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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Winter in Canada is pretty good at making you miss all the aspects of nature that you enjoy because, chances are, those living things you love are dead, dormant, or delocalized. (So, I was just trying to keep the alliteration going there, but by delocalized I mean they have cleverly migrated somewhere warmer, I often wonder why we don’t do the same.) This sense of longing has a silver lining, I think, because it illuminates what aspects of nature you may have taken for granted, and also encourages you to look closely for living things. To give attention to organisms you might, in more plentiful seasons, pass over for something more exciting, or to notice biological shapes and textures you’ve never studied closely before. In other words, this desolate setting reinvigorates the quest for life and beauty.

Luckily, the days are getting longer and there are hints of warmth, on some days… Life is responding and the quest is getting easier. I am quite happy for that.  Today I went for a walk with a friend at Grindstone Creek in Hamilton, Ontario. Birds were out in abundance, like the first migratory species to arrive, red-winged blackbirds. The complex squawks of males drifted over the flowing water that was frozen solid just days ago. Males are here early to stake out a territory for when the females eventually arrive. Many of the resident birds were active and noisy too.

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A female northern cardinal. Some of the bright red males were belting out their complex lazer-like songs nearby. I personally like the look of the females better, but maybe that is just because folks get excited by the garish males and overlook the comparatively reserved females. Feminism spilling over into natural history perhaps?

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At this park lots of people feed the birds and they have become quite friendly. It is an endearing interaction between humans and wildlife, I think. This is a white-breasted nuthatch.

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To my surprise the downy woodpeckers were unafraid of humans as well. They are so cute!  [The background on this photo was washed out and distracting so I made the shot black-and-white and whited out the background]

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Black-capped chickadees were ever curious and would gladly snag food from human hands. When adorable birds were not capturing my attention I looked for some more subtle beauty.

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This park had some quite large trees for Southern Ontario. Tree bark, especially on large trees, often has delightful and complex textures. I’m not sure sure what species the first tree is actually, without leaves large trees are hard to identify. The second shot is a paper birch.

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The dried husks of summer’s productivity are often sources of beautiful shapes and symmetry, like this burdock fruit.

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Many fungi are always present, like these little shelves slowly decomposing a downed tree.

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It was nice to see a cute little mammal, an eastern chipmunk. They hibernate over the winter, but because of their small size they cannot pack on enough fat stores to survive, so they stock their burrows with food to keep them going. Winter is still with us so I bet this chipmunk is just taking advantage of the few slightly warmer days to top up its reserves that were probably fully depleted over the long winter.

As you can see, today’s quest for life and beauty was quite successful. No need to wait for the full arrival of spring, life marches on through this still-frigid month. I encourage you to give some of your attention to all those organisms struggling through the cold, find some natural beauty before spring brings it on in waves.

Yesterday I was teaching a class on aspects of insect morphology and we had live migratory locust (Locusta migratoria) to play with. Here are some close up photos I took:

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Femoral-tibial leg joint where stored energy is released with an explosive jump!

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Compound eye and antenna

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Big powerful mandibles for chomping grass.

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Side of thorax and abdomen, notice the spiracle at the bottom for gas exchange.

For anyone curious, the blue and green background was a nitrile glove and grass blades :)

Time for a chronological romp through my favorite photos of the year. The first shots come from a trip I took with my Dad up to Kawartha Highlands, Ontario.

Ontario

20130630This was the view from right near the rustic cabin we stayed in.

20130629-3A stop along our paddle.

20130701-4Prairie milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii)

Mexico

I took a vacation to Mexico where I meet up with friends Diego and Mariana who were kind enough to show me around their beautiful country.

20130717We visited Las Pozas, a surrealist art project build into the rainforest.

20130718We paddled up a river, well the guides paddled up the river, to this stunning waterfall named Cascada Tamul.

20130721One of my favorite parts of the trip was our boat ride through a mangrove.

20130722-2Sunset on the way back to Mexico City.

20130725-3Yucca in Mexico City

Belize

I attended a Bugshot macro photography workshop in Belize!  It was absolutely incredible and my photography skills improved greatly. Here are a few of my favorite shots from the trip, lots more posted on my flickr account.

20130922-29Barnes’ metalmark (Detritivora barnesi)

20130929-13A horsefly

20130925-17Wandering spider

20130926-25Tigerwing (Mechanitis polymnia)
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Looks like a cross between a wasp and a mantis but it’s neither. It’s a mantispid.

20130929-14Potato leaf beetle (Leptinotarsa undecemlineata)

20130926-24Leaf mimicking katydid

20130927-22Metallic leaf beetle (Chrysomelidae), possibly Colapsis sanjoseana

20130925-18Late addition: A pleasing fungus beetle (Family Erotylidae). I think this might be my favorite shot of the year.

Ontario

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Rough woodlouse (Porcellio scaber), I wrote lots more about this here.

20131103-6Bark louse in the order Psocodea that I found on a leaf on a sidewalk in Toronto.

