Dawn shots

IMG_7608This morning, I got up before dawn to take some pictures out near Iona Beach. I have not been getting out much recently, and so I thought I would change my routine a bit.


I was out for sleeping insects, and dawn is the best time to find them. It also allows me to mix ambient light with flash illumination in a pleasing way!


Small changes in the angle of the shot result in massive differences in the background. Compare this shot near the sun…


To this shot a few degrees away.


I am always excited to find new things. Here are a couple sleeping bees I have never seen before!


They sleep like many bees I have seen; gripping the vegetation with their mandibles.


I have no idea what these are, so if you have ID suggestions, let me know!


Whatever they are, they are gorgeous!


A bit of nudging got this one to grip the top of the flower.


Of course I could not have a dawn shoot without a Coelioxys!


I found this garter snake under a log.


A closeup with an unusually cooperative model.


I like to donate blood to those in need. This is Aedes dorsalis


There were a bunch of these red clover casebearer adults (Coleophora deauratella) hanging out. I assume they must begin mating before dawn.


For some reason, it is really hard to get a photo to convey their bright metallic wing scales! I will keep working at it!



Coyote Pups!


Adjacent to my work site yesterday were some coyote pups! They were coming out of their den to sun themselves and play in the weeds. I do not really know what to say about these, other than that they were cute! I wish I had my 300 mm, but did not bring it, so these are all taken with the 100 mm. I was surprised by how dimorphic they were, with the dark one looking a bit dog-like. It is common for urban coyotes to have some dog admixture in their heritage, so perhaps that explains it.

I had been doing work at this same site in the fall, and would often look up from my ant nests to see an adult coyote watching me from a short distance away. The adult coyote never even tried to steal my lunch, although that would have been easy. It seems these coyotes have learned to coexist with humans relatively well.


Oh my. What does he have there?


Uh oh. Looks vaguely cat-like!


Not super hungry, obviously, the pup was just transferring this morsel to safety (maybe he thought I liked eating cat butt).


After a little while, the tan pup comes out.


Dawww! This one looks much more typical. 


Lets go over here!


These pups had lots of debris to play around in.


And a brief patch of sun to lie in.


teh cute.


Taking time to smell the flowers.


The pups grimace as a vehicle approaches.


The dark one scratched a whole lot.


Ahhh. Coyote pups at work! What could be better?

Accumulation: excess photos from the past few weeks


Myrmica rubra tending aphids, Annacis Island.

I am working again with ants this summer, and have been getting out a bit for work and on the weekends for special outings. I have been accumulating a number of excess photos over the past few weeks that don’t really fit in with the special topics (Guyana, Expeditions, Okanagan) so I have put them together here. I hope you enjoy them!


Myrmica specioides ascends a blade of grass.


Carabus nemoralis in the hand…Worth two in the bush!


Formica oreas workers cutting some grass for their roof. These are “thatching ants” and the top of their nest is insulated with cut grass. Annacis Island


I see you, sac spider! South Burnaby.


A tetragnathid on a flower. Iona Beach, Richmond.


Myrmica incompleta, moving larvae to safety. Iona Beach, Richmond.


A damselfly, still sleepy in the early morning. Iona Beach.


Trying for a bit more detail with the Raynox DCR 250.


Phidippus johnsoni. Iona Beach.


A wolf spider with a great egg sac. Iona Beach.


A gorgeous Sialis alderfly, Chilliwack.


The Ammophila are out again! McDonald Beach, Richmond BC.


And speaking of sleeping Hymenoptera, here is my first Coelioxys of the year! Iona Beach, Richmond.


With fingertip for scale.


A gorgeous sawfly from Maplewood Flats, North Vancouver.


You can get some really diffuse, wrappy light with just a handheld reflector!


A big, likely gravid Dysdera. Iona Beach.


Speaking of Dysdera, Catherine and I had some dysderalings! (Well, one of our captive females did).


Local badass cat! Super friendly though! Vancouver.


Here is an amazing mite, probably an undescribed species of Lasioerythaeus! McDonald Beach, Richmond BC.

A couple of Okanagan snakes

IMG_1002While Catherine and I were exploring the area around Vaseux Lake, We managed to see a couple of snakes I had not yet encountered in BC.


The first species was the yellow-bellied racer (Coluber constrictor mormon), a subspecies of the common racer. Like other racers I have seen, these were super fast snakes!


This was as good as I could manage for an environmental portrait, as the snake could not be convinced to pose.


Large eyes, fast snake!


