October 28, 2007

It's a Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!

Well, great pumpkinS, actually. We visited an actual pumpkin patch over in Prescott to select our Halloween pumpkins this year. I think this is the very first time I've ever been to an actual pumpkin patch...at least for the purpose of buying a pumpkin, anyway.

We eventually found three that called our names (we couldn't decide on just two). Unfortunately, living in a park with only one neighbor means that decorating the house for different holidays is pretty much for our eyes only. Not that this is going to prevent me from coming up with a really cool design for carving my pumpkin, of course.

October 27, 2007

Birdcam Time-lapse

Our birdcam from Wingscapes took 73 images today. That's about all it will hold until I get a memory card for it. But, it took 5 hours to capture all those pictures using the settings I chose. Rather than having to choose only a couple of these pictures to post on here, I decided to show them all to you. So I turned them into an animated "gif" that gives you an idea of what it's like to spend five hours sitting on the ground next to our house. The file is 8 megs, so be patient while it loads (I think you have to click on the picture in order to see the animation).

I counted three species enjoying the sunflower seeds this morning: House Finches, White-crowned Sparrows, and a Dark-eyed Junco (bonus points for anyone who can identify the subspecies of junco). Figures that five minutes after I pick up the camera three doves decide to walk right in front of where it was sitting.

October 25, 2007

What's the Worst That Could Happen?

Do you ever get tired of arguing with the naysayers who refuse to acknowledge that global climate change is a human-caused phenomenon? Well, now you don't have to argue. Watch the video below to see how simple logic can make the entire "it's our fault/it's not our fault" argument an irrelevant waste of time.

We all need to be "column thinkers" instead of "row arguers". Remember that next time you need to: buy a light bulb/car/refrigerator; decide between driving or biking/walking somewhere; get to choose the type of insulation you put in your home; decide whether or not to buy recycled materials; make a choice between buying products from companies who are environmentally conscious and those that aren't.

Before you decide ask yourself, "What's the worst that could happen?" If you can answer that question honestly, you'll make the right choice.

Wingscapes Birdcam

I'm finally getting around to setting up our Wingscapes birdcam. I've given up on trying to capture the mountain lion, for now. At least until I can figure out how to rig up a motion sensing light to the cam, too. And some way to keep the camera from shutting off at night.

Anyway, I set it up next to our quail block yesterday. Unfortunately, I also filled our hanging feeder which ended up being much more popular with the local avifauna. So this was the only picture we got.

I set the focus wrong and ended up with too much backlight, though. Today's experiment should be better since I rigged it up to capture our hanging feeder. I also set out some peanuts and black-oil sunflower seeds to try to bring in some interesting birds. I'm excited to see what I capture. I'll post the results tonight.

October 21, 2007

Francisco Vásquez de Coronado

Ok, so this post isn't really going to be about Francisco Vásquez de Coronado. It's about my trip to the site where he may (or may not) have crossed into what is now the U.S. in his expedition to find the fabled "Cities of Gold." Coronado National Memorial is located in the far southeastern corner of Arizona, and shares a 15 mile border with Mexico. It's a really cool little park that interprets the expedition undertaken in the year 1540 by 335 Spanish Conquistadors, four Franciscan monks, and 1,100 Indian "allies" into the heart of North America.

Even though I was there on business I found time to explore a bit and have a little fun. That's a painting of Vásquez behind me. For me, one of the most exciting things about visiting extreme southeastern Arizona is the amazing variety of typically Mexican species of birds. In many cases, this is the only spot in the US where these birds can be seen. Coronado National Memorial sits on the southern end of the Huachuca Mountains, part of a series of mountain ranges called the "Sky Islands" that provides a unique habitat for these birds.

But there is another, equally fascinating (but much sadder) issue that smacks you in the face during a visit to the park.

