Been building to this

This has been a while in the making, but right now I’m pleased with the results.

Back in February I talked about pursuing a North American beaver (Castor canadensis) in the neighborhood pond, with a couple of “proof” shots taken at night. Naturally, this is limiting, mostly by the flash power, but simply knowing where the beaver might be in the darkness of the pond at night (much less nailing focus) presented some difficulties, and I hadn’t been back for another dedicated session. Then my friend who lives in a house on the pond sent me some stills and video that she’d taken just before sunset, meaning the beaver(s) were now venturing out at the tail end of daylight, which removed a lot of obstacles. So I began making excursions over there when I could.

North American beaver Castor canadensis cruising through pond
What I got, early on, were just more “proof” photos, slightly more illustrative than the night shots, but not a lot. Seeing how close the beaver would cruise by was encouraging, however.

North American beaver Castor canadensis looking like a wet dog
It always gets me to see their coat, because it doesn’t seem like that of an aquatic mammal – they just look like wet dogs, and not like seals as we might expect.

What I wanted, however, was behavior, preferably eating or working on felling a tree. I was skeptical, thinking that for at least the latter, the beavers would only do this when they didn’t feel threatened, e.g., late at night under cover of total darkness. But then one session, as The Girlfriend and I watched, the beaver dredged up a stick from under the surface and lolled around snacking on it.

North American beaver Castor canadensis chewing on stick while floating
Beavers are primarily nocturnal, so seeing something during the day wasn’t likely (this clip notwithstanding,) but here at least it/they seem to get active at dusk, so there’s a window of an hour or two where there’s enough daylight to get some decent shots without the shutter speed decaying too far.

North American beaver Castor canadensis snacking on wood chip almost face-on
I’ve been giving some ambiguity to the number because in February, both of us witnessed at least two beavers, but every time since, there’s only been one visible. This might mean that there really is only one, or that the female is remaining in the lodge because of motherhood duties, or that they trade off appearances – can’t say for sure. The lodge is on an island, so no close looks at that are possible without a bit of messing about that I’m not inclined to do.

Because of the distances, I’ve been using the Tamron 150-600 lens, including with video, which is not recommended – it’s just too difficult to keep stable, but you’ll get to see the results anyway. I then tried it with the routine tripod and ballhead – also not ideal, but fine with unmoving subjects.

North American beaver Castor canadensis munching right at pond's edge
The two images above and below, by the way, were among those that I took as The Girlfriend shot one of the video clips that you’ll see shortly. So yes, I got a few keepers from that, despite the foliage getting in the way. The shot below is full-frame.

North American beaver Castor canadensis peering from screening foliage
I had several video clips now and was looking to put them all together, but realized that I needed just a little more, preferably something quite stable, so I dug out the old video tripod and traipsed back over to the pond for another session (these were all spread out over a couple of weeks, and not in one evening.) Bothered by the audio quality, I also took along the video mic, given that previously I’d only been after still photos and hadn’t thought to bring it along (you really need to see what I do pack, routinely – I need a Sherpa.) And despite the shortcomings of the less-than-professional video tripod, I finally got something sweet.

Some notes about the equipment: I was primarily using the Canon 7D with the Tamron 150-600, which is ‘okay’ for video work, with several shortcomings. The first is, there is no real-time focusing while video is being recorded, so if the subject happens to be changing distances, this requires manually focusing. The lens is stabilized, but that’s made for still photos, and using it during video may just as well induce more jerkiness as the stabilizer corrects then re-orients, and it should be shut off. The on-camera microphone is crapola, omnidirectional and too sensitive, not to mention picking up sound through the camera body, so an external mic is crucial. I have two, both supposedly unidirectional to some degree, but not to the degree that wildlife demands – that’s a much bigger expense, and will come someday.

North American beaver Castor canadensis lifting head from duckweed
I mention the “furry” windscreen in the video, also called a “dead cat,” and this is a literally furry cover (synthetic) that disperses the wind so it doesn’t beat audibly on condenser mics – absolutely necessary (as these sessions demonstrated) for outdoor work. My longer mic has one, but that has proven no more sensitive than the much smaller mic, while being pretty awkward, so I skipped it for these sessions – my mistake.

The 7D also requires using the LCD on the back as the video viewfinder, and this is a horrendous idea. I have an external monitor, which works much better, but, it needs to be affixed to something and is another thing to lug along. Hopefully, you’re starting to get the idea that just having video capability in a DSLR body isn’t this magical solution.

