Just because, part 30

periodic cicada molting while perched on car tire
I occasionally get the chance to snag a pic or two, but not a lot of time to write up anything at all about them, so I’ll present a couple of ‘Just because’ posts this week. In this case, it’s a cicada, of an unidentified species, that I found molting into final instar (reproducing adult phase) while attached to the tire of the car that I was working on. Don’t ask me why I was working on the car at night, just accept that I was. By the time I spotted it, it had already emerged fully and was extending its wings, so I didn’t bother with a sequence that I already have in detail anyway. I just went for a rather personal closeup. It does kind of look like it’s playing some game with its own molted exoskeleton. But hey, while we’re here, check out the trio of simple eyes set on its ‘forehead,’ and the minuscule antennae. Also the color of the wings as they develop and dry out, because it’s one of the better palettes among any critter, as far as I’m concerned.

Stormy season

Just a quick note, but there’s another meteor shower peaking soon, this time the Perseids, supposed to reach maximum on the nights of the 12th and 13th. I tell you this mostly to point out that, yet again, the moon is going to be too bright to make much of them, being damn near full those nights. I’m going to have to sit down and calculate how often either a) the moon has been too bright, or b) the skies have been far from clear – it certainly seems to me that it’s a lot more often than not.

And no, I did not get out and do anything with the last storms, when the conditions were pretty close to optimal, so maybe I’m the one to blame here. As I’m putting these on the calendar for next year, I’ll certainly aim for better moon nights, at least.

Regardless of my shortcomings, this storm is reputed to be one of the better ones, so it may still be worth the effort. You won’t see anything if you don’t try, so…

Storytime 32

comb jelly Ctenophora showing refraction along cilia comb rows costae
This week we have something commonly called a comb jelly, but more specifically called a ctenophore (silent ‘c,’) because it’s not a jellyfish and in fact pretty far removed from such – it’s in a phylum all its own. I found one by accident in Florida one time, because they’re so completely transparent that I didn’t even spot it when I was sweeping a net through the water after other critters. Later on, I specifically captured one and kept it for a short time in my saltwater aquarium, and that’s the one you see here. You can get a few more details and a slightly better version of the image right here.

While I was pleased to capture the comb jelly, I was much more pleased to capture the refraction iridescence along the rapidly-moving rows of cilia along the body that serve as their means of propulsion. It took standing above the tank shooting straight down into the water when the jelly got near the surface, with the flash unit on a separate stand alongside the tank. I couldn’t get enough distance with the Sigma 105mm macro to have the entire ctenophore in the frame, so I resorted to the Sigma 28-105 instead.

That’s only part one of the story. Part two came several years later when I was contacted by a law firm for photos to use on their website. The most demanding part of their criteria was that they be in ‘banner’ form, a certain set of broad proportions that I really never shot in. The constraints of getting this photo meant that it was actually crowding the frame, so it really couldn’t be cropped down to their dimensions, though I was really proud of the image and figured very few people had any offerings like this.

So, I made it fit their proportions. The version you see here is close to the original frame – it was a little wider, but not anywhere near as wide as that above, which represents their dimensions. To get the one above, I created a much broader field of view along both sides by ‘Photoshopping’ it in. Using the original frame, I did a lot of selective copying, inverting, and general playing around to expand the image size without appearing to be copied, avoiding that ‘repeating pattern’ thing that most people expect. If you look closely along the right side of this image, you can see that some of the brighter green seaweed is reversed and inverted. Various appearances of the suspended sediment within the water, the white spots that would serve as the biggest giveaway about editing, were simply pasted over with darker portions. I’m fairly certain that virtually anyone could only see the evidence of editing if they were specifically looking for it with the knowledge that it existed.

And after all that, they didn’t select this as one of the images to use. Ah well. I was paid for what they did use, so I’m good.

Part three of the story is, having to go through countless images from Florida to see what would work in banner form, I realized that such a cropping method had an interest all its own, and soon afterward I adopted a rotating banner theme for the blog – and it’s been up there ever since.

