Rain on Russell Mountain

Hiking buddy Rich and I have already hiked the entirety of the Ozark Trail, doing so in 5–15 mile segments from 1996 through 2015. Since then, we have been redoing some other the segments in the reverse direction from the first time, the eventual goal thus being to hike the entirety of the Ozark Trail in both directions. Today was a small contribution to that goal, in which we did the short section between the fire tower at Taum Sauk State Park (containing Missouri’s highest point at 1,772’ asl) and Russell Mountain.

Raindrop prism.

The forecast was not promising, with steady rain predicted and temperatures remaining in the 30s. Still, Rich and I are not prone to cancelling a hike due to less than ideal conditions, so we arrived at Taum Sauk Mountain mid-morning despite the periodic rain and decided to give it a go. It was a good decision—our rain jackets and warm underlayers kept us confortable, and we were rewarded for our tenacity with an serenely beautiful look at the craggy, water-soaked landscape.

Young Polystichum acrostichoides (Christmas fern), Flavoparmelia baltimorensis (rock greenshield lichen), a fruticose lichen, and Polytrichum commune (common haircap moss) in dry-mesic upland deciduous igneous forest.

It was slow going as we both forgot our hiking sticks, forcing us to more deliberately choose our footing on the rugged, rocky, boulder-strewn trail. Normally on a winter hike, it is the buds, bark, and remnant leaves that I pay attention to as I strive to identify the component trees comprising the forest around me. Today, however, with intermittent light rain, heavy moisture-laden air, and our eyes mostly looking downward to choose our next footstep, it was the ferns, mosses, and lichens—bright green and water-swollen—that captured our attention.

Closeup of Polytrichum commune (common haircap moss) and a fruticose lichen from previous photo.

Polystichum acrostichoides (Christmas fern) dotted the forest floor and along the trail. Most of the plants we saw were older, their fronds and pinnae ragged and tattered. A young individual, however, captured our eye, partly because of its fresh, bright green foliage and partly because of the close association with Polytrichum commune (common haircap moss), Flavoparmelia baltimorensis (rock greenshield lichen), and an unidentified fruticose lichen—a natural mini-terrarium.

Closeup of young Polystichum acrostichoides (Christmas fern) from previous photo.

Further along the trail, a patch of Thuidium delicatulum (delicate fern moss) was found thriving in the cold, wet conditions. As the name suggests, the leaves of this moss resemble the fronds of a small fern but form colonial mats rather than arising from a basal rosette as in true ferns. Wet conditions such as existed today are ideal for seeing this moss in its most attractive state—under dry conditions, the leaves are more appressed and contracted against the central stems.

Thuidium delicatulum (delicate fern moss) growing trailside in dry-mesic upland deciduous igneous forest.

As we descended the hillside, running water could be heard in the distance, suggesting we would be treated to the sight of a waterfall. At the bottom, the normally dry creek ran full, water crashing over the rhyolite boulders strewn further up the ravine and gushing down below us. Some careful footwork was required to scale the hillside off-trail to reach the water’s edge and get a closeup and personal view, but experience made the careful footwork down the hillside and back up well worth the effort.

Rain-swollen creek.

Approaching the glades on Russell Mountain, the diversity of conspicuously green lichens and mosses immediately caught our attention. The normally xeric landscape was lush and moist—water pooling in depressions of the exposed rhyolite bedrock and stream over its slopes in sheets. Beds of Polytrichum commune (common haircap moss) colonized the edges of exposed bedrock, forming extensive mats of turgid, bright green, bristly vertical stems that looked like miniature primordial forests. Like Thuidium delicatulum (delicate fern moss), this moss also is more attractive when moist, its leaves widely spreading and straight, while in dry conditions they are erect with their tips often recurved.

Polytrichum commune (common haircap moss) on exposed rhyolite in the glade.

The final leg of the hike took us through the scenic rhyolite glades (more properly called xeric rhyolite prairie) between the Ozark Trail and the Russell Mountain Trailhead. Normally, the glades are a harsh habitat—dry grasses crackling underfoot amid the searing heat and the surrounding forest of Quercus shumardii (Shumard’s oak) and Carya ovata (shagbark hickory) stunted and open. Today, however, dense fog, heavy air, and water running over every surface made the glade seem mysteriously soft and gentle.

Fog settles over the glade.

The exposed rhyolite bedrock here represents remnants of volcanic rock formed 1.5 billion years ago. Representing one of the oldest continuously exposed landforms in North America, these craggy hills are but mere nubs of mountains that soared 15,000 feet above the salty Cambrian waters that lapped at their feet. It is only reasonable that these ancient rocks should be so heavily colonized by lichens—ancient life forms themselves resulting from a symbiotic association between fungi and a photosynthetic partner, usually algae or cyanobacteria (blue-green algae).

Exposed rhyolite heavily colonized by foliose and fruticose lichens and mosses.

Like the previously seen mosses, rain brings out the best in lichen attractiveness—their hydrated tissues at their brightest and most colorful. A number of fruticose and foliose lichens can be found intermingling in the exposed rhyolite surfaces, with Flavoparmelia baltimorensis (rock greenshield lichen) being one of the most conspicuous examples of the latter.

Foliose and fruticose lichens, including Flavoparmelia baltimorensis (rock greenshield lichen) in the foreground, co-mingle on the exposed rhyolite.

©️ Ted C. MacRae 2021

Hiking at Don Robinson State Park

Don Robinson State Park comprises and protects much of the upper watershed of LaBarque Creek in northwestern Jefferson Co.—one of east-central Missouri’s most pristine and ecologically significant watersheds. The St. Peter’s sandstone bedrock underlying the area features box canyons, shelter caves, cliffs, and glades amidst high-quality upland and lowland deciduous forests. The property was originally purchased in the 1960s by businessman Don Robinson, who’s dream was to have a personal sanctuary as large as New York’s Central Park. Through his generosity, the property was bequeathed to the state to become part of Missouri’s state park system following his death a half-century later. The park opened to the public in 2017 and offers some of the highest-quality hiking trails within an hour’s drive from St. Louis. For those interested in more detail regarding the watershed’s geology, ecology, and conservation, an excellent summary can be found in the recently issued LaBarque Creek Watershed Conservation Plan by Friends of LaBarque Creek Watershed.

