Sunday, February 1, 2015

An Act of God

An administrator here at Harvard once proclaimed that "Harvard University will close only for an act of God, such as the end of the world."

Classes began for the spring semester on Monday morning. We students were excited for the beginning of a new set of classes, but the massive winter storm headed our direction was the topic of most conversations. Winter Storm Juno was closing in on the East Coast with predictions of two to three feet of snow along with tremendous winds.

The university preemptively canceled Tuesday classes on Monday afternoon shortly after a State of Emergency was declared by Governor Baker. Whispers traveled through the lecture halls and cheers erupted from the halls. For many students, especially those from warmer climates, this was to be their first ever snow day.

I awoke to shovels scraping on the sidewalk on Tuesday morning and looked out the window in hopes of seeing the effects of the "historic" blizzard. Unfortunately, the wind had blown snow against much of the window, making it difficult to peer outside.

When I made my way downstairs and opened the door to the courtyard of Standish Hall, I saw that over two feet of snow was now piled where just a few inches had sat the evening before.

I wandered along the slushy sidewalks and made my way towards the Charles River. Memorial Drive, the typically-bustling riverside road was silent.

The sycamores lining the drive were splattered with windblown snow.

Some students deemed it a good idea to leave their bikes out for the winter. Without a shovel and plowed roads, cycling would've been rather difficult on Tuesday. Skiing was the most common form of transportation I saw on the major roads.

Snowball fights ensued and snowmen popped up between the river houses and around Harvard Yard. Some students even rode sleds (aka cafeteria trays and laundry baskets) down the steps of Widener Library.

Unfortunately, while other schools received notices of further closer through Wednesday, Harvard students were sent a message confirming that normal operations would resume the next morning.

Come Wednesday morn, students with boots laced them up and trudged to class through sidewalks that were only partially shoveled and through slush-filled crosswalks. Some crosswalks were not adequately shoveled, leaving piles of snow to jump over to reach to road. Many students elected to simply walk up and down the road, much to the dismay of people in automobiles.

And just as we're settling down from this storm, more is projected to fall within the next week. Up to a foot more. Welcome to New England, I guess.

Winthrop, Eliot, and Kirkland Houses before the major snowfall

Thursday, January 22, 2015

A winter catbird

It's amazing how a fresh layer snow—even just a dusting—can suddenly make birds more active. We got about half of an inch here last night, enough to obscure the frozen ground. I'm not sure if natural food sources were now inaccessible or what, but the feeders were more active this morning than during the past few days. A small flock of half a dozen goldfinches has been loitering in the trees on the edge of the yard, but this morning they dared to fill up the available perches on the hanging sunflower feeder.

As I headed outside around noon, the sun was just starting to poke through the overcast, and the haze in front of the mountain began to clear. 

I crossed the road and headed to the edge of our field, where I thought I heard some sparrow commotion. Sure enough, I flushed about fifty birds into the brush. After the birds flew into woods, they sat atop the tangles of wineberry, barberry, and greenbrier long enough for me to get a quick look at them. Most were juncos and white-throated sparrows, with a smattering of cardinals, song sparrows, and American tree sparrows. 

American tree sparrow

A few chickadees and titmice and a single downy woodpecker moved around in the walnut above me, but it was another bird that caught my attention. When a bunch of the sparrows took flight, a larger bird went with them. It was pretty far back, but I could see that it was dark, flew with its tail drooped down, and had noticeable dopey wing beats as it made this short flight. I was confused for a second, then realized it must have been a catbird! Gray catbirds are one of the most abundant summertime birds here, but it should be in Central America or at least the southern United States this time of year!  
I've seen a few of these in the winter here in Pennsylvania, both during Christmas Bird Counts. However, this was the first wintering catbird I've seen on my property.

The bird eventually came out in the open, where I was able to confirm my identification and get a few quick photographs.

The catbird eventually took off along the forest edge and disappeared. About half and hour later, I was walking along a fencerow in another part of the field and found the bird again. This time, it was picking poison ivy berries off the vine alongside a Hermit Thrush.

poison ivy berries

My catbird is a perfect example of why I find winter birding so exciting. Sure, the bright warblers have left and nothing is singing, but there is a much higher chance of surprises. Western vagrants pop up, finches and owls invade from the North, and sometimes local breeders decide to stick around. Of course I love spring migration, but I basically know what to expect when I go out. That certainty is decreased somewhat in the winter months!

a wren's summer home... maybe home to a deermouse right now

Before I went back inside, a single pine siskin flew over the yard, chreeeeeeing as it moved west. Siskins are one of those winter finches I mentioned, and they are heading south with some redpolls right now. They've reached Pennsylvania just as I head back to the city for the spring semester, but I'm glad I got a glimpse of one before I leave home again.

