Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Fall-Back Plan...

Even though the months of July and August are Arizona's rainy season, threatening precipitation most every day, the Kitt Peak Visitor Center continues to run its Nightly Observing Program on weekends.  While rare, occasional clear skies do happen, and I offered to fill in for one of the guides who needed to leave town.  Not unexpectedly, the high chance of rain caused the program to be cancelled, but ready for any excuse to get out of town, Melinda and I decided to head up for a few hours.  So 5pm found us pointing the car westward, even as a storm moved into eastern Tucson...

Usually for a session like this, I make some sort of plan.  With the high chance of rain, when at a higher elevation, observing the storms themselves can be very interesting.  There was also a -5 magnitude Iridium Flare once it got dark if it miraculously cleared.  And the fallback to the fallback plan was to hunt for glow worms!  On several occasions, twice in the last year, while walking along the paved lanes on the Observatory grounds, I've spotted bio-luminescent glows.  Upon closer examination, they came from the tail of a 4cm (1.5") segmented caterpillar!  In both instances, I didn't have a camera on me, so I wasn't able to document them, and contacting a couple insect experts produced shrugs over the Interwebs...  So I was going prepared this time, hoping for another encounter.

Arriving just before sunset, we found partly cloudy skies and the 20" telescope dome open with my boss in residence.  He and other staffers had worked on electronics and he was about to start on the pointing model for the software.  While the weather was clearing on the mountain, there were impressive thunderheads over Tucson with abundant flashing from lightning.  Shown at left is the cloud buildup illuminated by the fading twilight as the lights of Tucson start to come up.  Strikes like this are easy to capture with a tripod mounted camera and intervalometer.  By taking 20 second exposures every 25 seconds, there is a very good chance of catching some flashes.  All three of these strikes happened simultaneously...



With the clearing skies and the Iridium Flare appearance approaching, we retired to the car to set up my tracking mount.  With a wide angle lens, it can take more than a minute or two for the satellite to traverse the field, so I chose to track the stars so they would be points rather than the trails from a rotating earth with a naked tripod.  And since this flare would appear to be in the Milky Way, I chose my older Canon 20Da to try to catch some red-colored emission nebula.  Unlike normal, I was fully set up with minutes to spare, and actually got to try some test exposures to make sure framing and focus was set.  The Iridium satellites start out very faint, but I spotted it early before it entered the field, and it slowly climbed in brilliance as it reflected sunlight down to us off one of its antennae.  The exposure shown here is 3 minutes in length, with a Nikon 20mm set to F/4, and I thought it came out pretty well!  The Summer Triangle dominates the field, Vega at top, Altair at right and Deneb left center.  Just below Deneb is the red ghostly glow of the North American Nebula, named for its shape.  The irregularities in the glowing Milky Way are from dust clouds along the plane of our galaxy, and detecting them is one of my favorite activities...

Even as the lightning storms grew in intensity to the east, the glowing clouds of the Milky Way seemed to be calling to me.  Since it has been June since we'd seen these starclouds at the Grand Canyon, I decided to shoot a few frames to make a little mosaic of them.  Shown are the 3 frames, each a 3.5 minute exposure with the 20Da and 20mm lens as above.  While Photoshop can assemble them, Microsoft ICE did a better job for me, especially in joining the seams of the frames.  I love this time of year with all the dark nebulae seen in silhouette, and interestingly, another satellite was caught just below Altair, the bright star seen upper left.  The dashed trail indicates that the satellite was tumbling, varying in brightness.








After the frames were taken for the mosaic, I pointed the camera to a single spot and let it expose while I went off in search of glow worms...  The lightning flashes continued unabated, and I was unsure the frames would be usable, but hey, as long as we were there, keep on exposing.  Melinda retired to the car as I went on a jaunt looking for glows...  And wouldn't you know, 100 meters into my walk, in the shadow of the 2.1 meter, I saw one!  While shining my red flashlight along the road keeping an eye out for snakes in the dark, I saw a flash, then another.  I dropped my sweatshirt I'd brought to kneel on, and took a closer look.  As I got closer, it glowed intensely, and I saw it was a different worm all together!  It looked to be a small inchworm, about 2cm long and less than 2mm diameter, much smaller than the segmented caterpillar I'd seen before!  I fumbled to put on the macro lens, turned back to it, and poof, it was nowhere to be seen...  It got away, dug under a layer of dirt and escaped my gaze.  But I saw it and now I've got 2 species to find instead of just the one...  I continued the search, but didn't find any more glows in my amble.  But I didn't go away empty-handed...  With the summer rains in full force, the mountain was covered in Sweet Four O'clock flowers, an evening-bloomer.  With none of the domes open yet, and numerous lightning flashes filling the air, I took a flash photo at left without any guilt.  There were also huge clumps of datura, also night-bloomers.  I've posted about these before, with pictures just a mile or so below the Observatory.  These were some healthy stands atop the mountain, and though I didn't spot any pollinators among the numerous flowers, I had to take an image, shown at right.

