I can’t help but to marvel at this grand post oak every time I visit Victoria Glades in Jefferson County, MO. I’m always hoping to be there in good light and skies to take a worthy photograph of it. On a morning of a WGNSS Nature Photo Group field trip, I arrived a little early with this in mind. Not an interesting sky, but I used the bright sun to my advantage to create a starburst.
Back in late June, Miguel and I took a trip to the “Cole Camp Prairies” near Sedalia MO. Here, we were after a target I had long wanted to photograph, the regal fritillary butterfly (Speyeria idalia). Once abundant across the ancient prairies, lands that are now mostly used to grow the crops feeding us, the regal fritillary are now listed as a G3/S3 species, meaning they are vulnerable to extinction. The reason for this is that the regal fritillary host plants are violet species that only grow in the scarce remnants of the once vast ocean of prairies that covered much of the central United States. Fewer acres of prairie means fewer prairie violets that leads to fewer butterflies. Fortunately, the pitiful amount of prairie remnants left in the Show-Me State do still support this fantastic butterfly and Miguel and I did our best to find and photograph some.
The Cole Camp Prairie complex is a list of approximately eight mostly postage-stamp sized publicly accessible prairies located north of the small town of Cole Camp in Benton County. I did some research to find out which prairies had confirmed sightings in the previous years and which were more likely to have a sizeable population. I knew we would focus on these, but because these prairies are pretty close to one another, we wound up visiting seven locations just to see the differences between them and to give the entire area a good scouting for the regals.
Our first stop was at Paint Brush Prairie Conservation Area. This is one of the larger of the Cole Camp Prairies and was reported to hold one of the better-sized populations of regals. Our visit coincided with the early portion of the regals flight period and this would hold ramifications that would complicate the achievement of our goals. Here, we did find an estimated two dozen regals. However, these were all most likely males that typically emerge earlier than females. Although some plants were in bloom, these males were not interested in feeding. Instead, they were constantly cruising, inches above the vegetation, assumedly waiting for one of the first females to emerge and an opportunity to mate. We tried our best. Once in a while, one would stop to rest for a brief second or two, but it was never long enough to get in position, find focus and take the shot. I then tried to see if it was possible to photograph them in flight. This proved to be about as fruitless as it sounds. After hundreds of shots, I wound up with only a single keeper, pictured here.
Our next stop, just a quick drive west, was at Friendly Prairie C.A. This wound up being our most successful stop. Success in photographing these beasts lies in your visit’s timing with flowering plants. In late June, we missed the prolific blooming of most of the Echinacea and Asclepias and were a tad too early for the blooming period of the native Cirsium that support the energy needs of these butterflies over mid to late summer. Thankfully, we did find a few Asclepias tuberosa at peak bloom and the regals had found them as well. We only found four regals here, but they were cooperative indeed!
We continued our tour of the Cole Camp Prairies, visiting the holdings that the Missouri Department of Conservation had to offer as well as one restoration property owned by The Nature Conservancy. Towards the end of our time, we stopped at the largest prairie parcel in the area – Hi Lonesome Prairie C.A. This prairie was very dry and, perhaps consequentially, we found very few plants in bloom. There were, however, still a number of butterflies. Here we found monarchs and a diversity of swallowtail species as well as five regals. Almost all of these were flitting around the bushes that spotted the prairie’s many hillsides. This prairie also held some nice bird diversity. In addition to the ubiquitous Dickcissel, we found Grasshopper Sparrows, Henslow Sparrows, and Bell’s Vireos. Around a couple of this area’s large ponds, dragonflies were in abundance as well. I took some time to hop the electric fence around the larger pond, finding out the hard way that it was indeed working to keep out the cattle that graze the prairie, and spent some time working with gorgeous Halloween pennant’s (Celithmis eponina). See attached photo.
I had wanted to give the Cole Camp Prairies a good tour for quite a while. I’m happy that we spent the day doing this although I know it was but a snapshot over the course of the seasons. Finding the number of regals we did was thrilling and I’m happy to have gotten a few worthwhile photos from the day. Although these prairies are a good hoof from the StL, at a little less than a three-hour drive, they are still much easier than getting to other prairies in different parts of the state. Hopefully my next visit comes soon.
I’m calling this striking bird a juvenile male Blackpoll Warbler. Feel free to let me know if you disagree. Found on May 22, 2022 at Little Creve Coeur Ecological Area.
The Pacman Nebula (NGC 281)
The Pacman Nebula is a large emission nebula that is approximately 48 light years across and nearly 9500 light years from earth. It was named for its resemblance to the popular Pac-Man character in video games, although you’ll probably have to use your imagination to see this in my image (Pac-Man is facing towards the top of the image). Unlike the the popular Namco mascot, this Pac-Man does not gobble up dots, it is actually creating them; NGC 281 is a star forming region that lies near the constellation Cassiopeia.
Collecting the data
Miguel, who is now getting serious into deep sky object (DSO) photography, and I met at what is now my favorite location for this work – Danville Conservation Area in Montgomery County, MO. This is classified as a Bortle 4 sky location and we were working under near perfect conditions of a new moon, no clouds, low winds and cool temps (mid to low 40s). Selecting a great night was one of the successes of this project. Miguel was just beginning to work on his new rig, attempting polar alignment for the first time and trying out his more sophisticated system of go-to and guiding. I use a simple unguided star tracker and the camera gear I use for normal daytime photography and had my target in mind and planned a night of imaging.
