Photo of the Week – July 6, 2017

When photographing invertebrates, I can split most critters into two categories: those that hunker down and those that flee.  Those that hunker down are awfully nice because I can set up and photograph them thoughtfully, playing with various angles and compositions for each individual.  The ones that flee are a completely different matter, and I often end up chasing lots of different ones around, hoping to get close enough for any kind of photo and/or find one that is slightly less skittish then most.  Of course, all of this is on a continuum; even insects that end to hunker down can be pushed past their comfort level and eventually hop, drop, or fly away.  Learning where those thresholds are for various invertebrate species has been really helpful over the years.

Katydid nymph on white prairie clover (Dalea candida) earlier this week.  Katydids are usually pretty easy photo subjects.

Katydids and grasshoppers tend to be hunkerers, especially if I catch them in the middle of a meal.  Often, if they’re feeding on a flower, for example, they’ll slide around to the far side of the flower when I get close.  That’s actually nice because it lets me finish my approach while they’re not looking directly at me.  Then – and here’s a little trick you’re welcome to use – I can reach my hand out to the other side of the flower and they’ll slide back toward me to get away from my hand.  Sometimes, of course, they’ll hop off the flower when they see my hand, but usually they seem reluctant to abandon their food.  In most cases, I can repeat the hand trick at least 3 or 4 times before it starts making them nervous.

…and another one on purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea).

Other invertebrates that tend to hunker and allow photographs to be taken include stink bugs, aphids, and caterpillars.  Crab spiders (one of my favorites) fall into this category too, but they can sometimes be a little touchier than katydids and others to the hand trick.  Sometimes, it works well, but some crab spiders can be more difficult to lure onto the side of a flower where I’m at.  If I can approach slowly enough that they don’t move away in the first place, that’s always the best.  Once they hide beneath or behind the flower, it seems like about 50% of them will either drop off the flower or refuse to be baited when they see my hand.

…and another one.

Earlier this week, I spent an hour or so at our family prairie photographing insects because the wind was fairly calm and there were some nice diffuse clouds creating nice lighting conditions.  During that hour, I concentrated on two different subjects; katydids and damselflies.  The katydids, as per usual, were pretty accommodating, and the main challenge was the slightly swaying flowers they were feeding on.  The damselflies were a whole ‘nother story, and I ended up chasing them around quite a bit to get a few decent photos.

A damselfly rests briefly on an ironweed (Vernonia sp.).

Damselflies definitely fit into the category of insects that flee.  The nice thing about damselflies and dragonflies (as opposed to bees, moths and butterflies, for example) is they tend to be territorial.  That means that when they fly, they don’t usually go far.  Sometimes, if I’m patient, they’ll return to the same perch I flush them from.  That said, they can still be really difficult to get close to.  Staying low to the ground (keeping my head below the horizon line) seems to help, especially if I can avoid having my shadow pass over them.  A slow and steady approach usually works best, but it’s far from foolproof.  During the vast majority of attempts, they fly off just as I get in photography range.

The other issue with skittish subjects like damselflies is that when they do land, they often land in places that don’t work for photography.  That can include perches in the middle of a bunch of leaves that partially obscure them from view, or perches with vegetation behind them that overly clutters up the background.  The ideal situation is when they land on a relatively high perch, or at least one with good clear space all around it.  Trying to wait until they land in a favorable location and then watching them fly away just as I get close is an example of why insect photography is not for the impatient.

Eventually, I found a few damselflies that let me get close enough for some fairly intimate portraits.  The end results – nice peaceful looking insects resting on perches – don’t paint an accurate picture of the effort invested, however.  The grass stains on the knees of my pants and the sweat pouring down my face were better indicators of that.

Since I didn’t document the visual aspect of the damselfly photo hunt, here is a quick recap:

Helzer approaches a perched damselfly slowly.  Very slowly.  He creeps through the vegetation, being careful not to even slightly bump any plants because…DANG!  it flew away.  Ok, now he’s spotted another one but it’s not in a good spot.  He’s bypassing that one in favor of another on a higher perch.  He’s getting pretty close this time, but there’s a stray grass stem in the way.  Oh!  It looks like he’s going to try to carefully slide that stem out of the way.  It’s a bold move, but it’s going pretty well and…DANG!  It flew again.  Hmm.  He’s got another one in his sights now, and he’s working his way toward it, staying nice and low, keeping an ironweed plant between him and his subject.  Now he’s leaning around the ironweed…  he looks like he’s in range…. he’s focusing and depressing the shutter…OH NO!!  He lost his balance just a little and as he reached to catch himself the damselfly flew away again.  What a disappointment!

