I seem to have a kind of animal magnetism: I attract unusual animals (flies too, but I'm so not going there). Over the years I've managed to capture some of the curious critters which crossed my path on film and silicon, and here are some of their photos. These are all accidental encounters with wildlife around the house, office, and garden. For more agenda-driven wildlife photography, see the Images of Africa from our 2001 solar eclipse expedition.
Click on any of the images or section titles to view an enlargement. The images are in chronological order by date taken.
Our big grey cat Bup made friends easily. (Actually, his “official name” was Blue, but since a single name never suffices to adequately cover a cat, he had many: even more after engaging in some particularly egregious mischief.) He'd even sit in the bird feeder twittering to the birds to come and play with him. One afternoon I wandered out onto the front porch and found he'd invited a raccoon (Procyon lotor) to lunch. This occasioned some anxiety: raccoons, particularly solitary males, are known to kill cats. But this one was quite sociable: Bup wasn't molested in any way and went on to live to a ripe old age.
This photograph was taken by John Walker in the mid 1970s in
California (outside the house where
Autodesk was founded in 1982).
The shot was taken with a Nikkormat camera and Nikon 50mm f/1.4 lens; exposure
was not recorded. Film was probably Kodak ASA 400 colour print film,
which I almost always used in the years before I became a
(Back in the Bronze Age when this photo was
taken, 400 speed film was much more grainy than
contemporary emulsions.) This image was scanned from an enlargement of the
original negative (now lost in the mists of time). The print has hung
on assorted walls in both hemispheres in the almost 30 years since
it was made and has faded a tad. The scan preserves
all the resolution in the print, which isn't all that much.
In November 1987 I was summoned to attend a March 22, 1988 meeting of the National Computer Graphics Association in order to accept an award for something or other I was alleged to have done. I had problems with this: accepting the award would require traveling to Los Angeles and giving a speech, thereby involving three of my least favourite things: air travel, Los Angeles, and public speaking. So, I decided to blow off the award and, as things worked out, the night I was supposed to have received it I was home alone engaging in the kind of wild hedonistic debauchery which makes me so loath to travel—on this occasion cleaning the dishwasher.
Here I pick up the narrative from an E-mail I sent to colleagues shortly after things got terribly wet, red, and salty that night.
Date: Wed, 23 Mar 88 00:53:03 PST From: John Walker To: redacted Subject: Turbo Karma The voice of experience sez.... Don't cross the NCGA. Sunday, I decided not to go to NCGA & accept their "award" on 3/22/88. Tuesday, shortly after said "award" was to be delivered, I'm passing the time waiting for a document to be printed on the LaserWriter by cleaning out the Muir Beach Water Company gunk from his dishwasher. Did you know that that little popper valve at the back of your dishwasher has a knife edge right below the edge of the cap? I do, now. So....23:00 on a fine Tuesday night, and we have bright red arterial blood going blop-blop-blop from the left index finger. Serious medical problem... this calls for a Band-Aid! Uhhhh....slight difficulty...the Band-Aids are at the other house. Do we feel like a 10 minute drive with the finger pumping vital fluids into the footwell of the Honda? Nope. Messy, and possibly embarrassing. So, wrap a Kleenex around it and compress with Scotch Magic Tape. Well...that seems to have stopped the bleeding for the moment. Time to think about the problem. Hey...there's the apocalypse-hedge med kit downstairs, in the room with the wolf spider. Gingerly the kit is retrieved....hmmmm.... pre-threaded sutures...I always wondered if I could do this....three stitches ...problem solved. Conclusions: 1. Never run out of Band-Aids and butterfly closures. 2. "Survivalist" equipment sometimes pays off. 3. If you have to do it, it's not that hard. 4. Never cross the NCGA. Hey, it's OK. Please don't call the Marins. See 'ya tomorrow. The fact that it's essentially funny compensates for most of the travails of life.
Suture self! But let's get back to the mention of the wolf spider in this E-mail. When, Kleenexed and Magic taped so as not to create a blood and spatter trail likely to attract Henry Lee, I made my way down to the bunker to dig out the field surgery kit, what should I espy when I opened the door but the hairy lady pictured above, doubtless looking right back at me with four times the number of eyes I'd brought to our inadvertent first date.
