It’s obvious that I’ve developed quite the obsession with insects, right? I was talking to a friend the other day about how often people respond to my insect posts on social media with comments like, “Gross!” or “Bugs are disgusting!” She told me that her sister works in costume design and whenever they need to create a costume that’s scary, they look to insects for inspiration. Just think about the creatures in the Alien movies and you’ll see that idea put to good use.
If you want to read a little about the science behind why so many of us fear bugs, go here. But I wanted to do my part to show my favorite insects in a way that you can appreciate them, even if you generally don’t like insects. So I’ve been making an effort to take photos of them in pretty settings instead of always cropping them closely to show the details of their beautiful bodies. So I present to you some of my favorite dragonfly photos from recent weeks. Enjoy.
Last weekend’s trip to Indiana’s Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife Area for crane-viewing didn’t turn out exactly as hoped for due to some extreme weather conditions. Of course I knew the weather forecast in advance, and even made a half-hearted attempt to back out of the trip, but Jim responded with an admonition about not being a sissy. That was just the kick in the pants I needed, because one of my primary goals in life is to not be a sissy.
So once we got there we were determined to make the best of the situation, and persisted through rain and cold north winds to find the best photo subjects we could. Since the largest numbers of cranes are found near dawn and dusk, the lighting was also a challenge. And since I’m still learning to use my new camera, there were some times I couldn’t change settings quickly enough to get certain shots. But enough with the excuses. Despite all of that, I do have a few things to show you.
This is the viewing platform that overlooks the area where the sandhill cranes congregate each morning and evening. Unfortunately, this lovely photo isn’t representative of the rest of my results from the trip, which were all taken in less-than-optimal conditions.
I really like this 30-second video I shot in the pre-dawn light one morning. It shows lots of the birds practicing their courtship dancing moves. And although the lighting is poor, it still gives you a taste of what it’s like to see and hear large numbers of cranes at their daily social gathering.
And although I have many in-flight shots of these birds already, I couldn’t resist trying to get some more. In particular, Jim and I both love the moments when the birds are making the transition from flight to solid ground, dropping their gangly landing gear legs while still hanging in the air. We noticed that some birds would lower their landing gear while still fairly high in the sky, while others would wait until much closer to the ground. That difference could be something to do with age and experience, perhaps.
In my past writing about this I’ve described them as looking like giant marionettes falling from the sky, but this time I was struck by a new image: the Wicked Witch’s flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz. You know the scene when she sends them all out to attack Dorothy and her friends in the woods, right? This mental image was triggered not only by the visual spectacle, but also the cacophony that accompanied their descent from the cold November sky. I can’t stop smiling when I think of it that way now.
One of the few daylight photos I could salvage was this one. I took a series of rapid shots as one crane dropped down into this small gathering in a grassy field, and got many images of his wings in various positions. This one is my favorite because the wings are fully extended, giving an excellent impression of the enormous size of this bird.
In-flight silhouette shots were the easiest to create in low-light conditions, and I really like these two.
One morning I was tracking the flight of these ducks across the pre-dawn sky and was ready when they crossed in front of the moon. This is one of my favorite shots from the weekend.
When we weren’t at Jasper-Pulaski, we spent time driving around surrounding areas shooting trees and other nature scenes. The rain had provided us with lots of opportunities to use the moody fog in our compositions.
I’ve been enchanted with the photographic possibilities of trees for many years. I usually seek out isolated trees, as in the first photo above. But this scene was great too, with the structural interest of the big oaks, the curving country road, and the fog in the air. This one was edited using a NIK filter, thanks to Jim’s excellent suggestion. I could (and quite likely will) spend hours playing with these filters on my photos.
The bright green of the algae in this scene was a welcome and cheerful display of color on a rainy day. Notice the beaver dam crossing the waterway just behind the algae.
Finally, here’s a scene we shot under threat of lightning and pouring rain. I think it was worth it.
I’m glad to find out I’m not a sissy after all. 😉 I had a great time and learned a lot on this trip, and will be better prepared for my next challenging photography outing.
The other day I went out into my yard to look for any interesting insects I could find so I could practice my macro photography techniques. I was focused primarily on my big American Elm tree and the lawn beneath it, and was reminded of the time several years ago when I wrote about my experiment with “one-tree birding.” This time I wasn’t birding, but wanted to see how many critters I could find living on or near my elm tree.
It didn’t take long for the fun to begin. First there were a couple of dead leaves with empty insect egg cases on them. I wish I knew which type of insects hatched from these, because there were a lot of them.
Most of the branches of the elm tree are too high for me to inspect, but at one point I saw a ladybug crawling on a leaf several feet above my head. I couldn’t photograph that one, but a few minutes later I found this larval form of a ladybug and decided that he looked like a minuscule black and orange alligator.
