Lead the way

Yes indeedy, it’s another holiday, and this one is brought to you courtesy of the Insouciant Mr Bugg, reminding us all that today is Throw Down The Gauntlet Day. In his own post on the subject (where he apparently forgot to announce the holiday,) Buggato had the temerity to accuse me of chimping. ‘Chimping,’ should I need to inform or remind anyone, is the practice of looking at the LCD of the camera after taking a photo to see if there really is a picture there. As I’ve said, that’s all that it could possibly tell you, because the LCD is far too small, without color or gamma correction, to tell you anything else about the photo. Plus it makes you look like an amateur.

Buggarino somehow failed to post any images that he might have obtained of me actually engaging in this behavior, but that’s okay, because I have a few myself. So, having been challenged, I will present some of those, so you know what it looks like.

You likely remember this one from February, though it was taken last December instead.

Mr Bugg shooting from low on boat ramp at Jordan Lake in December 2019
Buggato certainly not chimpingThat was certainly a special outing, because he was in rare form that day. To the right is another from, literally, not five minutes later.

The light was going blue for those, because the sun had set and the color was draining from the sky, so let’s have another from before that time, while the light is better. That’s down below.

maybe not - benefit of the doubtYeeeaaahhhh, maybe he was just getting up from his prone shooting position and happened to glance in the same general direction of his camera, and is not actually looking at the LCD. We’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for this one. That’s okay – we have more.

Buggarino getting the undersides of mushrooms - definitely not chimping
This is from a few years back, when Buggosa was after some large shelf fungi on the trunk there. You might want to argue that we can’t tell what he’s doing here, but since he was shooting the undersides of the upper fungi, his nose is pointed in the wrong direction. You can trust me or not – I may simply start shooting video of it.

And don’t ask me what’s going on with his hat, because I’ve asked, and still don’t know.

How about the Eno River?

just clearing off splashes I'm sure
Okay, maybe he’s just comparing the settings in the camera menu with the crib notes written in his palm – I’ll let him explain this one.

And if you’re seeing a pattern of dress here, that’s because he has a couple of shirts dedicated to our outings, to remain more low-key. He is not color-coordinating the rubber band on his long lens case yet, though.

okay no doubts hereOne more? Okay, one from a foggy morning out at Mason Farm Biological Reserve.

So we see one of the problems with taking the lead on Throw Down The Gauntlet Day, because then, anyone so targeted has the opportunity to up the anté, especially if you’ve been obnoxious. But if you haven’t seen enough photos of this behavior yet, let me know, since we have another outing tomorrow and I’ll be sure to watch for more opportunities – maybe I’ll do the video thing, especially if I can find a pocket air-horn to fire off and mark exactly when it occurs. Not only that, but since he wants to lead off, I’ll also let him walk in the front on our hikes, clearing away all of the spiderwebs stretched across the path and doing the snake-watching duty. Far be it from me to hog all that fun for myself.

;-)

On this date 26

thunderheads illuminated by setting sun
This week, we’re reminiscing about 2006 (to begin with,) a summer with a series of fierce electrical storms. These growing thunderheads were catching the light of the setting sun, so peaks of different heights and distances were getting contrasting colors dictated by the atmosphere; you’ll notice that the very bottoms, and the foreground details, had already witnessed sunset, while that back peak was still catching full sunlight from several thousand meters higher up, peeking around the curve of the earth. This somehow looks familiar…

[For your amusement, I can tell you that this is being written before the previous post was even started, but I know what I’m going to post about.]

You almost certainly noticed the curious detail down at the bottom, where the trees were emulating the cloud banks a little too well, with one small patch at bottom center breaking free before it evaporated. Though trees shouldn’t do this.

little orphan branchyA close look at the full resolution of that now-ancient camera shows the reason: we’re just seeing an oddly-shaped bough, the supporting branch having disappeared at the lower resolution used for blog display. Damn. I thought I’d discovered some new physics.

Oh well, on to 2009.

newborn Atlantic horseshoe crab Limulus polyphemus under high magnification and dark-field lighting
On this date 11 years ago, we’d just returned from a beach trip, where my cavorting in the surf had produced a distinct stinging sensation on my arm – not too sharp, but more than a random itch. First glance and scratch turned up nothing, but when it returned, I looked harder and found what appeared to be a freckle but wasn’t. Having come prepared that trip, I managed to scrape it off and incarcerate it within a film can for collecting specimens, and back home, I set up a super macro rig – the first time I started using the reversed 28-105 for macro, if I remember correctly. With the detailed shots, I was able to determine that this was a very young Atlantic horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus,) of all things, remarkably tiny when first hatched. They don’t sting, but the exoskeleton is already pretty hard and I was likely getting stabbed by the tail. Anyway, details are here, but know that my ‘extension tube’ was actually a piece of PVC pipe with adapters glued onto the ends, painted black inside.

Just so you know if you’re ever asked, I purchased that Sigma 28-105 in 1997 I believe, and the aperture failed in 2004 while in Florida; I hung onto it in case I ever found the way to repair it. So here in 2009 I started using it backwards as a high-magnification macro lens, for which it still does duty, which means it’s had a longer shooting life while broken than it had in good shape. The frustration over this and another lens’ failure, which was known and too common with Canon cameras, almost had me switching to Nikon. Turns out, the EOS system of controlling both aperture and focus motor electronically rather than physically meant that zooms had to have frequently-flexed ribbon cables within, and these are a point of weakness; I even found the damaged cable within the 28-105 later on, when I’d dismantled it and set the aperture to a fixed f16, where it remains today.

