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It’s been a buzzy summer! South Dakota Cicada

For the past couple of weeks it’s been quite loud in the evenings.  On occasion we get cicada noises here in the summer, but I don’t remember it being as “buzzy” outside as it has been lately. Despite hearing them, I don’t recall ever actually seeing a live cicada here.  That changed this morning when I was outside doing yard work. Something flew past and when I turned, I saw it land on a big rock in our landscaping. When I went to check it out, I saw the cicada, and quickly ran inside to grab my camera gear. Given I’m always set up for birds, not littler critters, it took a second to get my macro lens and macro flash setup on my camera, but when I returned the cicada was thankfully still there.

From what I’ve found online I believe this to possibly be a “Scissors Grinder Cicada” (Neotibicen pruinosus).  If that is indeed the species, we’re at the far northwestern edge of their range, here in southeastern South Dakota. They are one of the “annual” cicadas, not the more famed 13- or 17-year cycle cicadas that periodically come out in the eastern United States. The name common name “Scissors Grinder” comes from the characteristic sound they make.

Cool find, and very glad to get a ton of photos of this guy! After about 10 minutes on the rock, he disappeared.

Scissors Grinder Cicada - Neotibicen pruinosus

Scissors Grinder Cicada - Neotibicen pruinosusScissors Grinder Cicada - Neotibicen pruinosusScissors Grinder Cicada - Neotibicen pruinosusScissors Grinder Cicada - Neotibicen pruinosus

 

Photo/Haiku of the Day – Prairie Ghost

The Prairie Ghost

Swift ghost of the prairie

shepherding harem and young

As winter’s despair beckons

Pronghorn Buck - Antilocapra americana

Custer State Park’s famed “Wildlife Loop” never disappoints, but it’s just after dawn when the magical moments occur. Pronghorn are often seen in Custer State Park, but they are typically easier to spot in the early morning hours, before most visitors start to arrive in the park. On this morning, a harem of perhaps 6 females and their young-of-the-year surprised me by cresting a nearby hill. They then slowly worked their way towards me as they grazed, unconcerned about the photographer in the parked car. Last to crest the hill was the big male, the protector of the little band. I watched for 15 minutes as the herd fed in the adjacent grasslands. As they slowly moved on down the hill, the trailing buck paused for a moment to give me a stare.  I evidently passed his judgement, and he then trotted off after his harem as they disappeared around the bend.  The grasslands were still lush from a wet and bountiful summer and forage was good, but the leaves were beginning to change, and a harsh South Dakota winter was just around the corner.

Macro Mania

As a bird photographer I don’t put on my macro lens very often, but I got it out this afternoon to take some macro photos of the batch of Mexican Crazy Lace agates that I got this past week. Before I started tumble polishing them, I wanted to record what they look like in their natural state. When you zoom in extremely close like this, you can really see the beauty. It boggles my mind that these gorgeous patterns are all made by nature…such variety, such cool patterns, such wonderful colors.

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace AgateMacro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace AgateMacro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Macro Photo - Mexican Crazy Lace Agate

Beauty in Small Packages

Three months. I’m learning the value of patience with my new rockhounding and tumbling hobby, as I’ve learned the stones I tumble (South Dakota agates) are very hard, and need to be tumbled for a long time to get a good polish. I’ve learned that the process thus takes about 3 months!  I was doing one week for each of the four tumbling steps I do, but wasn’t getting great results until I upped that to three weeks for each step.

I’m pretty thrilled with this latest batch!  I would say this is my first real, high-quality batch that I’ve done.  These are from my small tumbler, and thus, most of these stones are only 1″ to 1 1/2″ inches in length. They’re beautiful even to the naked eye, but I’m finding that the use of my macro lens and a close photo really allows me to see the beauty and detail in these stones.  Here’s a (large!) number of photos of various agates and jaspers from my latest batch.

Bubblegum Agate

This agate had the typical, bumpy, bubbly shape of a bubblegum agate, but when I found it on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, it was a dull grayish-black. It took the better part of 4 months worth of tumbling to wear down the outer layer, exposing some of the most beautiful patterns I’ve seen on any of my agates.

South Dakota Agate

I’m calling this one “Crystal Dragon”. Not sure whether you’d call this a prairie, bubblegum, or other agate, but I love the swirling pattern, with the crystal/druzy “neck” on the dragon, and a little pink tongue and eye.

Prairie Agate

A prairie agate, showing a beautiful array of colors. A lot of the more weathered agates on the grasslands have black parts on their exterior. I believe that’s manganese oxide that forms when they’re exposed to the elements (at least some of the blacker agates). Much of the time that black disappears when you tumble, but on this prairie agate, the black was maintained in some of the bands.

