I let my guard down…

… and of course someone snuck in.

recently hatched egg sac ootheca of Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis showing 'chaff'
In this case, it was the first of the mantis egg cases (oothecas) hatching. There are several in the yard, including four now that had been naturally placed there – three Chinese mantids and a Carolina. I was doing routine checks, but the last one discovered, deep under an untended thicket of mostly vines, I now realize that I don’t recall checking two days ago, and so yesterday I find it with the telltale ‘beard’ of molted exoskeletons that the new hatchlings soon discard.No sign of any hatchlings though, so I figure it had occurred the day previously, or even overnight. I am ashamed to have missed this, bringing dishonor to my family and profession, and I poked myself in the belly with a butter knife to atone for this. But in my defense, the position was so bad on this one that I was certain I’d be doing very few extreme closeups of the hatching, and no video – just too much stuff in the way. Here’s a small example:

egg sac ootheca of Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis lurking deep within foliage
And bear in mind, this is with crouching low and aiming into deep shadow – I only discovered it when picking up damnable pinecones before mowing. I took no photos on the day of discovery, so going out there this morning, I made it a point to search carefully for the newborns, and only managed to spot two, but they do represent the first mantids of this year, so everyone take note.

newborn Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis, first for 2021, near ootheca
Since oothecas typically produce dozens to hundreds of mantids (each bit of chaff in the beard represents one emergence,) they made themselves scarce pretty thoroughly, but the foliage is thick enough that this is no surprise. It does slow me down from the project of clearing out some of that unwanted undergrowth, though. And it’s going to make me do more frequent checks of the other egg sacs – I’m wasting too much time on the computer right now…

Profiles of Nature 17

brown snake Storeria dekayi Euphrosyne peeking from behind dandelions
Wow, you’re still coming back? We should have defeated even the most die-hard masochists by now, but okay. Today we’re dropping in on Euphrosyne (six syllables,) who’s largely retired from the biz now. She started out just fine, pulling down gigs for Guns and Ammo and Elevator World magazines, and even a walk-on for an episode of BJ and the Bear (no, she can’t walk, but she’s an accomplished actress, dumbass.) She soon had her own line of clothing, but had to give it up because the homeowners’ association didn’t allow clotheslines. Still, everything was looking rosy until one day two years ago when she was not refused service at a local restaurant, the maĆ®tre d’ averring that she was too small a snake to provoke even the willies; the ensuing scene involved multiple police officers, two lay preachers, and a sign spinner. After that, Euphrosyne withdrew from the Public Eye (her odd bank in Massachusetts) and became a bit of a hermit, or maybe theirmit now, not appearing in public, never returning phone calls, and only posting four times a day on FaceBlerk. Naturally, rumors abound: that she lives in a trailer with 28 caps, or that she’s responsible for child beauty pageants, or she doesn’t have any Bluetooth devices. We could find no support for any of these, but we’d started them anyway, having attended journalism school, so we’ll just dodgily imply that she has some filthy habit – your choice. Her great-grandparents came over from South Sudan, and her favorite discredited discipline is plombage, according to a bio that isn’t actually hers.

If you don’t come by every week, you might miss the time when this content actually becomes interesting!

It feels better to be shooting

The temperature is still bouncing up and down more than it should (said within earshot of Mother Nature,) but it’s quite nice to be able to go out and easily find something to photograph. Have I mentioned that winter sucks? I mean, where are all the protestors aiming to correct that?

A few days back now, The Girlfriend and I did a pass around the neighborhood pond, not in the best of conditions considering that it started raining while we were out there, but still able to produce a handful of worthwhile shots. The double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) are not only still around, they’re increasing.

pair of female double-crested cormorants Phalacrocorax auritus on pilings, one drying
I initially took the spread one as a male, seeing it from a distance and noticing the darker feathers (males are mostly black,) but closer inspection showed it to be a wet female, one of three females residing at the pond now. We should be in season to see the namesake double-crests, but we need a male for that.

