What do nature photographers do at night?

I bet you’ve asked yourself that dozens of times, haven’t you? Admit it. Well, the answer is, “Pretty much the same thing other people do.” Now that I’ve resolved that burning issue for you, you can remember me in your will.

But, from the more egocentric universe of this blog, on occasion, nature photographers (meaning me) venture out and try to find things not visible or possible during the day. This may include long exposures by moonlight (I’ll have a post on that later on), starfields, or nocturnal critters. A few nights ago, I strolled around my property with an LED headlamp to see what I could find. The days had been very hot and humid, and the night was only slightly less so, but this meant the dew was slow in coming.

The first interesting thing I found was something I’d heard about before, but never witnessed very often. Having a light source fairly close in line to your eyes (in this case, emanating from approximately the center of my forehead) can show some distinctive reflections that aren’t visible if the light is farther away. I’ve used this before to find alligators at night, back when I lived in Florida – their eyes produce a brilliant orange reflection almost as bright as a highway marker. Tonight, the effect was dimmer but a rich blue-green color, a tiny star on the ground.

She blinded me with “Science!”

No apologies for putting that song in your head.

Others have approached this subject, but I felt the need to post about it because a) no one has covered all the details that I think need to be covered, and b) I don’t think, in our culture right now, another voice chiming in is too many.

In the United States at this time, there is this strange perception of science. It’s as if there’s a breed of people that call themselves “scientists,” and the strange rituals that they practice are called “science.” There is a distinct set of rules that everyone must obey, and pronouncements from scientists are considered beyond reproach. Naturally, those that seem to hold this perception are part of the resistance, referring to ivory towers and scientific dogma. Alongside this is the kneejerk reaction to a perceived elitism – in essence, people being defensive over their own level of education (and/or lack thereof,) and allowing as to how they never needed none of that book larnin’ and have been doing just fine. This is the “common man” that politicians and TV programmers like to pander to.

But in a far more subtle way, science and scientists are often held as a distinct subculture, one that borders of the fringes of proper society. Scientists, unable to integrate or even understand common culture, involve themselves in their own little world and, should they dare to intrude, are treated with thinly disguised contempt.


Over at the blog Twisted Physics, Jennifer Ouellette relates her views on an encounter during The Amazing Meeting 7, which prompted me to put out my own viewpoint, just as much for the sake of showing what “the other side” thinks.

In that post, she tells of being approached by an atheist who felt distinctly disadvantaged when speaking with someone who believes in an afterlife, because the atheist outlook seems so bleak by comparison. I blinked at this point, and repeated, “Bleak?”

40 years

Today marks the 40th anniversary of a remarkable accomplishment for us, as a species: Walking on the surface of another body in our solar system. Despite the politics, despite the nationalistic fervor, despite the questionable use to us at a time when we had lots of more important things to think about on our own planet, despite even the fact that Armstrong flubbed the line (I’m sorry, really, but he did), this one event will stand forever as a milestone for all humankind.

I was three years old – I missed the awe and the excitement by a mere smidgen of attention-span and understanding. And I’m sorry to have missed it. But I also grew up on the space program, collected books and photos and posters, built models, and watched the later Apollos and soon afterward, the Skylab missions. Even at a young age, I could absorb some of the amazement at how much we were accomplishing from an engineering standpoint. As I grew older, this has only grown – the space program was a peak in our scientific problem-solving capability that I feel safe in saying we haven’t surpassed since. We flirted, in so many ways, with disaster, and regretfully witnessed it a few times. Not just Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia, but Bondarenko’s pressure test fire and Soyuz 1. There are those that feel that any lives lost represent both too much risk, and a failure of the programs. I can’t agree – some things are worth the risk, and every one of those who lost their lives in these endeavors knew just what the stakes were. Hell, give me the choice of a rocket exploding underneath me on the way into space, or dying in bed of cancer, and I’ll go with the rocket every time.

