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 – January 7, 2016

Earlier this week, we had a foggy and frosty day.  When the clouds finally started to thin, I popped across town to Lincoln Creek Prairie to see if I could get some photographs of the frost.  Here are a few images I came back with.

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Frosty Lincoln Creek Prairie earlier this week.  Aurora, Nebraska.
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Frost on stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus).
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Tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum).
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Another stiff sunflower.  Sunflowers seem to display frost very attractively.
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See what I mean?  Maximilian sunflower this time (Helianthus maximiliani).

Photo of the Week – January 29, 2015

Ok, I admit it – I’m a sucker for crab spiders.

A crab spider on Flodman's thistle (Cirsium flodmanii) at the Helzer family prairie.
A crab spider on Flodman’s thistle (Cirsium flodmanii) at the Helzer family prairie.  July 2014.

As much as I enjoy looking at prairie flowers, I enjoy them even more when there’s a crab spider lying in wait among their petals.  I must have more than a hundred photos of crab spiders on flowers, but when the lighting is good and I see those long hairy legs and cute little face… I just can’t help myself!

Do you suppose I need some kind of intervention?

“Hi, my name is Chris Helzer and I really like crab spiders.”  (Hi Chris…)

“It’s been three weeks since I last photographed a crab spider…”  (Applause)

Photo of the Week – December 26, 2014

The sun finally reappeared this week after what seemed like a month of absence.  I figured the best way to celebrate the end of dreariness was a couple of prairie hikes. I started by wandering along a creek at our Platte River Prairies to see what the resident beaver family had been up to.  Green sunfish slipped in and out of hiding places in the deep pools behind beaver dams, but little else was moving in the water.  Later, the sound of frantic chirping turned my head in time to watch a sharp-shinned hawk just miss its prey.  I couldn’t tell what kind of bird the hawk was chasing because it didn’t stop flying until it was out of sight.  I also caught a quick glimpse of a small mouse scooting through the thatch, spotted a perched eagle in a far off tree and flushed a small flock of mallards from an backwater wetland.  Not a bad way to spend an afternoon!

Later in the day, I stopped at our family prairie and roamed around until the sun went down.  As the sun dropped, its warm light illuminated the golden brown prairie and I managed to take a few photographs – something I’ve not done much of lately.  Here are a few of those photos.

A stiff goldenrod seed is stuck in the velcro-like hairs on the stem of a plant of the same species.  Helzer family prairie, Stockham, Nebraska.
A stiff goldenrod seed is stuck in the velcro-like hairs on the stem of a plant of the same species. Helzer family prairie, Stockham, Nebraska.
A Flodman's thistle (native species) stands out against the sky.
A Flodman’s thistle (native species) stands out against the sky.
The spiny beauty of Flodman's thistle seed heads.
The spiny beauty of Flodman’s thistle seed heads.
Tall dropseed (Sporobolus compositus) in golden prairie.
Tall dropseed (Sporobolus compositus) in golden light.
Stiff goldenrod
A stand of stiff goldenrod and mixed-grass prairie.

Happy Holidays, and best wishes for your New Year!

Photo of the Week – August 28, 2014

I made a quick run out to our family prairie this week to see how our grazing management was looking.  It was a beautiful evening for a stroll, as the sun went down through layers of diffuse clouds.  The abundant rain this year has fueled tremendous growth in the prairie and has filled up the wetland to its rim.  As planned, a portion of the prairie is short-cropped by cattle grazing while other areas are either ungrazed or lightly grazed, and there was a lot of life on display.

Grasshoppers and katydids exploded around my feet as I walked around – most of them clearly adults since they were flying short distances before landing again (they only get wings after their final molt into adulthood).  They were joined by hordes of other invertebrates, including caterpillars, bees, butterflies, and many others.  I flushed a great horned owl from a big ash tree, and then was very pleased to see a rail (probably a Virginia rail) dangle its feet as it flew across our recovering wetland.  Here are a few photos from the night.

Caterpillar
I’ve seen this same species of caterpillar in a couple places this week.  This one was munching on false boneset.

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Dotted gayfeather and stiff goldenrod were both abundant upslope of the wetland.
Dotted gayfeather and stiff goldenrod were both abundant uphill from the wetland.

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A close-up view of dotted gayfeather.
A close-up view of dotted gayfeather.

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Our wetland at sunset.
Our wetland at sunset.  The addition of a couple solar-powered wells for livestock water has allowed us to exclude cattle from the pond/wetland area, and the habitat improvements are obvious.

A quick note of thanks:  This blog quietly passed two milestones this week.  I posted my 500th post, and we passed the 1,800 mark on blog subscribers.  Thank you for your continued support of this site – I hope it’s as useful and enjoyable to you as it is to me.

Photo of the Week – August 8, 2014

I usually shoot more than one composition of a scene or creature.  It’s fun to experiment, and hard to know what I’ll like best when I am reviewing images on my computer later.  Of course, having multiple choices is both a blessing and curse.  It’s nice to have a couple options to choose between, but sometimes I just can’t decide which I like best.  Last year, I asked for your help deciding between two bison images.  Many of you weighed in, but in the end, the vote was almost exactly split down the middle.  (Thanks for the help.)

