Smartphone Nature Photography – part 1


We almost always have our smartphones with us….ready for those natural events that just happen and for planned photoshoots. I pulled together a presentation of a Maryland Master Naturalist retreat on the topic and am using it as a basis for the blog posts for today and tomorrow.


Learn about the camera in your phone. Two critical aspects: 1) Usually the autofocus is reasonably good but tapping on the screen where you want the focus to be can sometimes improve results. Do some experiments to see how close you can be and maintain the focus on your subject. 2) Realize that the zoom is digital – not optical. You are better off getting close to your subject rather than zooming. This is difficult if your subject is an animal that will move if you get close. Birds are notoriously difficult to photograph with a phone.

Consider a lanyard. I like to carry my phone on a lanyard (one that is structured to not obstruct the camera) so that I can be ‘hands free’ while I am hiking or rolling over logs…just doing regular naturalist things.  I want my phone to be easy to access – easier than getting it out of a pocket or pack.


I enjoy using macro lenses. I have 3 different kinds (8x, 15x, and 60x) and tend to use the 15x clip the most. Sometimes I just have it on my phone so that I can move it over the camera as needed. The depth of field is very shallow with the magnification and the phone must be close to the subject. Practice the best stance to steady your hands. I find that tucking my elbows into my body helps….and using one had to hold the phone and the other to take the picture.

Examples of Smartphone nature photography

BioBlitz. Almost all the BioBlitz pictures are taken with smartphones or tablets. Sometimes we use hands for scale – and sometimes the macro lens gives a new perspective! These are pictures taken during BiobBlitz: spotted salamander, wooly bear caterpillar, milkweed.

Landscapes.  The joy of being outdoors! Try to get something of high interest in the landscape: the trail as a leading line, clouds over the trees, an early winter scene with bare trees/large rock/pines.


Macro. The macro lens offers to many opportunities to observe more closely than you can observe with just your eye: clams filter feeding, the center of sunflower.

A chicory flower, a newly hatched Monarch butterfly caterpillar turning to eat its egg covering, and damselfly larvae.

A few minutes observing. I play a game with myself looking closely at one thing and taking photos as fast as I can over a short period of time. In this case it was a sweet bay magnolia. There were seed pods at several stages of development and some eggs under a leaf (maybe a leaf footed bug…if I was patient enough I could see what hatched but that was outside my time box).

(To be continued tomorrow…)

Gleanings of the Week Ending November 24, 2018

The items below were ‘the cream’ of the articles and websites I found this past week. Click on the light green text to look at the article.

Drug pollution concentrates in stream bugs, passes to predators in water and on land: Animals that eat insects in or near streams at risk of being dosed with pharmaceuticals -- ScienceDaily – Wow – the existence of macroinvertebrates in our local rivers is an indicator of water quality (the focus of the field trips with high schooler’s I’ve been doing in recent years) but those same macroinvertebrates are probably getting a healthy dose of pharmaceuticals from the water…the fish that eat them act as concentrators….and some of those fish are eaten by people.  I hope reserarchers in the US are doing similar studies to the one described in this article. It would also be good if pharmaceutical companies would develop drugs that were not excreted in a still active form.

Top 25 Wild Bird Photographs of the Week: Flocks – National Geographic Blog and Top 25 Wild Bird Photographs of the Week: Seed Eating Birds – National Geographic Blog – Two bird photograph collections for this week’s gleanings. Enjoy!

RIP Kepler: NASA’s exoplanet-hunting space telescope is finally dead - MIT Technology Review – The Kepler mission that discovered 2,662 exoplanets in our galaxy finally ran out of fuel. There is already a new satellite picking up the mission and the James Webb Space Telescope will launch in 2021.

Premature Birth Report Cards | March of Dimes – Only one state gets an ‘A’ – and many areas of the country are getting worse when it comes to premature births.

High levels of previously unsuspected pollutant uncovered in homes, environment -- ScienceDaily – An organophosphate that is known to be toxic was a surprise find in household dust…more study needed on its impact on humans that live with it at that level. The chemical is used as a flame retardant or plasticizer in consumer products…and may also form as other chemicals degrade.

Wildlife Populations Have Shrunk by 60 Percent Since 1970 | The Scientist Magazine® - The impact of less and less space for habitat for any species other than those directly related to humans.

BBC - Future - Why the flu of 1918 was so deadly – There have been flu strains that have been just as contagious as the 1918 strain…but none as deadly.

Infographic: What Makes a Brain Smart? | The Scientist Magazine® - There are several models that are being studied.

11 Wildly Colored Moths to Brighten Your Day – Cool Green Science – Most of our moths are in cocoons for the winter. There are several of these that I’ve seen on Maryland…will be looking for them next spring.

Owls help scientists unlock secret of how the brain pays attention -- ScienceDaily – A study using barn owls to figure out how the brain chooses what most deserves attentions.

