September 29, 2007

A Mantis Moment

I found a praying mantis climbing on one of our windows tonight. A perfect opportunity to try out the close-up abilities of the new camera. Suffice to say, I never could have gotten pictures like this with our point-and-shoot crapola camera.

For anyone interested in knowing this, I took these pictures using a Canon Digital Rebel XTi with EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 Lens. I was messing around so much with the exposure and shutter speeds that I don't really remember what settings I used for each picture. I think the ISO was set firm at 800 and shutter speed ranged from 1/125 to 1/320. I had the aperature set on automatic (Tv).

Out of the 78 pictures I took, these ten are the best. I had a hard time deciding which of them to post until I just said screw it. So I'm posting all of them. Like with the tarantula pictures, be sure to click on each image to get the full size version.

I like this one because it really captures the different colors on its thorax and shows how sleek its body is. And the dark background really shows off its antennae.

I just sort of liked the perspective and depth of field on this one. It was moving around a lot, making it really difficult to get its entire body focused in the frame. But I think it adds some character to the image. Although, I might try to get rid of that wierd halo around its head.

It kept moving its head all around as it was walking around on my arm. I read that mantids can actually swivel their heads 180 degrees as well as pivot them around on their necks. Seeing it twist its head to look up at me really gave it some personality.

This is another one where the depth of field gives the image an almost 3D quality.

I bet you've never seen mantis drool before.

I luh-uv this photo! The mantis had flown off of my hand onto my shirt, so I was taking pictures looking straight down as crawled up toward my face.

Speaking of which...

Sonja wanted in on the action, too. But she couldn't handle how tickly this felt crawling on her neck for very long. But she was as fascinated by this little guy as I was. He had too much personality to be creeped out by him. We're assuming it's a male, as they're the ones who fly around at night searching for females. Ok, I'm seeing a pattern emerging here. Between the tarantula and the mantis it seems like the males are the ones doing all the work to find a mate. And not only that, but in both cases its not unheard of for the males to die attempting to mate. How is that fair??

Actually, there's a lot of info out there about the mantid's tendancy toward sexual cannibalism. It's pretty interesting stuff.

When I think of mantids I usually imagine them to be fairly large. But this one wasn't all that big at all.

This was hands down one of the coolest insects I have ever seen. I wish this image had been more in focus. It was just a little too close to the lens. The effect just makes him look even more like a tiny bad-ass alien staring into the camera, though.

Have I mentioned how much I love our new camera?

September 28, 2007

Big Hairy Spider

On my way into work this morning I had to swerve the car to avoid running over a spider (how often can you say that?). A big, hairy spider. Luckily, I had our new camera beside me in the car, so I pulled over and hopped out, Canon in hand, to both help keep the spider from getting run over and to take a gabazillion pictures of it. I purposely kept these pictures pretty big, so if you click on each image, a larger version will appear so you can see more of the detail.

I think this is the fourth desert tarantula I've been able to play with since moving to Arizona. Although, he (remember, only male tarantulas leave their burrows to go search for mates) wasn't very good at holding still to give me a chance to focus the camera, so most of my pictures ended up rather blurry. He was definitely on a mission to go find a female spider somewhere nearby.

I just couldn't pass up the opportunity to get him to crawl onto my hand. I've only been able to get one other tarantula to do that (the very first one I ever saw, actually). The others have been way to skittish. This guy didn't even slow down when he got to my hand. He just strolled right onto it. Although, he did pause half way across and, moments after this picture was taken, I noticed these two rather large pointy black things (ie, fangs) being maneuvered over my vulnerable palm. It took me a second or two to figure out exactly what was happening. At that moment I felt the spider scrape its fangs lightly over my skin, for what purpose I can't really say since I quickly (but carefully, so as not to hurt the spider) removed my hand out from underneath it. I honestly don't know if he would have actually bitten me or not, but I wasn't really willing to experience it, so I decided not to put my skin within fang-reach again.

So, I let the spider go on its merry way, but not without doing my best to get some cool pictures of it.

I'm curious as to why tarantulas seem to have such large spinnerets, considering that they only spin silk to line their burrows. You can see them here protruding from the back of the opisthosoma (abdomen). He kept flexing them at me like this for some reason. I suppose it might have been a defensive or stress thing, but he never postured like he was trying to defend himself.

I love this picture because you can clearly see the spider's unique eyes. It would be pretty cool to see the world through the eyes of a spider.

At this point I figured I'd leave him to his quest. Besides, I was already late for work.

September 24, 2007

Evening Light

Today was an absolutely beautiful day. I don't think it got much higher than about 83 degrees...perfect for a nice stroll around the park. Here are a couple of tonights better images as I experiment with how our new camera works in different lighting conditions.

I really like how the light in the background gives this picture a warmer feeling. It took about thirty pictures to get one or two nice ones as I tried different settings to capture the soft light. Really, it was more of me randomly hitting buttons to see what it does to the picture rather than any attempt at learning techniques.

