2022 Kansas Trip – Ferruginous Hawk

I was definitely on the lookout for Ferruginous Hawks during our visit to western Kansas last year and we were fortunate to have one fly directly over us as we visited a badlands monument. What I didn’t expect is to be able to see an active nest. This was at a private ranch where we had the opportunity to see and photograph Lesser Prairie Chicken leks. The rancher was understandably weary of getting too close or staying too long, so we took our shots from a good distance from the vehicle windows.

Ferruginous Hawk
Active Ferruginous Hawk nest on cliff’s edge

A New Great-horned Owl Nest!

I finally had the opportunity to visit my buddy Jim’s property to check out the nest site of a Great-horned Owl nest. This pair has used this snag for about 5 years to raise their brood and I am disappointed in myself for not visiting sooner. I had no idea how perfect the views into this nest were. You couldn’t ask for a better setup. Unfortunately, I was a bit late this season as well. The chicks fledged within days of my first and only visit. Hopefully next year!

Here are a few from my visit. These were taken in early afternoon so the light was a bit harsh.

2022 Kansas Trip – Semipalmated Sandpiper

I can’t believe it’s been more than a year since this trip and I still have quite a few photos to share. Not much time or gumption to post much lately. Here are some photos of one of the more abundant shorebirds we had on this particular visit – the Semipalmated Sandpiper. It was fun and interesting to see so many individuals up close. You can really see variations in individual plumages at this time of year, as I hope this collection shows

Chasing More Waterfalls in the Shawnee

Casey and I hit the roads and trails back in January looking for new waterfalls in the Shawnee Forest area of southern Illinois. January isn’t the prettiest time for waterfalls but finding them is often easier in the winter.

Burden Falls Wilderness Area

Up first is Burden Falls. Like most of the falls and features in the Shawnee, Burden only flows following significant rainfall. The amount of water flowing over the falls was not the highest it could be, but there was enough flow to be interesting. Here are a few more from this fantastic area.

Next up is Bork Falls.

Happy Hollow Falls

Last up is Jackson Hole Falls. This incredible two-stage set begins with a long slide that I captures in the panorama below. It then ends in an approximate 40′ drop.

Jackson Hole Falls – The Slide
Jackson Hole Falls – The Plunge Pool

Markarian’s Chain – NGC 4406 (March, 2023)

Markarian’s Chain – An interesting look into the Virgo Galaxy Cluster

Markarian’s Chain (NGC 4406)
Since I picked up astrophotography, I knew I wanted to shoot some galaxy clusters. The first that comes to mind is Markarian’s Chain, a nice curved line of galaxies that lies amidst a large cluster of galaxies known as the Virgo Galaxy Cluster. The Virgo Cluster contains up to 2,000 different galaxies and Markarian’s Chain is an asterism-like chain that provides an interesting order to the randomness of the surrounding cluster. Typically, Markarian’s Chain is considered to be comprised of seven galaxies, all of which are moving in the same relative speed and direction with one another. The distance from earth to the galaxies varies from between 50 -80 million light years! Of course this means we are seeing them where they were up to 80 million years ago.

The galaxies comprising NGC 4406 are mostly elliptical and lenticular in type, but there are some fascinating details that can be found by taking a closer look. I’ve left the image above a bit larger than normal and invite the viewer to search within to see some of the different shapes and go galaxy hunting if you would like. I have counted about 35 galaxies in this frame. Most are quite small. Remember, if it’s a little fuzzy, it’s a galaxy. The stars are typically sharp in contrast to the dark background void.

Markarian’s Chain – annotated. Click for larger view.

Let’s take a look at some of the galaxies making up this frame. First, the two larger appearing galaxies that anchor the chain are M84 and M86. Just to the left of these are two interacting galaxies, NGC 4438 and NGC 4435, known collectively as ‘Markarian’s Eyes.’ I was happy to pick up enough detail to show how NGC 4438 is being distorted by the gravitational pull of it’s neighbor, sweeping out a lot of the gas, dust and likely stars from their normal placement.

Another prominent galaxy in this frame is found in the lower left corner. This is the supergiant elliptical galaxy, M87 (Virgo A, NGC 4486). M87 is one of the largest and most massive galaxies in our local universe, containing several trillion stars.

One last galaxy to bring your attention to is NGC 4440. This is an interesting barred spiral galaxy that I was not expecting to see in such detail. This galaxy is located at the intersection of two lines in this frame. Draw a line going directly downward from the eyes and another starting at Virgo A going to the right. Where these two lines intersect you will be close to NGC 4440.

