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!


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.

Jumping spider!

A tiny jumping spider
Jumping spider (Family Salticidae), Westminster, Colorado, USA. September 6, 2012.

Jumping spiders are my favorite kind of spider. They have big eyes and interesting behaviors, and for those of us capable of finding spiders cute, they’re just like fuzzy little eight-legged kittens, even down to the pouncing.

Last night I was wandering around my apartment complex, checking the lights for interesting insects for my class collection, when my partner spotted this tiny jumping spider on the mailroom door. I picked it up with the graduation announcement I’d been using to scoop bugs into my kill jar (hence the attractive swirly background in some pictures), and we watching it scampering about, grooming and head-tilting and generally being adorable.

Then an insect fell down from the light above, stunned. The jumping spider stopped grooming, froze, and then rushed over (a few inches) and bit the insect, then backed off to avoid the death throes. Once the insect stopped twitching, the spider hurried back to feed.

At which point I ran back to my apartment to grab a camera, even though I didn’t expect to get good photos (I was correct, and unfortunately the earlier ones while it’s still feeding are the worst). Still, they do preserve something of my excitement at getting to see this–I will at some point probably try catching and feeding some jumping spiders during the day to get video.


Feeding jumping spider (Family Salticidae)

Done eating:

Feeding jumping spider (Family Salticidae)

A top view:

Jumping spider (Family Salticidae)

How can anyone not love that little face?

Jumping spider (Family Salticidae)

To see some spectacular photos of jumping spiders, check out Thomas Shahan on Flickr or at his website.

And I leave you with a spectacular and hilarious video of peacock spider courtship, featuring scientist Jürgen Otto, who films and edits his own wonderful documentaries about Australian peacock spiders:

Entomology collecting on Sugarloaf Mountain

An image of vegetation from low to the ground
A bug’s eye view? Montane meadow on Sugarloaf Mountain, Boulder, Colorado, USA. September 2, 2012.

This fall I’m taking an entomology class, partly for professional development and partly because YAY BUGS (my work provides me with some tuition remission and flexible working hours, which makes this possible; I’m very grateful for this).

As part of the lab, we all have to make our own insect collections, focusing on representing diversity in orders and families. Since I enrolled in the graduate student section, I need at least 60 specimens, representing 14 orders and 35 families. The catch is that as we head into fall in Colorado, the remaining collecting season could be quite short, depending on when the first freeze hits. So we’ve been encouraged to collect now, identify and pin later.

I have some mixed feelings about insect collecting. I have absolutely no problem with collecting for scientific research–I believe museum collections are an incredible and invaluable resource for present and future research, and with insects in particular, most are so common and short-lived that collecting is extremely unlikely to harm populations. I also don’t have a problem with collecting common species for education purposes, or with amateur collections for self-education purposes (especially since many amateur collectors keep extremely well-labeled and curated collections that they later donate to museums). I’m not such a fan of collecting for display or for sale, or of haphazard collecting.

I haven’t decided yet what to do with my collection from this class. I don’t foresee becoming a collector as a matter of course, without a scientific reason to do so. At present I’m leaning towards seeing what, if anything, the university museum wants to pick out to keep, and saving the rest as a small education collection to show some basic Colorado insect diversity, to potentially use down the line in public programs.

But I digress! Today was our first optional field trip of the semester, to help us get a head start on our collections. We began in the montane grasslands of Sugarloaf Mountain above Boulder. Alas, since I was hauling a net and other collecting equipment, I only took my macro lens, so scenics are going to be not so great, but to give you an idea of the habitat, here are some of my classmates, diligently sweep-netting:

Sugarloaf Mountain, Boulder, Colorado

Naturally there were quite a few grasshoppers, abundant bees (although I didn’t see any that weren’t European Honeybees), lots of hemipteran nymphs of some kind (I think), some tachinid flies, some skippers, and the occasional beetle or wasp.

Next we moved down to the foothills, near the burn area of the 1989 Black Tiger Fire. The vegetation was a bit different here: more scrubby low bushes, fewer flowers. I didn’t take any pictures of the main area we worked, but here’s our resident “lepper” (butterfly and moth enthusiast), either disappointed or with quarry in hand:

Sugarloaf Mountain, Boulder, Colorado

I was a bit surprised by how many caterpillars showed up in my sweep net, mostly inchworms (Family Geometridae). The main reason we visited this field was to look for praying mantises, which I completely failed to find, although I think everyone else got one.

Then we moved over into the nearby trees to dig up antlions, the ferocious (to an ant) larvae of some insects in the family Myrmeleontidae.

Further down the hill we found a patch of prickly pear cactus (Opuntia sp.) infested with cochineal, a scale insect in the family Dactylopiidae. Cochineal is historically incredibly important as a source of red dye, due to their high concentration of carminic acid. Until recently cochineal was fairly commonly found in food products and makeup (it’s labeled as “E120” or “carmine”), but it is somewhat less commonly used now due to the potential for (rare) allergies and the fact that it makes food non-vegan. Mostly, I suspect people in the West don’t like to think about insects in our food, even though our food already inevitably contains insect parts. Still, check your ingredient lists–you might be surprised!

