Thursday, October 23, 2014

Solar Eclipse Sports a Great Sunspot

To see the eclipse today, Danielle and I set up on the roof of the parking garage of the North Austin office building at my place of work. All afternoon we had watched the weather forecast, hoping the the overcast skies would clear up before the eclipse began. Luckily we got a break in the clouds just in time for the show! Having seen a post on Bad Astronomy about the current huge sunspot AR-2192, we opted to bring a full set of equipment, not just the simple camera I had originally intended to use. In addition, we packed several "eclipse glasses" for my colleagues, who I encouraged to join us.

The equipment was very similar to that we had used on Haleakala for the Venus Transit. For white-light imaging, we setup a Canon 60Da with a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4L 4.5-5.6 IS lens. With a Kenko 1.4x tele-extender, this gave an effective focal length of 530mm. A Kendrick Visual Solar Filter mounted to the objective produced good images at ISO-100, f/8, and 1/250 sec. exposure. We used Astro Photography Tool to control the camera from the laptop and obtain better focus than we could manage by hand or autofocus. This setup was mounted on a tripod and had to be adjusted every few minutes.

For H-alpha imaging, we set up a Lunt 60T/PS pressure-tuned H-alpha telescope and captured short 250 frame AVI movies with an Imaging Systems DMK 41AU02 camera and an Antares 0.5x focal reducer. The latter required a shortened nose-piece to accommodate the limited back-focus of the telescope. These movie frames were later stacked using RegiStax 6. All of the H-alpha equipment was mounted on a GM-8 which we only roughly aligned to north. This was enough to prevent having to continuously find the sun in the small field of view of the telescope. We occasionally replaced the camera with a 15mm eyepiece to get the visual experience through the telescope.

The white light image below gives the best view of the photosphere showing the umbra and surrounding penumbra regions of the sun spot pairs. This view also shows some hints of granulation, evidence of surface convection cells.

In contrast, the Hydrogen-alpha image gives a view of the hotter chromosphere. It shows lighter colored plages near the sun spots as well as filaments and prominences  of plasma twisted by magnetic field lines. In addition to the AR 2192 region and several small spots, this image shows a large filament cutting across the top half of the solar disk. It looks like a Frankenstein scar. Though hard to see on the image below, several small solar prominences were also visible through the solar telescope.

Seeing the huge sunspot in conjunction with the eclipse was well worth the effort of setting up all of the equipment. I hope my colleagues were also impressed by the show that mother nature put on today, though I think they were more enthusiastic about the eclipse glasses than by the expensive imaging gear! There is certainly something cool about looking straight at the sun with these flimsy things on.

Updates - Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy was kind enough to link back to this blog page from his gallery of reader-contributed images of the eclipse. Take a look at some other creative shots he posted there. I have corrected the reversed time-stamps on my image above. The white-light image is the later shot. Since the moon has a faster retrograde motion, it should move across the solar disk from lower-right to upper-left as oriented in these images. My brother-in-law, Ross Cunniff, was clouded out part of the eclipse. See his YouTube video for a creative way of handling the disappointing conditions.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Afternoon at Berry Springs Park

On reports of a sighting of a Great Kiskadee at Berry Springs Park in Georgetown earlier in the week, we went today for a late morning of birding.  No luck seeing the Kiskadee, but saw a number of birds, including:
  • House Finch
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Black-crested Titmouse
  • Carolina Chickadee
  • Eastern Bluebird
  • Blue-headed Vireo
  • Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Lesser Goldfinch
  • Orange-crowned Warbler
  • Nashville Warbler
  • Yellow Shafted Northern Flicker
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Turkey Vulture
  • European Starling
  • Great-tailed Grackle
In addition, we saw several dozen Monarch Butterflies. The fall migration has apparently reached our area. We spotted a few on our nightly walk as well. None on our milkweed plants yet.

