Articles for the Month of August 2015

Back in the swing? Chorus Frog

Chorus Frog - Pseudacris triseriata

A tiny Chorus Frog (Pseudacris triseriata), hanging out in front of our house, and just begging to get his photo taken.

August…good riddance.  It’s been a downer of a month.  I’ve had all kinds of eye issues this month, and just haven’t felt up to getting out and taking photos.  Heck, I haven’t even felt like opening my eyes!  It turns out my really dry eye turned into a very nasty scratch across my cornea.  Not only did it hurt like hell, but everything was so blurry in that eye that I couldn’t even think about photography.

Thankfully the eye is getting better, and I have some treatment options that seem to be working for the eyes overall (crossing fingers that continues).  I still haven’t felt like going out with the camera, but maybe tonight was a sign I should start doing so again.  I went for a family walk with the dogs, and when we returned home, my son said “Frog!”.  Not really expecting frogs in our front driveway, I thought he was joking around or something, but then he pointed out the tiny little Chorus Frog that was hanging out on the edge of the driveway.

Chorus Frog - Pseudacris triseriata

A side view of the cute little guy.

I’ve pretty much just tried the macro lens on insects and a few flowers, so a tiny frog was a nice option to try something new.  This guy was an inch long at most, a perfect size for some macro shots.  He wasn’t really in much of a mood to move or anything, so I was able to lay down on the driveway in front of him and take a wide variety of shots.

A sign perhaps, that I should get my lazy, bad-eyed self back outside and start taking photos again?   Nah…I don’t believe in that kind of stuff, but ANYTHING that made me grab the camera again is a good thing.

Ant vs. Fly – Battle Royale

Ant vs. Fly

An ant that has seemingly captured a fly. The fly was firmly in the grip of the ant, and despite having full use of its wings and desperately trying to pull away, it wasn’t making any headway against the tiny but strong ant.

Ah, the thrills of being a nature photographer.  The classic nature battles that are captured through the eye of a photographer…a lion taking down a wildebeest.  A pack of wolves tackling a full-grown elk.  A grizzly bear taking a bison calf.

OK, this may not be quite on bar with the excitement and drama of one of those encounters, but while out taking macro photos, I heard a bit of buzzing and noticed this fly flopping around a bit, seemingly trying desperately to get away from something.  At first I didn’t see the captor, but then saw it was a large ant!  The ant had it’s jaws firmly around the head of the fly, and despite all the efforts of the fly, it certainly didn’t seem like it had much of a chance to get away.

I had seen ants carrying seemingly dead insects away before, often in a cooperative fashion.  But I hadn’t ever really thought of ants as being “killers”, going out and actively hunting for prey.  Another insight into the insect world through a macro lens!

Wasp Galls – Who knew?

Wasp Gall - Cynipidae family  - Burr Oak Leaf

Wasp galls on the undersides of Burr Oak leaves. These are the galls of wasps from the Cynipidae family. I never would have known that these strange fuzzy structures are part of the oak leaf itself, not created by the insect!

It’s been a bad last week with my eyes, so dry and so hard to be outside in the wind.  As such, I again haven’t been in much of a mood to go shoot, but thankfully these things seem to run in spurts and I’m feeling better now!  What better way to get back outside than do a little more macro photography.

One of the things I’ve really loved about getting into macro photography (one whole month into it now!!) is that it’s opened my eyes to things I just wouldn’t have ever noticed before.  When I’m walking along, closely scouring the vegetation or trail for an insect or some neat pattern to shoot with my macro lens, I certainly notice things I’d never noticed before when I shot almost exclusively birds.  While walking in the Big Sioux Recreation Area (State Park across the street), I noticed that the undersides of the Burr Oak leaves had many little fuzzy balls.  Not only fuzzy, but colorful and quite variable fuzzy little balls, between 1/4″ and 1/2″ in size, mostly in mixed bands of pink and cream colors.

A perfect opportunity for some macro shots! As the photo above shows, the fuzzy balls are variable, but seem to always be composed of the same two colors. I had assumed they were related to insect reproduction, thinking they were some kind of egg mass or something.  A quick search of the internet when coming back home revealed that they are the galls of certain wasp species.

