Photos of the Week – May 18, 2023

While Kim ran her 52 miles (“52.33!” Kim says) at Oklahoma’s Osage Hills State Park last weekend, I walked around with my camera. I caught some nice light early in the day and late in the day and tried to take advantage of it as best I could. It was nice to be further south, where the spring had progressed more than it has so far in Nebraska. There were a lot of flowers, as well as butterflies, grasshoppers, and other life moving around.

Also, it rained. That must be nice. We haven’t seen much of that around here for a while.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium). Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/22, 1/200 sec.
Little wood satyr butterfly (Megisto cymela) in a patch of sunlight within oak savanna. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/13, 1/160 sec.

I was tethered to the aid station because I needed to be available whenever Kim ran past. That gave me between 45 minutes and a couple hours at a time to wander as Kim ran various trail loops nearby. It rained for the first three hours of the race, so I used that time to scout out locations for later. As the clouds started to break up, I had an hour or two of pretty nice light before the sun started to blaze hot and white. I didn’t have any trouble finding photography subjects and had a really nice time. Kim did too, but her time was very different than mine.

Wild onion (Allium canadense – I assume). Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/13, 1/320 sec.
More wild onion. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/20, 1/200 sec.
Weevil on wild onion. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/20, 1/125 sec.
Oak savanna. Tokina 11-20mm wide-angle lens. ISO 500, f/16, 1/160 sec.

As evening came on, clouds started to build again and I had some nice diffused light for a bit before it became dark and overcast. Kim finished running just before another wave of storms hit. A fair number of runners had to finish in both the dark and the rain. These are tough people.

Inland sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium). Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, f/10, 1/200 sec.
Hover flies on spiderwort. I think it was Ohio spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis). Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/11, 1/200 sec.
Larkspur (Delphinium carolinense). Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, f/9, 1/800 sec.

While I was exploring a clearing in the trees, I came across an eastern box turtle. It immediately closed itself up in its shell, but after I sat patiently for a while, it popped out and started moving again. The next day, as we were driving north through the Flint Hills, we saw lots of ornate box turtles crossing the highway. It looked like a perilous time for them, especially compared to the sedate eastern box turtle I’d spent a few minutes with earlier.

Eastern box turtle. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, f/10, 1/200 sec.
Eastern box turtle. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 500, f/10, 1/80 sec.
Eastern box turtle. Tokina 11-20mm wide-angle lens. ISO 500, f/13, 1/125 sec.
Symphoricarpus leaves with rain drops. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 500, f/16, 1/80 sec.
Kayaker on Sand Creek. Tokina 11-20mm wide-angle lens. ISO 400, f/14, 1/250 sec.

I saw 8 or 10 species of butterflies as I walked, but most weren’t all that interested in having their photo taken. One exception was a group of hackberry butterflies that were sunning themselves on some rocks near the creek and feeding on raccoon poop and mud. If you’re familiar with hackberry butterflies, it might be because they’ve chased you around trying to feed on the sweat on your body. They’re not exactly shy. Hackberry butterflies do eat nectar sometimes, but more often, I see them on scat, carrion, fermenting fruit, and drying mud. Weird little creatures…

Hackberry butterfly on fish scale-filled raccoon scat. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, f/14, 1/250 sec.
Hackberry butterfly. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, f/14, 1/250 sec.
Turkey vulture getting warm and dry after morning rain. Tamron 100-400 lens @400mm. ISO 320, f/8, 1/640 sec.
Ring-necked snake. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, f/16, 1/100 sec.

I talked about my encounter with the tiny ring-necked snake in my earlier post this week, but I tossed in another photo of it here. Another fascinating encounter I had was with a caterpillar being chased by a parasitoid wasp. The caterpillar was hanging from a tree by a long strand of its silk and it was dropping lower a half inch or so at a time. The movement is what caused me to first see it. Only when I got closer did I see that it was trying to run away from a wasp that was climbing down the thread after it. The caterpillar somehow managed to avoid the wasp for a few minutes, but the wasp inevitably caught up.

The wasp appeared to sting the caterpillar and I assume it laid an egg inside it since I didn’t see any eggs on the outside. Watching the whole thing play out was tense, sad, exciting, and fascinating, all at the same time. I didn’t get any good photos of the action, partly because things were moving too fast and partly because I was too busy trying to see what was going to happen. I did manage to get a few blurry photos with my phone by putting my hand behind the action to help the phone focus.

Here’s the best photo I could get of the wasp and caterpillar. This was shortly before the wasp caught up.
A bug. Hemipteran of some kind… Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, f/8, 1/200 sec.
Venus’ looking glass flowers. (Triodanis sp.) Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, f/14, 1/100 sec.
Metallic green sweat bee on coreopsis or greenthread flower (I don’t know which). Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, f/14, 1/250 sec.
A bandwing grasshopper in leaf litter. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 1000, f/16, 1/60 sec.

There was a nice spider milkweed plant right near the aid station and it had a lot of insect activity on it. I was a little self-conscious about setting up my tripod and photographing insects so close to both the race trail and the aid station, but I did it anyway. It ended up starting a conversation with a cool guy volunteering at the aid station who said he’d been photographing bees on the same plant the night before!

