A Swallowtail Stops By

Western Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly

My photo above shows a beautiful example of the Western Tiger Swallowtail butterfly. This one spent a while in our front garden one afternoon earlier this week. These are very large butterflies; the wingspan of this one was about four inches.

Normally, although large and easy to see, these butterflies refuse to keep still for more than a moment, with the result that it’s almost impossible to get a good photograph of them. In this case, however, this individual seemed very happy to take its time and rest while feeding, so I was able to obtain a sharp image.

An Abundance of Butterflies

When I first set foot in California over thirty years ago (as described in an earlier post), it was a warm October and I was staying at a hotel in suburban San Mateo.

I really hadn’t thought much about the local wildlife here before making the journey, but I did expect it to be different from that in England. Among the first examples that I noticed were huge, brightly-colored butterflies, which were commonly to be seen flitting between flowers, even in fairly urban settings.

Of course, butterflies are common in England too, and many are brightly-colored, but those California species were particularly noticeable because of their size.

Below is another photo of the same Swallowtail.

Western Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly

A California Sister

Another native species of butterfly that appeared in our garden a few years ago, and which stayed still long enough to be photographed, was this slightly-bedraggled California Sister.

California Sister Butterfly

California’s most famous butterfly is perhaps the Monarch, notable because of its habit of migrating en masse. Although I’ve seen many of those over the years, none have yet stayed sufficiently still to be photographed by me! Nonetheless, I’ll just keep trying.

Western Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly

Happy Valentine’s Day for 2019

Mary herding Cats in Wabasha

Mary herding Cats in Wabasha

Some of you may already know that my wife, Mary, is a volunteer at the Humane Society of Sonoma County, where she spends many hours looking after cats that are brought into the shelter. She specializes in helping feral cats, including those infected with ringworm (which have to be quarantined until they have been cured). She does wonderful work for the society, and has nursed many cats back to health, and then helped to find great homes for them.

However, the photo above does not show Mary at the Humane Society. I took it many years ago when we were both staying at the Anderson House Hotel in Wabasha, Minnesota. In those days, the Anderson House was famous for keeping a large number of cats, which could be “loaned out” to guests to sleep in their rooms! In the photo, I think Mary was in the process of deciding which cat we’d like to “borrow” for our stay, which was a difficult decision!

Unfortunately, although you can still stay at the Anderson House Hotel, the cats are no longer available there.

Celebrate the Day

Today is, of course, Valentine’s Day, so it seems appropriate to talk a little more about the “love of my life”. Mary has been helping cats (and other animals) for many years.

When we lived in San Mateo during the 1990s, we were members of an organization called the Homeless Cat Network. As members, we fostered many cats and kittens, eventually finding new homes for them. The photo below shows one of our success stories; an extremely shy kitten named Natasha, for whom (along with her sister Nicole) we found a great new home with a loving couple in San Francisco.

Mary with Foster Kitten Natasha

Mary with Foster Kitten Natasha

In my post for Valentine’s Day last year, I described how Mary and I met. We’ve now been together for nearly 30 years, and I’m really glad to be able to celebrate another Valentine’s Day with her!

I love you, Mary!

Mary herding Cats in Wabasha

Mary herding Cats in Wabasha

The Super Blood Wolf Moon Appears

 

Eclipse Ending

Eclipse Ending

The photo above shows last Sunday’s Super Blood Wolf Moon, as unexpectedly seen from our house. I realize that, by now, everyone is probably sick of hearing about that event, but the fact that I was able to photograph it at all came as something of a surprise. The US media certainly loved the name, which sounds like the title of a really bad horror film!

In an attempt to provide a little variety, I chose this photo as my header, because it depicts the latter phase of the eclipse, when Earth’s shadow was in the process of moving off the face of the moon. You can also see some thin high cloud drifting around, which provides an interesting effect.

We had heavy rain here for most of Sunday, so we really didn’t anticipate being able to see the eclipse at all. However, just as the moon was beginning to darken, the sky cleared temporarily, so I rushed out with my camera to capture whatever I could.

