Saturday, December 19, 2009

Geminid Meteor Shower No – Aurora Borealis Yes

I guess our location was to far West and North to see much of the Geminid meteor shower even though we did have good conditions. *See the update I took off web site for more info on the meteor shower.  I also added the picture taken in Norway of a bright  meteor flash from Astronomy’s photo of the day 19 December. *  The skies had cleared with the incoming cold weather and I even braved the –25F temperatures for several hours hoping to see and film a bright meteor burning as it entered earths atmosphere.

Five hours of viewing for me produced a total of 20 meteors, most 20 minutes a part.  While I didn’t see many meteors, there were several nice Aurora Borealis displays for me to enjoy and it made being out in the cold for the night worthwhile.  I even managed to film one very weak meteor in one of my Aurora pictures.


Faint meteor streak above the right ice sculpture.


Frost covered boat with the Aurora shimmering overhead.


A big wide band of green Aurora over houses.

*GEMINID METEOR UPDATE:  On Dec. 13th, Earth passed through a stream of debris from extinct comet 3200 Phaethon. The encounter produced a surge of more than 160 Geminid meteors per hour. The timing of the peak favored observers in Europe and the Middle East, many of whom said it was the finest display of Geminids they had ever seen.

Geminids are pieces of debris from a strange object called 3200 Phaethon. Long thought to be an asteroid, Phaethon is now classified as an extinct comet. It is, basically, the rocky skeleton of a comet that lost its ice after too many close encounters with the sun. Earth runs into a stream of debris from 3200 Phaethon every year in mid-December, causing meteors to fly from the constellation Gemini

Astronomy Picture of the Day-December 19, 2009


Aurora Shimmer, Meteor Flash
Credit & Copyright: Bjørnar G. Hansen,

Explanation: Northern Lights, or aurora borealis, haunted skies over the island of Kvaløya, near Tromsø Norway on December 13. This 30 second long exposure records their shimmering glow gently lighting the wintery coastal scene. A study in contrasts, it also captures the sudden flash of a fireball meteor from December's excellent Geminid meteor shower. Streaking past familiar stars in the handle of the Big Dipper, the trail points back toward the constellation Gemini, off the top of the view. Both aurora and meteors occur in Earth's upper atmosphere at altitudes of 100 kilometers or so, but aurora are caused by energetic charged particles from the magnetosphere, while meteors are trails of cosmic dust.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Winter Time Mirages


    A new month has started and conditions have been excellent for producing mirages. Several storm fronts have moved through the area rather quickly and over riding temperature layers have led to some spectacular mirages.


Morning Skyline to the East, Superior and Fata Morgana mirages.

     First of all, what's a mirage? They are real phenomena of atmospheric optics, caused by strong ray-bending in layers with steep thermal gradients. Because mirages are real physical phenomena, they can be photographed.  In a mirage, there is at least one inverted image of some object.

     Often a mirage contains multiple images, alternately erect and inverted. Mirages are classified according to the number and relative positions of these images. The classical mirages are:

# of Images       Name      Description

2     Inferior mirage      Inverted image below erect one

2     Superior mirage     Inverted image above erect one

3     3-image mirage     Inverted image between erect one

3+    Fata Morgana      complex alteration of distorted erect  and inverted images 


The surrounding lights lifted up in a complex Fata Morgana mirage in the cold morning air.  The mirages are caused by a sharp temperature inversion.

     We continue to have great conditions for mirages. I have posted another photo today, taken this morning of village lights 23 miles away. The lights are lifted up in five layers and you can see some of the bending of the refraction layers in the top two layers.



Above is another shot of mirages to the NE of us with objects in the Kuparuk Oilfield lifted up.


A good example of a Superior Mirage, CD North drill rig.

*A superior mirage occurs when an image of an object appears above the actual object, due to the refraction of light waves from the object down toward the eyes of the observer. Downward refraction occurs because air closer to the ground is colder, and therefore more dense, then air higher up. Superior mirages can take the form of looming, towering, and inversion, depending on the particular structure of the air column.

** The fata morgana is a complex mirage in which distant objects are distorted as well as elongated vertically. For example, a relatively flat river bank may appear to have tall cliffs and columns. The phenomenon occurs under much the same meteorological conditions as the superior mirage with inversion, and contains features of both towering and inversion.


