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Seeing Green

Go slowly. Look carefully. And don't settle for the first subject you see.

August 10, 2017 Close ups / Wildlife

I've been walking the paths of the prairie since before sunrise. It's a calm, clear, cool morning -- just right for photographing the scenes and subjects here. But I'm not finding anything that calls out for a composition. That's a first for this place which is usually like a candy store so full of goodies I can't decide what to gobble first.

A dry spell of weather leaves little moisture for photogenic dew on the plants. Spiders haven't spun their classic orb webs. And the showiest wildflowers faded a month ago. I spot three monarch butterfly caterpillars on whorled milkweed plants, but they are in deep shadows and will have to wait for later.

This was bound to happen. Though I've seen insects, birds and plants I enjoy observing, none of them pans out as a worthwhile subject. So on I walk. Sometimes a good hour of photography can be 30 minutes or more of looking for the right subject. But that's never been the case here until today.

I walk farther than usual to a spot where the prairie and the bordering woods converge near the edge of a small lake. I've found frogs here before -- tree frogs and spring peepers. They leave the water or the woods and climb up the prairie plants where they rest until nightfall. If I slow down and look carefully, I may spot some. In a good year, I've stopped counting at 20 frogs.

I finally find a tree frog. It's resting on the petals of a purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). Going slowly, looking carefully and knowing this place have all paid off. The frog is restless as I move the tripod in cautiously. Just as I frame the frog in the viewfinder, it climbs from the petals to the flower's spiny, domed center. It rests there in a perfect position I could only wish for (see it in my Recent Work gallery).

An Eastern gray tree frog rests on a purple coneflower in a tallgrass prairie.

The Eastern gray tree frog (Hyla versicolor) is a common woodland native of the eastern US and southeastern Canada. It's about one-and-a-half inches long, has sticky toe pads which help it climb trees, spends most of its life in trees and tall shrubs, and can change colors quickly to match its environment. That explains why this gray tree frog is green since most prairie plants around it are some shade of green. If there's any doubt, its species name versicolor confirms it -- it means having many colors or able to change colors. But I do doubt that its genetic color palette includes pink.

After posing on top of the seed head, the frog climbs down on the coneflower's petals and begins to doze. It's a nocturnal creature that hunts for small insects like crickets, moths and beetles by night. I've disturbed its sleep, so after photographing it, I carefully move backward. If it feels threatened, the tree frog's only escape is to hop away. That may put it in danger of landing where a predator like a snake might find it.

The morning that looked like a photographic bust offered a banner hour with a cooperative green frog instead. Knowing this prairie well and taking my time in it helped. Now I'll take my cue from the tree frog and find a good place for a nap, too.


MAKING THE PHOTOGRAPH (Techniques for Photographing Close Ups)

SUBJECT: Eastern gray tree frog (Hyla versicolor) on purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).

LOCATION: A restored tallgrass praire in a northern Indiana preserve.

CONDITIONS: Clear, calm, fair; 65 degrees F.

EQUIPMENT and SETTINGS: Nikon D810, Nikon 200mm f/4 AF macro, ball head, tripod, cable release; Aperture Priority exposure, Matrix metering, manual focus, Mirror Lock Up.

EXPOSURE: 1/13 sec @ f/18, ISO 640

I was surprised when I didn't find any scenes or subjects worth stopping for on this perfect morning. The opposite is usually true in the restored tallgrass prairie preserve I know well. I saw good things while I walked the familiar trails among patches of fading prairie flowers like monarda, cup plant and gray coneflower. Even the corridors of big bluestem -- the native tallgrass that dominates stretches of the park -- didn't yield compositions that invited me to stop.

So I wandered and watched for worthy subjects for more than an hour without a nibble. When this happens, I'll drop my pack, take a drink of water and eat a granola bar. I ate breakfast a couple hours ago while I was driving. As usual, it was a two granola bars, a cheese stick, an apple and a cup of instant coffee. I always carry a granola bar in reserve. This morning, it was a variety of CLIF Bar called MOJO and I could use more mojo.

Without a load on my back, I was freed to look around slower and closer for subjects. Even if I didn't find something to set up on, the pause refreshed me and I got my photographic second wind. Still, I'd searched for an hour and a half without inspiration. The voice in my head said "C'mon, you're better than this."

I gathered my gear, quickened my pace and headed to a place along the trail where I'd found tree frogs and spring peepers in past years. The conditions were surprisingly still good with dead-calm air and a cloudless sky. It would have been a shame not to find a pleasing subject when it was like that. When I got to the bend in the trail that I call "Frog Corner," I slowed and scanned the trail-side plants.

If I found photographable frogs, they'd be along the path. So I scanned the foliage of small trees, shrubs and vines on the wooded side of the trail and the grasses and flowers on the prairie side. I hoped I'd see their familiar shape and colors in the dense vegetation. It had been a year since I last photographed frogs, so I reminded myself how small and camouflaged they are.

Again, I dropped my pack and tripod, so I was free to look closer and slower. It worked. There on a wild grape leaf was a tree frog. It had shifted colors from gray to green as they can do quickly to blend into the environment. If there was one, there may be others. I spotted a smaller, tan spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) on a prairie sunflower's petals. It's a tree frog, too, but it can only change its skin tone to lighter or darker brown, not green like the gray tree frog can.

Then I saw green again. Another tree frog was on a purple coneflower blossom. It was close to the trail, so there was no distracting vegetation between it and me. Its background was far enough away to make it soft and out-of-focus with a middle aperture of the macro lens. It was the frog I chose to photograph first and it made all the looking worthwhile.

So going slowly, looking carefully, not settling for the first subject I saw, and knowing a place well added up to a successful morning. That was the formula I needed when I wasn't finding something satisfying, but had big hopes of seeing green.

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