Friday, August 31, 2012
Tonight, if the sky is clear, you'll be able to look up and see a Blue Moon.
No, not a Smurf-blue moon…in spite of my header photo. That's a fake. Well, the moon image is real, but it's an ordinary warm silvery full moon, identical in color to all those other full moons we see hanging up there every 29.5 days…er, nights. I just borrowed a bottle of hair-color from an octogenarian up the road and gave it a snazzy tint job.
The term "Blue Moon" has been around for upwards of 500 years. Each of our seasons—spring, summer, autumn, winter—typically host only three full moons. But sometimes, because the lunar cycle is a tad shorter than the average number of days per month—and since we start and end our seasons on equinoxes and solstices, not months—there's sometimes an extra moon full moon in a given season; making thirteen full moons in a year instead of the expected twelve. Historically, the term "Blue Moon" was applied to the third moon of a four moon season.
Because this extra third-out-of-four moon didn't happen all that often, the term "Blue Moon" became synonymous with rarity. And after awhile "Blue Moon" stepped outside of astronomy folklore and came to mean any sort of rare event. For example, someone might say: "A politician speaking for more than ten minutes without skewing the facts or outright lying happens once in a blue moon."
Country folks, while often poorly-educated were nevertheless quite nature-cognizant, and naturally had no trouble understanding and employing the original and correct definition of a Blue Moon. For a couple hundred years your average hay-gnawing rube could have told told you it meant the third moon out of four in a particular season.
However, as you might also guess, once it reached our Twentieth Century nature-oblivious, city-atrophied hands, we promptly managed to mess it up.
Apparently an amateur astronomer, James Hugh Pruett, writing for Sky & Telescope magazine back in 1946, got confused by the historic simplicity and thought the term meant the second of two full moons occurring within the same month. An event not all that uncommon. If left there, the mistake might have eventually sank beneath the ignominy of ignorance. But, unfortunately, it received a major 1980s technological boost when Deborah Byrd failed to research the matter and simply parroted Pruett's old mistake on her popular SkyWatch radio broadcast…and from then on, the error became embedded.
So tonight's Blue Moon won't be blue and won't be a genuine Blue Moon as originally defined. There will only be the usual three full moons this season: one full moon back in July, plus two in August. No full moon occurred in June after summer's solstice start, and no full moon will arise in September before summer ends with the equinox. We're therefore a full moon short of being able to claim true Blue Moon status…unless you're willing to concede to our modern mangled misinterpretation.
Still, that big ol' silver dollar moon will be up there tonight, shining bright and rolling across the star-spattered heavens. Pretty enough to please anyone except a Smurf.
Friday, August 24, 2012
This gorgeous creature is a female pipevine swallowtail. The colorful butterfly is nectaring on one of my backyard zinnias—and is, incidentally, the butterfly I was chasing when I stumbled across the reposing queen snake featured in the previous post.
Pipevine swallowtails (Battua philenor), while not exactly uncommon in southwestern Ohio, aren't a species of butterfly I see every day. One reason, of course, is that like many of the various swallowtails, pipevines spend much of their sunny days fluttering and soaring in the upper canopy of the forest—maybe not too high up to notice, but too high for me to identify even through binoculars, and certainly too high for making a meaningful photograph for later scrutiny .
Too, if you don't pay close attention to the pattern of reddish-orange spots on the ventral hindwing, you can easily mistake them for spicebush swallowtails, black swallowtails, or female dark-phase tiger swallowtails. I'm getting better at butterfly identification, but remembering and sorting out field marks, in situ, still regularly leaves me confused, and is often better accomplished at my desk, where I can look at images and compare against guides.
Another reason why pipevine swallowtails aren't as widespread in the Buckeye state is because their namesake host plants—various Aristolochias, or pipevines—are themselves represented by only two or three species hereabouts, the most significant so far as the butterfly is concerned being Virginia snakeroot. Female butterflies lay eggs on leaves and stems of pipvines, and the red and black caterpillars feed exclusively on this plant, which contains a substance that renders them poisonous—as both caterpillar and adult butterfly—to predators…similar to the protection the monarch butterfly obtains due to its milkweed diet. Adult pipevine butterflies, however, feed only on nectar.
