More random stuff from the pond

newborn six-spotted fishing spiders Dolomedes triton still by egg sac
Just a handful of photos, other stuff that I collected on the same days that I was shooting the great egret and the turtles. More or less, anyway – I actually returned to capture the above shot of newborn six-spotted fishing spiders (Dolomedes triton) because I didn’t have the macro flash rig along when I first spotted them. Unfortunately, the nice composition of the mother running interference atop the web tent wasn’t there when I returned; instead she was hidden in the leaves underneath, and not very cooperative in coming out into view. But as it turns out, this was one of several hatchings all taking place in the same time frame, so I could pick one of the other mothers to feature. Like so.

adult female six-spotted fishing spider Dolomedes triton near egg tent
Six-spotted fishing spiders are fairly big as reproducing adults, this one being roughly 50-60mm in leg spread. And while I always interpreted them as remaining near the hatchlings for protection (as the green lynx spiders seem to,) all of the ones that I found were more inclined to seek cover than to dispute my presence, so who knows? Another, without an apparent egg sac, also sought a hiding spot as I leaned in, but it wasn’t the most effective attempt.

six-spotted fishing spider Dolomedes triton hiding ineffectually behind leaf
Interspersed freely among all of these, which were all found on low plants directly bordering the water, were the ubiquitous long-jawed orb weavers (genus Tetragnatha,) some of whom appeared to be engaged in courting behavior. I would have initially considered this late in the season, but spiders take all spring and summer to mature, and the young are often born in the fall and overwinter as tiny little things before starting their serious growth in the spring. Also, since I saw the same behavior taking place at Jordan Lake a few days before this, I think it’s safe to say it’s a trait.

male long-jawed orb weaver Tetragnatha in profile
Long-jawed orb weavers are gangly things, with not just spindly legs but long pedipalps and chelicerae, and this image makes it seem almost chaotic. The pedipalps are the things with bulbous ends at lower left, the shape defining this one as a male – this is what they use to impregnate the female. While behind them, the thicker and spiky protrusions are the base of the chelicerae, more show than function, as I understand it. Tetragnathas are not particularly aggressive or formidable spiders, despite having a decent size to them (body length in the 20-30mm range) – I’ve accidentally passed through their webs any number of times, and had them running across my arms, camera, and hat every so often, usually complacent enough to let me scoop them up and return them to their host plants.

I found a couple different species of very large caterpillar while out there, both of which I had to look up since I’d never seen them before.

larva of banded sphinx moth Eumorpha fasciatus, showing two different color phases
No, this is only one of them – they can change color drastically at different instars of the larval stage. These are the caterpillars of a banded sphinx moth (Eumorpha fasciatus,) and quite good-sized; the larger one measures roughly 100mm in body length. The adults are large and vivid, and I’ve seen them around occasionally.

About 20 meters away, a more threatening species was found.

smeared dagger Acronicta oblinita caterpillar
This is the larva of a smeared dagger moth, which isn’t very pretty as an adult, but those spikes and the aposematic coloration were more than enough to convince me to keep my hands back, and that impression was accurate: they do have an irritant that’s administered with those daggers. Slightly smaller than the largest banded sphinx caterpillar, but still an appreciable size.

And finally, the great egret was still hanging out.

great egret Ardea alba hitting the limit of water depth
I saw it coming along the bank and took up position ahead of it, and true to its nature, it came almost directly alongside me. This time I didn’t have the longer lens but didn’t really need it – the Canon 100-300 L was more than enough, and in this case, I’d zoomed back out to 100mm to get the broader view. You can see the water reaching the egret’s belly, and I believe that it decided, immediately after this, that it couldn’t detour a safe enough distance from me and still remain in water shallow enough to wade, so it flew off to a nearby bank. It was hardly too spooked, because I eventually caught up with it there for more close portraits. But I’ll close with a slightly earlier one, as it hove into view through the screening plants on the banks – I just liked it better for the atmosphere and the abstract rippling water background.

great egret Ardea alba seen through the undergrowth
Fear not! There are at least two more posts coming up, regarding a recent trip to Mason Farm Biological Reserve, and perhaps whatever else I photograph as I build up to them – catching up has been ongoing, but it’s much better than having nothing to photograph, and that season is approaching. Then you get to slog through my philosophical posts.

Not the bluest

lot of black vultures Coragyps atratus roosting in dead tree
On a sunset outing to Jordan lake almost a week ago, we had clear skies – not ideal for sunset – except for some haze down on the horizon – not ideal for birds, which were pretty much the only thing that we saw. The majority of those were more distant, which put them down lower and thus against the haze, so most of the backgrounds for this post are going to be anywhere from pale grey to an anemic blue. But whatcha gonna do?

Above, the dead tree on the point at one of our two common shooting locales was heavily loaded with roosting black vultures (Coragyps atratus,) apparently exhausted from a long day of circling and looming. I’m guessing, anyway. Yes, this is aimed almost straight up, and yes, we were at times directly underneath, yet nothing untoward befell us – the vultures were slightly edgy about our presence, but not seriously. At times most of them would take to the air and circle widely for a bit, not because of anything apparent that we did, then some would return while others would find roosts a few hundred meters away. Not the kind of behavior we were looking for, so we largely ignored them.

In the distance, I tracked a bird passing low and straight beyond the causeway road to our left, and fired off a few frames to ensure that I had the identification correct.

passing auslt bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus
That is indeed a bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus,) an adult, and we watched to see if it would turn or circle and start hunting, but like many of the times we’ve seen them at that location, it seemed intent on going someplace and never wavered from a straight line path.

likely second year juvenile bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus banking in distanceCuriously, less than a minute later it was followed by another bird, this one marked differently, who banked back and forth briefly in the middle of its path before continuing on in the same direction that the previous had been heading.

This is cropped tightly from a much larger frame, cutting out the power lines that were visible (and found in the adult picture above it,) but this is a juvenile bald, likely second year from the mottled coloration and the lack of an eye stripe in a paler face, which develops in the third year. And just so you know, the first year they’re largely unmarked brown, while fourth year they get the adult coloration of white head and tail that we’re all familiar with. While it seemed to be following the adult (so I’m supposing a parent,) it was with enough distance that it wasn’t obviously following it. Or it may simply have been a coincidence, traffic on the eagle highway. But can you see the joker face on the lower wing? I see it plainly, but The Girlfriend couldn’t, even when I pointed it out. Must be something Freudian.