In the Middle Patuxent at MPEA


It was a cold morning last week when I headed out at dawn to help set up for another Middle Patuxent stream assessment – this time at the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area which is upstream from the other Middle Patuxent field trips I had done this fall. It was a field trip that had been canceled previously because of high water (see the post about hike I made that day).

The day was cloudy but dry. I enjoyed the hike down to the river.

The water was low enough that we could walk across near one of the riffles without jumping from rock to rock. I was wearing two pairs of socks to fill out my boots and keep my feet warm. My table got macroinvertebrate identification (after we captured them) was set up on a gravel island in the middle of the river. The other two were on the bank further downstream.


Mayfly larvae were the more numerous critters we found – all sizes. There were numerous good photos taken with the macro lens by the students.

But the highlights of the day were two larger critters. The crayfish was large enough that it had to be in the plastic bin while the hellgrammite fit into the ice cube tray. Photos of these did not require the macro lens!

The group of 60 students managed reasonably well in the cold; it might have been a little warmer at the river level when we were dry. I realized as I walked back up the path afterwards that I was cold but for the two hours I was in the river – I was warm enough and overwhelmingly focused on the experience with the students.

Common Buckeye Butterfly

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Last Saturday, I was at Robinson Nature Center about noon enjoying the native plant garden near the front of the nature center. When I noticed a Common Bucky Butterfly enjoying some of the fall flowers.

I took pictures from several perspectives. The colors and markings are very distinctive. It has knobs on the end of the antennae and whitish palpi between its eyes. It’s reported to like flowers with yellow centers…and that it what this individual was enjoying.

The entrance of the nature center has a nice display of fall pumpkins and squash.

I had come to the nature center earlier to participate look at macroinvertebrates in this part of the Middle Patuxent – upstream from the location for the two assessment with high schoolers earlier this week. Two differences: 1) no clams at Robinson….lots of them further down the river and 2) we found a snail…didn’t find any downstream. We found more of everything but that could have been the difference between and adult group and high schoolers….and we had more time to do the project.

In the Middle Patuxent – Day 2

Last Wednesday was the second day of the week that I volunteered through the Howard County Conservancy to help with a high school Stream Assessment in the Middle Patuxent River off the Kings Contrivance Loop trail; same location, different high school. The day still started out in near darkness…but then it was sunny!

We set up for the macroinvertebrate identification and quality assessment: collection bins and buckets and nets at the river level then tables with identification and analysis materials to the side of the trail.


I took a river level picture…much better without the rain – although the temperature was in the 50s rather than the 60s like Monday.


This time the white board worked very well to summarize the macroinvertebrates the students found and identified.

The students took pictures of the critters during the field trip. I let them borrow my clip-on macro lens. One girl had a very steady hand and took video of one showing gill movement. I took my pictures after the students headed back to school. Here are some my favorites.


Two entwined netspinning caddisfly larvae and a dragonfly larvae

A lot of dragonfly larvae…different instars and species


Another dragonfly larvae – one that seems to like this particular stretch of the Middle Patuxent. We’ll see if we find any upstream in day 3.


Several different pictures of the same damselfly larvae. We use ice cube trays to separate the critters while we are identifying them…they are ‘macro’ but not very big!

Two different kinds of mayfly larvae.


As I walked back up the hill to my car, I savored the sunny day and the near solitude of the walk.


The feeder streams still had trickles of water. One neighborhood woman that came by before the students arrived told me that the river had gotten bigger in the 30 years she has lived in the area and walked the trail. The river has dug down through sediment enough that it becomes a roaring torrent when it rains hard and rarely connects to its floodplain.


I couldn’t resist a fall leaf. Most of the forest is still green. We’re still waiting for fall color!

In the Middle Patuxent River – Day 1

Last Monday, I volunteered through the Howard County Conservancy to help with a high school Stream Assessment in the Middle Patuxent River off the Kings Contrivance Loop trail. It was raining when I left the house before sunrise and continued through the assessment.


It was starting to get lighter when I arrived at the site and helped to set up for the macroinvertebrate collection and identification.

We discovered very quickly that the white boards would not work in the rain – even if we wiped them off immediately before we tried to write.

Fortunately, the rain was gentle and water still relatively clear. This part of the river is silty…not a lot of cobbles.


We found quite a few critters. There were at least 3 different kinds of dragonfly larvae; I had never seen the kind with a more rounded abdomen. All the other critters were the more typical ones.

Paper was quickly damaged in the rain. The students took pictures and (hopefully) enough data sheets will survive to make a good composite data set for the class. I took a picture of one of the sheets. The macroinvertebrate analysis done on site showed the river to be in the moderate range.


