Thursday, January 22, 2015

Introducing my new camera setup!

I've been long overdue to upgrade my camera, and with an upcoming trip to New Zealand, I started thinking about what kind of photography setup I wanted to bring.  I've also been wanting a better macro/flash setup for specimen photography, as my single external flash works great in the field but is too harsh and often casts unwanted shadows when photographing specimens.
I wrote a post a couple years ago about my camera setup, and was very excited about the new macro lens and flash I had just purchased, and it was a drastic improvement from my built-in flash and standard telephoto lens, but after working with it for two years and learning more about specimen photography, I realized I needed a shorter macro lens (40 or 60 mm instead of 105) and either a dual-flash system (one on each side of the lens) or a ring flash, so I don't have to photoshop out all the distracting shadows.  I bought a 40mm macro last year and have been very happy with it, but still needed a different flash.
My Nikon D80 camera has been a great workhorse for 9 years, and survived a couple drops and being splashed with mud once or twice.  The reasons I wanted to upgrade to a new camera were primarily the image resolution (D80 is 10 megapixels, most current cameras are 20+), a lighter body (the D80 is HEAVY, especially after running over hill and dale after butterflies!), and hopefully a self-cleaning sensor (the D80 has been plaguing me with dust on the sensor which shows up as blurry dark circles on the photo, costs $100 to get it cleaned).
After an entire day of researching cameras, I went with the Nikon D7100, a 24 megapixel beauty with a self-cleaning sensor and a zillion new buttons and settings that are almost overwhelming! Although it is actually larger than the D80, it is a little lighter, not as much as I had hoped, but I picked it because it is one of the few in my price range with a magnesium alloy body instead of plastic (thus the weight), which is much more durable and resists moisture, all of which is a must for what I put it through out in the field.  I also bought a very lightweight 18-55 mm lens that should work really well for traveling and hikes, when I don't want to lug around my 18-200 mm monster lens.  Likewise, I bought a 60 mm macro lens that is half the weight of my 1.74 lb 105mm macro.  I don't have to get as close to my subject like I do with the 40mm macro, but it provides a middle-range magnification so I shouldn't regret leaving my 105 behind if I want a lighter pack on a hike.
After some confusing comparisons and research into macro-system flashes, which range from $40-$800+, I decided on a the Phoenix SmartFlash RF46 TTL Macro Ring Light for Nikon. Long name for a small and very lightweight system! I hoped that spending the $90 on it instead of the $300-400 Nikon-brand macro dual flash system wouldn't come back to bite me later, but so far I'm more than happy with it.  It is controlled by the camera, and there is very little you can do to adjust it manually, but it seems to match the right flash strength with whatever aperture/shutter settings I use.  I also know that I probably wouldn't use all the manual adjustments on the more expensive flash, so I was willing to sacrifice some control for the substantial cost difference.
To recap, my former setup was this:
Nikon D80 camera
Nikon SB-700 Speedlight Flash (which I'll still use except for specimen photography)
Nikon AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm macro lens (will use for certain butterfly photo situations in the field)
Nikon AF-S DX Micro-Nikkor 40mm macro lens (use for super-close-ups)
Nikon AF-S DX Nikkor VR 18-200mm zoom lens (all-purpose)

New setup:
above lenses, depending on situation
Nikon D7100 camera
Nikon AF-S DX Micro-Nikkor 60mm macro lens (specimen & field photography)
Phoenix SmartFlash RF46 TTL Macro Ring Light for Nikon (for specimen photography)
Nikon VR AF-S DX Nikkor 18-55mm zoom lens (landscape/plant photography)

Unfortunately it looks like I'm going to have to spend a bit more money because of all this... I uploaded some of my experimental photos for the first time and found out that my Adobe Elements 10 is too old for my brilliant new camera, and can't read the NEF files (raw images, like digital negatives).  I can still edit the JPEGs for now, but they don't have as many editing options as NEF, and it's something I really need the ability to do.  Always something!

