Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Comet 17P/Holmes

Have you heard about Comet 17P/Holmes? Tonight I brought out my Celestron 8” SCT and photographed the comet with my Nikon Coolpix 4500 (45 second exposure @ ISO 200). I didn't bother to polar align, so that's why the stars are streaked a little. The comet is presently located in the constellation Perseus, which can be found in the northeast sky after sunset. Look for the more familiar "W" of constellation Cassiopeia; Persus is just below. Use your binoculars and scan – you can't miss it! For the next few weeks 17/P Holmes will be heading toward the star Mirfak in Persus, so it should be pretty easy to find.

(click for larger version)

Comet 17P/Holmes image © 2007 Mike McDowell

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Monday, October 29, 2007

Sparrow's Home

This evening I went to visit a sparrow's home. As I write, the sun is well below the horizon and somewhere in the field the sparrow sleeps...I like thinking about that now. As I walked the trail, a few sentinel sparrows perched atop goldenrod and other browned prairie plants. All around their sweet calls sounded off. The fields are full of things to appreciate, absorb and photograph, but for the sparrows it's their shelter, sustenance and security.

The fields seem to belong to Common Yellowthroats during the summer breeding season. From now until early April, American Tree Sparrows will rely on them for survival. Every second of every minute, minutes and hours, for these next several months, these fields outside is where they'll be. When arctic air sends the mercury into minus digits, they will endure. The tree sparrows will be hunted by accipiters, shrikes and other predators – the injured or those suffering from failing health will be quickly taken.

Most of the other kinds of sparrows have left Pheasant Branch. There are still a few White-throated Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows, Fox Sparrows, but their numbers are rapidly decreasing as they head for fields of their own to the south. But behold the brave and hearty little sparrows that persist through the worst of what Wisconsin's winters can deliver. They might only be American Tree Sparrows, but they're among my favorite of all birds. I'm sure I'll be visiting again over December, January and February to check in on them.

Every so often I take a prairie souvenir home. They make great photographic subjects to adorn my blog posts with. Afterwards, I place them on my desk as to serve as a reminder and for inspiration. As it gets colder, my trips to Pheasant Branch will decrease. The outings are contemplative meditations of a sort and something I've found I really need. I'm amazed by how much I rely on the outdoors to sustain my overall sense of wellness. Last winter was tough, but I have reasons to hopeful this will be an easier one to endure.

I also wanted to extend a 'thank you' to those of you who have recently emailed me. I read every email I receive and appreciate the words, notes and feedback. Unfortunately, I don't always have time to respond and when I do I'm often a bit brief, or possibly even terse. I hope you understand. I'll keep the blog going as often as I can, and that's been my best way of communicating and sharing. The birds give to me, and I give them back to you.

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Windows Sounds and Logos Never Before Seen

I decided to make a version of this kind of thing.

Top 15 Most Famous Ghost Pictures Ever Taken

"The Brown Lady" of Raynham HallThis photo was taken in 1936 at Raynham Hall in Norfolk, England. This portraint of "The Brown Lady" is arguably the most famous and well-regarded ghost photograph ever taken. The ghost is thought to be that of Lady Dorothy Townshend, wife of Charles Townshend, 2nd Viscount of Raynham, residents of Raynham Hall in Norfolk, England in the early 1700s. It was rumored that Dorothy, before her marriage to Charles, had been the mistress of Lord Wharton. Charles suspected Dorothy of infidelity. Although according to legal records she was buried in 1726, it was suspected that the funeral was a sham and that Charles had locked his wife away in a remote corner of the house until her death many years later.

His Favorite ChairRemember how Archie Bunker liked his recliner so much that he never let anyone else sit in it? Well, ol' Archie doesn't have anything on Lord Combermere. After being ran over by a horse-drawn carriage he died in 1891. A photographer set up a camera with its shutter open for one hour in the manor's library while the entire staff was off at Lord Combermere's funeral, some four miles away. When the plate was developed, the startling image of what looks to be a man's head and arm sitting in the chair was immediately noticed. Many of the staff said that the image looked very much like the late lord, and it happened to be sitting in Combermere's favorite chair in the library.

