Category Archives: Truth

Cactus Mouse (Peromyscus eremicus)

Cactus Mouse (Peromyscus eremicus)
This is not a great photo, for which I apologize. It is, however, illustrative of a common difficulty I face when doing my photos. This mouse is nocturnal. While fairly abundant (most rodents are doing OK), unless you like to go out in the desert and either trap them or destroy cactus to get to them, you’ll never see one. I did see some desert rats, but they move much too fast in very low light to get a photo. So this is the best you can get.

Nocturnal exhibits are tricky. I generally try to avoid flash except at the very lowest power (and for highly sensitive animals, no flash at all). However, it’s often too dark to even focus. So, to get a shot, you have two choices. You can either go for a narrow aperture to maximize your depth of field (how much of the animal is in focus) and really blast it with light, or you can open the lens up, which makes the focus plane very narrow and go with little light. Blasting an animal with light is potentially cruel to the animal (depending on how their eyes or eye-like features are constructed), can stun it into non-normal behavior (making the photo less interesting) and, in zoos, cause a lot of glass bounce. If you take the other approach, focus can be hard, as you’re not working with much light either to begin or end.

In this case, I used a flashlight technique. I used a flashlight on low power, in a glancing orientation so it didn’t hit the mouse’s eyes, to set the focus on the camera (on a tripod). Then, I set the camera to take several photos in rapid succession, and just swept the flashlight beam across the mouse fairly quickly. Then, it’s just a matter of choosing the best image.

It may not be the world’s best photo of a mouse, or even of a cactus mouse. I don’t think it stands on its own (hence this long-winded explanation). However, I think it captures the intimacy of the burrow without hurting the mouse, which was the core goal.



Another view of the glasswing from yesterday. Notice all the little hairs (probably not the right name) on the wings. You can see them on other butterflies if you look. On these though, since there are no scales, it’s a lot easier to see how the wing is constructed.

You can also see how, since they live much more placid lives than the other butterflies, they must play sports to keep things interesting and to demonstrate their fitness to mate. This one is playing the role of the hoop for Ōllamaliztli.

Glasswing Butterfly

There are animals that you read about, but never really expect to see. Some of them are rare. Some are extinct. Some are just mythical. Others though, are just really really hard to see.

This is a glasswing butterfly. They were on my list of things to see when I went to central America. While I was able to see several blue morphos (another classic butterfly of the area), I was constantly foiled in my attempts to see the glasswing. Since then, every butterfly garden I visited, I’d ask if they had glasswings. The National Zoo claimed to have them, but I never found them.

Then, in Phoenix, I visited the Butterfly Wonderland.  I had called first and asked if they had glasswings. Upon receiving an affirmative, I set aside an afternoon and went a-photographing. Upon getting there, I saw many different butterflies and moths (why isn’t it “mothes”, by the way). What I did not see, however, was the glasswing.

The issue, of course, was that I knew they existed and I knew one was around, but having never seen one, I didn’t know what to look for.  I knew that they were butterflies who lacked scales on their wings and, therefore, had clear wings like most insects do. What I didn’t know was how hard it would be to find an animal the size of a dime in a 10,000 square foot (929 square meters for those of you who use a real measuring system). Moreover, I didn’t know hard it would be if the animal were effectively invisible.

This, really, is the difference between intellectual learning and experience. My intellect told me: “You know they’re here, you sorta know what they look like. Just be patient and you’ll see one eventually.”.

Now that I’ve done it, experience would say:

“These butterflies are small. Really smaller.  Much smaller than any of the other butterflies you see. They’re also clear. This means that, unlike the other butterflies who have traded survival opportunities for increased chances of mating, these ones have nothing to gain by being out in the open and if they’re too high up, they run the risk of being blown away. So look for them low to the ground, under other plants. Scan the area with your eyes and remember where the bright, obvious butterflies are. Then look for movement with your peripheral vision. They don’t move much, so be patient and look around each area for at least five minutes before moving on.”

The first time I looked for them when I knew they were there, I spent three hours. Once I lost it and had to re-find it, I had learned enough that it only took me ten minutes.

That is why experience matters.

Aardwolf (Proteles cristatus)

Aardwolf (Proteles cristatus)_10
It’s time for another game of … Really? Are you sure?

