Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Old Business!

I still have so many photos from my last Midwest trip, that I figure I should post some before I find myself back there again! These are from a visit to Peck Farm Park, an old farmstead that was donated to the Kane County park system and now hosts native prairie patches and learning centers for all ages.

One of the Summer highlights is the butterfly aviary, small, but very popular with families since it is only a $2 suggested donation for entry. I used my Canon 6D with the 100mm macro lens with about a 3cm extension tube, so depending on the focus setting was something close to life size on the detector, much larger on your screen. Along with the ring flash on the front it was pretty much "Point and Shoot" and the photos came out perfect! I used a monopod to steady the camera, but was like shooting fish in a barrel as long as the butterflies were distracted by feeding on the flowers.

Unfortunately, I was also distracted shooting targets, and did not pay attention to the laminated ID sheet that needed to be left behind, so I have none of these IDed... Sorry about that, will try to do better next time!

Monday, September 3, 2018

Monsoon Season Winds down!

I returned from the Midwest a few weeks back and was afraid that I'd missed the blooming season for the cereus repandus cacti on the east side of the house. Fortunately, as I rounded the corner, I saw about 20 buds that would provide about a week of blooms. The are remarkable flowers, attaining nearly 6" (15cm) diameter, with the blooms opening fully well after sunset, and on their way closed shortly after the sun hits them. So they depend on night time pollinators, and it has been a hobby of mine to document this "night shift" every year. Here is a link to some of my favorite pollinator  posts the last few years...

My first Friday night back I had gone to Phoenix to attend an astronomy club meeting, and returned after midnight to find 7 (!) flowers open, so set up my old Canon XSi (with built-in flash) to take a photo every 20 seconds through the remainder of the night. Starting about 1am, the camera ran unattended until about 5:30 when I went and stopped it - it was already getting light and was surrounded by bees, which take over after the moths stop coming. So yes, there were over 800 photos to examine! As shown above, the full frame covered 2 blooms to see if they worked them sequentially. It turns out I never saw one on the rearward blossom.

It was a long wait for the first visitor - the shot above at right was after 3am, 2 hours after the start. Hard to tell if the flash startles them or not. Some only stay for one flash, some for several. The one at left came only 2 minutes later, but I don't think it is the same one - the latter looks larger and I can't match any of the fine patterns... Then, almost 2 hours later one fed for 3 of the consecutive exposures. Looking much smaller than the moths in the other exposures, I have no explanation. I don't believe they grow as they age, so am mystified a little by their apparent smaller size. It looks to be the same species as the markings are nearly identical, the exception is that the above have 3 orange spots down the side and these smaller ones have 5...

A few minutes later I caught the corner of a wing, and the flash silhouette of another moth, so I'm counting 4 visits even though this one is marginal! About 30 minutes later the first honeybees came along and are the last to have their way with the flowers before they close shortly after sunrise. But even among these bees there are some interesting variations! At left is one of the few that had it's "fannypack" stuffed full with pollen already! Note I had repositioned the camera with macro lens for these shots with the ring flash.

The oddballs continued with the appearance of a large, black, fuzzy bee in one frame - I think is a female carpenter bee. In addition there was a small strange moth that also appeared in one frame shown at right. It appears green with brown trim. Unfortunately it wasn't in sharp focus, so remains a mystery - wasn't able to find anything close in Google images...

Finally shown here is the result of a night of pollinators... At left is shown the resultant stamen where the pollen is deposited and must adhere with a sticky substance. Individual pollen grains are resolved in this full-resolution 15-frame focus stack. Meanwhile the anther that normally is loaded with pollen look like bald, yellow raisins. At the start of the night they are fuzzy and loaded up with pollen grains. Make sure you click on the image to see it at full scale.

And here is a flower a few nights earlier that shows what the flower parts look like early in the evening, when the stamen (green fingers) are fresh and devoid of pollen at left, and at right the anthers are shown loaded with pollen...

So the bloom season has now ended, and continues again early next summer. The desert provides few blossoms for pollinators in the fall, so not much of interest coming up, but I'll be sure to be out next summer!

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Walks Around the House

I've been immensely enjoying the Summer at "Ketelsen East", and often go on excursions in the prairie restorations and the woods near home to see what there is to be seen. Sometimes I bring my camera, and when I don't, usually see something that makes me wish I had! The photos here were all taken with the Canon 6D camera and the 100mm macro - a nice versatile lens that works on distant objects as well as focuses up to life size, allowing close ups of bugs or flower details. As a result, you don't need to carry any alternate gear along...

Case in point is a flash of color I spotted last week - an American Goldfinch. As with many subjects, you can sneak closer while distracted feeding. This fellow was distracted feeding on a cone flower, finally getting a morsel you can spot in the last frame. Meanwhile I had gotten to about 20 feet or less allowing me to get a little detail in the shots here.