20131016-13Dekay’s brownsnake (Storeria dekayi)

Found on dead elm treeGills of a fungus I found on a dead elm tree, the species is Hypsizygus ulmarius.

Urophora carduiCanada thistle gall fly (Urophora cardui), more on this here.

Arizona

I took a trip to Arizona over the holidays to visit my Mom and Brother.

20131219-7My brother found this fly in the dog’s water dish :)

20131219-6Teddy-bear cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii) glowing in the sun

20131220-4Late day light from my Mom’s place in the high desert, Chino Valley AZ.

20131224-7Granite Basin Lake with Granite Mountain in the background, near Prescott AZ.

20131221-5Grass head. This species is very common in the high desert but only some of them make this perfect circle.

20131224-6Bear grass sunset

20131227-10A convincing leaf mimicking katydid (possibly Microcentrum rhombifolium) I found in a wash in Phoenix.

Shamrock

Yes, Shamrock gets her own category.

20131231-3Took this photo just in time, on new years eve. Gosh she’s cute.

Merry new years y’all.

Urophora cardui

The Canada thistle gall fly (Urophora cardui, Family Tephritidae) was introduced from Europe to North America as a biocontrol for Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense)–which of course is also from Europe despite it’s confusing common name. In Europe they call it creeping thistle. A friend of mine is studying patterns of herbivory on Cirsium arvense across Ontario. She collected a bunch of galls this spring and they just started emerging in their lab here in December. The adult flies are beautiful animals.

Urophora cardui

Urophora cardui

Urophora carduiIn these last two photos you can tell this individual is a female by the long ovipositor. She would use this to stab into the stem of a thistle and lay her eggs. When these eggs hatch they eat the plant tissue inside the stem and through some herbivore magic, they trick the plant into producing a gall (the larvae probably release some chemicals that affect plant growth). This is a cancerous-like growth (from the plant’s perspective) that provides food and shelter for the larvae as it develops. It will then pupate inside the gall and emerge as an adult, ready to mate and start the whole process over again.

Urophora carduiHere the fly sitting on a gall that had been pulled off the plant back in the spring. You can see the exit hole on the right side where they fly chewed its way out.

Urophora carduiAnd I couldn’t resist one more shot of this elegant animal in a very standard fly pose.

Friday night in downtown Toronto I stepped out my front door to cars rushing past and the glow of streetlights. I was looking for something to photograph. I turned to my left, to a little planter box. Here, like everywhere else on the planet, there were interesting and beautiful creatures with jointed legs and exoskeletons. This is what I found underneath an old chunk of 2×4:

Porcellio scaber

I thought I’d found a pill bug, with the delightful spiky symmetry and rows of yellow spots, but it wasn’t. Pill bugs are in the family Armadillidiidae, named for the trait they share with armadillos, the ability to roll into a ball when disturbed. This one just scurried away quickly. Instead, it was a common rough woodlouse (Porcellio scaber). You can recognize Porcellio scaber by their overall rough texture, the three lobes on their head, and two short appendages sticking out the back (called uropods). Normally they are gray or slightly bluish. This individual seems to be more colorful than usual.

Porcellio scaber

This other individual has more typical coloration.

Porcellio scaber

Woodlice and pill bugs are not insects but Isopods, a group of crustaceans. There are around 10,000 described species of isopods making them by far the most successful terrestrial crustaceans – most crustaceans reside in the ocean. About half of all isopod species are marine and half terrestrial, with a few living only in freshwater habitats. The isopods that live in and near our homes still hold evidence of their aquatic past. Appendages that served as gills in aquatic isopods evolved to be pseudolungs in terrestrial species. However, holes in the pseudolungs that allow for gas exchange cannot be closed making them very vulnerable to desiccation. That is why they stay in moist and dark places.

Porcellio scaber Rough woodlice (also known as rough sowbugs) feed on decaying organic matter, but also their own feces (coprophagy). Two hypotheses why they do this are: 1) to maintain copper in their system which is an important element in making haemocyanin (the protein that transports oxygen in circulatory systems of most invertebrates), and 2) to maintain the diversity and abundance of symbiotic bacteria that aid in digestion, especially of cellulose. Another biological waste fact, they excrete their nitrogenous waste as ammonia gas instead of urine. Possibly this serves as a defense against predators. Woodlice often huddle together in very tight spaces so it seems they must be careful not to turn their slumber party into a deadly gas chamber! Hopefully they have a strict ‘step outside to deposit your nitrogenous waste’ rule :)  Lots more facts about these nifty animals here and here.

Porcellio scaber Porcellio scaber are native to Europe but they are very closely associated with humans and are now common all over the world. There are likely many in-and-around your house right now. I am glad I stopped to take a closer look. When was the last time you looked closely at those little animals you found and played with as a kid? Well, supposedly I am something of an adult now but and I learning to regain that relentless curiosity. It is a good way to spend a Friday night.