Monthly Archives: February 2009

NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day

Orion's Belt, a photo by Martin Mutti.

Orion's Belt, a photograph by Martin Mutti.

So many people (ok, five…)  told me they liked the photograph at the top of my “Starry, Starry Night” post (that photograph is from that I’m posting a NASA website (see below) that archives a photograph each day of an astronomy feature.  I chose Orion’s Belt to illustrate this post, because it’s my favorite constellation — probably because it’s easy to identify.  Also,  the night sky here in Kansas in the winter, when Orion appears, is usually clear.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              
The NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day website explains the photograph above:  Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka are the bright bluish stars from east to west (left to right) along the diagonal in this gorgeous cosmic vista taken by Martin Mutti. Otherwise known as the Belt of Orion,  these three blue supergiant stars are hotter and much more massive than the Sun. They lie about 1,500 light-years away, born of Orion’s well-studied interstellar clouds. In fact, clouds of gas and dust adrift in  this region have intriguing and some surprisingly familiar shapes, including the dark  Horsehead Nebula and Flame Nebula near Alnitak at the lower left. The famous Orion Nebula itself lies off the bottom of this star field that covers about 4.5×3.5 degrees on the sky.  Mutti took this image in January 2009 with a digital camera attached to a small telescope in Switzerland.  It better matches  human color perception than a more detailed composite taken more than 15 years ago.

NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day Archive.

“Starry, Starry Night.”


Filed under Life, Photography, Science

Kookaburra Chorus

Kookaburra Kookaburra sits on the old gum tree
Merry merry king of the bush is he
Laugh Kookaburra, laugh Kookaburra
Gay your life must be

Kookaburra sits on the old gum tree
Eating all the gumdrops he can see
Stop Kookaburra, stop Kookaburra
Leave some gums for me

Kookaburra sits on the old gum tree
Counting all the monkeys he can see
Stop Kookaburra, stop Kookaburra
That’s no monkey, that’s ME!!!

At Girl Scout camp in Kansas, we roasted marshmallows and sang about the Kookaburra.  I had no idea what a kookaburra was.  And a gum tree?  What was that?  Was it spearmint, doublemint or Juicy Fruit? 

Laughing Kookaburra.

Laughing Kookaburra.

Finally, I got to Australia and met this large laughing bird, which sits high in eucalyptus (gum) trees on the lookout for snakes, lizards and baby birds (ugh).  It’s also called the “Laughing Jackass.” It gets to be about 17 inches long and will smash its food, whether a snake or a baby bird, against a rock to break its bones to make the prey easier to swallow.  The kookaburra is an essential part of the Australian ecosystem, especially when it eats those very poisonous Aussie snakes.  The bird at work, though, doesn’t paint a lovely lyrical picture for me.

The song was written by an Australian woman, but kookaburras don’t eat gum drops or any seeds, and there aren’t any monkeys in Australia, except in zoos.  What kind of a song is that to teach to children!

You won’t see the kookaburra at the bird feeder with the cockatoos, rainbow lorikeets and the rosellas, but it might swoop into an Aussie backyard (or “garden”) for some barbecue. 

In Sydney at the house of friends who lived in a wooded area, we awoke at daybreak every morning to a chorus of kookaburras, otherwise known as the bushman’s alarm clock.   

Half asleep,  I dreamed I was on the jungle ride at Disney World.  The kookaburra’s laugh is the iconic jungle sound on a number of movie soundtracks, although the kookaburras live only in Australia, New Guinea and the Aru Islands.  The kookaburra laugh, on high speed, was also used as Flipper’s “voice” on the television show about the dolphin “Flipper.”

Now, I can’t get that darned song out of my head!  Or the kookaburra’s chorus, either.  You can find many versions of the song on  Listen to it, if you don’t mind it taking over your brain.

More about the kookaburra, including a link to its call.

About the origin of the Girl Guide (and Girl Scout) song “Kookaburra.”


