This year I was fortunate to be introduced to two new-for-me shut-ins in the southern region of the St. Francois Mountains. Both of these locations are currently on private land and with assistance from a couple of friends, it was quite a thrill to be able to visit and photograph these stunning geologic features.
What surprised me most about both of these locations was that they were not covered in Beveridge’s “Geologic Wonders and Curiosities of Missouri”. I am not sure if this was because he did not know of them or because he chose not to feature them for some reason. I sure hope it was the later.
My recent delves into geology and astronomy have really been eye-opening, tying together everything else I know of natural history into place. There is so much more for me to learn, with Geology I know almost nothing, but it has been such an aid for me in remembering that most of what everyone worries over is so insignificant compared to the real that is right under our noses.
This is all I have to share from these two locations for now. I am looking forward to visiting again with hopefully more water flow and at different season. Thanks for visiting.
Spiranthesovalis var. erostellata can be very difficult to find. Usually growing in groups of ones and twos, it is a small plant that prefers shadier locations that get dappled sunlight. I want to thank John Oliver for all his assistance getting me on this and a number of other Spiranthes species this year.
This species of ladies’-tresses is known for its graceful and diminutive flowers. Casey and I found only a couple of plants, each with flowers rather less developed than hoped for. I’m not sure if we were a day or two early, or if this might be all to expect from this population. We found these plants alongside trails at Babler State Park in mid-September.
Casey and I found three separate populations of Corallorhiza odontorhiza in early to mid September this year, each population consisting of just a few bunches of plants. Most plants of this species found in Missouri are cleistogamous, containing flowers that never open and thus forcing the plant to self-pollinate. This might account for the rather dull colors and patterns on flowers of this species when compared to its vernal-blooming relative, C. wisteriana. Of the three locations, we found only one bunch of plants, located in St. Louis County, that contained open (chasmogamous) flowers and these were slightly more showy than I expected them to be.
Like C. wisteriana, this species is myco-heterotrophic, parasitizing mycorrhizal fungi to obtain carbon and other necessary nutrients. Consequently, this species never produces leaves. Both Corallorhiza species are found scattered throughout Missouri and can be found in a variety of habitats, but seem to prefer open woodlands on xeric to mesic soils.
Tipulariadiscolor, or the ‘cranefly orchid,’ was first collected in Missouri in 1988 and new discoveries across the Midwest in recent decades suggest it is actively expanding its range. Similar to the puttyroot orchid (Aplectrum hyemale), this orchid blooms in the summer without the presence of any leaves. Leaves emerge in autumn and are usually completely withered by May. Both the common and genus names come from the apparent resemblance of the open flowers to that of crane flies in the genus Tipula. Moths in the family Noctuidae are the primary pollinators and use their proboscises to collect nectar from the long nectar spurs of the flowers.
This is the only species in the genus to be found in the Americas. Casey and I found these plants in Stoddard County on August 1st of this year.
The habitat this featured orchid was found was quite interesting – a wet, fen-like area with many pea-gravel rivulets to walk down. All this was set under a thick overstory that allowed little light on the cloudy day Casey and I visited. Often forced to hunch as we searched for other plants, lighting for photography was challenging, but we got what we came for.
As you can see below, this is a dainty and sweet orchid that has a large primary leaf and a secondary, bract-like leaf.
Today I’m sharing a couple of plants that Casey introduced me to that have a preference for growing in dry, sandy places. The first is a monarda that I did not know existed and has since become my favorite of the beebalms for certain.
Next up is Callirhoe triangulata, the clustered poppymallow. This supremely saturated flower strongly prefers, dry sandy soils. A stunner of a plant! We looked for compositions that allowed us to feature not only the flower, but the triangular-shaped leaf as well, which is indicative of this species. This species is very rare to possibly extirpated in Missouri.
We found this equally striking Rufous-banded Crambid moth (Mimoschinia rufofascialis) on an open flower. This moth uses these mallows as a host plant, feeding on the immature seeds. I’m not sure, but I doubt the adults feed; this one was likely just using the flower for shelter.
Maybe I owe those of generation Y and the Millennials a bit of a silent apology. I too have been on a mission to ‘collecting them all.’ In my case, however, I think the objects of my search are far more brilliant, fascinating and mysterious than anything in the Pokemon universe could ever dream of being. For about the past four years, I have been occupied in late August to late September with finding all the slug moth caterpillars that can be found, or at least expected, in the state of Missouri.
Many thanks to Kyran Leeker for pointing me to a couple of hot spots she had found that contained some of the last species of slug moth caterpillar I needed to find and photograph – the spun glass slug moth, or Beutenmueller’s slug moth (Isochaetes beutenmuelleri). After hearing this, Sarah and I hit these locations soon after. My radar for these creatures was definitely in need of a re-calibration. I did not find a single slug moth caterpillar but Sarah found three, including this I. beutenmuelleri and two smaller parasa (Parasa chloris) – a species I had found before, but only had photographed with my cell phone. This was an exciting day indeed!
