Monday, September 5, 2016

Labor Day at Berry Springs

Quiet morning at Berry Springs Park. Among the birds we saw, a Green Heron at the base of the dam and a Yellow-crowned Night Heron in the trees.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Jupiter Venus Conjunction

Today was the occurrence of a very tight conjunction of Jupiter and Venus, the two brightest planets in the sky. Phil Plait has an article on the conjunction on his Bad Astronomy blog. The position of Venus is predicted to be visually closer to Jupiter than the outermost moon Callisto. This tight of a conjunction is a rare event and I did not want to miss it. Unfortunately, the day was very cloudy and I feared I would see nothing. Just before sunset, I headed out with the camera to a spot near home where I could observe the western horizon. The sky was indeed hazy with broken clouds but there looked to be a chance of seeing something so I set up for the show.

I watched the sun pass behind a bank of clouds and set. A very nice view.

After the sun set, I began to anxiously scan the sky for the planets, both below and above the cloud bank. I finally spotted a dot under the cloud bank and took many pictures of it. Humm, I expected Venus to be much brighter but maybe it was the haze ... also, there should have been two dots very close. I started convincing myself that I had not done the field-of-view calculations correctly and that the planets were so close that I could not resolve them. I saw nothing else around so I packed up and drove towards the grocery store.

As I did so, I looked back over my shoulder and saw a clear conjunction higher in the sky peeking out of the clouds ... how embarrassing. I found another place to observe and took more pictures. These next two images, taken at a 190mm and 250mm focal length and about 15 apart, show Venus upper most and Jupiter just below and to the right. This was indeed a spectacularly close conjunction. I had hoped that the third dot was Mercury as this was its expected relative angle to the other two planets. Mercury, however, is much further down near the horizon and behind the clouds. This third dot is actually the star Zavijah (β-Virgo).

Zooming in to a 560mm focal length and cropping, we can see the moons of Jupiter. The three in a row are Io, Ganymede, and Europa. Further out, dimmer, and just below Venus is Callisto. Two hours earlier, Venus would have passed just to the upper right of Jupiter, closer than Callisto. No chance of seeing that closest approach from Texas as the sun was still bright in the sky.

I am glad I saw the real conjunction after all. I am still not sure what star I was staring at initially.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Ruby Throats are Back

For the last week, we have been seeing Ruby-throated Hummingbirds at the feeders at home. Perhaps up to a half dozen at a time. There was a few days overlap with the Black-chinned that have been here over the summer. Perhaps the rubies passing through have displaced them. I got some pictures of one male perched in the tree as it guarded the feeders and later as it hovered over one of the feeders.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Green Chile Batch 2016

How does a New Mexican spend August? preparing green chile, of course. From Whole Foods, we purchased three cases, one mild and two hot, of the wondrous pods for a total of 75 pounds. We had them roasted and then spent a few hours each night removing the charred peels under running water and chopping off the heads. When done, we vacuum sealed the pods into one-pound bags and put them in the freezer. All told, we ended up with 32 pounds of finished product which will hopefully last us the year. Gloves are necessary to avoid uncomfortable chemical burns to the skin. A respirator would have been a good idea too.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

2016 Perseids Meteor Shower

I did not have the opportunity to go to a dark site for the Perseids this year. However, I did setup a camera on a tracking mount and took pictures all night. I used the Canon 7D set at ISO-800 and a Canon 18-55mm lens set at 18mm, f/4.0. I took 60sec exposures every 65sec from late evening through dawn. The center of the frame was aligned with where I expected the radiant to be in the constellation of Perseus. I was surprised how few meteors I actually imaged ... only 11. Other AAS members who went to the dark site at Canyon of Eagles reported 50-100 per hour.

The image below is a composite of the eleven frames with meteors spanning from 12:30 to 4:30. In each frame, I flattened out and neutralized the skyglow gradient and lifted the black point to normalize the background level. I then chose a reference frame and merged in the meteor trails from the other frames. Finally, I reintroduced a slight color gradient. The image needs to be seen at full resolution to pick out any but the few brightest trails. See if you can find all eleven!