The cochineal bug (it is a true bug, a hemipteran) protects itself from the sun with a waxy white gunk that’s pretty sticky, completely hiding the bugs from sight while they feed:

Cochineal (Family Dactylopiidae)

But under that gunk are the cochineal bugs, which once removed and dried make a dye gram for gram more expensive than gold. I’ve dabbled a little in natural dyeing, and cochineal makes absolutely incredibly colors, like the raspberry pink below (the others are, from left to right, rabbitbrush and alum, indigo, and rabbitbrush and iron):

Fiber Guild Dye Day 2008

But by far the most exciting find of the day for me, irrelevant as it is to our focus as a class, was an incredibly cooperative female Western Black Widow (Latrodectus hesperus), who kindly hung out on her web for photographs:

Western Black Widow (Latrodectus hesperus)

Periodically she would be startled and scurry back under her rock, but overall I was surprised to see her out in the open so visibly. Despite living in Colorado for nine years now, I’ve never seen a black widow outside of captivity, so I was pretty excited.

Black widows are the only medically dangerous spider living in Colorado (if you would like to argue that brown recluses live in Colorado, I suggest taking it up with the Colorado Spider Survey and Colorado State University; I won’t debate it), but they’re not “aggressive,” and it’s fairly hard to get one to bite you. As long as I didn’t touch her web or stick my hand under her rock, I wasn’t too worried.

For our last stop of the day, we did a little netting for aquatic insects in a stream. Our TA and a classmate demonstrate what this process looks like:

Looking for aquatic insects

We found caddisfly (Order Trichoptera), stonefly (Order Plecoptera), mayfly (Order Ephemeroptera), and fly (Order Diptera) larvae this way. I haven’t had much cause to interact with aquatic insects in the past, but I’m pretty fond of caddisfly larvae, many species of which build “houses” from various materials. My favorite example is actually a fossil caddisfly species found in John Day, Oregon, which built its casing from Metasequoia needles.

And then, alas, it was time to head home and stick the bugs in the freezer. I’m not sure yet that I’m very good at insect collecting, but I definitely saw different things than I would have normally, and learned a lot–and of course being up in the beautiful mountains of Colorado in early fall is one of the best places to be!

Name That Bug #1 – Revealed!

Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana)
Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), Gregory Canyon, Boulder, Colorado. May 20, 2012.

Okay, I admit that was a little unfair. I’m not sure it would be possible to identify the host plant from that photo. So here’s a better picture of the plant.

a) What are these?

At first glance, one might look at these and wonder if they’re eggs. But they’re not separate from the leaf, but an outgrowth of it (difficult as that may be to tell from the original photo).

These are plant galls. A gall is just an abnormal growth of plant tissues, which can be caused by fungi, bacteria, insects, mites, and even parasitic plants.

b) Which plant are they on?

This is a chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), a widespread shrub in North America. It produces abundant very astringent berries which are an important food for animals (and with lots of sugar, make very tasty jelly for humans).

We’re two-thirds of the way there now. Many gall-producing arthropods are very host-plant specific, and we now know that these are a) galls and b) very likely specific to chokecherries and perhaps related plants.

c) Who made them?

A search for “chokecherry gall” brings up the Chokecherry Gall Midge (Contarinia virginianae ). Sounds promising, but it looks like this tiny fly’s larve induce galls on the fruit. But these galls are on the leaves, and look very different. So adding “leaf” to the search term, we get…

The Chokecherry Finger Gall Mite (Eriophyes emarginatae), which creates finger-shaped galls on the leaves of various plums and cherries, including chokecherries! Looks right to me:

Image of mysterious little white things on leaves
Chokecherry Finger Gall Mites (Eriophyes emarginatae) on Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) leaves, Gregory Canyon, Boulder, Colorado, USA. May 20, 2012.
A mite is a tiny arachnid related to ticks. Gall mites of the family Eriophyidae are microscopic plant parasites. Some are major crop pests, while others can be used as biocontrol for weeds and invasive plant species.

So, what’s the take-home message here?

If you’re interested in identifying insects and other arthropods, a working knowledge of botany can be invaluable. Many groups–from gall mites to butterfly and moth caterpillars–are adapted to use only specific plants, and if you can identify the plant they’re living on or eating, it can vastly narrow your options. There are about 3,600 known species of gall mites–and there may be 10 times that number in reality–but identifying the plant as a chokecherry helped me to an identification pretty quickly.

And if you’re planning to collect and raise caterpillars at home, knowing how to identify their appropriate food plants is the difference between successful rearing and a dead caterpillar.

In the future, I’ll be writing a few more posts about different aspects of arthropod (mostly insect) identification from the point of view of a non-specialist who’s relatively new to this. It’s great to be able to use field guides–when they exist–or complicated taxonomic keys, but those can be pretty overwhelming initially, and I hope my less technical methods will be helpful to someone. My methods won’t work with all groups–species in some groups of insects can only be identified by close examination in hand, dissection of genitals, or other fiddly techniques that are out of reach to many people. But they have provided enough to keep me pretty busy, and they’re a start.

