When hardcore botany meets hardcore nature photography—nature geekery at its finest!

Last Saturday, the Webster Groves Nature Study Society (WGNSS) Nature Photography Group was joined by several members of the WGNSS Botany Group and Missouri Native Plant Society to look for one of Missouri’s rarest plants—Geocarpon minimum, a.k.a. tinytim or earth-fruit (family Caryophyllaceae). This diminutive, federally-threatened and state-endangered plant grows only on sandstone glades, primarily in west-central Missouri with a few populations known also from Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. The window for finding this plant is short—it’s entire life cycle lasts only about 4 weeks, with an even shorter window for finding it in flower.

Our first stop to look for them was Bona (pronounced “Bonnie”) Glade Natural Area. I’d been here before, but it was about 10 years ago and at the wrong time to look for this plant (but I did find widowscross, Sedum pulchellum, in bloom). Some of the group had seen it here before and were able to coach us on the microhabitat where we would likely find them, and it didn’t take long before we did. Soon after finding the first plants, we found them in bloom as well—their almost microscopic flowers being the perfect subject for my macro lenses!

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Remnant sandstone glade at Bona Glade Natural Area, Dade Co., Missouri.

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Geocarpon minimum (tinytim or earth-fruit). Note the tiny open flowers just below center. (This is an iPhone photo—I have much better photos with my “big” camera.)

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Claytonia virginica (spring beauty) (family Montiaceae).

After getting plenty of shots of the plant and flowers, we moved to an adjacent plot of land across the highway, where we not only found more tinytim plants but also Corydalis aurea, commonly called golden corydalis (pronounced koor-ID-uh-lyss), in the family Papaveraceae—something I’d never seen before.

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Sedum pulchellum (widowscross) (family Crassulaceae).

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Corydalis aurea (golden corydalis).

Next the group moved on to Corry Branch Glade. It was originally our intent to look for more of the plant at this site, but immediately upon entering the glade we noticed a stunning display of Selenia aurea, or golden selenia. This small, striking species in the mustard family is restricted to just a handful of counties in the west-central part of the state, again primarily glade habitats. It was a surprising and pleasant find that occupied the groups’ attentions for some time before we finally decided to break for lunch (it was well into the afternoon!). While I was there, I not only photographed the plant but started having some success with my new 15-mm wide-angle macro lens, with which I had been experimenting all day (to that point without much success).

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Selenia aurea (golden selenia) (family Brassicaceae).

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Members of WGNSS & MoNPS go hunting for rare plants! Front to back: Ted MacRae (me), John Oliver, Casey & Anh Do Galvan, Steve Turner, Bill Duncan, David Seidensticker, Deb Tyler, Adam Rembert, and James Faupel.

After “lunch” (which was closer to dinner!), a few of us (Bill, David, and I) wanted to go back to Bona Glade to take another crack at photographing tinytim with our wide-angle macro lens. I especially was not satisfied with what I had gotten earlier, that being my first serious attempt at using the lens in the field. Having a better idea now of how to use the lens and what our compositional goals were, we scoured the area looking for just the right plants in just the right situations. I can honestly say I finally got a feel for how to use the lens, the trickiest part of it being how to balance use of flash on the subject with the amount of ambient light from the background (I’m not a stranger to this concept at all, frequently having combined flash with “blue sky” in much of the macrophotography I’ve done up to this point). We photographed several plants on different substrates looking for the right combination of plant, substrate, and background, and we all walked away pretty optimistic that we’d gotten the photos that we wanted.

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Bill Duncan photographing tinytim with his wide-angle macro lens.

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Amelanchier arborea (serviceberry) (family Rosaceae).

My thanks to Casey and Ando Galvan for letting me ride down there with them, to David Seidensticker and Bill Duncan for letting me ride back with them, and for everyone in the group who so generously shared their great, collective knowledge of botany, photography, and natural history. What a fun day!

NOTE: The photos in this post were taken with an iPhone X. The “real” photos, taken with our “real” cameras, will be shared as they become available.

© Ted C. MacRae 2019

2019 WGNSS Nature Photo Contest

Last night the Webster Groves Nature Study Society (WGNSS) held their 2019 Nature Photo Contest, and I was fortunate to have a 1st place winner in the ‘Plants and Fungi’ category! This photograph of grassleaved lady’s tresses orchid (Spiranthes vernalis) flowers was taken at Taberville Prairie Natural Area in St. Clair Co., Missouri. Like other species of lady’s tresses orchids, their tubular flowers are arranged in a spiral along the inflorescence and cross-pollinated primarily by long-tongued bees (e.g. bumblebees, Bombus spp., and megachilid bees) (van der Cingel 2001).

