Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Blooming Season Far From Over!

Even though my last post was about my blooming cereus, and the monsoon officially ends in 2 weeks (generally marking the end of the cacti blooming season), perhaps because of the lack of monsoonal rain, the cereus are shooting out buds like there is no tomorrow!  First appearing last weekend as microscopic (almost) swellings, by now I've counted 27 (!) buds on just two branches - on the same plant!  So there will be another massive blooming session in a few days, perhaps over the weekend.  A few are very near the roof line, so may set up something up close to flowers for some new viewpoints!  Time will tell!

Friday, August 30, 2019

All Night Long!

I've been back at "Ketelsen West" for nearly a couple weeks. When I make plans to be out of Tucson in July, everyone always asks how I can miss the monsoon rains - so welcome to the desert dwellers. Well, I miss the start of the 2+ month rainy season here, but also a lot of the hottest weather and the wondering when the first storms will arrive... The one thing that I do hope I don't miss is the flowering of my cereus repandus - night-blooming cereus cacti! They typically start their spectacular blooming shortly after the monsoons start and last through most of the rains till it cools off the end of September. And while the flowers are indeed impressive, what is fun and "sporting" is capturing the pollinators that inevitably come by to feed on the flower's nectar and in that process, distribute pollen among other plants and blooms. I was in luck - shortly after my return, a quartet of flowers bloomed the same night - on the same arm of the cactus! At left is how it appeared right about sunset - the 4 telltale buds were swollen and about to bloom the next few hours. At right, by 10pm, they were open and awaiting action!

But in recent years, I've enjoyed capturing the rustic sphinx moth pollinators. They appear randomly during the night, perhaps drawn by the very subtle (to me anyway) odor of the flowers, or something else that tells them there is food here... The challenge is always to capture as many as their flighty visits, without taking a million photos! Of course, I could sit there and man the camera myself, pushing the button as they visit to feed. Likely also it would be straightforward to rig up something to do it automatically as they come by. I was able to capture a few of the earliest visitors manually, as they started visiting shortly after the flowers opened. With my head-mounted red light, they buzzed my head as they approached, seemingly as large as a bat as it came past me to feed. There was no missing their approach, and even during their stay, I could see the cat's-eye reflection of my red lamp from their eyes! The most fascinating thing to me is there nearly 15cm (6") long proboscis, so tried to take their photo before they landed on the flower. The results here demonstrate that successful plan.

But I was not prepared to stay flower-side all night. I increased my chances by setting up the camera so all 4 flowers were in the image. That way, if any moths came to any flower, I'd document its visit. Also, I used the on-camera flash (on my 10-year old Canon XSi) to illuminate the scene. Taking a photo every 20 seconds (3 per minute, 180 per hour!) I was hoping to catch a few moth visits! 5.5 hours later, the camera and flash were still going after nearly 1,000 photos! The next day I downloaded the all and went thru it frame-by-frame - I had caught over 80 images of moths! That included 4 frames where there were 2 moths in the frame - an absolute first for me! They weren't consecutive frames either, so weren't the same 2 moths hanging out together! These two frame sets show the 4 images with moth pairs in them...

What is most amazing about these moth images is the length of their probiscii! At least when they are flying around the cereus repandus flowers they appear to be fully extended. I believe I've seen images showing them coiled up when not in use, but flying around with something extended that is larger than your wingspan must be dangerous, if not at least a little risky! The image at left is quite incredible! Be sure to click on it to load the full resolution image...

And some of the moths dig so deeply into the flowers. Either they are a little smaller, or perhaps they've got a shorter or broken proboscis, and need to go deeper to feed. Check out the image at right - can barely see the moth body...

So this particular night (19 August) was a particularly busy one! I had stopped the camera at 4:30am, but stopped by a couple hours later to do some close-ups to compare to some I had taken earlier in the evening. At left is a "before" photo showing the abundance of pollen and the still-green stigma and pollen-covered anthers...

