A textbook photo

Back in summer 2009 I spent several weeks monitoring a bird nest.  Not just any bird nest, but the nest of killdeer (Charadrius vociferus), the shorebird species least likely to be associated with a shore.

Close-up of a killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) (2009_06_03_021880_n)

The few times I walked through the field where the pair nested, the adults gave me their best diversionary tactics, which is how the adventure began: their no-holds-barred displays to lead me, the predator, away from their nest.  They showed me false brooding, the broken wing display, the threat display, and the ungulate display, though they didn’t treat me to their most dramatic move: flying into the face of an approaching threat, something that often scares animals into changing directions—away from the nest, of course!

Eventually I also captured photos of them standing guard over the nest, their last-ditch maneuver when a predator just doesn’t get the hint, and of course when the happy day finally arrived, I got to see the chicks as they hatched and left the nest, never to look back.

Close-up of a killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) (2009_06_03_021915_c)

The opportunity was too cool for words for many reasons, one being the opportunity to get some totally excellent photos and another being the learning opportunity, but the most important being the chance to experience nature as it happens, something I rather enjoy and much prefer to reading about it later.

One of the photos to appear in the first post linked above happens to be of the male giving me his best broken wing act.  Killdeer have mastered this display, as you can see from the photos in that post, but the image in question I snapped as I walked slowly behind him, letting him feel confident his display was working.  (It’s important under these circumstances to let the animals feel accomplished lest they abandon the nest due to failure.)  The picture is this one:

A killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) giving the broken wing display (2009_06_03_021847)

All his acting skills are brought to bear, as you can see, and I let him win by leading me away from the nest and the eggs (seen in the second post linked above).  I had by that time let them show me all their moves, and I wanted them to be there later as I continued to watch the nest, so we trailed across the field until he felt confident I wouldn’t find the nest, then off he flew.  (Of course I already knew damn well where the nest was, but we must play our games.)

Almost a year later, I had all but forgotten the photo.  But then the talented Seabrooke Leckie reminded me of it by showing off her own version, a colored pencil sketch that is rather impressive.  I was glad someone had seen something in that photo and decided to work some personal magic on the scene.

Then in October 2010, I received an e-mail from Dr. Jack W. Bradbury, the Robert G. Engel Professor of Ornithology Emeritus in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell University.  He said in part:

Dr. Sandra Vehrencamp and I are working on a second edition of a textbook entitled Principles of Animal Communication. We have a draft figure in which we want to show a shorebird doing a broken wing display and really liked your third (from the top) photo of a killdeer doing this display on your site …

Would you be interested in letting us use this photo?

Would I be interested?  Does a bear…  Well, yes, of course I’d be interested, and so I pursued the opportunity.  After agreements were made and the file provided, I then had to sit back and wait.  And wait.  Because the book wasn’t to be published until summer 2011, precisely two years after I took the shot.

But now the wait has ended.  I recently received my contributor’s copy of Principles of Animal Communication, Second Edition, and I’m thrilled to say it’s one more notch in my photographic belt.


As these things go, it’s a large book, but it’s a textbook, so I shouldn’t be too surprised by its bulk.  Better than many of the textbooks I grew up using, this one is full color and thorough.  It covers tremendous amounts of science and overflows with graphics, photographs and diagrams.  It’s a mighty fine piece of work!

And there on page 574, in the section titled “Last-ditch prey signals to predators,” is my charming killdeer, right beside a skink showing off its recently detached tail:


As has happened with all my licensed photographs, this opportunity presented itself not because I went looking for the chance, but rather because the chance came to me, thanks to simple web searches bringing someone to my blog.  It’s called crowd sourcing, and take it from me, it’s pretty damned neat!

Let’s talk about internet security

OK, it’s time.  I’ve waited long enough before delving into this topic.  After helping someone access my blog today by allowing invalid HTTP headers that their firewall was sending, I figured it was time to deal with this.  So let’s talk about internet security.  (And since I’ve worked with the internet for decades—since long before “web” was even a twinkle in technology’s eye and since Windows was a paltry version 1.0, let’s assume I’m smarter and more informed about these things than you are.  I’ll happily debate that point with anyone, by the way.)

(1) Everyone should be running antivirus and firewall software.  And everyone should be keeping that software up to date.  Period.  If you’re not running both and if both are not up to date, get off the internet now and don’t come back until you remedy the situation.  This is not negotiable because you pose a threat to yourself and everyone else on the internet.

