The End of Autumn in the Börzsöny Mountains

A slightly foggy autumn forest landscape
A late autumn day in the Börzsöny Mountains of Hungary. November 23, 2014.

Late last November I finally got outside of Budapest for a weekend hike to the Börzsöny Mountains, led by Gábor Marx, who has been organizing hikes around Hungary (and sometimes outside) for many years. The Börzsöny Mountains are in northern Hungary, near the Slovakian border—only about an hour and a half from Budapest by car, something I confess I’m still not used to.

The end of November was definitely on the cusp between autumn and winter (albeit a very mild one, as it turned out). The trees had lost all their leaves at last, and it was chilly when we stopped moving—but still no snow, and beautiful when the sun broke through the light fog.

Coming from Colorado, Hungary’s mountains are hills, but beautiful ones, with a kind of open-understoried oak-beech forest I haven’t spent much time in. I am hoping to be able to go hiking more once spring arrives, because I am sure the forests which are lovely in winter are gorgeous in spring.

November’s hike was along the Magas-Tax – Nagy Hideg-hegy route, but I couldn’t say more about where we were exactly, as it was a bit of an adventure and dark by the time we returned.

A few photos from the hike…

A forest landscape with a stream running through it

A forest landscape with a stream running through it

There wasn’t much wildlife out, at least not that was willing to be seen by a large group (we did spook a deer), but we found a few of these huge galls on dead oak leaves. I assume they’re probably made by wasps, but if anyone knows what species they might be, I’d love to know!

A dead oak leaf with a large gall on it

A few details of flora and fungi:

Flora and fungi of Börzsöny

The view from Nagy Hideg-hegy (“Big Cold Mountain”) before we headed back down.

View of distant mountains wrapped with fog

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2014 Photography Retrospective

A waterfall in a basin of columnar basalt.
Abiqua Falls, near Scotts Mills, Oregon. April 11, 2014.

I haven’t quite abandoned this blog, but 2014 has been a year of many changes—the biggest being my decision to start a graduate program based in Budapest, Hungary. In the last year I’ve seen a lot of new places and met a lot of new people, I’ve learned a fair bit (although not enough) of Hungarian, I’m excited about changing career directions, and my photography has improved immensely, thanks primarily to Scott Carpenter‘s bird photography class through the Audubon Society of Portland and some fantastic visits with A. Jaszlics of Snake Photographer. I can wholeheartedly recommend both as photography instructors.

I also bought a new camera—a Canon 6D—and replaced my lenses except for my Tamron 90mm macro, and ventured into the worlds of macro flash and reverse macro. I tried a lot of new techniques for both shooting and post-processing, with a variety of results.

So without further ado, here are 16 of my favorite images from 2014, with a little bit about how I took them and the new skills I learned in the process:

A waterfall in a basin of columnar basalt.
Abiqua Falls, near Scotts Mills, Oregon. April 11, 2014.

Canon EF-S18-55mm @ 18mm, f/22, 2.5 s, ISO 100.

One of the things I started doing this year was carrying a beanbag. Although I did briefly have an old tripod, carrying it is something of a pain and not always practical. A beanbag and some creativity in finding surfaces can go a long way towards making long exposures possible. Sometimes the unusual angles this requires can provide a slightly different perspective from the usual eye level tripod. For this photograph of Abiqua Falls in Oregon, I used a small aperture and a polarizing filter to reduce the later afternoon light, since I didn’t have neutral density filters.

Image of a sleeping octopus
A Red Octopus (Octopus rubescens) sleeping in the Rocky Shores exhibit, Oregon Coast Aquarium, Newport, Oregon, USA. April 15, 2014.

Tamron 90mm macro, f/11, 1/125 s, ISO 200, off-camera flash in softbox. Composite of two exposures.

The mystery of how to take good photos in an aquarium solved: off-camera flash. We couldn’t find a photography policy for the Oregon Coast Aquarium, so A. and I figured it was worth trying and no one told us us to stop using flash. We used a manual Canon flash with a softbox and shoe cable and got some pretty great results, although it’s definitely something where it helps to have a second person to hold the flash and holding the flash at a good angle is more of an art than a science. This Red Octopus was asleep, making it a cooperative subject. I combined two exposures, one for the arm and one for the head and body. You should be aware that many aquariums do prohibit flash photography by visitors, so check the photography policy before you bring out the gear. (On a later visit, the OCA did have a sign warning visitors not to use flash on the octopus as well.)

