Spring Fever

A stand of purple crocus flowers.
Spring crocuses at the Budai Arborétum, Budapest, Hungary. March 8, 2015.

I’ve been thinking lately about why nature photography is important to me, and I decided there’s good value in putting together illustrated narratives even if the individual photos aren’t all portfolio-worthy and the writing isn’t elegant. I often find I enjoy other people’s nature-documentary narratives more than I do technically and artistically stunning individual images. Context and story are import, and I’d like to be able to look back in a few years and remember what I saw.

The last few weeks, I’ve managed to take a few study breaks to enjoy spring a little—last Sunday I went to the Budai Arborétum, a botanic garden and arboretum attached to Corvinus University’s horticultural department. I had tried visiting last fall and got rained out, but last weekend the spring weather was lovely, although unfortunately only the lower part of the garden is open on weekends.

As always, I was hoping for some birds other than the great tits which have been the most entertaining common resident bird life all winter, but other than some very uncooperative crows, all I saw were some nearly as uncooperative Common Blackbirds (Turdus merula), a type of thrush not to be confused with North American blackbirds:

A common blackbird perched in a bush

Crocuses and irises were abundantly planted in many areas, and heather was in bloom as well—a very purple effect overall.

A stand of blooming purple irises

Spring is bringing the re-emergence of insects, which makes me very happy! Firebugs (Pyrrhocoris apterus) are one of my favorites—a common but striking species, albeit extremely uncooperative photography subjects. Looking them up just now, I realized that they are also the species used in a famous (in entomological circles) accidental discovery about hormone regulation and insect life cycles.

A red and black firebug insect

Two mating firebugs

There were also a lot of small bugs swarming in the crevices of tree bark, which at first I thought were firebug nymphs, but on a closer look, they’re not similar at all. I saw a few of these last summer, but not in these quantities, and my Google skills are failing me. If anyone knows what these are, please leave a comment and let me know!

Hemiptera

On the way home, I stopped briefly at Feneketlen-tó (Bottomless Lake), a nearby artificial lake which is apparently home to all three introduced North American slider subspecies as well as (somewhat surprisingly) the one native European species of turtles. Alas, the native species is rather shy, and all the turtles taking advantage of the spring sunlight were sliders like this one, which is probably a yellow-bellied slider (Trachemys scripta scripta):

A turtle sunbathing by the edge of a lake

I do feel like my macro photography skills are very rusty after a long break—I need to spend some quality time rebuilding my flash diffuser and get some good practice as it warms up more!

Monitoring amphibian egg masses in Clark County, Washington

Volunteers training to monitor amphibian egg masses
Volunteers training to monitor amphibian egg masses at Burnt Bridge Creek, Vancouver, Washington, USA. February 22, 2014.

I wrote a little about the Water Resources Education Center in my last post, so I’ll continue on about the actual amphibian monitoring training. We started the day at the Water Resources Education Center with an overview of common amphibian species in the area and how to identify their egg masses, given by Peter Ritson, the environmental scientist who coordinates the Southwest Washington Amphibian Monitoring Project (SWAMP). SWAMP is a volunteer citizen science project that aims to encourage protection of native amphibians and their habitat by collecting data crucial for conservation decisions, as well as engaging citizens in science and wildlife protection and educating people about the importance of wetlands in the region.

Ritson brought a couple Long-toed Salamanders (Ambystoma macrodactylum), a common Pacific Northwest species which can live in a variety of habitats, hibernating during the cold winter months.

Long-toed Salamanders (Ambystoma macrodactylum)

Although it’s not always possible to see in the field, one of the characteristic features of their egg masses is a “double” layer of jelly (actually triple, which you can see better in this photo on Wikipedia).

Long-toed Salamander (Ambystoma macrodactylum) egg mass

After the classroom training, we headed out to the field to a small wetlands near Burnt Bridge Creek Trail. Those with waders (or more dedicated than I am) worked their way down a drainage ditch, while the rest of us tried to avoid being stabbed by blackberries or falling in from the banks.

Burnt Bridge Creek

Amphibian monitoring at Burnt Bridge Creek

Most of the egg masses we saw belonged to Long-toed Salamanders or to the Pacific Tree Frog or Chorus Frog (Pseudacris regilla).

It takes some practice to spot egg masses, especially since healthy egg masses tend to be below the surface of the water. This one—a Long-toed Salamander egg mass—wasn’t doing so well, possibly due to weather damage.

Long-toed Salamander (Ambystoma macrodactylum) egg mass

Normally SWAMP discourages handling egg masses or removing them from the water, but this one was probably not viable.

Long-toed Salamander (Ambystoma macrodactylum) egg mass

Pacific Tree Frog egg masses look quite different.

Pacific Tree Frog (Pseudacris regilla) egg mass

While we didn’t see any frogs, we could hear them!

More photos from the day on Flickr.

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.

Entomology Collecting at Pawnee Buttes

Pawnee Buttes, Colorado. September 15, 2012.

