OK, where we last left off, I was at Humber Bay on Saturday morning, looking for some sleeping hymenopterans. Other than the Polistes, I was not having much luck, but after the dawn light had past, I wandered a bit inland from the shore, and found this:
Again I must apologizing for the lack of posts recently. Catherine and I have arrived safe and sound in Toronto, and are installed in our new apartment downtown. I was not very prolific with the photography on our drive across the country, but here is a brief photo chronicle to fill everyone in…This story starts in BC and ends in a cliffhanger here in Toronto, so bear with me!
So this brings us to the point where I found something I had dreamed about, but never thoughy would come to pass….Check out the next post for that!
Sorry sorry sorry neglected blog! I apologize for the lack of blog posts over the past months. Catherine and I have been very busy, with a spider course in Arizona, ant work, many manuscripts to finish, and an impending move to Toronto. Catherine is going to be starting a PhD on widow spider behaviour this fall at UTSC, and I am heading out with her to try to ind some work or a postdoc there.
For now, I will just post some photos with some rambling about what we have been doing in the last few weeks. I will try to get more in depth on the spider course and associated activities soon!
So Catherine and I are enjoying a stay deep down south in Langley. We are about 200 m from the US border, and are house, dog, cat, and mouse sitting here for Sofi and her partner Brian. The animals, being motile, homeostatic organisms, are quite easy to care for. The plants, during this ridiculous heatwave and drought, are suffering, even with daily watering!
Anyway, this is our home and family until Saturday, and we plan to make the most of it!
So my soujourn in Guyana was not entirely without casualties. Although I avoided getting eaten by the jaguar, my Canon 50 mm 1.8 II died. I have no idea what happened, but the whole front assembly became detached from the rest of the lens. Everything still works, aperture, focus motor, but I cannot figure out how to snap it back together.
Anyway, I needed a new fast prime, and it just so happened that when got back from the jungle, the YN 35 mm f2 was announced. It was retailing for 110 bucks, the same for the 50, and since i have a crop-frame camera, a 35 sounded like a nice focal length for a fast lens. After all, the legacy of the fast 50 mm prime is a holdover from film days, where it would be a “normal” lens on a 35 mm frame. With my 1.6X crop frame Canon, 35 mm is just about a normal focal length, so what I am really getting is not a wide lens, but a fast normal lens. I ordered one!
The waiting for shipment took way longer than expected, as it was on the slow boat from China, but when it arrived last week, I immediately tried it out. The first few images I took with it were OK, but not stellar. Then I remembered to take the protective plastic off the rear element!!!
OK, this lens is pretty cool, it is nice, fast focusing and decently well built (seems on par with the el cheapo Canon 50 anyhow, and is quite reminiscent). It does have a metal mount, and the autofocus switch feels way nicer than that of the Canon. So far so good. What about the images?
I intend to use this for a number of things I used to use my 50 for: documenting social events, fieldwork, and sometime putting it on tubes for macro. Here are my results so far:
Well, this is certainly a usable and enjoyable replacement for my 50 1.8. In fact, with its focal length, it will likely be way more useful to me. I am impressed with the decently close focus, the fact that it is fast and light, and that it fits my budget! One thing to keep in mind about this versus the Canon 50 is that the front element is much less recessed, and hence ghosts and flare may be more common. I did not notice anything other than small blue ghosts when the sun was right in the frame.
I would say if you can afford to, one of the Canon versions of this lens would undoubtedly hold value way better, and perhaps offer an edge in build quality or some aspect of performance. But this is definitely a usable lens, and is quite sharp even wide open (I will post some samples soon!). I will certainly be making a lot more use of this lens than my 50 got, as this is a more valuable focal length for documentation and snapshooting. Look forward to seeing more from this lens in the future!
I have been a bit remiss in continuing to tell the story of the trip Catherine and I took to the Okanagan Valley this spring. I apologize, and in recompense, offer one of the most exciting observations we made.
One of the species we had most hoped to see was the Pacific Rattlesnake, Crotalus oreganus. I was anticipating that being early in the spring, the snakes would still be close to their winter denning sites, perhaps engaged in mating. As it turned out, we were too late. The snakes had already left their den sites for more productive hunting grounds further down the valleys.
The Pacific Rattlesnake is BC’s only rattlesnake, and like many northerly populations of rattlesnakes, is a threatened species. The reasons for the rarity of these snakes is that they have been persecuted by humans, and their habitats are being threatened by development. Persecution of these snakes was particularly damaging as they rely on safe hibernation sites, free of freezing conditions, and must migrate to these sites en masse in the fall. This means that entire populations of the snakes may end up in just a few suitable caverns, where humans can find and destroy them. This is in fact what has happened, not just in BC, but all over North America wherever these denning sites occur. In BC, there was a bounty on the snakes, and some people made it their mission to destroy every snake they could, dynamiting and gassing the dens.