[Whether that’s on my part or hers, I’m not saying…]

There were osprey present, but they were being only semi-cooperative.

osprey Pandion haliaetus lifting from water with fish
Generally, when they chose to dive after fish, it was at a great distance where detail wasn’t going to be forthcoming, and I only snapped a few frames of this one as it lifted off after a capture. Let’s back off a bit to see the full frame.

same image without croppingThis is the full frame, and a bit smaller than it appeared in the viewfinder, but enough of an impression anyway, and this was with the long lens at 600mm. There’s no easy way to gauge distance over open water, but the background was a measured (Google Earth can be handy) 0.6 kilometers in the distance, so I’m guesstimating that the osprey was between 200 and 300 meters away – not what we really wanted to see.

And while I’m filling up space alongside the photo before we go to another full-column-width image, I’ll point out that I’m still having problems with keeping the camera level, but at least I know now (from paying some attention at times) that it seems to stem largely from how the camera sits in my hand; it feels level, but is actually at a slight angle, and I may try to trick out a small grip addition that helps intuitively bring it back to proper orientation.

Yet the ospreys weren’t entirely uncooperative…

osprey Pandion haliaetus banking in good light overhead
One came in close and wheeled around the small bay to our left a few times, and since the sun was dropping lower in the sky, it provided great light as the osprey banked away from us, which is when I start cranking off the frames. You can even tell that it’s intent on the water, but it never found anything to dive on when it was close and well-lit like this – bugger. But you take what comes, unless you know of some way to coax fish close to the surface at the ideal position to compose the osprey pics. If so, let me know; you owe me, after all the content I’ve provided.

As for the speck in the frame, I’m guessing an insect, but fore or aft of the bird I’m not sure. Don’t ask for identification.

osprey Pandion haliaetus in level glide looking for fish
Nice light, nice distance, autofocus largely behaving itself – but no real action. No, the same bird (I’m pretty certain) ended up cruising away directly into the sun before it found itself a fish to capture, eliminating everything that would have made for good images. I mean, see if I send it a christmas card this year…

distant osprey Pandion haliaetus shaking water from its feathers after capturing fish
This demonstrates the radical difference in conditions when turning roughly 180° away, but also a dependable habit: osprey will climb out a few meters above that water after a dive, then shake vigorously to disperse most of the retained water, often dropping a meter or so as they do. The backlighting served a useful purpose here in highlighting how much water this can be.

A little later on, I tracked another bird well off, at least twice the distance of the first osprey up there, unidentifiable until I got the long lens on it.

bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus banking on sighting a fish
Yep, another bald eagle, and soon after spotting it, it did a wonderful dive after a fish.

bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus in vertical dive after fish
The vertical portion didn’t last long, but I was happy to capture it as it occurred; you can just hear that WWII diving fighter sound effect, can’t you? In fact, why imagine it?


[Yeah, I really did spend about 20 minutes searching for that, downloading and converting it, just for a throwaway part of the post.]

Naturally enough, the autofocus started doing its random tracking thing as the bird crossed the horizon treeline, even when the camera is supposedly set to avoid doing that, one of the advanced custom functions on the 7D; a lot of this might be due to the extreme difficulty in maintaining the eagle in the AF ‘crosshairs’ of the viewfinder, handheld with a heavy lens on a moving and tiny target, but it still irks me. So I did not regain sharp focus until the eagle had already risen with its catch, but it did allow me (us, really – Buggato had by this time acquired the target and was shooting his own images) to watch a curious behavior.

bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus bending down towards fish in its talons in midair
The eagle bent down several times in mid-flight to worry at the fish clutched in its talons, and I surmised that it was trying to ensure that the fish was dead and not going to wrest itself free. Which had me wondering a little, because eagle talons should be more than adequate for that job, so was this somehow a dangerous fish that could bite back or something? I’ve seen hawks in such difficulties with snakes, but this didn’t appear to be a snake and was way the hell out over open water where I wouldn’t expect to see one.

same image at full frameBut while we’re here, we’ll take a look at the full-frame again, to give an idea of distance and difficulty in keeping the subject centered within the focus area; you can compare this with the full-frame image of the osprey from earlier in the post. This also shows the difficulty in discerning what exactly the eagle was doing, which wasn’t actually revealed until I was back home and could look at the frames at full resolution – you’re not quite seeing full resolution in most of these images, but close enough for our purposes.

bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus eating fish in midair
Because the eagle was actually eating the fish in mid-flight, something that I’ve never witnessed from a raptor, and not even waterfowl, except for very small meals.

bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus already finished with fish in midair
In moments, it was gone, and the eagle continued on its merry way as if seeking a perch to consume a meal that was already polished off on the way home. It’s like when your dad gets home with fast food and you ask, “Where are the fries?” and he replies, “Damn, they must have forgotten them…” In fact, this may help explain why the juvenile was following distantly behind the adult earlier in the day, trying to catch the parent in the act. Kids aren’t as stupid as we think sometimes.

I’ll close with a couple of great egret (Ardea alba) photos – really, this might be the year of the great egret, because I’ve shot a lot of them. I might have to check and see if I’ve gotten one every month so far.

great egret Ardea alba posed against blue sky
One flew in as we were standing there, circled around the boat dock area as if undecided on the perfect perch, then flew back out again in roughly the direction that it had come. I’m guessing it was looking for its credit card.