Similarly, there have been a lot of Monarch butterflies this year. In recent years, hearing the difficulties of their overwintering grounds and massive die-offs, they have seemed scarce around the Midwest. Perhaps it was the conscientious plantings of milkweed plants, but rare is the time I go out and DON'T see them this year. As above, try sneaking up on them while distracted feeding and I got to within a couple feet of this male, here feeding on a flowering Joe-Pye weed. How do I know it is a boy? I thought everyone knew that! Males have a little dark spot on the tops of their rear wings that are pheromone emitters to help locate females. Shown at right are a couple (admittedly lower quality) images showing this butterfly flitting about, clearly showing its pheromone spots (arrowed).

I continue to be amazed at the
biodiversity of the milkweed plant. I've blogged before about the milkweed bug and milkweed beetle and documented the difference. Normally a careful search of a plant will show one or the other, rarely both. On a walk the other day I spotted a milkweed just covered with yellow aphids - not the plant 8" to the left or right, but that one in the center! And there was only the one infested, not a single aphid spotted on another plant. Here is where the macro comes in handy - you can photograph an entire leaf covered in speckles of yellow, or move closer to focus a few inches away for more details. At left I've pulled the leaf back to reveal the underside where the bulk of them were located. At right is a close up of a flower on the plant, showing the sapsuckers working on the stalks of the flowers. You can spot one near center sporting a pair of little wings that will allow it to be more mobile someday. As with most aphid colonies, there were ants nearby that seemed to be in charge, likely feeding on the concentrated sugar water the aphids excrete... Amazing stuff!

On another walk yesterday, closer to
home in the woods, I used the same setup - the 100mm Canon macro, but with 3cm of extension tubes to allow even closer focusing. I also had a flash that attached to the front of the lens that was useful for the shots taken shortly before sunset. First up was a purple phlox near the house. We don't plant any of these, perhaps a LONG time ago, but they are perennials now that show up annually. Interesting flower clusters, but only individuals shown here. While they look flat from their front, they have a long tubular structure attached, shown better at right looking nearly into the sun in a "different" view of them. Both of these are "focus stacks", where multiple images at different focus settings were combined to extend the zone of sharpness. 14 frames were combined at left, 18 at right! The higher magnification provided by the extension tubes required combining more frames.

Similarly for the thistle flower here, 22 frames were combined into this image. While a noxious weed, the flowers are quite striking. I'm not quite sure the type of thistle this is, or if it is, in face a cockle burr. Some of the images I saw online show similarities to both, so am going to leave it unidentified here...

A little deeper into the woods were a
striking yellow flower I've not noticed before! I've been told it is a "Tansy" (Tanacetum vulgare). They are eye-catching both for their little button flowers, and upon magnification, for the pattern of the microscopic substructures of the flowers... In the fading light, 7 frames were combined at left, 18 at right. Note the flowers start with a thin white cover sheet which bursts open as they mature enough and grow into a bloom.

In the fading light I noticed a few little creatures a couple millimeters across on these plants. I'm always on the lookout for new creatures, and with new plants (to me) was the chance for some new little varmints! These will be unidentified for now as they may be nymphs, which are notoriously difficult to identify, but the one at left looks to be a treehopper, and at right a leafhopper. These have a different "look" to them as they utilized the ring flash on the front of the macro for illumination. Of course, with living creatures, you have to deal with movement - managed 8 frames to combine at left, only 2 at right.

As my trip winds down, I won't have many opportunities to visit these friends, so will have to make a point of getting out a few more times!

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Season of Green!

Have been back at "Ketelsen East" for a couple weeks and have immensely been enjoying the Summer season here! The trip up was "uneventful", but then, how often do you have eventful flights?! The only time I can remember a flight I'd call eventful was when Melinda surprisingly upgraded us to first class - now THAT was memorable! So it was a dull trip, but at least I booked a window seat to watch the country roll by. And fortunately for me this time, the window was actually possible to look through! Often they are behind your shoulder and takes a contortionist to look thru, let alone try to take a photo.

It seems lately that the flights have initially been much further south than years past. A few years back, we almost always flew past the LBT Observatory on Mount Graham 80 miles NE of Tucson. This time I was able to look down on Willcox, a good 25 miles south of Graham, making targeting the LBT all but impossible. Similarly, instead of passing right over the Clifton/Morenci copper mine with a great view, it was again a good 15 miles to the north as shown here at left.  Even cropping the full zoom shot at right did little to get detail like the earlier version (see link).