To play this game, take a close look at this photo. Look at the large ears, well suited to listening. Look at the thin legs and paws, that could be used to make rapid turns while running quickly. Look at the stripes, often seen in stalk-and-ambush predators.

Give yourself at least 30 seconds to look at the photo.

Now ask yourself … “What does the aardwolf eat?”

Now Google it.

Thank you for playing this installment of Really? Are you sure?

Hope to see you next time.

Fennec Fox (Vulpes zerda)

Fennec Fox (Vulpes zerda)_7
The Fennec Fox is a difficult animal to photograph. They’re rarely on exhibit and, when they are, they like to sleep in a burrow or, in a heap in the back of their enclosure. I’ve taken many a photo of a big ball-o-fox and they always just turn out a bit fuzzy. For this shot, several things had to happen. First of all, I had to be a member of the Phoenix Zoo, because members get in an hour early. This means it’s an hour before kids arrive and bang on the glass, which sends the foxes underground. (If you have kids, don’t let them bang on the glass. If you are a kid, don’t bang on the glass. It’s not fun for anyone.)

Then, the light had to be just right. A fox that’s in shadow isn’t going to come out as nicely and one that’s half in/half out isn’t going to come out at all. Finally, you have to not have any obstacles in the way. This is particularly hard at zoos, because your positioning is often quite limited. To get this shot, I had to use my tripod to position the camera at the very bottom of the glass, focus through a bunch of branches and take the picture. After getting there, and getting this shot, the fox got up and walked away. I had about three minutes to work with, and had I not visited the zoo previously, would never have known the constraints ahead of time and couldn’t have made it.

It was a lot of work, but I think the ears make it worth it. Such awesome ears.


I never used to like to travel. Far away places were hard to get to, annoying once you got there, and didn’t have any cats. Moreover, you could only the books you brought with you or, if you bought more books, you’d then have to schlep them back home.

Years later, as my allergies got under control and I began to realize that when you traveled, you didn’t have to visit buildings about dead people (sorry Mom, I still don’t care as much about history as you do.) So I started visiting zoos and parks. It really started about ten years when I had to travel for work and found myself bored in a new city after work stopped but before it was time to go to bed. Then, inspiration struck as I was looking at online maps for nearby things to do and I saw a bit of green listed “preserve”. I visited and it was a completely different experience.

Since then, when I travel for work, I try to use the time between 5pm (when work usually ends) and about 8pm (when parks usually close) to get a feel for the land. I go walking around, see what there is to see and take photos until the sun either goes down or I get too hungry to wait. Some parks are amazing, some, well, not so much.

If you’re in Las Vegas, and don’t care much about gambling or entertainment, it can get somewhat unpleasant. There are three areas I’ve found that make up for that. There’s the Valley of Fire State Park, the bird viewing area in the water treatment facility in Henderson (really), and here, Red Rock Canyon.

Red Rock Canyon is, at its simplest, a loop drive in an area of the desert that has lots of interesting rock formations and great slopes that you can lose your balance on, sliding down 20 feet and dislocating both your knees. On this particular trip (unlike the one previous), I avoided the latter. This is partly because I am older and wiser, but mostly (I’m afraid) because it’s a lot hotter in the desert in May than it is in March and I left when the sun got too high.

This visit consisted of one moderate hike (three hours) and a drive around the loop to stop and take pictures with my new wide angle lens. This particular photo was at mile ten of the loop drive (go on, guess how I know that). What I like about it is how clear the sky is and how the lens picked up the difference in light scattering. If I had had a polarizer, this difference would be even more stark. I also like how you can see the two mountains that have been thrust up from the earth, but seemingly from the sides, as the strata pull together in the middle.

Geology has always been interesting in the abstract. When I’m out in the desert, I don’t often notice stuff like that, but once I get back and am processing the photos, things that I never noticed suddenly become obvious. The desert is full of color. It’s just not where you normally look for it. The sky, the rock, the dirt … all beautiful. All missed, though, if you’re just looking for trees and birds.


One of the things I like about photography is how the process allows me to see things that I otherwise would not. Here, you can see the little bits of pollen sticking to the insect. You can see the the fine structure on the wings and the small segments on the legs. If you’re really careful, you might be able to notice all of this in the wild before the bug flies away, but it’s significantly easier on the screen.

