The night sky outside of cities or towns is a remarkable sight of nature. It is impossible to describe how bright the sky is, if one hasn’t seen it before. Last week, my wife and I had the opportunity to spend some time in N Wisconsin, near Wausau. My wife, an avid amateur astronomer, noticed the sky full of stars even during the drive to our destination. During our stay there, we took an evening off just to enjoy the sky devoid of any light pollution. I thought I’d try my hand at photographing some of the better known stars. The main challenge was to find an open spot and set up the gear in complete darkness. Some coyotes and owls nearby kept things interesting while we were setting up the camera.
The sky reminded of an ancient Indian saying – “In all directions, Suns, Suns, Suns”. It is easy to be an astronomer when one doesn’t need a telescope. For one of my images, I attempted a panorama of the Milky Way that stretched from the eastern horizon to west. It took four shots and some awkward bending and twisting to get it in the viewfinder, to capture the entire stretch during the course of which our galaxy kept moving out of sight. And we got to see a shooting star!
So finally, here it is – our home in space. From end to end.
Last week, I got my first true macro lens and over the weekend decided to take it out for a spin. I have been wanting to do bug photography for a while. Ever since I started reading up on farming and the environment, I have been fascinated by the roles of different insects and plants in our food supply.
I decided to try out the Milwaukee Urban Ecology Center on the Eastside. Sure enough, when I stopped by late morning immediately after the rain, the place was full of late summer flowers and bugs. There was the initial sensory overload, but soon I started to observe individual insects and their behavior. I saw several clumps of flowering black-eyed susans with feeding soldier beetles (a golden rod or Pennsylvania leatherwing, I think). I did not see them on any other flowers close by. I did not think much of this at that time, until I accidentally saw one of them fly to one of those flowers and disappear among the colors almost completely.
I was taken in by how well the the beetle blended with the flower. Was this a conscious decision by the beetle to select only those flowers to feed on? There were other color flowers, but very few soldier beetles.
Since then, I have seen other images of this sub-species on the web, but almost always on a yellow flower. Perhaps this is evolution at work – creating a unique partnership between a color and a beetle.
For those of you with a garden, soldier beetles are predators of aphids, grasshopper and other pest larvae. They do not harm the plants themselves and are good pollinators.
Some years back, I came across an article on the courtship ritual (called lek) of prairie-chickens and since then, I wanted to photograph this event. After more than an year’s planning and waiting, I finally got a chance this May. Late last spring I found a site with viewing blinds near Stevens Point in central Wisconsin, but it was too late. The lek is usually in spring in the middle of April and by the time I found the location and got everything ready for a photoshoot, it was already middle May. This year, I got on the job a little earlier and with the local DNR’s help, was able to get to the location in the beginning of May and capture the tail end of the lek.
The blind was located in the middle of a marsh and getting there took some effort. Early May in Wisconsin can be surprisingly cold, especially at dawn – it was snowing when I first got to the location! I was the only one in the blind – it was quite exciting to walk across the marsh in darkness. The blind itself was a small wooden box with a bench and room for about three people to sit, but not enough height to stand up.
Despite all difficulties, it was fascinating to watch the lek. The lek ground, where the birds gathered, was a small clearing. 7-8 birds arrived at the location within a few minutes of my being there, well before sunrise. The males all chose different spots, but every once in a while, one would challenge another that intruded into its space, mostly through posturing. The head feathers stand upright and the birds sway and leap in excitement.
Males also perform a courtship dance with their orange vocal sacs inflated. The sound – an odd series of hooting and booming – is somewhat eerie, especially if one can’t see the bird. There were also marsh harriers hunting the chickens every once in a while, making things more exciting. The harriers fly low over the grass and often show up without warning and very close by. The chickens then take flight and hide in the grass. They return after a few minutes when the coast is clear. Sitting in the blind, it required some tricky photography to capture the action through the small port. I ended up capturing all images hand-held.
It was quite thrilling to witness and photograph a species that has become very sparse. And as a bonus, I also got to photograph a very cooperative American bittern that ventured close to the blind. Late that evening, I got to see the winnowing courtship dance of snipes and territorial displays of meadowlarks. All in all, a great experience and one I hope to repeat several times.