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Birding at Viera Wetlands

Posted on June 25th 2009 by Arthur in Birds, Travel

While we were waiting for the shuttle launch at the Space Coast last week, we did some birding at Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands at Viera and saw lots of different birds including 6 lifers. We also wanted to go to Merrit Island National Wildlife Refuge, but that place was locked down by NASA for security reasons until the shuttle would be launched (or scrubbed), so we went to Viera wetlands twice.

Entrance sign for Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands at Viera
Entrance of Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands at Viera

The 35-acre wetlands are actually a water reclamation facility for Brevard County, but the area has been perfectly set up for birding, with one-way roads for driving birders (maximum speed 10 mph) and two observation decks. The last time we visited a similar place was at the sewege ponds at Sharm-el-Sheikh in Egypt, but that place was not set up for birding at all. We expected something similar, but Viera Wetlands was very different and more like a nature reserve than a government facility.

Map of Viera wetlands
Map of Viera wetlands

Roads at Viera wetlands

Overview of Viera wetlands

Viera wetlands

We made the mistake on our first visit to keep the windows open the entire time, resulting in literally hundreds of mosquitoes getting in our car. Later that day we let out at least 50 of them while driving by opening our window occassionally. We thought we had gotten rid of most of them, but after leaving our car parked somewhere for 15 minutes, baking in the sun, we found the dashboard, our seats and the floor were covered in dead ones. So on our second visit to the wetlands we decided to keep the windows closed and only open our doors once in a while to get out or take pictures. This was a much better experience.

American Alligator at Viera Wetlands

Alligator signA sign at the entrance read: This is alligator mating season and alligators are more aggressive at this time of year. Please stay on the roadway and stay away from water for your safety, but they were quite calm and not so loud.

Among the many birds we saw were Summer Tanager, Glossy Ibis, Sandhill Crane, Pied-billed Grebe, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Green Heron, Loggerhead Shrike, Anhinga, Osprey, Limpkin, Least Bittern, Crested Caracar, Green Heron, Roseate Spoonbill and Tricolored Heron.

Great White Egret
Great Egret

Black-bellied Whistling Duck
Black-bellied Whistling Duck

Northern Mockingbird
Northern Mockingbird

Green Heron
Green Heron

White Ibis
White Ibis

By far the coolest bird we saw was this Crested Caracara, the symbol of the wetlands and our best lifer of the trip. Both days we were there the Caracara was perched on the same tree.

Crested Caracara
Crested Caracara

Unfortunately the bird was back lit both times we were there, so we didn’t get a great look at him. Here’s a much better picture:

Crested Caracara
Crested Caracara by Shadow Hunter

Our midnight adventure at Kennedy Space Center for the failed launch attempt of STS-127

Posted on June 23rd 2009 by Arthur in Space, Travel

We’ve been back since last Friday from our trip to Florida to see the launch of Space Shuttle Endeavour for its STS-127 mission. A week ago at this time, on Tuesday night, we were getting ready to leave for Kennedy Space Center. Fueling of the external tank was supposed to start at 8pm that evening, but there was a tremendous thunder storm over central Florida that delayed the activities. Nevertheless, we left our hotel in Kissimmee at 9pm to head for Kennedy Space Center in a torrential downpour.

It was by far the worst thunder storm I had ever seen, with lightning every few seconds. It was about a 90 minute drive and we saw hundreds of huge bolts of lightning that spanned large parts of the sky. It was quite something to watch, but meanwhile fueling had still not started. At 10:30pm we arrived at Kennedy Space Center and were surprised that we could just drive right into the parking lot without getting our vehicle placard checked. The information we had received with our Launch Transportation Tickets to see the shuttle launch from the NASA causeway made it sound like the placard was the most important thing, or you wouldn’t be able to enter the grounds. It turned out that we were there just before the place was locked down, and hundreds of cars were already at the parking lot. Most of them were people without Launch Transportation Tickets and vehicle placards wanting to view the launch from Kennedy Space Center, which is the closest place to watch a launch after the NASA causeway, albeit it being an obstructed view.

Most of the cars had sleeping people in them. Some people in trucks had mattresses in the back with sleeping children. We parked our car and walked to the entrance to see what was going on. There a couple of hundred people were sitting and standing in line for the park to open at 11pm, but it was still lightning and it was now almost 3 hours after fueling was supposed to start. At a few minutes before 11pm the storm stopped and people cheered as we learned that fueling operations had begun, but still 6-and-a-half hours before lift-off from that point. We headed back to our car as the entrance to KSC opened and people started buying tickets. Many more cars were arriving and touring buses too. We tried to sleep in our car for a few hours, until shortly before 1am when the bad news came.

I received a tweet on my phone from SpaceflightNow at about 12:57am that said: “A leak has reoccurred in the gaseous hydrogen venting system between the launch pad and space shuttle Endeavour, NASA confirms.”