Here are a few photos from along the Sandstone Canyon Trail.

Rich photographs a box canyon on the Sandstone Canyon Trail.
Box canyon on the Sandstone Canyon Trail.
Box canyon on the Sandstone Canyon Trail.
Box canyon on the Sandstone Canyon Trail.
Box canyon on the Sandstone Canyon Trail.
Sandstone bluffs on the Sandstone Canyon Trail.
Sandstone bluffs on the Sandstone Canyon Trail.
Armillaria gallica (bulbous honey mushroom)? Growing from woodpecker damage on living Ostrya virginiana (hop hornbeam) in mesic upland deciduous forest.
I’ve never seen a mushroom growing out of a woodpecker hole.
This fungus lives as a saprobe or opportunistic parasite in weakened tree hosts and can cause root or butt rot.

The flora along the riparian corridor inside the box canyons was of particular interest to me, as it contained nice stands of three tree species of note: Betula nigra (river birch), Ostrya virginiana (eastern hop hornbeam), and Carpinus caroliniana (blue beech, musclewood, American hornbeam). All three species belong to the family Betulaceae and have been associated with some interesting woodboring beetle species in Missouri. I have reared large series of Anthaxia (Haplanthaxia) cyanella from fallen branches of B. nigra (both blue and bronze color forms—see MacRae 2006), and in the course of doing so I also reared a series of an Agrilus species that turned out to be undescribed (to which I later gave the name Agrilus betulanigrae—see MacRae 2003). From O. virginiana, I have reared two specimens of Agrilus champlaini from galls on living trees (still the only known Missouri specimens of this species—see MacRae 1991). Finally, from dead branches of C. caroliniana, I have reared Agrilus ohioensis (see Nelson & MacRae 1990), and from a larger, punkier dead branch I reared a single Trachysida mutabilis—this also still the only known specimen from Missouri (see MacRae & Rice 2007). I think I’ll go back in late winter to early spring and see if I can find dead branches of each to place in rearing boxes or perhaps girdle some branches to leave in situ for a season before retrieving and placing in rearing boxes. Who knows, maybe I’ll get lucky with additional new finds.


MacRae, T. C. 1991. The Buprestidae (Coleoptera) of Missouri. Insecta Mundi 5(2):101–126.

MacRae, T. C. 2003. Agrilus (s. str.) betulanigrae MacRae (Coleoptera: Buprestidae), a new species from North America, with comments on subgeneric placement and a key to the otiosus species-group in North America. Zootaxa 380:1–9.

MacRae, T. C. 2006. Distributional and biological notes on North American Buprestidae (Coleoptera), with comments on variation in Anthaxia (Haplanthaxia) cyanella Gory and A. (H.) viridifrons Gory. The Pan-Pacific Entomologist 82(2):166–199.

MacRae, T. C. & M. E. Rice. 2007. Biological and distributional observations on North American Cerambycidae (Coleoptera). The Coleopterists Bulletin 61(2):227–263.

Nelson, G. H. & T. C. MacRae. 1990. Additional notes on the biology and distribution of Buprestidae (Coleoptera) in North America, Part III. The Coleopterists Bulletin 44:349–354.

©️ Ted C. MacRae 2021

Hughes Mountain redux

Despite the relatively long drive from St. Louis, a healthy group of 15 showed up for this past Monday’s WGNSS Botany Group outing at Hughes Mountain Natural Area; participation no doubt helped out by a spectacular forecast (sunny with highs in the 70s) and near-peak fall colors. Hughes Mountain is situated in the northern portion of the St. Francois Mountains. At its summit is Devil’s Honeycomb—a barren expanse of uniquely fractured Precambrian rhyolite formed by the gradual cooling of magma inside a volcano that was then exposed over 1.5 billion years of erosion. Devil’s Honeycomb is one of Missouri’s geologic wonders, and it’s rocks are among the oldest exposed rocks in all of North America.

Devil’s Honeycomb, summit of Hughes Mountain.

Rocks are not the only items of interest here; the igneous substrate results in acidic conditions that affect the flora in equally interesting ways. This is most pronounced in the igneous “glades” (more properly called xeric igneous prairies) where the soils are too thin and conditions too dry to support the growth of trees, offering refugia for grasses and other herbaceous plants more typical of the western grasslands to persist. Surrounding the glades are dry and dry-mesic upland deciduous forests of oak and hickory featuring a rich shrub layer and open woodland-adapted herbaceous plants.

Beginning on the trail from the parking lot, John Oliver pointed out a stand of tall, now leafless sumacs which nearly everybody (including this author) assumed to be Rhus glabra (smooth sumac) due to their size. In fact, despite their size, they proved to be R. copallinum (winged sumac), with the ID confirmed by a few persisting leaves and their distinctive axial “wings.” John pointed out that an easy winter ID tip for this species is the fruiting structures, which nod distinctively after first frost (those of R. glabra do not).

Post-frost “nodding” seed head of Rhus copallinum (winged sumac).

Ascending the trail through the dry-mesic forest towards the first set of glades, we noted the brilliant colors of small Acer rubrum (red maple) saplings in the understory. When their leaves finally drop, they will be more difficult to distinguish from A. saccharum; however, their rounded rather than elongated buds will still allow differentiation.

Acer rubrum (red maple).

Several of the oaks were examined, with most thinking they were largely Quercus shumardii (Shumard’s oak) and Q. velutina (black oak)—both similar to each other but the latter bearing larger, grayer, pubescent, quadrangular terminal buds. Approaching the glades, Q. marilandica (blackjack oak), Carya texana (black hickory), and Ulmus alata (winged elm) became more abundant, all three much preferring the drier conditions found around the glade margins. An interesting feature of the latter (in addition to the distinctive, corky ridges on the twigs), is the leaves, which are smaller than those of most other elms but tend to grow larger towards the terminus of the twig. They also tend to be much less asymmetrical at their base than other elms.

