Wicked fast

At the north end of my patio where the fence meets the wall, a tiny space only two inches/five centimeters wide and four inches/ten centimeters deep rises from the ground to the top of the fence.  It’s the space between the last fencepost and the joist.  Because it’s nestled behind a thick hedge and sheltered from the elements, all manner of critters find their way into that minuscule crevice.

I’ve been forced to evict paper wasps who wanted to nest there.  I’ve seen spiders chase each other and prey through the shadows.  I’ve watched mud daubers find the tiniest cracks where they could climb inside the wall and hide their offspring.  And the anoles long ago found they could live inside the wall by navigating through those same cracks.

Given the narrow yet deep shape of the recess, I’m often left with no option but to watch whatever is in there rather than photograph it.  Because none of my lenses fit through the opening, and having the wall on one side and the fencepost on the other makes positioning a camera an exercise in frustration.  The only pictures worth keeping are those taken by standing back and zooming into the dark abyss.

On a warm afternoon not too unlike the past few days, I noticed something hidden in that spot, something that demanded my attention.  Because whatever it was, it remained in a perpetual state of motion.  Being a fan of natural light, I fired off a few shots knowing precisely what I would get.

A blurry shot of a crane fly bouncing up and down at lightning speed (20080314_02768)

The blur does little justice to how fast this insect was bouncing up and down.  To my eye, it looked like an ethereal shadow hovering just above the wall, some dark specter made of smoke and whispers.  But don’t take my word for it.  Here’s a video to show you what I’m talking about.

Wicked fast, eh?  But blurry photos and videos don’t answer the question of what it was.  Yet the behavior and shape go a long way in answering that question.  Were I to guess based only on that evidence, I’d say it’s a crane fly.  Everything about the body matches, and crane flies notoriously use the rapid push-up maneuver as a diversion against predators.

But only a clear image of the beast would be definitive, so out comes the flash for an awkward attempt at capturing a picture.

A crane fly (20080314_02771)

Despite having to step away and zoom in just to get the flash to light up the space, it seems obvious my assumption was correct: it’s a crane fly.

I know what you’re asking.  But what about that long proboscis?  Yes, it threw me for a loop when I first looked at the photo.  Crane flies generally have a small proboscis, yet this creature has one that would terrify anyone frightened of biting insects.  In fact, it looks more like a giant mosquito with that menacing mouth.  So what gives?

Well, there’s a handful of crane fly species with the elongated proboscis.  It’s not common but it’s not unheard of.

And since its position kept me from getting any clear shots with details, I can’t pin down an exact species or genus.  Nevertheless, it was cool to watch because I’d never seen one do that at such a high rate of speed.

Oh, and I was the threat the fly was trying to confuse.  When I finally stepped away hoping it would calm down so I could get a better shot, it flitted out of the alcove and vanished in the bushes.  Just my luck.

The one that got away

Jain recently said in a comment that she found it a bit of a relief to know I harbored no magical photographic powers, that I did in fact miss opportunities from time to time.  I laughed about that because, like all photographers, I tend to share the presentable images, not the numerous mistakes and poor shots and otherwise unsightly pictures.

Which brings me to April 14, 2010, when I posted this on Facebook:

Copperhead on the patio.  Nearly stepped on it when I walked out the door.  To say we surprised each other would be to understate matters tremendously.

In point of fact, it was a southern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix contortrix), a venomous snake, and this is the serpent in question:

Blurry photo of a Southern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix contortrix) (20081004_13084)

Given how stunning these reptiles are and given the unprecedented opportunity to be so close, how could I possibly screw up the photo?  Well, let me tell you a tale…

There are two sets of French doors in my home.  One is in the bedroom and the other is in the office.  Both open to the patio.

On that warm spring day, I opened the bedroom door and stepped out.  Before my foot hit the ground, I became immediately aware of something right outside the door.  Something right under my foot.

It was the copperhead.  Apparently it chose that spot to grab some afternoon sun.  What it didn’t know was that its position put it right in one of my worn paths leading to the patio.

At that specific part of stepping outside, I had my own forward momentum to deal with, but I also had the momentum of the door which I had already started to pull shut behind me.  The combined inertia would basically push me out the door no matter what else happened.

On top of that, my right foot already hung above the snake and carried its own downward momentum pulled by the force of gravity.

Basically, all the physics added up to a major quandary: I couldn’t stop and I couldn’t finish stepping down, so what to do?

