Saturday, December 15, 2012

Tree Blob

It is verboten in the birding world to reveal the locations of roosting owls except among trusted friends, for fear of too many visitors disturbing the birds. But some spots become well known in the community and Patty and I visited one such "secret, well known place" in search of long-eared owls known to be roosting there.

And we found an owl. But it wasn't the owl we expected.

We first spotted it from the trail, looking into the sun. I thought it was an olds wasp's nest. But upon further review it was an owl. But what kind? It was hard to see, high up and tucked into the branches. This is the only usable shot I managed to take. Our first thought was northern saw-whet owl, but having recently been owl banding this bird seemed to large to be a saw-whet, thus we tentatively identified it as a barred owl. I sent this image out asking for an ID, and everyone answered saw-whet. So saw-whet it is. And while I've seen saw-whets in the wild, this it s the first one I found.


After hunting a bit more for owls and finding no others, we retreated to the visitor's center behind which is a bird blind overlooking some feeders. The birds were much easier to view, and ID, and we snapped away.

Female house finch above, male below.

American gold finch.

Male northern-cardinal.

Tufted titmouse.


These are the usual suspects found at feeders in the winter. There is a small pond next to the feeders so occasionally you'll get one of these wandering about, a female mallard.

And where there are feeder birds there are birds the feed on them ...

This cooper's hawk flew in and everyone else flew out.

Yep, show's over. Time to leave.


So we retreated into the visitors center and warmed up by the wood burning stove. It was a nice morning, but Patty's still never seen a long-eared owl in the wild. We'll just have to keep searching.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


The text message was sort and to the point: Monarchs are roosting in Cape May.

It was migration season and we had been debating a trip to the Cape. The weather wan't great and it's a two hour trip.

But the text changed things.

And off we went.

After a brief stop at a magic tree full of warblers we found the roost.

There were thousands of butterflies.

Curious orange leaves on the pine trees.

All on their way to a place they've never been. A mountain top in Mexico. To spend the winter. And then start this incredible journey all over again.

The monarchs mate in spring and the first generation heads north to the US and Canada. But that first generation makes it just to the US border, where they mate and lay their eggs. The caterpillars, which feed exclusively on milkweed, eat and eat and eat, and then form a chrysalis. Out of which comes generation two which continues the journey north. Six generations later it is time to go back. These great great great great grand children return to that mountain in Mexico.

Absolutely incredible.

The journey is not without its dangers, which is why they are here. The butterflies need to cross the Delaware Bay, but the winds are against them. So they land. And wait. And more land. And more. And more. Until there is a quarter mile of monarchs.

Imagine what it must be like in Mexico with monarch from all across the US and Canada coming to roost.

Other dangers include severe weather, habit loss, and predators.

And tragically the roosting sites in Mexico are under increasing pressure from an growing yet very poor population, who see the trees as a resource to cut down. And not a home to a wondrous insect.

But it was easy to forget all that immersed in the spectacle around us.

I'm quite pleased we got that text.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Evening Visitor

My girlfriend lives in center city Philadelphia and has a small (~ 16' x 20'), brick walled garden for a backyard. And for a couple of weeks she had a visitor.

We called him (her?) Opie.

Actually, this was Opie II, the original having visited a couple of years prior. 

As with any good host we put out food for our guest. Cat food and fruit, with cat food the preferred repast. The apple slices went uneaten. Opie would scale the brick wall, scan the garden, and scramble down for dinner. He seemed to be little concerned with us, as we watched from inside the open patio door.

Long ago, when we were kids, my youngest sister came running into the house, "there's a rat in the garage! there's a rat in the garage!" I remember going out with my dad to see. And there it was, sitting in a box. Dad, having grown up in Manhattan (without a garden backyard apparently) did what any city dweller would do when confronted with a big rat. He called the police. Fortunately, the officer correctly identified the creature, an opossum, instantly changing it from vermin to guest. So we gave it an apple. And watched as it played possum in the box. That apple went uneaten as well.