Ulmus alata (winged elm) showing gradually larger leaves towards the twig terminus.

Very little was left in bloom, but the remnants of recent bloomers were still evident. Solidago petiolaris (downy goldenrod) and Symphyotrichum anomalum (many-rayed aster) were common along the trail and still recognizable, their showy flowers gone and replaced by developing seeds. Hieracium sp. prob. gronovii (beaked hawkweed) was found nestled among mosses perched on a rhyolite shelf, the flowers gone but the leaves still green and distinctively hairy. Hypericum gentianoides (pineweed) was found on the glades proper, most with their stems and leaves turning red but the occasional plant still green enough to allow crushing its stems and enjoying its orange-like fragrance. Bucking the trend, however, was a small patch of Solidago nemoralis (old-field goldenrod), it’s yellow flowers fresh and bright in defiance of the calendar’s call to senescence. A small jumping spider in the genus Phidippus took advantage of the lingering greenery, hiding among the leaves in hopes of finding equally persistent prey.

Hieracium sp. prob. gronovii (beaked hawkweed).
Solidago nemoralis (old-field goldenrod).
Phidippus sp. on Solidago nemoralis (old-field goldenrod).

The benefits of management efforts by the Missouri Department of Conservation in the area’s forests were more evident than ever. Between the first set of glades and the main glades surrounding the summit, a rich shrub layer dominated by Rhus aromatica (fragrant sumac) stretched endlessly under an open woodland of oak and hickory, the latter turning the canopy bright yellow in vivid contrast to the orange and red shrub layer beneath. Such open woodlands were once common in pre-settlement Missouri but are now rare due to the elimination of fire in the landscape and its mediating impacts.

Rhus aromatica (fragrant sumac).

Entering the main glades, the group made their way up towards the summit and Devil’s Honeycomb, while Ted and Sharon stayed back to take a closer look at and photograph a robust colony of Cladonia cristellata (British soldiers) growing under Juniperus virginiana (eastern red-cedar). Lichens, of course, are unique in the world of vegetation in that they are a composite organism—a fusion between a fungus and another organism (usually a green alga or cyanobacterium) capable of producing food via photosynthesis. None of these groups of organisms are considered plants in the modern sense, and, in fact, fungi are more closely related to animals than they are to plants. Nevertheless, the convergence in appearance, habitat, and ecology of lichens with plants puts their study much more in the realm of botany than zoology.

Cladonia cristatella (British soldiers).
Cladonia cristatella (British soldiers).

The group arrived at the summit just in time to enjoy spectacular vistas under crystal blue skies with wisps of clouds and the balmiest temperatures one could possibly hope for in early November.

The group enjoys the view from the summit of Hughes Mountain.
L–R: Ted MacRae, Rich Thoma, Kathie Bildner, Michael Laschober, Tina Cheung, Kathy Thiele, Nancy Mathis, Sharon Lu, Alan Brant, Mark Peters, John Oliver, Larry Lindenberger, Burt Noll, Gwyn Wahlman, Keith Woodyard.

©️ Ted C. MacRae 2021

Botanizing at Castlewood State Park

Fall color was the goal of today’s Webster Groves Nature Study Society (WGNSS) Botany Group field trip, and Castlewood State Park—with its breathtaking bluff-top views over the Meramec River Valley—is as good a place to see the autumn spectacle as any. It was a well-attended group despite the cool temps, blustery winds, and hint of moisture in the air, likely helped by the park’s closer-than-usual proximity to St. Louis.

Meramec River viewed from Lone Wolf Trail Overlook.

The group decided to hike the Lone Wolf Trail, which traverses both dry forest along the bluffs and riparian forest along Kiefer Creek. We got the climbing out of the way quickly by making the long, steep ascent up to the bluffs from the parking lot—giving ample opportunity for all to make it up before exploring the bluffs. John pointed out a small tree with developing male catkins that identified it as Ostrya virginiana (hop hornbeam). The catkins will remain closed through the winter and flower next spring. Ostrya (pronounced “oh-STRY-uh”) bark is usually vertically striate (pronounced “STRY-ate”), but the bark on this tree was still relatively smooth—a “non-striate Ostrya”!

Male catkins of Ostrya virginiana (hop hornbeam).

Reaching the wooden deck overlooking the Meramec River Valley, the size of our group apparently intimidated three youngsters that were on the deck, and they quickly yielded way. The expected fall colors had not yet materialized, leading some to engage in what seems to be an annual tradition of debating whether this year’s colors are abnormally late. While at the deck and walking further along the trail from it, debates centered mostly around distinguishing the various oaks and hickories. Fallen (squirrel-clipped?) twigs from one of the large oaks exhibited large, fuzzy, quadrangular buds typical of Quercus velutina (black oak), but the leaves had usually deep sinuses. After consulting a Missouri oaks field guide, we decided they must represent Q. velutina despite the atypical leaves. Close examination of the hickories with magnification revealed distinct pubescence on the buds and petioles, suggesting Carya texana (black hickory).

The WGNSS Botany Group takes in the view from the Lone Wolf Trail Overlook.

There was little still remaining in bloom along the bluffs, and what was still in bloom was in pretty rough shape. We found two blue fall asters near each other, but a closer look revealed that they were actually two different species—Symphyotrichum turbinellum (prairie aster), distinguished by its vase-shaped involucre and branchy growth with simple leaves, and Symphyotrichum patens (creeping aster), recognizable at once by its basally clasping leaves. Another fall aster without blooms caused some debate—the recurved phyllaries of the involucre and chordate lower leaves suggested Symphyotrichum anomalum (manyray aster), but the toothed leaf edges suggested something else. Without a flower to see the color, it was suggested it could be an “anomalous anomalum.” Otherwise, only the occasional, scraggly Solidago ulmifolia (elm-leaf goldenrod) completed the list of still-barely-blooming plants along the bluffs.

Acalypha virginca (Virginia copperleaf) provides the forest floor with subtle fall color.

