Thursday, February 28, 2008

Where In The World?

This photo from Google Earth shows two artificial islands created in the shape of palm trees. There will eventually be three islands, with a projected completion date around 2012. Together these islands will serve as a tourist destination, complete with over 100 luxury hotels, theme parks, water parks, marinas, shopping malls, restaurants and exclusive beach villas. The third, and largest island, is expected to house over a million people. Where is this?

Dubai, United Arab Emerite. The islands are in the Persian Gulf.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Working On My Night Moves

Click for Larger Image of Green Frog On WallThe other night I went for a walk after dark, and discovered what lurks under the lighted doorways of the buildings in the park. Surprisingly, I found little green frogs clinging to the walls under each light! I was puzzled because I didn't remember hearing that frogs were attracted to light -- or that they were able to scale vertical walls, come to think of it. And then I realized -- it wasn't the light they were attracted to, but rather they were attracted to all the insects that were attracted to the light. It was an insect buffet!

Click for Larger Image of Green FrogCapture 1: The Green Treefrogs (Hyla cinerea) that were clinging to the wall are small frogs, no more than a couple inches long. I managed to catch one in a plastic container where he immediately became active, hopping from end to end of the container and trying to jump out. After a couple minutes of this, he finally calmed down.

Click for Larger Image of LizardCapture 2: I went back out to see what else was lurking under the lights, and found a light colored lizard with a bright yellow belly. Lizards move very quickly and are difficult to get near, but this one was very focused on those tasty insects and I managed to grab him, too.

Click for Larger Image of Io MothCapture 3: I also found a very beautiful Io Moth (Automeris Io), also called a Peacock Moth. This is a large species -- this particular one is two inches wide when its wings are together. It feeds on the azaleas, in bloom now in Central Florida. The caterpillar for the Io Moth is not so nice -- it has venomous spines running down its body that will cause painful skin eruptions if handled.

Moths and butterflies are surprisingly easy to control when I photograph them. I put them in a translucent "studio" with the brightest light in the middle, and they go to that spot and stop. They seldom try to fly into the RV, but if they do it is not much of a problem to have a butterfly flitting around for a while, and they are easy to recapture. But lizards and frogs are another matter. They would not be willing to stay "in the light," and having them loose in the RV was not an appealing idea. So I took the two of them outside for their "shoot." They were both a bit edgy and nervous, and I was struck by the obvious increase in intelligence displayed by these two over the Lepidoptera -- they knew they might be in trouble, and they were going to try their best to escape. I took a few photos, and then let them hop and slink to freedom.

I have also started to play with light painting in a new way. Light painting is, at its simplest, using light to paint on the "canvas" of the film or digital image. I have done some simple light painting in some night astronomy photos -- you can see some in my Winter Star Party 2008 Picasa Album. For example, there is a night photo of the Orion Nebula with palm trees in the foreground, and the palm trees have been painted with red light to make them stand out from the background (white light is not permitted at star parties as it affects night vision adaptation).

Click for Larger Image of Light WritingFor my next light painting experiment, I decided to try using the light to paint actual words on the image. This image was taken inside my RV. Painting "light words" is truly a learning experience -- there were many, many failures before I got to the point that the writing was legible and all the letters were facing the right way! This image is now the new "My View" image for the bottom of the page.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A Victory At Sea

A short "Senior Power" photo essay from the Florida Keys:

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Friday, February 22, 2008

A Visiting Moth

This little moth came visiting today. He looked rather plain and nondescript at first, but the close up shows some interesting features -- the furry cap of hair on his head and the feathery antenna are really amazing. After he posed for these photos, I let him go (I promise!). I don't yet have an identification for him. As usual, click for a larger image.

