Monday, August 31, 2015

Mystery wasp update

In my last post, RIGHT HERE, I wrote about a curious parasitoid wasp that was attacking the grubs of an equally curious gall-forming midge. I am a large fan of the small and obscure, and set about trying to learn of the mystery wasp's (photo above) identity.

Enter BugGuide.net.

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.

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Sunday, August 30, 2015

A strange gall, and an unexpected occupant

A lush snarl of Green-headed Coneflower, Rudbeckia laciniata, colors the Junglebrook Marsh at Malabar Farm in Richland County, Ohio. I was up this way last Friday and Saturday to help with the 7th annual Flora-Quest, which was based out of Mohican State Park. We had a great time, and the event was superbly organized courtesy of Cheryl Harner, Paula Harper, and everyone else who was involved.

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.

Junglebrook Marsh may be small, but it is exceptionally diverse. Seeps keep the place wet and boggy, and spawn a rich array of plant life. The wetland may be best known for its population of Turtlehead, Chelone glabra, which host a population of Baltimore Checkerspot butterflies.

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.

We quickly noticed that an especially conspicuous gall was infesting many of the coneflowers. It formed large, softish lumps near the terminal parts of the plants, usually where the flowers occurred. Oftentimes, as in the above photo, flowers attempted to emerge from the tumorous masses, but were stunted and aberrant.

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.

Now that we knew the name of the gall-making critter, the next step was obvious. Cut one open. Judy whipped out a pocket knife and deftly carved apart one of the galls. And, unsurprisingly, there was a midge grub ensconced in a chamber deep within the gall. Judy's knifework work was superb, I'll say. She managed to expose the grub and its chamber without making mash of it.

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.

And here's the other gall inhabitant - some sort of truly elfin parasitoid wasp. This thing is only about one to two (1-2) millimeters in length, and would scarcely be noticed with the unaided eye. It presumably is preying on the rightful gall inhabitant - the midge grub. If things work as they usually do in the parasitoid world, the wasp somehow lays its eggs on or near the midge eggs or grubs, presumably when the gall is in its infancy. When the wasp grubs hatch, they commence feeding on the midge grub. The midge grub, presumably, feeds on its host plant's tissues.

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.

One of the tiny wasps (Superfamily Chalcidoidea, I suspect), stands by what might be one of the wasps's cocoons. It was nestled in one of the passages that I presume was made by a midge grub as it tunneled through the gall. The apparent cocoon seemed to be cottony, as have been other parasitoid wasp cocoons that I've seen.

A closer look at the cocoon, if that's what it is.

I also found a few pupal wasps. They were dislodged during my excavation efforts, and I'm not exactly sure of their locations within the gall, but they had to have been somewhere within the midge feeding tunnels. It would appear that this pupa is not long from transformation to adult, and I found another that looked similar but was actually starting to flex and move.

Another look at the mystery wasp. I would be most appreciative if someone out there could cast a more informed light on this situation. It was tough enough finding any substantive information on the gall midge, and nothing that I've come across mentions anything about parasitoids, wasps or otherwise. It would be interesting to know the wasp's name (if it has one), and more about the life cycle. Such as how it invades the host midge gall, and how the adults exit. If mature wasps are in the gall at this time of year, how do they overwinter? Questions, questions.

If one is willing to look at Nature with a broadly sweeping eye, the little mysteries just keep on coming.

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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Rough Greensnake

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.

As 11 pm clicked by and we grew weary, the group started stumbling back to the vehicles. Intrepid Joe Letsche, the preserve manager and Ross County Park District employee, kept poking through the woody shrubs buffering the forested area, looking for snakes. And Voila! Not far from the parking lot, he located this sleeping beauty - a Rough Greensnake, Opheodrys aestivus. I made this image immediately after Joe found the animal.

I become acquainted with these gentle snakes long ago, and after first finding them, always assumed they were nocturnal. To me, the eyes look disproportionality large, a feature one might expect of a creature that plies its trade after nightfall, as most snakes do. But they're don't - Rough Greensnakes hunt during the day, and sleep it off at night.

RGS's are highly arboreal, and spend much if not nearly all of their time aloft in trees and shrubs. Joe has become expert at finding them, and to date has located and marked 45 individuals at Buzzard's Roost Preserve. He is trying to ferret out the mysteries of their comings and goings.

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.

We have two species of greensnake in Ohio, and a good way to separate them is by the scales. In the case of the RGS, they are keeled, as seen here. The keel is that slitlike flange running down the middle of each scale. Our other species is the much rarer Smooth Greensnake, Opheodrys vernalis, and its scales are without keels. I saw my first specimen of the latter last year, and wrote about it RIGHT HERE.