South Dakota Agate

Wonderful fine detail that’s not all that noticeable to the naked eye, but is quite evident in a macro photo of this agate.

Prairie Agate

A lot of the bubblegum and prairie agates you find have a very subtle, very fine banding such as this. Very often it’s not noticeable until you tumble.

Bubblegum Agate

A classic bubblegum agate, a little larger than many of the agates on this page. Bubblegum agates really tumble beautifully, as you generally get these beautiful agate “eyes”.

Prairie Agate

Interesting shape on this agate, with a little peak that has it’s own little cap/color pattern.

Prairie Agate

A prairie agate, with a lot of “druzy” (crystally) elements.

Prairie Agate

The biggest agate in this batch is also one of the most gorgeous. This beautiful Prairie Agate has some wonderful banding patterns, and a beautiful range of colors.

Bubblegum agate

Another bubblegum agate with the typical eyes you see when polishing.

South Dakota Agate

I’m not sure what to call this one (help!!). It has a definite linear “grain” pattern, but it’s so unlike all the petrified wood I’ve found that I hesitate to call it that.

Prairie Agate

I love the pattern on this one, with the bold orange streak.

South Dakota Jasper

Jasper? Agate? I dunno. Has a pretty pattern though!

Prairie Agate

The most common prairie agate patterns are jagged, rough striping, but this is also a relatively common type of pattern and color for prairie agates from Buffalo Gap.

Bubblegum Agate

Another polished bubblegum agate

Prairie Agate

A prairie agate with some nice banded patterns

Prairie Agate

I love the contrasting patterns on some of the agates, with very dark sections contrasted by white or very light sections.

Bubblegum Agate

Another bubblegum agate, one that was tumbled awhile and didn’t maintain the “eyes” as much as some of the others.

“Planetary Agates” from South Dakota

I have a new hobby! I got a new lens 2 summers ago. It’s a very high quality lens that enables some truly stunning, clear, crisp photos, but I just haven’t used it very much since it’s quite a bit different lens than the one I use to shoot birds.  Today I thought I’d give it a whirl, and in doing so, I may have created a new hobby for myself…taking photos of the planets!!  I was able to take photos of 12 different planets today, all while out on my back deck!  Yeah…yeah…THAT’s right… I took photos of TWELVE different planets, in the space of only about an hour.

Well…OK…they may LOOK like planets, but I’ll fess up…they’re not. I put my rarely used macro lens on my camera this afternoon, and started to take some documentary photos of some of the agates and other stones that my son and I have found over the last month on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands here in South Dakota. After taking a few extreme closeup photos of one of our favorite agate finds, the composition of the photo, with the curve of the agate and the shadow behind it, made it look like a photo of a portion of a planet. I really loved the look of the macro shot, and just went with it, setting up other agates and trying to get “planetary agate” photos.  Here’s a collection of some of our favorite agate finds from the last month…

South Dakota Prairie Agate

“Planetary Agate #1” – This is part of a typical Prairie Agate, something that are relatively common on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. This is the photo that started the “Planetary Agate” series. The beautiful, cloud-like banding of a prairie agate definitely gives it a “planetary” vibe in this kind of view.

Fairburn Agate from South Dakota

Of the 12 “Planetary Agate” photos here, this one is perhaps the least “planet-like” given the sharp banding, but this Fairburn has been our best find so far. The gorgeous, thin, parallel banding of a Fairburn, coupled with that incredible translucent red “eye” do give it an otherworldly look.

Bubblegum Agate from South Dakota

This is a bubblegum agate that’s been through the tumbler a few times, revealing the gorgeous warm reddish-tones underneath. We’re DEFINITELY back on a firm “planetary agate” footing with this one.

Fairburn Agate from South Dakota

A planet’s surface, pockmarked by dozens of meteor collisions!! Or…perhaps it’s just a macro shot of a gorgeous Fairburn Agate from the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands of South Dakota. This is a very unusual agate, what we’ve called our “Easter Island Head” Fairburn. When we found it, it was all black, and looked like an Easter Island head. With a bit of polishing, the black gave way to this gorgeous, surreal Fairburn pattern underneath.

Prairie Agate - South Dakota

A very interesting “planet”, as this agate had all the typical markings of a prairie agate when we first spotted it. However, there were a few hints that other patterns were hidden underneath, and with a bit of polishing, some of the tighter banding more typical of a Fairburn agate were revealed. One of the more “planetary” looking of the 12 agate photos here.

Bubblegum Agate - South Dakota

Another bubblegum agate that’s been in the tumbler a while. The bubblegum agates we’ve found so far have been so fun to try in our tumble polisher. There have been some wonderful, surprise patterns on some of the tumbled bubblegum agates, including…this VERY planetary-looking pattern.

