Archive for the 'Nature' Category

Walker’s Cicada: A Photo Study

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014
Walker's cicada (Tibicen pronotalis)

“Hey, Dad! There’s a cicada emerging over there.”, Roger said.

Watching the emergence of any critter that goes through a metamorphic stage is always fascinating. While Roger (and I) have raised many butterflies (and Roger has raised quite a number of other critters), we’ve never watched the emergence of one of the annual cicadas common to the Midwest.

When an insect emerges from its metamorphic container — be it a cocoon or, in this case, the harden shell of the larval stage — it is typically quite vulnerable.

If winged, there is a long period of pumping fluids into the wings and then letting them effectively cure in the open air.

It is a particularly vulnerable time exactly because the animal is in between forms and simply can’t move.

So! Photo study time!

Some of the original images at full resolution are really stunning. This is a beautiful creature.

In this first image, the critter has just emerged. The wings are just starting to unfurl.

Walker's cicada (Tibicen pronotalis)

At this point, the cicada has fully emerged, but the wings are only partially expanded.

I was very surprised at how stunningly neon green the wings are!

Walker's cicada (Tibicen pronotalis)

This is a closeup (rotated) of the expanding wing. Note that those wings will be largely transparent once they are fully expanded and cured. At this point, though, it almost looks like frost.

Walker's cicada (Tibicen pronotalis)

This just seemed like an obvious picture to take. :) From this angle you can’t see all the facial hair!

That picture will be at the end.

Walker's cicada (Tibicen pronotalis)

At this point, the wings are fully expanded, but not yet cured.

The neon is just stunning. Surprisingly so. Gorgeous.

Walker's cicada (Tibicen pronotalis)

One final shot. The cicada flew away shortly hereafter (or crawled).

I was stunned by the golden highlights on the “shoulder” and the hairs around the eyes!

What a beautiful creature!

Aerogarden 2nd Run; With Custom Built Pieces

Monday, May 14th, 2012

After nearly 5 months, the first run of herbs in the Aerogarden were finally tired to the point of no longer useful (I started with AeroGarden Gourmet Herb Seed Kit (6-7-Pod) and it worked really well — way more than $18 worth of fresh, tasty, results).

Pods Installed (Basil Sprouted!)

One of my goals with the Aerogarden is to gradually replace all the pieces until I’ve effectively created a homebrew Aero-Hydro solution that will eventually integrate with our atrium’s pond (fish poo fertilizer FTW!), use LED lighting, and, hopefully, be an interesting conversation piece.

The next obvious step was to replace the seed pods and baskets. The seed pods/baskets are the one piece that needs to be replaced with each planting. The baskets — white plastic things that fit in the holes on top of the Aerogarden — can be mostly reused, but the original design is obviously optimized for cost, not effectiveness (they don’t actually fit correctly in some of the holes!). The seed pods, themselves, are little bundles of seeds in growing medium; Aero’s are good quality, but relatively expensive and the seeds are of unknown variety (i.e. generic curly parsley and not some particular strain).

At left is the current phase; seed pods and growing medium replaced with Basil sprouts showing some signs that it is working!

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Aerogarden Success!

Saturday, December 17th, 2011

This is our AeroGarden after a couple of months of growth. It is currently growing savory, mint, basil, thyme, parsley, amaranth, and oregano. The Aero works really really well. Within the water reservoir (the big black thing under the plants), it has a pump that pumps water with nutrients over the roots of the little growing pods that stick through the holes in the deck around the plants. Surprisingly, the thing makes virtually no noise.

Once every week to 14 days (not sure how often), it reminds you to add nutrients and it has a water-low indicator. While the seed kits from Aero include nutrients, I’ve been using the worm tea from my son’s worm farm.

Quite nice to have a nearly non-stop supply of fresh herbs next to the kitchen!

I would never have otherwise bought such a device, but we ran across one at a garage sale for $5. Quite a hefty discount off of the $150 new price. It did need some new lights.

