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Great Swamp Sanctuary, Walterboro SC

Posted on November 29th 2009 by Arthur in Birds, Forest Preserves, Nature

On our drive back from Florida we spent the night at a Days Inn in Walterboro, South Carolina. We learned that just 3 minutes from the hotel and the I-95 is a nature preserve called the Great Swamp Sanctuary. We checked it out the next morning and had a great walk.

Great Swamp Sanctuary in Walterboro South Carolina

At the end of a long straight trail is a swampy area with lots of bird-filled snags. We saw four different woodpeckers, including several Pileated Woodpeckers (picture below), Carolina Chickadee, Red-shouldered Hawk, Bluebird, Hermit Thrush and several other birds. The longer we stood there looking at the swamp, the more birds flew in from all around us.

Pileated Woodpecker at Great Swamp Sanctuary
Pileated Woodpecker

When walking back to the car we saw something fly across the way in front of us and land in a tree right next to the path. It was a Barred Owl … the first Barred Owl we had ever seen in the wild!

Barred Owl at Great Swamp Sanctuary

We had seen a few Barred Owls this year from Bird Rehabilitation centers, so we recognized it immediately. It’s also Amy’s favorite owl, so it was a thrill to see it in the wild. We watched it for a while. When we walked further and approached it, the owl calmly flew a bit further into the woods and landed on another tree, where we could look at it again. We had seen about 85 bird species on our trip to Florida, but this one was our favorite! What a great sighting. 🙂

Barred Owl at Great Swamp Sanctuary

Stunning Atlantis launch video

Posted on November 27th 2009 by Arthur in Space, Videos

Space Shuttle Atlantis just landed safely back at Kennedy Space Center. I wish we could have been there to witness it. On our visit to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge last week we learned that a great place to watch the landing is from the park’s visitor center, which lies just at the beginning of the nearly 3 mile long runway. You must know exactly when to look though, as you won’t be able to see the shuttle coming and it’ll fly right overhead.

Here’s a great video compilation of the STS-129 launch, compiled by NASA’s Systems Engineering & Integration (via Facebook):

Rockslide leads to BEARS!

Posted on November 24th 2009 by Arthur in Life in America, Nature, Travel

On our drive back from Florida last week we were happily driving through the smoky mountains in North Carolina on Interstate 40 when we saw one of those signs flashing that tell you to listen to an AM frequency for an important traffic message. From the radio we learned that a rock slide about 20 miles in front of us was blocking the highway! Travelers were urged to drive back to Asheville and take Route 26 to Kingsport and then Route 80 to Knoxville. OMG, that’s a 150 mile detour!

Looking at the map we noticed that we could also get off at the next exit and drive through Great Smoky Mountains National Park to get to the 80. That sounded like a lot more fun than 150 miles more highway.

Great Smoky Mountains NP (29)
The Great Smoky Mountains get their name from the natural fog that often hangs over the range. The fog is the result of warm humid air from the Gulf of Mexico that cools rapidly in the higher elevations of the Appalachian Mountains.

So we got off the highway and drove along a winding road through the towns of Maggie Valley (very cute) and Cherokee (wow, huge casinos!) toward the park. At Oconaluftee visitor center we made a short stop to look at the shop and get a stamp for my National Parks Passport.

My National Parks Passport with my stamp from Great Smoky Mountains National Park
My National Parks Passport with my new stamp

Half-way through the park we stopped at a look-out point on the pass where the Appalachian Trail crosses the road. We had some great views of the smokies and even saw a couple of birds like this American Robin and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. We also walked a tiny part of the Appalachian Trail, but only for a few hundred yards because it was getting dark. Maybe once we’ll walk the whole 2,178 miles.

Great Smoky Mountains NP (16)

Great Smoky Mountains NP (14)

Then, when least expected, it happened. We were driving down the mountain when all of a sudden there were a bunch of cars stopped on the side of a road. About a dozen people were outside their cars looking down at something. We got out of our car too and saw an American Black Bear walking through the forest. Whoa! It was the first wild bear we’d ever seen!

Here’s a neat video that Amy took:

A few miles down the road we encountered another group of people standing on the side of the road. We got out again and saw a second bear! This one was a bit larger and much closer to the road. At first we were looking into the distance and couldn’t find it, but then all of a sudden we noticed it was foraging through the leaves only about 30 feet away from us below the road! The bear only looked up every 30 seconds or so, to make sure we weren’t doing anything stupid, and then went on with his business.

Great Smoky Mountains NP (28)

Great Smoky Mountains NP (27)

The bears were both so relaxed, we figured they are used to tourists standing nearby … as long as they stay on the road. The first bear was on an inclined piece of land where the road curved. There were cars stopped at the top and we could also see some cars and people below staring at the bear. At one point we noticed that a man from down below had walked toward the bear in the forest and was hiding behind a tree to take pictures. The man was only about 30 feet away! When the man made a noise the bear looked up and she did not like the human in her territory. The man slowly backed up and managed to get back to the car. What an idiot. He must not watch The Colbert Report or he would have known that bears are the #1 Threat to America. 😉

Lift off!

Posted on November 16th 2009 by Arthur in Space, Travel

We arrived at Kennedy Space Center at 6:00am this morning and were surprised to find all the attractions and exhibits already open to the public. They were even doing bus tours until 8:45am! We sat down in the Launch Status building and later moved to the Astronaut Encounter building to watch live programming from NASA tv while we waited. KSC does such an excellent job accommodating launch guests; back in June during the night launch everything was open in the middle of the night.

