Archive for July, 2010

July Mayfly

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010


Last week a mayfly hatch was reported along the Upper Mississippi River between Winona, Minnesota and Guttenberg, Iowa. The doppler radar loop on weather news sites shows the reflection of this mass emergence.

Yesterday, when we stopped at one of the overlooks along Highway 35 south of La Crosse, Wisconsin, the vegetation in shady spots was a refuge for some survivors. Some plants had as many as a dozen clinging under leaves and along stems. The adult stage is usually just a few days; time for them to mate and lay eggs.

There are many species of mayflies. One book we have (The Angler’s Guide to Aquatic Insects and Their Imitations by Rick Hafele and Scott Roederer) describes a key for sorting them into four groups: swimmers, crawlers, clingers and burrowers. These groupings are based on nymph behavior as the nymph stage is the longest part of the mayfly life cycle.

Trying to key out from photographs is very difficult, especially for novices. The large body seemed to belong to the burrower group but it only has two tails and burrowers have three. We decided to settle on admiring the shape and beautiful, black iridescent wings.

CITES and the Red-eyed Treefrog

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

Red-eyed Treefrog

Do a web search for information on the Red-eyed Treefrog (Agalychnis calladryas) and you will find hundreds, if not thousands, of sites (many aimed at children) on the joys and techniques of keeping Red-eyed Treefrogs as pets. Will that change now that CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) added them to Appendix II of their lists of concern at this year’s meeting in Qatar in March? CITES is usually pronounced sy-teez or sometimes cued as rhyming with nighties.

Appendix II species are not yet seriously endangered but conditions are such that it is a real possibility. The pet trade and wild captures from Central American countries have put these important amphibians at risk.

Red-eyed treefrogs are nocturnal, sleeping among the leaves during the day and hunting insects at night. During the mating season, males are easy to locate by their calls. Recent research done in Australia has determined that as well as vocalize and pose to display their brilliant colors, males will vibrate the vegetation. These vibrations appear to be communications of aggression and are quite common among competing males.

We met these little fellows with their multi-colored skins and bright red eyes at an ecolodge preserve in Costa Rica. Red-eyed treefrogs have three eyelids, of which a lower one is starting to creep over the eye of the one above. We were photographing them with the aid of handheld flashlights (torches) rather than camera flashes. This ecolodge requests that camera flashes not be used when photographing Red-eyed Treefrogs. So we learned how to do it will flashlights. When lights come on, the frogs go to sleep. This one had been fairly cooperative but the flashlight had been pointed in his direction long enough to make him think morning had arrived.

Getting critical focus and desired depth of field in the dark with the aid of a flashlight can be a challenge. Getting the photo composed and taken before the frog gets sleepy was another challenge. We did, however, make several ‘eye-catching’ images including this wide awake individual.

Red-eyed Treefrog

ISO 2000 – amazing!

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

Downy Woodpecker male fledgling

The little woodpecker at the feeder appeared to have a brownish cap when seen through the dining room window. This needed to be recorded. No time to sneak up pushing a tripod along. So just to get an image to examine, the ISO on a 7D camera was pushed to 2000 so the 300mm lens with 2x teleconverter could be handheld for a brief time. We generally use ISOs from 200 to 800 – mostly about 400. And almost always use tripods.

The image is a verticle crop from the middle of a horizontal file and still is amazingly sharp and free of much noise. The camera was handheld in AV mode with a shallow depth of field (f/5.6) and at an exposure compensation of +2/3. The shutter speed turned out to 1/800 second. The image stabilization (IS) was off because of the hurry to get an image, it was not turned on. The 300mm lens is almost exclusively used on a tripod or a beanbag so we keep the IS turned off. The IS is always on on the 500mm lens that is tack sharp either way. The 300mm does better with IS off on a tripod.

When the RAW file was opened in Photoshop CS5 the cap still looked a bit drab. It brightened when the file was optimized with a bit of curve adjustment. The only noise reduction was done by the camera – none in post processing. Photoshop and layers still feels more comfortable and easy to control than Lightroom. The advantages of Lightroom 3 for noise control will encourage its use. In this case it was not necessary.

