Catching Comet Dust – the Orionids

In 1066, Halley’s Comet appeared just before the Battle of Hastings. The comet passed particularly close to the earth that year and was described by witnesses as a bright new star in the heavens. King Harold of England took it as a bad omen that he would lose the battle to William the Conqueror which we know, of course, he did. And we also know now that the comet probably had very little to do with it.

Halley’s comet swings through the inner solar system making itself visible to all of us here on Earth once every 76 years. It was 1986 the last time it swung by, and it won’t be back until 2061. Since that’s kind of a long time to wait, it’s fortunate that anyone can see bits and pieces of the comet every year in October when the Earth passes through the trail of debris it left on its last pass. This morning, I got up two hours before dawn and went out to watch, and try to photograph, the Orionid meteor shower.

I didn’t see any meteors but managed to photograph three. With 25 to 30 second exposure times, that wasn’t so hard to manage. I pushed the button on the camera and fidgeted in the cold drinking my coffee until I heard the shutter close and then pushed the button again. After an hour, I came in, reviewed the photos, and found 3 faint streaks indicating meteors. Then I drank coffee, ate chocolate eyeballs (my favorite Halloween candy), and watched the X-Files on Netflix until the sun rose and my family eventually got up. Not a bad morning.

So here’s the best of my meteors:

A few other interesting things in the photo: The brightest star in the frame, to the left of the meteor trail, is Jupiter. It appears right in the middle of the constellation Taurus. Almost directly to the left, at the edge of the frame, are the three stars making up Orion’s Belt. The top half of that constellation is also visible in the frame. The star cluster, Pleiades or the Seven Sisters, is also visible at the bottom of the frame near the tree tops. (If you continue the line defined by the meteor streak, toward the bottom of the photo, it will pass just to the left of the cluster.)

I’m just learning about the night sky and at first, could rarely find anything other than Orion or the Big Dipper without help. I use several websites to gather information but my favorite tool is the planetarium software, Stellarium. Here are a couple of screen shots showing the same part of the sky in the photo.

And here’s one with the constellation lines drawn in:

How cool is that? Stellarium can be downloaded for free at http://www.stellarium.org/

Though the best viewing was forecasted for this morning before dawn, the Orionid meteor shower will continue through tonight. See more here:

http://earthsky.org/tonight/radiant-point-for-orionid-meteor-shower

If you liked this post or learning a bit about things that happen in the night sky, you might enjoy the account of the last meteor shower I lost sleep over:  Why I Stayed Up for the Perseids.

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One September Morning

I met a traveler on the path.

My appearance did not please him. He seemed suspicious.

He demonstrated his steely gaze. I told him he was cute.

I followed a fluttering and it hid behind a flower. Look. The petal has antennae.

With most of the color drained away, it looks like this. Which do you like better?

I found this one hiding in the flowers.

There’s a second insect hiding in this image. Can you find it?

To be continued…

Carrots or Caterpillars?

My favorite thing about gardening is sometimes you get visitors. It’s not my partner’s favorite thing. She’s still put out, I think, that I didn’t save her carrots. But I was too busy taking pictures.

The problem is a basic difference in gardening philosophy. B is trying to grow food which I think is fun and amazing, but even more fun to me is attracting wildlife. Sometimes those goals aren’t at cross purposes. If you’re talking pollinators, for instance, flowering veggies and herbs are quite handy. They benefit from the visitation of various bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, and I get photo ops. But most critters see only two uses for greenery – to lay eggs on, like the mother of all my lovely caterpillars did, or to eat. And if you’re growing food, you don’t want something eating it before you do – I get that. But look:

Aren’t they lovely? Before I tell you what they turn into, let me start at the beginning. Caterpillars are eating machines. Their only purpose is to eat as much as possible in order to fuel the changes to come. All these lovelies, started as eggs which hatched into something like this:

As they grow, caterpillars shed their skin several times. Each of these stages is called an instar and they can look quite different at different instars. This one is the second instar, I think. The first would have been even smaller and looked a lot like bird poo.

This is the maybe the third instar. It’s getting bigger, the color is changing but the knobby things are still present.

Eventually, we get to the fat, happy stage – the last instar before it’s ready enter the chrysalis stage. Most of mine were getting very close to this point.

In the meantime, I got to watch them completely denude B’s carrots of all leafiness.

And I learned that if you poke one, this orange organ will appear. It’s called an osmeterium and it emits a foul smell to discourage predators. How’s that for a superpower?

So for the last two days I’ve been hovering about my caterpillars waiting for one of them to move on to the next stage. This morning I went out and counted. Nine of fattest caterpillars had disappeared! I searched and searched, and found this:

The chrysalis. The last stage. I only found one. Where the other fat little larva went is a mystery. I scoured the garden and surrounding area. I’m afraid that perhaps their foul smelling superpower wasn’t enough to save them from hungry birds, though I prefer to believe that they are just particularly adept at finding a hidden spot to anchor themselves with silk and split their skin that last time to become a chrysalis.

The fun part is what happens inside the chrysalis. The body of the caterpillar will basically liquify and rebuild itself. And in 8 to 12 days a butterfly will emerge. So are you ready to see what kind?

A black swallowtail. (This one is a male.) Maybe my lonely little chrysalis will release a female. And  after it mates, maybe it will find a garden like mine with some dill or parsley or fennel or carrots to lay its eggs on and the whole process will start again.

Garden Variety Fun

A few years ago, my partner and I decided it would be good for us to have a garden – someplace to putter, to plant, to dig in the dirt and grow pretty things and salad things and mostly, serve as an excuse for us to get outside more often. We’re still not really good at it, but we learn a little every year, and I’m always tickled when we manage to not kill something. So here are a few garden things that have made me happy this year.

This was the first bloom on the clematis vine this spring. I planted it just last year and it stayed very small and bloomed just a couple of times. This year, it went crazy (not long after I took this photo), but I neglected to take a picture when it had a gazillion flowers. My mom always had one of these in her garden, and I always thought this color was the most awesome shade of coolness.

My partner and our youngest son love fried okra so she wanted to grow her own this year. They were the only plants in the garden that didn’t wilt during the wicked heat and dry spell in July. And now they’re producing okra quicker than I can harvest them. These things grow fast and are hard to kill – my kind of plant. It makes me feel like I know what I’m doing. I do, however, think okra in any form of food is revolting, but look what pretty flowers they have!

As I was hovering over the okra plants with my camera, a bee flew by my nose, landed on a flower, stuffed himself inside it, and didn’t come out. This is him. I think he went into some kind of pollen coma or something. He just stayed there kind of buzzing under his breath.

Thai basil. Also easy to grow and hard to kill. And it has pretty flowers that attract fun insects. This came up all over the front of the garden a few weeks ago. I thought it died over the winter.

Portrait of a tiny, tiny flower.

Sunflowers make me ridiculously happy. These are my first. They’re of the giant variety and so are taller than me and just started blooming a couple of days ago. I went out to take a photo of one and this Spicebush swallowtail was considerate enough to flutter up and plant himself (sorry, can never resist an awful pun) on my flower.

He really, really liked the flower but got irritated at my clicking at him and sailed off over the house a moment later.

Anybody else have fun stuff going on in your garden this year?

Why I Stayed Up for the Perseids

Because standing in my driveway at 3:00 AM next to a tripod holding my camera taking 30 second exposures over and over of a relatively small section of sky not polluted hopelessly by city lights, streetlights, porch lights and the rising moon on the off chance a meteor might steak through the frame just sounded like fun.

For the record, I was out there for about an hour and a half. Because of the poor viewing conditions, I saw less than a dozen Perseid meteors and I caught an image of just one. It was the second picture I shot, but that didn’t stop me from taking about 50 more exposures of dark patches of sky.

Here is my meteor:

Not perfect, I know, but it’s my first try, and I love it.