Enough of my jabbering, here are the results! Notice the difference in shadows and color? I uploaded the full size instead of reducing it, so if you click on the image you can enjoy it at full screen.
Western Tiger Swallowtail, Papilio rutulus, taken with Nikon D80 camera, 40mm macro, and single (SB-700) flash
Western Tiger Swallowtail, Papilio rutulus, taken with Nikon D7100 camera, 60mm macro lens, and ring flash
Colorado Hairstreak, Hypaurotus crysalus, taken with Nikon D80 camera, 40mm macro, and single (SB-700) flash
Colorado Hairstreak, Hypaurotus crysalus, taken with Nikon D7100 camera, 60mm macro lens, and ring flash

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Hesperia challenges in Washington

Skippers have always been difficult for me to identify, so I spent part of my Christmas vacation tackling the four species of Hesperia that are found here in Washington: Juba (H. juba), Western Branded (H. colorado), Common Branded (H. comma), and Nevada (H. nevada) skippers.  Western and Common branded skippers are sometimes considered the same species (organized under H. comma), but I follow the taxonomy of Butterflies of Oregon (Warren, 2005) and A Catalogue of the Butterflies of the United States and Canada (Pelham, 2008, continuously updated on the Butterflies of America website), both of which consider them separate species.
Note: click on any of the photos to view them at full-size.
Comparison of Hesperia species of Washington. All are male. Circles and numbers correspond to descriptions below.
Juba Skipper - Hesperia juba
This is the largest of the four species, and is often easily ID'd in the field by the hairs on the thorax reflecting bright turquoise blue in the sun. This species is a bright orange/gold overall, and is mostly confused with Western Branded Skippers.
The following numbers correspond to the numbers in the image above.
1 - this bar is usually larger than in the other three species.
2 - distinct brown margin with toothed/streaked orange markings, the two colors are very distinct and do not seem to "dissolve" into each other as much as the other three species.
3 - light gold/yellowish spots are indistinct, compared to Common Branded Skipper.
4 - white spot not as indented as Nevada Skipper, and wing base-color is not as dusky.
Juba Skippers
Juba Skipper, with slight turquoise reflection on the thorax.
Western Branded Skipper - Hesperia colorado
This species is generally bright orange/gold and mostly confused with Juba Skippers. It is not as dusky overall and is widespread in Washington, compared to the Common Branded Skipper which is usually darker and has a restricted range in Washington.
1 - this bar is usually smaller than in Juba, and sometimes blends in more with the orange background, especially in males.
2 - brown margin is usually much narrower than Juba, and gradually transitions to orange, compared to the distinct and jagged boundary in Juba.
3 - light gold/yellowish spots are indistinct, compared to Common Branded Skipper.
4 - white spot not as indented as Nevada Skipper, and wing base-color is brighter orange, not as dusky as Nevada or Common Branded skippers.
Western Branded Skippers
Common Branded Skipper - Hesperia comma
In Washington, this species is only found at high elevations in the northern Cascades (such as around Harts Pass and Slate Peak) and at Hurricane Ridge in the Olympic Mountains.
1 - this bar is usually smaller than in Juba, and usually does not touch the orange discal coloration.
2 - brown margin is usually wider than Western Branded, but compared to Juba, the transition between brown and orange is less distinct and not as jagged. Overall, Common Branded Skippers have less orange on the dorsal wing surface compared to the other species.
3 - light gold/yellowish spots are usually more distinct and with less orange background compared to the other three species.
4 - white spot not as indented as Nevada Skipper.
Common Branded Skippers
Nevada Skipper - Hesperia nevada
This species is less common than Juba and Western Branded skippers in Washington.  It is found in shrub-steppe habitat mostly around Kittitas and Yakima counties, and in parts of of Okanogan County.  It is generally duskier than Juba and Western Branded skippers.
1 - this bar is usually smaller than in Juba.
2 - width of the brown margin varies from narrow to wide, but it gradually transitions to orange, compared to the distinct and jagged boundary in Juba.
3 - light gold/yellowish spots are usually less distinct compared to Common Branded Skipper.
4 - white spot is greatly indented compared to the other three species, and wing base-color is usually more dusky than Juba and Western Branded skippers.
I only have the one specimen shown in the comparison photo at the top of this page. For more examples of this species, see the species photos on the Butterflies of America website.

