Sunday, August 27, 2017

Total Eclipse 2017

A few weeks ago when I realized I could book a hotel within three hours of the total eclipse, I began to hatch a tentative plan to experience totality. With nudging by my friend Dale who was planning to watch the spectacle in same vicinity as me, my plan solidified within a week of the glorious event. The Great American Eclipse 2017. I went, I saw and it was every bit as amazing, and even more, than what the pre-eclipse hype had claimed.

Eclipse composite 21Aug2017
As viewed from Fults Hill Prairie, IL
Up until late into the evening the night prior, my destination for totality was in flux. My hop off point the morning of totality was Decatur, IL which put me two and a half hours from the path of totality. Anxiety was building leading up to the day. Would the trip to destination totality be a cluster fuck of people and traffic? Would the forecast for clouds and rain reach fruition during the window of totality? I considered viewing spots near the epicenter for the Illinois eclipse, Carbondale. However in the end, I defaulted to "Plan A," otherwise known as "Dale's Plan,"  which credits my fellow nature nerd and friend who came up with the idea to view totality at Fults Hill Prairie Nature Preserve in southwest Illinois. 

"Extreme" warnings!
Fults proved to be an exquisitely perfect location. While there was a small gathering of eclipse enthusiasts, it was far from crowded. I suspect the description of the hike to the hilltop prairie being "extreme" kept the faint of heart away. I was pleased to have avoided the chaos of Carbondale while being afforded spectacular views of the Mississippi River Valley. 

Kidd Lake Marsh and the Mississippi River Valley during the egress of totality
Fults Hill Prairie could not have been more perfect. After ascending the 222 steps which got us half-way to the "top," we traversed an ascending dirt path that took us to the approximate 200 foot mark above the parking lot where the woods opened up onto an expansive hilltop prairie.

We were greeted by this Common Five-lined Skink at the base of the hilltop prairie. He was rather tolerant of the constant activity of eclipse seekers ensuing around him. Many seekers staged themselves at this point up until the half hour before totality since this was the last refuge for shade adjacent to the prairie. 

Eventually our friendly skink host tired of the disturbance and retreated into the log. 

Though I probably should have sought refuge in the semi-shade, we opted for staking out our preferred eclipse viewing location near the edge of the prairie in the blazing sun. 

Total eclipse 2017 stake out
In the hours leading up to totality. we entertained ourselves admiring the various stages of the eclipse and observing the bounty of swallowtails dancing about the prairie. Zebra, Pipevine and Spicebush were among the mix of butterflies along with blues and hairstreaks. Since the heat had quickly taken its toll on my stamina for stalking insects, I accomplished little with insect or flower photography despite ample opportunity.

I found having my scope proved useful for appreciating and capturing sun spots early in the phases of the eclipse.

The sun shortly after first contact with the moon
I was grateful for the somewhat serendipitous chance to share this experience with my friends, Dale and Nina. With Dale's foresight and the collective results of individual planning, I survived the 105 °F heat index despite being inconveniently located away from the car for much of the day. I was adamant about bringing my scope for the experience. So I completed the strenuous ascent with at least forty pounds of optics on my back (an energy sucking endeavor onto itself.) Dale ingeniously carried a bag of ice among his possessions which came in handy for rapidly chilling our Frogg Toggs Chilly Pads which were essential for fighting the heat. It was also Dale's excellent suggestion to bring an umbrella. This proved critical for tolerating the open prairie as long as we did. And of course Nina brought her infectious positive attitude.

The twenty minute window leading up to totality felt a bit dicey as far as my physical endurance was concerned. I had hiked about 100 feet up the gradual incline to the woods to alleviate my bladder ensuring I would not be inconvenienced with having to pee when totality struck. The short walk in the blazing heat left me feeling overheated, shaky and dehydrated. The approaching totality and associated fall in temperature could not have been more timely. I was literally pondering if I would need to bail on the big event and retreat to the air-conditioned vehicle. Fortunately, Dale was thoughtful to provide me with a freshly iced Chilly pad and Nina handed me some orange slices. The cooling relief and a little boost of sugar provided just the nudge to get me to totality.

