Saturday, October 24, 2009

NASA Rocketry Workshop at the American Museum of Science and Energy

My co-worker, Renee and I, along with 14 other teachers, attended a day-long rocketry workshop at the American Museum of Science and Energy today. It was put on by facilitators from the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL. We made water-powered rockets from 2-liter soda bottles, a straw and a balloon on a string, film canisters with effervescent tablets, and then finally, small model rockets. Some teachers got quite creative in their decorations; these 2 teachers want NASA to paint polka-dots on the next rockets! Hmm, I wonder what the Russians would think about that!?

After we got the rockets put together we had to pack the parachutes. We loaded an egg as "payload" in the nosecone of our rockets. Some people used bubble wrap, plastic, parts of the egg cartons, paper towels, etc. I decided to try sodium polyacrylate gel in mine. You can see one of the nose cones in the photo on the left.

Later we got to go outside and try out our rockets. It was quite breezy, so we had a little difficulty launching them at times. Renee was one of the first people to launch her rocket, a stiff breeze blew up and her rocket landed in a tree! Most people had successful launches, no one had a launch pad failure. When the rocket motors burned to a certain point they shot out a second time and released the parachutes (see photo below).

Naturally, by using the gel, I had the heaviest payload, so my poor rocket barely got high enough to release the parachutes. But the gel did the trick and my egg did not break!

It was a fun day and we learned a lot. Teachers enjoy getting a chance to be "students" too! I hope we can do the rocket activities at science camp next summer!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Tiny critters around my house

The sun finally came out after I got home from teaching today, so I took my camera out for a critter hunt. I'm really enjoying the "super macro" capability of my extension tubes. In order to use the tubes, I have to find something very tiny to photograph. The first interesting critter I found was a 1/2"-long caterpillar that was extremely well-camouflaged against the lichens on the dogwood tree. I don't know what it will turn into, but it is most likely a moth caterpillar.

The magnolia cones have begun to fall from the two large trees we have in our yard. Thanks to all the rain we've had, the mushrooms are growing quite well. One fascinating little (2" maximum) fungus is the Magnolia Cone Mushroom (Strobilurus conigenoides). As its common name implies, it specializes in decomposing the fallen cones of Magnolia trees. I especially like that the mycelia are visible in this photo.

I guess my neighbors must think I am crazy sometimes when they see me with my tripod inches from the house, laying on the ground or propped up against the wall with my camera! I spotted some weird little insects (~3mm) crawling up the wall. I'm assuming they are some type of nymph. I'm hoping someone from can identify them. Later I saw some tiny, thin, brown insects (~2mm) at the base of the wall. I thought they were probably a type of Springtail (right), sure enough, as I was focusing on one, it catapulted off the wall! ***Update: The Bugguide folks came through for me again! The white insect is a type of Mealybug. The adult females look a lot like a nymph because they do not grow wings.

I noticed a little brown speck on the window sill and at first thought it was a piece of a dead leaf. Suddenly it moved, so I zoomed in on it with my camera. It was a tiny leafhopper nymph. A few minutes later it turned around so I could see its "face". Since I couldn't get the tripod close enough to the house, I had to prop the camera on the house and try to steady it enough to get this shot. Isn't that little face adorable!? :)

Next, I turned my camera on a stinkbug. I was amazed to see its shell was covered in tiny black indentions. I'm wondering if the two little red dots are simple eyes. I saw some spiders, but many of them were not too willing to pose for me! Here is one that cooperated long enough for me to get a few shots. Check out those cool eyes!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

My "Macro" hike

As much as I enjoy hiking with Kenny and my friends, sometimes I like to go out on my own so I can take my time photographing. If I want to spend 30 minutes taking photographs of slime mold, I can without feeling guilty! :) Today I went on a "macro" hike. No, I didn't put in 20 miles, in fact, I probably got in only 2 or 3 (with ~25 pounds of equipment on my back, I didn't want to walk too far!). Today I wanted to try out my new "toys." When I had to replace my camera last week, I ordered extension tubes too. I was anxious to try them out, so I headed to Haw Ridge. Most of the day I shot just using my 105mm macro lens and a 36mm extension tube. I was amazed at the difference adding the extension tube made! Here is an orange slime mold that I photographed using it. I enjoyed seeing the detail in these pretty little fungi. It was fun to look for tiny plants, fungi and insects to photograph. There are so many amazing things around us that we miss because we are in too big of a hurry or not observant enough to notice them. I was glad this little leafhopper (right) was cooperative with me!

I noticed something red moving on the bark of a tree trunk. They were tiny red Velvet Mites that were about 1 mm. There were some ants running up and down the tree too, but it was difficult to keep them in focus.

Most of the wildflowers are gone now, but there were a few asters, goldenrods and some Stiff Gentian in bloom. I was excited to photograp this green, metallic bee on an aster flower in this photo. Notice the interesting eyes this bee has (click on the photo to enlarge it).

I hadn't seen Stiff Gentian (Gentianella quinquefolia) in several years, but today I saw many plants blooming up on the ridge.