Prairie Agate - South Dakota

The typical colors of the prairie agates you find are warm orangish, tan, and white tones, but you do find other colors as well. Probably the second most common are bands of black and white. I believe from what a geologist friend told me, the blackish tones come from a touch of manganese? I guess the vertical bands in this shot make it a bit less “planet-like”, but still a beautiful, typical prairie agate from our state.

Prairie Agate - South Dakota

Not only does this portion of a prairie agate look like a planet, but the entire agate itself does! This is one of the larger agates we’ve taken back with us, a heavy, very round agate with some very interesting “windows” of other colors, such as shown here. Other than the banding, the prairie agates here also can have other patterns similar to this.

Prairie Agate - South Dakota

Another prairie agate that’s a bit different, in that the primary patterns are these elongated ellipsoids of white, surrounded by a thin “shell” of warm brown. Different pattern than the others…perhaps not so “planetary”…but a cool looking agate nonetheless.

Prairie Agate - South Dakota

This agate got my heart racing a bit when I first saw its edge poking out of the hard crust on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. The first thing I saw was that far right edge sticking out, and with a suggestion of the “holly-leaf” look on those bands, I thought I might have found South Dakota’s specialty, a Fairburn agate. Alas, while the markings may have some of the fortification-look of a Fairburn, this is definitely a prairie agate, but a BIG prairie agate with some of the most intricate banding of any prairie agate we’ve found. One of my favorites, and it makes for a nice “planetary agate” as well.

Bubblegum Agate - South Dakota

Another of the polished bubblegum agates, this one was a bit of a surprise when we first took it out of our tumbler after a “rough-polish” phase. The bubblegum-like nodules were worn smooth after tumbling, revealing very distinct fortification patterns that had the shape of a Fairburn, but not really the fine banding structure. Gorgeously colored little agate though.

Prairie Agate - South Dakota

The last of our “planetary agates”, this is another typical prairie agate, showing the most common kind of patterning that you see…broad, diffiuse, “cloud-like” bands. We hope you’ve enjoyed our little foray into “planetary agates!”

 

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

 

The “eyes” have it!

Insect eyes

The “money shot”, getting critical focus and attention on an insect’s head and eyes. This is a crop, showing a small part of the entire image, yet you can still see incredible detail in a feature on an insect’s head that can’t be more than a millimeter or two in size.

Eye contact.  There’s just something about photography, and eyes.  Many times you can have the most technically perfect photo possible, but it still may fail in the eyes of a viewer if the main subject isn’t making eye contact with the camera.

It’s awfully hard to tell whether an insect is making eye contact with you!!  However, the success or failure of a macro shot of an insect is also heavily influenced by how well you captured the eye. I have a friend at work who is also heavily into photography.  He doesn’t shoot birds or macro, yet when I started showing him photos of what I’ve been doing with the new lens, he immediately said “zoom up, let’s see the detail in that eye!!”.  When shooting macro, you have such a tiny, tiny depth-of-field (the portion of the image that’s in focus).  In most cases, the photographer needs to decide what part of the photo is going to have critical focus, and what parts are going to be blurred.  And in most cases, the choice of the photographer is easy…put the critical focus on the eyes and head.

Thus, the choice to show a variety of buggy eyes for this morning’s post!  Many of these insects are tiny little critters, half an inch long or less, so these photos don’t represent the full-frame shot from my Canon 70D and Canon 100mm 2.8L IS lens.  These are all “cropped” shots, yet it gives you some indication of the detail you can extract with this set up, when a zoomed-up, cropped photo of an insects eye shows such good detail.

As always, click on any photograph for a larger view.

Insect eyes Insect eyes Insect eyes Insect eyes Insect eyes

A macro kind-o-day

A hover fly on a thistle bloom.  These guys aren't very big, but it gives you a good idea of the kind of image you can get with just the "base" Canon 100mm 2.8L IS lens, with no additional extension tubes, teleconverters, or close-up filters.  A real joy of a lens to use!

A hover fly on a thistle bloom. These guys aren’t very big, but it gives you a good idea of the kind of image you can get with just the “base” Canon 100mm 2.8L IS lens, with no additional extension tubes, teleconverters, or close-up filters. A real joy of a lens to use!

Alright this is too fun.  As I often do, I slipped out of the house very early Sunday morning to get a little birding in.  The plan was just to stay in the local area, hoping to find some migrating shorebirds.  I headed west of Sioux Falls, and while there were shorebirds scattered around in various locations, I wasn’t having a speck of luck in terms of photographing them.

