Saturday, August 27, 2011


A half-hour before daylight, when I checked the day's weather forecast on my iPod, I saw early fog on the agenda. Great, I said to myself, maybe I can get some neat foggy photos from along the river. 

I made coffee and readied my gear. Then, as the morning sun began to creep over the eastern horizon, I looked out at the pool and riffle in front of the cottage. Naturally, I expected an indistinct view, thanks to that prognosticated blanket of luminous fog.

What? Where's that silky, mysterious fog I was promised? There wasn't even a hint of thin mist hanging above the water! I'd been hoodwinked, misled, deceived and deluded once again by those dastardly weather diviners.

And so, not willing to let a morning photo outing escape so easily,  I went looking up the hill and thence up the road. And the best image I found was the one above, of the just-risen sun shining through what could be fog, or might be nothing more than the usual exhalation mist of woods and dewy grass along the edge of a small copse. A pretty image, regardless.

Friday, August 26, 2011


On a recent dewy morning, I took this photo of a bit of Virginia Creeper on the lichen-blued trunk of a fencerow hackberry—mostly because I thought the message worth passing along. 

Whether you count yourself one of those "summer sunnies" who delights in cloudless skies and blazing heat…

Or you like your days crisp, your nights cool, and would rather put on a flannel shirt than bug dope and sunscreen every time you head afield…


Thursday, August 25, 2011


After several recent false predictions and a near miss or two, it finally rained last night just after 3:00 a.m.—a storm which arrived with a shattering thunderclap, awakening me from a fretful sleep and setting a heron dozing along the river into a bout of rattly squawks. I lay awake for a while afterwards, listening to the roar of droplets pelting through sycamore leaves, thrumming on the roof, and the steady gush of water from the eaves—enjoying the breath of sweet-scented air coming in from nearby the window. The temperature dropped a dozen degrees in as many minutes. 

We needed rain—lawn and flowers, but especially the river which flows past the cottage, and was starting to look a bit gaunt between its banks. Last night's rain will provide a fresh drink for the fish—bass, bluegills, crappie, catfish, and many more, large and small—as well as the mayflies and caddis which live in the stream's muck and gravel, the crayfish which ply the pool's rocky bottom, the gentle queen snakes that sometimes shinny up the grapevine draping over the deck to sun themselves on the rail, and the turtles that now sun daily on the logs and rocks. These and countless others will welcome the rain; rain is the lifeblood of rivers.

I appreciate the rain, too, for it will save me some work watering plants…but mostly for the way it presented me with a fresh-scrubbed morning—a morning damp and cool, with bright sunshine and a sky so blue it was like looking overboard when trolling for marlin out of Key West, and seeing the waters of the Gulf Stream swirling in indigo mystery under the boat's hull.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


To a lot of photographers, harsh, straight-on backlight can be a bane to making a picture, or at least an unwelcome difficulty to be worked around—either necessitating a move to change the angle of the shot, or by adding fill flash. A shutterbug's gotta do what a shutterbug's gotta do, I suppose.

When it comes to nature photography, my personal shooting philosophy is to keep things as natural and spontaneous as possible. I'll move around to work a scene or subject, but I'm also prone to try and make my first shots from the original angle, thinking there must have been something worthwhile there which caught my eye in the first place. Artificial light is employed only as a last resort.

Mind you, I'm not saying my way is the only way, or even the best way. Nor that you shouldn't adjust your shooting position, or even pop a flash now and then. Just that I try to minimize being a stage manager or lighting director. I prefer to embrace the conditions at hand and try to find a way to work with what I'm given, recording rather than creating. The creative part, for me, is finding the shot and getting an image that captures the essence of its attraction. Backlight becomes a tool rather than an obstacle…and sometimes the primary impetus for the shot.

The butterfly shot, above, is a good example. As butterfly images go, it isn't much good. You'd never use it to show someone what a common Buckeye Butterfly, Junonia coenia, looked like; it isn't even a "pretty" or "artsy" butterfly image. Nope, what caught my eye, and prompted the photo, was that dastardly backlight itself—strong morning sunshine streaming straight at the butterfly…and through its wings!