On to 2012.

giant stag beetle Lucanus elaphus from the front
I’d captured this giant stag beetle (Lucanus elaphus) while out and brought it home for an extended photo session which, as you might imagine, it bore with exceedingly bad grace, but I still managed not to get pinched. Which means I fared better than with the horseshoe crab (you know, that’s a difficult word to type instinctively, “horseshoe.”) Giant stag beetles look horrendous, but know that the ‘horns’ are more for mating than protection, and used more often on each other than anything else, especially since the females don’t actually have them. Better not to ask any further questions.

giant stag beetle Lucanus elaphus on photographer's handI took a lot of photos, including a couple of attempts at scale, and one of them told me a little more; that’s my right hand in the shot, which means that I’d fired this off with my left. This had to be fun, since the shutter release and grip are on the right of the camera. Meanwhile, that big ugly wound on my hand is not courtesy of the stag beetle, which did no damage whatsoever, but our washing machine instead, when the lid slammed down just as I was reaching inside. I still have that scar…

A year later, I was getting fartsy with a spider. Don’t act so surprised – you know what the blog is like.

green lynx spider Peucetia viridans almost blending in to spearmint leaves
In 2013, we had a bumper crop of spearmint plants and several green lynx spiders (Peucetia viridans,) so it’s only natural to assume that they could have come together at some point – actually, quite often. This was the beginning of watching almost the entire life cycle of the lynx spiders, including the appearance of egg sacs, the birth of several broods, and even monitoring them over the winter. I had also planted the spearmint myself, which grew into an enviable patch big enough to hide even me; we have had no such luck here at the new place, but the soil at the old (where this was taken) was super rich. So I have to play around with something more than detail or identifying shots every once in a while, and shooting by natural light with a large aperture produced this effect. Yet somehow, I still don’t have my prints up in the best galleries, even just in North Carolina. Go figure.

Another try

developing cumulonimbus clouds showing Belt of Venus
So, Monday night I went down to the lake to try again on those focus and tracking tests. The light was again ideal, only this time, it remained that way until the sun disappeared behind the trees. Unfortunately, I saw even fewer birds than before. I may be partially to blame here, since we’re now past nesting season and the adults have much less to do with no babies to feed. Some blame might also be placed on the ridiculous number of boaters that were out there, mostly kayakers, paddleboarders, and related; there weren’t too many open patches nearby where an osprey might feel safe to dive. So while there, I settled on shooting some of the developing cumulonimbus clouds lit by the westering sun, like the oddly tumescent one above, happy to see someone, at least.

But then again, it didn’t last long, and I’ll leave you to speculate with whatever indelicate explanations come to mind. I’m certainly above all that. Unlike this cloud.

developing cumulonimbus with evaporating tower
What does show here, though, are the range of colors that extend in layers as the sun sets, cutting through thicker and thicker portions of the atmosphere. It became a little more evident as the evening wore on.

developing cumulonimbus clouds and Belt of Venus
This coloration, as I’ve said before, is known as the ‘Belt of Venus,’ and is essentially the shadow of the earth itself being cast onto the clouds as the sun disappears over the horizon, the shadow leaping up from the horizon. Of course, some of this might also be from the other clouds in the area blocking the sun, but it’s pretty much the same effect, and same color progression. There were no high altitude clouds at all, so nothing to really color the sky, just these fluffy monsters clustered down low in various places. I was watching them with interest, knowing that they often turned into thunderheads, and being down on the lake I’d have a good view.

But I also fired off a few test shots here and there, such as at passing airliners, which are quite small in the viewfinder and thus not bad for focus targets in that regard, but far too easy to track so not the kind of test I was really after.

focus test on passing airliner with additional detail
Now here’s the serendipitous part, because I knew conditions were right for something in particular, that I actually captured in that frame, but I didn’t know it until I got back and unloaded the card – if your monitor is not well-corrected it would be easy to miss. Let’s go a little closer.

passing airliner and very thin crescent moon
See it? There’s a super-thin crescent moon in the photo. Amusingly, I started actively looking for it immediately after firing off that frame, but took another couple of minutes before I snagged it. I knew we were just past new moon and the crescent would be visible soon after sunset, but it was a little more advanced than my previous shots done some months back, which became evident as the evening wore on. Had I been out the previous night, it likely would have been too thin to discern, closer to the sun and swallowed up in the glare, and it wasn’t until he sky started to darken a bit before it could be made out.

But we’ll pause here for a little curiosity, because I spotted this as I was looking, before I even made out the moon.

unidentified planet-looking sky spot where no planet should be
This is cropped down to full resolution, but even in the viewfinder I could make out that it was larger than a star, and the subsequent frame showed it as distinctly round. Not current on my orbital times, I initially identified it as Venus, then thought better of it and considered Jupiter instead. Upon my return, I booted Stellarium to confirm – and found neither. There were, in fact, no planets at all anywhere in the vicinity, and this is way too big and round to be a star. So what did I capture? There was no visible motion, but I don’t recall seeing it again either, so I’m leaning towards a high-altitude object reflecting the sun, such as, yes, a weather balloon – they’ve been proven to exist, unlike just about every other explanation certain types of people tend to put forth. I’m going to have to go onto some astronomy forums and see what can be found. The worst part is, I have only a rough idea of altitude and azimuth, which would have helped significantly.

Back to the moon.