Macro to the rescue!  Not wanting to come home empty handed of photos, I spent an hour or so photographing little critters.  While birds may or may not be cooperative, depending upon the day, I’m quickly finding that it’s pretty easy to find a willing subject shooting insects with my macro lens.  About 5 minutes after I decided to try to shoot macro, I came across a patch of purple flowers (aster(?), along with some scattered thistle and clover) growing along the side of the road.  I pulled over and ended up spending most of the next hour sitting along the side of the road by one small patch of flowers.

Consperse Stink Bug

A (Consperse?) Stink bug on a thistle bloom. A week ago, before getting the new macro lens, I never would have imagined I’d be out on the internet, trying to identify the exact species of stink bug I was seeing!

Given that I’m still new to shooting buggies, I’m sure I’ll adapt in terms of the kinds of areas I choose to shoot, but for now as I’m learning, it’s hard to beat a nice patch of flowers.  There are of course all the different pollinators, and I’m also quickly learning just what a variety of pollinators there are! I’m having a hard time putting a name to a lot of them at this stage, other than “honeybee”, “bumblebee”, or…”buggy-like thing”.  The diversity, color, and beauty of these little critters is certainly blowing me away though.

It’s not just pollinators I’m trying to shoot.  I’ll gladly take any willing subject that crosses my path.  This same flower patch also was chock-full of very young grasshoppers, of at least 2 or 3 different species.  Milkweed bugs were around, as were a few other beetles, stinkbugs, ants, and others.  A cornucopia of photography subjects!  And for the most part, such willing subjects compared to birds!

What started out as a birding and bird photo day, saved by macro buggies!  Click on the images for larger views.

BeetleGrasshopperDifferential GrasshopperHoneybeeMilkweed BugEastern Forktail

New Toy! And a new brand of my hobby?

Blowfly and flower

Literally one of the first few photos I took with the new lens. WHAT A LENS. The sharpness is wonderful, and I was thrilled beyond belief to be able to get such a “close” photo my first time out with it.

I have a Canon 70-200mm 4.0L lens that I’ve had for probably 10 years.  It’s an awesome lens, extremely sharp, particularly given that zooms typically aren’t as sharp as prime lenses.  The problem is that I never use it!  Well, rarely ever.  Given that I mostly shoot birds, I nearly always have my 400mm lens on the camera.  On the rare occasion I shoot landscapes (or people!), the 70-200 is too long, so I typically have on my wide angle.  The 70-200 thus only really gets used on rare occasions that I should large animals other than birds, like when we go to Yellowstone.

Well, we live 14 hours away from Yellowstone, and while we have been there a few times in recent years, it’s not exactly an every day occasion!  The lens may be 3 years between being used!  I had always wanted to try macro shooting, so finally wised up, put the 70-200mm out on eBay, and bought a Canon 100mm 2.8L IS macro lens.  I had dreams of getting some wonderful insect photos like I’ve seen other people shoot with macro!  Given what my first bird photos looked like when I started 15 years ago though, I expected there to be a very steep learning curve.  I expected my initial images to look, well…pretty bad, until I got used to the new lens and learned how to use it.

Bumblebee on bloom

A bumblebee on a flower. This isn’t even close to as close as I could have been, but I didn’t want to get too close shooting this guy. To give you some idea of the capabilities of this lens, later I tried a little sweat bee, and was able to use the lens to get close enough to have a sweat bee fill a big chunk of the frame. I didn’t expect to be able to get such small bugs in such detail.

The lens came today, and I went out in the back yard in search of insects to try it on.  All I have to say about this lens is…HOLY CRAP!  For someone that has never shot macro, the capabilities of this lens have blown me away on day one!  It has a reputation of being one of the sharpest lenses Canon offers, and I certainly have no complaints after my first photos with it.  I knew the lens was a “true” macro lens, capable of 1:1 photos (capturing a real-life object at the same size on the image sensor), but WOW, I didn’t expect to be able to get such great, close, detailed photos of small insects, without the use of extension tubes, close-up lenses, or other attachments people often use for macro.

I’m not a “buggy” person, in that I do NOT like insects or spiders in my house!  But tonight I was in hot pursuit of whatever I could find.  I ended up just sitting in the grass next to a flower bed, and trying to shoot what came by.  I’m pretty sure the species of fly shown here is some kind of blowfly?  Shooting like this sure opens up a new world.  Bugs may be “icky” to many (including me most of the time!), but I was kind of blown away by the subtle beauty and detail that I was able to get with this lens.

I already have WAY too many hobbies.  I fear that after today, macro photography may join bird photography as a hobby.  The nice thing about it…at least outside of winter, you’re ALWAYS going to have some creepy-crawlies right in your own yard that you can shoot!  I’m really looking forward to more use of this lens, and seeing what it can do.

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