Continuing through the Canal.
Looking through one of the spans of the El Ferdan railway bridge.
Continuing through the Canal.
Looking through one of the spans of the El Ferdan railway bridge.
Apologies in advance for the long introduction:
I have always wanted to sail through the Suez Canal—maybe I’ve just watched Lawrence of Arabia too many times but if I kept a list of really cool things I wasn’t likely ever to do, transiting the Suez Canal would definitely have been on it.
I wanted to take a trip over Christmas and finally use up all of the miles and points and credits that I’ve accumulated, many of them from trips I had to cancel in 2020. And I found a cruise from Athens to Aqaba, Jordan that not only went through the canal, but also had several stops in Egypt, including the Valley of the Kings. It was a lot of money, but I decided it would be my post-pandemic splurge. I tacked on several days in Jerusalem at the King David hotel after the cruise, and a business class flight home, all for free. I was really excited.
Then the war started. Jerusalem was no longer an option. The itinerary changed to remove the stop in the Sinai. Then Alexandria and the Valley of the Kings were cancelled. And then the Houthis started lobbing missiles at ships in the Red Sea.
I assumed that the cruise would be cancelled. It had to be cancelled, right? It was not. It turns out that travel insurance policies exclude war and civil disturbance as valid reasons for cancelling a trip; it was not something I had ever had to think about before. So while I could of course choose not to go on the trip, I would not get any of my money back.
It was not just the money, or concerns about safety. It honestly felt a little obscene to be taking a vacation anywhere near the horrific situation in Gaza. But the cruise was not cancelled, and despite a couple of suitcases worth of misgivings, I went.
And it was mostly lovely. There was a recent thread where people were expressing some strong opinions about cruising. I had not been on a cruise ship in at least a dozen years (not counting the less than luxurious expedition ships in Antarctica and the Galapagos), but I did always like that whole “unpack once” thing. And I always got a room with a balcony so I could sit and read and watch the waves and avoid my fellow passengers as much as I wanted. I wasn’t planning to ever go on a cruise again, but the itinerary—at least the original itinerary—was irresistible. I actually loved life on the ship. It was a smaller ship, and half-empty, so there were about 250 passengers. And though I am very much a “I’d rather do it myself, thanks” type of person, it was fun to be waited on and to be able to have pretty much anything I wanted whenever I wanted it.
The final itinerary was kind of a Mediterranean hopscotch, having to make up for the three stops in Egypt that were cancelled. We went to Crete, then Nafplio on the mainland, then Ephesus in Türkiye (with the clocks turned ahead an hour) then Rhodes (with the clocks turned back again), then back to Crete. And on New Year’s Eve, we transited the Suez Canal.
The captain had announced that we would arrive at the canal at 3:30 in the morning, so I thought that we’d already be in it by the time I woke up. But we didn’t start the actual transit until it was light, so I got to see sunrise over the waters around Port Said.
After returning from my hike up the North Fork of Big Pine Creek, I decided to stay at home and concentrate on fixing a long standing problem with my star tracker. I was getting star trails and my polar alignment was perfect. I removed my iPolar(a little camera that fits in my polar scope part of the tracker, connects to a computer and will polar align the mount) when the USB cable broke and didn’t realize at the time I needed to recalibrate it. I recalibrated it and I got much better tracking and continued to try to optimize that.
At the same time, I noticed that one of the tires on the Prius had a slow leak, so any distant treks were out until I could get that fixed. In early December, I was out in my yard shooting and the battery on my camera went dead during the shoot as well as the tracker. I went inside to plug in the tracker and the USB charging cable went into the hole and didn’t connect to anything.; moving the tracker, I heard something moving around inside. I took the tracker apart and the USB connector had fallen off the logic board. I now had no way to charge the tracker’s battery, so I had a brick.
My plans for 2024 included upgrading my mount to a Goto style mount and I had been looking primarily at the SkyWatcher Star Adventurer GTI. Suddenly my timeline was accelerated, I looked at the Star Adventurer azGTI but decided that the SA GTI was the better choice. When the price on Amazon dropped a week prior to Christmas, I ordered the mount. I used it for about a month and decided that I needed a better method of polar alignment, so I also got a mini computer to control the whole image acquisition process as well as a power bank to power everything.