A wasp gall…OK?  I knew the term “gall”, and had myself associated it with a variety of odd bumps and lumps and deformities that you see on plants.  I had always assumed they were created by an insect to house eggs or young.  I didn’t know the gall itself is actually plant tissue!  Fascinating to read about!  The galls are from the Cynipidae family of wasps.  The females lay an egg on a leaf. There is some unknown chemical or mechanical triggering that induces the Burr Oak leaf itself to produce a protective gall around the egg.  Once the egg hatches, the tiny wasp larvae feeds on the tissue of the gall itself, with the wasp eventually breaking free of the gall and flying away once it matures.

Very cool!  And something I doubt I ever would have been aware of had I not started taking photos with a macro lens.  I certainly wouldn’t have ever guessed that this fuzzy, pink-and-cream colored creation was actually part of the oak leaf itself!

Saving $500 – a DIY macro flash diffuser

Mayfly photo - macro photography by Terry Sohl

Mayfly, taken with my do-it-yourself macro flash unit. This was taken well after sunset, with the modified flash unit providing all lighting.

I’m now about 3 weeks into the macro world.  One thing that became obvious pretty quickly is that with such a short focusing distance (often about 1 foot from the subject), controlling light can be a lot tougher with macro.  Flash is an obvious way to control the light for a shot, but the “standard” flash units for DSLR’s generally aren’t good for macro, at least not with the flash right on the hot shoe of the camera.  For example, I have Canon’s “Speedlight” 430 EXII, a very nice flash unit.  But when it’s on the camera itself, there’s no way to direct the flash to such a short focusing distance.

You can buy a cord and take the flash off the camera itself, but to me it’s a little unwieldy to try to manage an off-camera flash and the camera itself.  Canon does make a specific flash for macro.  It’s a ring-flash, a round flash that goes right on the end of your lens.  It’s a nice solution!  It’s also $500!! Given that I’m still new to macro, I didn’t want to spend that much on a dedicated macro flash, so started looking around on the web and saw people have made all kinds of do-it-yourself flash setups for macro.

Better Beamer Photo

The basic Better Beamer setup, a simple pair of frame pieces and a Fresnel lens that attach to your flash with Velcro. I used the frame pieces of one as the basis for my modified macro flash.

It’s the opposite problem of when I shoot birds, and when I want to “extend” my flash a longer distance.  For birds, I have a “Better Beamer”, a simple yet very effective attachment to the flash that uses a Fresnel lens to focus light from the flash for a longer distance shot.  I actually had an extra bracket pair for my flash, so started wondering if I could use a modified Better Beamer setup for macro flash.

The idea…I just wanted something that could redirect the flash output.  The minimum focusing distance on my Canon 100mm 2.8L IS macro lens is a about a foot, so ideally I wanted something that would direct the light towards a very close object, but could also be used for a little bit longer distances (say 1 to 3 feet) that you might use for larger macro subjects like butterflies.  With a little aluminum foil, tape, and foam core board, I ended up making a surprisingly effective and easy to use macro flash setup.

Do-it-yourself macro flash

This is the basic modified Better Beamer components. The top is enclosed with foil-covered foam core. Another foil-covered foam core piece is positioned within the frame, directing the flash downward. The Better Beamer itself is also foil covered on the inside (OK, and outside because it was easier!) to better reflect the light from the flash.

I started with the Better Beamer frame pieces themselves.  They attach to the flash unit with Velcro, so it’s very easy to add or remove the Better Beamer setup.  What I needed was to direct the flash downward, towards a distance of about 1 foot from the lens.  I started by cutting a piece of foam core to fit exactly on the top of the flash unit, between the Better Beamer frame, and layered it with with aluminum foil.  This basically encloses the top of the ad-hoc macro flash unit.  With the top enclosed, I then wanted another foil-covered foam-core piece to fit within the frame, but at an angle that would direct the flash downward towards a subject about a foot away from the camera lens.  With the modified Better Beamer on the flash unit, and with the flash on the camera, I calculated a rough angle the piece would have to be at inside the frame, cut a foam core piece to fit, covered it with foil, and put it in place.  I also covered the Better Beamer frame itself with foil.  With this simple setup, the “normal” flash goes into the semi-enclosed unit, and is deflected downwards towards a close subject.

