The Casual Blog

Tag: Nikon

Our safari in Tanzania


We returned last week from a 10-day safari in Tanzania, where we visited Tarangire National Park and Serengeti National Park.  It was a long hard trip there and back, but completely worth it.  We met some interesting people, but the highlights were the non-human animals living their lives on the savannah.  

We saw many elephants, gazelles, giraffes, buffalo, zebras, baboons, monkeys, ostriches, hippopotamuses, crocodiles, and many, many wildebeests, as well as a few jackals, hyenas, lions, leopards, and cheetahs.  There were also many colorful birds, small mammals, unusual speedy antelopes, and reptiles.  

Some of the oldest known human fossils come from east Africa, and our species spent a lot of its pathbreaking years there.  It’s a big but underappreciated part of our story.  Looking out over vast grasslands, I found myself thinking of the tall grass differently:  vital food for many creatures, and hiding places and ambush spots for some. 

The Serengeti was the setting for the Lion King, which I thought was a sweet and touching movie, though I had assumed it had a large dose of romantic fantasy in depicting the animals and landscape.  It seemed unlikely that different species of animals would live close together cooperatively and mostly peacefully.  

Wildebeests crossing the Mara River

But in fact, we saw a lot of different species sharing territories, some warily but others relaxed.  In most if not all herds, there were animals of different ages, including young ones.  The young animals played while their mothers kept a watchful eye.

We saw large groups of animals organize themselves quite efficiently for travel, rest, and eating, though how they do it is still largely unknown.  One of the most amazing spectacles was the wildebeests crossing the Mara River as part of their annual migration.  We saw nine or ten of these crossings in which thousands of the creatures plunged down steep embankment, swam the river, and climbed the bank on the other side near us.  Most were successful, though we saw crocodiles get a few. 

A leopard in the Serengeti near sunset

According to Seni, our guide, who knew a lot about animal biology and behavior, wildebeests aren’t particularly smart or athletic by Serengeti standards, and some people consider them ugly.  Apart from their dramatic migration, their lives seem to be mostly about eating grass, avoiding predators, and reproducing.  We know little about how they communicate and organize to get things done.  But their huge numbers show that they do so, and their strategy appears to be successful.

The animals of Tanzania have some of the same problems we do, like rising temperatures, droughts, storms, and fires caused by global warming.  They get diseases or get caught by powerful predators, not to mention human poachers.  But I was struck and moved by how well so many of these creatures do when we just leave them alone.  In Tanzania’s huge national parks, they have territories and healthy habitats, and seem to be living mostly peacefully and doing as they like.  

When I was a schoolboy, we were taught that animals operate mostly on raw instinct, and don’t have anything similar to our mental processes for memory and planning, or even feeling.  There’s more and more evidence that this is far from true, and that many animals have strong memories, the ability to plan ahead, and emotions.  

The Washington Post had a fascinating piece this week by Lars Chittka on the consciousness of bees.  Chittka’s researchers found that individual bees could remember human faces, count, and use tools, and that they experienced positive and negative emotions.  It makes one wonder, how much more is there yet to learn about animals’ abilities and consciousness?    

We’ve been thoroughly socialized to avoid thinking about animals as agents having coherent lives worthy of respect.  Most of our education on animals just ignores the complexity and successes of their social systems (their families, herds, alliances), political systems (territories, cooperatives, group decision making, conflict resolution), and creative achievements (communication, nourishment, transportation, sports, shelter).  

We’ve long assumed that humans and their systems are separate from and superior to all non-humans and their systems.  This is, of course, self-serving, and also less and less persuasive in light of modern research.  The massive destruction wrought by humans on the rest of the earth over the last few centuries calls such thinking into question:  our species has been the main driver of our grave crises.  Yet even in the face of the human onslaught, many animals carry on with their cultures.  We can learn from them, and should.       

Lion mom and cub

For the trip, I brought along my new Nikon mirrorless camera and three lenses, one of which (the long one, 150-600 mm) malfunctioned on the first day.  Still, I took a lot of pictures, and I’m still not finished with the first pass through them.  But I wanted to go ahead and share a few that I thought reflected some of the beauty of Tanzanian animals’ lives.  I’m hoping to write more next week on the experience and share more images.    

Butterflies, nature, and star dust

Me and my little butterfly friend

I love butterflies, and they love me!  At least, one of them really really liked me.  Last Sunday, a swallowtail landed on my right thigh near the pocket and stayed there for well over an hour.  Eventually I got him to rest on my hand, and put him on my chest, from whence he climbed onto the top of my head.  Then, after a few more minutes, he flew away.  

Meanwhile, I took pictures of his fellows at the Butterfly House of the Durham Museum of Life and Sciences with other members of  the Carolina Nature Photographers Association.  I shot with my Nikkor 105 mm lens on  my Nikon D7100, hand-held, setting the aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and focus manually.  Working the various dials and buttons quickly enough to capture these lively creatures was challenging, and there were many whiffs.  But these I liked.  I learned that the average lifespan of butterflies is just one month.