Descending from the bluffs along a north-facing slope and more mesic conditions provided much more color than along the bluff. Patches of Asimina triloba (pawpaw)—their large, simple leaves now vivid yellow, brightened the understory, while the ubiquitous Acer saccharum (sugar maple) lifted the yellows higher into the canopy. Only the giant oaks, mostly Q. alba (white oak) and the aforementioned Q. velutina soared above the maples, their great height no doubt a result of rich, deep soils on the north-facing slope. On the ground below, a multitude of ferns colonized the moister areas, with three species found growing side-by-side: Adiantum pedatum (northern maidenhair fern), Phegopteris hexagonoptera (broad beech fern), and Polystichum acrostichoides (Christmas fern).

Apioperdon pyriforme (pear-shaped puffball, stump puffball) on dead oak trunk base.

Fall color was not restricted to the leaves of the trees—fruits also provided dazzling points of color. Cornus florida (flowering dogwood) and Lindera benzoin (spicebush) both sported bright red berries similar enough in appearance to each other that close examination was required to distinguish those that had fallen to the ground. The former is synecious (i.e., all flowers bisexual), thus, all individuals can bear fruit. The latter, however, is dioecious (i.e., some individuals bear only male flowers, while others bear only female flowers); thus, only female trees produce the red berries. Comparing male versus female trees provided a chance to compare also the now-developing flower buds that will be among the first to open of any plant next spring. Since male plants tend to flower earlier than females, their flower buds were observed to be ever so slightly larger and further developed than those on female plants.

Lindera benzoin (spicebush) female fruits.
Lindera benzoin (spicebush) female flower buds.
Lindera benzoin (spicebush) male flower buds.

Along Kiefer Creek, flowers were limited to the occasional Campanula americana (tall bellflower) until we came upon a small area where a few late-blooming and very short-stemmed Rudbeckia hirta (black-eyed Susan) were found (regrowth?), but the remnants of green garden netting found around them indicated that they might have been planted. Definitely native in the same area, however, were a few still-flowering Eupatorium serotinum (late boneset) plants, a couple of which were found to be hosting a small, dark blue and yellow striped caterpillar. Neither of the two entomologists present knew what it was, although both had suggestions, but a little bit of sleuthing revealed them to be the larval stage of Haploa clymene (clymene moth), one of the tiger moths (subfamily Arctiinae) and known to feed on Eupatorium.

An unusually short-stemmed Rudbeckia hirta (black-eyed Susan).
Haploa clymene (clymene moth) caterpillar on Eupatorium serotinum (late boneset). Species ID based on host.

After returning to the parking lot and chatting with the group, I went back to the Eupatorium plants to take additional photographs of the Haploa clymene caterpillars with the big camera (look for those in a future post). On the way back to the car, I found a small snail actively crawling over the trail surface—its body fully stretched and antennae fully extended. I couldn’t resist putting the iPhone to the test to see if it could capture good photos of this small snail, and both the lateral and head-on shots were more than adequate. iNaturalist identifies it as a species in the genus Ventridens (dome snail), a member of the family Zonitidae (true glass snails).

Ventridens sp. (dome snail) on trail through mesic riparian deciduous forest.
Ventridens sp. (dome snail) on trail through mesic riparian deciduous forest.

©️ Ted C MacRae 2021

Hiking at Grand Bluffs Conservation Area

300-ft bluffs tower above the Missouri River valley.

Balmy conditions continue as we head into the back half of October. For today’s hike, I decided to try something new and settled on Grand Bluffs to check out the spectacular views that are said to be available from atop its 300-ft bluffs that overlook the Missouri River valley.

The Missouri River Valley stretches off to the west.

I expected fall colors to be well advanced by now, but at least in this area the forests remain mostly green with only hints of the yellows, reds, and oranges that will soon explode across the canopy. The parking lot is near the valley, so the hike to the overlook is mostly up, sometimes for fairly long stretches. The views from the lookout, however, are breathtaking and well worth the effort to get there.

Warty leaf beetle (Neochlamisus sp.).

On the way up, fall asters (Symphyotrichum spp.) and goldenrods (Solidago spp.) bloomed prolifically along the trailsides under mesic deciduous forest—I saw three species of the former (anomalum, oolentangyense, and turbinellum) and two of the latter (nemoralis and petiolaris).

Gemmed satyr butterfly (Cyllopsis gemma).

Insects seen included syrphid flies and halictid bees on the fall asters, several warty leaf beetles (Neochlamisus sp.) feeding on foliage of black oak (Quercus velutina), and gemmed satyr (Cyllopsis gemma) butterflies flitting above the forest floor. A male eastern harvestman (Leiobunum vittatum) sitting in the trunk of a shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) proudly displayed his elongated, spiny pedipalps for all to see.

Eastern harvestman (Leiobunum vittatum).

The hike back down was almost as deliberate as the hike up, taking care to watch my footing as the late afternoon shadows grew longer and sharper through the dappled sunlight. While 2.7 miles is not a long hike, it was sufficient for the day, and I look forward to returning during the winter when an open canopy will afford even more spectacular views from atop the bluffs.

One of the dark-spored mushrooms (family Psathyrellaceae) at the base of a sugar maple (Acer saccharum).

©️ Ted C. MacRae 2021

I’m a fun guy!

The habit of looking at things microscopically as the lichens on the trees & rocks really prevents my seeing aught else in a walk.—Henry David Thoreau

I should have loved an opportunity to go for a walk in the woods with Thoreau—especially during the winter when my preoccupation with insects no longer restrains my fascination with all things natural. While many entomologists see winter as a break from field work—a time to indulge/suffer (depending on mood) the more mundane curatorial tasks associated with their studies, my time in the field continues uninterrupted with long walks in the woods. Hiking stick replaces insect net. Energy foods replace vials. I still pry bark and flip rocks—I cannot completely ignore the potential to find insects. But I also peer through miniature forests of moss, poke about the mushrooms on a fallen log, and squint at the lichens encrusting a rock. Yes, insect specimens collected during the previous summer still need to be pinned, but there is time for that. There will always be time for that—if not now then in my later years when my ability to scramble through the bush begins to wane. For now, the woods sing their siren song, and I must listen.