Despite that, I’m going to ask for your input again.  This time, there are three pairs of recent photos I’m struggling with.  See what you think.  If you want to tell me which ones you like best, you can leave your vote in the comments section below.  (Click on the post’s title if you don’t see the comments section.)

This is a photo I used as part my "Photo of the Week" series back on July 24.  I like it very much, but also like the next photo (below).  We'll call this Photo A.
This is a photo I used as part my “Photo of the Week” series back on July 24. I like it very much, but also like the next photo too! (below). We’ll call this Photo A.
This photo was taken within just a few seconds of the one above.  Which do you like better?  This is Photo B.
This photo was taken within just a few seconds of the one above. Which do you like better? This is Photo B.

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This bee appeared in a post earlier this week.  This is Photo C.
This bee appeared in a post earlier this week. This is Photo C.
In this second version (Photo D), there is no anther blocking the view of the bee's face, but the bee's face is more in profile.  It seems like a tiny difference, but I think the Photo C has a pretty different feel from Photo D.  Thoughts?
In this second version (Photo D), there is no anther blocking the view of the bee’s face, but the bee’s face is more in profile. It might seem like a tiny difference, but I think Photo D has a less personal  feel than Photo C.

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This photo of Maximilian sunflower (from the "wrong" side) is a little off-center and includes a bit of leaf to the left.
This photo of Maximilian sunflower blossom (from the “wrong” side) feels a little off-balance and includes a stray bit of leaf to the left.  This is Photo E.
This (Photo F) is a more conventional way to shoot a flower (though still from the wrong side).  The composition is tighter on the flower and feels more balanced.  Despite that, I think I like Photo E better.
This (Photo F) is a more conventional way to shoot a flower (though still from the wrong side). The composition is tighter on the flower and feels more balanced. The flower is “looking” out the right side of the frame, but placed a little to the left to compensate for that.  Despite all that, I think I like Photo E better…  Am I crazy?

Let me know if you have opinions.  If not, feel free to just enjoy the photos!

Realistic Motion Photography (Of Cute Fuzzy Mice)

You may remember a previous post in which I described a project to evaluate the impact of our prairie restoration work on small mammals.  Mike Schrad, a Nebraska Master Naturalist, is helping us collect some pilot data to see whether small mammal species in our remnant prairies are also using the adjacent restored prairies.  Mike is now in his second season of that project, and last week he had a great start to this collecting season.  Among other species, he caught a number of grasshopper mice and plains pocket mice in some upland sandy areas of our Platte River Prairies.

There will be more to come on those mouse species and the significance of finding them (especially the plains pocket mouse, which is a Tier 1 species (high conservation priority) in the Nebraska Natural Legacy Plan).  Today, though, I wanted to share some distinctive photographs of the two species.  I hope it will be immediately clear that I’m experimenting with an exciting new style of wildlife photography – one that represents a more realistic view of how people generally see wildlife.

This might be my favorite photograph of the batch.  Note how easily you can see the smudge of light-colored fur beneath the blurry ear, and the indistinct yellowish streak along the body.  Along with size, those are the distinctive characters that best separate these pocket mice from other species.
This might be my favorite photograph of the batch. Note how easily you can see the smudge of light-colored fur beneath the blurry ear, and the indistinct yellowish streak along the body. Along with size, those are the characters that best separate pocket mice from other species.

After getting a couple of dry and boring documentary photos of a plains pocket mouse in Mike’s hand, we put one into a cardboard box in order to get something a little different.  It worked so well, we repeated the process with a grasshopper mouse.  I’m sure you’ll agree that these photographs portray these little creatures as we typically see them in the wild, unlike many of the photos you see in so-called “wildlife magazines” and “nature websites”.   Those tack-sharp photographs of animals sitting perfectly still and displaying their most charismatic features and poses in beautiful light are completely unrealistic.  Who wants to look at them?  Exactly.  What’s much more useful are photographs that show these creatures just as you might see them while hiking – a quick blur of fur zipping from one bit of cover to the next.

Here's a great shot of the long blurry tail pocket mice are known for.  Note how pink it is as it streaks past...
Here’s a great shot of the long blurry tail pocket mice are known for. Note how pink it is as it streaks past…
Here's an even better shot of the tail, without any of the distractions of the mouse's body itself.  This is how I often see mice in the field (except for the cardboard box, of course).
Here’s an even better shot of the tail, without any of the distractions of the mouse’s body itself. This is how I often see mice in the field (except for the cardboard box, of course).
When we put the grasshopper mouse in the box, I experimented with providing a more natural background of dried grasses.  I'm not sure yet if I like the effect.  It almost seems like it distracts from the subject...
When we put the grasshopper mouse in the box, I experimented with providing a more natural background of dried grasses. I’m not sure yet if I like the effect. It almost seems like it distracts from the subject…
Note the larger size, fuzzier (and shorter) tail, and grayer fur of this grasshopper mouse as it streaks past.
Note the larger size, fuzzier (and shorter) tail, and grayer fur of this grasshopper mouse as it zips past.
This one came out almost too sharp to be useful, but it does show the pointy nose that helps distinguish the grasshopper mice from other species.
This image highlights the pointy nose that helps distinguish the grasshopper mice from other species.

