Sunday, January 7, 2018

Star of the Show!

One of the traditional holiday trips to take in AZ is down to Whitewater Draw to see the over-wintering Sandhill Cranes. We've been there likely over a dozen times the last few years to observe and take in the sights and sounds of up to 30,000 of them congregate in the wetlands as evening approaches. My suspicion is that numbers are down this year, as is the water level kept at the wetlands. Note also there is a live "Crane Cam" that provides a live view - make sure you check it out!

However, this year, on a New-Year's Day visit, while there were lots of cranes, they were not stars of the show, but rather another of my favorites, a male Vermillion Flycatcher put on a good display. We've seen them often, perhaps a third of the time, but this time he was in a tree very close to one of the lookout posts. One of the characteristics they follow while feeding is a return to the same perch they've launched from. So by staying set up with a big telephoto on the perch, you can catch them returning by hitting the camera "motor drive" as they return. The first shot, shown at left, shows blurring, even though taken at a 1600 second. As a result I adjusted the camera to use shorter exposures for subsequent frames. And the frame at right even shows his success as hunter as he has a fly in his beak!

The rest shown here are easy to take as you are just waiting for a return. Seeing all the maneuvers they make sure make you want to take flying lessons! Make sure you click the images for the full-size version!

Finally I left him and moved on to other subjects, but he was fun to shoot! Shortly after sunset the "Supermoon" rose over the peaks to the east - another easy catch! It might have made a nice time-lapse, but the sudden onset of twilight observers moved the platform too much!

Yes, Kinda Still Here!

My Friend Liz asked me at the astronomy club meeting Friday - "So is the Blog over"? A valid question as I've not posted for nearly 2 months, including any in December, nor the what has been the usual year-end review. With only 44 posts in all of 2017, it hardly seemed worthwhile to do a "best-of"... But believe me, I'm still having adventures, and while distracted by work, play and considerably longer stays in the Midwest, I'll try to do better - promise! In the meantime, here are some nearly-2-month-old photos to wrap up the last trip to "Ketelsen East"!

In my nearly daily outings around the parks and forest preserves near the cottage in the Fox River Valley, I keep an eye out for bits of color, especially as Fall and Winter descend and the color palette move towards earth tones and grays! But a walk down the bike path at Tekakwitha FP on Thanksgiving revealed these bright flowers or fruits growing along the ditch between path and folks' back yards. They were completely new to me, even after living there for 8+ years now. They appear in long viney tendrils their bright colors their only property that makes them stand out. Of course, I seemed the only one in the dark - the first two friends I showed them to immediately said it was "Bittersweet", and with that start, the Google revealed them as Celastrus_orbiculatus - Chinese Bittersweet. In the photos you can see these are the Asian version as in the native North American version fruit only grow at the vine ends. Will have to keep an eye out next Summer for the green flowers they are said to produce.

Both of these images are focus-stacked. Eighteen frames were combined for the left image, ten for the right. Images were taken at slightly different focus settings and combined in Photoshop to extend the depth of field thru the area of interest.

A day later (24 November) I again shot the quarter-moon through the mostly bare trees adjacent to the house. Unlike a few days before, This time I got out the 300mm, but the longer focal length either threw the moon or the tree branches out of focus. The solution was easy - focus stacking again saved the day! Taking 2 images, one focused on the branches, the other on the moon were easily again combined in Photoshop resulting in the shot at left. I actually took a 3D pair, but didn't come out as well as I had hoped, so will stick with the single frame for now!

Well, that wasn't so bad - finished the first post of the year! Hopefully they will come more often than every 6 or 7 weeks!

Friday, November 24, 2017

Colors and Patterns!

Am still at "Ketelsen East" and with Thanksgiving coming and going yesterday, we're in a headlong plunge towards Winter! But I've been watching for, and finding some small concentrations of patterns and color on the tail end of Fall. My last trip here in September we usually get some early colors, but it was unseasonably warm with temps in the 90s even close to October, so the trees, responding to shorter days, leaves were just turning brown! But my first few days here, helped by some hard freezes, cleared the leaves from the trees. Shown at left and right here is the same red leaf in two different views, from the lawn I share with neighbor Elaine...

