March 2020 seems so long ago. Back at the beginning of the COVID 19 pandemic, when we were all getting used to social distancing, I remember watching this nest with a few other photographers. I only made it to the park on a few days and unfortunately did not cover much of the course of the two chicks’ development. But what little time I did have with them I managed to capture a lot of interesting behavior. I’m sorry if this one is a little long, but I had a hard time cutting things out. Scenes where mom and the chicks are looking horizontally or up and mom is giving her best defensive display was in response to a pair of Canada Geese that would sometimes buzz the nest, apparently interested in potentially taking over that prized knot hole for their own nest. Then there is another sinister enemy that I won’t spoil for you… 😉
I hope you will find this as entertaining as I do.
Just a few that I’ve processed that I wanted to share from this past spring.
Did you know…? Trilliums are a favored spring food by white-tailed deer. An overabundance of deer, as is found across most of the eastern United States forests, can have detrimental impacts to trillium populations. In some regions these plants and many other plant species are extirpated from certain forests except within deer exclusion fences.
One of the first wildflowers that really caught my attention. Miami mist can often be found in large colonies. Unless you stop to take a close look, it may not be obvious what you are missing.
I thought that celandine poppies were pretty common after visiting the large beds at Shaw Nature Reserve’s wildflower garden. I have now come to understand that they are generally pretty hard to find in Missouri forests. The name celandine comes from the Greek word for ‘swallow’, referring to the plant’s early blooming with the first arrival of the birds in spring.
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.
The NEOWISE Comet, whose actual name is C/2020 F3, was a pleasant surprise for the astronomical community who await such events as a newly discovered comet. First discovered in late March, the comet grew steadily brighter, eventually becoming the brightest comet to be seen in the northern hemisphere since Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997. According to the experts, this comet had an orbital period of about 4,400 years prior to making its latest trip through the inner solar system. It will now be another 6,700 years before beings on earth will be able to see it again.
I have long had a very strong interest in astronomy and astrophotography and the current pandemic has allowed me to do quite a bit of studying on both topics. Hopefully soon I can get the practice in this area that I desperately need. Although it has some issues, I was relatively pleased at capturing the closeup of the comet pictured above.
Although I had a star-tracking mount that would have been perfect for this situation, I had not yet used it so I did not make this the first time. This image was “untracked” using a full-frame camera and a 200 mm lens. It is comprised of 20 “light” images (the actual photos of the comet) taken at 3.2 seconds per exposure. The aperture was f/2.8 and the ISO/gain was 6400. I combined these images with 10 “dark” frames for noise reduction purposes.
The processing here could be better and I might give it another try sometime. But, both tails of the comet are visible and I think the background stars came out alright as well.
After awhile the comet began to dive towards the horizon with the remnant glow from twilight. I happened to show up at Lee’s Bluff on the same night as accomplished Missouri nightscape photographer, Dan Zarlenga, and so we both turned our tripods around to the south and found this lovely scene. Here, the Milky Way has recently risen above a nice foreground of trees. Again, I wish I would have been a bit more prepared with a plan, but I guess this isn’t too bad.
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.
Today I am sharing some photos of plants in bloom taken in a fen in Shannon County, MO. These plants were blooming in June and the combination of high temps, direct sunlight and high humidity made for challenging conditions to photograph indeed. The first subject is Pogonia ophioglossoides, the snakemouth orchid or rose pogonia. These were blooming in abundance at the fen but finding one in the peak of its beauty was the challenge.
As fantastic as it was, I found being in these fens to be quite stressful. First of all, you are typically forced to work in dangerous heat indexes. My friend, David Seidensticker and I made a visit to these fens during our birthday weekend and dreaded leaving the sanctuary of what little shade we could find and use as a base of our operations. If you visit these locations in the summer, be prepared by drinking as much water as you can before you get there and bring plenty of water with you. You really need to constantly drink as you are sweating profusely, losing water at nearly the same rate you can take it in.
In addition to the off-the-chart heat index values, one must carefully select every footstep. This is not only due to the rare plants in bloom, but also because of the soil substrate that forms the base of these endangered fen ecosystems. These fens are comprised of two primary soil substrate types, marly soils and peat soils.
Marly soils are composed mostly of carbonates such as calcite and calcium or magnesium carbonate that precipitate out of ground water. These soils take thousands of years to develop and the typically high levels of magnesium create conditions that only the best adapted floras can survive.
Peat soils are comprised of partially decomposed plant materials that also build up over thousands of years. These soils can typically support more plant species and heavier vegetation loads. Care must be taken to avoid walking much on these soils as our footsteps will not only disturb the plants growing here, but will also act to compress the soil, expelling the gasses trapped and water-logging the root environments.
The best places to walk in these fen types are on the rivulets that run within these fens. Continuously flowing waters have moved most of the soils from these areas to leave a pea-gravel type substrate with gently moving water on top. Plants will still grow within these areas but finding a safe place to put your foot is typically pretty easy.