Happy New Year!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

A Lesson in Geographical Coordinates & Insect Labels

Recently I've been creating labels for all the butterfly specimens I collected over the summer, and have also started replacing older labels with the new format I decided on after researching the proper labeling system for scientific/museum collections.  I discovered that there isn't very much information available online that describes a standard form for creating insect labels, and what is available often contradicts other sites.
In the past, I've labeled my specimens rather inconsistently, the labels changing over the years as I've experimented with what works best for me and learned more about the proper format.  Some sites say that a specimen must have two labels, and other sites say you only need a second one if you want, and some say the two labels must be the same size, while others say the second one can be smaller.  Adding to the confusion, some sources instruct you to label the information starting with the date, then the specific location (such as geographic coordinates), then give the county, state, and country, while others, including most museums that I see, start with the country, state, and county, then give the coordinates and date.  To further complicate matters, there are many ways to cite geographic coordinates. Should you use latitude/longitude? If so, in which format: decimal degrees, degrees decimal minutes or degrees minutes seconds? Or should you use PLSS (township/range/section) if you only collect in the USA?  I explained some of these issues in a past blog post about mapping butterfly records. The most universal method is to use lat/long coordinates as they are easily calculated for any location in the world, rather than other coordinate systems that use different projections depending on the country or region.  I will discuss the formats of lat/long coordinates below, after my instructions on creating labels.

After comparing several websites and studying how my peers and many museums label their specimens, I've come up with a "standard" format that I plan to use for all my specimens.
Font, label size, and printing
Font size - 4 to 6 pt, usually 4, which is what I now use.
Primary label - usually between 3/4" and 1" long by 1/4" to 1/2" wide, and contains all the location data and the date collected. Can also include other information as needed.
Secondary label - usually the same size or smaller than the primary label, and contains any extra information not on the primary label.  I usually keep this extra information (such as weather, time of day, butterfly behavior, flowers it was on, etc.) in a database rather than making extra labels.
Paper - use an acid-free light card stock (BioQuip sells this).
Ink - print labels with a laser printer, not inkjet, as printer ink will bleed or fade over time.  If hand-writing the labels, use an ink that will resist fading and bleeding, such as these from BioQuip.

Label Format
Location data - the primary label should start with the Country and/or State/Province, and the County/District (for example: WA: Cowlitz Co. or CANADA: BC: Vancouver Island). Specific location information should be included on additional rows, as described below.
Name & Determination - one label should have the species name and who determined it (made the identification).  I put this on my secondary label.

Creating labels in Microsoft Excel
I have found that the easiest way to create labels is with Excel.  Most of my labels are approximately 5/16" by 15/16", although some are slightly over 1" if the location information is longer.  In Excel, this means that most of my labels are in columns with a width of 10.86 (81 pixels), and rows with a height of 6.00 (8 pixels), with an extra row between each label that is 1.50 (2 pixels) high for spacing (see image below).  Although it looks like the text is overflowing the cell size, if you view the spreadsheet in Print Preview mode or print a sample page, you can see that it actually fits and is not cut off. Also make sure that the text is not too close to the label in the next column, or it will be difficult to cut them out without cutting off some of the text.
Depending on the location information I wish to include, my labels are either 4 or 5 rows.  Using labels of this size and 1/2" margins on the paper, you can fit 8 labels across and either 25 (5-row labels), 29 (4-row labels) or 38 (3-row labels) down to fill a standard 8.5x11" sheet of paper.
Once you print the labels, trim off the excess paper around the edge. I always save these blank strips and cut them into pieces to use for hand-written labels, waste not want not!  After the edges are trimmed, use a paper cutter to cut the labels into strips either by column or row, then use scissors to cut each label from the strip.