Like many other Okanagan fauna, the racer is considered vulnerable in BC. Because of rampant development in this area of BC, the status of these beautiful snakes is uncertain.


The second species we found was a beautiful (and BIG) bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer). This awesome constrictor was (long ago) considered a subspecies of the pine snake, and is a species I have always wanted to encounter. We had seen one dead on the road before, so seeing this amazing snake alive was certainly a highlight.


When I pointed out the snake to this guy, he dived right in to catch the snake. I wish I had caught his name, but he was a real Okanagan outdoor lover who had a great fondness for the local herpetofaina. He was also immune to poison ivy, which is why he was able to navigate the ivy filled swamp to fetch the snake.


I managed to get this picture of the snake on a branch, but not much else. This was by far the largest snake of any kind I had ever encountered in Canada. Handling it was not intimidating, although it did musk us a bit. Interestingly, the musk of this snake was not super-offensive like that of a garter snake.


After we let it go, the snake had the last laugh…While the fellow who caught him was immune to poison ivy, I certainly was not, and got a bad case from having handled the ivy oil-laden serpent!


Going on Vacation!!!!

2746599591_1e2bdf8f93_bSo Catherine and I have a week off this coming week, so we are planning to go for a bit of a vacation in the Okanagan. We will be mostly in the boonies, camping and searching for critters, so will be out of contact for a bit. It also means I will have to interrupt my series on the Guyana trip. When I come back it will be all Guyana, all Okanagan, all the time!

Our transport will be a venerable old Honda Civic that Catherine picked up for 500 bucks! It has new brakes and everything so should be a safe and reliable steed to carry us eastwards.

We are going to look for a long list of interesting animals, from scorpions and rattlesnakes to a few special spiders (Argiope, Antrodiaetus, Latrodectus [of course!)). Catherine and I will be trying to get some shots of rubber boas as well. Who knows what we will see! This will be a time for us to get out and get busy searching for whatever we can find. I think it will be awesome.



Symbiosis and inspiration in the jungle


A large nest of Polybia liliacea. This is one you probably do not want to disturb!


Compared to my time in French Guiana, I found that travel by river offers a much greater volume of observations than walking in the forest. When I was in French Guiana travelling trails on foot, I was lucky to encounter one example of a particular habitat in a day, but on the boat I could see the same type of habitat many times over. Needless to say, this was a great natural history lesson in the making.

One of the particular habitats we saw a lot of was the meanders of the river, where the river loops and bends around long curves. These bends form spontaneously via the action of vortices along curves in the river, and on the inside of each curve there is high deposition of silt (on the outside is a high level of erosion).  This is the process by which oxbow lakes are formed. The result is that the inside curve is an area that was formerly river-scoured, but now has abundant new soil. Within these areas are a sparser forest, dominated by a few fast-growing tree species such as Cecropia and Triplaris (called “Long John” in Guiana). These are habitats that harbor a beautiful example of tropical symbiosis.


Yellow-rumped Caciques (Cacicus cela) bathing together in the early evening. These are highly social birds with colonial nesting.


One of the first things that I noticed about these meander forests is that they more often than not contained a large colony of nesting Icterid birds, either Green Oropendolas, or Red-rumped or Yellow-rumped Caciques, with the latter being the most common. All of these birds are known to preferentially nest in association with large, aggressive wasp species, such as Polybia rejecta and Polybia liliacea. This is thought to benefit the birds in two ways. Number one is that the wasps can help dissuade nest predators, such as monkeys. Number two is that populations of predaceous wasps may reduce the parasite burden (particularly parasitic Philornis flies) that the nestlings endure.


A colony of Cacicus cela nesting in association with Polybia liliacea. We also saw them with Polybia rejecta and Epipona spp. wasps.


In turn, the wasps nest in these particular trees for a reason. They nest in trees that are occupied by Azteca ants, a type of dolichoderine ant that basically owns the tree, with large carton nests containing perhaps millions of moderately small workers and hundreds of queens. The wasps nest here because the Azteca repel one of the wasps’ worst enemies: army ants. Although army ants (Eciton burchellii and Eciton hamatum) vastly outweigh the Azteca individually, the Azteca, by virtue of their overwhelming numbers, can keep army ant columns from advancing quickly up the tree (Servigne 2003). As army ants are all about blitzkrieg, and quickly stripping an area of profitable prey (Kaspari et al. 2011), they have learned to avoid the Azteca trees, which would take a protracted guerilla campaign to overcome. It has been recently shown that the wasps in turn benefit the ants, helping to repel some of their predators, such as woodpeckers (Le Guen et al. 2015)!


