The dedicated researcher, I

I probably don’t need to tell you that today is Do Additional Research for a Blog Post Day, when anyone who is routinely posting should put aside some time to look deeper into one of their chosen topics. As such, I am meeting with some friends down at an amusement park for further investigation into thrill rides and their peculiar appeal to so many people. Normally, I’d be working or meeting with students or something along those lines, but if you don’t take such holidays seriously, then can you even call yourself a blogger? So I feel obligated to make this sacrifice and do the necessary observations. No, don’t call me a hero – it’s just the onus of a resolute pop psychologist.

Let’s kick back again

sanderling Calidris alba leaving footprints on delicately-colored sand
And so I finally get back to more of the beach trip, but part of the reason for the delay may soon become apparent, especially if you look at the page load times or sizes of some of the images. As I said, fewer pics this time around, largely because I was doing other vacationy things like abusing my muscles and joints, but there still remains plenty to put into this post.

almost-obscured sunrise off North Topsail Beach
I was out most mornings for sunrise, but this time around conditions were a lot less cooperative – much more humidity and even some threatening storms, so no shot at the green flash this year (so far, anyway,) and some of the sunrises were just ehhhh. And for a couple of days, that’s almost the only thing I had the camera out for. The opening image was on one such morning, as a sanderling (Calidris alba) wandered along the waterline – I liked how the sand shows some delicate reflections from the sky. In most cases I was purposefully under-exposing a little to bring out sky colors better, but there are too many photos where the exposures seem much lower than that – not sure if this was a camera issue or what, since I didn’t notice it until I got back and unloaded, and most of my shots since then have been on full manual (macro style.) Gotta run some tests, I think.

beachfront condos on North Topsail Beach at sunrise
If you were to judge from this photo, you might think the area is over-developed, and it’s certainly more developed than large stretches of the Outer Banks further north, but in this area it’s a single row of mostly rental properties between the main dune and the quiet road up the strand, and at that time of year at least still pretty quiet – things might have changed a little since Memorial Day, the official start of summery things in the US. But even now, I imagine it’s not very crowded or noisy, and during sunrises I generally encountered maybe a half-dozen early risers on the beach, and the same number hanging out on balconies overlooking the surf. Definitely quieter than even around here, and we’re in a pretty mellow area.

unidentified minnows spring from the water in unison
Last year I watched, and even successfully photographed, some species of fish that routinely leapt from the water three times, each time, which we saw again this year but a lot less of. More often, we’d see schools of minnows that were feeding (or perhaps even drinking) near the surface, and every minute or two something would make them spring from the water as an entire school at once – with several attempts, I finally snagged a frame, more challenging than it might seem since, even with autofocus, the lens couldn’t lock onto the smooth water when they weren’t leaping, and of course the school was meandering back and forth and had to be followed carefully to even have the momentary event within the frame.

One evening, we wandered down to the dock and gazebo, and by headlamps witnessed a very large number of what we took to be small shrimp hurtling at high speeds through the water, back and forth, and attracting opportunistic blue crabs. Lowering myself from the dock and trying several times, I managed to get one into my hand, only to discover that they weren’t shrimp, but annelids, one of which can be seen here. Definitely a creepy thing to suddenly see thrashing in your palm, even if it was less than 20mm in length and completely harmless to humans (I think, anyway. They might transmit Unacceptable Delaying Disease, but then again I think I had that before the beach trip.)

But all that’s pretty trivial compared to the next topic of this post, which is… crabs!

colony of Atlantic sand fiddler crabs Uca pugilator swarming at water's edge
We went down to the south end of the island again this year, and got our timing right, arriving as the tide was transitioning from high to low (on a side note along that line, I downloaded an app to tell local tide times, which was quite handy while we were there but considerably less so now, where the closest visible tidal change is still 200 kilometers away.) Like last year, the Atlantic sand fiddler crabs (Uca pugilator) were swarming across the thin gully that allowed seawater to sweep inland during high tide, but ran dry as the tide went out, leaving behind whatever it is that this species eats. The still-damp regions of sand were absolutely covered with the little balls of sand left behind by their feeding method, and you could actually hear a chorus of little clicks from the masses of them. In one shallow pool, a blob of… something… was attracting the attention of several foragers.

Atlantic sand fiddler crabs Uca pugilator scavenging unidentified blob
Atlantic sand fiddler crab Uga pugilator latched onto sandal strap, by Wendy HallOne of our friends got the photo at left, which is as good a way as any to show scale (that’s a flip-flop,) but it perhaps gives the wrong impression of their aggressiveness, which is nonexistent. Happening upon the horde of crabs stretching across the sand, one can walk among them, where they will move aside politely but not in any apparently fearful way, and while they avoid contact, it doesn’t take much effort to capture one and hold it in cupped hands, where the most it will do is try to escape. You might imagine that the region was inundated with escape burrows, but very few were to be found – I suspect most of them were concealed in the dune grasses not too far away, but the handful of burrows to be seen were way out of proportion to the thousands of crabs coating the area.

