ID-ing A New Backyard Bird

It’s been a wild summer for backyard birding at the Willett compound! We had the finch nest to watch for months. We had a hummingbird nest earlier. Then came the weird call of an unknown bird, that turned out to almost certainly be a Northern Bobwhite Quail. (Never actually saw it, just heard it for a few days – haven’t heard it recently.) The owls were back a couple of nights ago, in the trees just outside our back yard, REALLY loud.

Then there are all of the other usual suspects out and about.

In the midst of all of that, a week or two ago I saw a newcomer. It took a couple of days to get some good pictures.

Slightly smaller than a mockingbird, but dark grey with an all white belly and a split tail.

Without a decent picture, the online searches and the Merlin Bird ID app can only make so-so guesses.

“About mockingbird sized, split tail, dark grey or black with white belly” comes up with a number of options.

Sometimes on the ground, often on that chair (a lot of birds are liking that spot), sometimes in the tree.

Patience is a virtue (not one of my strongest ones, for the record) and I finally got some good photos.

What are you, little guy?

Who knew, a flycatcher breed, a Black Phoebe to be specific! Not a lot of water around here, except for maybe the (usually empty) Chatsworth Reservoir a couple miles away, but maybe he wandered down from there.

Sweet! Am I supposed to be keeping a list?


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New Aircraft For SoCal Wing

Maybe “new” isn’t quite the right word given that this aircraft type was designed in 1947 and this particular aircraft is 35 years old.

It’s an Antonov AN-2, a tail-dragging, single-engine, biplane. We acquired it from another Wing, along with the Messerschmit 108 that arrived a few weeks ago.

I’ll bet you haven’t seen these in your neighborhood recently! Trust me, you would notice, it’s a big aircraft!

The AN-2 is still in service all over the world as a passenger and cargo plane, primarily in remote and undeveloped areas. It’s able to land and take off from undeveloped surfaces such as grass trips, open fields, sand bars, deserts, and so on.

The most amazing thing that I’ve seen is that it doesn’t have a stall speed. If the engine fails you need to keep it under control, but as you slow it will simply descend to the ground at about the same speed you would land under a parachute.

It’s big, lumbering, and slow, with at top speed of 160 mph and a cruise speed of 120 mph. (A Cessna 172 is faster.) But it will fly perfectly well down to about 30 mph and in fact can be flown backwards over the ground if it’s flown into a headwind faster than that.

As a passenger aircraft it typically carries 12 passengers. (AK-47’s are optional.) We won’t be taking passengers – as a foreign-manufactured aircraft the Big Panda II isn’t eligible for the CAF’s ride program.

The cockpit is a thing to behold. The GPS unit on top of the dashboard might not be 1947 original equipment for this type.

Designed in Russia, many of the instruments still have their Russian markings, and most are in metric units.

And the markings and specifications on the four big blades are in Russian. My Russian is just a bit rusty (i.e. I know about five words that I learned from James Bond movies and Tom Clancy books) so I can’t tell you what it says, but it’s an attention getter.

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In Search Of Focus

If this isn’t symbolic of this entire year, I don’t know what is.

Practically, I was “playing” with the camera trying to get my astrophotography in better focus, then trying to take a picture of the lens settings using my cell phone when I got it right. That was the theory.

In reality, not only was I having ongoing problems with the astrophotographs being out of focus but the photos I was trying to take to troubleshoot it were also out of focus.

It was very meta.

And it occurred to me that it’s symbolic of this entire year, like a waking nightmare where we pray we’re dreaming because that would mean that we can wake up, but we know that it’s not a dream but we have to wake up from it anyway. Nothing makes sense, but we’re being bombarded with emotions and overwhelmed with a roller coaster ride between terror and joy, desperation and hope, wondering if every moment of love will be our last while knowing that every moment of hatred and anger will be followed by more, sooner or later.

Time to make the reality we’re desperate for, to do the work no matter how hard, to run the race no matter how long.

If we don’t, we’ll die.

Or worse.

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What’s In Your Bug Out Bag?

