First quarter moon, January 1, 2012

The last day of 2011 was beautiful here in south Florida. Started off cool (chilly, even), but warmed nicely throughout the day. Since it was the first Saturday after Christmas, I was out in the field on the West Palm Beach Christmas Bird Count, and the weather proved mildly conducive to the birds we were seeking; a morning's work yielded 50 species in some pretty marginal habitat. I'll have more on the bird count later. I spent the afternoon at the beach with Eric, who decided that a dead-tired-from-birding Daddy had no excuse not to take him, and I'm glad we went. The weather was just so lovely; much nicer than the previous two times we'd gone, with 20-mph easterlies howling at us, sending sand stinging against our legs and into our eyes. I actually wore my parka the last time I went to the beach! But December 31, 2011, was absolutely idyllic: Just perfect for building castles in the sand. All was well until the evening, when I decided to haul out my big telescope and take a few pictures of the moon, which was nearing first quarter. It turned out that the hand controller for the computerized mount wasn't working, so I couldn't use the big mount and its tracking capability. I suspected that the battery was undercharged, so I hauled it into the garage, but by the little strap instead of by the battery box handles. And that was a huge mistake. I don't think I've ever seen swelling in my shin bone quite so drastic or immediate. Two gigantic lumps and a divot where the battery came crashing down on my leg; I've been limping slightly ever since. But on New Year's Day, I couldn't resist using my grab-and-go setup to get the first quarter moon on the first day of the year: I haven't gotten all the camera settings exactly the way I want them, but I really don't notice the missing 2 megapixels from my "downgrade." Do you? The picture's a little grainy, but it's because I had the ISO set to 400 to compensate for the fact that I didn't have a tracking mount. With a nontracking mount, there just isn't enough light from the first-quarter moon to shoot the way I'm accustomed to, after two years of tracking the full moon. After all, when the moon is full, there's enough light that I can shoot at ISO 64 and not get too much grain. But with only half the moon's lit surface to work with, the reduction in luminosity is enormous: first quarter moon is only 8% as bright as full moon. Put another way, it's 2.7 magnitudes less bright ( −10 instead of −12.7). Put yet another way, it's about a 12× reduction in brightness. (Numbers seem funny when you're dealing with magnitudes because each step in magnitude, represented by a whole number, is not a unit increase, but a logarithmic one. A 1st-magnitude object is more than twice as bright [2.512× to be precise] as a second-magnitude object. And because the moon is an extended object, not a point source of light, the numbers get even funnier, but I'm not sure how, so I can't explain them. This post was supposed to be just a snapshot of the first quarter moon to show off the new camera, but I got sidebarred—er, sidetracked.)

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End of an era

Way back in the fall of 2008, I got the nature geek's equivalent of the Holy Grail: a digital camera with an adapter for a spotting scope. Thus began the era of digiscoping on Benweb. The camera was a Nikon Coolpix P5100, a 12-megapixel wonder with more shooting modes than anyone could possibly know what to do with: video, stop motion, all the standard shooting modes (P, M, S, A), etc. But the two things that really made it exciting were that it had a strong, light magnesium housing (lightweight cameras don't overbalance the scope as much as heavier ones do), and  that it had a threaded front lens(thus allowing a simple connection to the adapter for my spotting scope). I was able to shoot the moon and terrestrial subjects with equal ease, enjoying the superb depth of field and ability to  focus  provided by the spotting scope; all I needed the digicam to do was get out of the way, which it usually did. I usually left the camera attached to the scope so I wouldn't have to search for it when I wanted to go out and make some pictures. All in all, it made for a portable rig that was easy to just grab and go. But the other night I paid a high price for that convenience: I was trying to be stealthy, keeping the lights off sso as not to wake the baby I'd just spent an hour putting to sleep. I'm obviously not cut out to be a cat burglar, however,  because in my stealth I managed to bump into the tripod, knocking it over right onto the delicate camera connection Result: a still-working camera, but one that was no longer capable of digiscoping with the adapter: the screws that formerly held the lens thread ring onto the camera face were wrenched right through the (in hindsight relatively weak) magnesium housing. Note the large scratch to the left of the lens, and the empty screw-hole where a crack not unlike a sinuous rille on the moon begins and winds it way up and to  the right, near the flash. No more front lens threads; no more digiscoping with this camera! This is disaster. Without a digiscoping rig, my two-year-old moon project is over; my long-distance dragonfly shots will be at an end; I'll never be able to capture all the images I've spent years learning how to make  (and I'm finally starting to achieve a modicum of success; i.e., I'm getting in-focus images with the lighting nearly right). What's a guy to do? Ebay to the rescue! While the prices for the P5100s were a bit out of my league, I was able to get a pretty good deal on  a used P5000, and the seller even happened to be in Florida, so the shipping only took a day!  The P5000 was the predecessor to the P5100, with silver trim instead of black and "only" 10 megapixels instead of 12, but essentially the same camera, same controls, same lens, same housing. So I wouldn't have to learn a whole new menu system or anything. As you can see, the face looks similar: Here is a close-up of the all-important threads for the adapter:
And the pretty silver trim on top:
 And here is the first digiscoped image through the camera, a lovely female Orthemis ferruginea:
I don't mean to denigrate my previous camera, but I think that's just about the best  digiscoped image of a dragonfly I've ever gotten!