I did what anyone would do: Even as my existing motion carried me through the doorway and toward an encounter which would be ill advised for both parties, I used my left leg to push up so I could hop over the snake.  This kind of last-minute change in an otherwise committed movement rarely works out with grace.  In this case, knowing that became doubly complicated by the fact that, suddenly realizing its predicament and choosing to scoot from beneath impending doom, the snake moved.

It moved into the spot where I hoped to land my clumsy hop!

At this point, it became an entertaining dance of me doing my best to float on air whilst avoiding a serpent who became increasingly worried for its health and therefore moved with more purpose.

I stumbled, hopped, skipped, and made it across the patio in what had to look like the worst ballet ever performed.  And even as the snake slipped between my hopscotching feet, I rebounded off the fence at the same time that I grabbed it to stop from tumbling face first to the concrete below.

With the camera held in one hand, my body dangling precariously from the fence with my feet splayed behind me in a frozen fall, I snapped the shutter purely by accident.

By the time I righted myself, the snake had vanished around the corner.  I couldn’t blame it for beating a hasty retreat.  I certainly posed no threat other than being the looming giant who would crush you while clumsily falling atop you.  And I had to believe the snake shook its head as it left while simultaneously thinking to itself, My word, man, learn to walk already!

— — — — — — — — — —


[1] No, I’m not too proud to share bad photographs.  In fact, it’s cathartic.

[2] There are seven venomous snake species in the DFW Metroplex, four of which I’ve seen and/or photographed around White Rock Lake: western cottonmouth (a.k.a. water moccasin, black moccasin or black snake; Agkistrodon piscivorus leucostoma), timber rattlesnake (a.k.a. canebrake rattlesnake; Crotalus horridus), massasauga (a.k.a. black rattler or black massasauga; Sistrurus catenatus), and copperhead—both the southern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix contortrix) and the broad-banded copperhead (a.k.a. Texas copperhead; Agkistrodon contortrix laticinctus).  Texas coral snake (Micrurus tener), western diamondback rattlesnake (a.k.a. Texas diamond-back; Crotalus atrox) and pigmy rattlesnake (a.k.a. ground rattlesnake, eastern pigmy rattlesnake or bastard rattlesnake; Sistrurus miliarius), the other three venomous species in the area, I have yet to see around the lake.  ‘Yet’ being the operative term.  (I have seen those species elsewhere.)

[3] There are at least 30 species of nonvenomous snake in the DFW Metroplex, so there’s no need to worry.  The odds of encountering a venomous snake are quite small, and the vast majority of snake sightings are of nonvenomous animals.

[4] Copperheads might be venomous, but they are docile creatures who focus on escape before defense.

Crossing the river of fire

I stood atop the spillway dam and faced east, watching sunrise unfold like a warm blanket on a cold night.

The sun rising from behind riparian woods surrounding White Rock Lake (20081004_12985_fa)

Below me at the foot of the dam, oblivious—or at least uncaring—of my presence, a snowy egret (Egretta thula) raced back and forth searching for breakfast.

A snowy egret (Egretta thula) hunting along the base of the spillway dam (20081004_13003)

Even as I watched the bird, a wee bit of movement beside me drew my attention to a long-jawed orb weaver (Tetragnatha sp.) making its way along the concrete wall.

A long-jawed orb weaver (Tetragnatha sp.) walking along the spillway dam (20081004_13011)

I became enamored with the gangly beast and its awkward, almost clumsy approach.  I scooted backward to keep it in view, which offered me a very close peripheral view of more movement on the wall.

Fire ants (a.k.a. red imported fire ant; Solenopsis invicta) relocating a nest on the spillway dam (20081004_13014)

Fire ants (a.k.a. red imported fire ant; Solenopsis invicta).  A lot of them.  The whole column hugging the concrete seam in the wall.  The river of tiny six-legged creatures flowed mostly from the lake side of the wall to the fishery side where I stood.

Fire ants (a.k.a. red imported fire ant; Solenopsis invicta) relocating a nest on the spillway dam (20081004_13015)

I moved away from the wall and from the ants.  I dared not tempt a sting from these tiny giants.  Yet from a few steps away I once again saw the spider, then the ants, then the coming problem the arachnid would face: how to cross the river of fire that stood unwavering in its path.

A long-jawed orb weaver (Tetragnatha sp.) attempting to cross a river of fire ants (a.k.a. red imported fire ant; Solenopsis invicta) busy relocating their nest (20081004_13018)

Seeing the ants carrying pupae and larvae made clear they were relocating their colony.  The tendency of fire ants to attack first and ask questions never would no doubt be amplified with young being carried in the open to a new home.