I/we were also using a Canon HFS100 camcorder, which was easier to hold steady, but much shorter reach than the 150-600 of course, and no accessory shoe to mount an external mic to, though it does at least have a jack for one.

North American beaver Castor canadensis peering from pond weeds
The video tripod, with something called a fluid head, is some no-name brand The Girlfriend snagged in the divorce, and not the best quality – I already knew about its stickiness and tried to correct it, and this was the first real test. It failed, but it’s what I have for now.

I’m slowly making this all work, but it’s been complicated and I’m still refining ideas and technique. Then again, at least the subjects can cooperate at times, and I’m not complaining about that.

Visibly different, part 21

female southern black widow Latrodectus mactans in jar
For our opening image this week, we have a female southern black widow (Latrodectus mactans,) the first that I’d seen. It dates from 1991, and was found in a rock cleft on a trail that I frequented – getting her out was a challenge, because widows are shy and prefer concealment, and of course I was endeavoring not to get bitten. Credit to the species, though, since they typically sit just like this in the web and thus display that red hourglass rather prominently.

This was taken with a Pentax K1000 and likely a 35-70mm lens. For a widow, she was massive, the size and hue of a Milk Dud, or as they call them in England, a Frommy-Lottle (okay, I lie – they probably just call them, ‘malted milk balls,’ like any decent person would.) At 10mm or so in abdominal girth, she was roughly twice the average size for the species, and probably about to produce an egg sac.

As a bit of trivia, my roommate at the time was allergic to insect venom, and a bite from a widow could easily have proven fatal even though it isn’t that dangerous to most people, so bringing the spider home was not the most circumspect thing I’ve done, but I made sure the lid of this jar was firmly tightened while in the apartment, at least. And I released her the next day after this photo (the spider, not the roommate.)

Now we go to 2013.

female southern black widow Latrodectus mactans on leaves
From time to time, I locate black widows in various locations – I won’t say they’re common, but they’re not rare around here. This time, I was determined to get some detail images and was working with another captive in a ‘studio’ environment – actually, out on the porch where she couldn’t get into the house, with an azalea sprig as the support, held in a clamp that was itself suspended in a pan of water to prevent escapes. And this was good, because she tried several times.

What I wanted to photograph was primarily the chelicerae (fangs,) but the eye detail was a secondary target. I achieved the second above, ever so slightly, because the two anterior median eyes are the bright spots reflecting from the top of the head. I did a little better just a couple minutes later.

facial detail of female southern black widow Latrodectus mactans
All eight eyes are visible here, if you know what you’re looking at – a row of four in front, with two on a little hump in the center, and a row of four across the top seen edge-on. But the chelicerae remain hidden, and as of this post, I’ve still only gotten glimpses of them. This is largely because widows don’t hold still out in the open and won’t pose willingly, with an additional factor that the chelicerae are freaking tiny; this specimen is smaller than the first, abdomen probably 6-7mm in width, so the visible face here doesn’t top 3mm. This was taken with the Canon Digital Rebel/300D with the reversed Sigma 28-105, with the Sunpak FP38 flash and custom softbox for lighting (whole rig pictured here,) which made it possible to see this kind of detail without too much contrast or sharp specular highlights.

But while I’m here,

male black widow Genus Latrodectus
Taken in 2009, this is what a male black widow looks like, though I didn’t know it at the time – significantly smaller than the female, which is typical for spiders. And I don’t even know now if this is a southern or northern variant – the females have distinctive markings, but not the males to my knowledge. This was photographed on the edge of my main door, and possibly the dad of all the little bebby widows that hatched from the edge of my sliding door a little later on.

newborn black widow Genus LatrodectusThe photo at right is the oldest from my blog folder, sized for a post it never made it into years ago; I can finally clear it out (into the ‘Uploaded’ folder now, so not really saving any harddrive space with a lateral move.) This is what a newborn black widow looks like, though again, not sure if northern or southern. This was one of the last stragglers that I discovered having hatched from the sliding door, thankfully outside the apartment, though where all the rest (dozens, if not hundreds) got to I couldn’t say. But yeah, they go through a radical color change into adulthood, and the juveniles have some funky coloration (that’s a juvenile female in that post, not a male – my knowledge evolves too.)

You can probably imagine how small this is, but maximum 3mm in leg spread – it was hard to distinguish it from all the molted exoskeletons of the newborns that were left behind in the web. The mother was eventually, with some effort, evicted from her home in the track of the sliding door; I’m tolerant of a lot of wildlife incursions, but something venomous living where it could be encountered far too casually just wasn’t going to fly.