The Orion nebula(M42) and the Running Man nebula shot using the old star tracker. This is a really easy target to shoot since you can actually see it even in light polluted skies.
These are from the 2019 Southeast Arizona Birding Festival. Albatrossity highlighted the hummingbirds on his last trip to the festival. I had one pic of a female broad-tailed hummingbird but I’m going to feature the non-hummers. Two of the trips were to a wildlife videographer’s property 20 miles south of Tucson. He maintained a small pond for wildlife viewing. I doubt it was more than eight-feet around but in the desert it can be lifesaving. And good for wildlife photographers.
One trip was for a night setup for bats; the other was a morning birds and anything else that shows up trip.
These birds were the first to show. Considered locally common in Arizona, urbanization, heat stress and lack of precipitation may be decreasing their populations.
We have a fun week coming up!
Some of you know that I spend a lot of time photographing the many varieties of hawks that winter here in Flyover Country. Some might call it an obsession. Some might be correct. Nonetheless I find it to be both educational and therapeutic, so that‘s what I do. Most of the hawks I photograph are Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis), but I often will photograph Rough-legged Hawks (Buteo lagopus), as well as the several species of falcons that also spend the winter here. Rough-legged Hawks are the subject of today’s story.
This species is found across the Palearctic (for our European and UK readers, you know it as the Rough-legged Buzzard). It is a bird of open country with a breeding range in the tundra and taiga of the Far North, and a wintering range in open plains or steppes. It seems to choose both winter and summer territories on the basis of food availability, and is therefore more nomadic than most Red-tailed Hawks, who stick with a nesting and wintering territory through thick and thin most of the time. But because it spends most of its year in places with very few human inhabitants (Kansas included), there are a lot of things about the life history and migratory behavior that are a bit mysterious.
That has started to change. Ten years ago some raptor researchers started the Rough-legged Hawk Project, dedicated to capturing Rough-legged Hawks and outfitting them with transmitters which allow them to be tracked (via satellite or cell phone towers) all year long. To date they have put transmitters on 180 individual hawks in 18 states, 2 Canadian provinces, and one territory. One of those was this guy, a young male captured in Jan 2021 in Lyman County SD. Here are the tracking data for him since he was banded (this map, and all the maps below, are courtesy of Neil Paprocki and the Rough-legged Hawk Project). The linear tracks are his travels in previous years, and the circular points are the fall and winter of 2023. Note that he started from the eastern shore of Hudson Bay this fall, and that he had been spending a lot of time in the Dakotas and Nebraska. Click here for larger image.
Here are some more, assorted pictures from my Birthday in Taos. It was honestly, one of the best Birthdays I’ve had in years. We went for a yummy breakfast again at Michael’s Restaurant, got a couples massage at a resort/spa that was walking distance from where we were staying, had dinner and drinks with a good friend and then saw a local production of The Nutcracker. The following day, on Christmas Eve we went to the Taos Pueblo to witness the Procession of the Virgin Mary followed by dinner, drinks and games with friends. It was a delightful way to end our stay in Taos.
We weren’t allowed to take any pictures inside the Taos Pueblo but this is what the sunset looked like on Christmas Eve. It was quite cold but beautiful.
One of the coolest cultural explorations we did on our trip was to visit the Taos Art Museum which is located in the Fechin House, a very cool place that my wife had been dying to check out:
The Nicolai Fechin House in Taos, New Mexico, is the historic home of the Russian artist Nicolai Fechin, his wife Alexandra and daughter Eya. After purchasing the house in 1928, he spent several years enlarging and modifying the two-story adobe structure, for instance, enlarging the porch and adding and widening windows to take advantage of the views. He carved many of the fittings of the house and its furniture, using typical Russian design elements such as “triptych windows and intricately carved doors.” The whole reflects a modernist sensibility combined with Russian, Native American and Spanish traditions.
The Fechins divorced in 1933, after which Alexandra stayed at the house until her death in 1983. Eya returned to Taos in the 1970s and began restoration of the house. She opened it to visitors beginning in 1981, under the auspices of the Fechin Institute, which she founded in her father’s memory.
The house was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places on December 31, 1979. After Eya Fechin’s death in 2002, the house passed to her daughter and son-in-law. They sold it to a foundation, which established the house museum and the Taos Art Museum.
The Fechin House has some really neat art inside, but the main attraction (for us) was the architecture and stunning woodwork.