Wide Angle View

May 7th, 2017

Recently, we happened upon a no-longer-available Sigma 10mm f/2.8 fisheye lens for a Canon APS-C camera, so thought it might be a fun addition to our lens collection. Several weeks ago we had a chance to use it at the Natural Bridge of Alabama in the Bankhead National Forest.

The sandstone bridge is 60 feet above the path in northern Alabama near the village of Natural Bridge, AL There are two bridges – one much shorter than the other. It is reputed to be the longest bridge east of the Rocky Mountains. It is either 148 feet or 127 feet long according to information we found. Veins of iron ore have kept it standing for several hundred thousand years.

The light is dim under the arches. Bob was using his 24-105mm lens pointed up at the arches. You can see him in his blue shirt working under the arch. Linda moved back up the path to get the complete arch with a bit of room around it so that when she used the Transform tool  in Photoshop to straighten some of the lines a bit, there would be space to crop it.

A few hours later we camped at Tombigbee State Park in Mississippi. When we crossed the Tombigbee River we thought about our favorite version of the old folksong Gum Tree Canoe  or the Tombigbee River song, sung by John Hartford. When we lived in Australia it was played often on the Australia All Over program on Sunday mornings, even if it was an American folksong.

Endangered Green Pitcher Plant

May 1st, 2017

This last week we travelled to the pine bogs of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama to photograph pitcher plants. The first bogs we visited had trails and boardwalks so our beach rolly hauled our camera gear and tripods in the 80 to 90 degree weather. The rolly was one of our best purchases as our gear seems to get heavier and heavier.

The last bog we visited is in a national forest with no organized trails so we had to bush-bash through a tangle of plants and over downed trees to get to the patch of endangered Green Pitcher Plants (Sarracenia oreophila) among a larger group of White-topped Pitcher Plants. We could see the bright green pitchers reflecting in the somewhat harsh sunlight. There were no clouds and our umbrellas could not shelter the backgrounds of these tall plants. Our surprise and delight in finding these very rare pitchers meant photographing in full sun.

There were only a few blossoms in the patch and this one was near two pitchers (front and back views) and an unopened pitcher. The flower stems are usually over 2 feet tall. The pitchers even taller.

There was a hot humid wind blowing so we had to increase the ISOs and reduce to apertures to get enough shutter speed. The weather was so hot that we did not stay as long as we would have preferred. While the pitchers stood tall and rigid, we wilted.

Most of the tall species of Sarracenia have a similar juvenile pitcher. They sprout with the leaf closed along its center seam. The leaf converts itself into a pitcher when it opens along the seam. The top of the leaf turns into a roof over the pitcher to protect it from the rain. which could dilute the enzymes which digest any insect that falls into the pitcher.

The Green Pitcher Plant has been on the national Endangered Species List since 1979 wherever it is found in very few locations in the Southeast. Residential and agricultural development are its greatest threat. Like many pitcher plants, they are fire dependent in the wet pine woods where they may be found. They are more likely to spread by rhizomes than by seed and young plants need wet areas.

We saw a few orchids at this location but they were too difficult to photograph in the tangle. We had photographed Spreading Pogonia, Grass Pink and Calypso orchids at several other bogs.

The last night (Saturday) we camped in Southeast Missouri at Trail of Tears State Park. The ranger had us move to a camp site on a hill because the Mississippi River was expected to flood the road to the lower campground. Just before the rain stated we heard several treefrogs in the tree next to our site. Planned to search for them in the morning. The storm let loose while we were eating dinner in our pop-up pickup camper. It continued all night and then dissipated and followed us most of the way home.

Spring Cleaning at the Tower

April 17th, 2017

This weekend we decided to do the spring cleaning at the Althea R. Sherman Chimney Swifts’ Tower in preparation for the swifts return. Over the winter the tower is invaded with Asian lady beetles, flies, wasps and even a few mice. We took our large shop vacuum, long extension cords, brooms and dust pans along with face masks to the tower. There is an outside electric plug-in on the house and none in the tower so the long cords were put to good use.

Bob started inside the door and Linda started sweeping the insects at the top of the tower. There was lots of dust so the masks were put to good use. Even though there is a double length hose on the shop vac we did have to carry the shop vac and balance it on the landings in stages on the way up. Miss Sherman had cupboards in the entry area and on the landings throughout the tower. Bob vacuumed them out on the way up.

Violets and a few dandelions were sprinkled throughout the lawn. The deciduous tree had a sheen of green as it is beginning to leaf out.  The cedar trees have many little dry twigs waiting for the Chimney Swifts to fly past to break them to use for a new nest. We hope they come again this year; our fourth nesting season in the tower.

Yellow Bells

April 13th, 2017

Bellworts (Uvularia grandiflora) are adding to the pleasure of the early ephemeral native flowers appearing in our backyard. This specimen has a cluster of 4 blossoms protruding from a clasping leaf.  It is as graceful as a time-lapse photograph of a dancer making a bow. The petals peaking out are twisted and seem to move even when there is no breeze.

