A Snake! (and other animals that cross my path)

No, that crooked black line is not a crack in a tree trunk. It’s a snake climbing up a tree across the street from my apartment building. I may be a mediocre photographer, but I carry a camera just about everywhere and I try to get better all the time. When I’m on a plane, I use a zoom lens to photograph other planes flying nearby, or clouds, or sunlight reflecting in river tributaries that look like a sunset-colored octopus. When I walk to the university, I carry a camera just in case one of the local hawks puts on a show. I bring my camera so I can show my friends the things I see, but also because I will always need more practice. In that way, photography and writing are similar. Both are crafts that require a lifetime of regular, attentive exercise and application, resulting each month or each year in “better” photos and sentences rather than “great” ones. But that’s the idea behind a craft.

That said, I recently finished my thesis, and before I get back to practicing the craft of writing, I thought I’d give my other craft a little fresh air by sharing a few photos of creatures I’ve happened upon in the last few years. Minimal research. Just a few pretty things to give the mind a rest, starting with the biggest snake I’ve ever seen outside of a zoo.

Across from my apartment building is the lovely Wyman Park. It’s 20 or 30 acres of woodland that serves as the backyard of Johns Hopkins University. The park is a narrow but lush oasis of green where people from Baltimore’s Hampden and Charles Village neighborhoods run, bike, sit on rocks by the stream, and walk their dogs. Basically, Wyman Park is your typical city park — not a wilderness, but still home to some surprising creatures.

I met a member of Wyman Park’s wildlife community this Tuesday around 4 p.m. That would be the snake you saw in the above photo. My car was parked along a mowed field, the doorstep to Wyman Park. I was digging through my trunk for a quart of oil or something when a lady walked up and warned me that there was a huge snake under the car parked two ahead of mine. Just in case I were to walk that direction she wanted me to be aware. A HUGE snake? Yes, in fact. It was the longest snake I’ve ever seen in the wild. By the time she warned me about it, the snake had already mounted the curb and was halfway hidden in the grass of the park. It reached a four-foot-diameter tree and began to climb. Steadily, the snake moved upward — a funny thing to watch since a snake has no familiar limbs, claws, tentacles, or anything visible to propel it forward, let alone straight up. Yet it climbed without slipping once. Only a few minutes passed before the snake silently slithered into a hole in the lowest branch. The hollow space must have been small because the snake ended up bunched up and folded over a few times. You can see its midsection kinked like a two-inch hose in the shadow behind its head if you click on the photo to enlarge.

After scanning the Maryland Department of Natural Resources website and elsewhere, my best guess is it’s an eastern rat snake (a.k.a. black rat snake). Maryland’s biggest snake, the eastern rat snake often grows to six feet long (the DNR says the official record is 8 feet 5 inches). The one in my photo is probably five feet long at most.

Snakes are charming, but I’m more of a bird guy. In April 2011, I visited a Catholic high school in Baltimore County to write a story about the school’s plan to provide iPads to all of their students the following school year. In the parking lot near the school’s athletic field, however, I stopped to capture an aerial battle. Something small and furry was dead, innards exposed, at the edge of the grass, and a red-tailed hawk was perched atop a wooden fence post a few feet away. A couple of American crows or fish crows were also interested in the meal, but neither the hawk nor the crows could get more than a nibble of meat at a time before the other species attacked to fight for the meal.

Here the crows frantically chase the hawk:

Then one of the crows looks like it makes contact:

I don’t know how the fight ended because I had to go cover the iPad thing, but a few months later I got a far richer taste of wildlife when my girlfriend and I visited friends in Portland, Oregon.

I’ve lived in or visited probably 20 states in the U.S., but I’ve never seen another place as richly green as the woodland around Portland. Florida is lovely too, but it’s a different kind of green — low palms of light green, tall Australian pines with segmented needles, and lots of sand, sunshine and heat. Oregon, however, is on the opposite corner of the U.S. and is ruled by towering pines, cool damp air, and moss on everything.

From our visit to Multnomah Falls in Oregon.