I have to include another shot from our friend.

Atlantic sand fiddler crabs Uca pugilator in looping animation, by Wendy HallThis was an animated gif (pronounced l’chaim) produced by her silly ass Apple phone, one of the plethora of options intended for social media or whatnot – I have to point out that the original file, while the same dimensions, was huge, looping 58 frames in a completely unnecessary manner – I removed two-thirds of the frames and lengthened the delay between, and you’d be hard put to see any difference, but I guess it’s important to slam your phone memory full with more detail than needed (do you get the impression that I’m picking on Apple? Dog forbid!)

Yet what it does show is their feeding actions, if you look closer at the stationary ones anyway – you can see the smaller of their chelae (pincers) shoveling sand into their mouths, and the little sand pellets left behind. While you might be inclined to think the larger chelae were for defense, it doesn’t appear that they’re used in this manner much at all, and the females don’t even have an enlarged one; mostly, they’re for mating and territorial displays by the males, and perhaps the occasional fencing bouts. I’ve seen related species when not in feeding frenzy, standing outside of their burrows and waving the pincers in the air as if to dismiss mosquitoes, displaying their virility for all around. I’m not showing you those photos because, you know, this is a family blog.

Yuh huh – not buying that, are you? Truth is, I have no really detailed photos of this yet, since I’ve seen it from a greater distance than their diminutive size permits for good display, and they would duck into their burrows as I got closer. It’s one of the items on my list to capture someday. Perhaps if I’d gotten down there in early morning and wandered further back into the dunes, I might have been able to photograph such behavior, but as I said in the earlier podcast, that’s the kind of thing that works better when I’m traveling alone.

Atlantic sand fiddler crab Uca pugilator buried alongside cigarette butt
I have to include this pair of images, just for giggles. Walking the waterline along the inlet, which shows tidal fluctuations but no wave action, I was watching for items of interest and noticed a curious patch of slightly disturbed sand alongside a discarded cigarette butt, with a telltale spot of color. But let’s have a closer look.

Atlantic sand fiddler crab Uca pugilator buried in sand with eyes exposed
Here we can see the value of eyestalks, since they’re plainly visible above the sand – as long as you went in very close. I suspect this is a female depositing eggs, since it was buried before we got into the vicinity, and I’m not sure if the cigarette had anything to do with it – the nicotine does sometimes attract critters, but other times it repels them, and I can’t vouch for the vices or virtues of crabs (there’s a sentence fragment that shouldn’t be taken from context.) Without the little purple spot on the back, however, even I would have missed this one. And you know that’s saying something, because I miss nothing.

You dare scoff? Let me show you what I did find.

unidentifed tiny crab among feeding pellets of fiddlers
So, scroll back up to that pic of the fiddler hanging from the flip-flop. Get that size in your mind? Now come back down to the animation, and note the pellets of sand they’re surrounded by. Because that’s what this little spud is hiding among, and I’m not even going to try to identify it – I’m fairly certain it’s a juvenile, but that’s about it. A large black ant could have made off with this guy, and capturing it required scooping up the sand it was standing upon because grasping it was next to impossible. I would have had a scale shot in The Girlfriend’s palm but it refused to hold still enough to let me lock focus at such high magnification, so I got it among the sand balls instead. And I’ll be honest, because the color difference from the sand was too subtle to notice at this scale, and I spotted it because it moved instead. Which, really, is the best method that I’ve found of spotting wildlife, and good peripheral vision is a major benefit.

juvenile Atlantic blue crab Callinectes sapidus in The Girlfriend's handOne of the appeals of this portion of the island was the inlet, the only place I found where snorkeling seemed possible, and that was one of our activities while there. The water is shallow and clear, though with an appreciable current except, I suspect, as the tides were transitioning. I only did it for a short while, however, because my eyes are so bad; I need to have an old pair of glasses in the dive mask, and the pair I was using fit terribly and wouldn’t stay in position. Were I back to living in Florida, I would get some disposable contacts solely to use for snorkeling (I don’t really like they otherwise,) but here in NC there are so few opportunities to snorkel that I’d use one, maybe two pairs a year at most – not worth the expense or effort. But during the brief session we found a few items of interest, and I don’t recall who located this juvenile Atlantic blue crab (Callinectes sapidus,) but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t me. Holding it in this manner took a delicate touch, because those points on the carapace were quite sharp, but it was also the only spot to hold it to avoid those chelae – unlike the fiddlers, blue crabs are notoriously aggressive and will pinch for effect.

unidentified small hermit crab
unidentified small hermit crab scale shotThis one, however, did not. This unidentified hermit crab was remarkably cooperative for its photos, sitting still in The Girlfriend’s palm but fully exposed, and not retracted into its shell as normal (and the whole point of those shells in the first place.) The inlet is a good place to spot hermit crabs, being abundant and generally in clear shallow water; I spotted one large specimen in the sound behind the condo from the dock, but was unable to get to it – the attempt would have required either vaulting from the dock, or crossing a broad boggy area where I would likely have left my sandals (real ones, with proper straps, not silly flip-flops) buried in the muck, as I almost did last year when putting the kayak in.

