Soon

Counting the days.  This time of year leaves me increasingly restless, waiting expectantly until the first eastern cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) appears.

A male eastern cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) perched on my fingers (20080622_07465_c)

My favorite insect.  Gentle giants.  Docile and inquisitive.  Beautiful.  Intriguing.

A male eastern cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) perched on a leaf (2009_07_05_025997_c)

Years of drought and the subsequent dearth of cicadas wiped out two of the six colonial nesting sites in the area.  The largest, the one that surrounds my home on all sides, was nothing but a shadow of its former self when last year only a dozen or so of the wasps emerged for their short summer lives.  In good years, nearly a hundred adults strike fear in the hearts of passersby whilst simultaneously providing me with weeks of entertainment and drama, not to mention protection (I’ve always said I don’t need a guard dog in summer because I have giant wasps instead).

A male eastern cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) perched on a leaf (2009_07_05_025992)

Thankfully, last year offered a glorious resurgence of cicadas in such vast numbers that I suspect the remaining wasp colonies will once again fill the air with clouds of buzzing wings.

So I wait.

[note these photos are of males; the females are significantly larger; see this post for some bad photos showing a mating pair as it will give you a sense of the size disparity]

A look back at 2009

While I’m loath to follow the herd in most cases, like many I find the beginning of a new year to be opportunity both to look ahead and to look back.  But I do not look backward to understand the me of the present.  On the contrary, I don’t consider myself defined by what has come before.  Post hoc, ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore because of this”) happens to be one of my pet peeves, a bit of flawed logic that many use to excuse bad behavior in the present by identifying something in the past that must be to blame.  No, I am who I am because that’s who I am, not because of my past, and it’s up to me to change anything I don’t like rather than blaming some conveniently unchangeable event in history.

Very much against the grain of most people who look back to understand why they are who they are, I look back only to see where I’ve been, what has transpired, what things I might like to change and what things I might like to repeat.  And it is in this spirit that I find I’m of the mind to look back at blogging in 2009 for a bit of photographic and compositional navel-gazing.

As I recently mentioned to Ted in the comments on his blog, I am my own worst critic, something that hits me hardest when it comes to my writing and my photography.  But 2009 was a year of growth for me.  I won’t claim I’m even half as good as many of the writers and photographers out there, but I did improve—and I improved enough to capture at least a few respectable images and to write at least a few respectable pieces.

Narrowing down twelve months to a sampling of what I think are the top pictures and top writs of the preceding year seemed daunting.  I take a lot of pictures, after all, and no one will ever accuse me of not communicating with enough words.  Do I go with what I think are the best, what garnered the most positive feedback, what demonstrated the most growth, what tallied the most views, what brought out the most character in my subject, or what fit any of a million other possible criteria?  Ultimately, I decided the best were those that stand out to me for whatever reason (and each entry below catches my attention for a different reason).

So without further ado, here’s a look back at 2009 as seen through my lens and words offered here on my blog.

My favorite photographs:

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American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) from On wings: One of the first images of 2009 and one of the first captured with my new dSLR.  Not one of my best images, no, but it was a major advancement for me and a major step forward with my ability to use a camera.

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Texas ocelot (Leopardus pardalis albescens) from You might never see it again: This photo could have been better had there been a clear view, had I used a better lens, had I gotten out of the car…  I can think of a million reasons that would make it technically better, but I can think of no reason why it’s not perfect the way it is.  Read the post and you’ll understand why getting lost can be the greatest gift you ever give yourself, a doorway to finding something rare and endangered and magical, and why in my mind the image stands as one of the finest wildlife encounters I’ve ever had.

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Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) demonstrating the broken-wing display from Protecting treasure at a distance: I spent part of my summer monitoring and protecting their nest which they built in the middle of a heavily used and often mowed portion of White Rock Lake Park.  They taught me a lot in that time, and they tolerated me more than I expected.  (You can see their story in the link above as well as Protecting treasure up close and The treasure, plus a close-up of one of the parents in put on your faces – killdeer.)