Bug hunting at Chatfield State Park

Spider wasp (Family Pompilidae)
A wasp (Order Hymenoptera) at the Audubon Nature Center at Chatfield, Littleton, Colorado. June 30, 2012.

This morning I went on an entomology walk through the Audubon Society of Greater Denver, led by time-traveling Victorian naturalist Professor J. Phineas Michealson (Michael Weissman, a local entomologist). I go on these sorts of trips to learn more about animals and see some interesting things, not for serious photography, which is basically impossible in a large group unless the whole group is serious macro photographers. And, well, I’m not.

But I saw some awesome animals and took some photos I’m fairly happy with (not always at the same time).

Before the walk even started, I found a very small praying mantis nymph, probably a European Mantis (Mantis religiosa), although I didn’t get a look at its armpits. I’ve never actually seen a native mantis in Colorado, though, and all the other mantises we saw today were European. European Mantises come in different color morphs, but this one is so pale I suspect it was freshly molted.

European Mantis (Mantis religiosa)

In the parking lot I found a Brown Scarab Beetle (Phyllophaga lanceolata), which was not very cooperative. It would not stop moving, so I wasn’t able to get a very good photo:

Brown Scarab Beetle (Phyllophaga lanceolata)

We started out in the non-native garden, where the most common insect was the non-native European Honeybee (Apis mellifera). There were a few small native bees, including some gorgeous sweatbees that I couldn’t get any pictures of, and some native bumblebees, but by far the highlight for me here (and for the entire morning), was a little metallic green animal I at first thought was a beetle. I was thinking primarily about focusing (unsuccessfully, alas), so I didn’t noticed until I examined my photos at home that it was actually a jumping spider, Tutelina elegans Sassacus papenhoei! This is probably the most beautiful spider I’ve ever seen–I can’t believe it lives in dry, utterly non-tropical Colorado.

Jumping spider (Sassacus papenhoei), female

There were also some very colorful, very tiny, very hard to photograph leafhoppers (Family Cicadellidae). I find it amazing how beautiful and colorful these tiny, often-overlooked insects are.

Leafhopper (Family Cicadellidae)

We then headed out on the trails, where we quickly came across a fuzzy tiger moth caterpillar (Family Arctiinae). Caterpillars in this family are often called “woolly bears.” Anyone have any idea what species this might be? It looks to me like it might be a Virginia Tiger Moth (Spilosoma virginica), but fuzzy caterpillars often look the same to me.

Tiger moth caterpillar (Family Arctiinae)

There were a few more European Mantis nymphs here, as well as an old already-hatched ootheca (egg case). It’s a little unusual to see one laid on a rock rather than a plant.

European Mantis (Mantis religiosa)

Mantis egg case (ootheca)

Our guide Professor Phineas was a bit aghast at speaking so much of insect reproduction in the company of the fairer sex, but as a good naturalist, felt compelled to answer our many questions about the workings of the insect world.

Victorian naturalist Professor J. Phineas Michealson

Another beautiful, annoyingly out of focus sharpshooter (Cuerna sp.):

Sharpshooter (Cuerna sp.)

Down at the wetlands–the wetlands at Chatfield, like most wetlands in the Colorado Front Range, are artificial–we found quite a different assortment of animals. This invasive American Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus) may not be welcome, but it is rather handsome.

American Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus)

To my great joy, I spotted a species of dragonfly I haven’t seen before, the beautiful (and surprisingly cooperative) Eight-spotted Skimmer (Libellula forensis).

Eight-spotted Skimmer (Libellula forensis), male

Eight-spotted Skimmers and Twelve-Spotted Skimmers (Libellula pulchella) were by far the most common species I spotted, which surprised me a little. There were also some Blue-eyed Darners, one Common Green Darner (Anax junius), Widow Skimmers, assorted damselflies, and possibly a Black Saddlebags (Tramea lanceata, although I wasn’t entirely sure about that one).

Twelve-spotted Skimmers are probably my second-favorite dragonfly, and not very cooperative photography subjects. Today I was able to get a few decent photos of them, but I may have to go back with less of a crowd to try to get good photos. Until then, these will have to suffice.

Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella)

Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella)

We did a little dip-netting in hopes of finding dragonfly larvae, but only came up with a very very tiny crawdad.

Baby crawdad (Superfamily Astacoidea)

And here is another adorable tiger moth, I think perhaps a different species (although caterpillars can look quite different at different instars–life stages–so it’s hard to say):

Tiger moth caterpillar (Family Arctiinae)

Quite a lot of animals to see in only about two hours. It’s interesting to contemplate how unnatural this created habitat is–highly biodiverse in some respects, but unnatural. A number of the species we saw today were non-native, including the European Mantises, Cabbage Whites (Pieris rapae), and the American Bullfrog. While these artificial wetlands provide excellent habitat for birds (some of whom were not found in Colorado historically), dragonflies, and other water-loving animals, they are certainly not good habitat for the prairie species which lived here historically.

As our guide mentioned several times, Chatfield is a wonderful place for teaching about nature, but it’s not natural.