You get the idea…

One of the best parts of owning our own prairie is that I can do this kind of insect photography and not have to worry about anyone watching me.  The only thing I can think of that might make me look more foolish to passers by is when I’m chasing fruitlessly after a flying bee or butterfly with a net, swiping wildly at it while weaving back and forth in its path.  At least when I’m crawling around on the ground with my camera I’m a little more difficult to see from a distance.

Invertebrate photography can be frustrating, especially when I’m chasing insects in the “flee” category, but it’s awfully rewarding when I actually get a few good photos as a result.  Unfortunately, most viewers of my insect photos don’t give me any extra credit for the degree of difficulty of some photos over others.  The katydid shots in this post, for example, were a cakewalk compared to the damselflies, but unless I’d told you, you wouldn’t have known or cared, would you?  But I know, and I feel a little extra pride in these close-up damselfly portraits.

I’m just glad no one documented the process…

Emergence of Life in a Wetland

After many years of wanting to, we finally installed some solar-powered pumps and livestock water tanks in our family prairie.  (Thanks to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Nebraska Game and Parks for providing cost-share money!)  Those two water tanks give the cattle nice cool clean water to drink and allow us more flexibility in the way we design our grazing each year.  Most importantly, they allow us to exclude the pond/wetland from grazing so it can start to function as a wetland rather than as a big mud hole for cattle to stand around in.

Because we’ve had good rains this year, the wetland has been pretty full.  That’s nice, but it has also prevented much of the wetland-edge seed I planted from germinating and growing.  Despite that, the recovery of the wetland is well underway.  There is now grass growing right to the water’s edge and arrowhead and other emergent plants are starting to appear in shallow water.  I’ve been spraying the few reed canarygrass plants growing nearby in the hope of preventing that invasive species from taking over the margins of the wetland, and hopefully I can get some more diverse wetland plants to establish there instead.

The pond/wetland at the Helzer family prairie with abundant arrowhead (Sagittaria sp.) in the shallows.

The pond/wetland at the Helzer family prairie with abundant arrowhead (Sagittaria sp.) in the shallows.

My daughter and I went for a walk at the prairie over the weekend and visited the wetland to see what was happening.  As I waded into the shallow water to take the above photo, leopard frogs scattered from my footsteps and red-winged blackbirds scolded me for encroaching upon their territories – very good signs of recovery.  However, looking more closely at the arrowhead plants poking through the water, I found even more evidence of new life.

Abandoned exoskeletons of damselfly nymphs were littered around the wetland.

Abandoned exoskeletons of damselfly nymphs were littered around the wetland.

Adult damselflies fluttered around everywhere, and many of them had apparently just appeared on the scene because the larval exoskeletons they’d just emerged from were stuck to leaves and stems all over the place.



While I was too late to see the actual emergence of the damselflies, I did manage to find a green darner dragonfly that had just popped out of its larval skeleton and was fluttering its wings and waiting for its body to dry and harden.  I snapped a few pictures of it in place and then carried it over to Anna so she could get a good look at it.

A green darner dragonfly and the larval exoskeleton it had only recently escaped from.

A green darner dragonfly and the larval exoskeleton it had only recently escaped from.

Anna enjoyed getting a close-up view of the dragonfly and even posed for a photo with it.

Anna enjoyed getting a close-up view of the dragonfly and even posed for a photo with it.

After we became a little better acquainted with the new dragonfly, we set it safely on a fence post so it could finish hardening up in the warm sun.  I took a few more quick photos of it on the post and then left it alone.  It was gratifying to see other dragonfly species zipping around nearby too – I’m hoping that’s a sign that a number of other aquatic invertebrates are also colonizing our recovering wetland.  It should be fun to watch the changes in the coming years.

Our new friend on the top of a fence post.

Our new friend on the top of a fence post.