Does nature matter?  Yes, much more than we usually realize, according to Geoffrey Heal, in an interview  in the current newsletter of the Union of Concerned Scientists.  He describes the vital connections between humans and the rest of nature in a way I hadn’t quite thought of before, and which seemed worth pondering.

Heal observed,

The natural world provides everything we depend on. We get our food from the natural world, we get our drinking water and our oxygen from the natural world, and we evolved as part of it. We simply can’t live without it. Plants create food, and they need pollination from insects and they need rain and they need soil. We can’t synthesize these things. So we really are totally dependent on the natural world in the end.

Heal notes that we must make changes in the way we organize our economic systems, or face “catastrophic economic change in our lifetimes.”  But he believes that it’s still possible we can make a course correction to address the threats to our environment and our prosperity. He advocates a version of capitalism that includes accounting for and taking responsibility for externalities — that is, environmental damage caused by commercial activity and imposed on the public.  This sounds entirely sensible, and I’m thinking of reading his new book, Endangered Economies.

Along this line, it’s worth reading the really fine NY Times story from last week on the massive coral die off in the Great Barrier Reef of Australia.  The subject is huge — the largest coral reef on the planet, visible from space — and the reporting is highly readable and credible. As a diver, I’m particularly conscious of the beauty and intensity of life on coral reefs, and their enormous significance in the ocean ecosystem.  The rapidity with which this iconic reef is collapsing underscores that climate change is not just a problem for future generations, but for us, right now.  

On a more cheerful note, in case you missed it, the Science Times had a charming and fascinating story last week on a Norwegian jazz guitarist who discovered how to find star dust.  Did you know that ten tons of tiny dust flakes from space hits the earth every day?  Some of it comes from stars that exploded very long ago and far away.  It’s very  hard to see, but it turns out that it’s everywhere — on our roofs, our cars, and our food.

Guitarist and amateur astrogeologist Jon Larsen figured out how to distinguish stuff from space from ordinary debris.  Larsen and his team made some lovely photographs of the alien dust using microscopes.  It makes you wonder what else is all around us that we haven’t yet seen, but might if we knew how to look.

Welcoming daffodils, and re-starting golf lessons

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This week I saw the first daffodils! I just love those little guys, especially the early ones –- the harbingers. On Sunday, I got up to Raulston Arboretum, where the daffs were exuberant, while most other occupants were still slumbering.

Through the long winter nights, I spent some time learning more about photography and adding to my tool kit. I’ve got some new tools to try out, including a nice flash (the Nikon SB-910) and a new macro lens (Tamron 180 MM) that should be great for closeups of insects. I’ve got new software (the CC versions of Lightroom and Photoshop) and have been experimenting with image healing, filters, and focus stacking. I’m ready for the great blossoming of spring.
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Partly with spring in view, I began taking golf lessons a couple of weeks ago. A golf course is a type of garden, and we are privileged to have a good number of such extraordinary gardens in piedmont North Carolina. It seems a waste not to explore and enjoy them. And so I’ve vowed once again to try to get over the hump that separates me from playing golf at a better-than-mediocre level. I’m healthy, fit, and mentally able, so it’s not implausible. I just have to improve my technique – by a lot.

As I’ve noted before, when there’s something difficult to be learned, I’m a big believer in finding a gifted teacher and doing what she says. The teacher-student relationship can be rich human experience, but even when it isn’t, it’s generally the most efficient way to get a skill set. When you don’t know how to do something, it’s hard to teach yourself. This is especially true of complex physical endeavors.
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I found my way to GolfTEC in north Raleigh, and Jessica Yadlocsky. Jessica is an ex NCAA all American and a former touring professional on the European tour, so she knows something about the game. She’s patient and encouraging, and has a good supply of tricks and strategies for addressing common problems.

At our first lesson, she said my set up was fantastic – tour quality. The problems began, however, when I put the club in motion. I have a bad habit of coming over the top, a not uncommon swing flaw. I found her diagnosis persuasive, and her suggested treatments made sense. She stipulated that I should practice at least two hours a week.

As the name suggests, GolfTEC has a technology angle, with lots of video equipment and measurement algorithms. Jessica set up a space just for me on their website with video of my lesson and video drills. As her student, I’m entitled to practice in their shop, which allows viewing every swing from two angles in slow motion. That feedback is revealing and helpful, although also a bit humbling. Already, thanks to Jessica and the video feedback, I’ve made progress addressing some of my swaying, overswinging, and going off plane. I’m optimistic.
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Some edited bug photos and a new way of thinking about organized crime

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It’s challenging to capture a convincing image of a fast-moving insect. It takes patience and also decisiveness. For these I was using a 105 mm lens with all manual settings, so I had to focus and adjust shutter speed quickly. My heart was going quickly, too – it was exciting to go after these little guys. These were shots I took late Friday afternoon at Raulston Arboretum.