Another pair of images just for illustration:

female double-crested cormorant Phalacrocorax auritus in profile
This is the full frame (with the Tamron 150-600mm of course,) to give you an idea how much the next was cropped.

female double-crested cormorant Phalacrocorax auritus in tight closeup
Do you like the detail? I know I do. The autofocus can still wander a bit too much, but when it’s on, it’s on.

I’m still watching the pair of green herons (Butorides virescens,) and on that day, stalked what I’m taking to be the more mellow one. It can be hard to distinguish birds apart from one another, but so far, one seems quite spooky and won’t allow a close approach, while the other is a lot more tolerant of such.

green heron Butorides virescens stalking in shallows
This is almost full-frame, so we were quite close – about six meters, I believe. It remained wary, but did not interrupt its foraging over us. This image shows the nice variety of feathers, typical plumage for the adults. Like most of the heron family, males and females are largely indistinguishable, so I’m not even going to try.

As it wended along the water’s edge, it obtained the cover of border plants, but I still managed another view, switching to manual focus and using the herons’ lambent eye as the focal point whenever I got a clear enough view. The effect from the out-of-focus leaves worked pretty well.

green heron Butorides virescens foraging along shore almost obscured by leaves
This, to me, is more expressive of their habits, since they prefer to forage where hidden by foliage. Granted, it doesn’t show off their appearance worth a damn, but to give an accurate representation of their behavior, it works great.

We didn’t get out there again until this morning, and in fact, The Girlfriend initially stayed home – until I spotted something that I figured she’d want to see, and called her to come over. This is the first I’ve seen on the pond this year.

two adult Canada geese Branta canadensis in water plants with goslings just barely visible
They were more visible when I first saw them, but I didn’t have the camera out then. And when I did, I shot some video instead while they were in plain sight. These are of course Canada geese (Branta canadensis,) with goslings in tow – six, though only two are visible here between the adults.

By the way, the snag in the foreground is the same one used by the green heron last year, and as I link to it, I’ll suggest looking at the barring on the neck, which indicates that one was last year’s brood. It remains possible that it’s one of the same ones seen here this year, but there’s no way of telling.

But we’re getting sidetracked from the goslings.

four Canada goose Branta canadensis goslings foraging across a driveway
They were quite active, wandering across several yards alongside the pond, with the adults running interference whenever another goose ventured too close – I just missed video of this, twice, but stay tuned. The adults tended to herd them a safe distance from us, meaning a handful of meters, but they’re also fed by some of the residents (the human ones) so they’re not too wary.

four Canada goose Branta canadensis goslings foraging in grass
The Girlfriend was glad that I called her over, since she’d been planning on using the morning solely for her employee duties, but this was more interesting, and much cuter – she made up the time, don’t fret about it. Sheesh.

pair of water iris yellow flag iris Iris pseudacorus blossoms on pond's edgeI played with a couple of fartsy frames, per Mr Bugg’s instructions, since the water iris was popping out in a couple of places. I searched the plants carefully for green treefrogs (or anything else of merit,) but didn’t get anything to work with except some dew drops, so I’m just O’Keeffing here.

As we circled the pond, we saw no sign whatsoever of the green herons, which I found curious because it was a bright morning and I expected them out. As we came back around to the small copses of trees that I’m reasonably certain held a heron nest last year, I finally spotted a little movement within, eventually determining that a pair was close together within the thick foliage – the view was so bad that I suspected it was them only because of the size. It appeared that they both flew off only a short distance, but then one returned within a minute or so, giving a little more weight to the idea that they’re thinking of building a nest therein – either that or they’re really late risers. I searched as best as I could, given the foliage and my desire not to be obtrusive, and saw no evidence of a nest, which really means nothing – it could easily have been there and I just never spotted it. Or, since they were both out foraging only a few days previously, it hasn’t been started yet. We’ll just have to see what transpires. But as I was there, I maneuvered around to get the barest spot to peek through, and the heron obliged by shifting a little to watch me better.

green heron Butorides viriscens peeking out of dense foliage
Will this lead to more behavioral photos, perhaps some nice nest shots or feeding young? Can’t say, and won’t try to predict – I’ll just do what I can, but at least I’m a little more on top of it this year.