I picked up one of the Aero branded seed packets so I could go through one grow cycle by the book, as it were.

$150 seems a bit steep and seed kits are another $20, typically. However, if you truly will use all the herbs, then I would think the thing would pay for itself long before it wears out. Annoyingly, the light sockets are of an esoteric standard and ordering new lamps from Aero is ridiculously pricy. Razor meet blades, assuredly. However, it isn’t hard to rewire it for standard CFL grow lamps (you want CFL to avoid burning the plants at such close proximity).

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Jerusalem Cricket

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011
Roger with Salamander & Jerusalem Cricket

Roger and I went for a walk around Sanborn County Park over the weekend.

A wonderful park situated in the Santa Cruz mountains. Full of wildlife, too. One of the main gathering areas has a wonderful creek that flows through it with several pools. It is quite common to see tons of salamanders, newts, ducks, and other critters!

A favorite place of Roger’s!

As he has gotten older, we have ventured further from the ponds to explore the critters living in the rest of the park (in the fall, there are typically hundreds of mushrooms all around).

On our most recent trip, we ran into a rather large beetle hiding under a log. Roger, being the fearless explorer that he is, was quite happy to pick it up, despite the rather powerful jaws on the front end.

Turns out this critter is a Jerusalem Cricket (Orthoptera Stenopelmatinae).

Jerusalem Cricket (Orthoptera Stenopelmatinae)

Sadly, a lot of people see such a creature and immediately assume that it is a bad bug. In researching this creature, we discovered several articles that implied that they were invasive species or were pests.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Jerusalem Cricket spends almost all of its life underground. The critter feeds on dead animals, rotting vegetation and leaves.

It pretty much only comes out when seeking a mate.

While the cricket does have very powerful jaws and can delivery a rather painful bite, the animal is actually quite docile. Jerusalem crickets are not predatory, content to remain hidden away anywhere it is moist, dark, and protected.

As it turns out, the Jerusalem Cricket is actually quite common west of the Rocky Mountains. They just do such a good job of staying out of the way that they are generally a rare site!

With the addition of automatic sprinkler systems in otherwise arid areas like Silicon Valley, the Jerusalem Crickets have become a more common site in residential areas. If you see one, please be nice. It has an important job and your yard will be healthier for its presence!

Death on the Coast; Nature at its Stinkiest

Sunday, October 3rd, 2010
Dead Blue Whale & Fetus

What is often lost in all the nature documentaries is that every critter must die eventually. More often than not, said deaths are generally brutal.

One of our favorite beaches is Bean Hollow State Beach south of Half Moon Bay along the northern coast of California. Dog friendly and abundant with wildly different environment ranging from sandy beaches to monumental rocks, to flats full of tide pools with the occasional freshwater pool.

While visiting, it was mentioned that the southern entrance to the state park — we have always stuck to the northern (but will head south because of the awesome beach) — led to an alcove where a dead whale had washed ashore.

This was, of course, far too tempting of a site for Roger to resist, so down the road we headed.

What we found, though, was absolutely monumental. And stinky. Very, very, stinky.

Dead Blue Whale

The creature that had washed up was huge. Hundred+ feet long and 80 feet long, 75 tons, and clearly dead for a while as there were bits and pieces here and there.

And the smell. We made the mistake of parking down wind. Doh!

Roger made it just about 2/3rds of the way to the carcass before heading back to the car.

After we hit the road, we drove upwind and found a path that we could walk upon to overlook the scene without having to smell it.

Regardless, the stench stuck with us on the drive home. Or not. It may have largely been Ruby’s (the Dog’s) wet doggy stench from having waded in a couple of swampy puddles.

Dead Blue Whale Fetus
Blue Whale Guts & Fetus

Sadly, it wasn’t just the one adult whale. On the shore was a whale fetus — I hesitate to say baby since it was so relatively small and pale — that was also dead.