I did what any rational primate would do under the circumstances: screech ook!, then ignore the icky arthropod and get on with the business at hand. When you're about to bleed out because you've almost cut off the end of your finger, spider bites are pretty far down the risk continuum. Naturally, the next morning, the spider was nowhere to be seen. Walker's First Law of Spiders, however, says “Once you've seen a spider, you'll always see it again”. Spiders, like ants and female cats in heat, are no more constrained by walls, windows, and closed doors than neutrinos. To wit, the following Saturday when, notwithstanding assiduous, bordering on compulsive, looking for beings with more legs or eyes than I am endowed with sneaking through the airlock with me, shortly after watching the latest episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I toddled down to the computer room to find my chance acquaintance fixing me with an octo-ocular stare. After taking these pictures, I released the spider a long, long way from the house. And I never, ever again crossed the NCGA!
This photo was taken by John Walker in March 1988
with a Nikkormat camera and Nikon 50mm f/1.4 lens on
Kodak ASA 100 colour print film. Aperture and exposure were not
recorded. This image was produced by scanning the
original negative with a Nikon 8000 ED film scanner
and postprocessing with
Okay, cows are hardly an exotic species, nor something one should be astonished to observe in Switzerland, but this view from the Fourmilab conference room nicely captures the bucolic ambiance of our rural location. The rainbow is authentic; I popped it out against the sky by holding a polarising filter in front of the lens, turned to obtain maximum contrast. Note that the sky above the rainbow is darker than below. This is the signature of a genuine rainbow; if you look at most photos to which a rainbow has been added by trucage, you'll notice few get this subtle detail correct.
The field across from the Fourmilab driveway is a hay-mow; during the summer hay is harvested from it several times to feed livestock during the winter. In the fall, cows are moved into the field to consume the last of the grass, too short to harvest for hay, before retiring to the barn for winter.
This photo was taken by John Walker in September 1998 with a Kodak
DC120 digital camera and auxiliary wide-angle lens with a polarising
filter hand-held in front of the objective. Exposure and focus were
When I went to open up Fourmilab one fine October day in 1998, what should I see on the door but an enormous moth gone to ground above the door handle. The moth's camouflage is clearly intended to protect it when hiding on tree bark, but other than the odd dérangement in opening and closing the door and taking this picture, it did the trick for this moth, that day.
The tape measure at the left is calibrated in centimetres. The moth remained immobile the entire day, even as the door was opened and shut numerous times. About an hour after sunset, it had flown away.
This photo was taken by John Walker on October 13th, 1998 with a Kodak
DC120 digital camera. Exposure and focus were
After a long night tracking down and squashing bugs in Speak Freely, I walked out the Fourmilab building when a glint in the flashlight beam attracted my attention. It was eyeshine from a hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus) lurking along the border of the driveway, partially concealed in the cotoneaster hedge which borders it. When startled, hedgehogs freeze rather than flee (which, along with their spines providing inadequate defence against rapidly moving, multi-ton vehicles, explains why they account for a high percentage of roadkill on European highways). So, I had plenty of time to fetch my digital camera and take a number of pictures, the best of which is shown here. I was kind of hoping the hedgehog would move: perhaps I could get a less obscured picture. But no such luck…note that notwithstanding the play-dead act, the hedgehog was keeping an eye on the crazy ape with the flash-flash box: the reflection from the eye shows it was open.
After taking several pictures, I went back inside to download them to the computer. When I was done, about ten minutes later, the hedgehog had moved on.
This photo was taken by John Walker in July 2002 outside
Fourmilab with an Olympus C-3040 digital camera
with flash in automatic exposure mode.
Five years thereafter, as I set out on my daily walk on Moon Day afternoon, July 20th, 2007, it was one of those mid-summer “dark days” where the cumulonimbus clouds which form over the Jura become so tall and dense that, even with the Sun high in the sky, the ambient light resembles dusk. So dark was it that a hedgehog, usually a nocturnal animal, which I had never before observed (apart from roadkill) in daylight, had moseyed out of its den and was sitting on the paving stone border of the road along which I was walking.