I was paying close attention to every little spot on each leaf, hoping that some of them might turn out to be insects — and some of them did. To my naked eye, this one looked like a gray dot no bigger than the fine point on a pencil. But when I enlarged the photo, I could see that it was the larva of some kind of insect. I can see eyes and wings, but not enough to even guess the type of creature it will become. And by the way, how often do you get a view of the cells in a leaf? That illustrates just how much this photo is cropped.
As I was taking pics of that teeny tiny critter, something dropped onto the back of my neck from above. It turned out to be this beautiful harvestman, also known as a daddy longlegs. Many people consider these to be spiders, but they aren’t. They’re arachnids, to be sure, but not spiders.
And I learned something very interesting as I read about this species. Their second pair of legs is extra long, and is specialized for smelling and touching things as they search for food. A daddy longlegs can survive the loss of one (or more) of its regular legs, but if it loses those two specialized legs, it’s doomed because it can’t feed.
All the while I was creeping around in the grass, dozens of these teeny tiny leafhoppers were leaping all around me. They move fast and are about the size of a small splinter you might pull from your finger, so I’m amazed I even got a halfway decent photo of this one.
And…drum roll please…I’ve saved the best discovery for last. Until about a week ago I had never heard of a Handsome Trig, aka Red-headed Bush Cricket (Phyllopalpus pulchellus). When one was pointed out to me on a recent outing at a nature preserve, I was able to get the photo you see below.
But when I got home I regretted that I hadn’t tried to take video of the little female, because she has the most adorable little black “paddles” on the front of her face, which she waves up and down as she walks along in her search for a meal.
Well, much to my surprise, I found another one in my own yard! And I took video this time so I could share the action of the magic dancing paddles with you. I didn’t have time to get my tripod, so it’s a little bit shaky, but I think it’s still worth watching. The first ten seconds are the best part, and then she runs under the leaves and disappears back into her little world. Enjoy!
It’s amazing how much life you can find in a small area when you pay attention, isn’t it? And each new discovery is an opportunity to understand one more piece of the intricate web of life — I just love that!
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you won’t be misled by that title. But if you’re new around here and are expecting photos of people swimming…well, sorry about that.
I did spend a couple hours at the beach on the shore of Lake Erie yesterday, but I was hunting for insects to photograph. Just prior to this solo outing, I had spent a day with a friend who’s an expert botanist and photographer, and he gave me lots of tips that reinvigorated my interest in learning to use my camera better. So this time I wanted to go out on my own to see what kind of results I could get.
All the photos in this post were taken in an area about 50 yards wide, less than 30 yards from the lake edge. I barely had to move at all to discover a whole world at my feet.
Armed with my new secret power — finding the insects by examining their food plants — I planned to start by investigating a small stand of young Staghorn Sumacs. But as I walked toward them, I almost walked right into this:
It’s a Common Green Darner resting on a dead milkweed stem. I think it’s a teneral stage, meaning that it’s in the first day of life since it emerged from its exuvia. When they first emerge, they have to give their wings time to “inflate” before they can perform the aerial maneuvers for which they’re known. This relative immobility made it easy for me to kneel very close to it and take a few shots with my 100mm macro lens. Notice that “bullseye” mark on the front of the head? I love that. Here’s a closer view of that part:
After I backed up from the dragonfly, I immediately noticed a couple caterpillars feeding on the sumac. I took some photos of them and then noticed that there were at least a dozen of this same species of caterpillar feeding all around me.
These are the larvae of the Spotted Datana moth (Datana perspicua), and sumac is one of their primary food plants. See how this works? You find their food source and you find the insects. See, I told you it was a secret power.
And by the way, my favorite field guide for caterpillars is Caterpillars of Eastern North America, by David Wagner. It includes an index to the plants as well as the insects, so you can look up a plant and see which caterpillars use it as a food source. And even if you aren’t going to go hunting for caterpillars, you can have your mind blown just by flipping through this book to see the incredible variety of camouflage techniques and other defensive adaptations that have evolved in these critters.
I watched the cats for a while, hoping to see one of them begin to pupate into its chrysalis form. I saw one begin to dangle from a fine filament and curl up into a ring shape, and I quickly set up to shoot some video. But I got about two seconds of video before he dropped to the ground. Disappointed, I went looking for another possible target. I saw another one drop to the ground, and this time I continued watching it. Some caterpillars burrow into the ground instead of making a hanging chrysalis on a plant. And sure enough, this guy began digging into the soil beneath the sumacs and within about 90 seconds he was gone.
It’s incredible how much more you can learn when you spend more time watching them go about their lives, rather than just shooting a few photos and going in search of something else. I must have spent a half hour watching the Datanas on those sumacs, and it was hard to pull myself away from them.
