Rainy Days and Cicadas

June 7th, 2016

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Its almost burdensome to be confronted with an innately compelling photographic subject that will be gone in a few short days, not to return for another 17 years.  The photographic obligation is even greater when when the dramatic subject is in unfolding in your own backyard. There’s no excuse not to haul tripod and camera out there and start capturing.

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I had big expectations for Sunday’s morning shoot, hoping to get a couple of hours of quality invertebrate time.  Mid-morning is the best time for cicada closeups.  After their overnight emergence, still hardening into newly minted adult cicadas, they spend their first morning clinging to leaves, bushes, and blades of grass, recovering from their underground tunneling and their final metamorphosis.  Newly molted, they are as pristine as a bug is going to get.  Gleaming in the dew, they have little energy.  Although they somehow manage to swivel those black spots on their compound eyes to face the photographer, they otherwise are not moving. Before lunch, they are a perfect subject.  After lunch, they either take their first awkward flight up into a more sheltered tree top, or they clumsily drop onto the ground when threatened by a macro lens.

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Sunday dawned gloomily, with the final overnight shower not letting my camera out until 9:45.  One third of an inch of rain overnight had left the ground saturated. A warm front left the sky gray and the air saturated with humidity in the upper 90s. I immediately broke into a sweat as three deer flies targeted the top of my head. Mosquitoes explored my ear drums. It was uncomfortable, and perfect for photography. And the hillside behind our cabin was covered with clumps of fresh, and slightly damp, cicada.

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The lack of wind meant that I would have to contend with the deer flies and mozzies, but it also meant that my subjects would remain relatively still.  Shooting with a telephoto length macro lens (I used a 100mm for these), within inches of your subject, any slight waving of their perch blurs the photo.  A gentle breeze that makes for a lovely afternoon in a human hammock is a veritable hurricane through the macro lens.  The overcast sky also encouraged the biting bugs, but the positive side of gloominess is that it provides much more even light for capturing the non-biting ones.

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A cicada emergence, and I think this is my 5th (several broods in different states) is not just awe inspiring, but it is magical. I found dozens, if not hundreds, of brightly colored insects, with their distinctive scarlet eyes punctuating their black and gold color scheme.  The rain had washed the pollen and dust from the leaves.

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Every cicada was dotted with water drops, on their thoraxes, abdomens, heads, and especially on those big bulbous compound eyes.

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Their wings were glistening with little tiny drops of water, visible through the transparent cellophane that makes up their fragile flight surfaces.  This morning, Tuesday 7 June 2016, was a beautiful morning, sunny, breezy, cool, and free from biting insects. Such pleasant weather often isn’t great for photography, and the combination of too much wind, and too few new cicadas made for much slimmer pickings than Sunday. 

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Sitting at my desk listening to the combined howl of 1 million screaming cicada, audible even with the windows shut, clearly, the cicada event isn’t over. I timed my vacation week to coincide with them, and I’m looking forward to watching it through.  I did manage to get a few more shots this morning, but maybe Sunday was the last best day for mass emergence.  It looks like most of the periodical cicada that are going to emerge have emerged, and now they move onto a less photo-friendly stage for their remaining several weeks of life.

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Cicada Emergence

May 31st, 2016

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Every 17 years at Heiser Hollow, thousands of insect nymphs emerge from the ground and metamorphose into adult cicada.  Perhaps after spending almost 2 decades underground, its unsurprising that their journey into their final stage of life is a nocturnal one.

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Starting slowly about a week ago, by last night, it sounded like a gentle rain was falling in the woods, as countless cicada nymphs poked their dusty bodies out of pencil-sized holes in the ground, and began a slow and steady crawl to a higher perch.

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A 40 year old red oak, old enough to have attracted female cicada in 1999, surrounded by mowed ground that catches direct sun for much of the day, has been ground zero for the periodical cicada emergence.  Starting at dusk every evening this week, I’ve found dozens of teenage cicadas, confidently crawling up the bark, seeking a convenient branch for their metamorphosis. Regular plopping sounds are evidence that some of them clumsily fall off their perch, but they undoubtedly just patiently start back up the tree trunk.

