5a•The birds & the bees, life and death, natural causes, and comedy

Part 1

All photos by LensAfield

A preface

A previous post related a brief personal history regarding my photographic pursuits. I said my unfocused early interests quickly gravitated toward photographing life that we don’t see — really see. My nature photography has altered my perceptions of small-scale worlds around me — around all of us — that don’t rate highly on our relevance meters.

At first, I would go afield and photograph whatever life I happen upon at the moment, and then move on to find another moment. That undirected random process left me with a sense that my images lacked focus and direction, so served no purpose. A photo captures a moment that in and of itself doesn’t tell a complete story.

I realized I wanted to know how these moments in these lives came to be and where they were headed. I developed a penchant for serial and lifecycle photography whenever there was the opportunity to do so.

About context

I selected the two images above from a series taken of two male mockingbirds, deliberately presented without context. The images depict moments from a mating-season fight over a nearby interested female. Knowing that information, looking at the second image, you might conclude that the bird on its back is dead, perhaps with its eyes gouged out.

The reality was that with the fight over, the birds parted ways like it never happened. The dominating winner in this battle for DNA supremacy claimed his prize. The submissive loser was able to try again to win his — elsewhere — another day.

Without context, images can be misconstrued—or used to to deceive or misdirect.

Perspective awareness

Once I enter the world of my subjects, my perspective changes, as does the nature of my photography. By finding and focusing on one particular micro-scene, I have chosen to ignore the potentially hundreds of other equally small dramas that may be playing out on their own own unique micro-stage, oblivious to all others, all occurring within a few inches or feet from wherever I set up shop for the moment. I must become immersed in that scene, as well as focused on what will or might occur next, without disturbing it or altering outcomes.

But I also became aware that despite the unique nature of each scenario, that there are common elements across species interactions, all hardwired into their instinct-driven beings. And I must be aware of my human perspectives, suspending them so I do project those biases or emotions into what I am observing and capturing with my cameras.

Perspectives On life

Putting aside the inevitable chicken-or-egg conundrum, it seems natural to begin photographing a lifecycle at the beginning, with the reproduction phase. Whether the subject is botanical or animal, there was probably sex involved. It is said that sex is life-affirming as well as life-creating. It is often risky business for some spider and praying mantis males, among others.

They say sex is for the birds. Tweet, tweet!

Before there is the actual physical act of mating among animals, there are usually pre-mating behaviors that are often difficult to capture in the instantaneous nature of photos. Some are quite complex and can play out over widely varying timeframes depending on the species (e.g., drinks, dinner, movie, motel). Others are likely completely missed or dismissed by the casual and disinterested observer:

If you saw these two scenes, would you give them any further thought?

But if you recognize these to be the first act in their particular mating process, and remain unobtrusively vigilant, you will likely witness the sometimes frenzied and orgiastic events that may follow:

Others have no observable preliminaries: One second, I am watching a female bee working a flower. In the next, a male appears out of nowhere and mounts in an instant.

Across a multitude of species, the classic stationary “doggy-style” mounting is easily the most easily observed manifestation of the copulation process…

Is it normal grackle mating or is there a kinky vampire vibe? Regardless, you can almost hear the come-on, the cooing, and the 70s-style wah-wah pedal guitar.

but sometimes not.

bee flies mating

Sometimes what starts on the ground continues in the air…

I don’t have a good picture, but houseflies start as those shown above and continue in the air in the same position. The female (usually larger) is in control as they fly in unison. I have seen them in-flight in that exact same posture with him looking like he is holding on for dear life, almost ready to fall off backward. L-These flower flies are rather aerodynamically streamlined in their effort to join the mile-high club compared to houseflies. R-The bee flies would seem to oppose the action of the other to the point of only being able to hover, but that is not the case. They coordinate their effort and do fly in an intended direction in this configuration. These pics put a twist on the expression, “she took him for a ride.”

You see flowers.
You see bees on flowers.
Do you ever consciously consider what is going on in that symbiotic relationship?
Flowers need to seed, and bees need to feed.
Every flower is a come-hither; every bee (regardless of sex) is just a gigolo, everywhere it goes.

After all that mating there is a gestation period…

Mourning dove on her nest in my grapevine
She will sit on the nest for almost a full month
Robin and cardinal eggs

…followed by the blessed birth event:

Who doesn’t love looking at two- or four-legged newborns that are small, furry or feathery?

Even seeds and seedlings are interesting.