I must say the top image is one of my favorites of any I've made recently. It was breezy that morning, and the butterfly almost constantly fluttered its wings while feeding on one flower after another. I did make several quite similar shots which caught the pipevine's wings perfectly crisp and static, but it's that bit of blur at the top that makes the image for me. What do you think?
Wednesday, August 22, 2012
Late yesterday morning, while skulking along trying to photograph several butterflies which were busily flitting about the sparse, somewhat stunted zinnias growing alongside the front walkway, I glanced down and saw this queen snake curled on the graveled path—practically at my feet!
The truth is, the end of the snake's tail was so close to the toe of my right sneaker that I actually had to back off a couple of feet in order to focus and make this image. Which goes to show you how unobservant I can be to my immediate surroundings when I'm fixated on picture-making.
Luckily, no damage was done and neither I nor the near-trodden serpent reacted adversely. Fact is, I like my resident queens, and take pride in knowing they're only found along rivers and creeks with clean waters and a good base of crayfish, their favorite food. Moreover, I was happy to see this near-two-footer—a rather large individual, as most queen snakes seldom exceed 18 inches.
I withdrew sufficiently to make my shot; the demure queen snake simply watched, tucked snugly under a canopy of chocolate mint. And what a delightfully choice spot it was! Shade, cover, all continually perfumed by a most delicious fragrance.
Truly a hidy-hole fit for a queen…well, providing some lumbering shutterbug didn't come along and trample you inadvertently.
Monday, August 20, 2012
Dawn seemed slow to find its path over the eastern horizon this morning, as if night had a firmer hold on things—which in a way, it does. Even now, a couple of hours later, it's still only 56˚F outside, a precursive cool hint of changing times.
Fall is definitely on the way. And not just because of the later sunrises and falling temperatures…but the very mood of the days themselves. You can feel autumn heading in your direction long before the first maple flutters a single golden leaf.
I hate it when I'm fickle. But the truth is, now that summer is on the wane, I don't want to see it go—not yet, even though I've said repeatedly that summer is my least favorite of the seasons. Nor does my reluctance to relinquish summer reflect a change in this attitude.
What it does register, however, is the fact that I really don't feel like I've had a proper summer this time around. Not for Ohio, anyway. There's been way too little rain, and way too much heat. Maybe this is a Texan's idea of summer, but for a Buckeye, summer is expected to be lush and green, punctuated with showers, and certainly not fourth months of sweltering day after drought-seared day.
I miss that summer. And now that it's obviously not going to happen, I feel cheated, robbed—seasonally mugged. The last few days have been great—green, cool, sunny. I've chased butterflies. Rambled trails. Gawked at wildflowers. But I haven't yet had my fill, my annual allotment of such summery pleasures, and I'm bummed.
Who would'a thunk…me fulminating over the passing of summer!
Saturday, August 18, 2012
Gold upon gold…a double treasure! That's what I thought when I chanced upon this common sulphur butterfly nectaring on a bright-yellow bloom—the little vignette being played out amid a glowing golden swath of coreopsis in a ragged prairie patch up the road.
Framing the scene through the camera's viewfinder, I felt suddenly uplifted, delighted, and couldn't surpress a buoyant grin. I might even have chuckled aloud. Maybe I'm just too easy, too childish; or else a bit weird. But it's stuff like this can set my mood and simply make my day. Just a yellow-gold butterfly feeding on a golden-yellow bloom and I feel joyous, rich, blessed!
Now really, what more could anyone desire from a summer morning's ramble?
Friday, August 17, 2012
While poking along the weedy banks of small, shallow lake where I like to stalk dragonflies, I saw this rather large wasp nectaring on a cluster of milkweed blooms. What caught my eye, of course, were the shiny, midnight-blue wings, which sparkled in the afternoon sunlight like the chromed front-end trim on my father's 1956 Olds '98.