At right is a close-up of the stigma after a busy night of pollination. You can see the moths have transferred a lot of the little round pollen grains, and it appears that the moths have also left behind an abundance of their scales - the feather-looking filaments that appear to be stuck to the stigma. Note how bare and naked the anthers are, now devoid of pollen...

At 6:00 the sun was just coming up and the flowers were about to close. I set up the camera once more with the timer to take a photo every 8 minutes for 3 hours. Rather than make a time-lapse, I made a GIF, shown here demonstrating the rapid closing of the flowers once the sunlight hits them.

It looks like the bud/bloom cycle continues, as does the monsoon rains. Will keep my eyes open for more photo opportunities!

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Following the Path!

This trip to "Ketelsen East" is winding down. Last night Melinda's niece and her boyfriend stopped by for a barbeque dinner. They evidently "collect" labyrinths, which I did not know was a thing! They search out, visit and walk these patterned paths. They had found one near me in St Charles, so went there to visit before our dinner.

They labyrinth at the St Charles Episcopal Church is of the Chartres Cathedral design, shown at right. It has a single path that meanders to the center and the same path is followed to exit. Those who walk it use it for spiritual centering, meditation or prayer. It is in a nice quiet location adjacent to the parking lot of the church, surrounded on 3 sides by nature. The 22-year old labyrinth has a nice dedication stone as shown at left.

Given the complexity of the design, the paths are narrow and don't allow side-by-side walking or even passing each other without stepping off the path, but it was an interesting amble around the path. I've never meditated, nor am particularly spiritual, but can see the parallel to life as a spiritual journey, and also the parallels to the Tohono O'odham "Man in the Maze" journey through life (shown at left) in the American Southwest.

It was a pleasant enough excursion - nice temps in an early-evening outing, investigating something new. The entire labyrinth is shown in the panorama at left, with Kathy and Jonathan at far right.  In the right hand image, you can see the brickwork in its construction as well as the near exact copy of the Chartres Labyrinth above.

On our way out, we noticed the pine tree adjacent to the labyrinth - I've never seen pine cones oozing sap as prolifically as this one was. Seemed each cone had "icicles" of sap oozing out of it! Interesting...

We returned to the country estate of "Ketelsen East" and finished prepping for dinner and started the grill and cooking. The menu has become a staple of mine - a protein of choice, more and more pork chops, or more likely, pork loin on the grill. Accompanying that dish, are bacon-wrapped, cream-cheese filled jalapenos, and a mix of assorted vegetables, here green beans, finger potatoes, broccoli and cauliflower, with shredded cheese atop.  And to wrap it up, while not really lo-carb, are barbequed beans... My guests enjoyed BBQ sauce and a beer, though wasn't on my allowed list!

We finished late into the sunset and decided to risk biting insects in going out to the Fox River to enjoy the "big picture"! From the nearby boat dock (about 100 yards from my door) we took in the late sunset colors and a nice panorama of the water, last light of the day and the far shore.

Always nice to enjoy the evening with family, cooking outdoors and taking in an exploration of some sort while the weather is nice. I'm glad we could all get together in this little part of our lifetime journey...

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Keeping Up With Buddies!

I'm about halfway through this trip to "Ketelsen East" in the far western suburbs of Chicago. I've been in a "decluttering" mode, and one of the items I don't use any more is a recumbent bicycle given to be by RAGBRAI buddy Carl. A decade ago I hadn't been riding much after my pair of open-heart surgeries, and he passed on the recumbent that someone had given him. It was a unique piece of gear, and totally different to ride than a "normal" bike. The riding position was very comfortable, but the under-seat steering took a little getting used to! Also, after stopping, starting up again was surprisingly difficult, and usually included wobbling across the lane of traffic and aborted starts on many occasions! So I mostly did not ride it in traffic, and mostly rode laps around the mile-long path in a local park. Oh, and in going uphill, it had difficulty getting out of its own way! And there are plenty of hills near the river where I live! After I got a new hybrid bike here (which I love), the recumbent was abandoned so thought I'd pass it back to Carl to pass on to someone else! That's me on an early ride at left...