There are both terrestrial and aquatic hermit crab species, by the way; the terrestrial are the kind sold so often as pets, but the only thing I’ve seen in this region, or even in Florida, are the aquatic varieties, which are capable of being out of the water for a short period of time but require the moisture. Watching for a minute or two may reveal the shell moving across the bottom in shallow water, or just picking up any shell that’s sitting suspiciously with the opening down – empty shells usually sit with the opening upward. On occasion, you get unlucky and only find the original occupants/creators of the shells, by which I mean snails, but I was finding crabs more often than not.

One more crab feature, and then we’re done. For now.

Atlantic ghost crab Ocypode quadrata with burden of sand cleaned from burrow
While hanging out at the beach between sessions of boogie-boarding, the others had gone off temporarily in different directions and I was just lounging by myself in the sand when I spotted a small crab cleaning out its warren. Atlantic ghost crabs (Ocypode quadrata) are numerous on the beaches all along the eastern seaboard, but secretive, more active at night or early morning, so watching this one kicking sand from its burrow in early afternoon was a little rare, but not unheard of, and I was mostly seeing it because I wasn’t moving. They might peek out quite often, camouflaged extremely well against the sand, but any kind of movement will send them back into the depths; I became aware of this one, very close to where I sat, because I noticed new deposits around the mouth of the opening. While it was within the burrow, I shifted the boogie-board over to a good location (endeavoring to keep myself clean for once,) propped upon my belly and elbows with camera in hand, and fired off a sequence of shots as it industriously rearranged its living quarters. While I was doing this, two of the others wandered up behind me – I had seen their approach reflected in the LCD panel of the camera but was intent on my subject. Thinking, however, that I was shooting some teenager in a bikini much further down the beach, Mr. Black Ops cleared his throat distinctly (like he can talk) – I’m betting he thought I never noticed.

The sequence, despite being largely handheld and thus not perfectly stable for such things, still lent itself to another animation.

animation of Atlantic ghost crab Ocypode quadrata cleaning out burrow
This is just a series of still photos run in sequence, and I wasn’t intending to do this at the time or I wouldn’t have been shifting position and depth between the shots. Also (and I may be stating the obvious,) the period between appearances was a whole lot longer than what you see here – give or take, a minute or two. The funny thing was, the video camcorder was sitting right alongside me, but I’ve never tried it out for macro work, while the video-capable DSLR was back in the condo – like I said, vacation, not necessarily a shooting trip.

But there’s one frame I’m going to highlight, just for the detail.

Atlantic ghost crab Ocypode quadrata hurling sand at the photographer
See the shadow? Yeah, the little ignatz was hurling the sand directly at me in this shot, and I, supreme photographer that I am, caught it in midair (just, you know, not in focus.) Oh, the crab knew I was there, all right…

Per the ancient lore, part 14

Crescent moon at sunset over shelter and palms
This week, we hit the last of the stock folders, the so-called Sunrise/Sunset bin – which is one of the thinnest folders that I have (‘thin’ insofar as number of images within, because there is no measurable thickness to a bunch of magnetic squiggles on a hard disk.) The reason for this is, I don’t get out often enough to places that work best with sunrise and sunset images – and in this particular case, there are less than ten images with the loaner Sony camera in that folder, in the few weeks that I had it before it went to its new owner. Eventually, the folder started to fill out a bit more, but it says a lot that last year’s trip to Topsail expanded its contents measurably.

This was pretty much a grab shot one evening as they sky darkened and a crescent moon betrayed the direction the sun had gone, taken right at the apartment complex where I’d lived. Initially, I was gonna carp about the two banes of the landscape photographer: power lines and aircraft contrails (no, they’re not ‘chemtrails’ – it’s fairly basic physics, read a goddamn book.) And that was not only because of the lines you can see across the bottom of the sky there, but another pale streak coming across mid-frame on the right side. However, as I was editing this photo for upload, I realized that the streak went across the palm trees too, so it was either an awful close passenger jet, or some other bugaboo on the image. What, I couldn’t begin to tell you, because it makes no sense – it could have been flare from a light source outside the frame to the right, but I’m pretty certain there was no such light, so how it got there remains a mystery. I simply edited it out, which took away part of my rant against the two banes; they still exist of course, but I can only show one in this pic.

This is not the first sunset image in the folder, though – that one is actually among the rotating header images up there at the top of the page, the sun shining through the fronds of a palm tree on the edge of the water. Just keep watching – you’ll see it eventually.

Since this is the last of the stock folders, we’ll start anew next week back at the beginning with Aquatic. Try to contain your excitement.