Spiranthes vernalis (spring lady's tresses)

Grassleaved lady’s tresses orchid (Spiranthes vernalis), Taberville Prairie Natural Area, St. Clair Co., Missouri.

Spiranthes is one of the more complex genera of North American orchids, with seven species known to occur in Missouri (Summers 1985), and like almost all orchids, their pollination biology is fascinating! The flowers are “protandrous”, i.e., they are functionally male when they first open and become functionally female as they age. Since they open sequentially from the base of the inflorescence as it grows, this results in female flowers on the lower portion of the inflorescence and male flowers on the upper portion.  Thus, bee pollinators tend to act as pollen donors when visiting lower flowers and pollen recipients when visiting upper flowers.  Male pollinia are attached to the bee’s proboscis as it tries to access the nectar secreted into the base of the floral tube and then come in contact with the female stigma in the next flower that the bee visits.  Bees generally start at the bottom of an inflorescence when visiting a plant and then spiral up to the top before flying to the next plant.  Such “acropetal movement” is likely a result of the tendency for nectar rewards to be greater in the lower flowers, and it ultimately promotes cross-fertilization between neighboring plants.

This was the 4th edition of the contest, which has been held every other year since the inaugural edition in 2013. I’ve earned 2nd and 3rd place honors in the plants category each time before; however, this was my first win in that category. In addition to plants, I also had entries in the ‘Invertebrates’ (restricted to photos taken in Missouri or one of its contiguous states) and ‘Travel’ (open to photos taken anywhere in the world) categories, with one photo each making it to the final round of judging. You’ve seen them both before—Neotibicen superbus (below left—photographed at Mincy Conservation Area, Taney Co., Missouri) and Agrilus walsinghami (below right—photographed at Davis Creek Park, Washoe Co., Nevada). In the end, however, they both got beat out by the competition, so I only had the one winning photograph this time. Nevertheless, it was a 1st place winner, so I am very satisfied.

The WGNSS Nature Photo Contest has quickly become one of the organization’s marquee events, with the number of entries, caliber of competition, and attendance all exceeding the previous three editions. My thanks to the judges who volunteered their time, the attendees who supported the event, and especially to Bill Duncan, Chair of WGNSS’s Nature Photography Group (and an expert nature photographer in his own right), who worked hard to make this event the success that it was (and took home some well-deserved wins of his own). I look forward to the next competition in 2021!

REFERENCES:

Summers, B.  1981.  Missouri Orchids.  Missouri Department of Conservation, Natural History Series No. 1, 92 pp.

van der Cingel, N. A.  2001.  An Atlas of Orchid Pollination: America, Africa, Asia and Australia. A. A. Balkema, Rotterdam, Netherlands, 296 pp.

© Ted C. MacRae 2019

Revisiting the Highlands tiger beetle (Cicindelidia highlandensis)

In September 2016, I had the opportunity to attend the Annual Meeting of the Entomological Society of America in Orlando, Florida, which was being held in conjunction with the International Congress of Entomology. My first thought when I made plans to attend these meetings was that this would be a chance for me to get another look at the Highlands tiger beetle (Cicindelidia highlandensis). One of Florida’s rarest endemic tiger beetles, this species is restricted entirely to remnant sand scrub and pine woodland habitats along the Lake Wales Ridge of Polk and Highlands Counties in central Florida (Choate 2003). I was thrilled to have found adults (in good numbers) on my first attempt back in 2009, and I was also thrilled to have successfully managed to photograph the beetle at that time. However, in the years since, I have become increasingly dissatisfied with those photographs—taken during what was my very first year of insect macrophotography. I’ve learned a lot since then about lighting, diffusion, and composition, but perhaps the biggest annoyance of those photographs is the fact that in every one the antennae and/or legs are “clipped”—a result of my being so enamored with my newfound macrophotographic capabilities that I nearly completely ignored other aspects of photographic composition.

Chris Brown photographing Cicindelidia highlandensis

Chris Brown photographs a Highlands tiger beetle.