It is always a challenge to locate the path taken along the way. Usually you can look for landmarks or unusual formations, even road or river intersections. Look for something that would stand out while perusing Google maps, while noting the time stamp on the photos so you can figure out where to start your search. We crossed the Rio Grande in north-central New Mexico - that was easy enough to spot the green ribbon of fields that must use wells pulled from the river. But which city was that? The railroad yards at center help locate it to Belen, New Mexico. The Rio Grande is the meandering little stream in the sandy channel in the lower right part of the frame.

Once past the Rio Grande and east of Albuquerque, I'm pretty much lost using landmarks. I figured we crossed up through New Mexico and eventually into Kansas. As a farmer boy, I could see the irrigated fields, yet, also saw square fields of golden yellow. My friend who grew up in Kansas confirmed that the golden fields this time of year was likely winter wheat, probably in the process of being harvested or about to be.

The chance to reorient myself presented itself when we crossed what I thought was the Missouri River. It seemed small, but was long and windy, so figured that was it. I shot the unusual twisty stream emptying into it shown at left and figured it would be easy to locate on the Google Maps, and I was right - took about a minute of searching to find the exact spot where the Nodaway River empties into the Missouri, about 15 miles northwest of St Joseph on the Kansas/Missouri border...

It got hazy and cloudy which made looking more difficult, so missed the Mississippi crossing. A few turns of the aircraft made locating more difficult too. I never spotted the Illinois River sometimes seen, and we were getting close to landing and me without knowing where we were! Finally another turn and I spotted one of the more striking landmarks - the twin towers of the nuke plant near Byron, Illinois. Evidently a storm had just passed and with the humidity, the cooling towers were belching a steam trail that could likely have been seen for a hundred miles! The towers themselves are 500 feet high and when trailing a steam cloud are quite apparent. I visited the place once, but never blogged about it - an eerie place at night!

The nuke plant told me we were going to head in straight east to O'Hare, likely over "Ketelsen East". The storm that passed through before we did evidently left a lot of rain - some of the fields of corn had impromptu lakes standing in them!

Continuing eastwards, sure enough, the urban areas started, and I was able to pick out Randall Road that traverses north-south on the west side of most of the towns our here west of Chicago. Even before seeing the Fox River, I knew we were near the normal path, likely passing about a mile north of "Ketelsen East" on the way in. At right, spotted in the Fox River to the town a few miles north of me was the Grand Victoria Casino - permanently tied to the dock from back in the day when casinos had to be on "boats", even though the Fox isn't navigable by something this large... So thus ended the flight - dull and boring, right? Well, not when you are paying attention!

So by the time I got by baggage, got
picked up, went to dinner w/the friend who drove me home and got out to the house, it was dark, and it wasn't till the next morning that it hit me - it was GREEN outside! You have to realize that when I'd come up, Tucson hadn't had measureable rain in 4 months, and it was dry, mostly sporting shades of brown and grey. I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz stepping into the Technicolor world of Munchkin Land after a B&W existence! The daytime view out the bathroom window at left gave the first hint that "we weren't in AZ any more"! This is an HDR image, where 3 different exposures were combined to sample the extreme levels of illumination. This still life has appeared before in the blog, with the results of a blizzard outside the window from 2.5 years ago! Looked a little different then!

Stepping outside later in the day confirmed it... While I had been here a mere 6 weeks earlier, the trees had not fully leafed out before my departure, so the appearance was totally different. The shade under the 80 foot tall oaks and hickories was nearly impenetrable! And GREEN - did I mention the GREEN! It was dazzling to the eye it was so green. The shot at right above is looking out from my little stoop towards the north, taken with a fisheye lens stretched a little to look a little more normal.

The photo at left shows a shot towards where I just took the above image. The cottage is surrounded in several sides with plants, ferns shown here on the NE corner.

Taking an amble towards the river and looking back towards the house, you can see some of the trees still towering over the house - and of course, the American flag Melinda liked to hang while we were in residence, shown at right...

And of course, it isn't all green! There always seems to be something in bloom, and even as I arrived, the day lilies were nearing the end of their season. Here is a focus stack of 6 frames to extend the range of sharp focus.

Lots more to blog, lets see if I can start a trend and get more than one every month or so!

Monday, June 25, 2018

2018 Canyon Wrapup

Again, better late than never, here are a few photos and stories from this year's Grand Canyon Star Party! It ended a week yesterday, but as normal lately, the photos have to settle into my brain before figuring what I'll do with them - text normally follows the photos I've selected! With a recently-obtained fisheye (Sigma 15mm F/2.8), I think these are the most striking photos! Particularly the one at left that shows the Milky Way rising over the crowd of star party telescopes and observers...