3% crescent moon showing hint of lunar detail
I did a lot of focus bracketing with these, not trusting autofocus at all, and managed to get a few frames that actually show a vestige of lunar detail, so I’m cool. Stellarium pegged this as 3% illuminated, while that time back in January was about 1%, but in order to get it less than that, I would have had to have caught it sometime during the morning, when it would have been impossible to make out without a telescope. As I said in that January post, it varies a lot.

Not knowing that I already had one, I got lucky and fired off a few frames as a jet passed nearby.

high altitude airliner passing near crescent moon
Notice how the contrails are colored red by the sunset, long gone from my perspective but still visible to those passengers and crew. The moon was of course below them and not visible at all.

(All right, we all know that’s bullshit – the moon was in the same position for them as it was for me. But likely not visible to them, because they still had some sunlight glare in the sky that probably overwhelmed it.)

Now it gets a little bit cooler.

3% crescent moon showing earthshine close to moonset
When I first saw it in the viewfinder, I wasn’t sure I wasn’t just imagining it, but as it got a little later, the earthshine became evident. I did a little playing around in GIMP with the two images above, and in the one with the plane, I couldn’t coax any evidence of earthshine out of the image at all, but in the one immediately above where it shows distinctly, I could actually make out the lunar mares if I pushed it to extremes. Now I’m annoyed that I didn’t switch over to RAW mode for a few frames, because this is exactly where that additional range and info would come into play.

As the moon was approaching the trees and about to disappear, I resolved to shoot video of it to show the actual speed of movement, but I was still glancing around, and one of the many developing thunderheads was now showing regular activity. I watched it but shot no photos or video, wanting to time things just right for the moon, and as it turns out, the resulting video is dark enough not to show much of any light from the sky at all, and no earthshine (I didn’t expect a lot from 30 frames per second, even with widely expanded ISO,) and I was missing the peak of activity from the thunderhead. When I finally turned to shoot it once the moon was out of sight, the sky now being dark enough for some longer exposures, the activity was tapering off.

distant thunderhead at night showing lightning ground strike
It’s kind of a shame, because this thunderhead was actually drawing a little closer, and I might have gotten some nice shots out over the lake, but it simply evolved into rain, and none of the others were putting in quite enough effort. I could only guess how far south this was from my position, but that guess is a couple dozen kilometers or better.

Yet I did get one nice capture.

cloud lightning from thunderhead over lake
I don’t pretend to understand why lightning would loop around like this, but it’s cool-looking, so I’m groovy. Notice the difference in the clouds, where portions are illuminated by the dim lingering twilight and show the motion of the clouds during the long exposure, while a portion is illuminated by the brief lightning itself and is thus sharp in that burst of light. And yes, there’s a lot of sensor noise present, because I didn’t do any noise reduction tricks for this post, but we’ll all just have to cope.

One of these days, I’ll get some birds to practice on. I promise to let you know when I do – it’s starting to feel like some epic quest now. Geez, I just want a few birds

You wanted to know

“Hey, Al,” started the thousands of e-mails I received the past couple of days, more-or-less-kinda (which means absolutely not,) “how come you haven’t posted anything for almost a week? This is prime season – why aren’t you out shooting?” Though no one nearby actually asked that (no duh,) because they knew what the local conditions were like: peripheral tropical storm effects, which means grey days with frequent misty rains, followed by Florida effects, which means sunlight interspersed with unpredictable fierce thunderstorms. While shooting the photos for the recent bird post, I had resolved to get down to the lake on a clear evening to use the light to my advantage, as well as doing more focusing tests, and spent a week waiting for the weather to be clear enough. This past Friday, following another horrendous downpour, the sun came out brightly and I headed down about ninety minutes before sunset.

black vulture Coragyps atratus perched in excellent light
And the light was ideal; nice warm yellow color, low and distinct, able to reach the undersides of a bird easily and help prevent any backlighting or semi-silhouettes, though my subject here doesn’t show it well. Naturally, while the sun was cooperating, the ospreys and herons were nowhere to be seen.

partly cloudy conditions over Jordan Lake
And it was still a weekday, following a fierce rain, so fewer boaters were out, which also helps to encourage the fishing raptors to operate a little closer to shore. The sky was still scattered clouds, and I watched a thick band on the horizon as the sun lowered, afraid of what it meant.

I wasn’t wrong.

mostly cloudy conditions at Jordan Lake
Descending sun and prevailing winds conspired to shroud the sky in a moody blend of cloud types, taking away all of the prime light. Nonetheless, I had made some changes to focus parameters within the camera, so I stayed put to see if I got some nice subjects to experiment with, and in case the sun reappeared through a break in the varied cloud deck. It wasn’t unreasonable, since many layers could be discerned, and they were moving, not fast, but not slow either. Fair to middlin’, as it is said in Yorkshire. Or so Herriot tells me, anyway.

different sunlight on varied cloud layers
You can even see a spot of blue up there. It’s a staple in comic strips to look up at the clouds and talk about what they suggest, giving the impression that this is a frequent activity among, well, anyone, though I suspect this is only a myth started by Charles Schulz. But I’m game anyway: I see… a… pony struck by a fast-moving freight train. Eastbound.

fragment of rainbow down at the horizon
Really, it was a notably diverse sky. This fragment of a rainbow (though I made no measurements of curve to determine if it could even be called a ‘bow’) took up only a small vertical patch of the sky, and I endeavored to get a distant bird framed with it. Only kinda worked, but it’s better than no bird at all.