I saw this not as "Butterfly the Insect," but  "Butterfly as Stained-Glass." Nature's stained glass. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


Yesterday, friend and fellow-father-in-law, Rich, and I shared several hours in the heat of the afternoon on a sort of impromptu photo safari. Most of the time was spent trudging a fair ways along a path which led back to a trio of ponds. I hadn't visited the ponds in several years—and in the meantime, the Department of Natural Resources (the ponds are on public property owned by the state) had closed off a portion of the old access road…hence our resorting to shank's mare. Also, the dead-end gravel lane where I parked turned out not to be the closest trailhead point for heading to the ponds—though I'm not sure whether this was due to the state's revamping or my memory; let's just say we missed the shortcut. 

The last half of the trail led through thick scrub woods interlaced with countless spiderwebs, their eight-legged creators ensconced demurely in the middle. Being members of the Micrathena clan, and seldom more than a quarter-inch long, they weren't big enough spiders to set off an arachnophobic tingle, though their sticky web strands, which stuck to your face and clothing, were annoying.

The initial portion of the path bordered an old field, designated as a training area for hunting dogs, and containing various wildlife-attractive plants. It was here, in the middle of the mown path, that I found the little male Eastern Tailed Blue butterfly, Cupido comytans,  perched on a stem of dried grass. 

With it's wings closed, I initially mistook the butterfly for a small hairstreak, a fairly easy mistake since—except for the diminutive size—the Eastern Tailed Blue looks remarkably similar to, say, a Gray Hairstreak. Yet whereas a typical Gray Hairstreak, wings outspread, will measure upwards of two inches across, the tiny Eastern Tailed Blue is lucky to reach half that size.

However, when the little butterfly opened its wings to bask in the hot sun…all thoughts of it being simply a small hairstreak vanished. 

This spread-winged elf was a stunning blue, a sort of dusty indigo, the color of an almost-new pair of denim jeans after only a few washings—with an outer band of white outlining the wings, followed by a black inner band. Two reddish-orange spots, all but invisible unless you looked close, were located on the rear of the hind wings; trailings tails, in black-punctuated white, extended rearward beyond the innermost of the spots. 

Eastern Tailed Blues are common hereabouts. The females, when open-winged, are less colorful than males—more of a dusty charcoal gray. The butterflies are usually found close to the ground, and like to feed on various clovers and low-growing members of the pea family. I saw several different clovers and some sort of wild pea with tiny pink blooms growing everywhere along the trail bordering the meadow—perfect habitat for the butterfly we photographed. 

After dropping Rich off at his house, while heading north the twenty-some miles through the city and homeward—sweaty, tried, hungry—I thought about this lovely little blue butterfly…and easily decided the chance to see and photograph such a creature was well worth the trek and heat and spider-webs across the mouth. 

Saturday, August 20, 2011


Quick! What's orange and black and tan and metallic with sea-blue highlights?

Hey, look for yourself! I'm not making this up. Check out the post pix. See, orange and black and tan and metallic with sea-blue highlights…and no, it's NOT a beetle, but a moth. That's right—moth! Unlike most moths which keep their wings outspread when resting or feeding, this one with the fancy paint job—the Ailanthus Webworm Moth, Atteva aurea—keeps its wings rolled tightly against its body. 

The Ailanthus Webworm Moths are part of a family known as "ermine moths," most of which  are found in the tropics. Ermine moths build communal web nests for their larvae.  

Originally native to South and Central America, and possibly south-Florida (various texts disagree on this point), the Ailanthus Webworm Moth was once found only concurrent to the historic habitat range of its larval host plant, Simarouba glauca—commonly known as Paradise Tree. When another, quite similar tree species, Ailanthus altissima, or Tree-of-Heaven was imported as part of the attempt to get a silk industry started in the U.S., the webworm jumped hosts. It is from this newer host plant that the moth received its common name. 