Trichaptum biforme (purple tooth) on fallen river birch (Betula nigra) | Reynolds Co., Missouri

Trichaptum biforme on fallen trunk of Betula nigra | Reynolds Co., Missouri

Purple tooth (Trichaptum biforme) on dead red maple (Acer rubrum) | Reynolds Co., Missouri

Trichaptum biforme on fallen branch of Acer rubrum | Reynolds Co., Missouri

Multicolored gilled polypore (Lenzites betulina) on river birch (Betula nigra) stump | Reynolds Co., Missouri

Lensites betulina on dead stump of Betula nigra | Reynolds Co., Missouri

"Gills" distinguish this shelf fungus from turkey tails and other similar types.

“Gills” distinguish this shelf fungus from turkey tails and other similar types.

Cladonia chlorophaea or C. pyxidata on chert-trail | Reynolds Co., Missouri

Cladonia sp. (poss. C. chlorophaea or C. pyxidata) on chert-trail | Reynolds Co., Missouri

(Cladonia pyxidata)

A forest in miniature!

Irpex lacteus? on fallen branch of Acer rubrum | Iron Co., Missouri

Irpex lacteus (?) on fallen branch of Acer rubrum | Iron Co., Missouri

Spores are released from the toothy cap underside

Spores are released from the toothy cap underside

Leucobryum glaucum on forest floor | Reynolds Co., Missouri

Leucobryum glaucum on forest floor | Reynolds Co., Missouri

Postscipt: all photos shown taken on 30 November 2013 while hiking a 7-mile stretch of the Ozark Trail (Karkaghne Section in Reynolds Co. and Middle Fork Section in Iron Co.).

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2014

How to be an “iPhone nature photographer”

My passion for insect macro-photography is well known, so it may come as a surprise to learn that I have, during the past year or so, also become an avid “iPhone photographer”—i.e., I actually use my iPhone for “real” photography and not just selfies or quick snapshots. This is not to say that an iPhone can do everything that a digital SLR camera can do, especially when one considers the resolution of and wealth of lens options available for the latter. Nevertheless, as the world’s best selling smart phone, the iPhone has, by way of its camera function, also become the world’s best selling camera, and even though it cannot match the power of a dSLR, there are certain situations and types of photos for which the iPhone is perfectly adapted. Having gained some level of proficiency in learning what the iPhone can and cannot do when it comes to photography, I thought I would offer this photo set of a hike I did today along the Courtois Section of the Ozark Trail as a primer for the types of photos at which iPhones excel, along with some tips and tricks I’ve learned to get the most of the iPhone’s capabilities.

An iPhone is basically a fully automated, wide-angle camera (although the user can control exposure to some extent by touching the screen at the desired point). As such, it excels at landscape and general nature photos, and its small-diameter lens also allows some use for “wide-angle macro.” iPhones do not do well in low light situations or take true macro photographs (although one can use a variety of “clip-on” lenses to achieve fairly decent macro-photographs of larger insects—I have not tried this myself). As a result, I tend to use the iPhone mostly in good light situations and break out the big camera when the lighting is more challenging or if I want to take “real” macrophotographs. As with all digital photographs, good post-processing is necessary for making iPhone photos look their best, and in general a more aggressive approach than is typical for dSLR photographs will be required. The photos that follow are intended not only to give a flavor of the day’s hike, but also demonstrate my photographic approach and provide tips on composition, exposure, and post-processing. If you have gained experience in iPhone photography and have additional tips and tricks that you would like to share, I would greatly appreciate hearing about them in the comments.

Courtois Creek - immediately at the start we had to make a decision whether we could ford the creek. It was obviously too deep in most places, and we almost turned back, but then saw a path that looked like it might be passable. With air temps of 22F, we stripped off our pants, boots, and socks, packed them in our backpacks, and waded through frigid water that reached just below our hips before reaching the other side. Rich brought a towel, so we were able to dry off before getting dressed again. The whole process took almost a full half-hour.

Courtois Creek – immediately at the start we had to make a decision whether we could ford the creek. It was obviously too deep in most places, and we almost turned back, but then saw a path that looked like it might be passable. With air temps of 22F, we stripped off our pants, boots, and socks, packed them in our backpacks, and waded through frigid water that reached just below our hips before reaching the other side. Rich brought a towel, so we were able to dry off before getting dressed again. The whole process took almost a full half-hour.

This photo was taken into the sun, which can easily result in a washed out sky. To avoid this, I minimized the amount of sky in the photo (which also allowed the ripples in the foreground to be included for a sense of motion) and then touched the screen on the sky to set the exposure. This resulted in a dark photo, but it preserved the rich colors which could then be brought out with aggressive brightening and increasing the contrast in Photoshop. A standard set of commands that I generally use for all iPhone photos (slightly increased saturation, sharpening, and de-speckling) produced the finished version.

Bluffs along Courtois Creek - massive bluffs along the other side of the creek sported fallend boulders the size of dump trucks.

Bluffs along Courtois Creek – massive bluffs along the other side of the creek sported fallen boulders the size of dump trucks.

Another photo taken in the direction of the sun, causing the shadowed side of the rock to turn out very dark. Again I touched the screen on the sky to preserve the blue color and then aggressively lightened in Photoshop. Aggressive brightening generally requires a more aggressive increase in contrast, followed by the standard command set mentioned for the first photo.

We were feeling good about our decision to ford the creek as we hiked below spectacular bluffs.

We were feeling good about our decision to ford the creek as we hiked below spectacular bluffs.

This photo required fairly minimal post-processing since it was shot away from the sun and, thus, had decent native exposure. The bluff face was a little dark and needed minor brightening, but as always I set the exposure in the brightest area of the photo and then post-corrected the dark areas (this is much easier than the opposite, i.e., darkening areas that are too bright, as such areas are often blown and cannot be fixed).

Ozark Trail blaze.

Ozark Trail blaze.

A very close-up shot of a trail blaze. The main watch out with such photos is to ensure the plane of the camera matches the subject precisely, otherwise distortion will cause elongation of one side (making the blaze a trapezoid rather than a rectangle). In post-processing I set the white point in levels by greatly magnifying the image and clicking on a very white part of the blaze to get a more natural looking white rather than the dirty gray that often results when shooting largely white subjects.

