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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

It's the Little Things

Many years ago, when I was a student at Cook College, Rutgers University, I volunteered to take children on tours of the working farm on campus and sometimes Helyar Woods, a forest on the property of the school. For the most part, the kids came from inner-city schools, with little exposure to either farm or forest. I was trained on the farm part of the tour--calling the pigs over to the fence so the children can feel their soft noses or bristley backs, playing the "Guess the weight of the entire class" game and then weighing them on the truck scale, and petting the calves while I explained how cows have multiple stomachs.

I wasn't given much guidance on what to do if the tour groups had chosen to do the hike in the woods, though. My brother suggested I might find some ideas in a book called Sharing Nature with Children by Joseph Cornell. Filled with suggestions on how to get kids interested in and excited about being outside, the book inspired me as well.  There was the Web of Life game, which uses a simple roll of twine to teach the interconnectedness of all living things, and the Know a Tree exercise, where one child in a pair is blindfolded, and learns about a single tree just through touching it--and has to try to find it later once she can see.

More than three decades later, I still find myself using some of the techniques in that book. For example, the other day, I took a micro-hike. Now, the way the book describes it--and the best way to do it with a bunch of unruly children--is to take a hula hoop and put it on the ground and have the kids look really closely at what they could see, just within the confines of the hoop. If you've never taken the time to explore a small section of the earth (and by small I mean one or two square feet), I highly recommend it--particularly in the spring and summer.

I used to do this exercise before we went into Helyar Woods, because it taught the kids to be observant--and to be excited about discovering things, even things that might seem boring. They would notice bugs, and ants, and sticks. They'd realize that all grass doesn't look the same, and there might be clover and dandelions and thistle mixed in. Someone would invariable find bird poop, but it was ever so much more exciting when we talked about what bird it might have been, and how you can tell things about a living creature from examining what it eliminates.

The other day, I was inspired to do a version of the micro hike in the woods behind my house. The hike was along a fallen tree--one that had come down a few years ago. Since I brought my  camera--and a macro lens--you can come with me.

The micro hike takes place here.
At first glance, even from a distance and in the dead of winter, you can see that the trunk is covered with moss of some kind.  It's when you take a few steps closer that you realize there's a lot more than moss growing here.

There's moss and fungus and lichen!

And here's where I wish I had a resident expert to help me a bit. I think most of us can recognize moss.


And probably we would know what a fungus looks like, particularly when we remember that a mushroom is a fungus.

But lichen?

Lichen! (and moss)

Actually, now that I realize it, what the heck is a lichen exactly? A little bit of research has helped me learn a little about these fascinating organisms.  For one thing they are true symbionts. A lichen is a composite of a fungus and a photosynthetic organism--usually an alga. Fungus get food from the algae's photosynthesis, and the algae get moisture from the fungus.

Lichens live in the most inhospitable environments--on rocks, logs, walls--and in harsh climates. They occupy a niche that other organisms can't survive. Though they also apparently are very sensitive to pollutants, and are indicators of poor air quality; no lichens = possible air pollution. I guess they're the plant versions of the canary in a coal mine.

On most of my other posts I can identify some of the plants and animals and insects in the photographs I feature. But in this case, I can just barely do that with lichens. But here's the thing, they sure are pretty.  And quite fascinating. And make great subjects for a micro hike with a camera.

To sit back, relax, and enjoy the hike. I'll identify where I can.

The bottom of the log, where it meets the ground, shows grass, lichens and moss.

Moss on the top of the log shows tiny stalks that have captured water droplets.

I believe this is called turkey tail lichen.

This is really young turkey tail lichen. Each of these little fruiting bodies are no more than a quarter inch tall,

These turkey tails are a little bigger. You can also see some moss--that's the dark green--and the lighter green is a common greenshield lichen, I think.

Here is a combination of all the mosses and lichens, young and old.

A close up of turkey tail lichen.

Seems like the turkey tail lichen can feature several colors...though I'm not sure.

The naturalist in me always wants to know, to identify, to understand what I'm looking at. In the case of this particular micro hike, I don't know. Instead, since I don't have a lichenologist or a mycologist on staff, I must sit back and enjoy canvas painted by capital N Nature.

And sometimes, that's enough.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Cache & Carry

If you share your home with cats or kittens, or spend any time with animals of the feline variety, you will know that one of their favorite things to do is to poke their paws into things. Around things. Through things. And under things.

So it came as no surprise to me, and probably wouldn't surprise anyone who knows kitties, to have come across our Calvin with his little furry paws madly scrabbling underneath the bookcase in my kitchen. Probably a lost kitty toy, I figured.

Calvin trying to reach something.