Moss grows on trees, rocks, and probably even on other moss. In the thick parkland, sunlight filters through the dark green vegetation and causes the moss below to glow. The natural beauty is so intense that it looks almost handmade, as if every moss-covered tree and stone were part of a movie set, a caricature of life at its most vibrant. During our visit, we went on a couple of walks through the wet green wonderland. On one walk, one of my dear friends spotted a slug, a relatively common one for the region, but still gargantuan, and yellow. I’m pretty sure it was a Pacific banana slug. I took a few photos, of course, and here’s the slug with its body contracted:

Now here’s the same slug a minute later, now six or seven inches long and zooming along the forest floor at hundreds of millimeters per hour:

But, in case you’re about to eat something, I’ll try to supplant the image of the slug with something slime-less. Last year I was in Chincoteague, Virginia, and I took scores of photographs, but rather than overload you with all of my favorite animals from that trip, I’ll offer just one. Unless I’m mistaken, this is a laughing gull:

See? It’s “laughing.”

My girlfriend and I found this noisy guy while sitting at an outdoor bar and restaurant on the waterfront. The laughing gull sat on a dock-post about 10 feet from our table. All while we drank and ate, he remained on the post. Whenever another gull approached the perch, our gull would call and flap and fight to keep the spot. We soon learned why.

When I failed to eat all of my dinner (I know we’re not supposed to do this and I’m ashamed of myself) I decided to feed the gull. Apparently, he recognized my body language from experience with other people. After I tore a piece of bread from my plate, I turned back toward the gull. Before I knew what was happening, he had perched on the windowsill next to me, taken the bread from my hand, and returned to the dock post to eat it. He knew! He knew what I was doing before I’d done it! Animals. What the heck.

An interesting little tidbit from the laughing gull experience was something about his beak. I didn’t notice until looking at my photos later, but you can see straight through his beak via his nares (nostrils).

That’s all for now. Hope you enjoyed one or some of the animals. And to any other students or instructors out there, Happy End of the Semester!

If I incorrectly identified any of the animals above, please let me know. Thanks!


Supersonic Conga Line

About two weeks ago I visited Fells Point, a neighborhood on the north side of Baltimore Harbor. Fells is one of those old-town districts with brick-paved roads, clothing and art shops, and taverns that offer live music seven days a week. But I wasn’t there for food and drink. I came to watch the night sky glow in a way I’d never seen before.

A little before midnight, I sat on the wooden boardwalk near the docks behind Henderson’s Wharf Inn. Few sounds interrupted the quiet. Just a pair of ducks quacking as they strolled through the water among the boat slips, and a fish jumping now and then. The water was so smooth that the nearby sailboats didn’t even rock, eliminating the usual sound of metal rigging pinging against masts.

My camera sat atop a tripod next to me, and I split my time between punching the refresh button on my laptop’s web browser and scanning the sky to the southeast. On a launchpad at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility about 100 miles away, five rockets were ready and waiting to launch.

I was in the best viewing-spot I could muster without driving an hour. The bright lights of downtown were behind me and the broad harbor to the southeast kept my view clear. Even the ships on the south side of the harbor were distant enough that their silhouettes weren’t worth complaining about. On my laptop was the NASA Wallops website, from which I was trying to squeeze a flight-status update. The launch window this night was from midnight to 3 a.m.

As the minutes ticked away, I worried that NASA would delay the launch for the third night in a row. I waited, but I am not a patient person. Tolerant? Sure. Patient? Not even close. Less than an hour passed before I gave up and drove home to get some sleep. I found out the next day that the launch was indeed delayed. A few days later, I discovered something else: I wasn’t alone in my eagerness to see the launch.

Three things made the launch worth watching. First, they’re rockets. Second, all five rockets were launching in the same direction from the same location about 80 seconds apart. Third — and this is the biggest attraction — when the rockets reached an altitude of 50 miles, they’d release trimethylaluminum (TMA), a liquid that reacts with oxygen. The result being a trail of glowing whiteness dozens of miles long near the East Coast. I didn’t want to miss it.

By the way, NASA would like you not to worry about trimethylaluminum. After it reacts with oxygen, all that’s left are aluminum oxide, carbon dioxide and water vapor, all of which occur naturally in the atmosphere.

Anyway, the participating rockets, between 20 and 25 feet long, are sounding rockets, named such because “to sound” means “to take measurements.” Just as mariners used to drop a weighted rope off the side of a ship to sound the water’s depth, scientists now use rockets to sound the atmosphere and space.