Unfortunately, although the “Moon Mode” on the camera works well for handheld shots when the moon is at full brightness, the dimmed moon really requires the camera to be on a tripod, which I didn’t have available, hence the jitteriness of some of these shots.

The photo below shows a zoomed-out view of the moon from in front of our house. In addition to the orange moon itself, you may just be able to make out the stars Castor and Pollux (in the constellation Gemini), above and to the left of the moon.

Blood Moon with Castor and Pollux

Blood Moon with Castor and Pollux

Here’s an enlarged version of the center of that photograph, which hopefully will make the stars easier to spot.

Detail of the Moon and Stars

Detail of the Moon and Stars

The photo below shows a closer view of the eclipsed moon itself, although rather unsteady because of the lack of a tripod.

An Orange Moon

An Orange Moon

While it’s true that I saw just the same event that millions of others saw that night, I really wasn’t expecting to see anything, so the opportunity came as a pleasant surprise.

The next similar event won’t occur until May 2021, so of course it won’t be a “Wolf Moon” on that occasion.

Eclipse Ending

Eclipse Ending

The Tower by the Bay

The Tower by the Bay, 1976

The Tower by the Bay, 1976

I completed the painting above during 1976, but not at school. I apologize for the poor quality; not only has the poster paint I used decayed over time, but the painting was also folded into four at some point!

The scene depicted is completely imaginary, and doesn’t attempt to represent any real place. I’m not sure why I chose to do this particular work at home; perhaps I just felt that my schoolteachers would demand to know what it was supposed to represent, and I wouldn’t be able to explain!

Today (October 25th) is International Artist Day, so I thought it appropriate to feature some of my artwork in this post, even if it’s not of “professional” standard on this occasion.

If my painting above represents anything, then I suppose that it was intended to show my “ideal location”, from my viewpoint as a teenager. Looking closely, the “tower block” in the image has a sign on the side saying “Europa”, so presumably it was supposed to be a hotel somewhere in Europe. At that age, I had no experience of independent living, so it probably seemed to me that the only alternative to living with my parents was to stay in a hotel!

The city on the horizon, with its illuminated seaside promenade, is of course loosely based on views of my home town of Scarborough (as shown below in my 1977 photo). However, at that time, there were no modern “tower blocks” such as the one in my painting near the sea in Scarborough (although there was such a building—Ebor House—in the nearby resort of Bridlington, which was in the news just recently for the wrong reasons).

Scarborough South Bay at Night, 1977

Scarborough South Bay at Night, 1977

I seem to have spent a lot of time detailing the interiors of the rooms in the hotel, which I could have avoided simply by painting the curtains closed!

Slightly more than ten years after I painted the image above, I unexpectedly found myself in a seaside location that reminded me of that imaginary scene, although it was not anywhere in Europe.

Realizing the Dream

The photo below, which I took during my first visit to California in October 1987, shows the Metro Tower in Foster City, as seen from one of the lagoon bridges. At that time, the Metro Tower, which had only just been completed, had the distinction of being the tallest building between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Foster City, California, in 1987

Foster City, California, in 1987

During the first evening that I arrived in California, I found myself very disoriented, because I thought that the tower and lagoon in front of it were facing westwards towards the Pacific Ocean. In fact, Foster City faces San Francisco Bay, and thus eastwards. I had to consult maps to figure out why the sea seemed to be on both sides!

I’m afraid that once again the picture quality is very poor, but I could not in fact go back and take the same photograph today, because other large buildings now surround the Metro Tower, as shown in the nearest-available Google Street View today.

As I mentioned in a previous post, after emigrating to California later in 1987, I did rent an apartment in Foster City, and lived there for about 18 months. It was a pleasant place to live, and the sheer modernity of the surroundings was a refreshing change from everywhere that I’d previously lived.

Not a Premonition

I realize that, in view of what happened to me later on, it’s possible to interpret my teenage painting as some kind of “premonition” regarding the place where I would find myself living as an adult (and someone did in fact suggest that).

