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A visit to a fen

Ohio Goldenrod, Solidago ohioensis, brightens a largely senescent prairie fen on an early October day. The goldenrod is well named. It was discovered and described to science from a prairie near Dayton in the 1830's.

The photo above is perfectly level, I can assure you. Pressurized artesian ground water provides hydrology for this place, and the main meadow is somewhat dome-shaped, thus the sloping meadow.

PHOTO TIP: Many cameras have a built-in level, and this tool is useful in framing landscape compositions shot from a tripod. That's how I know the above image is level. I use mine all the time. With Canon cameras, just tap your "info" button until the level appears on the camera's back screen (usually two taps). A horizontal line will appear across the screen. When it's red, the image is not level. Just adjust the camera until the line turns green, and you're level.

A photographer friend and I visited this fen in northern Ross County, Ohio, last Sunday. On this day, rain strongly threatened, and cut the trip short. It's a bit of a bushwhack to get back in there, and I didn't want to get caught in a deluge with my equipment. Nevertheless, there was still time for an hour or two of fen exploration, and even on this late date, there was much to see.

The main quarry was botanical in nature; the gorgeous (Small) Fringed Gentian, Gentianopsis virgata. I add the "small" parenthetically as there is another species, G. crinita, which is very similar and apparently is "greater" in some way.

This fen, although only encompassing an acre or two of open meadow, is loaded with gentians. Hundreds of plants to be sure. The thing about fringed gentians is that the flowers are photosensitive, so if you visit them on a heavily overcast day as we did, the flowers will not be fully expanded. When they are, the petals expand and splay their tattered, fringed lobes outward. A quite stunning effect, but even when the flowers remain tightly enrolled on a cloudy day, they still look good. See above.

PHOTO TIP II: Flowers can be tough to photograph well, for a number of reasons. A common difficulty is that they're often amongst lots of botanical clutter - grasses, sedges, other plants. That's certainly the case with these gentians. I carry about a dozen pieces of thick card stock (about 8.5 x 11) in my backpack, and each is a different color. By holding one behind my subject, I can dramatically alter the background (bokeh) and temporarily hide the clutter from view. In this case, a slightly off-white color created, to me, a very pleasing backdrop, giving the image the look of a watercolor painting.

Perhaps best of all was this beautiful little Eastern Gartersnake, encountered while basking in the boughs of a spicebush. It was a bit cool, and the snake was not particularly active. Its slothfulness allowed me to sidle in front of it, then drop to the ground to get on its level. The animal met my gaze head on, occasionally flicking its tongue. I was using gentle fill flash from a Canon Speedlite, and the angle I was at did not illuminate the snake's left side. But I rather like the effect. F/16 provided enough depth of field to show the snake's sinuous body extending back into the shrub. After a handful of shots by its admirers, the serpent darted away.

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