Blufftop view of Courtois Creek - from a vantage point several hundred feet above the creek we could look down on our crossing point. I have a fear of heights but nevertheless hung onto the treefall in front of me to inch out for a clear view.

Blufftop view of Courtois Creek – from a vantage point several hundred feet above the creek we could look down on our crossing point. I have a fear of heights but nevertheless hung onto the tree fall in front of me to inch out for a clear view.

This was another photo taken fairly towards the sun. I wanted just a thin band of sky to add a sense of scale to the downward-looking view, but with little sky the camera automatically wanted to expose for the darker foreground, thus blowing the sky. To prevent this, I tilted the camera up slightly to get more sky, touched the screen on the sky to set exposure, then tilted back down to the composition I wanted and took the shot. Post-processing involved aggressive brightening as described for the first two photos above.

Sapsucker damage on an old tree.

Sapsucker damage on an old tree.

I approached this tree from an angle facing the sun, so I simply waited until we passed it and could turn to place the sun behind me while shooting this tree. The trick is to get the right distance for a composition that doesn’t include too much wasted space at the foot of the tree or in its canopy, so this requires some walking back and forth until the right composition is achieved (I do not use the zoom function on the camera unless I have to because of the loss of resolution).

Close-up view of sapsucker damage. Obviously they have been using this tree for many years

Close-up view of sapsucker damage. Obviously they have been using this tree for many years

A closer view of the sapsucker damage—again this is mostly a compositional challenge, which I met by getting close enough to have this interesting “looking up” perspective but still far enough away to include the lowest ring of damage at the bottom of the photo and the highest at the top. Little post-processing other than the standard set was required for this sun-behind-me photograph.

Crystallifolia forms when water drawn from the soil by certain plants oozes out of the stem and contacts frigid air. Additional water pushes out the ice, then freezes itself, resulting in long, thin ribbons of ice that curl around themselves

Crystallofolia forms when water drawn from the soil by certain plants oozes out of the stem and contacts frigid air. Additional water pushes out the ice, then freezes itself, resulting in long, thin ribbons of ice that curl around themselves

For photographing crystallofolia and other small, ground-dwelling features, I like to turn the iPhone so that the lens is on the bottom edge to achieve a true ground-level perspective. The macro capabilities of the iPhone are limited, so in this case I used the zoom function (maybe about 1/3 to full zoom), centered the feature in the photo to get the best exposure and focus, and then did a little more cropping post-processing at the bottom of the photo to minimize the amount of blurred foreground. Again, a mostly white subject such as this tends to come out dull in the native photograph, so I enlarged the image greatly in Photoshop, opened Levels, clicked on set white point, and then clicked on the whitest portion of the subject that I could find to achieve a more ‘naturally’ white subject. It can take a few tries to find a spot in the image that doesn’t result in unnatural over-whitening of the subject—one must play around a bit to find it.

Crustose lichens abound on the dolomite bedrock exposures along the "Narrows" - a long, narrow ridge between the Courtois and Huzzah Creek Valleys.

Crustose lichens abound on the dolomite bedrock exposures along the “Narrows” – a long, narrow ridge between the Courtois and Huzzah Creek Valleys.

Again, I like to use a low perspective for ground features such as these lichen-encrusted rocks strewn across the forest floor. If you let the iPhone focus naturally, it tends to focus on subjects closer to the middle of the photo, so be sure to touch the screen on the foremost subject to set the focus in the foreground. Photos with contrasting colors such as the greens, browns, and blues in this one generally benefit from a little more aggressive increase in saturation (maybe 15-20%) than I normally use for iPhone photos (usually 5-10%).

Close-up view of crustose lichens.

Close-up view of crustose lichens.

A semi- wide-angle macro photograph that combines a lichen encrusted rock in the foreground with forest and sky in the background. The camera will automatically focus on the background, so touch the screen at the top of the foreground object to set focus. It also helps to pan back a little bit to include more in the frame than is desired, then crop a little in Photoshop as the lower part of the foreground object will tend to be out of focus unless it is a perfectly vertical surface (rare). In this photo I cropped out about 1/5 from the bottom and a corresponding amount on each side to maintain original aspect ratio.

More dolomite exposures with crustose lichens.

More dolomite exposures with crustose lichens.

Highly dimensional foreground objects add depth and perspective to low-angle shots. Again, it is better to get a little more in the photo than desired and the crop slightly afterwards than to get too close and not be able to do anything about it. Taking the native shot a little further back also ensures that the entire foreground object is in focus.

Fruticose lichens and moss intermingle in particularly moist spots.

Fruticose lichens and moss intermingle in particularly moist spots.

Like the close-up photo of the lichen-encrusted rock above, this photo of intermingled moss and fruticose lichens benefits from a low perspective with a high color contrast immediate background (fallen leaves) and blurred deep background (forest/sky) to add perspective. While the latter is not completely blurred, but it’s enough that it doesn’t detract from the main subject. The latter has maximal focus by backing up slightly for the shot and then cropping off the bottom out-of-focus portion in Photoshop. Again, I increased saturation a little more than usual to emphasize the value contrast.

Friend and Ozark Trail co-conspirator Rich Thoma looks out over the Huzzah Creek Valley.

Friend and Ozark Trail co-conspirator Rich Thoma looks out over the Huzzah Creek Valley.

The main challenge with this photo was the shadow cast over Rich by the trees behind him. Setting the exposure on him resulted in a washed out sky, which I really wanted to preserve because of the textured clouds. I also wanted to include a good portion of the sky to give the sense of looking out over a far-below valley, so I set the exposure for the sky. The resulting photo had a good sky, but Rich was hidden in a darkly shadowed area. I used lighten shadows in Photoshop to brighten Rich and the shadowed area where he is standing, and I used aggressively increased saturation to make the many different shades of brown in the rest of the photo pop out.

An ancient red-cedar snag hugs the bluff tops overlooking the Huzzah Creek Valley.

An ancient red-cedar snag hugs the bluff tops overlooking the Huzzah Creek Valley.