Who could resist that adorable face? I had to help him get what was underneath the bookcase.

I tried to reach under the bookcase, but my hand couldn't fit.

Now it so happens that we keep a yardstick under the couch in the family room. This would make perfect sense if you knew anything about our friend Tucker's favorite game--well, second favorite after chasing The Ball. This game involves putting The Ball in an inaccessible place, unsuccessfully trying to retrieve it, and then whining pitifully until somebody gets it for him.

Such an inaccessible place, for example, is under the couch. This has happened enough times that we decided it was expedient to keep a yardstick under the couch for the unfortunately not-so-rare occasions when Tucker decides that it's the best place to roll his Ball. Then all we have to do is reach under the couch, grab the yardstick and pull it towards us and, somewhat miraculously for Tucker, we've saved the day as the slobbery blue Ball comes rolling out from underneath.

But I digress.

Getting back to the cat-astrophe at hand--or paw--I grabbed the yardstick out from under the family room couch and used it to sweep under the bookcase to get whatever toy was under there that was tempting Mr. Calvin so.

Calvin, the ever Helpful cat

Looks like I found something

And what I found was the Mother Lode.

If you look past the begonia petals from the plant on the plant stand above, you will see no less than 20 kitty toys--and an arrow-shaped magnet, which had become a kitty toy.

For a moment, Calvin is more interested in the yardstick than the toys.

One might well ask, why so many toys? And thus, I will provide one with an answer. Every night, Jasper, Lilah, and Tucker sleep in our bedroom with Brian and I, while we leave the cats the run of the house. And right before we head upstairs, I take a handful of cat toys and scatter them on the floor, so that the cats and kittens can amuse themselves in the evening after we've retired. In the mornings, when I come downstairs, I pick up whatever toys are left, and put them away. This is because my dogs think all toys are dog toys and great fun is had by all of the pups as they run  around with tiny kitty toys in big slobbery doggy mouths. The end result is usually a mangled mess of crunched up fuzzy bits, which aren't even interesting to kittens.

Now don't worry about whether the cats and kittens have enough to play with during the day. There's always each other and of course the dogs themselves. And there are always a few toys left out that they can pounce on and chase and bury in blankets and run around with. And while the dogs still sometimes get to those toys, there are usually one or two survivors. And of course, there are nighttime toys.

So now, another routine is added to our evening ritual. Before I grab some cat toys and throw them on the floor, I grab the yardstick from under the family room couch and take a nice sweep underneath the bookcase in case there are toys that are needed for the evening.

Dawn stops by to assess the Evening Recovery Mission.

They might even be enough to share? Well if there were a word for "share" in Cat.

During one of my nightly sweeps, I made yet another discovery: I noticed that all the toys were the same.

(I guess, at this point, I should admit that I did buy some kitty toys in bulk. Because, well, there's Jasper, Lilah and Tucker.  And it's less expensive to buy a couple dozen cat toys wholesale.)

While I was pulling the cache of similar cat toys out from under the bookcase, Ms. Athena  made an appearance. And it seemed that she was even more interested than usual in what I was doing.

Athena takes notice.

And Calvin joins in the fun.

That's when it occurred to me: these must be Athena's favorite toys, her favorite mousies. And what made this so interesting was because in all of her two years with us, Athena has rarely ever played with toys. She seems afraid of them--or afraid that someone--let's call her Dawn--will pounce her and take it away if she tries to play with a toy.

Lots of the same kind of mousie.

It turns out that Athena does, in fact, have a favorite type of mouse. And she plays with that mouse-- or those mice--in a special spot in the corner where Dawn and the kittens don't tend to bother her. I guess somewhere along the way, during the night, Athena loses them under the bookcase.

Now I pay special attention to the kitty toys that I toss on the floor every night. And I make sure that there are at least a few of Athena's favorites included among the evening's choices.

Athena with one of her special mousies.

I think everyone should be able to have their own special mousie.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Winging It

Each year, I set goals for my photographer self.

In 2011, my goal was to get some pictures of hummingbirds. You can see the results in the post Hum Along with Me from that fall.

In 2012, I set two goals. The first was to stretch my hummingbird goal--and get some photos of them flying; most specifically, I was trying to get a hummingbird, in flight, but not at a feeder. And the second goal was to photograph a butterfly in the air.

I did manage to get some great hummer photos; I'll share them in a future post. In the end, they were rather easy--at least compared to trying to capture butterflies in flight.

Below are my attempts--and I don't feel I actually achieved my goal. Of course there's always next year. But on a cold grey winter day, even less than perfect pictures of butterflies and flowers and green, green grass sure do look purty. (And if you'd like to look at some of the butterflies-at-rest pictures I've taken in the last two summers, you can find them in the 2012 post Flying Flowers or the 2011 post Great Spangled Fritillary!)