sunglow behind varied clouds at Jordan Lake
After a certain period of time, when the idea of ‘appropriate nature photographer’s patience’ was giving way to ‘wasting your damn time,’ I figured the sunset was coming along within thirty minutes and I could wait to see if that threw some cool colors on the sky, knowing I’d be annoyed with myself if I abandoned the locale right before things got really vivid. Bear in mind, I’m just standing at one point on the shore the entire time, wandering back and forth maybe a handful of meters – I wanted a pretty wide view of the sky so I could spot any raptors wheeling in a broad area. Didn’t even bring a folding chair or ground cover cloth with me. I was, in fact, right underneath the same tree with the brown-headed nuthatch nest from that aforementioned bird post, hoping to see some activity now that the sun/crappylight could shine directly onto the nest opening, but as I suspected, the fledgling(s) had left the nest in the intervening time – probably regretting it, given the weather. While many people think birds use a nest all year long, it’s only for hatching and raising young, and as soon as those are out flying on their own, the nest is abandoned; birds simply perch at night (or at day, for the nocturnal species.)

near-sunset colors on varied clouds
I admit, the sky almost looked promising as sunset came along. I was pretty sure we wouldn’t get any nearby undercloud colors from the sun getting below the cloud bank, but there still remained the possibility that the upper reaches would get illuminated and show patches among the lower levels. By the way, the colors didn’t quite look this vivid in person; the camera’s white-balance was set for sunlight, so all color shifts become apparent, but our eyes can compensate for this to some extent, knowing the clouds are ‘grey’ and thus seeing them that way.

osprey Pandion haliaetus cruising in distance under varied clouds
One of only three osprey that I saw that evening cruised by against the sky, so I did a little focus tracking on it, but not enough to feel comfortable with the new settings – after all, it wasn’t doing anything very demanding like diving for prey, which is what I’m really after at the moment.

And then, when it became clear (ahaha) that the sunset wasn’t going to pan out at all, I started noticing some flashes from various points on the horizon, picking up some distant thunderheads, and started waiting for those to see if they developed decently. This had the potential of making me curse myself, because I hadn’t packed a tripod so long exposures were out of the question. But while the light was still too bright to do more than a few seconds anyway, I braced against a tree and shot some video of the most promising thunderhead, estimated at least 30 kilometers distant (the Real Time Lightning Map is web-based, and I tend not to use my limited phone data for such things.) Despite timing the flashes reasonably well, all I caught was the barest visible bolt and several brief cloud illuminations. Not worth even uploading a video clip, so here’s a frame still.

video frame of distant lightning
And just so you know, getting even this frame was tricky enough. VLC Player will allow frame-by-frame motion (forward only) in its Advanced menu, but not exactly – it tends to skip frames, and the lightning bolt existed for just one. After having it once and accidentally advancing past it, the next few tries only netted me the cloud glow nearby, and I had to keep backing and pausing the video to hope to get the ‘odd’ frames instead of the ‘even’ ones, kind of thing. All for this.

So yeah, among work and weather and so on, I did do a little shooting, and this is what I got. So when it goes too quiet around here, know that I’m either very busy with other things, or having a crappy time with what I am pursuing, photography-wise. Nature of the beast. Yet there are still a few other images that are on their way, so don’t give up on me yet.

On this date 25

cluster of stink bugs Menecles insertus on tree at night
This week, we have entries from 2010, 2013, 2015, and 2016 – just to make it easier to fill out your scorecard. Our 2010 submission above is a cluster of stink bugs, lacking a common name (well, other than ‘stink bug’) but bearing the scientific name of Menecles insertus. I couldn’t explain why there was suddenly a large number of them clustering in my yard, mostly on one tree, but I did a few illustrative images, even without this information, because I live life on the edge like that. You can see, however, that I was working without a softbox at this time and the photos suffer for it. I was very mean to my photos for a while, but I’ve outgrown that now. Mostly.

juvenile Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis posing for portrait on rosemary plant
For the next year in our lineup (refer to the list above,) we have a juvenile Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis, though at the time I was listing them as Tenodera aridifolia sinensis, since I was unaware that it had been changed not long back,) providing an action portrait on the rosemary plant; this gives some indication of scale if you’re familiar with rosemary. That was the same bush, started the year before as a tiny potted thing dropped into the garden, that grew so much in one year that I had to transplant it in the spring to a location by the porch lest it take over the little garden. By the time we moved a year later, it was so large it couldn’t be transplanted.

dramatic cloud glow
Next up we have a wildly active summer storm that I watched from across the nearby pond – and posted about then, so go to that link if you want the sordid details and more, graphic photos. [Hey, I’m starting to get the hang of this clickbaiting thing.]

And finally, we have a grab shot during an overcast day at Gold Park, in their little pollinator garden there, bumble bees on the coneflowers. A little past prime display, mind you, but if the bees weren’t concerned, you shouldn’t be. Seriously, it’s all about appearance with you, isn’t it?

unidentified bumblebees on coneflowers, Gold Park
That’s all we have room for this week! Join us next week when we’ll be featuring some original nature photographs by our very own Al Denelsbeck!

We got birds

Boy, howdy, we got birds

backlit red-shouldered hawk Buteo lineatus
These are actually from several different shooting sessions, and the first here is from May, a grab shot as a red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) cruised by near the sun – I just liked how the feathers turned out, though this gives a rotten impression of the actual coloration. I’ve had this sitting in the folder for a couple of weeks and decided to feature it with the others.