The start of brush fire season, the recent (relatively minor) earthquake, the newly aggressive and expanded hurricane season (I know, Florida, East Coast, Hawaii, all a long way away from here, but hey, 2020 in case you haven’t noticed!!), and the potential for an actual alien invasion of lizard folks who like think humans are tasty (again, first of all, 2020, and secondly, I would like to point out to our new reptilian overlords how well we have treated the lizards in the yard!) all have reminded me that it’s time to rotate out the supplies in our “bug out bags.”

These are the five backpacks (one for each family member, even though the kids don’t live here any more, and we used to have a sixth for the pets, but they’re gone, but maybe we should put that sixth one back for the SIL just in case, because, you know, 2020, reptilian overlords, etc) which we keep stocked with emergency food and water as well as flashlights, first aid kits, gloves, toilet paper, duct tape (don’t get the TP and DT mixed up!), masks, and so on.

The stuff coming out should still be good (especially the chocolate, which as we all know NEVER goes bad) so it will get eaten, while the supplies will be replenished with fresh replacements and we’ll be good for another year.

Should we put in some Purina Lizard Chow, just to be safe?

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Twelve Hours

I stumbled on a large can of worms a little over twelve hours ago and have spent the day, shuffling fairly large data files into order to figure out how many worms, how big, how wiggly, and training them to tap dance.

Another hour or so to go but the clock’s ticking and I haven’t posted today, so have a picture from a couple weeks ago when I was set up to catch a comet from my front yard.

Back to the tap dancing worms! It’s so hard to get them into those teeny, tiny, little tuxedos and top hats!

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How Did We Get Here?

I’m not 100% sure where I was, but I thought I knew at one time. I might have been wrong. Or I might have forgotten. Maybe I left myself notes. Maybe not.

And I’m not 100% sure where I am now. Or which way I’m heading.

I’m not 100% sure where these words come from. I think that I’m 100% sure where this image comes from, but I’m not 100% sure what it means.

I described it twice today as “trying to run a marathon while hip-deep in molasses.” That’s fair, I think.

But while that might all be incredibly frustrating (it is), I will not stop running.

That’s one lesson of the marathon. You can get carried off in an ambulance, and your time may suck and not be what you wanted, but you will not quit.

No matter how much you just want to take a little rest, sit for a few minutes, and see if maybe that leads to a quit.


When in doubt, keep moving.

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Never An Owl Around When You Need One

If it isn’t one thing, it’s another.

We’ve apparently got a gopher invasion happening. Makes it fun to wander around the yard in the dark taking pictures of comets and spacecraft.

It seems that their primary predators are coyotes, hawks, and owls, but they’re nocturnal, so I’m guessing that the owls are our best hope. We’ve got some around, so it’s time for them to get to work.

I’m “Team Silent Death From The Skies!” Where do I get the T-shirt?

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ISS Pass – August 02

I mainly wanted to take tonight’s picture because I’ve been trying to experiment with the focusing on this new lens that’s been giving me fits. There’s progress, this is MUCH better than what I got the other night. (Which I didn’t share with you because, you know, it sucked.)

The stars are still trailing because the Earth is moving over the course of these twenty-nine images and two minutes and forty-two seconds. Haven’t figured out a way to stop that, and probably wouldn’t do it if I could because, you know, destruction of civilization and all human life. (Although there are days…)

But the focus is much better and everything’s pretty sharp. I’ve got passes over the next few nights so I’ll keep playing with it to see if I can get it better.

You’ll see the Big Dipper up there, so Comet NEOWISE is up there somwhere, probably to the left of the ISS track and about halfway to the top of the tree on a line between the top of the tree and the far right star in the “bowl” of the Dipper. But I doubt it can be seen, again with the full Moon rising in the east and a fair amount of smoke and haze still in the air.

(Image: Star Walk)

Speaking of that smoke, in this image of the ISS track you can see how red the ISS looks down near the horizon versus how it looks overhead. That’s caused by the path of the light traveling through a lot more air down there, plus the smoke, so just the Sun and Moon will look orange or red as their rising or setting, so will the ISS.