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Lunar Eclipse

“The church says the earth is flat, but I know that it is round, for I have seen the shadow on the moon, and I have more faith in a shadow than in the church."
    -- Robert Ingersoll, often attributed to Ferdinand Magellan

The last total lunar eclipse to be visible in the U.S. until 2010 occurred last night. The weatherman on the local Orlando channel had been hyping it for days. He was telling viewers to go out around 10 PM, at which time the moon would be fully eclipsed. I think the best part is watching the moon as it slowly goes into the eclipse, and that was to begin at 8:45. But either way you need clear skies, or the decision to go out early or late becomes frustratingly moot.

Yesterday was cloudy all day, and the prospect of seeing the eclipse was fading. The weatherman called for a possible clearing "around 10" so we might see a part of it with some luck. At 8:15, it was totally overcast. At 8:30, I got a glimpse of the full moon through a little tiny sucker hole in the clouds. It looked hopeless.

Then -- amazingly -- the clouds began to lift! By 8:40, only wisps of clouds drifted over the moon. I set out a recliner, got my binoculars, and watched the entire eclipse in close to cloud-free conditions.

A lunar eclipse happens when the earth's shadow falls on the surface of the moon, and can only happen during a full moon. As the moon goes around the earth, its 29.5 day path will take it from a location between the sun and the earth, to one on the opposite side of the earth, and back again. When it is nearest to the sun, the sun's light falls on the far side of the moon, the side that is never seen on earth. (It is not correct to call this side the "dark" side, as it gets as much light as any other part of the moon. But we never see the far side because the moon is tidally locked with the earth, causing the same side to always face us.) When the moon's position is closest to the sun, we can't see the moon because only the part away from us is illuminated. This lunar phase is called the new moon. As the moon moves in its orbit, the lighted part gradually changes from a crescent through a gibbous (convex), and finally to full when the earth is between the sun and moon and the entire side of the moon that faces us is illuminated. It is at this time that it is possible for the Earth's shadow to fall on the moon and give us a lunar eclipse.

The eclipse began with a small segment on the moon's limb that started to darken. Bit by bit, the darkness moved over the moon, and soon I could see that the leading edge of the dark shape was actually a curve. This curve is the shadow of the edge of the earth. Aristotle (384 BCE - 322 BCE) saw this same curved line during a lunar eclipse, and concluded that the earth is must be a sphere rather than a flat shape.

As the shadow moved over the moon, it began to take on a reddish tinge, first only on the shaded limb, but eventually covering the entire moon. Normally, the light we see coming from the moon is reflected sunlight; but during an eclipse we see reflected earthlight, sunlight that has hit the earth and been reflected back into space where it can dimly illuminate the moon. But since the earth's atmosphere filters and scatters blue light (that's the answer to "Why is the sky blue?"), the light that is reflected back to the moon is the rest of the spectrum -- primarily the warm reds and oranges.

As the moon got darker, stars that were previously washed out started to pop out. When the moon was finally eclipsed and the surrounding celestial objects visible, it formed a beautiful triangle with the star Regulus, in the constellation Leo (the lion), and the planet Saturn. Jack Horkheimer, host of the PBS show “Star Gazer,” called the event “the moon, the lord of the rings and heart of the lion eclipse.”

When I finally went in and turned on the local news, I discovered that Orlando, about 60 miles away, had been totally clouded over, and the weatherman was showing eclipse images from Minnesota. But it was beautiful here in Bushnell. Selene was indeed kind to me tonight.

click for Larger Image of the Eclipsed Moon  Click for Larger Image of the Eclipsed Moon, Regulus, and Saturn

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Homosassas Springs Wildlife State Park

Click for Larger Image of Manatee WatchersHomosassas Springs Wildlife State Park sits just east of the Gulf of Mexico, and the warm, shallow, clear river way into the park attracts all sorts of sea creatures and birds. The undisputed stars, however, are the manatees. The park is home to several injured manatees who would not survive in the wild, many of their injuries caused by powerboats. They are kept inside the park by gates submerged in the water that have openings large enough to allow water and fish to pass through, but too small for the manatee. On the gulf side of the gate, wild manatees swim into the cove where they come nostril to camera lens with hoards of manatee watchers in boats, canoes, kayaks, and snorkel gear, eager to catch a glimpse of the huge "sea cows."