We spotted the remains of a deer along the trail near our house. Not sure how long it's been there, but Sonja doesn't remember seeing it last week. It seems pretty picked over, though, so it can't be that recent. I needed to use the flash on this one in order for the exposure to look good. I'm really surprised at how non-washed out it got, actually. I guess I'm just used to using a flash on a crappy camera.

I can finally take pictures of the moon without it looking like a tiny little blob in the distance. Still need to figure out the exposure and aperature thing, though.

I think Harvey enjoyed the walk.

September 23, 2007

New Neighbors

It rained most of last night, but cleared up just before dawn. Perfect conditions for capturing evidence of the local wildlife in the fresh mud. With that in mind, I grabbed our new camera before leaving for our evening walk with the dogs on the off chance of spotting some interesting tracks from any critters wandering past our house early this morning. We weren't disappointed.

Amidst the various deer and javelina prints and worm trails criss-crossing the still damp mud we spotted these. Each one a good three inches across, they leave no doubt as to the identity of our new neighbor, a mountain lion. And we can be certain that it skulked past our house sometime around dawn this morning. What's more, there were two distinct sets, one significantly smaller than these. We're assuming its a female with at least one half-grown cub.

While I would absolutely love to see her, I'm not holding my breath. They don't call lions the "ghost of the wilderness" for nothing. I'm almost certain she's seen us walk by, however. It's enough to know she's living here with us, for at least a little while. For me, she's a reminder of everything that remains wild and free in this world. What little that is left, anyway.

However, her presence here does mean we'll have to be more careful/observant when taking the dogs for walks in the early morning and evening. And I'm going to try to convince Sonja to start carrying bear spray with her when she goes for a run. Not that I'm afraid that the lion will do anything except try to avoid our notice, of course. But a little healthy respect for a 300 pound predator is always a good thing.

"The essence of true wilderness
is big mammals that can eat you."

Edward Abbey

September 22, 2007

Home, Sweet Home!

After two long, exhausting, but worthwhile weeks at a workshop for the Park Service, I'm finally back home. But I'm still tired after spending today standing out in the rain helping kids dig through a sandbox for bits of broken pottery. That means I'm still exhausted, so there probably won't be much commentary for this post, but I did want to put up some pictures Sonja (who was here in Arizona) and myself (who was in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and Washington, DC) took since my last entry.

I'll start with some pictures from my trip out east, since they're much less interesting than the ones Sonja took while I was gone. I try to do some sightseeing every time I travel to Harpers Ferry for work, and this time was no different.

I had never really known the significance of Fort McHenry National Monument and Shrine before. In fact, I'd bet most Americans don't. That is, unless you inform them that these are the ramparts o'er which Francis Scott Key saw the star spangled banner waving during the Bombardment of Baltimore in the War of 1812 (which actually lasted until 1814, which is when this battle took place).

As much as I totally despise the man who lives here, it's still a pretty building.

Bet you didn't know there's a monument in DC with its very own Glow in the Dark Lincoln!

Besides sightseeing, work trips to Harpers Ferry also includes lots of eating out. Fortunately, there are enough options in the area that it's fairly easy to eat at a different place every night for two weeks. But never have I had a culinary experience like the one we had when 15 of us visited the Oval Room in DC. The brother of a friend of mine who was also at the training is actually one of the chefs at this very upscale gourmet restaurant near the National Mall (next door to the White House, actually). This meal challenged everything I thought I knew about food.

Take the above dish, for example. I've never been a fan of raw fish, but this dish came highly recommended from a friend, so I figured I'd be brave. The thing that looks like a slice of a tomato is actually raw tuna. On top of it you have cubes of gelatinized chipotle and bits of passion fruit. Next to it there is a blob of avocado puree. The trick is to put a little bit of everything onto a puffed tapioca cracker and shove the whole thing in your mouth in as refined a manner as you can manage. The resulting explosion of flavors and textures that hit my tongue simply cannot be explained. And this was my least favorite dish of the evening! To give you an idea of how much everyone there enjoyed this dinner, here's a video of another workshop attendee, Rick, reacting to his meal (he reacted the same way after every single did I, for the most part).

That explains it all, I think.

As does this picture of everyone licking every last crumb and smear of scrumptious sauce from our plates after dinner. Ok, so we weren't as refined as the other patrons in the restaurant...but we couldn't have cared less. And to think, some people eat like that every freakin' day! It's just so unfair...

But I don't want to give the impression that I spent the whole two weeks having fun. As a matter of fact, I worked incredibly hard every single day.

Just look at my collection of playdough art that I worked on throughout the workshop!

Anyway, like I said, Sonja's pictures from when I was away are much more exciting.

She actually got to watch a tarantula hawk (the wasp) dragging a tarantula it had paralyzed around a tire in our neighbor's yard. It was trying to find a place where it could bury the spider, but I'm not sure why it decided a tire might be a good spot to look.

And, the most exciting news was when Sonja heard that a mountain lion had killed a mule deer no more than 200 yards from our house one night this past week. The day after, she decided that she really wanted to go look for evidence for herself (and maybe even see the lion). While she failed to find the cat or the dead deer, Sonja did find a rather large lion track about 50 yards from our front door. Pretty amazing to think that we've got lions in our yard!

