Sunday, August 5, 2012

Havin' a Crack at Mt. Graham

A couple weeks ago I drove out to eastern Arizona for some early morning birding and some afternoon astronomy. This trip to Mt. Graham was not really a birding trip--thus the early morning stop at Willcox--but the mountain provided its own stunning scenes of natural beauty, and my hope that there would be some Yellow-eyed Juncos hanging around the picnic area near the summit was also fulfilled. 

Yellow-eyed Juncos are pretty sweet birds, and in fact have a rating of six mega-fonzies on the cool scale (that's very cool). For starters, they've managed to stay independent of the massive conglomeration of subspecies and systematics that is the Dark-eyed Junco mess. Considering how many other Juncos (Pink-sided, Slate-backed, Slate-colored, White-winged, Red-backed, Grey-headed, etc.) are still stuck in the Dark-eyed Junco morass, this is quite an accomplishment. The Yellow-eyed Juncos must've realized that the key was the eye, and by wearing colored contacts they could finally disassociate themselves from all the other other variant Dark-eyed species in the U.S. It should be noted though that there are four or five subspecies of Yellow-Eyed Junco in Mexico. Here in the U.S. they enjoy their greatest distinctions.

They're classy birds too, with the rusty backs and solemn grays giving them a very professional look, while the yellow eyes and black mask add a bit of dash and daring. They're not the only cool birds to look for in the high altitudes of Arizona, but the Crossbills and Olive Warblers are not nearly as consistent. The Yellow-Eyed Junco is a cool bird that'll always be there. You can count on them.

This fellow on the charred bit of wood is an immature Junco by the looks of his streaking and splotchy mask. He was taking advantage of the cloudy skies and cooler temperatures atop Mt. Graham (10,700 feet) to practice his jumping, an essential aspect of the Junco lifestyle.

See, they jump with their arms (wings) folded behind their backs like true gentleman and gentle ladies. You won't see any Olympic long jumpers leaping with such composure.

Near the summit of Mt. Graham are three different high-powered telescopes...each more high-powered than the next. The enclosed, barn-looking scope on the left is the Submillimeter Telescope. The weird-looking doo-dad on the right is the Large Binocular Telescope, one of the most powerful ocular tools in the world. To put it in perspective, the Hubble Telescope can give a clear image of a golf ball thirty-two  miles away. The LBT give a clear resolution image of a BB (like the thing shot out of BB guns) at the same distance. My well-worn Bushnell 10x42s fall well short of both.

The LBT isn't only used for viewing BBs and golf balls. It has also provided astronomers with some of the best photographs of planets and quasars ever seen.

This is the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, housed in a third observatory atop the mountain. I wonder if Galileo knew about this telescope...

And here are some photos of techno bits.

This is the base of the Vatican telescope.

Photographing enormous telescopes up close and effectively sharing the experience is a difficult thing. The pictures mostly just amount to random photos of technology bits. It gives a general impression, but appreciating the size and scope (pun intended) of these optics is best done in person.

However, funny danger signs are always worth photographing and sharing. I particularly like the graphic, which shows exactly what will happen in the pinch-point.

Behind this large red seal is one of the mirrors from the LBT getting its monthly cleaning and dusting in aluminum. Like many places inhabited by nerds, this astrological laboratory was a mess.

Here are two other generations of Butler, seated rather appropriately in front of a "Fifteen Billion Years of Evolution" poster inside the LBT lobby.

The massive mirrors and lenses and cameras of the LBT are all attached to a central column that turns within its larger enclosure. But to ensure the telescope can have 360 degree views of the sky, the building also rotates. It is supported by these blue 'bogies', some high-torque train/bull-dozer machines bred specifically to drive around a track and turn the building in a circle. Think Arnold Schwarzenegger in the first Conan: The Barbarian movie.

Remember this thing?

No? Never Seen the movie? Either way, good for you!

Mt. Graham is a beautiful spot. The winding roads to make for a time-consuming drive up and down, but if you're in no hurry and want to get a change of scenery, it's definitely worth a visit.