The students finished and headed to their buses. As I made my way up the hill to my car, I stopped to look at some of the feeder rivulets along the way (there were bridges although I could have easily walked across these with my boots). There were some signs of erosion along the banks….it wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be after our recent downpours.

There were also some colorful fungi. Orange is seen frequently.

There was an area with a lot of shelf fungi on logs. It was so damp that some seemed to have something green growing on them.


My favorite was nearby – bright red and orange with yellow on the edge.


Gleanings of the Week Ending August 11, 2018

The items below were ‘the cream’ of the articles and websites I found this past week. Click on the light green text to look at the article.

Chemists characterize the fatal fungus among us -- ScienceDailyAspergillus fumigatus is deadly to people with compromised immune systems. It affects more than 200,000 people annually including 25% of all leukemia patients – killing half of them. Understanding more about the organism may enable better screening and treatment.

 Learning from ‘little monsters’ -- ScienceDaily – Research on macroinvertabrates. Since I volunteer for field trips with schools to streams and rivers to sample these critters – I read anything that comes up in ScienceDaily about them.

How Rising Seas Could Threaten the Internet - Yale E360 – Within the next 15 years, 4,67 miles of fiber conduit and 1,101 notes in the US are expected to be underwater. New York, Miami and Seattle will be the most effected. -- Visualizing the Impact of Humanity | CleanTechnica – Three very short videos…about earth’s temperature over the past 137 years, the more recent time sequence of wind turbine installation in Europe and solar installations in the US.

Pic for Today – Point and Shoot Photographer -  Nature photography with a point and shoot camera. I subscribed so I get the picture and short description with my news feeds every day.

Allergy clinic finds large percentage of anaphylaxis cases from tick bite meat allergy: Increased awareness, more available testing led to 33 percent of cases identified as alpha gal allergy -- ScienceDaily – Wow! This is not good. Lyme Disease is serious but not anaphylaxis serious. We’re going to have get even better at avoiding tick bites.

AGU and AAS: Working Together to Expand the Understanding of Exoplanets - From the Prow - AGU Blogosphere – There seem to be more areas where we are acknowledging that interdisciplinary approaches are needed. The old lines of specialty can be limiting.

Hollow trees host massive moth slumber parties -- ScienceDaily –black idia moths in Florida are found in roosting in hollow trees during the day (they are active at night like most moths). The post didn’t identify the species but there are black idia moths in Maryland. I am going to start looking more carefully in hollow trees when I’m hiking although it’s already close to the end of the season.

Great Fall-Blooming Plants for Pollinators - The National Wildlife Federation Blog – The fall-blooming plants are not just for bees…they help the butterflies too!

Free Technology for Teachers: Take a Look at Microsoft’s Free Hands-on STEM Lesson Plans and Projects – I am going to take a look at these…see if there are any that could be easily incorporated into field trip conversations this fall.

Last Spring Field Trips at Mt. Pleasant

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The last of the Howard County Conservancy school field trips at Mt. Pleasant. The last three were between the heavy rains in our area the past couple of weeks. The first one was for 7th graders; my station was down at the Davis Branch helping them capture and identify macroinvertebrates to assess the water quality in the stream.

They put on boots and waded into the stream (and we didn’t have anyone step into a deep pool…fill their boots with water).

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The water was surprising clear before they arrived. The upstream portion that was restored has slowed the flow enough to help the sediment carried by the recent rains.

The forest near the stream and the meadow was thick with late spring vegetation (some invasive plants too – like the multiflora rose).


I stopped at the old foundation (now a retaining wall) on the next field trips…fascinated by the moss that was propagating, the different kinds of lichen, and what looked like a mold growing on the damp rock.

On the last field trip I checked the milkweed near the nature center for caterpillars; no luck. There was a fly that sat long enough for a picture and the buds of flowers that will open in the next few weeks.


The butterfly weed was about ready to bloom as well.

The ferns were unfurling…and providing some different color to the shady scene on the way to the nature center.


It was calm before the 3 buses arrived with about 120 kindergarteners! A good time was had by all…a good finale to the spring field trips at Mt. Pleasant.

Ten Little Celebrations – April 2018

April has gone by very quickly…full of company and travel and the beginning of the spring volunteering blitz.

Six of the 10 little celebrations were experiences outdoors – typical celebrations of springtime everywhere:

  • Blue birds and tree swallows were making their nests I the boxes at Mt. Pleasant in Maryland.
  • There were ducklings at Josey Ranch Lake in Carrollton, Texas.
  • An eared grebe at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge near Sherman, Texas.
  • Macroinvertebrates in the Middle Patuxent close to home.
  • Spicebush in the forest behind my house and at Belmont Manor and Historic Park (both in Maryland).
  • Deciduous Magnolias blooming at Brookside Gardens. Maryland got a freeze at the wrong time in 2017 and most of the blooms turned brown from the cold just as they were opening. It was a treat to see them again this year.