The Mexican border. I got to ride with one of Coronado's law enforcement rangers to view the border fence. Having crossed back and forth into Canada dozens of times, there's a certain amount of almost laughable formality to our northern border. In most places the only thing standing in the way of someone who wants to go to Canada is a wide swath cut through the forest, and perhaps a single cement post marking the two sides. This border, however, stands in stark contrast to what all my liberal ideas of what an international border should be. It's utterly depressing in and of itself, but when you throw in the constant presence of border patrol vehicles and the towers outfitted with thermal cameras it becomes downright threatening and, in my opinion, anti-American.

We had an interesting conversation about the evolution of the concept of immigration in this country over the past 250 years. It seems that, since before we became a nation, Americans have had this "Us and Them" mentality with regards to who the "good" and "bad" immigrants are. In the mid-19th century, it was the Irish. Then, during World War I, the Germans. During World War II it was the Japanese (they were easier to tell apart than the Germans). Now it's Hispanics, but Mexicans in particular. Our language has changed, too. Instead of referring to them as people, we now try to dehumanize anyone entering our country illegally by calling them "aliens." Scary word, huh?

Anyway, standing next to the border, and talking with a "Federale" who spends every day patrolling the border within the park, the complexity of the immigration issue sort of smacks you in the face. I must admit I was tempted to try to "illegally immigrate" to Mexico, just to see what would happen. In the end, I decided sticking my arm through the fence would have to be enough of a statement.

Ok, back to the more funner stuff. I'm sure it comes as no surprise to learn that I took advantage of my time in a cool place to take lots of pictures. Here are some of the better ones. I'm happy to report that I am feeling more and more comfortable using my camera, and I really think it's beginning to show with the pictures I'm taking. For instance, I learned to put more effort into concentrating on adjusting the aperature rather than the shutter speed. So here are some of the better images from the last two days.

This javelina limped up to the pond behind the visitor center on Friday afternoon. She hung out there several hours, but we never could figure out how badly she was injured.

I was excited to see more Phainopepla buzzing around. They've been gone for about a month now from our backyard. I like the contrast in this picture, and the narrow depth of field gives it some nice perspective.

Gila Woodpecker perched on the stem of a century plant.

Loggerhead Shrike

The last time we visited the Huachucas Sonja and I left with ten new lifers each. This time, I got one. But it was "the one" I was hoping for...

Montezuma Quail! I spotted the male along the side of the road just after sunrise on Saturday morning. He quickly ran back into the weeds before I could get my camera out, but then a female popped out for a minute. Just enough time to get two pictures of her, only one of which came out. Out of all the "Mexican" species that you can see in this part of Arizona, this one is probably one of the hardest ones to spot. They tend to be very shy and don't stick around long if they think someone is in the area. This is also one of the only places in the country where you stand a half-way decent chance of spotting one.

On my way home I stopped by the west unit of Saguaro National Park, outside of Tuscon. I arrived just in time for sunset and was able to capture some neat pictures of the saguaro and some of the birds along one of the shorter trails.

Norther Mockingbird on an ocotillo.

Western Flycatcher (I think?)

Black-throated Sparrow

Sunset in Saguaro National Park.

October 16, 2007

Flowers, Feathers and Fire

Sonja and I took a little drive to the top of the Mogollon Rim yesterday, hoping to accomplish two things: find an Olive Warbler and spend an morning together enjoying the beautiful autumn weather. We never did see the warbler, but the day spent exploring the forest roads winding through the ponderosa pines and volcanic mesas was well worth the trip.

Funny how we spent the majority of our time at this spot overlooking Oak Creek Canyon facing away from the view, looking back into the wonderfully aromatic ponderosa forest. While most of the migratory birds have moved on, we did spot some beautiful Stellar's Jays and a very vocal Townsend's Solitaire.

We stopped at a lake southeast of Flagstaff to check out some of the waterfowl that had been reported there a few days earlier. There were quite a few Ruddy Ducks floating around in the choppy water, but it was this tiny Dark-eyed Junco that captured our interest.

While driving back home through the Coconino National Forest, we spotted some smoke billowing in the distance. As we got closer it became apparent that we were going to drive right by it. Ends up being a prescribed burn right along the side of the road. While most of the fire had already burned itself out, the forest was still smoking. It was so neat that we pulled over and walked around through the smoldering understory. We did encounter one rather exciting flaming tree, though.