Well, I did get out to chase turtles for World Turtle Day, and I present proof:

eastern painted turtle Chrysemys picta picta basking on log in neighborhood pond
Hey, listen, even I’m saying, “Really? This?” But here’s the deal: There are tons of turtles in the neighborhood pond, which is no challenge at all, so I figured I’d make the effort to photograph a species that I hadn’t seen in a while, which I’d already been planning to stalk before this, and that’s the eastern box turtle. That’s not what’s pictured here – this is an eastern painted turtle (Chrysemys picta picta.) I’ve seen box turtles in the area, even right here at Walkabout Estates, but it’s been a while, and the last that I’d seen was out at North Topsail Beach four years ago. So I picked a likely habitat, with another as backup, and headed out on my quest.

And found bupkiss. I was mostly relying on my ears, because box turtles camouflage well in their native habitat so I was aiming to hear them moving through the leaf litter, but still taking the time to search prime areas by eye. Nothing showed itself at my first choice locale, so I moved on to the second. Nothing there either. By now I’d been at this for over three hours, and had a couple of errands to do, plus there was still the neighborhood pond as backup. Only thing was, right at the time that I was going to hike over there, the fierce thunderstorm rolled in and delayed things for an hour, and by that time it was early evening. What you see here is the only turtle that I found basking in the light overcast remaining after the thunderstorm – no surprise, really, because we’d moved beyond basking conditions. Oh, and another:

some turtle peeking from under surface
That’s not even worth trying to identify, and for clarity’s sake, I’ll tell you it’s the left side of the turtle’s head, aimed mostly skyward, with one eye visible at the waterline. But anyway, I celebrated the holiday by dedicating a search for a target species of turtle, specifically for the challenge. I just sucked at it.

While circling the pond, however, I did a few other photos, which aren’t topical but I’m feeling defensive.

buff female mallard Anas platyrhynchos sleeping with brood
The buff female mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) that’s been hanging around for a couple of years now had another brood this year, and was found snoozing on the pond’s banks, willing to ignore me as long as I didn’t get too close, though as it was, I passed only a handful of meters away. This detour required me to stroll among over a dozen Canada geese that were blocking the entire drive around the pond, a few of which gave me warning hisses but were otherwise mellow. While close, I did some tight portraits of the ducklings.

mallard Anas platyrhynchos ducklings waking from nap
The ducklings were more wary of me than the mother – it’s usually the opposite – but not so much that they stirred themselves from their temporary roost. In the blog folder is a fartsy composition of the mother and ducklings from about two weeks ago, that I haven’t found the excuse yet to post. It’ll show soon.

A short distance away, a great blue heron (Ardea herodias) was perched on the banks.

great blue heron Ardea herodias being Florida mellow
The herons have been pretty spooky this year, and I haven’t even draw close before, but this one was being Florida tolerant, watching me carefully but allowing me to pass within 8-10 meters, and for my part I played it casual, snapping a couple of frames almost carelessly before ignoring the heron as inconsequential, which may have helped. It let me get a tighter portrait too.

profile of Florida mellow great blue heron Ardea herodias
Yeah, I was supposed to be after turtles, but there were no turtles in sight, and this guy was right there, asking for it. I accept no blame for responding appropriately.

Plus, there is some really cool content coming soon, though it requires a bit of editing so I’m not committing to a specific date – before the end of the week, at least. I had a good evening yesterday. Sit tight.

Go find a turtle

profile of Aldabra giant tortoise Geochelone gigantea at Greensboro Science Center
Getting this out early to let you know that today is World Turtle Day (for realsies, cross my heart,) so go out and find yourself a turtle – it should be warm enough throughout most of the US to spot one someplace. Or if you don’t want to do that, you can always donate to the turtle rescue or protection fund of your choice, or teach someone about turtles, or make those little chocolate-and-peanut thingies – whatever works. That link may provide some ideas if you need any.

Neither of these images were taken today, because this is posting in the wee hours, but I intend to get out and see what I can find myself, so watch this space for further developments. Though since the posts display ‘newest first,’ you’ve either already seen what I’ve found, or you need to come back in a little bit. Either way, it’s your chance to get something better than I did, perhaps even before I did. You won’t, of course, because this is me we’re talking about, but you can still try.

Enjoy the day!

pair of eastern river cooters Pseudemys concinna concinna in Eno River

I can guarantee one thing

So, it appears there could be a surprise meteor shower on the morning of the 31st. Well, not exactly a surprise, but one that isn’t recognized as a significant shower and hasn’t been a performer in the past.