I celebrated the end of two long driving days between Maryland and Texas. Both were blustery and more traffic than expected. It felt good to be done!

My new iPad is something I celebrate every time I create another Zentangle with it! I a pleasantly surprised with how easy I made the transition from pen and paper tiles to digital.

I thoroughly enjoyed a meal at a Brazilian steakhouse – this time managing to savor the flavors and not overeating. I even topped off the meal with dessert!

Finally – the Watershed Summit where the high schools of the county presented their report cards to the county government for their steams and school yards – based on data they collected last fall. Each of the 13 high schools had 2 presenters. They all were so poised and organized. It was a double celebration: the environmental findings trending positive in most cases and the quality of the students in attendance. Both bode well for the future.

In the Middle Patuxent River

Last weekend I participated in the quarterly water quality monitoring of the Middle Patuxent River at Robinson Nature Center. The temperature was in the mid-40s it felt warmer with the sun shining and the river level less breezy that the top of the nearby hills. We hiked down taking a short cut through the forest and crossed the river.


The crossing was a little tricky for those of is with boots (Me and several others) rather than waders but we made it across with only one person getting water in one of her boots. There is a whale-shaped rock that is a landmark for where the quarterly surveys take place.

We used D-nets and tubs to collect macroinvertebrates from leaf wads and riffles. The leaf wad my partner and I worked on had lots of little critters, a very large crane fly larvae and a frog. Everything went into the tub except the frog which we put back into the river (not a macroinvertebrate….and not easily contained anyway). After collecting for over an hour we headed back across the river to the lab with buckets to search through of macroinvertebrates to identify.

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Back in the lab we emptied the buckets into smaller plastic bins and started separating the macroinvertebrates into ice cube trays for identification. We were after diversity and numbers of macroinvertebrates, so we were sifting through everything very carefully. I used a macro lens attached to my cell phone camera to get a few pictures.

There were a few things that were not macroinvertebrates but they were in the sample which were generally bigger than the macroinvertebrates and moved around a lot – a little distracting while we were searching. Several of us had salamanders (me included) and one person has some small fish!

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Our team lead completed the form to submit for the monitoring session; the river scored about the same as the last sampling in January which is better than 85% of other Maryland water sources. Hurray for the river!

Stream Assessment – October 2017


I had planned to volunteer at two stream assessments by 9th graders in October.  Both assessments were scheduled to be at the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area but one was cancelled after a heavy rain caused a dangerous situation at the stream – so I only have pictures from one stream assessment. The stream was smaller than the two other locations along the Middle Patuxent that were assessed in September. We crossed it on some rocks (the path came to the river  near where the big log is lying on top of the rocks).


All the gear for the abiotic and biotic assessments was set up on the side of the stream across from the path. It was very calm and shady as we set up.


Then the students arrived…60 in the first group…a little break…and then another 60. I took a few pictures of critters during the break.

One last picture before the second group…what a great place to escape into nature. I’m not sure that the students experience the psychological rejuvenation I often feel in places like this when they come with the larger group (and they are teenagers) - although it was obvious that most of them enjoyed being outdoors and in the stream. When we finished the assessment, the students helped carry all the gear – including the boots – on the 15 minute hike back to the road where they got on their buses and we packed up everything into cars….another stream assessment day complete.


Macro Lens on a Smartphone

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I bought a clip-on macro lens for my smart phone – something to use when I want to photograph macroinvertebrates in the field (or river). The lens (a 15x macro and 0.63 wide angle combo) is attached to a clip that is easy to position on my phone…and then take off again when I don’t want it.


I experimented a little this weekend – with an earring and a peacock feather. I discovered that it is easier to get the focus right without the case on the phone.

I am looking forward to trying it during the break between sessions in the river with students…hope they find a lot of macroinvertebrates that I can photograph!

Training for Fall Field Trips

Early September is training time for Howard County Conservancy’s fall field trips for Howard County Schools. The content of the field trips had not changed this year; that meant I could take pictures rather than focusing totally on learning the material as we took the example hikes.

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Montjoy Barn

The barn is one of my favorite places. It dates from the 1700s and was moved to Mt. Pleasant in 2003. It has doors on two sides that make a great frame for pictures…and the pegs used in its construction surprise children and chaperones alike during the elementary school hikes.

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Stream Assessment

We used the Davis Branch at Mt. Pleasant for the stream assessment training. We’ll be doing the student science activity with 9th graders in many streams and rivers around the county this fall. There is an abiotic component (testing the water) and then wading into the stream to look for macroinvertebrates.



The hikes through the fall meadow are a joy with second graders studying insects or soil….or sometimes taking a tangent from the assigned topic to observe vultures soaring or small flocks of gold finches enjoying the seeds of meadow plants.

The volunteers are trained…primed for the fieldtrips to begin!