Early Friday morning color

probable Condylostylus mundus on wet leaf
Remember when I said, on last year’s trip to North Topsail, that I hardly did any insect photography at all? Of course you do – forgive me. This trip was about the same; I might have fewer than ten more insect images over what I got last year. This is one of them, taken the grey morning of our last day there after an overnight rain, and I decided it needed a feature of its own since I’m still a bit slow in getting up more posts about the trip. Every example from an image search on BugGuide.net that looked even close to this was the same species, Condylostylus mundus, so that’s what I’m going with and we’ll blame BugGuide for being so misleading if it’s incorrect.

But we haven’t had a color post in a while and I felt this one just might qualify. I hadn’t bothered with the macro rig for this so it’s natural light and freehand – several other frames didn’t pass muster. Yet the larger frame, composed the way I like it, doesn’t yield the detail of the fly itself, so we’ll go with an inset for that.

probable Condylostylus mundus close inset of previous frameThere, better? This is not quite full resolution, and the fly itself was guesstimated about 5-7mm in length – and yet, hard to miss. Makes me wonder what purpose this coloration serves, since it ain’t camouflage, but by all accounts this is an incredibly fast and reactive species, so the possibility remains that it has no need of avoiding the attention of predators, and developed the colors just to mock them.

We won’t talk about how small that possibility is…

Odd memories, part 16

I’m trying to recall what kind of conversation we were having tonight that brought this subject to mind – it’s not like anyone would routinely discuss anecdotes of this nature, but then again, I’m involved, so…

This one occurred around the same time period of most of the ‘Per the ancient lore’ posts, like the one about to appear – back in the early 2000s while living in Florida. During that time I was biking a lot, partially because I had to, partially because the area was just about ideal for it – certainly much better than here in central NC where they feel that even making the roads legal, regulation width is asking too damn much of the Department of Transportation.

blue dasher Pachydiplax longipennis dragonfly on dried rosebudAnyway, one hot summer day I was cruising along in the bike lane and I spied, coming in from the right, a very large dragonfly cutting directly across my path and on a high-probability collision course. There was just a moment to react, which was to straighten up and wonder if I should duck it or swerve, when it veered 90° from its original course and began heading exactly in the direction that I was, about two meters directly in front of me. Both of these, in and of themselves, were curious; I’ve only ever seen dragonflies hunting in a darting, circling, very localized manner, and never ‘going someplace’ – and then to see it change direction, to all appearances because of my presence, and begin flying straight-line on another tangent didn’t seem kosher to me. But this was idle, back-of-the-mind speculation as I wondered just how far I was going to have this honor escort.

Not very far at all, as it turned out, as within two seconds, the dragonfly abruptly veered from course again, back the way it had come – but not entirely. It actually described a tight circle, a 270° loop back to its right, which brought it directly in line with me again. So directly, in fact, that it flew behind the edge of my glasses and lodged itself in the space between them and my eye, faster than I could even twitch away.

So ensnared, it then set about frantically beating its wings in an attempt to get free, while I endeavored not to veer into traffic or crash into a ditch. Even then, I was well aware that there was no danger, even though the insect seemed to be trying to fulfill the dire threats of my childhood and sew my eyelids together, but there is still something slightly disconcerting about a large insect trapped in the scant millimeters between your glasses and eye, thrashing exuberantly. With only a little weaving and vocal ejaculations that might have made great entertainment to a passerby that couldn’t actually make out the dragonfly, I removed my glasses and sent the miscreant on its way.

Now, this is a class of insect, mind you, that catches other insects in midair, and has some of the most involved compound eyes in the kingdom. Its change of path as we rendezvoused seemed to indicate that it had not missed my presence, and I doubt that I was being particularly subtle that day, massing a few million times what it did, in bright sunlight, and not exactly blending in with the surroundings in any manner. So I can only assume this was a deliberate and premeditated action on its part, perhaps an adolescent dare, the arthropod equivalent of Spin The Bottlefly or something. I have not ruled out texting though…

Some years later I saw something slightly related, but introducing a pattern which may indicate that insects aren’t entirely the quickest thinkers. I was sitting on the deck of my apartment, which was immediately across from a large patch of woods, early in the evening. From the woods emerged a large junebug, flying in a perfectly straight line in my direction – despite the flashbacks that this was causing, I was stalwart and remained still. The junebug flew lazily, without wavering, straight into the wall of the building just a couple of meters away from me, bounced along it repeatedly as it tried to continue its intended course, and eventually reached the edge where it could bypass this hooligan edifice and resume its journey. Mind you, this is a building ten-meters square on a side, bright white, and well-lit by the sun – also, not moving notably in any unpredictable manner, and being present for at least the past ten years. Once again, I could only wonder how anything that actually possessed the ability to fly somehow lacked the functionality to notice an obstacle of this nature, much less avoid it. I promise, of course, to keep you abreast of any further observations of this nature.

