The Oldest Known Longleaf Pine

A few days ago I spent an afternoon and evening with the oldest known longleaf pine. This tree is not the largest or the most symmetrical tree in the forest. Its gnarled branches and crooked trunk show the signs of 463 years worth of hurricanes, droughts, and fires. The tree lives on the Boyd Tract of the Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve near Southern Pines, North Carolina. The Boyd Tract is the only old-growth longleaf pine forest left in the Sandhills region of North Carolina; it is a remnant of the kind of forest that once covered much of the Southeastern US.

The tree stands now in a landscape very different than the one it lived in for most of its life. Decades of fire suppression have allowed hardwood trees to fill in the once open pine forest, shading out the wiregrass that once covered the ground. The age of this tree was discovered by a graduate student studying tree growth rings in an attempt to learn about long term climate history. However, most of the old trees of the Boyd Tract have not been aged, and it is possible there is an even older tree here.

I made three images of the tree as the sun set and the stars appeared. It was a calm evening with almost no wind, and the tree stood still and silent.

The Oldest Longleaf Pine #1

The Oldest Longleaf Pine #1

The Oldest Longleaf Pine #2

The Oldest Longleaf Pine #2

The Oldest Longleaf Pine #3

The Oldest Longleaf Pine #3

Southern Environmental Law Center Installation

Yesterday, I installed eight huge canvas prints in the offices of the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. These are all images from my new book, Wild North Carolina. I am honored that these images were selected for permanent display by such an important organization. So many of the images I have created over the last few years would not have been possible without their successful conservation efforts.

These are the largest prints I have ever made. Each print is a 5 foot tall by 3 foot wide gallery wrapped canvas. The three prints behind the reception desk form a 10 foot wide panorama of a beech forest from Umstead State Park.

These three prints were made out of a stitched composite of three vertically composed photographs. This technique gives me the resolution I need to make huge prints but that is not the reason I use this technique. I stitch multiple photographs together to break the relationship between angle of view and perspective. To capture this entire scene in one photograph would require a wide angle lens, but a wide angle lens also has the effect of visually pushing distant objects farther away. In the forest that means distant trees become tiny, thin, and unsubstantial. A telephoto lens has the opposite effect on perspective; it makes distant objects appear closer, giving the distant trees more mass and presence. Capturing a scene like this with multiple telephoto images allows me to combine the distance compression of a telephoto lens with the wide angle of view of a much shorter focal length.

The hallway has an even larger 14 foot wide panorama made out of four vertical prints. This one shows a tidal cypress and tupelo swamp along the Chowan River.

I often try to make the individual photographs of a composite image interesting and distinct compositions on their own. I started doing this long ago because I thought it made more interesting panoramas, but now I really appreciate how well this can work when displayed this way. Each print is very different yet they work together to give yet another compositional idea.

Here is another view of the hallway prints looking down the hall in the other direction.

In the distance you can see the final image, a composite of three horizontal photographs made in the grove of old-growth tulip poplar in Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in the southern mountains of North Carolina.

Before I hung this print a group of people sat down around it and started botanizing, just like you would do if you were there. The print is so large it is almost like being there and all the plants, even the tiniest wildflowers, are recognizable.

I want to thank JW Photo Labs in Raleigh for doing such a wonderful job with these prints. They do great work and can handle canvas prints even larger than these. Although I don’t think I will be able to print any larger just because I will not be able to fit them in my car!

There were lots of ooohs and aaahs as I was hanging these prints but my favorite comment came just as I was finishing with the hallway and was starting to feel proud of myself. Ann, the office manager, walked up and said, “This definitely looks better than the blank walls.” I laughed hard and said, “That’s quite an endorsement, can I quote you on that!”

Dancing with Fireflies

Common Eastern Firefly (Photinus pyralis)

Common Eastern Firefly

This week I worked out a method for making a close-up photograph of a firefly in flight, at night, with its lantern lit. It is an almost impossible photograph to make, but that’s why it was so fun. This is the story of how I did it.

