by William H. Amos, Vermont, USA
Prefatory note: We microscopists often miss an in-between world, one of the not-so-small, yet far from being large enough to see clearly. Magnifiers allow us to enter this realm, but only if we are so close to specimens they often grow alarmed and leave before we have a good look. After years of searching for the right instrument, even assembling and modifying viewing devices from a variety of optics, I now have what I previously only dreamed about.
Life has been full of globe-circling treks, quests, and voyages, but recent adventures right here in northeastern Vermont have been as memorable as any, made possible due to a remarkable new pair of 10X binoculars* that focus down to three feet (as opposed to the usual 15 or 20 feet). They may be the first of their kind anywhere.
Here is what I saw in the space of an hour one afternoon, everything occurring within a few square yards on a sparsely vegetated bank of sandy fill.
Peering into this small world at arm's length was like being in an African blind, watching wildlife approach to graze and hunt unaware of my presence. The optical enlargement made me feel I was down among remarkable creatures that kept appearing and dashing off. I never knew what might come along next.
A handsomely banded crab spider darted across my field of view, both front legs out-stretched ready to grab prey. A long-legged hunting spider cruised nearby through the miniature savanna, disappearing into a dense bunch of dried grass from which it didn't emerge. Lying in ambush, I thought, as a lion might in a real African plain.
I studied a beautiful fly, as splendid as a rare bird in a faraway forest. Shaped like an ordinary housefly, it was larger, had russet eyes set in a golden head, its dark body handsomely adorned with pale blue-green streaks. It was neither deerfly nor horsefly, but probably a flesh fly whose larvae are known to feed upon paralyzed insects stored in wasp nests.
Alerted to this possibility, I counted 63 separate sphecid wasp holes from where I sat on the sandy bank. These industrious, sand-loving, solitary folk are clearly job-oriented, calmer than their excitable and dangerous communal ground wasp relatives thirty yards away, the notorious yellow-jackets.
A sphecid finds a likely spot and, bulldog-like, excavates furiously, building an apron of sand out in front. It then provisions the burrow with paralyzed insects and spiders before laying eggs. I couldn't tell how many wasps the burrows represented, but I suspect almost as many as there were holes. During the time I watched, a wasp would arrive, circle while getting oriented, then glide down into a burrow where it remained 15 or 20 minutes. This went on across the bank in sporadic fashion, so at this rate each wasp had no more than a few holes to attend to.
Only once did I see a sign of irritability. An apparently disoriented digger wasp attempted to enter a burrow that wasn't its own. The resident appeared from the shadowed depths, blocked the aperture with jawed head, and gave the intruder several nips. The confused wasp rose into the air, descended again and started a desultory dig on the owner's sand pile, was vigorously thwarted, and flew away for good. Perhaps home turf landmarks it had memorized elsewhere closely resembled those of the already-occupied territory.
There were other wasps in the area, none of them diggers. A large, nervous, shiny black one scurried about, wings flicking, investigating one burrow after the next. A smaller wasp, with rust-and-black abdomen, paused at burrow entrances before flitting on. Both species, I surmised, were parasitoid wasps looking for undefended burrows they could enter to lay their own eggs upon hapless larvae.
Dark tiger beetles, spots barely showing upon their elytra forewings, dashed head-up over the sparse grass and across one excavated sand pile after the next. One beetle paused, alert and watchful, cleaned its legs, then flexed white scimitar-shaped jaws in what looked like hungry anticipation. Tiger beetles weren't on the hunt for wasps, but smaller insects alighting on the sand, because a light-colored surface often means an empty and safe place to land. Not so here: A vigilant tiger beetle possesses such excellent eyesight and formidable jaws, few victims escape. Close-up with my powerful binoculars, I watched a tiger beetle capture a fly about to take wing, then shred it into tiny bits, all of which were consumed.
Immersed in the world of the very small, I was startled when a large male Band-Winged Grasshopper, flying in with a loud crackling buzz, landed directly in front of me and folded its conspicuously-colored flight wings beneath the camouflaged first pair. The big insect turned instantly from the obvious to the invisible, cryptically colored with a spotted earth-gray body. Greatly magnified, it remained clearly defined. Only when it shifted position did I see a bright rosiness on the underside of the powerful jumping legs and the reddish tibia. Walking briskly, the grasshopper stopped at a tuft of grass and tilted body and head until its entire side was perpendicular to the sun, warming itself, raising its metabolism. I watched its gentle breathing, the accordion-pleated abdomen rhythmically inflating and deflating.
What happened next was beyond my ability to follow with binoculars. The grasshopper sprang into the air, fluttered vertically six or seven feet almost like a butterfly, then descended straight down to land beside a female I had not noticed on the ground. There was a brief tussle, and up he went again. Over and over again. This was not the usual energetic flight of grasshoppers needing to cover territory, but more like the courtship flights of prairie and savanna birds.
