Thursday, January 31, 2019


This last weekend I made my first trip to Whitewater Draw this season. Normally we would do a couple trips per season, so there are lots of posts and photos to peruse from years past. In recent years the sandhill cranes that over-winter seem to be dropping in numbers, perhaps associated with the lower levels of water there. Whether it is a natural-caused issue or if they aren't pumping as much as in the past, I'm not sure. In any case, there is still a live web-cam for viewing (and hearing) the cranes, located at a site run by AZ game and fish...

It is always a nervous time driving down the access road - what will you see? Often times arriving in the afternoon is a gamble as most of them fly out into local crop fields to feed during the day and only return around sunset. In my opinion, I love arriving mid-afternoon and waiting to watch (and hear) them upon their return!  As I parked, an eerie sight was beheld - lots of cranes, but was strangely silent! They often cluck and talk to each other, but on Sunday it was almost reverently quiet... There were lots of people - I came a week after the "Wings over Willcox" celebration on purpose, when it was likely even more crowded. Taking the last parking lot close to the viewing areas, I mounted the 500mm on the tripod and took the couple hundred yard hike.

As I walked up the trail, was able to squeeze off a few shots including a variety of birds shown at left above. Besides the grey and buff sandhill cranes, there were the almost pure white snow geese, and the Northern Pintails grazing in the shallow water. At right I caught a few of the snow geese taking off from that location - the last of the bunch we saw that afternoon!

While shooting the cranes standing on the ground is like "shooting fish in a barrel", they look a lot more graceful as they fly. They can also pass appreciable closer while flying by than standing at a safe distance. Of course, catching them flying introduces a whole new set of issues - focusing and tracking them as they move! Fortunately the big 500mm lens has pretty much instantaneous focus, and will even take out any unsteadiness as you pan to track them! As a result, I can usually get a couple frames like that at left. My criteria for sharpness is if you can resolve the pupil of their eye! Fortunately, I also like shooting the cranes passing by local landmarks like nearby mountains, in which case, no tracking needed. At right are a flock of them passing by a favorite landmark - Cochise's Head, located north of the Chiricahua mountains. Also visible are cars on the local access road and irrigation equipment in nearby fields...

Speaking of a sharp eye pupil as a standard of quality, I noticed something else this trip. In shooting some of the nearest cranes to our observation stand, one of the cranes looked bizarre - it appeared to have NO pupils at all! Now over ALL the sandhills I've shot over the years, they all appeared to have the yellow pupils that I thought were standard. Yet, as shown at left, the bird on the right appeared to have some eye disease or something! Strange, huh? A minute later I took another shot, and modified the image so both birds were magnified and moved next to each other. You might be able to detect in the image at right that, in fact, it does have pupils, but the eye color is dark brown - weird!

I must say, though, that while all sandhill cranes look regal in the above photos, that when they are looking straight at you with both eyes visible, they look a little what, dorky? I don't know what it is, but it makes them look a lot less intelligent, almost like an idiot caricature of themselves... Maybe its just me!

There were other birds near us we got to see up close. In years past there were at least 2 large shallow ponds that attracted many water fowl that mostly have disappeared now with the low (or no water in the ponds!). Goodbye to Mergansers, pie-billed grebes and even the American Coots - none seen this year! One of the few additions to the monoculture of Sandhills were Northern Pintails, as shown at right. They were near us, mostly heads underwater grazing in the shallows. In this shot the male is below and the female above - an amazing difference in coloration and pattern!

I prefer a clear sky while visiting Whitewater - illumination and shadows seem sharper. But there were some high clouds that moved in on Sunday, thicker as sunset approached. But as it will sometimes do in AZ, it suddenly thinned as the sun sank behind the mountains to the west. Suddenly there was a spectacular coloration to the west, and a phalanx of photographers gathered at the west side of our platform!

At first I took a shot of the sunset, at left. After that, it was fun to get profiles of the photographers at work shooting birds and sunset together, as shown at right.

I took a few more, but my favorite is the close-up shown at left, showing a photographer in close profile, with another telephoto intruding at right barely seen in the dark part of the sunset...

Shortly after this suddenly a din erupted as cranes seemed to converge from all directions! It was just getting dark enough that imaging them was very difficult as the coloration and lighting was dim to get their silhouette, and it was mostly their noise that assaulted the senses! I did manage to get the shot at right, with a profile of hundreds of cranes in the last light of the twilight...