Filed under Animals, Australia, Biology, Bird-watching, Birds, Humor, Life, Nature, Personal, Random, Travel

Flight of the Conchords

I’ve just discovered the Flight of the Conchords television show.  I know, I know.   What took me so long?   Well, for one thing I’m too cheap to pay for HBO.  Another is that I count on my children to tell me about what’s fun in the entertainment world.  By the time they think to clue me in, the coolness of a show is already starting to wear off, so I hope that doesn’t happen to this duo that describes itself as  “formerly New Zealand’s fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo a capella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo.”   If so, I’m sorry, guys.

This past week, I’ve tried to make exercise more appealing by only allowing myself to watch the Flight of the Conchords show while on my exercycle or lifting weights.  Instead I stop so often to hear and decipher what the guys are singing or saying that I barely break a sweat.   Hey, exercising my laugh muscles is better than no exercise at all.

Flight of the Conchords Official Band Picture.

Flight of the Conchords Official Band Picture.

I can understand what drives Mel, the obsessive stalker/groupie, who is the band’s sole fan on the show.  Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie are so endearingly odd and weirdly sweet, even their names fall just a bit short.  No “r” in Jemaine or extra “t” in Bret.  They’re laid-back and unflappable, genial and don’t take themselves too seriously, which seems to be a Kiwi trait. (I could be wrong. I was only there for eight days.)

My daughter gave me the first season to watch when I got home from New Zealand.  She knew I’d love it, if only to hear the accents again.  West rhyming with East, so that it sounds like “weest.”  Eeg for egg and Leeft for left.  The universal greeting of  “Hey, guys”  or just “guys”.   We say that, too, but it’s just different. 

There’s also the tongue-in-cheek rivalry with the much larger neighbor Australia.  (Maybe it isn’t tongue-in-cheek.  In New Zealand, I heard an Aussie and a Kiwi cordially discussing their rivalry (big brother and little brother) until the the Kiwi said, “At least my ancestors chose to come here.”  The Aussie replied, “Being transported to Australia was the best thing that ever happened to my great-great-great grandfather. He did his time and then prospered.”  They both smiled.)

It’s fun to watch clueless  Murray, the band manager, who tries to manage the band surreptitiously from his office in the New Zealand consulate in New York City.  My daughter and her boyfriend are music business graduates, so they particularly enjoy Murray, played by Rhys Darby.  I asked, “Where have I seen Murray before?”  

” ‘Yes Man’ with Jim Carrey.”  Right, Rhys Darby plays Norman, a clueless bank manager in that movie.

I love Jemaine and Bret’s oddball and brilliant music.  I can’t explain it.  You’ll just have to watch! 

 Here’s what Greg Royal, who blogs as Kiwi Bloke, has to say about “Flight of the Conchords.”

More about Flight of the Conchords including links to other sites.

The video below combines the Flight of the Conchords with one of New Zealand’s other passions, “The Lord of the Rings.”  The “Business Time” video at the time isn’t suitable for young children…..


Filed under Australia, Entertainment, Humor, Life, Music, New Zealand, Personal, Random

More Deviltry

In the wild, Tasmanian Devils are nocturnal, but they don't mind a little rest and relaxation in the sun.

In the wild, Tasmanian Devils are nocturnal hunters and scavengers. However, they don't mind a little rest and relaxation in the sun, especially after an exhausting tussle over some wallaby chops.

My friends and I fell in love with Tasmanian Devils, irascible carnivorous marsupials that live in the wild only on the island of Tasmania, an Australian state south of the mainland of Australia. 

I'm petting the nice Tasmanian Devil. "Nice devil, nice devil....."

I'm petting the nice Tasmanian Devil. "Nice devil, nice devil....." Though they have a reputation for fighting, they aren't aggressive toward humans if handled correctly.

In the wild, Tasmanian Devils usually are only active at night, when they hunt or seek out carrion.  They can be very nasty-tempered and make a huge noisy fuss when they eat.   You can see why I find them so adorable!  They have their own personalities and are inquisitive.  (Their main inquiry probably is “When is feeding time?”)  Their keepers and the scientists who study them become very fond of the little devils.