Okay, but could be better

The Girlfriend kayaking on Jordan lake
So first off, let me just assure you that we did get outdoors for National Get Outdoors Day (which was Saturday) – The Girlfriend and I took the kayaks out on Jordan Lake for a short excursion. “Short,” in part, because we’re still not conditioned to long kayak trips yet, but also because I had to be at work that afternoon. It was good to use the weekend for weekend stuff, or at least what most people think of as weekend stuff, which is relaxing and having fun. It doesn’t happen as often as we’d like… and by “we” I suspect I’m speaking for a lot of us.

The author kayaking on Jordan Lake, or at least the bow of his kayak
I feel obligated to say that these were taken [shudder] with a smutphone, but at present that little $20 jobby is the only thing I’m risking this close to water, and even then it was in a sport pouch. Perhaps later on I’ll be doing some real photography from the kayak – we’ll see how it goes.

But that’s not the topic of this post; the topic is last night. I have been working towards a kickass macro video rig, and yesterday evening it got a brief test, which seemed to be working fine – and then a component appeared to fail. Still working out the details, and I plan to be back with a video example as soon as I’ve got everything worked out. Right now, the clips I have are of a Copes grey treefrog and a six-spotted fishing spider sitting motionless for the camera, which might as well be still photos for all the action you can see, so I’m not going to bother uploading that. The point of macro video is, naturally, to show action, behavior, and interesting rude gestures from the wildlife that I encounter, and we’re still working up to that.

Later in the evening, as I sat at my desk figuring out the issues with the rig, I started hearing the faint rumbles of something, which could have been a neighbor wheeling their garbage cans to the curb, but they were going on too long and too frequently for that, so I checked the real-time lightning map to see what was happening. Sure enough, there were electrical storms in the region, though the map wasn’t showing any terribly close. I’m not sure if there was an updating issue (which I suspect) or if it simply wasn’t responding to the primary cloud-to-cloud activity, but on actually setting foot outside (even though it was Sunday now,) I could see the flashes, so I gathered camera (the real one) and tripod and went out to the pond.

lightning illuminating the clouds without appearing
The vast majority of what I saw was like that above, or worse; the activity was a little too distant for the low cloud cover, and just about every place locally has trees just like this which limit the low-angle view. Storms are best seen from places like mountaintops (not around here,) the beach (no luck while we were out there, though the report listed the possibility for several days of our stay,) or someplace like Kansas. Nonetheless, until I’m getting paid The Big Bucks for such things, I’ll just keep living right here and do what I can.

visible lightning bolt trying to hide behind the trees
lightning behind tree againAnd then, of course, you get the distinct bolt that just happens to appear behind an obscuring tree limb, even when the primary activity centers were on either side. In fact, I encountered the same thing with a storm last year, as seen to the left – distant activity mostly obscured by both clouds and the nearby horizon, and when something finally shows, it’s behind a tree from my perspective. You have to have a lot of patience with lightning photography.

Lightning hiding behind a tree yet againThat same storm had it happen again, this time behind another tree. A lot of patience – it helps to remind yourself that this is only random and the ancient gods, like Fate and Sniggering, don’t really exist.

By the way, I did finally get a more distinct bolt in that storm, seen below. I’d prepped these images for a post then but never did write it up, so they’re being used now before they go bad.

lightning finally hitting the gap between the trees
But back to last night. There was no rain, but a stiff breeze and pleasant temperature, and with the light show it was actually a nice night to be out. The frogs could still be heard calling down near the end of the pond, and the occasional plop! from fish taking a shot at the night insects would sound near my feet. Meanwhile, I just kept firing off the frames, hoping to capture something compelling. Eventually, I got a couple of simultaneous bolts that stretched across the sky.

lightning bolts extending sideways across the sky
I feel it necessary to point out that this is shot at a 10mm focal length, which is someplace close to a ninety-degree view of the sky, so in person it appeared much more impressive. There were two primary centers of activity, though, spread well apart, so I was set to capture either one in any frame. Which is a little foresight from having done this too many times before; the region to the left was far more active, at least flash-wise, and had I focused tighter on that I would have missed this display, so go me, eh? And yes, I missed at least two visible bolts in the very brief periods between the long time exposures, averaging a second or three not shooting between 10-30 seconds with the shutter open and capturing, very often, nothing. Perhaps there really is a god of Sniggering.

But hey, that wide angle of view? It paid off a little better just a few minutes down the road.

both active regions of the storms showing visible lightning bolts
That’s both active regions showing bolts in the same single exposure (which happened to be ten seconds in length.) I knew when I captured it that this particular storm was unlikely to produce anything much better. You can compare the two images above, which are the exact same framing, to see how much the clouds have changed in just a few minutes, but in person this wasn’t really noticeable – the light in the frame is mostly from the very brief duration of the bolts, with the ambient light from the nearby cities too dim to show much other than overcast. On occasion, I get some nice sequences which will show the progression of the storm clouds, but this isn’t obvious until I get back and unload the memory card.