October 14, 2007

Working with the Light

Sonja recently got me a book on digital nature photography. As I'm sure you all have noticed, the natural world tends to be the most common subject of my photographs, and having some references to help improve my skills as a photographer is always a good idea. However, while I usually tend to try to improve some skill by simply futzing around and seeing what works and what doesn't work, the added complexity of using a camera like this makes that technique rather frustrating. While initially most of my focus will probably be primarily on the mechanics of using the camera, this book has some interesting assignments that will get me out in the field experimenting with various techniques while I learn what all the buttons do.

My first assignment is to practice working quickly with the light during sunrise or sunset. The trick is to try to take a variety of pictures quickly to capture the changing shades, hues and warmth of the light as the sun either sinks or rises toward the horizon. Since I am rarely capable of getting up early on my days off, most of my photography time lately has been during sunset, as these photos demonstrate (each one was taken on a different evening over the past month). Fortunately, sunsets here at the Well can be spectacular.

Sunset from the front yard.
(1/50, f18, ISO 800, Canon 18-55mm lens, focal length 33mm)

Even better than the light on the clouds right at sunset is the the light filtering in through the sycamore trees in the picnic area in the 15-20 minutes preceding sunset. The warmth of that light makes the white bark of the sycamore trees glow. Our crappy point-and-shoot was never able to really capture what this really looks like. But our new camera can...

Sonja and the dogs under the light of a sycamore.
(1/320, f5.0, ISO 400, Sigma 70-300mm lens, focal length 168mm)

As an added bonus, the fact that we live in a national park unit means there tends to be an abundance of wildlife around. Including a pair of Great Horned Owls that seem to enjoy patrolling this stand of sycamores almost every evening. This evening we made it into the picnic area just in time for the light to be nearly perfect. And one of the owls decided to stick around. But the damn owl is still fuzzy! Arrrghhhh..this is frustrating.

Great Horned Owl at Montezuma Well
(1/200, f5.6, ISO 400, Sigma 70-300mm lens, focal length 190mm)

I'm sure I'll take many more photos of the evening light here at the Well as time goes on (in a little over a month I've already taken over 1400 pictures with this camera). But these have been three of the highlights so far.

We also had what I am assuming was an immature black widow spider hanging out with some captured harvester ants on our garage door this morning. I'm not entirely sure that it's not a male, though. It was pretty darn small (note the size of the ants next to it). But in the second picture you can definitely make out an hourglass shape on the underside of its abdomen, albeit this one is biege rather than red. I'm not sure if male widows have that or not.

This spider looks deceptively huge in these pictures (this camera kicks butt at macro photography!). But remember, that big blob of stuff next to it is a collection of three ants tied together.

And there is the hourglass. I ended up moving her off of the garage door, though, to a quite little shrub out of the way of curious dog noses. Even itsy-bitsy black widows pack quite a punch.

October 12, 2007

Another New Toy

Last week I got an email that I was a little suspicious about. It was an offer to send me, a blogger who tends to highlight nature photography, a "birdcam". Naturally, I was dubious at first, but I looked into it a bit. Seems there is a company out there called Wingscapes that makes these motion-sensing cameras that you can mount on bird feeders, bird houses, trees, pretty much anything you want. So I figured, what the hell.

Well, guess what arrived on my front step a few days ago?

Ain't it purty? I'm pretty psyched about this thing. It's a new toy I've pondered about for a while. I was so excited I ran to get batteries for the thing and try it out. Since we haven't had much activity at our feeders for a while I decided I wanted to try it along the path where we've been spotting the mountain lion tracks. So I went out around sundown to go set it up, knowing that the sensor wouldn't turn on until sunrise, but hoping that it might catch something walking by in the early morning light. Well, the results weren't quite as exciting as I'd hoped (but not for lack of how cool this thing is).