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A male eastern cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) from put on your faces – cicada-killer wasp: Several large colonies of these insects can be found within walking distance of my home, the largest of which actually surrounds my home on all sides.  In a good summer, the air is filled with many dozens of these giant wasps.  They are my favorite insect in all the world.  (The above image was taken during this photo session.)

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A feeding white-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata) from A ‘Dear Mom’ letter: A different species of sphinx moth has vexed my mother for some time at the family farm in East Texas: they never visit her when there’s enough light or enough time to get photographs.  When I stumbled upon this one in dim morning light, I knew I had to capture a few shots for Mom (even knowing her species was different, I thought she’d appreciate seeing one).  A female ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) flew in to protect her dining table and chased the moth away.  It was amazing to see how similar in size they are, not to mention how they both feed on nectar using the same hovering technique (hence these moths are often colloquially called “hummingbird moths”).

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A great blue heron (Ardea herodias) grabbing a meal in Gone fishin’: These birds are year-round residents here at White Rock Lake (along with several other heron and egret species), so seeing them requires little effort and can be done every day throughout the year.  Watching this one hunt was a joy because both it and a great egret (Ardea alba) came right into the bay while I was sitting on the shore.

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One of the three juvenile Cooper’s hawks (Accipiter cooperii) from Hawk triplets: Their parents have lived here at least as long as I have.  Being able to spend the summer watching and getting to know these three young raptors was an unequaled treat.  (You can read their story in the above link as well as Keeping my eyes on the triplets and Who remains?.)

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A giant robber fly (Promachus hinei) from put on your faces – giant robber fly: These large predators stalk the area around my patio each summer and early autumn.  They will chase anything, from birds to other insects to planes flying overhead.  What they catch is a different story—obviously—but they fascinate me with their daring, their strength, their prowess and their ability to capture and kill things much larger than themselves.

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A male American kestrel (Falco sparverius) from put on your faces – american kestrel: One of the best unplanned wildlife photos I’ve ever taken.  On a very cloudy day, I sat at the edge of a meadow watching him hunt the prairie grasses.  I never realized a small field mouse was scampering through the dense flora quite near where I sat, but suddenly this falcon dropped out of the sky and landed a few steps away.  I let the shutter fly but only came away with this one good image.  It was like a studio shot with light breaking through the clouds in front of me and a bit of sun peeking through the clouds behind me.

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A young green anole (Anolis carolinensis) from Anole art: No larger than my pinkie and lost in a jungle of brush, this lizard sat patiently soaking up sun while I grabbed a few pictures.  This species is ubiquitous here—a colony even lives on my patio—so they’re easy to find and photograph, but something about this tiny life in this photo with the colors the way they are…  Well, it enchants me.

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A female common green darner (a.k.a. green darner or dragon fly; Anax junius) from put on your faces – common green darner: I do not as yet own a macro lens.  Therefore, I have to make do with technique rather than equipment.  In this case, that worked well—using a 400mm telephoto lens!  No flash was involved (since I hate using flash).

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A male wood duck (Aix sponsa) from Some flew this path before: No doubt the most beautiful duck species on the planet.  Wood ducks are small in size and small in voice, but they make up in personality and plumage what they lack in vocals and mass.  It takes time to get close, to get them into the open, but patience and persistence can pay big rewards with these unequaled beauties.

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A Virginia opossum (a.k.a. possum; Didelphis virginiana) from put on your faces – virginia opossum: Most would never think of opossums as cute or endearing.  I’m not most people.  I adore these creatures.  Finding and following this one on a rainy evening gave me an opportunity to grab this very adorable image as it climbed a tree before looking down at its admirer (though I bet it thought of me as a stalker rather than an admirer).

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Brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) from put on your faces – brown thrasher: One of several year-round mimic species in Dallas, the brown thrasher can be loud or quiet, deceptive or declarative, hidden or in the open.  When this one flitted to the top of a bramble near where I stood, the trees behind it and the bit of open sky created a perfect natural frame.  I took several dozen photos from different angles as the bird watched me.

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A very foggy Dagger Point view from Scenes from Aransas: I admit the environmental conditions weren’t ideal for photography, but something about this image feels haunting, whether it’s the heron lurking at the far left or the way the world vanished not too distant from where I stood or the felled trees drawn with shadows or…  Well, there’s just something about this photo that keeps me coming back.