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Austin Purple Martin Roost 2016

This evening we went down to Austin to see the Purple Martin roost. This is our third time to see a spectacle that is much more impressive than the bats. In 2014, we saw them at the Highland Mall. In 2015, they were at the Capital Plaza. This year, the birds have moved to the parking lot of the Embassy Suites hotel. From the map below, this location is still near the intersection of IH-35 and US. 290. There was less available parking but the show was better. The main roost was in the clump of trees circled.

The public gather on the lawn to the north and were treated to the martins swooping down over their heads from behind towards the trees. This gave an amazing sensation of motion as you can see in video.

The birds crowded into the low trees and eventually settled in for the night. Standing under the trees, the noise and smell were overwhelming. I am glad I have a rain cover on my camera gear. As usual, most of the birds are brown, not purple. This first image shows several different ages. The bird with the yellow mouth lining is a first-year bird that was hatched this season. The brown birds with purple blotches on the breast are second-year males. The solid blue birds are males that are third-year or older. Others are females; their ages determined best by the lack or presence of dark brown in the under-tail covert feathers.

I may have to go back after I know that my new fledglings have left to wish them well on their way to Brazil.

July 30 - A second trip to the roost this evening, to try again for interesting pictures. Perhaps we will see some of our fledglings.

July 31 - Though not an official party night, went back for a third round. Danielle took many movies. I set up the GoPro and took a long panorama movie. It is very hard to get focus on the birds high up and to get the full scope of the experience. I am having luck with setting the camera on fully manual with aperture set to f/9 or f/11 to get better DoF and setting the shutter speed lower, even as low as 250s. I can then rely on the flash to stop the action rather than the shutter since there is so little ambient light. I am still using ISO-1600 which leads to grainy picture that need much smoothing in post-processing.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Vehicle Charging Stations in Place

As the probability of getting out of  "VW Hell" improved with the preliminary buy-back agreement, we started looking at electric and plug-in hybrid vehicle options to replace our smog-mobiles. We are strongly leading towards the Chevy Volt, though also considering waiting for the pure electric Chevy Bolt.

In the meantime, I started researching options for installing level 2 charging stations (EVSE) at home. As Bosch was the Chevy-recommended manufacturer, I consulted with the local Bosch installer, Sierra Electrical Services. Turns out that Bosch has changed their business model so that this is no longer a clear win. In the end, I opted to install a pair of Clipper Creek HCS-40 units, ordering them on-line from EV West in California. These will have sufficient juice for any hybrid or a future pure electric. Clipper Creek has great reviews and this unit is described as "indestructible." The cost for two units plus holsters was $1,200, not including tax and shipping.

Part of the EVSE installation required upgrading the level of service to the house, something we have wanted to do for some time. The old panel had only 150A service and had various kludged conduits hanging off of it for projects installed by the previous owner. We wanted to clean that up and also install a 30A receptacle capable of powering the A/C in the travel trailer. The price for all the work plus installing the charging stations was just over $4,400.

We got the work done last Friday and Saturday.  Here is the electrician removing the wiring from the old panel.

Looking closely, you can see a few of the seven or so geckos we found fried onto the main bus. We figured they were there to prey on some of the 30 or so mud-dauber wasp cells in the wall behind the panel .... I love Texas.

While they did this, I spent the day baby-sitting the generator I had set up to keep my reef tank alive and taking pictures of Purple Martins.

By mid-afternoon, extra conduits had been removed, and the new 225A panel was installed and wired, new 4/0 service wires were installed in the riser, a new grounding system was in place and junction boxes were installed on the walls to provide 220V/40A power to each of the two charging stations. We also got our new 30A RV receptacle installed. Despite the panel being much larger, the whole project looks much neater.