Universe Today has all the details, but in short, a comet known as Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 (73P to its friends) was observed in 1995 to have broken up into numerous fragments, leaving multiple debris streams in the form of its tails. And on next Monday night/Tuesday morning, we’re going to be passing straight through the bulk of these debris streams, which is what makes meteors in the first place. Peak time is about 1 AM EDT, and the moon will be on the other side of the planet – what you want from a meteor shower, though it rarely happens.

The thing is, no one really knows how much debris is in those streams, because we have no baseline to go from with this storm/comet. It could be virtually unnoticeable, or it could produce over 1,000 meteors per hour. Because of the orbital mechanics, the prediction is that any meteors will be slower than normal, perhaps taking a few seconds to trace their path, which would make them slightly easier to notice if, for instance, you first spot them out of the corner of your eye (which, I can tell you, happens a lot.)

So, will it be a waste of time to be out there looking and/or photographing? No one can say. But as the title says, I can guarantee that you won’t see a damn thing if you don’t try.

Good luck!

Make-up quiz

great blue heron Ardea herodias on dock over empty lake
This past Saturday, as I said, was World Migratory Bird Day for about 21% of the world, including this portion, but I regrettably did not get out to do anything appropriate. I decided to try and make up for this on Wednesday and went down to Jordan Lake, the closest location with the greatest variety of birds. It wasn’t enormously active that day, but I managed a few frames here and there.

female double-crested cormorant Nannopterum auritum watching kayaker pass
Off in the distance on the quiet waters, I could see a female double-crested cormorant (Nannopterum auritum) hanging out, and by waiting for a minute I was able to catch the kayaker passing behind her. They’re not that close together, really – this is telephoto compression, and the other boater even further off back there is likely over a kilometer beyond.

There was just the barest proof of the two typical species found down at the lake, the osprey and the bald eagle, but nobody wanted to perform for me or even draw within a couple hundred meters. Psshhfff.

osprey Pandion haliaetus wheeling in distance
A lot of this may be due to it being nesting season, with the female sitting on eggs and thus the male gathering food only as needed, but otherwise helping to stand watch. Or it may simply have been the time of day, since I was out there later in the morning than intended. So the osprey (Pandion halietus) above, and the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) below appeared just enough to count, and nothing more.

adult bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus also wheeling in distance
I noticed something in the viewfinder, and subsequent examination of the frames didn’t clear it up, but the tail of this one seems a bit ‘dirty,’ and I’m not sure if this is merely a trick of the light, or something actually staining the tailfeathers, or one other thing: the last remaining coloration of the juvenile phase, as the eagle molts out into adult plumage. Several of the photos show that molting is occurring, and the white head and tail don’t appear until the bird is four years old, so, maybe?

A red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) put in an appearance.

red-headed woodpecker Melanerpes erythrocephalus looking guilty over holes in tree
Obviously, this dead trunk is popular with at least one woodpecker in the area, but none of them were nest holes to my observation. That’s something that I’m still keeping an eye open for, and I should probably dedicate a few hours some day to combing the area, because I see this species most often along the lake. I need some images of woodpeckers feeding their young.

My wandering took me into an area where a flock of black vultures (Coragyps atratus) were feeding on dead fish, and they were reluctant to abandon the area. I felt a little bad about disturbing their meal, but knew they’d return in mere minutes, and truth be told, they didn’t go far off at all. I have enough black vulture images, but occasionally, I’m happy to add another.

wary black vulture Coragyps atratus waiting for photographer to leave the area
This one was being notably suspicious, obviously hoping I’d turn around and head back the way I’d come, and I took advantage of the pose. I like the leg vein, and I can show you the head caruncles in much better detail if you like.

I offer a counterpoint to the red-headed woodpecker above with this red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus.)

red-bellied woodpecker Melanerpes carolinus with nut in beak
This one put in a brief appearance while I was looking for the next subject, and hunted around for a nice crevice to put that nut in so it could crack it apart, but did not locate a suitable spot in my field of view.

