Sunday, October 14, 2018

More Butterflies!

Not that I want to bore you with more, but this is a mostly timely post! It was just last weekend that I went to the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum and my favorite part, the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven. Nearly 3,000 square feet of over 40 butterfly species. Of course, I enjoy them as macro photo subjects, since they are normally feeding and distracted enough to get close! The museum was quite nice, with "live" displays from the Chicago Herpetological Society with several species of snakes and lizards, and some other displays from work being done behind the scenes of the museum.

But as for butterflies, I used my Canon 6D with the 100mm macro, ring flash in front and an additional 3cm of extension tubes to extend the close focus range of the macro. It was great to just have to worry to get close to focus as the flash meters itself off the camera detector, so a near-perfect exposure every time! Unfortunately, the guides to the Haven's inhabitants do not list all species carried, so I made a guess here and there, and some others were not identified. Also, these are the exotic species from around the world brought in for their colors, so not many locals you would see outside the walls...

Just inside the door they've set up a buffet table for the butterflies, consisting of rotting fruit, that always had several species enjoying. Click the exposure at left and you can see all their proboscises deep inside the soft fruit feeding... At left is a blue morpho, whose iridescent blue color on their inner wing is seen past the partial near wing. At center is I believe a juniper hairstreak. The rightmost remains unnamed...

A few steps further and there were a striking pair of mating butterflies. Unfortunately not identified in the guide, and they stayed connected for the whole hour I was there! Note the subtle coloration difference, and also how the upper butterfly has one purple wing and one blue!

Shooting most of them was easy if they were distracted by feeding or otherwise resting. There was this huge butterfly called a Caligo Memnon or a Pale Owl butterfly. It was resting on a tree trunk and had to be over 15cm (6") wingspan. Supposedly the eye spots are supposed to scare away predators, since they rest a lot being as huge as they are... Also shown at right is a close-up of the head and abdomen showing the subtle color variation in its hairs...

One of my first "captures" was the scarlet Mormon. Evidently it has some red on its hidden lower wing or along its abdomen, neither of which are seen here. What is interesting is that in the close-up at right, what looked like grey in its wing is actually a combination of black and white pigmented scales in its wings, here at least partially resolved...

Surely one of the most colorful butterflies in the enclosure, other than the iridescent blue morpho that never seemed to rest, was the red lacewing. Shown at left, it has an amazingly complex coloration on their wings and hail from southeast Asia.

Another striking color combination was the pale green and tan of what I THINK was a juniper hairstreak. I love the appearance of their eyes - some differences in appearance from species to species. I wish I knew more about it and also wonder how we look to them!

Finally another brightly colored butterfly is the tiger longwing, native from Mexico to Peru. Mostly I include it here as I love the close-up of its head showing the curled-up proboscis - way cool!

Well there you have it. I have more, of course, but these are my favorites. The best thing is that the Haven is open all winter long, so if I get tired of the snow and cold this coming season, I know where to go where it is warm and humid and these guys will be there to greet me!

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Right Place, Right Time!

Am currently in the Midwest and enjoying Fall temperatures at "Ketelsen East" as the highs struggle to reach 70. It is near perfect for going outside and doing fun stuff like biking and exploring. I heard from my astronomy connections at Adler Planetarium last week that they were going to remove the 20" Doane Telescope mirror for some work, and I offered my assistance since I have a little knowledge about handling large optics. It was gladly accepted! The Adler Planetarium dome is shown at left with the massive expansion behind, and at right is the funky striking dome of the Lakeside Doane 20" telescope at right.

While there, Chicago Astronomical Society president Tony Harris sidled up to me and asked what I was doing the next night... Well, he had pulled in a favor and had a personal tour scheduled at the LARGEST REFRACTOR (lens) TELESCOPE IN THE WORLD (40" diameter), at Yerkes Observatory about 90 minutes NW of Chicago the next night! And he had invited me along on his 3-person tour!