More than two years in the making, the five-rocket mission is called ATREX for Anomalous Transport Rocket EXperiment. Miguel Larsen, a physicist and professor of physics at Clemson University in South Carolina, is principal investigator for the ATREX experiment, through which he’s trying to understand a difficult layer of atmosphere. At an altitude of around 60 miles, right on the edge of space, the winds are whipping along at 200 to 300 mph and researchers don’t quite understand what’s going on. “The key question in this experiment is the nature of the turbulence,” Larsen said. “There’s a coherent movement…a coherent flow. What we don’t know is why it’s there. Why at this height, these high speed winds?”

ATREX is the latest in an ongoing effort to understand what’s over our heads. Since 1958, researchers have sent more than 500 rockets into the sky to release glowing gas and other tracers to better understand how the atmosphere flows at different altitudes. But this is the first time anyone has released a tracer from five rockets flying at the same time, Larsen said. Even more important, he said, is that this is the first time a series of rockets are flown along the same path at the same time to blanket such a large area of the upper atmosphere’s high speed layer.

The experiment is like dripping dye in a stream to observe the turbulence of the water. Squirting dye from one bottle might tell you something about one part of the stream, but when you get five people lined up in the river, each with their own bottle of dye, you can send a curtain of dye downstream and see the larger, more telling patterns of flow.

NASA put together a video about the mission, with cool graphics, a narrator, and music that sets the mood like it’s a futuristic military mission-briefing in a video game, only better because it’s about science. Check it out here.

By releasing a glowing chemical across hundreds of miles near high-altitude winds and recording the flow of the glow with cameras in North Carolina, Virginia and New Jersey, Larsen hopes to understand what’s happening and why. But if the sky is cloudy, the ground-based cameras can’t see the glow. Hence the launch cancellations.

On that note I’ll come clean. I didn’t go back out the next night to wait for the launch. Or the next night. I couldn’t keep staying up late to stand outside and stare at the sky. I was pretty sure my homework wasn’t going to do itself, and I wasn’t willing to confirm it the hard way. So I started forgetting about the launch. The rockets screamed into the sky around 5 a.m. March 27. I found out about it later that day from a Washington Post update on Facebook.

But a bunch of other East Coast folks saw it. If you watch the launch video, you’ll hear a voice in the control center reporting that people from Connecticut down to North Carolina saw the rockets, the glow, or both. But the launch was at 5 a.m.! Who were these people? Turns out Larsen knows who they are because he heard from some of them before launch. “Some were casual observers who were just hoping for a good photograph,” he said. “Some were amateur astronomers who were interested in more detailed information about the location and timing of the releases.” Others were atmospheric researchers, or simply people (like me) interested in the light display, Larsen said.

But I wasn’t the only one who missed the experience. As the experiment’s primary researcher, Larsen was stuck in the Wallops control center. “Really, all we get to see is on TV, on video monitors.” Larsen describes his seat as the “worst place to watch a launch.” But he was in it for the science, not the spectacle, and it sounds like he found what he was sounding for. When I heard from Larsen March 30, he said, “Everything went well, as far as we can tell so far.” The rockets, the payloads, and the ground-based equipment all performed as hoped, he said. Digesting the data will take time, though, because Larsen and his team plan to create a three-dimensional model of each glowing trail. For now, the preliminary results look good, he said. “There was quite a bit of turbulent structure evident in the trails, which is also what we were hoping for.”

Well, at least someone saw what they hoped to see. I guess I’ll keep checking the NASA Wallops Flight Facility website for the next launch. After all, not every rocket leaves Wallops at 5 a.m. Or maybe I’ll just have to start getting along with less sleep. Might be worth it to see some rockets make the sky glow.

Mad Rant: Outer Space

Photo by Jay R. Thompson, taken Saturday, March 10, 2012, in Baltimore, Maryland.

Ask me to draw a diagram of a two-loop pressurized-water nuclear reactor and I can probably do it — I love to draw and it’s been a while since I tested myself on basic reactor layout. But understanding the fundamental design of nuclear reactors is simple compared to describing my enthusiasm for outer space.

I’m one of those who want our species to explore the emptiness, populate the solar system, and eventually wander the galaxy. But that’s not the enthusiasm I’m talking about. My adoration of the great beyond is simpler, and yet I can’t find a container in which to put that adoration so as to carry it around and show to others. I’m just geeked that outer space exists at all and that we’re a part of it, composed of its fused particles.

To me, the fascination seems obvious. I’ve tried more than once to put this feeling into words, and have achieved consistent and complete failure. The response is usually a raised eyebrow or something like it. Words fail me, or maybe I fail the words. Regardless, I’m going to take another shot at articulating my glee, or whatever it is. Hang on, let me put on my seatbelt and crash helmet. Right then, off we go.

So space is there, several dozen miles above your head, but so what? Humans have been there and back. No biggie. Space is nothing new. In fact, it’s the least new thing ever. Space has been out there (and here, for that matter) as long as time has existed, and I’m not trying to be hyperbolic or poetic about it. Time and space seemingly arrived on the scene at the same time. Maybe I should shrug and put on some fashionable air of “been there, done that.” But it would go against my very nature.

You may have noticed lately that two stars dominate the western sky shortly after sundown. They’re the planets Jupiter and Venus, the bright objects you saw in the photo at the top of this post. But which is which? Go ahead and guess. You might guess that the brighter one (bottom right) is Jupiter and the dimmer one is Venus.

Here, I’ll give you a clue. This is a close-up of the planet in the upper left of the photo:

Notice anything? Those little specks lined up near the planet are the four largest Jovian moons. From top to bottom they are Europa, Io, and Ganymede, with Callisto barely visible below Ganymede. That means this planet, the dimmer of the two, is Jupiter. If you want to double-check my interpretation of the image, see page 38 in the March issue of Astronomy.

Jupiter is more than twice the mass of all the other planets in our solar system combined, but its orbit is also 483 million miles from Earth’s orbit. That’s 18 times farther away from Earth than the orbit of our next-door neighbor, Venus. Hence, Jupiter is the dimmer of the two.

You can look up and see these things and so what? They’re just a couple of planets. What’s the big deal?

Jupiter, Venus and their brethren aren’t just points of blurry light. They’re three-dimensional worlds composed of the same stuff as our own. They’re planets, huge spheres of matter, entire worlds that no Earthling has ever visited. They just float there, out of reach, perpetual mysteries. Some have their own earthquakes, volcanoes, or lakes. Others have wind and storms, while others have no atmosphere whatsoever. The planets in our solar system have been there for billions of years, the only witnesses to the entire history of our solar system.

Even when the sun is up and the sky cloudless, the blue is only a veil, behind which the ultimate dynamo — the universe — continues to crank along as it has for all time. In a way, these worlds (and everything beyond) are reassuring. Being human if often frustrating and scary, but the worlds, the solar system and the universe don’t need anyone to mind the store. We can disappear, and everything will be fine. Our neighboring planets are just there, indifferent and presumably lifeless.

When I look up, I don’t really see the points of light that my eyes see. I see huge islands among emptiness. I see the forever-baking surface of Venus, Jupiter’s 60-plus moons whirring about, the Oort Cloud, the galaxies with solar systems of their own. Outer space is the place of mysteries, with room for the mind to ponder the strangest ideas imaginable.

Oh dear, I’ve failed again. Maybe I need a different medium. Poetry? Song? Modern interpretive dance? Maybe someday.

In the mean time, what do you think about when you look up at the stars? What is outer space, or the universe, to you?

Bird on a wire — no, a pole, a tree, a sign…

In December my sweetheart and I embarked on a road-trip to visit family. Our route made a triangle whose sides add up to about 1,800 miles — from Baltimore to Traverse City, to Indianapolis, and back to Baltimore. The trip was pretty uneventful…except for the birds.

This winter has been remarkably mild in the Midwest, and Beth (the sweetheart I mentioned) and I saw little snow or rain on our trip, which meant no white-knuckled driving or low visibility. So we just plugged in the iPod, put it on shuffle, looked out the windows and caught up on all the conversations we’ve been too busy to have or too preoccupied to think about. Great conditions for spotting something strange in the landscape.