Mating stoneflies
Mating Golden Stoneflies (Hesperoperla pacifica) at the Deschutes River Boat Launch outside Warm Springs, Oregon, USA. May 25, 2014.

Tamron 90mm macro, f/13, 1/400 s, ISO 200, Sunpak flash with softbox.

A. also managed to get me hooked on flash for macro, beginning with an old Sunpak flash I picked up for $25 or so at a thrift store. While it could only fire full power and thus recharged slowly, it was enough to get me hooked on the new possibilities. A homemade softbox from cardboard, masking tape, and white plastic bags softened the light, allowing me to capture these mating stoneflies. I had also started shooting in RAW (which I should have done years ago), which allowed me to recover a dark band from incorrect flash sync. I have also started gently using Photoshop to reduce blown-out highlights, which subtly but markedly improves a lot of photos.

Image of two owl nestlings
Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) nestlings at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon, USA. 27 May 2014.

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM @ 400mm, f/11, 1/400 s, ISO 400.

Scott Carpenter’s excellent bird photography class was very useful for both technical and behavioral aspects of bird photography. Since I had decided to buy a new full-frame camera and my old lenses would no longer be compatible, I rented the Canon 100-400mm zoom for the class field trip and also took it down to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, where we were lucky enough to find these Great Horned Owl nestlings. One of the useful takeaways from the class was that even if you don’t have the equipment for a tight portrait of your subject, you can still take interesting photos of them within their habitat, so I wasn’t very disappointed that a river and a large tree prevented me from a closer approach.

A chickadee at a nest holding a fecal pellet in its bill.
A Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) removing a fecal pellet from the nest after a feeding, Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge in Portland, Oregon, USA. May 30, 2014.

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM @ 400mm, f5.6, 1/400 s, ISO 5000.

I never would have found this Black-capped Chickadee nest close to the trail at Oaks Bottom without Scott’s advice on looking for cavity nests. Since the nest was located close to the trail, the chickadees were used to humans and not disturbed by my activity, although since they are very fast, it took a long time and many photos to capture this moment as the chickadee removes a fecal pellet from the nest after feeding. I also wouldn’t have had the confidence to try such a high ISO without Scott’s advice and the wonderful performance of the Canon 6D, which has opened up a lot of low-light photography possibilities.

Image of a yellow-crowned night heron.
A Yellow-crowned Night Heron (Nyctanassa violacea) at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas, USA. June 14, 2014.

EF300mm f/4L IS USM, f8, 1/400 s, ISO 800.

Although the 100-400mm is a nice lens, I ended up buying the slightly cheaper 300mm f/4 L-series prime, since my main interest is not birds but dragonflies. In my opinion it’s a sharper lens, and it’s definitely lighter, which is a bonus since I like to be able to fit all of my camera gear in a carry-on backpack for air travel. However, with larger birds like herons, it’s a quite adequate bird lens. In general this year, I’ve become much more aware of light, particularly the warm light of early morning and late afternoon (or the entire short winter day in northern latitudes). Although I still hate getting up early, sometimes it’s worth it.

A green heron hunting for fish among giant American lotus plants.
A Green Heron (Butorides virescens) hunting at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas, USA. June 14, 2014.

EF300mm f/4L IS USM, f8, 1/125 s, ISO 400.

Another example of a subject-in-habitat photo, since I wasn’t able to get closer. But I think I actually like the sense of scale provided by the giant American lotus plants.

Image of a tiger beetle on a white background.
Most likely an Eastern Tiger Beetle (Habroscelimorpha dorsalis venusta), Bolivar Peninsula, Texas, USA. June 18, 2014.

Tamron 90mm macro, f/11, 1/180 s, ISO 100.