A devil gets peeved when a young man's hand got too close to the devil's head.  We both had to count our fingers after that close encounter.  The keeper has raised this devil from joeyhood, and he's used to people, but a devil is a devil, after all!

A devil gets peeved when a young man's hand got too close to the devil's head. We both had to count our fingers after that close encounter. The keeper raised this devil from joeyhood, so the devil is used to people, but a devil is a devil, after all!

If you want to see Tasmanian Devils, you’ll need to visit a wildlife park or zoo in Australia.   There, the devils are happy to greet you during the day.  At some parks, you can even pet a devil.  Just be careful that you don’t reach too close to its head.  We saw devils and many other unique-to-Australia animals at East Coast Natureworld near Bicheno and Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park near Taranna, both in Tasmania.

The only other place outside of Australia where devils can be seen is the Copenhagen Zoo, where they were a gift to Denmark, because Mary, Crown Princess of Denmark,  is from Tasmania.

Many Australian zoos and parks, particularly in Tasmania, are breeding the devils in special quarantined areas so they won’t contract Devil Facial Tumor Disease, an infectious cancer that affects many wild devils.  So far, the disease is incurable.  Scientists estimate that half or more of the devil population has disappeared in the past dozen years because of the disease.

Tasmanian Devils often eat roadkill, such as wallabies, but can also become roadkill themselves.  They travel widely in search of food.

Tasmanian Devils often eat roadkill, such as wallabies, but can also become roadkill themselves. They travel widely in search of food.

Tasmanian Devils play an important role in the Tasmanian environment, plus they are so cute.  You can read more about devils in my previous post, I’m a Friend of the Tasmanian Devil.   That post includes a Discovery Channel video and links to more information.  Below are some videos from our visit to a wildlife park to see the devils.


Filed under Animals, Australia, Biology, Conservation, Environment, Humor, Life, Natural History, Nature, Personal, Photography, Random, Science, Travel

I’m a Friend of the Tasmanian Devil

Tasmanian Devils are good climbers when they're young.

Young Tasmanian Devils are good climbers. These irascible marsupials can be charming. Isn't he cute!

When my friend Anita told me we could tour Tasmania when we visited her and her husband in Australia, I thought:  “Great, I can see some Tasmanian Devils.” 

I told my daughter (she stayed behind) about the itinerary that included these irascible marsupials, and then I added, “The Tasmanian Devils are dying out.”  Just to say that made both of us tear up.  Thousands of types of animals are threatened with extinction, but the devils could be gone in only a few decades.

This Tasmanian Devil looks menacing, but he's just yawning. Devils can get peevish, though, particularly at meal time when they have to share.  Devils have the strongest jaws per size of any mammal and can completely devour their meals, bones, fur and all. They are stellar members of the clean plate club!

This Tasmanian Devil is showing his "vicious yawn," one of 20 identified devil postures. You get a good looks at his jaws and sharp teeth. Devils have the strongest jaws per size of any mammal and can completely devour their meals, bones, fur and all. They are stellar members of the clean plate club!

I’d read a heart-breaking story last year in the New York Times about a terrible infectious cancer (Devil Facial Tumor Disease) that could wipe out the Tasmanian Devil.  Some scientists think the devil population may have dropped 50 percent or even more in the last dozen years.  The disease is transmitted from devil to devil by biting, which the devils do while eating and mating.  It’s no accident that they’re called devils, although they can also be very endearing. (See Harper’s Magazine link below.  It’s a great article.)

Scientists and wildlife experts are trying to find a cure, but so far they haven’t come close.   Wildlife experts also have set aside disease-free areas for the devils to live and reproduce.  The devil only exists in the wild in Tasmania, an island that’s one of the states of Australia. Since the extinction of the Thylacine (also known as the Tasmanian Tiger) in 1936, the Tasmanian Devil is now the largest carnivorous marsupial in the world.