The Blue-headed Vireo was a new species for us. I thought I was seeing another White-eyed Vireo until I looked at the pictures and noted that the spectacles were white. Looking closely, the head is dusky blue rather than olive and there is no hint of a light iris. The very similar looking Plumbeous Vireo is out of range for this location and the Cassin's Vireo would be rare.This bird also has a rather sharp contrast between the throat and auriculars, consistent with the blue-headed.

ISO-800, 400mm, f/6.3, 1/3200 sec, FEC -1 2/3
In the same section of trail as the vireo, we saw a number of small warblers flitting along in the low brush. This one that Danielle managed to capture, we believe is a first winter Orange-crowned Warbler. It has a white split eyering with dark eyeline. It also has a yellow undertail coverts.  The Nashville Warbler we were less certain of and did not get a clear picture.

ISO-500, 215mm, f/6.5, 1/160 (Danielle)

There were many Scissor-tailed Flycatchers in the park, in greater concentration than we have seen before. Danielle was in a better spot to see them and got this nice photo showing the full extent of the tail. Amazing these birds can fly at all, never mind be agile enough to snatch airborne insects.

ISO-80, 215mm, f/6.5, 1/250 (Danielle)
Berry Springs is one of the few places I have seen Eastern Bluebirds - they seem to be a regular sight at the park and were again today. In the right image, a bluebird perches in a group of house finches.

ISO-800, 400mm, f/6.3, 1/250, EC +0.7, FEC -1 2/3

As usual in the park, we saw many Red-bellied Woodpeckers and a few Downy Woodpeckers. The Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker was more of a surprise. We saw both a male and female and Danielle took these images. The male on the right shows a red nape, which is only present in the yellow-shafted variety.

ISO-80, 215mm, f/6.5, 1/640 (Danielle)
Danielle also saw this Red-shouldered Hawk which I missed completely.

ISO-80, 215mm, f/6.5, 1/250 (Danielle)
I managed to get a nice pose of a Goldfinch taking flight. Cool how the feathers are translucent enough to see the shadow of the branch behind them.

ISO-800, 400mm, f/6.3, 1/5000, EC +0.1, FEC -1 2/3

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Second Lunar Eclipse 2014

I did manage to observe the second lunar eclipse of this tetrad, vultures not withstanding. Hazy clouds in the west moved in before I could set up anything complicated but did get a couple of camera-tripod shots with a 400mm lens. The point in the eclipse progression was favorable as it showed the blue-edging on the ruddy lunar disk. The blue dot to the left is the planet Uranus, which I did not see with binoculars. This was a much closer conjunction than the Moon-Mars conjunction during the first eclipse of the tetrad. The focus on my images was, unfortunately, not very good since I relied on the camera's auto-focus. In post-processing, I had to tighten up the radius of Uranus and sharpen the lunar surface details. Colors are as-shot.

Canon 60Da, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS - ISO-400, f/5.6, 1"

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Vulture Eclipse

This week is the second lunar eclipse of a series of four this year. I don't think that I am going to make the observation this time. In lieu, here is a "vulture eclipse."

As the nearly full moon was rising this evening, I watched fifty or so Turkey Vultures gliding overhead making their way to their roosts nearby along the San Gabriel River. This one glows orange in the light of the setting sun. Image composed from two exposures with same exposure parameters but different focus points. Danielle quipped that most people try to pose Bald Eagles in front of the moon ... yeah, but we got vultures, lots of them!

Canon 60Da, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS, ISO-800, 400mm, f/5.6, 1/1000sec, EC +1.0

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Corpus Christi Hawk Watch

One of our primary birding goals for this Fall vacation was to attend the Corpus Christi Hawk Watch festival at the Hazel Bazemore County Park. Thought it was scheduled for Friday-Sunday, we went up to the site on Tuesday afternoon since storms were forecast for later in the week.

Tuesday - We stationed ourselves on the observation deck and set up a soft crate for Vali to keep him away from all the expensive Swarovski spotting scopes set up on the deck! Though we had just missed a kettle of Broad-winged Hawks that flew directly over the site, we did see a number that passed in the distance. My initial impression was how small the hawks were. I was not able to see anything unaided ... and I had forgotten my good binoculars at the campsite. Thankfully, one of the counters let me use a pair and to look through one of the spotting scopes.