The first problem I had to solve was how to get the firefly in the frame and in focus. They are impossible to see through the viewfinder and shooting from the hip is just not accurate enough for the narrow angle of view of a macro lens. Autofocus is also out of the question because there is not enough light for the autofocus sensor and the subject is too small and fast for autofocus even in daylight. So I invented the Blevins Firefly Pointing Device (patent pending) to make shooting from the hip more possible. It is a wire coat hanger bent into a loop at one end that is attached to the camera tripod mount and bent into a right angle at the other end that points toward the center of the composition (but positioned just out of frame). With the lens manually focused to the same distance as the end of the pointer, you just need to position the subject above the pointer to hopefully capture an image with the subject in frame and in focus.

The Blevins Firefly Pointing Device in action

The Blevins Firefly Pointing Device in action

Photographing a firefly with its lantern lit required a lot of practice and luck. The first three evenings I spent chasing them around my yard taught me the characteristic flight pattern of this species. These are the Common Eastern Firefly (Photinus pyralis), also sometimes called the Big Dipper Firefly because its flight pattern is somewhat like the shape of that constellation. To attract the attention of a female, the male will start from a hover, then accelerate horizontally, often with a slight downward slope, then pull up sharply into another hover. The flash occurs just as he begins to pull up and creates a J shaped streak of yellow-green light. Learning to recognize this pattern made it possible to anticipate when the flash would occur, which was helpful. Unfortunately, the flash occurs while the firefly is moving and changing direction which means the camera needs to be moving along with the firefly.

The other challenge was balancing the exposure from the light that comes from the camera flash with the light that comes from the firefly so both will show up in the photograph. Here are a few images from early in the process where I was trying to work out how to balance the light.

Common Eastern Firefly

This image was made with a small aperture for maximum depth of field to increase the chance of capturing an image in focus. The firefly's lantern was not bright enough to show up with such a small lens aperture, only the light from the camera flash registers in this image.

Common Eastern Firefly

This image was made with no camera flash, just the dim ambient light of dusk. The high ISO required to achieve a fast shutter speed to freeze the motion of a fast flying insect rendered noisy images and overexposed the firefly's light.

I eventually arrived at the best settings to balance these two approaches, with just enough sensitivity to render the firefly’s light as the brightest part of the image, and just enough light from the camera flash to capture the details of the firefly. I eventually settled on an aperture of f/16, a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second, and an ISO of 1600. I set the flash to minimum power and held it 10 to 12 inches from the subject.

After several evenings of really getting into this I found myself dancing around my yard in big dipper patterns with my flash going off just as I moved up sharply, just like a firefly. I suddenly became self conscious and hoped the neighbors were not becoming concerned, I am sure I looked ridiculous.

By the fifth evening I finally had the technique down, but even with all the practice it still took a lot of luck and most exposures were out of focus or otherwise unusable. I also discovered I was not the only one that got lucky that night…

Common eastern fireflies mating

Common eastern fireflies mating

Wild North Carolina Outtakes: Palamedes Swallowtail

UNC Press Spring 2011 Catalog

UNC Press Spring 2011 Catalog

The cover of the spring 2011 catalog of new books from UNC Press features a photograph from Wild North Carolina of a palamedes swallowtail caterpillar preparing to pupate on a red bay leaf.

These are common butterflies in pocosins or other areas that have their favorite host plants. The caterpillars feed only on plants in the laurel family. In North Carolina that means mostly red bay (Persea borbonia) but could also include swamp bay (Persea palustris) and possibly sassafras (Sassafras albidum).

The caterpillars eat red bay leaves almost exclusively and even wrap themselves inside red bay leaves for protection when they are ready to pupate. The photograph shows a caterpillar as it begins to use silk to curl a red bay leaf around itself.

Although this is one of the most common butterflies in the coastal plain of North Carolina, it is threatened by an introduced disease that is killing its host plant. Red bay wilt disease is caused by an introduced fungus and beetle from Asia first detected in Georgia in 2002. The beetle and fungus have since spread into Florida and South Carolina.