Although not as colorful or spiny as some of its more flamboyant relatives, the smaller parasa (Parasa chloris) is quite an interesting slug moth in its own right. Individuals can vary a lot in their patterns and are warmly toned with tans, oranges and pinks. I can’t get enough of looking at these guys.
Sarah found the following poor creature. Although you can’t help but feel sorry for it, I was glad to capture this natural history story. This little one was gregariously parasitized by approximately 15 braconid wasps, likely from the Microgastrinae subfamily.
These wasps were definitely in the process of preparing for their next stage of life. I have come across lots of caterpillars in the past that were parasitized by wasps like this, but always after the larvae had emerged and spun their cocoons and often after the wasps had cut the tops off and exited. This was very special indeed, finding them in this process. This was taking place much quicker than I had anticipated. It was plain to see the movement of the wasps and observe their progress. I had to take some video to capture this. I have sped the footage up by 1.5X to better showcase this activity.
Before I finish, I couldn’t help but think of one of my favorite Darwin quotes. Watching this footage a few times, I couldn’t help but agree with his reasoning.
In a letter to his friend and botanist, Asa Gray, Darwin wrote…
“With respect to the theological view of the question: This is always painful to me. I am bewildered. I had no intention to write atheistically, but I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars …” -Charles Darwin
During the most recent new moon, I finally took out my star tracker and kit to try my hand at photographing a deep sky object (DSO) for the first time. I knew this was going to be challenging and this first attempt would be more for learning than producing an image that I would be excited about. However, thankfully it was both – it was a beneficial experience in that I got practice in all the process surrounding making an image of this sort (I will go into details below), and at the same time the final image turned out better than I expected, especially considering the challenges I had. For those of you who don’t care about the process, you can stop reading here – I won’t blame you. For those of you interested, I will provide some of my notes and things learned. You can tell me if it was worth the hassle or not.
The Andromeda Galaxy (M31)
The Andromeda Galaxy is also known as Messier 31 and NGC 224. It is classified as a barred spiral galaxy and is about 2.5 million light-years from earth. It is the largest galaxy in our local galaxy group and is on a direct path to merge with our Milky Way in about 4.5 billion years.
Did you notice? In this image there is more than just the M31 galaxy. There are two other galaxies that move along with Andromeda. Messier 32 is on the bottom side of M31 at about four o’clock. M32 is a compact elliptical galaxy and is comprised of mostly older red and yellow stars that are densely packed. Messier 110 is above M31 in this image and is a dwarf elliptical galaxy. There apparently are at least 11 other satellite galaxies of M31, but none that are apparent in my image to my knowledge.
Collecting the data
For my first attempt, I traveled to the Astronomy Site at Broemmelsiek Park in Defiance, MO. This is an excellent place that provides several concrete platforms along with electrical access for those with equipment that needs it. I did not, but I was looking for an area not too far from our home to find as dark of skies as possible. The sky at this location (Bortle class 5) is darker than where we live (Bortle class 6) and is 25 minutes away. This is a pretty good site for viewing the night sky. I was really excited when I turned my birding scope at 60X power to Jupiter and was not only able to view the banding and colors of the planet, but could also make out four of its moons! However, there was still enough light pollution here to make serious astrophotography a bit of a challenge. Unfortunately, this was more of a challenge due to where M31 was located in the first half of the night. At this time of the year M31 rises from the NE sky and it was not until ~ 11:30 pm that the galaxy rose enough out of the skyglow of civilization to make me a little more comfortable.
For this attempt I was using a Canon 5d mk iv camera and a Canon 300 mm f/2.8 is mk i lens. I balanced this heavy kit on the Sky Watcher Star Adventurer Pro Pack star tracker. Because of the weight of this kit, I used an additional counterweight and bar to achieve balance. This is near the weight limit that this star tracker was designed to hold.
The first step in going about this is to get polar alignment with the celestial north pole. I won’t go into too much detail here, but I found this to be particularly problematic. After trying for 45 minutes I eventually decided I was “close enough” but definitely not at optimal alignment. Getting as close to perfect polar alignment is critical at longer focal lengths and exposure times in order to capture the stars as pinpoints of light. A big part of my problem here was working with the mounting “wedge” that comes with this tracker. I found it quite difficult to get the precise control that is necessary to align Polaris where it needs to be. I will eventually need to replace this wedge with one of higher quality.
After getting marginal polar alignment, my next step was to mount this rig, get it balanced and then point it at the target all while not moving the tripod at all! I am sure I moved it somewhat off the alignment that I managed to get. Because of the light pollution, I was unable to see M31 with my naked eye, which is possible under dark enough skies. This made locating M31 more challenging than I expected. With the help of star charts and astronomy apps on my phone, I eventually found it by taking shorter exposures with very high ISO to be able to compose close to how I wished. This probably took another 30 minutes.