In attempting to perform this elusive feat, I learned a little bit about butterfly photography. First of all, the little buggers are skittish, particularly when large shadowy things move nearby. That's easy to understand; large shadowy things (think birds) eat butterflies. And from a butterfly's perspective, if you're a human, you are a large shadowy thing--and you might as well be a predator. They're not going to stop and ponder the situation. So you have to move slowly around them, or they flitter away.

Of course, if you're trying to catch a butterfly on the wing, flittering away ain't such a bad thing. Except butterflies are also quite small, and therefore hard to see through the camera viewfinder.

So you need a telephoto lens.

But if you ever watch how a butterfly actually flies, you'll epitomize the word "erratic." No straight lines here. Nothing like the cooperative hummingbirds who sometimes hover in place and allow you to focus for a half second. Butterfly flight is more like...well, you know when you play pinball and your ball gets into that magical part of the machine where it pings around and back and forth and up and down, bouncing on bands and walls and lights and bars? And you rack up all kinds of crazy points? That's kind of like it, except that butterflies do it in three dimensions. And you don't get any points.

This explains why my first attempts resulted in blurry blobs of unrecognizable butterfly.  Either I couldn't focus fast enough, or the spot auto focus was in the wrong place, or I was trying to move the camera to follow the butterfly--and failed completely.

An out-of-focus Cabbage Butterfly.

Two Monarchs, too far away.

Well, at least some of the flowers were in focus.

Autofocus thought I was taking pictures of Lilah. The butterfly is that yellow blur on the lower right part of the picture.

Pretty flowers, blurry Swallowtail.

Trying to follow the erratic flight path of a butterfly isn't easy.

I eventually figured out that the best way to attempt to capture a flying butterfly on (virtual) film, was not to try and follow it as it flew, but instead to focus on an imaginary plane where I thought a butterfly would fly, set the lens at a wider angle, and when one of those flittery creatures flew in the general direction, just start snapping away.

My pictures improved a bit, but my subjects were still often slightly out of focus. Or they didn't cooperate by staying in the frame.

Missed it! (It's an Orange Sulfur.)

But then, as I started getting better photos, I began to really see how butterfly wings work. And they don't just flap nicely, in concert. There are four parts to their wings, and they move differently. So I might have a butterfly in focus, but the moment I captured shows some really awkward wing positions.

This Eastern Swallowtail was heading toward the flower, with its wings flapping forward.

Another one caught on the down flap.

Awkward wings.
And more awkward wings.

And sometimes I would capture the creatures at odd angles, such as flying straight toward me.

Comin' at ya...

Flying away from me, this swallowtail makes a lovely V shape, but it doesn't make a great picture.

Coming? Going?

Two Swallowtails could have been really cool, but they're at a very strange angle.

Stealth bomber?
This Monarch looks like it was poorly photoshopped into the picture.

I also realized that a picture of a butterfly out of context, that is, away from it's food source of pretty flowers, looks kind of lonely.

Lonely butterfly

This Monarch is just a little too far from the butterfly bush, but if I cropped out the butterfly bush flowers, the picture would be boring.

And I discovered that a picture of a butterfly flying away from flowers didn't tell the right story.

Don't like what's on the menu?

The nectar must be better at another establishment.

And then I realized that when you try to take a picture of a butterfly near flowers, you can't really tell that it's flying. Many of the pictures of butterflies flying that are in focus look like they aren't flying, but have landed on a flower.

Two butterflies: awesome! But you can't really tell that the guy on the left is flying, and hadn't landed yet.

The Firey Skipper on the bottom is flying upwards, but because there is a second skipper, it's hard to tell what's happening here.

And sometimes, flowers, leaves or branches get in the way at the wrong time.

The blur over the top right part of the picture is from a blossom that was in the way, but very close to me.

And of course, as in any photo, sometimes the composition is off, or the lighting isn't quite right.

In the end, I came close, but didn't really get that perfect shot. I know I took hundreds of pictures, probably more like thousands. There are a few that I like, but I never took one that made me say, "Ah, that's what I was looking for."

A tiny fraction of the photos downloaded to my laptop.

There's always next summer. Until then, these will have to do.

This is pretty, but the Monarch is just a little too far away from the flowers.

This American Lady is just a little out of focus.

This is one of my favorites, although the butterfly isn't really in focus. It looks like one of the lilies escaped.

The silhouette makes an interesting picture, but I want a photo with more color.

Another one of my favorites; my Facebook friends will recognize this from my page. Even though the butterfly is out of focus, it captures a nice moment.