Monday, September 28, 2015

Lunar Eclipse Trip to Inks Lake

Last night was the "Supermoon Lunar Eclipse," and eclipse that got alot more media attention that previous eclipses in this tetrad. I had great plans for imaging the eclipse, improving on my previous effort. I especially wanted to set up a tracking mount to get better star fields.

The weather, however, had other plans for me. Given the cloudy forecast and the fact that it was a "work night," I decided to scale back the effort. The cloud cover was terrible all day Sunday. Checking the "Clear Sky Clock" web site, showed that the cloud cover would be better to the west. I packed the camera and a tripod and headed out to Inks Lake State Park, a bit over an hour west of home. I left the fancy tracking equipment at home so that I would not have as much take down time.

At the park, I did a bit of birding at the new blind. Not too much other than feeder birds but I did catch some shots of this Eastern Phoebe hunting from the park bench.

560mm, f/8, 1/250, ISO-1600

For the eclipse, I moved up the road to the scenic overlook. The cloud cover along the eastern horizon was heavy but I had high hopes that things would clear up soon.

560mm, f/8, 1/10, ISO-1600

The moon made a quick appearance in a sucker hole soon after the moon entered the penumbra - not enough to be evident in this picture. It then quickly vanished back into the clouds giving occasional hazy views. I could tell that the eclipse was happening due to the progressive dimming of the moonlight behind the clouds. I could also tell that the last part of the moon to enter the umbra was the two or three o'clock position.

560mm, f/8, 1/50, ISO-200

Soon after 9pm, the disk started to be more apparent. Over the course of the next hour and a half, the brightest edge of the lunar disk rotated from the two o'clock position to the seven o'clock position. The sky cleared up during that period with occasional haze passing across the moon, dimming it. This image was taken during one of the brighter moments at 10:15pm. It was clear enough to image some stars in Pisces. Once again, I was struck by the impression that the moon no longer looked like a bright flat disk but rather a three-dimensional beach ball floating in the sky. Due to the exposure time, this image looks brighter and redder than it would appear to the naked eye.

560mm, f/8, 1", ISO-3200
Not having a tracking mount, I kept the exposure to under 1 second. With the f/8 lens combination, this required exposure at ISO-3200 resulting in a lot of post processing work to clean up the noise.

At about 10:25pm, the moon began to exit the umbra and a bright crescent began to form, swamping out the exposure of the dimmer orange disk. During the April 2014 eclipse, and the October 2014 eclipse, I had been able to see a pronounced blue tinging just before the moon began to leave the umbra due to ozone layer absorption of red light. During this eclipse, I was barely able to see the phenomenon. The brightness of the lunar disk in this image is closer to how it would appear to the naked eye.

560mm, f/8, 1/10, ISO-3200
Appropriate for the moment, but perhaps not for a campground, someone below began playing a recording of Also sprach Zarathustra as the crescent appeared. That degenerated into Pink Floyd and strobe lights ... making it just about time to pack up. On the drive home, I stopped once at  11pm to catch a shot of the moon two thirds of the way out of the umbra.

560mm, f/8, 1/500, ISO-800
My brother-in-law, Ross Cunniff, had better luck with the weather and caught some very nice shots from Colorado which he posted on his blog. He has also created an animation of the eclipse from frames taken every two minutes and added some native-american sounding moon mood music.

All images taken with Canon 7DII, EF 100-400mm II, EF Extender 1.4x III. Flash for the birds, none for the moon.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Night Heron and Berry Springs

Quick jaunt to Berry Springs park near sundown to see what birds were to be found. A few blue-gray gnatcatchers were foraging in the brush along the back side of the pecan field, near the dam. A Carolina Chickadee was pishing in the tree nearby.

I saw only a half dozen Eastern Bluebirds in the grove, far fewer than last weekend. Also found a Yellow-crowned Night Heron fishing patiently in the catch basin in the middle of the pecan grove.

All images taken with Canon 7DII, EF 100-400mm II, and Extender 1.4x III. All images used flash.

Test of Canon Extender

Trying the Canon Extender EF 1.4x III today on the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II USM and Canon 7DII.  My earlier tests with the Kenko 1.4 and the Mark-I version of the lens showed that I was better off never using the extender.  My test with the Canon extender is much more promising.

In the following test, I set the camera up on a tripod, used mirror lock-up, and fired with a cable release. I used AF to focus on the bark of a tree. Camera was set to ISO-100 and all shots taken at the "tele" end of the lens where I normally shoot. I shot one raw frame fully open and one frame stopped down by -1.0.

I imported the images into Photoshop with default corrections. sharpening 50%, radius 1.0, no smoothing. On the images taken with the extender, I cropped to a 2:3 region at the center of the frame with width 1400. On the images taken without the extender, I repeated the cropping with a width of 1000. I then stretched these two frames to a width of 1400. All four frames were saved in highest resolution JPG.