I was noting, however, that the active region to the left seemed to be drawing closer, and the breeze was getting stiffer, often evidence of air being pushed ahead of a front – I guessed that rain was imminent. One bright flash gave me some hint of this, but again, this is so brief in person that you have to get a solid impression from the fraction of a second, which isn’t always accurate. The image yielded a lot more useful info, but after getting stung a few times with missed bolts, I was keeping the time between exposures (which also means the time peering at the preview images on the LCD back of the camera) to a bare minimum. Now we can see what I only got a fleeting impression of then.

bright and close lightning strike mostly obscured by rain
If I’d opened with this image, you might have believed that this was a daylight storm, or perhaps close to sunset, but then again I would have destroyed the elaborate narrative that makes these posts so captivating. Regardless, you can tell this one is a lot brighter and closer than anything else that I’ve shown you, or captured, and the crack of thunder was quicker in coming – this was only a few kilometers away to the northwest. The bolt is primarily obscured by the rain, which was illuminated by the strike, with a few tendrils visible off to the side, appearing from around the edge of the rain, I’m thinking. Let’s take a closer look at that portion.

cropped inset of same frame
That certainly seems quite bright, like a blast of plasma signaling that a Terminator is arriving, making the visible branches of the lightning (there’s another at the treeline to the left of the obvious one) look trivial. That’s a close strike within a heavy rain, and a bit foreboding.

Almost immediately after this, I was aware that the flashes were now extending much more overhead, meaning I was underneath the active region and much closer to a strike zone – not a good place to be. I could also see a block of low-level clouds moving rapidly into the area, which if nothing else would obscure any lightning except that too close for comfort but might also herald the arrival of the rain, so I started packing my stuff up. The hike back to the house is three to five minutes, just to give you an idea. I was rounding the end of the pond as the first serious drops started falling, but was only halfway along the path that ran the width of the pond (the shorter side, which you’re looking across in these pics though the wide-angle gives an incorrect impression of how narrow it is) as it started pouring. I got soaked in that brief period before reaching the house, but the camera bag is water-repellent and I unpacked the equipment as soon as I was indoors – this is far from the first time that that’s happened, and too quickly to get out the disposable rain poncho that I carry routinely.

I was going to have a little addition to this post, because after changing my shirt, I stepped out onto the porch (mostly shielded from the rain) to record a sound file of the rain and thunder. I’ve done this before, but with a different recorder and without the driving wind that was now occurring, so this time around the audio quality was too poor to share. I had, for instance, lost the windscreen on the mic that I was using last night, so there’s lots of wind thumping, but also the wind chimes nearby and just the bad acoustics of the rain, so that linked audio post is a much better experience. And had it not been so dark, it might have been interesting to get video of the rain whipping past in sheets, falling at a diagonal and sailing off of The Girlfriend’s parked car out front as if it was tooling down the road at 100 kph. Definitely haven’t started the summer drought yet.

Per the ancient lore, part 13

Cape Canaveral launch pads 39A and 39B from Merritt Island
This week, the folder selection for our archive digital shots is ‘Space.’ If you’re viewing this image and thinking it doesn’t look very spacey, well, how you could be so ignorant? Look again, you oblivious savage. Those structures are launch pads 39-A and 39-B at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, the very places where every space shuttle mission, and for that matter every Apollo mission, began. If you’re on your way to the moon, this is where you board.

The photo was taken from Playalinda Beach Road on Merritt Island, which is where the Cape is located – it’s no surprise that this is right outside the property of the space center, and in fact this region was always closed off during launches (and I think landings as well, since the Canaveral Skid Pad, the landing strip for the shuttle, sits about 5 kilometers off to the right of where this picture was taken.) The nearest pad, to the left, is 39-B and is less than 5 km distant, while 39-A on the right side is a little over 7 km off. The Vehicle Assembly Building is well out of the frame to the right, but was still plainly visible from this location – and in fact, is plainly visible from just about anyplace in this region of Florida, due to its own height and the flatness of the land.

The kind of triangular/semicircular portion of those launch gantries was the payload section, which was hinged and would fold closed over the shuttles after they reached the launch pads. The water towers nearby were solely for use during launches, flooding the pads with water as noise and vibration suppression – if you look at any photo or video of the shuttle launches, the huge clouds of white smoke that you see aren’t smoke, but water vapor from this water – the rocket exhausts were either darker, for the solid rocket boosters, or virtually nonexistent for the shuttle main engines. And I’m speaking in the past tense here because these launch gantries no longer exist – they’ve been taken down and rebuilt, with SpaceX using pad 39-A for the Falcon launches and 39-B being refitted for the new Space Launch System.

The foreground, unsurprisingly, is swamp, with a few birds visible here and there; most of the Cape is wetlands, and I recall reading an article by one of the people tasked with finding a location for the nascent space program, back in the 1950s. His reaction to this proposed location was almost of horror, and he distinctly recommended against this boggy, alligator-infested, mosquito-breeding-capital of a candidate – it seems his vote was discounted (there were other mitigating factors, some of which I’ll be happy to relate if anyone asks.) Even after the decades of development by NASA and the USAF, the region is still boggy and alligator-infested, but enough dry land was discovered/created to prevent launch vehicles from disappearing into the marsh. Seriously, check it out on Google Earth or the aerial photo service of choice. It’s a cool place for wildlife photography, especially Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge only a few kilometers from this point.

