Sunday, April 1, 2018

Insects vs. Insects -- My photographic arthropodous

Out of college for the first time I became City Editor at the Richmond Gazette, a weekly newspaper in northern Illinois. I was the only reporter, photographer, copy editor, and layout guy.  I carried a camera, shot black and white in ASA 400 or 1600 if the light was dim.  I developed my own pictures in trays in a darkroom.

One year I won best sports photography from the Associated Press, for a picture after a high school football game.  The little team no one had heard of had somehow  been winning like crazy all season and was about to go downstate and vie for the Illinois title.  They had one last game at home to cap it off -- an easy win, more of a send-off celebration than an real contest and the whole town turned out.  But they lost.  My shot was of the bench, four muddy guys crying into muddy towels.  The caption: "... the Rockets will be staying home."

That camera was a Nikon, someone stole it just as things went digital and Nancy gave me a Panasonic Lumix, an autofocus that fit in my pocket.  It had a Leica lens.  In my tinkering I discovered an amazing macro on it and I started shooting flowers in her wonderful garden.  Despite the rich colors, beautiful petals, and extraordinary detail it was still a point-and-shoot camera; the skill was really all in the gardening, not in the photography.

One day a fly landed nearby, a green fly, a long-legged fly, and I shot it.

New Paltz New York

What startling details!  I immediately went after flys and bugs, and saw the strangest thing I had never known.  What was that ball of water in that housefly's mouth?  What was that spider doing on that dead grasshopper? That Box Elder Bug was actually wrapped up in a spider web!  That ant, what jaws!  These became armored vehicles -- legs covered with spikes, mouth parts that shot out, feet like icepicks, eyes wrapped all around... It's like pokemon, like predatory aliens, like so many micro robots with Artificial Intelligence ... but real.

From then on I used flowers as bait and backdrop. When I shot one I didn't recognize I identifed it the old fashioned way: I googled "flat faced hairy black fly with white eyes," or "shiny black wasp with purple abdomen," sifted through the images and nail it down from there. I started posting hits on an Entomology Facebook group where, if I couldn't identify them, someone certainly would.  Judging from the speed and specificity of the response there are savants in that crowd I'm certain.  The requirements for an amateur like me was that I say where it was taken, I had to have taken the pictures myself, and I was encouraged to add the Latin name if I could find it because common names are for ... normal people.

All pictures in this Blog were  from Chicago Illinois, unless otherwise noted.

When I posted a video of 1,000 baby garden spiders fleeing their fetal spider-ball someone called it "a whole lot of No No No!" which I thought was funny but she got shut down immediately by a crowd which has no tolerance for jokes of this kind.  And you must say where it was found.  Once I said I shot a stink bug in Chicago, then corrected my self later -- no, it was in Michigan -- and got a bunch of likes for the correction.

So I've been hooked; I've taken thousands of arthropidic pictures -- insects and spiders mainly.  I lost my first Panasonic sadly (with a whole lot of pictures on it, too!) but bought two more on ebay.  It's a DMC-Z53 to be exact.

So many jaw-dropping pictures I wouldn't know where to start so I'll focus on a theme within a theme: bugs eating bugs.  Many of these were accidental shots, the horror of which I didn't realize until later...   And that's enough talk.  This post is about pictures.

... like this one of a Spider Wasp, probably, (Auplopus carbonarius, Pompilidae)  which bites the legs off of a young orb weaving spider (Neoscona crucifera) before taking it alive back to its nest to feed its young..  Woooohahaha.

.. Later I saw another one before the snipping began...

  ..  before you get too upset with the Spider Wasp, look at this one, in the mouth of a Robber Fly (Dysmachus trigonus).

I actually saw this Cicada Killer Wasp (Sphecius speciosus) take the Cicada (Cicadidae) down in flight.  After a wrestle and a sting, off to the nest we go.

Millipede (Diplopoda Julida) that came to a sorry end in a cellar spider's web.

Ok, it's not an insect eating an insect, but at least these two American Dog Ticks (Dermacentor variabilis) still have chunks of my dog Anicca (Canis lupus familiaris) in their mouths.

This Gray Cross Spider, Bridge Orbweaver (Larinoides patagiatus) wove an orb and caught a Gray Sunflower Weevil (Smicronyx sordidus LeConte).

