Saturday, March 31, 2012

An Advanced Engineering Degree

If I told you the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, the suspension bridge in San Francisco or the new Hoover Dam Bypass bridge were all built without consulting engineers, you would call me liar.  And you'd be right.  The idea that one of these structures could be built without careful planning or without an extended amount of time in book learning is inconceivable.  It takes a great designer to produce these structures.

The Great Designer, however, created this little engineer with all the tools it needs to construct it's engineering feat right out of the box so that it can thrive in the niche for which it was created.  Can you imagine being able to inherently construct one of these webs without all the specialized learning?

The spider is called an orchard spider.  Recent morning fog gave me
another chance to film these tiny (1/4 inch) spiders and their webs.

Kind of looks like a forest with a lot of satellite dishes, doesn't it?

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Colors of Easter

I know some of the familiar Easter colors are associated with the resurrection of Christ the King - the royal purples and reds.  What surprises me is how commonplace the colors of Easter are in the world around us at this time of year.  I'm going to do a few blogs on Easter colors over the next week or two and these three photos are the first to deal with this topic.

The name of the tree that puts out these "catkins" is called an American hop hornbeam.  We have quite a few of those around the edge of the yard.  They also produce a little nutlet in the fall that the squirrels love.  They always attract my attention and my camera lens.  I was using my "piece of junk telephoto," but as with a few other photos, I liked the effect of the not-quite-in-focus look.  The purple in the background is contributed by a redbud in my neighbors yard. 

Sometimes a very small change in shooting angle can completely change the background which can be used to advantage.  Don't always just snap the picture and walk away.  Work the angles to get the best effect.  This is better advice when using a telephoto lens or in macro photography, but it is something to keep in mind on any photo since bad backgrounds have the ability to absolutely destroy a good photo.  Having said that, I took the photos from my porch on a rainy day and couldn't change the angle by much.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Front Row Seats

Our front porch faces the woods and a little bit of my neighbor's back yard.  He had several trees topped a couple of years ago.  Most of them recovered, but one large one did not.  They removed too much of the top and left too few branches.  I didn't realize how much it has decayed until recently.  I happened to see a mated pair of the red-bellied woodpeckers that call this area home on the tree the other day.  The tree trunk splits into a "Y" at the top and they were chasing each other around one trunk and then the other.

The following day, my attention was drawn to that area because a red-belly spent the entire day in the area calling out.  The fact that it was there for so long was unusual since they are constantly on the move foraging on different trees looking for bugs.  I could hear the bird, but I couldn't locate where it was calling from.

The following day, the same thing occurred.  The red-belly was calling from the same area.  Only this time, I could also hear it thumping slowly on a tree.  Not the fast rat-a-tat sound you hear when they are drilling holes, but a much slower rhythm.  Looking closely to see where the sound was coming from, I spotted the male at the top of the tree I described earlier and he already had a pretty good size hole cut into the top of the tree.  The hole is roughly forty feet up the tree.  Looking at him through binoculars, I discovered how decayed that tree had become.  It had a pretty good growth of fungi around the edge, a sure sign of rotting wood.  I was surprised how close to the top of the tree the bird was building the nest.  I would think that if it rained for any length of time, the water would seep through the punky "roof" and the nest interior would be damp.

He has been at it for a two or three days now, carving out the interior.  You can tell how far along he is by how far into the nest he leans to bang away at the wood.  The wood chips are mostly left in place as nesting material.  The interior has to be pretty roomy, so he has got a lot of work to do yet.  He stops every once in a while and calls out to his mate.  I'm not sure if he is just checking on her, or he would like her to inspect his progress so far.  I haven't seen her come to the tree since the day they were both there.  So it looks like we are going to have front row seats to a nesting pair of red-bellied woodpeckers.  That will be fun to watch.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

May Apples in March

I cannot remember another year in which spring has come so early.  You probably can't either.  The unfolding of events that usually takes six or eight weeks has been compressed into a couple of weeks.  Take mowing.  The grass is at least a month ahead of normal.  We can usually get away with not mowing in these parts until the end of April, but not this year.

The May apples are among the many plants that have appeared early.  There is nothing like a forest floor covered in these little umbrellas.  We are fortunate to be able to see them anytime since our house borders the woods.  You wouldn't know this unless you were lying on the floor of the woods, but the sun gets under the leaves and lights them up like lanterns at sunrise.

As with other subjects, getting down to their level is important in capturing a sense of this subject.  To get the lantern effect, the plant has to be between the camera and the sun so that the leaves appear translucent.

