1•The birds & the bees, life and death, natural causes, and comedy-Part 1

The first of a three-part introduction series that examines nature from perspectives usually not seen or appreciated.

1•The birds & the bees, life and death, natural causes, and comedy-Part 1
1•

Relativity, realities, and perspectives from nature

A quick preface on context and awareness

The two images above are presented without a caption. Each image depicts an instantaneous moment from an ongoing mating-season fight by two male mockingbirds over a female standing and watching a few feet out of frame to the right. 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.

That would seem completely plausible, but it would be wrong. Without full context, images can be misconstrued—or used to deceive or misdirect.

The reality was that with the fight over, the males 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.

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 larger scene as well as potentially hundreds of other equally small dramas that may be playing out on their own unique micro-stage, all occurring within a few inches or feet from wherever I set up shop for the moment. I must quickly become immersed in the context of that scene, as well as focused on what will or might occur next, without disturbing it or altering outcomes.

But I also remind myself that despite the unique nature of each scenario, to be aware of common elements I may have observed at other times and locations of similar scenarios and interactions. And I must be aware of my human perspectives and perceptions, suspending them so I do not project biases or emotions into what I am observing and capturing with my camera.


Perspective: New 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.

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:

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

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

5• g. Anthidium

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

but sometimes there is a different orientation:

8• bee flies

Sometimes what starts on the ground continues in the air:

You see flowers.
You see bees on flowers.
But 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.

10• Bumblebee covered in pollen as it moves from flower to flower

After all that mating, there is a gestation period…

…followed by the blessed birth event:

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

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Even seeds and seedlings are interesting.

17• A dandelion seed germinates by sending out its primary root radicle.
19• Prickly Pear cactus seedling, not easy to propagate
20• The first of many hundreds of cactus flowers in my small patch, each blooming for only a day. Yes, cactus in NJ.
21• Tiny milkweed flowers that seem appropriate in these pandemic times.
22• The earliest development of Concord grape flowers (just left of my finger).

Video of grape flowers 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).

28• This newly-hatched ladybug 1st stage instar larvae is a voracious eater, usually gorging on aphids or other tiny 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.
29•Butterfly egg on the underside of a leaf

This mass of insect eggs deposited on fine bird netting…

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becomes this mass of juicy protein:


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

33•Food captured alive to be consumed alive

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

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:

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Just how small are those scenes?

39• The image above with my index finger behind [40] for scale
40• A new flowerfly with my index finger for scale

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 linear development process. Some go through a process of metamorphosis, such as tadpoles. 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 metamorphosis where developmental changes are sudden, resulting in transitional forms that look nothing like the final adult stage. These kinds of metamorphic transformations look like a series of “deaths” and “rebirths.” From our perspective, if we didn't know otherwise, we might easily mistake these transitional stages to be fully-developed creatures of different species.

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

41• Cicada molt
43• Although they do not go through transformational stages like insects, spiders (arachnids), like insects, have external skeletons and must molt to grow. Spiders use hydraulics controlled in their abdomens to work their legs, not muscles. Here in this Basilica orb weaver molt, we can see the chambers involved.
45• The discarded old exoskeleton hanging by the tiniest of threads
46• I missed the Swallowtail's emergence, but it would have been the same as this Monarch emergence from its chrysalis as a transformed adult.

Feeding is a universal lifetime activity.

50• Mine! Now move away and let me pass!

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


To be continued in Part 2 with a shift in perspective...