Monday, May 21, 2012

Move the Rattlesnake First - an Ecliptic Experience

Solar eclipse 532 pm near La Honda, California. In central California, the eclipse was partial rather than annular. Captured by turning large end of binoculars towards the sun and projecting onto a white foamboard with focus short of infinity. Does anyone know what the green semi-circular ghost is in the lower left corner of this photo?  It shows up sometimes when I shoot the moon with my 200mm lens.
Originally, I was going to travel to Nevada to shoot the annular solar eclipse. It's how I approach photography - tag along with an expert and ask lots of questions. The Lion Hunter and I had such a fun time shooting the lunar eclipse in December 2011, I invited myself on a trip he was planning for the May 20, 2012 solar eclipse.

But then the Navigator called to invite me to his senior design team presentation at CalPoly and the logistics were too complicated to get to both. When your kid spends the last year of his five years in engineering college designing an unmanned cargo plane to deliver emergency supplies to a remote location after an international disaster, you just go. It's astonishing to see your son in a dark suit describing aspects of empennage to 19 representatives of the aeronautical industry. I did sneak out to Morro Rock during lunch to check on the peregrine falcons where a cadre of bearded gentleman shared their scopes and gave me the daily update on the recently fledged chicks. Four peregrine fledglings showing off their own impressive empennage.

Dakota by the Aerofox team
I intended to do two things when I got home to the Dipper Ranch today - mow the thistles next to the cattle trough and shoot the eclipse.  But I just didn't have the energy to wrestle with the brushcutter, so after three loads of laundry, I decided to dig out thistles in the orchard instead. Nothing too complicated for me today.

And I wasn't feeling very organized about photographing the eclipse either. Despite the Lion Hunter's advice, I had never gotten around to buying a special filter to protect my lens. Throughout the day, people were posting advice on the Calphoto Yahoo group. Lots of warnings about protecting your eyes and sensitive camera equipment. Also some good info from R. Beebe about "looking for a view towards the WNW horizon, about 17 degrees up (a closed fist at arm's length is 10 degrees high, stack two and you've got 20 degrees)", and something about shooting the shadow through a pinhole or your binoculars onto white cardboard or a wall.  So about 4:30, I put down my shovel and gathered up a bunch of optical gear and headed over to the corner of the backyard that usually has the best view of the sunset.

A habitat-providing stump
A wall sounded kinda boring, so I was looking for a natural object on which to project the shadow.  After trying the stacked fist technique, the stump of a conifer in the backyard seemed well positioned. I hadn't mowed that part of the yard yet and I had already seen a gopher snake while dumping a wheelbarrow of thistles today, so I approached the stump with a sharp eye. A cut side of the stump looked like it was the right height, but as I stepped back, I rechecked the ground and saw a rattlesnake curled underneath a log directly next to the stump. Durn!

I missed catching a rattlesnake on the driveway two weeks ago, and then I got buzzed by a rattler in the garage two days later which slipped underneath a shelf where I couldn't get it. I've been jumpy ever since. My rule is to safely capture and move any rattlesnake I see around the farm buildings right away to reduce the risk of being surprised in a more compromising position. All three sightings were probably the same rattler making the rounds of mice dens and gopher holes in the yard. Grrr, I really didn't want to deal with this.

A northern Pacific rattlesnake, already in position to see the solar eclipse.
If you are going to shoot the eclipse, first you have to move the rattlesnake.

I was nervous because usually when I find a rattler, it is sunning itself stretched out. They are easier to grab with the snake tongs then and they can't lunge very far if the rear third of their body is not coiled on the ground. This snake was semi-coiled and might be able to slip away under the log, and then who knows where it might show up while I was trying to photograph the eclipse.

If you're going to shoot the eclipse, move the rattlesnake first.

So I gave myself a stern talking-to, went and got the snake gear, and with more stern coaching and a few tense minutes, I had the rattler snagged and locked inside the snake can. It was fat and must have been eating a lot of gophers. I put the can in the garage for later relocation because it was almost eclipse time.

