Post Card from Space

NASA space suit, Kennedy Space Center

I’m not really in space, but after a day immersed in a NASA facility, I can say it won’t be long before humans will be sending digital post cards to their Earthling loved ones from space.

 

This week I visited the Kennedy Space Center on the Atlantic coast of Florida near Cape Canaveral. I am looking forward to sharing with you the marvels of the center, as well as the man-made miracles of space travel.

 

For now, I’m visiting with family, enjoying boat rides, beach walks and bird walks, laughter and good times.

 

I had forgotten the Atlantic coast’s long, distinctive flat stretches of white sand beaches and warm water. I’m more accustomed to the lovely Pacific beaches with craggy coastlines and water so cold it numbs your feet.

 

We have seen alligators and a manatee, plenty of marsh wading birds. The sharp call of a blue  jay, a familiar sound I grew up with but never hear in California, greets me every morning.

 

Sending best wishes for sweet moments this weekend….

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photo by Athena Alexander.

 

Sea Jellies

Purple-striped Jelly

Jellyfish, or sea jellies, can be found in waters all around the world, but they are primarily translucent and difficult to see. For a good look at them, a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium is rewarding.

 

Highly regarded around the world, the Monterey Bay Aquarium houses 35,000 animals of over 550 species. The Aquarium is also prominent in research and commitment toward ocean protection and public awareness.

 

Monterey Bay Aquarium Wikipedia

 

Spotted Comb Jelly

 

Black Sea Nettles

 

They have many exhibits with sea creatures, and about a dozen tanks filled with different kinds of sea jellies. (The term “jellyfish” has officially been replaced by “sea jellies” because jellies do not have spines and are therefore not fish. I use the terms interchangeably here.)

 

Sea jellies are gelatinous invertebrates and 95% water, and appear almost invisible in the underwater world. To aid with viewing, the aquarium tank backgrounds are blue and illuminated by side lights.

 

You can see in this photo what a sea jelly (center) in the San Francisco Bay really looks like — ghostly and almost imperceptible.

Sea Jelly in San Francisco Bay, Tiburon Harbor

 

Sea jellies require currents for locomotion. In public aquariums,  there is a complex system for water flow, with precise inflow and outflow.

 

Sea Gooseberry Jelly

 

According to World Atlas, there are more than 2,000 species of jellyfish in the world, and it is thought that there are over 300,000 species yet to be discovered.

 

The sea nettles and purple-striped jellies photographed here are found along California’s Pacific coast. They are highly efficient in their movement, using muscles in their umbrella-shaped bell to propel; this is also where the mouth and digestive system exist.

Purple-striped Jelly pair

Tentacles are the long stringy body parts, and have stinging cells, or nematocysts, that sting their prey. The “arms” are frilly extensions, and move the prey to the mouth.

 

Jellyfish anatomy. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

It is a marvelous experience to observe this exhibit…mesmerizing. A dark room with colorful, glowing cases filled with exotic sea jellies. Soft music accompanies as we watch the jellies rhythmically pulse and propel throughout the illuminated tanks.

 

Jelly Live Web Cam at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

 

But . . . if you have ever been stung by a jellyfish, and I have, you don’t forget the sting, no matter how attractive and enticing the jellies appear.

 

The first time, Athena and I were snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef when we came upon eight or ten sea turtles in one small area. Usually you see one or two turtles, but here we were thrilled to find so many.

 

When we swam respectfully near, we found ourselves in massive clouds of sea jellies. Each jellyfish was the size of a large coin, and there were thousands. The turtles, we realized too late, were there to eat the jellyfish.

 

Stung instantly and by the dozens, we shot out of that cloud like rockets. Came to the surface, stunned. Even so, we both laughed then and there, because the experience was so atrociously the opposite of what we had expected.

 

Within 24 hours the bites had disappeared; and thereafter underwater garments were purchased.

 

Most jellyfish stings are not deadly, but a few species can produce stings fatal to humans.