A break in the numbers

This was going to be another of the ‘Just Because’ posts, but really, there’s too damn many numbered posts, so it’s not. And it’s a throw-up, just something that I came across today when watering the plants. Which looked almost exactly like this:

black racer Coluber constrictor peeking out from vinca plants
I had initially identified this as a black rat snake/eastern rat snake, but afterward as I looked at the almost uniformly indigo belly and smooth scales, I realized it was a racer (Coluber constrictor) instead. I always pictured them with slightly narrower heads, not to mention the habit of hurtling away upon anyone’s approach, but so much for that. Somewhere in the realm of 120-130cm in length and thus average for the species, this one was remarkably patient, not only staying put as I got the camera and The Girlfriend (who doesn’t like snakes but has gotten used to them enough to observe from a moderate distance,) but also as I leaned in pretty close for pics.

black racer Coluber constrictor  motionless with head raised
The one aspect where it was not cooperative was with the tongue action; it demonstrated plenty as I shifted position, but only a hint when I was locked in and focused, and I caught just the barest tip in a single frame, visible only at high res. Ah well.

And while we’re here, the eastern rat snake, almost identical, would show a distinct longitudinal line, a ‘keel,’ on each body scale – subtle, but it would be plainly visible in this light. This might actually be the same snake as last year, though it’s a few dozen meters away from that area – certainly not outside of any normal range. Going through the collection of frames from both years just now, the color pattern around the head isn’t identical but is remarkably similar, so I’m giving it a better than 80% chance, myself [Editor’s note: The author has no scientific training and hates math, so his estimate has less than a 50% chance of accuracy.]

Still closer.

black racer Coluber constrictor lloking alert and threatening
I was a little amazed that this guy did nothing but twitch slightly as I got in this close, though I admit that, a little later on using the smutphone camera just to pester others with the shots, the snake finally decided that I was invading its personal space and gently, slowly backed from view. The focus on this particular frame needs a closer look, however, so let’s get to that:

black racer Coluber constrictor in close portrait
While last year’s shot was done with the 150-600mm lens, this was with the 18-135mm, meaning I was considerably closer. So menacing in appearance, and racers are much more willing to bite than rat snakes, but this one just stayed as motionless as possible and counted on this as protection; it may have been a different matter had I tried to pick it up, but I’d rather encourage it to hang around, so I let it be and went back to my yard work. We’ll see if I encounter it anytime later on.

Air, and a little Water, Day

While my schedule was a little odd, I did get the chance to go out for a short while in recognition of Earth Day, so back to the lake it was. I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed when, after reminding all my readers of the holiday and talking so recently about the species that could be found down there, Jordan Lake was remarkably quiet. It’s like I’m not reaching anyone somehow…

Still, I found a handful of things to photograph, and got some outdoor time and fresh air that notably wasn’t laden with some wicked allergen that hit me right in the back of the throat (unlike all day yesterday,) so I’m good. Still trying to be better of course, but right now I’m not complaining, and that’s remarkable enough on its own.

While a handful of herons and a red-tailed hawk made an appearance, we’ll just stick with the bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) for now; either their numbers have exploded at the lake recently, or they’ve moved from an area that I was unaware of to my most-frequented haunt. It takes almost no effort anymore.

adult and juvenile bald eagles Haliaeetus leucocephalus wheeling together
High overhead, an adult and a juvenile wheeled together, almost appearing to be courting, which may be possible (I suspect they reach sexual maturity before their fourth year when they achieve the white head and tail of the adult,) or it may have been a parent and offspring, though I doubt this year’s because of the coloration – it looks like 2nd or 3rd year for the juvie, to me. There was no further behavior to support either idea, however, and eventually they separated a bit and disappeared from view.