Freddy Jackson's ComebackFreddy Jackson was a mechanic in the Royal Air Force in World War I. Freddy Jackson's squadron served onboard the H.M.S. Daedalus. Freddy Jackson was killed in 1919 when an airplane propeller hit him. Two days later when the squadron assembled for a group photo, Freddy Jackson faithfully showed up, grinning behind the ear of a fellow comrade. Guess nobody bothered to tell Freddy Jackson that he was dead. His face was widely recognized in this photo by members of the squadron.

Stair Case Ghost of National Museum, Greenwich, EnglandRev. Ralph Hardy, a retired clergyman from White Rock, British Columbia, took this now famous photograph in 1966. He intended merely to photograph the beautiful staircase in the Queen's House section of the National Museum in Greenwich, England. Upon development, however the photo revealed a shrouded figure climbing the stairs, seeming to hold the railing with both hands. Experts, including some from Kodak, who examined the original negative concluded that it had not been tampered with. Its been said that unexplained figures have been seen on occasion in the vicinity of the staircase, and unexplained footsteps have also been heard.

Darn Backseat Drivers!In 1959 Mable Chinnery went to the cemetery to visit the grave of her mother, as any devoted daughter is apt to do. She took some photos of the gravesite and then turned and took this picture of her husband sitting alone in the car's passenger seat. The film was developed and this came out: somebody sitting in the backseat wearing glasses, clear as day. Mrs. Chinnery swore that the "backseat driver" was none other than her own mother... whose gravesite she was standing next to when she took the picture! Hmmmm... a live husband and a deceased mother-in-law looking over his shoulder: there's a joke here, I just know it.

What Do You Want On Your Tombstone?Back in 1996 Ike Clanton took this photo of a friend wearing western duds, in the middle of Tombstone's Boothill Graveyard. They swear that nobody else was in sight when they made this picture. Furthermore, some time later they tried to restage this picture with someone standing at the spot where the "mystery man" appears in the background. Ike Clanton says that it was impossible to take such a picture and not show the rear person's legs. Clanton said he wasn't so sure about Tombstone being haunted, but this photo made a believer out of him. There's so much ghostly activity going on in the famous town that Clanton's set up a special section of his website dedicated to Tombstone's population of yesteryear. Well worth checking out, if nothing else than for the sense of history that this excellent website conveys.

Come On Baby, Light My Fire
Of all the ghost photos I've seen (well, except for that one that I can't show at the present time), this one is hands-down the most eerie. Probably the most disturbing too. I didn't know about this one until a few months ago. Almost ten years ago, on November 19th, 1995, Wem Town Hall in Shropshire, England was engulfed in flames and burned to the ground. As firefighters tried to stave off the inferno a town resident, Tony O'Rahilly, took pictures from across the street using a telephoto lens on his camera. There, rather clearly in one of the photos, is what looks very much to be a small girl standing in a doorway, with the brightness of the flames behind her. No one ever remembered there being a small girl present on scene, much less in that close a proximity to the fire. The photo and the original negative were turned over to a photo expert who decided that the picture was 100% authentic: "The negative is a straightforward piece of black-and-white work and shows no sign of having been tampered with." Okay, so what's a girl ghost doing in such a big fire? Well in 1677 a fire destroyed many of Wem’s wooden houses. The fire was said to have been caused by a 14-year old girl named Jane Churm, who had been careless with a candle. Churm died in the fire along with several others, and her ghost is said to still haunt the area. Whether there's such a thing as ghosts or not, it must be said: if this is just a trick, an illusion of smoke and fire that happened to be captured on film, it's a zillion-to-one coincidence that it just so happened to appear in the form of a girl who also died in a terrible fire at the same location. But hey, stranger things than that have happened in this world, right?