The differences in the sky are evident in these two frames, and the sun was closer to behind the egret than in an ideal position, but this led to some nice sidelighting and glow from the wing feathers, so it works, and the AF locked on nicely, so these are sharp enough to make into large prints. Not a bad end to the day, even when sunset didn’t pan out.

great egret Ardea alba departing against hazy sky

Intermission, part 1

I find it interesting that I’ve never used this blog title before (I keep a list,) and expect to want to again, so, part one it is. These are some of the semi-random images that were obtained between bigger or more thematic sessions that will appear here shortly.

three yellow-bellied sliders Trachemys scripta scripta perched on snag with partial reflection
While ambling around the nearby pond, I spotted these yellow-bellied sliders (Trachemys scripta scripta) from a distance and fired off a couple of frames before they were spooked into the water, but I’m a little mad at myself for this image. I didn’t recognize the quality of the color and reflections as I was shooting, and thus didn’t frame it better to capture the mirror-image, letting it get cut off by the shoreline in the foreground. It’s possible that I might not have been able to get a better frame anyway, requiring a much closer approach to get the shoreline low enough, which the turtles probably wouldn’t have tolerated, but it never occurred to me to try.

Up on shore a bit further around, there was another encounter that was curious.

huge blind yellow-bellied slider Trachemys scripta scripta on shore
The Girlfriend and I saw this massive slider from a distance, and through the lens I could see the eye on our side was damaged – but it was also perfectly still, and much further up on shore than we normally see them. I was thinking perhaps it was another dead one, a thought that remained right up until I was standing directly over it and finally saw movement. I could see that both eyes were either missing or ruptured, rendering it totally blind, and I’m more than suspicious this is from the idiots misapplying the copper sulfate for weed control; I’ve said earlier that the number of dead turtles that we’ve seen has been disturbing, especially since we rarely find any. It’s been close to a dozen this year alone.

huge blind yellow-bellied slider Trachemys scripta scripta portrait
Most times the sliders perch on logs, as seen at top, or on the shallow banks in secluded areas, ready and willing to flee into the water as soon as danger threatens – which for that pond is often, since numerous people walk their dogs around the perimeter. Few turtles come onto the banks this far (a handful of meters,) and when they do, it’s generally in the spring to lay eggs. This one was aware of us, but mildly or distantly, and did not attempt to flee. I considered herding it into the water, but figured that it either knew what it was doing, or was too injured to care, and decided not to induce any further stress; it was far enough away from the bulk of activity (plus it was a turtle and well-protected) that the risk wasn’t significant. But I did take a few frames with my sandaled foot inserted for scale.

huge blind yellow-bellied slider Trachemys scripta scripta with author's foot for scale
And I will note that it was missing the following day, so presumably it made its own way into the water.

Not far off, we heard some little “chip” bird calls directly overhead, and looked up to find a downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) industriously excavating a hollow into a rotting limb not very far up. Serious excavations.

chunk of rotting wood rising to opening
For a moment, it looked like an animated chunk of wood pulp.

downy woodpecker Dryobates pubescens lifting chunk of wood pulp out of excavation in limb
… but then the woodpecker became evident.

downy woodpecker Dryobates pubescens looking down from overhead excavation
Had the bird been silent, we may not have noticed it, since the wood was so rotten that it was taking little effort to break up, and thus minimal noise, but the woodpecker’s little chirps gave it away. I was initially shooting almost straight up into the sun, but soon moved to the side for better lighting, at least, and a profile shot.

downy woodpecker Dryobates pubescens peering from hollow overhead
I found this all curious, because it’s not exactly nesting season, but on researching the species, there’s a suspicion that there may be two breeding seasons in the south; are we far enough to count? It was also indicated that mate pairing may occur by late winter, so perhaps the males start the nests for potential mates in the fall instead of the spring – I know bluebirds will scout out nesting sites on their fall migration south, to return to in the spring.

This one wasn’t to be seen around that limb a few days later, not surprising in that the space available in that limb wasn’t even 25 cm before reaching the broken-off stump. But on a higher branch several meters away, The Girlfriend spotted him (I’m assuming it was the same) working on another hollow, this one looking more promising.

downy woodpecker Dryobates pubescens excavating another limb
Since they’re all within easy sight, I may try to keep an eye on them and see if the evidence of a brood appears, either this fall or in the spring.

Some time in the past week or two, a new resident appeared at the pond.

possible muscovy duck Cairina moschata hanging out at pond
While I have never seen one in this color pattern, the caruncles around the eyes would seem to indicate that this is a muscovy duck (Cairina moschata) – not native to the region but commonly introduced into stocked ponds and farms, so whether this one had been dropped or abandoned here, or wandered in from some source nearby, or was honestly wild and got a long ways from home, I can’t say. It seemed a little timid but not overtly so; not as blasé as the ones around the pond where I used to live in Florida, but not as cautious as most wild ducks either. Regardless, you gotta like the color pattern.

These various sessions were all part of the pursuit of the great egret, seen in an earlier post, and on exhausting the possibilities for the day we returned home. Standing out in the front yard with The Girlfriend (because that’s what we do, just kinda showing off for the neighbors you know,) we heard the calls of a red-shouldered hawk over the trees just out of sight, and in searching for that one, we saw a few medium-high altitude vultures cruising over, and then, above them, a high-altitude raptor. The wings were vulture-like, but at that distance I could just make out the white head and tail, and as that was registering, another appeared, and they were wheeling in a large circle together.

bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus high overhead with much more distant, unidentified bird
Definitely adult bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus,) quite some ways up there – a thousand meters, at least. With the long lens I could just barely get some detail, and believe me, this was as good as it was going to get. This was curious in that there are no large bodies of water anywhere near the place, and the pond was too small for eagles, but they didn’t seem to be hunting anyway. What they were doing, I’m not sure, but certainly not something that I expected to see here. Now, Jordan Lake isn’t that far away – about eight kilometers to the northern tip, so not even a hard flight for them – but still, why here? Nonetheless, it means we’ve been keeping an eye on the skies since then (so far in vain) for a reappearance.

Meanwhile, did you see the other avian in the frame? Yeah, something else was even higher, far too distant to make out by eye, and even at 600mm there aren’t enough details to discern anything dependably. The pattern and color look like a great blue heron to me, but that’s a lot higher than I’d ever expect to see one. Not that that’s definitive, by any stretch, but the mystery remains.