What do you get when you combine a solar eclipse with a temperature inversion? Answer--a very strange Alaskan sunset. I took this picture from the Colville River Delta of Alaska's North Slope on March 18th 2007:


The crescent shape of the sun is caused by a partial eclipse--the Moon passed off-center in front of the sun on March 18th and 19th. This was widely seen from India, China, and the northern reaches of Alaska. The rest is a mirage....

Below is taken from when they ran the eclipse photo:

"Alaska is the place for strong mirages," explains atmospheric optics expert Les Cowley. "Often, layers of very cold air sit beneath warmer layers. Here the abnormal refraction has produced a distorted and strongly flattened partially eclipsed sun. The miraging temperature inversion layers can be seen crossing the sun and at each side."

"Conditions like these often produce green flashes," he adds, but so far no one has reported a flash to go with this eclipse.

Green flashes will be another topic covered in a future post.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Last Sunset of 2009

Today (October 22) marked a mile stone for us, as it was the last day of the sun above the horizon in 2009.  It will be another 58 days weather permitting, before we see the sun on January 19, 2010 at 12:30 PM.  Officially it will remain up for a total of 1 hour and 8 minutes, but the cold air of winter can make it do strange things.  I have seen the sun come up and set three times  on the day before it was due back, due to mirage and inversion layers effecting the view.  When it does come back it just rolls along the horizon for several days before it gets much altitude.  This can make viewing difficult as it doesn’t take much of a cloud layer along the horizon to obscure the sun. Below are a couple shots taken two days ago of the sun low in the sky.  I was busy with a conference call today and missed the last view of the sun. 




















We still get several hours of twilight, even on the shortest day of the year in December.  Sometimes at night it is even brighter than during the day with a bright moon, and /or Northern Lights reflecting brightly off the snow.  The months ahead make for good star viewing and Aurora watching, if one doesn’t have to bad of a wind chill to put up with.  I look forward to the months ahead hoping that clear nights coincide with lots of Aurora activity.

Here are a few Aurora Borealis Pictures taken over the past week or so. Most night they were just a faint green or grayish green. 


Aurora_22Nov09_5706 copy

This display was just stating to pick up some reds.


Cloud streaks produced a neat display even though the Aurora weren’t very bright.


For about 20 minutes one night we had a really nice bright display.  Looking off to the west, instrument shelter in the foreground.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

New Bird Sighted At Homestead

With late fall drifting into early winter I thought I would cover some of the rarer birds seen this year.   It is a sad time when the last snow buntings leave for the winter and the feeder sits empty.  It always takes a few days to get over the expectation of seeing them squabbling and chasing each other around the willows and feeder.  About all we are going to see the rest of the winter is ravens, ptarmigan, and perhaps a wintering snow owl.

Our fall storms during migration time occasionally drops a rare bird in our lap.  Most of the time it is a bird that breeds not too far away and has just strayed a bit. Then we get really lucky and a bird from distant shores arrives. Last year for the second season in a row we had a finch show up at the feeder with the Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis).  In 2007 it was a female Cassin’s Finch (Carpodacus cassinii) and then 2008 we had a lovely male Purple Finch (Carpodacus purpureus ) at the feeder for several days from late September to early October.  September also brought a juvenile Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus ), both were new birds for the Colville.











          Purple Finch                Common Cuckoo - Juvenile

This year we managed two fall migrants, one a Wilson’s Warbler (Wilsonia pusilla), a neat bird to see as we get very few warblers this far north. 




Wilson’s have been recorded several times here both in the spring and fall. 





The second bird was seen feeding around the house in mid-October, looking cold and hungry.  It was busy feeding on grass seed heads sticking out of the snow, and even though the light was poor, I was able to get a good picture of it.  At first I thought it was a juvenile Lincoln's Sparrow  (Melospiza lincolnii), the only other Lincolns I had seen was a adult in the spring several years ago.  After review from other birders that had more experience with the subject, it turned out to be a juvenile Chipping Sparrow  (Spizella passerina).  Fall_sparrow1d_5877

                 Chipping Sparrow - Juvenile



For some reason we also had a few Hoary Redpolls  (Carduelis  hornemanni) show up in October after our local breeders had been gone for several weeks.  In mid month, two showed up and the one juvenile was still being fed by the other bird. It was doing its wing flutter and begging till it was fed. 