 

Usually I prefer seeing creatures in the wild, over observing them in an exhibit. But in the case of sea jellies, I think these other-worldly and sting-free exhibits are just the ticket.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Black Sea Nettles

 

Winged Creatures of Trinidad

 

Purple Honeycreeper (male), Trinidad

Trinidad is not the most popular island in the Caribbean. Many people have never even heard of it. But for those of us who embrace the glory of the natural rainforest and all the creatures who live in it, it is a paradise.

 

Here are some of my favorite winged creatures, found while spending a week on this small island eight miles (12 km) off the Venezuela coast. Trinidad Wikipedia.

 

A visit to the Caroni Swamp yielded many thousands of scarlet ibis. They flock to this protected swamp at night to roost. We sat in a boat and waited for them as the sun set.

Scarlet Ibis, Caroni Swamp, Trinidad

Red mangroves

Caroni Swamp, Trinidad

 

In the rainforest, nectar-drinking birds like hummingbirds and honeycreepers were plentiful.

Asa Wright Nature Centre

Tufted Coquette hummingbird, male, Trinidad

 

Green Honeycreeper, male, Trinidad

 

We were fortunate to see the rare oilbirds. There are only a few places left in the world where these nocturnal birds can still be found. They use echolocation, or sound reverberation, for navigating — a system that bats use, but not usually birds.

 

We hiked to a specific protected cave, escorted by a guide, and because they are so skittish, we were allowed only a few minutes to peer into the darkness for them.

 

They squeal like pigs and are large, hawk-size birds.

Oilbirds, Dunston Cave, Trinidad

 

Bats were also abundant in the Trinidad rainforest. One day in the middle of the day when the sun was brightest, a white bat came fluttering down the trail, pretty close to our heads. Athena and I had gotten lost in the forest, I think we had surprised the bat…as much as a white bat in the daytime surprised us.  It’s whiteness lent the essence of a ghost.

 

But it was every evening when we saw bats in abundance. We stayed at the Asa Wright Nature Centre, where wildlife are protected and celebrated. We found a crevice under the lodge where 100+ long-tongued bats came flocking out every night.

Pallas’ long-tongued bat, Trinidad

 

Long-tongued bats, Asa Wright Centre, Trinidad

 

Typical of the tropics, many species of flycatchers, trogons, and tanagers greeted us daily.

Silver-beaked Tanager, Trinidad

 

The bearded bellbird was difficult to spot in the rainforest, despite the loud croaking sound it made all day long.

Bearded Bellbird, singing; Trinidad

 

Numerous species of hawks were present. This white hawk was hunting beside the trail.

White Hawk, Trinidad

 

The jacamar was a thrill to find, a small and colorful bird about the size of a hummingbird.

Rufous-tailed Jacamar

 

There are over 400 species of birds on this one little island; and approximately 100 indigenous mammal species, with bats accounting for over half of the mammals.

 

I’m glad you could join me in this glimpse of their tropical world.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Scarlet ibis roosting, Caroni Swamp, Trinidad

Islands in the Caribbean Sea. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

 

Wine Country Autumn

Wine grapes

In Northern California it is early autumn and it is unfolding beautifully. We are experiencing cool nights in the 40s F. (4 C.), occasionally in the 30s (-1 C.). Days are warm when the sun shines…and it almost always does. About 75 F. (23 C.).

 

One of the biggest events right now is the grape harvest. Wine grapes are harvested at different times, depending on many things; but many are picked in the early fall before the rainy season arrives.

 

Large trucks labor up and down the small highways bearing big open boxes of grapes. Most of us have spent our share of time patiently sitting behind these slow-moving trucks on impassable roads. I use that time to look at the sun glistening on each purple jewel.

Bewick’s Wren on grape vine, California

The wine harvest attracts many visitors to the area, lured by the slick marketing of vineyards with their festive “stomps”, release parties, and energized tours. I drove through Napa County yesterday and counted six hot air balloons languidly suspended overhead, another popular tourist draw in autumn.

 

Every weekend there are animated harvest celebrations going on with gourmet food, live music, and free-flowing wine.