Haven’t broken that cycle yet

You know when I mentioned earlier that not a lot of things were going right? Yeah, still at it.

We’ll start with a photo outing with Mr Bugg, intended to chase birds and the sunset, though I already suspected the sunset wouldn’t be too fascinating, since the sky was completely free of clouds. We had several good passes from vultures and osprey, but for reasons unknown, the autofocus on my Tamron 150-600 lens wasn’t locking on very well, something that I discovered only upon returning and examining the photos in detail. This is curious, because the conditions were a lot less demanding than the airshow where it had gotten its shakedown cruise, as it were, and where it performed admirably. So far, I have found no reason for it to have been different in this case, but the end result is, a hell of a lot less useful images than intended, and a very poor keeper rate.

osprey Pandion haliaetus with newly-captured fish
I heard the chirp of this osprey (Pandion haliaetus) before it even cleared the trees and so was watching out for it, but it dropped into the lake after a fish before I could get the focus locked on, spoiling my chance for a sequence of the capture. After it rose up with its meal, I got several images, all of which aren’t really bang on sharp. Yes, I’m concerned about this.

another osprey Pandion haliaetus with fish
This is another one, carrying a fish that we never saw it capture, and seriously, you can’t ask for better autofocus conditions than this (these are tighter crops than the originals, by the way, which exacerbates the poor focus.)

underside of osprey Pandion haliaetus facing away
Above is one of the few truly sharp images, so of course it’s of a pose that isn’t terribly photogenic. I would definitely have preferred to have the one below to be sharp, if the AF was going to be so selective, since the bird was looking right at us as it passed, but noooo, why would something go smoothly for Al this past month?

osprey Pandion haliaetus looking down at photographer
And then there was the sunset, where the only thing of interest that we pulled from it were some faint crepuscular rays, or crepuscular shadows perhaps, that if you looked closely, stretched across the entire sky. Bear in mind, this image is with increased saturation and contrast.

lackluster sunset on Jordan Lake
A day or so later, I was about to do some work on the exterior of the car, and a pesky red wasp with black wings was weaving around my legs rather insistently. I managed to chase it off, but only for a meter, where it paused on one of the potted plants. I was beginning to think that it had started a nest on the car or something, since it was behaving as if there was something important about the area, as I sat down on the driveway – then I saw the spider right next to me. It was a large wolf spider, sitting with its legs all drawn together, kinda bunched up, which is far from typical. I blew on it, and it didn’t even twitch, which is when I made the connection. Several different species of wasp paralyze spiders and take them back to a burrow or nest, where the wasp lays eggs in the spider’s body. The young hatch out and consume the still-living (for a bit, anyway) spider before they emerge from the nest. I had interrupted the process between the paralyzing sting and the subsequent transport back to the baby’s bedroom. Since I have never captured any part of this behavior, I quickly ran inside and gathered the camera and macro flash, which took from 45 to 60 seconds, but by the time I returned both spider and wasp were gone. Well, shit.

Later on that evening, the sky, the real-time lightning map, and the weather report all indicated that electrical storms were brewing immediately south, and I threw my camera and tripod in the car and headed back down to Jordan Lake, the same one with the osprey and ho-hum sunset, since it has the best wide views in a tri-county region. Central North Carolina is not friendly to storm chasers, because of the numerous trees and gentle hills which serve to hide approaching storms – you really want flat, open areas. The lake is only about 20 km away, maybe a 15-minute drive, so I figured I had a chance. One the way, I could see some lovely ground strikes, a lot closer than any of my sources had indicated, and towards the end of the journey it almost seemed like I was passing them, but I’d still have a good view for 180° or so around me, so I wasn’t too worried. Except that, literally 30 seconds before I was to pull in the access drive to the boat ramps, the raging downpour began. Naturally enough, this isn’t very conducive to being out with a camera, but even worse, such conditions mean a low cloud cover and obscuring rain, so lightning usually stops being visible unless it’s right on top of you. I sat in the car for a few minutes to see if it would pass quickly, then simply gave up and drove back home.

