Monday, August 31, 2015
I posted a few of my photos there, along with a detailed description of where and how we found the wasps. I didn't have to wait long. About 1/2 hour later, Ross Hill responded with some insightful comments, and he emailed the photos to wasp expert Dr. Eric Grissell.
Grissell's comments were soon in hand, and can be taken as the final answer - or at least as final an answer as we can get with the evidence currently available:
"Although it is a Rileya, I couldn't put a species name on it. Rileya americana was synonymized under Rileya insularis by Michael Gates in 2008. So americana would be wrong under any circumstances. Wish I could help you out better, but these wasps are difficult enough to identify when you can see them physically! Images are a bit more difficult".
So to attempt an absolute species-specific identification, I'd probably have to further impose on the good doctor, and send him some actual specimens. Well, at least we know the wasps belong to the genus Rileya. And that's not saying a lot, at least for us laypeople. Readily accessible literature on the group is sparse indeed.
Sunday, August 30, 2015
Saturday's main activity was field trips at legendary Malabar Farm. I was stationed at a small wetland known as Junglebrook, along with some expert naturalists such as Lisa Rainsong, Judy Semroc, Mark Dilley, and Larry Rosche. Various F-Q groups were shunted our way all day long, and we'd lead them about looking for interesting things.
We focused heavily on the flora, as after all this was a botanical event. The bright flowers of the aforementioned Green-headed Coneflower always drew comment. The plants' robust stature and colorful blossoms could not be missed.
It was an easy guess that some sort of insect was causing these galls, as various flies, wasps, moths and other bugs routinely cause large galls in plant tissues. But none of us had a clue as to exactly who the culprit was. I recall seeing such galls before on Green-headed Coneflower, but not often enough to recall specifics of where and when.
Enter The Google. Judy Semroc had her iPhone along, and had a connection. A few smartly chosen keywords in Google, and we had an answer. The galls were caused by a midge known as Asphondylia rudbeckiaeconspicua, a name much longer than the little fly that it denotes. I'm not sure what the genus name means, but the specific epithet is clear: rudbeckia = genus of the midge's host plant; conspicua = conspicuous.
What was not expected (although perhaps it shouldn't be surprising) was another occupant of the gall. As I attempted to make images of the grub above with my macro lens, I was startled to see a tiny insect clamber out of one of the inner chambers of the gall. While I got one or two OK images of this other bug in the field, it was really too small for my 100mm macro. So, I pocketed five galls, and took them home for more detailed autopsy, and images with Canon's incredible mega-macro lens, the strange MP-E 65mm. The photos that follow were taken with that lens, coupled to the Canon 5D Mark III with illumination via Canon's MT-24 Twin-Lite flash system.
I think we only dissected one gall in the field, and it held at least one wasp. Of the five that I brought home, wasps were in four galls. It would appear that the incidence of parasitism, at least in this midge gall colony, is high.
If one is willing to look at Nature with a broadly sweeping eye, the little mysteries just keep on coming.
Thursday, August 27, 2015
I visited Chillicothe, Ohio, last Monday evening, to deliver a presentation to the Scioto Valley Bird & Nature Club. It's always a treat to visit this city, which is steeped in Ohio history. Chillicothe was our first capital, and then after a brief peregrination to Zanesville for two years, it again served as capital for about five more years. In 1816 the legislature voted to shift the capital north to Columbus, my hometown, and for better or worse it's been the same ever since.
Chillicothe's home county of Ross is incredibly biodiverse. The Appalachian foothills taper out into the glaciated plains to the west here, meaning that there is lots of topographic variation. Interesting habitats abound, and after the talk to the club, several us went out for a nocturnal prowl at Buzzard's Roost Preserve. This sprawling 1,200 acre woodland lies along Paint Creek just west of Chillicothe, and I've never failed to find interesting subjects there.
As always, it was a treat to visit the club, and catch up with people I've known a long time but don't often get to see. After all was said and done, Kelly Williams, Joe Letsche, Michelle Ward, Debbie and Gary McFadden, Tiffany Pritchard, Lisa Ratcliff, Brandan Gray and yours truly made the short trip over to the "Roost" (apologies if I'm forgetting anyone!). It was the best nocturnal foray I've had in a while; we found piles of interesting animals. The caterpillars were over the top, and perhaps I'll get around to sharing some of them. For now, though, I will confine my bloviations to one of our coolest serpents.
This animal was found in just about exactly the same type of situation that the rest of the ones that I've seen have been in - head-high tangles of dense growth, in this case scrubby black locust and grapevines.
Thanks to Joe for guiding us into Buzzard's Roost after dark, and to everyone else who came along and helped spot many interesting creatures.