Click for Larger Image of Manatee LoveThis is manatee mating time, and there is, at least by manatee standards, one really hot manatee lady in these waters. She swam in, and her suitors followed. This type of manatee group is called a mating herd. Most of the males "get lucky" in a mating herd, and 12 months later a really cute little manatee baby will be the result -- but the paternity will only be known if the humans do a DNA test.

Manatee SkeletonManatees are mammals, so they need to come up for air periodically. Often all you see is their nose sticking up from the water, but manatees in a mating herd are much more active and frequently break the surface of the water as they cavort in the mating ritual. They are herbivores, and are the only mammal known to grow replacement teeth throughout their life. The park has a full manatee skeleton on display, showing the bones of five fingers and finger nails, in life hidden inside their flipper. These finger joints allow them to feed more easily, and female manatees have been seen "holding" their babies with the flippers.

While the manatees are a crowd favorite, the park is also home to all sorts of birds, fish, and reptiles. Some of the birds are captive, but others are free flying. Here are some more pictures from the day (click on image to enlarge):

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School of Fish

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White Swan

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I'm Wearing a Boa

I told you I held the snake! (see this post) Thanks to Ron Smith for the photo.

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Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Last Train To Paradise

When I hired into Social Security, new employees were sent to a 3-month training program immediately after a 1-week orientation in the Field Office. I met my friend Peachie there -- she and I became roommates during the training class, co-workers off and on during our careers, and fast friends from Day One (see this post and this post for blogs I wrote during my visit to see them last summer.)

Peachie and her husband, Jim, used to coordinate a yearly cross country skiing trek to Traverse City, Mi, and it was there that I mistakenly went down a black diamond run my first time skiing, and also met Peachie's friend from college, Chrissy. Chrissy and I both made the ski trip several years in a row, so I got to know her, and also learned how to go down a run in an upright position. But when the ski trips stopped, Chrissy and I lost contact with each other.

Fast forward to 2007 -- Peachie has kept in contact with both of us, and she finally realized that she held a very interesting piece of information -- we were both telling her that we went to the Keys each year, and were there at approximately the same time of year. So she passed along the information to us, we exchanged phone numbers and email addresses, and discovered that we had been staying just one Key apart during parts of the last 6 Februarys! So after a gap of around 30 years, I met Chrissy and her husband, Joe, for breakfast and a wonderful "catch up" talk. Here the three of us are in a photo taken by one of their neighbors:
Click for Larger Image of Joe, Me, and Chrissy
As we were chatting about the Keys, Chrissy recommended a book named "The Last Train to Paradise" by Les Standiford. It recounts the construction of the railroad through the Keys by Henry Flagler, co-founder of Standard Oil with John D. Rockefeller.

Flagler was already building railroads in Florida when he decided to extend the track to Key West. By 1904 he was as far as Homestead, and the entire railroad to Key West was finished in 1912 -- and then mostly destroyed by the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, to be replaced by the road we now know as Highway 1.

I just finished the book, and highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in Keys history, Flagler, or even tilting at windmills. Some of the things I learned:

