Sunday, November 15, 2015

Pied-billed Grebe Strikes it Big

This afternoon, we went to Devine Lake Park in Leander TX to look for birds. We found a nice assortment of waterfowl on the lake including: Canvasback, Redhead, American Widgeon, Ring-necked Duck, Ruddy Duck, and Pied-billed Grebes. A number of people were fishing, though I did not see anyone catch anything. This grebe, however, scored it big. After grabbing this bass, it flew along the water to escape the other nearby grebe.

Rufous Hummingbird at the Feeder

This morning, we watched a mature male Rufous Hummingbird at our window feeder again. This individual has been around for a couple of weeks. Today, rather than shooting still shots, I tried a short video sequence with the DSLR and extracted a few interesting frames.

The video snippet is posted on YouTube. It was still challenging to get any semblance of consistent focus. I slowed it down to 1/2 speed to emphasize the hypnotic motion of the wings.

I also managed to get a shot of one of the recently arrived Yellow-rumped Warblers feeding in the Wax Myrtle.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Baby Rattler at Camp Tejas

While birding at Camp Tejas on Lake Georgetown this afternoon, Danielle came across this little baby Western Diamondback rattle snake sunning itself on the path. Threatened, it slithered off to the side of the trail and assumed a defensive posture. I have read that the number of rattles cannot be used to age a snake since the end can wear off. This one, however, still has the "button" on the end and only a couple of additional rings. The snake was about 1/2" in diameter and perhaps 14" long. Seems like it is probably still in its first year.  We left the snake in peace and continued looking for late afternoon birds.

Danielle posted a video at

Oh, and there were some birds to be seen too, though they pale in comparison. We spent some time watching this American Kestrel perching and hunting from across the river. This very magnified sequence is the bird just after a kill. Even with the spotting scope, we were not sure what its prey was.

We also saw both White-crowned and White-throated sparrows but no other species of "winter sparrows." We got a few nice shots of the White-crowned sparrow.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Another Try With Monarchs

Last year about this time, Danielle tried raising a monarch caterpillar. Unfortunately, the butterfly appears to have succumb to a protozoan infection and did not survive. Over the weekend, we found eight monarch caterpillars on our tropical milkweed. As there were only three remaining last night, we decided to bring them inside and try again at being butterfly parents. We set up some branches of milkweed in some water within the same small terrarium.

October 27 - Here is the largest of the three. One small one has already turned into a chrysalis even though it was half the size of this one.

October 30 - All three rescued caterpillars have now pupated and are attached to the grille cover of the terrarium. The one on the left pupated first, the one on the right last night.

November 5 - The Queen caterpillar we intoduced as a small second instar has developed.

November 8 - Today, the first Monarch emerged from its chrysalis. We missed the event, coming back to the cage to see a fully emerged butterfly late morning. We left it for a couple of hours to inflate its wings before transferring it outside early afternoon.

Late in the day, the Queen caterpillar turned into a chrysalis. A few hours in, the chrysalis still has the segments of the original caterpillar.

November 9 - Today was the emergence of the second Monarch. We captured the event in a time-lapse movie. Frames are 30sec apart spanning about two hours from 3:15pm to 5:15pm. We are leaving the butterfly in the cage until the morning.

November 10 - Released the second Monarch this morning.

November 11 - The last Monarch emerged this morning. We set up our small VGA nest-camera in the terrarium. The color contrast is poor.

November 12 - The next morning, we released this final Monarch. It was gone by evening when I got home.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Triple Conjunction

October 20 - I dragged myself out of bed before 6:00 this morning to have a look at the triple conjunction ... yeah, that's pretty early for me. Weather forecast has the rest of the week cloudy including when the conjunction is probably at its best on Thursday or Friday.

I got this image while the sky was still pretty dark at 06:44. I zoomed in on the three planets and placed the backyard tree-tops in the frame for reference. By stopping down the lens by 1/3 stop, I removed the wonky looking diffraction effects that were especially noticeable on Venus and obtained the more pleasant diffraction spikes from the iris shown here.