Sunday, August 23, 2015
This is a southern species that has been actively expanding its range northward. Nonetheless, prior to Jim's find, the nearest populations to Ohio were about 200 miles south and west, in southern Indiana and adjacent Illinois.
As soon as I heard about these setwings, I wanted to see them (of course!). It never worked out last year, but finally, yesterday was the day. I met Jim at 9 am, and we spent a few hours chasing setwings and finding many other dragonfly species in the process.
All but three of the images in this post was shot with Canon's fabulous 180mm f/3.5 macro lens. This is basically a telephoto macro, and it allows the shooter to stay back far enough that spooky subjects often are not flushed. It was connected to the Canon 5D Mark III, and rigged with Canon's Twin-Lite setup. Settings for this shot were f/11, ISO 200, and 1/200 shutter speed. I frequently tweak flash intensity on the commander module mounted to the camera's hot shoe, but usually have it turned down one or even two stops, so that it is basically providing fill flash.
The quality of the background of an image is known as the "bokeh", which is a Japanese word which basically means "blur". Note how the out of focus area of this image - the backdrop - is a rich blurred green color. It is mostly uniform, and does not distract from the targeted subject. That's what a quality lens can do - create pleasing bokehs. The photographer (should) soon learn to assess backdrops, though. If there is some whitish branch or other dissonant distraction that conflicts with the overall color of the backdrop, it will somewhat mar the photo's overall quality. You can see that in the images that bookend this one. With a keen eye for backdrop, the photographer can sometimes adjust his/her angle to eliminate distractions, or physically move them from the field of view. However, when working with living creatures on their terms, this is not always possible and one must make the most of the situation that is presented.
I've said it before, and will again: If I could have only one lens, it'd likely be this one. The 100-400mm zoom is sharp as a tack, incredibly versatile, and easily handheld.
It was back to the 180mm macro for this one - settings at f/11, ISO 200, shutter speed 1/200. In general, when shooting macro (which is almost always with flash), I keep the camera on full manual at f/11 and 1/200 shutter speed, with ISO somewhere between 100-400. At those settings it is usually ready to go, and quick and usually minor tweaks can be made as need be.
Most of the settings were the same is the previous shot, but I stopped the lens down to f/18 to get more depth of field, as I was shooting this image from very close quarters - as close as the lens's minimal focusing distance, which is a bit under two feet. I also had to bump up the flash intensity.
This shot was made from a fair distance with the 100-400mm lens, at a focal length of 263mm. Settings were f/5, ISO 100, 1/640, and exposure compensation dialed down 1/3rd of a stop.
It will be interesting to see if Swift Setwings turn up in other places around Ohio in the near future. Highly mobile strong flyers such as dragonflies seem to be hyper-responders to warming mean temperatures.
Congratulations to Jim Lemon for this excellent find, and I appreciate his guiding services for the day!
Thursday, August 20, 2015
Great views of the birds can be had from the dike running along the east side of the wetlands, but a spotting scope is highly useful. The photography conditions are OK, but not great. For the most part, unless you are armed with Canon's 800mm lens, most birds are a bit distant for really excellent images. That, compounded by a less than desirable angle of view stemming from standing atop the dike, means that only the closest birds can really be nailed well. I was shooting with my 500mm with the 1.4 teleconverter on a Canon 7D Mark II 1.6 crop sensor camera, and still didn't like most of my results of the often too distant birds. Another issue with shooting distant shorebirds on broiling mudflats on baking mid-summer days is the heat waves between you and your subjects. The closer one can be, and the less cropping that needs to be done to the photos, the better.
But shoot the birds on their terms, and that means not impinging too closely and causing them to flush. Most of these animals have come a LONG way, and don't need the unnecessary hassle of some photographer spooking them. Many shorebirds can be quite tame and confiding, and with a bit of patience one can let them approach on their own terms. That's how I got these shots - by waiting quietly in good locations, and letting birds eventually settle into my side of the wetland.
Mid to late August migration sees the overlap of adult and juvenile birds, too, which makes for great study. The snipe on the left is a brightly colored juvenile resplendent in a fresh coat of feathers. The other snipe is an adult. Its feathers are duller and more worn. In general, especially as concerns the shorebirds that breed in the far north, the adults return in advance of the juveniles.
This animal weighs little more than an ounce, but it is one of the world's champion migrants. Baird's Sandpiper nests in the highest reaches of the Arctic, and winter in southern South America. Some of them travel over 9,000 miles between summer and winter habitats. Conservation and appropriate management of wetland stopover sites is of vital importance to successfully protecting populations of birds such as this species. CLICK HERE for a brief essay that I wrote about the value of mud, and the possible roles that long-haul migrant shorebirds such as Baird's Sandpiper may play in the distribution of certain plant species.