  • Key Largo, where one can visit the riverboat "The African Queen," used to be called Rock Harbor. It was named Key Largo to capitalize on the Bogart/Bacall movie, not the other way around.
  • After the Civil War, Henry Flagler had offices in Saginaw, Michigan. I was born in Saginaw, so I understand how odd this really is.
  • In 1890, there was no Miami. It was Fort Dallas then, and had less than 500 residents.
  • At the same time, Key West, despite its only access being by water, had over 20,000 people and was the largest city in Florida.
  • During the construction, one worker was heard to say, "Building this railroad has become a regular marathon." That's how Marathon, on Key Vaca, got its name.
  • West Summerland Key, where the Winter Star Party is held, used to be three separate islands, but it was the habit of the railroad builders to fill in smaller inlets where feasible rather than building a bridge (a practice that later was criticized as potentially causing more damage in hurricanes because the water no longer has its natural channel to surge into and flow out of). You can make out the vague outline of the original Keys in the aerial view at Google Maps -- the inlet between the eastern-most key (on the right) and the middle key was just about at the artificial harbor, and the second inlet was to the east of the Girl Scout Camp, right where the words "Spanish Harbor Key" are placed on this map. Before the inlets were filled, the western-most key (with the camps) was, as it is now, West Summerland Key. The middle key, between the two inlets, was named Middle Summerland Key. Now don't get ahead of the story! As things go in the Keys, the final, eastern-most Key was never named. It would be way too strange, even for the Keys, to believe that no one could think of a name -- so I'm guessing "changes in latitude, changes in attitude" meant that they just never got around to officially naming it (FYI, this is not the same key as No Name Key -- that is the nearby key that is NOT the home of the No Name Pub -- the Pub is on Big Pine Key. Confused yet?). And if you think the naming of these keys is odd -- remember, there is also a Summerland Key -- and West Summerland Key is to its east. Go figure. Odd is normal for The Keys.

Friday, February 15, 2008

My Neigh Bors

Sumter Oaks Campground in Bushnell is surrounded by farm land, and our next door "neigh" bors are some donkeys and cows. Turns out they are pretty friendly! (Don't tell, but a carrot or two goes a long way to forge new friendships around here!)

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Waiting It Out In The Bathroom -- AGAIN

I'm now in Sumpter Oaks, outside of Bushnell, waiting for my mail to catch up with me, doing laundry, and wishing I was back in the Keys (it got down in the 30s here last night). My last night in Jonathon Dickinson was, however, pretty intense.

I had a 200 mile drive ahead of me when I left Jupiter, which isn't bad unless you have had no sleep, which was almost the case. I was reading in bed about 9 PM, when the first alarm sounded on my weather radio. A tornado watch was in effect for our area until about 9:30. I turned on the TV, and watched a local station's coverage of the storm until 9:30 when they reported the storm had dissipated... but there was another disturbance to the south they were watching. And this turned out to be more than just a "disturbance."

The real excitement didn't start until around 11:00 PM, and by then it was clear that wave after wave of severe thunderstorms were forming just past Key West and travelling north-east, dumping inches of rain and threatening tornadoes all along the path to Jupiter. My weather radio alerted time after time, for marine dangers, severe thunderstorms, tornado watches, and finally a tornado warning. The television showed the storm that prompted the warning -- a bright red area of the storm, forming a telltale "hook" as the winds started to spiral in the upper atmosphere. Where was it headed? Jupiter of course!

It was still about half an hour away, but it was time to get ready to seek a more secure shelter, just in case. I packed my bag with emergency supplies, and stayed glued to the TV. The storm was not dissipating and was due to hit my area around 1 AM. So about 10 minutes to one, I grabbed my bag and ran through the rain to the restroom, where everyone was packed in like sardines, obviously worried and trying to make the best of a scary situation -- but safe and dry.

Does the last sentence sound familiar? It is a verbatim line from a post on January 20th, and this time it is just as untrue as it was then, except now I was absolutely, totally, alone in the restroom. I had to wade through ankle deep water to get into the shelter, and one lightening strike was so close I could smell the ozone. I chose my spot in the building, and waited. The rain intensified, the thunder cracked so often that, at times, it melded into a single sound, and the wind picked up to the point that it even sounded like the "freight train" so often associated with a tornado. But there was no tornado. I waited until 15 minutes after the predicted "arrival time" of the tornado before returning to the RV. The rain was still falling, but it was more a drizzle now, and the lightning was less frequent and farther away.