I was fascinated to listen to the official hawk counters. Various members of the crew counted Broad-winged Hawks in different parts of the sky and passed their tallies to the head score keeper. They also called out sightings of other raptors mixed in the kettles including Sharp-shinned, Coopers, Peregrine, and others. At the end of the day, the tally was 45,000.

Most of my shots were ruined by the use of a new CPL filter that caused the camera's AF to focus at the wrong point. I did manage to get a single in-focus shot of a kettle.

Saturday - We arrived at the festival at 10:30, just in time to attend a falconry demonstration by Sky Kings Falconry. The presentation was both entertaining and educational.  I learned a number of new facts about raptor species including the fact that the intestinal track a vulture is capable of sanitizing the environment of diseases residing on carcasses.  Pictured below is the Aplomado Falcon, "Cricket," which was flown during the demonstration.

Frighteningly, the falcon was chased down by a wild Coopers Hawk and ended up hiding in a tree nearly a half mile away. The handler had to end the demonstration and recover the falcon with radio-tracking gear. We were all relieved that Cricket was recovered safely.

The show over, we stationed ourselves on the observation deck to look for hawks. From Wednesday to Friday, there had been sporadic heavy rains in the area. This grounded most of the hawk flights. On Saturday, there were still very few hawks flying so we did not see much aerial activity. We did get to see a Green Jay at the feeder and watched a small group of about 20 Wood Storks kettle overhead.

We also saw a few one-off raptors, though likely they were resident. This very ratty looking Red-tailed Hawk circled overhead.

I also saw a close fly by of what I believe is a Red-shouldered Hawk, shown here as a sequence of images.

Sunday - Given that the weather was clearing on Sunday morning, we expected that there would be a heck of a show at HBCP that day. Unfortunately, we had to get back to Georgetown in time to unpack and be ready for the work week. It was tough not to try to justify going back to the viewing site.

Instead, we finished packing and headed home early afternoon. Just south of Victoria, TX, as shown in the map below, I spotted a small kettle of Broad-winged Hawks off to the left of the road and pulled over so we could get out to watch. Amazingly, we were treated to our own personal hawk watch show with many streams and kettles of hawks and storks passing the site. It is interesting to note that this location is the same distance from the coast as Robstown, the location of Hazel Bazemore.

We got to watch both streaming and kettling behaviors from a closer vantage than we had had at Hazel Bazemore. I am estimating that we saw about 500 hawks. Here is one of the kettles.

For size comparison, I managed to get a shot of a couple of Broad-winged Hawks, showing the distinctive white tail band, in the company of a Turkey Vulture which joined them in the thermals.

Another large group of Wood Storks pass though this site as well, passing in several streams and kettling just south of us. Here is a small group of 20 or so traveling in V-formation and then subsequently joining the remains of a kettle of hawks. I estimate that we saw a total of 150 storks.

At one point, we even saw a lone Anhinga migrating with the storks. In the picture below, the Anhinga is at the bottom and a hawk to the lower right. Thanks to those on-line who helped identify this interloper.

One group of storks broke off and passed nearly directly overhead.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Green Jay at Hazel Bazemore

On Saturday, we returned to Hazel Bazemore County Park to attend the official Hawk Watch festival. Unfortunately, due to the storms, few hawks were flying. I did, however, get to see another new species at the bird feeding station below the observation deck. Though they are apparently common in southern Texas, I find the Green Jay very exotic looking and was thrilled to see it.

ISO-200, 215mm, f/6.5, 1/160sec (Danielle)
ISO-1600, 400mm, f/10, 1/2500sec, EC +0.7
ISO-1600, 400mm, f/8, 1/1250sec, EC +0.3

Images taken with Canon 60Da, and Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS.