Patience pays off

Well, patience pays off. Last night I got a pretty decent shot of Day 6 of this month's lunation: And tonight, I had all but given up hope of shooting the moon after only 7 days, because of the low but very heavy cloud cover that we were experiencing all evening. But I decided to make a bunch of feature maps, and that kept me up and interested enough that the clouds went away, and voilà: the streak continues! Day seven of this January's lunation yields a picture: Astronomy is one of those pursuits that does indeed teach the virtues of patience. At the same time, though, it teaches the virtue of taking advantage of whatever brief windows of opportunity present themselves! In case you were wondering about the sequence (what happened to days four and five of this lunation?), that was broken up by the untimely demise of my trusty laptop's video card. But all hail Apple! I took the computer in Wednesday morning to the Apple store in Wellington (the only one in the area that had an appointment early enough to suit me), they did the test in about 10 minutes, determined what the problem was, discovered they didn't have the parts in stock to fix it on site, shipped it to Houston, and got it back to me this morning! Let that be a lesson to you: always pay the extra cash for the 3-year Apple Care plan; it's saved my bacon at least twice with this machine already. Here are shots of days 4 and 5 of this lunation: Tomorrow, if I have any leisure time, I will work on the walk-through of this week's moon, complete with annotated (well, labeled anyway) photos. For now, here's the gallery:

January moon, day three

Today was a glorious Martin Luther King day, except for the fact that I didn't get to celebrate it as a holiday. Instead, I was inside, chained to my desk all day. So when I got home tonight, and finally finished the last conference call of the day, I grabbed the opportunity for my "garbage moment" with both hands. (If you're familiar with the cute but not particularly funny comic, Rose is Rose, you know what a garbage moment is: that moment when Dad gets to commune with the great outdoors while taking care of the domestic chores.) And tonight's garbage moment included a glimpse of a stunning three-day-old moon: Needless to say, I was thrilled to be able to steal enough time from my family, chores, and job, to shoot the moon so soon after getting shots of the 1-day-old moon and 2-day-old moon. I doubt I'll be able to get the complete lunation, but these three days are a pretty good start! As you can see from the relatively poor quality of the photos, I have much to learn about digiscoping the moon. These days, all the best earth-based photography seems to be accomplished via expensive CCD camera outfits on expensive scopes, or on cheap webcams, which can take hundreds of frames and stack them all together to achieve some incredibly fine detail. My shots are just digiscoped: I slap my point and shoot Nikon onto a little bracket that fits over the eyepiece of my little 60-mm spotting scope. I don't expect perfection; in fact, I'm tickled that tonight's shots turned out so well (the first two shots are from Saturday and Sunday, respectively; in all photos, south is up and east is to the right of the image): As you can see from today's photos, Mare Crisium is completely visible by day three; you can even see the prominent craters Peirce and Picard in the large crater Cleomedes (the first large crater "below" Mare Crisium; right below that is Burckhardt and then Geminus). Well, you can see Peirce and Picard if you have the original image and zoom in on it a little bit; on this platform you really have to know what you're looking at to tell they're there. Or you can click the link above, which will take you to Antonio Cidadao's shot of Peirce; you really should spend some time on his site if you're at all interested in the moon. But look how different the moon is after 25 hours; last night the stars of the show were the four-crater chain Langrenus-Vendelinus-Petavius-Furnerius; tonight the star attractions are the Mare Crisium herself and surrounds. Two other craters are fairly prominent about halfway between the L-V-P-F chain and the terminator: these are Snellius (the one that looks somewhat oval, although it is, like most craters on the moon, pretty close to circular) and Stevinus. Hope you enjoy these little lunacies of mine; maybe I'll get all of 2010's Winter Moon on "film."

