The superhydrophobic diving flies of Mono Lake

Mark Twain described the odd diving flies (Ephydra hians) of Mono Lake, California in chapter XXXVIII of Roughing It – one of his finest books:

“Then there is a fly, which looks something like our house fly. These settle on the beach to eat the worms that wash ashore—and any time, you can see there a belt of flies an inch deep and six feet wide, and this belt extends clear around the lake—a belt of flies one hundred miles long. If you throw a stone among them, they swarm up so thick that they look dense, like a cloud. You can hold them under water as long as you please—they do not mind it—they are only proud of it. When you let them go, they pop up to the surface as dry as a patent office report, and walk off as unconcernedly as if they had been educated especially with a view to affording instructive entertainment to man in that particular way.”

A couple of Caltech scientists have now detailed exactly what’s going on with those superhydrophobic flies—whose Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus predates ours by a long stretch—with an overview article and video here. Links to their freely downloadable research paper and supplemental videos are at the end of that page.

Nature at my window

One of the last videotapes I needed to convert was this half-hour of fox cub footage I took at my old place. Recorded years ago with a cheap VHS camera borrowed from the office and shot from behind a screen window, so it’s not the best quality, but it’s still fun to watch. I described the scenario on a UK forum back in 2008:

Here, [foxes are] not the rubbish-rooting scavengers they seem to be in the UK (I saw mom with a rabbit in her mouth more than once), and are a fair amount rarer, so it’s always nice to spot them. In the two or three weeks before I taped that, I had caught brief glimpses among the undergrowth of tiny foxes, as small as 8″ long, and decided to get a bag of dry dog food – figuring they’re closely related to canines – for a bit of nature-watching on a Saturday.

Saturday morning, I set the camera up in a front window and set it recording, thinking I’d rewind after a couple hours and keep trying until they showed up – but they started showing up just ten minutes after I set it up. I got about thirty minutes of footage of them eating and frolicking and chasing each other around like kittens before they each went down the hill, one by one, to the abandoned and quite dilapidated barn where they lived, until one straggler was left, going ’round in circles looking for his brothers and sisters.

For weeks afterward, until they went their separate ways, one or two of the litter would generally be to one side of the driveway when I got home and would nonchalantly look up at me as I passed.

The old place was a modest cottage of 1950s vintage I rented for more than a decade that was situated in the middle of twelve acres of woodland, back about 500 feet from the road. Though the place was tiny, it was fairly quiet – some background noise from the nearby highway – and home to lots of wildlife. The house was quick to heat in the winter and electricity was 1960s cheap because the town makes its own power and, at the time, charged about a third of National Grid’s rates, even giving everyone in town rebates three or four months of the year when they sold excess generated power. Now I’m one town away and paying through the nose for National Grid’s juice.* On the plus side, it’s even quieter where I live now – the loudest intrusion is the occasional low rumble of a freight train moving through town at a stately 4 or 5 mph.

I would have stayed there even longer had the heirs of the elderly lady who owned it not sold the land to a developer a year after she passed – with what I thought a rather discourteous thirty days notice to me. Now, instead of the bubbling brook, a nice mix of evergreens and deciduous, and the deer, pheasants, turkeys, owls, foxes, and turtles, there are three expensive homes with manicured lawns and neat rows of more manageable trees. What a shame.

I believe the soundtrack here is from Tony Furtado’s “Within Reach” (1992).

6am one Saturday morning, an hour after the snow stopped. It really was this striking blue. Click for the original size (this was March 2001, so not all that big).

Click for the original size

“Okay, fellas, let’s knock all this down,” someone probably said. This was the only size of this autumn photo I could locate. That’s unusual and probably means I mistakenly saved the edited smaller version over the original years ago.

*”Choose your own electricity provider” they tell us. Yeah, I looked into that. All the providers offer one- or two-year good deals, but then they can do whatever they like to you. And they do – shocking, ain’t it? – so you’re forced to go to another provider. In my case, I’d save maybe five to eight dollars a month. That’s not worth the admin trouble and what I feel would be intense aggravation at being gouged and re-gouged every year or two.

The Butterfly Place

My friend and I visited The Butterfly Place on Monday and left with a boatload of photos after wandering around in a leisurely fashion for 90 minutes. They have butterflies from every continent except the obvious one – a mite too chilly there. The best of my photos are below, presented in the order I took them. I’ve identified a few of the butterflies in the captions, and you can find many of the other names on their web site here.

All of these photos are 1920 x 1440, about half their original resolution. The only editing other than resizing that I did was some cropping on a handful and Photoshop’s auto-tone on most. Auto-tone automatically adjusts exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, whites, and blacks, and it’s usually the first thing I do to photos imported from my camera. It’s almost never a bad idea.

Click on any thumbnail below to enter the gallery, where you’ll see medium-sized images. To see or save any particular image in full size, click on this at the lower right – you may need to scroll down to see it:

A brief panoramic video of the flight area is at the end of this post.

A visit from the family

Back in July 2013, I took this photo of a rafter of turkeys at my office:

The hen and her eight poults (Click for a larger version)

Yesterday, what might well be the same family showed up, but there were ten instead of nine ’cause Pop was there this time:

I wonder, would a sourdough, boursin, and cranberry trap work? (Click for a larger version)

He paused about every sixth step to puff up and flash this display (Click for a larger version)