I have hopes to eventually experiment with UV and IR photography and get even closer to seeing invisible things.


This is one of those a classic “animals in zoos are sad” photos. Apes and monkeys are easy for humans to empathize with, and seeing one in a cage is hard to see without thinking of how it would feel for ourselves to be in a similar situation. It is very easy for articles to use photographs like this to illustrate their “get rid of all the zoos” articles.

This siamang was in the cage for ten whole minutes. They are trained to go into the cage so the keeper can get onto the island and keep things clean. I watched him row is boat over, reward the ape for getting into the cage, then walk the island picking up the litter that had fallen into the water and washed up to the shore. Before and after the visit, the siamangs were happily cavorting on their ropes and swinging all over the island. It would be nice to see them living happily in their native forests, but so long as humans continue to consume palm oil and coffee, that will not be an option.

For now, they’re living as happy lives as the world allows. Much like the rest of us, really.

Bush Dog (Speothos venaticus)

Bush Dog (Speothos venaticus)_14
Bush dogs do not appreciate humor on the Internet. Therefore, I must tell you that bush dogs have a head-body length 55–75 cm (22–30 in), with a 13 cm (5 in) tail. They have a shoulder height of 20–30 cm (8–12 in) and weigh 5–8 kg (11–18 lb). Most interestingly, they have unusual dentition for American canines, with 38 whole teeth. Like all other dogs, they eat meat, hunting in packs to catch their prey. Their pack is made of family members within a home range of 3.8 to 10 square kilometers. (Partially copied from Wikipedia)

There may or not be any truth to the rumours that they independently invented algebra in the 1300’s, engage in group rituals every third Tuesday night or transform into humans under the light of the full moon.

I don’t think they, despite popular opinion, capture, raise and train hummingbirds as an elite air force used to police their territory.

Pretty sure it’s chickadees.

Passenger Pigeon

This photo was taken by J. G. Hubbard in 1898.

Many people know the story of the passenger pigeon: the massive flocks where a single migration blocked out the sun for days, the shooting contests where a single gunshot could kill as many as 61 birds, the 7.5 million birds killed over five months in Petoskey, Michigan in 1878: 7.5 million birds were killed in a five month period.

We’d be wrong.

Extinction is complex. Hunting was certainly a significant factor, but it’s hard to eradicate a species through hunting alone. At the same time people were blasting away at the sky, we were also stripping away forests, eliminating their food and shelter. All of these activities together split the large flock into many smaller ones. This matters because the passenger pigeon was a highly social bird and, without large numbers in the colony, they simply couldn’t sustain the population. Passenger pigeons became extinct many years before the death of its last member.

The last passenger pigeon died, in the Cincinnati Zoo, one hundred years ago today. It survived in captivity only fourteen years after it went extinct in the wild. Not all animals are like that. Père David’s deer once ranged across all of China and was sufficiently well known to feature in their mythology. The species has, however, been extinct in the wild for a very long time, surviving for centuries in a private zoo owned by the Emperor of China. Today, it lives on in various zoos throughout the world. The scimitar oryx once roamed North Africa. It was known in both ancient Egypt and Rome. In 1936, there were at least ten thousand. Just over 50 years later, only a handful remained. Today, like the deer, it lives on only in zoos.

And that’s a problem. If a species can survive 50 to 100 years in zoos, it starts to seem normal. Imagine the feeling of wonder one feels walking through the forest and stumbling upon a deer that, in mythology, combined an ox’s strength, a horse’s speed, a deer’s agility and a donkey’s sense of direction. This is the very deer that helped to found the Zhou dynasty and that was believed to grant eternal life.

Now imagine seeing the animal behind bars. They’re still with us … but it’s not the same.

Today, the IUCN lists 4,574 species as critically endangered. The World Wildlife Fund is focusing on a mere 16 well known species. These are species that, if you work at it a bit, can still be seen the wild. You could go to Africa and see a tribe of immensely strong gorillas resting in a glade, caressing one another. You could go to Sumatra and, with luck, get to watch a wild tiger slowly stalking her way through the forest, two cubs trailing behind. In French Guiana, you could see a mass hatching of baby leatherback turtles slowly making their way to sea.

