No Context For You – July 12th

FYI, iPhones cameras may be good (actually, about 100,000% better than they have any right to be) but still in pretty much the middle of the night at maximum zoom with nothing to focus on… not so much.

Just enough detail there to see what it must have been from yesterday morning (so, I guess that, technically, that’s context) but no sign of any comet.

No joy as well to see it in the evening sky tonight. There’s a hill over there that’s higher than ours, so we don’t have anything like a flat horizon, and when it got dark enough to see (30-40 minutes afters sunset) it would have already been down behind it.

The good news is that it’s going up about 3° per night, so by Tuesday or Wednesday the odds should be better. As long as the comet hasn’t dimmed significantly.

Happy hunting!

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Comet NEOWISE F3 & Friends

A second night up at Oh’Dark Thirty, this time about a half hour earlier than last night in order to see Comet NEOWISE F3 as it’s rising. Since there’s a limited amount of time between when it rises and when it gets too light to see it (as the Sun is rising also – stupid Sun!), I planned on using as much of that time as possible.

It was a great plan. I even got out of bed and dragged the tripods and cameras out. Probably got set up about five minutes before the comet actually cleared the houses on the far side of the canyon. A great plan.

The clouds on the horizon had other plans.

Fortunately they were hugging the horizon, so about the same time as yesterday, the comet popped out above them. Again the head of the comet was visible to the naked eye, but the tail wasn’t. Again, the tail was freakin’ spectacular in binoculars and shows up well in photos.

Better photographs by others (bigger telephoto lenses, guided so they can take longer exposures which aren’t blurred by the Earth’s rotation) are showing some fine structure in the tail as it was spreading out, with a separate, blue-ish colored ion tail. If you blow up these photos you can see hints of that structure, which isn’t bad for a simple tripod and 75-300 zoom lens set up in the street with no guidance.

It wasn’t long before the dawn got so bright that the very low-contrast comet started to vanish. But there were other objects in the sky.

Due east were Venus (top, bright white) and Betelgeuse (below center, dimmer reddish). The interesting thing here is the ghost artifact to the right of Betelgeuse. That’s a reflection of Venus’s image inside the telephoto lens. But, while Venus itself is massively overexposed and looks like a blob, the reflection is not and shows the very thin crescent phase of Venus.

Straight overhead were Mars (dim, red, above & left of center) and a 3/4 Moon. The Moon is very, VERY overexposed in this 1/30 second exposure. How overexposed?

To get this correctly exposed picture of the 3/4 moon I had to go down to the limit of the Canon XT, 1/4000 second. The moon is really freakin’ bright.

I won’t be trying to get up at 04:00 tonight. For Los Angeles’ latitude the comet is in that transition between being in the morning sky and the evening sky where it technically IS visible in both, but so close to the sun and close to the horizon that realistically you’re not going to see it without perfect weather, a flat horizon, and some luck. (If you’re curious, play with the SkyLive time settings around sunrise and sunset for a day or two before and after today to see how it works.)

But starting tonight and then improving drastically by the day, the comet will be climbing into the sunset sky shortly after sunset. And I mean very shortly after sunset for the next couple of days (see SkyLive…) but by mid-week it should be a pretty easy object to spot, assuming it doesn’t have some massive dimming. Which can happen with comets.  Folks have pointed out that comets are like cats – they’ll do whatever they want and it’s almost always unexpected and designed to piss you off.

Happy hunting!


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First View – Comet NEOWISE F3

Have I mentioned the comet that’s gotten surprisingly bright in the morning sky and will be moving into the evening sky in the next few days?

First of all, if you want to see where to look for it yourself, there’s a free planetarium site online called TheSkyLive. Here’s a quick tutorial I did to walk you through setting it up for your location, looking for this comet in particular, and then bringing up the clock controls so that you can see where the comet will be on any given day or time.

Last night I was up at 04:45, but I wasn’t hunting blind. I had already run through the morning scenario using TheSkyLive (as well as the excellent Star Walk app on my iPad) and I knew that the comet (see above – click on the picture to blow it up full sized) would be at 44.8° azimuth, which is northeast. (You don’t need anything like that sort of accuracy unless you’re pointing a telescope. Knowing which way’s north (0°), which way’s east (90°) and eyeballing the halfway point is just fine!)

Knowing that, I had checked out a spot in the back yard which has a clear view in that direction, but also has an 8′ tall hedge between our yard and the neighbors’. Not good – the comet’s going to be low. So I went out in front and found a spot at the bottom of our driveway and another across the street where the view was clear, except for one of the aptly named “hills” in “West Hills.” But we’re on top of another one, so I was hoping I would get lucky.