Here is my first official birdcam picture...of my knee. I guess there wasn't much activity that morning. I need to figure out how to set the date, too. I suppose reading the manual might help, eh? Anyway, I haven't had time to play with it since then, so I'm waiting until Sunday to really start putzing with it. It's even got a setting to capture video. Now I just have to find a good place to set it up to capture some daytime critters. You can expect more from the birdcam in the days and weeks to come.

I'm still playing around with our camera, too. Here are some recent pictures from around the Well.

Figuring out the intricacies of focusing while in the macro mode is a bit of a challenge. The depth of field (how big or small the in-focus area is) seems to get in my way a lot, as you can tell with this image of an immature greater earless lizard. I wanted to get its eye into focus, but since I was so close, and its head was turned slightly toward me, that meant its nose got all blurry. I need to figure out if there's a way to fix that. There probably is. I still like the picture though. Makes this tiny little lizard (it was perhaps 2.5 inches long, from nose-tip to tail-tip) look unnaturally large. At least I got the exposure sort of right.

I'm going to start posting the settings I used to take each picture with the hopes that someone with more SLR experience than myself can give me pointers for taking better photographs. So, if you're not interested in all these numbers, you can skip ahead. For all of these pictures I put the camera on the Tv setting, so it's deciding the aperature for each shot (1/250, f5.6, ISO 200 with the Sigma 70-300mm).

This little Rock Wren was sitting at the perfect spot for the setting sun to illuminate its head. I've noticed that when I zoom all the way in using this lens, my pictures seem a little soft. I don't know if this is a result of buying the cheapest 300mm lens I could find, or something I'm just not doing right when I take the picture. I'm wondering if I just need a better eye for getting the focus right. But if you click on the image, then you'll see what I mean. It's just a little on the fuzzy side. (1/160, f5.6, ISO 200 with the Sigma 70-300mm, focal length 300mm)

With the departure of nearly all of our summer migrants, the winter residents have begun to appear in the neighborhood, including this female White-crowned Sparrow, one of the first of the season. See, this one is much crisper, but she's also in full sunlight, while the Rock Wren (and the American Dipper from the previous post) was in shadow. I'm thinking now that it might be a result of camera shake considering the slow shudder speed I used for the wren. (1/1000, f5.6, ISO 200 with the Sigma 70-300mm, focal length 300 mm)

Finally, a picture of the morning light playing with a spider web. This one is my favorite of the bunch. (1/320, f5.6, ISO 200 with the Sigma 70-300mm, focal length 238mm)

October 09, 2007

Weekend Pictures

Some photographs from our morning at the Slide Rock Apple Festival in Oak Creek Canyon, near Sedona. An apple festival with a surprising lack of apples. Lots of cool wildlife, though.

Lesser Goldfinch
(Texas "black-backed" plumage...which is a little strange since this variety is normally not found west of New Mexico)

A water-skimming swarm of insects. No idea what they actually are.

Ornate Tree Lizard
Urosaurus ornatus

American Dipper
(I was experimenting with exposures, trying to capture details when my subject is in the shade)

October 06, 2007

The Milky Way

One of the things I was most excited about trying to capture with my new camera was the night sky here at Montezuma Well. It's pretty spectacular to stand in our yard and marvel at the amazing number of stars visible above us. Well, I tried my hand at a long-exposure image this evening. The results definitely aren't spectacular, but you can at least see the milky way.

I'm assuming I'd need some sort of equatorial mount with a motor on it to get really clear pictures. Well, that and perhaps use a tripod with a remote shutter button, rather than the hood of our car and a very cold finger trying to keep the camera steady.

Speaking of which, it's starting to get really cold at night. I wouldn't be surprised if the temp got down to 30 tonight. Holy crap, it didn't take long for Arizona to turn me into a wimp. Still, I'm not really complaining. I'd much rather have this than the 114 degree days we had all summer.

Anyway, when I got home this evening, I noticed a miniature drama unfolding on our front step. A tarantula hawk had immobilized a giant crab spider and was dragging it around, trying to find a place to bury it in the concrete of our step, apparently.

She wasn't having much luck, and spent the better part of an hour dragging the poor spider back and forth across the step. She disappeared with it later this evening, so I'm assuming she was able to find some suitable dirt in which to bury it. Here's a video of her trying to maneuver the large spider around under the eaves of our house.