 

Other harvesting that goes on here, to a far lesser extent, are apples and pumpkins. I also see persimmons and figs on trees.

 

Persimmons on tree, California

Local Farmer’s markets have tables piled high with colorful peppers of all kinds, table grapes, heirloom tomatoes, and plums. The waning summer harvests are still yielding green beans, zucchini, cherry tomatoes, eggplants. Squash are coming out now, too.

 

Squash

 

We have had two short rains recently, so the autumn dry grass is not quite as intimidating as in past years. The anniversary of the raging 2017 wildfires is next week, and we are frequently reminded that we’ve now entered “Fire Season.” We hope for rain and work on ways to protect our families and homes.

 

Wildlife is shifting at this time of year, with the bird migration underway. A few species are coming in to settle here for the winter, and more will arrive as the temperatures up north cool.

 

I await the arrival of the sandhill cranes, due in about a month, if we get rain.

 

Sandhill cranes with red-winged blackbirds

 

Other birds like hawks and warblers are passing through from the northern parts of the continent as they travel to their summer homes in Mexico, Central and South America.

 

I’ve seen numerous flocks of swifts and waxwings in the past few days.

Healdsburg chimney and Vaux’s swifts

 

Cedar Waxwing

 

Due to the hot days, the reptiles can still be seen during the day when it’s warm. I saw a snake track on my morning walk yesterday, and was reminded of the thick rattlesnake I almost stepped on recently on the same path.

 

Lizards skitter as always in the heat, but now there are many little ones, smaller than my pinkie.

 

Chipmunks, squirrels, and jays are busy burying acorns, and woodpeckers are boisterous and frequent in the oaks. Several acorns fell out of the blue oaks above me this morning, acorn woodpeckers are on the move.

 

Tall grass is blonde and beautiful. The soil is so dry it is powder. Deciduous trees are starting to lose their leaves.

 

Other than the scent of dry vegetation, the distinct and common smell of vinegar is in the air. As the grapes are being picked and processed, the smell of freshly crushed grapes and fermentation are pungent. You can smell it everywhere in the valleys.

 

Both the big wineries and the small boutique wineries are bustling. Residents who grow and make their own wine have purple-stained fingers. This is a small grape press of a neighbor’s.

 

Grape Press with sides removed

 

I breathe in the smell of “the crush” with great reverence, and fervently hope we will be spared the wildfires this year.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Camera Obscura on Wheels

Camera Obscura Front View

I found another Camera Obscura this past summer. We were driving down Highway 1 and happened to see it beside the road. Stopped the car immediately. I never miss an opportunity to steal away from the real world and escape into a Camera Obscura.

 

This one is a mobile unit, and was parked at Russian House #1, a restaurant where the Pacific Ocean and the Russian River meet in Jenner, California.

 

From the outside it looks like a psychedelic tool-shed. The inside is small, but has all the essential ingredients: completely dark with a parabolic screen, a tiny ray of light, and the rotating lens and mirror on top. I found it charming and curious, and appreciated the ingenuity it took to build it. It rests sturdily on a small flatbed trailer, with steps built for visitors.

 

Camera Obscura Side View

 

Camera Obscura Lens

 

Camera Obscura means “dark chamber” in Latin. They date back centuries; and are the original idea behind the pinhole camera, where light passes through a pinhole and provides an inverted image in a dark chamber.

 

The oval photos are what we saw from the inside of the unit. These are real time images, as reflected by the lens onto the oval concave screen.

Camera Obscura Screen Photo of Russian River and Bridge

 

And this is the wheel, inside, that you turn, moving the lens for 360 degree views.

Crank for Turning Outside Lens

 

As we hand-cranked the lens, the Russian River, bridge with passing cars, and restaurant appeared on the screen.

 

There are 23 public Camera Obscuras listed as existing in the world today. In addition, there are private ones. This one we came upon is both. The owner, Chris de Monterey, built it and owns it; he transports it and shares it with the public.

 

Camera Obscuras date back to the 5th Century, B.C. Over the centuries, scientists, scholars, and artists studied the phenomenon. By the 18th century, it had become a resource for education and entertainment. Then photography pioneers built portable Camera Obscuras, and the camera was born.