We left our car and headed for the KSC to find out if it was true. People were still pouring inside with their folding chairs and huge bags full of stuff to watch the launch (many people were getting inside with large backpacks too, even though backpacks of any size are supposed to be strictly forbidden). I asked one of the security guys if the launch had been scrubbed, but he had not heard of a leak. We walked across the central plaza which was packed with people walking around to see the exhibits and having ice cream and drinks. It was a bit surreal to be there in the middle of the night with everything open as if it’s normal. It was clear that most people there had not heard of the new leak yet. We walked to the Launch Status Center in the back of the park to see if there was anyone there, and sure enough it was packed with people and someone from NASA was just finishing the 1am mission status briefing.

Kennedy Space Center
Photo by papillion_1 (from another launch)

These briefings are really great. We had attended one the day before when visiting Kennedy Space Center and were told all about the shuttle launch and the upcoming launch of LRO and LCROSS as they showed live feeds from security cameras from places like the launch pad, inside the Vehicle Assembly Building and even inside the shuttle bay of Discovery, which was being prepared for STS-128.

People were just leaving the briefing as we arrived and I asked someone if they had talked about the leak. The man didn’t know what I was talking about, but suddenly a NASA guy came in and told everyone about the leak, but the launch had not been scrubbed at this time. We sat down on a bench to await further information as we watched NASA TV on two large screens with live views of the launch pad.

STS-126 Space Shuttle Endeavour Launch
Photo by astronomicalfamily

We sat there for about an hour, while the guy that had done the 1am briefing stayed to explain things we saw on the screen and answer any questions from people. I had read a lot of tips online about viewing a launch but I hadn’t read about this great briefing area.

At 1:56am the bad news came that the launch had actually been scrubbed, so no launch for us. We walked back to the entrance, but there were still a lot of people walking around the attractions and the plaza oblivious of the fact that they were there for nothing as the launched had just been scrubbed. I thought it was a bit weird that they didn’t announce these sort of things throughout the park to the thousands of people there. When we got to our car a lot of people were leaving, so many had obviously heard the news by then. I wonder how many people were still unaware sleeping in their car.

It wasn’t too bad leaving the space coast and driving back to Orlando. We were only in a short jam getting from the 405 onto the 407. We were of course very disappointed about not seeing the launch, but I still thought it was a great experience to be at Kennedy Space Center in the middle of the night. We drove back to Chicago the next day.

The next launch attempt for STS-127 will be on July 11th.

Disney catnip is the best

Posted on June 20th 2009 by Amy in Disney, Personal, Videos

The last two times we were in Orlando, we picked up these catnip toys. Arby and Alex both loved them so much.


We’d gotten them catnip toys in Holland but they were totally not interested – for them it was the American stuff or nothing.

Last week we spent an afternoon at Downtown Disney. We looked for the Good Kitty / Bad Kitty nip toys but could only find these new ones.


We’re still unpacking from the trip and these were sitting in a bag downstairs. I noticed Arby rooting around in the bag – when I checked, I found the toys. We’d forgotten about them so Arby found them himself!

Fourth Nip Toy

It’s still good stuff. Disney catnip is the best!

Ready for Lift-off

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

We’re ready for the launch of Space Shuttle Endeavour, which is now scheduled for Wednesday morning at 5:40am. We spent today at Kennedy Space Center and had a great time. It was one of the bus drivers who told us this afternoon that they just decided to give the shuttle another try on Wednesday. The Atlas 5 rocket with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has been pushed back to Thursday.

Our new arrival time at KSC, which is the absolute latest that we are allowed to be there, is 12:30am! We asked at Guest Services how long we should allow for driving from Orlando and she informed us 4 hours as roads will be packed with people coming to see the launch, even that early in the morning! OMG, so we’ll be leaving our hotel some time around 8:30 in the evening!

Space Shuttle Explorer
Me in front of Space Shuttle Explorer, a full-scale replica of an orbiter at KSC

No Launch For You

Posted on June 13th 2009 by Arthur in Space, Travel

We got up at 12:30am this morning to head to Kennedy Space Center for the scheduled launch of STS-127. Right after getting up I checked my phone for any tweets from SpaceflightNow for the last updates and it all looked good; the last one said that fueling was going smoothly and the clock continued counting down toward a liftoff at 7:17am. I proceeded to brush my teeth when all of a sudden a new message came in:

NASA has just called a scrub for today. A leak has developed while fueling space shuttle Endeavour. A news conference is planned overnight.

