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…

Photo of the Week – July 21, 2016

Lately, I’ve had some great opportunities to photograph big charismatic animals like bison and cute mammals like prairie dogs.  During the same period, however, I’ve also managed to make the kind of photographs I’m most drawn to – images of little things like flowers and bugs.  Since  much of what I’ve posted lately (the dung beetles post notwithstanding) has been bigger wildlife, I decided to share a selection of more close-up views of prairies today.

Black-eyed Susan from beneath. The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) from beneath. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.
Prairie cicada at The Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.
Prairie cicada at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.
Prairie wild rose (Rosa arkansana) at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.
Prairie wild rose (Rosa arkansana) at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.
Katydid nymph on upright prairie coneflower. Platte River Prairies.
Katydid nymph on upright prairie coneflower. Platte River Prairies.
Side-oats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula). Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.
Side-oats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula). Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Broad sweeping vistas and big stompy animals add drama to prairie landscapes, but most of the complexity and function actually happens at a very small scale.  Sometimes it’s nice to just pause and enjoy the little things.

Photo of the Week – December 11, 2014

For no particular reason, here are two unrelated photos from the same day.  Both photographs were taken on September 28, 2014 at our family prairie south of Aurora, Nebraska.  I wish I could come up with a pithy and informative way to link the two together, or to a larger theme or lesson.  I can’t.  I just like the photos.  I hope you do too.

A katydid on stiff goldenrod.  Frequent readers of The Prairie Ecologist will remember that you can distinguish a katydid from a grasshopper by its very long antenna.
A katydid on stiff goldenrod. Frequent readers of The Prairie Ecologist will remember that you can distinguish a katydid from a grasshopper by its very long antenna.

 

Stiff goldenrod seeds resting on the leaf beneath the seedhead they dropped from.
Stiff goldenrod seeds resting on the leaf beneath the seedhead from which they dropped.

 

Photo of the Week – September 12, 2014

It’s grasshopper season!

Vehicles driving through the prairie on a late summer morning are quickly covered with dew, grass pollen, and GRASSHOPPERS.
Vehicles driving through the prairie on a late summer morning are quickly covered with dew, grass pollen, and GRASSHOPPERS.

By the end of summer, most grasshoppers have completed their five or so molts and have become adults – complete with functional wings.   Now, as we walk and drive through our prairies, these fully-formed adult grasshoppers (along with katydids and tree crickets) seem to be everywhere.  They explode from our feet like popcorn – especially in areas of shorter vegetation.  And they’re hungry.  We see them feeding on sunflowers, goldenrod, grasses and almost every other kind of plant in the prairie.  As in other groups of species, the diversity of grasshopper species (108 species in Nebraska) leads to a diversity of feeding habits.  Some feed high in the canopy, others low.  Some feed mainly on grasses, others on forbs.  Some eat from a wide range of species, others from just a few.

This grasshopper was feeding on the pollen of stiff sunflower - an apparent favorite of many adult grasshopper, katydid, and tree cricket species.
This grasshopper was feeding on the pollen of stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus) – an apparent favorite of many adult grasshopper, katydid, and tree cricket species.
Another grasshopper species (probably) also feeding on stiff sunflower.
Another grasshopper species (probably) – also feeding on stiff sunflower.
Tree crickets get in on the stiff sunflower pollen feeding frenzy too.
Tree crickets get in on the stiff sunflower pollen feeding frenzy too.

Predators, of course, respond enthusiastically to the profusion of grasshoppers.  Rather than taking over the world, late summer grasshoppers become the targets of any creature that can catch up with them.  This includes birds, mammals, reptiles, and large invertebrate predators, but also tiny parasites and microbes.  To hungry predators, grasshoppers are just tasty machines that convert vegetation into protein-rich food – and they’re EVERYWHERE!

'Hoppers and their kin, but they can also be skilled at keeping themselves hidden when they see a potential predator.  This katydid didn't like me sticking my camera lens in its direction.
‘Hoppers and their kin, but they can also be skilled at keeping themselves hidden when they see a potential predator. This katydid didn’t like me sticking my camera lens in its direction.

The prairie is also a noisy place when grasshoppers, katydids, and tree crickets reach adulthood.  Much of the communication between these species is through sound, and it can be hard to hear the rustling of autumn prairie leaves in the wind over the buzzes and whines of insect courtship.

Besides leading females to males, that incessant insect noise acts as a warning to herbivore and predator alike…

“You’d better eat up now – winter is coming!”

 

Photo of the Week – February 20, 2014

This the time of year when I start getting antsy to see green vegetation, flowers, and insects again.  Since our prairies are still brown and dormant, I have to live through photographs from previous field seasons.  Here is a photo from August 2012 I found yesterday while looking through old images.

A bush katydid on a rosinweed flower - The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.
Bush katydid (Scudderia?) on a rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) flower – The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

The beautiful green creature in this image is a katydid, not a grasshopper.  The easiest way to tell is by looking at the length of the antennae, which are very long on katydids but very short on grasshoppers.  There are numerous species of both katydids and grasshoppers in our prairies, and by late summer, most have gone through their final molt and have become fully adult – with the wings to prove it.

You may not be aware that katydids have special hearing devices on their legs.  In the photo above, you can see dark pits in the “forearms” of the insect, right below their “elbows”.  Inside those pits are tympana that vibrate just as our own eardrums do.  For an excellent description of this, and an explanation of how it’s an advantage to the katydid to have its ears on its legs, read this post on the Living with Insects Blog.

Photo of the Week – March 3, 2011

 Katydids are a diverse group of species – about 243 different species reside in the U.S. and Canada.  We have about the same number of katydid species as we do grasshopper species in our Platte River Prairies, but grasshoppers tend to grab a lot more attention.  In fact, katydids are often called “long-horned grasshoppers”, though they’re actually much more closely related to crickets than grasshoppers.  Katydids are often difficult to see because of their camouflaged appearance, but it’s impossible not to hear the distinctive songs they make by rubbing their front legs together – especially in late summer. 

Katydid on false sunflower. Sarpy County, Nebraska.

In the above photo, you can see the tympana on the katydid’s front leg – right below its “elbow”.  The tympana is the hearing organ katydids and crickets use to hear the songs of others of their kind.

Telling grasshoppers and katydids apart is usually as easy as looking at the antennae (see below).  Grasshoppers have short antennae – much less than the length of their bodies.  Katydids have very long antennae that usually exceed their body length.

A grasshopper showing off its short antennae.
A katydid nymph (hence the short wings) with its long antennae - long enough I didn't capture their entire length in the photo.