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Once they’ve found a suitable spot, some 15 feet in the air on branches, some on nearby bushes, flowers, and ferns, some on short blades of grass, they dig their 6 spiked heels into the surface, and appear to pause for a brief moment, before splitting their skin.

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Like showgirls at work, dozens, if not hundreds of adjacent cicada nymphs simultaneously, methodically and unselfconsciously strip off their dirty old cloths.

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It must take huge energy and initiative to pull so many complex components: a half-dozen legs, antenna, mouth parts, wing stubs, and various other unrecognizable bits, out of a stiff and unyielding exoskeleton. Not all of them make it, and popular cicada emergence points are punctuated by the dead and dying that failed to fully escape from their former selves.

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With their comical Fu Manchu moustaches and uninflated wings that resemble some sort of hat, they are temporarily at their least attractive, and at their most vulnerable. 

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Graceful is never a adjective that fully applies to cicada, periodical or annual, but at this short but significant period of transition, they seem particularly awkward.  Only their scarlet eyes provide some visual continuity with their adult form.

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Once a cicada has fully extricated itself, it uses its front 4 legs to hang from its old exoskeleton, back legs comically dangling, while it begins to inflate its wings.

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If you sit carefully and watch, you can see the wings expanding before your eyes, as it begins to look more and more like an adult cicada. Although they are trapped by their task, the cicada somehow seem to know that they are being watched, with their nervous red compound eyes exhibiting black spots that look like pupils, always pointing towards the camera.  Their wings  unfurl from the top down to the bottom, looking more like mature flight surfaces as hidden organs pump them full of fluid.  Not everyone makes it. The cicada above managed to expand its left wing, but the right one remained malformed at the base, preventing the possibility of flight, and providing a snack to one of tomorrow’s birds.

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Most of the cicada do manage to complete the process. The cover girl from the top of this blog post, shown in reverse immediately above (note the oviposter at the base of the abdomen) risked some of the later birds with an early dusk start to her metamorphosis, and was substantially complete when this photo was taken at 1130pm last Friday night.

Kenko extension tube, lit underneath with LED light panel.

Although a few stragglers may still appear ghostly white, by morning, almost all of the newly emerged cicada have fully expanded their wings, and hardened up what becomes their final exoskeleton, which turns deep black in the process.  Although they may be able to fly short distances, most of the previous night’s emerged cicada remain silently, albeit warily, in place the next morning, hardening their skin and their resolve, while waiting for the warmth of the sun.  By the early afternoon, most of the newly emerged insects have either been eaten or have flown up into the protection of the tree canopy, leaving behind their nymphal husks, and the unfortunate remains of their brothers and sisters who could not fully emerge or form their wings.

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The cicada apparently wait about 4-5 days before they are ready to take on the full responsibilities of their short adult life.  They didn’t begin singing audibly until a few days ago, and as the visual signs of emergence are ramping up in a greater number of places, the song volume, and number of cicada in flight has increased.  I know not everybody is entirely enthusiastic about the prospect of being surrounded by millions of screaming insects, but for me, its one of nature’s most special times.

Killbuck Marsh Migration

April 26th, 2016

Bufflehead and Lesser Scaup

Killbuck Marsh Wildlife Area is a 5,700 acre state-owned alluvial swamp stretching from the outskirts of Wooster all the way to Holmesville. It’s a very happy place for waterfowl, but not a very good place for farming or human housing, so I’m in favor of expanding the Wildlife Area as budget permits.

Ruddy Duck Makes a Landing next to Lesser Scaups

By my count, in a chilly 45 minutes near Shreve earlier this month I saw: American Black Duck, American Coot, Blue Winged Teal, Buffalohead, Canada Goose, Cardinal, Great Blue Heron, Horned Grebe, Ring-Necked Duck, Red-Tailed Hawk, Ruddy Duck, Tree Swallow, and a Muskrat.

Horned Grebe

The Horned Grebes were my favorite.  Squat bodies covered with hairy feathers, and faces comically painted with a yellow stripe and some sloppily applied pink lipstick, they dive completely underwater, popping up in unexpected places.

