Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Road Trip And More Alignments!

After the sad passing of Pixel, and with no medical appointments for a few days, we decided to hit the nearest beach to Tucson and visit our friend Margie in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico last weekend. The 220 miles takes less than 5 hours with a couple stops for snacks and bathroom breaks, and the beach and Sea of Cortez is a nice break from the dry desert of Arizona. 

You may recall from my post way last week that in the western sky there was a very nice alignment of Mars, Venus and the Moon. That was on Friday night... Arriving late on Saturday afternoon, I headed down to the shore to catch the sunset and hopefully the next alignment phase.

Suffering from considerable clouds in the above post, I was hoping for better weather. Unfortunately, with a massive Winter weather system stretching across the southern parts of the country, our visit was marred by heavy winds, but variable clouds. The sunset, shown here, was quite spectacular. Of course, the only way to get a spectacular sunset is with clouds, but I'm always hopeful for clear spots... At left is part of a 5-frame mosaic showing the most colorful part of the sunset. The sun actually set behind the highest peaks of the mountains on the Baja peninsula, seen just between the sea and clouds. They are better seen in the nearly-full resolution image at right taken with a longer 100mm lens. Taken about 10 minutes later than the mosaic above, it shows the last light of the "second sunset" as the last bit of sun hit the distant clouds. The mountains, across the Sea of Cortez, are about 130 miles away.

The clouds played havoc a bit with imaging the alignment. First nearly the entire western sky was nearly hidden, but eventually they moved to the east, exposing first the planets, at their closest tonight, and the moon a little later... At left is the close pairing of Venus and Mars in the dim twilight (a 10 second exposure, taken 45 minutes after the sunset pics), with the Moon still partly hidden in clouds. Clicking on the full-size image shows there are lots of stars visible, so at right I've made an annotated version identifying the nearest objects to the pair. Note also that in the nearly 50 minutes since the twilight picture above, the tide was going out and is exposing the rocky bottom of my beachside location! A shrimp boat is also seen as a streak as it heads to port in the 10 second exposure.

What I really wanted to get was the 4th object in the solar system alignment! As shown in my Zodiacal Light post a week and a half ago, planet Uranus should be in the mix too! And sure enough, it was right next to the Moon. I had given up on catching it from the beach, and I was late for dinner - the girls were likely wondering where I was since I had left a good 90 minutes before. Just about the time I reached Margie's, the clouds finally cleared the Moon, and I took the image at left with kit lens and the on-camera flash for a bit of illumination on the palm tree across from Margie's house. The 6 second exposure shows the primary planetary pair and over-exposed moon, but right below it, the little greenish dot is the planet Uranus - a 4-way conjunction! I've included another annotated version at right to point it out.

We're back in Tucson now, and without internet in Mexico there was no way to post from there.  But I took over 400 images, so suspect I'll have another post or two to show you our Mexico adventure...

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Saying Goodbye...

The last 28 days we've lost 2 of our cats, both of them to old age and kidney failure. We provide a good home to a slowly-changing population - regular meals exchanged for a little affection. Most all are strays who somehow know we live at the end of our cul-de-sac. We don't have to go looking for cats - they come looking for us!


Pixel was a young adult who walked up to our house 20 (!) years ago, trading his freedom for a ready food source and home. He didn't get along with the other cats that well, but tolerated us, mostly living in isolation in the garage and "cat proofed" back yard where they are free to roam, safe from cars and predators. Mostly he was just "there", we saw him daily at mealtime, but he spent most of his time on his own. A few years back during one of his regular checkups at the vet, he was down a pound, so they did some bloodwork - kidney issues and high blood pressure, meaning pills and occasionally we'd give him sub-cutaneous fluid, which would make him even less available to us as he would hide from that sort of attention.

One of our summer trips to the Midwest, we took him with us on the plane rather than leave his pills and special care to the cat sitter, and boy, did he bloom! Without the other cats around, he would follow us from room to room, and was more of a trip hazard than anything else. If we were watching TV, he was beside us on the couch.  Until I learned the techniques of "defensive sleeping", with my arms in front of my face, he would sleep 3" in front of me, reaching out with his paw to touch my face every 30 seconds. In other words, he was transformed into the most affectionate cat ever! In Illinois he wasn't allowed outside, but the "new" Pixel was content to hang out with us and gaze upon the lush green of our yard through the safety of our windows, as shown at right.