It is very likely that our grandchildren will not be able to do any of these things.

It is also very likely that our grandchildren’s grandchildren will never be able to see any tigers anywhere in the wild. They may never see a whale rising from the depths, showering them with spray. They’ll never get to visit otters, large as people, swimming in the Amazon or see a red crowned crane stalking a fish through a reedy pond.

If you look at the world’s 100 most threatened species, you’ll likely not recognize any of them. A common reaction to seeing lists like this is:

“So what if we lose Bulmer’s fruit bat or the White bellied heron, there are tons of other bats and herons in the world.”

When the next generation looks at their list of threatened species, they’ll feel the same way. The same for their children.

Extinction takes time, if future generations are to value the creatures we love, we must ensure they’re not so rare that our children don’t care. In 1857, most people couldn’t conceive of a world in which passenger pigeons wouldn’t fill the skies. When asked to protect them, the Ohio Senate stated:

“The passenger pigeon needs no protection. Wonderfully prolific, having the vast forests of the North as its breeding grounds, traveling hundreds of miles in search of food, it is here today and elsewhere tomorrow, and no ordinary destruction can lessen them, or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced.”

Today, we can’t conceive of such a world. I’d hate for someone, one hundred years from now, to be writing something similar about the tiger, gorilla or turtle with nothing left but a photograph and some stuffed specimens collecting dust in a handful of museums.

If this would bother you too, please think about taking action with the WWF or donating to the IUCN.

One last thing. When a species dies in captivity, we know their names. This is the song of Martha, Last of the Passenger Pigeons, by John Herald.

Violin Mantid (Gongylus gongylodes)

Violin Mantid (Gongylus gongylodes)
Somewhere in the deep woods lives a creature. This creature is a master of stealth. It will, in the dusk of the overhanging leaves, slowly and carefully stalk its prey. It has lightning-fast reflexes, a strong, piercing, mouth and can hunt by climbing unpside down so it is not noticed by its prey. If you are ever in the jungles of India, be aware. If you’re quick witted, keep your eyes on your surroundings and are extremely lucky, you just might get out alive … after having seen the violin mantid catch and eat a fly.



If you were to cling to a massively tall blade of grass, you’d probably grab onto the outsides of the blade with your hands and feet and cling on for dear life.

Look at the damselfly’s feet. It’s actually holding onto each side of the blade as if that side of its body is separate from the other. In effect, if you cut it in half, each half would still be holding onto the blade.

Eastern Hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis)

Eastern Hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis)_3
Every year, I run a little contest based on the WWF Adoption Guide and let people cast a vote (or a poem) for which animal gets to come home and live with me. One that is perpetually on the list is the Hellbender Salamander. Until that happened, I had no idea that these things existed. It was years after that that I finally saw my first one.

They’re interesting, not in the least, because they have numerous other interesting names, such as “snot otter”, “Allegheny alligator”, and “leverian water newt”. I mean, seriously, in what world is “hellbender salamander” the most innocuous choice for a name. Oh, and they’re all dying out because that’s the sort of things amphibians are doing these days. Sure would be nice if we could stop that from happening.

As mentioned earlier, the rarest animals are rare even in zoos. I visited several zoos that had them before I finally found one that not only had one on display, but also had clean water and a display that I could shoot through. So, I was finally able to see one. Perhaps it would have been easier to find them earlier if I had known that they look like someone took a salamander skin and stuffed it with random pebbles.

I’m also puzzled at its being yellow, as that’s not the colour they are in Google images, but hey, I’ll take what I can get.

Leaf Me Alone

A few years back, I read an article that theorized that plants evolved their distinctive edges so that amphibians that were trying to eat them would hurt their soft mouths and go on to easier-to-eat plants. I, of course, cannot find the article today.

While I think the idea is fascinating, my fundamental problem with it is that I haven’t seen much, outside of certain oaks and holly, that show transition from a jagged-edge leaf to something more like a thorn. In fact, thorns seems to either be adapted from the whole leaf or from a branch, not from leaf “feature creep”, so to speak.

Granted, I’m not a botanist, and there could be whole families of plants I’m not thinking about. If you know of any family that shows evolution from a relatively flat and smooth leaf to something that clearly seems designed for defense, I’d be very interested in hearing about it.