By Dimitris Poursanidis, Greece: We’re well into February and the winter has not yet found its way to Crete. A few weeks ago the “Halcyon days” start. This is a special period in Europe, where for short periods winter “stops” and sunny days appear. During this period, some plants start to flower. Most of them have a bright yellow color, others have white, and rarely you will find purple. Iris is one of the exceptions. The name Iris comes from Ancient Greek mythology, as she was one of the mythological messengers of the gods of the rainbow.
-By Neil Losin, Colorado, USA: Costa Rica covers just over 50,000 square kilometers. For comparison, that means the entire country is less than half the size of my home state of Virginia. But within this tiny country lies a wealth of geological, meteorological, and topographic diversity… and of course, the biodiversity that comes with it.
I’m not the first Meet Your Neighbours contributor to work in Costa Rica – Twan Leenders and Sean Graesser have been doing some really lovely work there, and my latest contributions are best described as “dabblings” by comparison. I was in Costa Rica earlier this month to teach a filmmaking workshop for early-career scientists through the Organization for Tropical Studies. My wife Liz came down with me before the workshop began to get away from the “polar vortex” and celebrate the New Year in the tropics. I didn’t spend much time taking photos during my vacation, but I couldn’t resist grabbing a few of the large insects that were attracted to the lights at our lodge on the central Pacific coast.
When I say “large” insects, I mean it. The grasshopper in the above photograph, Tropidacris cristata, was the biggest insect I had ever seen – almost as long as my hand. The green katydid, Steirodon stalii, was over 3 inches long. My only macro lens, a Sigma 180mm f/3.5, proved to be too long for these magnificent critters, so I resorted to my trusty Canon 24-105mm f/4 zoom. A couple of chairs from our room at the lodge provided sturdy support for my white plexi backdrop, and I used two flashes – a Canon 580EX behind the backdrop, and a Canon 430EX with a small softbox in front, both triggered wirelessly with the ST-E2 – for illumination. Liz helped me manage the insects and flashes!
The masterful leaf-mimic Choeradodis rhombicollis was my favorite find. Even the venation in its wings recalled the intricate vasculature of a leaf. Like every mantis I’ve ever photographed, it watched my every move, keenly aware of my presence. It stood out against the white Meet Your Neighbours background, of course, but when I released it back into the forest, it virtually disappeared as soon as it landed in the foliage. What a lovely creature!
Special thanks to Piotr Naskrecki for his help with some of the IDs.
-By Dimitris Poursanidis, Greece: Blister, or oil beetles, of the genus Meloe (Linnaeus 1758) are represented by nine species and four subspecies on the island of Crete. Meloe tuccius is by far the most common. As a defense mechanism, these beetles release oily droplets of hemolymph from their joints as a way to repel potential predators. This can cause blistering of the skin and painful swelling. Around this time of year, lots of them are crawling around open fields looking for food. And by the way, if you touch these droplets, you will even repel your beloved wife!
Someone posted a question about photographing bats recently on the ‘Meet Your Neighbours’ Facebook page. Here is a picture of a Common Tent-making Bat (Uroderma bilobatum) that I photographed in Costa Rica a few weeks back using the same set-up I used for the bird shots.
These bats make nifty day-time roost sites in understory palms of the rainforest. They chew partway through the leaflets on a single frond, causing them to droop down and create a ‘tent’ of sorts. They like to make a large number of tents within their territory and change their roost site frequently so they don’t fall prey to sharp-eyed predators who may recognize the shape of their unique shelter. Tents that have not been used for a while often become a favored site for paper wasps to build their nests, so check these hideouts from a safe distance when you’re looking for these bats – you might be in for an unpleasant surprise!
Twan is the director of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History. You can visit rtpi.org for more information.
Longleaf pine forests are the most biodiverse forests in North America. Once stretching from Texas to Virginia, these forests blanketed some 90 million acres of the South’s terrain. While only about 3 million acres remain today (mostly relegated to the “Deep South” and the Carolinas), we are only now starting to discover some of the staggering diversity found in this unique ecosystem.
What allows for such diversity? Fire. Well-managed Longleaf forests not only survive intense summer fires, they thrive on them. There is far less competition among plants that are allowed all the light that they want, so everybody is happy. Besides, longleaf pines are so well-spaced out (and so terrible at providing shade) that they do very little themselves to hamper the plant diversity found in their understory.