October 05, 2007

Cartoon Villains in the White House

Funny, this is only the fourth veto of Bush's Presidency. Considering how selective he is with that veto pen, you'd think that it would have to be for something pretty unreasonable and expensive, like some major pork barrel project, for him to take the effort to actually do his job and try to reduce unnecessary government spending.

So, what project could be so wasteful and harmful to America that Bush would break his "In Case of Veto" glass and whip out the veto pen? I'm sure you've already heard this, but he just vetoed increasing health care for poor kids. Yep, for some reason he thinks a plan that would increase the per-pack tax on cigarettes by 64 cents to pay for health care for an addition 2-4 million kids is worthy of a veto.

But let's here what Jon Stewart has to say about it.

And I remember back in 2000 trying to convince myself that the election results weren't THAT bad by saying something like, "How much harm can one President really do?"

Can I be done with this President, Mommy?

October 03, 2007

You know it's a bad day when...

...a coronal mass ejection rips your tail off. Which is exactly what happened to comet Encke last April. Don't you hate when that happens?

It's not often you get to see a astronomical movie. The time between each frame of the image is about 45 minutes, so the elapsed time for the entire movie is probably several days. You're also seeing something on a scale that is impossible to fathom. If you measure the size of the frame from the point in space where the comet actually is, we're looking at an area that spans 14 million kilometers high by 20 million kilometers wide. It just boggles the mind...

I've been fascinated by astronomy since my dad and I watched the original broadcast of Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" back in 1980. Few people have ever been more eloquent, poetic and remarkably understandable when trying to explain the mysteries of our universe than Carl. He is the ultimate interpreter, and someone I try to emulate in my work. If you've never watched this incredible series before, watch this clip. It is Carl's poetic introduction to arguably the greatest documentary series ever made.

October 01, 2007

Halloween Bugs

In honor of the beginning of Halloween Month (in my opinion, this holiday deserves much more than a single day), I thought I'd post some pictures of local bugs/spiders all decked out for the holiday in their brightest black and orange. We encountered both of these on our hike this morning.

This is a jumping spider of some sort doing its best velvet ant impression. I missed capturing its legs-up defensive posturing by about a nanosecond.

And here we have some sort of "true bug". I'm assuming it is some sort of assassin bug or something, but I haven't actually taken the time to try to identify it, yet.

So, as the month progresses, you can expect more Halloweenie type posts. I'll even try to find some more orange-and-black wildlife. Too bad all of our orioles have migrated away already...

B-Day #34

Funny how your body gets older yet your mind refuses to acknowledge it sometimes. Even though the calendar (and the mirror) tell me that I am most definitely in my mid-thirties, my mind is still convinced that I'm 27. I've paid a heavy price for that before with sore and aching muscles after ignoring the fact that sometimes my mind has shit for brains. So with that in mind we opted for a much more leisurely birthday hike than the 12-mile descent into the Grand Canyon I had originally proposed. Instead, we drove a whopping ten minutes from our front door to the trailhead for the much tamer, but still quite beautiful Wet Beaver Canyon.

The light was really flat this morning, with a bland, grey cloud cover. So none of my landscape images turned out that great. Though I sorta like how the shadowy junipers kind of frame the walls of the canyon in this one.

While there aren't many flowers out this time of year, the cacti are still putting on a show. The fruiting bodies on both prickly pears and this christmas cholla (pronounced choy-ah) are still out, adding a little extra color to the canyon.

We spent most of the morning hanging out at a swimming hole four miles into the canyon. Here are my girls enjoying some quality time together at our picnic spot. The temperature was ideal and both dogs behaved themselves perfectly, playing in the water together for a good hour then lying quietly next to us as we munched on the gourmet cheese and expensive wine we carried out with us. The eight mile hike was just vigorous enough to make it actually feel like a hike. To top it all off, when we got home I stuffed my face with birthday cake.

Personally, I can't think of a better way to spend B-Day #34.