Spammers and hackers use internet proxy servers so they can hide behind someone else’s IP address.  Do you know where these proxy servers come from?  Some are real servers provided for that purpose, some are servers which have been hacked, and the rest are individual computers and smartphones and other devices which have been infected by malicious software.  Most fall in the last category—user devices, and that means that most people aren’t running antivirus and firewall software, and of those who are, many are not keeping that software updated.  Shame on you!

(2) Local firewalls should not bastardize HTTP headers.  If your firewall says it will block the “referer” field, then it should remove that data from the HTTP header or it should send a blank field, but it should not replace it with munged entries.  Some replace it with all hyphens and some replace it with misspellings (e.g.; “Weferer”).  Neither of these is a valid HTTP header, and therefore both can legitimately be blocked with a 400 response (bad request).

You see, any header your browser sends to a web server has to be usable if the server wants/needs it.  That’s what the headers are for when your browser sends them.  By definition, they must be usable by the web server.  And that means sending me a header labeled “——” is a bad request.  Worse yet is the software that does the same thing to “Content-Encoding” and other fields, which strikes me as ignorance beyond measure, yet the hyphenated “referer” field is created by the same software that also hyphenates the “content-encoding” field.  Dumb!  And invalid!  (And the source of today’s problem.)

Asking a web server to accept such HTTP headers is asking that web server to open itself up to nefarious individuals.  If your software wants to send invalid HTTP headers to a web server, then it’s software written by and for hackers, spammers and other bad people.

(3) You have every right to be anonymous on the internet so long as you can be identified by legal means should the need arise.  But your browser has no right to be anonymous.  There’s an application for Mac computers that turns the browser “User-Agent” HTTP header into something like “Mozilla/5.0 (000000; 000000000000; 00000000) 0000000” or whatever.  This is pure stupidity!

Web servers perform content negotiation based on browser capabilities and versions.  For example, some versions of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer report that they understand compressed encoding of the HTTP stream when in fact they don’t, so it’s up to the web server to check the browser’s make and model so the server can determine if it should compress the stream or send it as is, and all regardless of what the browser reports.  But if the browser hides its identity, it gets binary crap in response to a GET request or it gets a huge chunk of uncompressed data instead, all because the server can’t tell if the request comes from a source capable of handling compressed data.

Also, many web servers now offer content presentation based on platform and browser, like giving a streamlined version of the site for smartphones and a full version to regular browsers.  But if your computer is reporting an invalid browser, the server can’t determine the optimal format for the data and so has to send the default.  Which means you’re getting a suboptimal presentation for your platform.

So turn off any obfuscation of browser identity because it’s stupid, it’s invalid, and it ensures you get a web page fit for the lowest common denominator of browser—assuming you aren’t just blocked for sending such riffraff to a web server that knows better.

(4) I see people on Facebook bitching and moaning all the time about how Facebook has been hacked.  Liars!  Facebook wasn’t hacked; your account has been hacked, either because you have a weak password or because you clicked on a link and gave some arbitrary application access to your account.

People need to take responsibility for their own actions, including the tendency by most to click on whatever link they see and pressing “OK” on any prompt they encounter.  This is abhorrent behavior since many social networks grant access not only to your data, but also to the data of all of your connections (e.g., “friends”).  So stop clicking things arbitrarily and stop saying “Yes” every single time something says it wants access to your account.  You’re a menace!  You endanger my privacy by your inability to control yourself.

(5) Disable JavaScript and Flash on all web sites by default.  You can enable these functions for those web sites you trust.  Leaving these methods open is a very bad idea.

Using JavaScript and a major security hole in CSS, I can write a web page that will easily walk through the web sites you’ve visited, thereby determining what sites you visit and what sites you don’t visit, and then I know all about your surfing habits.  Using JavaScript, I can call on any plugins you’re running, I can talk to the browser at a level you can’t see in a page, and I can access data that would shock you.

Adobe’s Flash player is one of the most horrific security problems to hit the internet (assuming that one accepts Internet Explorer as the biggest security problem).  Flash has never had a stable, secure version.  In fact, it continually shows up on security alerts as having yet another set of problems.  And unfortunately, Flash doesn’t provide easy access to its most meaningful security settings; they can only be accessed by visiting the Adobe site.  That means 99.999% of people have never changed those settings.  So in addition to Flash’s continuing security flaws, it also harbors a by-design security hole created by limiting options access to specially coded pages that are never made obvious to most users.