Study of the devil’s facial tumor is leading to better understanding of the nature of cancer itself.

At the first wildlife park we visited, my first sight of a devil was a sleepy creature in a burrow. 

“Ahhh, so cute!”Tasmanian Devil sticker.

He (or she) and his friends were soon up and chasing each other in a circle and also checking us out.   They gave us the “vicious yawn,” which scientists think means the devil is thinking: “You don’t scare me.”  The devils looked like small, stocky dogs and ran like raccoons.  It wasn’t until the keeper tossed a fleshy bone to three of them, that their cantankerous side appeared.  Their comraderie disappeared, and they grabbed onto the bone and wouldn’t let go.  They made a terrific racket as they ran in circles, all three gripping the meat in their mouths together.  Usually, devils are solitary but will come together when they find something delicious.

See the devils in action below in the YouTube video from the Discovery Channel.

“More Deviltry,” my second post on Tasmanian Devils. Can’t get enough of the Devils!

Harper’s Magazine Story about studying contagious cancer in Tasmanian Devils.

More information about the Tasmanian Devil.

Devil Worshippers Unite.

Sharing isn't on the menu when three Tasmnaina Devils grab onto the same piece of meat.

Sharing isn't on the menu when three Tasmanian Devils grab onto the same piece of meat. You've never heard such a commotion!

Click on these thumbnails to see cards starring Tasmanian Devils on Greeting Card Universe.


Filed under Animals, Australia, Biology, Conservation, Education, Entertainment, Environment, Friendship, Humor, Life, Natural History, Nature, Personal, Photography, Random, Science, Travel

Starry, Starry Night


In the center, the Southern Cross constellation and its two bright pointer stars (at the left) adorn the pale band of the Milky Way in the night sky of the Southern Hemisphere.

It was almost midnight when we arrived at Macquarie Lighthouse in Sydney for the second time.  In the afternoon, we’d come as tourists to this spot, checked it off our list and hadn’t planned to return.

Old South Light Head.

Macquarie Lighthouse.

“We’ve lived here for decades and never seen this lighthouse, and now we’re seeing it twice in one day,” David said.

Okay, so we weren’t thrilled at this unscheduled second trip  — my fault, I admit — but even the locals had to admit they were charmed to see the lighthouse in action.  I’ve visited a dozen lighthouses, but I’d never seen one at work before.  It was a beautiful summer night in late January.

Armed with flashlights (or torches, as they say), we soon focused on finding Monica’s bracelet, lost on our first trip.  (Yes, my fault.) It had been a long day and a long drive, and we just hoped to find the bracelet and get home to bed.  Overhead, the old lighthouse steadily flashed its beacon.  Beyond was the dark Tasman Sea, pounding on the rocky shore below the cliffs.

Macquarie Lighthouse.

Macquarie Lighthouse is Australia’s first and longest operating navigational light. There has been a navigation aid on this site since 1791 and a lighthouse since 1818.

“I found it,” Monica announced, displaying the bracelet.  That afternoon she’d slipped it off her wrist so that her hand would fit under a fence to retrieve my camera lens cap. (I should buy my lens caps by the gross.)

“That was fast.”  Relieved, we turned to leave, but the night sky was so amazing.

We turned off the flashlights and stared at the heavens.  The pale ribbon of the Milky Way stretched across the sky. Even though we were on the outskirts of  Sydney with its light pollution, the clear, black sky was sprinkled with bright stars.  Despite my poor night vision, I could easily pick out Orion, although he looked a bit askew from this southern latitude.

“See, aren’t you glad you lost your bracelet here? ” I asked.

Macquarie Lighthouse.

Macquarie Lighthouse stands at the southern entrance of Sydney Harbour, which Captain James Cook missed while investigating the coast of Australia.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Monica fired off.  I was sure I could see her smiling in the dark.

She and David pointed to the Southern Cross and to its two pointers stars.  It was then that it really hit me.  Not only was I was 9,000 miles from home, but I was just a tiny blip in the cosmic picture.  I felt exhilarated!