Then it was quiet, but after a while I spotted one in the distance coming closer, and I switched position on the chance that it might do some fishing in my view. The sun was high and bright, not ideal for shooting up into the sky, but as the eagle started banking around I got a couple of decent angles.

adult bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus in slight bank
This one was ‘stepping’ lower, slight swoops and pullouts, no actual diving, more like false starts, but it steadily dropped lower.

adult bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus lowering its feet
As the feet started to extend from their tucked position, I knew it was spotting potential prey, even though it maintained the indecisive descent. I wasn’t about to look away now.

adult bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus in shallow stoop
Yep, it’s got its eye on something, and I silently cheered it on.

adult bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus just before snatching fish from water
Annnddd the focus twitched away again, inexplicably. I’m going to spend the day tomorrow hashing out just what the hell it seems to be doing, and/or trying to prevent it. But this is what I got today, and the action is clear at least.

adult bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus, snagging fish and heading out
Gracefully, it snatched its prey from the water and started climbing back out, very shallowly. This is cropped significantly, and in the viewfinder I wasn’t completely sure that it had caught one or not, but since the eagle headed straight off without climbing much or wheeling back, it seemed likely to me.

I’ll be back to make more attempts, and video is in the works – I’ll have to determine if a tripod is necessary or a shoulder-rig will be sufficient, but shooting freehand (like these still photos) would only induce seasickness. We’ll see what happens, hopefully soon.

Profiles of Nature 16

black vulture Coragyps atratus Rigoberto in tree overhead
This week we wave back to Rigoberto, only to realize he was just admiring his ring. Rigoberto didn’t let his appearance hold him back, and Buscemi’d his way into movie roles such as The Jungle Book (1967,) Clash of the Titans (1981,) Conan the Barbarian (1982,) and as a stand-in for Kenneth Copeland and Sylvia Browne (though he regretted both on moral grounds, and ended up donating his fees to the charity ‘Holy Shit Use Your Head For Something Other Than A Snapchat Filter’ to help offset this.) In fact, he’s very motivated to help others, but after being asked not to volunteer at retirement homes or children’s hospitals, he found his niche perching outside Ford Motor plants, eventually being credited with a 12% increase in quality among the vehicles produced therein (nowhere near enough, but better than anything their execs ever accomplished.) Rigoberto is a perfectionist on the job, insisting on nothing but the absolute best performances and consequently not working most of the time, a standard we’re hoping to establish with more pop stars. In his youth, he set his eye on playing Charlie Brown in an eventual live-action Peanuts special and endeavored to have his head measure more than five times his neck diameter, which led his emergency room physician to call it quits, move to Montana, and begin making that string-stretched-between-nails art that was so popular in the ’70s. Rigoberto owns 754 pockets squares as an investment; we’re not sure how that works either. His favorite tourist trap is the world’s largest ball of twine.

We’ll be here next week, and you will too because now it’s just horrified fascination.

Too cool, part 48: Ingenuity leaves the nest

Astronomy Picture of the Day had the news this morning, and you’ve likely already heard it anyway, but who would if I failed to cover this on my own? Two ‘Too Cools’ ago, we observed the landing of the Perseverance rover on Mars, and now we have the follow-up, so let’s do it in chronological order. The transmission time from Mars is significant, and the first information to come back was telemetry data:

Note the photo that the Ingenuity helicopter took of its own shadow. Ingenuity is just a proof-of-concept vehicle, a test, not intended or equipped for exploration, but it has a basic, monochrome still camera onboard. That, I must point out, is extremely fast, because it stopped the 2,400 RPM blades dead in the frame, no blurred shadow.

Later on, the Perseverance rover processed its video and transmitted that along, its view from a moderate distance away, where it had reversed to after dropping Ingenuity from its underside a few weeks back.

Ingenuity traveled with dead batteries, so it had to charge them with its solar panels for a while, and there was a software issue that, I thought I’d heard, was going to take a few days more than this to fix, so I was a little surprised by the news, but hey, I’ll take it. And the stability and precision are great to see, much better than I can maintain with my own quadcopter (which isn’t saying much.) And yes, you know I’m motivated to go out this afternoon and do a few flights.

It’s pretty impressive, overall: Mars’ atmosphere is much thinner than ours, making any kind of flight a serious exercise in engineering, and because of the transmission delay between Mars and Earth, all such flights have to be autonomous. Helicopters themselves are inherently unstable, requiring constant correction to maintain flight, and accomplishing this with software is pretty damn slick. So mad props (a ha ha) to NASA and the crew at Jet Propulsion Laboratory for this feat.