Saturday stroll

On the weekends I get to spend a lot more time with my son than I can during the week. There's no rush to get out the door; no meeting to prepare for; no freeway traffic to fret about. The morning stroll can last quite a bit longer; we can take more than one, if the fancy strikes us, as it did today. Even during the week, though, when time is at a premium, Eric and I always find the time to go for a morning stroll, unless it's pouring down rain. It's usually just down to the corner and back, but we have to do it. I'm not sure why I'm so rigorous about getting the boy outside whenever I can; maybe I hope that some of my love of nature will rub off on him. Maybe it's just to give his stomach time to settle in and take care of the medication (his GER is getting better, but we're still dosing just to be sure). Maybe I just want to be outside myself, and since I'm in charge of the lad, he gets to come along, will he, nill he. This morning, though, as we went out for our predawn (yes, daylight saving time lasts into November now, so dawn comes late to south Florida) stroll, I saw something that, after the typical fruitless attempts to get the boy to look at something so far away (he might have seen it, he might not have...), made me run back into the house and set the boy up in his pack and play:  Read more

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Migration Day at Green Cay

Green Cay Nature Center hosted its second annual Migration Day on Saturday, October 18th. Despite having laryngitis last year, I was apparently popular enough as a speaker to be invited back for a second time! This time I was able to go around the boardwalk once before my talk, which was very nice. It gave me a chance to practice digiscoping in ideal conditions: lots of light, wide open vistas, and stationary birds. Here are a few shots: My lecture, on some of the migratory shorebirds of Palm Beach County and the various threats facing them due to global warming and sea-level rise, went fairly well. I had some good questions, and some good feedback. I railed against the evils of habitat loss and destruction, the problem of coastal "hardening" as a response to rising sea levels, and against the practice of offsetting carbon consumption by inappropriate planting of trees. Nothing wrong with planting trees, as long as it's the right tree in the right place. Don't plant a melaleuca tree in the Everglades, for example. And Australian Pines, as beautiful and as shade-giving as they are, are simply the wrong tree for a healthy south Florida landscape. Migrating birds need trees that provide them food for their journey, and resting places when they're in your neighborhood. Do your homework. Visit the Florida Native Plant Society website; go to a local chapter meeting (in Palm Beach, Broward, or Dade county). Learn what to do, when, and how. Then get out there and help!

Just past full

Last night, I actually had a moment or two after putting the boy to bed. So I went outside and fiddled around a bit more with my digiscoping setup. I took about a dozen shots of the full moon (actually, about 28 hours past full) in a rather stiff breeze. One shot, of the entire batch, actually came out fairly well. On the left is the shot as it comes out of the Nikon's memory chip: lots of color that really wasn't there in the live image, or in the LCD screen until the camera started to actually take the shot. The second shot, with the color removed, shows much more accurately what I saw on the LCD and expected to see in the final product.

New gear

The birthday wish list of a naturalist is pretty simple: books and gear. Gear and books. Maybe some new gear and some old books? How about some new gear and some new books? While I didn't get that shiny iPhone everyone seems to want (there's always next year!), I got something that should turn out to be a whole lot more useful, and that doesn't have the dreaded monthly contract: a high-resolution point-and-shoot digital camera: frontend Read more