 

As portable cameras became popular, the Camera Obscuras fell out of fashion, and most were demolished. Fortunately there are still some in the world.

 

Camera Obscura Wikipedia — including the list of Camera Obscuras with public access.

 

In San Francisco there is a Camera Obscura: The Giant Camera, on Ocean Beach behind the Cliff House. It was built in 1946 and is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

 

I’ve been here dozens of times, and taken many loved ones here as well.

 

I wrote about it in a previous post:  Camera Obscura San Francisco.

 

San Francisco Camera Obscura

Camera Obscura, San Francisco

Camera Obscura, San Francisco

 

I have seen another one at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, but it’s always been closed when I’ve gone there. The Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles also has one; there are about two dozen open to the public around the world. A list of their locations is provided in the Wikipedia link above.

 

Today we all walk around, rather cavalierly, with a telephone/computer/camera in our back pocket.

 

I suppose one day our back-pocket-phone devices will become quaint antiques, too.

 

But for now, we can take pleasure in all the different versions of any sized device that records the beauty and magic of our surroundings.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexanader.

More info:

The Magic Mirror of Life, a website about the world’s Camera Obscuras by Jack and Beverly Wilgus.

 

 

Cruising the Columbia River Gorge

Columbia River Gorge

Located in the United States Pacific Northwest, the Columbia River is the largest river in this region; fourth largest, by volume, in the United States. We enjoyed a two-hour cruise on this historic waterway last month.

 

This is the vessel we were on.

Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler

 

About an hour’s drive east of Portland, between the border of Oregon and Washington, the Columbia River Gorge is a unique 100-mile section of the river.

Columbia River Gorge, Bridge of the Gods in center

More info:

Columbia River – Wikipedia

Columbia River Gorge – Wikipedia

 

The river is very wide, and the water is both roiling and sparkling.

 

We didn’t see many pleasure-craft boats here, no doubt because of the fierce winds; but every day we saw windsurfers and hydrofoil surfers. It’s known as the Windsurfing Capital of the World.

Wind surfers, Columbia River Gorge

 

Hydrofoil Surfer, Columbia River Gorge

Atmospheric pressure conditions within the Cascade Mountains create a wind-tunnel effect in the Gorge, regularly producing 35-mile-per-hour (56 km/h) winds.

 

The Columbia River has been a crucial corridor in North America for centuries, providing westward passage that avoids perilous mountain treks.

 

It is 1,243 miles (2,000 km) long, starting in the Canadian Rockies. It cuts west through the Cascade Mountain Range, empties into the Pacific Ocean.

Map of Columbia River

Map of Columbia River. Courtesy Google.

 

In 1803, President Jefferson commissioned the Lewis and Clark Expedition to explore the western territory of the country. Also known as the Discovery Corps, they travelled the Columbia River to the coast, and again on their return trip.

 

Oregon Historical Society Essay on the Lewis and Clark Expedition

 

In the 1800s this Gorge section of the Columbia River was raging. It was rocky and turbulent, with precipitous drops.

 

Lewis and Clark, in their dugout canoes, journeyed through the treacherous Gorge. They recorded the Gorge as a “…great number of both large and small rocks, water passing with great velocity forming and boiling in a horrible manner, with a fall of about 20 feet” (October 30- November 1, 1805).

 

The rapids then were ferocious, later estimated to be Class V–violent, risky, and dangerous.

 

It was so dangerous that the resident Native Americans never took boats through this section. In fact, they came by the hundreds to watch the crazy explorers navigating their canoes through here.

 

In some places of the Gorge, the Corps would portage around the rapids; i.e. transport their vessels and gear over land.

 

Fast-forward over a century; locks and dams were built in this section. Today the Bonneville Dam has tamed the waters, and uses the river’s energy for hydroelectric purposes.

 

Bonneville Dam and Beacon Rock, Columbia River

 

Roads and railroad tracks have been built on both sides of the river, still utilizing the river’s path for passage to the coast.