I wanted to include a photograph of one of these caterpillars in the chapter on pocosins to make these connections, but finding a caterpillar in the wild is not easy. I was in an area of Juniper Creek near the Green Swamp with plenty of red bay trees but I had no idea how I was going to find a caterpillar. Then I saw an adult fly by as if it had some place important to go, so I followed it. I could not keep up in the thick vegetation and soon lost sight of it. Then another flew by heading in the same direction so I followed it until I lost it. A third came and I followed it a little further when I saw it land on a particularly healthy and sunlit red bay tree. It danced around the leaves as I approached and I guessed it might be laying eggs. I decided this was as good a tree as any to search for caterpillars. I looked for about 10 minutes, carefully examining one leaf after another, until I noticed one backlit leaf with a caterpillar silhouette showing through. I looked on the other side of the leaf and there it was; a full grown caterpillar almost ready to pupate!

These caterpillars have a pattern on their backs that looks like a face, to fool predators I presume. I decided on a perspective that maximized the face illusion and went to work setting up the camera. There are two spots on the back that look like eyes and a hard plate covering the head that looks like a mouth. One thing I always pay attention to when photographing animals, especially animals with dark eyes, is the reflection on the eye. Without a reflection a dark eye can look like a black hole. As I looked through the camera I noticed the wonderful reflections on the eyes but then I realized these are not really eyes and these reflections don’t change as I move the camera! That is when it hit me just how amazing this face illusion is! Those are not reflections at all; it is part of the pattern designed to look like the reflection on an eye! For a moment I forgot about taking photographs and just marveled at the incomprehensible perfection of this tiny miracle.

Wild North Carolina Outtakes: Carolina Dark-eyed Junco

I’ve been very busy lately putting the finishing touches on the new book. What little time I have had for photography has all gone into improving images for the book or creating images we realized we needed as the last details came together. The book content is all wrapped up now and it looks like everything is on schedule for spring 2011 publication. We also have a title, Wild North Carolina: Discovering the Wonders of our State’s Natural Communities.

Animals are an important part of natural communities but including them in the book was a challenge. Not just because they are difficult to photograph but because they tend to move around the landscape, making it difficult to associate an animal with a specific natural community.

At first glance the Dark-eyed Junco might seem like an unlikely candidate for including in the book. Juncos are common birds seen across North Carolina in winter. They migrate here from their breeding grounds in New England and Canada and can be found in many different natural communities as well as lawns and at feeders.

Dark-eyed Junco

A dark-eyed junco that frequented my feeder last winter.

 

But there is a subspecies of Junco called Junco hyemalis carolinensis that breeds in the high mountains of the Southern Appalachians and does not migrate like the more commonly seen juncos from the north.

 

Adult Carolina Junco feeding a fledgling in the Roan Highlands.

Adult Carolina Junco feeding a fledgling in the Roan Highlands.

The Carolina Junco breeds in the spruce-fir forests on top of high mountains and migrates down slope for winter.  Carolina juncos are the only juncos here in the summer, but you can distinguish them from their northern relatives in winter by their stouter white bill.

Bill differences between juncos that migrate to North Carolina for winter and those that breed in the high mountains of North Carolina.

Bill differences between juncos that migrate to North Carolina for winter and those that breed in the high mountains of North Carolina.

 

Nuthatch Couple

A few days ago I spent a morning at the top of a 20 foot ladder photographing a brown-headed nuthatch couple building a nest. I made about 200 photographs trying to catch those moments that tell their story.

Brown-headed Nuthatch Pair

Brown-headed Nuthatch Series.

Clouds softened the early morning light for the first two images in the series above. I concentrated at first just on capturing a typical nuthatch pose next to the nest cavity. After a while the clouds parted and direct sunlight fell on the nest. The brighter light allowed me to use faster shutter speeds so I could capture some of the action. Instead of just dropping wood chips out of the hole, one of the birds would carefully perch at the opening and flip its head several times back and forth in a complete circle flinging the wood chips in every direction. It was very funny to watch but almost impossible to catch in a photo because it all happened so fast. At one point one of the birds took a break from excavating the cavity to just take in the morning, and perhaps to wonder what that human was doing on the ladder. This image made me laugh because the feathers on top of the birds head were all messed up from the work it had been doing down at the bottom of the cavity.