I needed to check on the progress of the osprey nest we’ve been watching, and found a sentry out there once again.

osprey Pandion haliaetus perched outside nest
I think the last time we’d checked it out, there had been no sign of anyone. But some osprey calls in the right direction, with no birds visible nearby, led me to believe that it was occupied, and just unseen from this angle. So I took several shots of the nest this time to examine closely afterward, and something caught my eye.

something peeking over top of osprey Pandion haliaetus nest
This is full-resolution, and right there in mid frame are things that don’t look like twigs and such – I was getting the impression of the feathers on the back of an osprey’s head, since they almost always stand out like a teenaged boy who thinks mousse is the trick. I couldn’t be sure, until I flipped back and forth between the last two frames that I had, which I’ve combined here in an animated gif (pronounced, “gis.”)

alternating frames showing osprey Pandion haliaetus head movement
Yep – there’s someone sitting on this nest. Again, there won’t be much to see until the young are older and standing up pretty tall, but when that happens, this might lead to some decent pics. We’ll see.

As noted earlier, the osprey nest that had provided so many good opportunities last year was completely missing in February, and even though it was significantly farther down the lake, I drove down to check and see if any of the other, more distant nests were visible. And was delighted to see that my favorite had been rebuilt and was occupied.

rebuilt osprey Pandion haliaetus nest, re-occupied
This is great, because it’s visible from a nearby bridge, being only a few meters below nest level, and so the view of the young is halfway decent. I could do with the constant noise and vibrations from the passing cars, but hey, I’ll take what I can.

another occupied osprey Pandion haliaetus nest
While out there, I checked out the area, finding two other nests visible from the same vantage, though considerably less ideal – this is full-frame at 600mm, so it would take the teleconverter just to see a little detail. Not worth a special trip, but it might be something I attempt while viewing the closer one.

So, no nice action shots of fishing birds or anything, but that’s seven species for the session (plus some sparrows and a nuthatch not shown here,) so I managed a little for the holiday at least. As long as we ignore being four days late…

Head of the line

I had a selection of photos from the other day that I needed to post about, and was trying to get motivated to write that one up, when the thunder started about the same time that the Lightning Tracker on my smutphone went off again. It had gone off before, but the center of activity was too far northwest and typically such cells draw farther north as they pass, but this time the strikes were more aligned with crossing directly into our area, and of course the thunder was encouraging. So, out I went to the neighborhood pond again, and thus the existing photos and post idea get pushed back, because lightning.

We’ll start with a short video clip that gives a better impression of the significant activity.

You can hear the exuberant green treefrogs calling, delighted at the conditions, but most of the background rumbling is the gusty wind on the built-in microphone instead of thunder – I hadn’t intended to shoot video and thus went without the proper mic. The bulk of the electrical activity was apparently cloud-to-cloud and thus only the occasional rumble of thunder was heard. Except for one particular strike:

lightning strike near edge of frame
So you know, the camera is aiming roughly west-northwest, at 18mm focal length so pretty wide field of view. We can go in closer for a better look at the detail:

closer crop of previous lightning image
The video expresses it accurately enough: there were very few visible strikes, so I was glad to capture something. The bang of thunder from this one, coming much later and thus indicating that the strike was several kilometers away, managed to silence about half of the treefrogs, which was amusing – I wish I’d been recording that. Less than 30 seconds later they’d all kicked it back in again.

lightning strike just outside of the frame
This is a crop from the right edge of another frame, demonstrating that most of the activity was more north, and I probably should have been around the pond further trying to capture that, though how much I would have seen is debatable – nearly everything was within the clouds, which were low and moving fast. But then there was this one:

distinct visible lightning bolt out west
This is full frame, and had I switched to shooting north, I wouldn’t have captured this one at all. As it was, I was personally looking up at the clouds above when this struck for mere milliseconds, and the peripheral view I had of it made me suspect it was a visible bolt, but it wasn’t until I got back and unloaded the card that I could confirm it (with this much activity, I wasn’t wasting time chimping when the camera could have been capturing more.) Let’s go in for a closer look:

tighter crop of previous image of strike
Not my best of course, but still cool – I’m always glad to get a distinct bolt from any lightning session, because it often doesn’t occur. I’ve gone years without decent pics, so, yeah.

Soon after this the rain was starting up, and I knew from the wind it was likely to get fierce, so I quickly packed it all up, but not before witnessing two separate flashes, both a little south of this one, that registered blue-green through the clouds. That had me curious, because it’s always this lavender hue – the only time that I’ve seen blue-green was from a blown transformer, and I didn’t hear any sign of the loud reports that usually provokes. Was it atmospherics? Unique conditions? Some other kind of lightning bolt? I have no idea, and I was prepared to dismiss the first occurrence until the second, more distinct, confirmed it.

As it was, I got fairly soaked on the five-minute hike back to Walkabout Studios, and the camera bag, all equipment removed, is currently drying in front of a fan – I’d treated it heavily with water repellent months ago, so no biggie. But never let equipment sit in a wet bag, or even a slightly damp one; the risk of humidity infusion into equipment is too great.

