Cheapskate Tuesday 28: Dollar store plant backdrop


Catherine and I are living in Toronto, an expensive city to be sure, and our finances our feeling the strain. Nonetheless, money isn’t the only thing in short supply as the Ontario winter bears down on us! The insects around here are pretty serious about winter, and are getting extremely difficult to find! Also, though it has not happened yet, the cold of winter is going to make it very difficult to get out every weekend to turn up new creatures. So we come to studio photography! Having some captive arthropods, it is only natural to want to shoot them, but it gets a bit boring to have them either on white backdrops, or low key and black all the time. While we do have a nice south-facing window, and i can and have used it for a “blue sky” shot, it would be nice to have some foliage! In Vancouver, this meant going  out to a vacant lot across the street and clipping some salal, or blackberry or whatever (Vancouver is green!). Here, the lack of green herbaceous matter, especially downtown, is worrisome!


This is Toronto right about now. Nice sentiment on the sign, but the snakes and insects are about as evident right now as the greenery!

Anyway, we do have a dollar store right downstairs, and low and behold, they sell some fake plants. I figured, why not set these up on the wall where I can use them much like a real plant when I am out shooting with the Monster Macro Rig?


2 bucks a pop is not too pricy!


A couple nails in the wall to hang them, and there they are.


For some extra colour and depth, why not put some green paper behind? $1!



OK, I am getting good exposures, but that green looks way off to me. It is way too bluish for my taste, and does not look natural.


Even with significant adjustments in Photoshop, the green still bothers me. Better to get it right in camera, so back to the Dollar store to find some gels.


For $1.50, I got a pack of “gels” to colour the output of my background light. These are just plastic report covers. I am only using the yellow one, but will keep the rest as well for funky hard lighting somewhere down the line.


With a bit of velcro, gels are ready to attach to the flash.


Man, that YN-460 is looking old! Not bad for 30 bucks though! It has been a trooper!

Results: Yellow-gelled background light


OK! This looks way better to me. And this Rabidosa is looking FINE! Orange spider goggles seem to be in this year.


Here if it looks any cooler, it is because I brought it down in post, but still pretty credible rendition of what lit, out of focus vegetation might look like.


This Kukulcania male on moss is about how I would expect it to look against some actual plants outdoors.


If I pull out far enough, I have to open up a bit. This dock spider shot shows how the “vegetation” looks when a bit more in focus. Still good colour though!


Getting in close shows that the background can still be soft with a big subject. Depth of field is a complicated business!


This debris-covered assassin nymph might prefer to be in the guck of a spiders crevice, but the fake plants in the background have the look of the outdoors.

So there you have it! One way to achieve out of focus vegetation indoors in the studio! Another way to do this might be to print large photos of out of focus plants as backdrop, but I worry about how to light that consistently without getting big glaring reflections from my background light’s head. 

This setup is cheap, portable, and nice to have in my bag of tricks. One wonderful thing is that I will never have to worry about that one white stick or grass blade in the background that mucks up a shot before I even realize it. This way, there are no visual intrusions! It is good to know that I have some “outdoor” shooting ability as the icy winter looms!



A Birthday Outing in High Park

20151117-111715IMG_9594So yesterday was my birthday, I am a little older and a little wiser, I think. Because the weather was fine, and I had not been out to take pictures recently, I decided to treat myself to a day of photography in High Park. The weather here in Toronto is getting much colder now, so it was a good thing that I got some awesome presents from Catherine to keep me warm.


A thick, warm hat, a thinner lighter hat, a wonderful sweater and a cool mug!


It was even personalized for me!


This mug is based on a design I made for a t-shirt a few years ago. It derived from a photo, and I manipulated it in Photoshop to look like a woodcut. If you want one yourself, click here. All proceeds to the Caracara Research Foundation (actually most proceeds is profit for Zazzle). If we can sell 40,000 of these, we are in business!


So there is still a little bit of colour in the trees, but they are looking mighty stark. A deciduous forest in winter is a place with very little shade and you can see into it quite fa. As for arthropods, I did not see many!


I found four of these bald-faced hornet nests. I do not have the same rate of discovery in the summer, when there are actually hornets around!