One of the new techniques A. taught me was using an off-camera flash in a homemade whitebox for small animals. This produces wonderful portraits which focus on the the animal itself, although there is some soft-shadowing rather than the completely crisp backlit look of the Meet Your Neighbours project (a technique I’d like to learn someday but lack the gear for at the moment). While I still generally prefer a good in-habitat shot, whiteboxes are a useful tool for creating soft, even lighting, and sometimes it’s nice to focus fully on the organism. One of the biggest adjustments I’ve had to make to a full-frame camera is that extension tubes are almost mandatory for all but the largest macro subjects, although they also further reduce the depth of field.

Image of a paper wasp
A paper wasp (Polistes exclamans) at her nest, Hornsby Bend, Austin, Texas, USA. June 11, 2014.

Vivitar 35mm F/2.8, reversed with a 12mm extension tube, f/8, 1/160 s, ISO 200, off-camera flash with softbox.

My first attempts at reverse macro (mounting an old wide-angle lens in reverse) were pretty dismal, but with Lee’s advice and help holding the flash, I got some wasp photos that I’m really happy with. While this method is something of a pain since after you stop down for depth of field you can hardly see through the viewfinder, it produces fantastic results for far cheaper than, say, the Canon MP-E. I haven’t yet figured out a good way to use the flash on-camera for reverse macro, so unless I get another arm, I suspect a flash bracket is in my future.

Image of a shield bug and a camouflaged spider
A Red-black Shield Bug (Graphosoma lineatum) and a crab spider at the University of Debrecen Botanical Garden, Debrecen, Hungary. August 7, 2014.

Tamron 90mm macro, f/11, 1/125 s, ISO 1600, natural light.

I experimented a little bit with focus-stacking this year, mainly by manually blending two images to slightly expand the depth of field. In this case, I had a bit of serendipity—I didn’t notice the camouflaged crab spider on the left until after I got home, but fortunately I had an image with the spider in better focus, allowing me to blend it with the image focused on the shield bug. I had also forgotten my flash that day, but the 6D allowed me to push the ISO to 1600 and get great results anyway.

Image of a crab spider on a flower.
A camouflaged crab spider (family Thomisidae) at the University of Debrecen Botanical Garden, Debrecen, Hungary. August 12, 2014.

Vivitar 35mm F/2.8, reversed with a 12mm extension tube, f/8, 1/160 s, ISO 200, off-camera flash with softbox.

Here I combined a two-image focus stack with reverse macro, which was a huge pain and would definitely have been easier with a third arm, but I like the result.

Closeup of a potter's hands shaping a wet clay vase.
K. Nagy József, a potter, shaping a vase. Nádudvar, Hungary, August 2, 2014.

Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM @ 18mm, f/4, 1/125 s, ISO 400.

While I don’t foresee becoming a portrait photographer any time soon, I did take a lot more photos of people in 2014. While many of these were of student events, I found that I do enjoy photographing people engaged in performing arts or craft work, and I look forward to exploring these areas of photography further.

Image of an insect nymph emerging from old exoskeleton
A Southern Green Stinkbug (Nezara viridula) nymph emerging from its old exoskeleton, Budai Arborétum, Budapest, Hungary.

Tamron 90mm macro + 32mm extension, f/11, 1/160, ISO 200, on-camera flash with softbox.

After I got frustrated with the Sunpak flash, I invested in a Yongnuo 560 iii manual flash, which many macro photographers use. While they may not be as reliable as Canon’s, I know enough people with broken Canon flashes that for 1/3 of the price, it seemed like a good gamble—so far, no regrets. Automatic flash isn’t very useful for macro, and manual flash is pretty simple with a little trial and error. And now that I don’t have to wait 30 seconds between recharges, it’s much easier to capture slightly more “action” shots, like this emerging stinkbug nymph. (Unfortunately, I spent the first part of fall semester catching every European virus I came across, so I didn’t get to do as much macro as I’d hoped—here’s to spring.)

A photograph of the Hungarian Parliament building lit up at night
Hungarian Parliament from the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, Budapest, Hungary.

Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM @ 96mm, f/11, 3 s, ISO 100.