Today I went on another class field trip to collect insects. This time we went to Pawnee Buttes, part of Pawnee National Grassland. These buttes are remnants of the Brule and Arikaree Formations, relatively soft, fine-grained sedimentary rocks capped by resistant sandstone and conglomerate. The Brule Formation is the same as that in the Badlands of South Dakota, an Oligocene formation deposited between 30 and 34 million years ago. Some parts of Pawnee Buttes contain mammal fossils.

Pawnee Buttes, Colorado

It was fairly dry, but we still saw a good diversity of insects and some other interesting animals. Of course, I forgot an extra camera battery and my battery promptly died, so I was stuck with cell phone pictures the rest of the day, and missed out entirely on a few of the best animals.

The most abundant insects were a great variety of grasshoppers:

Grasshoppers (Order Orthoptera)

We also saw a lot of beetles, mostly darkling beetles (Family Tenebrionidae) and ground beetles (Family Carabidae). Most carabids, including tiger beetles, are predators. Tenebrionids like this one are often scavengers (you can also see an ant feeding on the grasshopper leg):

Scavengers

My favorite animal of the day was a velvet ant mimic jumping spider, likely Phidippus johnsoni, but alas, no pictures. (Nor any of velvet ants–I brought one home to put in a terrarium, but so far she is hiding).

But after the jumping spider, my other favorite animal of the day were the abundant Greater Short-horned Lizards (Phrynosoma hernandesi) we saw as we were heading back. These are a type of “horny toad,” perhaps best known for the ability of some species to eject blood from their eyes as a defense, primarily against canine predators. We saw one very tiny baby:

Greater Short-horned Lizard (Phrynosoma hernandesi)

With impressive camouflage:

Greater Short-horned Lizard (Phrynosoma hernandesi)

And several larger individuals, including this one:

Greater Short-horned Lizard (Phrynosoma hernandesi)

Despite the dryness, it was a pretty good day of collecting, and we all added some interesting insects to our collections.

Some critters of Texas

Hairstreak butterfly (Calycopis sp.)
A hairstreak butterfly (possibly the Red-banded Hairstreak, Calycopis cecrops), Arlington, Texas, USA. August 12, 2010.

Back in 2010, I was interning in Oklahoma, and decided at the end of my internship to head down to Texas to visit Lee of Worm Salad, who was in my lab when I was in grad school. As we are both fond of insects, reptiles, and cameras, we sought out a local park (I’m no longer sure which one), to look for cooperative photography subjects.

Being Arlington in August, it was ridiculously hot and we didn’t find much, but there were a few nice animals. I didn’t have a macro lens yet, so most of my damselfly shots were not quite in focus, but this female Blue-ringed Dancer (Argia sedula) was fairly cooperative:

Blue-ringed Dancer (Argia sedula)

As was this teneral (recently emerged) male Powdered Dancer (Argia moesta):

Powdered Dancer (Argia moesta), teneral male

We also saw a blue-form female Powdered Dancer obelisking, but I didn’t get the focus quite right on her.

And here’s a very tiny and incredibly cute fence lizard (Sceloporus sp.).

Fence lizard (Sceloporus sp.)

While photography in a big group doesn’t always work well, I love going out looking for animals with a friend–two people to find cool insects (and spiders, etc.), and not so many people that it’s impossible to take turns creeping up on them with a camera.

(Thanks to the very knowledgeable Jerry Hatfield for the damselfly identifications.)

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.

So long, Lonesome George

Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island Tortoise
Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island Tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni), in captivity at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island, Ecuador. October 24, 2009.

Today I found out from Lee at Worm Salad that Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island Tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra abigdoni) died this morning. George was found on Pinta Island in the Galápagos of Ecuador in 1972, after the subspecies was believed to be extinct, and was probably between 100 and 120 years old.

George had been the focus of a lot of breeding attempts over the years, but none were successful, and even if they had been, they would have produced hybrid tortoises, not more Pinta Island Tortoises. But George had become something of an icon of vanishing species, a tragic survivor. Every day species die out, many small and uncharismatic, many unknown to us, and many because of our actions–George’s kindred, the Pinta Island Tortoises, died out because introduced feral goats (still a major problem in the Galápagos) destroyed the native foliage.

I visited the Galápagos Islands in 2009 with my mother and saw Lonesome George at the Charles Darwin Research Station. The park has an active breeding program for giant tortoises, and a successful one (George aside), judging by the number of baby tortoises we saw. George really did look lonesome, and our naturalist guide from Galapagos Travel, who had worked with him before, told us he could be rather mean to the other tortoises in his enclosure.

I’m sad that he’s gone, and that his subspecies is gone, but if tortoises can be happy, I’m not entirely sure he was a happy tortoise. He was a pretty old tortoise, and it looks like he died of natural causes, although we won’t know for sure until after the park performs an autopsy.

And I hope that we can avoid having many more Lonesome Georges in the future–that his memory will continue to serve as the powerful icon for conservation that he was in life.

So long, George. We’ll miss you.