You can’t see the Southern Cross from the Northern Hemisphere, even as the people in the Southern Hemisphere can’t see the North Star.  One of the pointer stars is Alpha Centauri, a star system that is closest to the earth,  “only” 4.37 light years away, which you can’t see from the Northern Hemisphere.

“Hello, neighbor,” I said to Alpha Centauri.  “Nice to meet you at long last.”

This aerial view of Macquarie Lighthouse shows the Sydney skyline in the background.  The lighthouse stands on the south head of Sydney Harbor. This isn't my photograph, though I wish it were!

This aerial view of Macquarie Lighthouse shows the Sydney skyline in the background. The lighthouse stands on the south head of Sydney Harbour. This isn’t my photograph, though I wish I could claim it!

The Down Unders certainly don’t feel that they are at the far end of the world. To them, the stars are as they should be.

I got my bearings at 33 degrees latitude south and felt right at home in Oz.

Who's on top of the world?  It all depends on your perspective.

Who’s on top of the world? It all depends on your perspective.


Filed under Australia, Friendship, History, Humor, Life, Personal, Random, Sailing, Science, Travel

Bush Fires in Australia

Mother and child koalas at Natureworld in Tasmania, Australia.

Mother and child koalas at Natureworld in Tasmania, Australia.

My heart goes out to the people of Australia as thousands of acres burn, taking the lives of more than 200 people and millions of animals.   A few weeks ago we visited the beautiful state of Victoria, the air fragrant with eucalyptus and other exotic perfumes.  The aromatic oils that produce the delicious fragrances are also what make the trees so explosive and combustible when the weather is very hot and dry, as it is now. Before the fires in Victoria, we had driven through the aftermath of a smaller bush fire in Tasmania.  Everything was scorched and some fires still smoldered.  The air was thick with an acrid burnt odor.

I loved the people and adored the animals everywhere we traveled in Australia.  (Not so crazy about the huge venomous tiger snake we encountered on a bush walk, though!)

Below is an Associated Press news story about the animals, as well as some of the animal photographs I took on our visit.  I’ve added an AP photograph of a rescued burned koala, too. See the link to a love story between rescued koalas at the bottom — “Rescued Sam, a young female, has a New Beau, Bob.”  To learn more about what is being done and to donate, click on the Victoria Wildlife link, at the bottom.

SYDNEY – (By AP writer Kristen Gelineau) – Kangaroo corpses lay scattered by the roadsides while wombats that survived the wildfire’s onslaught emerged from their underground burrows to find blackened earth and nothing to eat.

Wildlife rescue officials on Wednesday worked frantically to help the animals that made it through Australia‘s worst-ever wildfires but they said millions of animals likely perished in the inferno.

Scores of kangaroos have been found around roads, where they were overwhelmed by flames and smoke while attempting to flee, said Jon Rowdon, president of the rescue group Wildlife Victoria.

Kangaroos that survived are suffering from burned feet, a result of their territorial behavior. After escaping the initial flames, the creatures — which prefer to stay in one area — likely circled back to their homes, singeing their feet on the smoldering ground.

“It’s just horrific,” said Neil Morgan, president of the Statewide Wildlife Rescue Emergency Service in Victoria, the state where the raging fires were still burning. “It’s disaster all around for humans and animals as well.”

Some wombats that hid in their burrows managed to survive the blazes, but those that are not rescued face a slow and certain death as they emerge to find their food supply gone, said Pat O’Brien, president of the Wildlife Protection Association of Australia.

Edith the wombat was rescued from her mother's pouch when her mother was hit by a car. Edith is now living at Natureworld in Tasmania, Australia.  Wombats are noctural and often are hit by cars when they venture out in the dark to look for food and other wombats.

Edith the wombat was rescued from her mother’s pouch when her mother was hit by a car. Edith is now living at Natureworld in Tasmania, Australia. Wombats are noctural and often are hit by cars when they venture out in the dark to look for food and other wombats.