The remainder of the year, with nature photography options limited, I got really into dusk cityscape photography, since it was easy to pop over to the Danube for an hour or so around sunset. There’s something magical about long exposures, and I can’t think of a city with better views. Plus the “blue hour” (or blue 30 minutes, sometimes) just after sunset is fairly reliable even if clouds obscure the actual sunset. As with other long exposures and the following blended exposures, I used a beanbag to steady the camera rather than a tripod.

A view of Budapest at sunset.
A view of Erzsébet Square from St. Stephen’s Basilica, Budapest, Hungary. November 19, 2014.

Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM @ 32mm, f/8, 1/8 s, ISO 400. Composite of two images.

Another serendipitous image, since I had no idea when I decided to climb the tower of the basilica that night that the sunset would be spectacular—this image gave me a change to try out “luminosity masking,” a technique for manually blending multiple exposures for greater dynamic range. I encountered this technique through an article by Jimmy McIntyre, who also provides a free set of Photoshop actions that greatly speed the process. I ended up buying his full tutorial, although I haven’t yet had time to work through it. This image is a composite of two images, manually blended in Photoshop. While I still have a lot to learn about this technique, I like the results a lot more than traditional tone-mapped HDR.

Image of the Chain Bridge at sunset.
The Széchenyi Chain Bridge at sunset, Budapest, Hungary. December 4, 2014.

Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM @ 32mm, f/8, 1/8 s, ISO 100. Composite of two (?) images.

Finally, my last new composite technique for the year. It’s an unfortunate fact that while cities generally look best after lights have come on for the night, the lights don’t tend to turn on until after sunset. It’s pretty simple in Photoshop to stack a sunset image for the sky with a post-sunset image showing bright city lights using the “Lighten” blend mode, following Jimmy McIntyre’s tutorial. The one drawback to this method is that you really have to commit to your composition, leaving the camera in place from sunset to blue hour so the images will align correctly. Since I hadn’t waited long enough to get a really dark sky, I also had to do some manual masking and blending, but I think the result is not bad. I know some people are really opposed to composite images, but I personally feel that as long as the composite work is disclosed, there’s nothing unethical about them—and sometimes they can capture the “feel” of a scene better than a single exposure.

All in all, I feel like I learned an incredible amount about photography this year, and the upgrade to my equipment has also made a huge difference—rather than fighting my equipment to get acceptable results out of it, I can work with it to try new techniques. Not everything I tried was a success—I had a pretty disappointing evening shooting firefly light trails (I know what to do differently next time, but I don’t know when I’ll have access to fireflies again), I’m still puzzling over how to best light dragonflies when using a long lens, and I never managed to get myself to a good dark sky area to really try night sky photography, one of the reasons I decided on the 6D despite its drawbacks for certain kinds of wildlife photography. I’m looking forward to another year of learning more about my camera and about post-processing. Who knows, I might even start updating this blog again!

A June outing to Lowell Ponds State Wildlife Area

A juvenile Red-winged Blackbird
A juvenile Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) at Lowell Ponds State Wildlife Area, Denver, Colorado. June 15, 2014

Last summer I didn’t get outside much for various reasons, but I did make it to a few places. Lowell Ponds State Wildlife Area is a relatively small streamside recreation area that mostly seems to be used for fishing, although there are some hiking trails.

Unfortunately, the evening I went turned out to be not very good for dragonflies (or photography), but there were a few interesting sightings, most notably the juvenile Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) above, whose parents were extremely displeased by anyone passing by on the trail, and extra-displeased by me stopping to take some photos:

Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), female

But more excitingly, I spotted a female thread-waisted wasp (Family Sphecidae) provisioning a nest with a caterpillar. I didn’t have enough light to get even remotely decent photos of a fast-moving wasp (I would really like to invest in a decent off-camera flash one of these days), but it was still a pretty cool thing to watch. Last year was the year I discovered sphecids, which I’d never really noticed before, and now every spring and summer I’ll be watching for burrows in dry ground.

Thread-waisted wasp (Family Sphecidae) with caterpillar prey, female

Thread-waisted wasp (Family Sphecidae), female

The first spring trip to Sawhill

Pasture Grasshopper (Melanoplus confusus)
Pasture Grasshopper (Melanoplus confusus), Sawhill/Walden Ponds, Boulder, Colorado, USA. May 12, 2013.