Now that you have moved the rattlesnake, you have to shoot the eclipse. I was wondering if the Lion Hunter was having such problems in Nevada.

Solar eclipse 5:58 pm
I tried smashing an old disposal camera and clipping its lens to a tripod to cast an image on the stump. Just a bright round spot. I tried the pinhole lens from a kit camera I never finished making. Nothing. This was too complicated for my non-engineer jigged-out-on-a-rattlesnake brain.

I switched from the troublesome stump to a white piece of foamboard propped on a lawn chair and tried flipping my binoculars around like someone had described.  It took awhile to figure out how to aim the binocs, but eventually, they were projecting a dual set of ever shrinking bright crescents, so I put the camera on a tripod aimed at the foamboard. Do not look at the sun or eclipse with binoculars, this is just a technique for projecting the light. Because the binocs were heavy, I found it easier to hold them still if I sat on the ground and braced my arm against the seat of the lawn chair, and clicked the camera with a remote. Since my not-so-fancy gear and rear were spread out on the ground, I was really glad I had moved the rattlesnake.

Solar eclipse 6:00 pm
Just as I got bored with the crescents and was about to go back to thistle pulling, I noticed something was eating away at the sun's image.  Was it sunspots? The dark lines grew and I realized the eclipsing sun was setting behind a tree. The last few minutes of the eclipse were lacy ones at the Dipper Ranch. There's no place like home.


  1. Wow, what a neat trick! I love how bright it makes the sun. I'll try and remember that. =)

  2. Sounds like you need MORE rattlesnakes... :-)

  3. Thanks for "empennage", that was a new word for me.

    And thanks for all your efforts in successfully bringing the eclipse to this side of the pond. One of our bairns is in Florida on holiday, but I don't think that a. the eclipse got that far, and b. it would be at the forefront of her mind even if it did!

  4. I do NOT need more rattlesnakes. They can have their bairns on the other 899 acres of the ranch. Florida was too far south to see the eclipse but I grew up there and they do have plenty of interesting snakes.

  5. Great eclipse images! Too bad you were distracted by the rattlesnake, and then ended up using foam board on a lawn chair, which probably could have been placed anywhere safe. Too funny! What's not funny are rattlesnakes (cool, but not funny). Do you know if there are rattlesnake bite kits available? Or are they too expensive for even hospitals to keep? So, I asked bb this same question... how do you keep track of when eclipses occur? I always seem to miss them lately, and this one wasn't at the crack of dawn like the last moon eclipse.

  6. When you say "interesting", do you mean the huge, non-native, invasive ones? I went through hoops when she went on her gap year, so I'm trying not to think about such things!

  7. KT: Hospitals have rattlesnake anti-venom. What I just found out from a friend who knew someone who got bit at local gun range is that they have to thaw the anti-venom first, so it is good to call the hospital to tell them you are coming. Venom can affect a human in multiple ways, and people react differently, so if you get bit, it is best to just calmly get to the hospital and let the docs monitor your response. There are websites that follow eclipses but I just hear about it from friends who are sky-oriented.

  8. IAT:most of the scary snakes are in the Everglades but other snakes throughout the state. I hope your daughter visits some of the many natural springs in the central part of Florida, natural features that are beautiful clear water, 72 degrees F year round, great for swimming, snorkeling and canoeing down their spring runs.

  9. Many thanks, Cindy, I'll pass that info on.

  10. Green semi circular ghost.
    A) you may have a UV filter on.
    B) I shoot in spot mode
    those two things mean I rarely have to deal with it.
    The larger the image you can get (a 1.4 or 2.0X teleconvertor) will help cut the occurrences of this.


Comments let me know to keep on sharing what's happening at the Dipper Ranch. You can either use an existing account or choose "Anonymous" by clicking the arrow after the "Comment As" box. Your comment will appear after a delay to allow screening of spam.