Clearly, this was a mother whale and baby. Given the presence of the floating mass of intestines and the general destruction of the carcass, the whale likely didn’t die naturally. My completely uneducated guess is that it was hit by a cargo ship, an all too common death amongst these magnificent creatures.

I’m pretty sure this is a blue whale.

Sad though such a death is, I can’t help but consider — and explained to Roger — the unbelievable energy source such a carcass is to that particular coastal area. If the carcass were left to decay in that location, it would both take years prior to being fully decayed and those many tons of flesh and bone would likely grossly increase the population of crabs, birds, and other critters.

I’m going to try to contact the park services to find out what they might do– if anything. If the carcass is left to lie (or blown up to accelerate the process), we will revisit the site in the near future to see what the critter density looks like.

Apparently, this is the first blue whale to wash ashore in Northern California in more than 30 years. The Santa Cruz Sentinel has an article about the event.

Tomato Porky Thing

Saturday, September 4th, 2010

I tossed this together tonight and, though simple and fairly obvious, was just too good to not share.

Heirloom tomato season is upon us and I’ve been grabbing some beauties from my community garden plot.

A simple use that makes for a good all in one meal:

  • Slice the tomato into 1/4″ thick rounds
  • Place on lightly oiled (olive oil works best) cookie sheet or pizza pan
  • Place a couple of fresh basil leaves on each
  • Add a bit of meat. I used pulled pork (as I had made some earlier), but I’m betting ham or bacon would work exceptionally well, too. Chicken works quite nicely, as well.
  • Sprinkle with mozzarella cheese. Good thick layer. Maybe grate a touch of parmesan in there, too
  • Lightly pepper and add a touch of salt. I used porcini mushroom salt.
  • Toss into a warmed pre-warmed oven at about 300 degrees.
  • Wait a minute or so, then turn the oven over to Broil on high
  • Wait until all the cheese is melted and starting to bubble/brown


Hummingbirds, Pond Flowers and Dragonflies.

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010
Hummingbird (Trochilidae) On Pickerelweed (Pontederia)

Mid-Missouri is a hummingbird destination.

That is, these tiny, but incredibly energetic, birds treat mid-Missouri as a destination for breeding and, as a result, are extremely territorial in their presence (I’m still trying to grab a few good frames of the epic battle around the feeder amongst 4 hummers).

Apparently, other hummers aren’t the only territorial species in this particular area….

Hummingbird (Trochilidae) On Pickerelweed (Pontederia) Buzzed By Dragonfly (Anisoptera)

While watching hummers feed upon the shore line pond flowers, I noticed that the birds were quite commonly being buzzed by dragonflies!

That dragonfly in the upper left followed ever move of the hummingbird and, beyond that, dove in to seemingly tag the hummer regularly. This annoyed the hummingbird considerably and much aerobatics came with each buzz-by from the dragonfly.

Dr. Seuss’s Pond

Monday, August 16th, 2010
Yellow Lotus (Nelumbo lutea) Taking Over Pond

We spent a good chunk of saturday wandering about mid-Missouri, touring the various homes and towns of my Mother’s family.

While wondering about Mom’s home town of Jamestown, Missouri, we found Cave Springs Road.

“Road” is a bit of an exaggeration; it is a rather winding gravel/dirt road through the hills and river bottoms of the area. It also happens to pass by one of my Grandparent’s old houses.

While continuing on said road, I caught something out of the corner of my eye and asked my sister (who was driving) to stop the car.

Upon seeing this pond, our cousin from Austria exclaimed, “This pond is being invaded by Doctor Seuss plants.”.

Yellow Lotus (Nelumbo lutea) Seedheads

The plants do look a bit Seuss-esque. Especially the seed pods.

They are American Lotus or Yellow Lotus. While considered a native species, they are extremely invasive and can easily entirely consume a pond in vegetative growth within a few years (depending on pond depth).

While “native”, the working theory is that these plants are not really naturally propagated nearly as widely as they are without human intervention.

In particular, much of the plant is edible. As far as anyone can determine, American Indians would carry seeds and/or roots of the plant as they moved about, planting any random ponds to establish a food source if the tribe happened to pass that way again.