Waterfalls and snow!

On Sunday (I'm a little behind getting this posted!) I went to the Cherokee National Forest and Cherohala Skyway with my friends, Charlie and Roseanne. Our first stop was Conasauga Falls in the National Forest. As we were driving along the gravel road back to the falls, I spotted an unusual wildflower. Fortunately, Charlie likes wildflowers too, so he was more than willing to stop. It was a Striped Gentian (Gentiana villosa).

The waterfall was a moderate 1-mile from the parking area. On the way down we enjoyed seeing the beautiful colors of the fall leaves. The Sassafras, Sourwood, and Red Maples were especially bright. We saw several mushrooms and different lichens and fungi along the way too. I was glad this mushroom survived their 2 dogs, Tootsie and Peanut. Tootsie gets excited about hiking and tears down the trail!

It was a bit tricky getting down to the waterfall because the bank was very steep. I'm still a bit leery to have my camera around water after last weekend's disaster! I was very careful and stayed away from any slick rocks. This was my first trip to Conasauga Falls (left), thanks to all the recent rains the water level was pretty high. It made for some nice photography.

Our next trip was to Bald River Falls. It was the highest level I had ever seen the river. The kayakers were having a great day! We stopped along the road several times to photograph the river and the kayakers.

Bald River Falls was roaring! It was the best I'd ever seen. The last time Kenny and I came down to see it, people were climbing on the rocks in the middle of the falls, that wouldn't have been possible this time! We didn't have a lot of time at the falls because we hadn't had lunch, our stomachs were growling and we still wanted to get to the Cherohala Skyway before sunset. As we drove up the gravel road to the top we stopped a few times to get photographs of the stream. I especially liked this shot. I don't know if this pretty little waterfall has a name or not, but I called it Split Falls.

We were in for a nice surprise when we got to the top. There had been a snowfall and some freezing rain overnight that turned the high elevations into a winter wonderland. Quite a surprise in October! The best view was about 1000 feet higher into North Carolina, it was completely white!

Our last stop was at one of the overlooks to watch the sunset. Brrr, it was cold up there!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

New camera and 2 hikes in 3 states

Kind of like the commercial says, "Like a good neighbor, State Farm was there!" Insurance is one of those things you hope you never need to use, but if you do, it's sure great to have it. Thanks to that policy, I now have a nice new Nikon D90 D-SLR camera. It isn't too different from my D80 except that it is a higher resolution and it will take movies. One thing I don't like about though, is it came with an 18 - 105mm lens, my old camera had an 18 - 135mm which would zoom in closer (that lens has been discontinued, what was Nikon thinking?!). Oh well, it is just so nice to have a camera in my hands again! :) I had been suffering photography withdrawals!

I had a couple of good opportunities to try it out this past weekend. On Saturday, Kenny and I went hiking with our friends Terri and Rod up at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park at the confluence of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia. This was where Daniel Boone blazed a road through the Gap in 1775 allowing settlers to spread westward into Kentucky. We hiked on a very popular 9-mile loop called the Ewing Trail. It led up to the spectacular Sand Cave and White Rocks Overlook, 2000 feet above the valley. Had it been a clear day, we would have had some spectacular views from the top. However, a cold wind and the clouds settled over the mountain making for less than perfect sights. Unfortunately, due to heavy horse travel, the trail was in bad shape in many areas. It was the muddiest trail we had ever hiked! When we got home, I had to soak our pants legs in a bucket of water before I could wash them! There were some interesting rock formations at the top. All of the rock is sandstone and conglomerate with large, round, white pebbles imbedded in it. The amazing thing is that at one time, a "gazillion" years ago, those pebbles were washed down river beds from the Appalachian Mountains! There were some interesting potholes on top of the rocks, I'm sure they make nice homes for some creatures (although I didn't notice any). Thanks to Edgar, who took this group photo for us! (l-r: Kenny, me, Terri and Rod)

The next excursion was the hike to Sand Cave. It is a HUGE sandstone / congolomerate overhang with an enormous "sand box" underneath. The formations in the cliff were interesting to look at, some were white and orange sandstone, others were curly outcroppings of iron-infused sandstone.

As an added treat, there is a lovely waterfall near the base of the cave. Thanks to all the recent rain, it was flowing nicely. A large group of Boy Scouts were hiking there that day, had it been warmer, I'm sure there would have been a lot of wet boys! :) Rod brought out his campstove here and we enjoyed a hot bowl of Chicken Noodle Soup. Here, Terri is savoring her bowl.

The fine sand was difficult to walk in and it sure made a mess of our boots! After last week's soaking and this week's mudbath, my poor boots may never forgive me! :(

Of course, with all the rain, there was a nice showing of mushrooms, puffballs and lichens. My favorite was the beautiful orange slime mold (yes, I did say "beautiful"!) I found growing on a log. I enjoyed showing to some of the other hikers, they were surprised to see how pretty it is! As best I can tell, this is Insect-egg Slime Mold (Leocarpus fragilis).