I promised Melinda I'd have her home by 11:30, so I finally concluded my glow worm search, broke down my still-exposing camera and platform and headed down the mountain.  Interestingly, all of my "programs" saw some action - flare, storms, stars and glow worms were all successful to some extent.  Fun, fun, fun!





Saturday, August 16, 2014

TEC Testing!

A couple months ago I invested in a like-new TEC 140 telescope.  The 140 in the model refers to the aperture in millimeters (5.5" diameter).  Its beefy nature required me to acquire a similarly beefy mount for it - I ended up making one using locally obtained materials, and a local welding shop.  As a reminder, it is a simple Altitude/Azimuth mount, shown at left.  Travel and summertime monsoons have conspired against me in getting it out under the stars, except when visiting buddy Pat a few hours one evening . The other day I left after getting home from work to check out the performance of the new mount/telescope combo.

My favorite vantage point is a quick trip to "A" Mountain, or Sentinel Peak, which offers an unparalleled view of the downtown Tucson area.  It is an easy drive there for daytime access, and gains a few hundred feet elevation for "testing" telescopes!  At right is a 2-frame mosaic with labels showing the location of the 3 shots referenced below.



First up was the old Pima County Courthouse, its scenic dome nearly hidden behind the taller court and government office buildings surrounding it.  But I know where to look to find it and it is a rewarding sight and target for testing.  The spectacular tile work was easily seen and sharply resolved  for being 1.4 miles from my location.  This view is shown at full-resolution, and was not down-sized for the blog. 







A good test for color errors in a refractor is to include bright lights in the field of view.  I found some at the UA football practice facility 3+ miles away.  If the TEC were not excellently color corrected, blue or purple halos would have likely been seen, but none can be spotted in this view, again, shown at full resolution.  This view shoots past the field into the Sam Hughes neighborhood as well.







Finally, I took a 2-frame mosaic of St Augustine Cathedral, located just south of downtown.  The left view shows this mosaic, and the right one shows part of it at full resolution.  I can't find any fault with the optics at all.  The mount was producing a little vibration in the considerable breeze atop "A" Mountain that afternoon.  I'm thinking that the interface between the mount and Gitzo tripod could be improved, or a more stable telescope tripod might be stiffer.  In any case, these images show the scope/mount combo works great and I can't wait to get it out again...

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Keeping Astronomers Hours!

As I prophesied a week ago when we returned from the Midwest, our Cereus repandus on the east side of the house has been a busy plant lately.  Past observations have revealed that a pinky-fingernail sized bud transforms to a nearly 14cm (5") diameter flower in 8 days!  Last night was the 3rd consecutive night of blossoms, but nearby storms and gusty winds made any images difficult, but I had a setup out the 2 preceding nights.  I've done the time-lapse thing before, and documented the transformation from bud to flower to pollinators, so what to do this time with the abundance of riches before me this time?

My decision was to take a detailed census of the night-time visitors that came by the flowers during the night.  Shooting a frame every 3 minutes (used on the time-lapse above), makes it likely that some will be missed, so the frame rate was moved up 6X to 30 seconds between frames.  The flowers don't open fully till about 10pm, so started about then, going to nearly sunrise at 5:30.  Yes, that is a lot of pictures (1672!), and most just show the lonely blossom, but some show more, and that is the purpose of the exercise!  At left is shown the "standard", mostly repeated 730 times the first (Thursday) night.  Of the two flower open that night, this one was about 50cm (20") off the ground - the other option was about 200cm (7 feet) off the ground!  My Canon XSi was used with the kit 17-85 lens shot at 55mm focal length, F/9 with the on-camera flash.  A third party intervalometer was used to trip the shutter every 30 seconds.



While was watching TV inside, I didn't have long to wait!  Ten minutes after starting the series, the first moth came by.  And it didn't mind the flash, hanging around for at least 90 seconds (three frames).  They are assembled together here at left.  This one didn't mind digging deep for a taste of nectar!  Click on the frame and you will note the little slit visible near the tip of the wing.  As shown at right, this same moth Note the wing slit!) returned 30 minutes later for a single frame.  While not visible in the left images, this shot shows the yellow side spots, identifying it as Manduca rustica, the rustic sphinx moth.