The brownish cap is really red and gray. Maybe the dining room window needs cleaning. However, it was gray and foggy yesterday so it must have been the weather. When first seen the fledgling was clinging to the metal pipe that serves as a pole for the wire where the feeders hang. He was pecking at a bit of rust. Because he was examining the pole, the wire and the feeders, there was enough time to get the camera, sneak out and use the corner of the house as a blind.

And enough time to be impressed with the high ISO integrity of a Canon 7D camera which some people have criticized for noise.

A Day in the City of Literature

Sunday, July 11th, 2010

Dewdrop Refraction

Next weekend is the Iowa City Book Festival that includes a book fair on Saturday July 17 centered at Gibson Park near the University Main Library. On Sunday July 18, the activities and presentations at various venues around the city are called ‘A Day in the City of Literature’. We are privileged to be among the authors invited to participate. We will be presenting a program about our book Deep Nature: Photographs from Iowa in the auditorium (10 Macbride Hall) at the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History at 1 pm Sunday afternoon, July 18.

Come to enjoy the festival and we hope to be able to speak with you during and after our presentation.

The image above is a refraction of coneflowers seen through dewdrops on a native grass stem. This is one of the deepest ways we look at and photograph nature. It is the first image in the book opposite the contents page. Most of the images in the book are close-ups of plants, arthropods, fungi and birds found in the various Iowa and Midwestern landscapes when one looks closely. The abstract and physical beauty of nature is one of the highest forms of art in our opinion.

“Come into my parlor…”

Saturday, July 10th, 2010

Unidentified Spider

The garden was very colorful and the spider ‘invisible’ until light glinted off the web. This unidentified spider appeared to be ordinary and brown from several feet away. It was only when it was approached with a 180mm macro lens that its colors popped even against the out of focus brilliant red and green behind it. Many little creatures are camouflaged in plain sight and need close inspection to see their intricate beauty.

Spiders that weave circular webs often have to spend time constantly repairing them. Rain, wind, a passing animal and more can damage the strongest fiber known. This individual appears to be making repairs to the central area filling in around the spokes. We have returned to webs just a few hours after finding them to see the owner laboriously beginning again or making repairs to a torn net.

The primary colors of this composition boldly demand attention. Then the delicacy of the web and mosaic pattern of the spider redirect the viewer’s attention. The spiral keeps the eye from straying too far from the subject.

We like to identify the species we photograph. However, sometimes the shapes, colors and patterns of a plant, animal or geologic feature are too beautiful to pass by.

Addendum: A friend identified the spider as an Orchard Orbweaver (Leucauge venusta). We compared it to images on the BugGuide, another wonderful resource besides friends.

Resplendent Quetzal

Tuesday, July 6th, 2010

Resplendent Quetzal male

Most photographers visiting Central America hope for an image of a Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno), considered by many to be the most spectacular bird in the western hemisphere. Its jewel colors may be seen peeking through as it perches quietly among foliage. Occasionally it will be sit for a portrait. This bright-eyed bird was photographed aiming between the V made by two closely spaced trees that served as cover between the bird and photographer.

Quetzals are Trogons; all of which are brightly colored fruit and insect eaters. Some of their feathers are almost metallic. Male Quetzals have several long tail coverts extending well past their blunt tails. The tail coverts are almost twice the length of its 14 inch (36 cm) body. When this one did figure eights in the air, the streaming tail reminded of a dancing kite. There were several more in the vicinity, of which we got glimpses. We saw a female with a black bill and without the long tail coverts.

We photographed the Andean Cock of the Rock (Rupicola peruvianus), another gorgeous bird, in Ecuador several years ago, and would have a hard time picking one of the two as the most spectacular. So we are content to say that they are tied for the prize. The Resplendent Quetzal is the national bird of Guatamala and the Andean Cock of the Rock has that honor in Peru.

Intimate Landscapes

Sunday, July 4th, 2010

Catarata del Toro Waterfall - Costa Rica

We sometimes think of our close-up images as intimate landscapes. One of our challenges is to make a large landscape intimate for us and the viewer. This is Catarata del Toro waterfall in Costa Rica. It falls into a magnificent gorge with trails to several vantage points. The gorge itself is a grand landscape worthy of a panorama. It is is reputed to be the tallest falls in Costa Rica but we have not found a verified height. The estimates vary and we think that meters and feet may be confounding one another in the figures we have seen. It plunges over columnar basalt from an ancient volcano.