Fall Warblers

As I described in an earlier post, our strategy of staying at Goose Island State Park on this birding vacation proved to be a mistake as we endured swarms of mosquitoes with little birding in return. In my attempt to briskly walk the nature trails - not recommended without full netting - I heard several White-eyed Vireos but saw nothing. I also donned the netting and fired up the ThermaCELL to sit at the bird feeding station which was less infested with mozzies.

Black and White Warbler - BAWW - While watching the feeder station at GISP, this little warbler made a brief appearance to bath in the water feature. The Black-and-White is hard to miss with its distinct chain-gang convict garb.

ISO-800, 400mm, f/10, 1/640sec
ISO-800, 400mm, f/13, 1/125sec, EC +0.3, FEC -2.0

Birds seen at this feeding station included:
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Black-crested Titmouse
  • Inca Dove
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • Oriole sp.
  • White-eyed Vireo
  • Black and White Warbler
  • Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Not the host of new birds I had hoped for. However, after kayaking on Mustang Island on Wednesday, we decided to stopped by the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center next to the water treatment plant in Port Aransas, TX. Though Danielle had visited the boardwalk last year, this was my first time. At the entry way to the center is a small grouping of trees and bushes that turned out to be a warbler candy shop. Since we saw so many birds, we also returned for a half day on Thursday and a couple of hours on Saturday. I saw seven new warbler species all from the same spot! We also got to meet several people from the Birds of Texas Facebook group that Danielle belongs to. I think many people came to the LTBC this week to try to see the Black-throated Blue warbler that had been spotted a few days prior. Certainly, many asked me if I had seen it.

Birds seen in the trees and brush at the entrance to LTBC included:
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Wilson's Warbler
  • Yellow Warbler
  • Black-throated Green Warbler
  • Canada Warbler
  • Northern Parula
  • Magnolia Warbler
  • American Redstart
  • White-eyed Vireo
  • Empidonax sp.
  • Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Wilson's Warbler - WIWA - This is my first live Wilson's Warber, having previously become acquainted with the species from a bird-strike on our Austin office building a few weeks ago. The olive cheeks, yellow supercillium and black cap were unmistakable. This bird worked its way around in the low thicket growing in the bog adjacent to the picnic table. It hunted insect, poking around in crevices and raiding from spider webs.

ISO-3200, 400mm, f/8, 1/160sec, FEC -2.0
ISO-3200, 400mm, f/8, 1/100sec, FEC -2.0

Yellow Warbler -YWAR - This bird foraged in the same thicket and same manner as the Wilson's.  I had a hard time with identification due to the lack of obvious field marks. It had low contrast yellow and olive shading, a pale eye ring and muted wing bars. At first I thought it might be a female Wilson's. However, it lacked the bright supercillium. In the end, the yellow I saw in the underside of the tail feathers convinced me it was a Yellow Warbler in its dull Fall plumage.

ISO-3200, 400mm, f/8, 1/200sec, FEC -2.0
ISO-1600, 400mm, f/7.1, 1/125sec, FEC -2.0

Black-throated Green Warbler - BTNW - I first saw this bird on Thursday and did a double-take thinking it was a Golden-cheeked Warbler ... hang on, wrong season, wrong habitat.  On closer look, the check patches were olive and more spread out identifying it as a Black-throated Green, another new species for me. Unlike the Yellow and Wilson's, this bird foraged in the lower branches of the large trees next to the picnic table and did not venture into the boggy thicket. On Saturday, it remained in viewing range for nearly an hour.

ISO-1600, 400mm, f/8, 1/1000sec, FEC -2.0
ISO-1600, 380mm, f/8, 1/250sec, EC +0.7, FEC -2.0

Canada Warbler - CAWA - This bird was not too difficult to identify. It had a low contrast gray back with no wing bars, a yellow underside and a pronounced necklace, even in its muted Fall plumage. The bright white eye ring and yellow supralores clinch the identification. I only saw this elusive species twice - two different birds, I think - both times low in the boggy thicket. It only stayed in view very briefly.

