Tag Archive | photography

Weekend Expedition 71: Mississauga salamander hunt


After a week of warmth, Gil Wizen and I set out for the same woods we visited last week, in order to see if we could find any salamanders out to take advantage of the vernal pools. The snow was completely gone, and the pools ice-free, although it was overcast and a nippy 5 C.


There were flies and moths out on the vegetation, indicating at least that the insects have begun to wake up.


Even a male orb weaver was out, although he did not have a capture web.


Near the vernal pools, we started to flip some logs, hoping for a treasure rove of salamanders, but initially we found only millipedes, beetles and some small red-backed salamanders.


There were quite a few firefly larvae in the rotted wood, as well as some rove beetles.


Very close to the vernal pools, Gil found this Jefferson’s Salamander, Ambystoma jeffersonianum. This (to me) was a big beast, dwarfing the longtoed salamanders from BC. This species is endangered in Ontario, although it is common in other parts of its range.


They are a difficukt species to capture well in a photograph, and for this shot I stood off at a distance and used the 300 mm. Luckily it was overcast, and the light in the forest was diffuse. The salamander was quite motionless, and probably was not pleased about being out in daylight.


We replaced the big amphibian, and wished it well. Soon, hopefully, many of its fellows will come down to breed in these little vernal pools.


We also found a few redbacked salamanders, which are a species of plethodontid. These animals have no need of open water to breed, and in fact lay their eggs in moist soil and wood, hatching out into juveniles with legs already formed. They are lungless, and never need gills either!


These Plethodon are a bit easier to photograph, although they might have benefited from a more diffuse flash.


After leaving Gil to pack for his coming trip to Ecuador, I found my way home was blocked by a big St. Patrick’s day parade. It was scheduled to last several hours, so I crawled through the awful Toronto traffic to Tommy Thompson Park to kill some time until my annoying relatives had cleared out of town. I found a couple of nice sac spiders under some bark.


These Clubiona have very impressive chelicerae, but never seem to threaten to use them. Instead, they are very prone to jumping when disturbed.


I found some European fire ants under a rock, and took some photos. They were still rather lethargic, and hence not much of a stinging hazard!


They are quite pretty little ants, and Toronto seems to abound with them now.


Here a worker antennates a queen. You can see her much-enlarged thorax and wing scars.


Despite their wings, the queens do not disperse by flying in North America, a trait they seem to have lost. In addition, the colonies here are often much larger than those in Europe.


Some winter spiders at Island View Beach


Catherine and I are back in BC for Christmas, hanging out with my mom in Victoria. The weather has largely been atrocious, so the photo opportunities have been scarce. However, the past couple days has seen a bit of clearing, so we headed up to Island View to see what we could see.


A small male Pardosa was the first wolf we saw, and was surprisingly active, despite the freezing temperatures.


A larger female wolf was a bit less active, but still good to see.


Though the weather is cold, prey are still around and active, and in fact the widows we saw still had small capture webs. Not sure if they ever snack on these termites, but it is possible.


Many of the female widows were quiescent, though some could still move about.


As usual, there were immature males hanging out on the periphery of the females’ webs. These “winter males” are bigger, bulkier, and more like females than the summer crop.


It is likely that these “winter males” undergo more molts to achieve their greater size, and perhaps the bulk is needed to survive the freezing temperatures without feeding much. They could be well placed to secure early matings in the spring.


We traveled about the beach quite a bit, and believe now that the good widow habitat might be more extensive than we previously thought. It will require some careful mapping to determine though.


After returning from the beach, I went up to Mt. Tolmie and saw some more widows, including this large female, who was entirely black underneath. The habitat here is more patchy, but still supports decent widow populations.


At both Island View and M. Tolmie, we found quite a few overwintering cutworms.


Also found a tiny gnaphosid, which may be Sergiolus.


I ended the spidering by uncovering a sleeping Phidippus, under a small rock.


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!

Guyana: a myrmicine trapjaw ant


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.


A leafcutter trail briefly caught my attention, but doing any elaborate setup for shooting was beyond me that evening.


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.


Adult-adult trophallaxis is a difficult affair with these massive jaws, and the ants seem to use their maxillae for this.


I can’t get over these amazing heads!

A few of the ants walking towards nest entrances had prey, such as this pretty but unfortunate beetle.

A few of the ants walking towards nest entrances had prey, such as this pretty but unfortunate beetle.


Social life: most ants that passed each other on foraging trails up the tree at least antennated each other. It seems that other than tiny Crematogaster, no other ants are tolerated on this tree.


A few workers were carrying males, but whether these were alive or dead was hard to tell.


The males looked very different from the workers, as with most myrmicines, but really not that different from a lot of other mymicine males.


Nest entrances seemed to be scattered around the trunk, and these workers looking out show that there are definite castes in this species.