Opie hasn't been around for the last few days, the food untouched in the morning. The city can be a dangerous place, with way to many predatory automobiles. Hopefully he's ok. We'll keep watching for him.

Saturday, October 27, 2012


While on a recent plant geek field trip I spotted this on the side of the trail.

An oldster, having live to shed its skin at least thirteen times (unlike tree rings, the number of rattles does not directly correlate with age as rattles can shed multiple times in a year, and the rattles can break off).

The field trip was a well attended one, with over thirty of us out in the pines. I near the end of the line as we hiked along when I spotted this guy a couple of feet from the trail. Siting quietly as we paraded by, single file. That's when I yelled snake.

As this was prime habitat, we had been told to keep a weather eye out. And once spotted everybody wanted a look. All of us crowding around to see and photograph the snake prompted it try to moved away. But we had it boxed in. But not once did it rattle nor assume a threatening pose. It was more interested in retreat than attack, looking for a way out. And we parted to let it slither off in peace.

A bit later my girlfriend almost stepped on this one, saved by another friend who spotted it just in time.

Much smaller, this appeared to be a yearling, with no rattles on its tail. And it too wanted nothing to do with us, making a beeline for the woods. Of course we all crowded around to get images.

Two rattlers in one day, upping my lifetime total by 200%. Very cool.

Monday, October 22, 2012


It is rather apparent from these two images that you are looking downhill. Down toward the people. Or the car.



It is really a very slight upslope into the image.

The people and the car are really higher up the hill than the camera.


On the same trip that we saw the white deer, we went to Spook Hill, a so called "gravity hill". The optical illusion is such that you aim your car ostensibly downhill, put it in neutral, and proceed to roll the wrong way.

The illusion is subtle and not everyone agreed that it even occurred. There are other such sites scattered around the world. There's probably one near you. So the next time you're sitting around with nothing to do, grab a friend, do some googling, and see for yourself.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Room With A View

Imagine a room.
A dark room.
No lights.
Just a hole in a shade.
The only light source.

What would you see?


And this.

And this.

This too.

One More.

All from this little hole in a shade.

The room functions as a camera obscura. The hole is the size of a quarter. And the scene outside is projected on the walls of the room.

You can see a few physical effects in the images. The inverse square law is nicely illustrated by the last image. Note how the scene nearest the hole is brightest and the drop off in light intensity as the distance increases. And all of the images show how light travels in straight lines, resulting in the inverted images (figuring out why is left as an exercise for the reader). The curious angles, like the bent FedEx truck, are corners where the walls meet, in this case the wall and ceiling.

It was very cool to be "inside" a camera. I should have brought a tripod though. It is tricky to handhold a camera in a dark room like this and get reasonable images. Oh well, I know for next time.

Thanks to Gallery 339 for creating the space as part of their More Photos About Buildings and Food exhibit. And to Patty for "surprising" me.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


I spent this past weekend with a group of friends in the Finger Lakes region of New York. And on the way home we made a detour to see the Seneca White Deer.

We got lucky. As we drove up we saw a woman up against a fence with a camera. And we spotted the object of her attention, a white buck. I took a couple of shots before the deer disappeared into the brush.

The deer live on a World War II era army weapons depot, which has since been decommissioned. As we drove along the fence we spotted several more of the deer, and pulled over to get better looks, and perhaps an image or two. But they kept disappearing into the the woods. When we reached the end of the fenced in area we turned around and drove back along the edge of the old depot. But on this second, and subsequent third, pass we saw no more of the white deer.

Compared to regular white-tailed deer, these seemed like ghosts in the woods (the Lenape Indians actually referred to them as ghost deer). Bright white animals that stood out against the forest backdrop, but still able to disappear into it.

The deer are not albino. Rather they have a recessive gene that prevents them from developing a normal brown coat. Normally a white deer is easy pickings for predators. But these had the good fortune to live within the confines of the army depot. The lack of hunting and predators allowed the herd to thrive and grow so that today there are some 300 white deer.

But their future is not assured. The depot closed in 2000 and the land is currently owned by the Seneca County Industrial Development Agency. And as the Finger Lakes region is one of the poorest in New York most of the population is thinking jobs and not land preservation.

