2014 In Photos

This is a chronological romp through some of my favorite photos from the year with a little bit of narration as to what I’ve been up to. If you like what you see follow me on this blog or on twitter and flickr


During a lab retreat in Algonquin Park we found these amazing insects that walk around on the snow! Quite an astonishing feat for a cold-blooded animal, more info here.


Spanish moss hanging from live oaks at Sapelo Island, Georgia, where I attended a BugShot photography workshop, more about the trip here. Some of my faves from the trip:


This is a Zoroptera, a rare order of insects with only 39 species. A great post about this species here.


Fishing spider.


Twin-spot skipper (Oligoria maculata).

Back in Ontario I got to work finishing up my thesis and applying for postdoc positions.


I still took time to get some insect photos though, here is a thistle bud weevil (Larinus planus) that my roommate brought to me. This individual had a very predictable behavior of walking up to the highest point, looking around and then flying off which made getting this shot possible, although it still required lots of persistence and patience.

The day after turning in my thesis I headed down to South Carolina to work in the field on the project I am currently working on as a postdoc. Some shots from South Carolina:


Mantis nymph.


An unidentified juvenile jumping spider. This photo was one of my first serious attempts at photo stacking, this is actually a composite of 11 photos all merged together which gives greater depth of field to the image.


Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) which escaped a bird attack, see the beak shaped hole in the right wing?


Leafhopper (Oncometopia sp.) from South Carolina. This is a stack of 13 images.

I headed back to Ontario where I successfully defended my PhD thesis, yaay! After that I went to a conference in Sacramento where I attended a field trip to Lake Tahoe (some pics here here here) and after that visited friends and family in Seattle and did nifty things like blueberry picking and playing a Horse Grinder show.

Back in Ontario: 20140829-22Walking through High Park in downtown Toronto with a friend I found a cicada just after emerging from the soil and watched it molt into its adult form. More photos here20140830-34Ant tending aphids in Mississauga, Ontario. 


This is not a wasp.

In September I packed up and moved to East Lansing, Michigan, to start my new position at Michigan State University.


Lake Michigan shore. There were some wicked sand dunes nearby where I made a Horse Grinder music video. 

20141018-24Some beetles trying to hide from the cold winds along the lakeshore.  Kinda like Abbey Road eh?

In November I took another trip down to South Carolina: 20141110-9This is one of our experimental plots which is a good example of the longleaf pine ecosystem. 


Tiger beetle, stack of 11 photos.

Over the holidays I traveled to Arizona to visit family: 20141223-59Tonto Natural Bridge. 


Estrella Mountains near Phoenix.


Desert adapted fern found near Prescott.


A young agave in the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix. I saw many more beautiful places in Arizona, like Watson Lake and Mogollon Rim.

Beetles on the Beach


I took a weekend trip out the Lake Michigan coast north of Muskegon, Michigan. As always, I was looking for arthropods to photograph but I had low hopes for finding any given the chilly weather.


But to my surprise I started noticing lady beetles perched on the beach grasses.



Then on the grasses closest to the water I found clusters of lady beetles sheltering from the wind. 


Multicolored asian lady beetles (Harmonia axyridis) were the most common, but sometimes I found other species mixed in, like the spotted cucumber beetle (Diabrotica undecimpunctata). 


Kind of like nature’s answer to Abbey Road eh? :)


Multicolored asian lady beetles are common predators of aphids in agricultural fields. After leaving the fields they were probably being blown around the lake desperately looking for somewhere to overwinter. In some places though it looked like the beach is where beetles go to die.


Concentrations of animals are always nifty spectacles, and although I mostly found non-native species, I was still delighted to see their bright colors dotting the fall landscape.20141018-14



#IAmANaturalist. It’s only in the last year or so that I’ve become comfortable with using that title. More officially, I am an ecologist. Certainly these titles are not, and should not, be mutually exclusive. Actually, I think being both an ecologist and a naturalist is ideal as interests and insights in one are often inexorably linked to the other. However, up to this point, much of my research in ecology and evolutionary biology has not been particularly inspired or rooted in natural history observations, at least not my own observations. This is not necessarily a flaw, but rather something I would simply prefer not to be the case. Something to strive for in the future.