A little trivia. This photo was taken in May 2004, a little over a year since the Columbia had broken up on re-entry over Texas, and the pads were sitting dormant while the program was in examination. On the day of the accident, I was actually driving up to within visual distance of the landing strip and realized that I should have checked the timetable – I might have been able to see the landing while I was there. The accident occurred while I was in the car, and I heard about it as soon as I arrived. And just to give you an idea of the velocity of the incoming shuttles, that mission was due to touch down at 9:16 AM in Florida, but broke up at 9:00 AM over Texas and Louisiana while traveling approximately 21,000 kilometers per hour (13,000 mph.) Touchdown speed for the shuttle was about 330 kph, so all of that speed had to be shed in that timeframe.

By the way, if you look up the area on Google Earth, slide westward over to the landing strip (it will be abundantly obvious) and the service road that runs from the southern end of it, then roll the date back to March 1994 – you can see a shuttle being towed from the Skid Pad back to the Vehicle Assembly Building. That would be STS-62, Columbia itself, having just returned earlier that day from its mission.

No excuses now

North Topsail Beach just after sunset
Hey! I’m betting you forgot that Saturday – that would be June 9th – is National Get Outdoors Day. And the walk from the house to the car doesn’t count; you’re being graded on this, so let’s see some real effort put into it. If you don’t have some chewed-up areas on your hands and at least five bug bites come Sunday morning, you weren’t trying hard enough.

And if your boss is telling you that you’re supposed to be working that day, we’ll have none of that nonsense. Give me their number – I’ll take care of it. Rest assured, you’ve got someone with some pull on your side now.

So go do something fun, or perhaps even environmentally beneficial, like leaving the gas-powered whatsit aside and going on strictly human power. Ignore the toy phone for a while (and that includes selfies.) Whatever, there are no guidelines or rules, just get out there where the observing aliens can see you so they can do an accurate head count. And try to have some fun while doing so. I will, of course, be back with anything blogworthy that I came across myself.

It’s not like I need the practice

This is one of those things that I think I’ve been preventing myself from really accepting, but I’ve recently come to the conclusion that I fucking hate working on cars.

Which might seem odd, given how often I have to do it. I’m not a mechanic by any stretch, but the word “shadetree” often appears about this point; routine maintenance poses no issues, and I can generally handle moderate repairs, but the ability to diagnose, for instance, why the car keeps stalling usually means a lot of research. I started learning how to work on cars early on, by not being able to afford the costs of mechanics, and unfortunately that condition has persisted most of my life, not at all helped by a) being galled by how much a garage actually charges, and b) finding waaayyy too many garages that utterly suck. So, ninety percent of the time, I do it myself.

And it’s not like I’m speaking out of frustration because I’m so unsuccessful (with cars, I mean) – most times the car gets properly repaired and back on the road, albeit a little slower than a garage might have accomplished (might.) While I am often working from a Haynes or Chilton manual for the particular vehicle (and I highly recommend these, by the way,) the problem usually gets fixed, and doesn’t reappear.

Listen, here’s how it goes. I’ll look over the repair necessary, either visually on the car or within a manual or online guide, and it’ll be something along the lines of, “remove these two bolts and this wiring harness, and lift the assembly off of the mounts.” And I begin work. Two hours later, I’m filthy, bleeding from two knuckles, have gone out and picked up a new tool that I didn’t have (or even made one,) and the fucking assembly is still attached to the mounts. When people tell me their car is falling apart, I’m tempted to buy it from them because it’d be a hell of a lot easier to work on than what I typically see, which is a car resolutely determined to stay together no matter what. Bolts seize, parts rust, and on occasion I think auto manufacturers actually cast false bolt heads onto the side of housings just to fuck with idiots like me. WD-40 and other such ‘penetrating oils?’ Don’t make me laugh – they’re fine for a screw on your toaster, but not much else, because there’s no actual gaps for them to penetrate into on the very parts where they’re needed the most.

It does not help that auto manufacturers actively try to thwart the DIY mechanic, designing cars with poor access or working space, a lack of bracing or leverage surfaces, something else that has to be removed just to get at the part in question, or most especially, the necessity of a specialty tool. Of course they want you to take the car into the dealer or ‘authorized’ service center – and if you’ve seen the labor charges or parts markup at such places, you know damn well why. And while it’s easy to believe that the mechanics there always know what they’re doing, it’s also not the case anywhere near often enough.

It’s also easy to believe that having a “full set of tools” will allow you to tackle more repairs with ease, but there really is no such thing – there are more tools dedicated to singular tasks in auto repair than you can imagine, even without automakers’ efforts. You can have an entire rolling tool chest full of stuff and still have to get that 34mm axle nut socket or the fuel pump retaining ring wrench – and of course, use this once. The only time you’ll end up needing it again is after you’ve sold it to someone else.