STS-129 Atlantis on Pad 39a (200911150015HQ)
(Photo © NASA) View of Shuttle Atlantis on Pad 39A this morning

At 9:15am we had our ‘breakfast with an astronaut’ in the Early Space Exploration building. There was a HUGE line of people and the doors opened a bit late at 9:30am. The breakfast was held in a large room with round tables and about (I guess) 200 people were there to have breakfast. There were eggs, bacon, biscuits and gravy, sweets and fruit. After a little while astronaut Frederick D. Gregory came out and held a little talk about today’s mission and the new Constellation program before taking some questions from the audience. It was a fun event to attend.

STS-129 Crew Walk Out (200911160001HQ)
(Photo © NASA) At the Astronaut Encounter we watched live NASA tv and saw the astronauts arrive at the shuttle in the Astrovan and then getting suited up in the White Room.

Buses to the NASA Causeway for those with causeway tickets started going at 11:30am. We headed to the buses around this time and were surprised that we were probably among the last 10% of causeway people to get on a bus. Many visitors remained at KSC to view the launch from there. Watching from the KSC is a restricted view (you only see the shuttle above the trees after it has left the pad) but bleachers and large screens had been set up and hundreds of people were already camping out on the grass.

Our bus drove the 15 minutes to the causeway where about 150 buses were parked three rows deep. The viewing area was HUGE. Being among the last to arrive there I thought we might have had to sit behind other people, but there was still a few hundred yards of unused space right by the water. At some points the view was slightly obstructed from small islands in the Banana River, so we walked along the water away from the bus until we found the perfect spot to set up our two chairs and spotting scope that we had been lugging along all morning.

IMG_6012s
View of the part of the causeway where we were sitting; this went on and on into the distance with more than 150 buses on the left

In the next half hour many more people arrived (also on non-NASA buses) and it quickly filled up behind us. We had a good place. I was really amazed of the great view we had. We sat 7 miles away and I thought the Shuttle would be a small speck in the distance, but through the scope I could even read the word “Atlantis” on the wing! There is one closer viewing area at the Saturn V building, which is 3 1/2 miles away … but our bus driver told us that from that angle the shuttle is hidden behind the Rotating Service Structure, so we had the best view of the orbiter on the pad.

IMG_6040s
People behind us

Commentary from NASA tv was playing on the speakers so we could hear what was going on. I was also getting tweets from Spaceflightnow.com. All morning there was a thick layer of clouds above Cape Canaveral and chance of weather constraints prohibiting flight were 30%, but as the morning progressed the clouds slowly moved away and at launch time weather was good. Through the scope I could clearly see the removal of the walkway and beanie cap after the 9-minute hold, but I think I was the only one in our vicinity witnessing this as most people just had small binoculars.

At T-minus 16 seconds the Sound Surpression System is activated and 300,000 gallons of water are poured onto the launch pad to surpress the decibels from damaging the orbiter. I could see all the water clearly through the scope as well as the sparks from the burn ignitors to start the main engine.

At 2:28:10pm the shuttle lifted off the pad.

sts129launch
(Photo © NASA) View from the press area with the countdown clock

Here’s an HD video of the launch from NASA:

It was a tremendous sight. A huge cloud, then the shuttle became visible with its extremely bright engine flames below and about 40 seconds after lift-off the sound wave hit us. I followed the shuttle up with the scope. Two minutes and 10 seconds into the flight the two solid rocket boosters were jettisoned and I could see this clearly through the scope as well. Everyone around me was already packing up as they could no longer see the shuttle, but I was seeing the shuttle and both solid rocket boosters fall down. A few seconds later I lost sight of the shuttle but I could still see the two rockets fall down for about 20 seconds until I lost them in the clouds. Wow.

A few minutes later a woman came on the intercom and dryly announced: “A huge dark cloud of hydrochloric acid, which you can see above the launch pad, is blowing in our direction. Please move to your bus immediately.” … Holy crap! We quickly got our stuff together and headed for our bus. The papers for the launch had a disclaimer about the risks of attending a launch (among which thunder storms and the fact that droplets of hydrochloric acid that appear after launch can cause some mild skin irritation). As far as we know everyone made it to their bus and no tourists were killed by the acid. 😉

It took about 20 minutes until our bus left (we saw two dolphins swim by in the meantime!) and we got back to the KSC about 15 minutes later. It was incredibly busy at the Space Shop as we picked out some souvenirs and then headed to the car. It wasn’t very bad to get out of the area and we were in a short traffic jam for only a few minutes.

IMG_6078s

Waiting for the shuttle launch, take two

Posted on November 15th 2009 by Arthur in Space, Travel

We are once again at the Space Coast in Florida to try and see a shuttle launch. After two days of driving over 1,000 miles we arrived at our hotel in Titusville last night. Today we spent the morning at Viera Wetlands (two new lifers: American Bittern and Green-winged Teal!) and the afternoon at Kennedy Space Center, where we saw Space Shuttle Atlantis on launch pad 39A.

The launch is scheduled for tomorrow at 2:28pm and, like last time, we have launch transportation tickets to bring us to the NASA causeway. This is our second try to see a launch after our failed attempt in June.

At least the weather is MUCH better now, less hot and less mosquitoes than in June. It’s a pleasant 80°F all week. Keep your fingers crossed for good weather conditions tomorrow and no more leaking fuel tanks or other technical problems. We finally want to see this thing go up! 😉

Launch Status building at Kennedy Space Center
Me at the Launch Status building inside Kennedy Space Center this afternoon,
where we got an update on Shuttle Atlantis and upcoming missions