So THAT gave me an excuse to take a day trip to Iowa and cross paths with Carl. Back in 1993 when I did my first cross-state ride, he was one of the riders in the dozen or so crazies from the Toddville area that soon became my fast friends. He now is their intrepid leader, motivating them to train and keep on going year after year. He figures he's been on 29 of the 500 mile long rides across Iowa! Lately he and his wife Terri spend their winters in the Phoenix area near where one of their daughters live. While we crossed paths once this last winter in AZ, we didn't get a ride in, but since he is in "training", we did one earlier in the week when I visited. That is us at left, post-ride when I was pretty sweat-soaked, but it was a great, if warm and steamy day!

We met about 9am. Interestingly, I live next to a river, so have to climb a hill to leave the house. He lives atop a hill, so coast down to leave. Unfortunately, that means you climb that hill as you finish! He took me on a route that finished out at 20+ miles, and included 700+ feet of climbing - both records for me since restarting riding! A good part of it was over a rails-to-trails bike path - the Cedar Valley Nature Trail, which travels all the way from Cedar Rapids to Waterloo, over 60 miles, paved a good part of the way! I was surprised how busy it was - we would pass bikes or groups of bikes every minute or two! We stopped in a shady spot for a drink (at right), and Carl immediately found someone to talk to. The stop also included a latrine in the background, so a nice rest stop on a warm humid day.

After traversing sometimes busy roads to get there, it was a relief to not battle car and truck traffic, and it was nice to ride side-by-side for miles to chat and tell stories. Shown at left is a shot I took as I slowed to record what it was like as we biked along the very nice path.

We got back to Carl's and wondered if they wanted to go into town to Culver's for lunch. They were blessed to have their granddaughter Harper staying with them - she is a cutie, though seems pre-occupied with games and apps on her cell phone. She was plenty friendly and tolerated well my teasing her and attempting to steal her rapidly melting custard out at a table. See how photogenic she is at right?

I left the trio at the Cedar Rapids Culvers and headed south to Iowa City to make a pilgrimage to "Prairie Lights", my favorite book store, then on east to have dinner with sister Kathy, her husband Rich, and friends in Wheatland. Leaving them all for the 2.5 hour trip home in St Charles, I got in about 10:30. A long, but very fun day!

Friday, July 12, 2019

Wavy Wispies?

One thing I've been able to adhere to at "Ketelsen East" is my daily bike ride. In 12 days so far in July, I've gotten in 10 rides for a total of 105 miles! Mostly I bike the mile to a local park with a nice 1 mile loop to get in at least 5 miles or so, then jump on the bike path along the Fox River for more hill work and a little variety. But today I noticed something different!

As an astronomer and observer of nature, I've seen all sorts of clouds, but today was different - wavy clouds filling up the eastern sky! Fortunately I had my phone (tracks my bike rides) handy to take some photos. Kinda weird, eh? The foreground is River Bend Community Park, about a mile up the hill from me, and you can see it is a nice place to bike. But the whispies did not look like any clouds I've seen. I think the giveaway is the bluish nature of them.

The weathermen have been pointing out that some of the haziness we've been seeing has been due to forest fires across the border in Manitoba and Ontario Canada, and I suspect this is smoke from those fires. By afternoon they had moved off, the sky turning completely clear, so obviously the wind moved them out of the area. But they sure were striking for a while!

Monday, July 8, 2019

After The Meeting...

Tonight was the monthly meeting of the Fox Valley Astronomical Society. An interesting meeting about Apollo 11's Moon landing 50 years ago. Part of the discussion was about the "where were you" stories. Some were deployed in Vietnam. I was a 15 year old working on my Grandparent's farm. It was a Sunday as I recall, so didn't have to do much work - I remember shooting hoops with my younger cousin. I think there is a photo somewhere. I also took photos off the TV of Armstrong and Aldrin with my Instamatic - was a space nerd even then!