As a stupid aside, Metal Earth is a company that makes sheet metal models and features a lot of space-related stuff, and when I checked on a whim a few weeks back, I found that they were soon to produce a model of Perseverance and Ingenuity. I’ve purchased and assembled no small number of these myself, so I’m psyched.

Metal Earth models of Mars explorers, Insight Lander and Curiosity Rover
Metal Earth models of Mars explorers, Insight Lander and Curiosity Rover

Fingers crossed

No, that’s superstitious – let’s just say I’m hoping for the best, or at least the better than average.

I went over to the neighborhood pond today, in part just to see how a new bag situation was working – long story, but a shoulder-slung bag has been bothering my back, so I’m investigating other options, and this time around it was a sling bag. Yes, I know it’s still shoulder-slung, but it sits higher and has a broader strap, plus the bulk of the weight is now on my opposite shoulder, so we’ll see how it works out.

One of the other reasons was to see if the green herons (Butorides virescens) were showing yet, since I’m hoping to catch the nesting behavior; we’ve had nests for the past two years, but generally I’ve only known this when the fledglings had already left and were simply hanging around in its general vicinity, and I’m trying to get ahead of the game this year. It wasn’t long before I spotted one, the first of the season, flying a short distance away to perch on a lower branch partially obscured by the tree’s trunk. I started edging around, and the heron was peeking out just enough to see me and lean back out of sight. Or what it thought was out of sight, anyway – it would get its eye back enough not to see me, thinking this was sufficient and not accounting for its long beak (or hoping that this was subtle enough to pass notice.)

green heron Butorides virescens barely peeking from behind trunk
That’s expressive, but we need a closer look for detail.

green heron Butorides virescens showing very edge of eye
If you look right against the trunk, you can just make out the barest edge of its eye. There’s no question that it was watching me and leaning back out until it could no longer see my torso, since it not only did this multiple times, it kept leaning further back as I slowly maneuvered for a better look. Eventually, I just stepped a little more quickly out around the tree (still at some distance – this is at 600mm and cropped further) to get a clear pic.

green heron Butorides virescens slightly better view
It didn’t tolerate this for very long, and soon flew off to a safer location, but it didn’t matter: I had evidence that one, at least, had returned, and could now keep a wary eye out for nesting behavior.

The day was chilly, and I had no intention of being out very long since I’d dressed in the belief that it was warmer, but then another green heron was spotted, and I stalked that one, which turned out to be a lot less wary. Just so you know, this is full frame, no cropping at all:

green heron Butorides virescens holding still
This one was counting on its camouflage and total stillness, and I was able to creep fairly close and even sit down for more stability, thus this nice portrait. After a moment though, now that I was nearly motionless myself and as close as I intended, it started to get a little more anxious and took a few quick steps, crest now raised:

wary green heron Butorides virescens stepping away with crest raised
Now, this might have been from deciding that my behavior wasn’t kosher, or realizing that I was indeed aware of its presence, or it might have been from the swimming approach of a Canada goose, which was admittedly closer (and tending towards territorial.) I can’t say either way, but it soon flew off. I had both the proof and the pics I needed though, so no biggie.

Coming back, I spotted some movement within the thick trees that I suspect held the heron nests last year, and stopped to observe it. The bird was quickly revealed as being far too small, but I struggled for a clear look, determining that it had no intention of letting me obtain this. I shrugged and moved on, yet almost immediately another with a beak full of nesting material flew in to the same location. This prompted me to try again, and with much dodging of intervening branches and foliage (and switching the focus to manual because autofocus would have grabbed everything but the bird,) I managed a couple more portraits.

gray catbird Dumetella carolinensis with nesting material
This is a gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis,) and I couldn’t tell you the gender since their plumage is indistinguishable, except that it seemed marginally larger than the other so that usually indicates female. It was obviously a companion of the first that I’d spotted, and they both watched me warily while waiting until it was safe to approach their nest location in that tree.

gray catbird Dumetella carolinensis with tiny sprig of nest material
This one doesn’t seem to be putting the effort in, but it was a nicer portrait. There was no doubt as to the identification, but one of them vented a couple of the quiet, mewing calls that gave them their common name, just to confirm. I soon left them alone to complete their nest, and perhaps I’ll make the attempt in a couple of weeks to find it and observe their rearing behavior.

