Rev. Austin Miles, a chaplain in Northern California is a writer and historian. He is the author of Santa's Surprising Origins, a story that received worldwide circulation and resulted in him being cast in the 2004 Hallmark Christmas Movie titled, Single Santa Seeks Mrs. Claus. He played the mall Santa who magically received the gift of sign language.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

General • CATHY TAIBBI Reveals Fascinating World of Bugs Nobody Knows Exist

Are you aware that there is a"Gotham Bee,” a species indigenous to New York? That insects are considered “wild life?” That you might even have a newly discovered bug named after you (now THAT is prestige)? This fascinating story brings you into a world of bugs in your home and yard you really did not know existed, except for the occasional spider in the bathtub. LEADING WILDLIFE AND ENVIRONMENTAL JOURNALIST CATHY TAIBBI, gives incredible insights into that world along with tips for those who want to photograph them. Her story is a great read that opens the door to mysterious lives that God Created for a purpose. Discovery should always be sought.  Enjoy.

Help Discover New Species Using Your Cell Phone
by Cathy Taibbi

Believe it or not, according The Bees in Your Backyard, A Guide to North America’s Bees (Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carril, published by Princeton University Press), a ‘new’ species of bee (that is, new to science or previously unnamed) was discovered in New York City (of all places) in 2010 - the so-called ‘Gotham Bee’ (Lasioglossum gothami). In fact, at least 11 ‘new’ bee species have been ‘discovered’ in the New York City and surrounding area, alone. There are newly recognized species of small invertebrates still being discovered all over the world. But New York City is a pretty unlikely place to find one.

The Gotham bee was discovered at the New York Botanical Gardens, highlighting the importance of keeping some large natural areas in even the most densely populated cities.

Each new species ‘discovery’ helps advance and deepen our knowledge of the natural world and how everything fits together. And, believe it or not, you and I or anyone with an eye for detail, thirst for knowledge, dedication, sense of adventure and a high-pixel cell phone camera, has a chance to stumble upon an as-yet-unnamed species, too.

Whether it’s at an overgrown vacant lot, a local pond, the hedgerow between pastures or a group of shrubs in your own yard, there is excitement and challenge available to you if you just make an effort to get out there and open your eyes to things that most people rush blithely past. Chances are, you already carry your cell phone with you everywhere, anyway.

Going on a cell-phone-camera ‘bug hunt’ is free, can be completely spontaneous, and can be every bit as absorbing, even thrilling, as fishing, or hunting with a gun. And no one has to get hurt in the process, not even the bug. (Note: The term ‘bug’ is commonly used incorrectly. There are true bugs, and then there are other insects. Not all insects are bugs, but all bugs are insects. I use the term ‘bug’ here incorrectly, intentionally, for effect - Because I like it.)

Many books will tell you how to collect, kill and preserve specimens of all kinds, and in order to officially classify and name a species, a body may be required - but the author has qualms about encouraging folks to head outside to kill stuff ‘in the name of science’, especially since many species (including fungi, algae, fish and insects, not to mention larger, more publicized mammals and birds) are perilously near extinction due to human activities.

However, a very clear photo can be an incredible tool, useful for general if not specific identification, and also worthy of sharing to your social network even if your quarry turns out to be a common but fascinating butterfly (or lizard or spider for that matter.)

While the zoom or telephoto function needed for bird photography doesn’t exist in cell phones, your macro setting (and a steady hand) can actually produce admirable, if not stunning, results - If nothing else, even if you never stumble upon a new species or behavior, you may become so totally absorbed in the artistic aspects of shooting great images of bugs that you will be totally satisfied to just be an observer of insects and become a passionate advocate of nature in the process.

Here is how to start:

If you can, have access to some insect or general field guides. It’s good to have some background as to what kind of insects and other critters are likely to be found where you will be ‘hunting’. You might run into shy reptiles, nesting field mice, tree frogs or other unexpected and worthy subjects. Learn the basics of nomenclature and taxonomy and how legitimate new species are recognized and assigned names.

Get out your cellphone. Be sure it’s a smartphone or has the capacity to take and save photos. It should have a removable card on which to save photos and transfer them. If you can email them to yourself from the phone, (or upload them to the Cloud or other storage service), so much the better. Maybe silence the shutter sound while you’re at it (or at least choose the quietest sound option available).

Get outside (or at least, someplace where bugs are likely to be - The author has on occasion shot respectable insect portraits inside the house when a window was inadvertently left open, and fascinating, even breathtaking (if minute) insects flew in on a warm summer night to land on the desk lamp.

SLOW DOWN. You won’t even notice, no less manage to take decent photos of wildlife (and yes, insects are wildlife) if you’re scanning hurriedly or moving too fast. Insects, like all beings, will avoid danger, and if you’re making a ruckus, everything will flee, fly, freeze, burrow or hide . So be still. Let nature begin to grow in your consciousness (it sounds metaphysical, but it is actually a way to open your awareness); listen to the chirps of crickets, the rustling of sparrows, the sound of grass blades swishing against each other in the breeze. Let your ears relax and open to more subtle sounds.

You may begin to detect the faintest rustlings - you might be able to hear a grasshopper chewing through a stem or a beetle scurrying under dry leaves. Soon things will begin to appear that you had no idea were there the whole time. In a while you may notice a tiny, beautiful leaf-hopper on a weed stalk right next to you. It seems the deeper you look, the more there is. Amazing, how the world opens up when you slow down.