A dandelion seed resting on the ground germinates by sending out its primary root radicle.
Cactus is not easy to propagate from seed.
The first of many hundreds of cactus flowers in my small patch, each blooming for only a day.
Tiny milkweed flowers that for some strange reason seem appropriate in these pandemic times.
The earliest development of Concord grape flowers (just left of my finger)
About eight of these unopened, fully-developed Concord grape flower buds would fit on your thumbnail. The covering carapace splits and peels upward from the outward pressure of the stamens with their pollen packets, sometimes like an explosion, to expose an ovum (where the seeds and the fruit develop) — no petals — that attract the tiniest of pollinators.

Video of grape flowers opening.

Sequence of an onion flower opening

We are probably not so enamored of the nursery scenes for baby critters that have six legs (insects), eight legs (arachnids), or no legs (worms, snakes, and certain larvae).

The center and right photos are of ladybugs eggs and hatchlings called the first instar, the first of four instar larval stages.
Even this tiny newly-hatched 1st stage ladybug instar larvae is a voracious eater, usually gorging on aphids or other soft-bodied critters they come upon. But get any of the instar stages on your skin and you will find they are not particular. Yes, it hurts.
Butterfly egg on the underside of a leaf

This mass of insect eggs deposited on fine bird netting…

becomes this mass of juicy protein…

L- What do you see? It looks like just a bunch of cotton-like wool on a plant stem. But leafhopper nymphs are developing within that mass of fluff. R- Can you see them now?

Many young of higher animals need to be protected and cared for in their early development and taught skills needed to survive. They need to be nurtured.

Food captured alive to be consumed alive
Of course you know they need to be fed while in the nest. But did you know it continues even after fledging from the nest?
Goslings will stay with mother for the better part of year

And like humans, some insects practice forms of animal husbandry:

Ants tending to aphids on milkweed and cactus buds, respectivily. Aphids produce honeydew when stroked correctly. In return, the ants provide protection.

Other animals are on their own from birth, genetically imbued with all the instincts and skills needed to survive and thrive, like these newly-hatched orb weaver spiders. They have all the skills to spin a web…

and to capture and consume appropriately-sized prey.

Just how small are those scenes?

A new flower fly

Perspective: Transitions

We, humans, are accustomed to seeing the growth and development of our newborns to adulthood as a visibly linear process of development in that children resemble the parents all through life. We observe the same process in our favorite animals: A puppy is clearly a dog; a fawn is a deer; a colt is a horse. Hatchling birds don’t look all that much like their parents, but they are still clearly birds. Each example remains easily recognizable for what they are throughout their lifespan.

We are probably only vaguely aware that other lifeforms do not go through the same development process. Some go through a process of metamorphosis, such as tadpoles. It is linear but the tadpole has no resemblance to a frog but becomes more and more like one during continuous transitional development until it is one. The changes occur slowly and smoothly.

Others undergo a non-limear metamorphosis where developmental changes are sudden, abrupt, transitional forms that look nothing like the final adult stage. From our perspective, some of these transitional stages could easily be mistaken as fully-developed creatures of different species.

These kinds of metamorphic transformations look like a magical series of “deaths” and “rebirths.”

Insects have external skeletons which must be shed (molted) to grow larger.

A cicada molt
Ladybug instar molting from second to third stage.
Although they do not go through transformational stages like insects, spiders (arachnids), like insects, have external skeletons and must molt to grow. Spiders use hydaulics controlled in their abdomens to work their legs, not muscles. Here we can see the chambers involved in this basilica orb weaver molt.
4th and final stage instar next to a previous stage instar molt remnant
L-Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillar devouring my parsley M-It anchors itself to a stem to begin the pupation transformation. R- The completed chrysalis hiding the massive transformation happening inside.
The discarded old exoskeleton hanging by the tiniest of threads
I didn’t catch the Swallowtail emergence, so please accept this Monarch emergence as representative of the final transformation into an adult.
L-4th stage ladybug instar attached to leaf and beginning the transformation to a pupae. M-transition complete. You can see the old exoskeleton crumpled up at the base. R-A new adult emerging from the pupal casing.

Feeding is a universal lifetime activity for all lifeforms.

But life for most of the tiniest and least noticed creatures seems to revolve almost exclusively around finding food and producing their replacements…with luck, before becoming food themselves.

To be continued in part 2…




Central NJ lensman specialist in closeup nature: flowers, small animals, insects, arachnids, bees in-flight a specialty. Intro video https://vimeo.com/541710168

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Central NJ lensman specialist in closeup nature: flowers, small animals, insects, arachnids, bees in-flight a specialty. Intro video https://vimeo.com/541710168

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