This is what the Eastern Gray Squirrel looks like when alive in its native habitat. There are an absolute ton of them in High Park, about evenly mixed between black and gray morphs. These rodents feed on seeds, primarily acorns, as well as handouts from people. I saw another one eating a tortilla. With this abundance of squirrels, there are also squirrel predators, such as Red-tailed Hawks and a few owls. I saw a hawk, but no owl, but I did find this:


A raptor pellet comprised mainly of squirrel fur. I looked around in the few conifers nearby for hiding raptors, but did not see any. The way a still bird can hide against the bark though, makes me think one may have been there anyway.


One advantage of winter is how low the sun stays all day. Even near noon you can find this slanting angle of light that is much more flattering to subjects than full sun in summer.


The squirrels were the most abundant wildlife I saw, even outnumbering people on this cold Tuesday. I think Toronto could use a good crow population though, as I kind of miss them!


At the southeastern end of the park, I came upon a small flock of chickadees and a couple cardinals. This is a female that appeared to be accompanying a male. I wonder if their pair bonds persist through the winter….


The male remains pretty splendid, even in winter, and these birds are not very shy. They are certainly more brightly coloured than the cardinals I saw in French Guiana!


So that about sums up my birthday walk in the park. It was not the most productive trip, and as winter sets in I would hope to have better photography days once in a while. One of the difficulties of Toronto compared to Vancouver is that Toronto is a place that animals migrate FROM rather than TO, as it is pretty much smack in the middle of a very cold continental region. There will be no winter hummingbirds, or loons or even many ducks. Just the hardy chickadees, nuthatches, jays and others that make this cold place their home year-round.


A fall ramble: High Park and Humber Bay


Because Ontario is harsh, and the invertebrates are quickly going to ground, I decided to do two days of outings this weekend! In addition to our trip to Leslie Spit on Saturday, I went out alone to High Park on Sunday to see what I could find.


The herbaceous vegetation was mostly dead, with very few insects out and about.


I found these Leptoglossus occidentalis (western conifer seed bug) behind some boards, getting ready to overwinter. These were not present in Toronto when I was a kid.


Behind the same boards I also found a Agelenopsis on an egg sac. I replaced her carefully after this shot.


This very orange Araneus diadematus was also on an egg sac. She also posed, and then I put her back on her sac. It is doubtful the adults ever survive the winter here.


This Phidippus audax was much more orange than others we have found so far.


Not sure why it was missing a palp, but it will probably regrow, as this one was still small.


At Humber Bay, I found some hungry wasp queens. Luckily I had a vial of honey on hand. This one ate so much she could barely fly afterward, but it should fatten her up for the winter.




I was delighted to find this brown snake, AKA Dekay’s snake (Storeria dekayi) moving along a fence.


I encountered these small snakes often when I was a kid. The juveniles of this species are quite beautiful,and the adults have their own subdued charm.


These snakes are natricines, related to garter snakes. They occur in Eastern N. America all the way down to Guatemala.


This shot shows the faint iridescence of the scales


All in all, I was glad I went out! This kind of break from the downtown chaos will hopefully keep me sane!

Weekend Expedition 66: Leslie Spit


We finally made it out to Tommy Thompson Park, AKA Leslie Spit, a natural deposit that has been added to by the City of Toronto with an ongoing filling operation. The terrain is perfect for spider hunting, as it is full of rubble and weedy vegetation. It looks like a wonderful place to explore, and probably offers great habitat for migrant raptors as well. Catherine and I went out to find some spiders, and whatever else there was to be found!


Rubble and weeds! What else could a naturalist ask for!


A gorgeous little garter snake!


A tiny philodromid, hanging out on grass



Awesomely cryptic crab spider (Thomisidae) on a Queen Anne’s Lace


Tough to notice these!


Probably the most impressive spider find of the day, a big Amaurobiid we found under rubble


Chelicerae to die for!


This big gal was very cooperative for photos


Was super excited to find my first Canadian Crematogaster colony! Check out the awesome spider in there, which Catherine has a post on!


I reckon this to be Crematogaster cerasi, due the two prominent hairs on the pronotum. A mostly tropical myrmecine genus, this is one of two Canadian species.


Here is an amaurobiid with an eggsac


And a giant house spider (Eratigena atrica) with eggs.


A very bright woodlouse.


A beautiful Pardosa, much like we found last week at Humber Bay.


Catherine after a few hours of spidering!

An Arachtober Spider Outing


My smartphone sucks, probably as much as my smartphone photography technique!