And while taking a photo of a uniform foliage color might be interesting, I like to image the contrast, the non-conformity of the foliage. Here at left is a nice attractive stubborn green holdout among a sea of yellow.

Similarly, a view of the flagstone "sidewalk" to the house shows a few leaves from the "Burning Bush" at the north side of the house, along with other collected detritus, including an acorn hull and other leaves of various shades. Because I used the macro and there was considerable range of focus, this is a focus stack of 14 frames, combined in Photoshop to extend the range of sharpness.

Sometimes it isn't the color that transforms an object, but the environment. One morning after a rain shower, I went out to grab some shots of the bushes transformed by the moisture. At left is a leaf from an identified shrub that, while not fallen from the plant nor changed color, had partially absorbed the water, and sports some drops that act as little magnifying lenses. It also shows nice veins to the image...

A few minutes later, another set of bushes, transformed by the rain. Here some berries sport water drops along their bottom surface...

And sometimes, especially in November, there isn't much color to be seen, so I look for patterns and structure. At left is a striking seed pod with a background of a Milkweed pod.

A few yards away (both these at a nearby park's prairie patch), is the dried remains of a Queen Anne's Lace flower. So spectacular in July when thousands of them transform the prairie white, this time of year, if you can find them at all, their dried carcasses look so much like a monochromatic fireworks explosion... Both of these images are 6-frame focus stacks to extend the sharpness a little bit more...

One more image from the part's prairie restoration patch is shown at left that I've not seen often. I believe it is Common Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum), native to Eurasia and North Africa, but known as an introduced species and noxious weed in the Americas. Supposedly it has a lavender-to-white flower in Summer that I've not noticed. Supposedly it was introduced as the spines on the seed pod shown form a natural comb used to raise the knap on wool or silk...

The last image showing a bit of color is from a few nights ago. We've been enjoying blessedly clear skies and moderate temps, though it has dropped below freezing most nights. The other night after an evening walk I returned outside to image the crescent moon through the now-naked trees. I took image pairs for stereo 3D, the anaglyph of which is shown below. Of course, not only does it show that the moon is WAY beyond the tree, you can also detect some 3D structure within the tree branches...

Enough for now - always have my eyes open for other interesting stuff!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Window Seat!

Have been at "Ketelsen East" for over a week now, and time to get my travellin' photos posted! It is fun to schedule a down-sun seat and watch for the waypoints we pass every trip that seem like long-lost friends. And every time you seem to see more and sometimes weird stuff - no exception this trip! The plane, a 737, was absolutely full, so took longer than normal to load and we took off about 10 minutes late. The photo at left shows the view from my vantage point from seat 28A as we turned onto runway 11 to start our takeoff roll.

The flight path usually takes us just south of Mount Graham and in many recent trips have gotten some impressive views of the telescopes there. This time the plane flew pretty much due east for a good length of time - I could look out my window and see Willcox below me and Mount Graham a good 30 miles to the north. We must have turned towards the NE shortly after as a bit later the big copper mine at Clifton/Morenci came into view as usual. We never got close to it, but thanks to the clean windows, got some decent views! At left is one of the photographs showing good detail, and at right is a pair of images put together to make a 3D anaglyph image. You will need the red/blue glasses to see the 3D, red lens on the left! The mine is the largest production copper mine in North America, so is a big deal in the local economy - Morenci is located in eastern AZ, in fact, I'm thinking we might even have been in New Mexico airspace when this photo was taken!

Now that we were nearer our normal flight path, the waypoints came by like clockwork... Twelve minutes later, the VLA (Very Large Array radio telescope) came into view. It was tough to spot visually, but a little contrast adjustment in Photoshop brought the telescope dishes into clear view. 27 dishes, each about 80 feet in diameter are spread out along a big "Y", each arm about 9 miles long. The dishes can be easily moved on a rail system, mounted closer to the center to provide highest sensitivity, or spread out widely along the 9 miles of each arm for the highest angular resolution. According to the observing schedule, this is configuration "B" which provides the second-highest angular resolution...  Click the left image for the full-size view!

