Friday, September 7, 2007

Shooting Perseids in Armadillo Central

I went out to the Bamberger Ranch to do a bit of Perseid watching—and, with luck, photography—shortly after midnight on August 12th. Unfortunately, the peak of the shower was a day later, but on the plus side, the conditions were perfect when I went out, and the conditions for the peak were forecast to be partly cloudy.

Wanting a picturesque old windmill to include in the photos, and reasoning that the highest point on the ranch had to be a good vantage point, I headed-up to the area of the ranch known as the "red pens". As I bumped along the gravel road leading up there, I was surprised to be delayed by traffic. It was dark, squat, short, and moving at about one mile per hour. I could only see its back end. As it walked, there were flashes of light alternating right and left as the headlights reflected off of the light-colored pads of its feet. I couldn't figure-out what it was, but it plainly didn't consider pickup trucks to be among its natural enemies, and deference was due, since I was the one trespassing on its home (the approvals for my visit from the ranch staff, notwithstanding). Our encounter lasted several minutes before the critter veered off onto a trail through the several-foot-tall grass alongside the road. As it turned and vanished into the grass, I finally realized what I'd encountered: a porcupine. Somewhere in the back of my head I knew that they lived in these parts, but this was the first time I'd ever seen one.

Once the traffic let-up, I completed my journey to the windmill and began setting up my gear: camera, cable release, tripod, and a cheap, folding lounge chair that I'd acquired earlier in the day. I'd chosen a spot out in the grass that silhouetted the windmill against a slightly illuminated patch of sky, just to make sure that it showed-up clearly in the photos. With an f1.8, 20mm lens focused on infinity, and the camera set for 30 second, ISO 400 exposures, I locked-down the shutter release button on my cable release, and let the camera take back-to-back raw exposures for the next three hours, when the battery finally gave-out.

During that time, I laid out flat on the cheap lounge chair, relaxed, and did my best to watch the whole sky for meteors. The night was splendidly quiet, in a way that is still a little surprising to this city boy. But I hadn't picked that spot for its quiet, I had picked that spot (leaving aside the windmill for a moment) in the hope that the population of rio grande leopard frogs living in the circular concrete watering trough nearby would sing while I counted meteors. As I occasionally walked back to my truck for one thing or another, I could see them piled-up on the rebar cage that protects the float valve which is the center of their world, both literally and figuratively. I could also see them scattered here and there on the concrete lip of the trough, and floating at the surface of the water. I worried at first that I might frighten them all back into the water, but most of them just went about their regular business of sitting very still and staring at things. That regular business should also have included mating, and the prelude to that should have been singing, but apart from one tentative grunt, they were a complete disappointment. Maybe that bunch of frogs never does much singing; when your world is only about six feet in diameter, you may not need to sing in order to find a mate; you may not need to do anything at all.

One of those Rio Grande Leopard Frogs from a previous visit to the windmill

Though the frogs were a let-down, something out in the thick grass around me was making sounds from time to time, and it wasn't the crickets. No, this was something that made a sort of muted snort from time to time, a bit like something clearing its nose. The snorts always came from different locations, yet there was no sound of movement through the grass in-between snorts. It was a pleasant little mystery as I counted meteors and the camera clicked away the hours. In time, however, there was a snort from only about three feet away to one side, near where my camera bag sat, and the tripod was setup. That, I thought, ought to be something I can investigate, and ought to investigate before it blunders into the camera equipment. With a red-light flashlight, I illuminated the grass over on that side and saw nothing, but I soon noticed that at the foot of my lounge chair, there was a large armadillo nosing its way through the thick grass. Amazingly, to me, its progress through the grass was silent. Apart from the occasional snorts that I'd been listening to all night, it didn't make a sound. My armored acquaintance gave my chair a quick sniff, decided it was neither friend, nor foe, nor dinner, and continued on its way, seemingly completely indifferent to my presence. Apart from wishing that I'd had the foresight to stop at the grocery store and pickup a box of armadillo treats before heading out to the ranch, I was enormously pleased to have not just seen, but more-or-less met an armadillo – a species that most of my fellow Texans and I encounter exclusively as road kill.

It must be armadillo central up there, because variations on that encounter continued. In one case, I found an armadillo working the grass under the lounge chair I was laying on; in the red light of my flashlight, I saw it through the cheap, transparent vinyl of the chair. It looked up, gave the vinyl a sniff, then silently sauntered away into the grass. Before I gave up meteor watching that night, there were a total of four armadillo visitations.

But what of the meteors? I counted about 80 in the three plus hours before the camera's battery finally gave-out. I was dead tired by that time, but might have changed the battery and continued, had I not found that the lens had completely fogged-up with dew over the course of the previous hours. Fortunately, it turned out that the dew only ruined the last hour of photos, and I did catch a few meteors in the preceding time. I have yet to take my definitive meteor picture, but I did add one more photo to my tiny collection of almost-acceptable meteor shots, as you can see below. Click to see the larger version of the image; theses almost-acceptable meteors don't put on enough of a show to look good in thumbnails.

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