That was from the nearby pond, so let’s feature the other two from that location (though a different day) before we move on to Jordan Lake.

male eastern bluebird Sialia sialis checking nest box carefully
As I rounded the bend in the shoreline and came into view, I saw a grey squirrel immediately vacating the area while a female eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) hovered agitatedly nearby. Before I brought the camera to bear, the female flew a short distance off while the male, seen here, sat outside the nest box and looked around for quite a while. I got the impression the squirrel might have been trying to raid the nest box and got driven off, but I didn’t know if the box was occupied – I’m guessing yes, from the behavior, though it’s late in the nesting season. I tried staking it out, but both the male and female seemed quite aware of my presence and refused to go near the box while I waited, even though I was a decent distance off. The female gave me some nice poses, and from this angle the impression given is quite expressive.

female eastern bluebird Sialia sialis watching activity near nest box carefully
Note that this is a tighter crop from the 100-300 L lens, so I wasn’t all that close – a solid eight meters, at least.

Now we go down to Jordan Lake, because Jordan Lake is where it’s at.

[Well, okay, Venice Rookery is where it’s at, but that’s a bit more than a day trip from here, so Jordan Lake is the reasonable substitute for bird photos around here.]

A session a little over a week ago yielded only a few decent pics, since the activity was a bit sparse, which is how it goes – this was partially because it was a Saturday and there were lots of people out on the lake, pushing the bird activity further away from our location (this meaning the Indurate Mr Bugg and I.) The sunrise had been crappy, but eventually produced some better light, and I snagged a cruising great blue heron (Ardea herodias) that wasn’t too unfocused.

great blue heron Ardea herodias cruising over Jordan Lake in early morning
For the most part, the ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) kept their distance and did almost no hunting; the one example that I photographed had the autofocus getting fooled by the background again, and I missed some good shots, though granted, they were at a distance anyway. I include the one below more out of curiosity than anything.

likely juvenile osprey Pandion haliaetus overhead
That’s… awful lean looking for a healthy osprey, so this is either one that’s not doing too well, or (my suspicion) a newly-fledged youngster, since it’s that time of year. A juvenile bald eagle cruised past in the same session, though too distant and at a crummy angle to make worthwhile photos.

A week later (which means a few days back now) we returned, and this time things were slightly better, even though the sky was scattered overcast with occasional rays of sunshine. Early on, another osprey started its dive as I followed it.

osprey Pandion haliaetus begining its stoop after prey
The act of a raptor diving for food is called a stoop, by the way, but don’t ask me why. You can just see the hints of gold backlighting – birds aren’t always cooperative in positioning themselves in the best light.

osprey Pandion haliaetus in high-speed dive, wings semi-tucked
First off, the birds may see prey anywhere, so it’s hard to position oneself with the light behind you, falling on the bird better, but in this case, getting the early morning sun behind us would have required being perched on the jumbled large rocks of an artificial causeway, in full sunlight and view, unable to move much without risking a nasty fall.

osprey Pandion haliaetus continuing its stoop
Here, it passed against the power lines that ran down the causeway. I hate power lines; always getting in the photos, and always coming down in storms. Bury the damn things.

By the way, I have considered a shooting blind on something like a raft for subjects of this nature, but again, the birds can appear anywhere, at any angle, so the best that could be used is a half-tent that wouldn’t disguise much movement and wouldn’t shield from the sun for very long – not worth the effort. Most photography blinds are for known, semi-fixed subjects close to ground level.

At this point, the osprey still hasn’t veered off, which happens more often than not in my experience, as the fish goes deeper.

backlit osprey Pandion haliaetus nearing water surface and prey
Closing in, and the autofocus nailed it solidly – for a moment, at least. Nice accent lighting and position here. And you can see the causeway rocks I mentioned.

backlit osprey Pandion haliaetus immediately before contacting water surface
And then, the AF slipped a little, just as the osprey was making its capture – it’s not more than a few millimeters from contacting the water here. It’s all happening fast, so all I can do is trip the shutter and try to keep the bird in the autofocus area. But let’s get an establishing look too.

same image, full frame
This is the same image, but full frame – reduce this whole thing down a bit just to demonstrate what I could see in the viewfinder. This is an estimated 100 meters away, too, at 600mm focal length. I’ve tried willing them closer, but it hasn’t worked – so much for telekinesis. The osprey looks closer to the rocks, giving weight to the idea of clambering on them for better pics, but there’s nothing for scale in there either, and I’m pretty certain it was closer to us than to them.

osprey Pandion haliaetus immediately after snagging fish from surface
Even worse focus here, slipping in fractions of a second – you can see why I’m not a big fan of autofocus, even though at times it definitely makes things easier; it’s just too easy to fool and wander. Very often, osprey slam into the water, almost completely submerging themselves, but this time around it merely scooped the fish from the surface daintily.

osprey Pandion haliaetus climbing out and dripping water after catching fish
AF came back almost adequately for a moment as the osprey climbed out, and the backlighting at least highlighted the dripping water.

osprey Pandion haliaetus approaching directly towards photographer with capture
And cooperatively, the osprey bore directly down on us for a few seconds, perhaps thinking it would perch in the trees we stood among, before it veered off and circled around for a bit. I’m not down there enough to know if there are ‘typical’ perches for specific birds, though I will say that a bald eagle was found in the exact same tree for both session, lending some weight to the idea. That one was over a kilometer off across the lake, so those pics are only proof of presence and not worth posting (and I say that after posting these, so…)

While we were there, we stood near a dead stump that housed an active brown-headed nuthatch (Sitta pusilla) nest, and watched the feeding behavior, proof of occupancy.

adult brown-headed nuthatch Sitta pusilla bearing long-jawed orbweaver spider as food for young
Most of the times when the parents came around, they had a small inchworm or some tiny unidentifiable flying insect, but we got lucky once and watched it bring in a long-jawed orbweaver, a common spider around water sources, and being only a handful of meters away, we could get nice clear shots – though both in shadow and backlit by a clouded sky.

