body of the snake is vaguely visible to the right, curled under the water just under the tips of the roots there, but it’s so distorted by the rippling water that you can’t make much out anyway. This was a moderate-size specimen, by the way, probably about 50cm or so. This one gave me the impression that they’re shyer than the northern water snake, because it sped for cover so quickly, but that could simply be individual variation.

Now let’s go way back, into the dark ages of May of last year, for some images that I didn’t feature then even though I told a story involving them.

I had a borrowed underwater camera and was attempting to do a particular composition, which was shooting right down the inside tube of a curling wave right before it broke, obviously requiring a very specific position and timing. And more so when the waves are small, as they were at North Topsail Beach – but the bonus was, the rising sun was sitting right in position down the tube of the curlers, so I could have this added element. I made a lot of attempts, and not only was I unsuccessful, I ended up losing my glasses in the surf (you may think I was being stupid, and I was, but not as much as you might think, because I could hold the camera down close to knee level where the curlers were without having to put my eye to the viewfinder, so I wasn’t even getting my shoulders wet. Most of the time, anyway.) But this is what I captured while trying, which still has a little bit of interest:

attempt to shoot down curler
Too soon, not a good curler, but you can see the droplets from the break right at the edge of the frame, while the portion of the swell in the center of the frame hasn’t followed as far. And of course, water drops on the lens don’t help at all…

attempt to shoot down curler
Too distant and too late, but I might still crop in tighter and do something with those airborne drops backlit by the sun. And no, exposure compensation wasn’t an option with this camera, which is why the flash is in use for some of the frames.

attempt to shoot down curler
Almost. The timing was only slightly off, the position the closest that I achieved, but the flash did a good job of bringing out some nice foamy details and even a bit of depth. Not at all what I was after, but with a tighter crop it could become a neat abstract.

There were some that were just confusing and scattered, some where the camera was about submerged and mostly what was visible was bubbles. Someday, perhaps, I’ll get what I was after, but I expect it’ll take a lot of tries and more than a few pairs of glasses…

I’ll close with one last image, from the Savannah trip back in September of this year, one that simply didn’t fit in with the post at that time. A few turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) were perched in a dead tree conversing quietly to one another, and I was able to creep in closer to them by moving casually and using nearby trees as a screen. This particular vantage, however, was more than a little dangerous; not only do many birds defecate before taking flight, vultures use vomit as a (very effective) defensive mechanism, so shooting straight up from underneath carries a high level of risk. But that’s me, deep in the face (or, uh, other anatomical parts) of danger to bring you the breathtaking photos. Or at least these.

turkey vulture Cathartes aura seen from dangerous position directly underneath perch

After a fashion

It’s not technically winter but damn close to it, and nature photography has ground, if not to a halt, at least to a low enough speed that I can step off and pick up the tortilla chip that I dropped. Which means this is the time to post about stupid shit – lucky you.

One of the other people that I check out semi-regularly, over there in the sidebar, is known for being a little bit of a fashion horse, to the point where they’re asked for advice from time to time [that was originally written, “from tie,” a mere typo that I almost left in]. And I have to admit, this is one of these places where I have to disagree significantly.

The bare premise is, we judge others on how they look, and if we want to be judged favorably ourselves, we have to look good. While most of us can only do trivial things to our physical appearance, we can at least dress nicely, to make better impressions in this manner. Truth be told, this usually works.

And yet, it shouldn’t, and it’s one of those things that makes me itch. It’s one of the most superficial ways to judge someone that we can imagine, and yet we engage in it constantly. Let’s face it, some of the biggest crimes ever committed in the past century were done by people in the ubiquitous and ridiculously unoriginal tie-and-jacket, and somehow we still find such things ‘respectable’ – males are still expected to wear them to weddings and funerals and a good percentage of job interviews, still expected to have them for many office jobs and certainly many meetings, and so on. And the variation in them is minimal at best – different styles and widths of ties come around, different size lapels for dog’s sake, but even colors are pretty damn narrow in scope. And don’t get me started on neckties – stupidest goddamn piece of clothing to ever exist, much less be considered important. What does this even do? “Well, it adds color to this ridiculous cookie-cutter getup that we consider proper…”

And don’t let me harp solely on men’s fashion; while women have a broader range of what’s ‘acceptable,’ especially in the office, there tends to be a lot more emphasis on it, with a very narrow time frame of acceptability too, otherwise we wouldn’t have such phrases as, “last fall’s fashions.” Among the myriad reasons why I wouldn’t cut it as a female, my inability to keep up with or even understand what colors go with which seasons would doom my social standing in such populated environments.