This photo had largely the same challenges and was dealt with in the same manner as the previous. The ancient red-cedar snag is an interesting and unusual subject, and I first tried a portrait orientation, but I decided I liked this landscape orientation better because of the ability to include living red-cedar to add a sense of time contrast.

Icicles form on an undercut below the bluff top.

Icicles form on an undercut below the bluff top.

Whenever I find icicles hanging from a rock overhang, I like to provide a more unusual perspective by getting behind the icicles and looking out onto the landscape. It can be hard to get the camera to focus on the icicles rather than the distant landscape—just keep touching them on the screen until it works. I used shadow lightening in Photoshop to brighten the dark rock surfaces in the foreground.

A cap of resistant dolomite lines the top of the Huzzah Creek Valley.

A cap of resistant dolomite lines the top of the Huzzah Creek Valley.

This was a difficult photograph—sun on the pines/cedars on the left overexposed them, while shadows on the naturally dark rock bluff surfaces left them underexposed. This photo was made fairly acceptable by using both “darken highlights” and “lighten shadows” (careful—too aggressive with these features results in unnatural-looking photos), followed by brightening and increasing the contrast, and finally by increasing the saturation. It’s still not a great photo, but sometimes you get what you get.

More icicles.

More icicles.

This larger set of icicles was nicely positioned in front of an interestingly sloped landscape with the sun coming from the left. Again, I got behind them, kept touching the screen on the icicles until the iPhone focused on them, and then adjusted the white point setting in Levels in Photoshop to really make them pop against the rich browns of the landscape behind.

Icicles were especially abundant in this section of the bluff tops.

Icicles were especially abundant in this section of the bluff tops.

A fairly easy shot due to the direction of the sun that required no more than the usual amount of post-processing. Note the perspective, which was to have the rock feature begin right at the bottom left corner of the photograph with some sky above it.

Despite subfreezing air temperatures, sunlight causes water to drip from overhanging icicles, causing ice stalagmites on the ground beneath.

Despite subfreezing air temperatures, sunlight causes water to drip from overhanging icicles, causing ice stalagmites on the ground beneath.

This photo had some dark areas in the foreground that were cropped out, and to emphasize the ice I was more aggressive post-processing with brightening and increasing the contrast. Again, as with most photos with a lot of white in the subject, I adjusted the white point in Photoshop Levels to reduce the “dinginess” that seems natural for ambient light iPhone photos.

Icicles glisten in the frigid sunlight.

Icicles glisten in the frigid sunlight.

In this case, the sun glistening on the icicles and a deep recess behind them provided a natural contrast that I further emphasized in post-processing, along with brightening and setting white point. The icicles suffer from distortion due to my low angle (I’m not that tall!), which I tried to fix with Photoshop’s distort feature but wasn’t satisfied with the result.

Close-up of ice stalagmites, revealing the twigs and petioles around which they have formed.

Close-up of ice stalagmites, revealing the twigs and petioles around which they have formed.

The approach with this photo was very much like that used for the close-ups of the lichen-encrusted rocks and intermingled lichens/moss photos—i.e., I backed up a bit to include more foreground than I wanted (which will be blurred at the bottom after setting the focus point on one of the stalagmites) and then cropped it out in post-processing. White subject = setting white point and using more aggressive brightening and contrast.

 Ted MacRae Yesterday ·  Rock, ice, and sunlight converge along the bluff tops

Rock, ice, and sunlight converge along the bluff tops

Again, the formation starts at the lower corner, and in this case the foreground (the right side) also contains an interesting clump of icicles. With the sun behind me, little was required to assure proper exposure, and only normal post-processing was required.

Moss with fruiting structures on a fallen log.

Moss with fruiting structures on a fallen log.

This moss on a fallen log was actually one of the more difficult photographs I took. I took the photo at an angle so that the background fruiting structures would form a solid, blurred red horizon to add depth, but in doing this the iPhone didn’t know where I wanted to focus and kept choosing the background. To force it to “choose” the foreground fruiting structures, I tilted the camera down so that only the foreground was in the frame, touched the screen on the fruiting structures in the back part of the screen to set focus where I wanted, then tilted the screen back again to include the background fruiting structures distant blurred background for perspective. One must shoot quickly when doing this or the iPhone will automatically readjust its focus to the background. I’ve tried shots such as this with the sky in the background, but in my experience the iPhone cannot focus on very thin foreground objects with the sky in the background, and the difference in brightness between the background and foreground is especially difficult to correct. Like the other semi- wide-angle macro shots above, I used the zoom feature (slightly), included a little more in the photo than I wanted, and then cropped out the overly blurred bottom portion of the photo.

Mushrooms on a fallen log.

Mushrooms on a fallen log.

Here is a typical photograph that someone might take of these large, saucer-sized mushrooms on a fallen log. In addition to being a pedestrian view of such a subject, it seems that iPhones sometimes have difficulty registering the correct color for photos taken straight down to the ground. This photo required quite a bit of color correction, and I’m still not overly satisfied with the result.

"Bug's eye" view of mushrooms on a fallen log.

“Bug’s eye” view of mushrooms on a fallen log.

As an alternative, I suggest getting low to photograph subjects such as this. The iPhone, with its lens against one edge and screen view, is well-adapted to take such low-angle photos, resulting in a much more interesting photo than the typical “looking down” perspective exemplified above. Inclusion of a little bit of sky in the background also provided some nice color contrast, made easier by shooting away from the sun, which was further emphasized in post-processing by increasing the saturation. As with the other semi- wide-angle macro photographs, a little bit of cropping along the bottom (but do keep the original aspect ratio) also benefited the photograph.

Moss covering the rock exposures in a delightful valley leading up from the Huzzah Creek Valley indicate an abundance of moisture.

Moss covering the rock exposures in a delightful valley leading up from the Huzzah Creek Valley indicate an abundance of moisture.