After trying it out, I was thrilled with the results!  For macro shooting in natural light, you often need a well-lit, bright subject or you won’t have enough shutter speed to get a sharp photo.  With the flash, I can make the flash the primary source of light, and given the very short burst of light from a Canon Speedlight, shutter speed itself isn’t as important and you can “stop the action” and get a crisp shot fairly easily.  With the flash set in the 90-degree position, with the flash pointing straightforward, the angle inside is perfect for bouncing flash towards a subject close to minimum focusing distance.  For a bit of a longer distance shot, the angle deflects the light downward too quickly, but with the 430EX flash, you can tilt the flash unit upward.  It’s thus very simple to use for a range of macro distances.  While the initial shots were very well lit and sharp, I made one more modification to diffuse the light from the flash.  With the simple bounce set-up, with the flash light deflected off the aluminum foil, the shots were well lit, but sometimes a bit contrasty and harsh.  I wanted a simple diffuser to soften the light, so just took a piece of thin white cloth and stretched it across the bottom of the modified flash setup.  It worked wonderfully to avoid the harshness of the un-diffused flash.

DIY Macro Flash Diffuser

The final piece of the puzzle, a bit of white cloth stretched across the bottom of the unit. The flash must pass through the cloth, diffusing the light and providing a more pleasing image.

Very simple, took me perhaps an hour to put together, and it saved me $500!  No, it’s not as elegant as Canon’s ring flash.  In fact, it’s definitely the ugliest piece of camera equipment I now have!  But it’s worked wonderfully, as I get to keep the wonderful ETTL (electronic “through-the-lens”) flash metering of my 430 EXII, and with the Better Beamer frame as the base, the modified flash components are easily removed when I’m not shooting macro.

I do suspect that if I keep up my interest in macro, that I will give in and get the ring flash unit some day.  But for now, my DIY macro flash diffuser is working quite well.

Hummingbird perspective

Photo of Rufous Hummingbird in FLight

Drink up little Rufous Humminbird! One flower down, 1,163 cans of Coke (hummingbird equivalent) to go!!

From, there’s a nice feature today about the “fierceness” of hummingbirds:

Hummingbirds are Fierce, Deadly Gods of War

I can relate to this.  Pop (hey, I’m from the Midwest, it’s “pop”, not “soda” or anything else) is my downfall.  I don’t drink coffee, and especially during the week, a can of pop somehow makes it into my office.  Mostly it’s Coke.  If I’m really having a bad, tiring day, a Mountain Dew has been known to slip into my office.  But having an occasional can of Coke is nothing, if you read this story.

Given the metabolism of a hummingbird, they consume half their body weight in sugar every day.  As the article notes, an equivalent would be a human being drinking 1,163 cans of Coke a day, or 1,106 cans of Pepsi (Pepsi has more sugar).

Therefore, I have determined my occasional can of Coke isn’t bad.  It may actually be a health food, based on this comparison.  Not only am I drinking the “right” pop in Coke (the less sugary one), but I’m only drinking 0.09% of my daily allowance of sugar, in hummingbird terms.

It’s all a matter of perspective…

Your tax dollars at work – Science or Birds?

Photo of Double-crested Cormorant - By Terry Sohl

Double-crested Cormorant. Clearly by the evil look in his eye, you can tell he’s up to no good. Clearly, this 2 pound bird is a much better fisherman than all the “sportsmen” in the Pacific Northwest, as cormorants have been (wrongly) accused of destroying salmon populations in the region.

Ah, the perks of being a government scientist.  The high pay.  The adulation. The outpouring and love from an American public that doesn’t seem to believe in science any more, a public that seems quite content to ignore those pesky temperature increases on their thermometer, a public that would rather believe that great-great-grandpa Eddie used to ride around on a dinosaur than believe in evolution.  It just keeps better and better.  At least there’s the work, right?  The thought of doing real, unbiased SCIENCE for the public good?

Well sure, there is the work itself.  It’s just a wee bit disheartening however to DO the work the government asks you to do, but have that work ignored by said government.  With that as background…

If you’re not aware of it, there have been active campaigns against the evil Double-crested Cormorant for decades now, with interest groups (primarily fishermen and other “sportsmen”) claiming that the birds are eating all their fish, and therefor they must be destroyed.  It’s been in multiple locations, from the South, to the Great Lakes, and most recently, on the Columbia River basin where fisherman are bemoaning declining salmon populations.  One COULD blame over-fishing.  One COULD also blame a much warmer northern Pacific (global warming anyone?) that has been shown to be taking a toll on salmon.  But no…of course it’s none of that according to these brilliant “sportsmen”.  It’s the evil Double-crested Cormorant that is eating all of “their” salmon.