Six minutes later and we were approaching Albuquerque, looking up the Rio Grande Valley. At right is a great view up the river. Click to load the full image and you can see some Fall colors in the foliage near the river, as well as the patchwork of fields irrigated by river water. I believe the town above center is Belen, NM...

We passed Albuquerque and the Sandia mountains they nestle against as we continued ENE. Then I spotted something I've never seen before - what appeared to be a landing strip built along the top of a narrow mesa, with some symbols bulldozed into the desert. I took some photographs and didn't think much about it, finally looking along our path on Google maps, finally finding it! It is known as CST Trementina Base, so named because it is near Trementina, New Mexico. It belongs to the Church of Spiritual Technology, affiliated with the Church of Scientology. Supposedly the location houses an underground vault where the writings of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard are preserved for future scholars, the symbols - another Scientology emblem for future faithful to find the vault. The view at left is the straight image, and at right is the 2-photo combo made into an anaglyph that shows the impressive terrain there. Again, the red/blue glasses are needed to see the 3D image.

Eastward of New Mexico and Kansas we
ran into clouds, which forms their own set of pretty views! The photos for the anaglyphs are easy to take in a plane going nearly 600 miles per hour... All you need is a little stereo separation between the 2 frames, much like your eye separation provides for items close enough to reach with your hands. Since clouds are farther away, typically 4 or 5 seconds of a plane's motion is fine. If the clouds are more distant, I've gone as far as 12 or 15 seconds to show a good stereo effect... At left, I love the effect of the clouds floating over the landscape forming a pair of layers at different heights. And at right, when the ground can't be seen, even the clouds themselves form their own landscapes analogous to mountains and valleys. There is a never-ending variety to clouds that I've seen over many trips... Again, both of these are anaglyphs, so use of red/blue glasses required!

It is always a challenge I set for myself to see how soon I can locate where we are as we approach Chicago. Paying attention to the flight path, I can spot the Illinois River and that network of locks, dams and barges plying their way to Chicago. If there are clouds over the Mississippi, hiding where we are crossing, it is sometimes a challenge to locate our approach. On my July trip clouds prevented me from seeing the Illinois river, and I didn't catch the location till we descended over the Fox Valley and saw the "big circles"! As seen at left, it is the Fermilab nuclear accelerator just outside Batavia, about 15 miles south of "Ketelsen East". By using strong magnets, atomic ions can be made to follow the circles and be accelerated to nearly the speed of light and collide into another beam or target, releasing strange and exotic atomic bits and pieces. It was state-of-the-art 45 years ago, but has been superseded by the big accelerators in Europe.

This trip, we were further north, in fact,
likely flying within a couple hundred yards of "Ketelsen East", which is often in the flight path of approaching planes.  I knew because I could look out my left-side window and see the Stearns River bridge, built just a couple years ago and a frequent turn-around point for my walks along the Fox a mile and a half north of the house.  This trip, with the loss of Daylight Savings Time, it was too dark to grab a photo, but the one at left is from April on the same flight following the same path.  The view is looking north up the Fox River, with the Stearns Avenue Bridge at bottom, with it's distinctive green pedestrian and bike path built-in underneath.  Note also the much older railroad bridge just north, which I've not seen used...  In any case, you can see the bike path along the left (west) side of the river, where I took the photo at right last Spring on a walk...

Of course, the endpoint destination is O'Hare Airport (ORD), named for Edward O'Hare, the first WWII flying ace and Medal of Honor winner.  Built in the late 40s and later, it is one of the busiest airports in the world.  We flew past it in September as we went out to Lake Michigan to turn around for our approach towards the west.  The photo at left shows it sprawling over it's 7,000+ acres of land.  I would be intimidated as hell trying to fly a small plane into something like that!

Well, that was this flight - we landed nearly 30 minutes early even with the late start, likely the jet stream was behind us!  I'll keep pushing for the window seat - too much to miss by ignoring the view!