I did.

As soon as I got out there, about 4:55, the head of the comet was clearly visible to the naked eye. There were a couple of wispy clouds over in that area and the sky was starting to lighten. To make sure I had it correctly I took a look through my binoculars. (Celestron 9×63 with a 5° field of view.)

Oh, my!

Through the binoculars it was spectacular! The long tail was evident, with some structure in the tail showing. I wasn’t 100% sure that I could see the separate ion tail, but thought that I could.

I set up the camera quickly.

I was using the “normal” lens but zoomed in to 55mm. This is a 1/4 second exposure and is approximately what I saw with the naked eye. You can see the comet just above and to the right of where the two wires cross. (Click on the photo, blow it up to full size, etc.)

But cameras can see more than the naked eye can. Time to crank up those exposures a bit, knowing that it’s a race against sunrise, which is going to wash out the comet completely in just a few minutes.

A 1/2 second exposure.

A one second exposure. You can now clearly see the tail stretching straight up (pointing away from the sun always as the solar wind strips ice and dust off the comet).

You can also see that it’s getting bright. I hadn’t realized that the big telephoto lens would be better, so I went back into the house for it.

In the few minutes that took, the sky had lightened a lot. That stupid little pink cloud was trying to make trouble so I set up in a slightly different spot. The comet again is clearly seen along with the tail, but the sun’s going to wing this battle.

So I saw it. It’s beautiful and spectacular.

I’ll try again tonight. (Sleep is for the weak and sickly!!) And having learned a few things, I’ll get up about a half hour earlier and try to catch it about the time it’s just clearing those trees. But it will be much more dark, and stay that way for a while…

You should try to see it also. If not by getting up at 04:00, then by waiting about four or five days to where the comet (which is moving, just like the planets and everything else) will swing away from the Sun and into the evening sky. By the end of next week it will be setting behind the Sun in the evening dusk, climbing a little bit higher toward the Big Dipper every night. Use that app I gave you to play with the times to see when you might see it.

And if you’re in SoCal next week, there will be GREAT ISS passes in the evening on the 15th, 16th, and 17th. Maybe a picture with the ISS and the comet together?

Happy hunting!

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Mystery Bird ID’d!!

Two days ago I posted an audio clip of a bird that I had never heard and it had baffled me to track it down.

The charming and wonderful and lovely Jemima Pett in the comments suggested a site that I had never heard of, Xeno-canto. I went there, made an account (it’s neat! it’s free! it’s full of bird geeks!!), uploaded my clip, and exactly as Jemima had predicted, in about three hours I had an answer. (Thanks a million, Daniel Parker!)

The unidentified bird is almost certainly a Northern Bobwhite Quail. Click on the “Sounds” tab there and listen to the first one, comparing it to mine. No doubt.

The odd thing is that the Northern Bobwhite Quail isn’t native to California, especially Southern California. In fact, they’re almost unknown anywhere west of Texas and Kansas.

That mystery was solved (probably) by Bruce Lagerquist of the Xeno-canto crew – he points out that anyone can by a couple dozen of Northern Bobwhite Quail chicks for less than $3 each. The most likely chain of events is that someone got some and this one (or maybe more) either escaped or were released.

It also answers another question – why couldn’t I see the mystery bird flying between the trees when it was obviously moving around while I was listening for it?

Because quail are ground birds, not tree perching birds. They can fly, but it was probably down running around or fluttering down on the ground in all of the pine needles, tall grass, and tumbleweeds on the hill below our house.

I’ve heard it again, off in the distance, in the last couple of days. I may grab a camera and go hunting. I have a better idea of what to look for now.

Thank you for the great suggestion, Jemima!


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Back To The Other Critters

With the finch nest empty, it’s time to note for the record that the yard is far from empty of critters.

We have so many freakin’ bunnies, it stopped being funny weeks ago. Step out of the front door about sunset and there will be at least four or five, plus the couple in the back yard. If I get lucky when I go out to stargaze after sunset, there might be eight or ten. They love the lawn – they hate me.

The lizards, however, are getting more friendly.

First of all, there are more of them. The first summer we were in here I noticed a few, which I liked, since we had dozens of them running around the yard at our old house. Last year, not so many, just a few. But this summer a lot more or back. On the 5th when I was out checking for the missing terrordactyl chicks in the bushes I must have spooked over a dozen lizard dudes.