Horned Grebe taking a dive

The waterfowl just seem more exotic than what we get on our little pond.  The Ruddy Ducks have blue bills, and the elegantly brown and green Northern Shovelers, which were flying around in great flocks, have a schnozz like Jimmy Durante.

Northern Shovelers in Snow

Compared to most of the other ducks, a pair of Mallards look downright pedestrian, but with his iridescent green head and old-fashioned DA, the Mallard drake, and his demure but smartly-patterned hen, were far more stylish than a very plain looking pair of Black Ducks.

Mallard Ducks

Many of the flocks contained multiple kinds of duck. In one mass landing, I captured Bufflehead, Ring-Necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, and some Tree Swallows.

Bufflehead, Ring-Necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, Tree Swallow

It was a real workout for me and my new telephoto.  In a snowy 90 minutes, I managed to get identifiable photographs of some of 12 different birds I saw. I’d already spent a couple hours taking photos in the nearby Ken Miller Supply Museum looking at old oilfield tools and tractors, so I was ready to head back home to the digital darkroom.

Muskrat

These photos were taken late in the afternoon of April 9, 2016, using the Canon 7DII DSLR and Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary lens. For most of these shots, I sat inside the pickup truck, and rested the lens on the door to keep it stead.  All processing in light room.

Tree Swallows

April 3rd, 2016

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Not all of the birds hanging out in the marshland near Killbuck are aquatic.  As spring approaches, the marsh always has swarms of little birds, swooping around, eating invisible insects.  They seemed to be perching on some dead trees pretty far out in the water, so I couldn’t get a good look at them, but I came back on March 26, and found some that were within telephoto range of the pickup truck.

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They turn out to be Tree Swallows. Once I found a place in range of a sunlit roost, I parked the pickup, and propped the telephoto on the open window to watch.  Appearing mostly black in flight, I hadn’t appreciated how brilliant iridescent blue they  are.  The first one landed on the branch, spent some time resting, and then checked out the knothole, which is their favorite natural nesting site.  If I understand the lifecycle correctly, unlike ducks and geese, the males and female migrate separately, with the males arriving in the breeding grounds before the female, so the male can choose a nesting site. 

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A little bit later, a second swallow arrived. Both were brilliant blue, as were all the ones I could see, so either the brown females hadn’t arrived yet, or they were just shy around photographers.   I’m guessing that the females were still in an outlet mall in North Carolina.

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The first male seemed pretty attached to his knot hole, and it wasn’t at all apparent to me if there actually were enough knot holes to go around.  The originally swallow didn’t seem too keen on sharing a perch, at least not with another male.

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As recorded by my DSLR, they stood on the broken branch and glared and postured at each other for over 6 minutes.

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Finally, the interloper, either bored, frustrated, or hungry flew off.

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After spending some more time exploring his knot hole, the first swallow flew off to get some more of the 2000 bugs he needs every day to keep his wings pumping.  I don’t know how he defends his territory when he’s out slurping up insects.

Fowl Weather

March 28th, 2016

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The anticipation of capturing something photographically inspires me to seek out new experiences.  Intellectually, I realized that Heiser Hollow was only a few miles from a major motel for migratory waterfowl , but until I bought a long telephoto lens, I’d never explored the opportunity.

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The Killbuck Creek is the primary drain for the western half of Wayne, Holmes, and Coshocton County.  Thousands of years ago, it flowed from south to north, but the glaciers changed all that, forcing the Killbuck into the Mississippi watershed, and filling up the 80 mile valley with alluvial silt and muck. The ice didn’t quite make it to the Appalachian foothills of Heiser Hollow, but where the glaciers stopped, a short five miles away, they left a really nice place for ducks.   As described by the Ohio DNR “the wetlands in the Killbuck Creek Valley are the largest complex of wetlands remaining in Ohio, away from Lake Erie.” 

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A day earlier, I’d seen some kind of exotic looking water bird when driving to town (‘exotic looking’ meaning something other than the wood ducks, mallards, geese, and herons that we see on our pond).  In spite of the snow, I decided to hitch my new telephoto to my DSLR and see what I could see.   On the theory that the birds were used to seeing lots of vehicles, I figured I could just sit comfortably in the pickup cab and shoot out the window. 