I used a Singh-Ray blue and gold polarizer, but it didn't have much of an effect at this angle.  Polarizers work best if they are used at ninety degrees from the sun which, in these pictures, would have been either to the right or left.  At that angle, though, the leaves lose their translucency, so it is a compromise as to what you would like to capture.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A Million Jewels

The subject of this photo is the raindrops dripping off of everything.  It caught my attention only after looking at them through the telephoto lens.  They were not really noticeable from the distance without looking through the lens.  I was also using a polarizer.  Polarizers work, even on a cloudy day, cutting glare from the photo.  I took the photo from the porch.  A rainy day is when a porch really comes into it's own because you can stand out there and not get wet.  I have taken a lot of photos from the porch.  Since we are on the edge of the woods, there are many birds that will land within shooting distance.  I'm sure this photo was not the main reason I was out there.  I was probably waiting on something else to happen and liked the effect of all those raindrops.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Robber Fly

Robber flies look like large flies although their coloring is often reminiscent of that of a bee.  They prey upon bees, flies, beetles, moths, butterflies, dragonflies and spiders.  Like a spider, they inject a neurotoxin into the victim and liquefy their innards.  I would have liked to see how it managed to kill the bee, but I only spotted it after the fact.  I used a telephoto lens to take the image with no other attachments to enlarge the insect.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Halictid Bee

You may have seen these small metallic green bees from time to time.  I think they are pretty much loners, not colonial like honey bees are.  This one was gathering pollen from a Jacob's ladder.  I used a 100mm macro lens to acquire the image. I was filming the Jacob's ladder itself when I noticed the bee. Here again, filming them with a macro lens gives a whole different perspective to their world.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Orb-weaver Spider

This spider is a member of a large family of spiders that build round-shaped webs.  The one pictured
here is pretty common in gardens, although this one was - where else - on my front porch.  Okay,
they're creepy - but they are also beautiful and helpful in that they eat other bugs, some of which lunch on humans.

One summer, long ago, we had one that had built a large nest in our garden.  For entertainment, we
would hunt down grasshoppers and other bugs and throw them into the web.  If it didn't actually see the insect, the vibrations from it's struggle would alert the orb-weaver to the presence of it's prey.  It was amazing to watch how quickly the spider would first, inject venom into the victim, then spin it into a cocoon, where it would leave it until it's innards had liquefied.  It would return later to consume the hapless meal.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Wolf Spider II

Every summer, we seem to have at least one wolf spider that builds a tunnel web on our front porch somewhere.  This is one of those. They tend to like recessed areas where they can hide in the shadows.

One evening, my wife called me into the kitchen while she was cooking on the stove.  She asked me if I was trying to play a joke on her.  I had no idea what she was talking about.  She pointed to a wolf spider on the wall below the cooking vent that had been sitting there quite a while without moving.  That is why she thought I must have put a "replica" of one there because it hadn't moved.  She, naturally, became very agitated when I told her I hadn't put it there.

She had a clean, empty mayonnaise jar and I put it over the spider and it dropped into the jar and I capped it.  Up until this point, all the ones I had seen moved pretty slow, but once it was in the jar it, naturally, became very agitated.  I was surprised how fast it could move.  I didn't want to kill it, so when I got ready to release it, I took it up into the woods and found a bare spot on the floor of the woods where I could drop it.  When I opened the jar and turned it over, the spider fell out, but as soon as it hit the ground, it blended in so well, I couldn't even see it.  I, naturally, became very agitated and left the area as fast as my little feet would carry me.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Wolf Spider

Wolf spiders are non-poisonous yet scary-looking spiders.  That is not to say their bite is not painful, but it won't kill you.  We see them where we live from time to time, but the first time I saw one was probably the most memorable.  My wife and I had just moved in and we had an aging Pekingese that needed help getting down the steps at night before retiring.  So, I would carry her down, set her in the grass, and sit on the bottom step while I waited for her.

After only a few nights, I opened the front door one evening to carry her down and it just happened that a wolf spider was walking past the door on the door mat.  To this day, it is still the biggest one I have ever seen.  If I could have held it in my hand, it's legs would have touched the edges of my palm.  It really freaked me out when I thought about how I had been sitting down on the step each night.

I took the picture of this spider at my mother's house in Connecticut.  I was surprised they occurred that far north.  I don't remember seeing any as a kid.  I'm not sure what the "remains" are on the right side of the web.  Probably something it ate.

Here's a tip.  If you are afraid of running into one after dark, take a flashlight with you.  Their eyes are actually large enough to reflect light, like a deer in the headlights.  Don't forget, if you click on the photo, it will enlarge it.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Crab Spider

This is a little crab spider.  They like to sit completely still on flower blossoms with their legs spread wide open very much like a crab waiting for unsuspecting insects to land near by.  I am not sure if they have the ability to change color or not.  Many of the ones I have seen blend in very well with whatever they are sitting on.  Anyway, I was filming this one when it jumped up and decided to fly away.  Hey, wait a minute!  Spiders can't fly.  That is what I realized a split second after it took off.  So I ran after it.  I never did determine how it could move so fast, but it turned out that the silk thread you can see in the photo extended about fifteen feet around the corner of the house and it was traveling on that thread at a fast enough speed that it gave the impression it was flying.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Eastern Gray Squirrel Diet

Squirrels eat a variety of foods, including berries, nuts, seeds, mushrooms and even leaf buds from trees, like this one.  There is a tree in the side yard (I'm not sure of the name) that the squirrels love when it first puts out buds.  They are huge buds because they open into a compound leaf with several branches.  So, before they unfurl, the squirrels snack on them like eating an ice cream cone.