Yeah, that’s, uh, timing

So, a few minutes back, I’d been editing photos for an upcoming post and had taken a break, skimming though some nonsense posts from theChive.com. The particular one was about the scariest sounds anyone has ever heard. Just to set the scene, it’s 11 PM, The Girlfriend is asleep, the house is dead quiet, as is the neighborhood. I’m on #8 at this point, looking at the illustration provided as ambience and thinking, “Yeah, that’s a pretty spooky animation” – it was, in fact, the one below, except that they’d used an mp4 video and I converted it to a gif (pronounced “gtfo”) for convenience:

spooky gif… and right at that moment, there came this curious howling wail, really, not far outside the office window. I’ve never heard anything of the sort before, but it was reminiscent of a woman hooting or wailing, in a tone like a dog’s howl but not that kind of sound quality. Remarkable timing.

Now, I’m familiar with a lot of noises, not just from kids in the development, but all kinds of wildlife, from owls bickering to rabbit screams to cat fights, and this fit none of them, but I’d have to say it was closest to a cat fight, though more hooting than you imagine. I couldn’t make it fit anything that I knew.

Did I run upstairs and hide under the covers with The Girlfriend? Nope – I grabbed the headlamp and went outside in the direction that it seemed to have come from. I don’t call this any kind of bravery, but just the attitude/perspective that I’ve arrived at where imagination (or the influence of superstitious horseshit) doesn’t fill in the gaps. I really wanted to know what did make that noise, even when I believed it unlikely to be repeated, or the emitter to stick around while I was walking through the yard, however quiet I tried to be.

I found nothing, and heard just a few little rustles here and there from the branches above me, typical for night. So I watered the plants while I was out there, since I hadn’t done it earlier like I’d planned. Drama all gone.

If you went to that link, I can tell you that I agree with #10, though I didn’t find out what it was until years afterward, but I’d been out walking on the road late at night in rural NY when I heard the sound of a woman being beaten, roughly a hundred meters off in the woods to my left. Easily the scariest goddamn sound that I’ve ever heard, and I had little idea what to do about it; the police would be a while getting there, once I’d run back home to even get to a phone, and all I would be able to do was point in a general direction. Such a thing called for more immediate action, but again, where, exactly, and what was I gonna do about it, blundering around in the woods with an inadequate flashlight against, what, exactly? So I stayed rooted to the spot and listened intently, not hearing another sound at all. And while this was happening, I realized that, as clear as it was with no other following sounds, this was suspicious in itself, as well as being a regular cadence, perfectly spaced and even in tone and volume; that generally means intent, not randomness – calls of some sort. Damn weird calls, admittedly, but if it was an assault, it would be almost certain that I’d hear something else. Eventually (I have no idea how long I stood there, but it was several minutes at least,) I assured myself it was some unknown form of wildlife and moved on. Like I said, years later I found that I’d heard the mating calls of a fox.

A few years ago, I was out doing night sky time exposures in the darkest area that I could find within 20 minutes of driving, a dead quiet country road amidst nothing by fields, and heard a pack of coyotes howling, a few hundred meters off. Unlike so much of what I’ve heard from wildlife, this was exactly like TV and movies had it, a wonderfully emotive sound, and I was delighted, while at the same time chagrined that I had no way to record it (not that they gave me a chance with a repeat performance anyway.) I knew coyotes wouldn’t bother me, or even draw very close, so I just reveled in the perfect quality of it.

There really are some great sounds out there, though admittedly a bit creepy when first heard, especially if you have no idea what makes them: screech owls and barred owls, raccoons fighting, the aforementioned squeal of an injured rabbit, even the piercing alarm whistle of a woodchuck (which I had the misfortune of hearing directly underneath me in a raspberry patch one day in our back fields, again in rural NY, but at least it was daylight.) Woodchucks whistle? Yes, rarely, but it’s very clear and loud, and they can even climb trees when fleeing.

But yeah, I might have to rig the infra-red cameras back up…

On this date 41

Copes grey treefrog Hyla chrysoscelis sheltering in lee of potted plant
It would appear that we’ve entered the slow season now, at least if the numbers of the images in my date spreadsheet are any indication, so not a lot to offer this week – next week will be worse, because I’ve already peeked. For now, we hearken back ten years, to the first little Copes grey treefrog (Hyla chrysoscelis) to take up residency with me, alongside a potted plant on my deck railing. The deck faced a set of sliding glass doors into the office, where I would often be up late at night, so even though the blinds were closed, there was light to attract insects; the frog knew what it was doing. A day or so later, it would reciprocate by providing one of the cutest poses (it took me a while to post it,) even running as a gallery print now.

[I identified it there as a common grey treefrog, but since then I have only found the Copes variety in the area, so I now think it’s most likely one of those. The differentiation can only be done easily by the pitch of their call, which this one never performed for me, and they’re otherwise identical. So, you know, call it whatever you like, no one’s going to correct you…]

unidentified plant with Carolina anole Anolis carolinensis camouflaged atop
We then jump forward to 2014, in the NC Botanical Garden I believe, but why exactly I decided to shoot this plant I’ll never know. I mean, it’s not too healthy-looking, and the bud’s out of focus, and… oh, yeah, there we go.

On the same date, from Mason Farm Biological Reserve (which is almost attached to the Botanical Garden, and administered by the same organization,) we have… a dead leaf.

marbled orbweaver Araneus marmoreus sheltering almost hidden in large dead leaf
No, wait, we learned our lesson a moment ago, so, yeah, there’s the real subject. And take it from me, it wasn’t small. I rarely see marbled orbweavers (Araneus marmoreus,) but when I do, they’re always sizable, this one having a body larger than a typical marble. I’m guessing that, like the barn spiders, they’re nocturnal, hanging out in their ‘cartwheel’ webs by night but sheltering away from the birds by day. So this is why you always crawl underneath any dead leaf you see; you’ll never know what’s waiting for you there.

More luck than normal

great egret Ardea alba in reed bed in middle distance
It had been a while since I’d spent any time at all at the nearby pond, so the other afternoon I wandered over to see what could be found. Right off the bat, I could see a great egret (Ardea alba) hanging out at the nearest edge, about where the green herons had been hunting earlier. Pausing well back where I wouldn’t spook it, I affixed the long lens and began working my way closer, getting photos as I went.

