Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Annular Solar Eclipse May 2012

It is an absolutely amazing mathematical match up–our sun and moon. The size of the moon and its distance from the Earth make it possible for the phenomena know as solar eclipses.

Sunday, May 20, 2012, as the moon revolved with us, it moved between the Earth and the sun. Because the moon was further from the Earth (smaller in our sky), a complete ring of the sun peaked out from behind the moon. This is an annular solar eclipse. The amount of sun blocked caused the daylight to decrease, but you still couldn't look at the sun directly without hurting your eyes. Amazingly, it actually seemed to get brighter during the maximum of the annular eclipse and the shadows did the opposite of a total eclipse. Shadows became elongated but diffused almost doubled. The shadow from my hand looked like a monster's claw.

The photo here was taken by my husband Michael Lawshe, using a solar filter. We traveled to Whiskeytown Lake in northern California, so that we would be directly in the moon's shadow and experience this Earthly wonder.

Later this year, in November, the moon will slide between the Earth and the sun again. But this time the moon will be closer to Earth and block out more of the sun's disk. The alignment will be so perfect that entire sun will be blocked out.  But the size and distance of the moon will be so perfect, that flares reaching out from the sun's surface will be visible, as will the sun's corona. This is a total solar eclipse. During a total solar eclipse day becomes evening, stars can become visible.  The shadows become crisp to the point of being surreal. Eclipse Turkey 2006, Eclipse Mongolia 2010.

This was our first annular eclipse and well worth traveling to see. If the size of our moon or sun were just slightly different or their distances from the Earth altered, these astronomical events would be very different or nonexistent. An eclipse is a big universe moment; it makes you realize that humans are small and insignificant.

Friday, May 11, 2012

An Anna's Hummingbird Nest

May 11th and finally I've spotted a hummingbird nest. Some years there have been multiple in the yard at one time. Nests in 2010

This nest is a special find. It is an Anna's hummingbird nest. Fiesty little Allen's hummingbirds took over this territory about 10 years ago. Hummy. FIK. This smaller species has been pushing the Anna's out of residential areas in Southern California.

But we have had a lone female Anna's that has stuck it out and now the tide of Allen's seems to be waning a bit.

What makes this nest doubly exciting is the two tiny eggs tucked inside and the fact that it is built almost completely out of the natural cotton fiber that I put out a month ago. The Anna's hummingbird laced the natural cotton into this perfect egg cup using that strong and pliable fiber, spider web. Hummingbird nests are always a marvel, but this one is stunning.

I've seen nests in the past that have failed because female hummingbirds used man-made polyester fibers they found–probably sticking out of patio furniture in someone's backyard. These man-made fibers don't compress, don't provide the sturdy construction that is needed for a successful nest. They also don't react with water and weather the way natural fibers do.

I've been watching the bushtits and the goldfinches taking beaks full of the cotton fiber, but I never saw the Anna's girl. Yet, obviously she was making multiple trips.

Offering birds water, food and habitat can attract them to your oasis of a yard. Provide plants that offer shelter and they will take up residence. Go one step further, offer natural building materials that are hard to find in our human crafted landscapes and you will be rewarded with watching life renew.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

"Life in a Shell"

Book Review

Life in a Shell; a physiologist’s view of a turtle

Donald C. Jackson, 2011 Harvard University Press; Cambridge, MA

protected California desert tortoise
OK, I love turtles

Let me just put that right up front. That said, Professor Donald C. Jackson’s Life in a Shell is a book destine to become prominent in my library. Between these pages, science, discovery and wonder all come together. Professor Jackson invites you into his laboratory and the scientific process, while always keeping you in awe of his subject–turtles.

Jackson spent the majority of his career at Brown University as a Professor of Medical Science, where he researched how some freshwater turtles survive for extended amounts of time without oxygen. One of the greatest charms of this book is that it offers insight from the scientist himself and is clearly referenced when referring to the scientific work of others.  With ease and anecdotal accounts, Jackson weaves his studies together with the work of other researchers and students to clearly explain the respiratory wonders of turtles.

  • How do turtles breath when they are the only vertebrates with a ribcage that can’t expand? Remember their ribs form part of the shell.
  • How can painted turtles hibernate in the bottom of iced-over ponds without access to the surface to breath? This isn’t holding your breath for a few hours, it is finding a way to slow down your metabolism, alter your body chemistry and acquire available oxygen in the water so you can survive for months.
  • And then there is the ultimate turtle survival skill, maintaining life without oxygen at all. 

If you think of turtles as slow and irrelevant, think again. If you regard the 3-chambered heart of a turtle as less capable than a racing 4-chambered human heart, you’ll be stunned. A turtle heart can beat 100 times a minute in a warm, exercising animal or slow to once every ten minutes in a cold individual surviving without oxygen. Our own hearts struggle to fluctuate four times their resting beat and fail quickly without access to oxygen. If you don’t think understanding the complexity of a creature that can manipulate its metabolism is important, then you’ve never consider human space travel or the numbers of trauma patients that could be saved if their bodies could be slowed down in the face of severe injury to keep them alive until they arrived at a medical facility.

Turtles are a wonder; ancient survivors that now face serious challenges because of human mistreatment, unsustainable harvesting and habitat loss. Life in a Shell will give you renewed respect for the unique creatures that are turtles.

Other Book Reviews

Feathers; The Evolution of a Miracle
Alex and Me
The Geese of Beaver Bog

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Cornell's Baby Blue Herons

great blue heron
Baby birds are everywhere. 

Check out the Great Blue Heron nest with its five chicks at Cornell's Sapsucker Woods. Heron Cam

There are also bald eagle chicks on the California Channel Islands. Bald Eagle Cam

Unfortunately our fluctuating weather has caused our Allen's hummingbirds to start nests and abandon them. So far no nests to watch in the yard. A on her nest in 2010.