I could see that the parents weren’t leaning very far in and figured that the young was/were getting big, so I waded into the water for a more head-on view. The previous week we’d been watching the same nest, but the water level was half a meter higher then (after-effect of several hard rains immediately beforehand) so wading was out of the question; I hadn’t brought a swimsuit and wouldn’t have chanced it with the camera equipment anyway. Now that it had dropped to calf-depth and I could at least see what might trip me, I could go for the better angle.

parent brown-headed nuthatch Sitta pusilla peering from nest cavity
This is the parent, having disappeared completely into the nest and then peeking back out again a few moments later; I never did see any of the nestlings. Late afternoon sun would have shown much better, but the session hadn’t been scheduled then. However, I may be making a trip like that soon so we’ll see what happens. The young might even have fledged out before then.

The point where we were shooting from is a great favorite of the vultures – despite the efforts of the Wildlife Resource Commission, which attempted a ‘vulture effigy’ program to discourage them. I find this amusing, so bear with me a second. Last year, we started seeing dead vultures hanging from several trees in the vicinity, and signs posted nearby indicated this was a vulture effigy program intended to scare them off from roosting in the area, citing… well, I’ll let you read it.

Vulture Effigy program sign from USDA and NCWRC
In case it still comes up too small, I’ll point out that they’re claiming vultures, and I quote, “Tear windshield wipers and door seals off vehicles,” and “Tear seats on boats, vehicles, and tractors.” Which is, in a word, utter horseshit – vultures don’t like people very close and choose safe, high perches everywhere available. They don’t perch on cars or boats unless said vehicles have been sitting there for days/weeks, and there’s no place else for them to perch – certainly not the case at Jordan Lake. Also cited are feces and regurgitation, and I can tell you I stand routinely under favored trees and see very little evidence of feces – herons are far worse culprits – while vultures regurgitate when they’re threatened. I’m far more inclined to believe this is the NCWRC bowing to exaggerated (or outright fabricated) farmer complaints than any real measurable issues. About the only authentic issue that I see is the one about power lines, and I addressed that above ;-). Plus, of course, their program doesn’t work anyway.

Vulture 'effigy' in trees above unconcerned vultures
See that ragged mass in the upper left corner? That’s there vulture ‘effigy,’ which is their way of trying to pretend it’s not actually a dead vulture, and how these are obtained is not clear, but I’ll go ahead and surmise that the agents of the NCWRC aren’t scouting around until they find handy dead ones. See the black shapes on the beach below? Those are the live, unimpressed vultures – which eat carrion as a matter of course, so aren’t particularly put off by dead things and aren’t taking this as a warning or threat. And mind you, this was last year when the program was ‘fresh,’ if you’ll pardon me for using that word.

Want to know why the vultures congregate in this particular area? Because of natural fish kills washing up on the shores, and of course, people discarding fish carcasses or portions thereof on the banks as well. I always see dismembered fish on the sand there. Herons eat fish whole, as do most of the rest of the predators in the area. Fish heads come from fishermen.

Anyway, the vultures continue to be unimpressed.

pair of turkey vultures Cathartes aura plotting to rip weatherstripping off of cars, because, that's why
Here, a small flock of turkey vultures eyed us warily, but we were doing the nature photographer thing and being quiet and unobtrusive – had we clapped our hands, they were have taken flight immediately. And remember, long lenses? Yeah, they’re a good ways overhead.

Another, this time a black vulture (Coragyps atratus,) came to rest in a dead tree on the point, fairly close to directly overhead, though looking down on us uneasily as we quietly conversed.

black vulture Coragyps atratus lookng out over lake, seen from underneath
After a couple of minutes, it decided we were too close after all and flew off for a quieter perch. But as another passed, I fired off a few frames and got a nice display of their plumage, specifically the distinctive wing coloration.

black vulture Coragyps atratus in flight showing wing plumage
The white shafts and deep grey feathers on the outermost flight feathers of the wings give them pale ‘palms,’ which is how to easily differentiate this species from the turkey vultures in flight – the differently-colored heads are way too small to make out clearly at a distance. Turkey vultures have silvery-grey flight feathers all along the wings, giving them a grey trailing edge, and longer tail feathers than this.

But enough about vultures. Let’s do herons for a bit.

great blue heron Ardea herodias in flight with outstretched neck
Herons don’t generally fly with their necks extended, but this one had just been spooked from a foraging spot and was on its takeoff run, the only shot from a sequence that the AF worked as intended, and that was badly framed. The sequence shows the neck gradually retracting into the folded position seen further up in the post – it’s kind of like retracting the landing gear.

Another that I followed showed much the same difficulties in AF tracking, with two notable exceptions, both looking the same:

great blue heron Ardea herodias cruising past, head hidden
Sure, thanks, lock on once the head is hidden behind the wing – good job.

