Monday, April 21, 2014

Lousy Photos Still Have Their Value

Having set myself the task, last year, of documenting all of the plants and animals that I can identify on our 10 acres, I have found myself overwhelmed with photos in short order now that spring has arrived. 

It's MUCH easier to take photos of insects than it is to identify them.  Just in case you wondered.

It's also much easier to take photos of insects than it is to take GOOD photos of insects - good photos being defined as photos where you have a snowball's chance of actually identifying the insect in question based on what you are seeing on the screen in front of you.  I learned my basic insect identification skills the "good" old fashioned way, a.k.a. by capturing the insects and killing them, then identifying them at my leisure through the use of various magnifying devices and dichotomous keys.

I prefer trying to identify living insects in blurry photos, even if it means I won't get many of them actually identified.  I'm just not into killing living beings of any sort, if I can avoid it.  So here are a few of my so-so photos, some of which I've managed to identify and some of which are still mysteries to me....

The clove currant (Ribes odoratum) is in sweet, full and glorious bloom right now.  On Saturday, when I stopped by it, I noticed a dark hawk moth feeding.   The wings blurred rusty brown as the moth moved from bloom to bloom, while the heavy abdomen had a tuft at its end and was encircled by 2 bright yellow bands. I'd never seen this particular hawk moth before, so I tried to take its picture, thinking I could identify it more accurately if I had a good photo.  The blasted little beast was definitely camera shy and not very trusting of giant beings standing nearby with big black boxes stuck up near their face.  It tended to keep to the far side of the plants, rather than venturing out into the open near to me.

Thank heavens for digital.  Fifteen photos later, the moth flew away and I've not seen it since.  When I checked out those 15 shots to see what I'd managed to capture, sadly this was the BEST image of the lot.

As lousy as this photo is, I was still able to use it to identify my "dark" hawk moth as a Nessus Sphinx Moth (Amphion floridensis).  This species is supposedly one of the more commonly encountered day-flying moths, but I've never seen one before.  The larvae/ caterpillars, which are a type of hornworm, feed on grape, Ampelopsis, and Capsicum (bell and hot pepper) plants, all of which are frequent in our yard.

Looking around under one of our green ash trees (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), I noticed some small, gnat-like creatures flying.  When one came to rest within my sightline, I decided to snap its picture.  Then I noticed a second one nearby.  Snap.  Snap.  Snap.  These little creatures were about 1/4" or 3/8" long, colored gray and sitting on gray bark.  I have no idea why I thought I could get a good photo.  Here's what I managed to capture, 26 photos later, ....

I didn't think this silhouette would show me much at first, but when I zoomed in, I noticed that the "big" fly had a small fly caught underneath it, held in a classic "I'm eating you" sort of position.  When I showed it to Greg, he immediately thought the "big fly" was a robber fly of some sort.  I can go with that.

Another shot of the same individual accidentally captured a second "big fly" just above it on the bark. 

Do you see the 2 of them?  The one in the bottom right of the photo is the one shown in silhouette above; the second one is in the top left of the photo.  When I zoomed in on the second individual, it also seemed to have some sort of fly prey - with a yellow tipped abdomen - caught.
From the top, there's little evidence of "big fly #1" having prey captured beneath it, but the silhouette shot accidentally revealed the secret.

I haven't decided yet whether I'm going to try to submit these photos to Bug Guide or not - my feel is that they are not good enough for any sort of identification, but maybe I'll chance it anyway.  I do think these are tiny robber flies and I'd love to see if anyone can tell me any more about them.

Another lousy picture that nonetheless taught me something new about the creatures in our yard was this one, taken Saturday of some sort of critter on the underside of a small honeylocust branch....

When I took the photo, I thought the mess of moving legs was perhaps an emerging wheel bug.  As I took several more shots, I changed my mind to thinking I was looking at a brightly colored ant.  As I took the very last picture, something clicked and made me think, "Beetle?"  When I looked it up, sure enough, beetle was correct!  This is an Antlike Longhorned Beetle (Euderces pini).  The larvae of this beetle feed on dead wood in a variety of types of trees; the adults are typically seen nectaring at flowers.  The adults mimic ants and are notoriously hard to photograph because they never quit moving.  This is another insect that tops out around 3/8" long.  As lousy as my photos of this creature are (and this is the best of the lot), I feel lucky that I got a couple shots that allowed me to identify it at all.

As you can tell, I've got a LO-O-O-ONG way to go before I get very decent at taking good insect photos, but I do have fun and I learn a lot, even at the level of (in)competence that I have attained.  The natural world seems more wondrous every day.

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