Some nest entrances were busier than others! Here are some males poking out along with a range of various-sized workers.


With a bit of waiting, the males came further out.


Daceton armigerum was certainly one of the oddest ants I had ever seen. If I had known how unusual it is to photograph them in situ, I probably would have devoted more time to photographing them.


The lesson is, even if something is big, obvious and odd, if it is from the rainforest, it may not have received much attention!


Gronenberg, Wulfila. “The trap-jaw mechanism in the dacetine ants Daceton armigerum and Strumigenys sp.” The Journal of experimental biology 199.9 (1996): 2021-2033.

Moffett, Mark W., and John E. Tobin. “Physical castes in ant workers: a problem for Daceton armigerum and other ants.” Psyche: A Journal of Entomology 98.4 (1991): 283-292.


We eat fish

IMG_0805On an Amazonian river, the birds and mammals are impressive, but there is also a huge amount of nutrient cycling in the water. These rivers cover vast areas of forest where huge amounts of protein become available during the wet season.  Because of this, the predatory animals along the river are very often piscivorous, feeding on fishes occasionally or exclusively.  This post is a brief photo introduction to a few of the fish-eating animals commonly seen along these rivers.


Fishing spiders (Pisauridae) were best photographed at night, as during the day they are extremely skittish and quick to hide. We did not see any giant examples, as I had in French Guiana, but I did not make a concerted search either.



The Green Kingfisher (Chloroceryle americana) is an impressive kingfisher species also found in the Southern USA


The related Amazon Kingfisher (Chloroceryle amazona), by contrast is even more robust and has a much larger bill.



The White-necked Heron, Ardea cocoi, is the Amazonian equivalent to the Great Blue Heron. We saw a great many of these. They would often fly in front of the boat for may hundreds of metres.


The Sunbittern (Eurypyga helias), despite its name, is not a bittern at all, but rather related to the gallinules.


Here is a juvenile Rufescent Tiger Heron (Tigrisoma lineatum), one of the more magnificent of the Tiger Herons.



The adult Rufescent Tiger Heron is a gem.


Something familiar…Sort of. This is a Neotropical Cormorant (Phalacrocorax brasilianus).


This one I remember from Florida. The Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga), or snakebird is like a cormorant which swims with its body submerged. Interestingly enough they also soar  on thermals!


Osprey down here are all migrants from elsewhere.


Giant River Otters (Pteronura brasiliensis) were abundant along the Rewa, always travelling in groups. They cooperatively hunt for large fish and caiman, and have some real mustelid attitude!



Giant otter snacking on a fish.


In addition to these avian, arachnid and mustelid predators, we also had to be predators in order to eat during the trip. I dislike catching fish for sport, but when it became clear that there was no other protein along for the ride, we turned to fish with gusto. The fish along the Rewa are diverse and abundant, and can be reliably caught with simple equipment. Under sustained commercial fishing, the larger fish would likely be wiped out completely, but since the Rewa has so few visitors, there are large stocks of big fish available. Catching fish in the dry season is especially easy, as all the fish which ordinarily would be foraging in vast areas of flooded forest are concentrated in the river.


This black piranha will be our evening meal.


Catch of the day: some peacock bass and something we will use as bait tomorrow.




Peacock bass, grilled.



Josy with the “vampire fish” or Payara, Hydrolycus scomberoides



The long fangs of these fish are quite impressive, fitting into slots in the upper jaw.



With direct flash, the fish looks even more scary!


Nonetheless, the payara is good eating. We also used the head for a special project! Stay tuned for the next post!



We did all our fishing with handlines, baited usually with pieces of small piranha. Here Brian and Rambo fish for tiger catfish



Here I am with a tiger catfish, genus Pseudoplatystoma. This is a great fish for eating, and two of these fed us for 3.5 days. Photo by Jonathan Meiburg.


The tiger catfish are absolutely gorgeous.




Further upriver, we caught some aimara (Hoplias aimara), which I was familiar with from working in French Guiana.


Brian and Jonathan with a big aimara. Jonathan is wearing Catherine’s home-made tubular headwear as protection from the sun, and maybe so this fish’s relatives don’t recognize him. All aimara claims for damages should be made to Jonathan’s record label, Sub Pop Records



The day’s catch, with some to be dried to take home to Yupukari.


Aimara drying in the sun.




Stingless bees taking some of the aimara. Unlike other bees, meliponines feed scavenged meat to their larvae. Bees eat fish too!





Over the West


After my recent trip to Houston, I was treated to a clear day of flying back across the great American West. To survey these wide open spaces, flying at 35,000 feet gives a good overview.  I hope you enjoy the pictures!


It was raining in Houston when we left, so I snagged this wallpaper-like shot of the sky and the drops on the window.