Row 1 contains the state, county, and date collected. I also print labels without dates for locations that I frequently collect in, so that I can write in the date by hand later, and not have to print and cut out labels every time I collect butterflies.  When typing the date, I simply add several spaces after the county name to make the date approximately even with the right side of the label, adjusting the number of spaces depending on the county name length, and checking it on the Print Preview screen to make sure the date isn't too far to the right.
Row 2 (and 3 if using a 5-row label) contains the more detailed location information, such as the national forest, road intersection, creek or lake name, etc.
Row 3 (or 4 if using a 5-row label) contains the geographic coordinates (latitude/longitude in decimal degrees; this will be explained in more detail below) and the elevation in feet. I've found that all of this fits at the size described above, when I use this format: N00.00000 W000.00000 elev 0000'. If the elevation is 10,000 ft or higher (i.e. over 4 digits), then you can remove the space between "elev" and the number to make it fit.  This information is very useful, but is not necessary if the other information describes a very specific location such as the address of a residence.
Row 4 (or 5 if using a 5-row label) contains the name of the person who collected the specimen, and is written as "coll. Name".  Some people put this on a separate label, but I have found this too tedious as it is extra work to cut them all out, and they are so tiny they are easy to lose and hard to handle.
Secondary label - species name and person who identified it
As mentioned above, I have started printing a separate label that only has the species name and the person who determined it.  These are simple, 2-row labels in the same font and row size as the primary labels, but the column width can be reduced to fit the length of the names as needed.  The species name is typed in italics on the first row, and the person's name is typed on the second row with the "det." prefix ("determined by") like this:
Papilio eurymedon
det. Caitlin C. LaBar
Example of butterfly labels in Excel, using Arial 4pt font. Note the narrow row separating each row of labels.

Latitude/Longitude formats
There are two parts to the format of lat/long coordinates. First is the identification of North/South and East/West.  These directions can be indicated either by the letter abbreviations (N, S, E, W) or by a positive number for North and East (40 degrees = North, 120 degrees = East) and a negative number for South and West (-40 degrees = South, -120 degrees = West).  The second part of the format is how the numbers are written: degrees minutes seconds, degrees decimal minutes, or decimal degrees.
There are 60 seconds in 1 minute, and 60 minutes in 1 degree. I prefer to use decimal degrees, partly because it is the simplest format, and partly because it takes up less room on my labels!  There is a setting in most GPS units that allows you to choose which of these three formats to use, and it will automatically change all of your recorded data to the new format.  If you have saved coordinates in another program or written them in a notebook in different formats, here is how to convert them:
From decimal degrees to degrees minutes seconds:
N 42.32482 --> 0.32482*60 = 19.4892 (42 deg 19.4892 minutes) --> 0.4892*60 = 29.352 --> 42 deg 19' 29.352" North
From degrees minutes seconds to decimal degrees:
42 deg 19' 29.352" North --> 29.352/60 = 0.4892 --> +19 --> 19.4892/60 = 0.32482 --> +42 = 42.32482 degrees North

The number of decimal places you should keep depends on which format you are using. In general, it is unnecessary to keep more than one decimal place for seconds in the degrees minutes seconds format. A difference of 0.1 seconds roughly translates to 3 feet of latitude or 7 feet of longitude (at mid-latitudes), which is often less than the accuracy of hand-held GPS units (usually have 10-20 feet accuracy).  Four decimal places in the decimal degrees format (42.3248) is roughly equivalent to having no decimal places in the degrees minutes seconds format (42 deg 19' 29"), and for each decimal place that is used in the seconds, another should be added to the decimal degrees format (42 deg 19' 29.4" = 42.32483 degrees).
Some other numbers to think about are (if I've done my math correctly, so don't quote me on this and correct me if need be!)...
1 minute of latitude is roughly equal to 1 mile
1 minute of longitude is roughly equal to 1 mile at mid-latitudes and 0.5 mile at high latitudes

Considering GPS accuracy and the fact that butterflies fly, I am quite happy with four decimal places when using decimal degrees, or no decimal places when using degrees minutes seconds, but I have decided to use 5 decimal places just to give myself a little extra wiggle-room if I ever want to round off the number or convert it to another format.