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Outdoor Light…. Wait, What the HELL IS THAT?!

Friday, July 23rd, 2010
Light with Bug Infestation

Now, as you look at this particular photo which isn’t that good in the first place, you might ask yourself, “Why the heck has Bill posted a photo of a random outdoor light?!?”.

Well, look closer. See that pile of what looks to be wood shavings or something inside the light?

Yeah. No. Not so much.

Light with Bug Infestation

You see, that is a gigantic pile of dead bug larva.

I have no idea what kind of bugs they were. Look kinda like ants, but I have never seen white ants before.

Termites, maybe? But why would termites take up residence in a seemingly all metal and glass light fixture!?!

In any case. FREAKY!

The light post is in front of Apple’s De Anza 6 building. The photos were actually both taken with the Camera+ app (using the image stabilization feature) on an iPhone 4. I’m very impressed with the camera. Sure, can’t compete with my T1i. Often, though, the best camera is the camera you have. That it also happens to be a really good camera is bonus!

Review: Celestron Digital Microscope

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010
Human blood cells

Roger has always excelled in math and sciences — no surprise given lineage — and is of the age (9) where the science education is moving into bigger and smaller areas of study.

So far, he has gotten by with a QX-5 Digital Microscope
and mixScope. While the QX-5 is great for looking at money, the veins in leaves, bits of mushroom and tiny critters, high magnification is pretty much useless because the construction makes focus impossible.

Thus, the desire to get something more like a real microscope. In particular, I really wanted a microscope that allows for live viewing on a computer screen (like the QX-5). While, there were some good ones for less than $500 — 3MP digital camera model microscopes that included simultaneous use binocular eyepieces, even — their software is pile of Windows only crapware.

No, thank you. Next!

Close-up of cross section of spinal column.

Enter the Celestron 44340 LCD Digital LDM Biological Microscope. It replaces the normal eyepiece with a 2.1MP digital camera and a color LCD screen. More importantly, the build quality is actually quite decent such that focusing at, even, the 400x maximum optical zoom is quite smooth!

Unlike the QX-5, the Celestron 44340 is really only for use with proper microscope slides (The QX-5 still has a purpose!). blank microscope slides and slide covers are cheap, so I picked up a bunch of those, too.

The slide table includes a very nice set of caliper style adjusters for moving the slide around in a highly controlled fashion. Slides are held in place by an easy to use spring loaded caliper.

The microscope can illuminate the subject from either the top or bottom and the bottom illumination includes a variety of color filters that can be quite useful. Intensity of illumination can be adjusted.

The top illumination is nearly useless at all but the lowest magnification (otherwise there isn’t enough distance between lens and subject).

The digital controls include an EV adjustment, a digital zoom, and the ability to take snapshots. Digital zoom only works when the snapshot resolution is configured for less than 1600×1200. Digital zoom works by interpolating data across the sensor into a lower-than-sensor resolution image that provides a higher-than-optical zoom factor. It actually works fairly well (unlike most digital zooms).

Pollen. Evil, evil, pollen.

The unit also comes with a really nice hard sided carrying case, a dust cover, and power adaptors for global use. A surprisingly complete kit — I was completely blown away by the quality of the case for a device this relatively inexpensive.

My only real complaint is that the LCD is effectively physically attached to the camera & lenses. That, combined with the relative stiffness of the buttons means it is hard to take an image that isn’t blurry. However, it seems that the unit has a slight delay between button push and recording such that is isn’t as big of a problem as it could be. But, still… stupid design — just move the damned shutter button to the base. I’ll probably hack the unit to add an external shutter button.

All in all, I’m thoroughly impressed by the build quality and feature set of this microscope. I would still have been impressed if my $180 had purchased a microscope with this optical performance, sans awesome case and really nice slide table.

All of the images in this blog post were taken with the microscope, no surprise. It is a boxed set of prepared slides that I also picked up from Amazon.