Ghost of Bachelor's Grove Cemetery, ChicagoThis photo was taken during an investigation of Bachelor's Grove Cemetery near Chicago by the Ghost Research Society(GRS). On August 10, 1991 several memeber of the GRS were at the cemetery, a small abandoned garveyard on the edge of the Rubio Woods Forest Preserve, near the suburb of Midlothian, Illinois. Reputed to be one of the most haunted cemeteries in the U.S., Bachelor's Grove has been the site of well over 100 different reports of strange phenomena, including apparitions, unexplained sights and sounds, and even glowing balls of light. When developed, this image emerged: what looks like a lonely looking young woman dressed in white sitting on a tombstone. Parts of her body her partially tranparent and the style of the dress seems to be out of date.

"And the sea gave up the dead which were in it..."I first saw this photo over twenty years ago. It was the first "ghost photo" I ever came across and it still wigs me out to look at it. In 1924 James Courtney and Michael Meehan, two crewmen of the tanker S.S. Watertown, were accidentally killed by gas fumes while cleaning a cargo tank. The crew of the Watertown - on its way to the Panama Canal from New York City – buried the two sailors at sea off the Mexican coast. That was on December 4th. On December 5th the first mate reported that the faces of Courtney and Meehan were appearing in the water off the port side of the ship. Over the next several days every member of the crew witnessed the faces appear and disappear, including the ship's captain. When he reported this to his supervisors after docking in New Orleans it was suggested that he try to photograph the faces. Captain Keith Tracy bought a camera and the ship was soon underway again. Sure enough, the faces appeared, and Tracy took six pictures, then secured the camera in the ship's vault. The camera was not removed until it was taken to a commercial developer after docking in New York City. Five of the photos showed nothing unusual, but the sixth clearly showed what was said to be the faces of the two dead crewmen. No evidence of forgery or tampering of the film was ever discovered. The faces stopped appearing after a new crew was brought aboard the Watertown.

The Newby Church MonkReverend K.F. Lord took a picture of the altar at his church in North Yorkshire, England (why are the GOOD ghosts always found in England?) and this is what came out. The picture and the negative are said to have been thoroughly examined by photographic experts and they can't find any evidence that this was either a double exposure, or artificially altered. The "thing" is calculated to be standing nine feet tall, and no one's found any record of a monk that humongous ever being at Newby Church. Who is it? What is it? Trick of light or something else? Either way it's way too creepy to not mention on this list.

Ghost Child at CemeteryA woman named Mrs. Andrews was visiting the grave of her daughter Joyce, who died at 17. Andrews saw nothing unusual when she took this photo of Joyce's gravemarker. When the film was developed, Mrs. Andrews was astonished to see the image of a small child sitting happily at her daughter's grave. The ghost child seem to be aware of Mrs. Andrews since he or she is looking directly into the camera. Is it possible a double exposure? Mrs. Andrews said there were no such children nearby when she took the photograh and moreover did not recognize the child at all. It was no one she would have taken photograh of. She remarked that she did not believe it was the ghost of her daughter as a child.

London's St. Botolph's Chruch GhostIn 1982, photographer Chris Brackley took a photograph of the interior of London's St. Botolph's Chruch, but never expected what would appear on the film. High in the Church's loft, seen in the upper right hand corner of his photogarph, is a transparent form of what looks like a woman. According to Brackley, to his knowledge there were only three people in the church when this photograh was taken, and none of them were in that loft.

Church Minister GhostAccording to Brad Steiger's Real Ghosts, restless spirits and haunted places, where this photo was found, there was only one other photographer in the church beside the person who took this picture. Neither of them recalled seeing ghost or any flesh-and-blood person standing there who could account for this image. Because the figure is all in black, it has been theorized that the apparition could be that of the churuch minister.