On a bright sunny Sunday afternoon, Catherine and I made our suburban shopping rounds to keep ourselves fed (downtown Toronto is bloody expensive!), and then headed out to Humber Bay to find some spiders!


All over the beach we found these awesome gray wolves…Perhaps a Pardosa? Probably. There are a bunch of dark Pardosa in these parts. 


Getting them to pause for a photo was tough, as they were warm and in the mood to run.


This Hogna-like wolf spider was much more accomodating! Super pretty as well.


These spiders are difficult for non-experts to ID…I sent the pictures to an awesome wolf spider identifier I know, but I am not sure if she will respond.


A juvenile Phidippus audax, with surprisingly orange spectacles!


We found a few of these araneids, which we figure to be Zygiella atrica, and introduced one from Europe


Here is the male of Zygiella atrica, which we found adjacent to a female’s web.


The characteristic orb web of Zygiella. Note the missing sector at the top left.


A Philodromid looks awesome on a fall leaf.


Catherine found a few Larinioides hiding out in leaves.


Near a lighted building, we found our expected plethora of tetragnathids and Larinioides in almost communal webs. We also found a bunch of tiny dictynids, which I did not get any shots of.


Some of the Larinioides were quite light in colour. We need to collect a few sometime, as there are a couple species here in Toronto.


We even found a big old Castianeira, who seemed to be doing quite well living under the lights!


Weekend Expedition 66: Highland Creek


It is early fall in Ontario, and the leaves are changing colours…Seems to me the animals are not very abundant right now, probably because at this time of year freezing weather can hit at any time. A bit different from the west coast!
Most of the flowers are gone, and the few that remain are looking pretty shabby. Catherine and I still haven’t got out near Toronto very much to see the sights, but this Saturday I took off into the woods around the University of Toronto Scarborough while Catherine was invigilating an exam. This campus abuts Highland Creek, and there is a wooded Valley just below which has walking paths and woods. A great place to explore!


Right by the campus, Catherine found this awesome common house spider, Parasteatoda tepidariorum. Correction! This is Parasteatoda tabulata, which makes a debris-covered retreat! These cool therediids can be quite pretty!


Under some bark we found this Agelenopsis female with an eggsac.


We brought along our 6-legged parson spider (Herpyllus ecclesiasticus) to do some outdoor shots. This awesome and extremely fast spider is a gnaphosid.


We aren’t sure how she lost her legs, but she can still move very quickly!


In the woods, I found a lot of red-backed salamanders. The species in the east is Plethodon cinereus.


This one was only about 4 cm long, and was very obliging for photography.


This seems to be a “leadback” phase of Plethodon cinereus. More on this species here.


Under a log I found a couple overwintering queens of bald-faced hornets, Dolichovespula maculata. They didn’t seem too pleased to see me!


This one was vibrating her wings, probably to go off and search for a new site to overwinter after being disturbed.


I can’t get over the cormorants! When I was a kid, they did not exist here!


This is the first photo I have ever gotten of a cormorant yawning!


Sometime very soon we have to get out of town to see the fall colours…They are probably spectacular right around now!


I just barely scratched the surface of this extensive protected valley, and I am sure I will come back again and again!

Agapostemon aggregations!!!


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:


Yep! Your eyes are not deceiving you! That is a cluster of sleeping male Agapostemon virescens, one of the most beautiful solitary bees. I have a soft spot for shiny insects, and these bright little jewels fit the bill.


On Saturday, I found at least 4 such clusters, each on a mature Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota), and the largest cluster having about 40 bees within.


I tried many different types of shots, with the 35 and the 100 mm, but it was somewhat frustrating as it was windy, the sky was uniform blue, and the bees were waking up.


I knew I would have to come again at dawn to catch these against the dawn sky….


On Sunday I returned, this time knowing what to look for.

I photographed a couple of clusters, changing angle and lighting to change the mood.

On this one, note the snail appearing over the top edge…It seems to be in many of the subsequent frames.


Here is one with a diffused light from the left only.


And with the reflected sun from the water. The Canon 100 mm (non-L) doesn’t do highlights nicely!


That snail is really making the rounds!


The bees are starting to disperse, and the snail is exploring its options.


Before they all left, I took the time to get a closeup.


One on the finger!


Later in the day, I saw them going about their business as normal. I have read that these bees do this type of aggregated sleeping, and I had dreamed about it, but have never seen pictures of it before!

In Toronto!


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!