Though it superficially resembled the blackish-blue mud daubers of my youth, which used to build their cylindrical pottery-like nest tubes along the tops of the basement windows, this wasp was noticeably larger. Which I suppose some, to whom the size of such things matters, might interpret as bigger-equals-badder, and thus view such a winged beast as exponentially more frightening.
I just thought it was striking and made a portrait. Back home, I tentatively keyed the critter down as being a great black wasp, Sphex pensyvanicus, also known as a katydid hunter.
Members of the digger wasp clan, they construct a burrow-like nest hole in the ground. Eggs are laid in this tunnel. The great black wasps then goes about hunting down and stinging such things as kaytdids and grasshoppers. Toxins in their sting paralyze rather than kill their prey. These still-living victims are then carried into the nursery as food-in-waiting for when their larvae young hatch. Kinda like putting away a stock of home-canned goods for the family.
And when they're not out looking to zap and immobilize future meals for the kids, adult great black wasps like to dine on nectar and pollen. Which explains what it was doing on the milkweed…nothing like a bit of dessert after the hunt.
Wednesday, August 8, 2012
Time's river flows steadily, eternally onward, though its constant movement may not always be apparent. Especially not this year when winter became spring too early, then quickly turned into a seemingly endless summer of drought and blazing heat. Yet even then, as sweltering day turned into stifling night and back, again and again and again, week after week, our spinning earth continued to follow its ancient prescribed path around the sun.
And regardless of how our perception might have become temporarily befuddled by local weather patterns, as our planet hurtled along through the vast darkness of space, that marvelous 23.4 degrees of axial tilt—the astronomical geometry which gives us our seasons—remained in effect throughout. And this simple fact will, as always, eventually take its toll.
Of course the fluttering monarch butterfly in the overgrown field knows nothing of all this—or maybe it does, just not in a way we're capable of comprehending. Yet something within the makeup of this familiar orange-and-black insect understands. Something our human conceit, for all our technical cleverness, not only doesn't grasp, but can't even fathom.
Perhaps the locus of this enigma, whatever it may be, is buried deep within the atoms of the helix chains of its DNA, a mysterious property yet undiscovered in the nucleic acid, or an odd polymeric molecule. Or maybe not; maybe the answer lies elsewhere.
But something somewhere stirs within this little butterfly. A restlessness, an unease, which soon becomes a longing to began a journey which will carry it on fragile wings thousands of miles from its Ohio summer home—all the way to the high mountain of central Mexico. A distant place, unknown by the individual butterfly we find perched on a blooming teasel, but where the year before, its parents—or perhaps it grandparents—overwintered in the shelter of cool fir forests.
How can such a thing be possible? How does the monarch know? How do you explain a miracle? Then again, maybe you don't. But time flows, the seasons turn, summer begins drawing to a close—and soon the monarchs in the field will feel that inexplicable tug and commence their wondrous southwestward odyssey.
Soon…very, very soon.
Wednesday, August 1, 2012
I heard them before I saw them, these geese in a golden riffle. I'd taken Moon-the-Dog out for her dawn peregrinations. The sun was just making its way above the maples and hackberries up on the hill. From somewhere upstream a kingfisher screeched.
Then, from downstream, the honk of a goose, a few muttered gabbles, and another honk or two. Geese rather than goose.
At first I couldn't see anything. You'd think even a single jumbo Canada goose would be easily spotted. Let alone a bunch. But it was barely daylight, there's lots of brush along the river…and, I was still sipping my first cup of coffee. I had to amble down to the lower corner of the yard before I finally saw the flock—a dozen birds, standing in the shallows of a riffle thirty yards away. Most were watching me, making sure I wasn't up to something villainous.
Geese in a riffle are always worth a look. But geese in a riffle gilded with the golden light of dawn are something special due to the magical light. I made a photo. Tell me what you think. Geese in a golden riffle by this morning's magical light.