Nesting association between Azteca (left), Polybia (centre) and Cacicus (upper right).


In examining again and again the morphology and placement of the nests in these associations, I was struck by a thought: perhaps the birds are also a net benefit to the wasps and the ants as well! I know from my research how formidable Red-throated Caracaras are in destroying wasp nests….What if these large numbers of nesting caciques help protect the wasps from the caracaras? It is not so outlandish a hypothesis, as the large nesting aggregations of caciques have been shown to mob bird nest predators such as monkeys and Black Caracaras and drive them away (Robinson 1985). Perhaps the Red-throated Caracaras may be driven away as well by large numbers of defensive caciques.


Could wasps derive protection from Red-throated Caracaras from cacique or oropendola colonies?



I was amazed by the numbers of large wasp nests we encountered at these sites, in stark contrast to the relatively low numbers I encounter in normal forests. It is not just the presence of ants which is keeping these nests safe, as Azteca occur in large numbers all over the forests. I think something else is going on here to help protect these wasp nests, and I bet it is the birds. Anyway, I would love to go and study this sometime, but this story just reinforces to me the inspiration that I only get by going to the field.


The Black Caracara, a known predator of cacique nests, is sometimes mobbed and driven away by Yellow-rumped Caciques.



KASPARI, M., POWELL, S., LATTKE, J., and O’DONNELL, S. 2011. Predation and patchiness in the tropical litter: do swarm-raiding army ants skim the cream or drain the bottle? J. Anim. Ecol. 80:818–23

LE GUEN, R., CORBARA, B., ROSSI, V., AZÉMAR, F., and DEJEAN, A. 2015. Reciprocal protection from natural enemies in an ant-wasp association. C. R. Biol.

MCCANN, S., MOERI, O., JONES, T., O’DONNELL, S., and GRIES, G. 2010. Nesting and Nest-Provisioning of the Red-throated Caracara (Ibycter americanus) in Central French Guiana. J. Raptor Res. 44:236–240. 

MCCANN, S., MOERI, O., JONES, T., SCOTT, C., KHASKIN, G., GRIES, R., O’DONNELL, S., and GRIES, G. 2013. Strike fast, strike hard: the Red-throated Caracara exploits absconding behavior of social wasps during nest predation. PLOS One 8:e84114.

ROBINSON, S. S. K. 1985. Coloniality in the Yellow-rumped Cacique as a defense against nest predators. Auk 102:506–519. 

SERVIGNE, P. 2003. L’association entre la fourmi Azteca chartifex Forel (Formicidae, Dolichoderinae) et la guepe Polybia rejecta (Fab.) (Vespidae, Polistinae) en Guyane Française. Universite Paris-Nord.

Caracara interlude #1: Camp scavenger


A Black Caracara juvenile watches the camp from the safety of the trees. The juveniles can be recognized by lighter facial skin and black spotting on the undertail coverts.


Remember that Payara head we had left over from our meal? Well, we found a use for it!

We left it out for the Black Caracara (Daptrius ater) a small riverine caracara that often scavenges at human settlements and temporary camps. This behaviour seems pretty ingrained, and most times when we stopped along the river the caracaras would drop by in order to check whether we were cleaning fish or discarding waste.



Black Caracara with a morsel




When the head was relatively fresh



And after some significant feeding! This head is now looking pretty grotesque.

Black Caracaras are small raptors with light wing loading and graceful flight. They are both generalist predators and scavengers (and have been reported to fish!), and were once considered closely related to Ibycter americanus (Red-throated Caracaras). The Black Caracara is also associated with tapirs and capybaras, picking ectoparasites off of their skin. These seem to be the only animals that tolerate these birds, as most others chase them away (they are significant nest predators of other birds, such as oropendolas and caciques).

Nesting behaviour is virtually unknown in this species, with only a single reported nest being observed. I quizzed the locals I met on this trip and met very few who claimed to have seen a nest.

Watching these observant and seemingly intelligent birds is a true joy, and was very inspiring. The relative lack of study of these birds leads me to contemplate studying them in the future. The rivers of this region would be a great base of operations for comparative study of four species of caracara.


These caracaras seem to have a small crest that they erect at certain times.



“Too many bugs! Have to put down cement!”