Rough Greensnakes are at the northern limits of their range in southern Ohio, and have been documented in about 14 counties. Obviously, as Joe Letsche has shown, they can be locally common. But due to their shy mannerisms, arboreal habits, and coloration that allows them to blend with the foliage, they're easy to overlook. When seen well, a RGS is a hit with nearly everyone. The gorgeous lime-green dorsal coloring fades to a stunning lemony hue below, and the big black eyes punctuate a gentle face. And gentle they are - greensnakes almost never attempt to bite (none of the ones that I've handled have). Even people afflicted with mild ophidiophobia sometimes will hold them.

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.

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Sunday, August 23, 2015

A morning spent slaying dragons

Jim Lemon scans for dragonflies along an old quarry in Champaign County, Ohio. Lemon, a former IT guru returned to his entomological roots, made an outstanding discovery here last year. He found the state's first record of an exquisite dragonfly known as the Swift Setwing, Dythemis velox.

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.

These forays often become natural history free-for-alls, and we pointed our cameras in the direction of non-dragonfly points of interest. This stunning critter is the caterpillar of the Brown-hooded Owlet Moth, Cucullia convexipennis. Trust me, the adult moth is completely outshined by its larva. BHOM's eat asters and goldenrods, primarily. This one is snacking on Tall Goldenrod, Solidago altissima.

A Long-jawed Orbweaver, Tetragnathus sp., lies in wait along the petal of a Wing-stem flower, Verbesina alternifolia. These slender spiders have impossibly long legs, and when in hiding they stretch them fore and aft, and blend remarkably well with their surroundings.

It was dragons we had come to hunt, though, and mostly that's what we shot. Almost immediately upon exiting the vehicles, we noticed virtual swarms of Autumn Meadowhawks, Sympetrum vicinum, in the grasses. This species is sometimes known as the Yellow-legged Meadowhawk, a name which requires no explanation.

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.

Blue-ringed Dancers, Argia sedula, abounded. These little damselflies forage amongst grasses and other low vegetation, plucking tiny insect victims from the foliage. On hot days, such as this one, they can be a challenge to stalk as they're prone to flushing easily - always, it seems, just as one as ready to trip the shutter. This image is a classic "mug shot", showing the animal from a nearly perpendicular perspective, so that everything from eyes to abdomen tip is in focus. Dragonflies and damselflies are also fun to shoot head-on, to emphasize the huge eyes. This image was made with the exact same settings as the previous one.

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.

We saw a couple of Ruby Meadowhawks, Sympetrum rubicundulum. Males are stunning with their brilliant cherry-red abdomens. This dragon was actually quite far off when I made the image - probably 20 feet or so distant. For a while, I had clipped on a Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 II lens, which can be quite effective for shooting larger insects at much greater ranges than any macro lens would allow. This meadowhawk was shot with the lens fully extended to 400mm, and the camera set to f/5.6, ISO 100, and 1/640 shutter speed. Exposure compensation was dialed down 2/3rd's of a stop.

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.

This Halloween Pennant, Celithemis eponina, was even more distant than the meadowhawk in the previous shot. Nonetheless, the 100-400 pulled it in fairly well. This photo, like nearly all images posted on this blog, is a quick down and dirty minimally edited version of the jpeg file. I preserve all images as RAW files, too, and with some more considered post-processing work, even a distant dragonfly shot such as this one could be shaped into a very nice image. I don't think it's that bad even in this minimally edited form. The settings were the same as the previous image, except the shutter speed was bumped to 1/800 of a second.

Spreadwing damselflies are always worthy of inspection. This Swamp Spreadwing, Lestes vigilax, perches in classic spreadwing posture with the wings flared out at 45 degree angles from the body. We saw a fair number of spreadwings, but couldn't pin names to all of them.

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.

While Jim probably ID'ed this spreadwing when we were afield, it's stumping me now. Perhaps Slender Spreadwing, Lestes rectangularis, but I'm not sure of that. Doesn't seem quite right. Whatever it is, it's a beautiful bug. Note how widely spaced its eyes are - another feature of spreadwings. Camera settings were the same as for the previous image.

Black Saddlebags, Tramea lacerata, are often very tough to image. These big skimmers are extraordinary flyers and spend much time aloft. And that's how one typically sees them - zooming back on forth on the wing, never seeming to alight. This animal was very young, just passing out of the teneral stage, and thus was less prone to flying. Some slow, careful stalking allowed for close approach. The photo was made with usual settings: f/11, ISO 200, 1/200, muted flash.

The saddlebags was so tame that it allowed for various approaches and different angles, and only once did it flutter a short distance to a new perch - the old head of this Spotted Knapweed plant. This shot better shows the business end. Its legs are heavily armed with stiff raptorial spines, the better with which to seize prey. Enormous eyes don't miss a trick. Powerful mandibles will make mincemeat out of whatever it can catch and hold.

