Sunday, January 26, 2014

Ancient Plant Geekery

For Christmas I got a bag of rocks. But not just any rocks, these were special rocks. From the Florissant  Fossil Quarry in Colorado.

And these rocks were guaranteed to have fossils in them.

And they did!

Like this leaf.

This tiny leaf.

Most of the fossils were tiny, the largest being this leaf.

All of the identifiable fossils we found were of plants. Mostly leaves like this fragment showing leaf structure.

Or this almost complete leaf.

Are these grass leaves? Or are they stems?

But there were others like this one that weren't just leaves.

And its mirror image.

The rocks were a very crumbly type of paper shale with thin layers that we split to unveil the fossils within. Thus the mirror images.

Here I am working on exposing the "big leaf" shown above.

Image courtesy Patty Rehn

I've got an X-Acto knife that I used to pry the shale apart and to scrape away rock matrix to expose the detail. But it wasn't all that easy, and at the lower right of the above image is a thicker chunk of rock we used a hammer and chisel on.

One of the coolest fossils was this one.

It appears to be the reproductive parts of a flower, the stamens, pistil, and ovary. It is very tiny.

I first learned of the Florissant Fossil Quarry in Kirk Johnson and Ray Troll's excellent book, Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway, and museum exhibit of the same name, which I got to see when it visited the Academy of Natural Sciences here in Philadelphia. Johnson is a paleontologist, whose specialty is ancient plant life, and Troll is an artist.

The Quarry is a comercial operation where anyone can go and try their luck at fossil hunting. It is not be be confused with the nearby Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, home to petrified sequoia trees.

I forget why, but I had shared the book with Patty. And we had added the Quarry to our list of places to visit. This was in September. I had put the book back on the shelf. It seems Patty pulled it back off and used it to find the contact info for the Quarry. The folks there were happy to send out the rocks that made for one very cool Christmas gift.

The complete set of fossil images, with and without the dime for scale, can be found in my SmugMug gallery.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Cold Morning

Philadelphia is in the mist of its second arctic vortex this January. But it is nothing compared to last February, when I traveled to Churchill, Manitoba on the western shore of the Hudson Bay. I went to see the northern lights, and I was not disappointed.

And the day I landed it was -40 ℉/℃.

Now that's cold. Although the week before it was - 65 ℃, so the locals thought this a heat wave! And before the week was out it would get into the single digits Fahrenheit.

And cold means that there could be ice halos around the sun. So I kept a weather eye. And one morning at breakfast we saw this.

A partial halo with sundogs, a solar pillar, and curious ground level sundog like brightening.

Click the image to bigafy. The bright spots are glints of light reflecting off snow crystals blowing about.

When I told people I was going to Churchill in February some though it very cool. And some though it crazy. Proof of the latter?

Yep, yours truly without coat or gloves.

I was there for a week and this was the only morning we had such a display. It didn't last long and we had to rush to get our shots before it was gone. Thus the lack of outerwear (a method to my madness?).


My go to site for for all things atmospherics, Les Cowley's wonderful Atmospheric Optics site turned up nothing on the ground level sundogs. The only similar thing was page about double sundog images due to ice fogs.  Perhaps there was an ice fog out over the Hudson Bay.

Update: I emailed Dr. Cowley and he was kind enough to email me back. He writes, "They are halos form diamond dust ice crystals either drifting in the free air or in a dilute ice fog".  Very cool.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Ruins at Copán

As mentioned in this post we visited Copán, Honduras in March 2013. And we spent an afternoon exploring the Mayan Ruins the city is known for.

It was very hot, over 100 ℉ the day we visited, which had the beneficial side effect of keeping the crowds down. We were there during easter week, which also helped to lower the crowds as many of the locals were off visiting friends and relatives or vacationing at the shore (we saw many folks waiting for buses in the town square each morning).

One thing that struck me about the site was the number and size of the trees that had grown throughout.

They are ceiba trees, also known as silk cotton trees, (Ceiba pentandra). In Mayan mythology these trees linked the world of the living with the underworld. Today they grow throughout the site, giving an obvious feel to just how old the place is.