I stopped and took a number of pictures, the best of which is shown here.
The hedgehog paid little attention to me, except when I crouched down to
take a close-up of its head, whereupon it started to roll up into a
ball. I backed off, and the hedgehog resumed this nonchalant pose.
Dark days aren't the best time for a
randonnée—not long after
this picture was taken, I was caught in a hailstorm. But what are a few
dents in the noggin next to spotting a hedgehog in the (dim) daylight?
Most people who see this image immediately assume it's a montage. It isn't! Now the spider isn't really bigger than the buildings, of course, but it's still respectably large: about three centimetre leg span. It had set up shop outside an east facing window of the Fourmilab conference room, deploying its web to snag insects attracted by interior lights at notoriously late-working Fourmilab.
Walker's Second Law of Spiders goes as follows. “Any spider, regardless of size, will appear at least three times bigger if you unexpectedly spot it at eye level.” I took this picture to illustrate the phenomenon. Selecting full manual mode on my Olympus digital camera permitted choosing the smallest lens aperture available, f/10, with a slow shutter speed of 1/30 second to obtain the correct exposure. I can usually get away with hand holding a camera at 1/30, but in this case I used a tripod just to be sure. The spider didn't move at all, which made composing the shot quite easy. With such a small aperture, the hyperfocal distance is such that both the spider and the distant scenery are (more or less) in focus—this image suffers more from JPEG ringing artefacts at bright/dark transitions than accuracy of focus. The spiderweb, visible to the eye, eluded capture by the camera due to limited resolution and lack of contrast against the bright background. The spider appears almost in silhouette against the sky; attempts to use fill-in flash resulted in a dazzling flash-back reflection from the double paned window. I don't know the spider's species. I asked, but it wouldn't tell me.
This photograph was taken by John Walker in July 2002 from a window at
Fourmilab with an Olympus C-3040 digital camera
at f/10 and 1/30 second.
In August 2002 I was out in the Fourmilab driveway with my digital camera on a tripod making long, full aperture exposures in the hope of catching a Perseid meteor when I heard several yer-skrawwwk! cries which sounded like they were coming from the computer room I was just outside. This was disturbing: the last thing you need is a hard drive crash you can hear from outside the building or, even worse, a cat fight in the Hall of the Servers. I decided to abandon my night vision adaptation in the interest of finding out what was going on, popped into the Hall, and what should I see looking at me through the window but a fouine or stone marten (Martes foina).
Fouine are cat-sized weasels ubiquitous in Central Europe. They thrive in rural and suburban areas as well as the wild, much like raccoons in the Western Hemisphere. They eat anything that moves, including other fouine who try to horn into their territory. Fouine are notorious for eating the insulation off ignition wires in automobiles: our cars have been “fouined” three times in the last ten years, despite regular spraying with fouine repellent. They are well-equipped in the tooth and claw department and extremely aggressive; they're related to North American wolverines; you do not want to get onto the wrong side of one of these fellows.
This fouine couldn't care less about me. I took a dozen photos, with and without flash, and it was as curious about me as I was about it. I also took a number of pictures of this bad actor with the young fouine s/he'd killed during the fight which attracted my attention. I'll spare you those.
This photo was taken by John Walker on August 14th, 2002 in the
Fourmilab Hall of the Servers with an Olympus C-3040 digital camera
with flash and automatic exposure mode.
This is a close-up of the leaf stem of a sunflower. The small dark grey insects are aphids, which feed on the sap of the plant. The ants stimulate the aphids with their antennæ or forelegs to excrete a substance called honeydew which is rich in nutrients ants require. Each worker ant goes from aphid to aphid collecting honeydew which she stores in her abdomen until it's full, whereupon she returns to the nest and regurgitates to feed other members of the colony. The ants, in return, protect the aphids from predators such as flies, wasps, and beetles. Indeed, the arthropod contingent at Fourmilab are not entirely unanimous regarding the use to which aphids should be put. This ladybird (Coccinella septempunctata) is munching away at aphids on a leaf near where the ants have their main ranch. An ant, to the left and slightly out of focus), is attempting (without apparent success) to harass the beetle and chase it away. The ants, like ranchers of our own species, sometimes move their aphids to richer grazing grounds.