See the accompanying partially-annotated image showing the names of the more prominent galaxies in this frame.

Collecting the data
I have made my bed as an astrophotographer that does not use “go-to” technology and I am frustratingly sleeping in it. This one should have been easier to find. It is literally between two mid-magnitude stars – Denebola, in the Leo constellation and Vindemiatrix in the constellation of Virgo. All I had to do is draw a line between the two and the target is in the dead center. Somehow, I did not take this literally enough and spent nearly an hour finding the target and composing the frame. I do have one excuse; this area is filled with galaxies, so every time I took a test shot, there were several galaxies in the frame and it took me some time to see if the pattern I was looking for was there or not. Other than this, the night went pretty easy. We had perfectly clear skies, cold temps and Miguel and I had extra company. We joined with an imaging party from the Astronomical Society of Eastern Missouri, who just happened to be at Danville C.A. the same night we were. It was fun watching the experienced imagers and viewers pulling out all sorts of big, pretty and expensive optics and mounts. Unfortunately, between trying to concentrate on what I was doing and the very cold temperature, I didn’t find the time to do much socializing.

Date and location
Imaged on the night of 19/20 March 2023 at Danville Conservation Area in Montgomery County, Missouri (Bortle 4).
Dark period: 20:45 – 05:42
Target period: 19:52 – 07:31; Zenith 01:42

Clear skies over the course of the session. Temperature in the mid 20’s F. Winds below 5 mph.

Astro-modified Canon 7D mkii camera, Canon 400mm do mkii lens, Skywatcher Star Adventurer tracker without guiding on a William Optics Vixen Wedge Mount. Gitzo CF tripod, Canon shutter release cable, laser pointer to help find Polaris and sky targets, lens warmer to prevent dew and frost on lens, dummy battery to power camera, lithium battery generator to provide power to camera and dew heater, right-angle viewfinder to aid in polar alignment.

Imaging details
Lights taken (ISO 6400, f/4.0, 20 second exposure): 1,076
Lights after cull due to tracker error, wind, bumps, etc.: 912
Used best 90% of remaining frames for stack for a total of 821 subs used for integration (4.56 hours)
Darks: 36 taken at same exposure time and ISO as lights

RAW files converted to TIF in Canon DPP, stacked in Astro Pixel Processor, GraXpert for gradient removal, Photoshop CS6 for stretching and other cosmetic adjustments.

Problems and learnings
Miguel had to save my bacon with this one. This was the “first light” for astrophotography for my Canon 400mm f/4 do mkii lens. I had been eagerly waiting to try this lens for this purpose and, as I feared, this longer focal length did not allow for the 30 second exposures I had gotten used to using the 300mm lens. Even though this combination was a bit lighter than the 300mm f/2.8 lens, the Star Adventurer tracker just wasn’t up to it. So, I was forced to go with 20 second exposures to limit star trailing and, consequentially, had to use ISO 6400 to keep the signal to noise ratio where I needed it. This ISO setting is really pushing it with the camera I use so I wasn’t at all sure that I would even have a final image worth sharing in the end.

Because I pushed the ISO, the noise was pretty awful. Following a very light stretch after stacking, huge bands of green and purple showed up against the dark sky. I was at a loss on what to do about this, having exhausted all of the tools I knew to use in my processing train. I knew Miguel was beginning to become quite proficient in PixInsight processing so I thought I would ask him to try and see what he could do with my stacked image. I was dumbfounded when he was able to fix my problem in about 10 minutes! The final image could still probably be stretched a little more to bring out further details, but considering the ISO I was using, I have to be satisfied with the end result. I can’t get myself to put down the purchase price for PixInsight anytime soon, but that is something I’ll be considering in the future.

Spring is known as galaxy season in the astronomy world. Most of the popular nebulas are not as available as they are in the winter and summer. Unfortunately, I really don’t have the equipment to take closeups of the far off and very small galaxies so I will have to settle for a few of the relatively larger ones as well as the clusters like Markarian’s Chain. I am pleased with what I was able to create here. As usual, it was with some considerable struggles and frustrations but I am coming to find that I kind of like overcoming those obstacles despite what I feel at the time.

Long-eared Owls Finally!

The Long-eared Owl has been on my top most wanted list for adding to my photographed species list for nearly 15 years. During this past New Years Eve, I finally found that opportunity.