You might wonder how a species that’s co-existed with salmon for thousands of years suddenly is (supposedly) single-handedly wiping out Cormorant populations.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was also wondering, and thus tasked their biologists to study the issue.  The conclusion from the government scientists?  Double-crested Cormorants weren’t having much of an impact, if any, on salmon populations in the Columbia.  The next course of action by Fish & Wildlife?  Giving their stamp of approval on a plan to KILL 10,000 Double-crested Cormorants in the region.

Yes, that’s correct. Your tax dollars pay for scientists to study EVIDENCE, to use the best available techniques and analyses to study issues such as this.  In this case, government biologists found no connection between the birds and the salmon.  That same government, however, decided to ignore their scientists and STILL start the slaughter of 10,000 birds.  Why?  I’m sure it has EVERYTHING to do with politics and keeping the “sportsman” (HAH!!) lobby happy.  It sure as hell has nothing to do with the science.

If I’m a tax payer, I’m wondering what the hell the government is doing, playing politics instead of paying attention to the science.

As a fellow government scientist, I’m left wondering why the hell any of us are doing our jobs, if our work is going to be ignored.

Happy Monday! Things to be grateful for…

Acontiinae caterpillar - Photo

Caterpillar of the “Bird Dropping Moth”

Happy, happy Monday!  Another fun-filled week away from family and home, sitting in meetings and telecons and pondering where your life went wrong.  On a day such as this, we all need something to put some pep-in-our-step, something to turn-that-frown-upside-down.

Misery loves company, and nothing seems to make people feel better than seeing other people who are even worse off than themselves.  So as you sit at your desk on this fine Monday morning, be grateful that at least you’re not THIS guy, pictured in the photo.

You may feel like you’re being ‘dumped on’ at work a lot, but this poor guy is actually NAMED for bird shit.  Maybe things aren’t so bad for you…


New Macro Photo Page

Feather - Birds have these

A tiny feather I saw stuck on a tree branch this morning. I hear “birds” have feathers. Might want to try photographing one someday. It’s kind of telling the mode I’m in right now, when I got out with a goal of actually shooting birds, yet in my macro-mania, I instead come back with a macro photo of a bird feather.

I went out with my 400mm lens today.  Truly, truly I did.  Truly, truly I meant to photograph a bird, and break free of my recent macro obsession.

In fact, I DID take a photo of a bird.  A small Empidonax flycatcher of undetermined species.  There aren’t many bird species I can’t immediately ID by sight, but these guys are.  I thought it was kind of fitting that while I’m in my bird photo rut, the one nice bird photo I got today was of the one group of birds I have a hard time ID’ing.

I did get a lot more macro photos though!  I’m rapidly filling up my hard drive with unprocessed macro photos. They now sit there alongside all my bezillion bird photos that sit on my hard drive, longing for the day when they’ll see the light of day.  To facilitate the processing of the macro photos though, I did finally set up an official macro photo page on my main website.  You can access it here:


Macro Photo Gallery


More Macro Madness

Someone told me there are still creatures out there.  Beautiful creatures, flying around.  With feathers.  I believe these creatures are called “birds”. When I’ve gone out to take photos lately, every once in a while as I’m staring intently at a tiny patch of ground or scouring an individual leaf for a buggy critter to photograph, I hear one, or even see one. Maybe someday I’ll try taking a photograph of one.

In short…I’m still having fun with my new macro lens! One of the things that attracted me to birds when I first started in photography 15 years ago was the sheer variety.. Particularly as a “new” birder and photographer, you just never knew what you might come across on a given trip.  That’s obviously the case with macro photography.  I’m finding I never go more than a few miles from our house, and indeed, many times I never leave our yard.  There’s just so much to explore and photograph when you “think small”.