The ant ranch photo was taken by John Walker on July 6th, 2003 on the
Fourmilab grounds with an Olympus C-3040 digital camera in
macro zoom mode at f/5 and 1/100 second. The image was
cropped from the original full frame, contrast enhanced,
and slightly sharpened with
The Gimp under
Linux. The photo of the ladybird was taken on July 13th, 2003 with
the same camera and lens settings, but with automatic focus and
When I was growing up back in the Middle Ages, some people believed that while orbiform spider webs were woven by spiders, those random “cobwebs” you find everywhere (Walker's Third Law of Spiders: “You will never find the last cobweb in a room”) had nothing to do with spiders—they just spontaneously appeared, like dust bunnies. Now, even as a little kid, I had a strong belief in causality (it's weakened over the years), so it seemed obvious to me that if spider webs were made by spiders, cobwebs ought to be made by cobs! And indeed, I eventually figured out that wherever you found cobwebs, you almost always found either a daddy long-legs spider in residence (when you do, blow on it lightly and watch how it goes into a wild random swinging motion so a bird won't be able to nab it) or evidence of a departed perpetrator in the form of one or more shed exoskeletons. So, I started calling daddy long-legs spiders “cobs”, and I've done so ever since.
Here are two cobs (Pholcus phalangioides) sharing the same web. I thought these spiders were highly territorial. I've seen one kill and suck the yummy parts out of a big ole' ugly black meaty spider with a body five times as big. But these two seem to get along just fine. Maybe they're a happy couple or just good friends. The tiles in the background are 5 cm square.
The reason you always find so many cobwebs is that there are so many cobs—they are extremely prolific. Here's a proud cob mom and her brood, photographed in another bathroom a couple of months later. Yes, I ought to clean the bathrooms more frequently.
The photo of the two cobs sharing a web was taken by John
Walker on July 6th, 2003 with an Olympus C-3040 digital camera
with automatic exposure, focus, and flash. The picture of mama
cob and the kids was taken on August 21st, 2003 with the same
camera in all-automatic macro focus mode. No spiders were
harmed in the production of these images.
Situated in the Jura mountains of western Switzerland, it's only appropriate some of Fourmilab's fauna be totally Jurassic. (When I installed the first Sun workstation here, I named it “Jurassic SPARC”.) No dinosaurs here (boo hoo!), but every summer the Fourmilab pond is patrolled by a creature which would be entirely at home when giants trod the Jura. I was looking at the pond one day in July 2003 when I noticed this huge (about 5 cm long), bizarre-looking bug on the bottom of an unfurling lily pad. It turned out to be a dragonfly nymph. (I'm neither an etymologist nor an entomologist, but this sure isn't my idea of a nymph!)
Dragonflies lay eggs in the pond water which hatch into larvæ which repeatedly moult (shed their exoskeletons) as they grow. The larva's final moult transforms it into a nymph, a voracious aquatic predator. If you handle one carelessly, it can deal you a nasty bite—in fact, their biological order, Odonata, is derived from the Greek word for “tooth”. Eventually, the nymph crawls out of the water, fixes itself to an object, then emerges as an adult dragonfly which bursts, Alien style, from the back of the nymph, which remains as an empty husk until something dislodges it. That's what's happened here: the dragonfly had dragonflown away before I arrived upon the scene, leaving behind the nymph's shell with squiggly bits where it burst out.
Having seen the nymph, there was every reason to expect to soon spot the adult dragonfly patrolling the pond and indeed, the next day, there it was. These large dragonflies, unlike the little blue ones, rarely alight: they remain in near constant motion, hovering occasionally. As befits a real world bug-eyed monster, their vision is acute, and they feed on flying insects which they catch in mid-air. Their appetite (consider the energy they expend in flight) accounts, in part, for the paucity of mosquitoes in the environs of Fourmilab. Their almost incessant motion, rapidly beating wings, and random flight path makes them difficult to catch, whether you're a bird looking for lunch or a photographer bent on bug portraiture. I've found the best approach is to observe the dragonfly patrolling the pond for some time, taking note of the areas where it's prone to hover momentarily. Choose one of these with a background against which the dragonfly will stand out then, camera at the ready, stalk the wild dragonfly—wait for it to come to you, then shoot if and when it does.