We had high hopes for his return to Tucson, but alas, with the other cats, we again rarely saw him as he moved back out to the garage. But he didn't forget about us, occasionally sleeping with us again, and in recent years would bless us with his presence again in the living room, letting the newer cats know he was in charge. But in recent months, his appetite slowed, became pickier, was harder to sneak him his pills in the soft treats we used. The weight loss continued till he was a mere shadow of his former athletic self. We brought him in a couple weeks ago and the vet put him on IV fluids for 6 days, his appetite rebounding a little. But at home he refused even the Fancy Feast, surviving on a jar of baby food turkey per day with his meds crushed and hidden within. You could see it was time for that final trip to the vet, and blood tests confirmed the backslide. It was so hard when in a time of clarity he made eye contact with me as if to ask - "we going home soon?" I had no answer for him - not this time...


Hootie appeared a few years after Pixel. Hootie, actually a perversion of Houdini, seemed to be able to come and go over my "cat-proof" fence at will, and generally wake us early in the mornings in our kitchen eating the dry cat food uninvited. I surprised him one morning by closing his escape route, catching this wildcat in midair in my arms wrapped in a towel to bring him to the vet for the required checkup before exposing him to the rest of our group. Once he discovered the canned food and sheltered way of living, he was done with the street, and showed his gratitude to us every day of his life. I swear he thought he was a dog - he was on you as soon as you sat on the couch convinced your lap was his personal space and by the way, you need to pet me now! Off your lap he was an "invisible" cat - almost never saw him eat or drink, but his muscular build kept me from worrying about him. He seemed to nearly live in the litter boxes, though, seemingly a dozen or more times a day, and occasionally had poops that were so stinky they would rouse you out of a sound sleep! Many a time I'd need to get up at 3am to do litter box chores thanks to Hootie...

This went on for a decade and a half without change and suddenly a few weeks ago he didn't bug you for attention, was content to sleep alone, a big change in his behavior. We immediately made a vet appointment - this last month with me fresh out of the hospital. It was when I was tying my shoes that (I now know that) I re-broke 2 ribs and was in agony, we took him to the vet with niece Kathy assisting. A delay at the vet's and it was decided Melinda would pick me up and take me to the ER, while Kathy stayed with Hootie. Little did we know that the vet would declare him deathly ill and we decided to have him put to sleep too. I'm sorry I missed it and also that we had to press Kathy into service to being with him at the end...

Both of our buddies had good long lives, but you always hope they will be with you forever. They are family to us, sharing our homes, our hearts, wanting little, giving so much. Even with our eight cats remaining, we've got holes in our hearts that will take time to refill. Meanwhile there is a shy Persian/tabby mix out front that looks like it needs a friend. There always seems a constant supply of hole-fillers showing up out front...

Friday, February 20, 2015

Alignment of the Spheres...

Back a few thousand years ago, it was thought that all the celestial bodies rotated around the Earth, mounted on transparent nested spheres. Of course, the Earth was in the center, and the stars, that did not move with respect to each other, were on the outer layer. The rest, the sun, moon and planets all had their own sphere in their complicated motion around the sky. Of course, now we know that the Earth and other planets rotate in orbits, locked to the sun by gravity. But no matter, tonight in the western sky 3 of those bodies came into alignment! From our perspective, the planets Venus and Mars appeared right next to the crescent moon. Of course, they are not really close in space - only from our viewpoint.


We've been suffering some cloudy weather lately(I know, with millions of people freezing or under snow, we can't complain about temps in the 70s, so I complain about clouds!). I knew the alignment was coming up, so didn't think there was a chance given the thick layer at sunset, but the sun popped out right as it set, so kept an eye on the west. Fortunately, we had a 5 minute window where it was thin enough to catch the major players! Shown here is a .6 second exposure to partially make up for clouds with a 300mm lens. cropped slightly.

In real life, of course, Mars is nearly all the way across the solar system, about 205 MILLION miles away, while Venus is coming around the sun towards us at 130 million miles, and the moon a mere 225,000 miles.

The show continues - Venus is rising higher from the setting sun, and Mars is diving towards it, so that pair will be even closer tomorrow. Unfortunately the Moon was only in the picture tonight and will be 12 degrees higher tomorrow. But do keep an eye to the west after sunset if snow and low temperatures allow!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Not Likely Coming to a Theater Near You!