Our guide (seen next to Patty in the first image above) described Copán as the "Paris of the Mayan empire" explaining that it was the center of the Mayan art world. If you were an artist you wanted to go to Copán. And Mayan art means working in rock.

Which was evident throughout the site.

Some badly weathered.

Others less so.

Animal motifs and images of the rulers seemed to be the main themes.

As Mayan sites go this is a small one and we had no trouble seeing it all despite the heat. There were three main areas. The main temple, which can be seen in the first three images at the start of the post.

The living quarters.

And the open grounds which could be seen form the main temple and included sculptures, the ball court and the covered hieroglyphic stairway. Note the there are ruins throughout the Copán region, not just here at the main site, places where people lived and worked.

The hieroglyphic stairway tells the story of all sixteen rulers of Copán, each block on each stair carved and telling part of the story. Unfortunately the stairway needed to be restored, and the order of the blocks was not known. This along with missing blocks, means we do not know the full story told by the stairs.

Our guide told us the story of how when he was a young boy he would come to the site to visit his father, who was an archeologist working to restore the ruins. They would excavate an area and rebuild parts that had fallen in to disrepair in the 1200 or so years since the city had been abandoned. His dad would tell the visitors that the Mayans had built what they were seeing. The young boy confronted his dad one day asking why he was lying to the tourists, "why do you tell them the Mayans built these things when I've seen you build them from the rocks you dig up?" Regardless of who built them the structures were quite impressive.

Here we are looking back at the main temple which, except for the trees, would be how a citizen of the city would see the ruler and nobles sitting on the side of the temple when ball games were being played or during religious festivals.

We ended our visit by walking the about the courtyard enjoying the statues (but not the heat). We did a short hike through the woods back to the visitor center and then headed back to our hotel for a cool drink at the bar.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

In Plain Sight

Patty and I spent Christmas week in the lower Rio Grande Valley, Texas. It was rainy most of the time, but only one afternoon was a complete washout. Mostly drizzly we still went out and saw stuff, although not as much as had it been sunny.

I guess we'll just have to go back some day.

We did see this.

A common pauraque. See it? It's right there in the center of the image (as always you can click the image to bigafy.)

See it now?

These birds spend their days sitting on the ground, depending on their camouflage to hide them. This bird was less than a meter from the trail's edge, sitting under some shrubbery. We saw another bird similarly situated under a bush on the side of a road. Both in Estero Llano Grande state park. A wonderful site that we visited three times on this trip.

It is amazing how these birds just sit there, ignoring us passersby, including several bobcat that were seen, although not by us, walking past this bird. And of course most passersby never see these birds. Which is no doubt just fine with them.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Honduran Bird

Today in Philadelphia we woke to frigid temperatures, as an arctic blast hit overnight. Snow on the ground, seven inches or so, and the cold made it a day to stay inside and read. And work on picture processing. I'm so far behind ...

It was over 100 ℉ when we saw this bird back in March. It is the very colorful Scarlet Macaw, national bird of Honduras (another theme starting?).

We were visiting the Mayan ruins at Copán in western Honduras. We weren't quite prepared for the heat. But when in Copán, you visit the ruins. It was why we came. So off we went.

We knew the birds would be there, but we didn't know how many or where they might be. It turned out they were very easy to find. Our first glimpse of the birds came as we entered the site.

There, up in the trees, we spotted them. I had a relatively short lens on my camera, better to photograph the ruins. But not so good for birds. Not to worry as later we would get somewhat closer looks ...

The bird played a big part in Mayan culture, with the bird being sacred and representing daylight and the rising sun. This bird presided over the complexes ball court. And has done so for hundreds of years, although the ball games are much less frequent these days.

Copán has the most macaw carvings of any Mayan site.

The birds at the ruins are part of an ongoing program to improve the long term viability of the bird throughout Honduras. Threatened by habit loss and the pet trade the program has both an educational and a breeding component. So far it has been a success. Here's hoping that continues.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Finnish Bird

Continuing the series of "birds that shouldn't be here" posts I present the Whooper Swan, the national bird of Finland.

This swan, which spends it's summers in northern Eurasia and winters in central Eurasia, is generally found in North America only in the Aleutian Islands. But this particular bird is spending the winter in central New Jersey. On a lake in the Pine Barrens, that is part of a curious housing development for which the roads are all unpaved. Hanging with some Canada Geese.