IMG_9326I was delighted to discover that right across our street is a thriving metropolis of solitary bees (my guess is Halictus   EDIT: my guess was wrong! Thanks Erin! These are likely from the family Andrenidae). I was out taking some shots of these insects, when an elderly woman (from Italy I think) paused to look at what I was doing. I often get looks when photographing in public, so I explained how happy I was to see these bees right next to a community garden, and how cool it was to watch them work. She replied: “Too many bugs! Have to put down cement!”, and walked off.







I am sure the owners of this apple tree do not mind the bees!



Throwing down some hard light

Sometimes the light of a cloudy day is beautiful for photography, making features soft and creamy, eliminating harsh shadows, and enhancing colours. But this is a bright cloudy day we are talking about, not a gloomy, dark and depressing day like we tend to get around Vancouver this time of year. On a day like that, the photographer can only do one thing: eat Cheetos and veg out.

But wait! There is something you can do to get nice defined images of wildlife despite the terrible conditions and your way-too-old, way-too-noisy Canon sensor. Of course! Supplemental light!

I tested out throwing some hard light from trigger-controlled flashguns on a few species at Stanley Park this Saturday, and I am pretty pleased with the results!


This gull gains just a subtle definition from a speedlight placed behind and to the right.


A crow positioned about where the gull was. This time, because the bird is black, the effect is even more subtle, but that rim light on the head and showing up the feathers on the back is all flash.


The light to the back is much more obvious here, and the background branches are also lit. Bokeh is not great.


Again, some nice definition that would not have been present without a flash.



This Song Sparrow benefits from supplemental light, although it is a tad too direct for my taste.


A single shot with the 100 to show how the light was falling. I had the rimlight behind, and a bit of a fill directly in front of the crow (to my right).


Even hard light need not be oppressive. This towhee is still subtle, and I probably gained 3 stops of ISO here, making the image cleaner.


This squirrel gains definition from a single speedlight to the right, and a bit of fill from directly in front. .


This hooded merganser pops a bit more and is crisper overall thanks to speedlights.


Chickadee mid leap. Single speedlight to the right.


Chestnut-backed Chickadee. Again, I am gaining stops and definition.

Overall, I like this method of shooting, but would prefer natural light. For a gloomy day, when all I would get otherwise is a noisy mess, this is a good thing to try. With an actual lighting assistant, I am sure it could be even more fun.




A photographic species record

5073254804_71691f2caa_bPhotography brings me a great deal of pleasure, and I indulge in it whenever I can. A few years ago, I was with my dad, driving north from Victoria to my brother’s wedding. Along the way is Goldstream Park, a  real gem where the Golstream River empties into Saanich Inlet. We had some time to kill, so we went out for a short stroll with our cameras. It was a beautiful fall day, although the early morning forest was still dark. After photographing some salamanders in the forest, I decided to check out the highway bridge over Niagara Creek for overwintering mosquitoes.


A western red-backed salamander we found under a log.



Many overintering arthropods can be found in man-made structures. Here are three harvestmen and three Triphosa haesitata under the abutment of the Niagara Creek trestle. I have also found bats, camel crickets and five species of mosquito under similar structures.


During my undergrad, I did an Honours thesis on overwintering mosquitoes, and one of my field sites was just upstream, at the railroad trestle above the creek. Here I found several species of mosquito, including Anopheles punctipennis, Culex tarsalis, Culex territans and Culiseta incidens. So when I checked out the highway bridge, I took a few shots of of the mosquitoes. Most of these were the large and very common Culiseta incidens, but I saw a smaller and browner one that I knew was a Culex. Not having many good shots of Culex tarsalis, I strained to reach the camera over my head to shoot the insect. Like many overwintering mosquitoes, this one was still able to fly, so I only got the one shot. Upon reviewing it however, I saw that it was not Culex tarsalis, as I expected, but rather Culex restuans! This species looks much like the common house mosquito, but is distinguished by the two light scale patches on the scutum. I had never encountered this species during my thesis research, as it had not been reported for BC. In talking with Dr. Peter Belton, he urged me to write up the sighting for the Journal of the Entomological Society of BC as a new species record for the province.

Several years passed, where I was busy with tropical field research, and I had put the Culex record on the back burner. When Dr. Belton presented me with a draft of the report, I knew I had to do my part. I added some detail to the manuscript and sent it off. Click here to see the paper!

Not bad for a quick snapshot. Here are some other pictures I took that day:


On top of the bridge I found this jumper with a droplet for a hat.



Heather (my new sister in law) and my brother.



Pablo !



My dad, with some palinka we smuggled in.