Everyone else rode out the storm in their RVs and tents, where the chance of surviving a tornado would be rather low. And this happened in the dark of night, when spotting a tornado in time to make it to the shelter would have been very difficult. When I got back to the RV, the tornado watch was in effect until 7 AM, so I figured my sleep would be minimal that night. I could not extend my stay as my site was already booked for the next day. But luck was with me -- around 2 AM the storms calmed down, the alert was lifted, and I actually got some sleep before hitching up and moving out the next morning.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Along the Loxahatchee

Location: Jonathan Dickinson State Park, Jupiter, Florida

Click for Larger Image of ScrubThe area around Jupiter, Florida, is a place in search of a character type. Money, on one hand, is everywhere. Palm Beach is just to the south, and Fort Lauderdale below that. As I was driving through Palm Beach, I spotted a thrift store -- and had to see what a thrift shop here would be like! It was, in a word, neat. Nice items, gently used, hung carefully on hangers, and female mannequins were dressed in work-appropriate outfits complete with handbag and jewelry. Nothing was out of order, on the floor, or shuffled through. The prices seemed to be what you'd expect in any thrift store, but the customers -- other than myself -- were totally absent. If you didn't know it was a thrift store going in, you still wouldn't know it until you checked the tags.

Money is obviously everywhere -- Tiger Woods has a mansion on the beach, and Burt Reynolds lived here most of his career and has a museum. You see a lot of older men zipping through traffic in expensive convertibles, and every available spot on the waterfront is filled with yachts and pleasure crafts ready to go out for a day of 2-miles-per-gallon fun.

But that is the eastern side of Jupiter. To the west lies the Loxahatchee River, Florida's first federally designated Wild and Scenic River. There are miles of scrubland with sharp-teethed saw palmettos covering the palm forest floor like underbrush. The river twists and bends for miles, and is a haven for osprey, herons, eagles, kayakers and people fishing.

Click for Larger Image of Jupiter Inlet LighthouseAs you drive through Jupiter, you can't fail to notice the 1860 lighthouse that graces the inlet. While in Bushnell, I had the opportunity to watch a reenactment of a battle in the Second Seminole War. Now I have a second connection to that war -- the park was the site of another battle in that war, where General Jesup had his eyeglasses shot off his face. Then the Third Seminole War was touched off when the lighthouse builders destroyed prized banana plants belonging to a Seminole Chief.

I am going to quote a paragraph about this lighthouse written by the Lighthouse Friends, as I could never summarize this story as well:

Captain Charles Seabrook became head keeper of the Jupiter Lighthouse in 1919, a position he would hold until ill health forced his retirement in 1947. During his watch, a fire destroyed the original keepers’ dwelling in 1927. The tower was electrified in 1928, but the keepers soon discovered that electricity wasn’t always as reliable as an oil lamp. On September 16, 1928, reports were received of a powerful hurricane bearing down on Florida’s southeast coast. By that evening, the winds had reached gale force, and the power to the lighthouse reservation failed. The backup diesel generator wouldn’t start, and the tower would have remained dark that night, if Captain Seabrook, in spite of a badly infected hand, hadn’t installed the old lamps inside the lens. There was still one more problem. Since the weights had been removed earlier that year, there was no automated way to rotate the lens. Noticing red streaks running down his father’s arm from his infected hand, sixteen-year-old Franklin Seabrook volunteered to perform the needed task. While trying to climb the steep stairs leading up the hill to the tower, Franklin was blown back four times. Then, once safely inside, he had to ascend the tower, which was swaying an estimated seventeen inches at the top. For four hours, Franklin manually rotated the lens, timing the revolutions as accurately as he could. As he worked, he could hear “cracking sounds as the mortar was ground out from between the bricks by the working of the iron bolts holding” the lantern room. During the storm, glass panes in the lantern room were shattered and one of the lens’ bulls-eyes was blown out. Through all this, the light did not go out.

The Loxahatcee River was named by the Hobe Tribe of Seminoles and means "River of Turtles." The State Park, where I am staying, was named after Jonathan Dickinson, a young Quaker who was shipwrecked here in 1696 with his wife, infant son, and 11 slaves. He was held captive by the Hobe for three days, and then released to continue his journey to St. Augustine. His journal provided the first written description of the Seminole's daily life.