It was also fun to examine the results in Photoshop Elements after the fact. To state the obvious, you can’t really see much detail in little insects with the unaided human eye. To me, it’s fantastic what you discover about these creatures with the aid of magnifying lenses and sensors. I’ve also been experimenting with improving the raw image with the Elements editing program. Typically I do some cropping and minor adjustments to the lighting and contrast. This week I decided to start working with the “expert” user interface and figured out (with help from some YouTube instructors) how to work with layers.
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Is such editing somehow dishonest? I don’t think so. A photograph is always a combination of technology and human feeling, which is to say it is never purely objective. The sensor in my Nikon D7100 is amazing (24 million pixels!), but it is not God. My own vision has its imperfections and biases both from ocular structural issues and brain processing. Yours, too. We see through a glass darkly. But if we use our best tools as well as we can, we’ll see some new things and some amazing things.
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How many of our fundamental assumptions are seriously flawed? Every so often, I get spun around when I find that an idea that I had thought was beyond question is far from it. This week in the New Yorker Malcolm Gladwell’s piece titled the Crooked Ladder, destabilized my assumptions about the Italian mafia and inner city drug gangs. I thought I knew that the mafia was a serious threat to the social order that was barely contained by virtue of strenuous law enforcement efforts. Gladwell cites scholarship indicating that the early mafia was generally less violent and lawless than the Godfather movies and journalism have led us to think. For some waves of new immigrants (including Irish and Jews), crime was a route to family stability and assimilation taken by relatively innovative community members. And it isn’t a curse on subsequent generations. On the contrary, the grandkids of mafia dons turn into ordinary suburbanites.

But Gladwell finds this pattern depended in part on societal tolerance, including relaxed policing during the liquor prohibition era. Few mafiosi went to jail. Gladwell suggests that what I always thought of as police corruption could have positive effects, in that it allows immigrants to feed their families, prosper, and gradually evolve and assimilate. But this process has not taken place for our inner city drug gangs. Instead, intense policing has resulted in mass incarceration at a terrible human cost.

Gladwell relies primarily on a new book titled On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, by Alice Goffman. Goffman was an undergraduate at University of Pennsylvania when she began tutoring a Black student in a rough Philadelphia neighborhood she calls 6th Street. She eventually spent several years living in the neighborhood and getting to know the young men who survived as minor league criminals, as well as their girlfriends, moms, and others. The young men generally had spent time in juvenile detention, jail, or prison, and were often on the run from the police for such wrongs as nonpayment of $173 in court costs or minor parole violations. They were constantly the targets of police harassment. It is no exaggeration to say they lived in a police state.

After I finished Gladwell’s article, I downloaded Goffman’s book and quickly read the first couple of chapters. It is vivid and hair-raising. It puts a human face on the urgent need to end the war on drugs, and more generally address the problem of overly severe policing and penal policies. Goffman illuminates a world that few middle-class white Americans have ever seen close up, or even learned about through books or newspapers. It seems particularly timely and important after the racial conflict this week in Ferguson, Missouri.

Amazing drawings, the N.C. Zoo, and some photos of butterflies

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Congratulations, to Jocelyn, who just graduated from the Columbia University publishing program. Now she’s hunting for a publishing job in New York, and we’re hopeful that she’ll quickly find one. (If you have any leads, please let me know.)

This week she sent me this link to a group of drawings and paintings that are astonishing in their photographic realism. Truly, the work is uncanny. I had no idea that there were humans with such technical facility.

But after the initial shock of astonishment wore off a bit, I wondered a little what was the point. If you could do the same thing with a camera, why wouldn’t you just use the camera? I suppose it might be like deciding to hike when you could drive, or building furniture with hand tools rather than power tools. There could be joy in the activity.

At any rate, I’m so glad I’ve got a camera, because it would take me at least another lifetime to learn to draw like these artists. Lately I’ve been learning more about my Nikon D3200, and having fun with it.
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Week before last, I took the Sally and the camera over to the N.C. Zoo in Asheboro. We took in most of the Africa section, which features a spacious layout for such iconic species as elephants, giraffes, and rhinos, and relatively humane enclosures for the lions, chimps, baboons, lemurs, and exotic birds.
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We saw an adorable and sociable ostrich (above). I was also particularly touched by a baby baboon, just 6 months old, who rode about on mama, dropped off to bother brother, and hitched another ride on top of an aunt. We also enjoyed the many swimming turtles, including snappers, we saw from the bridge at the entrance.

I generally associate zoos with children, and recalled with pleasure taking my kids years ago, but also was reminded of the many challenges of young children and their needs (“I’m thirsty.” “I’m hungry” “I’m tired.” “I’m bored.”) It was good for a change to have no worries of that sort, and freedom to just enjoy the animals and environments.
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Of course I have mixed feelings: it doesn’t feel quite right to cage these creatures up, even in nice cages. In the best of worlds they’d be free to live as best they could in habitat unmarred by humans. But in an imperfect world, I appreciate the chance to get close to these marvelous creatures.
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As a birthday present to myself I recently got a new tool: AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105 mm f/2.8G IF-ED. It’s a high quality macro lens suitable for extreme closeups. I’m interested in doing more with flowers and insects. Yesterday morning I got to Raulston Arboretum just after it opened at 8:00 a.m., and had good light, and proceeded thereafter to Fletcher Park. There were bees and butterflies hard at work, including these.
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