Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Venus / Jupiter Conjunction

Venus (lower) and Jupiter (higher) less than three degrees apart in the evening sky.
Wasn't feeling 100% last night but just had to photograph the Venus / Jupiter conjunction. Last night and tonight, the sky's brightest (Venus) and second-brightest (Jupiter) planets will be about 0.3 degrees apart -- less than the apparent width of a full moon, which also occurred last night. They are easy to find, just look west after sunset. Venus is lower and brighter, and binoculars will easily show you four of Jupiter's moons lit up as well.

 A single tree prevented this alignment while the osprey was awake, and the bird was sleeping when I could finally align the nest with Venus and Jupiter. I set the exposure for four seconds but held my hands over the front of my lens for the first three so shutter vibrations would dampen on my shaky tripod. Still a little blurry, oh well. Just being outside and witnessing the event was well worth half a pint of blood that the mosquitoes extracted as payment.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Family Fledge

Wild bird numbers peak this time of year, when the youngsters leave the nest and head out into the big, wide world. A pair of hairy woodpeckers nested in our yard this summer, and the juveniles just fledged a few days ago. The first chick practically falls out while watching a nuthatch. The next two go for it with a leap, but the third chick misses the branch and lands in the lichen instead. All made it away safely.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Batty Aurora

Batty aurora (c) John Ashley

Batty aurora (c) John Ashley
Foraging bats during aurora
This morning's geomagnetic storm was just a dull green arc until about 2 a.m., then colors and shimmering ramped up for about an hour. Meanwhile, I was entranced by the sound of wing beats from 10-20 bats foraging over the water close to me. These images are a combination of several frames of long exposures for the aurora with a flash pop for the bats at the beginning of each exposure. A calm night at Island Lake in northwestern Montana.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Birds & Bees 101

HOW TO BECOME A GROUSE FATHER. Practice your strut before she arrives. Add a dash of color to your wardrobe (lots of ladies like red). Clap twice to get her attention. Eat your vegetables. Be patient while she bathes, try not to stare. It's a good sign if she ignores you. Go slow. No, slower. If you're really handsome, you're going to ruffle her feathers. If she runs away, return to step one. Repeat.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Great-horned Owl Family

Juvenile great-horned owl (c) John Ashley
Juvenile great-horned owl fresh out of her nest
Now that they're no longer tied to a nest, the great-horned owl family has faded back into the forest -- as owls are wont to do. I haven't been able to find any of them this week. Owl plumage resembles tree bark and blends them in with the tree trunks and limbs so that they can rest during daylight. Otherwise songbirds will discover and mob the owls, which makes it rather hard to sleep. When the juveniles first left the nest, they'd perch out in the open (right). But there was always at least one adult standing guard nearby who would give a territorial call to ward off any approaching ravens or eagles.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Wild Geraniums in Bloom

Sticky geranium (c) John Ashley

Summer is showtime for sticky geranium (Geranium viscosissimum), the most common of our nine native geraniums in western Montana, and a close cousin to your domestic plants. Geranium comes from the Greek word, "geranos," which means crane and refers to the plant's long, beak-like fruit. And "viscosissimum" means sticky, referring to glandular hairs on leaf and stem surfaces. Watch for these bright flowers in low to mid-elevation grassy areas. And if you get down on hands and knees, you might just spot a froghopper as well...

Monday, June 15, 2015

Harriet Watching and Waiting

(c) John Ashley
Harriet on her nest, watching and waiting for a new mate

Harriet is Montana's internet sensation. She also happens to be an osprey. Her nest stands high above a horse corral at the Dunrovin Ranch in Lolo, and a live web camera shares Harriet's daily trials and triumphs with fans around the world. Like last summer when her mate was killed by a bald eagle, and this spring when she waited alone on her nest for a new male to arrive and win her over.

It was during this period when I showed up with my camera, while people around the planet anxiously wondered if Harriet would find a new mate. The universal themes of watching and waiting told Harriet's story, and I tried to illustrate this by silhouetting her with the star that measures and counts our days.

The world watched me from the ranch cam
I knew how to capture the image I saw in my mind's eye. What I didn't know was that, in addition to a few horses, people around the world were watching me from a second camera as I pointed a 500mm lens straight into the sun. The Dunrovin chat room lit up with questions about this crazy guy. But what they didn't know was that an astronomer's solar filter covered the front of my lens and protected my eyes. This filter only allows 1/100,000 of the sunlight to pass. I could only see darkness or sun, so I followed Harriet's shadow on its arc across the corral, and the horses would stop by from time to time to check on me.

Eventually, I captured the story-telling image I was hoping for -- Harriet watching and waiting from her nest. The photo is featured in this month's "Distinctly Montana" magazine, along with a nice article written by Suzanne Miller.

The story continues. Harriet finally found a new mate, Hal, and they're currently incubating a single egg. You can find Harriet and Hal's web cam at, and follow the news on their Facebook page, "Dunrovin Birds."

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Rocky Mountain Clearwing Moth

Rocky Mountain moth (c) John Ashley
The bee mimic is actually a Rocky Mountain moth
Floats like a butterfly, but doesn't sting like a bee. The Rocky Mountain clearwing MOTH ("Hemaris thetis") is a harmless, day-flying bee mimic. The adult moths nectar on flowers, including kinnikinnick and lupine species. But unlike bees, which land on the flowers to feed, clearwing moths hover while feeding. Their caterpillars specialize on honeysuckle and snowberry. Just over one month 'till 2015 National Moth Week, July 18-26!

Saturday, June 13, 2015

One Day on the Boulder River

Boulder River (c) John Ashley
The Boulder River at 8 a.m., 8 p.m. and 10 p.m.
The limestone bridge at Natural Bridge Falls collapsed in '88. But for most of the year, the water flows underground through a cave to emerge beneath what will probably become a future bridge. Sometimes, during high runoff, the river also pours through other caves and spills over the top to form a triple waterfall.

This is what happened last week after heavy rains fell on the area. But a few hater on that same day, the water level in the river dropped more than a foot, and the river reverted back to just one falls. That evening, Venus led Jupiter and Regulus (a star) towards the horizon at dusk (click to enlarge).

Teenage Goldeneyes

The goldeneyes are growing up fast in the wind and rain and heat. Their wings are still tiny but real feathers are starting to replace down on tails and bodies. They're also less clingy, paying less attention to mom -- i.e., teenagers.