Canon 7d mkii, 300mm f/2.8 lens is mki, Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer tracking mount with extra counterweight balance, Bahtinov focus mask, red-light scope, heat packs used for prevention of dew formation on lens, all setup on a sturdy Gitzo carbon fiber tripod and anchored to a concrete block.
Lights: Approximately six hours with 30 second subs (manually removed obvious bad subs and used 512 subs for integration.
Darks: 32 darks captured in field after imaging
Flats: 40 flats taken the next day from home
Bias: 67 bias images
Image shown here was stacked using Sequator. Stacked file was processed in PhotoShop CS6, manually following processes described in various YouTube videos. See below for details learned from this processing session.
Problems and learnings
This was a good night but definitely not perfect. Again, I struggled with getting proper polar alignment. My main issue was not identifying Polaris, necessarily, as we were easily able to find it with our naked eyes. The problem came from being able to correctly identify the star while looking through the reticle. Ultimately, I picked the most likely candidate and went with that. I didn’t have much star trailing in my 30 second subs, so I think I did an OK job. I did notice that the tracking was off and I had to recenter the target about once an hour, but that is due to using an unguided tracker and the weight of my rig. This is something I’ll just have to remember to do with future objects.
I have picked up a couple pieces of gear that will dramatically help with achieving proper PA on future projects. First, I purchased a green laser pointer that I can shoot directly through the reticle and line up perfectly with Polaris. More importantly, I finally picked up a new wedge/base mount to support the tracker. This is the piece that is critical in getting proper PA. The mount that comes with the Sky-Watch Star Adventurer is severely lacking in many ways and is frankly a POS. The William Optics model I now have (see photo) is all metal, allows for more precise control in declination and is much easier to control right accession with. The differences are like night and day! I didn’t have these two things for imaging NGC 281, but I have them now and tried them in the yard one night and achieved perfect polar alignment in less than 15 minutes! I feel much less anxiety about this step now and wish I hadn’t waited so long to pick up this base mount.
The biggest mistake of the night was something I was aware of but simply forgot to handle. I left the settings for auto orientation on in the camera. This means, as the mount tracked the object over the course of the night, about half of my images were in the horizontal orientation and half of them were in the vertical orientation. This is a much bigger problem than it seems. In most software, you can change the orientation of an image with a simple mouse click. However, the orientation is actually embedded in the exif data of your RAW files. I came to find out that most stacking programs will not orient all of the files for you and, therefore, I was losing half of my light subs in the stacking process. It is possible to change the exif data to make them all the same, but this requires computer skills that I simply do not have. Thankfully, Sequator did accept all of my subs, but it is not the best software for stacking DSOs. I would love to fix this in the data I have collected for NGC 281 and be able to stack in Deep Sky Stacker or ASTAP one day, but I will definitely remember to turn this function off in camera in the future.
Processing after stacking was the usual barrel of fun. I found it a little easier than I did for M31, but I think I have a long way to go. I was hoping to get much more detail in NGC 281. I think I had ample integration time and feel there may be some detail I can pull out with better processing. Maybe the fault lies in my images themselves and I could do better with PA and tracking. It might also have to do with the focal length. With the 480mm focal length equivalent used for this object, I don’t have much more opportunity to improve here, but I could have used a 1.4x teleconverter and get 672mm focal length equivalent. I think there was room to do this with this object, but I would have had to recenter more often and lost some light gathering in the process. Maybe next year!
Despite the final outcome, which I am satisfied with, this was a lot of fun. I’m finding that I can have fun doing almost anything as long as I am outside. This is getting truer all the time. Although this process has its frustrations and anxieties, I guess you can call that a “good stress.” I’ll always remember the pair of Barred Owls squawking away at each other and the coyotes howling and barking on at least three sides from where Miguel and I worked. In addition, while I was breaking down at about 3:00 am, two armadillos noisily burst through the grasslands, coming up to within ten feet of me to see what I was doing.
My hope is to continue this and image one object a month. I think I can sacrifice one good night’s sleep a month for such experience, learning and memories.
Miguel and I found an aggregation of the catalpa sphinx moth caterpillars on a caterpillar hunt in early September. I have been looking for this species for a while so this was a nice find. Of the ten or so we found, one was infested with the parasitoid braconid wasp cocoons. See photos below.
Photos taken of a Lesser Scaup hen taken from my canoe in Ellis Bay at Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary in May, 2022. Due to the large area of white on the face and the lack of white wing bars in the primary flight feathers, I feel reasonably confident in calling this bird a Lesser Scaup, but please let me know if you have evidence to suggest otherwise.
As these guys may be starting to trickle back into the state any day now, I thought I’d better finish up on the spectacular times we had with these birds last winter. Here’s hoping for a repeat this winter!
This first group of photos are of pelicans at Loess Bluff NWR taken in 2020 on one of their favorite perches – muskrat mounds.
The next group is from February 2022 taken at Clarksville, MO.
A few photos of great spangled fritillary taken at Prairie Garden Trust in Calloway County, MO.