We found Spiranthes lucida growing at the edges of shallow peat soils next to these rivulets within the fen. Likely the easiest Spiranthes to identify in the state, this is the only Spiranthes species that blooms in spring, has a yellow lip and has an easy to identify growth habit with broad basal leaves that are present when the orchid is in bloom.
Calopogon tuberosus was just beginning to bloom in early June. This orchid is famous for its non-resupinate flowers, meaning that the flowers are not turned 180 degrees, as they are in most orchids. The lip of the flower is found on the upper side of the flower. This species also does not produce nectar or pollen as rewards for would-be pollinators, but uses visual subterfuge to entice insects to land. I found it interesting that Homoya, 1993, suggests that the reason C. tuberosa exists in space and flowering time with P. ophioglossoides (see above) is that the later does provide ample nectar rewards, thereby increasing the chances that a pollinator might land on the similarly colored C. tuberosa flowers.
Justicia americana is a gorgeous member of the Acanthaceae family that we found growing in early June. These plants were most likely to be found growing alone or in small groups along the gravel bottoms of the rivulets within the fen. They, like all of the plants shown here, are not strictly linked to fens per se, but fens do make a nice home for them.
This has just been a small look inside these glorious fens. I hope to continue visiting at other times of year to see other plants in bloom.
Thanks for the visit. -OZB
Much of the information from the above was taken from the following sources. I do recommend them both for learning more about the orchids that can be found in fens and anywhere in Missouri.
Homoya, M.A. Orchids of Indiana. Indiana University Press, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA. 1993.
Summers, Bill. Missouir Orchids. Missouri Department of Conservation Natural History Series, No. 1. 1981.
I have had some opportunity lately to try for infrared landscapes with my converted Canon 5D mkii. There is still so much I want to try with this, but between summer laziness and a lack of time and opportunity, I get by with what I can. The image above was taken in an Illinois woodland.
I found this white oak in the same woodland and it screamed for the IR treatment. I’m still getting the hang of processing the images from the “supercolor IR conversion” of this camera. Although the basics are simple, I find the plethora of options one has in processing these files to be a bit intimidating. I’m trying to go a little more on the subtle side with these, but there’s a fine line between just enough and too much.
These final three images were taken at Hughes Mountain C.A. – a place that I find begs for the infrared photographic treatment. These were taken on one of the evenings of potential for extra color from the Sahara sandstorms. There was nothing extra for the sunset due to these storms other than increased haze, but the high clouds made for interesting skies in IR.
Finding green plants in the glade areas is important in getting the contrasts for an IR image. This hasn’t been a very wet summer but there was some green still left among the rocks. Optimally, it would be best to try in late spring to early summer to get this setting just right.
So these were some of my first serious attempts at IR landscapes with the newly converted camera. If you have any suggestions for improvement, particularly in the processing area, I would be grateful to listen.
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.
The year 2020 has been smiling upon me with my attempts at photographing all the orchid species of Missouri. So far this year I have seen five new orchids and have photographed three of them in bloom. The focus of today’s post, Corallorhiza wisteriana, is known by its common names Wister’s coralroot or spring coralroot. The name coralroot is used due to the apparent likeness and growth habit of the plant’s rhizomes to undersea coral. There is one other known coralroot that I need to photograph in Missouri, that is the autumn coralroot, C. odontorhiza that I hope to photograph when it blooms this fall.
C. wisteriana is one of, if not the earliest orchid to bloom in the state. Going by the number of posts from folks on Facebook, and the fact that I and a couple of friends found well over one hundred stems with just a few minutes of searching, this species is having a terrific year.
This orchid is small, with a lowercase s. The leafless stems can grow 10 to 35 cm high and an individual flower when open is only but ~ 8 mm long – A challenge to photograph. I anticipated this, but what surprised me is its showiness. Looking closely, this plant is beautiful, with many stems and flowers colored deeply with maroons and purples and the labellum/lip with purple spots on white.
I found these flowering stems in singles, pairs and large-sized colonial groups. Typically, stems from these close groupings will be from the same plant. Below is from the largest colony I saw this spring.
Corallorhiza orchids are considered to be ‘myco-heterotrophic’ plants, meaning these plants parasitize mycorrhizal fungi (fungi that get their carbon needs from symbiotic relationships with green plants) to get their primary nutrients. Therefore these orchids contain little to no chlorphyll, do not produce leaves and photosynthesis is a very negligible part of how they make their living.
The photo above shows an aberrant flowering stem – the only one I found, that was very lightly colored and that had no spots on the labellum whatsoever. After realizing how strange this was, I went back to it a few days later to better photograph the whole stem. Alas, the stem was smashed because this was located on the very edge of the trail.
The preceding photo shows a hymenopteran nymph (~5 mm in length) that is hiding underneath this flower’s lip. I am unsure whether or not this insect is responsible for the webs seen here. These threads were often seen covering these orchids.
I hope you enjoyed getting to know this little beauty. Stay tuned for more orchid profiles in the near future!
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.