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...