The moon in June: Full on the third

June 3, 2012 Full moon

Hello, there! Now that we’re already a couple of days past the new moon, it’s high time once again for the monthly snapshot of the full moon. (I say snapshot because that’s really what it is. If and when I ever get an imaging system that works with my telescope gear, I’ll “upgrade” the name to “image.”)

This was taken way back on June 3, fighting the ever-present low cloud/haze that obscures the moon for nights on end.

Typical summertime complaint of south Florida backyard astronomers.


June 2012 solstice

Today the sun is above the horizon longer than on any other day of the year. It’s also the day the sun “stands still” in declination: that is, it stops moving north from one sunrise/sunset to the next, and starts moving south. And, as we Northern Hemisphere types recall, when the sun’s in the south (where it will be in a few months, after the equinox), we start to think “winter.”

Here’s a diagram to refresh your memories (taken from a Google image search returning a page from the Fairfax County Public Schools Planetarium):


Remember: the Earth’s axis of rotation hasn’t shifted from one seasonal event to the next. Only its position in orbit with respect to the Sun has changed.

This year’s event happens at 7:09 p.m. EDT today, about an hour before sunset here in Boca Raton. Here’s a little table showing how little change there is in sunrise/sunset times this week:

Mid-June sunrise/sunset time, Boca Raton, FL

DayRise (a.m. EDT)Set (p.m. EDT)
Table of sunrise/set times (in EDT) for Boca Raton, FL in June 2012

Bee good to pollinators: Celebrate National Pollinator Week

Agapostemon splendens. Boca Raton, FL, June 18, 2012.

I’m on the email list for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and every now and then they send around something that I think is worth sharing with everyone. Here’s an instance today:

National Pollinator Week Encourages Everyone to “Bee” Good to Pollinators. Learn what you can do to help the birds and the bees (the bats, butterflies and beetles too!).

“Without pollinators, life on Earth would be scarcely recognizable. We depend on these amazing insects and animals for the clothes we wear, the houses we live in and the food we eat,” said Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe. “Every American should be concerned about alarming declines in our nation’s pollinators, but fortunately everyone can pitch in to help them.”

Pollinators are essential to agriculture and forestry, pollinating more than 150 different kinds of fruits, vegetables and nuts that provide a third of the nation’s food and beverages. In the United States alone, pollinators enable people to produce about $20 billion worth of products every year. In addition, more than 75 percent of flowering plants are animal pollinated. These plants provide habitat, food, and shelter for many species of wildlife. Most plants need pollinators to reproduce, and use nectar to attract them. Animals visit flowers in search of food and sometimes even mates, shelter and nest-building materials. Some animals, such as many bees, intentionally collect pollen, while others, such as many butterflies and birds, move pollen incidentally because the pollen sticks on their body while they are collecting nectar from the flowers. All of these animals are considered pollinators.

A study of the status of pollinators in North America by the National Academy of Sciences found that populations of honeybees (which are not native to North America) and some wild pollinators are declining. Declines in pollinators may be a result of habitat loss and degradation, and disease (introduced parasites and pathogens). The celebration of National Pollinator Week began in 2007 with Senate Resolution 580 and a proclamation from the Secretary of Agriculture. This recognition has grown each year since, with Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and a majority of the nation’s governors joining Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in issuing their own proclamations this year.

The Service and its partners will celebrate National Pollinator Week with educational awareness events and conservation projects. To find a Pollinator Week Event near you, visit

You can help pollinators by:

  • Reducing your impact. Reduce your pesticide use, increase greens paces, and reduce your carbon footprint. Pollution and climate change affect pollinators, too!
  • Planting for pollinators. Create pollinator-friendly habitat with native flowering plants that supply pollinators with nectar, pollen, and homes.
  • Telling a friend. Educate your neighbors, schools, and community groups about the importance of pollinators. Host a dinner, a pollinated food cook-off or other event and invite your friends.

For additional information on pollinators and what you can do to help them, visit You can also download a free ecoregional guide online at that will help you determine the kinds of pollinator-friendly plants you can plant in your area.

Here’s a native pollinator from my front yard:

Agapostemon splendens. Boca Raton, FL, June 18, 2012.

The 2012 transit of Venus: astronomical journey


Last Tuesday the second planet from the sun passed in front of the sun’s disk for the second and last time this young century. Back in 2004, I saw the first event briefly while parked outside a gas station trying to get out from under the clouds that had blocked us at our chosen observing site in Florida.

This time, I was pretty sure I could do a better job: a planned trip to relatively cloudless California coincided nicely with the timing of the event, and I had even planned enough time to land, enjoy the customary In-N-Out lunch at the airport, then make the long drive up to our home base (the in-law’s home in Atascadero) with an hour or so to spare before the event began.

Of course, things did not work out as planned. Although I was able to find the binocular filters I’d made years ago out of surplus Baader film, my full-aperture white-light filter made at the same time went missing before the trip. So I needed a last-minute replacement for that.

Here are the binocular filters; although they were made for different binoculars, the loving attention to detail and high-cost materials (cardboard tubes ain’t cheap!) meant I had to recycle them:

For the scope, though, I was in a bit of a fix. Woodland Hills Camera was sold out of “real” filters when I stopped in on the day of the event (gee, supply got outpaced by demand). They did have some black polymer filter material made by Thousand Oaks Optical, which, while not the beautiful white-light image I was used to from the Baader film, was purported to provide a yellow image similar to what the sun “looks like” (that is, what it looks like when you’re not blinded by its brilliance). So I got a sheet of that and went to work.