American Coot

It didn’t take me long to find some geese. The lower Killbuck wildlife area crawls with the things.  I found a few shy Wood Ducks, hiding in the weeds.  I startled a Blue Heron, and he flew off to the middle of the swamp where I couldn’t follow him.  So I drove around to another position and found something with a bright white beak swimming along the shore.  I followed him around for awhile, and managed to get a good enough view to identify him as an American Coot.

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Nearby the coot were were a couple of little jobs that I couldn’t really make out, until they broke cover and headed into some open water.  Pie-Billed Grebes are divers, and these perky little swimmers with their big heads and striped little beaks didn’t seem to mind the snow at all.  Now it was starting to get exotic for me.   I’ve watched loons dive in Ontario, popping up far away from where they submerged, and I’ve sat and watched some kind of diving duck in Lake Zurich, but I’ve never seen a show like this in Ohio.  I spent at least 20 minutes watching 4 of them disappearing and reappearing as dripping water, they moved out of camera range.

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Then a much nicer proportioned pair of birds, with a much more elegant paint job, appeared.  Ring-Necked Ducks may have been named by the same guy who named Red-Bellied Woodpeckers—there are so many more obvious characteristics that could have been chose.  They apparently are divers also, but all they did was float around the emerging lily pads, with the drake’s glowing amber eye keeping track of his mate.

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My favorite find of the day was a pair of Hooded Mergansers, which I found in a smaller pool while driving home. Like the other ducks, the hen was much less gaudily colored than her mate, but both of them had fantastic headdresses, feathering out behind their ears.  The drake had striking black and white racing stripes, accented with a bright yellow eye. I could have watched them for hours, but they got shy under all the attention and soon flew off.

Feathers of our Lives

March 20th, 2016

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Wood ducks are one of the harbingers of seasonal change at Heiser Hollow. We start seeing them about the time the pond melts in the late winter, and then after disappearing for the summer, a few of them return in the fall. I think most of them must be migratory. Some of them are regulars during the summer, hanging out along a secluded bend of the creek that borders the northern edge of our place, but we usually only see them in front of the cabin during migration time.

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Careening out of the early morning sky like so many feathered bowling balls, they somehow manage to make a graceful and relatively quiet landings. Punctuated by the quietly piercing upward jeeeb call of the drake, the ducks, which usually arrive in pairs of 2-8 birds, dabble around the pond, grazing around the edges of the pond, sometimes walking several feet out of the pond, and hurriedly by silently scooting across the center of the water.

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They also hang out in the trees surrounding the pond, sometimes roosting within site of it for several hours.  They are brilliant fliers, much more adept at zipping around trees than are their larger mallard cousins.   Masters of the vertical take off and landing, the former typically accompanied by the teeWEE alarm call, they can run rings around geese (which we haven’t see this year). In spite of their obvious comfort with heights, there is something a bit disconcerting about seeing ducks in the tree.  They have claws on their webbed feet and they can land on the side of a tree trunk.

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Whenever the ducks are on the ground or water, it seems to be a subject of interest for our local hawks—or at least those that are equally comfortable in arboreal settings. This afternoon, I watched a red tailed hawk, frequently seen checking out our pond and woods, sail 40 feet over the top of 4 wood ducks and land in a tree just beyond the dam. When shooting most of the duck shots in this blog entry, leaning out our bedroom window, a young cooper’s hawk shot right over the top of the cabin, swooped low over some dabbling woodies, and perched on the far side of the pond, bright yellow eye of prey keenly interested.  Although the wood ducks are always watching, and fly at the least sign of danger, they evince no fear of birds of prey.

 Immature Coopers Hawk

While the majority of our anatine visitors only seem interested in a meal and snooze, a couple times every spring, one or two pair suggest that they might be sticking around for the summer.   A pair of wood ducks can get very frisky, and spend an hour tightly circling the pond, weaving in and out of the tree tops, quietly screeching, as only wood ducks can do. I once found a small, dark yellow egg lying alongside the pond, apparently a premature and inconvenient arrival.  For the last three years, we’ve had a duck nest box hanging over the pond.  Although it has apparently raised several generation of screech owls (even more elusive than the woodies), only once did a see a wood duck hen fly into it and check it out.  For a brief 10 minutes, I thought we might play host to a family, but something about it just wasn’t what they were looking for. It never seems to be.