But can plant diversity in Longleaf pine forests really compete on a world scale? It depends on how large of an area we’re talking about. Dr. Robert K. Peet, a botanist at UNC Chapel Hill, studies pine forests of the Gulf Coastal Plains. He has found a staggering twelve species of plants in a half-dollar-sized site in southern Mississippi. A similar study by Bruce A. Sorrie, a botanist for the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program, discovered sixty species of plants in a single square meter at Splinter Hill Bog in southern Alabama. At this scale, such diversity is not equaled by many ecosystems on Earth, including tropical rainforests.
Stay tuned for Part 2 where Todd will discuss the explosion of animal life that can be found in Longleaf pine forests.
In the mean time, visit his website for more photographs from the Deep South.
-By Drew Fulton, Florida: During the past week I have been working hard to document many of the species that are found in the waters around Little Gasparilla Island. To do this, I really needed to make my field studio portable so that I could photograph various species of fish before releasing them. I worked hard to set up my field studio and aquarium in the boat where space is at a serious premium. Add some strong winds, high boat traffic, and a giant white diffuser and things got pretty complicated. Fortunately, my wife Carrie was with me and could act as a flash stand (and she also caught most of the specimens I photographed).
The studio you see here looks complicated but is actually pretty simple. It is all based around a 10 gallon fish tank where the subject is held. I have a single flash above the tank with a small diffuser to light the subject itself. The white background is the large diffuser that Carrie is holding and I use two flashes to light it evenly. Not only does this provide the background, it also provides some backlighting to highlight the translucent parts of the subject. This exact setup was used for a lot of subjects, some of which will be published in the coming weeks, but if you want to see some results now, check out theGrey (Mangrove) Snapper and keep an eye out for the Gag Grouper, Spotted Seatrout, and Diamond Lizardfish coming soon.
MILLION DOLLAR FUND FOR FROGS ANNOUNCED
As a proud partner of the Amphibian Survival Alliance (ASA), the world’s largest partnership for amphibian conservation, we are thrilled to announce a bold new step in the quest to save amphibians. Together with Rainforest Trust, Global Wildlife Conservation and the Andrew Sabin Family Foundation, the ASA have announced a million dollar fund – called the Leapfrog Conservation Fund – to strategically protect and manage key habitats for frogs, salamanders, caecilians and many other species over the coming year. This fund builds on previous conservation successes such as preserving the Sierra Caral of Guatemala.
“Habitat loss is the single biggest threat to the survival of amphibians worldwide” said Don Church, Executive Director of the ASA, adding “this million dollar fund represents a landmark in the battle to stem the alarming loss of frogs, salamanders and caecilians. We hope that it will encourage others to step forward and make a commitment to protecting amphibians and habitats.” Dr Paul Salaman, CEO of Rainforest Trust, said “amphibians represent an opportunity to stem biodiversity loss through relatively modest investments. We can literally save entire species through strategic habitat protection. We are thrilled to be able to make this commitment to protecting the most threatened vertebrate group in priority sites worldwide.”
Amphibians are at the forefront of what is being widely referred to as the sixth mass extinction event on earth. Around a half of over 7,000 amphibian species are in decline, a third are on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened species, and more than 120 species are thought to have been lost in recent years. Disease and climate change have been implicated in the sudden and rapid disappearance of species from South, Central and North America, Europe and Australia – but the primary threat to the survival of many amphibian species is the rampant loss and degradation of habitats, such as rainforests. In the tropics, where the entire range of a species may be as small as a single stream, amphibians often fall through the cracks in protected area coverage and a recent study revealed that 940 amphibian species worldwide occur in unprotected habitat.
The Leapfrog Conservation Fund will strategically and collaboratively target the most threatened habitats for protection. “Partnerships are the key to success” said Robin Moore, Conservation Officer with the ASA, Rainforest Trust and Global Wildlife Conservation, “we all have a stake in the future of our environment, and what is truly exciting about the Leapfrog Conservation Fund is that it represents an opportunity forunique collaborations to achieve a common goal – saving amphibians and the habitats upon which we all depend.”
-By Lily Kumpe, Victoria, Australia: The morning begins with a light chorus of cicadas, soothing at first, but by mid-day the cicadas will swarm so thick their urine will sprinkle on us like light rain as we are simultaneously vexed by their deafening love songs. The urine, the love songs— I know it sounds bad, but this is exactly where I want to be. I’m taking photos with John Tiddy in Eastern Australia and the cicadas are a welcome bonus.