Though the American silk-making business fizzled, the Ailanthus tree quickly became popular with gardeners and lanscape nurseries because it was flowering, fast-growing and undemanding, thriving in wastelands and disturbed areas, and amid the exhaust-fumes miasma of a big city. This is the tree famously referred to in the best-selling book by Betty Smith, A Tree Grow in Brooklyn. As Ailanthus trees spread their way across the continent, so did the Ailanthus Webworm Moth. 

[As it turned out, Ailanthus trees spread too well, soon becoming invasive in many areas and earning the derisive nicknames, "ghetto palm," and "tree-from-hell." Moreover, it's habit of putting out root suckers broke up foundations, roads, sewer pipes and other underground lines, and sidewalks. Too, much like a walnut, the Ailanthus tree puts out a natural chemical herbicide, ailanthone, that inhibits growth in nearby plants, thus helping the Ailanthus to thrive. Finally, those pretty yellow flowers smelled like male cat urine, prompting the unflattering but honest epithet, "stink tree."]

Ailanthus Webworm Moths are ecologically harmless, and actually serve as a beneficial pollinator as they go about visiting and feeding on various plants. Most moths seen in the northern states probably don't manage to overwinter, though a new generation migrates in from the south each summer. 

Incidentally, the only reason I know a little bit about these bright-colored creatures, and was able to recognize them when I recently spotted several feeding on a clump of boneset, was that a year or so ago, my friend George, of the splendid Transit Notes, posted a bug photo he'd made which he hoped some reader could help identify. I had no idea, either, but I liked the photo and the crazy-patterned look and gaudy colors, and decided to make it a sort of mini-mission to figure the puzzle out. It took me about an hour and looking at a lot of possibilities—I started out thinking beetle—before I stumbled in the right direction and managed the identity. But once seen, it's not a creature you soon forget. 

Thursday, August 18, 2011


There's a digital clock at my bedside—and the first thing I do when roused by body aches or bad dreams, is look to see what vile hour I've been so cruelly and prematurely awakened.  This morning the glowing turquoise numbers read 4:11 a.m.  

Since I hadn't gotten to bed until long after midnight, I closed my eyes and tried to will myself back to sleep—which didn't work any better than it usually does. When I reached some nether-world state of oblivion where I found myself counting dead fishermen—angling companions, mentors, guides, and fellow piscatorial writers, none of whom would I ever again share time on the water with this side of the River Styx—I decided I'd better get up or else face the day depressed as well as exhausted. 

That was at 5:08 a.m. Unless you have reason to be up at such time, or suffer from a similar caducity-gift of insomnia, let me inform you that this is a bleak, empty, and still utterly dark hour. Good only for the occasional skulking raccoon making their way homeward from another night of neighborhood burglarizing. Even the katydids had fallen silent.

For a while, without turning on a light, I sat in the rocking chair and, via my iPod, did my typical digital morning check of the world-at-large…email, weather, Facebook, a blog or two—then CNN, FOX, Drudge, and similar sites for what passes as news, but is often mere rumor, opinion, party politics, gossip, vested-interest spin, and pure sleaze. Upon reaching my gag limit of such fare, I got up, washed my hands, made coffee, and carried the steaming cup of life-giving brew to my study, where I figured to putter around until time to prepare breakfast.

It began getting light about 6:00 a.m. A half hour later, just before I headed down the hall to wake Myladylove and Moon-the-Dog, there sounded a pecking at my deskside window. In the gloom, I was immediately reminded of Poe's raven—except this was a small and decidedly scruffy Northern Parula Warbler, though whether also a bird or portent, I couldn't say; perhaps the day ahead will reveal the answer. 

I snapped a quick silhouette portrait. Then I awoke the remaining members of the household and decided scrambled eggs and biscuits seemed appropriate fare. 