Long-eared Owls are a bit different in that they hold and keep winter roosting sites, sometimes using the same trees or a single tree for these winter roosts year after year. This was the case here, where we found five birds roosting in a couple of exotic pine trees. Unfortunately, all but the one pictured here were too far in the mix of branches to be photographed. I am sure happy to have this one.

I had heard that this species is particularly weary, flushing with the least provocation. I did not find this to be the case at all with this group. Yes, this was a hard to find location and they do not likely see many visitors. When we stepped from the car they did become aware, moving their heads back and forth to get better looks at us from between branches. But, with keeping low voices, slow movements and respectful distances, they got used to our presence fairly quickly. I was even amused that they began ignoring us, turning their backs to us, going back to sleep and having what seemed to me normal behaviors and interactions. We stayed until dusk at which point they began stirring, moving from perch to perch and interacting with one another. This was too dark for still photographs but I did collect a little bit of video that I hope to process and share someday.

I know this is a sought after species in our region. This roost is on private property in which we were invited. I will not be able to share the location information for this site. Thanks for understanding.

The Rosette or Skull Nebula – Sh2-275/NGC 2246 (February 2023)

The Rosette, or Skull Nebula, one of the largest and spectacular star-forming regions in our sky. Can you make out the skull? It is looking downward around 8:00.

The Rosette or Skull Nebula (NGC 2237, Sh2-275)
My February target was the fantastic and grand Rosette Nebula, also known as the Skull Nebula for hopefully obvious reasons. This nebula is a gigantic cloud of predominantly ionized atomic hydrogen that lies in the Monoceros constellation, not too far from the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex. This object has a number of different catalogue designations given to different regions of the nebula (NGC 2237, 2238, 2239, 2246) and associated star clusters. The primary star cluster being NGC 2244 – the most central cluster that provides most of the illumination and stellar winds and radiation that illuminate and disperse the gaseous clouds that form the nebula. X-ray imaging has identified approximately 2500 young stars in this star-forming complex.

Space is Big
This nebula lies approximately 5,000 light years from earth and is roughly 130 light years in diameter. To get an idea how immense this nebula is, compare this to the Great Orion Nebula (M42), which is only 40 light years in diameter. With all this talk about light years, I wanted to explore this to get a better idea of what we’re talking about and try and wrap our heads around the scale of an object like this. A light year is roughly 5.88 trillion miles – the distance light travels in a year. Since I’m an American, I’ll keep everything in miles so that I can better understand. The diameter of this nebula is roughly 764 trillion miles. The fastest spacecraft ever recorded is the Parker Solar Probe, which reached a top speed of 364,660 mph. This comes to 3,194,421,600 miles this probe can traverse in a single year. Sounds like a lot, right? Well, to cover the 764 trillion miles to reach one end of this nebula to the other, it would take the Parker Probe 239,167 years! We probably don’t need to get into the amount of time it would take the Parker Probe to get to the nebula in the first place.

“Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.” Douglas Adams – A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Collecting the data
I had anticipated this one being a little difficult to find. IT is found roughly on the line between two stars of the winter triangle – Betelgeuse, and Procyon. But, there are really no large magnitude stars in close proximity to help get it in the tight frame of my 300mm lens. I was please that it took me only about 10 minutes to get it in frame. However, because I was hoping to grab some of the much dimmer gases that can make up a sort of stem of this rose, I spent another 30 minutes trying to frame it just so. This turned out to be time wasted. In order to get this dim gas to show, much more integration time would be necessary than what I was able to collect on a single night.

Date and location
Imaged on the night of 17/18 February 2023 at Danville Conservation Area in Montgomery County, Missouri (Bortle 4).

Dark period: 19:10 – 05:19

Target period: 15:20 – 02:08; Zenith 20:44

Clear skies over the course of the session. Temperature: 31° – 27° F. Winds forecasted to be 6-8 mph but seemed lower than this.

Astro-modified Canon 7D mkii camera, Canon 300mm f/2.8 lens, Skywatcher Star Adventurer tracker without guiding on a William Optics Vixen Wedge Mount. Gitzo CF tripod, Canon shutter release cable, laser pointer to help find Polaris and sky targets, lens warmer to prevent dew and frost on lens, dummy battery to power camera, lithium battery generator to provide power to camera and dew heater, right-angle viewfinder to aid in polar alignment.

Imaging Details
Lights taken (ISO 3200, f/2.8, 25 second exposures) 779. 61 frames dropped due to poor focus, 217 frames dropped due to tracker error, 10% frames dropped in stacking instructions. A total of 450 frames used in integration for a total of 3.13 hours.
Darks: 39 taken at the exposure time listed above.
Bias and Flats: Not taken. Removed most vignetting and some chromatic aberration while converting RAW images to TIF.