[Some of this is due to my movement, and an inability to maintain the bird in a smallish AF spot, and there are partial solutions to this. One: getting steadier, which I’m working on, but it’s a heavy rig held with my arms semi-extended, so there’s a limit. Two: shooting from a tripod, or at least a monopod, but those are only good for subjects no more than 20° above the horizon, and the osprey photos above thwarted that for all but the middle photos. Three: selecting a wider AF area, but that generally means the camera chooses which point to lock onto, and as it crosses a horizon line or in front of a higher-contrast background, it’s too likely to lock onto that and not switch back to the bird until too late. And finally, I have further options for AF behavior from the camera body, and I am trying them out to see if any works noticeably better.]

Another got spooked by a passing boat and did this halfhearted flight only a handful of meters, landing in deeper water than it seemed to expect.

great blue heron Ardea herodias landing in deeper water
But at least autofocus decided to work accurately here. You know, on a subject I could easily have manually focused upon…

For the last few, we return to the ospreys, showing the changing light conditions of the day.

osprey Pandion haliaetus in flat glide overhead
Early in the day, we had largely overcast skies, with small break here and there but not letting direct sunlight through except in very select patches. Okay for contrast control, but not for colors, shutter speed, or interesting skies. And naturally the ospreys that drew closest didn’t deign to go fishing at that distance. Ingrates.

flapping osprey Pandion haliaetus with diffuse lighting
As the day wore on, the patches of sunlight grew, occasionally throwing some low-contrast, diffuse light onto our subjects. I happened to like this one for the curves of the wings, but the distinct shadow at least hints at a nicer day. There were small patches of blue to be found in the sky, but it was a matter of luck and timing to get a bird framed against one, and it always lasted a second or less.

osprey Pandion haliaetus banking in sunny clear conditions
Eventually, the day cleared much better, at least giving nice color to the backgrounds, but note that good light angles have now narrowed down a lot, because it becomes very easy to have a bird backlit and see nothing but a shadowed underside, so timing becomes much more crucial the brighter it gets, and I tend to follow birds until they bank the right way. This is roughly 90° off the sun, so the sky isn’t devolving into washed-out glare (like in the first image in this post,) but it’s less ideal than say, 150° to 230° off, more directly lit. The docks lay that way from our position, so the birds were less likely to be there. What we need is a nice shady island with lots of fish around, but no boaters. And while I’m wishing for silly things, birds that take direction and a sun that can be positioned at will. But I guess if it was easy, I’d have none of the remarkable prestige that I now garner from being a nature photographer…

Oh, hey, welcome…

I’ve got a lot of photos to edit for a major post coming up, but I happened across this a few minutes ago and had to feature it. Remember when I said that I’d like to get some Carolina anoles (Anolis carolinensis) established in our yard here? Tsch!, of course you do – I apologize for insulting your recall, or insinuating that you haven’t read everything here. Anyway, this is what I found on a plant hanger, right alongside the front door just now.

Carolina anole Anolis carolinensis on upright plant pole in front yard
It’s a good-sized specimen, and even has a complete (and very long) tail, which is semi-rare. Normally they’re bright green, but change color to suit their mood and occasionally to blend in better with their surroundings.

The thing is, we’ve done nothing to encourage them here, nor even introduced one (at least knowingly, though we’ve added a lot of plants.) I actually reduced the appeal of this particular spot, because it used to hold a hummingbird feeder than the hummers seem to be ignoring, so I removed it recently. Not that anoles like hummingbirds, or even sugar water, but they do like ants, and ants like sugar water. Yet there are more than enough ants in that precise location, so the encouragement is already present.

Unfortunately, so are a few five-lined skinks, right within the bricks of the front step to be exact, which means two meters from this spot. Is either species going to get territorial? Hard to say, but I’ll keep my eye out. For now, I made sure that I got several frames of my buddy here hanging out, for which it was remarkably patient even though it showed it was well aware of my presence. Here’s a variation, shot against a shadowed background so the exposure went a little high, but going in tight still showed some nice eye detail.

extreme closeup of Carolina anole Anolis carolinensis eye detail
For some idea of the size, the entire head here is maybe the length of the top joint of your little finger, though in overall length the anole might reach as long as my entire hand, half of which is tail alone.

So, now we’ll just have to see if we see more of it.

Verboten!

decrepit tree stump in Jordan Lake
See this stump? This is the Infrequently Posting Mr Bugg’s stump. It is forbidden for anyone else to photograph it. I took this photo just to show everyone else what it was that they could not photograph – you know, so accidents won’t happen, and no one can say they didn’t know it was this stump they were supposed to avoid. If any readers really need to know exactly where to avoid doing forbidden stump photos, they should contact me to learn the precise location.

Mr Bugg, of course, has photos of it, and presumably, you will see them at some point, because he assured me that he will be doing better at posting than he has for the past two months, and he is a man of his word. Any of those photographs will be the certified, official images, even if they’re not as dramatic as this one, or fail to show the moon like this one (it’s up there just to the right off the top of the stump.) Mr Bugg has not so far claimed the moon, but perhaps you should move quickly.

While recording this to protect others, I couldn’t resist playing with perspective a bit and held the camera down at water level to frame it against the sky – so that anyone else doing the same would not fail to recognize it. This meant I was shooting blind, aiming the camera without using the viewfinder, so I had to fire off a few frames and check the results in the LCD afterward, something rather derisivley known as “chimping” – it is very unprofessional-looking and really tells you nothing that you wouldn’t already have seen in the viewfinder, save for the effect of any camera flash, which wasn’t used for this. But since I hadn’t used the viewfinder, it told me how well I’d framed it.

All that said, the lack of scale and comparison might be misleading (not at all my intent,) so I’ll tell you that this stump stood no more than 70cm from the water’s surface – really, not an impressive stump to claim as one’s own, but who am I to judge?