It is now going on noon. Myladylove is long at her work, Moon-the-Dog is back asleep. I've taken the trash toter and recycle bin up the hill for pickup, consumed a second cup of coffee, and am currently trying to decided whether I want to amble up the street and check out several garage sales or go back to bed. I don't feel as awful as I expected…though maybe that will come later. And I also haven't figured out if that early-arriving warbler came pecking at my window out of friendliness, or had some message to impart.

I think this way when I'm sleepy… 

Sunday, August 14, 2011


Silver-spotted Skipper on Ironweed.
It's a cloudy day here along the riverbank. The weather forecast calls for a 50-percent chance of showers this morning and 20-percent during the afternoon. Which is fine by me, even though it is a Sunday; we can use the rain. 

Earlier, when I went out to refill  the big seed feeder near the front deck, I realized that while I was making my early-morning rounds nearly two hours later than usual, the night was nevertheless just then giving way to dawn. Time moves on. The seasons turn. Autumn will be here a scant six weeks hence and we've already lost more than an hour-and-a-half of total daylight since summer's beginning back on June's solstice. Before you know it, we'll have carved our jack-o'-lanterns for Halloween, celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas, and suddenly find ourselves ringing in a brand new year.

Is it just me, or does anyone else find it an ironic paradox that as our bodies slow down, time speeds up?

But enough of such depressive ruminations! There's still plenty of this year ahead to enjoy, still a wealth of days and adventures to savor—from the delicious table fare of homegrown garden vegetables that actually taste like real food, to the visual delight of fields rich with goldenrod's bright dazzle and spattered with jeweled clumps of purple asters.

While the great wheel may turn inexorably, I intend to take my time.

Friday, August 12, 2011


1)  Bird one…maybe he best of the photos overall. 
I am bird stymied. A double whammy, mind you…two different birds (or maybe both members of the same species, for all I know) that appeared at my window late yesterday, maybe ten minutes apart, when the light was almost gone—neither of which do I feel certain of correctly identifying. Vireo? Warbler? Two species? One? Male? Female? Immature? Adult? Summer plumage? Fall cloak? 

I have plenty of questions and no firm answers. 

2)  Bird two…the only usable shot of this bird of the lot.
I did manage quick shots of both birds—and yes, I know the shots are of wretched quality. The light was really low and I was afraid there wasn't time enough to change the ISO settings on the camera—so I shot with my usual 200 setting. Obviously, the images are seriously underexposed. 

After uploading the images, I looked through various field guides and a number of online images…but the more I looked, the more confused and uncertain I became. They were both small birds, though bird two was smaller than bird one. 

Below is the one of the straight–out-of-the-camera images I had to work with, just so you can see the degree of underexposure. 

4) The is a typical underexposed shot—way too dark to be usable.
I've manipulated and tweaked the recorded images to the best of my very limited post-production technical skills and possibly the software I possess—though whining about a software upgrade is just an excuse; I dopubtless couldn't do an iota better if I owned the full version of PhotoShop and a dozen plugs-ins, incompetence rather than equipment being the limiting factor.

Not only was the light low, but the bird which appears in photos 1, 3, 4, 5, and 6, was under the dense canopy of my canna lilies, and in shadows which added an overall green cast to what little light there was. I've tried to correct for that cast, though I'd say the bird's head and cape feathers were somewhat more golden than in my images.  

My best guess for bird number two is a female Northern Parula. Bird number one might be a female Prothonotary Warbler. If you can figure out whose portraits I've take—albeit badly—whether I'm wrong (the smart money bet) or right (a miracle!) I'd appreciate your input and help.   

Thursday, August 11, 2011


I spent an hour or so yesterday morning making butterfly pictures at a prairie site just up the road from the cottage. Later, because I had a midday appointment to keep at the optometrist's, I adjourned to a small pond closer to his office, where I stalked dragonflies, damselflies, and several small butterflies along the cattail-fringed edge until time to head for the eye doc's.