With the days becoming shorter quickly, it won’t be long until the sun is gone and it will be the season for watching the heavens, counting stars and watching the Aurora dance over head.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Fishing – Part 2

Winter fishing is over and I thought I would go into more detail about the fish we caught this season.  It turned into a two part season due to unseasonably warm spell right after I started fishing.  The warm weather wouldn’t allow the fish to freeze, and we had some coastal flooding from a strong storm system several hundred miles west pushing up through the Bering straights into the Beaufort Sea.


                Last Day Picking At The Net

The day I pulled my net I had to wade through 14” (35.5 cm) of sea water in the shallow river areas to get out to my net.  After six days of thawing temperatures and even a few rain showers, a strong wind storm moved in and gave us 4 days of snow and blowing snow. For two of those days, we had blizzard conditions with visibilities down to an 1/8 of a mile (.2 km) at times.

As soon as the storm had pasted, I reset my net and was able to finish getting the amount of fish needed for the winter in just five days. 










                 A Nice Fat Arctic Cisco

It would have been nice to have caught a few more Arctic Cisco than we did, as they are the preferred fish for the table, a nice fat fish with firm white flesh.  Unfortunately their population numbers are in a down cycle this year and not many are in our area.

 DayCatch1b0024This photo shows all species of fish taken during the fishing season, listed top to bottom.      

Fourhorn Sculpin

Hump-backed Whitefish

Least Cisco

Arctic Cisco

Broad Whitefish

Boreal Smelt


Species Descriptions:

Whitefishes  family Coregonidae  are related to salmonids (trout,char and salmon)

Broad Whitefish  Coregonus nasus
Only a small number of immature fish are caught in the winter fishery and weigh between .75 - 2.5 pounds, (0.3-1.1kg) but a large mature individual can reach 18 pounds (8.2kg). However, 4-8 pounds is more norm. The broad whitefish can be distinguished from the humpback, even when small, by its short, blunt snout.


Hump-back Whitefish  Coregonus pidschian
Our catch runs from 1-3 pounds (0.5-1.4kg) and includes immature and mature fish.  This year hump-back whitefish made up about 30% of the catch.


In both of the above  species the mouth is inferior, an adaptation for bottom feeding. Their diet consists mainly of small clams, snails, aquatic insects, larvae, and freshwater shrimp. In both species, the head is small and the body deep or wide from stomach to backbone.

Least Cisco   Coregonus sardinella
Least Cisco are a slender herring-like fish with a superior mouth, which means a weak lower jaw projecting beyond the upper. They are anadromous, spending the summer open water season in the coastal waters (brackish lagoons)of the Arctic Ocean, feeding primarily on amphipods.
Our catch averages  .75lb and around 12" (31 cm), but a large individual can reach 16.5" ( 42cm) and 2.5 pounds.  (0.3-1.1kg) Least Cisco made up 69% of our catch.


Arctic Cisco  Coregonus autumalis
These are also anadromous, spending part of the year in brackish waters of the Arctic Ocean  feeding on  invertebrates and to a lesser extent on other small fish. They are distinguishable from the least cisco by smaller eyes and scales, more silver color, white pectoral and pelvic fins, and terminal mouths (at the tip of the body).
The majority of our catch is made up of immature fish age 5-8, with a few older fish to age 11.  Once Arctic Cisco in our area reach maturity, they migrate back to the Mackenzie River drainage to spawn and after that they stay in that general area.  Our catch runs from 3/4 pound to 3 pounds (.03-1.4kg) and average around 13" ( 33cm) with a large specimen reaching 18" (46cm).  This year our catch was about 1% of the total, but in a good year Arctic’s will run 50-75% of the catch.

The following two species are caught in low numbers and incidental to the fishing operation.

Boreal Smelt "Osmerus eperlanus"
Size up to 16" (40 cm)  are anadromous in our area coming into fresh water in the spring to spawn. 
They have a very sweet tasting meat and are called sugar fish by some of the local inhabitants.


Fourhorn (Deepwater) Sculpin  Myoxocephalus quadricornis
These are incidental catch when they are around the net feeding on spent eggs from ripe fish heading up river or larger individuals feeding on smaller fish caught in the net.  They are mainly a food source for other fish and birds during the open water season.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Snow Buntings Gone For The Winter!

Even with the warmer than normal October weather, the last of our local snow buntings departed on time.  The last snow buntings have been departing around 10-13th of October for several years now, and the last five were seen on the afternoon of the 9th this year.