I mention this because natural history in the broad sense—attentive focus given to organisms, patterns, and processes in nature—has grown as a personal pastime and passion. This of course can take many forms: photographing arthropods, bird watching, walking through and enjoying natural landscapes, and identifying plants growing out of sidewalk cracks, just to name a few. My increasing comfort in calling myself a naturalist comes primarily from four realizations: 1) natural history observations are key in informing and inspiring interesting research questions in ecology and evolutionary biology, 2) basic natural history is of critical importance in managing species, communities, and ecosystem imperiled by anthropogenic changes (e.g. climate change, habitat destruction), 3) natural history is the common thread in basically all my interests and pursuits in life, 4) understanding of, and connection with organisms and natural places is simply very pleasing and can even evoke a sense of spirituality that is otherwise foreign to me.

Much has been written about my points 1 & 2 above (notably these recent papers here and here) but I would like to provide a bit of a window into my points 3 & 4:

Yesterday I headed up to Hartwick Pines State Park about two hours north of East Lansing, Michigan (where I just moved). I learned of this park from this list of old-growth forests. I knew visiting an old-growth forest in Michigan would help me gain a sense of place in this new environment.

The forest was a mix of white and red pine, sugar maple, beech, and eastern hemlock. The tall and straight white pines were the signature feature though, as they were typically larger in diameter and extended above the canopy of the other species. This 30 second video gives a sense of the environment better than anything I could write (do you hear the woodpeckers foraging?):

It is important to stop moving. Listen. Look. Smell. Touch. Taste. Tuning your senses to a natural environment always results in interesting discoveries. I was inspired to capture my discoveries with a poem (of sorts):

Joyous rhythms

In these ancient woods

My eyes scan

For dead trees

I walk slowly

Tilting upwards

Peering around snags


Hairy woodpecker

Tail feathers pressed firmly against bark

Pounding fits of 8th notes

Head angled left

Then right

Chiseling bark and wood

Scatter and fall

Gentle percussions

On twigs and pine needles

Red squirrel shouts

My pinecone!

Feverishly runs off

And then a duo

Both tapping

Both hopping upwards

White pine dance floor

Thankfully left

For their performance

 Of course there were other interesting sightings too:



Experiencing this setting, all the details, the clean smell of the air, even the mosquitoes that swarmed around me, was an uplifting experience. But it was also bittersweet. Undisturbed communities such as this old-growth forest are very rare. Building a connection with this unique place, this islands of unlogged forest, gave me the visceral realization that I was within a biome that is severely damaged, and in its pristine state, nearly extinct. Old-growth forests in North America are miniscule polka dots on a map dominated by landscapes fully or partially run over by humans’ destruction. Aldo Leopold said “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” This is the dark side of being a naturalist.

But there is power in connection with nature and power in feeling the pain of the gaping wounds ripped across our landscapes. Reed Noss said in his great book on the natural history of Southern Grasslands “Endless fascination with nature–nothing more and nothing less–is the key to enlisting people in the fight to save biodiversity”. If we can’t get more people to have personal connections with places and organisms then are attempts at protecting and rebuilding populations, communities, and ecosystems are doomed. This is another very important reason to be a naturalist, to identify as a naturalist, and to promote and share the practice of natural history.

We must remember that aboriginal cultures did not have a word for “nature” because they had no reason to consider themselves as separate from the world around them. Their lives were entirely dependent on their understanding of the organisms, communities, and ecosystems that surrounded them. This remains true today although it can be hard to tell and easy to forget. That understanding is scattered across our vast populations with selected few having the personal connections with the physical, chemical, and biological processes that allow our modern lives to continue as they do. When we become disconnected we lose wisdom, compassion, and foresight. Natural history is about rebuilding those connections. #IAmANaturalist, and proud of it!


Cicada Molt

watchful eye and patience turn every nature walk into a fascinating spectacle. 

I was walking with a friend in downtown Toronto’s High Park, checking out the birds and flowering plants, and looking at the insects on milkweed and goldenrod. Also, watching at all the dogs running around was pretty entertaining too. Throughout, I was trying to find a sugar maple to demonstrate how to distinguish them from the invasive norway maples that covered the park. For an hour or so I failed to find any, which was actually a bit sad. This is the symbol of Canada and they are being replaced by an invader! 

Thankfully, there are still sugar maples in the park though, and I got excited when we finally found a grove of them. And before I could proceed with showing the differences between the two maples we spotted a cicada (a dog-day cicada, Tibicen canicularis) about 1 meter up the tree trunk that had just starting to molt. It didn’t seem to be moving though, and my first impression was that it had died in the process of molting–molting is a rough time in an insect’s life ya know. Lucky for out us, it was just fine, and with some patience we observed the full molting process (click image to view large):

20140829 cicada 1

Once the cicada broke free of its larval shell the wings unfolded and inflated with hemolymph (insect blood), turning from little shriveled green nubs to beautiful sets of wings. What a delightful and fascinating performance!