After the meeting, my friend Mark was setting up the club's 12" Meade in the parking lot at Peck Farm Park where we met (shown at left). He asked if I'd seen Celestron's new cell adaptor, which quickly allows mounting of a cell camera to shoot through the telescope. I'd not seen it, but was quite impressed as it allowed 3-axis of motion - X, Y, and focusing motion too! Shown at right in their advertising, it would come in handy at the Grand Canyon as EVERYONE wants to take photos of what they see in the telescope...

Well, with the quarter-moon high in the west, it was a perfect opportunity to try it out. The only difficulty we had was in setting up and aligning the camera lens to the eyepiece in the dark. A little red light might have been handy, but we eventually found the light coming out of the eyepiece. A wide shot of the moon is shown at left. Note the bottom edge is clipped by the edge of the eyepiece, NOT the lower limb of the moon...

At left, with the addition of some digital zoom in the camera, more detailed close-up is shown. It was an impressive demonstration with the brightest thing we observe in the night sky!

A bit later we looked at Jupiter, and were easy to see and record the 4 Galilean moons. Shown at left, the overexposed disk of Jupiter is at center, and left-to-right are the moons Ganymede, Europa, with Io and Callisto on the right. I tried but was unable to reduce the exposure to more properly expose for bright Jupiter. A higher power might have helped, but I suspect there was too much black sky - not enough "bright" to trigger the auto-exposure... I would have stayed for Saturn, low in the SE, but the mosquitos had drunk enough of my blood, so moved on towards home to post these. All in all, I'm tempted to get one of these devices - looks like an easy way to at least document the moon and bright planets with a cellphone.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Visible and Invisible

Woo Hoo - back in the Midwest for a visit to "Ketelsen East"! But what is this watery substance my skin is excreting??? For the first time the last few Summer visits, it is miserably hot and humid! A big change evidently as they have been "enjoying" a cool, very wet Spring. Farmers have been unable to get into fields to plant and evidently a slow-motion disaster is in progress...

Anyway, last weekend my maternal grandmothers family held a reunion that I was able to attend! Held every 2 years, it has been going on a few times. Held in a church camp in eastern Iowa (Grace Lutheran Church Camp), I didn't take any photos of relatives I've not seen in decades, but knowing that there would be some blue sky and greenery, I took my IR-modified camera to take some landscape photos!

Most modern cameras are sensitive to infrared (IR) light, but the sensors are filtered to specifically block those wavelengths invisible to the eye beyond the red end of the visible spectrum. Well, there are some neat effects going on just past our vision limits and 8 or so years ago I got an inexpensive DSLR camera on Ebay and paid a modest fee to remove the IR blocking filter and replace it with an IR pass filter. While the view through the camera looks normal, the photos are anything but! As shown here, the IR shots show white trees and grass, indicative of chlorophyll, which is a strong reflector of IR, and dark water and sky, which absorb or do not scatter IR light. Please enjoy the photo comparisons, which I've tried to match the exact field with the modified Canon 20D, and the visible color images from my Canon 6D. The IR shots do not look unlike the view of a snowfall covering grass and vegetation, but that is indeed NOT the case.

The longer IR wavelengths easily penetrate haze and dust, and are scattered less by the atmosphere. Looking at the photos above, the clouds just above the treetops are more easily seen in the IR shot as it is less affected by haze and contrast is increased. In the long-distance views from mountaintops in AZ, this effect can be used to more clearly discern distant details. But since the horizon is at most only a mile or two away in flat and tree-infested Iowa, this effect is much less. But note in these photos left and right that the algae mats growing along the water edge also glow white from chlorophyll!

For years I've tried to photograph details within the structure of a leaf, but it all glows so completely white it is hard to pick out any details. These photos are from an oak tree, and structure is clearly seen in the color image at right, but harder to discern in IR, even with severely playing with brightness and contrast. What you can see are some little spots that align with little leaf defects, perhaps insect bites or other small intrusions, that clearly show a lack of chlorophyll.

You may see more from the IR camera in coming weeks - I love seeing the normally hidden world revealed!