              Snow Bunting in bright fall plumage. 


My last banded Snow Bunting just before leaving for the winter.

That left the two Dark-eyed Junco’s (Slate-colored sub-species) coming into the feeder.  They showed up in early October hungry and spent lots of time at the feeder bulking up to continue their migration south.  The juncos departed two days after the snow buntings, having built up their reserves to feel ready to continue on. 


Dark-eyed Junco (sub-species  Slate-colored Junco) 

It was fun watching the juvenile snow buntings learn to land in the first snow that fell in late September.  At first they weren’t sure about landing in the white stuff.  They would hover and slowly letting their feet sink into the snow, acting like they thought they were going to get stuck, like happens when they misjudged earlier in the summer when they landed in water.  After a few days they were just plopping right down and letting their body stop them from sinking more, like a big snowshoe.  Once landed they could move about on the snow without sinking in, as they moved about in the yard feeding on the grass seed heads that were sticking above the snow.


    Snow Bunting napping during October snow squall.



Male Snow Bunting in bright spring plumage, showing contrast from when they arrive and then depart in the fall.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Fish and Foxes

It has been a warm freeze up season and the river ice took several days to become thick enough to safely walk on and set a fish net.  We used to fish commercially in the fall, sending fish to some of the local North Slope villages as well as several dog mushers and a fish processer in the Fairbanks area.  Our family ran the commercial operation for 56 years, but now it has been scaled down to one or two nets for a few fish for the family and pets.

PickingNet1_6628                Picking the net in the early morning light.




Our winter catch is made up of  Arctic Cisco, Least Cisco, and Hump-back Whitefish.  Most run about a pound while some of the larger ones will go two and half pounds. All are white meat and very tasty.




Cisco's and Whitefish at net hole.

It didn’t take the Arctic Foxes long to smell fresh fish on the wind and within 20 minutes of picking my net yesterday the first fox showed up. 

Arcticfox-Net_6638                     Arctic Fox checking out the net!

Before I finished I had two at the net site and they keep me entertained with their antics.  They were a little shy at first and didn’t want to get to close, but they also didn’t want the other fox near the fish. 

ArcticFox1_5776    Arctic Fox heading for the fish pile with reflection in the ice.

They would chase the other fox away and then dash back to the fish pile looking to grab a fish for themselves.  They managed to get several fish each before I finished for the day and  hauled my catch home.  They each ate one fish right away then started carting fish off to bury for later.

   ArcticFox-fish_5787                                              Got One!!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Musk Ox

Late in the afternoon while working on the wood pile, I noticed four Musk Oxen on the island just across the river channel.  These were the first musk oxen seen near our home all summer.  They had most likely been spending the summer more to the east, along the Arctic Ocean, and were now heading for higher terrain inland where the wind keeps more of the ground swept bare during the winter months.  I quickly got my camera gear loaded in the boat and headed across the channel  to get a few pictures of them on this bright sunny day. 

The group was comprised of 2 adults and two sub-adults from last year.  As I was taking pictures, I noticed one of the musk ox kept swinging its head like it was watching something near its feet.  Finally I saw that there  was a short-tailed weasel running around the musk ox. Muskox-weasel_3980

Weasel can be seen in the foreground between the two animals on the right side of the photo.

He would dash in close then bolt back towards the river bank, where there were tunnels into which he would disappear.  I worked over to that side of the island to get the sun behind me for pictures, and then the weasel started checking me out.  As usual they never stay still very long, which makes it hard to get a good shot. Weasel_face-male_4018

After I got all the pictures I wanted, I headed home and the Musk oxen continued to feed and rest until evening, when they continued on their way upriver.  At dusk I could see them about 2 miles away,  bedded down for the night on another island closer to the mainland.


Friday, September 11, 2009

Lunar Fog Bow

When I went to bed last night I didn’t think there would be much of a chance for sky watching during the night as we were shrouded in thick wet fog.

But as luck would have it when I checked weather at 0130 hr, a large hole had opened in the fog and one could see high broken clouds and a bright moon overhead.  Also  a few weak aurora were moving about, so I decided to go out on the odd chance I might catch them in an active period.  After about ten minutes of walking about the yard looking for a good spot to try for a picture if the aurora flared up, I noticed a pale white patch off to the west.  It took me a bit to realize that I was looking at a rare Lunar Fog Bow.  I took a few pictures of the fog bow, and in one there is even a hint of aurora in part of the frame. 