But there are people working to preserve the deer and the habit (which has been identified as an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society).  Seneca White Deer, Inc. is a non-profit organization working to preserve the unique wildlife and military history of army depot. You can learn more about their efforts and the deer by clicking here.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Open Air

A light show in Philadelphia, Open Air is an art installation in center city that consists of twenty-four high power search lights that react to voice messages which can be recorded and uploaded by anyone with a computer and an internet connection.

The execution was not up to the concept, at least for the night I was there. While the lights were interesting the comments were not. Banal "poetry", unfunny "jokes", and the expected greetings ("Happy Birthday Johnny", "I love you Mary") became increasingly annoying to listen to. I just wanted to yell "shut up!". And the messages were repeated! We learned later that they were repeated based on a voting scheme, with the messages getting the most votes getting the most repeats. But if all of the messages are crap to begin with ...

The lights were cool though and they did turn on and off and pulse to the recorded messages. Which turned out to be a good thing, as the show was not without controversy.

It seems that the 9/11 memorial in New York, which was two beams of light aimed straight up, was a trap for migrating birds. The birds were confused by the lights when migrating through Manhattan, and some became trapped in the light beams, circling the beam and becoming exhausted. Thus there was some concern that something similar would happen in Philadelphia.

So Pennsylvania Audubon raised the alarm and set up a monitoring program. And that's why I was there.

My girlfriend had volunteered to monitor the the birds flying through the light beams. You can see one of the birds as the image above, the little white line in center, above the building (click the image to bigafy). The birds were only visible when they flew through a light beam.

There's another one. There were three of us monitoring that night, and we counted over two hundred birds between 8:00 and 11:00. The good news is that the birds did not seem overly confused by the lights.  Some birds did appear to circle, or fly in an S-curve, but with the lights blinking on and off, and the beams moving, the birds quickly continued on their way to points south.

The second bit of controversy had to do with light pollution, as can be seen in the image above (again, as always, click to bigafy). The International Dark-Sky Association has noted that the Open Air Project "represents a tremendous waste of energy and is damaging to the nighttime environment".

These two images display the summer triangle hidden behind the light beams of Open Air (can you find it?). And while one would not expect to see much of the night sky in center city Philadelphia, or in the center of any major city, it does point out how we have lost the night sky. And how we now take it for granted that the night sky is gone, we don't expect the sky to be dark. So we have no problem wasting light in this fashion. The insidious problem is that as each generation takes the current sky as the "norm" we don't realize what has been lost. And Open Air drives home the point that it is ok to light up the sky.

And that is very sad.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

In the Sweet Spot

On May 20th, 2012 the Moon crossed paths with the Sun.

And its shadow touched the Earth.

It started in China.

Lingered for five minutes over Tokyo.

Zipped across the Pacific Ocean.

Clipping the Aleutian Islands.

As it headed toward the lower forty-eight.

It came ashore in northern California.

Crossed Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, ...

... and the shadow, traveling in the opposite direction of the setting Sun and Moon, left the surface of the Earth over Texas.

It passed over me in Kanaraville, Utah, the self proclaimed "Sweet Spot".

Where I was joined by several thousand other folks. Not bad for a town of 300 or so residents.

And it lived up to it's billing. It was very sweet indeed.

This was an annular solar eclipse, so called because unlike a total solar eclipse the moon doesn't quite cover the sun, leaving an annulus of light, a ring of fire, around the large black spot which was the moon.

The weather was perfect and the people were friendly. And the town of Kanarraville did a great job of providing viewing areas for an estimated 10,000 visitors. Not bad for a town with no tourist facilities, no hotels, no restaurants.

The eclipse ended with the Sun setting over a hill, as the Moon slid off.

A luminous shark's fin swimming into the night.

 It was almost a perfect day.


At the midpoint of the eclipse, just as the Sun and Moon we coincident, my camera battery died. I had a replacement, but I missed the shot, although not the view. And I did not have the right adapter to image through my hα solar scope, through which the view was quite spectacular.

I'll be ready next time.