Chris Brown—long-time field accomplice and himself a tiger beetle aficionado and insect macrophotographer—was also at the meetings, and since he had never seen the Highlands tiger beetle before we made plans to slip away one day and visit the spot where I had seen them back in 2009. I knew our chances of finding them were slim—it was very late in the season (late September), and the species is a so-called “summer species” with peak of adult activity in July and August. We figured, however, that even if we didn’t find adults we would still enjoy the day in the field, and for some time after arriving at the site that’s all it was. Finally, in an open sandy area near a small lake we saw the first adult. I let Chris take his shots, as this was his first opportunity (see photo above), while I continued to search for additional adults. Eventually I found one and began the long process of “whispering” to it to coax it into allowing me the photographs I desired.

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Highlands tiger beetle (Cicindelidia highlandensis).

As you can see in the photograph above, my compositional preferences have changed since I took those first photographs back in 2009. In contrast to the “as close as possible” style that I initially adopted, I now prefer to back off from the beetle enough to include elements of the habitat in which it occurs. While this compositional style may show less detail on the beetle itself, I believe it adds perspective and results in a more interesting and aesthetically pleasing photograph. I also now like to get down as low as I can, often placing the camera directly on the ground rather than always shooting from “elbow-height”, for a more unique perspective of the beetle, and my use of better flash diffusion results in more even lighting and minimizes the distracting specular highlights that are often the hallmark of flash macrophotography.

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This individual demonstrates the thermoregulatory “stilting” behavior of the adults.

Sadly, my flash unit failed soon after I began photographing the beetle, which is a real shame because the beetle began demonstrating the characteristic “stilting” behavior that the adults use for thermoregulation in their hot environment. The photograph above is the only one that I could “rescue” through some rather heavy-handed post-processing to make up for the failure of the flash unit to fire (it is fortunate that I have shifted to routinely using a combination of ambient light and fill-flash rather than flash only, or I would have had not even this photograph to rescue!). I suppose this means I’ll just have to revisit this species once again (now that I have not one but two new flash units!), which isn’t all bad because I would also love to see and photograph once again the moustached tiger beetle (Ellipsoptera hirtilabris), another Florida endemic (or near so) that I saw here also during my first visit but not during this one.

The Highlands tiger beetle belongs to a group of species called the abdominalis species-group, with all four of the included species (C. abdominalis, C. floridana, C. highlandensis, C. scabrosa) occurring in Florida (three of which are endemic or near-endemic to Florida). For those interested, I have seen and photographed all four of the species and presented a “mini-review” with photographs and links to posts with more detailed information about each species, along with a key to the species to allow for their identification.

REFERENCES:

Choate, P. M., Jr. 2003. A Field Guide and Identification Manual for Florida and Eastern U.S. Tiger Beetles.  University Press of Florida, Gainesville, 224 pp.

© Ted C. MacRae 2019

A little extra cash

Earlier this month the Webster Groves Nature Study Society (WGNSS) sponsored their second Nature Photo Contest. I’ve been a member of this group since I first moved to St. Louis after college in the early 1980s—primarily as a participant in the Entomology Natural History Group but for the past six years also as board member and editor of the Society’s newsletter, Nature Notes. The photo contest was run much like the first one in 2013, again with nice cash prizes for the winners, except two things: 1) the categories were a little different (see below), and 2) I was tapped to be one of the three judges in the two categories that I did not submit photos. The categories were:

  • Invertebrates
  • Vertebrates
  • Plants & Fungi
  • Natural Communities
  • Seasons

I submitted two photos each to the first three categories—the maximum allowed in both cases. One limitation for me was that the photographs had to be taken in Missouri or an adjacent state. Remarkably, during the past few years I’ve taken most of my photos in places further afield—primarily in the western U.S. in states such as California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada. I have many photographs from earlier years, but frankly I don’t consider much of that body of work to be photo contest worthy. Still, I was able to come up with a few more recent photographs that I thought would be competitive.