It was then quiet for a long time...  Some 3+ hours later elapsed until the next visitor came by at 3:15.  Another Sphinx moth, this one showing off his proboscis and head details.  Note the absence of a wing slit, so this one is a different moth.  Hard to say if the flash frightened him off or if they can feed in under 30 seconds.  Certainly the 3-frame set above, with its head buried in the flower might not have  been as distracted by the flash of light. 

Photos were taken until 5:15 am Friday morning, when the intervalometer stopped - nothing else was shown...



The following night (Friday), the flower opening was at eye level, about 180cm off the ground.  I decided to look face-on into the flower for a different perspective.  I started the sequence a little earlier, right at 10pm, and had to wait a little longer till Midnight for some action.  Thhis reveal is another rustic sphinx moth, with wings on full display, showing his large size.  I measured the flower later at 14cm (5.5"), so the wingspan is a good 12cm (5").  In order to get it all in I downsampled the image, so resolution is lost in the left frame.  The right image is shown at full resolution for maximum detail.  Antennae are folded down, and it sports what look like rabbit ears, also folded down, but might be an artifact of the coloration pattern.


A minute later another spotting, likely the
same moth was seen hovering over the flower inserting its proboscis.  It is slightly out of focus as it is too close to the camera, but if you look at the frontward of the orange-yellow abdomen spots, the upper edge is whitish as the above shot.

Fifteen minutes later, another spotting, but much more out-of-focus, so more difficult to do an identification.  for what it is worth, the proboscis, which is nearly in focus, shows a kink about at the end of its front leg.  Interestingly, in the left image, the is a kink in about the same place, so there I a chance that all three of these images are likely the same sphinx moth...

Well, that was the end of the moth appearances, but no the end of the activity.  At 5am, suddenly a spider is seen working on a web off the edge of the flower.  It has some resemblance to a huntsman spider, but I read they generally don't spin webs...  While the spider itself only appeared in one frame, the web was there the rest of the night, the flower petal it was attached to slowly bending as the above section of the web was finished and tensioned...  The web extends up 120 cm (4 feet) to the eave of the house, where it still stands.  Hmm, what might it have been trying to catch???







At 5:15 (interestingly the time I stopped taking frames the night before), it is like an alarm went off and the blossom was attacked by honeybees!  It was rare for a frame to catch less than 3 or 4 bees in the picture, often many more!  This effect is visible in the time lapse referenced in the first paragraphs time-lapse link.  From 5:15 to sunrise the bees fed hungrily.  It is interesting to note their full pollen baskets on their rear legs, even those who first appear at 5:15.  One of the frames, shown at right, looks to show a couple of intoxicated bees taking a break as they lie on their backs taking a rest before resuming work...  I never spotted any of the bees struggling with the spider web, but the location of the web might have been chosen for that purpose!



And as the twilight grew and the sun came up, the bees halted their visit too and the flower closed up and the night was over.  Very few other pollinators were spotted - I saw what looked to be an iridescent green bee of some sort, very tiny and out of focus, but mostly bees and sphinx moths, but it was fun to do the census and see what all came by during the night.  There appear to be an abundance of these night time bloomers around, and while the absolute number of these moths are small, hopefully the food source will increase as more plant these cereus.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Seems We've Been Here Before...

We returned to Tucson last weekend for a battery of tests and oncology appointments for Melinda and we have news. The results are mixed - the spot on her pancreas from a couple months ago that got zapped by radiation is gone and she is perfectly clear above her rib cage, but she's got new small sites in her abdomen that are associated with her retroperitoneal lymph nodes. So the battle continues at a new site - we knew that the small cell lung cancer can and will pop up in various locations. Rather than treat the multiple spots with radiation, we're going back to chemo, tentatively planned for four 3-week cycles. So we know what we're doing for the next 3 months!

 Interestingly, today was the 1 year anniversary of the x-rays that first revealed her cancer, and also today she got the first dose of carboplatin back at the UA Cancer Center. While it was nice to see our favorite oncology nurse for the first time in 6 months, we'd rather be celebrating a clean PET scan and contemplating some time away from treatments...

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Bug Buddies of the Fox River Valley!