However, in general I see no evidence that premonitions, in the sense of someone being able to know what will happen in the future, are possible (if only because the future of the universe is inherently not knowable). You may be able to make a very good guess as to what will happen in the future, based on the current circumstances, but it’s only ever a prediction. (This is, of course, exactly what weather forecasters do every day.)

In the case of my painting, I think the reality is just the opposite. Having unexpectedly found myself in California, Foster City particularly appealed to me because it was so reminiscent of the scene in my earlier painting. Thus, I took action to fulfill aspects of the fantasy that I’d had as a teenager, and made it real.

In fact, seeing it that way seems better than believing in some kind of premonition, because I was able to take action to change my life in the way that I wanted it to be, rather than accepting whatever situation I found myself born into.

The Tower by the Bay, 1976

The Tower by the Bay, 1976

Fireworks from the Wine Train

Wine Train Dining Car with Mary

Wine Train Dining Car with Mary

For the Fourth of July this year, Mary and I decided to have dinner on the Napa Valley Wine Train once again. The photo above shows Mary in one of the train’s dining cars, just as it was getting dark and we were preparing to watch the firework display from the train.

The “Wine Train” is a tourist meal excursion that, since 1989, has operated from Napa to St. Helena and back on the tracks of the old Napa Valley Railroad. The line originally ran from Napa Junction to Calistoga, but had been cut back to St. Helena in 1960. In 1987, when the Southern Pacific Railroad decided to abandon the remaining tracks, a local business group stepped up to buy the line and operate it as a tourist railroad.

The Yountville Stop

Generally, the dinner trains run nightly up and down the line, but it’s simply a round trip with dinner, because you usually can’t disembark in St. Helena. Once a year, however, on the Fourth of July, the train makes an extra stop outside the Yountville Veterans’ Home, which provides a public firework show. Passengers can watch the fireworks from the comfort of the train, and it is perhaps a unique way to enjoy the display without the inconveniencies of sitting outdoors at night.

The photo below shows the Yountville Veterans’ Home before dark, taken from the northbound train.

Yountville Veterans' Home from the Wine Train

Yountville Veterans’ Home from the Wine Train

The photo below shows a typical vineyard view from the train. This is the V Sattui Winery. The roses at the end of each row of vines are intended to keep aphids off the grapes.

V Sattui Winery from the Wine Train

V Sattui Winery from the Wine Train

Turnaround in St. Helena

When the train reaches St. Helena, the locomotive must run around for the return journey. This year, for the first time since we’ve been taking trips on the Wine Train, our motive power was not a pair of Alco FPA-4s, but instead GP20 #48, on lease from the Sierra Railroad. Currently, the owners of the Wine Train are refurbishing much of the rolling stock, which has necessitated leasing stock from elsewhere.

Locomotive #48 is shown below as it ran past our carriage.

Sierra Railroad #48 at St. Helena

Sierra Railroad #48 at St. Helena

The photo below, taken at St. Helena during our 2016 visit, shows one of the FPA-4s more traditionally associated with the Wine Train.

Alco FPA-4 at St. Helena

Alco FPA-4 at St. Helena

Eventually we arrived back at Yountville after dark, the train halted, and we settled in to enjoy the fireworks. The photo below shows a typical scene, shot from inside the train.

Fireworks at Yountville, 2018

Fireworks at Yountville, 2018

I’d just bought a new Nikon camera, which features a “fireworks mode”, so this was an excellent opportunity to try that out. I was very pleased with the results.

An Excellent Dinner

I should add that our dinners on the train were excellent. In “special dining” situations such as this, the quality of food and service sometimes leaves something to be desired. In the early days of the Wine Train (during the 1990s), the food was not always outstanding, but our recent dinners on the trains have been perfect.