Okay, we’ll be back to the regularly-scheduled post (or at least the planned one) shortly.

Probably not many

Tomorrow, May 20th, is another holiday: Were Those Really Seeds Day?, the day we look at all those pots and patches we’ve been watering regularly and wonder whether those packets of tomato or lupine seeds that we got many weeks ago were actually seeds, or just sand and fine stream gravel, maybe the floor sweepings from some metal-working shop.

I admit that I’m not really cut out for gardening. After expending a lot of time and effort into prepping and planting and all that, I expect to see positive results soon, and average germination times just kinda get under my skin. But then, as the ‘average’ time passes and I’m trying to determine if those little leaves are something that I actually wanted or another set of weeds or grasses, I start wondering why I’m wasting my time. And seriously, I doubt even 25% of the contents in those packets are viable seeds of any kind, and I can’t be the only one. It’s not like I can complain about getting robbed, given that each packet costs like 89ยข, maybe as much as a couple bucks, so getting a little envelope of crumbs from the bottom of the toaster isn’t unexpected, really. It’s my fault for believing that something useful can be purchased for that price.

Each year, I vow I’ll do better, and start some seedlings indoors early or make use of the greenhouse, and each year this somehow never goes according to plan. I did indeed start a tray full of tomatoes and cardinal flowers in March, many of which actually sprouted, all of which died. There’s a whole stretch of wildflower, coneflower, and milkweed garden down along the fence, according to the packets, but damned if I can tell it apart from the rest of the yard. Many years back at the old place, I planted a bunch of ‘mixed wildflower’ seeds that produced two aster plants and a stand of dog fennel, which is in no way considered a ‘wildflower,’ though it served some purpose in hosting lady beetles for the summer.

I’m also a little suspicious of the various ‘plant foods’ and fertilizers out there. I’ve added them to the pots of various plants – in the proper amounts, so drop that protest – and have never seen any difference at all, and then, depotting the remains to re-use the pot, I find all those little food pellets still intermixed in the soil. Shouldn’t they have dissolved or something, or did I just buy a bunch of surplus beads from retired art teachers?

Mind you, most of the existing plants around Walkabout Estates are doing fabulous, having greeted the spring with gusto – except for my three butterfly bushes, the ones that I count on for photo subjects, which are doing perfect imitations of the people that comment, “TL;DR” for any post that contains more than a paragraph. We’re talking the classmates that felt beautician school might be too challenging for them. The hosta plants out back are getting ready to challenge Godzilla, but my butterfly bushes appear to be ‘restocking’ the shelves at WalMart. I don’t get it.

Even worse, we maintain a compost bin, much of which gets added to the soil that we use for any new plants or seeds. Which means that without fail, a half-dozen or so squash plants appear within days, solely from what we discarded from last year’s meals. Those bastards are more than happy with the conditions, but we weren’t ever trying to grow those. I’m not good with that kind of mockery.

So, yeah, tomorrow’s a perfect holiday for me to get into, and maybe I’ll get another seed packet just to examine under the microscope, see if I can prove they all came from the seat cushions of movie theaters. It would probably be more productive than my gardening.

I’m pleased

You didn’t think I was just going to leave you with one eclipse pic, did you?

I’d been eyeing the weather reports all week, because we’ve been having spates of thunderstorms and sudden showers, and they called for partly cloudy conditions Sunday night when the eclipse was occurring, so I wasn’t getting my hopes too high. Nonetheless, when the day had remained mostly sunny, I went down to the lake near sunset to catch both the sunset and the moonrise, if possible. Sunset proved to be almost completely clouded out, and there were visible dark bands along the eastern horizon where the moon was to appear, so I was a bit surprised to see the pink head crowning from the trees.

pink moon just peeking over trees
Apparently, the dark band I was seeing was thinner humidity than it appeared, perhaps enhanced by the Belt of Venus, but hey, I was happy with it. As it rose, the moon passed in and out of several cloud bands, fully obscured for a minute or three, then revealed again. I managed a few pics.

pink moon clear of horizon
If I’d been after lunar detail, I’d have been out of luck, but fartsiness? There was enough of that to work with.