Monday, March 19, 2012


I was having a lot of trouble with my Internet connection yesterday and didn't get to post all of the photos I wanted to post.  Here are the others.  One of the amazing things about this flower is the way it opens.  They close overnight, but as soon as the sun touches them, they open right up.  It is like watching a time-lapse movie with the whole process taking only a minute or two.

The plant spread and grow from an underground rhizomes, so the flowers appear to grow in colonies here and there.

The reddish sap, from which it got it's name, was used as a dye by native Americans.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Beauty in Hidden Places

Imagine putting all your creative energy into painting a Mona Lisa or designing an Eiffel tower or a pyramid and no one ever saw them.  How do you think you would feel not to have your creativity admired by other people? And yet, I am struck by some of the modern discoveries of things the Creator of all things made long ago that are hidden away from human eyes until someone stumbles across it in a cave or on a distant island.  Can you imagine being so creative that it didn't matter to you whether someone saw any of the distant planets and stars you flung into place?

The first time I was surprised by His creative beauty in a hidden place was when I stumbled upon an entire bank in the woods, covered by beautiful white flowers blooming away for no one to see.  It took me a couple of years to learn their name.  From looking at these little gems, you would never guess that they are called bloodroot.  Most years, they bloom earlier than almost any other plant, cultivated or wild.

I'm having a lot of trouble with internet connections this morning.  I wanted to post more, but perhaps I will be able to tomorrow.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Hummingbird Moth

Bugs don't get much cuter than this guy.  You would swear you have spotted a very small hummingbird. Their aerobatic abilities are about the same, able to hover, back up, zip forward.  You can see, it has an extremely long tongue.  And, unlike hummingbirds, it has antennae.  If approached cautiously, they are not spooky, but they don't tend to sit in one place very long, so it can be hard to capture one on film. I did have one rest on a leaf one time which gave me plenty of time to get some good photos.  It is a moth and not a bee, so there is no danger of being stung.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Nutty Squirrels

Squirrels can do some pretty funny stuff and can be a source of fascinating behavior if you watch them for a while.  Or they can just sit like a sphinx for long periods of time and try your patience.  I posted a couple of photos last fall of this pair "dancing" on the driveway.  I wanted to post this one also, but moved on before I did.  Try THAT on "Dancing with the Stars."

You may not believe this, but I glanced out a second-story window one spring to see two squirrels and a rabbit chasing each other in a ten or fifteen foot circle into the woods and out on the lawn as though they were playing some kind of game.  What was that all about?  I'll never know.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Summer's End

I was standing on the shore at the river one morning when I looked down and saw one lone leaf in a patch of sunlight.  Nothing was going on, so I took several frames before the sun moved on, leaving the leaf in shadows.

I think it interesting that an image can evoke an emotional response such as joy, sadness or peace, for instance.  This photo always elicits a feeling of sadness in me when I see it and I'm not sure if it is the personal experience of realizing another summer on the river was ending and the photography was going to take a hiatus, or whether it is simply the image itself that conjures up that emotion in me.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Essence of Something

One of the dictionary definitions of "essence" is "the ultimate nature of a thing."  Depicting something's essence is my personal goal in filming things, no matter the subject.  Essence is why you can look at two pictures of the same loved one and know that, somehow, the photographer captured who the person really is in only one of them.  It is hard to describe because, ultimately, it is an immaterial quality.

Take daffodils, for example.  I have filmed a lot of daffodils, but seldom am I satisfied that I have captured the essence of the flower.  Yet, can you describe what the essence is?  I can't.  It is like what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about hard-core pornography - "I know it when I see it."  So, in the first photo, you have a very nice (ho hum) daffodil, but in the second photo, I think I have caught more of the nature of the flower.

If you are at all serious about photography - or even if you only take the occasional photo, try to think of how you can capture the essence of the subject you are about to film.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Almond Blossom

If you thought this was a cherry blossom, you'd be wrong.  The look is very similar, but the almond blossoms a couple of weeks earlier than cherry trees.  This is a blossom from a wild almond tree on the edge of our lawn that in fifteen years has barely reached ten feet or so in height.  The main "trunk" is about as big around as my thumb.  I don't know why it is such a runt.  I have yet to eat an almond from it since the squirrels always get them before they even mature.  They are funny to watch actually.  The limbs are so weak that the weight of the squirrel causes them to sag and the squirrels ends up hanging upside down to harvest them.