So, yeah, nice bit of progress and good omens for a brief, casual outing. No complaints on my end.

This week in Things

I have routine event reminders in my home calendar, a remnant from the period that I actually had a calendar attached to the blog with nature-photography-related events thereon – only about half of those were carried over, and of those, most of them I don’t post about. But I retained the meteor shower data, so I can tell you that the Lyrids meteor shower is due to peak on the 21st and 22nd. ‘Peak’ is a vague thing, since they’ll be visible for many days before and after, and the actual activity can be wildly variable as well, just because that’s the nature of meteor showers. The moon will be setting in the early morning hours, leaving a dark window of a couple of hours before sunrise to make any attempts, which is when the meteors tend to be more visible anyway. Now, setting up time exposures and not capturing any satellites in the image is the real challenge anymore, but I would suggest the earlier the better, to reduce the number that can reflect the approaching sun (being at high altitudes, satellites can catch sunlight long before we see any evidence of it on Earth.) The Lyrids is near the constellation Vega, riding high to the east, so in more of a ‘dead spot’ between equatorial and polar orbit satellites, but in my experience, you might see meteors anywhere – they just tend to ‘originate’ near Vega. Whatever – give it a shot, if you have the sky conditions and can get out in the early morning.

April 22nd is Earth Day, so go eat some dirt. Or something. There are plenty of resources online with suggestions, but my own is simply to get out and enjoy nature (imagine that.) Due to The Girlfriend’s video conferencing schedule, I’ll probably be forced from the house anyway – I’ll definitely be away from the office. We’ll see what happens – I try not to make too definitive plans because the weather doesn’t like cooperating, or other things come up. It’s not like the 22nd will be the only day I get out this month.

And April 24th is the 31st anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. In my area, it will make the briefest appearance not long after sunset, but wink out (from passing into Earth’s shadow) just after it rises above 12°, so there’s very little opportunity to see it on that date – Heaven’s Above and Stellarium can help you plot it for your area (generally, search on ‘HST’.) However, I have seen it at other times:

streak of Hubble Space Telescope passing against background stars
So that’ll keep you busy for a few days. Just tell your boss you need the whole week off – you know, as a Walkaboutian. I’ll back you up.

On close inspection

After a gout of photos taken in the past few days, there comes the sorting. It’s not enough to simply take them, to capture them, no no – they must be examined for merit, culled of any that do not pass muster (very, very few, naturally,) and then distributed into folders appropriate for their primary subject. Not to mention copying them all onto separate harddrives in a process that I like to call, “backing up.” And while doing this recently, I came across a couple of curious details that I’d like to share with you (you get half, and I get half, exactly, at the same time, ready? One, two, three…)

The first is something almost invisible in the original exposure, but brightened here to make it easier to see, of an osprey (Pandion haliaetus) over Jordan lake from a few days back.

osprey Pandion haliaetus overhead and potentially looking down and back at photographer
They eyes are what we’re paying attention to here, and I won’t say for sure that it’s looking back and down at me, but those eyes sure are aligned in that direction, aren’t they? The lower part of bird skulls tends to be narrower than the upper portion, allowing many species to have a gaze that can fall directly down from normal orientation, ‘seeing under their chin,’ as it were.

And then we have our most recent subject, zoomed in and color-tweaked here.

great blue heron Ardea herodias with channel catfish Ictalurus puntatus in its beak
The eyes are the key focus here too (a ha ha, get it?) just for the sake of it. I have no idea how well herons can see something held in the base of their beak, but it’s probably not too often that they’ll ever come more eye-to-eye with their prey, almost like pro wrestlers before a match, only a lot less stupid.

I just thought you should see these. I would say that we’ll now return to normal content, but you and I both know that’s not gonna happen here.

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