What’s funny is that, now that I think about it, my perspectives on this as I grew up seem to parallel our country’s perspectives on the space program. Early on, it was fascination, awe, wonder, and a pretty powerful desire to do that myself someday. Then it began to get more detailed as we got past the excitement of walking on the moon and began seeing what else we could accomplish with Skylab, living in space and working in shirt sleeves. Still very cool, but not “exploring” and “new frontiers” so much. Then the promise of the space shuttle, going from initial sketches to the idea that this really was going to fly, soon marred by the budget and design issues. The various tests of the shuttle would perhaps have been more fascinating if they didn’t seem to be repeats of the Mercury and Gemini tests – now it was almost beginning to be routine. And finally, we started seeing the shuttle from a cost-effective viewpoint, all grown up now and trying to balance the budget. It’s a shame, really, because the space program gave us so much wonder and pride, and the energy to do just about anything, and now we seem bound up by responsibility.

In direct contrast to this public attitude, it seems to me, is what we have added to our body of knowledge during that same time. I grew up with books that speculated on where the moon came from and where the age of the universe was “between 10 and 20 billion years.” And I watched all of this change, and not gradually either. Black holes, speculative when I was even in high school, are now virtually proven, and we have mapped the variations in the Cosmic Microwave Background, the dissipating heat from the origin known most unfortunately as the Big Bang (13.7 billion years ago, now). Astronomical knowledge has grown, well, astronomically, and we add to this constantly. We have a satellite in orbit around another planet that took a photograph of a planetary probe as it descended by parachute! Not impressed? We have hundreds of satellites in orbit around our own planet, and to the best of my knowledge we have no photos of any spacecraft entering our atmosphere.

Take a look at that photo above. Right in the center, there’s a dark lunar Mare, and to the immediate right, there’s a brighter portion about like a chicken head eating a speck. From this perspective, just below and to the left of that speck is where it all began. That’s Apollo 11’s landing site. Yuri Gagarin was a hero himself, don’t get me wrong, and so were all of the other spacefarers who contributed to every country’s program. But right there, 40 years ago, we knew what we could accomplish. We walked on the moon.

If you lived through it, or even close, be sure to take aside someone much younger and try to convey some sense of this spirit. We still need it.

The problem with blogging

…or perhaps, with certain people doing so.

No, I’m not going to attack what other people choose to write about or how they do it. This is a blog – it’s supposed to be about me! ;-). What I’m starting to find now is that I don’t like writing something as a “stream of consciousness” or introducing an idea. I’m a personality type (I think, anyway) that likes to present something as a complete work and orderly concept, rather than as an initial thought. So, while I have ideas for posts that occur to me several times a week, I don’t like the idea of just hurling them out there. I much rather prefer a finished form.

There’s perhaps something good about this, in that I’m not writing something that I’m more likely to look at later and cringe (note that I said “likely”). I’m never really sure of how “public” such a thing is, at least at this stage – I might have four readers right now, so that counts as less public than many things I do for my job. But, perhaps, that may not always be the case, and will I feel comfortable with what I’ve written before?

The problem with “finished form” is that, too often, there is no such thing for me. Some ideas that I have that I consider compelling just seem to lead further onwards. Do I pick a stopping point? Or should I try to flesh it out better and complete the path? If I choose the latter, I find that I’m now trying to write a complete magazine article, self-edited, with fact-checking and sources. While not a bad pursuit, that kind of defeats the purpose.

I’m also sensitive about writing something that I think is pretty cool, that’s actually been examined in depth by someone else – I feel like that’s just showcasing my ignorance (“Hey! What if we sliced bread ahead of time?!?!”). There’s a trap to this way of thinking, in that there are very few subjects that are unique. It’s the same kind of trap that I fall into with photography, and that I have actually argued against – the artist that insists on being unique has got a huge challenge ahead of them, and may only achieve “being weird.”

And finally, there’s this last little concern: giving away an idea. I’m writing stuff for eventual publication right now, or so is the goal, and there’s a certain amount of competition to that. I have to be sure in my mind that I’m not going to want to develop some post idea further and do a full-blown article on it. First of all, having the same thing in short form on a blog seems to indicate to an editor that I have too few ideas (maybe? I could be imagining this), but it also could mean that someone who’s a faster writer runs with the idea before I do. This is probably the least of the worries, but it’s a factor nonetheless.

So, my posts are less frequent than many – but that makes them better quality, right? Yeah, sure, that’s it…

Anyway, feel free to chime in with your own thoughts.

Frustrations, part two

Okay, this is kind of a frustration. It’s also kind of an accomplishment. What you’re seeing above is a northern black racer (Coluber constrictor constrictor) that has just captured an eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis).