I soon drove out of the rain, then through a couple of wet spots where it had passed in the brief period between my outward and homeward legs, all the while noticing that the lightning was now north. There was still some flashing going on as I got back, so I trotted down to the nearby pond to see if I could capture anything there. It was pretty clear that there were two main cells, and that they were a little too distant to provide much of a view.

just a hint of a lightning flash
This is mostly what I saw, even after I switched position to take advantage of where the cells seem to be concentrated.

storm cloud with faint lightning tendrils
Well, it’s proof that there was indeed lightning, but not much more than that.

storm backlit by lightning
Views like this aren’t really visible when you’re watching them – or to be honest, they’re visible almost exactly like this, but for a tiny fraction of a second while your eyes are adapted to the darkness, so you never see this kind of detail. But still not what I was after.

doubly-illuminated storm clouds
This one actually shows activity from both cells – the second one is just out of view behind the tree to the left, but provided a bright enough flash to help delineate the clouds surrounding the cell in the center of the image. Also note the difference in the water reflections between this frame and those further above it; the rain was starting again in earnest, rippling the water of the pond. I was about to head in at this point.

not too impressive lightning
Annndddd this was the best I got, a little earlier in the storm before the rain started getting noticeable. It was obvious that I was a few kilometers too far south to see real activity, but also possible that being closer wouldn’t have netted anything because I’d be in the rain. Either way, I could think of no good viewing locales in that direction, plus the idea that, by the time I traveled up there, the activity would likely have ceased, because that’s the way it’s been going.

I will close with one shot from after that sunset shoot, as the sky darkened down and the first stars became visible. Actually, the first thing to become visible was a planet, not a star, which is typical; we were guided to look in its direction by my Heavens Above app, since I knew Jupiter would likely be brighter than anything else that evening. Manually focusing with the 150-600 and doing a lot of playing around with mirror lockup for stability, I got a few decently clear shots of Jupiter and the four Galilean moons: Callisto, Europa, Ganymede and Io, just, not necessarily in that order. This, by the way, is full resolution, and the best I was going to get without a telescope. Maybe some day I’ll approach this in earnest.

Jupiter and Galilean moons
A couple of quick notes. First, Jupiter’s stripes could be made out at this resolution, but not at this exposure; if the exposure was reduced enough to make them out, the moons virtually disappeared. I did do a few exposures like this, but the focus left a lot to be desired (strictly manual – Jupiter was little more than a speck in the viewfinder.) Second, this is the first time in my experience (over years) where the moons were not in a perfect line, and I suspect we’ve reached a point where we’re no longer lined up with Jupiter’s ecliptic plane, as we might have been every time I’ve done this before. I’ll have to look into it…

Storytime 31

Okay, this isn’t my photo, and technically it’s not even a photo, but I came across it looking for a new topic and liked the story.

Some friends of mine have adopted children, two, both from China – and that’s a long story in itself that I’m not going into right now, but suffice to say, China has (or at least had) a surfeit of girls awaiting adoption, mostly because of bowing to the idiocy often called, “tradition” while not simply recognizing more efficient ways of thinking about culture. The girls were adopted as infants a few years apart, which meant that one of them got to accompany her parents on the trip to bring home the younger one. But due to vagaries of schedules and such, the only person in the party able to make a visit to the Great Wall was the father (who makes the very rare appearance here from time to time.) He regretted not having his eldest daughter at least get to see the wall, and mentioned this to me when he’d forwarded over the photos that he took – which were taken with the ‘still frame’ function of a camcorder, and this was back in the early 2000s, so quality was not up to the wonderful smutphones of today (yes that’s sarcasm.)

I no longer recall whether I was asked to make the attempt, or simply couldn’t resist, but I combined two of his images to put his daughter on the Great Wall. The only two that seemed to work weren’t matched well, but I plowed ahead anyway.