Some people will probably see these photos and think I’m just concocting wild justifications to cover my inability to take good sharp photographs of these little mice.  Those people obviously have no imagination or appreciation for the field of realistic motion photography, which I am currently developing and describing.  They will probably also not be among those who flock to buy my forthcoming field guide to wildflowers, entitled “Roadside Wildflowers at 60 Miles Per Hour”, in which each wildflower species is represented by a blurry streak of color that shows how it actually looks as you drive by on the highway.  I feel sorry for those people.

On the other hand, to you readers who appreciate my pioneering work, thank you for your support, and I hope that you’ve enjoyed my first attempt in this new medium.  Be assured that I’ll take many more similar photographs in the future, and will probably share some of the blurriest – and thus most useful – with you.

Seventeen-Year Cicadas are Back! (in Iowa, at Least)

I traveled to Iowa this week (more on that next week) and just happened to arrive during the emergence of one of the world’s most intriguing insects – the periodical cicada (Magicicada sp).  Made up of seven different species, periodical cicadas are found only in eastern North America and are named for their long life cycles of either 13 or 17 years.

This newly-emerged cicada (Magicicada sp) hadn't completely dried out yet, so it's wings weren't functional enough to fly away from me.  I put it on a stick for an easy photograph.
This newly-emerged cicada (Magicicada sp) hadn’t completely dried out yet, so it’s wings weren’t functional enough to fly away from me. I put it on a stick for an easy photograph.

All cicadas (that I know of) spend most of their lives underground as larvae before emerging for a brief, noisy life aboveground.  What makes periodical cicadas unique is not so much the length of time spent as larvae – though it’s longer than other cicada species – but rather the synchronization of their emergence.  The common dog-day cicada, for example spends multiple years underground as a larva, but we see adults every year because their emergence is staggered across years.  In contrast, periodical cicadas synchronize their emergence so the entire population in a particular area is on the same schedule.  That timing of emergence, however, does vary by region across North America, so while seventeen-year cicadas are out in Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri this year, they emerged last year in an area covering states including Maryland, New York, and Virginia.  People living in eastern Nebraska will get a chance to see them in 2015.

Emerging as adults in hordes probably helps ensure the survival of individual periodical cicadas (and their species) because predators can’t eat nearly enough to put a dent in the population.  If periodical cicadas showed up in huge numbers every year or two, there would surely be predators with life cycles timed to take advantage of the abundant food source.  However, the extreme length and synchronization of the cicada life cycle has apparently kept any predator species from being able to take advantage (evolutionarily) of the phenomenon.  Fortunately for us, cicadas are harmless to people, and even the damage they do to trees by feeding and laying eggs in stems is almost always temporary.

There is much more fascinating information about periodical cicadas, but others have already covered it far more completely than I can.  If you’re interested, I strongly encourage you to visit the magicicada.org to learn more.

 

Photo of the Week – January 30, 2014

Of the many categories of art in the world, the still life is not one of my favorites.  I appreciate the skill needed to create a nice still life photo or painting, but I don’t often find them very compelling.  Because of that, I think it’s ironic that I stopped to photograph this frozen plant mainly because when I saw it, my first thought was, “Hey, that looks like a still life!”

Arrowhead plant (Sagittaria sp.) encased in ice a the Helzer family prairie near Stockham, Nebraska.
Arrowhead plant (Sagittaria calycina?) encased in ice a the Helzer family prairie near Stockham, Nebraska.

I suppose it would technically be considered more of a portrait than a still life?  What do I know?  I’m not an artist, I’m just an ecologist with a camera!

I was pretty sure this plant was an arrowhead (Sagittaria sp) but I took it to my botanist down the hall, Gerry Steinauer, for confirmation.    Gerry first gave me a hard time for not bringing him the actual specimen (?!) but eventually agreed with me that it was an arrowhead and even identified it to the species – Sagittaria calycina.  I’m sure the botanists out there reading this will look closely to see if they agree with him or not.  Let me know what you think!

(By the way, if you don’t have your own “botanist down the hall”, I highly recommend them – though mine likes to wander into my assistant’s office and eat all the snacks from her desk.)

Photo of the Week – December 5, 2013

Continuing the theme from earlier this week, here is another photo of a sunflower seed head.  This one was taken on a frosty morning last week.

A sunflower seed head
A Maximilian sunflower seed head.  Deep Well Wildlife Management Area, Nebraska.

I usually try to avoid putting a horizon line behind the subject of a close-up photo because it can add unnecessary distraction to the image.  In this case, however, I tried the photo both ways and decided I liked the one with the horizon better because it gave the image some additional context and depth.

Here’s the alternate version – see what you think.

The same sunflower head shown above from a slightly different angle to keep the horizon line out of the image.
The same sunflower head shown above, but from a slightly different angle to keep the horizon line out of the image.