With the good weather we enjoyed at "Ketelsen East" last month, my macro lens and shooting skills got put to work to document some of the outdoor world in Kane County, Illinois.  Besides the stands of plants within 50 yards of the house (which includes the banks of the Fox River), I also frequently made the trip up to the relatively new Riverbend Park, about a mile up the road.  Besides a mile-long bike/walking loop, there are playgrounds, skate park and ball fields for the kids, dog runs for the adults, and a considerable area of prairie with the loop trail traversing it for easy access.

This trip, being July, the Queen Anne's lace, milkweed, and coneflower were in full glory, and I always look to the milkweed for the variety of insect life that feed on the toxic sap.  Even over a small grove of the plants, I found some still in full flower, the unusual form shown at left, and some with half-developed seed pods, shown at right.  In past posts I've shown shots of the milkweed bugs and beetles (make sure you go to the link if you don't know the difference!).  Both were in abundance this trip, but the first thing I learned that session is to not shoot on windy days!   Trying to get detailed close-ups, when the wind is strong is an exercise in futility...  A few of these single shots of the flowers and pods were about the highlights that morning.



Meanwhile, back at the house, the few milkweed that used to grow along the banks of the Fox were nowhere to be found, but interestingly, I spotted these flowers at left.  Do they look familiar?  They are virtually identical to the milkweed flowers above, but the plant looked completely different!  So it was apparently a variety of milkweed - I didn't even know there were different forms!  And there were some interesting insects on it - not the beetles or bugs mentioned above, but something completely different.  It appeared to be a giant version of a ladybird beetle, except something closer to 8 or 9mm long - in other words, pretty huge!  They are shown at right.  I was at a loss to identify them, so called in an expert.  Interestingly, they are called Swamp Milkweed Leaf Beetles, Labidomera clivicollis!  And yes, the plant is evidently a swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnate...  D'oh!

Both of these pictures were taken on a calm day, and fortunately, the beetles weren't real active, so I used the focus-stacking method of imaging, both of these consisting of 9 individual exposures, all with the on-camera flash (Canon XSi) and 100mm macro with 35mm of extension tubes for close-ups (and a tripod, of course).  The exposures were combined in Photoshop to extend the range of sharpness over more than a single frame would display.

And wouldn't you know it - after a couple years of examining milkweeds closely, looking for Monarch Butterflies or their larvae that feed almost exclusively on Milkweed, I finally found one feeding on this swamp milkweed plant!  Shown at left, it was very active and wouldn't pause for a picture.  It was seen only this one time, so fortunately I had the camera along to capture it - I returned  for several days but didn't see the larva or chrysalis in subsequent searches.  A pair of Monarch butterflies were also spotted, but it was another windy day and I never saw them alight to even try to approach them.  I've heard they are becoming more rare in the Midwest due to loss of milkweed food sources, and some bad storms where they overwinter in Mexico.  If you've not read about their incredible annual migration, the Wiki link tells the amazing story...




A couple weeks ago, I blogged about the "insect of the summer", last year's winner was the two-Spot Treehopper, this years is shown here.  A friend of my AZ "Bugman" identified it as a nymph stage of the planthopper Acanalonia conica.  With a Google search of that I found what the adult looks like, and a couple days later I spotted and photographed one!  It is shown at right - dramatically different from the nymph stage, and an amazing development of camouflage to hide from predators.  This is the only time I spotted the adult, so again, as mentioned above, always have the camera handy - you don't know when you won't have a second chance!


And while I only saw the adult once, I did see several nymphs change form over the course of a few days.  Since they don't really grow because of their hard shell, they molt their skin, and I spotted one on the plant on which several had been feeding, shown at left.  Many of the details of the insect can be spotted in its discarded skin including the eye spot and legs...  A later form of the nymph is shown at right, and compared to the earlier version above, you can see the sides of it are starting to form the green side that will eventually form the leaf disguise.  What looks like cotton coming out of its butt is actually a waxy substance that is used to help repel water and also help it stick to the plant...



The red bud bushes adjacent to the house was a fertile hunting ground for insects.  An amazing diversity was spotted this year, including this beauty shown at left, a treehopper, Ceresa alta, a horned or buffalo treehopper.  You can tell from the resemblance to cicadas that they are related...  And while on hoppers, a beaut that I've seen before, but not around the house, the candy-striped leafhopper, Graphocephala coccinea, shown at right.  Both of these are focus-stacked, 9 frames at left, 7 at right, both with use of the on-camera flash.  The Candy-striped is a marvel - the pair of primary legs are "cocked" so that they can hop away in an instant if needed.  Evidently they do not well-control their intake of plant sap into their bodies - the excess is forcibly ejected from their little orifice at the rear, which occurred at couple-second intervals for some time...