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.

 Finally, to the guest of honor, the Swift Setwing! They certainly merit the "swift" moniker. When one of them took wing, it was often gone like a shot. To compound the difficulty of tracking one, the largely black coloration dappled with some whitish flecks is very effective disruptive camouflage. When the setwing shot through a shady patch, it entirely disappeared and often we could not pick it up again when it emerged from the shadows.

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.

When we encountered our first setwing, and I saw what seemingly wary bullets they were, I wondered if I'd get a killer closeup. Not to worry, one of them obligingly hung itself from a branch, and we were able to stalk in as close as we wanted and make a series of detailed images. In this shot, the ornate patterning and coloration come out - this is truly a handsome dragonfly. Same old, same old for this one - 180mm macro, f/11, ISO 200, 1/200, subdued flash.

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!

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Thursday, August 20, 2015

Some shorebirds, at Funk

Mudflats and shallow pools blanket the landscape just south of Funk Bottoms Wildlife Area in Wayne County, along the north side of Wilderness Road. An active peat mining operation has temporarily created good shorebird habitat, and reports of shorebirds have been coming in from this area for a few weeks. Last Sunday, I was finally able to get to this spot and observe some waders, and make a few images.

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.

A Lesser Yellowlegs, Tringa flavipes, appears to engage in interpretive dance in the backdrop. The pair of Wilson's Snipe, Gallinago delicata, seem unimpressed. By mid-August, southbound shorebird migration is picking up steam. Many of the sandpipers and plovers that we see this time of year nested FAR to our north, even in the high reaches of the Arctic. They get but one crack at pulling off a nest. If something causes their nesting attempt to fail, the adults often just head back south. Some southbound adult shorebirds can appear here by early to mid July.

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.

A Least Sandpiper, Calidris minutilla, flutters to balance in deep muck. These tiny sandpipers are one of the so-called "peeps", which can be frustrating to identify as the various species look similar. The Least Sandpiper is one of our most common peeps, along with the Semipalmated Sandpiper. Don't let their diminutive appearance fool you. These are tough birds, breeding where the Polar Bears roam. Ohio is but a temporary way station on their very long migrations.

While I was standing in an especially nice spot, this graceful Lesser Yellowlegs was kind enough to fly in to the closest shore and set about preening itself. That behavior allowed me to capture some interesting poses.

A highlight was several Baird's Sandpipers, Calidris bairdii. This is another of the aforementioned "peeps". Baird's Sandpipers are never particularly common in Ohio, and the chance to study one at close range is always gratifying. This individual is a juvenile, as evidenced by its prominently fringed feathers and neat adobe earth coloration. At least two others were present during my visit.

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.

Those wings are made for flying! Of the five regularly occurring "peep" sandpipers in Ohio (Baird's, Least, Semipalmated, Western, White-rumped), two have exceptionally long primary flight feathers. This juvenile Baird's Sandpiper was good enough to stretch for my lens, revealing its super long wings that extend well beyond the tail. It and the White-rumped Sandpiper literally travel from one end of the earth to the other each year, and both species have evolved the long wings with greater surface area to help them achieve these incredible journeys.

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.

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Monday, August 17, 2015

Ohio Sustainable Landscapes Symposium - September 12

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.

Click picture to enlarge

Click picture to enlarge

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Saturday, August 15, 2015

Meteors and star trails

A fluorescent lichen glows on a tree trunk, late last Thursday night. It is Pyxine subcinerea, which fluoresces quite brightly under a black light, which is exactly what it's doing here. Expert lichenologist Ray Showman was holding the light so that I could make the image. In a fit of good lichen luck, its sister species, Pyxine sorediata, is just to the left (the slightly larger round lichen crust in the upper lefthand corner). It does not fluoresce. Lots of strange and interesting things are visible at night.

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.

As Carl Sagan might have said, billions and billions of stars speckle the sky. After Ray and I spent time exploring, had an excellent dinner courtesy of Carol, then poked around a bit after nightfall, I crashed for a few hours. I was back up at 1:30 am and outside to set up the camera rig and try shooting for the stars.

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.

As always, click on the photo to enlarge

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.

A composite of 152 images stitched together, which encompassed slightly over an hour of night sky, creates a swirling vortex of star trails. Polaris, the North Star, is at the center of the vortex. Because Polaris is at due north, it appears stationary in the sky, while the other stars appear to rotate around it. The dashed line running diagonally across the lower lefthand corner is a jet trail. I thought I was going to get through the entire hour-long shoot without a plane flying across, and I cursed when I saw it coming.

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.

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