With the mount polar aligned, the target in my sights and the tracker running, I was finally able to collect my data. My settings were as follows: 20 second exposure time, f4 and ISO 1600. A little explanation here is needed. With this tracker and kit, I could theoretically get between one and two minutes per exposure. However, with the imperfect polar alignment I knew I had and the fact this was my first attempt, I decided to go with a shorter exposure. For my aperture, I gave up a full stop of light. However, I was worried about how the stars looked fully open and decided at the last minute to close to f4 to gain a little in the IQ arena. I am not sure this was the best decision or not and will probably try wide-open next time..
I collected 265 “lights” before clouds, that were completely not predicted by all of my weather apps came in and closed me down for the night. Later I cut this down to 225 lights that were unaffected by clouds or airplane lights for a total exposure time of 1.25 hours. While in the field you are supposed to take “darks” – these are frames at the exact settings under the same environmental conditions but you throw your lens cap on. These images are then used by the computer programs to remove the digital noise that is produced during capture. Somehow I forgot to do this in the field and did not remember until I was slipping into bed at 3:00 am. So, I got out of bed and went outside to take them.
Processing the data
It may seem crazy looking at this image, but I spent around 12 hours processing this. Much of this time is due to me not being very familiar with what I was doing. I also prefer to process as manually as possible, and used no specialized plug-ins in Photoshop.
Prior to Photoshop, all of the data needs to be stacked in the computer by specialized software. I first tried to use Deep Sky Stacker (DSS) that I have used for this type of work before. However, I ran into problems. After loading all my lights and calibration frames the software refused to run and gave me typical ambiguous reasons. Doing some troubleshooting online it looks as though my data weren’t good enough – apparently my stars were not round or sharp enough and I could do nothing to get DSS to process my data. I then played around with a couple of other free astro-stacking softwares. Most of these were far too technical for me to easily learn them. I finally found Sequator and this worked great. It does not accept “bias” calibration frames, but I doubt that I could recognize their absence in the final product.
I then took the stacked image and went through the “stretching” process in Photoshop. This is where you increase the local contrasts, trying to bring out details in the arms of the galaxies, nebulosities, etc. There are a number of steps involved in this last bit of processing. Much of what I did I learned from Charles Braken’s book, The Deep-Sky Imaging Primer and YouTube videos from Nebula Photos, Peter Zelinka and others.
Conclusions and what I learned
I realize this type of image is built mostly by technology. There really is not much subjectivity when making images of deep-space objects. It either looks like the thing or it doesn’t. I also realize that there are people doing this that have much more appropriate equipment and knowledge and can produce a much better version of a DSO than I could no matter how much I practice. However, I have found it very rewarding to be able to produce an image of M31 myself, especially using camera equipment I already owned and use for other things.
Here are some things I believe I have learned and can potentially help me improve in my future attempts at making DSO images. If you are an experienced DSO imager and can offer any further suggestions, I would be very much appreciative!
Getting better polar alignment
Getting more practice should help here and I will try and do this on nights that I am not planning on shooting, potentially from my yard.
I have read and seen videos where people are suggesting upgrading the wedge mount and I will do this eventually.
Collecting more data
I believe I could pull more details from the galaxy’s disk, including colors by collecting more data. I was limited by clouds for this one, but next time I hope to get at least four hours. I know that some pool data collected from multiple nights, but that is another layer of complexity I probably do not need right now.
Finding darker skies
There is no doubt that skies with less light pollution will allow for better data collection at a faster rate. This will definitely help in pulling fine details and colors from DSO’s. There are light pollution filters, but I have heard mixed thoughts regarding their benefits.
Beware of dew
I knew this, but forgot to take the heating elements to wrap the lens barrel in order to prevent dew forming on the lens objective. Thankfully, the lens hood seemed to protect from this, but at the end of the night I did notice a thin haze of condensation on the lens.
Learn more on processing
There are numerous ways to skin this cat and I hope to learn more by watching more techniques on YouTube. With trial and error, I am certain that I can improve the final image by learning more here.
Other than the above, the only thing I can think of that would make a big difference is purchasing technology. People who really get into this use specialized telescopes, specially modified cameras, guided trackers run by computers, filters and much more. However, I do not intend to go down this road and believe I can produce images that will satisfy me with the equipment I already have.
If you have an interest in DSO photography and have the basic equipment, I urge you to give this a try. All you need is a camera and lens that is about 100 mm – 500 mm. A star tracker is definitely helpful but not required! You can shoot DSO’s with simply a tripod. Other than that you will need to learn just a few things on how to adjust the settings on your camera and where to point.