The thing is, I really like how this came out. While obviously altered, it also has a property that maybe the girl is simply marching down a model of the Great Wall. And part of the reason for this is, I already knew one of the primary issues with composite photos is not matching the light angle or conditions; in other words, putting a subject with low contrast and shadowed light into a high contrast scene, or mismatching the color registers. That’s why these two photos worked: the light is identical in color, angle, and contrast. Plus I added her shadow cast across the background – it’s all about the little touches.

Okay, it’s stupid, but that’s what Photoshop is for (if you’re serious about editing, you use GIMP.) And just to let you know, the girl pictured here is now a sophomore in college, while her sister, the one that came home with them on this trip, is a budding photographer in her own right, and just recently captured a photo of a chameleon in the fraction of a second that it snagged an insect with its extendable tongue. I really am envious.

July has to leaf

water trapped in crook of banana leaves
Okay, that was terrible, even for me, but it was still better than, “July has to fly,” which was my original choice. We are talking, of course, about the end-of-the-month abstract, something that started as a mere coincidence several years back and I’ve been continuing out of, um, something or other. If you were a professional blogger you’d understand.

Ignoring all that, this month’s offering was taken the same day as these (with more to come as well, someday,) a little reservoir of water caught in the niche of some sprouting banana leaves. The sun hitting it caught my attention, and so I fired off a few frames, secure in the knowledge that the images will one day soon garner me wealth and fame and a really neat set of kitchen knives. Trust me; sometimes you just know.

At least a less dim one

It has been a couple of weeks of things just not going quite right – not particularly bad, mind you, or at least not all of them, but very, very few things working out as intended, planned, foreseen, or whatever. Even things that I took great pains to try and prevent from going south, which is frustrating to no small degree (and I feel the need to point out that, in most of these cases, it was because I was counting on other people to have some modicum of competence, don’t ask me why.) July seems to have been a month of general goddammits.

Which is perhaps why today is At Least It’s Not All Cocked Up Day, the day when we look, maybe not on the bright side (because there isn’t necessarily one) but, well, see the title. You know, saying things like, “At least three of my tires aren’t flat,” or, “Hey, I lived to be older than Jimi Hendrix.” So in recognition of this (it doesn’t quite seem right to say, “celebration,”) I present a little something from last night that actually went as intended. Which, given the past few weeks, is a tad startling to me.

Here’s the backstory, even though it’s not Friday. I noticed a few weeks ago that one of the rainbarrels was hosting no small number of tadpoles, and not little ones either. For some reason, one of the Copes grey treefrogs (Hyla chrysoscelis) had elected to deposit her eggs in a barrel with rotten access rather than, oh, the freaking pond that sits a dozen meters away. Go figure. These are food-grade barrels, slick plastic sides with little spout-holes in one end, well away from the edges, to which I had added rectangular openings for flexible downspouts. This meant just one hole that would allow my hand to get into them with a small fishnet, and nothing else – no removable lids or anything, and at about 200 liters in capacity (that’s 50 gallons to typical ‘Murrkins,) they’re not getting dragged anyplace or even tipped to pour out of. So I fished out as many tadpoles as I could by hand, but knew there were at least a couple that had evaded my swoops with the net.

Thoughtfully, I took a length of bamboo and inserted it into the spout hole, thinking that if any tadpoles developed to the point of venturing out, they had something to climb to reach the outside world. And just last night, I had vindication that it had actually worked as intended.

Copes grey treefrog Hyla chrysoscelis escaping from rainbarrel on bamboo stalk
Overall length is probably about 20mm, soon to be much shorter as that tail vanishes. And I missed out on a nice juxtaposition, since when I first spotted this little guy, there was a grown adult on the very top of the bamboo, who failed to stick around while I fetched the camera and flash rig – shithead. There weren’t that many places for it to go in the immediate area, but it vanished entirely.

Meanwhile, I heard another calling not far away, and eventually determined from the peculiar echo-ey nature of the calls that it was within the downspout leading into another barrel, or the barrel itself – this is not the first time (nor the second or even the third) that this has happened, and I’m not sure why, really. Carefully removing the downspout revealed the frog floating in the barrel, the water level sitting several centimeters from the downspout and exit – whether it could have climbed the sides and overhanging top and gotten back out remains unanswered, because I fished it out by hand instead. It handled this with aplomb, despite looking far from pleased.