American goldfinch and pine siskins at a feeder a few years back

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Rebirth and Lovejoy

Ever since I started this blog back in 2009, I have focused my posts on the exciting critters and plants that I found while exploring the outdoors. Then college happened. My time to write posts was greatly reduced, and more importantly, it became more difficult to spend time outdoors and away from the city.

As somewhat of a resolution for 2015, I've decided to revive The Baypoll Blog. While I will still  write about nature as I have for years, this rebirth will allow me to expand my blog to my other interests. I have a passion for photography, other aspects of science, and music to name a few.

One such interest is astronomy, and there happens to be something new in the nighttime sky right now!

I first heard about Comet Lovejoy in an online post last week. The article showed a brilliant image of a bright green comet with a thin, turquoise tail behind. Intrigued, I headed outside with binoculars in hand on a recent clear night. I scanned the sky between Orion and Taurus until...

taken with a 400mm lens
There it is. That fuzzy green spot. After seeing all the dramatic pictures online, I was hoping for a little more than a blurry dot, but it was not to be. I suppose it makes sense that something 44 million miles away doesn't look too interesting through binoculars.

I have not seen many comets in my lifetime. I can only think of three. Vague memories remind me of my dad pointing out Hale-Bopp when I was quite young, then I saw Comet PanSTARRS almost two years ago:

Comets are interesting, as they come and go. I was lucky enough to see Hale-Bopp, but that particular ice and rock chunk won't come close to Earth for another two millennia or so. PanSTARRS may take over 100,000 years.

Meteor showers and comets convince people to peer into the night sky, but many of the fascinating interstellar phenomena that are visible every night are generally ignored! To me, seeing a galaxy full of stars and planets situated millions of light years away from Earth is more exciting than a small piece of rock that burns up as it enters our atmosphere! While I was out taking a look at Comet Lovejoy, I took a moment to find a few of my favorite space objects that are visible this time of year.

The first was Jupiter, which was sitting fairly low in the eastern sky. I became familiar with Jupiter in my senior year of high school, when I worked on a project that involved photographing Jupiter and its four Galilean moons. Here is a photo series taken over one night of observation, which shows Jupiter and its moons. With images like this, I was able to plot the sine curves that modeled the periods of Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto (and from there, it is possible to approximate some physical properties of Jupiter).

Jupiter hasn't changed much, but it is always incredible to look up and see what Galileo first noticed at the beginning of the 17th century.

Jupiter and two of its moons

Orion is a favorite constellation of many. His distinctive belt makes him easy to find—especially this time of year, when he stands at the southern horizon at dusk, then moves higher up in the southern sky through the night. 

The three stars lined up on the top left constitute Orion's belt

Despite Orion's popularity, few people know about the nebula that sits right about where his knees should be. 

A cropped version of the image above, showing the Orion Nebula

A nebula is a cluster of gas and dust, which acts as a center for the formation of new stars. This particular nebula resides with us in the Milky Way. The faint coloration of the nebula comes from the gas composition inside the cluster—primarily hydrogen and helium.

During my second semester at Harvard, I had a chance to explore another interesting interstellar object, supernova SN 2014J, which was located within the Cigar Galaxy (M82). I was able to use the fancy Clay Telescope to observe and photograph this exploding star.

The Cigar Nebula with SN 2014J

After reaching its brightest in January 2014, the supernova faded dramatically over the next few months. This GIF shows a similar view of M82 before and after the supernova:

source: Wikipedia

The next time you're out trying to find a comet or enjoying a meteor shower, take some time to consider and appreciate all that you've been missing in the nighttime sky. I've shared a few of my favorites, but there is much, much more to see. If Terry Lovejoy is any indication, maybe you'll find something new...

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Finally a Snowy...

This winter has been a tremendous year for finding Snowy Owls in the United States. While a few of these Arctic visitors can be found in the States most years, hundreds or maybe thousands of Snowy Owls have been observed irrupting from their typical northern wintering grounds to places as far south as Arkansas, Florida, and Bermuda!