For a while now, John Tiddy, Seth Patterson, Clay Bolt, and every other “Meet Your Neighbours” photographer has held celebrity status in my mind. Looking at their photos, I find myself falling suddenly and deeply in love with the beauty of a snail shell, the design of a moth wing, the intricate egg case of a praying mantis. Seeing species against a stark white background, isolated from their environment, brings new elegance to even the most everyday subjects.
On the day of the cicadas, I stole John’s secrets to tank and bird photography, and came away with some great pobblebonk frog photos. John has built a box with the interior painted white to reflect light onto his background piece of acrylic. This works to give him impressively uniform light, covering the length and width of the entire background.
The branch John uses as a bird perch has a hidden compartment he fills with either seeds or worms, depending on his subject’s diet. I was amused to hear that nothing pleases a male wren more than a mirror. Apparently they find themselves more irresistible than worms.
One thing John said that really stuck with me is that rather than kill or remove creepy-crawly things, his human neighbours will often capture them for John to photograph. This is brilliant! Everyone gets involved. I hope our neighbours in Denmark, Western Australia will do the same. Now that I’ve started field-studio photography, I’m hooked. The greatest fulfillment comes from a deeper engagement with the world around me. From love sick cicadas to the complex lives of ants, who knew there was so much life and drama unfolding in miniature around us?
The Conservation Photography class at Eastern Mennonite University explores the intersection of image-making and environmental preservation. Nestled between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains at the edge of Appalachia, our location in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia is home to a wealth of flora and fauna. The amphibian population is particularly diverse with several endemic salamander species (such as the Cow Knob Salamander) found only in a few mountain ridges.
During the academic semester, students partner with regional environmental organizations as they document ecosystems and explore the sometimes fragile relationship between human communities and the natural world. As part of this process, we’ve been grateful to learn about the Meet Your Neighbours project from co-founder Clay Bolt. After a slide lecture from Clay, students had a chance to try out MYN camera and flash techniques in the field and image processing in the lab. We look forwarding to continued partnership with MYN in future semesters!
-Steven David Johnson, Chair, Visual & Communication Arts and Theater, Eastern Mennonite University
The following passage is from Han Park (Senior Photography and Digital Media Major):
When Clay Bolt introduced the Meet Your Neighbours project in EMU’s Conservation Photography class, the simple and unique beauty in the photos (with the sole focus on the subject) inspired me to seek plants and wildlife living in my own backyard.
After figuring out the technique, as I photographed more and more, I started to feel appreciation and intimacy toward the subjects of my photos. There are at least three different kinds of wild flowers living in my backyard. Small creatures like butterflies, bees, and snails are also living there. Though I knew of them, I had not really thought about their presence or truly encountered them. Through the process of photographing them individually, they became my true neighbors.
As I started practicing the MYN style, I faced a technical challenge with balancing the front (main) lights and back lights. If the back light is too strong, I lose the edge of the subject because of overexposure. However, if the back light is not strong enough, I will not get the unique detail coming from the semi-transparent skin (or shell) or thin leaf (or petal) of the subjects. The digital darkroom and continuous LED lights helped to solve this issue. Using digital darkroom exposure controls, I can maintain both clear edge and a pure white background by reducing the highlights and increasing the whites. At the same time, the combination of continuous LED lights and the live view mode of the camera helped me to get the correct lighting setup before releasing the shutter.
“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run…”
- John Keats (31 October 1795 – 23 February 1821)
John Keats’ “Ode to Autumn” is one of the few poems I remember from those I was forced to learn as a 15 year old in high school. This is in spite of having a brain that is stuffed with useless facts, words of innumerable rock songs, and myriad Latin names of plants and insects. I have always found poetry hard to learn, unless it is a dirty ditty usually made up by me!
Keats’ words, though written for England, sum up autumn in central Italy, too: colors, berries, mists, and mushrooms. The hint of winter, and those smells! And not just those dark, dank woodland odours, but the hint of wood smoke that, even now, can catapult me back to being three years of age.
So often nature chooses the paired primary colors of red and green. They are bright and easily noticed by birds; some are desired by humans, and some are not. Other yet are highly dangerous. I love autumn, especially when all the berries in this post grow so close to home – around our patch of land, in fact.