Copes grey treefrog Hyla chrysoscelis after a swim
I said before, I really need to replace at least this barrel with something more photogenic, because the brilliant blue just isn’t cutting it for natural backgrounds, and the frogs seem to prefer this one (though it wasn’t the one with the tadpoles.) While it is perhaps the easiest downspout to get into because it’s the shortest, they still have to enter it from the top, which is the gutter on the edge of the porch – I don’t know why they don’t stick to easier spots. It is entirely possible that if I understood the minds of frogs, a whole lot more of the world would make sense.

Or maybe not.

I brought a few buckets of water over from another barrel to raise the water level high enough to facilitate egress should it happen again, which is quite likely given the number of times it’s happened before, and the fact that my activity spurred the frog onto the porch supports, and then further up the very same downspout.

Copes grey treefrog Hyla chrysoscelis in comic-book action pose
I’m not sure if that’s a rude gesture from that thumb or not…

During our outing the other day, Buggato had asked me how my mantids were doing, and it occurred to me that I haven’t featured them for a bit. While they weren’t apparently doing anything last night, I spotted at least three of them, varying sizes but definitely getting a bit larger.

Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis perched under grasses
Unfortunately, the katydids seem to have gotten a big head start over the mantids and are, on average, much larger – so large that I saw one mantis actively avoid a katydid – but the size discrepancy is getting smaller and I’m hoping to get some video of a mantis chowing down on something substantial soon.

Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis looking dapper
By the way, when I removed the tadpoles from the rainbarrel, they were all deposited in the backyard pond, which also plays host to three green frogs which I see on a regular basis. But I was keeping an eye on the pond to see signs of the tadpoles emerging. Despite finding several with hind legs and at least one with all four, I have seen no evidence of new emergents from the pond itself – until last night. Hidden deep in the scouring rush stalks (Equisetum hyemale) was a solitary frogpole, looking like little more than a blob of mud on the plant stem, but proof that at least one had left the water.

Copes grey treefrog Hyla chrysoscelis tadpole recently emerged from the water
If you want an indication of scale, those brown spears in the lower right corner are pine needles, otherwise known as pine straw.

By this point, the batteries on the flash unit were starting to peg out and my spares weren’t any good either. This was a little frustrating because these are practically brand new rechargeable batteries. So either a) these were nowhere near 3000mah rating as marked, b) more than a couple individual batteries are rotten, c) my charger is working poorly, or d) the flash capacitor is starting to die out. Figuring out which one will take some time, but it effectively ended my shooting for the evening. We’ll see how it goes from here.

Nectar and pollen and all that jazz

possibly silver-spotted skipper Epargyreus clarus showing proboscis
With the heavy rains a few days back, the flowers in the NC Botanical Garden were producing more than adequate nectar, and when the Inscrutable Mr Bugg and I visited on Thursday, the pollinators were having a field day, as they say. I mean, not the pollinators – they tend to be closed-mouthed, or really no-mouthed-at-all – but, you know, the they they. Which is to say, someone other than us, possibly wholly imaginary. And pollinators almost always have a field day, since that’s where their food is, where they reproduce, and all that. We’re not getting anywhere with this paragraph, are we? And by that I mean the royal we, which basically means I bear sole responsibility for making this horrendous mess.

Anyway, we got a lot of photos during the outing, and one collection of which is going to serve to illustrate a new macro photography post – but that is not this one. This one is simply showing off several different species doing the same damn thing. Lotta proboscises… probosci… mouth siphons to be seen here. Above, an unidentified skipper provided a lot of detail but an over-exposed flower, I suspect because Bugg’s flash went off at the same time that I tripped my own shutter, but I can’t vouch for that. I also can’t vouch for the species, but this is not through lack of trying; BugGuide.net has 373 pages of photos for just the grass skipper subfamily, and I’m not even sure that I was right in selecting that one. I’d gotten past 150 pages before I said, “Screw it,” and continued with this post; I could always submit what I have for identification, but I don’t have detailed fullbody shots and anyway I’m not gonna.

