Monday, April 27, 2009

The ratite clearing house post

Darren's post on my emu dissection pictures inspired me to bring all of my ratite blogging together in one place, for the convenience and edification of all.

There's the original emu dissection post and and the immediately subsequent rhea dissection posts (two links). Note the striking difference between the comparatively large, normally-folding wings of the smaller rhea (below) and the silly twig-wings of the much larger emu (above).

Emus use their inflatable throat pouches to make booming calls. I was fortunate enough to witness this and engage in a bout of reciprocal burping with an emu at the Merced zoo, which I covered here.

Later on I posted briefly about kiwis. Also, people loved the gross photos enough that I felt compelled to share pix from dissecting a hyena, which is not a ratite but also flightless and still pretty cool.

Finally, I bought together my biological and then-nascent astronomical obsessions and turned some of the emu gore into a planet.

If you find anything dead, or get to cut something up, or have some other cool interaction with the natural world, post it and tell the world!

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Theropods of Claremont, or, learning ornithology in front of a live audience

Every day between about 5:30 and 6:30 PM I have no scheduled obligations, my driveway is out of direct sunlight and there are lots of birds about. And, as luck would have it, I have a small Maksutov-Cassegrain which functions as telescope by night and a spotting scope by day. So I started photographing birds.

I won't lie to you: this started out as basically onanism with a telescope. You know, I couldn't get what I wanted (moon, planets, etc.), but I could still get something.... But against all odds I started to get interested in who's around. I finally knocked the dust off my copy of The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, which until the past couple of weeks had gotten about as much use as my copy of the complete works of William Shakespeare (i.e., it looked nice on the shelf, and implied erudition I don't actually possess).

This evening was particularly good; in an hour I saw and photographed five species. That's nothing by the standards of real birders, but for me it was a record. All were perched at one time or another in the top branches of a tree three houses down, or on the power lines at the end of the block. The tree is 70 yards from my driveway, and the power lines are a bit farther. I took all the photos with an Orion Apex 90 scope, Orion Sirius Plossl 25mm eyepiece yeilding 50x, and a handheld Nikon Coolpix 4500 digital camera. Many thanks to Alan Shabel for help with the identifications. Here they are:

A Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos. One of several in the neighborhood. I see them mainly when they come perch in the top of the target tree and scare off my intended quarry (see below).

A Band-Tailed Pigeon, Columba fasciata. I didn't know this was anything other than a feral Eurasian Rock Dove (i.e., regular pigeon) until I checked Sibley's. A strikingly beautiful animal, for a pigeon. I've seen these before, and just didn't know what I was seeing.

An Acorn Woodpecker, Melanerpes formicivorus. Today was the first time I'd actually seen one of these things around here, or ever identified a woodpecker to species. He spent quite a while tearing up our municipal infrastructure. Maybe I can score some stimulus bling for something called woodpecker monitoring.

Oh, now this little fartskin was a whole 'nuther kettle of fish. Didn't even sit still long enough for me to get the scope properly focused. Wham, bam, what the hell was that? I think, based on the reddish throat and face and black-and-white striped breast, that this is a Red-Throated Pipit, Anthus cervinus House Finch, Carpodacus mexicanus (thanks to Neil for the save, and for making my secondary title even more appropriate). But for all I know it might be a Rosy-Bummed Sky Kiwi or a Uruguayan Yaksucker, neither of which are covered by Sibley's. Perhaps I got the expurgated edition.

Those are all great birds, but the one that got me into this crazy pursuit is this little fellow, this particular individual, a male Anna's Hummingbird, Calypte anna, whom I spotted a couple of weeks ago buzzing about like a tiny helicopter or a slightly-larger-than-average bumblebee. Belying his clade's reputation, he does sit still from time to time, almost always on this exact spot on this exact branch of the same exact tree three houses down. You'd think that regularity of habit would make him easy to photograph. But he has a couple of traits that I'd never read about which make him a frustrating target. First, he's psychic; if I raise the camera to the eyepiece or, heaven forfend, call someone over for a look, he's gone. Sometimes for the rest of the day. Second, he's happy to show me his iridescent green back all day, but only rarely will he turn around and flash the iridescent red feathers that cover his face and neck.

