Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Best, The Worst, The Memorable!

In an idea spawned by bloggin' buddy Andrew Cooper, as the year ends, it is time to look back on the memorable images of the year appearing on these pages.  While not presented in chronological order, dates referenced will allow you to search out the original posts for more information if needed.

The major jolt to our normal-way-of-life was Melinda's diagnosis of small-cell lung cancer in August.  She went from biopsy on Tuesday, meeting the oncologist Thursday, and admitted to UMC for chemo that night!  Posts from 24 August show her as an inpatient at UMC getting her first round of chemo.  Since she works a couple floors above at the NICU, she had a constant queue of visitors, especially at shift change!

The news has been good.  She made it through 6
cycles of 3 week duration, finishing on 11 December. They make a big deal of small steps - on the completion of her last chemo, the nurses all gathered at bedside for an emotional bubble-blowing salute!

Even with all the seriousness of the medical
news, it seems like we travelled a lot!  A springtime trip to speak at the Southern Star astronomy event in North Carolina allowed us to visit family in South Carolina.  At right, niece Shannon wrestles with a tree on the grounds of the Biltmore Estate (18 April), and on a walk along the Congaree River in Columbia (27 April) revealed a multitude of minnows evidently beloved by egrets fishing in the shallows...

The Grand Canyon Star Party, which I organized
for 18 years before retiring, is still a must-do event on our annual calendar.  Showing pristine skies to summer tourists just can't be beat.  This year I carried a scope to the edge of the Canyon a few times, recording a mule train on the South Kaibab Trail at left (15 June).  The same post also showed a nice display of banded airglow visible in a wide shot to the north.

I'm always looking for the best way to show the
star of the Grand Canyon Star Party show - the rising Summer Milky Way.  The dark skies show it off to best advantage - we've had some folks mistake it for incoming rain clouds!  The shot at left is a 1 minute exposure with an 8mm fisheye shot showing the arch of our galaxy's profile over the red lights of the star party's parking lot.  At right, walking back from the rim, I paused to catch the center of the galaxy over the scrub trees growing at Canyon's edge (12 June).

While we waited for the "Comet of the Century",
comet ISON, which became a non-event when it disintegrated in its close pass to the sun on Thanksgiving, we got lots of practice on comet PanSTARRS (C/2011 L4).  We heard good reports of its visibility from the southern hemisphere before it popped above our horizon in March.  My first spotting was on 10 March, but 2 days later, appeared in conjunction with a crescent moon over Kitt Peak (posted 13 March).  Besides the 3-way alignment of comet, moon and Observatory, a 4th object is little reported - gas giant planet Uranus is just below the comet in the left shot.  The right image makes the green-tinged planet pop out a little better in the closeup.

And PanSTARRS wasn't done with the show!  While never a visual spectacle, it was a nice binocular and telescopic comet.  A couple months after the above appearance, the Earth passed through the comet's orbital plane, making another feature visible - an anti-tail!  Normally the tail is pushed outwards by solar wind, but when crossing the orbital plane, dust and gas trailing behind can sometimes appear by perspective to point towards the sun - thus the anti-tail.  At left on 19 May, on the C-14 plus Hyperstar the anti-tail appears as a spike towards the left, the real tail points to upper right.  On 30 May, as it passed Polaris, as a proof-of-concept, I used a tripod-mounted (untracking)camera to stack 15 one-minute exposures as it passed the Little Dipper.  Amazingly, it is almost all anti-tail!

Sad news reached us as Melinda was finishing her cycle 5 of chemo on 20 November.  Her older sister Susan died of an apparent heart attack overnight.  Ironically, she had been diagnosed with non-small-cell lung cancer within days of Melinda's diagnosis and had been responding well to treatments.  The image at right was taken during happier times at our wedding in June of 2008, Susan at right.

With the green of Illinois revealed in the last
image, we continue to trek to our place there every couple months.  While we generally don't do any astronomy there, an entertaining alternate activity is searching for prey with the macro lens.  On 2 August I posted about the bizarre insect at left, a two-spot tree-hopper, which have apparently evolved to resemble dead leaf stems to avoid being eaten!  On 19 October, I loved the raindrops on the oak leaf acting as little magnifying glasses...