Because the blossoms hang down, their scientific name is derived from the Latin meaning “little grape” and is reminiscent of the uvula which hangs down at the back of a human throat. As one would expect, grandifloria means having large blossoms.

There are several Uvularia species including U. sessilifolia (Merrybells), U. perfoliata (Perfoliate Bellwort)  and U. puberula (Mountain Bellwort). These three  species’ blossoms are more bell-like, similar to Solomon’s Seal bells, but longer. Their petals are not twisted. Merrybells is native to the eastern North America and the other two more southeastern in the United States.

The patch of Yellow Wake-robin (Trillium luteum) should be the next to add color to the yard,  if the Trout Lilies and Wild Ginger  do not beat them. The Yellow Wake-robins’ twisted blossoms point up, instead of down.

More Signs of Spring

April 7th, 2017

More signs of Spring. This morning a Hermit Thrush visited the backyard. One usually stops by at the end of the first week of April most years. It flicked its tail and turned over many leaves while it hopped about.

That prompted a visit to edge of the yard near the back fence to see if the Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) was peeking through last year’s fallen leaves. There was one bud poking out having escaped its wrapping leaf. This afternoon it (above) had opened. When the tree  leaves were removed around the first blossom, a second (below) was found along with another bud. Several more buds were found several feet away.

Bloodroot blossoms are very fragile. Even light wind can make the petals to shatter and fall within two days of opening. The plant has a reddish sap (especially in the roots), hence its common name. It was used in dyes and native medicine. The roots are poisonous as are many parts of plants in the poppy family.

We found some Spring Beauty several days ago. The Trout Lily leaves are growing. Soon the Spring ephemerals will be in their full glory.

 

Snow Trilliums

March 23rd, 2017

Spring arrives when the Snow Trilliums (Trillium nivale) are in bloom here in eastern Iowa. We looked for them on Sunday and found none. On Monday a friend said he found several hundred in his favorite spot. We went back on Monday to the spot where we had looked and only found only a few. After getting directions to our friend’s spot further along the ravines we found hundreds yesterday.

The top and  sides of the small area were very dry and crumbly. Snow Trilliums are said to prefer moist woods. These were popping out of the gravelly dry ground in singles and small groups. Most were less than two inches tall.

The bud to the right is only about 1 1/2 inches tall. Its stem is barely out of the ground and it is already unfurling its leaves, sepals and blossom. There were many other nubs poking above the dry, mostly bare, ground. Snow Trilliums usually bloom for about two weeks.

The Snow Trillium’s sepals are pewter color and like most flowers are meant to protect the bud. The blooms open quickly on warm days.  The tips of the petals are often rippled. Yesterday was not warm but the sun sifting through the shrubs and trees had encouraged many to open.

We found several unusual blossoms of a very soft, shell pink. Our camera sensors could not really capture the delicacy of the color. Four were buds about half open and this fully open  one was about 3 feet (1 meter) away from the opening buds. Color is always dependent on the technology (whether film or digital) that is trying to replicate it.

Sometimes white flowers turn a pale magenta pink when they are crumbling and drying out at the end of their bloom time. These were fresh with lots of pollen on their stamens so we think they were really a very pale pink. There are always things to learn in nature.

2017 Purple Martin Workshop

March 18th, 2017

The 12th annual Purple Martin Workshop was held today near Kalona, Iowa. The organizers, Jim Walters and Evan Gingerich, planned another wide ranging session. The morning included information about waste management and recycling, why citizen science and conservation are important, and an update on the reintroduction of Eagles, Ospreys and Peregrine Falcons in the Midwest.

The afternoon began with a presentation about Purple Martins (Progne subis) and appropriate landlord practices which was followed by a panel of Purple Martin landlords answering questions from the audience. Everyone learns a bit more from the questions and answers.

Between the morning and afternoon sessions the crowd enjoyed a hearty lunch provided by women in the neighborhood. Mr. Walters also showed a short video about an Eagle Scout project involving a new Osprey tower.

There were exhibits of birding books and equipment, information on a variety of birds and organizations but especially information on Purple Martins, our largest swallow. The end of the program is always followed by door prizes and an auction. The proceeds from the auction are donated to the charity whose building hosts the workshop.

People come from all over the state and some from neighboring states to visit and learn more about birds, but more particularly about Purple Martins. Purple Martins are almost completely dependent on humans for providing nest houses and gourds in the Eastern U.S. That is why those who provide homes for the martins are called landlords.

The one above is sub-adult – probably a male. It is not turned far enough to see for certain if there are any purple feathers on its chin, chest or tail. The chin is darker than sub-adult females, so that is our guess. The bird behind is crawling into the gourd appears to be a brownish female.