Fire ants (a.k.a. red imported fire ant; Solenopsis invicta) relocating a nest on the spillway dam (20081004_13019)

It took the spider nearly five minutes to successfully cross over the streaming ants.  A few times a single ant would grab one of the spider’s legs when it came too close, and a few times the spider slipped and almost fell after trying to reach too far in a single step.

But who could blame it for wanting to avoid contact with the ants?  And trust me when I say that the spider’s gangly shape came in handy when crossing the river of fire.  Body held high above the danger, legs stretched as far as they could reach, thin legs and tiny feet needing little space to take hold.

I will not be mocked

Back in January 2010, Amber captured some absolutely stunning photos of a female northern harrier (Circus cyaneus) in flight.  Having visited Oak Point Park & Nature Preserve in Plano around sunset one evening and having discovered herself in the right place at the right time to watch this fantastic bird as it hunted the open prairie, Amber walked away with reason for a major happy dance.

Northern harriers can be found throughout the DFW Metroplex during winter, though their rather finicky approach to hunting grounds makes it necessary to find the wide open fields they prefer.  I found Amber’s luck quite alluring and immediately made plans to visit Oak Point so I could try for my own pictures of this gorgeous and unique raptor.

Mixing the facial disc of owls with the body and techniques of hawks, harriers are unique amongst North America’s raptors.  They are not kites, falcons, hawks or eagles, and they are not owls either.  They are as unique in the North American raptor world as are ospreys.  I just had to get some photos.

I sat at the top of the hill and watched as a loggerhead shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) impaled its breakfast.  The temperature remained below freezing, yet a clear blue sky meant plenty of sunshine to keep me warm as I awaited my opportunity to see the harrier.  Then it happened.

Way the hell at the bottom of the hill, some 80 yards/meters from my location, I saw the bird sweep through just above the grass.  Most of my view was obstructed as the bird remained close enough to the ground to be behind the grass and below the hill for the majority of its pass.  Nevertheless, I watched as the raptor swept through, made a turn, and departed in the direction from which it came.

A male northern harrier (Circus cyaneus) flying above the grass in the distance (2010_01_12_048321)

See the bird in the center of the image?  Just above the grass?  That minuscule white spot that could well be a smudge of dirt on the lens?

Yet something stood out, something that caught my attention and screamed for a closer look.  It was immediately clear to me that this was not the same bird Amber had seen.  So I quickly reviewed the few poor photos I’d taken and realized, much to my surprise, that I had photographed a male northern harrier, not a female.  Here’s a crop:

A male northern harrier (Circus cyaneus) flying above the grass (2010_01_12_048321.JPG_c)

Given Amber’s experience, that meant a pair of the birds was hunting the park.  What a grand opportunity indeed!

Now if only I could get down the hill and be in place before one of the birds came back through.  So I rushed, looking every bit as graceless as I dared in public, and I reached the bottom of the vast open field and found a spot where I could sit comfortably.  And I waited.

Every manner of bird filled the air around me, from bluebirds to blackbirds to sparrows to hawks and falcons, and even an owl was forced momentarily into the open by a marauding band of jays.  I enjoyed the show for almost two hours before my chance came.

Way the hell at the top of the hill—pretty much where I’d been sitting before—a harrier swept through.  The bird leisurely soared above the dry grass, making comfortable turns this way and that.  And again about 80 yards/meters away from me.

A female northern harrier (Circus cyaneus) flying in the distance (2010_01_12_048484)

See it just left of center?  Near the top of the treeline?  That tiny brown spot that could be dust on the lens?

But wait a minute!  Something seemed different about this bird.  So I quickly reviewed the pictures in the camera.  Ack!  It was the female.  Here’s a crop:

A female northern harrier (Circus cyaneus) flying in the distance (2010_01_12_048484_c)

Damn it!  I was being mocked by these two birds.  It was a husband-and-wife team of tormentors.

I gave chase.  After making it to the top of the hill, I followed in the direction the female had traveled.  That’s when she burst from behind a motte—at the bottom of the hill!—and vanished back across the street where the two seemed to be when they weren’t in the park.

Over the next four hours, this process repeated.  Basically, one of the birds would sweep through every hour or two, but they always came through on the opposite side of the prairie from where I was standing.

Eventually I tired of being mocked and went on my way, choosing to spend a few hours meandering along the various trails offered by Oak Point.  I left the harriers to frustrate someone else.

And unlike Amber, I did not do a northern harrier happy dance that day.  Because I will not be mocked!