In a few short weeks, this sandpiper is likely to be foraging in a wetland near Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. The annual movements of shorebirds around the globe is truly one of the marvels of avian migration.
Monday, August 17, 2015
If you're reading this blog, you probably like plants, and enjoy learning more about how plants spawn animal life. The Ohio Sustainable Landscapes Symposium is for you. Mark your calendars for Saturday, September 12th, and prepare for a pleasant trip to one of the Midwest's premier plant collections, the beautiful Dawes Arboretum near Newark, Ohio. They've lined up an excellent slate of speakers, lecturing on a useful array of topics. You can see all of the details in the flyer below.
I recently wrote about the installation of an urban prairie and the resultant massive spike in biodiversity, RIGHT HERE. That article, first published in the Columbus Dispatch and reprinted on this blog, generated a ton of interest. I was fairly inundated with emails asking "how-to", and sorry if I've not yet responded. If you are interested in diversifying your landscape with native plants, this is the conference for you. If one of the speakers isn't talking about the particular subject that interests you, someone in the collective brain trust in the room will have your answers.
The Ohio Sustainable Landscapes Symposium is an outstanding opportunity to learn more about creating more environmentally-friendly patches of turf, on any scale. Hope you can make it. CLICK HERE to register.
Saturday, August 15, 2015
I was down in Vinton County, Ohio last Thursday to speak to the Four Seasons Garden Club, which Ray's wife Carol hosted at their lovely home. While that was fun, I saw an added opportunity. Thursday night's skies were to be totally clear, the moon was new, and it was the tail end of the Perseid Meteor Shower. All the conditions were prime for astrophotography. Vinton County is also one of the least populated (the least?) counties in Ohio, so ambient light pollution from towns and cities is much less than in most areas.
The night sky at this spot was breathtaking. The Milky Way was clearly visible, its myriad stars forming a hazy smear across the night sky. Various constellations and planets popped in sharp relief, and an occasional satellite would move rapidly across the ether. In all, I was out for about 3.5 hours, watching, and making occasional shifts to the camera gear. A nearby Yellow-billed Cuckoo called often, usually delivering a soft truncated series of junglelike kowlps. I wasn't surprised to hear it - cuckoos routinely call at night. It may be that they're actively hunting, as caterpillars are a major prey source and most caterpillars are far more active at night. At one point, an Eastern Screech-Owl created a series of spooky whistles, and I heard distant Coyotes.
Catching meteors flaming out as they streak across the sky is largely a matter of luck. I saw dozens, but most were too far to really show up in my images. A few, however, did. Several fireballs did shoot by and were spectacular, but they weren't in my camera's field of view. I would have had a killer shot, but blew it in a total learn from your mistakes experience. After a few hours, I switched to a very fast 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, set to 70mm focal length. This greatly reduces one's chances of capturing a meteor as the field of view is much smaller than the wide-angles normally used. But if one does streak through the field of view, you'll likely have a really cool shot. And one did, and it WOULD have been an amazing image. Except, I forgot to turn off the lens's auto focus, and image stabilization when I mounted it. Not doing so means the camera hunts and pecks and everything is blurred. Including my meteor image. Duh. Well, I hope I won't be making that error again.
For these shots, I used my Canon 5D Mark III tethered to Canon's excellent 24mm f/1.4 lens. This a major go-to lens for shooting astrophotography, because the aperture opens so wide and allows lots of light to reach the camera's sensor. The 24mm focal length is fairly wide-angle and captures a nice swath of night sky.
A tripod is utterly essentially for these supremely long shoots and long exposures. As is a remote shutter release that locks in place so that the shutter keeps firing continuously until you make it stop, or the battery dies, or the memory card fills. My shutter speed was set to 25 seconds, and the aperture was set to f/1.6. The ISO was at 400. Before locking down the shutter and letting her run for an hour or so, it's essential to take a few trial single exposures and tweak the settings. Also, framing the sky is important and not that easy to do. I use an app on my iPhone that identifies the major stars and constellations. By holding its map of the night sky over my camera barrel like a gun sight, I can be sure of what I'm looking at as I frame the shot. Make sure your lens's auto focus and image stabilization is TURNED OFF. Also, I set my white balance to tungsten, as I like the slightly electric-blue cast that it gives celestial objects.
I made a short video which is a compilation of all 152 images which went to make the previous photo. For some reason, YouTube won't let me embed it right now, but you can see it RIGHT HERE. If you watch the video in full screen mode, you'll see a number of distant meteors shooting by in various directions. A real scorcher shoots right through the screen near the end.