A little later some high thin clouds diffused the harsh sunlight and provided the perfect amount of contrast. It was bright enough to use the base ISO on my camera and still have enough shutter speed to avoid motion blur.

Brown-headed Nuthatch Pair

Brown-headed Nuthatch Pair

Finally, everything came together. While one of the birds was excavating the cavity, the other one was stuffing it with dried grass. It seemed to me that it would be better to wait until the excavation was finished before bringing in the grass but no relationship is without its challenges. Anyway, at one point the removal of wood chips and the bringing of dried grass coincided so that both birds were at the nest hole at the same time. At this moment the light was perfect, bright, diffuse, and warm, and I was ready.

North Carolina Piedmont Prairies

I recently returned from a trip to photograph some of the remnant prairies near Charlotte, North Carolina. My sister lives in Charlotte so I got to spend some time with her as well. She has these canisters on a shelf between her kitchen and living room with things like sugar, flour, salt, you know, the staples. I have been telling her for years it would be hilarious if one of the canisters had actual staples in it. Then she could watch the faces of her guests as they tried to figure out why office supplies were mixed in with the food. Well, she finally did it and was waiting for me to arrive so she could see how long it would take me to notice. I did not notice at first. I walked in the door, hugged her neck, and then, about 20 seconds later, I noticed it and burst out laughing! See, I was right, it is hilarious!

"Staples"

"Staples"

Anyway, back to the prairies. It seems strange to think about prairies in North Carolina. Today they are all but gone yet early explorers reported extensive prairies in the North Carolina Piedmont. Most of the evidence suggests these prairies were created and maintained by Native Americans. Many of the plants and animals that depended on the open conditions of the prairies now struggle to survive or are gone. I chose this time to visit because one of these plants, the federally endangered Schweinitz’s Sunflower, was at its peak flowering.

Schweinitz's Sunflower

Schweinitz's Sunflower

 One of the sites I visited was Mineral Springs Barren, a Plant Conservation Preserve whose purpose is to improve the habitat for the Schweinitz’s Sunflower. The few remnant prairies like this one are faint reminders of what once was, but from certain angles and perspectives, and with some imagination, I could see the open fields and bison that once characterized this area.

Mineral Springs Barren

Mineral Springs Barren

Meditation on a Cypress Stump

A few weeks ago I visited New Lake in Hyde County North Carolina with the Carolina Vegetation Survey. We were looking for natural lake shore vegetation, a type of natural community that grows along these shallow bay lakes. No one in our group had been to this lake before so we hoped the community was in good condition. I had seen natural lake shore vegetation at other lakes and they can be quite lovely, large cypress trees marching out into a shallow lake with grasses swaying in the waves. We were disappointed to discover that the cypress trees had been cut long ago. Weathered stumps marked the places where ancient trees once stood. A new forest of young cypress now lined the lake shore.

If I had been alone I might have turned around and gone somewhere else, but the team I was with decided the rest of the vegetation was in good enough condition to sample so we decided to stay the rest of the day.

Carolina Vegetation Survey

Carolina Vegetation Survey

The trees I had hoped for were gone and the light was too harsh for landscapes. After a few minutes of dreary thoughts that were not producing photographs I decided I should see what sort of macro subjects I could find. It did not take long to discover tiny sundew plants growing in the shade of the young cypress trees.

Water Sundew

Water Sundew

 One advantage of young trees is the foliage is easy to reach. These trees were mostly pond-cypress, very similar to the better known bald-cypress but the foliage is more like a rope than a feather and it points up from the stem rather than out.

Pond Cypress Foliage

Pond Cypress Foliage

 After making the pond-cypress foliage photo I was out of ideas so I decided to sit quietly and observe until an idea was revealed to me. There was just one problem, there was no where to sit. The ground went from damp to soggy to shallow lake. The only dry place I could see to sit was the old cypress stumps along the lake shore. Most were weathered into very uncomfortable shapes, but after searching I found one with a very nice dry top that fit my bottom quite nicely.