Tonight we attended one of our must-see events of the year - the Oscar-Nominated Animated Short Films, shown at our local art theater, the Loft Cinema. Now celebrating its tenth anniversary of the collected nominations, the last few years they've also expanded to include the live-action shorts and documentary short subjects. One normally doesn't get to see these little gems of the film maker's art unless shown before Pixar movies, as often happens with their short features. Live-action and other animators are rarely seen except for these annual collections. Fortunately for us here in Tucson, the Loft excels in showing all that is not mainstream, as the marquee out front demonstrates. Besides the animated shorts, they are concentrating on Oscar nominations, including Boyhood (nominated for 6 Oscars), which was released way back in August! Two Days One Night got a nomination for Marion Cotillard for Best Actress, Whiplash (3 nominations), Inherent Vice (2 nominations), and Timbuktu, nominated for best foreign-language film.  Other than Boyhood, many are still on our list, as we like to see the critically acclaimed movies before the Oscars, but as our blog attests, we've been busy this Winter season...

Anyway, tonight's 5 animated shorts were great, and it was a sellout at about the biggest theater in town (500 seats)! We all have our favorites of the nominations, and since these were actually short (some as little as 2 minutes!) they rounded out the collection with 4 more "with merit", making the total running time 78 minutes. The Loft runs a contest where all get to vote on which they think will win (not necessarily their favorite!), the winners receiving loft memberships. My favorite was "Me and My Moulton", about the middle daughter of a trio, growing up in Norway wanting a bicycle and to be like everyone else, and things in the real world turning out differently.

While I've been going to the Loft for 35 years (since it was in an upstairs space on 6th Street, thus the name), I've never sprung for membership where you get discounts, invites to special events (including meeting film VIPs), and perhaps most importantly, free popcorn, we do go regularly and events like this one is why we hope they continue forever. Whether the shorts collections, film festivals, essential film showings for free, and special showings during the week (mondo Mondays for offbeat films, for example) it is always a great idea to grab a monthly guide or keep an eye on the papers to see what amazing offerings they have. If you have an "art house" in town, be sure to give them your support!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Whitewater Washout!

Even though we had just gone to Whitewater Draw a week ago, our friends Frank and Jenny expressed interest in going, so planned another trip on Sunday. The forecast was for 20% chance of rain, but usually in Arizona that means you might have to take shelter for a few minutes... Co-worker Steve West claims that one should pray for rain to see the snow geese come out. We hadn't seen any our previous visit, so chance of rain or not, we were going!

We left Tucson well before noon, and got to Tombstone in time for a late lunch. Turns out we had stumbled into "Vigilante Days" and the town was as crowded as I've ever seen it. Not only were there scads of old-timey saloon gals and roughnecks waving guns around, but also, a LOT of lawmen and frontier women, all in period costumes. We didn't stick around for any gun fighting, but got in, got lunch and headed on out.

As we approached McNeal, near the turnoff for Whitewater, we could see scattered rainstorms in the area, including a big one to the east. No sooner had we parked at Whitewater than sprinkles started, increasing slowly into steady rain. We walked down the dikes to the viewing area, acting as good hosts to show Jenny and Frank (first-timers) the area. There weren't a lot of birds there, perhaps a couple thousand cranes, and they were eerily silent, compared to their raucous calling in fairer weather. At left is a small group of cranes, seen against the distant outline of "Cochise's Head". Compare this picture to the one a week ago - more cranes, and much better visibility. About the only other picture I took was of a feather in the water below us - it looks to be a sandhill feather, in enough detail to see the individual barbs. Note that on the thumbnail moiré fringes might be available as the barb frequency and smaller pixel display frequency are close together. If you click the image, the fringes will disappear in the larger image. Note also the drops of rain getting the top of the feather wet. It was raining hard enough I didn't want to expose my camera and lens, as they wouldn't quite fit under my Tilly hat!  Oh, and BTW, we did see hundreds of snow geese, but they were hunkered down in the rain on the far western side of the wetlands, at least a quarter mile away, likely closer to a km...


Great Horned Owl by Frank Koch
Fortunately Frank's camera was small enough (plus umbrella to keep dry!) that when we returned to the van, he stopped at the pole shed where we'd seen a pair of great horned owls. He took the image at left and supplied it for the blog. If you click on it for the full-size image, be sure to note the talons on that thing - pretty dangerous looking!

The rain looked like it wasn't going to let up anytime soon, and with it being Jenny and Frank's first time in that area, we decided to continue down the 20 miles to Douglas. Melinda and I are big fans of the Gadsden Hotel, and wanted to show it off to them.






Douglas is a sleepy little border town of a little over 15,000, and for visitors like ourselves, the Gadsden Hotel is certainly one of the highlights! Built as a real frontier hotel in 1907, it burned to the ground and was rebuilt in 1929. Highlights include the two-story lobby with marble columns and staircase. At left is shown a 4-frame mosaic of the lobby around to the staircase. At right is a statue guarding one of the corners of the staircase.