Amusingly, my caution was not terribly necessary, because this was easily the most mellow egret that I’ve come across, and I couldn’t say why. I never pushed my luck during the initial stalking session, because once you’ve gone too far, you don’t have anything to shoot as the egret flies off. But as it slipped into deeper cover under the trees during its perambulations, eliminating any clear view, I fired off a couple of frames as I continued along the pond shore in pursuit of other subjects.

great egret Ardea alba portrait under tree overhang
I looped around the pond, and noticed on the return leg that the egret had flown off across the water from its original position and was now in my path again, standing on the open shore. However, someone was walking along in front of me, and I was convinced that they’d spook the egret off again, because that’s generally the pattern; even as they notice and marvel at the wildlife, they still scare it off.

Just not this time. The egret paid no heed to the man walking a few meters past, and remained in place as I myself approached. Mellow.

mellow great egret Ardea alba on pond shore
Even better, it began stalking the minnows in the shallows as I watched. Except… the autofocus kept wandering to the background, so I quickly shut it off, but that meant trying to lock onto a bobbing egret head as it hunted, which is tricky. I did what I could, but on returning and unloading the card, I found too few images were passing muster.

great egret Ardea alba with recent wriggling capture
Sure, I got a few useful images, but they were mostly of the portrait kind, and not the action that I was hoping to get. Or the fish was barely identifiable as a fish. This was annoying, since it’s rare to get the opportunity to be as close as this, where I should have been able to nail feather detail as well as the fish itself, and not get it.

great egret Ardea alba with tiny fish
But I took the opportunity for the portraits, anyway.

great egret Ardea alba stalking alongside pond
The sky was clear and reflecting in the water, the view was largely unobstructed, and the backgrounds pleasant and usually uncluttered. It could have been worse, and usually is.

great egret Ardea alba head against pond background
(Mostly, I’m just taking the opportunity to post the better shots, since the narrative is composed of, well, more fishing.)

Occasionally, it was working.

great egret Ardea alba with capture
Okay, now seriously, this was a roller coaster when I was reviewing and editing the shots. “Ah, nice, but the fish isn’t too visible.”

Then…

great egret Ardea alba portrait
“Great! Look at those sharp eyes, and right before it plunged into the water after a fish, annnddd…”

great egret Ardea alba out of focus“… shit, missed the tracking.” Generally, there are only a few seconds before the egret will gulp down a fish this size, and trying to track focus with a moving head is challenging – too challenging, it seems, at least for this session. Too often, you may come out with the impression (or at least I do) that you’re bringing home some really slick images, and then find out that something wasn’t quite right and you’re not even going to retain them in your stock folders.

That was Friday. Saturday I had a short period of time before I had to be into work, and made another circuit of the pond, but was seeing no sign of the egret. While the species appears at the pond, off and on, they never seem to reside for more than a couple of days, and we’re approaching migration season; the green heron brood that I was tracking earlier all seem to have moved on now. Saturday’s attempt was with The Girlfriend, and we stopped to talk to a neighbor while out there, until I was about out of time, so we finished the circuit quickly. And naturally, as we rounded the far end under the copse of trees there, the egret was waiting for us, again, far closer to the edge and every person strolling past (there are quite a few, especially since March) than most egrets ever allow. I had time for a couple of quick frames, but not at all for standing and watching for more fishing behavior.

great egret Ardea alba hanging out in shadows
Sunday wasn’t gonna happen, so the next time that I could make a pass was Monday morning, sunny and pleasant, and sure enough, the egret was waiting right where I’d first seen it two days previously, posing like an old hand.

great egret Ardea alba posed on old snag with reflection
I casually slipped in close, less than ten meters off, and sat down in easy view, ready for all fishing behavior and maybe even shooting some video. The sun was the right angle, the wind was calm… and the egret wasn’t doing nothing.

great egret Ardea alba scratching neck
Well, I mean, sure, preening, scratching, sunbathing, but not stalking a damn thing, nor even appearing to be interested in the water.

great egret Ardea alba preening
At least it wasn’t bothered by me sitting right there, also in plain sight. My allergies started playing up and I ended up having to sneeze violently, twice, and all I earned from the egret was a brief inspection to assure it that I wasn’t getting ready to attack. I was starting to get the impression that if I’d brought along some goldfish crackers, I could have hand-fed the damn bird.

great egret Ardea alba scratching chin
Don’t get the idea that it was constantly involved in its grooming – there were more occasions when it was staring off into space, or checking out the sky overhead, but there are only so many photos you can get of that. But I did catch it peering intently between its legs, perhaps suddenly realizing that they bent backwards and so weren’t knees, but ankles.

great egret Ardea alba looking between its legs
[This is true, by the way; birds essentially walk on tiptoe, and the knees are buried up inside the feathers.]

Eventually, it wandered again under the cover of the nearby trees, well shielded from easy sight, and I started walking on around the pond again. Between the three sessions, I have a bunch of other subjects, but they’ll come in later posts.

The Girlfriend had again joined me by this point, and we rounded the pond again, only to find the egret now standing immediately before us. I was starting to wonder if there were two, but this was never confirmed and each time the behavior was just as easygoing, so I’m presuming it was only one. That kept appearing ahead of us on our path. Yeah, you figure it out.

extreme closeup of great egret Ardea alba showing sunlight refracting through cornea onto cheek
We’re talking about five meters distant, and not only unconcerned about my standing there, it actually drew closer instead of moving away, allowing me to do not just extreme portraits, but to capture the cornea acting like a lens and shining sunlight on its own cheek. But as it started actively hunting, I decided to switch to video instead, and captured some behavior that we’d first seen three days previously.

First off, yes, next time I’ll try to have the tripod with me, but bear in mind, as close as I was, setting up such a thing may well have spooked the bird off. I wasn’t using the external monitor, so it meant not just hand-holding a heavy super-telephoto lens (it weighs 2 kg all by itself,) but out away from my face since I had to use the LCD on the back to frame and focus. You try it.

The loud bird that you hear in the background is a red-shouldered hawk, fairly common around the pond and not a threat to egrets, but they still check the sky when such things sound off. Don’t ask me to identify the fish – all I can tell you is that it’s the kind with fins.