Canon EF 100-400mm II - 400mm, f/5.6, ISO-100
Canon EF 100-400mm II - 400mm, f/8, ISO-100
Canon EF 100-400mm II with Extender 1.4x III - 560mm, f/8, ISO-100
Canon EF 100-400mm II with Extender 1.4x III - 560mm, f/11, ISO-100
All four images except the last are virtually identical. The improvement in the last image maybe due either to the additional reduction in aperture or simply due to a moment of better seeing. I did not due further comparisons.  All of these tests are center-of-frame. I did not carefully test the peripheral image quality as my subjects are rarely framed there. However, my cursory inspection of the full frames did not show any significant differences either. I am initially satisfied that the addition of the Canon extender does not adversely affect the sharpness of the images, the same conclusion that can be drawn from Canon's published MTF diagrams.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Suckers Wanted

A quick Google search on "Volkswagen" today provides many articles on the blatant cheating Volkswagen engaged in to defraud the American public into buying their so-called "clean diesel" cars. They are accused of, and have admitted to, installing sophisticated software to defeat the emissions testing process by only turning on the full emissions reduction system while under test.

We are the owners of not one, but two of the affected vehicles. A 2010 Jetta wagon and a 2012 Golf. In large part, we bought these cars because they delivered superior on-road performance and fuel economy, had an expectation of great engine longevity, and didn't compromise on emissions ... that great German engineering, you know. Too bad those brilliant engineers couldn't have spent more time making engineering breakthroughs and less time crafting sleazy computer algorithms.

We both wanted a green car and this looked like a good option based on our extensive reading. I also wanted to support the clean diesel efforts in this country. I had always wondered why Volkswagen had so little competition selling small clean diesel vehicles in this country. Now I know ... they couldn't do it either.

Though a strong government crackdown on these bastards would be gratifying, we will probably still be left holding the bag. How much will our total cost of ownership increase once the software is patched and how much will the resale value be affected? In the meantime, we have been and are still driving a dirty car, not the "clean diesel" we bought. Way to go you turkeys, here are at least two previously proud Volkswagen owners who have vowed never to buy another Volkswagen product.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Warblers at Hornsby

Danielle and I went back to Hornsby Bend this afternoon. We expected to see many shorebirds similar to previous trips. However, we only saw a handful. On the other hand, we logged many Yellow Warblers and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers.  As we drove along the path between Ponds 1 and 2, we could see that we were "herding" warblers out ahead of us.

Yellow Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
At the end of the day, we also saw a couple Clay-colored Sparrows. We are pretty sure we have seen this species before but were not confident. These images, however, are pretty conclusive.

Clay-colored Sparrow
Clay-colored Sparrow
Clay-colored Sparrow
All images taken with Canon 7DII and EF 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 IS II USM, using flash.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Wasps Begone

After our disastrous day at the Hawkwatch, we spent today on Mustang Island. Late in the day, we visited Leonabel Turnbull Birding Center. Not much action, either on the boardwalk or in the grove. While trying to catch a glimpse of a Yellow Warbler, I heard a Summer Tanager behind me. Suprised, I turned around and found a female a mere ten feet away. Looking more carefully, I saw that it was taking an interest in a paper wasp nest. I remember that such a nest had been reported on-line. There were no more wasps on it. The tanager then proceeded to delicately pull larvae out of the nest and eating them. Awesome close up view!

Summer Tanager (Female)
Summer Tanager (Female)
Summer Tanager (Female)

Consolation Raptors

Though we did not see our anticipated kettles of kites on this trip, we did see a few raptor odds and ends.

At the Hawkwatch platform, we saw a distant Peregrine Falcon pointed out to us by the staff. We also saw a Broad-winged Hawk make a close approach though I did not get the camera quickly enough. We were told it was part of a resident pair.

Broad-wing Hawk at the platform
At the parking lot of Pollywog Pond, we saw a Swainson's Hawk soaring high overhead. This is another new species for us.

Swainson's Hawk
Over the NW pond itself, we saw a pair of juvenile Red-shouldered Hawks fly low and pass just over our heads.

Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawk

The Least of Birds

During this weekend's adventure, we saw two new species, the Least Bittern seen at Leonabel Turnbull Birding Center in Port Aranasas and the Least Grebe seen at Pollywog Pond in Corpus Christi.

There were a pair of bitterns in reeds at that the end of the boardwalk. These creep slowly through the reeds, grasping the stalks and slowly extending towards a fish and then spearing it quickly at the last second.

Least Bittern
Least Bittern

The grebes were in the NW pond at Pollywog. They were hard to approach but we could see there eerily prominent yellow eye from a distance.

Least Grebe
The location also netted us a Green Kingfisher seen across the pond

Saturday, September 5, 2015

No Pesky Raptors

This weekend, we camped at Goliad State Park. This site was to be a staging area for hawk watching at the Corpus Christi Hawkwatch site and Hazel Bazemore Park. We were expecting to see the migration of Mississippi Kites and hoping to see some Swallow-tailed Kites.

Well, the winds did not cooperate. On a really bad year for kites, this was apparently one of the worst days. The counters saw about 20 kites. We saw none.  When one of the late-comers came and asked about the conditions, one of the counters quipped "The sky is beautiful with no pesky raptors to obscure the view." Awesome quote.

Fortunately, the hummingbird feeders were quite active. I even got good views of a Buff-bellied Hummingbird, a Gulf-Coast specialty. While watching, I noticed that the Buff-bellied sounds like a Geiger counter instead of the high-pitched chittering of the Ruby-throat

Ruby-throat Hummingbird
Ruby-throat Hummingbird
Buff-bellied Hummingbird