The city inspector came and gave his approval but called in the wrong address, something we did not figure out until much later when we looked at the green tag. This meant that the request to reconnect our service got deep-sixed by the city. As 5pm rolled past, we were getting very worried that, in the 101F heat, we were not going to get our power back or our A/C turned on.

I put in several after-hours emergency calls to the city that "our power was out due to lines down," the only applicable option their stupid automated phone system offered. By further mischance, I missed their return calls to my cell phone requesting further details because our cell phone repeater was not working ... due to the fact that we had no power. We finally got the power back on at 8pm. I am thankful the guys from Sierra stuck with us until then.

The charging stations themselves did not go in until Saturday morning, the junction boxes having already been placed. We chose to put them outside since there is no hope of clearing out the garage enough to park even one car inside. One of the stations went to the left of the garage doors. The second one went on the perpendicular wall to the right of the garage.

I am glad ClipperCreek comes with a 3 year warranty since, all we know about the units so far is that the orange power light comes on. It is going to be a while before we can test them on a car.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Mississippi Kite at Home

Late this afternoon, I saw this Mississippi Kite, flying slowly over the river behind the house. I have never seen a kite this close, never mind at the house. I have occasionally seen them soar past, high up, on their way somewhere else. As such, I have never seen the rusty color on the wingtips visible on both the upper and lower surfaces. Normally, they are so back-lit as to look black and gray.

This one appeared to be hunting as I saw it hover and make sudden turns mid-air. The images below show it tracking a bug and then eating on-the-wing. At first, I was afraid it might be hunting the martins fly nearby. However, I did catch a view of the two birds in one frame and the martin is clearly too large. It is not clear what the bug in the photo is but there are many dragonflies over the river that the martins feed on. In fact, later in the evening, as I walked up the trail, I saw a swarm of 100+ of them over the low-water crossing.

July 4 - Another appearance early afternoon of the kite. Bumped the shutter speed this time and replaced some of the images.

July 9 - The kite is back again.  I got a better picture of the "Cicada Popsicle".

July 15 - Another view today.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Carolina Wren in the Nestbox

Finally, a real bird nesting in this year's boxes with the new camera system. We have had ants, bees, wasps, and several false nest starts. Ironically, another Carolina Wren. The last wrens that nested in our yard, used a hard hat in the shed after rejecting my bird house. Given that Carolina Wrens may have up to three broods in a season, this may in fact be the same pair.

I had angled the cameras with a bluebird, chickadee or titmouse in mind, trying to get more of a side view. Unfortunately, the nest building style of the wren is to fill the box nearly to the top ... right over the camera. I have had to thin out some of the obscuring twigs a few times. Here, you can see the camera almost on top of the eggs.

Both male and female were actively involved in the nest building. They started on top of a fake nest that was made by wrens a month ago. The female has been incubating the eggs for about a week and sits on them most of the day. The camera is pretty much right in her face. These boxes are much darker than the martin gourd so I never get to see any images in daylight spectrum.

June 29 - Hatching started this evening at about 16:45.

June 30 - Many different food offerings including spiders, katydid, and this small snail which the adult finally had to eat.

July 2 - Danielle planted milkweed in the courtyard to attract monarchs. We found a Queen Butterfly chrysalis and caterpillar a yesterday in one of the plants. A bit of a miscalculation on combining hobbies. Here is the wren feeding the chicks the chrysalis ... perhaps she ate the caterpillar. We thought the milkweed was supposed to make these taste bad.

July 3 - An iPhone nest check today confirmed what I could not see in the video stream: all four eggs have hatched.

July 4 - It is clear these are not Titmouse chicks. They already have much longer bills. This shot finally shows all four visible in the nestcam.

July 7 - pin feathers on wings and back

July 10 - I am pretty sure we only have 2 surviving nestlings. Hopefully, the adult removed them. I can see much more feather on the head and back than a few days ago. The color photo shows that the feathers unfurling from the shafts have a tan color.

Today's unique food item appears to be a very small lizard. Not sure I have seen one this small.

July 15 - Both surviving nestlings fledged this morning at dawn.