On 14 May were some closeups of the wild flowers in our "native" lawn.  At right is a stereo image of the trillium flower.  This is a "cross-eyed" view - cross your eyes slightly to look at the right image with your left eye and vice-versa.  You should see 3 images, the center one showing depth.  And on 30 October, I was out on a frosty morning with the macro to observe some tubular frost crystals that morning...

In our frequent flights to the Midwest, we just recently started taking the early-morning flight that gets us in at noon instead of much later, usually after dark.  Of course, with full sun the whole time, and now that cameras are "approved electronic devices" that can stay on the entire flight, pictures of flights are more fun to take.  On 30 November, one of my favorites of the year was a newly-frozen slough off the Illinois River.  The wind had blown ice or snow to create interesting clear spots on the surface.  A few minutes later, as we banked to turn around, a bird's eye view of the Chicago skyline presented itself.

Kitt Peak National Observatory was featured in a
lot of posts.  A job there is what originally brought me to Tucson, and I still work there on a part-time basis in their public programs, but my love of astronomy and observing makes it a destination for me.  We bookended the entire year with sunset alignments involving the Observatory.  On 18 December, from the Mount Lemmon highway, we watched the sun silhouette the observatory, then the clouds provided a spectacular sunset for desert!

And way back on 16 January, while watching yet another sunset over the Observatory, we marveled at an amazing display of observatory domes casting shadows on the hazy air just after the sun dipped below the horizon.  Other times during the year, Kitt Peak featured prominently.  On 20 September, we trekked up the road to take time-lapse of datura flowers opening in the twilight almost in the shadow of the moon-lit domes.

On 25 April, on a night when it was almost too
windy for the domes to be open, camera and I survived buffeting to make a time-lapse of Omega Centauri and a pair of bright galaxies rising past the "vintage" 2.1 meter telescope.  A few months later, on a rare clear night during the monsoon rainy season, we again shot the 2.1 meter against the Summer Milky Way as the last rays of the setting moon died out.

A few nights previously (9 August) I had also
gone up to shoot some star fields as well as capturing an Iridium flare cross a Milky Way field with a telephoto lens.  Flat shiny antennae briefly shine the sun down to your location, and this "flare" also passed some deep-sky objects.  A month and a half later (30 September) at an astronomy club "Star-B-Que", I shot a 9-frame mosaic of the Milky Way center with diffuse airglow, mostly as a test for the Microsoft "ICE" mosaic assembling software, which it excels at!

While not astronomical, at the same Star-B-Que (posted 29 September) we saved a little lizard that had managed to get stuck in a short length of hose.  How many engineers does it take to free a lizard?  In the remote location, the one with a variety of tools won...  This is the before picture...

At another observatory about 100 air miles away,
we snagged invites to the LBT employee's picnic on Mount Graham (11 October).  Working at the Mirror Lab, we polished the nearly 30 foot (8.4 meter) twin mirrors for this telescope.  At left is a mosaic of just one of the pair of scopes, in this case, the Gregorian secondary and tertiary are swung out of the way, and a prime-focus camera installed.  A month later (9 November), from the valley floor below, we watched the first run of ARGOS, the laser beams help correct for atmospheric turbulence.

More recently we reconnected with our niece and nephew Kathy and Rick (9 December).  They had been estranged from Melinda's sister Susan (their mother) and as a result, our family.  Between Melinda's cancer diagnosis and Susan's death, we've reconnected with them, which is about the highlight of the Fall!

In the potpourri section, I talked a little about my
"little" binoculars that are fun for both daytime and night time viewing (2 February).  Made by Nikko during WWII, they are spectacular in use at the edge of the Canyon... And interestingly, there was a BHS meeting in Tucson (Binocular History Society), where we had a couple days of talks and a tour of the optics museum at the Optical Sciences Center.  Shown here are 19th century opera glasses, mostly French and European (22 February).

In the "strange" categories, there was the image
of moiré fringes at a McDonald's in Omaha (1 August).  The screen patterns of non-uniform hole spacing created the  pattern seen from inside the restaurant.  And I checked out the operation of my IR modified camera before sending it off for a friend to use for the summer on 1 June.

We made a couple trips to Whitewater Draw to observe cranes and whatever else was wintering there.  On 7 February I lugged my William Optics APO to get some closeup portraits of sandhill cranes.  The depth of field is so shallow that the rear one a couple feet back is out of focus.  On another trip with our visiting friend Carolyn, I used the on-camera flash to capture a great blue heron fishing in near-total darkness.  I was after the cats-eye reflection from its eyes, but also got focused lines of light across its body - waves in the water concentrating the flash.