Slight reddish cast to top of the lunar fog bow can be seen.

While taking pictures of the fog bow the opening overhead closed up and as the moon disappeared so did the bow. So while I didn’t get any aurora pictures, it was worth while just to see the stars and see the lunar fog bow.   Compared to a rainbow this fog bow was quite broad and it did have a slight reddish cast to the top of the arc.


In this photo the fog bow is starting to fade at the top, but you can see a hit of green aurora in the top left.


The reason that the fog bow is so pale is the fog droplets are so small, usually less than 0.1mm.* 

*more information is taken from “Out of the Blue” by John Naylor. Drops as small as this are found in fogs and clouds, and they are also known as white bows.

The absence of color in a fog bow is due to an overlap of the red and blue bands, which occurs when the drops are very small. The overlap is not always complete, and sometimes a fog bow sports a reddish fringe.  Although the diameter of a fog bow is always less than that of a rainbow, its arc can be up to three times as broad.  Lunar fog bows have been seen, though rarely.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Gyrfalcon Excitement

I took a coffee break from fire wood chores and lucked out to see a Gyrfalcon hunting the  willow ptarmigan that were in the area.

WIPT_flgt18_6976I was watching a snow bunting at the feeder when I saw a gyrfalcon launch from of the tall piling  next to our storage building.  With strong wing beats the bird started across the island, staying about

10 feet off the ground until he was within 200 meters of its prey.  It then dropped close to the ground, nearly blending in as I watched from my position.   The falcon traveled over a half mile to get to its target and I couldn't see what the bird was after  until it made a strike at the end.  Then a large flock of willow ptarmigan exploded into the air, close to 130 birds.  Perhaps in the confusion of all the birds erupting out of the grass, the falcon didn't make a hit.  Most of the ptarmigan headed upriver in one group, but 3 to 4  flushed to the right and away from the main group.  The falcon zeroed in on one of these GyrinFlight1sm_3880birds, which had headed  out across our lake.  The falcon over took it about halfway across the lake and made a solid hit. The ptarmigan tumbled into the water.   The falcon made 5 or 6 attempts to retrieve its prey, but perhaps being an immature bird, it was a bit tentative about plucking it out of the water.  A couple times I could see white feathers drift off when it tried to pick up the ptarmigan, just not getting a solid grip.
After giving up on getting the bird out of the water, the falcon headed back across the island to where other ptarmigan had scattered.  The next ptarmigan flushed, started climbing upward, and was able to stay above the pursuing falcon, but after about a third of a mile and gaining altitude to 150', the falcon gave up the chase, and returned to the general area from where that ptarmigan had flushed.  I have seen a lot of ptarmigan chased by snowy owls and other falcons, and this was the first time I had experienced a ptarmigan executing such a climbing escape maneuver.  Normally they fly fast and low until they find a place in which to hide.
While the gyrfalcon was chasing the second bird, I made my way out past the storage building from which the falcon had started this hunting cycle.  I had just got out there when two more ptarmigan flushed and they both turned and headed for the buildings. The falcon NearMiss1_3859zeroed in on one of the fleeing birds, but just seemed to be a bit slow in reacting to the twists and turns of the ptarmigan.  As they flew towards me, I was able to film a couple of the near misses. 






The start of the run to safety, and a near miss.





Ptarmigan able to make a sharper turn and stay just ahead of the falcon.








After the first try the immature falcon continued to drop back every so slightly.










Away to safety as the falcon looses speed.

Both ptarmigan made it to the safety of the building and hid in the grass.  The falcon landed on a drying rack that was stored next to the metal building and sat for about 5 minutes calling and twisting his head looking for the hiding ptarmigan. 








The young bird was making a call that reminded me of other young birds when begging for food. Perhaps it was thinking how easy Mom made catching things, and if she was here there would be something to eat.  The falcon took off and flew over me, then made two passes around the buildings before landing on the tall piling.



  Willow ptarmigan hiding in tall grass by building as gyrfalcon searches for it.



After a short break it was airborne again and headed off towards the north end of the island a mile away.  I never saw the young falcon catch another ptarmigan but several small groups passed through the yard in the afternoon and evening and they were very alert and acted like they had been chased.

What excitement for a bright sunny day in the Arctic!

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Arctic Smoke Signals by James W. Helmericks is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.