I was cutting up a trail through the woods while at work when I heard a rustle practically at my feet. One of the things I teach in my classes and seminars is about finding photos with your ears – sounds can lead you to photographic subjects quite frequently. In this case, it led to what I initially took to be a black rat snake alongside the trail, roughly a meter long. His head was hidden from view, and curiously, after the initial sharp rustle, he was motionless. I started edging around to get a better view of his head, and spotted the body of the hapless garter snake, still writhing. I wasted no time in scampering up to the parking lot and snagging my camera from the car, as well as my cell phone, which I used to summon a couple of co-workers up to see this. While I waited, I stayed still and unobtrusive so as not to spook the snake under cover. The snake had made it clear it knew I was around as I returned with the camera, because it gave a vigorous vibration of the tail.

[A quick side note: Many snake species, not just rattlesnakes, vibrate their tail as a warning. Rattlesnakes just have a handy noisemaker. But other species can produce much the same noise as the tail drums against dry leaves, and it’s an impressive sound, let me tell you.]

Once the others had their opportunity to see it, I maneuvered into the brush a bit to get a better view of the head, and eventually secured a nice keyhole in the brush that allowed me to see the dramatic scene above. The accomplishment part of this was even seeing such behavior, much less getting a reasonably clear shot of it. Snakes feeding in the wild are incredibly hard to find. They know they are quite vulnerable during and immediately after a capture, and usually, to even effect a capture in the first place, they have to be motionless until prey comes within reach. We humans, with our noisy blundering way of moving about (even me), tend to let every species within earshot know we’re about. Now, snakes don’t have ears, but they can feel vibrations through the ground, so while we’re slightly more subtle to them, it’s not by a huge margin.

The frustration part of this was twofold. The first is that it was difficult to get any kind of view at all of the drama, as it were. Even cropped tight as this is, you can see in the photo the out-of-focus brush to either side of the subject (the tan haze to the right side is a branch too close to the camera to be in any kind of focus, but still illuminated by the camera flash), and this was as good as I was going to get. Trying to get closer would either have spooked the snake into deeper cover or caused it to release its prey. And as I said, it was well aware that I was around, and not happy about it. Thus the second part of the frustration: while I would have loved to photograph the remainder of the story, there was no way it was going to happen. The snake would undoubtedly have moved into deep cover to finish the meal.

As I thought about this afterwards, I realized I might have even been a factor in this tableau. Considering that I witnessed the death throes of the garter once I spotted it, this meant that the racer’s strike had not occurred long before, and was perhaps even the rustle sound itself. Coupled with their proximity to the trail, my sudden presence might have spurred the garter into the racer’s range, or maybe even have fatally broken its attention from a faceoff between the two.

Now, here are two things of interest from this particular shot. The first is that, the difference in the size of the two snakes is not a big one (though it’s hard to determine from just this image). This is a significant meal for the racer, and would last it at least a month from my estimate.

The second is a subtle one that adds a lot to the scene without, I suspect, most people realizing it. Snakes don’t have eyelids, and don’t change expression in any way. Both species have a natural ridge above the eyes that we tend to see as an eyebrow, and gives them a slightly mean frown to our eyes. In this case, the angle of the garter’s head hides the ridge and gives it a wide-eyed look, while the angle of the racer’s exaggerates the ridge and makes it look nasty. Given the poses, we automatically expect such expressions, but there’s no expression there for either of them. What we imagine we see, however, fits with the brutality we assign to this action. It’s important to remember that we can’t assign human traits to this, and what we’re seeing is simply normal behavior in a world we pay too little attention to. There’s no animosity, no emotion – the racer was hungry, and the garter not fast enough. So it goes.

So how was Florida?

This is a post I’ve put off for a while (considering the trip was in April) for a number of reasons, none of them particularly good. But I’m not a fan of personal whining on a blog, and intended this for more items of interest rather than minutiae of life, so I’m skipping a lot of stuff I just typed ;-)

The trip, to me, was a bit frustrating in that I didn’t get to do some of the things I had planned (like snorkeling) and got no photos that I felt knocked me over, something that I hold as a personal goal with any trip. This isn’t to say I got no photos I liked – I added plenty to my stock! But none of them made me really excited to display. I tend to look at this as my own (failed) perspective, though, because some of the places The Girlfriend and I visited, like Venice Rookery, were fascinating. That’s called a teaser – it continues below the jump ;-)

Very annoying

In trying to upgrade and backup my previous installation of blog software, I somehow seemed to have lost the system. Not sure yet if the posts have vanished entirely (I made my own separate backups, but they may require the database to be coherent), so if anyone’s reading, be patient. I decided to dump B2Evolution’s software and go with WordPress, so I have to reformat the whole thing.