Grandfather Ghost Standing Behind Grandmother"The lady in the color photo is my granny," she says. "She lived on her own until age 94, when her mind started to weaken and had to be moved to an assisted living home for her own safety. At the end of the first week, there was a picnic for the residents and their families. My mother and sister attended. My sister took two pictures that day, and this is one of them. It was taken on Sunday, 8/17/97, and we think the man behind her is my grandpa who passed away on Sunday, 8/14/84. We did not notice the man in the picture until Christmas Day, 2000 (granny had since passed away), while browsing through some loose family photos at my parents' house. My sister thought it was such a nice picture of granny that she even made a copy for mom, but still, nobody noticed the man behind her for over three years! When I arrived at my parents' house that Christmas day, my sister handed me the picture and said, "Who do you think this man behind granny looks like?" It took a few seconds for it to sink in. I was absolutely speechless. The black and white photos show that it really looks like him."
I don't need what might be a ghost's photograph to attest to this truth: when you're in love with that one special someone, nothing will stop you from being with that person. But it's still pretty nice to get a tangible confirmation of that every once in awhile..

Railroad Crossing Ghost in San Antonio, TexasA Strange legend surrounds a railroad crossing of San Antonio, Texas. The intersection of the roadway and railraod track, so the story goes, was the site of a tragic accidents in which several school-aged children were killed - but their ghosts linger at the spot and will push idled cars across the tracks, even though the path is uphill. Andy and Debi Chesney's daughter and some of her friends had recently been to the crossing to test the legend, and she took some photographs. Inexplicably, a strange, transparent figure turned up in one of the photos.
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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Fall Birds

Sandhill Cranes

Eastern Bluebird

American Tree Sparrow

Cedar Waxwing

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Saturday, October 27, 2007

No Tripod Skimping!

It pains me to see a high-quality spotting scope mounted on an inexpensive and flimsy tripod that has a lot of plastic parts. Locating birds through a scope can be difficult enough, but it's made worse with a poor tripod and unrealistic digiscoping expectations. When a bird provides an opportunity to photograph it, struggling with a scope on a wobbly tripod mount is the last thing you want to worry about. I can't emphasize enough how critical having a quality tripod and head is for the kind of digiscoping I do. The Bogen combo I use is by no means perfect; there are things about the 3130 MF/QR head I don't like (slight fluid drift, recoil, etc.). Some of you probably use something other than a Bogen, but my point of isn't to offer or obtain a list of recommendations. Here's my point: tripod skimping – don't do it! The extra money is a worthwhile investment and will return great views and help deliver stellar digital images when digiscoping. If you're forking over big bucks for digiscoping gear, expect to spend $250 or more for a quality tripod and head.

Scope image © 2007 Mike McDowell

Friday, October 26, 2007


I recently received a letter from WSO stating that my April 3rd, 2007 observation of a nighthawk at Pheasant Branch Conservancy was accepted as "nighthawk species." I suppose that's more than fair considering I never submitted anything. Still, I'm a little curious what the records committee might have considered. Because the observation was so brief, separating Lesser Nighthawk from Common Nighthawk would have been next to impossible and I doubt anyone could have done it. Any argument and supporting evidence had to be made after the fact, but I just kept putting it off.

Consider the following two photographs:

Labeled as Lesser Nighthawk

Labeled as Common Nighthawk

That's pretty tough, isn't it?

The argument for Lesser Nighthawk necessitates accepting a vagrant bird. An April 3rd sighting is reinforced by overall earlier departure dates (versus Common Nighthawk) from their wintering grounds. Some records exist for Lesser Nighthawks in Colorado and Oklahoma during the month of April. Though there are no confirmed Lesser Nighthawk sightings in Wisconsin, the species was once recorded in Ontario in 1974. Thus, Wisconsin is in within a theoretical range of a one-time documented vagrancy.