The first “scout” Purple Martin has recently been reported in southern Iowa so they are on their way back. Just as we are awaiting Spring, we hope the Purple Martins will also be arriving soon, even if they do not nest until the big insects are hatching.

Iowa City Darwin Day 2017

March 4th, 2017

The stellar presenters at the Iowa City Darwin Day 2017 were a privilege to hear at the 10th annual event to celebrate Charles Darwin’s 209th birthday yesterday afternoon and this morning. We went to both sessions. The Iowa City event was a belated birthday celebration. Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809 – the same day as Abraham Lincoln.

One of the species of Darwin’s finches (above) from Santa Cruz Island is in tribute of hearing Peter and Rosemary Grant of Princeton University speak about their 40 plus year adventure studying the Darwin’s finches on Isla Daphne Major of the northern side of Santa Cruz. Though it has been several years since they camped on Isla Daphne Major, they continue to study the DNA sequences from the blood samples they collected over many years of fieldwork. The sequencing is done by a group in Sweden with whom they collaborate.

We are not certain of which species the female above is but we think she is one of the ground finches. We made a trip to the Galapagos Islands in 2012. She was bouncing up to get the seeds at the center top of the photo. Her beak looks large and strong enough to tackle much larger seeds. The beaks of the various finch species on the Galapagos Islands have evolved to eat seeds of varying sizes and/or to eat nectar and pollen as well as seeds.

Richard Wrangham of Harvard University spoke on the genetic changes the domestication of animals reveals and how bonobos and humans may have self-domesticated themselves. Today he addressed the theory that control of fire and cooking of food may have influenced a primate on its way to becoming homo sapien.

Mary Kosloski of the University of Iowa does work with modern and fossil snails and crabs. She discussed how a super predator crab, whose right claw can exert 19,000 pounds of pressure per square inch, changed a snail from having a right-handed shell to a left-handed one. It was not by exerting pressure on the shell but that the rare left-handed snails lived to reproduce (if they found a left-handed mate) because the crab could not extract the snail with its right claw.

Anne Fausto-Sterling of Brown University spoke about gender identity and expression yesterday. The interaction of nature and nurture may determine how genes are expressed. Today her talk about diversity and its contribution to science so that people do not become scientifically ignorant. She, like many scientists, is very concerned because there seems to be a deliberate social and political effort to keep people and legislatures from having the information they need to make rational decisions about human and earth welfare.

As we have the same worries, we were heartened that this was spoken in the context of a celebration of one of the most important and productive minds in science. Should he come back today to see what is now possible, if people are not willfully ignorant, Mr. Darwin would be amazed and vindicated.

Timing & Location Are Important.

February 18th, 2017

This morning we visited Hanging Bog, known for its Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) community. It is not a true bog but a year round seep coming from a tall hillside. There are limestone layers or terraces which direct water out of the ravine to several tiny brooks. The little brooks wind down into a flat where later the Marsh Marigolds will wet their feet about the time the Skunk Cabbage leaves look like giant leaf lettuce clumps. Other spring ephemerals will bloom on its banks and into the surrounding woodland.

Most of the few Skunk Cabbage spathes we found were just peeking out of the little brook. Since this has been a mild winter with little snow, the  spathes and immature spiraled leaves were frost bitten and not very pretty. Many had been nibbled on by deer and possibly wild turkeys. Years ago we saw some wild turkeys munching on Skunk Cabbage.

Linda found this one in reasonable condition. When she found it there was a little patch of ice at the base of the opening into the chamber for the spadix or blossoming part. The spadix behind the ice patch is just visible in the top image and the mottled interior is visible in the lower one. The tiny white spot at the top of the opening (top image) was a little bit of ice inside the spathe that melted before Bob came to share the plant. The ice patch had also melted and showed the damage to the surface of the spathe and to previous damage on  the leaf (bottom image). It looked more frost bitten than when the top image was made.

We have photographed Skunk Cabbage protruding through snow in January. They are one of the plants that are thermogenic – producing excess heat that can melt snow. Today this was the only one to have a maroon spathe visible. It was protected by a dark chunk of fallen tree branch in the water at its back and was in a place where the sun peeked through the trees for several hours each day.

 

Evening Encounter

February 17th, 2017

Late this afternoon we were checking out a bird blind to see if anyone was around. There were a few of the regulars and a couple of squirrels. After making a few images of the squirrels Linda returned to the car while Bob said he would stay a bit longer to see if anyone interesting came in.

The light was retreating when this pretty, almost-yearling female fawn and her mother came in. The youngster had interesting “eyebrows.” Both the doe and fawn looked well fed and bloomy for this time of year. So Bob boosted the ISO and opened the aperture so he could make a few images when they were standing very still.

The mother was wary and kept checking the woods. She did not pay attention to the blind. The fawn occasionally looked at the blind which resulted in the ‘headshot with eyebrows.’

Sometimes it pays to sit around to see what comes by.