On March 17, 2015 - appropriately enough, at the close of a very active period of late winter weather in the Northeast - a strong solar storm created outstanding aurora displays worldwide. The storm was classified as a 'G4,' meaning it had the potential to be visible as far south as the mid-Atlantic states. Though the storm peaked during daylight hours in the Northeast, it remained active after dark. This image was taken at Harvard Pond in the north-central Massachusetts town of Petersham. Many other images from around the country showed a distinct green glow, appropriate for St. Patrick's Day. The purplish pillars were similar to ones I saw in New Hampshire in September 2014, a display that was also visible in Massachusetts. The March 2015 aurora was also visible on Cape Cod and other points south.
Aurora displays (known as Aurora borealis in the north and Aurora australius in the southern hemisphere) are formed by interactions between particles from the sun and Earth's atmosphere. They most often are green or pink, but other hues may be visible depending on the types of gases.
Though viewing the northern lights outside of the highest latitudes often involves lots of patience and a dose of luck, there are many resources currently available that increase your odds. Websites such as http://www.spaceweather.com and NOAA offer forecasts that can give as much as several days advance notice of a storm. Once a storm is in progress, check pages such as http://www.softservenews.com/Aurora.htm or Facebook sites for short-term updates. You can even sign up for customized aurora alerts to your phone. One of the key items to track is the 'kp' index. In short, this number reflects viewing zones from north to south. The higher the number, the further south the aurora will likely be visible. The locale in the image is right on the kp 7 line, and when the storm spiked to an 8 shortly after 10:00 PM, the aurora became visible.
When choosing a viewing area, a clear view of or near the northern horizon is an obvious necessity, and the further away from light pollution the better. A bright moon may make it difficult to see faint auroras. If you can get to or live near a landmark such as a lighthouse, barn, mountain, or the like, it will add a point of interest (as long as it doesn't obscure the view). If you get there before sunset, you'll be able to scout vantages and get your camera's focus set. Patience is an essential part of observing and photographing auroras - be prepared to wait extended periods of time for a show that might last just a few minutes.
Once you're in position and witnessing a display, basic photography essentials include a sturdy tripod, cable release or self timer, extra batteries (especially on cold-weather nights), and adjusting to the necessary ISO for the conditions. The intensity of the display and overall scene will affect exposure times. Be aware that your camera's display monitor will look brighter in the dark than the actual image that gets recorded. In post-processing, use tools such as luminosity and clarity to reduce noise and definite features. It's tempting to push saturation and vibrance to make the colors pop, but be careful about going too far and making the scene look unnatural. Keep an eye on the forecast and sky, and good luck!
The extended period of winter storms and Arctic cold during the mid-late winter of 2015 has resulted some unusual scenes around Cape Cod Bay as winter slowly recedes from the New England coast.
Large ice blocks in Wellfleet and Truro (above) have attracted national media attention.
The ice formations, seen here at Great Hollow Beach in Truro, were constantly changed by tides.
An overwintering common loon navigates the ice field off a Truro beach.
Sunset from Great Hollow Beach in Truro as the ice shifted north along the bay.
Overview from Truro looking towards Provincetown on March 11.
The recent return of great white sharks to Massachusetts coastal waters has been an interesting and highly publicized development. I've been gathering information related to shark sightings, gray seals, and related habitats such as Monomoy Island and the National Seashore ocean beaches. Here's a timeline of key events:
(Above: Gray seal colony off Lighthouse Beach near Chatham Harbor's inlet, a hotspot of shark activity).
1603: English explorer Martin Pring notes large seal population off Truro.
1865: Henry David Thoreau's Cape Cod includes references to great white sharks.
Late 19th century - 1962: Massachusetts enacts bounty on seals, which are hunted to near extinction in New England.
1936: A fatal attack on a swimmer off Mattapoisett is the last great white shark attack in Massachusetts until 2012.
1972: U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act enacted.
1980s-1999: Gray seal population expands to roughly 6000 at Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge off Chatham.
1990: A single great white is seen off Cape Cod, the only sighting for 5 years.
2004 September: A great white is entrapped in a shallow lagoon on Naushon Island for several days.
2006: A Thanksgiving Day storm connects South Beach and Monomoy Island, disrupting seal travel and prey fish corridors; numbers subsequently decline at Monomoy and increase elsewhere. 500-600 individuals estimated near Chatham Fish Pier.
2008 June: Passengers on a Monomoy Island Excursions tour boat witness a shark attacking a gray seal.
July 11: Several sightings are reported at Edgartown, Martha's Vineyard, resulting in beach closures.
July 15: A dead small female great white washes up on the southwest shores of Nantucket Island.
2009: A large gray seal colony well-established at Head of the Meadow Beach in Truro, later shifts north to the High Head area.
2011 March: a single-day gray seal count indicates nearly 16,000 individuals in Massachusetts waters.
2012 July 9: a first-time sea kayaker is pursued by a shark off Nauset Beach, witnessed by many beach visitors.
July 30: A 50-year old man is bitten in ocean waters while swimming with his son roughly 500 feet off Ballston Beach in Truro. 50 stitches are required to close the wound, which is confirmed as a great white.
July-September: Ocean beaches in Chatham and Orleans repeatedly closed and reopened after sightings.
September 13: A giant 20-foot female is one of 6 great whites tagged off Chatham by Shark Hunters.
2014 August: The gray seal colony at High Head in Truro is an estimated 500-600 individuals.
August 25: A great white is spotted by police helicopter off Duxbury Beach, resulting in swimming closure; it lingers off the beach for more than an hour.