These northern owls have captured the attention of everyone from nonbirders to bird researchers. For someone who is hardly interested in birding, the sight of a majestic, white owl could easily turn them on to the pleasure and excitement of the hobby. Scientists, too, are excited, as they see this winter's irruption as an opportunity to learn more about these visiting birds. A group of researchers rapidly got together funds and materials and began placing transmitters on Snowy Owls. Project Snowstorm has already placed transmitters on five owls in the Mid-Atlantic region. Maps tracking the movements of these owls can be found on the project website along with more information about Snowy Owl movements and biology.

These owls started showing up in this region just as I was getting into final exam period, so I did not have time to go looking. When I got home for the holidays, some of the owls that had been around had moved on, and my search for any others was fruitless. So, when I arrived back here in Cambridge, Massachusetts to begin my second semester, I figured that I was going to have to live without seeing a Snowy this year. However, I saw on eBird that one had been seen in the Boston area that morning--and even better, it was just a short walk from a subway stop! I got on the subway from the Harvard Square station and within thirty minutes I was near Revere Beach where the owl had been spotted.

The beach was covered with gulls, mostly Herrings with a few Ring-billed and Great Black-backs thrown into the mix. I walked out towards the breakwater, where I soon spotted the owl sitting about halfway out on the jetty. It was distant, but the coloration and posture was enough for the identification. I sat at the end of the beach for a while, hopping to get a better view of the owl, but it remained still. A small group of Ruddy Turnstones ran past me along the icy rocks and small rafts of Common Eiders floated a little ways offshore. While scanning some rocks out in the water, I noticed a single Harbor Seal "perched" atop a rock, presumably enjoying the brief bit of sunshine.

As I walked back along the beach, I looked back to get another peak at the Snowy Owl. He must have flown, because he was now perched at the very end of the jetty, providing only a slightly improved view. While scanning for the owl, I noticed that some ducks that had been pretty far out when I arrived were now much closeralmost at the shoreline. They were White-winged Scoters52 of them! This is not a species I regularly see. In fact, I just saw my first for Monroe County, PA over winter break.

White-winged Scoter with Mallards at Witmers Lake, Monroe County, PA
I watched the scoters bounce up and down on the rough surf for a while, but soon decided that the driving wind was too much to handle, and I headed back towards the subway station. I picked out a single "Kumlien's" Iceland Gull along the way, but didn't manage to watch it for long, as it flew towards a person who was throwing bread for the gulls way down the beach. Nevertheless, it was another good sighting on a (finally) successful search for the Snowy Owl!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Why did the turkey cross the road?

Wild Turkey marching down Harvard Street, Cambridge, MA

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Juniper Hairstreaks

I'll post some more reports from my Alaska trip soon, but I had to share these images of a Juniper Hairstreak I found nectaring on butterfly milkweed this afternoon. I rarely see this species away from redcedars (the caterpillar host plant), so this was a very exciting find.

After finding this female, my mom and I discovered a male nectaring on a bergamot flower not too far from the patch of milkweed!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Alaska, Day Two: Seward and Exit Glacier

We started Wednesday morning by heading towards Lowell Point, a small establishment a few miles south of Seward. The road between Seward and the point ran right along the shore, giving us wonderful views of the mountains on the other side of the bay.

As we approached Lowell Point, we stopped to walk along the road. A small group of Harlequin Ducks swam just off the shore, and a family of Common Ravens sat and squawked from the rocks above us.

The most abundant birds here were the "Sooty" Fox Sparrows singing from the low shrubs on either side of the road. This subspecies occurs along the Pacific Coast of North America and looks quite different from the "Red" Fox Sparrows I am used to seeing migrate through Pennsylvania.

The woods around Lowell Point were mostly filled with the usual suspects, especially Hermit Thrushes and Townsend's Warblers. We did find one gorgeous "Pacific" Steller's Jay. This species, although common in areas where I had birded before, had somehow eluded me. These coastal individuals differ from the inland subspecies (like the ones I missed in the Rockies) in that they lack white markings on the face.

As we headed back towards Seward along the same road on which we had arrived, we noticed a number of birds out on the water. Several more Harlequin Ducks had arrived and were now floating near two playful Sea Otters! A single Pigeon Guillemot swam up to the ducks, but soon took off and flew farther out into the bay. Another alcid, this one a Marbled Murrelet, swam close to shore. Although the bird was close, its frequent dives made photography extremely tricky!