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Star of Local "Crime of the Century" Passes Quietly...

The New York Times is always interesting - that is why I subscribe to weekday delivery. But today I read something that shocked me as I'd never heard the story before - and it happened in Tucson! June Robles Birt, who had been kidnapped for 19 frantic days in 1934, died 2 months ago. Her original obit had her married name listed, explaining why so much time passed before the star of the story was recognized as passing.

It was big news in 1934 - 6 year old "Little June" was kidnapped off a Tucson street while walking to her aunt's house after school setting off a frantic search. Over the course of a couple weeks and 3 ransom notes, the case was no closer to being solved. Finally a week after the last ransom note, a letter arrived, mailed from Chicago, with a crude map where "the girl's body could be found". Spectacularly, after a 3 hour search, the county attorney found her alive, locked and chained in a metal box buried underground in the oppressive AZ heat. Even with daily nationwide headlines, no headway could be made in the case, and June went on to successfully become as anonymous as she sought to be, marrying quietly and raising 4 children.  Of course, this is the "Cliff Notes" of the story - go read it yourself at the NY Times website!

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

A New View!

Long time readers know I'm justifiably proud of some of the Mirror Lab accomplishments, including the twin mirrors of the Large Binocular Telescope, each 8.4 meters (about 27.5 feet) in diameter. In particular, I've been on a quest of sorts of imaging the telescope while it does interesting things. It seems to have culminated last Spring when I caught the ARGOS laser propagating into the sky from a distance of 12 miles. From the town of Safford, through a small telescope, I almost had a front-row view of the instrument, visible at left, which is used to project a constellation of artificial stars in the field of view of the telescope to partially correct atmospheric turbulence. Several hundred similar frames were combined to make a short video seen here.

Well, without permission from the powers that be to get any closer (made more difficult by the recent severe fire this last spring that approached within 50 meters!), my most recent query was - from how far away can you see it?! From a post a few years back, I knew that LBT was line-of-sight from Kitt Peak National Observatory, very close to 120 miles away! The image at left is from that post and demonstrates that if you can see KPNO from LBT (flat-topped mountain in center), you can see LBT from KPNO!

So last night after work (working evenings this week at the Mirror Lab), I found my way driving westward - this after confirming with the LBT telescope operator that indeed ARGOS was operating properly. Being that it was dark-of-the-moon, I parked on the last pullout before turning towards the Observatory so that my lights would have no effect on operations there. It was an interesting night - totally clear, but obviously above an inversion layer. I watched the thermometer climb as the van ascended. It was 60F at the base of the mountain, 70F on top! The wind seemed a little blustery, alternately blowing out of the south or the north - weird! But fortunately, I was very comfortable in shorts and a long-sleeved t-shirt.

I had several optics to try - the first was easiest to set up - the 500mm F/4 "big bertha" telephoto. I had it up, pointed and focused on the lights of Tucson in a few minutes. It took me a couple shots to find where the LBT would appear - I'd never seen it from Kitt Peak, as it is quite small. But I knew it would be left of the red-lit radio transmission towers atop Mount Lemmon, so used that as my guide. About my 3rd shot - there it was! The green laser standing out from the occasional star and headlight visible on the Mount Lemmon Highway. At left is shown a 6-frame panorama of part of Tucson. with the green spot of the 18 watt ARGOS laser visible. At right is a single frame at a little larger scale better showing the laser beam.

I then broke out the big gun - the TEC 140 - a 5.5" diameter telescope with 1,000mm of focal length. Again, because of the large magnification, it took a couple practice frames to get it pointed properly. Note that at NO TIME was the ARGOS laser visible to the naked eye or even visible in the camera viewfinder. It was only the power of a 20 to 30 second exposure that revealed it was there. I had started an exposure sequence for a possible time-lapse, and interestingly, the inversion layer is visible just under LBT. In a couple minutes of exposure, it slowly dropped and became a little brighter in the less-affected air. Also visible in the exposure is the south slope of the mountain, brightly illuminated by the lights from Ft Grant prison at its base.