Photo tips: Try to isolate the blossom against a plain background and don't include other distracting blooms.  Using a telephoto and a large aperture will cause the background to become a pleasing blur.  Compositionally, have the limb cross at an angle instead of straight up and down or sideways so that the photo has more dynamism.  For your own sanity, pick a windless day.  Use of a polarizer is optional, but may be beneficial to control glare and boost saturation.

Monday, March 12, 2012


A mild winter in the east is being followed by an early spring.  Everything seems ahead of schedule - including the return of the osprey.  My wife and I saw a pair of osprey at route 4 on the Patuxent this past Saturday, a full week before St. Pattie's Day, the date of their usual return (to this area).

They vacation (migrate) separately, the female leaving something like a month before the male in the fall and I presume they do not migrate to the same area, so it has been several months since they have been together.  And yet, here they are, both sitting on the nest they have presided over for two previous seasons.  I wonder if they are glad to see each other when they first lay eyes on each other after the long separation.  I would like to witness that first encounter.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Harvestman Spider II

Harvestman are omnivorous, meaning they will eat other bugs as well as plant material.  The one pictured in the last couple of posts was all over the bush as though hunting for other bugs.  Because of their long legs, they could easily cross "chasms" between branches that would stop other bugs, so they were able to travel on the outer edges of the bush without returning to the main stem like say, an ant, would have to do.

It would also sample other things it came across to see if they were edible.  When you realize they are harmless, they don't seem quite as creepy as other spiders and are interesting to watch.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Harvestman Spider

This is the spider commonly known as a daddy long legs.  It is technically not a spider and has no venomous glands or silk glands for spinning a web.  It does have eight legs, however, like a spider.  The second pair are the longest and also act as antennae.  If you watch them for any length of time, you will notice them using this pair of legs as feelers.  The two first matched set of short legs are called the pedipalps and are used to direct food into the mouth.  Unlike spiders, they can eat solid food as well as liquid.  The eye is that little black structure sitting on the top of the body.  They cannot see images, thus the reason they feel about with their legs.  They are also mostly nocturnal.

When I got my 100 mm telephoto macro lens, I went looking for something to shoot and found this harvestman on a nandina bush in the side yard.  The bush happened to be blooming at the time and, once I located this subject, I just started following it around with the lens, which gave me a fascinating look at the world from their perspective.  I captured images as I was able, but they can move surprisingly fast, so I was having to move around a lot.  It surprised me when it stopped to taste one of the blooms on the nandina.  It is also one of my favorite shots of a harvestman.

Friday, March 9, 2012

More Ugly Buglies

I was looking for this photo yesterday and couldn't find it.  It is one of those photos where you wish you had another chance to shoot it because you didn't quite get it.  I almost missed the female at the top of the image.  If you look closely, you can see a slight color difference between the male and female.  The male is slightly darker than the female.

This second photo is also a near miss.  It was slightly out of focus.  In an attempt to salvage the photo, I converted it to black and white which can be a little more forgiving and sharpened it some.  I still like the photo despite it's shortcomings. 

Thursday, March 8, 2012

More Awful Bugs

For a couple of years, my wife and I had a pair of white-breasted nuthatches nest in a box I put up on the edge of the woods.  They are a good species to observe raising their young because they less afraid of humans than many other species.  Keep in mind, I am using a long lens, so I am not as close as it may appear.

The thing is, once the young hatched and feeding began (in which both parents participate), they would bring them some of the ugliest bugs I have ever seen.  They would only be gone a minute, so they were getting them close by and yet, I had never seen some of the awful things they were routinely bringing to their hungry offspring.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Carrion Beetle

How can there be so many common insects that are seen so rarely?  I've wondered that a number of times when I come across a bug I have never seen before.  Like the assassin bug posted a few days ago. How often do you see one of those?

Last summer I happened upon a dead squirrel on the edge of the yard.  It appeared to have missed a branch and fell to it's death.  It happens.  If there are no intervening branches for it to catch on the way down, its over.  That is what appeared to happen to this one.  But, what caught my attention was that the body was crawling with what I at first thought were bumble bees.  It took me a minute to realize they were not bees at all, but something else.  I had never seen a bug like this before.

I was doing something else and didn't want to take the time to photograph them right then, so I determined I would come back the next day.  That was a mistake.  Who would have thought they could reduce an entire squirrel to fur and bones in one day?  By the following day, there were only a couple of carrion beetles left.

The club-like antennae have receptors on the ends (which you can pretty well see) which can pick up the scent of a dead animal - or even things like decaying mushrooms or dung - an draw them in from some distance.

The bottom line, though, is in all my years (and, no, I'm not saying how many that is), I had never seen this common insect before.