Double checking in my SkyTools atlas, I confirmed that at the top of the frame is the brightest object, quarter phase Venus, shining at magnitude -4.4. The next brightest object, lower in the sky, is Jupiter shining at magnitude -1.8 with moons Ganymede above and Europa below. Further down and to the left is the much fainter Mars shining at only magnitude +1.7.  The rest of the stars are from an unexceptional part of Leo, the brightest of which is Chi Leo just to the left of Jupiter at magnitude +4.6.

Canon 7DII, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L II -  100mm, f/5, 2s, ISO-3200

As dawn was breaking, Danielle called me back outside to show me that Mercury was now also visible. This second image was taken at 07:15 with a wider field of view and a much shorter exposure. It shows the same conjunction pattern at the top of the frame now joined by Mercury just rising before the sun. At magnitude -0.8, it is actually almost 10 times brighter than Mars. I had to brighten all four planets in post-processing as they were nearly completely washed out by the brightening sky.

Canon 7DII, EFS 18-55mm -  35mm, f/5, 1/40s, ISO-800

October 27 - After a weekend of torrential rain, a bit of a break in the clouds this morning allowed me to get another shot of the conjunction. In seven days, the planets had moved into a different configuration as shown in this 06:00 image. The full moon was to my back, illuminating both the clouds and the foliage.

In the picture, Jupiter is now the upper most planet shining at magnitude -1.4.  It has moved further east (down towards the eastern horizon) in the sky. This is normal "prograde" motion of the planet against the background of stars due to the planet's proper orbital motion. Note that Chi-Leo, the brightest star above and slightly to the left of Jupiter, marks where the planet was last week. By coincidence, Ganymede is once again above and Europa below Jupiter, both having made one full orbit of the planet in a week's time. Venus, at magnitude -4.3, is now further east than Jupiter, having moved considerably further in the sky than Jupiter. Near the center of the frame, Mars, shining red at magnitude +1.9 has also moved further east. For reference, the brightest star up and slightly to the left of Mars is magnitude +4.0 Sigma-Leo.

Canon 7DII, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L II -  100mm, f/5, 2s, ISO-1600

Five minutes later, the clouds rolled back in again. As they did so, the effect looked like van Gogh's Starry Night.

October 29 - Two more days have not resulted a significant change in configuration. This 05:20 image again shows that Venus is progressing most quickly through the sky, having almost caught up with the position that Mars held two days ago. Jupiter itself has not moved noticeably but the moons have progressed in their orbits. Europa is now uppermost with Io just below. Callisto is visible below but Ganymede is now too close to the planet's glare to be seen in this image.

Canon 7DII, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L II -  100mm, f/5, 2s, ISO-1600

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Another Brown Booby at Windy Point

Another Brown Booby has made an appearance at Bob Wentz Windy Point Park in Lake Travis. This time a juvenile. This pelagic bird is rarely seen on shore, never mind in central Texas. Again, the bird was far away, this time about 1/2 mile towards Mansfield Dam. It never moved off of the buoy in the 90 minutes we watched it.

Images taken with Canon 7DII and EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 II with Extender 1.4x III.  Nominal settings: 560mm, f/10, 1/500s, ISO-800.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Monarchs at South Llano

This evening, after a frustrating afternoon trying to see turkeys, Danielle found a roost of Monarch Butterflies in a grove Frost Weed near the entrance parking lot at South Llano State Park. In total, there were probably 20 butterflies. Some were feeding on the Frost Weed (first picture). Others had already settled down for the night in the trees above (second picture).  We were able to spend a half hour observing and photographing them.

The next morning, Danielle reported the observation in a log book at the park headquarters. She later received a thank you from a park volunteer who said that she had been able to lead nature tours later that day and had observed about 100 butterflies.

Canon 7DII, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L II, 463mm, f/10, 1/250s, ISO-800, Flash

Canon 7DII, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L II, 463mm, f/10, 1/250s, ISO-400, Flash