The moon climbed out of its pink phase and into gold, still quite photogenic, and while I didn’t intend to do a whole gallery, in 22 minutes I snagged plenty of keepers while the clouds played supporting roles.

gold moon with thin cloudy accents
As the conditions darkened, I watched a bald eagle cruise over the foreground water and catch a fish, but the shutter speed would be too slow for any moving subject, and I waited in vain for the eagle to rise in front of the moon. Such opportunities are far fewer than you might suspect, given that the moon takes up a tiny fraction of the visible sky, even if you only count up to 25° from the horizon – I know, I’ve tried this for decades, with both sun and moon. But I went wider for a landscape shot, even if it was portrait orientation.

gold moon leaving reflection on Jordan Lake
The moon wouldn’t enter the umbral phase of the eclipse for a few hours yet, and the penumbral is boring, so I went home and unloaded the initial images, making a quick post before returning for the real action – if you can count a shadow advancing far too slowly to discern as “action.” And there were still patches of thick clouds in the sky, here and there, as the time drew close, including a smallish bank doing a striptease with the moon as things should have been noticeable.

clouds almost obscuring moon right at beginning of umbral eclipse
Large portions of the sky remained clear, however, so I figured, as slow as things went, I should still get enough photos to make it worthwhile. Soon afterward, the clouds dropped away, except for a pesky one in the lower corner which wasn’t actually a cloud.

distinct umbral phase of lunar eclipse
This was the Tamron 150-600 with a 2x converter, using a remote release and mirror lock-up with about a five-second delay, and I did numerous frames during this period that I then zoomed way in on, using the LCD on the back of the camera, to examine for critical sharpness. Once I had it as sharp as I figured it was possible, I left the focus ring there (manual focus of course) and used that throughout. Well, not quite true, because from force of habit I reached up once to tweak the focus, forgetting that I’d already gotten it as sharp as possible, and then had to do it all over again. But this only happened once.

And I missed one particular opportunity.

tail of plane appearing in front of blurred eclipsing moon
I realized just a little too late that a distant plane, on approach to the nearby airport, would pass in front of the partially eclipsed moon – again, this is extremely rare. Because of mirror lock-up, I had to hit the shutter release twice with several seconds in between, and the delay wasn’t enough while also being too much: the rig was still vibrating from the mirror slap and I tripped the shutter just a fraction of a second too late, so you’re seeing the tail and wingtip of the plane at the top edge there. Dammitall.

Just so you know, four more planes all passed within a few widths of the moon that night, and I snagged a bare portion of one’s nav beacons at the edge of the frame, but nothing worthwhile.

When the eclipse was roughly 2/3 advanced towards totality, you could still see the shape of the moon from the shadowed portion, and I adjusted exposure to bring this up distinctly.

partially-eclipsed moon exposed for shadowed side
As a comparison, the clear partial eclipse image above (the one without the plane) was 1/160 second, f11, at ISO 800. This one is 1.6 seconds, f8, at ISO 1600. That’s a 10-stop difference, and since each stop doubles the amount of light coming in, that means the light in this image is 1,024 times the amount of light in that one above. Okay, that’s technically not true, because there was far less light coming from the moon itself, but that’s what the camera was allowing for, anyway. It’s an illustration of necessary exposures.

Eventually, we reached totality.

totally eclipsed moon with two companion stars
This is just over an hour from the image further up that’s partially obscured by clouds, which was about when the umbral phase should have started – the exposure is 0.8 seconds, f8, at ISO 3200. That means plenty of grain, but with the minimal detail that could be captured anyway, it wasn’t really harming things – I’d need a big-barrelled telescope to get enough light to allow a lower ISO without inducing motion blur just from the passage of the moon (or a tracking motor,) and even then the adapting to the camera probably wouldn’t allow this kind of magnification. It’s very fussy, but someday I may have a digital sensor set up for a proper tracking telescope and produce something better than this. It’s actually in motion, but slower than the eclipse…

Yes, those are two stars in the frame, and one of them is the one I told you about earlier.

As the eclipse was approaching totality, I was playing around a little with video, but the frame rate of video means much shorter exposure times, and even with expanded ISO, what I captured was a bare glimmer of grey from the uneclipsed portion, slowly disappearing – there was absolutely no sign of the shadowed portion of the moon, so I didn’t bother with one idea that I had, which we’ll come to in a moment.

total lunar eclipse with fairly bright exposure and background stars
While waiting for that aforementioned event, I played around with exposures to see how bright I could make the moon without stretching out the shutter speed so long that there was motion blur and I lost detail. This was at 1 second, f8, ISO 6400, and I might have pushed it a hair further, like about 2/3 stop or so, but not more than that. It works for me.