A Yellow Paper Wasp (Polistes dominulus) enjoying the core of a young Orbweaving Spider.

... and another Orb Weaver (Araneus diadematus) with an ambitious project ahead; a Lightning Bug (Lampyridae).

I'm throwing this one in for comic relief.  The Bumble Bee (Hymenopterais Apidae Bombus) is quite alive, it's a defensive posture I'd never seen before.   I wonder why?

Maybe it's the Felis catus.

Jumping Spider (Salticidae) that I saw jump and catch this Midge (Chironomidae).

Here's another, a different day.

... and by now we know what's going on here...

Cellar Spider (Pholcidae) with a Crane Fly (Tipulidae latreille).

Orb Weaver with something -- a June Bug? (Phyllophaga?) -- apparently wrappen in celophane, for later.

Here is a Carpenter Ant (Camponotus pennsylvanicus) with a pillbug (Armadillidiidae).

New Buffalo, Michigan.

The spider of unknown species furtively emerged to feed on this live and tethered Horsefly (Tabanidae).  It went on for hours.
A Robber Fly with a hapless Green Bottle Fly (Lucilia sericata).

Here's that Boxelder bug (Boisea trivittata) in trouble.   Maybe wondering what comes next...

A Yellow and Black Garden Spider (Argiope aurantia) with a Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus).  The web ladder is the Garden Spider's signature reinforcement -- apparently they especially enjoy the larger prey

So it's about the start of a new season and I'll pay special attention for mayhem in progress.  Spring starts with ants and flies, then spiders come out and they dominate the summer. Summer brings all forms, from the pestilent Japanese Beetles and the legion Boxelder Bugs, to the bald-faced hornets, creepy plastic Earwigs, the centipedes, butterflies and moths. The smaller they get, often the more bizarre.  Most of the summer, try stopping what you're doing for a moment and get down low,  You'll find something fascinating.

I'm happy that I don't live at their scale -- I simply wouldn't stand a chance ...   but seriously, how can you not really really like bugs!?

Monday, March 26, 2018

A Canine and Feline friendship ... a Memorial

A pet is not like a real child, I’ve had some of each so I can say that with certainty.  But anyway there’s something special about your animals, maybe even more dear when you raise them with children because there are so many memories woven together.  I’ll tell you a story about my dog Anicca to commemorate her death on Nov 1 2017. 

Cloud and Anicca

It’s actually a story of Anicca and her brother Cloud who was a male kitten we acquired around the same time.  Anicca was a Groenendael – a Belgian Sheepdog – and she looked like any Groenendael, an unusual breed in the states.  Something like a collie/shepherd mix, long hair and all black.  Agile, smart, devoted, sweet, and beautiful.  In Chicago I used to run on the beach with her and she would heel close on the sidewalk and sit at intersections with rapt attention.  When we hit the beach she’d be “on call” as I jogged down the shoreline.  

It takes a little patience and training, but there is absolutely nothing like a well-behaved dog.   I was a good dog owner, and she was certainly a good dog. Technically, I suppose leashes were required on the beach but we would go on off-hours and she was on a verbal leash -- she’d come immediately when called.   

All the subtle communication aside, if I were to simply  count the commands I suppose it would be more than 30:  Anicca, hello, good dog, good girl, inside, outside, ok!, no, do you want?, I love you, bad/wrong, come, come!, wait/stay, lie down, lie flat out, where-is/bring me, toy, kong, sit, go over there, go way over there, hungry?, goodbye, heel, look around, you’re free!, treat, water, pee, hungry, cat, go for walk, beach, and more.

On the beach, because she really knew come, heel, sit, no, ok, and stay, I could also teach her “you’re free!”  Then she’d explore, track squirrels and play with other dogs ... always with an eye out for my next communication.  Even in the depth of winter, 20 below, she would love to hear the word “Beach!”

In the house she would sit then hunt for treats, find her kong, fetch a toy … all the normal dog games, and she loved to play hide and seek.  I’d throw a toy a few times for fetch and then suddenly hide – I mean really hide – like third floor in the closet hide … and she would not give up until she found me.  What fun, for both of us!