I'll close with a disparate pair.  At left is one we've all likely collected in our youth, the eastern firefly, Photinus pyralis.  I caught this one before "showtime", a little before sunset, and was quite active, so is only a single shot.  This frame shows a side view we don't usually see, so looks a bit strange when first examined...  This year's display of fireflies wasn't outstanding, perhaps because of the cool weather, but they were visible most every night.  The last insect shown here is an import - Halyomorpha halys - a brown marmorated stink bug.  Now an agricultural pest, it was unknown in the US 15 years ago, but was thought  imported in a shipment of wooden pallets from China about then.  While I'm trying to learn more about insects, it is tough...  From the family name Pentatomidae, Penta is from the Greek for the number 5, which from various sources either refers to the 5 segments in its antenna, or to the 5 plate segments that make up the back shield.

Well, that is about enough for this entry, not because I've run out of bug pics, but I try to keep entries reasonable in length and this one is already over the limit!  Enjoy and stay tuned!

Monday, August 4, 2014

A Promise Of Things To Come!


We got back to Tucson safely last night after our latest stay at "Ketelsen East".  It is always fun to see little changes while we're gone, especially during the monsoon season where a little rain can generate foot-high weeds, or winds can leave a couple inches of mesquite seed pods in the front yard from our neighbor's tree.  Turns out it didn't rain much in our absence, though we noticed one change...  Our cereus cacti on the east side of the house seems to enjoy a dual flowering season, and it is lined up to reward us in a few days with some new blooms.  This one plant (of 6) has 9 buds on it!  When they erupt in their nearly 7" wide blooms, it will be a spectacular display, likely before the weekend. We've documented these before both for the flower's beauty and also for its pollinators.  Our neighbor's cacti down the street is even more spectacular - when passing it on the way to work this morning, his more-established plant had no fewer than 25 flowers on it, all seemingly blooming last night.  Unfortunately when I saw it they were already on their way closed - should have been more observant when we drove by in the dark at 10:30 last night!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Another Home Improvement Task Finished!

While I don't think we'll ever be "finished" with our 80-year-old cottage in the woods, we did complete a task that has been hanging over our heads for a while.  The days when we moved walls and tore into electrical and plumbing work seems so long ago.  This time we wanted to finish re-doing a pair of windows in the kitchen.  These windows, long exposed to the elements, needed replacing of the glazing and repainting badly before we finish the final touch-ups to the kitchen and declare it done.

Sister-in-law Maj had pulled out the windows in advance, and as Melinda worked on repainting the trim (at left), we started chipping out the glazing from the wooden sills.  Most came out easily, but as it likely happens, we also cracked a couple panes of glass, so had to replace some.  Interestingly, we lost a few days in getting glass - the hardware store misunderstood and assumed we wanted them to glaze the windows instead of cutting the glass to fit, as they usually do.  Finally, 3 days into the wait I asked them and apologetically cut the glass for me.  Glazing is the fun part - why wouldn't I want to do that myself?!


I remember summers past out in the miserable heat of summer chipping out glazing, but this summer has been amazing!  It has been so pleasant, especially working outside where temps rarely passed 85F and was usually in the 70s.  With the windows in hand, glazing or patching those in good shape only took a couple hours in the shady confines of our yard...  It took a couple days to stiffen enough to trim the glaze and paint the windows.  We didn't have to worry about getting paint on the glass as a razor blade will scape it off easily after the paint dries.  Melinda paints the wooden sills in these shots.  Don't worry - I helped too!



Maj came out frequently too, helping out with the windows and landscaping around the house.  She is a natural-born gardener and will jump into pulling weeds, trimming bushes and trees, or using the leaf-blower to clear the 3-year-old shingles, roof and downspouts...  At left she oversees the window installation.

The inner trim was the last task, cut to size and painted after the windows were installed.  At right Melinda pre-drills the screws to mount the trim.  I filled the trim cracks w/caulk, and installation was nearly complete.



We figured we were on a roll, and started hunting down the curtains and hardware that had been removed, what, 3 years ago when we had the roof redone.  All that found, we  started drilling and screwing, remounting the hardware.  At left is a rare picture of me working (mostly 'cause I'm taking the pictures), installing curtain rod brackets.  Finally at right is Melinda doing her best Vanna White impression showing off the final product - looks great!