[Okay, so, I put “skipper” into the tag field and WordPress popped up previous instances of the tag from my own blog, among them being “silver-spotted skipper,” so I checked the post where that appeared, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t look like a match. And that species isn’t a grass skipper (subfamily Hesperiinae,) but a dicot skipper instead (subfamily Eudaminae,) so you know this means I should have checked my own posts first. Geezzz. Anyway, this is likely a silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus.) That was better than 45 minutes for one photo – this is not promising to be a fast post to produce.]

unidentified carpenter bee on unidentified flower
Having learned my lesson (which was not to try and learn what anything is,) I present only the aesthetics of this image and not the details. It’s a buzzy thing on a plant. Deal with it.

But if you’ve ever tried it, you know that most carpenter bees, especially with flowers this small, are not holding still very long at all, moving quickly from blossom to blossom, to say nothing of the swaying of the stalks in the breeze and the swaying of the unsteady photographer for no reason at all. Combined with the very short depth-of-field of the typical macro magnification, this makes such images fairly hit-or-miss; timing can play an important role, as can taking a lot of images hoping to nail one in sharpest focus, but I’m not showing you that whole collection of misses. I’m showing you this successful one so you can marvel at my precision and amazing skills. If you look close, you can see that the focus on the wings, the legs, and the sides of the body and head are all sharp, largely because they were all in the same plane, with a couple of blossoms coming in there too. Other blossoms show how short the focus range really is – had the bee been facing diagonally from the camera, the effect might not have been as distinctive.

There were several patches of phlox (what I believe to be Phlox paniculata, which goes by so many common names it’s ludicrous,) and these were a huge favorite of the sphinx moths, the hummingbird mimics. To all appearances, I captured at least two different species, but it actually takes close examination of the resulting photos to tell – they’re far too hyperactive to be able to distinguish on the fly.

hummingbird clearwing moth Hemaris thysbe feeding from Phlox paniculata
The pale forelegs and the red underside of the abdomen likely peg this as a hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe,) and you can see that the hind legs aren’t in contact with the flower at all – the moth is hovering, only braced by the forelegs, and maintained this position for two seconds or less. Believe me, I have plenty of photos that I missed; it’s more a matter, upon returning and unloading the memory card, of seeing if I managed to get any clear shots. Overall body length might have been 30mm – slightly smaller than the ruby-throated hummingbird that the moth mimics, but apparently not so much that any predators could tell the difference.

A couple more to illustrate.

snowberry clearwing moth Hemaris diffinis feeding from Phlox paniculata, full frame
This is the full frame, showing what I captured as a different species, a snowberry clearwing (Hemaris diffinis) provided a nice profile shot (instead of the typical dorsal view, when they actually came into the clear in the first place.) But now we’re going to go in close for the detail.

snowberry clearwing moth Hemaris diffinis at Phlox paniculata, in detail
I am not going to dismiss the role that luck plays in getting images like this, but I will at least aver that it is not all luck, demonstrated very simply by the plain fact that I shoot subjects like this alongside other photographers fairly frequently, and almost always get more keepers than they do. In cases like this one, it was also a matter of finding the key parts to focus upon (such as the proboscis here) and being able to trip the shutter right as they came up the sharpest. I wasn’t trying to adjust the focus ring and sure as hell wasn’t going with autofocus (and couldn’t anyway, since this was the strictly-manual Mamiya 80mm macro lens,) so this meant adjusting focus with the camera’s position instead, leaning in or out as needed. It takes practice, but it can be worth it.

By the way, I’m fairly certain this was an aperture of f4, since I was shooting by natural light without a flash unit, which shortens depth-of-field even more. Notice that the abdomen is already going out of focus, and the flower petal under the tip of the proboscis is very soft. It’s easy to believe the blur of the wings is from their movement, until you notice how distinct the wing veins are; they’re not moving much at all in the brief shutter speed – 1/2000 second – so the softness is primarily from short focus depth. I’m pleased with it.