So disable both.  Turn them on only for sites you trust.  And following that, any site that says it can’t show you anything unless you enable one or both is a site you shouldn’t visit, because it’s a site with ignorant programmers or a site with ill intentions.

(6) Keep your browser up to date.  People still running Internet Explorer 6 or Firefox 3 or Opera 9 deserve no sympathy.  Browsers are updated for reasons, not the least of which is to address major security issues.  Sure, you get better performance and more awesome functionality, but really it’s about plugging the holes that bad people use to enter your life.

So update your browser.  Regularly.  No matter what platform you use.

(7) If you’re a server administrator, you need to get your shit together.  Make sure you’re running a firewall, make sure you’re running log monitoring (to check for nefarious activity), and make sure you’re regularly checking for bad things on your boxes.  There’s nobody to blame except yourself if your site/server is being used by bad people to do bad things.

— — — — — — — — — —


  1. I have seen a 99.9999% reduction in spam since enforcing HTTP standards and server rules (i.e., not letting servers connect while they claim to be users).  The only spam I’ve seen in the last nine months has been from real people browsing and submitting spam.  That says something, especially because my frame of reference is across multiple servers and dozens of sites.
  2. I intend to begin releasing my anti-spammer/anti-hacker technology information soon.  This will include .htaccess/modsec rules along with the supporting data.
  3. If the do-good technology makes it inconvenient or impossible for you to be comfortable, that’s your problem and not the problem of a secure webmaster.  Sending me invalid HTTP headers does not make you a victim…
  4. I have no sympathy for anyone running Internet Exploder—er, uh, I mean Internet Explorer.  It’s the worst browser ever created—IN THE HISTORY OF THE INTERNET!—and it’s the most common vector for internet-based malware infection.  Upgrade to a real browser, one that’s standards compliant and secure.
  5. If you use a Mac or Linux, don’t feel smug.  Though Windows has you beat hands-down with regards to insecurity, that’s only because it has you beat hands-down with regards to numbers: Microsoft simply has more users than you do.  Your issues are just as relevant as theirs.

I ain’t no predator, yo

I’ve always said I would be a terrible hunter.  And I don’t mean terrible as in I’d never kill anything; I mean terrible as in I’d be a nightmare for whatever I was hunting.  That’s because I’ve spent years photographing wildlife and learning about wildlife, both activities having given me a tremendous understanding of animals, including how to get close to them, how to get them to come close to me, and how to make them either ignore me or feel comfortable about me being there.  In the hands of a nature photographer and naturalist, these skills are paramount and rewarding, offering something better than what the biggest lens can offer (which is just cold distance rather than close-up experience).  But in the hands of a hunter, these skills would be a terrible thing indeed.

She stood drinking from a dwindling pond when I first stepped into the open.  I didn’t know she was there until she bolted up the game trail and stopped just beneath the drip line to watch me.

A female white-tailed deer (a.k.a. whitetail deer; Odocoileus virginianus) standing at the head of a game trail (2009_05_16_018743)

Although curiosity and human tendencies demanded that I turn to look at her, to identify her and determine her disposition, I denied those urges and kept my face looking forward and away from her.  I let my peripheral vision do the work so I could accurately identify her location, then I slowly raised the camera, put it in front of my face held in both hands, and slowly turned only my head so I could get the lens aimed at her—and I turned only enough so I could look through the viewfinder without facing her directly.

With her tail held downward, she indicated she was not alarmed, and by her steady gaze she indicated she was curious about what I was up to but not yet ready to run for the hills.  So I started meandering toward her, never moving directly toward her and never moving too quickly, and never looking at her to get my bearings or judge distance.

A female white-tailed deer (a.k.a. whitetail deer; Odocoileus virginianus) standing at the entrance to dense woods (2009_05_16_018739)

She never flinched.  She kept watching me, always with tail held downward, her gaze constantly on me.  I suspect she was confused about what I was doing and whether or not I was a threat.  I never gave any predatory signals, never indicated I was even aware of her, so she stood her ground and observed.

A female white-tailed deer (a.k.a. whitetail deer; Odocoileus virginianus) standing at the entrance to dense woods (2009_05_16_018737)

I closed the distance by at least half, though I couldn’t judge distance without utilizing binocular vision; that would require looking directly at her, something I was unwilling to do.  So I’m not sure how close I got, but it was much closer than I expected.  And it wasn’t until I spooked an alligator—which in turn spooked me—that she finally turned and vanished into the woods.