My parents live on a small lake near Traverse City. If you hold out your left hand, with your palm facing away, you’re looking at a basic map of Michigan’s lower peninsula (they call it “The Mitten” for a reason). Traverse City is in that little nook between your pinky and ring fingers. At my parents’ place, depending on the season, we see hummingbirds, seagulls, a crazy-huge woodpecker once in a while, a bunch of bird-feeder types, and an endless parade of ducks and ducklings. This winter brought a shocker though.

Beth and I had spent a couple days at my parents’ place and were about to drive down to my brother’s place near Indianapolis. But as I was making my final “pitstop” before getting in the car, Beth came and found me, saying there was an owl outside. We went up to the second floor, where my parents were looking out their bedroom window. Down below, standing in the snow on the edge of Lake Leelanau, was a snowy owl.

Weeks later, National Public Radio would run a story about how snowy owls were being sighted all over the place. All I knew was that I’d never seen an owl in the wild. The National Zoo in D.C. has some charming specimens (one locked eyes with me and tracked me as I moved around the room — my black plastic frames look remarkably similar to the owl’s coloring…) and I met a few owls face to face at the Maryland State Fair a couple years ago, but this was different. This was a wild bird, a huge bird with white feathers and yellow eyes. It was difficult to comprehend, or even to see. From the upstairs window, we were only about 70 feet away at most, but there was so much white from the snow and the feathers that it was hard to process just where the bird ended and the snow began.

Exciting, but the drive to Indy would take seven hours. We had to get going. Beth and I hit the road southbound. As we neared the Indiana border, I probably shouted “bird of prey!” Beth was driving at the time and I’m not sure where she finds patience for my behavior. I guess she’s come to expect the outbursts.

The bird I’d spotted became a speck in the rear view mirror, so we went back to chatting about whatever. A few minutes later, we saw another perched on a branch about halfway up a tree right by the highway. Less than five minutes after that, Beth spotted a bird of prey on the guardrail in the median. It was getting weird, I took out my camera and attached the zoom lens. I had a hard time getting a good photo through road-trip filthy windows and moving at highway speed, but the birds kept on coming.

For the next few hours, we saw these same birds every five to 30 minutes. On I-94, the birds perched on street lamps near Michigan City and Gary. On I-65, we saw them perched atop billboards. At least twice, we saw two together on a tree. They were brown, with white breast-feathers. My fascination with birds is a relatively new thing, so I’ve yet to make time to learn about them. Beyond cardinals, blue jays, cowbirds or doves, I can usually only recognize whether it’s bird of prey versus a songbird. This one we’d have to just look up later using the photos, and we had plenty of photo ops.

But why along the highway and why so many? Most, not all, were perched on the highway side of the tree rather than away from the highway where they would have a view of the farm fields. Why? I lived in Indiana for nine years, and Michigan for at least half as long, but I’d never seen predatory birds line the highways like that. By the time we arrived near Indy, I’d forgotten about the snowy owl in Traverse City.

The next morning, after some time with my brother and his family, Beth and I set out for the East Coast. I drove and Beth manned the camera. She’s the better photographer, so she got the best photo:

We saw the birds through Indiana and Ohio, and a few in West Virginia, but by Pennsylvania and Maryland, they dropped off to nil, which was disappointing because Beth and I were then left reflecting on how tired we were of being in a car. Still, I was hung up on the question: what was up with these birds?

Days later, I got in touch with Cheryl Dykstra, editor of the Journal of Raptor Research, and described the birds and where they were perched. Dykstra didn’t seem shocked at the number of sightings or the birds’ location. Most of the birds were “almost certainly” red-tailed hawks, Dykstra said. Maybe a few rough-legged hawks and red-shouldered hawks in the mix, she said. Apparently, hawks are all about hyphens. But what were they doing near the road?

“They perch facing the highway because foraging is probably better in the short mown grass along the highway than elsewhere — likely they can see the small mammals running through the short grass more easily,” Dykstra said. “So the edges of highways may be quite attractive to them.”

That’s it. Nothing abnormal about the hawks perched where they were. But Beth and I will still go on hawk-alert next time we’re on the road. Now that we know they’re out there, it’ll be impossible not to look for them. If we’re not willing to pull over and take a decent photo, then why bother? I don’t know. Nature is my brain candy, and spotting a hawk anywhere or anytime tastes pretty sweet. If Beth enjoys the flavor as well and we’re stuck in a car together, all the better.