The official human death tollstood at 181 from weekend’s deadly fires and authorities said it would exceed 200. While the scope of the wildlife devastation was still unclear, it was likely to be enormous, Rowdon said.

“There’s no doubt across that scale of landscape and given the intensity of the fires, millions of animals would have been killed,” he said.

Hundreds of burned, stressed and dehydrated animals — including kangaroos, koalas, lizards and birds — have already arrived at shelters across the scorched region. Rescuers have doled out antibiotics, pain relievers and fluids to the critters in a bid to keep them comfortable, but some of the severely injured were euthanized to spare any more suffering.

“We’ve got a wallaby joey at the moment that has crispy fried ears because he stuck his head out of his mum’s pouch and lost all his whiskers and cooked up his nose,” Rowdon said. “They’re the ones your hearts really go out to.”

In some of the hardest-hit areas, rescuers used vaporizing tents to help creatures whose lungs were burned by the searing heat and smoke.

One furry survivor has emerged a star: a koala, nicknamed “Sam” by her rescuers, was found moving gingerly on scorched paws by a fire patrol on Sunday. Firefighter David Tree offered the animal a bottle of water, which she eagerly accepted, holding Tree’s hand as he poured water into her mouth — a moment captured in a photograph seen around the world.

Cheyenne Tree treats a Koala nicknamed Sam, saved from the bushfires in

Cheyenne Tree treats a koala nicknamed Sam that was saved from a bush fire in Gippsland, Victoria, Australia. Associated Press photograph.

“You all right, buddy?” Tree asks in a video of the encounter as he approaches the koala. Later, as Sam thirstily gulps from the bottle, he quips: “How much can a koala bear?”

Often mistakenly called koala bears because they resemble a child’s teddy bear, the marsupial is actually a rather grumpy creature with a loud growl and sharp claws.

Sam is being treated at the Mountain AshWildlife Shelter in Rawson, 100 miles (170 kilometers) east of Melbourne, where she has attracted the attention of a male koala, nicknamed “Bob,” manager Coleen Wood said. The two have been inseparable, with Bob keeping a protective watch over his new friend, she said.

Meanwhile, workers at the shelter were scrambling to salve the wounds of possums, kangaroos, lizards — “everything and anything,” Wood said.

“We had a turtle come through that was just about melted — still alive,” Wood said. “The whole thing was just fused together — it was just horrendous. It just goes to show how intense (the fire) was in the area.”

The animals arriving appear stressed, but generally seem to understand the veterinarians are trying to help them, Wood said. Kangaroos and koalas are widespread in Australia and are not particularly scared of humans.

Volunteers from the animal welfare group Victorian Advocates for Animals filled 10 giant bins with 2,300 dead grey-headed flying foxes that succumbed to heat stroke Saturday, said Lawrence Pope, the group’s president. Volunteers tried to save some of the bats by giving them fluids and keeping them cool, Pope said, but the creatures were simply too stressed and perished.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Pope said. “They’re very endearing animals and to see them die right before our eyes is something that wildlife rescuers and carers just find appalling.”

Links to koala love story, video of Sam and a Victoria Wildlife rescue website are below the photos.

A kangaroo joey nurses from its mother.  (It could be a wallaby. I'm still trying to tell the wallabies and kanagroos apart.)

A kangaroo joey nurses from its mother at the Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park neat Port Arthur. (It could be a wallaby. I’m still trying to tell the wallabies and kangaroos apart.)

Grey-headed flying foxes, a fruit bat, hang from the trees in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, Australia.

Grey-headed flying foxes, which are fruit bats, hang from the trees in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, Australia.

A link to a post about rescued Sam and her new koala boyfriend, Bob.   Koala Love Story. Rescued Sam has a new beau, Bob.

To learn about wildlife rescue efforts in Victoria and to donate, click on:

Video of Sam:



Filed under Animals, Australia, Environment, Life, Nature, Personal, Photography, Random, Travel