Some of the last of BC’s mountains we saw, near Mt. Robson


We were both relieved that the killer storm that had followed us from Vancouver was behind us!


In Jasper, the elk were on hand to say farewell.


After stopping in Edmonton to see friends, we went to see if we could see some bison on the lone prairie. Sure enough, there were some!


Bury me not here…I think I would rather be buried in the rainforest. Or at least fed to the vultures!


In Northern Ontario, which is actually most of Canada, we just had to stop here!


Arriving south of Sioux St. Marie, we spied this awesome Gray Treefrog (Hyla versicolor).


And here we are in our new digs!


This is the view from our new place.


I did not really do a lot of shooting in the first week or so we were here, but did get a few pic in when I went to visit Catherine’s new lab in Scarborough. Here is a beautiful male Pelegrina proterva


And an Eastern yellowjacket killed by a crab


Here in the east, there are a lot more membracids to be found. This is Campylenchia latipes


The other exciting thing to be found is a lot more agelenids on vegetation. This is some kind of Agelenopsis.


Our wishes for dock spiders came true when we went out to the Entomological Society of Ontario meeting at the Queen’s University Biological Station north of Kingston. Here is a moderately sized one on the dock at dawn!


With loons calling in the background, this shooting was idyllic. Way nicer than the screams and shouts of drunks we are getting used to in downtown Toronto!


W emet a great group pf people at ESO, and I am a big advocate now for students joining up for a great conference experience. Next year is in Sioux St. Marie.


Catherine gave a great talk about Twitter for outreach, and I spoke about some of my yellowjacket work.


We have also noticed the abundance of mimetid spiders (pirate spiders) here in Ontario. These awesome spiders are spider predators as well as kleptoparasites.


This conference was a great introduction to Ontario entomology!


In the time since the conference, I have made a couple of outings…Once to High Park (my old stomping grounds), although I did not cover much of the park. I have noted the abundance of Myrmica rubra with some consternation. Here a worker is tending another membracid, this time Publilia concava


I did see a beautiful alydid, but I am not sure which species.


The one sleeping hymenopteran I found in High Park was this gorgeous Nomada.


And that brings us to this weekend! On Saturday, I went out to Humber Bay Park, another of my favourite places from when I was a kid (we didn’t live too far away). It is a great place to see the sunrise over the city. I, of course, was looking for sleeping insects and things.

This male Polistes dominula shows off his beautiful colours against the sunrise.


We are now in the land of the biggest jumpers in North America! Here is a big (but probably not mature) Phidippus audax.

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!



Leaving the West Coast


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!


Catherine at the Spider Course in Arizona. This was an awesome 2 week trip for us, and a real education in spider ID!


During the spider course, I shot quite a few pictures…Here is a beautiful Chrysina gloriosa!


Wow. What an awesome beetle!


The spider course was held in the Chiricahua mountains, an absolutely gorgeous area that has a lot to offer the naturalist.


Off course, the spider course brought us to a great area or spiders…Here is a huntsman. Be prepared for many cool species when Catherine gets around to posting about them!


After our return from the spider course, we made a trip to Island View Beach to stock up on black widows or Catherine’s PhD research.


It was a gorgeous day for collecting, and the coastal dunes were doing their best to tell us not to leave!


A garter snake from Island View. We will look forward to a more diverse snake fauna in southern Ontario.


In the past few weeks, as we organized our gear for the move, we had some balcony visitors, including this juvenile Cooper’s Hawk. Right above our door!


The hummingbirds are still here, right outside the door…In Ontario, we will have but a single species, and only for part of the year :(


Ant work has kept me busy…Myrmica rubra tending to larvae.


I have managed to do some shooting on the weekends…Including a quick couple trips out to Iona Beach.


A Paciic Treefrog from this morning. We will definitely miss these little cuties!

Spider predation!

IMG_1271Nothing to see here, just a couple of cool spider species engaged in predation!


Misumena vatia (in white form) consuming a fly. These are called the goldenrod crab spider, but I find them on may flowers.


This plump one was the same one I had photographed on foxglove in the last post.


Misumena vatia in the yellow form with a fly. This one is not yet an adult.




Ambush predators are so cool.


A Phidippus jumping spider with another jumping spider!


You could share this and say she is carrying her babies to safety…Who will believe you will tell you a lot about your friends!


I wonder if these spiders make a lot of their living by preying on other jumpers. They seem to relish them!


So cool!