Had I been a hunter, I could have killed her many times over.  Thankfully for her and me, all I was shooting with was my camera.

— — — — — — — — — —


  1. Photos are of a female white-tailed deer (a.k.a. whitetail deer; Odocoileus virginianus)
  2. I have nothing against hunting or hunters so long as the practice is done for sustenance and not sport; killing for pleasure is an indication that you have problems.
  3. There are many tricks to approaching wildlife and/or making them comfortable with you.  I will never publically discuss them in detail.
  4. Depth perception is a function of binocular vision.  Since I never looked at the deer except with one eye through the viewfinder, I really can’t judge how close I got, though I’ve been within six feet/two meters of one, a story I’ll share at a later time.
  5. This entire encounter lasted less than ten minutes.
  6. Were it not for that one dead vine hanging down and sometimes obscurring her face, these photos would be awesome.
  7. I was stupid not to watch more closely at where I was walking.  I would have noticed the alligator if I’d been doing so.  I was lucky I didn’t walk up on a venomous snake, and I was lucky the alligator decided to flee when I invaded its personal space.  Lesson learned.

Finding joy in others

A nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) with its face in the ground (2009_12_13_044466)

I stand on the patio wallowing in the morning’s cool temperatures with all the glee of a pig in mud.  After the warmest summer ever recorded in the United States, one thing Texas deserves is a reprieve (and rain, but that isn’t in the cards), hence the recent cool spell is a welcome thing indeed.


The sound is quite evident.  And approaching.  Then along the sidewalk I see a rather large nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) approaching.  The drought has caused a dearth of insects, so armadillos have spent a great deal of time doing significant damage to gardens and landscaping.  I feel no surprise seeing this creature; they’ve been making regular appearances for months.

I watch as it leaves the sidewalk and begins its pillaging of the area around my patio, weaving through the shadows and bushes, stopping to dig with fervency, burying its head in search of morsels.  It mostly stays on the outside of the bushes, so I see little more than snapshots of it as it goes about its hunt for breakfast.

“Oh my goodness!”

It’s a woman’s voice, thick with a German accent.  One of my neighbors.  Standing nearby, watching.  I was so wrapped up with the armadillo that I missed her approach.

Her eyes are wide, her mouth agape.  She watches the animal with the fascination of someone who has just discovered cold fusion.

She sees me.

She begins asking questions.

I begin answering them.

She’s never seen an armadillo before.

She didn’t realize how big they could get.

She didn’t realize they had such enormous claws.  “On all four feet!” she adds.

She didn’t realize their tails were almost twice as long as their bodies and looked like armor-plated whips.

She didn’t realize they really were covered with bony armor, little tanks built by nature.

She didn’t realize they could dig so quickly and easily.  “They can dig a burrow faster than most people can catch them,” I explain, “literally disappearing right before your eyes.”

She didn’t realize how little they care about humans so long as you don’t bother them.

She snaps a few pictures with her cell phone.  She keeps glancing at her watch and murmuring about how she’s going to be late to work, but it’s obvious she doesn’t care about that, not really.

Her eyes remain large and interested.  She’s having an experience, a moment, and I both recognize it and appreciate it.

“We have nothing like this back home,” she says, then she giggles like a schoolgirl being told an awesome secret.

After perhaps five or six minutes, the armadillo finishes its raid in this area and scampers off in another direction.


It waddles along a different sidewalk and the woman watches with undisguised wonder, an ear-to-ear smile brightening her face.

She thanks me, says she really must be getting to work, thanks me again, and never moves or takes her eyes off the retreating armadillo until it vanishes behind a neighbor’s bushes.

She thanks me again, then finally turns and goes to her car.  It will take me some time to realize she walked almost a block following the armadillo—from a distance, of course—until she caught up to it outside my patio.

Her morning started with the joy of discovery.  And it was so genuine that I couldn’t help but catch a little of that joy from her.

— — — — — — — — — —

The photo is from a trip to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in December 2009.  Because I never had a clear view of the armadillo my neighbor and I watched, I didn’t get any photos of the critter.

Just think about it

Elizabeth Costello by JM Coetzee is a slovenly piece of work: generally untidy and a conglomeration of aborted ideas and staged meanings.  Ultimately, it rests uncomfortably in the mind as failing to provide much to the reader.