Dale and Nina in the pre-totality window of 15 minutes
Meanwhile Nature executed her magnificent genius with the sun moving further in alignment with the moon. As the temperature plummeted, the blinding sun dimmed and Nature's most delightful distraction ensued. My sense of any physical discomfort quickly dissipated.

Our "Sound of Music" hilltop prairie in the minutes before totality
No words can capture the sense of awe I experienced in the few minutes prior to totality. The swell of change came fast. Bird song spiked as much as it could for late summer with a noticeable increase in singing Eastern Wood-peewee, Carolina Wren and Eastern Towhee. We noted Chimney Swifts circling overhead preparing to roost. The diffusely dimming light became increasingly surreal and beautiful. And though I had hoped to see the shadow band of the moon, in the flurry of events, I missed it.

Kidd Lake Marsh on the brink of totality looking WNW
Seconds before the sun and moon's most perfect union, the sky to southwest caught our attention, surreal and strangely illuminated. It was in that moment, my senses were flooded. Goose bumps overcame me and I felt the power of Nature like never before. Some say the hair stands up on your neck when totality is breached. Perhaps it did. If ever my breath was taken away, this was it. I held onto that breath fighting back the urge to weep from the sheer emotion of witnessing such an intense swell of sensory overload.

Mississippi Valley on the brink of totality looking WSW
Though I did not capture photos of the Diamond Ring, I surely witnessed it on both sides of totality. Apparently it is debated whether one can safely view and/or photograph the Diamond Ring without a solar filter/eclipse glasses. Judging by the photos that have surfaced of the 2017 eclipse, I'd say many were successful in the feat of capturing the Diamond Ring sans solar filter. Another lesson for the next total eclipse!

Veteran eclipse chaser,Walt, who was viewing his seventh of nine chased total eclipses called out the phases of the eclipse as they occurred (with much exuberance of course). Dale had studied up pre-eclipse and also provided informative commentary. 

Walt blowing post totality bubbles
Viewing totality through my scope provided spectacular views of the solar prominences during totality (visible as pinkish flares in my photos)

But all good things, and definitely those that blow your mind, must come to an end. So after a little more than two minutes, Dale called out "Glasses on!" Totality halted with a final burst of the "Diamond Ring." And not unlike that first rush of falling in love or experiencing that first orgasm, the hook was in. I know I'll be going back for more in 7 years...

Egressing eclipse
As the light increased, blackbirds were visible returning to the marsh after seemingly having gone to roost for their brief two and half minute siesta. Shortly after we made our descent back to the parking lot.

Nina getting pumped for some Totality celebratory bubbly
I would have loved to have stayed to view and photograph the full egress of the eclipse. But I had a long, solo drive back to Madison, WI and my energy reserves were low. I did make time for some celebratory champagne and a share of some Belgian sour beer before hitting the road north back to Wisconsin. 
Walt uncorking the champagne back at the parking lot
Belgian beer share with Vladimir Putin
The typical six hour return trip became a nine hour adventure of eclipse traffic. Rest stops miles away from the path of totality were littered with crowds of people and lines for the bathroom like I've never seen. 

Post-eclipse traffic

St. Louis, MO drive-by en route home

I further extended my return trip by another hour when I pulled a Kramer fail and ran out of gas forcing me to take a brisk 1.4 mile hike in the 10 o'clock hour on a dark Illinois freeway. 

But it was all worth it. Looking back on the day still causes my knees to buckle a little. It was just that phenomenal. Life-changing really. Something to carry my heart for the next seven years when I'll see you on the dark side of the moon!

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Luna Relief

With fascism and hate closing in from seemingly every corner of our country, Nature rescues me with sweet relief.

Beautiful Luna graces my eve.

Resting upon my doorstep.

She is hope realized.