Meanwhile, that wriggling, which if you watch seems mostly confined to the neck – I don’t know what that’s about, and have never seen it before from any waders. Bitterns, I’ve seen something like that, but only when their head was raised straight up and they were trying to look like reeds swaying in the breeze. And cats – seen that from cats. But not herons or egrets. I initially suspected it might be from seating its feet firmly in the mud for a stable strike, but the legs appear motionless and even the body is very constrained. So, until further notice, I’ll have to tell you that I don’t know. But I’m glad to catch it on video. And also glad to actually snag what I intended to with any given session. That doesn’t happen often.

Because Tuesday follows Monday

animation of difference between 2:02 AM and 11:07 PM moon phases and librationBack indeed, with the animated gif (pronounced, “GAL-eh-fray”) that I wanted to include, because it shows better this way. I tweaked the colors to come close to matching, and while it might seem that I didn’t line them up well enough, I think we’re actually seeing the libration between the two shooting sessions, the wobble that the moon performs as it orbits the Earth and revolves; it’s not perfectly locked to facing exactly the same way, and changes during the month. This might be a little excessive for just a day (actually, 2:02 AM to 11:07 PM,) so, yeah, alignment may be off a bit too.

[A note: The moon follows the path of the ecliptic across the sky, with the illuminated portion facing the sun of course, while we face any damn way. I made the attempt to correct for the angle difference between the first and second sessions, but it wasn’t going to be perfect, so it took aligning the two moon photos in size and rotation to make a near-match – and this is not easy nor fun. I have to admit, Photoshop makes it easier than GIMP, but I was logged into Linux this time, so…]

I also did a little research, because that speck that crossed in front of the moon had me intrigued. And still does, because so far, I’ve found no matching satellite. Stellarium allowed me to roll back to the time period, but showed nothing – which may have been because the magnitude of the satellite fell outside of its parameters. I know I looked carefully after it passed, trying to see if I could make out any glowing/reflective points in the darkness along its path, but with the glare of the moon, it could easily have been missed – or simply too dim to see regardless, except for a very long exposure.

Meanwhile, Heavens Above didn’t tag anything either, though again, they seem to drop out any falling at less than 5 magnitude, and they don’t roll back in time very well. I checked their list of visible passes for anything, and nothing fell within that time period.

If it was a plane, it was very high, because it was a mere speck against the moon even at 600mm. If it was a bird – well, it almost certainly wasn’t a bird, because it was moving too fast for the altitude it likely would have been to be that small.

I’m kind of irked that I missed it, convinced that I would have had a photo had I been faster on the reflexes, but there’s also the naked fact that I was shooting with mirror lockup to reduce camera vibration, so I would have had to have triggered the shutter twice before it vanished, plus doing it that way would have negated the purpose of mirror lockup to begin with. So chances are I wouldn’t have caught anything no matter what, unless I already knew it was coming. Which, someday with the ISS, may happen. That’s very tricky, because the path on Earth where you can see the ISS in front of the moon is fairly narrow, and most sources don’t plot positions that precisely.

[Another note: both the mirror slapping out of the way, and the shutter slapping open, introduce vibration into the camera – minimal, but at high magnifications and especially at longer exposures, this can affect sharpness because the camera is moving during the exposure. Thus, mirror lockup is a custom function to move the mirror out of the way before tripping the shutter, preferably a few seconds before, so the vibrations have a chance to die down, and I usually use it on astrophotography, as I was for both sessions. As well as the remote release, so I wasn’t even handling the camera. The shutter vibrations really don’t have a solution, but at least for the moon, the exposure period is short enough that the impact is trivial – not so much for some other, dim subjects.]

Now I’ve gone and set a precedent for the month, and might have to see how many other moon photos I end up with. Rest assured though, I have some other subjects to mess with in the meantime.

Because it’s Monday (part two, fer sure)

waning gibbous moon before Monday ends
As threatened, I have the next phase of the moon, appearing on the same day as the previous phase, being shot at a little after 11 pm. You can compare it to the previous post to see the reduced amount of light, but, given that it was lower on the horizon and the atmospheric conditions were different, there’s a different color cast. Plus I think I may have had saturation settings a little higher this time, from the day’s shooting.

Regrettably, I missed something by a mere second, since as I was redoing focus, something passed in front of the moon, a dark spot that crossed the face in perhaps a second. Satellite? High-flying bird? Lost quadcopter? Don’t know yet, but I triggered the shutter just a hair too late. Stay tuned, because this post isn’t done yet – more will be along after the deadline. Not to mention at least two other posts based on photography within the past three days, with video even. Busy busy busy.

Because it’s Monday (part one, maybe)

waning gibbous moon
While the sky was cloudy earlier in the evening of the 4th, it (mostly) cleared to allow a couple of moon shot experiments, and I thought I’d throw one up here… with the possibility of a follow-up later on. It’s quarter to three AM right now on the morning of the 5th, the moon riding very high, but it will set about 10:30 AM and rise again about 9 PM, allowing another chance before the day is out to see the progression of the phase, in this case waning from full a couple of days ago. So if the sky is clear, I might be back.

Now, a couple of notes. You may recall from a previous post the mention of the brightest spot on the near side of the moon, which is Aristarchus; it was visible then in the earthshine, and here as the bright spot straight to the left. In the crescent photos of that post, the crater Grimaldi sat right on the terminator, but here it is clearly visible as the dark spot in the brighter region that sits lower left. You might even notice that you can just barely see a couple of bumps on the outline of the moon, again, the most distinctive perhaps being just beyond Grimaldi at lower left. To the best that I can determine, these are the peaks of the Montes Cordillera range that forms the rim of Mare Orientale, out of sight around the edge of the moon.