Don’t forget to inspect the bark on a tree, the shadowy arch under leaves, in crevices, behind things, in spaces underneath things, deep within shrubs, etc. The idea is not to change or manipulate the environment you’re shooting in (or to ‘stage’ a shot) but to be alert and look deeply. Patience is rewarded. Try to never touch, move or stress any animal, bug or otherwise, just for the purpose of taking a picture. And don’t move, flip, dig or prune any parts of their habitat - We don’t want to kill or interfere with our subjects. The very best photos that you can be proudest of will be the ones where you truly captured a spontaneous natural scene of a wild and healthy animal and habitat that was in no way harmed or compromised by you.

When you spot your ‘bug’, approach slowly and smoothly. Make sure your camera setting is selected on the phone, and that the camera is on. If you can ‘zoom’ the view by dragging your fingers across the screen, be prepared to do so but don’t zoom yet - Find the bug in you viewfinder from as far away as you can first (it’s unbelievable how easy it is to lose your subject when shooting in macro mode) and creep up so as to not frighten your bug while still keeping it in frame.

WARNING - The beam your phone uses to autofocus will be detected by the insect when you get very close. Try taking photos as you approach as soon as the insect is large enough in the viewfinder to be ‘larger than life’, so maybe you will get something (rather than nothing) should your subject suddenly vanish entirely. If you can creep close enough after that, see just how close you can get - There is a minimum distance you’ll have to stay away from the bug for the autofocus to function - watch for the little icon to tell you if you’ve gotten too close to get a focused shot. But if you can get close enough to see each hair sharply defined on the face of a moth, you’ll have a knockout photo.

Useful identification photos need to show the entire animal/insect, and from various angles, so try to get those first if science is your goal and then focus on an artistic portrait later, if desired.

Be sure the camera focuses on the insect itself and not the background, or if that’s tricky, at least focus on whatever the insect is sitting on.

Make sure your model fills the frame, or that (if you are artistically inclined) all elements within ‘frame’ are pleasing. Flash can be used, but it will greatly change the feeling/lighting of the photo in most instances, and may frighten your subject. But the flash will also enable you to ‘freeze’ action or capture an exceptionally crisp image.

You can also use the rapid-fire feature if you’re comfortable with that - Especially for butterflies, dragonflies or others that may be prone to flying about. Keep taking as many photos as you can while the insect is cooperative, holding the phone as steady as possible (you may have to extend your arm well out in front of you or sometimes over your head to get the shot).

When you’ve taken all the shots you can, take some more if the creature is still there. Change the angle, get higher or lower or brighter or darker - Anything that makes the image different, dramatic, clearer, more representative of true color or just a more pleasing composition.

BACK UP YOUR FILES. Some way. any way, just do it. A Wordpress blog or Facebook album can be a great tool for saving your photos in event of computer or cell phone loss.

Record all pertinent information as to location, date, weather, time of day, etc., into a log. Then try your darndest to key out your find, since chances are, it’s already been named. This is one of many great sites to visit:http://bugguide.net/node/view/3/bgpage. Make your best IG guess.

Shoot more bugs. Learn from other, more experienced bug hunters. Find more bugs to shoot. Or worms, Or salamanders. Or spiders. Or - Well, you get the idea.

If you one day realize that the tiny drab bee at the entrance to that hole in the clay ravine in GA might be something different than anything else, report your special find. Maybe you’ll get a bug named after you. Maybe not. Find another bug anyway - This is fun!

Once you’ve taken a few thousand shots (just kidding - kind of), go through your images to select the ones you want to work with more. Select the most interesting, important or pleasing, determine which are clearest (if there are multiple images that are nearly the same), then send your favorites to your email address.

Once you have them on your computer, you can use your post-processing program to sharpen, color-balance or color correct, and if so inclined, even play with removing all colors to create black and white or sepia-tone ‘art’ (although this is of no scientific value, it sure can be fun!) The teeniest tiniest insects may have to be cropped and and enlarged to make a usable ID or artistic photo. Be sure to note the actual size of the subject, if possible.

If there’s no university library, science or nature center near you, you’ll have to do all your research online and/or with the help of the one of the excellent insect encyclopedias and field guides out there. Find out if one of the insects (or other tiny life forms) you photographed are indeed new to science, or if you’ve recorded a new behavior or discovered a color morph, mutation or ‘out of town visitor’. Realistically the odds are against finding a bonafide undescribed species, but it’s still fun and satisfying to search.

Whatever happens, though, you are sure to gain a vastly increased knowledge and appreciation of the natural world in your backyard, and possibly a huge Instagram following, as well.

*ALWAYS save your raw, untouched photos so that, should you indeed photograph something worthy of scientific interest, ‘artistic manipulation’ of the image won’t discredit what might be valid discovery.

This author is including a slideshow of cell phone images from my own personal ‘bug hunts’ over the years. A little adjusting in Photoshop or a free image manipulation program like GIMP can help with color or lighting adjustments in photos to help them more closely duplicate the actual critter you’ve ‘stalked and shot’. The images included here have been post-processed in these ways to improve the results, but nothing has been added, subtracted or altered, so they are represented as realistically as possible. All photos taken by author with Samsung Galaxy.

To enjoy Ms. Taibbi’s fantastic photos and to see the complete story as printed in The Examiner, click on this link:
http://www.examiner.com/article/how-you-can-help-discover-new-species-using-your-cell-phone

To see more of the author’s cell phone photography please visit TaibbiStudios and look under Photography.

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