Monday, August 14, 2017

Start of a New Adventure!

Well today marks the beginning of a 2-week adventure! Not only am I on a road trip to observe the upcoming solar eclipse crossing the country, but I'm doing it with an astronomy group from Krasnoyarsk, Russia! Last time we saw Sergey, he was escorting 11 Russian "children", as he calls them (ages 9-16), as I was in charge of their itinerary while we did astronomy stuff in Southern Arizona for 9 days! As I write this, I'm in Blythe, CA, getting part of the trip behind me so I can pick them up at LAX early tomorrow afternoon!

This time there will only be 6 kids, I believe, as well as Sergey, and since my van only sits 7, I've managed to talk a friend of mine, Margie Williams, along as a secondary driver with her pickup and jump seat. That way she'll be able to haul some gear for me and also load a passenger or to. The trip is rounded out by our friend Donna who mostly wants to see the eclipse, but also wants to experience the trip with us as well, and having a 3rd adult can't help either!

But besides playing tourists on a road trip, there is an eclipse to observe! Since we are driving, we're not limited by airline weight or size limitations, and I've got a bunch of gear totally suitable for an eclipse! Shown at left is a view of the 3 main scopes, all mounted on a single beefy AP 1200 mounting. The main scope is a 5.5" diameter refractor which will give an excellent image on the full-frame Canon 6D sensor with its 1,000mm focal length. Next to it is a much-wider field of a 300mm lens on an APS sensor. The "tilted" scope at left is actually a spectrograph with a beefy prism in front that will take a spectrum of the sun's chromosphere at 2nd and 3rd contact - something fun to do! At right is a view from the other (top) direction!

And along the way, we'll be making some first-ever visits to some states for me (Wyoming, Utah), and we'll tarry long enough to see some of the sights as well, though plans call for us to be back in Tucson a few days after the eclipse to visit some of the "old standards" that amateur astronomers would come halfway around the world to see. It all starts tomorrow, or started today - depends on how you count! Stay tuned!

Saturday, August 12, 2017

August finds AZ Bustin' Out!

I got back from the Midwest last week to find Arizona as green as I've ever seen it! Even flying into the Tucson valley, the mountains were a rare emerald green! Evidently the month of July had been the wettest on record - of course, the rain stopped as soon as I returned! My back yard is usually a bare dirt sort of yard, but I returned to find 2 foot high weeds in desperate need of whacking!

With all the water, many of the cacti here are blooming again, some for the second time. In front of the house I have pair of barrel cacti, both at least 25 years old. They look pretty much identical, but one only blooms in the Spring, the other in the Fall - no confusion there! The normal Fall-blooming one (well, mid-August anyway), was budding heavily with the first flowers - well mixed with the yellow fruits from last year's flowers! The image at left reveals the first flower, well-hidden among the buds about to flower and the fruit from last year, and perhaps before! At right is a close-up of the flower. As with the last post of the Katydid, these images are all focus-stacks, where multiple exposures were combined to extend the range of sharpness. This close-up of the barrel cacti flower was constructed from 28 individual frames!

Since the largest image I can display on the blog is 1600 pixels wide, both the above images were reduced in quality for display. But here at left is a full-resolution of the flower, cropped from the original image. Note how the center part of the flower (stigma?), looks all the world like hot dogs encased in buns!

Out in the back yard, my favorite cacti are the array of Cereus Repandus plants along the east end of the house. One of my favorite monsoon activities is to monitor them as they open and watch for pollinators. Seeing 5" wide Rustic Sphynx moths attack these 6" wide night-blooming flowers is really interesting! However, the problem is that my next adventure (eclipse road trip!) starts in a few days, and while the plants are covered with buds, I'm not sure any of them will open before I need to leave! Fingers crossed there will still be some available to bloom upon my return in a couple weeks!

And almost hidden behind the grill, I remembered my little potted barrel cactus, and I almost missed it even though in full bloom! It's dark red flowers are not particularly conspicuous - I'm not sure I've seen flowers less conspicuous, unless you go with the green cholla cacti flowers! Shown at right they are a quite nice shade, and I see buds for future blooms - I'm just not quite sure what I'll see next time I'm home! Will be glad to give up the 2 foot high weeks though!

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Hitchhiker!

July was a bit weird at "Ketelsen East"!  The past few years I've spend time almost daily searching for and finding some of the weirdest bugs I've ever seen! At left is a composite showing some of my favorites the last couple years - all taken within a few yards of the house! But this year, whether the cool spring or wet weather, there has been NOTHING to be seen! Searching the same areas I've taken images of the insects at left have revealed almost nothing!