In the background of that picture is an incredible 42 foot-long stained glass mural made by Tiffany of a desert scene.  We couldn't imagine its production and shipment across the country 100 years ago, so figured it was made by artists in residence on site.  It is always shockingly spectacular to see it backlit where it is located on the second floor.  At left is shown a 2-frame mosaic of the majority of it from across the lobby.  It was still too early to eat dinner at the dining room (opened at 5), so we loaded up the van and headed NW, avoiding the dirt roads this time and passed through Bisbee, and stopped for dinner at the Crystal Palace in Tombstone.  We were home in Tucson about 9:30, and even though we didn't get to hang out with the cranes much, it was a nice weekend day trip.  The cranes are headed north soon, so the season is over for them, but there are still plenty of things to see within a day's drive of Tucson!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A Wide-Angle Kinda' Night!

When we were on our Whitewater Draw excursion last weekend, I was thinking of taking advantage of some of the pristine skies in the area to shoot the Zodiacal Light, which is currently very prominent in the evening sky. But after hours of driving and bird watching, we decided heading for home.

So on Monday, even though I initially had plans to attend the astro-imaging SIG (Special Interest Group) to hear buddy George Hatfield about DSLR imaging, the siren call of the clear blue sky called me to fight rush hour traffic and head west towards dark sky. My destination was one of the upper overlooks on the Kitt Peak access road with an excellent vantage point to observe the western sky. Melinda joined me for the trip, arriving just a little after sunset.

Interestingly, the calm air in Tucson gave way to nearly 30mph winds at 6,000 feet elevation.  It wasn't cold, low 60s, but the wind was just howling!  I set up the tripod and tracking mount for taking some wide-field shots of the Zodiacal Light, but was called from my set-up duties by the constantly-changing views as it darkened.  At left, the golden glow of sunset was transitioning to crimson as the lights of Sells, the capital of the Tohono O'odham reservation became visible.  I used the Canon 70-200 zoom at 140mm for the 2-frame mosaic shown.  And at right, the view of Orion rising over the slopes of Kitt Peak above us were too scenic to overlook.  Even though just a 30 second exposure with a 14mm (Samyang, F/2.8), it caught the remaining light illuminating the hills, yet shows the Winter Milky Way and a pair of crossing satellites when clicking to load the full-size image.

It wasn't long till the Zodiacal Light became visible. It is caused by dust from asteroid collisions in the plane of the Solar System.  In the northern hemisphere, it is prominent this time of year because it stands nearly straight up from the horizon. While described in the link as "faint", near the sun it is certainly brighter than the remnants of the Summer Milky Way still above the horizon in the Northwest. The image at left is from an ultra-wide shot from an 8mm fisheye, that shows both the Zodiacal Light and Milky Way. From a dark sky location like Kitt Peak, it reaches clear up to the zenith splitting the star clusters the Hyades and Pleiades. Realize this is only an 80 second (!) exposure with the tripod-mounted canon 20Da and 6mm fisheye at F/2.8...


With the other camera (Canon XSi) and Samyang 14mm, stopped down to F/4, I was using the Polarie tracking mount to take 140s exposures, moving up from horizon to zenith, in hopes of doing a multiple frame high-resolution mosaic. They all looked good on the back of the camera, so had high hopes. The image shown here at left was assembled using Microsoft ICE (Image Composite Editor), before further manipulation in Photoshop.  Evidently they have a new version, but I'm still using the initial version. I'm constantly amazed by what this freeware program can do, aligning to star patterns! Photoshop gives up right away, so am constantly glad that ICE is a consistent tool. I was going through the frame carefully in order to label the brighter objects and constellations, and didn't see any missing stars or additional ones either, so did a great job. The image at left (and right with labels) are at the maximum image size I can show (1600 pixels tall), so be sure to click it to examine closely. Besides some good galaxies and clusters, Comet Lovejoy is still visible as a greenish smudge, and Uranus is smack in the middle of the Zodiacal Light with Mars and Venus.

While completing the above series of exposures, I even had time to shoot a self-portrait with the 8mm fisheye with the new van and Winter Milky Way high in the background. It is only a single exposure (80 seconds at F/2.8 and ISO 1600) on the non-tracked image, so is a little noisy, but still sensitive enough to see Milky Way, and even the upper tip of the Zodiacal Light to the right of Pleiades high in the frame. I had promised Melinda we'd return early, so with a few minutes to go after finishing the above sequence, I installed the 80mm lens at F/2.8 to take some pictures of Orion's belt. Shown at right is a stack of 6 exposures of 80 seconds each (8 minutes total).  Imagine an observing session when I actually had time to spend an hour or two on a field, instead of minutes.