Much of the saturation drops out over distance, so it is a bit of a trick to adjust colours and shadows. I had some frustration trying to replicate what I saw, so eventually I just decided to fiddle until I had a pleasing image. I guess that is the same thing astrophotographers do!


A big deep mine, probably in Arizona.


On the runway in Phoenix.


At this distance it is difficult to appreciate the size of landforms, but the road gives some scale.


Some crazy bluffs!


One of the bird-frying solar installations in Nevada.


Not sure if this one is operational or not.


An air-to-air shot of another passenger plane.


Mt. Hood.



South Seattle


Banking in for a SeaTac approach.










Scenes from a foggy day


We have been basking in warm, moist air here on the West Coast, while the rest of the country is freezing in Arctic outflows. This “Pineapple Express” has brought a lot of rain over the past week, but that is now letting up. Yesterday was calm and foggy, and a bit eerie in its warmth. I was in Victoria, so I went walkabout to see what I could see.


Monday night the fog rolled in, smelling of the sea.




On Mt. Tolmie Tuesday morning, the air was still and moist, and collembollans could be found up on the vegetation.


Rock Flipping Day is every day for me, and has been since i was a kid. I found this beautiful spider that looks very much like a Pimoa.


Oddly, I also found 3 colonies of Aphaenogaster occidentalis, under rocks where 2 weeks ago none were evident. The warmth must have penetrated the soil, and the colonies moved themselves and their brood upwards.


These are some of my favourite myrmicines, and appear to be quite common in Garry Oak meadow habitats.


Jackson was along for this outing, and spent some time chewing rocks…You should see his teeth after 9 years of this awful habit!


I even managed to find a beautiful Phidippus!


On the ferry coming back to Vancouver, the waters were calm.


As it was high tide, the seals were hauled up on the rocky shores of Galiano Island.


Here, the ferry comes up on a log with cormorants and gulls.


Which scatter, somewhat comically.


A large volcano, Mt. Baker, which I visited several months back.


Winter lighting in this part of the world means sunset-like conditions at 2:30!


Which make for beautiful backgrounds.

An oasis in Crow City

IMG_7372Right in the heart of downtown Victoria, in an abandoned, excavated lot we found this little piece of crow paradise. It was fenced and secure, and had a lovely sunstruck bathing pool.


When we approached, several crows were bathing.


Here a crow ducks down in the water, splashing furiously.


Ah, that’s better!


Victoria, much like Vancouver is a city of crows. Although there are some ravens in both cities now, the predominant corvids are crows.


On Boxing Day, right next door from my mother’s house, A huge gathering of crows came down to feed of the subterranean larvae of European chafer, a type of scarab beetle.


Perched up on a power line, the crows wait for a dog to pass.


Many of the crows in Victoria communally roost on Discovery and Chatham Island, like the Vancouver crows nest in Burnaby. Here is one fresh off the morning flight from the islands.


I really enjoy watching crows, and despite their ubiquity, find them a challenge photographically.


Capturing their behaviour accurately remains one of my photographic goals. How cool would it be to get good photos at a nest? Close up views of their prey? Mating? I think I will keep watching and shooting crows for a good long while before I am satisfied!





Date with an ant


Last week, Catherine and I went out to see “Interstellar” using free points racked up on my ScotiaBank (“We’re richer than you think”) debit card. Since we had not had dinner, we headed up to Stepho’s, a Vancouver Greek restaurant with generous portions and low prices (Their price for a 1/2 souvlakia has increased by $2 since 1989). This was already an awesome date, with dinner and a movie, but what really made my night is when Catherine returned from the ladies room and presented me with this awesome ant.


I identified this as Tetramorium species E, what is commonly known as the pavement ant. This is an introduced species or member of one of several introduced species that is quite common in some cities in BC. I have found that populations are most dense in the suburban sprawl of Richmond.

Thinking to photograph her after the movie, I imprisoned her (the ant) in a pill bottle and sprinkled some wetted sugar into the container to keep her sustained. I then promptly forgot about her until this morning!

To my surprise, she was still alive, and so I set up a macro rig consisting of the Canon 50mm on 62 mm of extension tubes capped off with the Raynox DCR-250. I photographed her on a piece of grass against the wood floor at f16 and  ISO 400 using a diffused YN-560 at 1/4 power.


These myrmecines do not move very quickly. They are quite aggressive with other ants though, and are often seen engaged in major battles during the summertime. You can see the out-of-focus highlight to the right of the ant is pentagonal, due to the 5 bladed aperture of the inexpensive Canon lens.



The constrains of the close subject distance meant that the flash was positioned somewhat behind the subject, but I like how this highlights the setae.


The future looks bleak for this individual, as she is now parted from her colony, which is probably huddled in a little ball somewhere below the ladies room of Stepho’s. I will continue providing her with sugar as long as she lasts though, and maybe try some more shooting later on.