Florida Beckons

[Reconstructed after software failure]

It is finally looking like a trip to Florida is going to take place in April. Ever since moving from there a few years ago, I’ve been yearning to return, if only for the opportunities that it provides to nature photography. And, due to crummy finances and difficulties with work schedules, it hasn’t had the chance to happen until now.

This is far from being an ideal time, and in fact, it falls between two target periods. In February (I hate that word, completely unintuitive to type) and March, the birds are nesting and raising their broods, and Florida attracts a multitude of species. And high summer, despite how most people feel about it, is useful for two reasons: it will give my girlfriend a taste of the worst that Florida has to offer, to see if she can stand to move down there someday; and it produces bioluminescence in the bay waters.

When I first discovered this on my own a few years back, I found it absolutely fascinating, and that hasn’t changed. Certain microorganisms in the Dinoflagellate family produce a brief blue-green flash when agitated past a certain level, and large collections of them will produce a dim glow in turbulent water. Toss a rock in, and you’ll produce a shockwave that delineates the ripples for less than a second – in good conditions, you might actually see the secondary effect from the little fountain that plumes from the center of impact and falls back down. Put your hand in and thrash it around, and you’ll produce a brief cloud of color that wisps away quickly. Chasing this effect in the nearby waters of the Indian River Lagoon led to two rather interesting experiences, which I’m relating out of order just for the drama.

Frustrations, part one

[Reconstructed after software failure]

Yeah, I expect this to be an ongoing series… ;-)

I can’t say I really know how easy other nature photographers have it, though I imagine they face many of the same frustrations I do. I need to say here that I’ve always held a full-time job not related to photography, because, bluntly, I need to pay bills! So my nature photography takes place on the side, when I can arrange the time to do it. It doesn’t help that where I live presently is not as rich in subjects as other places I’ve lived (like Florida), so making a decent weekend of shooting often requires traveling somewhere else.

(Of course, one of the things I emphasize in my nature photography talk is finding subjects anywhere you are, so I’m contradicting myself here. The truth is, you really can find subjects anywhere, but some places are much easier than others).

pileated-blog1So, what about my buddy to the right, here? What’s his story?

This is a Pileated Woodpecker, the biggest woodpecker species in North America – unless, of course, it turns out the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is still extant, something that’s in debate right now. These guys are a bit more common though, but still fun to watch. This particular one was taken practically right outside the door where I work. And that opening in front of him isn’t for food – he’s making a nest.

I don’t get opportunities like this too often. It’s one thing to stalk through the woods at a key time in the year, listening for bird calls, until you locate a nest in construction, then find a prime location, set up a blind, and spend a lot of time staking out the nest so you can catch nice, detailed shots of behavior and plumage and, most especially, the young being fed and venturing out for the first time. These kinds of shots can take a lot of effort.

However, it’s another thing to have a woodpecker, who doesn’t mind relatively close approaches, creating a nest right alongside where you have to be every day anyway. And since I work for a wildlife organization, finding the excuse to walk outside routinely isn’t that hard. When I got this pic (admittedly a tad softer than I like), I was psyched. I was looking forward to a whole series of shots that I’ve never been able to devote the time to before.

Alas, it was not to be. The key part of all this was this male finding a mate to go along with the nest, which never happened. Part of this was probably due to another male in overlapping territory, which resulted in a few disputes. Another part may have been that I never once spotted a female in the area. Eventually, however, the nest was abandoned unfinished, and I only saw this male on occasion after that.

That’s kind of the way it goes. Nature photographers are beholden to how the chips fall (Heh! I’m a wag!), and I think a key part of it all is recognizing that you just have to wait for the right opportunities. It would have been nice to have an active nest 50 feet from my office door, but that’s a lot to expect. And if it’s too easy, the pics don’t have the same cachet ;-)

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