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.
I was thrilled to be able to photograph this stunner of an orchid this past spring. Thanks to Casey Galvin who turned me on to this tiny population in Shannon County, MO.
The Showy Lady’s Slipper is currently ranked as S2/S3 in Missouri, meaning this species is imperiled/vulnerable. We carefully tread around these guys and hide their specific locations as this is a species that may still be poached for horticulture purposes.
Aplectrum hymale is a relatively common orchid in Missouri, preferring rich mesic forests, particularly along stream and river banks. It is known by two common names that are both widely used. “Adam and Eve Orchid” is used due to the presence of twin underground corms. The leaf of the current year is connected to the youngest corm (Eve), and is an offshoot of the previous corm (Adam).
The other common name, “puttyroot orchid”, is given to this species due to the putty-like consistency of the corms that were sometimes eaten, most likely for medicinal purposes.
A. hymale is unusual in that it exhibits an alternate vegetative cycle. Leaves of this plant (one leaf per plant) develop in the autumn and overwinter. The leaves begin to senesce in the spring and have almost completely withered by the time the plants are in full bloom, or shortly after. In the preceding photo you can see the leaves at the time of flower shoot formation.
These plants typically bloom in early to mid-May in Missouri. By the time June rolls around the leaves will most likely be completely deteriorated and the only sign of the plant over the summer is the flowering stem (raceme) and developing fruit capsules.
Until this spring, I assumed that spring ephemerals, like Claytonia virginica (spring beauty) and others that begin flowering in early spring, did not provide much sustenance for early season pollinators. For no reason in particular, I assumed that most of these plants preferred selfing versus providing the resources to attract insect pollinators.
After taking a closer look at the blankets of C. virginica that lie on the slopes of Beckemeier Conservation Area near our house, my eyes were opened. I found pollinators everywhere on multiple trips during this long and cool spring. Unfortunately many species were so quick that they eluded me and my camera. However, I managed to nab a few of the more cooperative and with some help of those smart folks at BugGuide.Net, I got as close to the right identifications as I could.
Have you heard of oligolecty? Until doing this research, I had not either. Oligolectic is a term that describes certain bees species that have specialized preference to pollen from only specific plant groups – plants from a small group of genera, a single genus, or in this case, one single species.
The spring beauty bee (Andrena erigenidae) is a mining bee (Andrenidae) that feeds exclusively on the pollen and nectar of C. virginica. In fact, the larvae of this species cannot grow optimally on any other pollen source. So, it may not come as a surprise that this was the most common bee I found foraging on the fields of spring beauty.
These mining bees will take the pollen during a flight run that may last up to more than an hour and then bring it back to their self-constructed nursery hole in the ground. There they will turn the pollen into cakes and lay a single egg on each. This will be all the material needed for an individual larvae to develop into an adult.
The next pollinator is a bee from the same genus, Adrena. This is a huge genus, comprised of more than 450 species in the U.S. Most often they are impossible to identify to species without having the bee in-hand and available for close inspection.
This beautiful and hairy ginger was considerably larger than the previous Andrena. I estimate this bee was about two-thirds the size of the domesticated honeybee.
I’m not sure if this individual was a male, or if it was only interested in getting nectar, but I never saw this species actively collecting pollen from C. virginica.
The long tongue on this one will allow for it to collect nectar from a larger variety of flowers, while the hairs on this bee definitely help it meet its pollinator status.
I found a couple cuckoo bees foraging amoung the C. virginica as well. This “nomad cuckoo” pictured below is a cleptoparasite, meaning the female will lay its egg inside the nest of a different host species. The cleptoparisitc larvae will hatch first and will often kill the eggs or larvae of its host and then use the pollen provisions the host mother left to complete its development. This particular genus, the Nomada, is known to primarily use species in the above discussed Andrena genus as its host.
The cuckoo wasp, like this metalic green beauty in the Chrysididae family are also cleptoparasites that likely will use Adrena bees as hosts.
Bees and wasps were not the only pollinators I found on spring beauty. I also found a couple species of ants (not pictured because they never stand still long enough) and a couple of dipteran species, like this tachinid fly.
I now want to introduce what was probably the most interesting thing I learned about spring beauty this year. Having been able to work on Asian Soybean Rust for a couple years during my career, I have since been very interested in the complex life-cycles of plant rusts. I suppose due to the dense population of C. virginica at this location and the cool and wet spring we have had, I found that many plants were infected with spring beauty plant rust (Puccinia mariae-wilsoniae). With just taking a cursory estimation of the hillsides, I think that as many as 50% of this population was infected with this rust. When I took the succeeding photo ( I so wish I had taken more and better photos of this), little did I know that my investigation would take me into a complex relationship that not only involved this plant host and rust relationship, but would also involve slugs (yes slugs) and the very pollinators that enticed me to bend the knee in the first place.
I am sure that anyone who has taken the time to appreciate spring beauty more than during one season and/or place has noticed the variability in flower parts coloration. The majority of what is to follow here comes from an intriguing bit of work by Frank Frey (2004). C. virginica can vary from almost completely white to being mostly colored with pink to mauve to crimson stripes and other floral parts. Frank describes that plants that with higher levels of theses reddish pigments are preferred by pollinators and therefore, “…floral redness was associated with higher percentage fruit set.” Well then, this should beg the question, if this is the case why are there still plenty of individuals and populations of the less-fecund whitish pigmented flowers? Shouldn’t selection have taken care of this by now?
Here is where the slugs and rust comes into the story. These two, surprisingly, affect opposing selective forces on the coloration of C. virginica flowers. Plants with more white-colored flowers hold up better against predation by slugs due to the anti-herbivore properties of the flavonol pigments that produce the white coloration in these plants. In addition, for reasons that are not completely understood, the rust pathogen does better at infecting and propagating new spores on plants with redder-colored flowers. This was eye-opening for me to learn that something besides pollinator preference was manifesting a selective force on floral morphologies.
This is a highly simplified summary of the story this paper holds. I highly encourage you to check it out for yourself by following the link below.
I love the never ending stories that can be learned from a single, common and seemingly simple spring ephemeral wildflower. I’m sure that spring beauty still has a number of stories to tell. I wish I had taken more photos of the rust and I will try and see if I can find plants with telia, the next form of spore-producing legion by this rust. It occurs later in the lifecycle of the plant. I just hope I’m not too late to get it this season.
First up is the Great Grey Owl that Miguel, Dave and I found on our trip to northern Minnesota in late December, 2019.
Next is the Northern Hawk Owl photographed on the same trip. We really enjoyed watching these guys as they hunted in broad daylight from their high perches. You never knew when they would take off in a powered flight after a prey.
Last of all is this gorgeous red-phase Eastern Screech Owl. Whether it is the same owl, or multiple birds using the same hole in this tree, this species has been observed using this cavity for at least the past three winter seasons at the Visitor’s Center in Grafton, IL.
I was so glad to get this guy identified. Thanks goes to the folks on BugGuide. I had a pretty decent field guide, but still couldn’t get to the species. It turns out this species is known for having populations that are predominantly pink, red, or brown in color, which is unusual in the katydid family. Casey and I found three individuals that were this color in a sand prairie/savanna in southeastern Missouri last September.
From a WGNSS Nature Photography Group outing from last July at Shaw Nature Reserve, here are some images of a Hummingbird Clearwing (Hemaris thysbe) as it foraged among blooming Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata).