Saturday, January 28, 2012

Good Book!

I'm on a roll with books today.  This book was loaned to me by a co-worker who thought I'd enjoy it.  Boy was he right!  Written in the late '50s, this book is a delight to read, and is terribly informative!

The author went to college c. WWI.  She became a botanist and ended up working at the Morton Arboretum, in Illinois.  Her writing is very readable and just chocked full of information.  I was so impressed by this book, that not only did I read it in only a few nights, I went on-line to see if I could order a copy somewhere.  Luckily for all of us, it is still in print.

Now, I know what you are thinking - botany, how dull.  But it's not just about botany.  It's about how plants can tell us about the history of the land around us.  Sure, I love the list of native plants found in various types of prairie ecosystems (good reference material), but I also enjoyed the trip along the lakeshore that brought to light the lives of the emergent vegetation, and her walk from the headwaters of a stream, following it down through the gorge is carved in the landscape, opened my eyes to the ways plants colonize the sides of a ravine.  Her tale of how she and her friends determined the closing date of an old abandoned schoolhouse is an eye-opener. 

I highly recommend this delightful book.  No matter where you live, if you are a nature enthusiast you will enjoy reading this volume.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Is they is, or is they ain't?

Well, I stayed up late to try and photograph any potential northern lights Saturday night/Sunday morning.  The closest we got was a reddish cloud to the north at 3:15 AM.  I'm not sure if it is northern lights, or if it is the  reflection of lights from the village of Grass Lake.  

These are long exposures, so they look a brighter red than the actual sky.  I'm guessing, though, that since the bright light directly on the horizon disappeared as the morning progressed, that it may not be Grass Lake.


Now, these next two shots were taken last night (24th) - the Earth was whallopped with a massive solar storm and there were supposed to be phenomenal auroras.  Certainly the photos coming out of Norway and such were fabulous.  All I saw was a bright greenish light hugging the horizon to the north.


[Update:  Last night I made sure to look at the sky to the north while Toby and I were out for our walk.  No lights.  No haze.  Translation:  it's not Grass Lake!  So, the lights pictured above must've been the northern lights as seen through the layers of clouds.  Imagine what it would've looked like had the nights been clear!]

Friday, January 20, 2012

Northern Lights Alert!

This just in from

Space Weather News for Jan. 19, 2011

EARTH-DIRECTED FLARE: Active sunspot 1401 erupted today, Jan. 19th, for more than an hour around 16:00 UT. The long-duration blast produced an M3-class solar flare and a CME that appears to be heading toward Earth. Forecasters say strong geomagnetic storms are possible when the cloud arrives during the late hours of Jan. 21st.  High-latitude (and possibly middle-latitude) sky watchers should be alert for auroras this weekend.  Check for movies and updates.

DON'T MISS THE STORM: Would you like a call when geomagnetic storms are in progress? Storm alerts are available from (text) and (voice).

I know I always want to know in advance if I should be on the lookout for northern lights, so just in case someone else is out there who'd like to know, I thought I'd share.  Charge up those camera batteries and get out the tripods!

Year of the Bat

It's the International Year of the Bat!

Get involved!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Animals at Play

The following came to my attention via a cousin's Facebook page.

I had a professor who insisted that animals do not play. Well, you'll never convince me of that. This crow is just having the time of its life.

I also recall watching gulls riding the water over the edge of the falls at Niagara Falls. They'd sit on the water, and whoosh! over the edge they'd go, only to take wing after falling a few feet. They then flew back upstream only to sit on the water again and take another ride over the falls. No barrels required.

Here's one more - from PBS's program Nature.

I sure do miss ravens. We had them all over in the Adirondacks. No ravens here in southern Michigan - although I do have titmice instead, and just up the road there are indigo buntings galore in the summer. Some trade-offs aren't too bad.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Slime Mold Grows Up

Just in case you didn't really think that slime molds moved, here's nifty video of one as it goes from placid slime mold feeding on its log to producing its spore-producing appendages. Note the presence of the critters all around - that will give you and idea of just how quickly this thing moves!

Thanks to Phil over at Cabinet of Curiosities for posting a similar slime mold video - nothing like a nifty nature moment to capture one's attention and make 'em start searching for more!

WNS - more bad news

"I’m writing today with tragic news about White-nose Syndrome (WNS), the disease that has been decimating North American bat populations for the past six years. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced today that White-nose Syndrome has now killed more than 5.7 million bats. The new estimate, which some biologist believe might be conservative, ranges up to 6.7 million."

This was the beginning of an email I just received from Nina Fascione, the director of Bat Conservation International.  Just thought I'd spread the news.  

However, I thought I had just heard (on NPR perhaps?) that the rate of infection of WNS was starting to slow down - scientists were hoping a plateau had been reached.  Maybe I just dreamed that.  I'll have to do some research to see if this is so.  

In the meantime, the future isn't looking too rosy for my favorite mammal.  :(

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Feeding Your Inner Artist

This weekend we had a soapstone carving workshop at work.  Due to a few no-shows, I was able to sneak in and try my hand at this age-old craft.

 When I think of soapstone carvings, I think of the Inuit, but it turns out that this art form dates back over 3000 years to the ancient Chinese.  Even ancient Africans and artists from the Middle-east (Iran) were busily creating not only artwork, but also daily utensils, like bowls, plates, teapots and the like.  Slowly soapstone made its way into Europe (1600s) and even the Vikings were using it to carve jewelry and containers.

 My loon is the pale one - third from the front.

Apparently the Inuit didn't start carving soapstone until they met, and began trading with, white settlers across North America.  Their traditional art involved carving whale bones, but they readily took to the soapstone the early traders offered them.

Soapstone is a form of talc, and is very, very soft.  Actually, the more talc present, the softer the stone.  Some quarries have soapstone with only a little bit of talc, and this stone, while equally as beautiful as the softer varieties, is much more difficult to carve.

If you'd like to see the process we went through to make these loons, visit Dirt Time at Dahlem, the Dahlem Center's blog.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A Day of Adventure!

The word was out last week, and by Saturday, a plan was set to meet by 8:30 AM Monday at a car pool site north of 94.  Ten of us showed up, passports in hand, and off we went to Canada.  The sun was out and it was going to be a beautiful day.

In less than wo hours or so after we left, we were nearing The Site, as evidenced by cars parked along the roadside and people lining the the shoulder.

What in the world were we there for?  Can you see it below?  In front of the people?

It was a great grey owl.   This bird had flown down from way up north in search of food and had been hanging around for a few days.  So here it was, trying to find something to eat, and all these people were lined up literally within spitting distance of it to take its picture.

I confess, I was one of the perpetrators - but at least this time I had the right lens for my camera (the last time I went in search of a great grey, up in Montreal, I got to the site and was getting my gear ready only to discover I had brought my macro lens instead of the zoom).

This bird, however, was really quite focused on trying to find food.  It sat there very patiently, turning its head this way and that, using that marvelous facial disc to listen for the rustle of any small mammal in the dry leaves on the ground.  The constant clicking and beeping of upwards of 30 or 40 cameras seemed to be of little concern.

Great greys are probably my most favorite of the owls.  Saw-whets are cute, but there's just something majestic about this bird, the tallest of the North American owls (snowy owls are the heaviest). Normally a denizen of the far northern forests, where it is often called the ghost bird, the great grey hunts in the deep silence far from the bustle and noise of civilization.  When food becomes scarce, however, it heads southward in search of better hunting grounds.  Small mammals make up the majority of its diet.

We got to watch some good behaviors, including a little grooming:

And for those who prefer action shots, here's a video of the bird taking care of an itch (I didn't have my tripod - who knew there'd be video opportunities - so be warned, it's a bit jumpy).

Finally, after what must've been a half hour or more, the bird started to take exception to our presence.

He flew down the road maybe a hundred feet or so and landed.  The herd followed.

Again he took off.

A fence post across the road was a good perch...

but the paparazzi followed again, so he crouched...

...and launched.  This time he went where we could not follow:  into a thicket behind a wire fence.  At last - some peace to hunt.  Notice the really large feet.  They are covered with feathers, which help this northern bird stay warm in normally subzero temperatures.

Next on our agenda was stopping by the ferry station along Lake Erie.

Our goal at the lake was to search for gulls.  At the first stop gulls were few and far between.

So we headed off for our next stop:  The Onion Fields.  This area of very flat land was (and still is being) drained so the original settlers could access the very rich wetland soils.  The resulting mucklands were used for growing onions.  The fields didn't look terribly oniony when we were there, but it was for onions that we had come - we were looking for snowy owls.  Luck was with us, we found two!  Do you see it below?  It's that tiny white dot slightly up and to the left of the center of the photograph.

Here's the cropped image - the bird is just above and right of center:

I'm afraid that's as good as it gets with the snowy.  Unlike the great grey, which sat right along the roadside, the snowies were smack dab in the middle of these large fields that were surrounded by deep ditches.

After a quick bite to eat, we dashed back to another ferry landing, just in case some gulls or other interesting shorebirds showed up.  By now the wind had picked up quite and we had a bit of a surf rolling in.

This didn't seem to deter the birds too much, for we watched a flotilla of Canada geese bob along unconcerned, and a raft of golden eyes were also floating nearby.  We saw a couple redheaded ducks, too, but the big find along the shore was a greater black-backed gull.

By now the clouds were rolling in and it was time to head back to The States.  On our way across the border, we had a little excitement as one of our vehicles was pulled over for having set off the radiation sensors.  The officials came out and were using their hand-held radiation detectors to locate the source of the potential crime.  Soon we saw bags and one of our people escorted into the building.  It turns out that our friend had an old WWII compass that had been a gift from an uncle.  This compass apparently has a slightly radioactive compound in the paint on the dial, which set off the alarms as being similar to the radioactive products used in "smart bombs."  We all got a good chuckle out of this unplanned adventure.

When I finally was headed back toward the old homestead yesterday evening, a gorgeous orange full moon of impressive size was on the rise.  I nearly floored the gas pedal to get home before it was up and drained of color.  Grabbing the tripod and dog (who had been inside all day and needed respite), I dashed out back to snap some shots.

While I was out there, I thought I'd see if the camera could pick up more stars that my eyes could see.  About the only constellations I could make out were Cassiopeia (below) and Orion (partly hidden by a tree). 

The camera got this pretty good shot of Jupiter and two of its moons, though!

I haven't consulted any star charts yet, but this bright one was in the western sky (about 6:00/6:30 PM).  Could it be Venus?  I was fascinated by the effect I got from the plane that flew by, flashing its red light.

Every evening there is a smudge of stars that I can just barely see when I look directly toward it, but see much more brightly from the corner of my eye.  I believe these are the Pleiades - the camera picked them up nicely, too.

As Calvin would say, the day was just packed. What a perfect way to spend a day off from work.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Red Sky in the Morning

When Toby and I headed out for our walk about 7:45 this morning, there was a lovely pink glow in the sky.

We rounded the corner of the house and saw this:

Well, of course, I had to dash back inside for the camera!  What a spectacular sunrise!!!

All too soon, though, the colors were fading.  By the time we had gone about 0.3 miles up the road, the brilliance was gone.

Soon the sky was all grey and cloudy, and I thought "by golly, that old phrase about sunsets and sunrises is true."  But here it is about 1:00 in the afternoon and the sky is mostly blue with the winter sun shining weakly through the trees.  Temps are soaring up towards 40 degrees - it has turned into a nice day.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Food for Thought

My friend Willow had this on her blog, and it was so moving that I decided to swipe the code and post it on this blog, too. Some of my readers are also her readers, but some of you are different.

Give it a think.