As you might have surmised, I’ve been doing a bit of auto repair work lately, both on The Girlfriend’s car and then her Sprogs’ before the trip to the beach, and on my own after we got back – the best I can say is that the former two only ran into minor complications each. Mine had been waiting for both spare time (knowing it would take a while) and the ability to use another vehicle while it was incapacitated. We are, of course, a few days past the time I allotted for getting through these repairs, even given the extra time I added because I’ve done this kind of shit far too often. Right at the moment I’m trying to find someone with either a hydraulic press or a jackhammer…

So, yeah, I’m pretty damn sick of it all. Eventually, I accomplish what I set out to do, but not without an awful lot of cursing.

Per the ancient lore, part 12

Taking yesterday’s cue, we’re going to feature two images today for the ancient lore, both taken on the same day – one at close to 3 AM, and the other at 8:30 AM; I’m fairly certain I got a little sleep in between those, but can’t say for sure…

The folder is Science/Miscellaneous, which collects mostly things like weather phenomena and then everything that doesn’t fit into other categories. The first is… well, I shot it for some kind of poignancy, but soon realized that it doesn’t really carry that, and over the years I’ve looked at it and utterly failed to find a use for it – save for here, after which I may simply discard the frames.

hog jawbone covered in barnacles
That’s – the lower jaw of a pig, likely a wild pig, found in the shallows of my primary haunt in Florida. One season, someone discarded the carcasses of a couple of pigs right there, much to my annoyance, and later on I found this jawbone, studded with barnacles and blackened by who-knows-what. I perched it on the stump that sat on shore and has appeared several times on this site, but really, it just ain’t doing it.

I’ll take a moment to mention that the ‘wild’ pigs of Florida are actually domestic pork pigs that have escaped, or been released, and set themselves up a feral existence in the state, which somehow seems to encourage that kind of jazz. But no, these are not ‘boar’ or anything similar, and on occasion you can spot striped varieties. I’ve seen them a handful of times but never got any photos.

Now the next, which was actually the earlier of the two.

Eau Gallie causeway by streetlights
There’s nothing fascinating about this one either, but it was the first attempts to do some light trails across the causeway bridge – that red line is from the sole car that went through, so a time other than three AM is certainly better for traffic. And it has two little bits of trivia all its own.

The first is a story. One evening/morning, but I don’t think it was this morning, I was at the left side of the bridge shooting a long exposure out over the water, likely of a moored sailboat dimly visible in the ambient light, and decided to switch to the other side to see what could be found there. I crossed the horrendously busy lanes and reached the center barrier, which was about a meter high, swung my legs over it, and let myself down to the other side.

Except, the streetlight right over that immediate vicinity was out, which can actually be seen in the center of this pic if you look closely, and I was peering out across the water to scope out any potential. You may have already realized my mistake, but I’ll point it out if you haven’t: the lanes are, for reasons unknown, two different heights right at that point. Completely unaware of this, I swung my legs aver and expected a slight drop of a handful of centimeters, and actually fell more than a meter. There is the shortest experience of falling terror that occurs in such circumstances, before my straightened legs slammed into the road surface below and sent the shock right up my spine. I staggered but somehow managed to remain upright, then looked around to check if, by any remote chance, someone had seen me perform this graceless maneuver.

[You may be looking at this and thinking, What the hell, how could he have missed that? but I’ll remind you that this is a time-exposure, collecting a lot more light than was readily visible by eye, and even with this, you can see how dark it gets right there. But yeah, it would have been obvious had I looked down.]

Eau Gallie causeway in separated RGB color channelsNow for the second bit, discovered when doing some editing some time back; I even prepped and saved an illustrating image, but ended up not using it. Until now. The streetlamps are sodium pressure bulbs, putting out that curious orange glow, which looks reasonably accurate in digital but renders much worse in Fuji Provia slide film. However, this provided an overall orange cast to the image – accurate for the conditions, but not exactly white-balanced, you know? So I tried editing the image to bring it more in line with white light, and couldn’t even come close. Then when attempting something else, I looked at the separate color channels and found out why.

That’s each right there, and as can be easily seen now, sodium lamps put out virtually no blue wavelength, or at least none that can be captured by the digital camera I was using. To counter an orange cast, you’d want to increase the blue channel and reduce the red, but the blue channel had no effect whatsoever except for the glare from the bulbs themselves, and even then it was trivial. Just for giggles, I selected the blue channel and blew it out to almost maximum, what would normally be a radical overexposure, and got the faintest hint of reflected light only from shiny surfaces near the bulbs. It makes me wonder what the particulars are about that wavelength, since it reaches the camera directly, albeit weakly (that’s why the glare from the bulbs is still visible in the blue channel) but virtually everything that it shines on doesn’t carry away. It could just be extremely weak I guess.

That’s the kind of useless pondering I get up to sometimes…