Clothes have a distinct purpose, and first and foremost, should fulfill that purpose. After that, it really should be up for grabs, with little if any attention paid to them. They reflect absolutely nothing about who someone is, how valuable we might find their advice, how forthright or honest they are, or anything else at all, and forming even a simple opinion about someone over their manner of dress is far more likely to be a product of manipulation than an accurate evaluation. Now, granted, for a lot of people it’s much easier to buy nice clothes than to develop a personality, much less a respectable demeanor within society, so perhaps I shouldn’t be so harsh. But then again, nothing worthwhile is ever easy.

Listen, I know society isn’t going to change overnight, even with the overwhelming influence that this blog has. But we can at least try to make the effort to notice how someone treats others, or the issues that they find important, or even just their basic competence, rather than if their shoes match their jacket or whatever damn thing – if you’re buying clothes for your clothes, there are probably better things to spend your time and money on. Relax, be comfortable, wear something useful, and stop thinking about petty things. Most especially, dress for the weather. I’ve been lucky enough to work at places without demands, which was good when the warehouse wasn’t air-conditioned (and that’s noticeable in North Carolina summers, to say nothing of further south.) And I’ve also been unlucky enough to work for a corporation that worried more about dress code than it did about actually producing quality products. It’s the only time that I actually wore a tie (save for a clip-on during some catholic hoohah when I was six,) and when I quit that job after several months – over more than the dress code, trust me – I was happy to destroy the ties. Except for one, since that one had already been destroyed by getting caught in a fucking machine, because only complete and utter morons require dangling cloth wrapped around your neck when you have to maintain machines with gears. That corporation, by the way, was a photo lab, CPI Photo Finish, and is long gone now because this was far from the stupidest thing they ever did…

I understand the idea of, you know, employees having a specific uniform so they’re easy to find when assistance is needed, and I understand a certain neatness of appearance helps a lot when it comes to things like wait staff – we’re not going to escape superficial impressions (but if you’re an employer that requires it, don’t be a cheap motherfucker and provide it, at your expense. If it’s that important to you.) But overall, let’s get over the whole concept that how someone dresses reflects who they are as a person. Let’s exercise just a little deeper understanding, a little more attention paid to a person’s actual demeanor and work habits, rather than some idiocy about padded shoulders or pleats or some transient stitching practice. And for ourselves, let’s wear what we want to wear and like wearing, what’s comfortable and functional, and stop worrying that someone will judge us on something so shallow that they must not be able to handle anything more complicated. We really shouldn’t value such opinions anyway.

Thanks – I feel better now.

Per the ancient lore, part 37

autumn leaves blowing downroad from Pilot Mountain, NC
Today we’re gonna take a little trip to the mountains. Okay, well, no – it’s not today, but November 6, 2005. And it’s not the mountains, but a mountain, or perhaps more specifically a metamorphic quartzite monadnock, but I don’t have a folder dedicated to metamorphic quartzite monadnocks, which is good because this is the only thing that would be in it. Pilot Mountain, I mean, (“Pilot Metamorphic Quartzite Monadnock,”) which is that big knobby thing in the distance. And that in and of itself wasn’t the primary subject of this image, but the blowing leaves instead – I just used the mountain/metamorphic quartzite monadnock as a backdrop.

I always thought this was a granite extrusion, a magma channel from many eons ago, perhaps the last remnant of a volcano, before there were even grits in the state. Yeah, that long ago – boggles the mind, don’t it? But no, this is likely compacted and fused sand, which in itself came from the erosion of the mountains still many kilometers west of here. It sits all by itself, a big pinnacle among very shallow hills of the region, not even foothills of the Blue Ridge Physiographic Province yet – which is why I thought it was an extrusion of tough, hard to weather rock. Which it is, but not in the way that I thought. What remains unanswered (in my five minutes of research for this post,) is why there’s a big knob of compacted and metamorphic sand in the middle of nothing else.