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Earlier this month, I really thought that a pair would setup housekeeping with us.  Arriving early one morning, without a larger flock, they very quickly took to the trees, never sitting in one spot for long. The drake flew on top of a broken stump of a red maple limb, right outside my office, and began gently encouraging the hen to join him.  Last spring, that hollow and cracked branch had providing a nesting site for a litter of squirrel pups.   The male called, whinnied, pleaded, looking alternatively lonely and encouraging.  The hen flew up next to him.

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He flew to a nearby branch on another tree, continuing to whicker at her, while she carefully inspected the site.

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They flew around the pond, landed on some other trees, checked out a big knot on the side of a sugar maple, and then she returned to the broken limb. She sniffed it carefully.

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She experimented with a landing at the base of the broken limb. 

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She tested the route between bedroom and kitchen, to see how long the trip would be.  She discussed the local school system with the drake while they tried to envision how easy it would be to avoid predators.

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She tried the nest on for size, roosting in the hollow space for at least 10 minutes. 

By that time, and all of these photos were taken of the same pair of ducks during a 40 minute period,  I was very hopeful that they’d decide to stay.  I was already envisioning our being able to watch (and photograph) the entire cycle of wood duck life, envisioning fluffy little ducklings following their mum around around our pond.  But something about it just didn’t their (or probably her) standards.  They decided that this particular nesting site wasn’t all that it was ducked up to be, and they flew off, never to return. Or maybe they did, but that was the last time I saw any of the ducks roosting in that spot.

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Our little half acre of woodland water is probably a better for resting than for roosting—at least from the point of view of a wood duck. While the pond is surrounded with the homes of countless ground hogs, multiple squirrels, robins, orioles, sometimes a pair of buzzards, and one very territorial pair of eastern phoebes, Aix sponsa is particularly shy.  At this time of year, just opening my office door and walking out onto the cement pad is likely to result in the alarm call, as one or two pair of hidden ducks quickly depart.  A midday delivery from Ron the mailman immediately results in a wood duck exodus. It would be nice to think that they could build a home within site of ours, but they are just too shy for it.

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Notes on photography: Nature photography isn’t really my specialty area, and photographing wild animals is just not something I have much patience for. Sitting still for hours at a time to shoot something, with camera or gun, is just not how I’m wired. Yet we are surrounded by nature, and a constant parade of animals, so earlier this year, I supplemented my Canon 7DII DSLR with Sigma’s new 150-600mm telephoto. Together, the lens/camera combo tops the scale at a sobering 7 pounds, which is a lot of weight to hold steady, especially when the tiniest motion of such a long telephoto can blur the image. It does have an image stabilizer, which helps a lot. I quietly slid down the lower half of the window, and rested the lens on it. To keep from startling my subject, I set the camera in a special mode that keeps the shutter quiet. It was a bright and sunny day, with harsh beams of light shining through the trees, making a very contrasty light source.  I’d been shooting at a relatively high ISO in order to keep the shutter speed up close to 1/1000, but I was afraid that with such high-contrast light, higher ISOs would result in either burning out the highlights, or losing the shadows. When the hen turned toward the sun in the shot immediately above, her wing bar lit up an iridescent blue that I’ve never seen on a female woodie.  At that point, I had the sensitivity set at what I’ve found is relatively low for this telephoto, at ISO 500. At 562mm, just shy of full extension, and shooting wide open at f/6.3, there wasn’t much depth of field to be had. While it did a nice job of blurring out the background, it also meant that by focusing on the drake’s bright red eye, I’d thrown the front of the hen slightly out of focus.  The moment didn’t last long enough for a second chance.   I like how it turned out, but I’m still learning what ISO, shutter speed, and aperture to use with this honking big bird lens.  All of the above were shot in camera RAW and processed with Adobe Lightroom.