The morning was pleasantly cool. Puffy white clouds sailed across an azure sky. The only minor drawback, from a photographic standpoint, was the rather stiff breeze, which blew almost constantly—bending and swaying the prairie's big bluestem and purple coneflowers, and the little pond's cattail and willows, turning the colorful insects I was trying to photograph into erratically moving targets.

That is definitely not a complaint. After enduring several sweltering weeks of 90˚F-plus weather, a bit of a photographic challenge is a small price to pay for such welcome comfort. I'll take 75˚F and a refreshing breeze over 97˚F and smothering calm every time!

My optometrist visit went well. I began wearing glasses as a child, and switched to contact lenses in my early teens. (Back then, hard contacts were made from plexiglass—the same material used for windowpanes in doors.) Of all the optometrists I've had over the years, the fellow I see now is far and away the most thorough in his examinations…and I also believe, the most competent. Yesterday's examination took nearly three hours—partly because of the doc's meticulous and exhaustive care, but also because of a family history of glaucoma, the fact that my eye health indicates that I may be heading in that direction, plus an incident which occurred a few days ago (again, I was out taking photos) that might be an early warning sign of a torn retina. What I appreciate the most about this guy is that he's not only conscientious and comprehensive, but straight-talking and firm in his opinions. As a hard-headed Irishman, who, believe me, is no easy patient, I find such behavior refreshing. 

By the time I got out of there—relieved if somewhat frayed from the assiduous nature of the exam, my eyes dilated to those resembling a great horned owl, vision a temporary mess—I needed at least a brief ramble outdoors to even my kilter. A small natural area on the way home offered the perfect panacea. 

A few minutes later I parked in the graveled lot and ambled along a narrow path across an old meadow white with Queen Anne's Lace. Patches of purple Ironweed hosted Tiger Swallowtail butterflies. A handful of goldfinches flitted atop the thistle heads. The breeze was still blowing and the whole field seemed to be alive, dancing a slow waltz beneath a sparking afternoon sky. And I thought—not for the first time—how I was so very grateful to be able to see this—thankful for the eyes and vision to take in the wonder of such a place, such a day. What would I do without sight? How would I read or write, make photos, prepare meals, look deep into the eyes of Myladylove and know she loves me back? Surely the gift of sight is among God's greatest blessings to mankind. 

Call this a public service announcement, Riverdaze style. If you're due for an eye exam, make the appointment and keep it. Find yourself a good optometrist. Take care of your eyes, your vision, your sight. What a wonderful, lovely world we have—a world where beauty surrounds us, if only we take the time to look…and have the ability to see. 


Tuesday, August 9, 2011


Most of us have no difficulty distinguishing a bird from a bug. Birds have feathers; insects have, well, all sorts of exterior coverings—from chitinous exoskeletons to scales, and sometimes a sort of fuzzy "fur." But definitely not feathers. However, it's easy to see why hummingbird moths are regularly mistaken for real hummingbirds…they look like hummingbirds, fly like hummingbirds, sound like hummingbirds with the whir of their fast-beating wings, and are seen frequenting the same places—i.e., hovering around and sipping nectar from flowers.   

True, a hummingbird moth is smaller than a genuine hummingbird. The color isn't much like a ruby-throat. If you look close, the body shape—at least to me—always appears less like a bird, but oddly similar to a crawfish. Still, the moth's flight and feeding characteristics are quite analogous to its avian namesake. 

And like the bird, the moth is just as challenging to photograph!

The photos here are the best I've manage so far. I made these shots a couple of weeks back when the wild bergamot was still blooming profusely. Hummingbird moths are always on the move as they feed, zipping from bloom to bloom, changing angles as they hover to sip nectar. They are often wary, and not too easy to approach. Capturing one requires patience, quick reflexes, the ability to fast focus, and a high capacity for frustration. Plus a little luck. As you can seen, the shutter speed I choose was not fast enough to "stop" the wings.