Last, but not least, this photograph of shaded, heavily moss-laden rock outcroppings bordering a small waterfall needed to be shot very dark in order to avoid “blowing” the sky in the background. Simply pointing and shooting into the shade will cause the iPhone to correctly expose the rocks, but the sky will be blown rather than retaining its blue color. Like the first two photos, I composed the image, then touched the screen on the sky to reduce the exposure. Again, this resulted in a photo that was very dark in the foreground, but this was easily corrected by aggressive brightening, adding contrast, and increasing the saturation post-processing to achieve a nice mix of browns and greens while preserving the blue sky background. In forest shots such as this with a lot of vertical objects, pay attention to distortion while composing the photo to avoid having trees at the edge of the photo “bowing” inwards at their tops. Sometimes this can be avoided by minor adjustments to the tilt of the iPhone while taking the shot, but if your position in the landscape is such that camera tilt alone is not enough to prevent this without losing the desired composition then go ahead and shoot the desired composition and use the “distortion” tool in Photoshop to correct the distortion this works best if bowing is minor).

I hope you have enjoyed this iPhone nature photography tutorial. If you have additional ideas or suggestions please let me know, and also I would be glad to hear of any related subjects you would like me to cover.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

Best of BitB 2011

Welcome to the 4th Annual BitB Top 10, where I get to pick my 10 (more or less) favorite photographs of the year. As an insect macrophotographer I still feel like a relative newcomer, although with three seasons under my belt fewer and fewer people seem to be buying it anymore. Granted I’ve learned a lot during that time, but the learning curve is still looking rather steep. I don’t mind—that’s the fun part! With that said, I present a baker’s dozen of my favorite photographs featured here during 2011. I hope they reflect the learnings I’ve had the past year and maybe show some progress over previous years (2009, 2008 and 2010).

One more thing—I’m including a special bonus for the first time in this year’s edition. Each of the photos shown below is linked to a 1680×1120 version that may be freely downloaded for use as wallpaper, printing in calendars, or any other use (as long as it’s personal and non-profit). It’s my way of saying thanks for your readership and support.

From  (posted 8 Jan). I’ve done limited photography with prepared rather than live specimens. However, the recreated aggressive-defensive posture of this greater arid-land katydid (Neobarrettia spinosa)—or “red-eyed devil”—was too striking to pass up. A clean background allows every spine and tooth to be seen with terrifying clarity.

From  (posted 6 Feb). I had never seen a cactus fly until I encountered this Nerius sp. I’m especially fond of the bizzarely-shaped head and un-fly-like spines on the front legs.

From  (posted 17 Feb). This photo of a fungus weevil, Phaenithon semigriseus, is one of the first where I nailed the focus right on the eye at such a magnitude of closeup (~3X) and also got the composition I was looking for. I didn’t notice at the time, but the beetle seems to be “smiling.”

From  (posted 28 Mar). One of the field techniques I’ve been practicing this year is actually holding the plant with the subject in one hand, resting the camera on my wrist and controlling it with the other hand, and manipulating the position of the plant to achieve a desired composition. It’s a difficult technique to master, but the results are worth it. The jumping spider, Euophrys sutrix, represents one of my earliest successful attempts with this technique.

From  (posted 30 Mar). This South American tree fruit weevil looks like it is sitting quite calmly on a branch. In reality, it never stopped crawling while I attempted to photograph it. Crawling subjects are not only difficult to focus on but also almost always have a “bum” leg. I achieved this photo by tracking the beetle through the lens and firing shots as soon as the center focus point flashed, playing a numbers game to ensure that I got at least one with all the legs nicely positioned. I’d have been even happier with this photo if I had not clipped the antennal tip.

From  (posted 4 May). Face shots of predatory insects are hard to resist, and in this one of the fiery searcher beetle, Calosoma scrutator, the angle of the subject to the lighting was perfect for showing off every ridge and tooth in its impressive mandibles.

From  (posted 10 May). I’ve taken plenty of lateral profile shots of tiger beetles, but I like this slightly panned out one especially because of the sense of scale and landscape created by the inclusion of the plantlets and the view over the small rise.

From  (posted 18 May). I found these Edessa meditabunda stink bug eggs on the underside of a soybean leaf in Argentina almost ready to hatch. The developing eye spots in each egg gives the photo a “cute” factor rarely seen in such super close-ups.

From  (posted 15 July). Some of my favorite insect photos are not only those that show the bug in all its glory, but also tell a story about its natural history. This nymphal lichen grasshopper, Trimerotropis saxatilis, is almost invisible when sitting on the lichens that cover the sandstone exposures in its preferred glade habitat. 

From  (posted 23 Aug). I know this is the second beetle face shot I’ve included in the final selections, but it was while photographing this rare Florida metallic tiger beetle, Tetracha floridana, in the middle of the night that I discovered the use of extension tubes to improve the quality of flash lighting (decreased lens to subject distance results in greater apparent light size). This is perhaps one of the best illuminated direct flash photographs that I’ve taken, and I also like the symmetry of the composition.

From  (posted 17 Sep). The three-cornered alfalfa hopper (Spissistilus festinus) is a common pest of alfalfa and soybean in the U.S. However, despite its abundance, I’ve never noticed the bizarre zig-zag pattern of the eyes until I took this photo. Even though both the insect and the background are green, there is sufficient value contrast to create a pleasing composition. Bumping up the ISO and a lower FEC setting prevented overblowing the light greens—easy to do with full flash macrophotography.

From  (posted 4 Oct). This longhorned beetle had settled in for the night on its Ericamera nauseosa host plant, allowing me to use higher ISO and lower shutter speed settings with a hand-held camera to achieve this very pleasing blue sky background, while retaining the sharpness of detail of the subject that comes from full-flash illumination. The blue sky background provides a more pleasing contrast with the colors of this particular beetle and flowers than the black background that is more typically seen with full-flash macrophotography.

From  (19 Dec). An uncommon underside view of these purple tree fungus (Trichaptum biforme) caps and use of flash illumination allows the colors to literally glow against the bright green lichens also growing on the tree. Keeping aperture at a moderate setting allows blurring of the caps further back, adding three-dimensionality to the photo and preventing it from looking ‘flat.’

Well, there you have it, and I hope you’ve enjoyed my selections. Please do tell me if you have a favorite among theses (and if there were other photos posted during 2011 that you think deserved making the final selections).

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011