The shot at right is a bit more personal as I'm shown sitting beside my Celestron 14".  The string of red lights is one of the park rangers stopping by to say hi, and there is also someone looking thru the telescope. The bright "star" at upper right is planet Jupiter, and Saturn, a little fainter, has just risen above the trees, just to the right of the observer's head... The same part of the Milky Way - the brightest part near the Sagittarius/Scorpio border, is always spectacular as a backdrop. These are both 30 second exposures, wide open and an ISO of 4,000.

In the right shot above of my C-14, you can see above the observer's head my 500mm lens mounted there for some snapshots taken after the crowd thins out... I did this last year and was a lot of fun, so decided to do it again! With the C-14 properly polar aligned, it should easily track for a couple minute sub-exposure, so took a few frames to stack to decrease noise and increase signal and color saturation. At left is an eternal favorite this time of year - Messier 20 above (the Triffid Nebula), and Messier 8 below (the Lagoon Nebula). On more than a few occasions, I pulled up a frame of this image and used the colors to explain the physics that caused them. Of course visually no colors are visible - just shades of grey. It was a powerful demonstration - people could see the blue (reflection from a nearby blue star) and red (hydrogen fluorescing from UV light from nearby hot stars) nebulae, but no color. It demonstrated how our eye has evolved so that our B&W sensors (rods) allow us to see in dim conditions, but the color sensor (rods) only work during daylight brightness levels.

Also visible nearby in Sagittarius was the comet 2016 M1 PanSTARRS. I knew approximately where it was and in my 3rd shot there it was! Comets are easy to spot when near the sun - they show up green from the dissociation of carbon molecules by sunlight. On this night (11 June), it was 120 million miles from us on the Earth, and 214 Million miles from the Sun! While it gets a little closer to the sun at perihelion in October, it will not be visible from the northern hemisphere... This is a stack of 4 exposures of 60 seconds each. Oh - that fuzzy star at upper right? That is Messier 70 - a globular cluster about 29,000 light years towards the center of our galaxy...

Anyone who knows me also knows I'm a fan of dark nebulae! How do you see a black cloud, I hear you ask? Well, you see it in silhouette against clouds of stars, so looks like dark clouds against the Milky Way, as in the fisheye shots above. A spot in southern Ophiuchus is rich in dark clouds. Shown here at left thru the 500mm is part of what is called the "pipe" nebula because of its resemblance to a smoking pipe with more dark nebulae curling upwards...

And at right is a little dark cloud visible at the top in the link's wide field - the Snake Nebula, or B72... The "S" shape of the snake is strikingly apparent in photographs, but try as I might, have never seen it visually!

There IS one dark nebula you can see - Barnard 86, the Inkspot Nebula! It is shown at left in the full frame of the 500mm. Seen against one of the brighter clouds of the Milky Way center, the small dark cloud is easy to see in silhouette between a small star cluster and bright-ish star... Several friends and I show the dark cloud at the Canyon for something "totally different"!

Also for something different, Omega Centauri is a spectacular globular cluster that just clears the southern horizon.  Not many people have it on their observing list at the Grand Canyon, but I happened to notice that it was hanging just over the visitor center from my telescopes location on the field. I happened to have my 200mm mounted on the scope that day so took a 30 second snapshot of it - shown at right. It is a HUGE cluster, upwards of 4 million stars about 16,000 light years away.  But it is usually a dim glow seen so lowly in the sky. A photograph can make it look more apparent - here over the VC roof!

We had a great 6 nights of the star party, but some clouds and sprinkles (!) at the end. There were spectacular crowds at night, good crowds of astronomers too - likely about our best year given the weather at the end. We had elk too! Remember I've been going to these things for 28 years, and in the beginning saw absolutely NO elk. Now they are hardly getting excited about. They are evidently smart enough they know how to turn on the water fountains to get a drink - the photo at left taken near the bathroom at our old site at Yavapai Point... And as the star party wound down, a young female stops by the telescope field to say hello to Erich Karkoschka! We are supposed to stay over 100 feet from them, but we're not sure the protocol when they walk up to YOU!

Finally the last Sunday dawned clear - very clear, and after a few days of clouds, a trip was needed to go see the Canyon. We all took many photos of the Canyon, but one of the most striking of mine was from Mojave Point where an agave flower in its brilliant yellows was seen against the reds and browns of the Canyon. At left is an HDR shot of the plant mostly in deep shade, and at right is a close-up of the flower with what I think is a female black carpenter bee pollinating the beautiful flowers...

Next year's star party, the 29th, faces some uncertainty as the current organizer Jim O'Connor has broadcast his intentions to retire from those efforts. But the event is so successful that I think it would continue regardless. The astronomers love it, the public and park loves it, so I'm sure it will continue far into the future in something like the present form...