The other day after my bike ride, I drove into town to pick up a morning NY Times and gas up the car. I immediately noticed a hitchhiker atop the car - a Katydid! Now I've seen these before in the woods, but found them pretty shy and tending to avoid me when I get the camera out. Even when using my cell phone to take the image at right at the gas station, he was constantly moving away from me. After the snapshot, I ignored him and drove home - about what, 5 miles away.

So I was surprised upon arrival that he was still there! He must have found somehow to hold on tight to withstand the 50mph speeds I got up to. Perhaps from that very buffeting, he was pretty docile and I had time to go get my good camera (Canon 6D), macro lens and about 30mm of extension tubes. Still atop the car, I couldn't use my tripod, but used the top surface to brace on and shoot him. The result is at left - the dramatic lighting is due to his being under a cross-brace of the car rack, so was in it's shade, most of the light coming in from behind him.

Note that this photo, as well as all of the photos above, are "focus-stacked". Several-to-many images were combined, all focused at slightly different zones to extend the depth of focus of the image. It is almost necessary at this magnification, and in this case in the left image, 24 frames were combined in Photoshop to keep much of him in focus. The image at right shows one of the individual frames, shot at F/8 - a moderate aperture to let in light yet minimize diffraction effects. Note that only his right shoulder and left leg are in focus, most of the rest of him a little out of focus. You might have to click to load a larger image to see the differences.

Focus stacking is a powerful tool! Think of the work that Photoshop has to do to align all the images (these were handheld, braced against the roof of the car, but there was motion of the camera between frames while I made slight focus adjustments). Note also that the magnification changes slightly as the focus is changed, so the scale has to change too when they are combined. Then they take only the sharpest part of each frame and reassemble the image. It does pretty well too - check out this full-resolution crop of the focus-stack, showing detail in its compound eye!

I was able to take one set of images for stacking, went to get out of the strong sunlight to examine them closely, then repeat for this set of images. After spending 10 minutes to download them and stack them, I went back out, but he was gone by then. But it was fun to get this fellow w/just basic tools of camera, macro lens and Photoshop - not even a tripod...  He may well be my only "get" of the Summer!

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Out And About!

While at "Ketelsen East", I always enjoying staying at home out in the woods, but friends and family are only a couple hours away, so usually hit the road pretty often. My family is mostly just west of the Mississippi River, so an even 2 hours away, and we usually reserve Sundays for the drive to visit brothers and sisters, usually while eating at a local restaurant. With such a short drive time, I usually sleep in my own bed, so usually leave our dinners by 8pm to get home at a decent hour.

Case in point was early in this last trip when my brother Jim hosted us for a pool party on a Sunday. The "excuse" as if we needed one to get together, were for the July birthdays - our step-mom Diane, sister Kathy and great niece Alivia. At left they get to share a cake, made by my niece Marsha who works in a bakery.

A secondary excuse was that Jenn (my niece) and husband Chet were visiting from Connecticut! I remember their wedding in Des Moines 15 years ago (Happy Anniversary!). While a few years old, I believe it was the first time I'd met their son Sawyer, shown at left playing in the pool with his dad.

And if we needed any more reason to congregate, two of my college buddies happened to be along! Shown at left, Michael Dorn at right had visited Melinda and I a few years ago and happened to be out that weekend visiting me again. He met my family on a trip to the ancestral farm 40 years ago and wanted to join us again. The fellow in the white shirt is Luke Kuhl, who was my college roommate for 2.5 years at Iowa. He got more than a little ribbing for his name, since we went to school right after the movie "Cool Hand Luke" was popular! I hadn't seen Luke in close to 6-8 years, so was great to catch up - the 3 of us lived in the "Penthouse" 5th floor at Hillcrest Dormitory back in Fall of '72! Always fun to observe how nobody ever changes!

A few days later and I was doing a road trip. It had been a few years since Melinda and I had visited my friend Beth and Phillip in Minneapolis. It was definitely time to do another visit. Beth is one of my dearest friends again, going back to college days 40 years ago. She and Phillip survived a horrific car crash 15 years ago that left her confined to a wheelchair. But thanks to technology and her service dog Mika, it doesn't slow her down much. We made a trip to the Arboretum, one of her favorite places, as well as a restaurant overlooking the Chaska Curling Center where the USA curling team practices and competes! We also took advantage of Phillip's bar-b-que expertise - that is him at left in their garden of a back yard...