Hopefully you will find all these instructions useful and not too long and confusing!  There is no single "correct" format for insect labels, which is why there are so many versions, but it is important to be consistent in whatever format you choose. I welcome any comments on these or other solutions anyone has found helpful regarding insect labeling and coordinates.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Woolly Bear - Fuzzy, Fun and Fascinating

I am being invaded by woolly bear caterpillars this year, they seem to know I'll offer them refuge and have been showing up on my back porch, front porch, and all over the parking lot at my apartment! I always see a lot every year, but have never had so many so obviously "on my doorstep"!
The first invader was crawling up my screen door a week ago, and when I went out to put it back in the vegetation, I found three more hiding in various places around my flower pots, so I started putting them all in a bug cage stuffed with crumpled paper.  The news must have spread, because Number 15 was rapidly crawling towards my car as I arrived home from work today.
The first invader - this woolly was crawling up the screen door on my back porch
Woolly bear caterpillars are larvae of the Isabella Tiger Moth, a light orange-brown moth with black speckles that is often seen at porch lights in the summer.  The moths lay eggs in late summer and early autumn, which hatch a few days later.  The larvae feed on numerous plant species, but I usually find them on red alder and various maples here in southwest Washington.  In this area, the larvae always seem to reach maturity before going into hibernation, and then spin cocoons and pupate in the spring, emerging as adults in the summer.  In colder climates, such as northern Canada, larvae have been known to take up to 14 years to fully develop, only eating a little bit during the short summers and then returning to hibernation.  This species has the amazing ability to freeze solid during the winter, and one report I read said that they have been known to survive a winter being completely frozen in an ice cube!  Because of this, they are more susceptible to come out of hibernation early if they are too warm.
The first woolly bears that I found on my porch
I plan to keep these fuzzy critters exposed to cold temperatures on my porch, rather than putting them in my outdoor storage closet, where I usually put overwintering lepidoptera.  I placed a small plastic flower pot in a mesh bug cage, then loosely stuffed the cage with crumpled paper under and around the pot.  The caterpillars seem to like that arrangement, and most of them are either buried near the bottom of the cage or in the flower pot.
Woolly bears, numbers 10 through 13, that I found in the parking lot

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Western Tent Caterpillars

Going back through my photos from this summer, I was reminded of the local tent caterpillar infestation and thought it might be useful to answer some of the questions I heard at the time.  The infestation was so large that it even made it into the local news:
Caterpillars setting up camp in Columbia County
Caterpillars invading Washington side of the Columbia too
During the summer, I rode my bike about once a week in an area west of Longview/Kelso, which was in the area infested with tent caterpillars, and on June 18th I noticed caterpillars covering the road and bushes, and then realized many of the alder trees along the forest road were nearly defoliated!  When I stood quietly and listened, it sounded like it was raining even though there were no clouds in the sky...it was the sound of all the droppings of millions of caterpillars falling through the trees and bushes, gross but fascinating!
Western Tent Caterpillars during an outbreak west of Longview/Kelso
There are many moth species with larvae that feed in communal groups and spin large webs or "tents" for protection, and are therefore known as tent caterpillars or webworms.  The most common species in our area is the Western Tent Caterpillar, Malacosoma californicum (see here for photo of adult and more information).  The Western Tent Caterpillar usually goes unnoticed, with only a few tents scattered high up in deciduous trees, but occasionally goes through a period of epidemic outbreaks, such as we saw this June.  Another large outbreak occurred in the Mt. St. Helens area in 2011 and 2012, where they completely defoliated alder trees.  These outbreaks usually end after one or two years because of viruses and/or lack of food.  Even if the trees are completely defoliated, they are rarely killed because of the relatively short period of the outbreak.  In the area west of town that I mentioned, the alder trees were already leafing out again less than two months after the caterpillars stopped feeding and pupated.
Mostly-defoliated alder trees west of Longview/Kelso on June 18th
Although alder trees are the favored food source of Western Tent Caterpillars in this area, they will feed on nearly any deciduous trees and shrubs, often switching to maples, poplars, fruit trees and berry bushes when they've consumed all the alder in the area.  By the time this occurs however, the caterpillars are usually in the final stage of development and only have around one week before they pupate and turn into adult moths.  At 1 1/2 inches, the caterpillars are also more noticeable in the final stage, and seem to appear out of nowhere because up until this point they have spent most of their time high up in the trees and out of sight.
Defoliated (left) and mostly-untouched (right) alder trees west of Longview/Kelso on June 18th