Ohio Chameleon

April 19th, 2017

We often hear treefrogs at The Hollow, but I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen one. At least, not until last weekend.

I looked down in the grass, and saw the most amazingly colorful little frog. He was bright green, with dark trim, and he had the most surprisingly bright yellow trim on the inside of his thighs. He was so carefully matched to the tone, color, and texture of the grass, that I almost missed seeing him.

His skin was so textured and warty, that at first I thought it must be a toad. It turns out that Grey Treefrogs (Hyla versicolor) are capable of shifting their skin tone from almost pure black, to white, with a variety of gray and green intermediate colors, which helps them blend into the background. Although they can’t change their color as rapidly as chameleons can, by Ohio standards, these little dudes are amazingly skillful at camouflaging themselves.

And at only 6cm, about 2-1/2 inches, these are small frogs, although they are big for tree frogs.  I was totally enthralled, and after grabbing some shots with my iPhone, and sharing my new friend with Elizabeth, I grabbed my DSLR and a macro lens, and more carefully documented this beautiful amphibian.

The tiny little toes, surprisingly long and supple, were capped with little tiny suction cups.  Given her arboreal lifestyle, this seems like a useful feature.

The most astounding feature was the eyes, two little dragon eyes, with exotically shaped retinas and a gorgeous gold lacework of bottomless texture. Such a big soul in such a little creature.

 

The Lone Beaver

March 17th, 2017

Beaver Close Up

Elizabeth woke me up one unseasonably warm February morning, all excited about some huge animal in our pond, visible from our upper story bedroom dormer. It wasn’t until late in the afternoon that I confirmed it was a beaver, America’s largest rodent, and an animal I’d never seen anywhere near our pond before.  Although we’ve long seen evidence of beavers, and even captured one on the game camera just over a year earlier, until this year, I’ve never seen one in person anywhere at Heiser Hollow.

Beaver checking me out

My parents’ purchase of the Hollow coincided somewhat with Ohio’s Beaver Renaissance.  Reintroduced to the state after being totally trapped out in 1830s, beaver activities characterized some of our earliest experiences at the Hollow. A family had set up shop in the creek bordering the edge of our property, regularly climbing the steep bluff from our wet flat spots up to an area with a stand of aspens in order to chew down some surprisingly large trees.  Clogging up the tiles under his bean field, the neighboring farmer blew up that first dam with dynamite, spectacularly, and probably coincidentally, doing it when Dad and I were flying just overhead in a chartered Piper.  Every few years, evidence of beaver chew would reappear, but only in the low flat area, which offer beavers an endless supply of one of their favorite foods, small alder trees.  None ever again climbed the steep hill up to the aspen patch, and until last month, I never saw any evidence that any beaver was willing to make any further exploration of our wooded and hilly property.

Preening Beaver

I’d been out on a short walk with my DSLR and 150-600mm lens, when I walked down to the pond and startled a large animal that surprisingly, turned out to be a beaver. I sat on a log, with my camera, and began what would turn into a two and a half our show.  After leisurely swimming around the pond in big lazy loops, apparently completely aware that I was there, it crawled up the bank in front of our cabin, and began an extensive grooming process.

It was almost embarrassing to watch. At the time, I was not aware that the beaver has a sort of all purpose cloaca, supporting not just excretory and sexual functions, but also containing the castoreum glands.  The beaver uses its front paws to obtain a waterproofing oil from those glands, which it rubs all over its body.

Beaver grooming with rear foot

The beaver has a split in one of its rear toenails (visible above) that it uses as a brush.   After spending a full 20 minutes grooming, the now relatively fluffy beaver turned around and started looking for something to eat.

Fully groomed beaver, ready for the water again

It spent about 10 minutes nibbling on something on the ground. I got a great view of its distinctive orange teeth.

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Apparently bored with raspberry canes and dead ferns, the beaver jumped back into the water and took a few more lazy loops around the pond.

Swimming Beaver
Then it climbed back out of the water and spent a couple minutes in the same spot where it had groomed 20 minutes earlier, it jumped back in the pond, made a figure 8, and spent a couple minutes gnawing on a branch hanging out over the pond.

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Then it came back out. And went back in. And crawled back out. I eventually got bored of sitting on the dead cherry tree, and moved to the other side of the pond to inspect the chewed up root. Maybe this was the opening that Bucky was looking for.  Finally, after I’d spent over an hour and half observing it, the beaver started beavering away at a beech sapling on the far side of the pond.

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It took the beaver almost eight minutes to gnaw through the small tree. After the top fell into the water, the beaver took a small and lazy victory loop around the center of the pond.  Then it pulled the fallen sapling along the edge of the pond, underneath the fallen cherry log, and spent the rest of the evening biting the branches off, and noisily tripping them of their bark.  It held the branches in its front paws, rotating the branch while gnawing on it like an ear of corn. The biting and chewing noise could be clearly heard all around the pond.

I moved further around the pond and kneeled next to a rock to capture some video and more stills of the feeding beaver, resting my camera on the rock.   By now it was almost 7:30 PM, well after sunset, and I’d spent two and a half hours watching and filming the beaver. I took a few more shots with the electronic flash, clearly gaining the animal’s attention, without scaring it away.