Finally, from one of our last posts (28 December) an "omega" sunrise from our Christmas visit to Puerto Penasco.  The omega shape (named for the Greek letter Ω which resembles the outline of the disk) is caused by an inferior mirage (warm air near the water next to cooler air above).  The lower section next to the sea is a squashed, inverted image of the lower disk of the sun.  The apparent waves on the water are also a magnified aspect of the mirage...

It was a great year, one of contrasts certainly.  As this one draws to a close, we have optimism regarding Melinda's health, and look forward to getting back to something resembling a normal life!  All we can do is do what we can, and hope the best to all of our readers, wherever you may be.  Do keep in touch, and hopefully I'll be able to continue to entertain you with some aspects of our lives here on the blog.  Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Birds of Puerto Peñasco

While we're no birding experts, we are learning a little, and with our 3 days in Mexico with time on our hands, the abundance of birds along the Sea of Cortex drew us like magnets.  A good portion of the over 1200 images I took were of the birds we saw, either with the 70-200 zoom or the William Optics 11cm F/7 APO (770mm focal length). 

One of the classic images I took on one of our last visits to Margie's (can it really be over 3 years!?) was of the nesting ospreys about 150 meters from her house.  Shown at left, papa is bringing in a flounder to feed the new chick, whose head is seen popping up... 

While it isn't nesting season, there were numerous osprey around, perhaps some of the youngsters hanging out, as some definitely seemed smaller than I recall.  They mostly seem to take the long way down to go fishing (their nest is 100 meters from shore) as when I see them they are flying in with their catch over our heads from the east.  At right one of them again flew over our heads to a nearby power pole to enjoy breakfast, fish still wriggling.  I couldn't figure out which were the adults, as there were sometimes 4 or more around, both the nest and poles sometimes occupied.  One of the evenings after the sunset, I imaged 2 against the twilight near, if not in the nest.  At left, both are on the left side of the nest...

One of my self-defined "projects" there was to image the cupolas, which are common in most of the houses at Las Conchas, Margie's neighborhood.  Well, right after one of the sunrises, a ring-billed gull landed on the cupola of the house next door, so swung the William Optics scope over for a closeup from about 40 yards! I whistled at him and he stretched out his neck for this shot...

One of the birds I enjoyed watching the most
were the common terns as they fished in the low-tide surf.  They dive underwater from a considerable height and speed again and again.  Unlike pelicans, I can't tell how often they are successful...  You can tell when they are about to dive - they hover as at left, nearly stationary as they spot their prey, then fold their wings and dive downwards from 30 feet or more, entering the water with nary a splash.

While we are talking about birds fishing, I might as well talk about the brown pelicans. Reading about them, it turns out that while they are pretty large birds, they are the smallest of 8 species of pelicans found in the world, and one of only 2 that fish by diving!  I mentioned a couple posts ago that they seem to enjoy gliding just off the water's surface, their wingtips sometimes touching the water when they finally flap their wings again.   While they do dive for fish from a lower height than terns, they look a little ungainly and a lot less gracefully than terns, as shown at right!  One has just gone underwater at left, the other just about to do the same...  We witnessed a number of "feeding frenzies" where dozens, if not a hundred birds fed on apparent schools of fish.  When the pelicans dove in for fish, they were often attacked by other birds when they surfaced as they need to dump the water out of their pouch and are susceptible to theft.

Of course, there are a huge number of shore
birds.  I've tentatively identified a couple...  Here at left is a marbled godwit, a good-sized bird compared to other waders.  He was a little shy and kept his distance as he worked the outgoing tidal pools.  I include another shot at right - I couldn't decide which I liked better, so am providing both...

Nearby was a flock of  short-billed dowagers, considerably smaller than the godwit, but they pretty much ignored me as I sneaked in for a closer look.  They were constantly digging in the sand with their considerable beaks, and in the frames collected, this was the only one with bill exposed!

Another small fishing bird were the grebes I
watched our first afternoon there.  Like the ones at Whitewater Draw that we observe, they dove from the surface for upwards of 20 seconds or more at a time.  I also can't narrow down the species - we suspect these are horned or eared grebes.

Well, I think that wraps up the best of the birds we captured this trip.  I'll work harder next time to do more and different ones, but of course, in a few months (likely the soonest we'd return), some or most may be thinking of moving back north...