The above image showing the whole moon (what we can see of it) is a little less than full resolution, so for giggles, I did a cropped, full-res version of the terminator, to show the best detail that I’ve captured with the Tamron 150-600 lens.

full resolution crop of same image
All those details to the right, along the terminator, have the highest contrast and thus are what I use to adjust sharp focus upon; autofocus isn’t trustworthy for this, and in fact, manual focus leaves a lot to be desired, so I usually shoot several frames, readjusting focus for each, because that perfect spot is impossible to determine in the viewfinder. And while it’s also impossible to demonstrate the view accurately here, given the huge variation in monitor sizes that anyone might be using to see this post, I’ll make the attempt anyway.

full-frame verion of same moon image
This is the entire frame of the same images above, and this is roughly as big as it looks in the viewfinder of the camera. So those details to the right are the ones I’m attempting to get the sharpest to know that I have the best focus. Yeah, sometimes they’re good, for the image used in this post, and sometimes not so good – I have multiple attempts from this morning, all within a few minutes, and plenty of near-misses.

mars theough the Tamron 150-600 lens, full resolutionWhile I was out there, I re-aimed the tripod just a little and captured another subject: Mars. A few days ago it was riding close to the full moon, but I was too tired to do a session then. Here, I was lucky to get just the barest hint of color variation from the disc, but this is full resolution and as good as it’s gonna get without a telescope. Eventually, I’ll get that together, and maybe then we’ll see something more.

Thin but long

I don’t watch a lot of movies, for various reasons, but one side effect of this is that I’m not influenced by the common associations created by such. I’m not spooked by dark, quiet forests at night, and I find nothing at all mysterious or foreboding about fog; it’s pretty damn cool, in fact. I’m still watching for conditions that I got one night decades ago, when we had a very thick low-lying fog on a night of a full moon, which illuminated the fog into a movie set. I was walking through a field and couldn’t see what was more that five meters away through the glow. Wonderful experience, with little chance of getting lost since the field was bordered by country roads and a treeline, so our human inability to walk a straight line without visual cues wasn’t much of an issue (plus it’s probably a lot better when you have a few meters visibility rather than totally blindfolded,) so when I emerged onto the road I wasn’t where I’d aimed to be but not horrendously far off either.

distant shadow through fog over Jordan Lake
So when we had a nice fog over Jordan lake during a “sunrise” outing, it didn’t ruin anything nor make things spooky at all, it just reduced sight distance and added a different mood to the photos. The fog wasn’t terribly thick but it was persistent, lasting for hours after sunrise (thus the title – why? What did you think it meant?), so just to illustrate, I did a few frames of a distant subject. Unless you were looking hard initially, you might never have realized it was there, since the image above is at 600mm, and the horizon line was pretty indistinct. 45 minutes later it was now noticeable.

distant island seen through fog on Jordan Lake
Now distinct enough not to be mysterious, it was 80 minutes after sunrise, and not even the sun was visible. It’s worth noting that, while I estimated the island as being better than a kilometer off, it was actually 2.5 – not exactly close. Another 45 minutes, and now the fog was just a haze over the horizon, with more detail to be seen.

Island on Jordan Lake shrouded by thin fog
I like how the background horizon, the far shore of the lake, gains definition as we go along. At this point, the sun made its first appearance, but only fleetingly for a while, sometimes so briefly it was difficult to focus upon (autofocus was out entirely, too little contrast for the sensor to define, so manual it was.)

sun seen through slight break in foggy morning
But while all this was going on, the visibility in the immediate surroundings was only slightly reduced, so not much of an impediment to photography. Had the fall colors been more advanced, it could have made for some much better landscapes, but we still have about a month to go on that end.

Shoreline of Jordan Lake with thin fog
The birds were still present and active – not remarkably so, but there were some opportunities to snag a few photos here and there. The herons and egrets were maintaining their distance, so it was the osprey that formed the primary subjects of the early morning.

osprey Pandion haliaetus hunting in morning fog
There are a couple of different approaches to nature photography. Ours is to go out in potentially productive areas and see what can be found, anywhere, and I often espouse this approach because, on the whole, it nets you a lot more photos for any given outing, plus it provides more variety. But there are two specific detriments to doing this: it requires a lot more lens changing (which, in the field, introduces more dust and junk into the camera and lenses,) and it means you’re trying to look everywhere instead of watching one area intently for all activity – which, admittedly, can be very boring if your chosen subject is scarce. The ‘everything’ approach meant, in this case, that we didn’t see the osprey (Pandion haliaetus) until it was just completing its dive after prey, and could only catch it as it lifted off with a fish.

Slightly luckier the next time around, but only slightly. We were watching this osprey as it wheeled and started its dive, but the distance was greater and I, for one, hadn’t dialed the exposure compensation back in for aerial shots, allowing the sky to set the ‘mid-range’ exposure which was a little darker than ideal, so the following shot has been tweaked a little in brightness and contrast to show the details I’m illustrating.

osprey Pandion haliaetus beginning its dive after a fish
same image but full frame as capturedWhat I’m showing above are the ruffled feathers, at the forward wing edges and the base of the tail, which indicate that the osprey has stopped soaring and has angled the wings to ‘stall,’ eliminating nearly all lift to simply drop from the sky – it will realign the wings in the stoop to aim precisely (or pull out as needed if the fish disappears.) Video still remains a possibility, but that will almost certainly be from a tripod and will take place on a much clearer day than this one.

Meanwhile, at left is what the original, full-frame image looked like, so you know both the exposure and the amount of enlargement to see the details; this is at 550mm focal length, so the osprey was fairly distant.

Worse, however, was that as it completed its dive, it dropped behind a tiny tree from my perspective, so even as I tracked it (and the autofocus did its random thing and failed to at times,) I couldn’t catch the impact with the water. So what I was left with was the eventual departure of the osprey as it went someplace to consume its meal. But you gotta like those visible fins at least.

osprey Pandion haliaetus departing with fish
The next photos are just a few that I got of other subjects while the fog was denser, and the first was confusing even to me after I unloaded the memory card, until I looked close and remembered what I’d been shooting at the time.

great blue heron Ardea herodias launching from buoy and heading straight into camera
great egrets Ardea alba mirroring one another as they fly low over Jordan LakeWe never see them from this perspective, and the fog reduced the resolution and contrast a bit to make it harder, but above is a great blue heron (Ardea herodias) that has just launched from that marker buoy and is flying directly towards the camera – you can just see the head, appearing tiny from this angle, but those wings look great, even if they appear to have armbands. The splash came from the wingtips, I believe, during the first flap, but on occasion you’ll see a fish jump as a low-flying bird passes over, not to try and eat the bird, but because they mistake it for a much-closer insect. Still pretty sure it was the wings though.