Click for Larger Image of Tree RootsThe tree in this photo lies along the banks of the Loxahatchee not far from my campsite. Its root system has been exposed by erosion and I imagine it won't be able to hang on if the area is hit by another hurricane. But the Loxahatchee looks like it will be there for a while, and, thanks to the Wild and Scenic River designation, will continue to be a home to all sorts of fish, birds, and mammals who are living both in the shadow of, and in oblivion to, all that hustle and bustle to the east. Developers will just have to look elsewhere -- these niches are taken.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Fauna of the Florida Keys

Location: Jupiter, Florida

I am currently at Jonathan Dickinson State Park, in Jupiter, Florida, but I wanted to share some of the Florida fauna I encountered during my recent visit to the Keys. Portuguese Man-of-War Jellyfish (Physalia pysalis, with a warning posted on the beach because a lot of them had washed ashore), a beetle on a flower (UPDATE: See comments section for correct identification by Vasha), Gulf Fritillary butterflies (Agraulis vanillae), a pelican feeding frenzy, a Silver Argiope spider (Argiope argentata), and a hermit crab (who we saw actually climb a tree) are just a few of the interesting specimens I encountered either at the Winter Star Party or at Bahia Honda (pronounced BAY ee ah Onda) State Park:

Click for Larger Image of Portuguese Man of War
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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Nightime In Florida

Click for a Larger Image of West Summerland Key SunsetOur weather here has been a combination of good and evil. The temperature has been warm, the sky has been clear, but the wind has been blowing so strongly that many observers turned in early because the telescopes were too difficult to hold steady. Last night I took down my satellite dish and the telescope because it was just too windy to trust that both items would still be in place in the morning! Finally today the wind died down, but the price to pay for that is increased clouds and murkier skies. The sunset has been pretty -- this photo points almost due south, and was taken just as the sun was setting to the right. It is near the spot where I camped the last few Winter Star Parties, but this year I am further away as I would not have been able to fit the RV between the trees in this area.

Click For Larger Image of Winter Star Party at NightI have been trying some existing light photography, and have learned some things that work and some that don't. In addition to the constellations, I tend to photograph things that are lit, even if dimly. You will note that the light source in this picture is red -- astronomers always use red lights when observing, because red affects night vision the least.

Last night I was searching for photographic targets on the gravel road that runs through the camp, when I came upon the snack shed (also lit only in red light). So I set down the tripod on the grass off the road, and was focusing on the building when I noticed a man walking towards me, with a camera around his neck. As he got closer he saw me standing there and said, "Geeze. Every time I want to take a picture, a photographer is already there!" and then he walked away. Now:

  1. It is a long road, and the side of the road is wide, so there is a lot of room for many people to take photographs at the same time,
  2. If my spot was the only one that would do, I would have been finished and gone about 30 seconds later, leaving this perfect spot of all spots all to him, and
  3. He was doomed to fail, anyway, because it was totally dark and he did not have a tripod. No vibration reduction technology is going to handle that one!
I never saw him again, but I hope he realizes that he will never be rewarded with great photos if he insists on being the only one to take a photo from any one particular spot!

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Mallory Square, Key West

Location: Florida Keys

Watching the sun set from Mallory Square in Key West is touristy to the max -- but it has become a tradition during our yearly trek to the Keys, and one that we continued last night. On the way there, we met a man on the street who, for some unknown reason, had brought his Boa with him and was letting passerbys hold her (yes, I did). At Mallory Square, the street performers included fire-eaters, acrobats, dogs wearing "Minnie Pearl" hats, musicians, magicians, and a woman with large knives and a harmonica, feet balanced on a teeter totter ready to juggle. Then, finally, as it has done for billions of years, the sun dipped under the horizon, and the Key West sunset celebration was over for another day.
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