If you look near the right edge of the photo, you’ll see 5 bright stars in the shape of a sideways “W.” That’s Cassiopeia. The radiant point of the Perseid meteor shower, the point from which all the meteors appear to radiate, is near the constellation Perseus which is below and to the right of Cassiopeia (and not in the frame). It is made up of fainter stars and is more difficult to see, especially in a light-polluted sky. (See http://earthsky.org/tonight/wheres-the-radiant-point-for-the-perseids for a handy diagram.)

The Perseid Meteor shower occurs each year when the earth crosses the orbit of a comet called Swift-Tuttle which orbits the earth once every 130 years leaving a path of dust and debris behind it. Each August, as the earth passes through this comet dust, we get a light show as the bits enter our atmosphere and burn up leaving bright streaks across the sky.

The best viewing time for the Perseid shower is after Perseus rises above the horizon, which was after midnight. I waited until 1:00 to set up my camera. That would give me a couple of hours to shoot for meteors before moonrise which would lighten the sky even more. After a while, I got a bit bored, and pointed the camera at our front porch, hit the button waited about half the exposure time and then stepped into the frame. And that’s how I made this ghostly self-portrait:

See the bricks through my shirt? Dorky, I know (but it will make a good prop when it’s time to decorate for Halloween). I took a few more dark, star-studded-sky-with-no-meteor-streak photos and then the moon rose.

That’s Venus trailing behind in the little crook in the tree tops.

I went to bed about 4:00 AM and got up about 7:00 and felt like a zombie half the day. It was completely worth it. I haven’t spent that kind of time watching the stars since the last time we went camping maybe, or the last time I walked on the beach after sundown. I wonder sometimes what it was like before electric lights and TV and air conditioning closed us up inside our homes, when people were still more a part of the world we live in and the night sky was the best show on earth.

If you missed the Perseids, don’t worry, there are several more coming up soon. Here’s a link: http://earthsky.org/astronomy-essentials/earthskys-meteor-shower-guide

And for those of you who, like me, have never photographed stars or meteors but would like to try, I found a handy, simple guide here: http://www.steves-digicams.com/knowledge-center/how-tos/digital-photography-101-how-to-photograph-meteor-showers.html#b

 

Pelican

Once upon a time, in another life, I tried to write a poem about pelicans, and it began like this:

“Once I stood on packed sand still
dark with the receding tide on an afternoon
that couldn’t decide not to be winter,
on a barrier island named for wild horses,
at the dune-drifted, grass-whispered margin
of the Gulf of Mexico…”
 

After this point, the words changed and shifted like shoals every time I looked at it. It was never right. The poem hemmed and hawed and finally got around to trying to describe the birds that remind me so much of pterosaurs. Every time I see the creature, I travel back to the Cretaceous in my mind:

 “Pelicans slip the air streams
like ancient machines perfectly designed
for what they need to do, all hooked
bill and hollow bone, sailed wings sending
shadows ripping across the waves…”
 

Or something like that. I put the poem away, unfinished, with all my poems years ago. Now I take pictures. So here are a few photos of my favorite bird, the brown pelican. I think they have inspired me to try to finish the poem. (Maybe.)

It’s amazing how a creature that is so graceful and strong in the air, like a glimmer of prehistory reminding me of the largest flying creatures the world has ever seen, becomes kind of cute and dorky when he’s waddling around on the land.

Just for the curious: The first 3 photos were taken in Edisto Beach in SC last August and the last 2 were taken at the Outer Banks in April.

Who Needs a Darkroom?

I think that to me probably the coolest thing about the 21st century besides digital cameras is photo editing software.  I have Photoshop Elements and sitting on my couch tinkering with it sure beats investing in a bunch of expensive equipment and spending an afternoon in a dark closet with open trays of smelly chemicals. Even for a complete novice like me, adjusting the basics is pretty simple. Then I just have to pick what I like best.

But I can be seriously indecisive, so I thought I’d get your help. Here are three different treatments of the same image of a leafless tree towering over an abandoned school. What do you like best?