In addition, the seasonal migration also poses extreme risk as the snakes must often cross roads to get to where they are going. Needless to say, cars do not mix well with snakes, and death on the roads is undoubtedly a major threat to the species. I know this all too well, as my first encounter with this species was a fatal one. Years ago, I was driving a truck doing fieldwork in the Similkameen, and hit a snake on the way to a campsite. I felt terrible about this, but by the time I saw the snake, it was too late.
Later that evening, I walked out on the road I had driven up, and saw 7 more freshly killed rattlesnakes! This was likely due to an active log hauling operation using the roadway, but really even a modest amount of vehicle traffic would kill snakes. The 8 I saw killed that day is a ridiculous amount of excess mortality for a long-lived and not very fecund animal, and it means that the population of these snakes is in decline.
Every time Catherine and I were in likely areas, we would look at potential den sites with eyes keen for the snakes, but to no avail. We had a bit of inside info on historic den site locations, and so we felt well-prepared. Alas, the snakes did not show up. It was not until late in our trip that we checked out a site near Vaseux Lake. Here again we did not find any rattlers, but we did find a snake-catcher’s equipment in one of the likely den sites: tall boots and a large bucket. This was likely from someone in animal control or perhaps a pest control business that had used these to transport rattlesnakes to the den from someone’s house or other building in the fall (sometimes the snakes will end up in these locations on the way to their dens). This was most encouraging!
We occupied ourselves taking pictures of spiders and insects in the grasslands near the bluffs, always with an eye out for snakes. In the same area where we found the racer, I finally spotted one!
This was quite a small snake, and when I saw it, it was fleeing our approach (I had thought they might just stay still, like Bothrops). Unlike most snakes which I am familiar with, this is a pitviper, adapted for camouflage and ambush predation, rather than quick flight. We wanted to get some photos, so I picked the snake up on my monopod and placed it in an open area. The little snake was obviously not too pleased with this, but only gave a halfhearted, barely audible rattle. In addition, at no time did the snake strike the stick. It was fairly easy to keep the snake in place just by moving the monopod in front of its head, and it soon just settled in a defensive coil. This made it very easy to photograph, although if I had a polarizing filter for the brilliant sunshine, the shots would have been better!
The ease I had handling these snakes is in stark contrast to just about every other snake I have met. They are relatively slow and cumbersome animals (though the strike is likely very quick). I have no doubt any reasonably capable adult could move any “threatening” snake from their premises easily with a large bucket and a stick. Nonetheless, these snakes are still regularly (and legally) killed to “protect life and property”, which means that enforcement of their protected status is a nebulous concept.
With these photos, it is obvious that the animal was manipulated into position for photography, and some might take issue with this from an ethical standpoint. I see where this comes from, and I agree somewhat. The snake obviously does not like being handled, and in point of fact, the majority of snakebite accidents probably happen as a result of handling. That being said, from the standpoint of this snake, what has occurred is that the snake was threatened, it could not escape, it stood its ground, and the dangerous animal (me) went away. In the life of one of these snakes, with hawks, cattle, dogs and cars to contend with, this is really small potatoes.
Anyway, it wasn’t long before we found a second, slightly larger rattler. This one was also fleeing, and in fact did not need capturing, as it took shelter under my backpack, getting caught around the straps in the process. Getting it into position for photography was just a matter of moving the pack to an open area and coaxing the snake out.
This weekend, Catherine and I took a trip to Mossom Creek in Port Moody, in search of a very special frog: the Pacific Tailed Frog (Ascaphus truei). The Pacific Tailed Frog gets its name from a copulatory organ present on the males of the species. Because their preferred habitat are these cold, fast-flowing creeks, the usual froggy broadcast of sperm over an egg mass would not be very effective, so these frogs use their “tail” for internal fertilization of the eggs within the female.
I had never been to this creek at this time of year, so I was a bit unsure whether we would find any, but it is such a lovely spot it would be nice anyway.
Catherine and I did not find any tailed frog metamorphs or adults. This is obviously not a good time to find them, and we will try to return later in the summer. But I do have some photos I took a few years ago that show the creatures in situ at Mossom Creek:
Sometimes, I never really know just how special the subjects I photograph really are. During the second night we spent on the Rewa river, I was dealing with blistered, sunburned hands as well as moderate fatigue. After dinner, it was tempting to crawl into my hammock and snooze, but I forced myself to go out, at least for a bit, and try for some nighttime arthropods.
Right in our camp, just a few metres from the cooking tarp, I found these amazing ants. At first I thought they were leafcutters, but when I got closer I realized that this was some kind of myrmicine version of a trap-jaw ant! I had never seen these in French Guiana, and in fact did not know of their existence. These were Daceton armigerum, one of only two species in the genus, related to the leafcutters, but tree-dwelling and predaceous. They have evolved these amazing, lightning-fast mandibles, like their ponerine equivalents, which they use for seizing prey. Their extremely crazy-shaped heads contain the heavy musculature needed for this strategy, and a trigger mechanism to release all of the force built up in a single stroke. For a great paper on this, showing the internal morphology, click here.
Unlike the ponerine trap jaw ants, they are quite fast and active, with seemingly large colonies contained in hollow trees.