Photographically, this is one of those situations where you “want it all now”—a small aperture for maximum depth of field (since you can't predict how far from the lens the dragonfly will eventually hover), a fast shutter speed to freeze the rapidly-moving wings, and slow, fine-grained film (or the equivalent in digital sensor integration time) for the sharpest image, since the the insect will appear relatively small in the frame. This makes direct sunlight the best illumination for photographic attempts which is fine, since that's when the dragonfly is most likely to be active. Given all the constraints, it's unlikely you'll be able to use a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the motion of the wings. The image above just happened to be taken near the moment the insect's wings are stationary, reversing direction from upward to downward motion. This isn't something you can plan for, but patience and perseverance ultimately pay off.
This is a Southern Hawker Dragonfly (Aeshna cyanea). They are
common throughout Europe at altitudes up to 1000 metres. Fourmilab,
at 806 metres, is toward the top of this range. This is one big
bug, but nothing compared to the fossil dragonfly
Meganeura monyi which flourished about 300 million years ago
and had a wingspan in the vicinity of 70 centimetres! While dragonflies
shared the Earth with the dinosaurs, they came on the scene about
100 million years before the first dinosaurs. They are
the first flying insects found in the fossil record and, little
changed today, remain among the most primitive. Unlike almost
all other present-day flying insects, they cannot fold their wings
back against the body—they are permanently extended.
Just a few hours after I photographed the dragonfly on the wing, I'd opened up the door to the Fourmilab high bay getting ready to take the rubbish out when I heard an almost metallic buzzing from the vicinity of the door. While I wasn't looking, the giant dragonfly had flown into the high bay and then, attempting to leave, become trapped between a sunshade and the window in the high bay door! Before I did my good deed for the day, I took advantage of this rare opportunity to see one not in motion and take this shot showing just how big they are. This one is about 7 cm long with a wingspan of 10 cm. Hardly Meganeura, but big enough for me! I removed the sunshade and the dragonfly flew away, none the worse for the experience.
The photo of the dragonfly nymph was taken by John Walker on July 13th, 2003
with an Olympus C-3040 digital camera in macro zoom mode
with an auxiliary 1.45× teleconverter. Focus was manual,
using the LCD screen on the camera as a reflex viewer; exposure
was f/4.5 at 1/100 second. I'd have preferred a smaller aperture,
but illumination was skylight with the Sun already set behind
the Jura, and with the lily pad swaying in the breeze, 1/100 was the
shortest shutter speed I judged tolerable. The picture of the
dragonfly on the wing was taken on July 15th, 2003 with the
same camera at maximum zoom with automatic focus (spot mode), and exposure.
Catching one of these creatures in flight is a
matter of patience and luck. This is the best of more than 75
attempts, a large majority of which failed to even catch the
dragonfly in the frame. At least with a digital camera you needn't
feel guilty about wasting film! The shot of the
trapped dragonfly was taken later the same day, also
in all-automatic mode. The Sun had set shortly before and
illumination was diffuse northern skylight, accounting for the blue
cast and subdued colours. Here I've opted to show what my
eye and camera saw rather than manipulating the image to make
it look like something it's not.
The cotoneaster hedge which surrounds Fourmilab is home to a large number of medium-sized snails which come out and slime their way across the driveway whenever it rains in the summer. Usually, they return to the shade and shelter of the hedge when the sun comes out and the pavement dries, but if they're “caught out” with insufficient slime to make it back (and heaven knows how they navigate, anyway), they'll “cement” themselves to whatever surface they happen to be upon. This does two things: first of all, it creates a vapour barrier which prevents further loss of their internal moisture which, in the 30+°C temperatures and direct sunlight common here in the summer, would otherwise rapidly dessicate them. Second, it protects them from the abundant ants (this is Fourmilab, after all!) which patrol this area. If a snail is accidentally dislodged from its cemented position and not returned to shelter, ants will quickly attack and devour the vulnerable soft-bodied mollusc within the shell—not a pretty thing to contemplate, but that's “nature, red in tooth and claw” (or, at least the equivalent arthropod body parts) for you.