On this date 24

distant thunderhead and storm seen beyond Lake Washington, Florida
This week, we’re back in Florida, in 2004, looking at a distant thunderhead dumping some heavy rains onto a region far to the west. Such displays were and are extremely common in Florida, as the prevailing winds carried moisture-laden air off of the Gulf of Mexico and across the state, where it encountered the overheated and rapidly rising air from the land mass, driving the moisture kilometers high, dropping its temperature and producing ice pellets. Eventually, the ice became too heavy for the rapid updrafts and fell again, melting on the way down to contact the earth as rain. Most times; serious updraft activity could keep the ice aloft for much longer, getting heavier with accumulation, and when it finally fell it wouldn’t have time to melt, and that’s hail. This method of exchanging heat with the upper atmosphere is also why the ambient air temperature drops with thunderstorms – except, not too often in Florida, because these cells tend to be sporadic and singular, as seen here.

You learn quickly to pay attention to rapidly growing, tall white fluffy clouds out to the west, because they’re often heading your way, and they can dump a lot of rain rapidly, what I call the Afternoon Monsoons. I remember one snorkeling trip on a brilliantly sunny day, but seeing that cotton off in the middle distance. I was on a bicycle, so I ended my snorkeling and headed home. Only a little ways back, the sky had become very dark, and at the halfway mark I could actually see the rain advancing on me down the road in a wall. Barely got the camera into the ziplock bag (that I carried expressly for that purpose) in time.

By the way, I’ve had this image sitting in the blog folder for a while, just to talk about Florida thunderstorms, and a few weeks back realized it would fit with the On This Date posts, and so saved it for today. There’s another too, but you won’t see that until December ;-).

Now we jump forward to 2010.

unidentified brilliant orange mushrooms sprouting from leaf litter
There are a large number of images from this date, all of mushrooms and fungi, and I seem to recall having a particularly wet week not long before. This soon became a long, tortuously-hot spell where the prime moisture for the local plants was my own sweat. Don’t ask me to identify these; I don’t have a handy guide and, to be honest, really don’t care. Yes, I’m dissing the mycologically-inclined readers out there.

unidentified pupa
In 2012, I had found this unidentified pupa, and took a lot of photos of it, from all angles, trying to determine what it might be – but I neglected a measurement (partially because, I hadn’t yet created the handy little paper rulers that I now carry routinely.) There is a cluster of four eyes like caterpillars have, but the legs and antennae seem to be developing well, so I’m guessing it’s a butterfly or moth on the way, though I suppose those details could be applicable to a lot of different species of insect, so, hmm. I can say that it was nowhere near the size of the hornworms in that linked post – more like 15mm, give or take. I would have expected this stage to be safely encapsulated in a cocoon or something, but no longer recall where or how I found it. So much for trivia.

old Cone Fabrics smokestack in Saxapahaw, NC
This was from 2014 (still is, really,) and I include it mostly as a curiosity – I remember the trip The Girlfriend and I took, exploring the quaintly-named town of Saxapahaw and the Haw River a bit. This was built in the 1940s and represents a fairly common practice then, of using different colored bricks to spell out the company name, a no-maintenance billboard – I remember seeing such things all around New Jersey as I was growing up, but the practice faded. I can’t imagine this today, since companies cannot seem to keep the same name for a whole seven years and redoing all the brickwork would probably get a bit expensive.

(This is in the process of being restored, by the way.)

carolina anole Anolis carolinensis perched on identifying plaque in NC Botanical garden
Our last is from 2016, and I liked the image but never found a use for it then (not that I have now) – just didn’t fit into any posts at that time. This is a Carolina anole (Anolis carolinensis) pausing on an identifying plaque in the NC Botanical Garden, and from the girth I’m suspecting a pregnant female. Another curiosity: while they were not in bloom at any point that I ever recall in the garden, the plaque is identifying balloon flowers (Platycodon grandiflorus,) which the following year we began hosting routinely in our porchside planters, and which I thought I had a photo of somewhere on the blog and just spent way too damn long trying to find. Exciting, I know. It’ll get better someday – it’s been a long week and it’s not even half over.

Your patriotic duty

I just realized, on typing that title rather awkwardly, that I don’t use the word “patriotic” much at all. Which is good, because I find patriotism on a par with tribalism, and that’s just arbitrary “us-vs-them”ism, which we don’t need. Personal rants aside, Saturday, June 13th is National Get Outdoors Day, and I know, you’re a bit skeptical considering some past holidays here, but this is for true; I’d provide links, but nearly everything that I found that was the most useful was also for, like, years past.

green treefrog Hyla cinerea on hosta leaf in late afternoon sunlight
But seriously, why would you need any guidance for this? Get outside, go explore, run around in the rain, play stickball against the stoop (or something) – go nuts. You want an assignment? Fine: sit in just one spot for ten minutes, without moving, and count how many different species you see in that time frame. Birds, bugs, neighborhood dogs, you name it. Even if you don’t know the species, just tally it. You might be surprised at how many there really are in a small area.

mist on hosta flower in afternoon sunlight
Of course, if you want to wield a camera at that time, I wouldn’t dream of stopping you. Or a sketchpad, paints, audio recorder, writing pad, whatever. Commune, I think is the word. Don’t let the country down.

Naturally, both images here are of the same (potted, for now) plant, taken at the same time from different angles. I don’t think the treefrog was counting on the late afternoon sunlight from finding a break in the surrounding trees and shining right into its eyes…

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