Thursday, February 26, 2015

One more thing.

Here's another way I've been spending the dreary cold days.

For the past several years Cheryl and I have been cataloging the insects and spiders of Crowley's Ridge, the anomalous small range of hills which runs by our house in the northeast corner of Arkansas. We have kept photographic records for the Ridge, and of course as we have traveled to other parts of the state we have been taking pictures of everything we saw, since that is our pleasure. But I have been putting specifically the Crowley's Ridge photos on Picasa Web albums (The Butterflies of Crowley's Ridge, the Dragonflies of Crowley's Ridge, etc.) and arranging them as photographic field guides, hoping they might be useful to people learning Arkansas insects.

Well it occurs to me that by now we have taken images of most of the butterflies in the state as a whole. The major ones I am missing are the irruptives that every few years come just across the Texas border into the Lake Millwood area. They are all common Texas species that we know quite well from traveling there, and it didn't seem worth it for us to drive all the way to Lake Millwood just to say we have seen them in Arkansas. We have images of these species that we have taken in Texas, so I decided I could just add them in and make a new set of albums, and call them "Butterflies of Arkansas." We have about 130 species, which is as many species as anyone is likely to see in the state. We are missing nine species that are considered to be regularly occurring, though very rare (we'll make it a goal this summer to look for them, and that will get us out in some parts of the state we are not very familiar with).

So what I am saying is, I have been passing a few days in my study splicing pictures together and creating this new collection of field guides, THE BUTTERFLIES OF ARKANSAS, which I have put on five albums and I am just this moment making them public. Here they are, in case you might be interested.

Butterflies of Arkansas (I): Swallowtails and Whites and Yellows

Butterflies of Arkansas (II): Gossamerwings and Metalmarks

Butterflies of Arkansas (III): Nymphalids

Butterflies of Arkansas (IV): Spreadwing Skippers

 Butterflies of Arkansas (V): Grass Skippers

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Well, something else to do in the winter.

In my last blog I stated with casual certainty that winter was now over. It's pretty clear I offended the weather gods.

So I'm back to figuring out things to do when the weather is so bad its not worth going out of the house. I'm back to trying to take pictures of birds. I think as a modest endeavor I would like to do portraits of the common birds in our garden. This is hardly photography of the kind where you set up a hide in an area rich with exotic birds, leave it up for a few days for the birds to get used to, then go before daylight accompanied by a friend who, after you crawl into the cramped and uncomfortable and bitterly cold hide will walk away so that birds (so long as they aren't ravens), being unable to count, will see someone leaving and think the coast is clear. That's how my heroes did it when I was growing up.

No, I'm of the new school who sits at my dining room window with a cup of coffee and my digital camera lying on the table in front of me, and when a bird comes by I start clicking pictures of it through the double-panes.

The first one I see is a female cardinal. They can be just as attractive as the males in their quieter and more tasteful way. But this one is kind of blowsy, letting it all hang out. I decide it's a throwaway.

The next one is a blue jay, which poses nicely, sort of like a dog stretching out in front, an invitation to play.

But the picture is too dark. Those blues on the wings and tail should be brilliant, the colors on the back rich shades of purple. I don't know anything about the technical aspects of photography, but I believe the problem is this: The camera is exposing the picture for the brilliant white of the snow, but that leaves the dark bird underexposed. So I use my adjustment button and move it towards overexposure, and that brings out more accurate (or at least, prettier) colors on the bird. While I am at it, I dodge out most of the seeds lying around, which give away the fact that these are bird-feeder shots, kind of cheating. The snow now makes a nice uncluttered background.

That's better, I think. But I see I still have to take out that silly black streak above the bird's head. And since I am fiddling with it again, I can't resist pushing the exposure even further. Here's where I end up:

Now parts of the bird are overexposed. I can no longer, for instance, see the white undertail coverts against the snow. But lots more detail has come out around the eyes, and the blue spots on the wings and tail have come up even more. The general color of the bird is truer, I believe.

But I'm thinking, bird photography is a mug's game. There are so many brilliant bird photographers around now that each species has been recorded with every feather barb showing, every scintillance of reflective color, every aspect of behavior, to where there is no point taking another picture of that species.  It seems like there is no opening left to do something new or something better. In this past couple of years when I have been trying to take some bird pictures, I am discovering how many really excellent photographers there are just here in Arkansas, whose most casual snapshots seem to get a brightness and depth and clarity I can't equal. Is it because they have better equipment? ("It's a poor carpenter who blames his tools," Cheryl's father used to say.)

In the midst of these thoughts a very handsome Eastern Towhee jumped up on a tree branch before me. He was jerking his head around, flirting his tail. But staying at the same spot for a few moments. I started clicking pictures of him as fast as I could, hoping to catch him in a good pose. But I was out of synch with him. I would see in the view finder a good head angle, and click a picture of him just as he left that position. I finally made myself stop and I waited. There was the view I wanted: He was looking directly at me with his wild red eye. He stayed just long enough for me to get the picture.

Now I was happy, all my doleful thoughts gone. I was ready to compete with the others now. They might have got the eagles locking talons in mid-air, but they didn't get this common species sitting on this ordinary branch in my front yard.

And anyway, the moment it warms up I'll get back to taking pictures of spiders and insects, where the field still isn't as crowded as bird photography.