All that aside, this is a variant of a photo that I’ve wanted for years, which is to catch a falling leaf in an open area of sky among the branches of surrounding trees – preferably, much closer and more distinct. You might imagine that this is hard, and I can tell you that your imagination hasn’t even remotely prepared you for how hard, since I’ve attempted it countless times now. There are nice gusty days in the fall where leaves will drop by the dozens or hundreds, so all you have to do is pick a spot and wait, right? Yeah, no. Leaves go all over the place, dancing to their own aerodynamics, quick and slow, and getting one in a narrow patch of sky, focused, is seriously challenging. Or maybe it isn’t, and it’s simply beyond my capabilities, but for the purposes of this narrative we’ll (rashly) assume that I have some modicum of skill in getting photos.

And I’ll point out something else, something that also has a bearing on my attempted-yet-so-far-failed goal. While there are several airborne leaves in the frame, there’s just one that says, ‘leaf,’ that even looks unmistakably like a leaf – without that, the others are amorphous shapes which may or may not be leaves. Or birds. Or trash. Leaves can come in many different shapes, a lot of them indistinct and easy to mistake for something else, out of context, so my imagined shot would ideally have one as recognizable as the specimen at the top of the frame – which is even more demanding. I suppose I should simply resort to Photoshop…

Want to see a curious effect? The same photo can be found here, with a slightly different crop, but notice how different it looks, how much more autumny with more brown bits excised.

A flash of light

Today, I have just now discovered, is Sudden Insight Day, which is kind of an odd holiday; what, are we supposed to provoke a sudden insight somehow? If it was that easy, we’d have a lot more scientific discoveries each November. So for my own part, I’m going to relate a recent insight that occurred to me, and we’ll consider that appropriate.

The flight up to Ohio last month was at night, and I settled into my window seat to enjoy the view, which was almost completely clear for the entire trip. I am a bit of a flying enthusiast, not getting anywhere near the opportunities that I’d like, so instead of playing on my phone or sleeping or thumbing through a catalog of overpriced and useless items, I’m generally looking out the window. The significant difference to the routine, this trip, was having a smutphone; I did not possess one the last time I flew. This addition allowed me to do some GPS tracking while in flight, even though I could not get a connection to any mapping service for complete plotting.

Looking down on rural West Virginia at one point, I caught a flash of light out of the corner of my eye, back behind and to the right of our aircraft. We were flying at better than 25,000 feet, so details on the ground tend to be broader rather than the fine details of cars or even parking lots, and this was a distinctive bright flash, growing and then receding in brightness quickly. I looked, but it did not repeat, making me more than a little curious. The effect was similar to a rotating beacon, reaching peak brightness as it faces directly towards you before diminishing rapidly again, and I’ve spotted plenty of airport beacons in this manner, but not at such an altitude and not without easily seeing the pattern. I might have put it down to an electrical storm, but I was seeing far too many ground details to believe there was even a small thunderhead in the area. After a few moments I looked away.

Perhaps fifteen seconds later, it came again, not quite as bright, and then as I zeroed in on it I saw it again, this time fully focused, yet no closer to knowing what it was – just that it was inordinately bright. Again, I could see the glows of nearby towns, so one light source would have to be overwhelming for it to appear that way. And all of a sudden, I had it.

It was the night of a full moon, which was just out of sight beyond the top of the plane window in that direction, and what I was seeing were the reflections of the moon itself on bodies of water, as the plane quickly passed through the narrow path of them. No sooner did I realize this than it became readily apparent, as we passed over a winding river that made the reflection trace a serpentine path along a stretch for a few seconds. Still freaky looking, but entirely recognizable once I knew what I was looking at. Not long after that, a lake gave me an unobstructed and undistorted view of the entire moon for a second.

Looking at the map just now, I might have been seeing reflections off of the meandering Little Kanawha River; I’m fairly certain I was looking at Parkersburg, West Virginia not long afterward, on a recognizable sharp bend in the Ohio River, and was wondering what one largish light source was. If I have the town correct, it was probably the well-lit parking lot of the medical center there. Next time, I’ll preload some maps into the phone.