Freight train bisecting through center of photo, beside the Columbia River

 

And tourists like us ride on a triple-decker 119-foot paddle wheeler, a replica riverboat built in the 1980s. The Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler is propelled by two internal diesel engines; and has a single paddle wheel on the stern (rear), and a large, flat bottom.

Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler paddle

 

We watched an osprey on its nest.

 

Lewis and Clark spotted California Condors here.

Osprey with nest on the Columbia River

 

Native Americans have fishing nets and platforms along the water’s edge. They catch salmon and other fish here, like their ancestors did centuries ago.

Fishing Platform, Columbia River

 

This small island is where the Lewis and Clark Discovery Corps camped.

Lewis and Clark Island

 

Thanks for joining me on the Columbia River Gorge, yesterday and today. A wild and wonderful place.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander except aerial photo, below.

Corps-engineers-archives bonneville dam looking east.jpg

Columbia River Gorge aerial at Bonneville Dam. Courtesy Wikipedia, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

 

Blue-colored Friends

Ulysses Butterflies on Lantana, Australia. Photo: A. Alexander

If any of my friends in the Northern Hemisphere are feeling a little blue about the waning of summer, here is a panoply of blue wildlife to uplift your spirits.

 

Blue-gray Tanager, Peru

 

Blue-footed Booby, Galapagos. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Costa Rica. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Though there are many birds with blue, there are also insects and reptiles, and even a monkey.

 

Bluet Damselfly, Nevada. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Butterfly, Ecuador. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Western fence lizards have a bright blue belly.

Western Fence Lizard, California. Photo: A. Alexander

 

This skink we see in California has a dazzling tail.

 

Skink, California

 

The blue monkey. Not as blue as some of its fellow blue-named creatures, but a beauty nonetheless.

Blue Monkey, Lake Manyara, Tanzania, Africa

 

Birds this blue sometimes blend into the greenery; but I have spotted them from far across an opposite ridge…gasping from behind my binoculars, such stunning beauty.

 

Blue Dacnis, Peru. Photo by B. Page

 

We found these blue-headed parrots at a river bank in the Amazon. They were busy extracting minerals from the clay soil.

 

Blue-headed Parrots, Peru. Photo: A. Alexander

 

The color blue is a bit complicated when it comes to nature. Peacock feathers, for example, are actually pigmented brown, but their microscopic structure, through light reflection, expresses blues and greens.

 

Indian Peacock, Texas. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Birdnote.org explains it well:

“Unlike many other bird colors, blue is not a pigment but a color produced by the structure of the feathers. Tiny air pockets and melanin pigment crystals in each feather scatter blue light and absorb the other wavelengths. The even finer structure of the feather gathers the bouncing blue wavelengths together and directs them outward.”

 

I think the blue feathers on this Glossy Starling take scattering and bouncing blue wavelengths to a new high.

Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling, Africa

 

I’ve noticed some birds sporting blue always seem to be bright, like these two tanager species…

 

Blue-necked Tanager, Peru

 

Blue-winged Mountain Tanager, Ecuador. Photo: A. Alexander

 

… whereas other blue-pigmented birds can sometimes look gray or black, depending on the light.

Little Blue Heron, Belize

 

Mountain Bluebird, Wyoming

 

Great Blue Heron, Ding Darling, Florida

 

These blue-footed boobies are performing a mating dance. The blue pigmentation in their feet comes from carotenoids in their fresh fish diet. The bluer the feet, the more healthy the bird.

 

Blue-footed Boobies, Galapagos Islands. Photo: A. Alexander

 

A few more of my blue favorites.

Belted Kingfisher, California

 

Green Honeycreeper, male, Trinidad (called a Green Honeycreeper, but more like turquoise)

 

Azure Kingfisher, Australia

 

Turquoise Jay, Ecuador. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Southern Cassowary, Queensland, Australia. Photo: A. Alexander

 

How wonderful to have all these blues in the world–so much pigmentation or light or wavelengths or whatever…to celebrate.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted.

 

Western Bluebird, California