September 3: A great white overturns two female kayakers off White Horse Beach near Plymouth and bites one of the boats. The women are rescued without injury.
Recent visits to the Mass Audubon Wachusett Meadows and Cooks Canyon Wildlife Sanctuaries in central Massachusetts during the first week of July included the welcome sightings of a number of early summer monarch butterflies winging around the milkweed fields. Several friends and neighbors have also reported seeing them in their backyards and gardens. This is an encouraging development after the summer of 2013, when the monarch population crashed throughout the Northeast.
(Above: Monarch butterfly on milkweed)
Because monarchs are a well-known and highly visible species, their absence last year has generated a lot of attention. A combination of short and long-term factors was responsible for the 2013 decline. Record warmth and drought in 2012 slowed monarch reproductive activity, especially in the Midwest ‘Corn Belt,’ where a large percentage of the monarchs that overwinter in Mexico breed. This resulted in a record low number of monarchs overwintering in Mexico (only 3 acres of forest used, far below the average of 17 acres). This alone wouldn’t have resulted in the marked lack of sightings - they were fairly visible in 2012 after low numbers the previous winter. However, the spring of 2013 had more unusual weather, in this instance abnormally cool and wet conditions that adversely affected the northbound migration. Sightings were few and far between, and it was a poor breeding season. As a result, the 2013-14 overwintering numbers plummeted to an alarming low of just 1.7 acres.
(Above: Monarch on late summer goldenrod before winter migration)
Though 2013 was an unusual year, long-term monarch population trends are troubling. A significant concern has been the loss of milkweed, their sole host plant. Studies indicate that milkweed has declined by more than 20 percent over the past two decades, effectively eliminating nearly one-quarter of monarch breeding habitat. Milkweed is most common in Midwestern farmlands, where it was been reduced by recent agricultural practices, such as genetically modified crops that facilitate the removal of milkweed and other species that are regarded as unproductive weeds by farmers. The loss of former fields to forest regrowth and suburban development in recent decades is also a factor. In additional to its value to monarchs, milkweed is a key food source for many other butterflies and insects. Visit a milkweed patch now (mid-late July) and you'll often see masses of fritillary, tiger swallowtails, silver-spotted skippers, milkweed bugs, and other insects congregating around the blooms.
(Above: Silver fritillary (top) and tiger swallowtail on milkweed)
To briefly summarize the unique life history of monarchs, after 3-5 generations cycle through during the summer months, one long-lived generation undertakes the long migration to warm wintering grounds in Mexico and California in the late summer and autumn. In June, the next generations make the journey north to breeding grounds, and then the cycle begins again. Given the geographic spread, susceptibility to weather, and numerous other factors, conservation is a complex challenge. Though the long-term trends indicate recovery will be a long process, hopefully the early sightings of 2014 are a positive sign.
What a difference a few days makes…..at the last entry, spring was progressing sluggishly, and many early season wildflowers were still blooming. Over the past two weeks, the forests have rapidly greened up, and an entirely different group of species is rapidly cycling through. While there have been several unseasonably cool days this month and no prolonged warm spells, average temperatures have actually been a few degrees above normal for most of May in Massachusetts, and the season appears to have caught up. Here are some of the familiar mid-spring species in bloom:
Unlike slightly larger red trilliums which thrive in rich soils, these photogenic flowers favor acidic and boggy forest habitats. Their single flower's three white petals are centrally splotched with a maroon patch that attracts and guides pollinators to the flower. The leaves, also in threes, are dark green.
Pink Lady’s Slipper
A favorite of many wildflower enthusiasts, this orchid also thrives in acidic and boggy environments (it often grows under pines), along with rocky areas and deciduous forests with acidic, well-drained soils. It is named for its large pouch-like petal, which is shaped like a moccasin or slipper and blooms in hues ranging from magenta to pink to pinkish-white. Pink lady’s slippers often form colonies, though some grow individually. Like other orchids, the seeds interact with soil fungi to survive and reproduce. Bloom time is mid-May to June.
This hardy flower grows in rocky woods, outcroppings, ledges, riverbanks, and woodland edges, sometimes in seemingly inhospitable places where there barely seems enough soil to support it, such as the rock cave shown below. The red and yellow flowers, which hang off a long stem, are favored by hummingbirds and butterflies. It blooms in mid-late spring.
One of the most unusual wildflowers, fringed polygalas are distinguished by their tube-like true pedals, which are flanked by two petal-like ‘wings.’ They are sometimes mistaken for orchids. The leaves are dark green and similar to wintergreen. This is a low-growing flower, that reaches a maximum height of just 3-6 inches. It is a member of the overall milkwort family, the species of which are reputed to increase milk in nursing mammals.
Logically named for the shape of both its flower and leaves, eastern starflower thrives in cool, moist woods and mountain slopes. Paired flowers have 5-9 pointed, star-like petals, and the elongated leaves form a similar pattern.
Bunchberry is well-named, as it often forms dense patches in woods and bogs, including high mountain slopes, in May and June. White, petal-like ‘bracts’ surround the tiny green true central flower. Though related to high-growing dogwoods, bunchberries only reach 3-8 inches in height.
Also known as Clintonia, this small lily has bell-like pale yellow flowers. It also favors cool acidic woods and mountain slopes. Bloom time is May to July; after flowering watch for (but don’t eat) the foul-tasting blue berries, which its common name is derived from. The long leaves are similar to those of pink lady's slippers and other orchids.
The next update will include the end-of-spring species, which include colorful favorites such as blue flag iris, and yellow and showy lady’s slippers.