At the old house I would always stop and talk to the lizards. Because… Whatever, either you get it or you don’t. Yes, I have friendly conversations with the lizards. They never laugh at my jokes, but neither do they diss them, so I figure I’m ahead on points. Real or not, it sure seemed to me that the lizards at the old house recognized me, realized I wasn’t a threat, and after prolonged exposure to my presence (or being stunned by my terrible Dad jokes) they wouldn’t run away unless I got really close or was somehow acting threatening.

Several of the current lizard crop seem to be displaying the same behavior. There’s one in the front yard that won’t skitter away until I’m within a yard or so, and if I stop he’ll sit there all day. (“Oh, god, not HIM again! Why is he talking to me? I just want to sit here in peace and sun my exothermic little butt! Is that too much to ask?”)

Another one in the back yard almost got stepped on by accident he was so reluctant to run away. Maybe he’s the one that likes the jokes? Or he was looking for a handout? What do you feed the lizard who has everything?

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More Bird Fun

Not necessarily with our recently departed terrordactyl chicks…


I was out in the back today, looking up in the trees at the end of our yard and into the trees down the hill. (This picture will be relevant later as well.)

There were crows out and about, at least a murder and a half, making a wonderful racket. Finches everywhere (along with the mockingbirds, humming birds, mourning doves, thrushes, sparrows, etc), with most of the finch activity being between trees and way, way up at the top of these. But I noticed a couple, maybe three, maybe more, that looked small, maybe without a full head of feathers, hopping and fluttering between branches about 25-30 feet up.

Could have been fledgling flight school. I’m just sayin’.

Meanwhile, the folks at Cornell who run the wonderful Merlin Bird ID app shared a couple of videos of their red-tail hawk fledglings, and while I don’t typically share other folks’ videos here, given the subject matter it seemed appropriate. Watch the reaction of the two siblings as gravity and a gust of wind win and life choices are questioned:

BTW, he was fine!

Back on this coast, while I was burning mean (too literally) on the Fourth of July BBQ, there was a bird call that I’ve never, EVER heard before. And it was *LOUD* and close, up in those trees that I showed you at the back edge of the hill.

I’ve condensed about five or six minutes of sound into just the parts where it was calling, about every 30-45 seconds. No clue.

But wait, there are apps that will ID bird song, right? (The Merlin app doesn’t.) So let’s run that through one of those! Right?

Canada Goose? REALLY? I mean, I’m not Audubon Society Hall of Fame candidate, but this bird was CLOSE, really LOUD, and moving around up in the trees. First of all, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Canada Goose in a tree, and if one was there and just twenty or thirty feet from me I sure as shit would have seen it!!

Shall we try again, maybe focus on that second set of calls that seem different from the first one?

Yeah, well, if I had somehow missed the Canada Goose, I still wouldn’t have missed the human being with the noise maker in the tree…

I checked the supplied sounds for the California Quail and they’re at least sort of close-ish to what I heard, but quail don’t perch in trees either.

The mystery continues…


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Banana 2.0

Apparently there are new, improved, self-peeling bananas!

I don’t think that I’ve ever seen this before, yet we’ve been hanging bananas here above the fruit bowl for many decades. Yet twice in the last three weeks I’ve seen this behavior.

I can only conclude that they’ve snuck in a new model with helpful self-peeling technology.

The world is truly full of wonders.

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Empty Nest

Things happened so quickly in the last few days. They went from tiny, weird looking terrordactyls to almost full-sized birds in just a couple of days. Were they ready to leave the nest yet? I didn’t think so given what I was reading on the internet, but there’s always a large grain of salt to be taken there.

Yesterday started as normal, with three hungry mouths.

You’ll note however that “Alpha” was out of the nest completely, the first time I had seen that.

It didn’t take long before he found the limits of that ledge. And couldn’t get turned around to come back without falling off.

There was much flapping and terror, but he managed to get turned around.

Meanwhile, I know what Bravo and Charlie were telling Alpha. (I have siblings!) “You’re gonna be in SOOOOO much trouble when Mom gets back!”

By the time Mom got back, Bravo had managed to fall out of the nest and not be able to get back in. Mama Finch seemed unimpressed.

She started feeding Bravo and Charlie, which didn’t make Alpha too happy.

But she didn’t ignore him.

Eating and keeping his balance was an adventure. I kept waiting for him to fall backwards off the ledge, but he managed.