20140829 cicada 2

This species feeds on the roots of trees for several years than crawls out of the soil to transform into their adult form, mate, and lay eggs that will hatch and return to the soil. We were thrilled to experience this delicate and vulnerable moment in its life cycle.



Revelations From BugShot: Envisioning and Capturing a Unique Image

Following the BugShot Macro Photography Workshops at Sapelo Island, Georgia, and last fall in Belize, I have two important new ways of thinking about photography: 1) try to capture an image that is not like others you’ve seen before, and 2) imagine what shot you want to capture and then work towards that goal. Here are three examples of photos I took over the weekend in Georgia where I first was taking an OK, but not overly exciting or interesting shot, but then I imagined and captured something more compelling.

1) Rosy maple moth (Dryocampa rubicunda, Saturniidae). I first thought it might look neat sitting on top of leaf litter, a scene very much inspired by a photo by Piotr Naskrecki. I set up a little scene in a white box with a floor of leaf litter.


I think this is an alright shot, but not unique or exciting. Also, the weird bright colors of this moth don’t really blend in all that well with the leaf litter.  Using the same setup I tried a different angle which I think is much more interesting.


2) I believe this is a slant-faced grasshopper (Gomphocerinae), and is perhaps my favorite animal of the weekend.


This shot, again in a white box, is kinda neat. But with an animal so unique and unusual just about any well-lit shot is kinda neat. But when I looked closely I noticed an opportunity for something more interesting. The long face and bulging eyes just begged for a portrait. With lots of patience I managed one of my favorite macro shots yet.


3) Twin-spot skipper (Oligoria maculata), a butterfly that  lives in coastal swamps. This is an OK, but also very normal, shot of a skipper.


To improve upon this, I really wanted to capture this skipper in the context of its swampy environment. In this shot I used a fisheye lens stopped down to get a large depth of field and an off camera fill flash. I am pretty excited because this is my first successful attempt at an insect wide angle macro.


These follow-up shots were, I think, all large improvements over my first attempts largely because I came up with a unique vision, and then tried to make that shot happen. Previously, I often didn’t think of macro photography in that way, rather, I just wandered around snapping shots of whatever I happened to find. But thanks to the guidance and inspiration of John Abbott, Piotr Naskrecki, Thomas Shahan, Alex Wild, and the participants of the BugShot workshops, I have a new, and much more fruitful way, of approaching photography.

HT to Andy Warren (@AndyBugGuy) for the skipper ID.

Slime Flux Fly, Rare Salamander, Snakes, Cute Deer, and Other Nifty Arthropods

I had a great day of naturalizing in the forests around the University of Toronto – Mississauga campus.

Perhaps most exciting is this fly:

20140413-7Some insect ID gurus on twitter (@BioInFocus @stho002) thought this fly was in the genus Aulacigaster, part of the Aulacigastridae, a very unique and species-poor fly family. Many sources say there are less that 20 species in the family, but @ta_wheeler pointed out many species have been described recently, see this revision of Aulacigaster which now has 55 described species.  According to BugGuide: “Adults of Aulacigaster are found at slime fluxes and wounds of deciduous trees, where the larvae are also found”. Guess where I found this fly? On the wound of a deciduous tree! So seems very likely that ID is right. So cool. Here is a dorsal shot with the tree wound visible.

I also found some nifty vertebrates.

20140413-6This is a jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum). This species is rare in Ontario. It also has some really interesting genetics involving hybridization and polyploidy. Lots about it here. The larvae of a closely related species (the spotted salamander) has a symbiotic relationship with algae, meaning it can photosynthesize, the first vertebrate found to do so! Maybe Jefferson salamanders can too?

Today was also the first day this year I saw snakes, and two species even.

20140413-3Dekay’s brownsnake (Storeria dekayi) – lots of natural history info here.

20140413-4Common gartersnake (Thamnophis sirtalis) – natural history info here.

Here are some other nifty insects I found today:

20140413-5Do you see the insect? It is a tiny moth that is incredibly cryptic on tree bark.

20140413-8I found this cryptic insect in the leaf litter. It looks like a leafhopper nymph to me.

With my head down looking for insects I stumbled right into an entire family of resting deer laying on the forest floor chewing their cud. The deer here on campus are very habituated to people and these ones only stood up when I got about 5 m away. They eventually laid back down and let me get even closer to get this photo: