Sunday, April 28, 2013


The saying goes "April showers bring May flowers", but that is not the case in the desert Southwest!  Yes, it did sprinkle while we were gone to the Carolinas - rained all of .12" total on the 8th and 9th of April, otherwise has been 20 February since we had nearly .5"...  Of course, we're entering the dry period of the year - we're unlikely to get much of anything till the monsoonal flow stars up in early July.

But thankfully we don't depend on the rain to
provide springtime blooms.  While Winter rains can provide a good wildflower display in February and March, April and May are peak cactus flower season, and driving around town on Saturday just about knocked me for a loop with the displays of prickly pear and cholla cacti, which seem totally independent of rainfall.  The basic colors of prickly pear are yellow flowers, though you see tints tending towards peach too.  The varieties of purple plants with bright yellow flowers as shown here are just stunning!  I was able to catch a honeybee doing its thing on these blossoms too...

Down the block, wandering with my camera, I
found a huge prickly pear with the peach-colored flowers and amazingly, 21 buds on one pad of the plant!  usually you get a couple flower buds along the rim of a pad, but this might have been the most I've ever seen!  I wish I knew more about the different varieties - there seem to be dozens if not hundreds of prickly pear.  Note the flower buds at right - very different from at left.

The buds shown here are more in line with what is usually seen - some number of them along the rim of the pad.  Any given day one or more might bloom, but likely not all at once.  Flowers will last a day, but with all the buds the cactus will likely be in bloom for a couple weeks...
I mentioned cholla cacti above - there is a magnificent plant down the block that is a good 6 feet high with the most spectacular crimson flowers.  We don't have a lot of cholla in the neighborhood, but they have quite a range in flower coloration from green (!), oranges, reds and yellows. 
And perhaps most spectacular of all, Jack - our
neighbor down the block, has a trico cereus that is currently in bloom. I've actually blogged about it before - it is a spectacular plant, especially with the bloom set from 2 years ago (go to the link!).  Well, as I was doing my little neighborhood walk, I could tell one of the buds was about to pop open that night, so I took a picture of it, then at one hour intervals as it opened.  Shown here, from upper left it is shown over the 3 hour period.  The bottom two used flash for illumination, so forgive that... Then at right is one from early this morning before it closed.  We have a cereus night bloomer that opens later in the Summer with white flowers, but this Springtime flower is such a stunner...  Seems amazing that something so spectacular comes out of such an innocuous plant, and lasts for only a day!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Carolina Reptile Walk

While we were visiting Betty in Columbia, South Carolina, one of our destinations is the Three Rivers Greenway, a nice walkway/bike path along the Saluda and Congaree Rivers, flowing down the west side of Columbia.  While we have similar paths in Tucson, Columbia's has an actual river, with water flowing in it!  Tucson's system of washes are typically dry about 330 days of the year...

Our last visit was no exception, and it is always
fun to see the wildlife you can spot between the edge of land and water.  I assume it is pretty dependent on water level and time of the year, but this trip in early April seemed heavy on the reptile family!  It seemed every rock sticking out of the water had turtles on it and every branch extending into the water had frogs (yes, I know - amphibians, not reptiles)...  I haven't identified either of these, but both look pretty common.  This shot of the frog at right is my only picture that starts to show a pattern of white pigment under its chin.  Whether real or a temporary malady, I'm not sure.  A search didn't turn up anything...

A few yards down the path and I spotted a pretty good-sized snake, certainly 5 feet if not a little more. From the pattern, I believe it is a brown water snake, a non-venomous snake often found in low-hanging tree branches.  This fellow was basking in the sun and didn't pay me any mind, in fact, I didn't see it move at all, but it was gone when we passed by again 40 minutes later.  It certainly didn't have the triangular head of the pit vipers, so definitely wasn't a water moccasin.  It seemed pretty dull-colored and I thought perhaps it was looking to molt, but I'm thinking now that the brown water snake is normally dull in contrast...
Out in the river we saw a number of egrets and
great blue herons, but didn't see them fishing much or eating anything, so were wondering what they were doing...  Then we spotted huge schools of good-sized minnows in pools near the bank.  If this is any indication of the richness of river life, the birds might very well have been resting after a feeding session.

And lizards - we got lizards!  At lease different ones than we see in Arizona... Now that it is getting warm in the Southwest, the lizards we see move at seemingly the speed of light! The ones we spotted along the trail in Columbia at least were social enough that we got to take a few photos anyway... First up is the five-lined skink, one of the most common lizards in the Eastern US.  But they were cool to us as we don't have them in Arizona!  One of their most unusual features is a blue tail, easily detached when threatened to distract predators.  The blue tail may fade with age, though remains stronger in females.   I've got a thing for lizard fingernails, so love the little nails in the picture at right!
Also seen on the way back to the car was a Carolina anole -
easily seen with its bright green color.  The above link indicates it has some color-change capability, like a chameleon, and its behavior is distinctly different than the skink above - it stayed motionless for some time, evidently believing it was blending into the background, making picture-taking much easier.  The two pictures here are from the same frame, the right image shown at full-resolution to show the finest details.

So we had a great time visiting the river walking path with Betty.  Even in the urban area, we saw a nice variety of the creatures living there - common for South Carolina, but new for us!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

A Windy, Starry Night!

While we've had an abundance of clear skies in the Tucson area, up atop Kitt Peak, we've lost a lot of nights recently to high winds.  While most telescopes are protected by domes, as it nears 40mph, domes and telescopes are at risk from wind damage and rules dictate the observatory closes down. 

The last couple Spring observing seasons I've worked part time on the mountain, I've been working on a time lapse of the great globular cluster Omega Centauri rising over the 2.1 meter telescope.  After a couple tries I'd all but given up on the project, but last month I obtained a new tracking platform, made by Vixen.  One of the tracking options is half-speed, which splits the image blur between the stars and ground objects.  The setup is shown at left - the platform and camera is mounted on a standard tripod and it tracks along the horizon.  So while helping out on an astro-photo workshop a couple weeks ago (a very windy night), I tried out the combination with an 85mm, fast Nikon lens.  It worked great, but I aimed incorrectly so planned to go up a couple nights later.  Finally on tax day, after the Nightly Observing Program had been cancelled for wind, I decided to brave the elements and 5-day-old moon to try again.

The result is shown here.  Fortunately with the practice session a couple days earlier I knew when and where the cluster would rise.  The wind, gusting to 45mph made critical focus difficult by buffeting me around while trying to manually twist the lens grip, then I spent too much time getting the framing perfect - ball mounts are tough to aim in the dark with a camera body short on flat or straight edges to use a bubble level on...  So I didn't quite get the cluster rising over the trees.  The bright moon and F/1.8 lens speed made 15 second exposures possible (taken every 20 seconds), which was about perfect to minimize movement between frames.  As a bonus, besides the cluster, which clears our southern horizon by only about 10 degrees, the bright galaxy Centaurus A (NGC 5128) is visible a few degrees above it.  In addition, in my previous attempts at capturing Omega, I've noticed another sizable galaxy to the west, NGC 4945.  I've never seen it in a telescope, only on these pictures, but it is big and bright enough to try it next time I'm out.  The objects are pointed out in the annotated picture here...
Oh yes, and the time lapse is shown here - uploaded to YouTube for your convenience.  Full screen and HD quality always helps if you have the bandwidth.  Enjoy!


Thursday, April 18, 2013

Biltmore Estate!

Yes, I'm terribly behind in my posts!  But I can't skip anything about our recent trip to the Carolinas...  One of the highlights was our trip to the Biltmore Estate!  After the Southern Star conference ended, Melinda and I drove the 90 minutes south to meet up with in-laws Betty, Susan and Shannon on the outskirts of Ashville, North Carolina. 

The Biltmore is a truly incredible place - the largest privately-owned house in the United States at nearly 180,000 square feet!  The only thing I've seen that comes close in scale (about half the area, but comparable in splendor) is the Hearst Castle in California, built over a generation later.  Biltmore has over 250 rooms and built in an age well before most homes had indoor plumbing, boasts 45 bathrooms.  Built over 6 years and finished in 1895, owner George Washington Vanderbilt replicated it after the working estates of Europe, with its own village and farms spread over the original 125,000 acres.  There are extensive gardens and forests designed by Olmsted, perhaps better known as the designer of New York's Central Park.  In reading some of the displays regarding the construction of the estate, over 2,500,000 plants were planted/cultivated on the grounds...  The estate remains in the family - currently owned by Vanderbilt's grandson, and is supported by public tours since depression days, employing 1,800 workers in supporting the enterprise.

We took the self-guided tour, following along with the supplied guidebooks.  Nearly every room had personnel stationed to answer questions and explain what we were seeing.  I was amazed at the knowledge of all the people we talked to - they all were able to answer the pointed questions I had about the minutia I saw and were well-acquainted with the detailed history of the place.  Unfortunately, photography of the interior was not allowed, though I didn't have to check my camera gear...  They seemed satisfied with my carrying the camera, though I heard some strong admonishments for tourists using their I-phones for pictures...  So there are a few exteriors here - there are gargoyles (!) of course, up on the roof drain spouts, and intricate stonework on most of the exteriors.  The knight shown at right is just exterior to the grand staircase which is the main route to the various floors...
We spent a good hour touring the house interior,
from the banquet hall as big as a gymnasium, to the library, to the main bedrooms, down to the basement swimming pools, kitchens and servants quarters.  All truly astounding!  The tour comes to a natural conclusion at the stables and carraige house which has been converted to shops and restaurants which is a natural place to finally sit and relax after climbing stairs for an hour!  The panorama shot at left shows the open area where horses were once housed and tourists now relax.  At right Melinda and Shannon enjoy a cone. 
Of course, this is where the only tourist-use bathrooms are located, so is a popular place...  And besides ice cream, sandwiches and bakery, there are also souvenir shops selling books, Christmas ornaments (holiday season does big business here), and there is also a sizeable store that sells reproductions of many of the decorations that the tourists saw in the interior, from Tiffany lamps to oil paintings...
After our respite, we wanted to head down to the
gardens.  Unfortunately, Springtime was delayed a bit by recent cold weather, and the exterior gardens were still a little bare.  The tulips were just coming out, and while there was some growth, only a few blooms.  But regardless, the layout of the gardens was impressive - I caught the girls in the south terrace, shown at left, with Betty fashionably posed in the background.  And at right, I caught Shannon in a silly mood - we had spotted a tree branch made for sitting, and I convinced her to jump the fence for a pose.

We finally made it down to the conservatory, where there was an amazing assortment of flowering plants - especially orchids.  Now I've seen orchids before from the rain forest gardens of leeward Hawaii, but the variety displayed here was beyond words!  The combined image shown at left is but a very tiny percentage of what was shown.  After plenty of time looking at the displays, we ambled back towards the main house.  Walking back in that direction, the view of the house across the gardens was very striking... 

Our day drawing to a close, we caught a shuttle back to the public parking lots and went to town to catch some dinner.  Afterwards, Susan and Shannon headed back to Atlanta for Susan to fly back to Dallas the next morning.  We took Betty back to Columbia where we spent the next few days with her and exploring the Midlands of South Carolina, where Spring had definately sprung.  More on that next time...

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Southern Star Field Trips!

As I pointed out in our last post, part of the fun of attending the new event was having time built into the schedule to do some field trips of local interest.  While they also scheduled a hike to a local waterfall and art gallery tours, the ones I went on were to a local pottery studio and to a local observatory...

The pottery trip on Friday was to visit the studio of Sarah House.  It is a
fully self-contained studio with motorized pans to throw cups to huge bowls, space for glazing and a pretty good-sized kiln.  Turns out as a 12-year-old, her mother enrolled her in pottery classes at Wildacres Retreat, and that initial exposure turned into her avocation! The picture at left is of Sarah turning what will become a vase, with her mother looking on from the background.  Her mom also collaborates by painting on some of the pieces...

I've evidently led a sheltered life, as I'd never
seen this process and I was quite impressed by Sarah's work, and the entire process that leads up to the final product.  She had a small gallery space as well as supplying some of the local galleries in the area, and the variety was very good and all very attractive...  Even the tiles lining the bathroom floor were hand thrown and glazed, and gave the bathroom a personalized feel.

The studio, though remote, was in a lovely area of rolling hills, and with some of the displayed pieces in front of an uncovered window, I tried to balance the exposure to show some of the countryside as well as the pieces.  Unfortunately in this early Spring, the trees were still bare, but I'll bet it is beautifully green in a few weeks.  I bought a little vase (what home doesn't need a little pottery?) that was really pretty to bring back to Arizona...

The field trip on Saturday was to Seven Mile
Ridge Observatory, an informal group of friends who built private observatories about 7 miles (air miles - about a 20 mile drive, it seemed - no straight roads in North Carolina!) from the Southern Star event.  Don, Steve and Frank built a nice little community of domes, and have befriended the local neighbors to keep light levels to a minimum.  Don, who attended the conference, lead the tour, first to his observatory shown here.  Climbing up into the small dome, you can see his very nice Schmidt Cassegrain telescope, which he uses for CCD imaging.  He built the entire structure himself, and is reported to be a handy person to have around.  His observatory is off-grid, running only off solar power.  He also built a little composting outhouse that includes a propane-powered inline water heater for showers.  At left owner Don is at center in the brown shirt, showing another Don at right the innards of the dome.  At right is the monogram design of his embroidered shirt... 

Frank's roll-off was next on our tour. 
Unfortunately, he wasn't present for the tour,  but Don opened the facility so we could see the setup.  The roof rolls off towards the north, exposing the entire sky for imaging.  He has quite an impressive website of his images.  Here at left Melinda and Elaine check out the William Optics refractor on the G-11 mount. 

Finally, the last telescope of the Observatory is
Steve's Sky Shed Pod structure.  He had the telescope removed for some maintenance, but we examined the structure.  He had actually mounted the dome, which uncovers half the sky, on tracks so that it wouldn't obscure the zenith while doing wide-field imaging.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Calendar says April...

We're just back to civilization (well, an Internet connection, anyway), so we've gotta tell you about our weekend at the Southern Star Conference, an astronomy convention of some sort, put on by the Charlotte Amateur Astronomers Club.  In short, it was great!  It is also unlike like any other event like it.   Held in the Blue Ridge Mountains at the Wildacres Retreat, it has got to be about the perfect venue for an event like this!  It is a remote, high location, offering great dark skies for observing.  There are very good accommodations with dorm rooms for about 150 attendees maximum, and they've got excellent facilities for dining and an auditorium that can't be beat.  They arrange for 4 speakers, of which I served as one this year.  We each spoke on 2 topics, one on the work or research we were doing, an another on an astronomy-related topic.  In addition, the speakers stayed around for the last morning's panel discussion on all things astronomical, taking questions from attendees on all topics - interesting stuff!

Besides the venue and the smaller crowd than
what most regional astronomy conventions host, I was taken by the laid-back schedule, and the slack time built into the schedule.  As a result, this is a very social atmosphere, with time for casual conversation, catching up with friends, and field trips to local art and pottery studios as well as an nearby observatory tour.  Perhaps it is the deference to a more relaxed pace of southern living, that made the schedule so enjoyable. 