Real butterflies were everywhere, some soaring gracefully, others too distant to identify. Cabbage Whites dashed and swerved across the scene. One of the season's last tattered Wood Nymphs stopped on a nearby thistle to be admired under magnification, while a few skippers flitted here and there in short flights, some alighting almost underfoot at my binoculars' minimum focus. I was lucky to follow a magnified pair of Orange Sulphurs as they spiralled vertically in their aerial courtship dance. A handsome Viceroy, mimicking the ubiquitous Monarch, flew at grass-top height, stopping frequently to test the vegetation and to be admired, enlarged ten times. What was it seeking? A suitable spot for egg-laying? There were no nectar-containing flowers nearby to sip from.
It was then I understood why Jeffrey Glassberg wrote his superb field guide that has been my companion through two editions, Butterflies Through Binoculars. I had never before seen these magnificent creatures in action so clearly. A living butterfly ten times larger than life is marvelous to behold.
The richness of life revealed in a single hour with my new optics was too much to take in, despite registering repeated observations, thoughts, and questions into a tiny digital recorder for later transcription.
I felt omnipotent, an observer of a world with which I had no connection—and sufficiently emboldened to be foolish.
I left the sandy, grass-dotted bank and went down the meadow to where a vespid ground wasp colony was in full swing. I could hear an ominous buzz as I approached, and with unaided eye saw small shapes swirling around the nest's opening. I walked quietly to within five feet of the maelstrom. The binoculars took me directly to the fist-sized hole. Hundreds of banded yellow-jackets flew in and out. Here was excitement—and danger.
Because I stood motionless, I was not recognized as a threat while peering down at the frenetic action magnified ten times. Foolish, yes, and riveting.
It was a scene of Spitfires taking off en masse in the Battle of Britain. It was a scene from a Hollywood horror film.
It was magnificent.
It also was a traffic controller's nightmare. Incoming wasps, legs still tucked streamlined under the body, careened down into the hole, crashing into others attempting to leave. Frantic untangling allowed them to sort themselves out. More prudent departees crawled up the wall of the opening, out of the way of incoming traffic. Once at the rim, they took off safely.
The entire flight program had a single orientation: almost all wasps flew to and from a southeastern wall of fringing forest. Reaching there, they were so dispersed and no longer bunched in a smoke-like stream, I had no idea of their destination, although I knew they were hunting. Woodland was where they found insect prey to bring back and, after being thoroughly chewed up, it would be fed to larvae waiting in tiers of papery cells within the woodchuck burrow the workers had taken over in the spring.
I watched until my legs locked painfully and I was afraid of losing balance and falling toward the yellow-jacket nest, so I backed away, thankful for not having been stung (but undoubtedly noticed by scouting wasps). I had never seen anything like what was going on down there at ground level, all of it highly magnified until each wasp was a very real, very formidable creature capable of causing a lot of pain to a human intruder.
Such local adventures are not without real expense, for I had to buy these unique binoculars. But purchase was justified because a simpler pair, focusing to an awkward seven feet, had been accidentally destroyed some months before. How? I ran over them with a tractor mower, shooting shimmering arcs of plastic, metal gears, lenses, and shattered prisms across the meadow.
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©2002 William H. Amos
Acknowledgements: The image of the Ranger Platinum 10x32 binoculars is courtesy of Eagle Optics.
Author's note: Readers interested in learning more about close-focusing Ranger Platinum Series binoculars should get in touch with the sole North American source of such optical marvels: Eagle Optics, 2120 West Greenview Drive, #4, Middleton, Wisconsin 53562, USA; tel: 1-800-289-1132; or visit their website http://www.eagleoptics.com. While all staff personnel are highly knowledgeable and very helpful, Mike McDowell (firstname.lastname@example.org) is familiar with my minimum-focus use.
* At the very closest range, to overcome parallax problems Ranger Platinum 10x32 binoculars are best used as a monocular, but this is easy to do. Eagle Optics supplies attached objective caps (see illustration), so at three feet, you simply flip up one cap and look through the other side. This is more effective and less tiring than squinting with one eye closed. Once you focus to four or five feet, however, binocular vision is convenient again.
Two other models of the extreme close-focusing Eagle Optics Ranger Platinum series, the 8x32 and 6x32, can be used in binocular fashion down to three feet with minimal parallax problems. The 6x32, with their wide field of view, are particularly suited to studying butterflies on the move. For someone wanting a versatile, all-purpose pair of binoculars that focus to three feet, I recommend the 8x32. But for my detailed work, I depend upon the 10x model, thankful for its extraordinary ability to take me down where the action is.
Other binoculars in the Ranger Platinum series have larger diameter objective lenses and focus to five feet, which is close enough for many users.
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