Some more recent macro photos below:

Non-biting Midge, Genus Axarus, Species Group festivusHarvestman speciesSpotted Cucumber Beetle - PhotoLeaf Beetle - Paria Species - PhotoMonarch Butterfly Caterpillar - PhotoPhoto of Ambush BugLeafcutter Bee - MegachileCarpenter Ant, tending aphidsPhoto of Garden SpiderPhoto of Clouded Plant Bug - NeurocolpusClouded Sulphur - Butterfly - PhotoCoenagrionidae DamselflyTiger Crane Fly - Nephrotoma


From Australia…a BETTER story than our own Ivory-biilled Woodpecker

Drawing - Ivory-billed Woodpecker - Terry Sohl

The only image I’m ever likely to make of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker! The recent sighting and capture of a Night Parrot in Australia brings to mind the uproar over the Ivory-billed Woodpecker sightings of several years ago. It also brought back distasteful memories of how some skeptical birders reacted to the Ivory-billed news

I still remember the day at work several years ago when a colleague and birder friend came up to me in the hall and excitedly said “Have you heard? Have you HEARD!?!?”  That was the day it was announced in the media that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker had been found again in Arkansas. A species not seen in decades, one that the vast majority of “experts” had declared extinct, yet reports of a number of good sightings from the reputable Cornell ornithology group sent the birding world into an excited tizzy.

A story of similar significance was just published, noting that the famed “Night Parrot” of Australia had been confirmed still alive.  Researchers in Queensland not only recorded instances of the species by sight and by sound, they actually managed to capture a live bird.  A confirmed live bird hadn’t similarly captured since the 1800s, and as the story notes, even despite a pair of dead birds found in the last 30 years, many experts considered the species extinct. The species nests in ground burrows and introduced species, particularly feral cats and introduced rat species, pose a grave threat.  Many thought it was a mortal threat and that the species was forever gone, despite intermittent reports of sightings over the years.

A birding “miracle”, ala our very own Ivory-billed Woodpecker!  Alas,the story of the night parrot is even better than the Ivory-billed Woodpecker story, in that the clear photo and capture of the night parrot was irrefutable evidence of the bird’s continued survival. In the case of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, almost immediately after Cornell announced the sightings of the Arkansas bird(s), doubters emerged from the woodwork. Despite sightings from a number of reputable ornithologists associated with Cornell, and despite more sightings in Florida by Auburn University researchers, an outcry emerged from many in the birding community that without a clear, definitive photo, the sightings didn’t constitute “proof”.  Prominent birder David Sibley was one who led the charge against the published reports, In short, instead of being met with excitement and joy, many in the birding and science communities instead chose to attack the reports, and indeed, to personally attack the Cornell group itself.

Ah, what a difference a photo makes!  One thing I’ve come to truly HATE in the birding community is the competitive nature many birders have.  Given then names involved in the Arkansas and Florida sightings, and given the number of DIFFERENT people who saw and/or heard the birds, I have no doubt that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers were seen.  Alas, however, in the birding community nothing brings scorn as does lack of DEFINITIVE proof. Unfortunately, even a CLEAR PHOTOGRAPH doesn’t constitute proof in the eyes of some skeptics, as George Lowry found out in 1971, when two photos were rejected by “experts” as likely fakes.

My opinion…I’ve never met him personally, but thanks to his VERY vigorous reaction to the Ivory-billed episode, I will now forever think of David Sibley as a pompous jackass.  I will now FOREVER equate his name with the many other PJB’s (Pompous Jackass Birders) that I’ve run across over the years.  What did Sibley and others stand to gain by personally attacking the Cornell group? Without a clear photo, Sibley and others COULD have taken the high road, expressing excitement and joy in the sightings, while at the same time encouraging additional work to photograph or even band a live Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

Instead, the (jealous?) PJBs chose the low road, looking at the glass as half-empty and interpreting every bit of evidence in the most skeptical and negative way possible.  All for the lack of a photo.  Congrats to the Queensland group for the wonderful work. I look forward to the day that similar “proof” is found in the case of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.  I look forward to the day of vindication for the Cornell Group, Geoffrey Hill from Auburn, John Dennis for his sightings from the 1940s to 1960s, George Lowry (he of the photos from 1971), and the many others over the years who have been open ridiculed for DARING to publicize a sighting of a species that the jackass PJB’s hadn’t THEMSELVES seen.



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