Arguing for Common Nighthawk is that Wisconsin lies within its normal geographical range, though exceptionally early (April 3rd). However, in support of this are three previous records prior to April 14th in Wisconsin, April 1st, 11th and 13th. (I wonder how these birders were able to separate Common from Lesser?) There are also established early dates for Common Nighthawks present in Texas and Oklahoma during the month of February, giving an early bird plenty of time to reach Wisconsin by April 3rd.

It basically breaks down to accepting a record early versus a geographical vagrant. Based on the above, I think it's much more reasonable to conclude that unusually warm spring weather coupled with strong southwest winds during night of April 2nd helped push a Common Nighthawk into southern Wisconsin. Incidentally, the April 1st, 1995 record was also in Dane County (where I live). Introducing a Lesser Nighthawk vagrant, while not impossible, seems reasonably unnecessary. Just as it would be unnecessary to introduce the possibility of Bicknell's Thrush whenever a birder reports a Gray-cheeked Thrush during spring or fall migration. Come on. Who in Wisconsin is seriously looking for Bicknell's Thrush? But if they can make it to the north side of Lake Erie, perhaps Bicknell's in Wisconsin isn't that far-fetched?

I think it's fair WSO embraced the record as "nighthawk species," though it seems to favor a slight bias for vagrancy. Vagrancy, early or late, during migration might represent a general assumption, but I'll wager it's much easier to find a vagrant when there are fewer birds to sift through. Do you think this level of species separation and scrutiny should continue throughout spring or fall migration? Objectively, shouldn't we be looking for Lesser Nighthawks and Bicknell's Thrushes throughout spring and fall? During the apex of Common Nighthawk migration, should I spend time scrutinizing every single Common Nighthawk that flies over because of the possibility of Lesser Nighthawk mingling in a flock? Throughout May and September, should I exhibit healthy skepticism regarding every Gray-cheeked Thrush I see?

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

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Thursday, October 25, 2007


I spent most of the day at Devil's Lake to take in some space, scenery and fresh air, but also look for Townsend's Solitaires. The morning was a little chilly, but the climb up the bluff warmed me up quickly. I thought the fall colors must be right around peak, though a man on Balanced Rock trail told me I might have missed it by a few days. What did I miss? Once I got to the top of the bluff, I can't imagine what he was talking about – the view and colors were spectacular and I doubt it could have looked better.

I located a good chair in the rocks on the edge of the bluff and didn't do much else but bask in the warming sun. I listened and occasionally scanned for the solitaires, but found none. Still, many other birds were present. Around me were Black-capped Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos, House Finches, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Cedar Waxwings and a Yellow-rumped Warbler. Down below I could hear Blue Jays and the occasional call of a Pileated Woodpecker. I was impressed when hearing a Carolina Wren's song from all the way across the lake – such an incredibly loud and cheerful song.

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Baby Porcupine Eats A Banana and Has Hiccups

This baby porcupine (also called porcupet) eats a banana. You'll hear tiny squeaks--those are hiccups!

His mother was killed when she was hit by a car and someone got him to licensed wildlife rehabilitator Gail Buhl. He was orphaned and imprinted on humans and is now living at Wolf Ridge Environment Learning Center in northern Minnesota.
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Road-Rail Vehicles

A Road-rail vehicle is a self-propelled vehicle that can be legally used on both roads and rails. They are sometimes referred to as a Hy-rail or HiRail. They are normally converted rubber-tired road vehicles that have additional steel wheels for running on rails. Because only one set of wheels would logically be used at a time, a pneumatic, or hydraulic system is employed to lower and raise the rail wheels.

Such vehicles are normally used for permanent way maintenance during engineering possessions of the line. They can be driven on roads to near the site and then convert to rail vehicle for the final journey to the worksite. This avoids both the complex manoeuvres that would be associated with a rail vehicle, and the problem with a road vehicle of accessing the worksite if the worksite is not near a road. Since they are normally converted road vehicles, they would not fare well in a collision with a heavy rolling stock and therefore can only drive on railways under an engineering possession. Their light weight also means they may not correctly operate track circuits for signaling.