What you won’t see tonight that you might have seen last night is the Dragon spacecraft – it landed in the water off of Pensacola, Florida this afternoon. The entry, descent, and landing were just about perfect, and Bob and Doug are back home with their families tonight, while a few hundred pounds of critical science results and samples are on their way back to their Earth-bound research labs, and the Dragon spacecraft is headed back to Kennedy Space Center where it will be examined in great detail (this was a test flight, after all) and then refurbished for use on the Crew-2 flight to ISS next year.



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Hidden Dragon

The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft undocked from the ISS this afternoon and is on it’s way to splashdown off of Florida early tomorrow afternoon. Sometimes when the Shuttle would be coming or going from the ISS it was fairly easy to see it during a good ISS pass since it was fairly large and reflected a lot of light. The Dragon and Soyuz spacecraft are considerably smaller than Shuttle was, but if you have a good pass and they’re near the ISS, you might see them trailing along or leading, depending on their orbit.

There was a so-so ISS pass over SoCal tonight – low on the horizon, so we were seeing it through a lot of atmosphere at best, and our atmosphere is a bit hazy at the moment. While we don’t have any storms or clouds, we have plenty of smoke to go around. The fire near us from yesterday is out, but there are a handful of others around and one HUGE one that broke out this afternoon (way out in Riverside County), so the seeing is marginal.

Plus, there’s this monstrously huge source of “natural” light pollution up there tonight:

The moon is only a couple of days from full, and with that bright moonlight bouncing off of all of that smoke and haze, it’s ugly for star gazing. On the other hand, to the right of the moon is Jupiter and its moons, and to the left is Saturn and its rings, so even with binoculars it was nice to see detail in those objects.

But I did not see the Dragon. I saw the ISS and looked carefully, but couldn’t spot the Dragon. (I also looked to see if I could still spot the comet with binoculars, but struck out there also.)

While I had my Hidden Dragon, I did not see any Crouching Tiger. Which is just as well, because, you know, TIGER! The last thing I needed today was to be eaten and killed, or killed and eaten. (The order doesn’t matter to me, both are very bad.)

What I was constantly accompanied by during my astrophotographical quests of the evening were these guys:

These two finally got tired of running away every time I came out, especially since I wasn’t going to go under that honkin’ huge street light there, so they just decided to stay. There were another three or four who were just running wind sprints across the street and into the bushes every time I came out. More power to them.

Good luck coming home tomorrow, Doug and Bob! Go Dragon!


Filed under Astronomy, Critters, Photography, Space

July Can Take A Hike

As in, take a long hike off a short pier. Preferably into deep water with an anvil in your underwear. (Not a euphemism.)

As every month in the past four years or so has gotten steadily worse with only occasional bright spots (surgeries survived, great new job, fun trip in late 2018, Super Bowl champs, comet!) it’s gotten almost ridiculous how events come up some days and your only reaction is, “Really? REALLY??!! Where did THAT plot twist come from? That’s not believable, even Lot didn’t have that many bad things happening in such a short period!”

Yesterday we got the little earthquake to remind us to check our emergency bags. Today I was reminded why as much as I love flying things, I sort of hate hearing multiple helicopters and sirens. It might be a car chase or some other police activity, but you get to know the difference in sound between police sirens and fire truck sirens, and the helicopters sound different too, so at some point fairly quickly your subconscious says, “Maybe you should stick your head out the front door?”

Never good. Maybe it’s just a house or a car or something small…

Or, not. Good thing that it’s only 104°F out there and 14% humidity…

Fortunately Ventura and LA County Fire Departments are jumping on these little brush fires really fast and hitting them hard. This one was about two miles from us and even in this second picture which is only about a half hour after the fire started, you can already see the big fire-fighting bombers circling and dropping Phos-chek.

It was out in a couple of hours and it only burned 27 acres with no homes lost, so that’s a win.

But it’s time to review our evacuation plans and our 30-second, 5-minute, 15-minute, and 60-minute checklists.

It’s going to be a long summer. On top of COVID, fascism, and *waves hands vaguely* everything.


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