Finally, finally today I got this shot. This is the same bird as in the shot above, about two minutes later. When the sunlight catches those feathers, the effect is unbelievable. One look at that and you might start to understand why a grown man would spend an hour every evening looking through a thermos-sized telescope at a thumb-sized bird half a block away. But when he turns around, away from the late afternoon sun, the effect is lost, and the feathers are a flat dark red, a bit like dried blood.

And like that, poof, he's gone.

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Sunday, April 12, 2009


Hoo boy, you are ska-ROOOOD! Because it's either the morning, and you need to get to work, or you're at work, or it's the evening and you need to do chores/spend time with your family/stalk people online, and here I am pointing you toward the Star Formation game, which in its addictiveness makes the infamous Falling Sand game look like eating your boogers in public (i.e., pathetically easy to kick...not that that's an actual habit anyone would ever need to sirree, just trying to turn a humble phrase here...).

They could have called this Herding Hydrogen. Theoretically, you set off supernovae to compress clouds of interstellar gas so that they become gravitationally bound and collapse into massive short-lived stars which themselves go supernova. Basically though, you Nuke Stuff until it glows, and then it goes BOOM and Nukes other Stuff and the eternal cycle of Blowing Stuff Up rolls on. I submit that this is scientific evidence that the Creator exists and that He is a dude.

In not-completely-unrelated news, last night I got curious about what would happen if I held my camcorder--literally the cheapest commercially available model--up to the eyepiece of my thermos-sized telescope. The answer is that I got something that is pretty crap on any objective scale, but at least recognizable and therefore a smashing success personally. I'm posting this not to brag--oh hay-ull no--but as a reminder that the night sky is accessible even to those of modest means.

Clear skies!

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Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Messier A and B

Two of my favorite destinations on the moon are the double craters Messier A and B in Mare Fecunditatis. The impact or impacts (read on) must have happened at very low angles because the rays--twin ejecta blankets--point nearly straight west. The hypothesis has been floated that the two craters were produced by a single impactor diving into the lunar surface and then bouncing back out. I'm no geophysicist but that sounds pretty unlikely. Another hypothesis is that a single impactor hit and bounced. Looks like a pretty short bounce for something traveling many miles per second, and it doesn't explain why the two craters have such similar geometry. Given the number of asteroids that are turning up with moons these days, and the frequency with which comets fall apart, a good ole double impact seems much more plausible to me. But that's just my $0.02.

Anyway, it's a pretty sight in telescopes big and small, and well worth a look if you're out looking up. I took the top photo a year ago today, using a 6" reflector and Nikon Coolpix 4500 digital camera. The photo below was taken this April 1 using the same camera and a 90mm Maksutov Cassegrain at a magnification of only 39x, which goes to show that you don't need a big telescope or high magnification to catch this pair of gems. Click photos to embiggify.

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Saturday, April 04, 2009

Live-blogging the 100 Hours of Astronomy

I didn't think this was going to happen; until about sundown tonight the LA part of the 100 Hours of Astronomy had been more like the 50 Hours of Holy Crap It's Overcast and Sprinkling. But then the sky just magically cleared, so I took my little travel telescope to downtown Claremont, set up near the fountains, and started offering passersby a look at the moon. In two and a half hours, a staggering 144 people had a look.

Overall, I was pretty impressed with the general level of knowledge of my visitors. Several of them knew that the 100 Hours of Astronomy was going on, thanks to coverage on NPR (link goes to the IYA 2009 page about the event; the actual 100 Hours page has been mostly shut down by high traffic, but the webcast is still active). Even at low power, the moon drifted out of the field of view in about 3 or 4 minutes, and almost everyone who noticed this knew it was because of the Earth's rotation (which of course carries the telescope along with it, but not the moon). Lots of folks noticed that the view of the moon through the telescope was flipped left-to-right by the right-angle diagonal mirror in front of the eyepiece. Many, many people of all ages told me it was the first time they'd ever seen the moon through a telescope. Until a year and a half ago, I would have been in the same boat. Now I'm just happy to be able to give other people that experience.

People's responses were overwhelmingly positive. Almost everyone thanked me, lots of people shook my hand, and a handful told me it was the highlight of their evening. That felt pretty darn good.

The total number of people who walked by while I was set up was probably closer to 200. My usual greeting was, "Would you like to look at the moon? It's fast and free." It's funny, you get that many people coming by and you start to notice patterns. Here's what I observed:

1. Women of all ages were far more likely to come over for a look than men. Many couples came by because the woman wanted a look and basically dragged the guy over. I don't know if that has to do with (stupid) male aloofness vs. a tendency for women to be more personable, or a vast untapped astronomical curiosity amongst womankind*, or what, but the difference between the sexes was pretty striking. However, out of the people who actually looked through the scope I'd say the questions and complements were about evenly distributed. In parting, women tended to, "Thank you so much, that was really wonderful!", with a ten-thousand-watt smile, and men tended to a quick but heartfelt, "Thanks", with eye contact, and a handshake.

*Sadly, I'm not joking about this; I do think that contemporary society and the educational system tend to steer women away from math and science, and it would not surprise me if the pool of people who would engage with science if it were more approachable was skewed toward women.

2. Willingness to look was basically inversely related to age. I did get plenty of young people to look, from tweens up to young marrieds, but the accept rate was a lot higher in middle-aged and elderly people. I think this is because--and I say this as a former teen and twentysomething whose memory is not perfect but still too sharp for comfort--most people in their teens and twenties have their heads up their butts. It's an ailment that is usually fixed, if it's fixed, by living long enough to get over yourself. (If you find that offensive, wait until you're in your mid-30s and see if you're still offended before you take me to task. And in the meantime, get off my damn lawn!)

3. Among the ethnically diverse passersby I didn't notice any patterns in terms of who would look and who wouldn't. Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, whatever, most people were curious and openly so.

4. Smart-alecks were rare, and they were all young men (to a man, as it were). And they all said the same thing.

Me (pointing to telescope): "Hey, would you like to look at the moon?"
Them (glancing skyward): "Nah, I can see it just fine."

I would have thought that would really get on my nerves, but it didn't. I was offering a free service, and if people didn't want to look, okay. If they wanted to get a quip out of it, okay, poor choice, but not my loss. Plus, it was really easy for me to be the bigger man (cuz I'm fat--ha, Mike, said it before you!) because about half the time the dude who smarted off would get dragged over to the telescope by his wife or girlfriend and end up looking anyway, and watching the battle between gratitude and embarrassment in his demeanor afterwards was, I'm sad to say, extremely satisfying.

5. Anyone who asked more than two questions would eventually ask, "How much does a setup like this cost?" And with only one exception, everyone who asked was shocked--shocked I tell you!--to learn that the scope currently goes for less than $250. The one exception was a group of starving students who were impressed by how much better the view was than that given by their telescope, which reportedly cost $30 but "didn't work". The old rule--don't buy a telescope anywhere that also sells underwear--still applies. And, yes, Toys-R-Us sells underwear. You've been warned.

Final thoughts: man, I had a blast. Any time you can single-handedly make 144 people happy in less than three hours counts as a big win (har har, obligatory Annabel Chong joke, etc.). If there are any raging egotists out there (on the internet? Nah!), sidewalk astronomy probably has the highest people-saying-nice-things-about-you-to-effort ratio of any conceivable activity. I had not considered this as a potential draw before; I just wanted to show some people the moon.

Here's the bottom line: every time I look through a telescope, I am blown away. Every. Single. Time. We spend so much time and money on devices that bore us or frustrate us or piss us off. It's nice to use one that doesn't just tickle my sense of wonder, but smacks it across the room Hulk-style. The only thing better than that is sharing the experience with others--the more, the better. That's what the 100 Hours of Astronomy and the International Year of Astronomy are all about. So happily for me there is a global initiative to do what I was going to do anyway.


Photo taken from downtown Claremont, about 7:45 PM on Friday, April 3, by afocal projection, using an Orion Apex 90mm Maksutov-Cassegrain telescope, Orion Sirius Plossl 25mm eyepiece, and Nikon Coolpix 4500 digital camera.

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Friday, April 03, 2009

Swim, little pilgrim

As purveyor of all things cool, I am contractually obligated to inform you that Brian Engh has put together a rap video about crocodilian predation, with numerous references to geologic history and lots of footage of cute little antelopes getting destroyed by immense bloodthirsty crocs. Let's see if I can get this bad boy to embed:

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