RAW files converted to TIF in Canon DPP, stacked in Astro Pixel Processor, GraXpert for gradient removal, StarNet++ for separating stars from nebulosity, Photoshop CS6 for stretching, recombining stars and nebulosity and other cosmetic adjustments.

This one was a bit tougher than I expected, mainly due to the StarNet software not wanting to work the first several times I tried. I captured more of the hydrogen alpha in the surrounding regions than this image depicts but, because it was so faint, nasty artifacts appeared during the stretch. I was forced to leave much of this out of the final image due to this. I think in order to do this properly I would need much more total integration time.

Problems and learnings
This one went about how I had expected except for one thing. I was devastated to learn that I had not acquired critical focus for roughly the first 45 minutes of imaging. This was even more of a blow as this time coincided with the object being at or near its zenith, meaning I lost some of the best potential data gathering of the night.

I have also been collecting some data on how many subs I throw away due to errors in tracking. In this case, 35% of the subs I took were thrown away, which seems to be close to my average when using this lens at these exposure times. I dropped the exposure time to 25 seconds in order to help reduce this but I think this issue is mostly due to the tracker being at or above its limit in regards to payload and focal length. For this reason, I am investigating a new tracker that should meet my needs nicely for a 1-2 minute exposure with the above kit and a keeper rate of greater than 90%. Keeping my fingers crossed for that company bonus this year. 😉

This is another very popular and relatively easy object that most astrophotographers tackle early on. Overall I’m pleased with the outcome. I like the detail and the colors but I think that better processing might bring these out better even with the data I have here. Always learning. This object is better imaged in December or January, when more time with it can be had in a single night. I look forward to trying this one again someday.

Insect’s of Horn’s Prairie Grove LWR

Part of the Horn’s Prairie Grove LWR with obedient plant blooming in the foreground and joe pye weed behind.

The WGNSS Entomology and Nature Photography Groups had a splendid treat in July of 2022 when we jointly visited Horn’s Prairie Grove Land Water Reserve (LWR) near Ramsey IL. This 40 acre patch represents part of the less than 1% of the remaining southern till plain prairie ecosystem that was nearly wiped from the planet due to land conversion for farming. Even better, about 30 acres are original “virgin” prairie, (the largest intact remnant prairie in IL) meaning these spots were never touched by the plow. Even better still, at this location there lies five different types of prairie habitat: seep/wetland, dry hillside, mesic, black soil and savanna.

Keith Horn, owner and guide to Horn’s Prairie Grove LWR

The story of this land is interesting. The current owners, Keith and Patty Horn, purchased the land in 2001 as “junk land” from an old farmer who’s family had owned since the 1870s. They liked the fact that the majority of the land was in a “wild” state. The untouched 30 acres had been used as a wild hay field, being cut almost yearly. They had noticed some nice wildflowers in bloom but did not realize what they had until a few years into a wildlife habitat improvement plan that included periodic burning. Every year they noticed more and more species in bloom. They have sought help in identifying the plant species here and the current list is now at 619 species, including six native orchid species! Bravo to the Horns for identifying what they had and taking the steps to see their land improved. This remnant prairie could have been destroyed in the blink of an eye if it had fallen into the wrong hands.

Although most of us were simply thrilled to be in such high quality habitat, the primary purpose of the trip was to check out the arthropod life. Unfortunately, in late July, we were there on a truly miserable day of weather. The heat and humidity created a heat index that was well above the safety zone. This meant not many of us had the nerve to do a great deal of walking and searching, especially much after lunch time.

Efferia aestuans, the friendly robber (Family Asilidae)
Calopteryx maculata, an ebony jewelwing damselfly that was found on the forest and prairie edge.
Members of our group walking among the blooming Liatris.
A gorgeous Poanes zabulon, Zabulon skipper (Family Hesperiidae)
What I am calling Wallengrenia egeremet, the northern broken-dash (Family Hesperiidae)
Keith Horn (back) and Chris Brown (front)
We were lucky to find both Mydas fly species to be found in Illinois, but I was only able to photograph this Mydas tibialis.
The gnat ogre! (Holcocephala sp.)
Interested in making visits to interesting high-quality habitats like this? Then consider joining Webster Groves Nature Study Society! Visit http://www.wgnss.org to find out more.