On the shore itself, I spotted two fairly large shorebirds running over the rocks. I immediately recognized them as Wandering Tattlers, yet another lifer for this tiny stretch of road!

one of two Wandering Tattlers along the shore
We then worked our way from Seward north just a few miles to Exit Glacier, situated within the Kenai Fjords National Park. This glacier, formerly known as Resurrection Glacier, was renamed after it served as an exit for the first party to traverse the Harding Icefield. Along the path to the base of the ice, we were serenaded by Yellow, Yellow-rumped, Wilson's, and Orange-crowned Warblers. A few thrushes—Hermit and Swainson's—sang from the brush as well.

The glacier was spectacular. I had never seen one up-close before, so the size and color were incredibly fascinating and awe-inspiring. Murky, silty water flowed heavily in the glacial river as gallons and gallons of the ice melted. It's still hard for me to understand how a massive chunk of ice like this can carve away the land on which it is situated leaving behind water and gravel. Wow.

From the base of the hill near the bottom of Exit Glacier, my dad, brother, and I decided to hike the Harding Icefield Trail that meandered up the mountain and above the glacier. The icefield itself is a massive (700 square miles) block of permanent ice from which many of the glaciers within the park originate. The trail was very steep as we hiked through small trees, then shrubs, and eventually made it to open tundra above the treeline. It was here that a park volunteer pointed out a distant mountain goat, and we spotted a couple of Hoary Marmots running across the trail.

Trees may not have been able to grow at this altitude, but many wildflower species covered the landscape. 

We slowly worked our way up, and after several miles of hiking, we made it to a flatter area that provided a stunning view of Exit Glacier from above.

One the most beautiful aspects of the glacier was the series of deep crevices in the closest portion of the ice. Deeper and deeper, the blue got darker until color gave way to shadows.

The trail from this spot on was almost entirely on snow pack. Fortunately, many people had walked this portion of the trail before we did, so it was easy to figure out where to go.

We soon began hearing odd noises from the slope above us, but we were unable to see anything more than twenty feet away. From the other direction, some small birds flew across the trail and landed on a patch of vegetation that was attempting to revive itself after a winter under the snow. 

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches! As we continued hiking, we saw several small groups (no more than five) of these alpine finches along the trail. None of them seemed particularly concerned with our presence as shown by the photo above, which was taken with a lens that I typically use for scenery, not birds! These individuals are "Hepburn's" Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches, a subspecies that has an entirely gray face rather than just a gray crown. 

Not much farther along the path, we started hearing the strange noises again. They got closer and closer until it seemed as if they were right above us; yet, we could see nothing. Then, I spotted a silhouette in the fog. The bird flew up fairly high above our heads while calling, then dove towards the ground and sat on a barely-visible outcrop. It was a ptarmigan! We could hardly see the bird through the fog, but what we did see and the calls we heard identified it as a White-tailed Ptarmigan, another awesome alpine bird!

We soon left the birds behind and entered into an area of rock, snow, and ice. The fog grew even thicker; at times it was impossible to see each other even though we were quite close. We tried to follow small orange flags placed in the snow pack, but the fog was so thick that the next flag was not always visible. Nevertheless, we trudged on despite a diminishing number of footprints in the snow.

the excellent view from along the Harding Icefield Trail (yes, I'm being sarcastic)

After a long climb, we reached a flat area of snow and fog. We were walking on a spur of the icefield that seemed to be home to nothing at all, except Chlamydomonas nivalis, a fascinating "green" alga that can be found living on snow and ice. The common name for this organism is "watermelon snow," as the cells contain a red pigment that seems to stain the snow blood-red.

After about four miles of hiking, I spotted the faint image of a structure twenty feet ahead of us. We had reached the emergency shelter at last!

Every inch of the interior walls, rafters, and ceiling was covered with the names of people who had made the same trek to the icefield. Here is just one wall:

After a short rest at the shelter, we began the hike back down. The fog was not as heavy during the return, giving us a view of the slopes we would have slid down had we slipped on the way up! We eventually made it back near where Exit Glacier was visible.

By this point, the sun was low enough in the sky that it shone beneath the fog and illuminated the glacier. 

We continued to work our way through the snow and rock and eventually through the willow scrub. It was here that we witnessed our last treat of the day: a Golden-crowned Sparrow sitting a few feet from the trail. Again, I did not have my telephoto lens on the camera, but even the short lens was able to capture this bird that gave no notice of our presence.

The Harding Icefield Trail is one of the most incredible hikes I've ever done; the scenery, birds, and challenge were phenomenal. I hope that I have the chance to return to this spot someday—perhaps when it's not so foggy!