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

Another look at North America’s most beautiful longhorned beetle

My love affair with the bumelia borer, Plinthocoelium suaveolens, has been well-chronicled on this blog. The combination of its large size, striking iridescent green elytra, brilliant coppery head and pronotum, and marvelously elongate antennae and legs – both black but the latter with contrasting orange femora – even led me to declare it as “North America’s most beautiful longhorned beetle“. For all its charisma, however, I never did succeed in getting field photographs that I felt did justice to the beauty of this wary and difficult-to-approach species. Yes, I did photograph a live adult in a white box, a technique that is especially useful for such colorful subjects. However, I still desired that ‘perfect’ photo of a live adult, unconfined in the field on its host plant.

Plinthocoelium suaveolens suaveolens

Plinthocoelium suaveolens – photographed 29 July 2017 on foliage of living Sideroxylon lanuginosum at Shaw Nature Reserve, Franklin Co., Missouri.

Some years would pass before I gave photographing this species another try. In 2015 and 2016, I discovered healthy populations of the species at two locations surprisingly close to my home while conducting fermenting bait trap surveys – one at Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit, Missouri (just 14 miles from my home), and the other at Victoria Glades Natural Area near Hillsboro, Missouri (slightly further away – only 40 miles from my home). During these surveys, I not only caught the beetles in my traps, but I was able to find them on their host plant, Sideroxylon lanuginosum (gum bumelia), and learn their habits and behavior – important to know when trying to photograph living, unconfined insects. Still, it wasn’t easy! On 29 July 2017, I and several other nature photographers went to Shaw Nature Reserve to find and photograph this species, and through our collective efforts we found only a single individual – at first resting high up on the foliage of a living tree but later flying down to a branch that was (just barely) within reach of our lenses. I used my 100-mm macro, and the photograph above is the only one that I was satisfied with – yes, the tips of the elytra and left hind leg are somewhat obscured, but exposure is good, the focus spot on, and the background a pleasing blur of green that contrasts nicely with the sharply iridescent beetle (achieved with settings that allowed a combination of ambient light and flash illumination of the subject).

Plinthocoelium suaveolens suaveolens

Plinthocoelium suaveolens – photographed 29 July 2017 on a dead branch of Sideroxylon lanuginosum at Victoria Glades Natural Area, Jefferson Co., Missouri.

My luck turned later that day when I went down to Victoria Glades to check my fermenting bait traps – and found an adult on the trunk of one of the trees in which a trap was hanging! In this case, I was able to use my “beetle whisperer” skills to coax the beetle onto a dead branch of the tree and positioned it with the sky in the background. As the beetle roamed back and forth on the branch (rarely stopping!), I used the “left hand technique” to keep it in the frame and fired a shot after shot, hoping against hope that I would get at least one in which all of the required elements – exposure, lighting, focus, and most importantly composition – were what I wanted. And that is exactly what I got – one photograph (out of about 75 shots) in which all of those elements worked (second photo above)!

Some may snicker at my spending a whole day just to get two photographs of a single species, but I relish the challenge and enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that these photographs represent field photographs of live, unconfined beetles. Could I do better? Sure, and I will probably try again sometime. But for now, these will do.

© Ted C. MacRae 2019

Mrs. Monday Jumper

Phidippus princeps female | Howell Co., Missouri

Phidippus princeps female | Howell Co., Missouri

In my previous post, Monday Jumper, I featured a photo of a strikingly colored jumping spider (family Salticidae) that apparently represents an adult male Phidippus princeps. Far too skittish to attempt photographing in the field, I placed him in a vial and photographed him later in the hotel room but still only got one photo that was good enough to post. Shortly after gathering him up, I came across another jumping spider that proved far more cooperative for field shots. This was no doubt due in large part to the fact that she had just captured a fat, juicy caterpillar. I find predaceous insects to be far less skittish when they are involved in the act of consuming prey. This not only makes them easier to approach and photograph, but also adds a desirable natural history element to photos that is sometimes missing in “portrait-only” photographs.

Somber coloration, large abdomen, and small carapace contrast distinctly with the male

Somber coloration, large abdomen, and small carapace contrast distinctly with the male

I say “she” because of the classic female characters exhibited—relatively large and rounded abdomen (males tend to have a smaller and more tapered abdomen), smaller carapace, somber coloration, and absence of a “boxing glove” aspect to the pedipalps. Like the male I had just collected, she was on the foliage of an oak sapling, and as I began taking photographs I noticed in the preview screen the brilliant, metallic blue chelicerae that are a hallmark of the large salticid genus Phidippus. I had also presumed the male I had just collected belonged to this same genus based on gestalt, but I could have never imagined that the two individuals actually represented male and female of the very same species. Such appears to be the case, however, as a thorough perusal of the salticid galleries at BugGuide leads me to believe that the individual featured here is the adult female of Phidippus princeps.

Check out those metallic blue chelicerae!

Check out those metallic blue chelicerae!

These photos still may not approach the technical and aesthetic perfection exhibited by master salticid portraitist Thomas Shahan, but I think they do represent an improvement over my first attempt at photographing a feeding female. The first two photos are fine, but the third suffers from the focus being a little too “deep”, which seems to be my most frequent macrophotography mistake on higher mag shots. If you have any tips on how to overcome this particular problem I am all ears!

© Ted C. MacRae 2014