Finally darkness descended, but I had one more trick up my sleeve! Just having obtained a flash while in the Midwest (unfortunately, the full-format canon 6D has no built-in flash) I used it to reach out to a flock of cranes gathered perhaps 150 yards away. With a high ISO (3200) fast aperture (F/4) and full flash power, I got the shot at left. What is most amazing is the cats-eye effect (same as red-eye in human subjects in a darkened room). The light from the flash is focused in their eye, and reflects back out like the glass micro-spheres in reflective road signs. Every crane that had an eye pointed in my direction (at least one had both eyes visible, and another duck or waterfowl) showed the effect! Always fun stuff!

I'm hoping to get back again before March arrives and cranes head north. Even though a mid-afternoon arrival requires sitting and waiting a few hours for sunset to arrive, I can think of fewer locations that are as nice to just "chillax" for a long period of time!

Wednesday, January 23, 2019


Some of you heard we had a lunar eclipse Sunday night (20 Jan, 2019)... Of course it was hyped by the Internet to be the Super-Blood-Wolf Moon, as if just calling it a lunar eclipse wouldn't be as exciting! Well, you will get no embellishments here... Total lunar eclipses are always fun to look at, and lead once upon a time to my second published image - in the Des Moines Register no less, way back in 1975!

So I'm back in Arizona again, usually the bastion of clear blue skies, but in the week here the sun has only made rare appearances, and the forecast for eclipse evening was depressing to say the least! At least the high temperature that day was 79! It was perfectly clear at "Ketelsen East" should I have observed it from there, but the temperature at eclipse time was -5F! Blue sky and thin clouds thickened as sunset approached in Arizona, but always willing to take a chance, drove out to a dark-sky site that the Tucson astro club used to use a couple decades ago - Empire Ranch, about 40 miles SE of Tucson. I wasn't much interested in the partial phases, but sky looked to be mostly clear with only about half of the moon showing.

I set up my Polarie tracking mount - a simple tracker for camera-only use - no tracked telescopes for this eclipse. I did set up my big binoculars for a visual look occasionally. With the moon still partially lit by the sun, a 44-degree halo was apparent and I took a few shots of that before totality started. Totality finally came and while impressive visually, the slightest magnification showed the effects of thin clouds. The photo at left shows the view with a normal lens - the overexposed pink spot is the eclipsed moon, and M44, the Beehive Cluster is to its left and constellation Gemini above in a 30 second exposure. The thin clouds made the stars misty - showing the color differences more clearly. The two bright stars above the moon - Pollux, the lower, is cooler and more yellow than Castor, the upper one...

I tried a couple lens combinations, but again, the clouds made getting anything worthwhile difficult, so decided to stick with wide-angle lenses, finally choosing my relatively new-to-me Sigma 15mm fisheye lens, taking a 30 second exposure every 40 seconds... The exposure was perfect for showing the Winter Milky Way when the clouds parted enough to show it! And all the grand constellations - Orion, Gemini, rising Leo to the far left were visible, as well as the brightest star Sirius (other than the sun) to lower center, and the Hyades and Pleiades star clusters in Taurus at upper right are evident. The yellow light glow are reflected from the cities of Sierra Vista to the lower left, and Nogales, AZ to lower right. I ended up with about 40 frames, extending from about 15 minutes before the end of totality to about 15 minutes afterwards, so decided to put them in a little time lapse using Moviemaker, after minimal processing of each frame. The 7 second loop was repeated 3 times, and the result was then uploaded to Youtube for you to look at here:

If you want any more than that wide-field view, please refer to the last eclipse visible from here, back in September of 2015! Like I said, you don't need to hype it any more than what it really is - a lunar eclipse! The next one fully visible across the country isn't until March of 2025 (some partly visible before then), so a good long wait for the next one to be high in the sky!

Friday, January 11, 2019

Feathered Friends - Family Too!

Years ago, Melinda and I stopped by Mississippi Lock and Dam #13 north of Clinton on a cold January day. Most of the River was frozen over, but just below the lock, the flowing water kept ice from forming and the trees lining the far side were filled with bald eagles! Well, at least a couple dozen, where they had retreated to feed on fish and rest up for the next hunting pass over the open water. Hoping to see more, last weekend I returned to Lock & Dam 13 to see what I could see.

Well, there was nary an ice cube, nor any eagles fishing anywhere that could be seen. I had resigned myself to driving 2 hours for nothing, when another car of eagle-watchers came by to look and noted they had seen some 15 miles to the north near Sabula! Shortly after, my sister Linda and her husband Lauren came by to join me, so we loaded my camera gear in their car and headed north!

We'd been given explicit directions where to go, and sure enough, there were a group of bald eagles on the far side of the slough. Not very close, but you could tell what they were with the 500mm lens I'd brought along! Most appeared to be young birds that still had brown heads or hadn't completely transformed to white heads. At left the juvenile on ice was being bothered by the older eagle. At right, this youngster had just swooped down for a fish, but came up empty-clawed!