The moth in these shots is, I believe, a hummingbird clearwing, Hemaris thysbe—part of the Sphinx moth family, and one of the four species of Hemaris found in North America. 

Sunday, August 7, 2011


Speaking of butterflies and zinnias…

Well, we were, right? In several recent posts?

Anyway, here are some shots from yesterday afternoon of a gorgeous tiger swallowtail that came flittering hither and yon about the old-timey zinnias planted along the walkway. 

The day was hot with light clouds. It had sprinkled a few times during the morning hours—not enough to matter except to make the sultry air feel even more humid. Myladylove and I were working at various yard chores, though I was keeping an eye on a couple of loaves of banana-walnut bread in the oven, along with a couple of marinating steaks which were destined for the grill later on. When the butterfly came along, I immediately grabbed my camera. 

A slight overcast always makes for good photographic lighting unless you're trying to shoot landscapes with a lot of sky in the horizon. But the afternoon's occasional gusty little breeze, while it gave welcome heat-relief, played havoc with my attempts to stay focused and framed on my fluttering subject. Often it blew so hard it was all the poor butterfly could do to hang on to whatever blossom it was nectaring. And sometimes, hanging on was impossible…and the swallowtail would be swept off, tumbling momentarily, at the mercy of the wind before it regained some measure of control and fluttered and fought its way back to the flowers.

I don't know whether or not a butterfly can feel frustration, but a photographer certainly can. And yet, frustrated as I was with the impish wind's effects on my photo session, I couldn't help but admire the swallowtail's single-minded determination, the pluck of something so small and fragile and aerodynamically vulnerable before any breeze more intense than the mildest zephyr. Would that I had the courage and perseverance to face my own comparable hardships with the same indomitable spirit and attitude.  

Monday, August 1, 2011


I don't know the identity of these flowers, but I like them a lot. They grow about two feet high, with three-inch blooms that come in an almost endless variety and combination of hues. The blooms may have a single, almost primitive array of petals; while others sport double or even triple allotments. Each flower is unique. From their start in midsummer, the bright, colorful blooms keep arriving one after another until serious frost. Butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds all find them attractive. Moreover, they somehow strike me as old-fashioned looking and seem  a perfect choice for the cottage garden.

Yet…their name remains a mystery. Myladylove's parents live in the extreme northeastern corner of Tennessee, smack in the middle of the Blue Ridge portion of the vast Appalachian Mountains—that ancient rocky spine which runs southwestward from Newfoundland, Quebec and Maine all the way to Georgian and Alabama. From their hilltop home, a few minutes drive north will take you across the state line into Virginia; head east instead and you'll be in North Carolina…and in not much more time you could make that Kentucky, West Virginia, Georgia, or South Carolina.

Their home, which her Methodist minister father built a few years ago prior to retirement, sits atop a high hill, on mostly open acreage—grassy pasturelands rather than the thick forests of, say, the Great Smokies, and not nearly so high and rugged. There are plenty of woods around, and occasionally a black bear wanders along—but this is really horse-farm country, with lots of stables and riding centers nearby. 

Myladylove's mother not only puts out a big garden—from which she annually cans several hundred jars of everything from green beans to tomatoes, peaches to pickles—but she also grows a variety of flowers, and often sends a package or two of seeds to us in the mail. A few years ago she passed along a handful of flower seeds.

One of those seed packets resulted in the blooms pictured in this post. The story is that a number of years earlier, an old man gave Myladlove's mother a supply of seeds which he said had been passed down through his family for several generations. He didn't know the flower's name, or if he did, Myladylove's mother doesn't remember. I've looked through a few garden flower books, and scrutinized the spring catalogs—but so far, no luck. No one I've asked recognized the plant. 

Now I'm not saying this is a rare plant, or even uncommon…just that I'm stumped as to its name. It may be as common as marigolds, something everyone but me knows immediately. At best I'm a dabbler when it comes to garden flowers. While you don't need to know the name of flower to appreciate its beauty, I'm hoping someone knows this one.