ISO-1600, 400mm, f/7.1, 1/320sec, FEC -2.0
ISO-1600, 400mm, f/7.1, 1/30sec, EC +0.3, FEC -2.0
ISO-1600, 400mm, f/7.1, 1/40sec, EC +0.3, FEC -2.0

Northern Parula - NOPA - Yet another new species for me. It had very distinct coloration, even in Fall plumage. The obvious distinguishing features were the bluish upper with olive back patch, yellow throat and breast, and bold white broken eye arcs. Like the Black-throated Green, this bird foraged systematically in the large trees and stayed visible for a long time.

ISO-3200, 400mm, f/8, 1/160sec, FEC -2.0
ISO-3200, 400mm, f/8, 1/160sec, FEC -2.0

Magnolia Warbler - MAWA - This bird had me confused for the longest time. At first, I thought it was another Canada Warbler due to the eye ring, the general gray and yellow shading, and the faded necklace. However, this bird had distinct wing bars and lacked the yellow supralores. On the other hand, it had a slightly green back, white belly and vent, and wing bars similar to the Parula. However, it did not have the broken white arcs around the eye. The clincher was the distinct pattern on the underside of the tail feathers which is listed as diagnostic of the Magnolia Warbler. This bird foraged in the larger trees in a similar manner to the Parula.

ISO-1600, 400mm, f/8, 1/80sec, FEC -2.0
ISO-3200, 400mm, f/8, 1/1000sec, FEC -2.0

American Redstart - AMRE - On Saturday, after the Hawk Watch festival, we went back to LTBC for a quick session before the rain storms came in. I was thrilled to get yet another new warbler. The yellow shoulder and tail feather patches were very distinctive, as was the initial impression of a chocolate colored back. I saw at least two of these, one with yellow patches and one with apricot patches. I don't know if these were females or first-year males. This bird behaved very differently from the other warblers. When perched it pivoted its tail side to side quickly. It did not forage along the branches but flew from tree to tree, sometimes diving down and back up like a flycatcher. It also has nose bristles like a flycatcher so I am guessing it catches insects on the wing.

ISO-1600, 400mm, f/8, 1/125sec, EC +0.7, FEC -2.0

ISO-1600, 400mm, f/9, 1/40sec, EC +0.3, FEC -2.0

White-eyed Vireo - WEVI - This is not a warbler but pretty enough to be one. As usual, I heard it many times before I saw it recognizing its distinct "Quick with the Beer Check" call from my experiences with it last Spring. I had also heard a number of these at Goose Island State Park. The bold yellow spectacles and wing bars were unmistakable. However, this one was a juvenile and lacked the bright white iris. However, iff you look closely at the pictures, you can see the dark gray in the iris that will brighten up next spring. This vireo made a brief visual appearance on Saturday. Of all the birds, this is the one that seems to be most observant my presence, cocking its head to look at me as my camera flashed.

ISO-1600, 400mm, f/9, 1/100sec, EC +0.3, FEC -2.0
ISO-1600, 400mm, f/9, 1/100sec, EC +0.3, FEC -2.0
ISO-1600, 400mm, f/9, 1/100sec, EC +0.3, FEC -2.0

Empidonax Flycatcher Species - Along with the various warblers, several flycatchers made an appearance in the thicket and low leafy bushes in the boggy area. I have not yet made an identification and did not hear their calls to help with the process. As these were taken an 90 minutes apart, I am not even sure if they are the same individual or even species. Based on the range maps, the options are Yellow-bellied, Acadian, Willow, Alder, and Least flycatchers. Given the weak eye ring, the Willow and Alder flycatchers are the most likely.

ISO-1600, 400mm, f/8, 1/100sec, FEC -2.0
ISO-3200, 400mm, f/8, 1/200sec, FEC -2.0

All images were taken with a Canon 60DaCanon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS, and Canon Speedlite 430EX II flash with a Better Beamer flash tele-extender. In identifying these new warblers, In addition to the Sibley Guide to Birds, I relied heavily on The Warbler Guide, by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle, which we acquired recently and which I highly recommend.