It is not clear if this bird is an escapee from a farm, zoo, or private collection, or if it flew here under its own power. Either way, it was cool to see. And my rule is if it is native to earth, alive, and free then it counts.

And while this wasn't the last bird of Patty's big year, it was close enough for me (I'd only be the chauffeur for one more).  Thus the title of this post.

Friday, January 3, 2014


The afore mentioned bird 353, white-winged dove.

I  woke Monday morning, expecting to take a leisurely drive down to Cape May to get Patty a white-winged dove for her big year contest. And then maybe see a snowy owl (we did), have a nice lunch, and then head home to relax.

Patty had other plans.

We drove down and as we rounded the corner to where the bird had been reported we saw several friends standing on the side of the road. "It's right there in the tree" they said. And it was. Another bird far form home, although in this case home is the American Southwest down through Central America.

And then it was off to find a rough-legged hawk, a whooper swan, and a cinnamon teal. All birds that were far from home. No lunch. In fact we didn't get home until dinner time. But we got all the birds.

Thursday, January 2, 2014


There has been an irruption of snowy owls this year, with birds being seen in places like North Carolina, Bermuda, and even Florida.

These are birds of the Arctic Tundra that occasionally wander as far south as New Jersey.

But this year there have been over two dozen birds spotted here in New Jersey. With ten (the previous record for the entire year was fifteen!) found in a single day on the souther end of Long Beach Island.


I finally ventured out to see one this past Monday as Patty and I traveled to Cape May as part of her Big Year. After she got bird number 353 (white winged dove) we walked up the street and over the dunes to the beach.

A small group with scopes was at the end of the wooden walkway. Watching a bird that was making itself at home on a beach far far from its species normal haunts in Northern Canada.

The prevailing thoughts are that this was a very good breeding year for snowy owls, with nests of up to eleven young. Once the birds have grown the parents send them on their way, forcing them to find their own territories. As the older birds have established territories, the younger birds are forces to travel far and wide to find a place of their own to spend the winter.

And thus the spectacle in New Jersey and all across the northeastern US. This is a once in a lifetime experience. So if you're in the neighborhood you really should go out to see one of these magnificent creatures. And take your kids, tell them your going to see Harry Potter's owl.

Good Birding!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

More Bombs, More Bursting

We went to see the fireworks last night.

Philadelphia, like many cities around the world, rings in the new year with a bang.

Being old, we went to the 6 o'clock show.

Because Patty was off getting her last two birds of the Billings competition (numbers 356 and 357 for the year), and was rushing back from Cape May, we arrived at the waterfront just as the first explosions went off.  We actually saw the first couple as reflections in the windows of buildings along Chestnut Street (we heard them just fine). And I snapped the above shot as we were crossing the bridge.

Philadelphia, being a civilized city, has fireworks at six and midnight. The show at six gives one time to see the show, have a nice dinner, and still be in bed by nine. (Ok, we weren't quite that bad!)

The show started with a series of bursts each exploding inside the expanding shell of the prior shot.

Note the next one spiraling up just right of center.


Boom! Boom!


Throughout the show I shot 242 images, using the same technique as before, just pointing and shooting. I wasn't even looking at the camera; I was watching along with everyone else.

I mean, who doesn't love fireworks? And the six o'clock display lets a lot more people, and many more kids, see the spectacle. And there was quite a crowd assembled, despite the bitter cold.

And spectacular it was.

Despite lasting only about fifteen minutes.

Lots of Booms!

As you can see with the rockets shooting up while the previous volley explodes above, the action was non-stop throughout those fifteen minutes.

Once it ended we walked back over the bridge and, like many who came, stopped at one of the numerous restaurants and bars to continue the celebration. Patty and I stopped at a favorite Indian restaurant, Karma, and got one of the last tables (we'd never seen it as crowded).

The city put on a very nice show. My only complaint was that it was over too soon. But as I noted above, the action was non-stop so it seemed longer than it was. And despite the cold we enjoyed it very much. Add in a yummy dinner and was a very enjoyable way to end 2013.

Happy New Year!