Most of my outings, I usually finish with a practice shot or mini-project that can be completed while putting away gear. This night, approaching 1:30 in the morning, I mounted the 16mm fisheye on the Canon 6D and took a couple frames of the sky from Andromeda to the rising Winter Milky Way. What is most interesting, besides the reddish airglow that looks like clouds to the west (right), is the oval glow just below center. This is called the Gegenshein, or counter-glow - a spot defined by being opposite to the sun in the sky. An optical effect allows sunlight to reflect from meteoritic dust back to us. This may be my best photo of it, and from only 2 stacked exposures shown here. Each of the 2 exposures were 2.5 minutes with the fisheye working at F/4.

Always great fun to be under a clear dark sky, and while chasing an ARGOS viewing might be only an excuse, it doesn't take much to get me out looking up!

Monday, October 16, 2017

Deja Vu, And Then Some!

My friend Donna had a hair appointment in Tucson this last weekend and suggested a road adventure, and another buddy Bernie was impressed with my photos from the weekend before on the Baboquivari 4WD trip. What could I do but suggest another trip to the most sacred site of the Tohono O'odham? Neither had been to the area, so by noon we were again winding down the Sasabe Road! As on the previous trip, my new riders were impressed with the view of Kitt Peak from 12 miles away. At left, Bernie shoots the observatory - the flat peak seen on the horizon.

We didn't waste a lot of time on the drive down - turned off the paved road just beyond milepost 16 and followed the road back NW towards the impressive profile of Baboquivari. With our little later start, we found a nice spot for our lunch with a view of both the peak and vistas to the east as well. The 5-frame mosaic here from our lunch spot with the 300mm lens well-captures the peak and surrounding area. Unfortunately, with the 1600 pixel-wide limit of pictures much of the impact of these panoramas is lost. At right what I've done is crop out the peak area of the panorama, keeping it at full resolution to give an idea of how powerful the full resolution panorama is! The crop at right is the same image, just cropped, not downsized from the panorama...

The previous trip I had seen a lot of huge grasshoppers, though didn't stalk one down on that trip. This time one came walking by at our lunch, so was able to molest it and take it's photo. It is a colorful fellow, flightless, though with underdeveloped wings seen here with black spots. It didn't take long to identify it on the Google as a Plains Lubber Grasshopper, Brachystola magma. Interestingly, in that link, they find that the Plains Lubber has a 2-year life cycle. I really love the subtle but strong earth-tone colors!

A little later we did some hiking when we hit the locked gate mentioned in last week's post. We turned a corner and I discovered the Praying Mantis shown at right at eye level on a plant. It was quite patient while I twisted the plant to bring it into the sunlight to get one or two good shots...

About 1km above the locked gate, we saw a ranch house that looked a lot better-kept than I remember hiking past back in the 80s! It appeared to have newer double-pane windows and a metal roof, even as the road leading up to it seemed long-unused. I ventured a little past the "private property" sign, but only to get the photo at left. Following the trail around the house and the corral, I took the mosaic at right. It looks like an idyllic place to spend some time! Back 30 years ago when last here hiking the peak, we parked much nearer the ranch house, but was pretty run down. In my reading, about that time it was known as Riggs Ranch. I'm not sure who operates in the area now. On our trip last weekend, we saw a big truck going in, but didn't stop to talk. Did not see any cattle either trip, though saw some white-tail deer (about a half dozen, including fawns) this trip.

We pointed the Jeep downhill about 4pm, making good time back to pavement without incident. Returning north on the Sasabe Road (the way we went out) we were rewarded with more nice views of Kitt Peak. Shown at left is an odd-looking view when 99% of the time you only see the profile from Ajo Way on the way to the Observatory from Tucson. Here, looking from the SSE, the 4-meter telescope appears between the solar and 2.1 meter scopes! This was taken with the 500mm lens...

Thankfully, one of us was thinking and we used Donna's phone to take a selfie of the three of us, shown at right. It was another beautiful, if not warm (temps still in 90s) Fall day that will remain memorable!