Thursday, January 31, 2013

Thanks Santa

Thanks to Santa Claus and tips from a local award winning, nature photographer, George Sydlowski, I was able to capture a surprise event that took place outside my home office window.  For a long time now I've been wanting to photographically document the increased wildlife activity in our yard.  After all, one of the big reasons we're converting our landscape to native plantings is to attract and support the declining wildlife populations. 

Banded Longhorn Beetle on Purple Coneflower
Birds have long been an interest of ours.  For eons we've bought tons of birdseed to attract our feathered friends.   It was only a couple of years ago I learned that almost all birds require insects to feed their young. So even the seed eating birds like Cardinals and Goldfinches must have insects to nourish their nestlings. Performing rigorous scientific studies, Dr. Douglas Tallamy found that over 95% of all terrestial birds require insects. Even the nectar loving birds like our energetic Ruby-throated hummingbirds need insects to feed their hungry offspring.   Birds build their nests where this food is available.  That's where the native plants come into the picture.  Insects have to something to eat too.  Tallamy documented that insects only eat the plants that they evolved with.  Native plants. 

I thought I'd start my nature photography with this cornerstone of the avian diet - the insects.   Last year my birthday present was a macro lens to help link me to the small sized element of the food chain.  This lens has allowed me to get up close and personal with my subjects.  Fortunately for me, a lot of these protein-packed, bite-sized critters seemed to enjoy having their pictures taken.  They agreed to hold still long enough for me to fumble around with setting up the tripod and focusing.  In one of my first experiments with the macro lens, I kept finding a striped, long antennaed, beetle kind of character walking all over the Purple Coneflower blooms.  If I started shooting back a little distance from this subject, I found I sometimes got a usable picture.  With an image in the bag, I became more confident to sneak up a little closer.  Snap, better yet.  Inching closer, the wavy antennaed animal didn't care.  Snap, still better.  Closer yet and this guy (gal?) didn't even bother to turn and look at me.  I sure figured it would say "OK - enough is enough" and flit off to a less crowded venue.  But not so.  I was able to tire myself out seeking better and better compositions. 

Jagged Ambush Bug on Daisy Fleabane
The view through this lens really opened my eyes and disclosed some most interesting  creatures.   I didn't know who these patient critters were.  Fortunately the good folks at were quick to help.  After uploading tight snapshots to their website I received a very quick reply.  It turns out that there at least two hundred gazillion species of insects and they seem to be able to identify them all.  There's no way this layman can begin to sort them out. 

Guided with identification from the bug folks, I was eager to find out more about these six legged curiosities.  A little googling and wow.  Many of these are not only tasty morsels for the winged crowd but are themselves predators of other insects.  The Jagged Ambush Bug quietly lies strategically in wait on an aromatic flower head.  When an unwary pollinator comes along, BANG!  This efficient predator can apparently snack on fellow insects much larger than itself. 

Robber Fly

One particular subject with big eyes looked like what I used to call a fly. Along the way I've found out that many animals are world class mimics of other creatures. They have developed amazing behaviors and colorations to confuse predators. Some flies look like bees, some bees look like wasps, some wasps look like bees. It makes me dizzy. So what was this wondrous insect?   Again the crew provided the answer: a Robber Fly, one of over 1,000 species of Robber Flies in North America alone.  What?  Over 1,000?  Seriously?  What's a new and puzzled nature lover to do?  Seeking guidance from Jim McCormac, an entertaining and tireless naturalist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, author, and blogger extraordinaire, I asked where to start.  Jim guided me to "Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America."  Now I can refer to this book and perhaps get into the right pew when trying to identify these critters.  Maybe I won't look like a complete dunce when bugging the bugguide team.  Oh yes, back to the Robber Fly.  Kaufman say this group of aerial insects is "to other insects what falcons are to other birds."  Thus this big-eyed bug eats other insects (as well as being consumed by others).  I never tire learning and witnessing how the web of life keeps things in balance.  Each organism is important to all the others, even us of the homo sapiens variety. 

Carpenter Bee headed for Daisy Fleabane flower

Now that we'd been raising our own bird food, I really wanted to photograph this avian part of the food chain that is flourishing here courtesy of the native plants.   Try as I might, I couldn't get close enough to our feathered friends. They certainly didn't sit still for this stumbling photographer to stick a camera in their faces.   

 Enter Santa Claus with a telephoto lens.  Then at one of our local Wild Ones meetings George Sydlowski gave me some quick tips on using it.  Several weeks ago a motion at the birdbath caught my attention.  Hmm...that bird looks different than I'm used to seeing.  Wow - it's a  Bluebird, a female Bluebird.  Nanoseconds later another landed next to it.  Then another, then a more brightly colored male, then a few more.  We haven't seen Bluebirds at our house in over 12 years.  While the temperatures were well below freezing, the heated birdbath provided a nice hydration source for this flock.  In my excitement, it was all I could do to grab the camera and try to hold this heavy lens steady.  Fortunately George's tip of cranking up the ISO so I could snap with higher shutter speeds proved fruitful.  Eventually the flock moved on.  The following day found a large flock of American Robins perched on the birdbath.  Closer inspection disclosed a smaller, bluish bird squeezed into the group.  Ah hah.  A female Bluebird had elbowed its way into the throng of raucous Robins.  Sadly I wasn't able to snap a shot before the elegant feathered aviator decided it had better birds to hang with.  Nonetheless I now have the first pictures for the bird section of my backyard wildlife album.  Thanks George.  Thanks Santa. 



Tanya M said...

I love the spin you put on "pesky" insects. It's good to be reminded that they are as important as all of God's other creatures. I love the photography. I bet the bug people website are enjoying new and up close photos of Ohio insects.

the Native Plant Neophyte said...

Hey Tanya M - good to hear from you. Good comment - I used to be the first one to grab the insectides. It totally blew my mind to find out that all these little insects are absolutely vital to our own well being. They are a huge piece of this complex ecosystem to which we all belong. Up with bugs! And of course, the creatures that eat them!

Heather Holm said...

Wonderful macro photos, lucky that Santa brought you what you wanted. Now Mother Nature (and your native plants) will provide you with the subject matter.

the Native Plant Neophyte said...

Amen on that Heather. And I'll have to get a giant hard drive(s) to store it all on. (Keep up the good blog work yourself - you're frequent posts are an inspiration.) - Hal