Even more telling – of what I don’t know – is that, after quite a bit of searching, I eventually spotted a tiny crab spider on one of the blossoms. This was a vindication of sorts, since I know crab spiders like those flowers as ambush grounds, yet wasn’t finding them even though I was looking hard. However, the spider was perfectly motionless, on a blossom that wasn’t driven much by the wind, and not one of eight frames is anywhere near sharp enough to use. Yes, I really do wonder how the hell I managed to screw that up. But you know I’ll take the sphinx moths over the crab spiders any day.

And one last one, as the same moth left that particular cluster of flowers.

snowberry clearwing moth Hemaris diffinis leaving Phlox paniculata after feeding
Not quite as sharp as the last, but not bad, and I like how the proboscis is already curling up into travel position (or, you know, whatever you want to call it – I’m sure entomologists have some technical term that applies.) This is cropped, but not quite as much as the previous; I was in the exact same position after all. Also, there’s enough detail captured here to see the differentiating details of the species, in this case dark legs and a black underside to the abdomen. The dark background fooled my exposure meter towards overexposing the shot a little, but there was no way I was going to play with compensation in the mere seconds that I had, and the backgrounds were widely varied as the moths flitted about haphazardly.

Oh, and I’ll mention again: you can pick a particular cluster of blossoms to ‘stake out’ and lock focus onto, waiting for the pollinators to come into your composition and feed from those flowers, but it typically doesn’t work. As a species, we tend to be meticulous and methodical, but pollinators (and even hummingbirds themselves) work almost at random, or at least driven by factors that are not immediately apparent to us, and remaining locked-in on any given spot usually means you’ll miss a decent shot only centimeters away. It’d be nice if it worked, but in years of doing this I’ve had it happen maybe three times. Just follow their progress and hope for decent compositions and focus.

Oh, give it a shot

It’s been a while since I’ve made the attempt myself, but the moon conditions at least are almost ideal now. Over the next few nights we’ll be near-peak for two different meteor showers: the Delta Aquarids and the Alpha Capricornids. All too often, the moon is too bright for good viewing, throwing excessive light across the sky (especially in humid climes like here,) but we’re in a waning crescent phase right now, meaning the moon won’t even rise until the early hours of the morning, and then it’ll only be a thin slice.

It’s not hard to set your camera for these, but different techniques yield different results. I’ll provide a few pointers (even though what I’ve caught so far has been abysmal.)

1) Pick the darkest region you can find, of course, as far from light pollution as possible. There is a ‘radiant’ for each storm where the meteors tend to originate, but in my experience it’s always been a loose tendency, and meteors might be found in any direction. If you have darker skies away from the radiant, you may have better luck aiming that way.

2) ISO no higher than 800, but 400 or less will keep the digital noise down.

3) Full manual settings, aperture between f5.6 and f11, B[ulb] for the shutter. Camera on firm tripod of course, as low as you can reasonably get it just for stability, especially if it’s breezy or windy. A remote release helps keep you from disturbing the camera when opening and closing the shutter. Moderate focal length, from 35-80mm, will give you a broader section of sky, increasing your chances of capturing one, while hopefully not reducing it so much in the frame that it’s barely discernible. Manual focus too, locked carefully onto a bright light source as far away as possible, like a radio tower beacon or something – they’re easier to make out in the viewfinder than stars, though usually at the same effective distance.

4) Relatively short exposure times, because the Earth is turning and this will render star trails for longer exposures. How short? Well, there’s no good guide, because a lot of it depends both on your focal length and how close to the equatorial plane you’re aiming – that’s where the most apparent motion takes place. The longer your focal length, the more noticeable star motion will be. Aimed near the poles (like north or south,) you can get away with exposures perhaps as high as a minute, but near the path that the sun and moon take across the sky, ten seconds is probably maximum. Don’t get me wrong, star trails are cool, but they can also muddy up the frame enough that lesser meteors become almost invisible.