One day, when she was about nine, I noticed she was slipping in her responsiveness, not listening so well.  It was really a joke when I thought “what, has she gone deaf?”  So I said “BEACH” just to test that ridiculous hypothesis and to my amazement … nothing.  “TREAT.”  Nothing. 

She was deaf and I mean stone deaf.

For months I mourned the loss of my connection to this wonderful creature until I suddenly realized ok she was deaf ... but she was neither blind nor dumb.  Coincidentally, I had taken a class in American Sign Language just because it's wonderful.  So I taught Anicca, in ASL, all the commands she once knew.  Inside, outside, come, stay, treat, walk, love you ... everything.  She learned it all again, and fast.  We were back in business!  

Now a bit about Cloud, my son Aidan’s cat.  One of the family ceremonies we created was the “big boy celebration” at the age of five or so when they could read, add, ride a bike, etc. (we had a fun little list that included "going on a boat.") ... and then they got to choose a pet.  Isaac chose gerbils so I built a little PVC track running from their main cage to a vacation home mounted by his bed, and Captain and Cuddle-Captain would run back and forth to get treats and such.  Aidan chose birds but a series of tragedies led to him picking out the next family cat.  He selected a sick little white kitten which fell so ill we had to take it back for transfusions.  Anicca, a pup herself, was concerned and licked and licked and licked this poor creature like a mother would lick a pup.  Cloud, a stoic little tissue of a kitten, leaned into the loving. 

Cloud not only survived, he turned out to be an athlete and quite a character.  There are so many, but my favorite story about Cloud is when he prowled intently into the living room, tracking a fly that was bumbling along about three feet off the ground.  Cloud leapt into the air, caught the fly between his paws and landed on his haunches.  Staring, he slowly opened his paws like a book.  The fly escaped.  I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself.

So Anicca and Cloud grew up together, nothing like your normal cat-dog relationship.  Two free spirits and unlikely friends.  When Anicca went deaf it didn’t matter.  But at 12 or so Cloud fell ill again and this time he was diagnosed with something more serious -- feline diabetes. The vet gave him a week and a half to live, or we could admister daily insulin shots and blood draws to manage his blood sugar.  We discussed it and chose palliative care instead.  Too many shots, too much pain.  

Cloud stopped eating almost immediately but lasted more than a month.  As he lost his weight he spend his days in the yard under a large-leafed plant and then he’d come in for the evening and sleep with one or the other of us. While he was wasting away, he was always purring.  Visit him under his bush?  Quietly purring.  Touch him at night?  Faintly purring. 

So Cloud was prostrate on the couch, skin and bones and I was fixing a screen when Aidan called  from college.  I chatted on Skype a while and then asked if he’d like to see Cloud.  Yes, of course ... 

But Cloud was not on the couch; he wasn’t anywhere. He was in no shape to jump out the open window so I searched the  house.  Then I looked again -- I looked every place a cat could possibly crawl into to die.  Finally -- although I couldn’t believe he could get to the window then jump to the deck --  I looked in the yard.  The entire garden, under every plant, every crevice and corner.  Twice.  Then a third time with Aidan, on Skype.

Cloud had simply disappeared.  I scoured the chain linked fence to verify there was no place to crawl through.  The only possible thing I could imagine is that Cloud had gotten up, climbed to the window, fallen to the deck, and had been carried away by a hawk. 

The next day was Monday, no Cloud still and I had to go to work.  As a last resort I turned to my deaf dog and asked “where/find/bring me”  “cat” … “where/find/bring me”  “cat,"  though "cat" was not a word she used often.  To you that would just be palms-up-pulling  … pinch-and-pull an imaginary whisker … palms-up-pulling  … pinch-and-pull an imaginary whisker.

Anicca got excited, she was on full alert!  She scanned the yard and sniffed and then suddenly honed in across the fence to our neighbor’s yard, like a pointer.  And there was Cloud, struggling and stumbling across the grass.  Somehow he had climbed to the window, survived the fall to the deck, clawed himself to and over a 4 foot fence, and survived all the nighttime carnivores.  

I jumped the fence and scooped him up. Aidan got to say goodbye, and so did Nancy and I.  

Cloud died in our arms that afternoon.

Then Anicca died, also in our arms, last fall.