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A female Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii) from put on your faces – cooper’s hawk: You may call her Baket.  She’s mother to the hawk triplets mentioned earlier, she’s at least ten years old, she’s raised a brood of offspring every year in the last decade, she lives and hunts only a few steps from my front door, she lets me share her world, and she is my medicine animal, my spirit guide, my life’s totem.  There will be others when she gives up this life, but they will always be hawk.

My favorite words:

Walking out the door: when the search through the photo albums of memory dredges up more than the image we are searching for
a song of adolescent ivory: when thinking of flowers and love and loss, I channel my inner e.e. cummings
That which is to come: a celebration of the spring to come
It’s that time of year: bad photos coupled with a steamy, entertaining look at spring—as defined by mating red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus)
A million fluttering wings: a celebration of butterflies
Remembering my own humanity: though compiled from writings I did in 2007, this event always helps me to know my own heart
Listen with me: what it feels like inside my head when I observe nature
Morning: nature’s daily change of shift in words
Counting the stars: how looking at the night sky made me ponder life out there and worry for the loss of life here on our own planet
And I watch: watching two hawks as they kettle
The journal is the thing: why I blog

The Kids:

And to finish off this review of 2009, I want to include The Kids.  This year’s feline focus is dedicated to Larenti who died on March 27, 2009.

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Lion’s lament: discovering habits can be like a blade against flesh after the loss of a loved one, even if that loved one was a cat
Living in the past: sitting on the couch reading turns into a travel through time
Larenti from the unseen: some old photos of him from my defunct photoblog
Pains of life revisited: after his death, something I wrote for someone else in 2005 suddenly became written for me
Remembering that which is lost: a synaptic weeping in quick memories
the ghost of you whispers: for and of Larenti

The hunter

My favorite insect in all the world.  A giant wasp.  Killer of behemoths.  Beautiful predator.  The hunter.

Male eastern cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) perched on a leaf (2009_07_05_025991)

A colony of hundreds encircles my home, one so large as to dwarf by leaps and bounds the other four colonies within walking distance.

Male eastern cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) perched on a leaf (2009_07_05_025999)

Gentle giants they are: beautiful, intimidating, leviathan creatures who have not a single malicious intent toward us simple apes.

Close-up of a male eastern cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) perched on a leaf (2009_07_05_025997)

And for every dozen males leaping to and fro in the air, every territorial critter chasing anything that moves, a much larger female tends to the matter at hand: mate and multiply.

Male eastern cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) perched on a cable box (20080609_06320)

The colonies stagger their lives across months, the first emerging from earthen slumber in June and the last in August, and each dies six to eight weeks later.

Male eastern cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) perched on a leaf (2009_07_05_026001)

Yet in that small time they fill the world with beauty, with fear, with a spectacle no one can ignore.  For as I’ve always said, during the summer months I don’t need a large dog to keep my home safe.  I have gargantuan wasps instead!

Every hunter needs something to hunt, though.  Next: The hunted.

[photos are of male eastern cicada-killer wasps (Sphecius speciosus); the last photo was intentionally cross-processed; and no, I still do not have a macro lens, so I have to make do with technique instead of equipment]

Lying in wait

Why hang out and let life come to you?  Although I don’t recommend it for people, the approach does seem to work for other species.

A green lynx spider (Peucetia viridans) sitting atop a leaf (20080809_10707)

A green lynx spider (Peucetia viridans) resting atop a leaf in hopes of ambushing some unaware prey.  Taken at the family farm in East Texas.

A close-up of a male cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) as he rests on the ground (20080607_06230)

A male cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) holding his territory as he waits for females to pass by.  Taken outside my front door.

A green anole (Anolis carolinensis) sunning itself on a warm rock from beneath a canopy of foliage (IMG_20071230_00654_p)

A green anole (Anolis carolinensis) grabbing some rays on a warm rock shrouded by foliage.  (A wider view can be seen here.)  Taken at the end of the private drive leading from my home to the lake park.