How did it go for me? Pretty good, with two of my photos taking cash-winning prizes (see below). This may not be as good as I did last time, when I won one 1st place, one 2nd place, and one 3rd place—the last of these also voted by the audience as the Grand Prize winner. Nevertheless, the cash award is much welcomed and will be put to good use. Remarkably, it turns out that two winning photographs have never been posted at this site, so here they are:


3rd Place—Vertebrates

Eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis)

Eastern garter snake, Thamnophis sirtalis | Ozark Trail, Wappapello Section, Wayne Co., Missouri

The judges regarded that it represents the true “essence” of a snake. Technically they liked the position of and focus on the tongue, the contrasting red color working well in the composition, with the blurred, winding body of the snake adding depth in a cleaner fashion than a cluttered jumble of leaves. I can’t tell you how many shots I took hoping to get one with the tongue in the perfect position—knowing all along that at any moment the snake could stop flicking it or decide to make a run for it


2nd Place—Plants & Fungi

Dicentra cucullaria

Dutchman’s breeches, Dicentra cucullaria | Battle of Athens State Park, Clark Co., Missouri

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to hear the judges’ feedback regarded this photo, as I was busy judging the photos in the ‘Natural Communities’ and ‘Seasons’ categories. This photo also took many shots, even though I didn’t have to worry about the subject not cooperating. Flash on white is tricky—not enough and you don’t get the stark contrast with the black background; too much and you end up blowing the highlights and losing the delicate detail. Add to that trying to get the subject perfectly symmetrical within the frame (I wanted to achieve this ‘for real’ and not through subsequent cropping), and I probably took close to two dozen shots before I felt like I had it right.

Perhaps you noticed that neither of the photos were in the ‘Invertebrates’ category. This just goes to show that the amount of interest in and effort one puts into a certain type of photography does not guarantee success—or prevent success in photographing other, less-familiar subjects. For my part I am pleased that any of my photographs were deemed good enough to receive a cash prize and thank WGNSS for giving local nature photographers the opportunity to have their work recognized and rewarded.

© Ted C. MacRae 2015

A time of reckoning

The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.

A "super moon" watches over a parasitized hornworm caterpillar.

A “super moon” watches over a parasitized hornworm caterpillar.

I’m not normally one to quote Bible passages, but this line from Acts 2:20 seems appropriately ominous for the predicament of this poor hornworm caterpillar. The white objects on its back are the cocoons of tiny parasitic wasps in the family Braconidae who spent their entire lives inside the body of the growing caterpillar slowly eating away the inner tissues of the caterpillar, eventually consuming all but the most essential of its internal organs before exiting the skin and spinning their tiny, silken cocoons. Inside the cocoons the tiny grubs transformed into adult wasps, chewed their way out through the tip of the cocoon, and flew off to mate and find more hornworm caterpillars to parasitize. Its unwelcome guests now gone, this poor caterpillar has nothing to do but to sit and await its inevitable demise (which I suspect the caterpillar will not regard as such a “great and magnificent day”).

I found this caterpillar resting on a vine climbing a tree along the Mississippi River in southeast Missouri after setting up an ultraviolet light nearby and noticing the softly glowing cocoons. I was going to photograph it in situ, but I’ve learned that choice of background can have a dramatic effect on insect photographs, and the jumble of weeds and tree bark that would have comprised the background had I photographed the caterpillar where it sat seemed decidedly boring. I looked up and saw the blood red moon (a so called “super moon”) rising above the river in the eastern sky and decided to give it a try. The above photograph is actually a composite of two photographs—one of the caterpillar taken with flash and fairly normal camera settings, and another of the moon itself with aperture, shutter speed, and ISO all adjusted for very low light conditions (at least to the extent possible without a tripod). While this may not qualify in some people’s minds as a “real” photograph, it is nevertheless a true representation of what I actually saw, as I also made a number of attempts to capture both the insect and the moon in a single exposure. Since it is impossible to have both the insect (very close) and the moon (very far) in focus at the same time, the resulting photograph has a different, though still striking, effect, as shown in the photograph below:

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A more surrealistic version of the above photograph, with both caterpillar and moon captured in a single exposure.

This second photograph is actually much harder to take, as the moon does not appear in the viewfinder as the small, discrete, fuzzy-edged object resulting in the image, but rather as a large, blinding light that is difficult to place within the composition and know exactly where it will end up (at least, without a lot of trial and error). Add to that the fact that my camera image and histogram display panel is, at the moment, not functional, forcing me to “guess” if I had the right settings (in a situation where I’m well outside of my ‘normal’ settings for flash macrophotography). I’m a little surprised that I ended up with any usable photographs at all!

I’ve tried this type of photography with the sun as well—those interested to see how those photographs turned can find them at Sunset for another great collecting trip and Under Blood Red Skies.

© Ted C. MacRae 2014