Further connecting me to this place I now call home.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Bittersweet Beginnings

Phew! I've been at my new residence for about one and a half months. Life shows no signs of slowing down and I am far from settled. It's been impossible to keep up with my photos. I've catalogued a nice array of Wisconsin orchids, tiger beetles and robber flies since early summer from visits to northern Wisconsin including Town Corn Cedars SNA, Dunbar Barrens SNA and Kissick Alkaline Bog Lake SNA as well as visits closer to home including Quincy Bluff and Wetlands, and Pleasant Valley state natural areas. I've been most excited about adding some life species to my Wisconsin orchid list. Hopefully I will find time to organize these photos into a few blog posts at some later date.

Gnat Ogre, Holcocephala species (?calva), Bittersweet home, Dane Co, WI 20July2017
For the time being, I'm going to get another post churned out focusing on what I've been seeing more recently in my own yard. While working tirelessly to get a plethora flowers, shrubs and trees established in my yard, I've noticed plenty of whimsical insects.

Pictured-wing Fly, Delphinia picta, Bittersweet home, 30July2017
It's no wonder I have such a bounty of nature in my own backyard. My new neighborhood, Crestwood, was founded on an appreciation of green space and nature. Each residence in my new neighborhood abuts to a greenway that leads into the adjacent Owen Conservation Park or Bordner Park. While this post will focus on the insects, the bird diversity is also much more impressive than my previous more urbanized yard in Jefferson County.

Gnat Ogre, Holcocephala species (?calva), Bittersweet home, Dane Co, WI 1Aug2017
The most prolific bug present in my yard since my arrival has been these minute robberflies called gnat ogres of the genus Holcocephala.

Gnat Ogre, Holcocephala species (?calva), Bittersweet home, Dane Co, WI 1Aug2017
The ones I have seen are all likely Holcocephala calva. But I'm no expert so Holcocephala sp. will suffice.
Gnat Ogre, Holcocephala species (?calva), Bittersweet home, Dane Co, WI 1Aug2017
With a usual 6-10 flying around the yard on any given day, I've had many opportunities to photograph these tiny buggers even catching them in action preying on gnats of all things! Imagine that.

Gnat Ogre, Holcocephala species (?calva), Bittersweet home, Dane Co, WI 30July2017
Though it's difficult to ascertain from the photos, these robber flies measure less than 10 mm in length.
Gnat Ogre, Holcocephala species (?calva), Bittersweet home, Dane Co, WI 30July2017
Gnat Ogre, Holcocephala species (?calva), Bittersweet home, Dane Co, WI 30July2017
Along with some nasty invasives that I am working to remove, my yard also has several dwarf hackberry bushes growing which I am told are attractive to insects. This claim does seem to hold true. I've witnessed various hopper species and flies in and around these bushes. Here is a modest selection of the various hoppers, flies and other insects I've seen:

Citrus flatid planthopper, Bittersweet Home, Dane Co, WI 30July2017 

Coelidia olitoria, Bittersweet home, Dane Co, WI 30July2017 

Coelidia olitoria, Bittersweet home, Dane Co, WI 30July2017

Graphocephala leafhopper, Bittersweet Home, Dane Co, WI 30July2017
Acanalonia conica, Bittersweet Home, Dane Co, WI 30July2017
Ambush bug, Bittersweet Home, Dane Co, WI 1Aug2017
Condylostylus sp fly, 1Aug2017
And let's not forget the butterflies and dragonflies! They've been more sparse, but of decent quality. Just yesterday a Red-spotted Purple paid a visit to my hose nozzle.

And I managed to find a most wanted species for the Wisconsin Odonata Survey, a Great Spreadwing.

Female Great Spreadwing, Bittersweet home, Dane Co, WI 1Aug2017
With the all the activity in my yard, I have little need to leave. However occasionally I still like to mix it up and branch out to other areas. Wanderlust ya know. It keeps me moving and shaking!

Oh and let's not forget the under-appreciated mosquito! I have those too! In spades!