Night shot of the beaver

I walked out a few hours later, with a flashlight, and found the beaver about 50 feet away from the pond, up a hill. That was the last I saw of it. It was gone the next day, and there’s no further evidence that it has come back.  I can’t find any other beaver-chewed trees or saplings anywhere on the property, even in the alder patches down near the stream.

Previous blog entries using our game camera to track the activity on the Fall 2015 beaver dam on the northern border of Heiser Hollow:

Night time video of beaver repairing its dam

Other animals enjoying the beaver dam

My 2016 in Photos

December 28th, 2016
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I tried to be more purposeful in my photography this year, both in topic and technique, with a mix of tripod and hand held. The photographic year started in January, with a new, and much longer, telephoto lens, that gave me more photographic reach than I’ve ever had.  Along with the winter moon, the new glass helped me capture and identify a lot of the wildlife around the Hollow, including ducks, geese, herons, hawks, bluebirds, grosbeaks, warblers, turkeys, deer, and a red fox.

Great Blue Heron

I’ve already blogged about using my new telephoto to capture shots of the wood ducks on our pond, and a couple of previous blog entries explain my week’s vacation shooting the 17 year cicada.   My camera also helped me explore the vernal pools that characterize the 5 flat acres along the northern edge of the Hollow. In March and April, several small pools come alive with noisy amphibians and busy aquatic insects. While my in situ work wasn’t exactly ready for National Geographic, crawling around the muck in rubber boots,  I at least managed to document the existence of fairy shrimp and blue-spotted salamander.

Tadpole

Most of the shots you’ve seen of small amphibians and aquatic insects in books and nature documentaries were taken under studio conditions in a tank (surprise).  I collected a couple jars of salamander eggs, tadpoles and some caddis fly larvae. I set up a small plastic dish on a table, creating a makeshift studio to get some close-ups of these interesting little underwater creatures.

Caddis Fly Larva

People are interesting, too. I took my camera to three different sporting events this year, starting indoors in March when the Holmes County Training Center Bucks played the Community All Stars.

Bucks v All Stars 2016

In May, I spent a very wet afternoon shooting calf roping at a rodeo in Sugar Creek. The weather was terrible, but all the mud and water made for a lot of photographic drama. This was my first chance to try my new telephoto at a sporting event, and I thought it did a great job of focusing on the equine action.

Calf Roping 2

In September, I went to the 25th Ohio Cup Vintage Base Ball Festival, at Muffin Field in Ohio Village (Columbus), this time shooting my lighter and less awkward 70-200 F4.  Local amateur sporting events are great places to shoot—they usually let you have the run of the place, and there aren’t a lot of crowds to get into your way.

Muffin Field

Columbus is also the home to one of the best state fairs in the country, and I had a pair of photos accepted into the fine arts exhibit.   Elizabeth and I went to the Ohio state fair grounds to see the art, and then spent the rest of the afternoon looking at cows, pigs, and people.

Amanda the Cow

Most of what I photographed this year was relatively close to home, but I ended up with an afternoon and several evenings to kill on a business trip to London. I brought my pocketable Sony RX100M4, and had a chance to grab some views of Canary Wharf from a burgeoning new neighborhood around the O2, which was a drab and muddy part of London when I biked through in 2009.

Canary Wharf

I brought my small camera along on a late November business trip to Vegas, where a co-worker and I took a short trip into the desert to visit Seven Magic Mountains, a surprisingly intriguing temporary art exhibition.

Seven Magic Mountains

Always a sucker for signage, I managed to take a 1 hour tour of the Neon Museum.

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I did one paid-for shoot in 2016, driving out to Pittsburgh to spend a very interesting late afternoon wandering around a former industrial site in a photo event organized by Matthew Christopher, whose Abandoned America Workshops are always interesting. Most of the obsolete Carrie Furnaces installation has been razed, but a pair of blast furnaces from the Homestead Steel Works are still standing.  It was a fascinating place to visit, and unlike most of what I photographed this year, at least everything was standing still, making for a more contemplative, tripod-oriented photographic session. 

Blast Furnace

I also organized a fall foliage session in Amish Country for my camera club. We started the day at The Farm at Walnut Creek, taking horse drawn wagon rides through a gauntlet of exotic ruminants, all looking for a handout.

 Cow Tongue

After The Farm, the various club members split up, exploring southern Holmes county on their own, and visiting some of the sites and suggestions that I’d mapped out earlier that month, a variety of 1-room schools, old farm houses, and country churches.

Doughty Valley School

It was a more colorful fall season than last year, with the oaks showing much more red this year than they did last year.

Pond Reflections

2016 was also an interesting chance to try a couple of practical photographic exercises. A neighbor put their house up for sale, and asked if I would take pictures for the realtor’s web site.

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Another neighbor asked me to take head shots for her LinkedIn page (I’m not taking sole credit for her successful job search), and I spent several hours, at three different locations, doing a senior photo shoot.

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At least through the various lenses of my several cameras, its been a great year.

Ouch

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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
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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.

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