As we drove to the site last Thursday afternoon, we watched the temperature readout nosedive as we climbed into the Blue Ridge Mountains.  The chance of rain that had been predicted the night before turned into a "heavy snow" conditions at a nearby town.  While we didn't see much snow, we did see sleet and snow pellets, and the icy conditions (which thankfully occurred after our arrival), made for some beautiful sights as the vegetation was coated...

Upon our arrival, we immediately ran into a familiar face - Elaine Osborne, a former regular from the Grand Canyon Star Party, just about tackled us as we were checking in!  She is the warmest, friendliest person in the world, knows absolutely everyone at the event, and made sure we knew everyone worth knowing all weekend long!  If the relaxed, friendly attitude of the conference didn't bring everyone your way over the 4 days and 3 nights of the Southern Star, Elaine made sure of it!
Like I said above, the dining hall was great and
the food was first rate and served family-style.  Elaine stuck to our side, making us feel at home and guiding us through the customs of the event.  Big bells were rung alerting us to when it was mealtime, as well as in advance of talks.  Absolutely everyone attended all of the events, which is another new one on me - since RTMC has a 3-ring circus of speakers and venues going on most of the time...  But dinner was another time to socialize and meet everyone, as well as talk about interests and research...  I got quizzed about some aspects of the Mirror Lab (my topic for Saturday night), but other than generalities, I held most questions off till then.

I was first up on Thursday night as well - my "general interest" topic was "Astro-Tourism in the Southwest", talking on my experiences of doing public astronomy in my 30 years in Arizona, from the beginnings of the Grand Canyon Star Party, to my part-time efforts at the public observing programs on Kitt Peak, to the 9 days we spent with our dozen Russian amateur astronomers touring Arizona last Fall.  It was very well received, and after a night to recover, and another full day of talks, socializing (wine and cheese tasting!) and a pottery studio tour Friday, we actually had some excellent observing conditions that evening!  One of the attendees, Corrie, shown left here observing with her little Dobsonian, was asking for help with her intervalometer after he saw my time-lapse videos, and I took this shot of her.  You can see from the sky that it was very nice - the Winter Milky Way was quite visible, with no major light domes to be seen.  The shot at right was of an 18" or 20" scope with the Big Dipper high in the sky overhead.  You can also see there was some stray light from the dining hall - they were still cleaning when this picture was taken.

So we enjoyed some winter weather our first day, but the rest of the weekend was top-notch.  I took a couple field trips (next post), and throroughly enjoyed the conference.  This was their 27th (!) year, and have sold out nearly every time.  It seems amazing I've never heard of Southern Star before, but with a max attendance of only 150, it remains a local event, which isn't a bad thing.  I'd gladly return, as speaker certainly if not a normal attendee...

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Unexplored Country...

Melinda and I are taking a pause from our ordinary lives in Tucson and are currently in Charlotte, North Carolina!  And yes, I've not posted in a bit - have been busy getting a couple talks ready that I'm giving to the Southern Star Conference, being put on this weekend by the Charlotte Amateur Astronomers Club.  Yesterday was a travel day - unfortunately Melinda got the raw end of the deal, as usual, working the night shift at the hospital Tuesday night, then travelling ALL day Wednesday without any sleep!  And I do mean ALL day!  While we landed in Dallas/Ft Worth just fine, our connecting plane had a indicator saying something was wrong with an engine...  Well, turns out the indicator was bad, but they had to take the plane and do a full-rev test out on the field somewhere, lost their gate in the process.  We finally reconnected, had to refuel, reload luggage and drinks and were finally on our way 5 hours late.  The pilot told me (men's room stuff) that if we had been delayed another 7 minutes, the crew would have worked too many hours, and the FAA would have required to fly in another crew! 

Anyway, we got in at Midnight local time, and will shortly claim a rental car and head towards the Blue Ridge Mountains where the conference is located.  While I've crossed the South/North Carolina border, it was just to Ashville, so this will give us a chance to really see a new state and a new astronomy venue.  I don't know if we'll have Internet access anytime soon, but expect a report or two later!