Meditation on a Cypress Stump

Meditation on a Cypress Stump

My photography process has a lot in common with meditation. I sit quietly without thinking and just let the images I see wash over me. I try not to judge or think, I simply observe. After a time an idea for a photograph is usually revealed, provided I can remain open enough to see it.

After sitting there for a time I realized the images of all the stumps I had searched while looking for a place to sit were running through my mind. When I first arrived at the lake I looked at them in a negative way, they represented the loss of something great that once existed. But now I was seeing them without judgment, just the physical objects detached from their meaning. Each was different, weathered, and spectacular in its own way. The Universe had spoken, I needed to photograph the weathered cypress stumps!

Weathered Cypress Stump #1

Weathered Cypress Stump #1

Weathered Cypress Stump #2

Weathered Cypress Stump #2

Wedding Photography

I photographed my brother’s wedding a few weeks ago. Wedding photography requires a very different process from my usual work. You have one chance to capture a significant meaningful moment, and then it is gone. I am used to being able to work on an image as long as it takes to get it right. To mentally prepare for the wedding, I had to keep telling myself that the moment and the emotions were most important and that the more technical aspects of the images would just have to fall where they may. I am happy with the results, but I told Linda (the bride) that I could not take all the credit. I had some lovely subjects to work with, and Jason (the groom) cleaned up pretty well too.

Linda was ready for the ceremony with about 15 minutes to spare so I asked if I could set up my lights and do a quick formal portrait. I wanted to get an image of Linda before the ceremony but after she was ready. With all the hectic preparations before the ceremony and the celebrations after, this was my only chance to have a calm moment with her. I showed her where to stand and asked her to wait while I worked out the lighting ratio. After a few tries I had the lighting worked out, but then I realized she did not need any direction. She was waiting for me to finish with the lighting, and she had just the look I wanted to capture of her waiting for the ceremony to start. This was her moment. She was perfect.

I made a few more compositions, and then it was time for the ceremony to start. While I was photographing the wedding party getting their act together, I saw Linda peeking out of her dressing room to see if it was time for her. I had only a few seconds to make the image before she disappeared back into the dressing room.

Photography was not allowed in the sanctuary during the ceremony so this was my last image before assuming my position on the second floor.

I could not see faces or emotions very well from the perch where I was allowed to photograph the ceremony, but I did have an excellent vantage point to show the entire spectacle.

After the ceremony, the wedding party rode to the reception in a trolley. It was a rainy day so while we were outside the light was spectacular. The rain did not dampen any spirits, and the raindrops on the window of the trolley were beautiful.

When we arrived at the reception, all of the bride’s maids ran to the building to get out of the rain, and there was no one left to help Linda get her dress out of the trolley. Jason was still on board chatting with the driver, oblivious to Linda’s plight. I was in position hoping to get a romantic image of Jason helping Linda out of the trolley or at least the bride’s maids giving Linda a hand. While I watched Linda struggle I thought maybe I should help her, but before I could she took matters into her own hands. I love the look on her face as she realizes it is all up to her.

Photographing the reception was a lot of fun. The ceilings were suitable for bouncing flash, although it was challenging to balance the flash exposure with the ambient light because the room was so dark. I also had to filter the flash to match the color of the incandescent lights. My favorite images from the reception are of the bouquet toss. It just worked; I could not have photographed it any better if I tried.

Instead of throwing rice someone had the brilliant idea to have the bride and groom exit through a cordon of guests wielding sparklers. It probably sounded cheerful and colorful, but these were the biggest fire shooting sparklers I have ever seen. I was actually concerned someone might catch on fire.

Best wishes you two! And welcome to the family, Linda. It is wonderful to have a new sister.

Bloodroot

It is so refreshing to see the first of the spring ephemerals emerge after a long winter, especially now with so many people caught up in the world’s economic troubles. They are reminders of the inexorable forces that create life and drive it forward. Forces that are far greater than anything we create.

Just after dawn I came upon a newly emerged bloodroot flower. Drops of rain still clung to the delicate unopened petals. Light shone through, and I could just make out the shape and color of the bright yellow stamens waiting inside.

Bloodroot

Bloodroot