Eventually everyone got fed, but I don’t think any of the chicks EVER thought they had gotten “enough.” An alien concept to them.

Then I came out to the kitchen and saw that Alpha had lost his battle with gravity. Fortunately, there were plenty of vines there to grab on to.

But he had no idea what to do next, or where to hide when the big, bad human came out and got close with his camera.

He had a death grip on that vine and wasn’t going to let me grab him, but when I moved the vine up to be level with the beam he was happy to hop back off and sulk in his corner.

The last I saw them last night before the moonrise and fireworks, they were all back in the nest and waiting for dinner.

This morning when I got up, there was a notable absence of any fledglings in the nest. Or Mama Finch. Or any of the males.

I checked out the yard. Dozens and dozens of finches up in the trees, like there always are. They’re a long way from being an endangered species here. Along with the crows, hawks, hummingbirds, thrushes, mourning doves, mockingbirds, and seagulls.

But a quick check showed nothing in the nest except for egg #5 which never hatched. (And maybe a leg over on the left – is that what happened to egg #4?) And no activity anywhere near it all day.

I checked the bushes underneath the nest and surrounding the yard. No sign of any fledgling carcasses or fields of feathers from where a hawk or cat might have found an easy meal. I flushed out a LOT of my lizard dudes, asked them all if they had seen any birds on foot, hitchhiking by. None fessed up.

Were those three chicks ready to fly on their own? Maybe? Probably? They were pretty close, at least.

Did all of the commotion for the July 4th fireworks spook them out early? Maybe? Possibly?

This evening when the birds (and bunnies, and lizards) were all out on the lawn feeding, the birds hopping around, we didn’t see any that looked underdeveloped, but there was one that seemed smaller-ish, and he hopped off into the bushes instead of flying off. Was it one of ours?

We’ll never know.

But I’m going to tell myself that they were all ready, and the fireworks and our BBQ may have inspired them to find a safer-feeling spot in a tree, and now they’re doing their flight training and learning how to catch their own food and it’s all going to be abundant seeds and bugs (or whatever they eat) and gentle breezes and nests of their own one of these days.

Yep! That’s what happened!

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Full Moon Rising With A Side Dish Of Eclipse

SOOOOOO much happening today! Bird adventures! Lizards! Airplanes! BBQ! Fireworks (all illegal – see my video on FaceBook!)

But we’ll deal with those later. Let’s talk about catching the full moon rising over the Santa Monica Mountains (between Tarzana/Encino and Santa Monica) while also being partially eclipsed! It was only a penumbral eclipse but that still astonishing and at least 100 x more beautiful than my pictures can portray! But I’ll share them anyway.

Thanks to the Star Walk app on my iPhone, I was pretty sure it was going to come up right about there. Which just meant I had to find a hole through the trees on the hillside below me.

For a view of the bigger picture:

From there it was a not-so-quiet yet relaxing couple of hours of listening to the barrage, along with the peepers down the hill, a couple of nighthawk’s circling above, a pair of owls pissed off with all of the explosions, and the wind through the trees.

I had put away the good cameras, but before I came in I took a shot at a picture using the iPhone which I didn’t think was up to the job. I’m glad I tried – I was wrong!

Upper right, way overexposed, the full moon. Dead center, bright through the tree, is Jupiter. To the lower left of center, just inside of that big branch from the center tree, much dimmer than Jupiter, is Saturn. Below it all, the San Fernando Valley in all of its illegal fireworks glory.

I hope you had a safe Fourth if you’re in the US, wore your mask, and stayed physically distant if you went anywhere.

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Stand For Your Dinner!

Talk about a freakin’ growth spurt!

I looked out this evening and everyone was out on the edge of the nest for feeding.

They literally look like they’re 50% bigger than they were just yesterday!

Definitely just three chicks. One unhatched egg that’s been seen, so the fate of #4 remains a mystery. We’ll see what’s in the bottom of the nest in a couple of weeks when everyone leaves.

I thought I might have spotted a fourth about two minutes later from another view, shooting through the screen door. (Thus the sort of funky quality to the image.) There were definitely four heads and everyone was looking at something over by the BBQ, so my first assumption was that Mama Finch had flown off and four chicks were waiting for her. But on closer examination, that’s obviously three chicks and Mama.

No clue was was going on at the BBQ. It wasn’t me – we’re doing our big holiday festival of fire and meat tomorrow.

(Oh, and go watch the “Hamilton” film – words can’t even describe how spectacular it is. At least, not my words.)

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