At right is a shot of Beth and Mika. I've never seen a service dog at work, and it is pretty amazing what she can do from opening doors, calling elevators, picking up items Beth needs. She is very well behaved and obviously they have worked together for a long time. It was hard to say goodbye, but eventually it was time. Phillip took our photo together, and like my selfie "rule of thumb" - it will come out fine as long as you have someone gorgeous next to you!

On the return trip to "Ketelsen East" I had intended to stop in Cedar Rapids, Iowa to see some of the crew from my old RAGBRAI bike team. That Friday they were going to load the bus for the trip to western Iowa to ride back across the state over the next week. Unfortunately, there was bad weather on the way, so didn't stay till evening to visit, but did pause nearby to see my nephew Jeff, wife Sandy and their beautiful daughters. Claire, shown at left, had just lost a front tooth and is showing the note from the tooth fairy. Because of her bravery in pulling it out, the tooth fairy left her money with glitter on it! Her younger sister Natalie was off to the sitter most of the day, but I got to see her just before leaving for the storm, as shown at right. Again - selfie, someone gorgeous - successful shot!

I stayed just ahead of the storm for the 3 hour trip back towards Chicago. Away from home for a few days, but with lots of memories of friends and family...

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Family Unit!

One of the things I look for in filling up my time at "Ketelsen East" is to watch for sandhill cranes. Particularly since we fell in love with watching them overwinter down at the Whitewater Draw wetlands in southeastern AZ, we kept an eye out on the nesting pair we discovered about a mile from our house here in Illinois! The highlight last year was when I drove through the neighborhood where they hang out and I was able to shoot them through the open window of my car with a telephoto lens - getting the ultra-closeup at left!

So it was with some concern that a search of the usual haunts in the area where I would routinely see these cranes during my month here in April turned up nothing! Finally I asked some birders that I ran into on a walk and they indicated there was a nesting pair at another nearby body of water, so I held on to some hope they were still here.

Then on this trip, I startled an adult crane while on my bike ride, so I kept an eye peeled for them again. Finally about 10 days ago, near the above site where I photographed them in a neighbor's back yard, I spotted them across the small body of water. As is usual, a human on foot gets their attention right away and they paid close attention as I shot with my 300mm across the pool.

So this morning after my bike ride, I packed the 300mm lens and went out to the pond again intending to shoot them again. Coming over the rise where I could get a view of the water, no cranes. I pulled off the road for traffic behind me to pass and while debating what to do noticed they were almost right next to me under a tree - not 40 feet away! Lowering the window I started shooting with the 300mm and got some nice images of both adults and the youngster - again, them paying scant attention to me as long as I was in the car! This may be the closest I've been to a youngster and you can see that it hasn't developed any of the red coloration on its forehead.  It is tough to tell if this is the same family unit that was here last year - will have to do some comparisons of the close-ups to see if I can tell!

And what I can now say honestly is the closest shot I've ever gotten of a sandhill crane, I present the following macro photos of a crane feather I found on my first outing to photograph them above! I found a couple adjacent to the tree where they were standing today and they both share the brown/tan coloration of the cranes. The larger of the two is over a foot long, so can't imagine any other bird species it would be from. The two are from the larger feather, from the tip at left, to the quill end at right showing the branching from the feather barbs. These are both focus stacks of several exposures to extend the depth of focus.

I'm glad I located my crane buddies and will have to keep a closer eye out for them during my time here!

Monday, July 24, 2017

It Can Stop Anytime!

One of the joys of "Ketelsen East", especially after surviving the "hotter than hell pre-monsoon season of 2017" in AZ, is that it rains on a regular basis! There is nothing like opening your windows and listening to a summer storm pass and lull you to sleep. Of course, the more violent ones with close lightening and thunder might cause you to re-close that window, but still - the rarity of a cool summer night with windows open is a real joy.

Of course, the payment one makes while living next to a river is that river will rise! Normally our little homestead lies about 40 yards from the bank of the Fox River, but the other morning after another 2" dumping overnight, I awoke to blue skies, but the body of water only about 20 feet from the house! 

I haven't worried much though - it was about this high in the Fall of 2008, shortly after our marriage. We got over 10" of rain over the long weekend and it quickly jumped to this same level. The photo at left shows a comparison image of the canoe racks the camp uses. The image at the top is from 2008 and the lower from the weekend. It appears this cycle is an inch or two higher than that one.