So the next day after a little afternoon nap
to prepare for the potential all-nighter, I took a post-dinner drive up to meet Tony and Larry at a convenient place along I-90 on the route to Williams Bay a little over the Wisconsin border on the west side of Lake Geneva. While there was an early evening public program going on, we were to show up at Midnight to meet our tour guide Chuck. We were fashionably early and as we walked up to the door at 11:45, he greeted us at the door!

Ironically, the 40" telescope and the entire Yerkes Observatory, established in 1897 is about to be closed as the owner, the University of Chicago defunds the institution. While they rightfully claims that no scientific research has been going on there in recent years, it has been popular in the realm of outreach and public education, and for some spectacular visual observing like we were looking forward to.

Walking into the dome always impresses! I've visited a couple times, but the huge dome and floor (that rises and lowers over 20 feet to get observers to the eyepiece) is just shockingly large! Once the lights were out and dark adapted, it was easy for me to move about with my camera and tripod to take a few shots. Unfortunately it was a nearly full moon, which brightened the sky affecting some views, as well as a few thin clouds drifting through doing the same. The most impressive views (at 350X!) were globular cluster Messier 15, as well as NGC 7662, the "Blue Snowball" planetary nebula. Neptune easily showed its disk as well as its large moon Triton, but a couple other objects did not show well with the bright sky and cirrus. Finally we moved to the moon itself and enjoyed some viewing and tracking along the terminator.  At left with the diagonal and eyepiece removed, Tony looks up the tube at the real image formed by the giant lens. At left is the more traditional view with the eyepiece providing about 350 power...

About this time we were joined by a few students from U of Chicago who had been hosting groups in other parts of the Observatory (shown at left). With the lateness of the hour and Orion still out of reach to the east, it appeared the moon would close out our observing. But before that, both Tony and I were permitted to mount our cameras on the telescope for a few shots! It isn't often you get a chance to use a 19,000mm telephoto lens!

Achromatic objectives, even mighty classical ones like this one, suffer from chromatic aberration, where green, red and blue wavelengths are not perfectly focused to the same point. It is most noticeable on bright objects like the moon, and mostly not objectionable on most objects. In any case, Tony had mounted a yellow filter to block out some of the unfocused blue light, but in my shot at right, I took out the color to make this 2-frame mosaic of the Mare Crisium (Sea of Crises) part of the Moon's terminator...

As the observing wound down, we took a selfie of the 4 of us - that is the 4 of us at left, Dean (me) at left, Larry, Tony and Chuck. The moon, of course, is the bright object, and the constellation Aries appears at the top of the dome slit. This exposure, and all of the Yerkes photos save the moon shot, were taken with a Sigma 15mm fisheye with the Canon 6D. It was easy to shoot inside the dome, yet be able to capture the entire refractor in one shot...

Before he escorted us downstairs to the historical offices and some cool displays, Chuck took us out on the catwalk to enjoy a bird's eye view of the Observatory grounds and surrounding territory. Lake Geneva was visible in the moonlight to the south, but in this view towards the easy, the other domes housing a 40" and 24" reflecting telescopes are visible with Orion rising high into the sky on the right side. The 40" dome shutter assembly is visible at upper left. This is a 4-second exposure at F/4...

After a brief walk-thru showing us some of the historical instruments and exhibits on the Observatory ground floor, we exited the building and prepared to leave for home. A parting shot is shown at left - a 3-frame HDR, combining 3 different exposures to recover details in highlights as well as shadows. The 40" dome is at center, with the steps leading into the north side of the Observatory at left.

Note that our tour happened on Wednesday night, September 26th. A few days later on Monday 1 October, the doors were padlocked and the Observatory shut down. The University of Chicago continues to search for a buyer that would keep the astronomical mission of the Observatory and the nearly 80 acre lakefront site. The search continues... By the way, our guide on that evening, Chuck Flores, is quite the photographer himself, and has created some dramatic time-lapse sequences of behind-the-scene goings on of the Observatory. His Vimeo clip to Yerkes activities can be seen here, and a sad tribute to his former employer here...

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!