But eventually I wandered slowly along the sandy path and found quite a few more interesting specimens.
Then I saw this female Field Cricket who was missing one of her rear legs. When she didn’t hop away, I realized she was dead. But a dead insect is much easier to photograph, so there’s that, I guess. I found a few more dead crickets near her, so I’m not sure what happened there. Some sort of cricket apocalypse, I guess.
As I walked on the beach next to the water, I spotted this small and fast-moving character, who turns out to be a Webworm Moth larva.
You may have seen these critters living in big groups in large webby “tents” that cover the ends of tree branches. They make the tree look messy, but from what I’ve read, they aren’t generally a severe threat to the health of the tree.
I went back to the sumacs once more and took a video of one of the Datanas eating leaves (that video is at the bottom of this post). But while there, I heard a katydid singing from inside the sumacs. I believe most katydids are nocturnal singers, but this species is a daytime singer. Meet the cutest little katydid you’ll ever see:
He sat still for me for about five seconds, and then he quickly hid behind a thick stem. I kept trying to get as close as possible for photos, and he would peek around one side of the stem, see me, then move to the other side. We played a little game of peek-a-boo for a minute or so, and then I backed off and left him in peace.
I also like how these photos show the hairs on the young stems of the sumac that gave it the name Staghorn, because of the resemblance to a deer’s antlers when they’re covered in velvet.
There were lots of interesting creatures out and about on the beach that day, and I had a fantastic time playing detective in the sand. And I’m really happy with the results I’m getting with my photography now too. I can’t wait to get back out there!
Oh, before I go, here’s the video of the Spotted Datana eating a sumac leaf:
(Well, maybe a few words…. For the next month or so, I’ll be too busy birding and editing photos to write much, so I’ll just post a selection of pictures a couple times a week to show you what I’ve been seeing. Thus “No Words, Just Birds” — I hope you enjoy these!)
If you’ve ever worked with a macro lens on your camera, you know how addictive it can be. It can even change the way you see the world. Just look at this little yellow flower, for instance. I found this Black Medic while pulling lawn weeds a couple years ago, and it was something I had often just yanked without a second glance. The whole thing was only about an eighth of an inch across, so you’d normally never even see all these beautiful details. Isn’t it stunning?
So yesterday, after a difficult week that left me wanting to hide from the world, I took my macro lens to the backyard and found the perfect way to distract myself from dwelling on my problems — by focusing on the tiniest details of the natural world.
First up are these cicada exoskeletons I found in my crabapple tree. Here in northwest Ohio we didn’t have any of the 17-year periodical cicadas that emerged in the eastern half of the state earlier this summer, but the annual cicadas are coming out now. These insects have a fascinating life cycle, part of which is spent as nymphs living underground feeding on tree roots. At some point, whether it’s after only a couple of years or 17 years, the nymphs emerge from the ground and climb the nearest vertical structure to begin molting.
They shed their exoskeletons, or exuviae, and begin the adult phase of their lives. In this photo you can see the split in the back where the adult exited the exuvia.
As winged adults, they live a few weeks, during which time they mate, lay eggs, and die. When their eggs hatch from the tree branches where they were laid, the tiny nymphs drop to the earth and burrow underground, where the whole process is repeated. Isn’t that cool?
Next up, lotus flowers. My friends and I came upon this huge “field” of lotus flowers while kayaking along the Toussaint River the other evening after work. It reminded me of the giant fields of tulips in Holland, stretching as far as you can see.
Most of the flowers hadn’t opened up yet, but I found some that had already dropped their petals, exposing the pretty seed pods inside. So I took some macro shots of the pod, which I found out is actually called the “carpellary receptacle.” After the flower is pollinated, the petals fall off, exposing the carpellary receptacle full of seeds. It eventually turns brown and the seeds spill out into the water.
Closer view of the not-yet-ripe lotus seeds.
And while I was playing with these things, I couldn’t resist the totally unnatural “exoskeleton on the carpellary receptacle” shot. Pretty cool stuff, isn’t it? Yeah, I thought you’d like that.
Speaking of which, I’ve yet to find one of the newly-emerged adult cicadas to photograph, but I’m still looking….
This afternoon I was checking my milkweed plants for Monarch butterfly eggs (none found yet), and decided to take a macro of the dainty pink flowers. First the wider view —
And then a closer look —
Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
I absolutely adore the structure of these dainty little flowers. I took these shots hand-holding the camera, so they’re not as sharp as I’d like. Next time I’m going to use the tripod and hope to get some much better photos of these beauties. And who knows, maybe I’ll still find some caterpillars feeding on the leaves. I had such fun raising Monarch butterflies last year — it would be great to do that again.
Well, that’s all for today. I hope you learned something from this macro nature therapy session. I sure did.