5) Find a comfortable position near the camera that allows you a good view skyward; this generally means at least leaning back a bit, but lying almost horizontal tends to be the most comfortable. And dress for inactivity, i.e., a little warmer than you might have thought.

6) Just keep firing off frames. You’re going to discard a lot. But the less time you spend with the shutter closed, the more chances you have of capturing a meteor.

7) If you’re lucky enough to capture a brilliant fireball, make sure you don’t re-aim the camera for at least a few frames afterward, and go for some much longer exposures for following frames. Some fireballs actually leave an infinitesimally faint trace of their passage in the sky for minutes afterward, and subsequent frames may reveal it, and possibly even its movement across the sky.

I hope this helps. Have at it, and if you capture anything, drop me a line, or make a comment here. Good luck!

Storytime 30

southern unstriped scorpion Vaejovis carolinianus not quite ready for action
This had been among the first of my detailed arthropod images and had been in the image galleries for a while, but I eventually removed it to upgrade my offerings. This is a southern unstriped scorpion (Vaejovis carolinianus,) also commonly known as a southern devil scorpion. It was collected in Smyrna, Georgia, which is one of 168 and counting suburbs of Atlanta, and it dates from 1999 or thereabouts; yes, this means it was shot on slide film and not digital. Overall length was probably less that 30mm, but I’m going off memory and we all know how bad that is.

The action pose here is anything but, since it was found entangled firmly in a spider’s web, quite dead. I spent some time stripping the webbing away carefully and then soaking the corpse in alcohol to soften the joints, which allowed me to pose it at will before letting it harden again – the background is playground sand from my apartment complex. So, yeah, intrepid action shots and all that. Worse, this was before I even knew that they fluoresced brilliantly under ultra-violet light, so I missed my opportunity back when this was in my possession. Though I imagine, in those uncivilized days, I would’ve had a difficult time getting my hands on a UV light source for a price I was willing to meet.

There’s a part two to this story as well. After getting a selection of photos, I set about to cast it in clear polyester resin to make a curio out of it. I didn’t have the shape mold that I wanted, but I found a small drinking glass (what two or three generations back would have called an “Old Fashioned” glass after the mixed drink of that approximate size) with an ideal shape to it. Planning carefully, I mixed the first batch of clear resin and poured it in, letting it start to set so it had gelled a little, then carefully put the dearly departed in upside-down and held it down with straight pins through a card above the glass, so its feet were just breaking the surface of the resin. Letting that harden for a short while, I mixed a new batch that was heavily infused with sand, and added a thin layer of this on top – when inverted, it would give a somewhat natural-looking surface for the scorpion to be perched on, like the photo here.

Everything went just ducky until the whole assembly had hardened sufficiently, which was a day later – that was when I found that I couldn’t get my new casting out of the damn glass. I shook, I tapped, I ran the glass under hot water, I pleaded, I threatened, and of course I cursed; no luck. I had used no mold release agent and the glass was not the typical polyethylene that most molds are made of. I was starting to worry that I’d permanently infused one of my sparse drinkware with an inverted scorpion. On a whim, I popped the glass into the freezer overnight.

The next day, I brought it out and tapped it a few times, with still no movement, then turned it upside-down over a padded stool and banged it down repeatedly – this was both successful and unsuccessful. The very first whack popped the casting free cleanly, but I was in hammering mode, a series of three rapid bangs, and the second brought the now-empty glass down onto the top of my new casting. The glass survived, the lovely scorpion paperweight received a big chip directly out of the top. Well, fuck. It was quite annoying, because the casting was otherwise perfect and had a remarkably smooth and uniform appearance. And naturally, I have never had any chance of even seeing a scorpion since then, despite several safaris aimed almost exclusively towards that. I mean, seriously, is this too much to ask?

I’d include a photo of the chipped casket, but I ended up giving that to the friend who had provided the scorpion in the first place, even though he lived where he could find them alive and kicking. To my knowledge, he has continually eschewed this advantage. Some people.