September 08, 2007

Our New Camera!!

We got our new camera last night. It didn't take long for me to figure out how very little I know about photography. At least it only took me about five minutes to figure out how to turn it on. I have a feeling the learning curve for taking good pictures with this camera will be rather steep, but hopefully it will pay off in the end. I spent a little time this morning before work playing around with it a bit. Here are what I think are the best out of the 107 pictures I took in the first forty minutes of our new camera's life. Be sure to click on each of the images to get a more fuller effect of what makes this camera better than our old point-and-shoot. Granted, these aren't the greatest pictures I've ever taken, but it's a start.

Rufous Hummingbird at the feeder.

Aerial Acrobatics

Stopping a hummer's wings

Red Darter

Close-up of the dragonfly. The macro feature on our cool lens is awesome.

So, I'm leaving late tonight for Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, for a NPS training. I'll be gone for two weeks, and probably won't have many opportunities to post. But when I get back you can expect a plethora of pictures, good and not so good, as I begin to discover what my camera, and myself, are capable of.

September 06, 2007


Well, it took several months of searching, but we finally captured a tarantula on camera!

Sonja found it in our backyard this evening around 11:15pm as she was letting the dogs out. Figures that after months of carrying our camera with me whenever we go for a walk we would see one next to our front step as we're getting ready for bed. He looks much prettier in real life, actually. The picture got kind of washed out because it's so dark outside. And our camera doesn't like trying to focus using our porch light.

I'm assuming that this spider is a male, since female tarantulas spend most of their lives within a couple feet of their burrow. The males, though, leave their underground homes about the time they reach sexual maturity at ten years of age. The spend up to two months roaming around looking for females to mate with, until they either starve or get eaten by something or captured by a tarantula hawk (Here's a video of a tarantula hawk dragging off a paralyzed spider).

Anyway, this was a really cool spider. I tried to coax it onto my hand, but it looked a little on edge and we didn't want to stress it any further than he already was. Got a cool video, though.

September 03, 2007

Misty Water-colored Mem'ries

I spent the better part of this morning scanning in some old pictures from a photo album I kept as a kid. While you can browse through all of the pictures by clicking on this link, I figured I'd post some of the highlights here.

Growing up on a lake in Minnesota provided all sorts of fun experiences most kids probably didn't get. Like being able to catch bullheads from our backyard. These were really disgusting fish, but they were the only thing you could catch in Lake Winona. We never actually ate them, we would just maim them and throw them back.

And why don't they make E.T. iron-ons anymore?!? Dude, I would so wear that shirt again if I could find one. Although, the whole tight-pants look probably wouldn't work as well for me anymore.

In fifth grade I won first place in the county science fair for my crystal growing experiment. Now this is something no eleven year old kid could get away with doing today. I'm still surprised how easy it was for me to purchase some pretty nasty chemicals at the local pharmacy. The cans they came in were the best part. Each of them came in plain brown cylinders complete with the word "poison" printed in huge letters and an actual skull and crossbones decorating the front. It was almost comical, like I had ordered them from ACME for a mad scheme to off the roadrunner or something.

Hey, there's my completely out-of-place paper-mache' dragon guarding the crystals, too! Holy crap, I was a geek...

One year I decided I wanted a bow and arrow. But my parents would only buy me arrows, so I had to make a bow myself. I used a stick and a rubber bike innertube. It worked surprisingly well, actually. And I was quite the archer, if I do say so myself. Even at this extreme range I was usually able to hit the box.

Some things never change...

My bird-nerdy tendancies emerged when I was quite young. This photo album includes no less than twenty crappy pictures of ducks, geese and assorted birds. But I did much more than just take pictures. I was also notorious for feeding/taming wildlife in our backyard. The most memorable "pet" I had was Redwing, pictured here taking some incredibly nutritious Wonder bread from my hand. I spent the better part of a summer training him to come closer and closer until he would take food from my hand. He came back a total of three summers to nest in the cattails in our backyard. Each year he'd become more tolerant (and more demanding) of me, my family and my friends...really, anyone who didn't know not to slam the screen door onto the deck.

By the last summer he was with us, Redwing was "tame" enough to perch on my shoulder and eat birdseed from the palm of my hand.

I also aspired to be a nature photographer, even in elementary school (which is still something I aspire to, actually). I would use any excuse to "borrow" my parents' camera in order to "finish" a roll of film...particularly rolls that still had 20 or so pictures to "use up." I was such a helpful child.

Anyway, this picture has always been one of my favorites, taken in 1986 at my grandparents' house in St. Cloud, MN (that's my grandpa's foot in the background). I even submitted it to the National Wildlife Federation magazine for their amatuer photo contest. I didn't win.

So, that's a smattering of memories from my childhood. If only it was as cool back then as it is now to be a nerd/geek. I would have been the most popular kid in school. Well, at least as an adult I can bask in all my geeky glory.