We were set up in a campground on the south side of the island where Sabula is located. Once parked, we noticed an eagle sitting in the tree next to us! Shown at left, I suspect its another juvenile bald eagle. He didn't pay much attention to us, but we got a pretty good look.

Besides the eagles, there were a few other species. I spotted a very-tardy in departing Great Blue Heron, but he rounded a bend and I lost sight before getting a snapshot. There were a couple flocks of Mallard-looking ducks, looking like they were expending so much energy in flying, wings beating furiously! I'm thinking they were more prey for the eagles if they lost their taste for fish! Got the image of a large group of them at right, in front of a couple tugboats in dry dock...

A couple of my siblings were meeting us for dinner at Manny's in Fulton, IL, and with the extended trip to Sabula, we departed late. Manny's is a pizza and wings place quite popular for the locals. Wasn't much in the way of lo-carbs that I'm partaking in lately - about the only choice was a Caesar salad with grilled chicken. It was great! At left, that's brother Brian at left, Sister Kathy in the middle and Linda at right. Brother Jim was occupied that night and Baby sister Sheri now lives in Alabama.  Our meetings always seem to revolve around eating, but at least we get together regularly! It was a fun daytrip!

Far and Near...

As my time at "Ketelsen East" winds down, I still keep my eyes open for photo opportunities even in the midst of Winter. And while I tell people I can't really do astronomy with the skies so bright from the light pollution of Chicago, I still look up. After all, a month ago I did manage to shoot a comet next to the Pleiades in the back yard! Unfortunately, the bane of astronomers in the Midwest are mosquitos in the Summer and in Winter, temperatures can get frigid! Even so, one of the prettiest views in winter are the prominent constellations seem through the naked trees. Shown at right here is Orion visible through the bare oak trees just a few steps from my front door. This is a single 13 second exposure with the kit zoom lens set to 28mm and F/4.  Any longer of an exposure and the sky was way overexposed...

That very night, while it was under freezing, it wasn't really frigid. But I did note on the weather forecast that evening that there was likely going to be morning fog. Well, for some reason I didn't sleep well that night, so got up at the crack of 8am and stepped out to find a very impressive display of frost on the downed oak leaves in the yard. So dutifully I got out my newish "super macro" lens, the Canon MP-E 65mm with the ring flash mounted in the front for some hand-held focus-stack images.

Now I often mention "focus-stacking". The depth of field of macro lenses are quite narrow, so to extend the part of the field that is in focus, several-to-many frames are taken with slightly different focus settings, or lens positions, and Photoshop or other software can combine only the parts of the frame that is in sharp focus. For example, at left is a 7-frame focus stack, and at right is a single frame from the sequence that shows how narrow the depth of focus actually is! See how only the upper part of the frame at right is sharp. Photoshop does a great job at combining all the sharp parts of the frame as seen at left.

Some of the frost photos were quite astounding! There was about a 3-meter square patch in the center of the yard that showed needle structure. I DO NOT know how they form - I guess I need to look around on crystal formation! In some of the frames the "needles" appear tubular or hollow, and in some they have a general hexagonal hollow form. Those are visible at left.

And at right one of the stunning images of spikes emanating from a single point, and quite large - over a centimeter in diameter!

I first stopped at a moss patch that never gets much Summer sun. While not as impressive as the larger spikes I found a few minutes later, they are interesting in their own way.

All of these are combinations of 7 to 11 frames to extend the range of focus, and are all "focused" manually by hand-holding them. It was my first time attempting this and as you can see, came out ok! Some I used some combination of flash and the rising sunlight.

Of course, as soon as the rising sun cleared the horizon, since the temps were barely under freezing, all the crystals melted quickly, and the show was over!

I present the rest without comment, other
than I will certainly keep an eye out for such events in the future!

Friday, January 4, 2019

Red Gate Bridge!

Twas' a beautiful day at "Ketelsen East" - beautiful blue skies and temps in mid to upper 40s! I know - in January! I took the opportunity to go to the carwash to scrub the salt and grime off the car as it is supposed to be dry for a couple days. I also needed to take a little walk and decided to explore Red Gate Bridge - built a couple years ago and used most every day, but have never gone to explore further.

Interestingly, when Melinda and I married here 10 years ago, to cross the Fox River (yes, to those from AZ where washes are dry 11 months of the year - a real river that always has water) one had to drive 4 miles north to Elgin or 4 miles south to St Charles.  How did we ever survive that!? In those 10 years they have built a bridge at Stearns Road, about 2 miles north, and this one, Red Gate, about a mile south.