Fortunately, with the blustery wind, I was able to get some good images out of the session.  I ended the imaging right at 9pm, and only missed our estimated 10pm return home by 15 minutes.  The little tracker and tripod shots survived the wind just fine - helped by the wide-angle shots taken that night.  Since we got home by "curfew" I should think more about these mini-sessions...

Sunday, February 8, 2015

A Whitewater Draw Quickie!

For years and years we've made at least a couple of trips to Whitewater Draw, a wetlands operated by Arizona Fish and Game. If you are new to the local population of cranes, feel free to peruse the search that reveals some of our recent visits. Word is getting out now, but a few years back, few knew that upwards of 30,000 sandhill cranes wintered there from Mid-October to Mid-February. With all our alternate activities over this Winter, we hadn't made it yet, and with the end of their stay approaching, we jumped at the chance for a road trip yesterday with the new Ford Van.

We left late in the day for us, about 1:30, and once we hit Benson, decided to stop and pay a short visit to friends Pat and Betty, who we've not seen or talked to much since Christmas. Our "15 minute" visit turned into a half hour, and after driving through Tombstone without even thinking about another stop, got to Whitewater Draw right at 4pm, 2 hours before sunset.

We feared that last year's drought and rumors of a broken irrigation system might have left permanent damage to the bird population, but with plenty of rain this year, the ponds and wetland's water level was about the highest I've ever seen! With a quick latrine stop, we snagged the last parking spot in the lower lot and hiked in towards the hiking trails. Fortunately, the rattling calls of the cranes greeted us like old friends, and as we approached a crowd of observers nearest a group of cranes about 75 yards away, we recognized friends Gary Rosenbaum and Frank Gacon, who we'd just seen at the astronomy club meeting the night before!  After chatting for a bit, we continued on to an overlook with a bench for relaxing.

I had a new lens to check out - a Canon 300mm F/4 gotten recently from Astromart. While not a pricey fast one for astronomy (and seemingly football games!), with a 1.4X converter, it got me into the 400+mm focal length that seems the minimum for shooting birds.  While I've got telescopes for ultra-closeups, the autofocus of a real camera lens allows shooting in dim light and on moving objects that I don't even try with a 700mm or longer telescope.  The shots above are testament that it works pretty well, though even stopped down to F/9 or so seemed to have a narrow depth of field...

Once parked at our little overlook (where most of the benches I recall had been removed!), it was nice to take the standard shots I shoot every year - at left is shown the distant mountaintop profile of "Cochise's Head" with part of the flock of cranes in the foreground.  Certainly the 300mm was a perfect focal length for that!  And at right is shown the Large Binocular Telescope atop Mount Graham, a good 80 miles (!) distant, with a flight of cranes crossing in front.  I was shocked to see the white snow atop Graham.  We had plenty of rain in Tucson last weekend, but the mountains near Tucson didn't get any snow, but it was certainly there.



While most of the cranes kept their distance, fortunately we had other diversions. Not far from the seat we found on the trail on one of the dikes, a mated pair of northern shovelers were easier to catch with tails in the air, feet furiously pumping to keep their heads under water, than their heads above water. And at right is an American Coot coming ashore right below our vantage point. While they have a distinctive look above water, their disturbingly ugly feet are only spotted on land - eww gross!

The sun continued on its path, sinking below mountains to our west.  Of course the cranes that have been out feeding wait till after sunset to return, some flying right over us, as shown at left.  At right a trio of distant cranes pass the last rays of sunlight illuminating hills to our north.  It was about this time that I met a woman from Prescott having issues with her camera.  While she said she was taking a class in using it, she knew little about it and was randomly changing modes on it trying to get decent results.  Near tears, I gave her some advice on using her equipment which seemed to improve her mood.


But even as darkness descended upon us and picture taking became more of a challenge, the action picked up! While we wandered back to our vehicle, the noise of the cranes increased in volume as the skies filled with their return. At left the silhouette of dozens of birds were captured against the deep twilight. And finally at right, the last images taken were of an American Coot with somewhere to go, leaving a wake against the twilight...

All in all it was a fun trip.  The 300mm lens worked well - it took all the above pictures, though the early ones used the 1.4X converter.  The van worked great too, was fun to drive, getting us back home in less than 2 hours, after we decided to again not stop in Tombstone.  We're still thinking of another trip before the cranes leave - we'll see!