So no launch today. 🙁

Space Shuttle Endeavour on Launch Pad 39A © NASA

We stayed up to see the press conference at 1:45. It took more than a half hour for any news media to pick up the cancelled launch. Even the homepage of wasn’t updated for an hour with the news. Thanks to Twitter we knew about the cancellation before we got in our car and headed for the space center. Thank you Twitter! 🙂

I had read that Endeavour had a window of only 3 days (June 13th through 15th) because of the Atlas 5 rocket that was to launch on June 17th to bring two new satellites to the moon. In the overnight press conference they said that it will take at least 4 days to fix the leak, so we thought that’s it; no shuttle launch this month. But then, to our surprise, they mentioned in the press conference the possibility of delaying the Atlas 5 mission and letting Endeavour go first. They even said that if the Atlas 5 rocket goes first, and it launches on the 17th, then Endeavour’s still has one chance on the 20th (it takes 2 days to reset equipment between launches). Mission managers are now planning to meet tomorrow at 2pm to examine the repair plans and determine the new launch date.

We spent the day birding at the Space Coast and then drove to Orlando. We’re going to wait for the results of tomorrow’s meeting and then decide what to do. If Endeavour’s next launch attempt is on Wednesday then we will wait for that. But if the moon mission goes first and they still want to try the shuttle on Saturday June 20th then we may not wait for that and drive back. Or maybe we’ll stay and watch the Atlas 5 launch, although we don’t have tickets for that launch so it would be from far away.

We’re disappointed about the scrubbed launch but we knew this could happen. There are still 7 more shuttle missions planned until the end of next year so if we don’t see this one go up we have a few more chances. At least we had a great taste of summer, with 90+oF here every day. Whatever happens we plan to spend the day at Kennedy Space Center on Monday and use part of our launch viewing tickets that way. I’m really looking forward to that. 🙂

Disneyland Paris on Google Maps Street View

Posted on June 11th 2009 by Arthur in Disney, Websites & Tools

This is cool: Google Maps has added Street View of selected areas of Disneyland Paris. You can now ‘walk’ through Main Street, other parts of Disneyland, Disney Village and the Walt Disney Studios Park. Pretty neat!

Disneyland Paris Street View on Google Maps

On the Road to see the Shuttle Launch

Posted on June 10th 2009 by Arthur in Space, Travel

We left this morning at 6:00 and have been driving all day from Chicago toward Florida to see the shuttle launch of STS-127 on Saturday morning. It became gradually warmer as we drove south until it was about 34oC / 92oF this afternoon. That is quite different from the cooler weather we’ve been having in Illinois lately. We’re about 8 1/2 hours away from Kennedy Space Center and are looking forward to the launch on Saturday.

I read something disconcerting about the cancellation policy of our launch viewing tickets. It says everywhere that our tickets are for the launch and not for the day. That makes sense, so that if the launch gets delayed to the next day or next month then our tickets will still be valid. But there’s a catch to that. Apparently, if the launch gets scrubbed after you have boarded the bus at the visitor center to the launch viewing area (which is about a 15 minute ride) you have ‘used’ your tickets and that’s it. You then have to buy new tickets if you are lucky enough to obtain them. I just don’t understand this policy. What difference does it make whether you have boarded the bus or are still waiting to board the bus?

It even says the following in the paperwork:

All new sales of Launch Transportation Tickets will be on a first come, first serve basis. Priority will not be given to previous ticket holders.

So what I understand is that if we’re already sitting there on our folding chairs on the causeway at 4:00 in the morning and they announce that the launch has been canceled, we have to race back to the ticket office to stand in line for next day’s tickets at about $50 per person each. But if we’ve been slow and are one of the last ones to get on a bus we may be lucky and keep our tickets for next day’s launch attempt. That’s just weird.

We’re now wondering if we should try to get on the bus as late as possible, if we even have a choice. I’ve signed up to get text messages from the Spaceflight Now Twitter feed about the latest news about the launch, so if we’re standing in line for the bus and we get a message that there’s something wrong we can still jump out and keep our tickets.

There’s generally about a 50% chance that a launch happens, and the weather forecast for Saturday is favorable for a 80% chance. I hope the weather will be fine and there will be no technical problems so we can see a beautiful launch on Saturday. 🙂

Biking to our local forest preserve

Posted on June 1st 2009 by Amy in Forest Preserves, Life in America

Last Saturday was a beautiful day. In the afternoon we decided to try and bike to Rollins Savanna from our house here in Round Lake Beach.

First I checked Google Maps to see how we could cycle and avoid busy roads. The Google Streetview feature works for a lot of our area, so I could follow parts of the route online. I was surprised to see that there was actually bike path along one of the main roads we’d take!

The Drury Lane entrance to Rollins is closest to us, so that’s where we normally drive. On Google Maps I saw that there was a spur to the main trail from a small city park, so we wouldn’t have to cycle all the way to our usual parking lot, which was good news. The bad news was that Drury Lane is a torn up muddy mudville from construction.


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