Not surprisingly, almost the first place I manage to get out to once the weather shifts–although this year we’ve almost skipped straight into summer–is Sawhill and Walden Ponds in Boulder. Just about every time I go there I see something new and interesting, whether it’s insects, reptiles, or birds, and today was no exception.

Since Lee gave me the T1i, my partner and I were both able to take pictures, which was a nice change from me taking pictures and him getting impatient. We had a pretty hot, sunny day, so the insects were quite active. I was hoping to see some early odonates (of course), but unlike last year, due to April being full of snow, this year’s ode season is starting slowly. Other local ode-watchers have just begun to report Plains Forktails (Ischnura damula) in the last few days, and they were the only species we saw.

Here’s a male with a nice meal:

Plains Forktail (Ischnura damula), male

And a female (teneral, I think–I didn’t see any mature-looking females):

Plains Forktail (Ischnura damula), female

I then spent a frustrating period trying to photograph a large and adorable Phidippus jumping spider, probably P. audax, which seemed convinced I might eat it and sidled around the other side of the cattail stem no matter where I moved. Eventually I managed to get a couple kind of decent shots.

Jumping spider (Phidippus audax?)

Jumping spider (Phidippus audax?)

My partner spotted a fairly large Common Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis), a species I’ve seen a few times at Sawhill before; like before, it wasn’t very cooperative, so this was the best picture he could get:

Common Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis)

I attempted some photos of a very tiny Pasture Grasshopper nymph (Melanoplus confusus), with pollen covering its tiny face:

Pasture Grasshopper (Melanoplus confusus)

And spotted a handsome weevil (Notaris puncticollis):

Pale-spotted Gray Weevil (Notaris puncticollis)

Pale-spotted Gray Weevil (Notaris puncticollis)

The most exciting insect we saw, though, will be getting her own post. Stay tuned!

Thanks to v belov for the weevil and César Nufio for the grasshopper identifications.

Iceland 2012, Day 2: Eldhestar Horse Farm and Friðheimar Greenhouse

Tomatoes
Tomatoes at Friðheimar greenhouse, Hveragerði, Iceland. August 13, 2012.

It’s almost obligatory as a visitor to Iceland to go on the Golden Circle tour, a sort of scenic highlights within a few hours of Reykjavik. The three main stops are Þingvellir National Park, the enormous waterfall Gullfoss, and the geothermal area containing Geysir and Strokkur. Each tourist company has other favorite stops. On my first visit to Iceland in 2006, I did a half-day Golden Circle tour combined with half a day of horseback riding, which I regretted for at least the next 24 hours (I am not much of a rider).

This time around, we did a full day tour, which began with a horse show (interesting and less painful than actually riding) at the horse farm Eldhestar, followed by a stop at a geothermally heated greenhouse in Hveragerði, a town which is home to hundreds of greenhouses growing the majority of Iceland’s produce and garden plants.

I don’t have much to say about the horses, but they’re cute:

Icelandic horse show at Eldhestar horse farm

Iceland is unusual in that a large percentage of its electricity (26%) comes from geothermal energy, as well as 86% of its hot water (most hot water in Iceland is strongly sulfurous, making showers an interesting experience for the visitor). There’s been some controversy over exactly how renewable–and safe–geothermal energy is, but at present it’s ubiquitous, and it makes the existence of towns like Hveragerði possible.

We visited Friðheimar, a greenhouse devoted to intensive tomato production.

Shoe planter at Friðheimar greenhouse

The tomatoes are grown at a specific temperature by geothermal heating at significant expense. Iceland’s climate is not terribly conducive to traditional agriculture, and without greenhouses, the diet would either be much less varied or produce would have to be imported from other countries at even greater expense.

Tomatoes at Friðheimar greenhouse

Tomatoes at Friðheimar greenhouse

Naturally, though, what I was most interested in was this bumblebee, which was so laden down with mites it could barely fly. The greenhouse imports bumblebees (I believe the Buff-tailed Bumblebee, Bombus terrestris) to pollinate the tomatoes, which like several other food crops require buzz pollination. These mites appear to be some kind of phoretic mite, perhaps Parasitellus; phoretic mites don’t directly harm the bees, but feed on debris. However, when they hitchhike en masse like this, they can hinder the bee’s ability to fly.

Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) with phoretic mites (cf. Parasitellus sp.)

Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) with phoretic mites (cf. Parasitellus sp.)

Fortunately, the other bumblebees seemed to be doing fine. We had some delicious tomato soup and then hopped back on the bus to head to our next stop, Gullfoss.

Iceland 2012, Day 1: Reyjavík Harbor and Tjörnin

Female Tufted Duck
Female Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula), Tjörnin, Reykjavík, Iceland. August 12, 2012.

For once I’m going to try to do an extended travelogue and actually finish the whole thing. In August my mother and I went to Iceland for about a week and a half; it was her first trip and my second (I visited in 2006, after finishing college), and we pretty much camped and bussed and sometimes hosteled around the Reykjavík area and over to Skaftafell.

There were some big and noticeable changes since my last trip. Some were architectural, like the new Harpa concert hall by the seafront in Reykjavík, one of the rare pieces of modern architecture that appeals to my sense of aesthetics. Others were more infrastructural: Skaftafell National Park, which I visited in 2006, was incorporated into Vatnajökull National Park in 2008. Unfortunately, I lost the majority of my 2006 photos to computer problems, so I can’t be sure, but I definitely don’t recall a big shiny visitor center or showers, both of which were present at Skaftafell this time around.

There were other, more worrisome changes as well, but I’ll get to those in later posts.

Anyway, we didn’t manage anything but groceries the first day. We were staying at the Hostelling International hostel outside the city center, near the botanical gardens and zoo, and decided to walk into town the second day along the seafront. This may not have been the best-considered plan, but it was an interesting walk that I hadn’t done before–we saw a number of sea birds, including some interesting ducks, and some public art, as well as Harpa, which is fronted with glass prisms that catch the light in really interesting ways.

The area by the harbor is pretty much the only part of Reykjavík with anything like skyscrapers, and there had certainly been a lot of construction in the last six years. But although it’s the largest city in Iceland, at 119,000 people, Reykjavík is still a small city by international standards: it’s possibly to walk across most of it (outlying suburbs excluded) in less than a day, although your feet will hurt.

Reykjavík Harbor

We watched a volcano movie, which I kept falling asleep during because of jetlag (unfortunately we weren’t able to make it to Villi Knudsen’s volcano documentaries–I met him on my first trip to Iceland, and he took me to dinner, which is one of my treasured travel memories. He’s a fantastic filmmaker and an interesting person).

Then we wandered by Tjörnin, a small lake in the middle of the city center and a great bird-watching location. Here we spotted some more ducks, including the Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula) at the top of the post, and this bumblebee:

Bumblebee (Bombus sp.)

The next day was the obligatory Golden Circle tour, which I’ll probably break up into a few posts.

When is a caterpillar not a caterpillar?

Birch Sawfly (Arge pectoralis)
A Birch Sawfly (Arge pectoralis) larva, Gregory Canyon, Boulder, Colorado, USA. July 21, 2012.

When it’s a sawfly larva, of course! Yesterday morning at the beginning of a photography class, we stopped for breakfast at a picnic table in Gregory Canyon. There were some little caterpillars on the table…and then I noticed there were caterpillars on the tree next to the table. Lots of caterpillars. The tree was nearly stripped of leaves, and caterpillars were falling out of the tree onto the table, which I could have done without (I suspect the one that fell into my iced chai could have done without that fatal experience as well).

When I got home, I determined that these were not, in fact, caterpillars, but sawfly larvae, most likely the Birch Sawfly (Arge pectoralis). The tree was probably a Water Birch (Betula occidentalis). Sawfly infestations, while dramatically defoliating, generally do not kill the tree.

Sawflies are related to wasps, bees, and ants, and adults look something like a wasp, although they cannot sting. The common name “sawfly” comes from the saw-like ovipositor females use to cut into plant tissue and deposit eggs. Larvae often look like hairless caterpillars, but can be distinguished by their greater number of prolegs (caterpillars typically do not have more than five pairs).