Without the video option, as the moon moved in to eclipse that lower star, I settled for sequential frames.

totally eclipsed moon eclipsing background star
This is just as it was disappearing. Partially because of the shutter speed and the mirror lock-up delay, it was about nine seconds to the next frame, and the star had completely vanished by then. I misjudged how fast it would actually disappear behind the moon, but I’m still glad that I stuck around for this attempt at a double eclipse, about half an hour after totality was achieved.

I decided to pack it up after that, but fired off a couple of frames to try and mimic the brightness that the moon appeared to have by naked eye, and this comes closest I think:

total lunar eclipse at roughly visible exposure
A lot smaller in the sky of course, and that remaining star (HIP 76106) was about 5.5 magnitude, just visible to the naked eye in good, dark conditions. I feel comfortable with this exposure because, as I was leaving the lake, I glanced up the road to check for traffic and the moon caught my eye, even through the car window – a dim glow, not too distinct.

That was a pretty good photo session, all from significant luck, some decent equipment, and a bit of experience with previous eclipses – I’m not complaining in the slightest. Even about the plane…

Visibly different, part 20

Sometimes – sometimes – it all comes together nicely. I can appreciate it the few times that it does.

total lunar eclipse of August 16 1989 on crappy print film
First off, this looks so crappy because I didn’t feel the need to try and clean it up, mostly. Some of it is due to age, however, and the general shortevity (that’s a word, honest) of print film/negatives. But this is the first total lunar eclipse that I’d photographed, and dates from August 16th, 1989 – technically, it may be the 17th, since it appears this might be right at the end of totality sometime after midnight (Stellarium is wonderful.) Since I only had the Witnnauer Challenger with its 50mm lens then, I borrowed a Pentax K1000 with some unremembered zoom telephoto – this image was likely taken at either 210 or 260mm focal length, just from knowing the options available at the time. It was film of course, so no display of the results afterwards, and thus only a guess at exposure, which the film scanner may well have tried altering, but I know motion blur was in there solely from the progression of the dim moon, and likely from the tripod as well. Later on that same night, I’d capture my first “Wow!” photo*.

You know what’s coming, don’t you?

total lunar eclipse of May 15 2022
Yes, this is from two nights ago, Sunday the 15th, so there’s just shy of 33 years in between. While skimming through negatives a bit over a week ago, I came across the top frame, part of a sequence, and knew the eclipse was coming up this month, so I figured I had my ‘Visibly Different’ example for the week, provided it all panned out – the weather reports were not too reassuring on that account, and even the preliminary frames at moonrise didn’t make me feel comfortable. The clouds were scattered but actually obscuring the moon right at the start of the umbral phase, so I missed the initial darkening of the ‘limb,’ but they cleared for the run towards totality.

The changes between the two frames? There are almost too many to count. The lens of course: the latter was shot with the Tamron 150-600 at 600mm, but with a 2x converter, so closer to 1000mm, but with the multiplier that’s more like 1600 (both of these images are full-frame, by the way.) Changing ISO on the fly meant I could switch to 6400 rather than being stuck with Kodak Gold 400-2 like the top pic, and I could chimp at the exposures to ensure that I was getting decent results – I could even chimp at the initial frames, as the partial eclipse progressed, to ensure focus was as tight as possible. A solid tripod, set low to the ground for stability, a cable release, and mirror lock-up, all to eliminate as much vibration as possible**. A lot of this comes courtesy of previous experience too, having already suffered the shortcomings of certain practices.

There will be more coming along shortly, but I wanted to get the weekly topic taken care of first.

* If you went to that link and read the description, you might have noticed the line, “over a decade ago,” which I find amusing since it’s over three decades ago now. But that page was first written in the early 2000s, and I wasn’t recalling the date of the eclipse, so I played it safe. I could correct it now of course, but it still remains accurate, if a little misleading. It’s a reminder of how long I’ve had this website, though.

** Just the normal operations of an SLR camera, digital or not, induces vibrations, and these can be visible at high magnifications or long exposures. The worst is mirror slap, as the reflex mirror flips up out of the way to allow the light from the lens to reach the focal plane, where the sensor (or the film) resides. Mirror lock-up is an option on most decent SLR cameras – I even had it on the Canon Elan IIe – which flips the mirror up well before the shutter opens, to allow time for the vibrations to die down. With the 7D, this is manually timed: one press of the shutter release flips up the mirror, and the second trips the shutter, so the delay is up to you, and I was using around five seconds for most of the frames the other night. When you’re looking through the viewfinder and you can see how long the vibrations last from just nudging the camera, you’re convinced of the value of this option. But remember to turn it off at the end of the session ;-)

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