The staff weren’t particularly helpful in terms of advice and coaching, but they did have the raw materials I needed, and were gracious enough to cede me a corner of their shipping department to assemble the setup: the polymer film for the filter, and a screw-on 77mm camera filter made to fit my little telescope (the TV-60 accepts 77mm filters).  With those, and the cardboard tube I had stuffed into my bag against the possibility of a sold-out store, I had what I needed. A few minutes with scissors and tape, and voila! My new filter was ready!

Then it was just a question of time. The stop at the camera store had put us a bit behind schedule, giving us only 3 hours to make what is, at the best of times, a 3-hour drive. I needed all the help I could get from the traffic gods, and the beginning of the drive was not kind. I had accidentally released the hood catch when I was trying to release the parking brake; a few minutes’ driving at freeway speeds into the strong headwind made it sound like the van was rattling to pieces! We put up with it while I was driving just a few miles per hour above the legal rate, but as we drew closer to home and we realized we had to pick up the pace, it was time to stop and secure the hood. After that it was just a matter of racing headwinds and the traffic (all speeding, but few speeding fast enough to suit my impatience!) trying to find someplace—anyplace!—that would allow an unobstructed view of the sun.

Having completely forgotten the timing of the event, I phoned my father-in-law to get news of when first contact would occur. He diligently researched the matter and informed me that it would happen sometime between 3:03 and 3:06 p.m. PDT. At every stage, I calculated how far we could make it before we had to pull over at a secondary or tertiary site. Gaviota: too far from home to tell. Buellton: too close to call. Santa Maria: 45 minutes away from home at 2:20.

It was a close shave, but we pulled into the driveway at Rancho Atascajoyner around 2:58. Just a few minutes to set up and find the sun, which can be a bit of a trick. I got everything set up fairly quickly, using the borrowed tripod, and miracle of miracles, I managed to find the sun with relatively little difficulty (a feat I was unable to duplicate when I moved the scope to a more comfortable observing position later in the event).

Here’s the setup:

I didn’t have an accurate time signal except for the clock on my Blackberry, but as it turns out, my camera’s clock was relatively well synced with reality: according to that clock, the transit started right around 3:07, and second contact was right around 3:23.

I took many shots with no idea of whether or not the event had started; the first few moments are very subtle, and 60mm is not a lot of resolving power. But here is the moment of first contact, as near as I can determine at 3:07:22 PDT, just a bit later than predicted, but my after-the-fact timing (determined by taking a picture of the time and adjusting my camera time based on that) could be wrong:

A closer crop of the same picture:

The next image, taken some 92 seconds later, clearly shows the impinging inner planet:

I had no idea how long there would be between first and second contact, so I frantically took picture after picture, checked the sun out with binoculars (I had my Baader binocular filters from the early 2000s) and discovered that it was a good 10–15 minutes (actually 18 or so!) between first contact and complete ingress.

Back in 2004, there had been a lot of talk about the “black drop” effect that made timing the moment of second contact quite difficult; since I wasn’t trying to time it, just take a picture of it, it was a bit easier, but having seriously underestimated the timing, I discovered upon review of the session that I was Very Fortunate Indeed to have captured the moment:

Check out this cropped version to see how hard it is to tell whether Venus is completely free of the sun’s limb (3:23:16 PDT):

Even the next shot, about 20 seconds later (3:23:37, is a bit ambiguous:

Cropped version here:

After the first twenty minutes, this once-or-twice-in-a-lifetime event settles into a rather humdrum routine of checking to be sure the planet’s still in view; it’s not going anywhere for several hours, so split-second timing is no longer necessary. Here’s the view from about an hour after the event started:

So after a 6-hour plane ride, a 4-hour van ride, and a 4-minute setup, I had a very nice view of Venus’s long slow slide across the face of the sun. I had bought three little solar viewers (the TO Optical filter material sandwiched between cardboard layers) for the other spectators, and I made sure that Eric got to see through the telescope, in hopes that his 109-year-old self will remember the view when it happens again in December 2117. Daniel, on the other hand, didn’t seem interested.

Everglades Sprites all over the place


After my post a couple of weeks ago where I lost track of a pair of damselflies in tandem before I found out whether they actually attained the wheel position I’ve been hoping for another chance. Today, the first sunny day after what seems like a week of rain, I got my wish. In spades! This evening there were more Nehalennia pallidula than I could shake a stick at! Everywhere I looked was a male looking for a mate, a pair that I accidentally separated with my clumsy walking through the tall grass, or a pair actually mating!

I managed to latch onto one pair that seemed to know which end was up, and I was able to follow them without scaring them to separate. I even managed a few “in-process” pictures.

Here is one of the puzzles from last time; I simply couldn’t figure out how the male grabs onto the female and THEN transfers the sperm from his primary genitalia at the tip of the abdomen to his secondary genitalia on segment two. Well, here is how he does it:

Once the sperm transfer is complete, the male then induces the female to curl her abdomen up, as seen in the blurry image below:

And then they are able to complete the wheel position. (Yes, many commentators have pointed out that this looks more like a heart than a wheel. Biologists don’t care.)

This species may not be abundant in the wild*, but in the urban wilderness of my property, I would guesstimate, just ticking them off on my fingers, that there were at least two dozen individuals today: 8 in the tall grass behind the shed, 5 or 6 more under the canoe, at least 6 more in the front yard, and probably 10 more on the other side. These are conservative guesstimates. These numbers are just for the Everglades Sprite; I didn’t even mention (until now) the Fragile Forktail or two that I saw, or the Rambur’s Forktail pair I saw mating earlier today.

Don’t know where all the Citrine Forktails have gone (a month ago they were present in numbers similar to those of the Everglades Sprite today), but their position in the ecosystem has not gone unfilled!

Spring may be almost over, but it sure is still la saison d’amour here in my yard! Go odonata!

*I know no one ever clicks links anymore, so I’ll just tell you that its status is “Near Threatened” on the IUCN Red List for 2011.2.