At right is a pair of great egrets (Ardea alba) that had this nice mirror image thing at the moment that I tripped the shutter, but alas, autofocus hadn’t locked onto them and the shutter speed was still a little slow from the low light, so this is as large as it’s worth displaying here. It gets better.

We left that area pretty much the same time as the fog was clearing, so we had much better light for the next ones, only a kilometer away on another portion of the same lake. We got glimpses of osprey and great blue herons, not well enough to produce decent photos, but some black vultures (Coragyps atratus) were working over a very old fish carcass within easy view so, hey…

black vulture Coragyps atratus displaying wings as photographer draws close
We got treated to this raised wings display as we drew closer, instead of the bird flying off, and I’m not sure if it was intended as a threat display or to mark dibs on the carcass. The sun, now bright, was shining off of the water directly behind the vulture, so while I’d remembered the exposure compensation, there’s only so much it could do, especially with an all-black bird. But at least I captured some facial details.

A little later on as we switched position and got slightly better lighting, another pair joined the first and did the same display; if it was a threat, the first wasn’t impressed. One of the new ones did eventually get a quick snack from the fish, but there were no squabbles.

trio of black vultures Coragyps atratus, two displaying while one eats
Who knows, this could simply be how vultures provide fine dining ambience, their equivalent of some tableside music as two vultures share the same strand of intestines.

No, I’m not sorry I put that image in your head. You know I enjoy doing this.

But a tad earlier, as I was demonstrating using a tree for cover as a method to stalk closer to a subject, the first one gave a great expression just as I was ducking back behind the tree, so we have half a frame, but still a cool one.

black vulture Coragyps atratus appearing to exclaim when seeing the photographer
Again, not sure if this was a reaction to seeing me closer or simply a yawn, but I wish I’d gotten a clearer shot if it. The raised feathers on the back of the head provide this startled impression, though they’re always like that. And feel free to tell everyone that you’ve now seen a vulture’s brown eye…

Moving on.

unidentified mushroom growing directly from bark of healthy tree
Buggato has this habit of claiming possession of photo subjects, so just to annoy him I claimed this mushroom as mine, because I liked how it sprouted directly from the bark of a healthy tree, all alone. Again, this was almost directly into the sun, so my left hand is blocking the light from hitting the lens. Disrespectfully, Mr Bugg still attempted to photograph it, but knew better than to post it on his blog. Not to mention that I know he didn’t get the best angles on it.

unidentified mushroom growing directly from bark of healthy tree
The sunlight was directly illuminating the far side of the cap, which provided both backlighting and a halo for the details on the shadowed side. freehand at f4 with the Mamiya 80mm macro, the depth-of-field was very short but the edge is sharp, so it works for me.

The birds weren’t doing any hunting on this side, and we’d exhausted the possibilities of the vultures (not a long list, there,) so we started stalking a slightly distant great egret along the shoreline. We had much better luck than anticipated.

great egret Ardea alba grooming
We had mixed light as we approached, the now-bright sun was sidelighting the egret, who watched us during our slow casual stalking but wasn’t terribly concerned. It ambled up and down its perch, occasionally giving us great light angles, and flew off once (predictably) but (unpredictably) didn’t go five meters to another perch, hardly an escape from us.

great egret Ardea alba looking mellow
This was pretty unprecedented, since the egrets and the herons, in this area at least, like to maintain a little safe distance and generally you can’t approach within fifteen meters, but at our closest we got to about seven, I think. A few days later I did even better, but that’s a topic for another post.

And to show how stressed and anxious it was over our presence, we have this image of it industriously scratching its neck.

closeup of great egret Ardea alba scratching its neck
Of course, this might simply have been a signal to the bodyguards (birdyguards) to close in on the subjects getting too close – I didn’t think of this at the time, or check for laser dots.

But that was the last of the birds and we still had a little time left, so we began exploring the wildflowers near the parking lot (we were close to one of the boat ramp areas on the lake.) This netted another variety of subjects in just a few minutes.

feeding and harassing common buckeye butterfly Junonia coenia on unidentified yellow flowers
The pollinators were having a field day (er, well, yeah) on the late wildflowers, none more noticeable than the common buckeyes (Junonia coenia.) One in particular was perched firmly on a single blossom, appearing to feed but I couldn’t be sure, while another repeatedly circled it and dodged in; I just fired off a sequence of frames.

feeding and harassing common buckeyes Junonia coenia
What the purpose of this was, I couldn’t say – seems kind of late in the season for mating behavior, but it’s also late for flowers, so who knows? I just takes them, as I may have said before. But the buckeyes certainly have nice color patterns, with some subtle blues/lavenders in there, provided you can get them to hold still long enough to catch them with their wings down.

The patch was also laden with juvenile green treefrogs. Mr Bugg was still calling out dibs on subjects, so I was polite and did not make claims of any kind on the frogs, but he still hasn’t posted any – maybe he’s going to do a comprehensive gallery later on. So I’ll go with just a couple that I caught.

juvenile green treefrog Hyla cinerea perched on flower vine
Without looking close, this one might escape attention as simply a leaf or a burl, but of course, nature photographers would recognize it instantly. I tried shifting the vine that was casting the shadow on its back, but the vine was firmly anchored to neighboring plants and I was disturbing too much, plus Buggato was coming over and I didn’t want to, you know, chase off the subject before he could get it, so I let it be. The thicket was too dense to get around to a portrait angle, but I had better luck with the next one.

juvenile green treefrog Hyla cinerea perched on small branch in front of unidentified yellow flower
All that we saw were juveniles, about half of adult length, so definitely this year’s brood. They don’t like getting too hot and you can see the slitted pupil on this one, but until just over an hour before the whole region was fogged in, albeit lightly, so they likely hadn’t found the need to seek shadows then, and hadn’t yet been aroused to it. Within an hour, I’m betting there would have been none in plain sight.

So, not too shabby for a single session, with a nice mix of conditions. And it means I’m almost caught up; I have a handful of photos from yesterday to feature, but that won’t happen until late tonight at least, more likely tomorrow afternoon – who knows what I might add before then? Might never actually catch up…

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