I don't know how snails navigate, but whatever the mechanism, it
doesn't always work very well, because every now and then you'll find
a snail which has climbed vertically, high up the wall of a building
and glued itself on when
the rain stopped. Usually, they go away after a day or two—I
don't know what becomes of them: whether they come back down when rain
or fog permits them to move again, or they eventually drop off, back
into the hedge. (Given how small and light they are, and the relative
strength of the shell due to the cube-square law, I doubt such a fall
would damage them.) On Friday, July 7th, 2006, I observed the most
extreme example of mollusc mountaineering I've seen to date. After
two days of off-and-on rain with the occasional thunderstorm, a snail
had managed to climb the west wall of Fourmilab, a distance of about
four metres if the path was straight up, which is not the way to bet,
turn the corner onto the eave outside the computer lab window, and
then glue itself to the painted wood surface there. In the picture,
I've indicated the location of the snail with a red arrow.
A zoom in on this location shows the snail, along with a few insects
caught in a spider-web (the light emanating from the windows of the
computer lab as Fourmilab programming projects stretch late into the
night makes it prime hunting grounds for the local arachnid
population), on the horizontal eave, with the vertical wall below.
As an engineer, I have always admired redundancy: just look at the Fourmilab server farm, firewall, or local network for examples of wretched (but highly reliable) excess in that regard.
I was impressed, the evening after a major windstorm that littered the yard and driveway with leaves and branches from nearby trees, to spot this survivor on the wall near the main door to Fourmilab. While eight legs are factory equipment for spiders, he or she (probably she, since there is substantial sexual dimorphism in most spider species, and this was a big 'un) had lost three legs (whether in the recent storm, or in earlier mishaps or combat, there is no way to know), but appeared to be doing just fine.
Spiders appear to be minimally affected by leg loss, although, in males, it may make them less attractive to arachnochicks. Spiders appear to have a limited ability to regenerate lost limbs, but once they reach adulthood and do not moult into larger and larger exoskeletons, this capacity is lost.
Still, you've got to be impressed by a creature which can lose one
more leg than you started out with and keep on going. I am virtually
certain that when we finally tease out the neural wiring, weights, and
feedback connections of this very simple control system, there will be
multiple whack-the-forehead moments where we say “why didn't I
think of that?”, and, if not deemed evidence of intelligent
design, at least proof that blind hill-climbing evolution can produce
designs which even the most intelligent observer can find
extraordinarily difficult to reverse engineer.
One fine day in May 2007 my daily walk took me along the path through the forest behind the Lignières rifle range where I encountered this creature sunning itself right in the middle of the path. My hindbrain screamed snake, but closer examination and a little research proved it to be no such thing.
This is, in fact, a specimen of Anguis fragilis, a legless lizard whose classification is further confused by its common English names of “slow worm” and “blindworm”—it is neither a worm, nor particularly slow, nor blind. (In French, the common name is “orvet”, and German “Blindschleiche”.) This individual was about 30 cm in length, and was probably a male: females run larger, up to 50 cm long, and often have a stripe along the back.
Several characteristics distinguish legless lizards from snakes. The most obvious is that they have eyes with eyelids that blink, unlike the steady gaze of snakes whose eyes are covered by transparent scales. (Only lizards in Disney films sport eyelashes, however.) Legless lizards also have ears, but we're talking about an ear-hole you have to look pretty closely to see, not bunny ears; snakes have no external ears whatsoever. The species name fragilis is due to the lizard's ability to shed its tail should it be seized by a predator, who ends up with a meal, but the business end escapes to wiggle again; the tail will regrow, but not fully—this critter still has the original equipment. Anguis fragilis may be the longest-lived of lizards: about thirty years in the wild; a captive specimen lived 54 years.
A. fragilis is carnivorous, feeding on worms and slugs, and is active during the day, frequently basking in the sun like this one. They are found throughout Europe, and are said to be frequently seen in gardens, but in fifteen years in Switzerland, this is the first I've come across.