It is a little disconcerting to look out the sunroom windows and ONLY see water, but even with that last 20 feet to the house, it would have to come up a good foot to 18 inches to get into the house. We don't have a basement (unlike some nearby houses), and the drone of water pumps can be heard at night when it is quiet! At right is an HDR image, combining 3 different exposures, so that the fruit basket isn't black, nor the outside an overexposed white, showing our truly "riverside view"!

The other advantage of a high river is that we get dozens of carp grazing in the yard! They seem to like the grass, seemingly to wrench it out of the ground along the shallow edge. Walking up to them carefully, they appear to be up to 18" long and up to 5" wide, sometimes in groups of 3 or 4.  Soon enough as the water recedes, there will be a plethora of fish trying to get back to the main stream. I've tried before to catch them by hand and it is harder than you can imagine! A large fishing net helps, and I rescued a few, but mostly the egrets and herons come in and feast in the yard! Melinda witnessed a heron swallow a fish almost as large as he was, and was barely able to get off the ground again! Might be fun to try to record those photons!

Since these photos on Saturday, the Fox seems to have dropped a couple inches today even though it rained hard yesterday.  Looks like the peak has passed!

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Weekend of Randomness!

Note piggy-back 500mm lens!
Newlyweds Michael and Casey!
A few weeks ago was the 2017 edition of the Grand Canyon Star Party. I attended the first few days - I feel responsible since I'd started the thing way back in 1991, so had to keep an eye on "my baby"! I was in a nostalgic mood with this being the first one held after Melinda's death last Fall, and it seemed more than ever were asking me about the origins of the event - started at the honeymoon w/my first wife Vicki at the rim. So I was enveloped in a melancholy mood as the event started...

But the crowd wore on me - the tourists that stop and look thru our telescopes are always so enthusiastic that sadness was not long accepted. On the second night I had mounted my camera piggy-back on the scope so I could take and show a photo of what folks were looking at. Early in the evening I met Casey and Michael - they had just been married canyon-side the day before and were now honeymooning here! Someone down the line of telescopes had told them to come look me up and say hi. Well their story similar to mine certainly cheered me up and I asked them to come back when I didn't have 30 people in line looking at Jupiter, which they said they would.

Grand Canyon view of C/2015 V2 Johnson
Casey and Michael Johnson wedding photo!
My crowds eventually thinned and I'd all-but forgotten them. Left alone, it took me a while to find the "bright" comet Johnson in the evening sky. While bright enough to barely be seen in binoculars, it took a while to get it into the telescope, but the camera quickly confirmed its green coma and short tail that it was indeed Comet Johnson C/2015 V2. I've already told the story of how it was discovered as part of the Catalina Sky Survey in Tucson by Jess Johnson in 2015, thus the name after the discoverer. About this time Casey and Michael appeared and they got to see the comet thru the eyepiece and in the back of the camera. I then offered to take them a few stacked exposures of the Triffid and Lagoon Nebulae as a wedding present, and showed them the pretty blue and red nebula in a short exposure. As the camera recorded the half dozen frames, I took their email contact from them. I was amazed that Casey and Michael's married name is Johnson - so had to go back and tell them the story of the Comet Johnson that they had just seen! And strangely enough too, many of you may know that Melinda's maiden name was Johnson! It was a set of circumstances way to weird to be random, and quickly had me tearing up...

Another of Casey and Michael's wedding shots!
My little wedding offering to them...
The other big event this summer is the solar eclipse coming up in August. I'm always loathe to make plans days or weeks in advance, let alone years or months. But in my talking to the folks in line looking through the Celestron at the Canyon, I met a family from Wyoming. When asked where they would be on the 21st of August, w/out hesitation they said "Watching the eclipse from our yard!" Of course, my immediate response was if they would mind if I brought up a dozen people to camp in their yard, with access to a shower and bathroom? They said yes! So now I have a destination for my group of Russian amateur astronomers and the group of friends that want to follow along. Our new friends in small-town Wyoming have even offered to cook for us, so it sounds like an adventure that will soon-enough appear here.

So randomness and circumstance are still at work in the universe! It has been said (perhaps by me!?) that if you sit along the rim of the Grand Canyon long enough, you will meet everyone in the world! It certainly worked wonders for me, raising me out of my funky mood, and also finding a home for the 21st of August! May the universe continue to be surprising!