Large milkweed bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) on spider milkweed (Asclepias viridis). Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 1000, f/13, 1/80 sec.
Spider milkweed, aka green milkweed (A. viridis). Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 1000, f/13, 1/125 sec.
A chimney bee (Anthophora abrupta) male, with its distinctive yellow face, feeding on spider milkweed. Thanks Mike Arduser for the ID and natural history info. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 1000, f/13, 1/200 sec.

The bee above was one of several that were very actively feeding on the milkweed. When I first saw them, I thought they were bumblebees but there were several indicators that they probably weren’t. First, they were a little small and there were lots of them, which seemed early for this time of year. Even in Oklahoma, I wasn’t sure the first brood of workers would have hatched and emerged just yet. Also, there were some physical characteristics that didn’t look quite right, including the yellow face.

When I got the photos worked up, I sent some to Mike Arduser (retired Missouri Department of Conservation ecologist and extraordinary bee expert). Mike told me they are males of Anthophora abrupta, a kind of digger bee. He said they often nest in large aggregations and that the females (which don’t have yellow faces) carry water (inside themselves) to the site to soften the soil and then excavate themselves a nest. They use the pellets of mud they excavate to then construct a kind of chimney, or turret, above the opening of the nest. That turret can be 3-4 inches tall.

Mike said no one knows for sure why the bees construct the chimney but the females are often seen sitting just inside the top of it first thing in the morning. Scientists have shown that the chimney warms up faster than the rest of the nest, so it’s possible the bees use it to warm themselves up before heading out into the day. I wish I’d known all that when I was at the park because I would have spent time trying to find an aggregation of little chimneys somewhere nearby. Oh well. Next time!

A Tiny Actor

While wandering through a grassy opening in an oak woodland this weekend, I came across a gorgeous ring-necked snake. I was at Osage Hills State Park in Oklahoma, where Kim was running a 52 mile race. Kim had been running for almost 12 hours by the time I found the snake, but that’s just an extraneous detail – it’s not important to the story.

The ring-necked snake showing why it has that name.

It had rained for a while in the morning but the sun had been beating down all afternoon and I was hot and sweaty. Kim was too, of course, but that has nothing to do with me finding this snake.

I saw the snake because it moved when I walked too close to it. There’s no chance I’d have seen it otherwise. It was about 12 inches long, or so, which is pretty big for a ring-necked snake, and was about the same diameter as a pencil.

Because I had my camera with me, I corralled the snake to see if it would let me photograph it. I put my hand in front of it every time it changed direction until it finally stopped for a moment and coiled up the tip of its tail, showing the bright red underside. That’s a common defense mechanism for ring-necks and I’ve heard two different possible explanations.

The ring-necked snake and its coiled tail tip.

One explanation is that the red color is supposed to warn off potential predators. Red and orange color are often signs of toxicity among animals and there are some who say ring-necked snakes can taste bad to predators. I’ve not tested that.

A second explanation is that the coiled red tail tip is supposed to look like an earthworm and focus a predator’s attack on the tail instead of the head while the snake continues to try to escape. That’s a fun hypothesis, and I can see the logic in it, but I bet the snake hopes the red color is a repellant, rather than a target.

Anyway, I got a few photos of the snake while it showed me its tail, but then it acted like it wanted to leave again. Selfish.

I gently picked the snake up and moved it to a small spot of bare ground. When I released it, it immediately flipped itself over on its back and lay perfectly still – playing dead. It was a pretty good performance, but I had been expecting it, so I wasn’t worried. I photographed it a little more and then walked away so it would think it had fooled me. The whole encounter reminded me of a similar run-in with an even more dramatic hognose snake a few years ago.

The snake was pretty convincing when it played dead.

It’s important to mention here that the snake never acted aggressively toward me. It didn’t try to bite or even pretend to strike at me. Its full attention was on escaping, or, if that didn’t work, fooling me into leaving it alone.

The next thing I say is important to keep in context. The context is this: ring-necked snakes are harmless to people and pets. That’s important to remember because ring-necked snakes do have a venom they can release from small fangs in the REAR of their mouths. The venom helps subdue prey the snake has already grasped and is starting to swallow.

Again, these snakes are no threat to you. Unless you’re an earthworm, but if you’re an earthworm you have to tell me – and explain how you’re reading this.

The placement of those fangs in the back of the snake’s tiny mouth makes it impossible for you, as a normal human person, to come into contact with them. They’re used to deal with invertebrates, or sometimes small lizards or snakes if the ring-necked snake is big enough to eat those.

Ring-necked snakes are pretty common across much of the eastern 2/3 of the U.S., as well as parts of the west coast. There are different varieties (with assorted color and pattern variations) from place to place. Despite their abundance and widespread range, I’ve only come across a couple of them during more than 30 years as an ecologist. They’re small and hide very well.

I was grateful for the chance to see this particular ring-necked snake. I think the snake was grateful that I eventually left it alone. Meanwhile, Kim kept running, not that she’s part of this story.