Per the ancient lore, part 36

Atlantic bottlenose dolphins Tursiops truncatus being typical
Can you guess the category for today’s Ancient Lore image(s)? No, it’s not ‘Aquatic.’ No, it’s not ‘Beach.’ No, it’s not ‘Lakes/Streams/Waterfalls.’ We’re doing these in alphabetical order, and we last had ‘Leaves/Plants/Trees,’ so what must be next? You should have memorized the order of the folders by now.

That’s right, it’s ‘Mammals,’ a surprisingly underpopulated category among my stock images – you’d think a nature photographer would have a decent selection in there, but I guess I suck. Anyway, that image up there isn’t even the featured one, it just illustrates things slightly better, having been taken the same day and a minute or so before. “Before what?” you say, “Get to the freaking point, Al,” but you should have known by now that wouldn’t work. Anyway, we find ourselves once again atop the causeway, looking down into the Indian River, full name Indian River Lagoon, more specifically the sound behind the barrier islands on the Atlantic, mid-coast side of Florida. It was pretty much salt water, with access to the ocean many kilometers north and south of this region, but broad enough to make numerous ocean inhabitants happy enough, and among them were the Atlantic bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus.) However, one had to be sharp-eyed to even see them most times, and even faster on the draw with the camera to get any kind of photos, because the typical behavior of dolphins is to surface as if they were cresting the top of a very small hill, exposing their blowhole for about a second before disappearing beneath the surface again. Moreover, this is almost completely unpredictable, far less of a pattern than you might imagine. So even when in prime viewing conditions from the height of the causeway with excellent light, getting a decent shot was challenging, and in fact, after all these years I still don’t have anything that I would consider printable, even with the help of a dolphin tour.

And it’s worse, believe it or not, with autofocus, which needs a certain amount of contrast to lock onto a subject, something that doesn’t often spring up with subjects beneath the surface. Add in the shutter lag for the older digital cameras, and the aforementioned brevity in appearance, and you end up with a very frustrating shooting session – generally, the discarding of numerous shots of blank water, a blurry subject, or if you’re lucky a disappearing tail. Expect to cuss a lot.

The notable aspect of this particular session was, one of the dolphins had been progressing steadily closer, starting to come in right underneath my position (I may have shifted along the bridge to accommodate this, of course,) when it spotted prey, likely a ladyfish or tarpon. Immediately, the placid, ‘strolling’ nature of the dolphin’s progress changed to hot pursuit, and it bulleted through the water after the fleeing fish, easily three times as fast as it had been going. Dolphins, however, are still massive creatures, many times more than its intended prey, so the fish had a distinct edge in maneuverability and used this to good advantage. The dolphin was likely faster, but the fish could turn a lot better, and the chase was something to watch.

At one point, just as the dolphin was almost within seizing range, the fish snapped off to one side and the dolphin attempted to emulate it, twisting so hard during its frenetic chase that it completely overturned, rolling all the way over from its own momentum and utterly destroying any concept of the grace of these sea creatures, and that might be what I captured here.

Atlantic bottlenose dolphins Tursiops truncatus rolling over during pursuit of prey
First off, the intended meal is that dark streak towards the center of the image – the dolphin had indeed been very close. And the wandering autofocus has made its effect known. But you’re seeing the side of the dolphin here; that distinct fin is not the the dorsal (back) fin that we’re all familiar with, but a pectoral, since the dorsal points towards the lower right corner here. You can just make out a hint of the paler underside pointing away from us. The odd shapes up towards the head of the dolphin, to the left, are likely air expelled during the desperate maneuver.

It might well have been more impressive with video, and the camera had the capability, but bear in mind that the chase started abruptly and lasted perhaps eight to ten seconds (the dolphin effectively lost its prey when it rolled over,) so even if I’d been instantly ready to switch, the very act of doing so might have meant capturing nothing, especially with trying to regain focus again on rapidly twisting subjects under the surface. It’s a shame, because I’d love to snag clips like this, but between the demands of the conditions and the sporadic, fleeting nature of such behavior, the chances remain very low – we’ll just have to see what happens. But in the meantime, here’s another story of a hungry dolphin, one that was absolutely breathtaking to see.