Despite the continual urge to toss it aside, there are several notable high points that stand out, true ideas that wedged themselves into my mind and forced me to think.  While I am not reviewing the book at this time—honestly, the complaint above is about the only review worth writing lest I give the work more credence than it deserves—I did want to give at least some foundation for the text from which I will now quote one of the aforementioned high points.

[A chimpanzee named] Sultan is alone in his pen. He is hungry: the food that used to arrive regularly has unaccountably ceased coming.

The man who used to feed him and has now stopped feeding him stretches a wire over the pen three metres above ground level, and hangs a bunch of bananas from it. Into the pen he drags three wooden crates. Then he disappears, closing the gate behind him, though he is still somewhere in the vicinity, since one can smell him.

Sultan knows: Now one is supposed to think. That is what the bananas up there are about. The bananas are there to make one think, to spur one to the limits of one’s thinking. But what must one think? One thinks: Why is he starving me? One thinks: What have I done? Why has he stopped liking me? One thinks: Why does he not want these crates any more? But none of these is the right thought. Even a more complicated thought—for instance: What is wrong with him, what misconception does he have of me, that leads him to believe it is easier for me to reach a banana hanging from a wire than to pick up a banana from the floor?—is wrong. The right thought to think is: How does one use the crates to reach the bananas?

Sultan drags the crates under the bananas, piles them one on top of the other, climbs the tower he has built, and pulls down the bananas. He thinks: Now will he stop punishing me?

The answer is: No. The next day the man hangs a fresh bunch of bananas from the wire but also fills the crates with stones so that they are too heavy to be dragged. One is not supposed to think: Why has he filled the crates with stones? One is supposed to think: How does one use the crates to get the bananas despite the fact that they are filled with stones?

One is beginning to see how the man’s mind works…

At every turn Sultan is driven to think the less interesting thought. From the purity of speculation (Why do men behave like this?) he is relentlessly propelled towards lower, practical, instrumental reason (How does one use this to get that?) and thus towards acceptance of himself as primarily an organism with an appetite that needs to be satisfied. Although his entire history, from the time his mother was shot and he was captured, through his voyage in a cage to imprisonment on this island camp and the sadistic games that are played around food here, leads him to ask questions about the justice of the universe and the place of this penal colony in it, a carefully plotted psychological regimen conducts him away from ethics and metaphysics towards the humbler reaches of practical reason. And somehow, as he inches through this labyrinth of constraint, manipulation and duplicity, he must realize that on no account dare he give up, for on his shoulders rests the responsibility of representing apedom. The fate of his brothers and sisters may be determined by how well he performs.

We humans assume animals are incapable of higher thought processes like our own, so we devise intelligence tests based solely on these assumptions.  We hinge these tests on basic needs (generally food), and that makes them a call to the more primitive aspect of thought: survival.  We use the results from these tests to show that animals are in fact not intelligent as we are, that they are incapable of higher reasoning.  Sure, we admit and demonstrate that they can learn tricks and general logic if we subject them to experiments focusing on that area.  It does not occur to us that our own tests limit their ability to demonstrate whatever thought or thoughts they might actually have.  I wonder how many “truths” based on this mentality could be overturned if we stopped thinking of ourselves as so above everything that we stack the deck against the creatures we are trying to understand.  What astonishing discoveries have we hidden from our own minds by way of the limits we place on those we wish to assess?

And the same anthropocentric attitude permeates all our considerations about intelligence and life itself.  In our ongoing search for extraterrestrial life, we assume many things: it will require water; it will require a planet in the “Goldilocks zone” of a star system, otherwise it will require some other means to produce liquid water and acceptable temperatures; and it will require that an alien intelligence make use of radio waves, and that they utilize those radio waves at a time in history that makes them available to us in the present (for consider this: radio waves in space move at the speed of light, so the number of lightyears away a star is counts as the number of years the radio waves have to travel in order to reach us, hence the further away the star is, the older the waves have to be in order to be discoverable in the present).  All of these are wrong assumptions, yet all of them are predictable: they all assume that life anywhere has to be like us and has to think like us.

Which brings us back to the quote above: We know dolphins have language and use tools, yet we don’t count them as truly intelligent since we can’t categorize, test, measure or see that intelligence in a way that we understand.  For every test of intelligence, for dolphins or chimpanzees or any other species, we make it impossible to see more than cleverness and rudimentary thought, not because the animals themselves are incapable of more, but rather because we are incapable of seeing more and because we design the tests to see if they have human intelligence.  And it goes without saying that nothing in the universe will ever have human intelligence except, well, humans.

Again, all I ask is that you think about it.