Red Gate Bridge is a beauty! Most bridges are just that - utility above all. But Red Gate, whether required because of space limitations or what, has a curved approach from both directions! For some reason that makes it look much more gracious and elegant, if you could ever use those words for a bridge. At left is a photo from well up the east bank to get an overall view of the approach and crossing, and at right is a plaque on the entrance to the pedestrian crossing.

Of course it is also the only bike crossing in the area, and connects with paths on both sides of the Fox River. And I always love to go out on these pedestrian/bike crossings to get the view up and downriver. At left the approach to the pedestrian path is shown. Interestingly, a couple minutes later as I stopped to take photos, the suspended path bounced up and down considerably as folks walked their dogs and otherwise crossed the river. I expected it but was stronger than I thought! At right is an HDR (combination of 3 frames to show extremes of shadows and highlights) showing interesting patterns between vertical roadway supports and diagonal details of suspended path.

I love looking out over the river, as long sight lines (not interrupted by trees, residences or power lines) give clear views of the water, wildlife and river traffic (in warmer weather!). Didn't look down south into the sun (hanging low in this midwinter month), but looked north towards where I live. At left is a 6-frame mosaic with a 200mm telephoto taken from mid-river. "Ketelsen East is up just around the bend a little on the east (right) bank. From the east end of the bridge, I took another photo that had a clear shot to the grounds here. At right is shown a full-resolution to the almost exactly 1 mile to my place. The tan and pink buildings are on the grounds of the camp here and in fact, if you click on the photo, you can see the volleyball net to right center that is literally 50 feet from my house! I believe my place is blocked from my neighbors to the south or other neighborhood construction.

As I was leaving, I took yet another multi-frame panorama (still with 200mm telephoto) of the Red Gate Water Tower built a couple years ago. I took the first above photo from adjacent to the tower. I hope you agree that Red Gate is a beauty - sorry it has taken so long to document it here!

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Holiday Season at "Ketelsen East"!

A few years back I used to give a year-end review of the highlights and lowlights of the preceding year.  My blog output has been so low the last couple years that I saw no point in doing a review. Last year only produced 27 posts, about half of my 2017 output, which was about half of my 2016 output! But on the optimistic side, though I only had one post in July and another in August, the year ended strong with 6 in December! So with today's start, I'm hoping the surge continues into the New Year!

I've been at "Ketelsen East" for almost 3 weeks, and as I posted a few days ago, got in a Carolina road trip early-on. It was quiet holiday with only a couple family gatherings, otherwise have been working on a couple projects at home and mostly hanging out watching the cold weather outside! Got in a single bike ride when it hit 50F one of my first days here, otherwise have been a slug!

But I'm always looking for photo ops, and while the winter scenes are pretty monochromatic, found a couple of interest just the last few days. Temps have hovered within a handful of degrees around freezing, so snow one day, then rain, then snow again! At least it hasn't made driving difficult, and the fresh snow a couple days ago, plus the clear skies made some interesting shadows on the boat dock a few yards from my house.

It seems strange to have a river without boats on it! Has been a weird year - high water and some minor flooding through the spring and summer has restricted boat traffic much of the warm season, and now these hidden rules I know little about, evidently restrict watercraft from even being in the water, so the river looks naked without something running it! This shot down the river was taken a bit before sunset shortly after the shadow pics above were taken...

Then yesterday, New Year's eve, the rain came and we got a goodly amount, melting most all traces of the snow we had on the ground. I had to make a trip into the city (more about that in a future post), and drove in moderate showers over the course of the hour-long trip in and back out again. Didn't slow down the crazy drivers much here - everyone still drove 5mph over the speed limit with showers, mist and fog, so no traffic delays! When I got home I saw the berries from this bush adjacent to my parking area (unidentified), with their bright color and rain drops abundantly apparent! This is a 6-frame focus stack (combines exposures with slightly different focus settings to extend range of focus). with the 100mm macro when rain paused momentarily.

After a quiet night, woke up to no snow, but soon noticed a little accumulation this morning. Taking note, the snow was barely visible - tiny little flakes hardly seen, but enough to accumulate. I got the "big" macro (Canon MP-E 65mm) out to look for crystal structure, but none was seen. Shown here is a "still life" I found atop the AC cover where an acorn cap had fallen. The macro makes it much more interesting as it started filling with snow pellets - no other word for them - they look like little snowballs with no crystal structure... About 90 minutes later I went out again, and in the further accumulation it looked noticeably different - at right! These were taken at the lowest magnification (about 1X) and used a ring flash in front of the lens for shadow-free illumination.

Finally I cranked up the magnification to 3X or so (max is 5X!), and shot the snow pellets on my car windshield. Nice structure is noted, but little of the crystal variety... Of course, now that I've got the right equipment on hand, snowflakes will be rare!

Here for a while yet and am still looking for objects of interest!