It was a misty, cloudy day suitable for making sets of images for possible future HDR (high dynamic range) processing. We did some of that, but also liked the dark, moody, mysterious ambiance of the cloud forest. A single straight image exposed with the fern tree and the waterfall in mind, to which a slight curves adjustment was applied in Photoshop, allowed the three dimensional feeling to continue in two dimensions. This fern tree against the waterfall adds a bit of whimsey to an otherwise more typical portrayal of a waterfall landscape – a waterfall wearing a dancer’s tutu or an exotic fan dancer revealing what is underneath. The fern fronds add to the mystery by their translucence revealing vegetation, rock face and water through their lace.

We frequently heard the cloudforest and rainforest described as mysterious so wanted to portray that in some of the images, especially landscapes and night images. Photography has changed how humans see and what we remember. The characteristics of light are both ephemeral and everlasting in the images we all make.

Costa Rica Hummingbirds

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

Eager Hummingbirds

One of the reasons we went to Costa Rica was to learn to photograph flying hummingbirds using multiple flashes. The set-up was amazing (do we use that word too often?) and the birds cooperative. Even with ample bird feeders around they came to the set consistently – as long as the hypodermic needle continued to fill the blossom or feeder with sugar water. The birds buzzed around us sometimes creating small breezes and even touching us with their wings.

The little one above was so bold and eager that it perched on the needle while the feeder was filled and fed as the sugar water was injected — another definition needing a “fix”. The on-looker just watched. Only one feeding hole was open on this feeder. The others were covered with tape. The feeder was mounted on a light stand with four flashes on stands of varying distances from the feeder and background. We all took turns using the set-up. Those waiting to use the set-up photographed perching and flying birds among the shrubbery and flowers or at other feeders, as well as many other subjects in the vicinity.

Violet Saberwing

One of the highlights was this Violet Saberwing. Neither of us was fast enough on the shutter release cable to get it in mid air before it got to the flower. Hummingbirds usually stop for a tiny fraction of a second a few inches before sticking their bills in a blossom or feeder. That is the magic moment for flight images.

We are still figuring out what species we photographed. With colors changing with light conditions we would think we were identifying correctly only to have the light angle change and reveal a different bird among the similar species in our field guide.

Standing on Air

Some of the images show how flexible and acrobatic these glittering bits of life are. We are eager to have our own set-up and learn more about perfecting this type of image.

Golden-eyed Treefrog

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

Golden-eyed Treefrog

Our trip to Costa Rica last month started off with this extraordinary image the very first morning. Golden-eyed treefrogs (Agalychnis annae) are rare and endangered. They were once common in woodlands and coffee plantations but have almost disappeared. Documented reasons include a fungus, predation by introduced fish, and infestations of a fly larva. One refuge is the garden of a hotel near San Jose where they are thriving in the ponds. They are sometimes also called yellow-eyed leaf frogs, orange-eyed leaf frogs, monkey frogs and blue-sided leaf frogs.

This pair, in amplexus, is near an egg mass in the overhanging foliage by one of the ponds. When the tadpoles hatch from these egg clusters they drop to the water beneath. We did see one egg mass with tiny wiggley tadpoles nearly ready to hatch. It was very exciting to encounter this composition of mating frogs near an egg mass.

We had stalked them the previous evening in the rain a few hours after our arrival. They are nocturnal and though we saw several did not make any images. Early the next morning, this pair was found shortly before they probably retired to hide among the leaves waiting for evening to sing again.

Costa Rica is a photographer’s paradise. We photographed three rare species: these frogs, a Margay cat, and Green Macaws. Hummingbirds were everywhere and we learned to photograph them with multiple flashes. Also photographed a variety of reptiles and snakes in controlled conditions. And much more including a wonderful waterfall and the Arenal Volcano.

We were part of a group of photographers that included Greg Basco of Foto Verde Tours, Jon Fuller of Moab Photo Tours and Tom Till, landscape photographer from Moab, Utah. Our driver Jose Lopez, also a fine photographer, took us to many wonderful, little visited places. Our small group was truly international with Australia, Canada and Tahiti represented along with the U.S. This was among the best trips we have ever taken and we recommend it to all serious photographers.