Independence Day for Kites

Juvenile White-Tailed Kite

Juvenile White-Tailed Kite

I took the photo above, showing a juvenile White-Tailed Kite, yesterday evening. I’d gone out for a short walk to take some test shots with a new Nikon superzoom camera. The results were better than I’d anticipated! Unfortunately, the only angle from which I could take the photos was against the sun, but nonetheless the results show good detail.

The White-Tailed Kite (Elanus leucurus, aka Black-Shouldered Kite) has apparently come back from the verge of extinction in California. It certainly seems to be an increasingly common bird here. When I first saw one, hovering over the old Naval airfield near our house a few years ago, I thought that it must be some kind of albino Kestrel, because that hovering behavior is very similar to that of the Eurasian and American Kestrels.

Until now, I’d only ever seen one kite at a time, but, yesterday evening, I eventually spotted no less than four kites flying around and screeching. They seemed to be fighting with each other, and sometimes with other birds of prey.

Eventually, and thanks to the detail revealed in the zoomed photographs, I realized that this must be a family of young kites, who were in the process of establishing their own territories. In the photo above, you can see brown plumage on the bird’s breast, which marks it as a juvenile.

The second photo below shows the plumage on the young kite’s back to better effect.

The same Juvenile White-Tailed Kite, showing its Black Shoulders

The same Juvenile White-Tailed Kite, showing its Black Shoulders

The birds were apparently disputing the prime rodent-hunting territory of the old airfield.

While all this was happening, nearby, perched on a power wire, was the Mourning Dove shown below. I’ve mentioned these birds, and their similarities to some species of Old World doves, in a previous article.

Mourning Dove, observing the Action

Mourning Dove, observing the Action

Normally I would expect such timid birds to go under cover when there are hawks around, but it seems that the dove had concluded that the kites were so preoccupied with each other that everyone else was safe!

I was considering what to write about for this year’s Fourth of July holiday, and it struck me that the independence battles of these young hawks made for an appropriate theme, despite being quite different from the Moggies cartoon that I posted for this holiday last year.

If you’ll be celebrating the Fourth of July, enjoy your holiday! Otherwise, have a good week anyway!

A Liberator visits Santa Rosa

B-24 Liberator at Sonoma County Airport

B-24 Liberator at Sonoma County Airport

My photo above shows the last flying Consolidated B-24 “Liberator” bomber, which I’d hoped to be flying in earlier this week. Unfortunately, the flight had to be canceled, due to an engine problem, but nonetheless I had a rare opportunity to examine the aircraft in detail. Alongside several other vintage aircraft, the B-24 was visiting Sonoma County Airport, as part of the annual Wings of Freedom Tour, organized by the Collings Foundation.

My interest in this particular type of aircraft stems from the fact that my father flew in them, as a Wireless Operator (W/O) for the RAF, during World War II. I mentioned in a previous article that he volunteered for the RAF on the outbreak of the war, because somebody had given him a “hot tip” that, by not waiting to be conscripted, he’d be able to choose which service he joined, and where he would serve. Unfortunately, that advice turned out to be only half-right, because he definitely did not want to serve in Aden, which was where he actually spent most of the war.

The Worst Place in the World

As reported in the book Wings of Empire, RAF personnel who served in Aden during the 1920s and 1930s described it as the “most repulsive place in the world”. It was from RAF Khormaksar air base that my father flew offensive missions against Italian forces, and also operated many ferry flights of aircraft being transferred from Britain to the Far East. Most of the ferry missions involved his flying between Aden and Malta.

As the war progressed, Britain took delivery of increasing numbers of American aircraft, under the Lend-Lease program. Thus, having started out flying British types such as the Blenheim and Vincent, he later found himself operating such American types as the Liberator and Hudson. (Incidentally, all the type names of the American aircraft were conferred by the RAF; in the US all the types were officially known only by numbers.)

Inside the B-24

My photo below shows the W/O’s position, behind the flight deck, as seen from the front of the bomb bay. This is where my father would have been sitting on those long flights.

B-24 Wireless Operator Station

B-24 Wireless Operator Station

The photo below, from a slightly different angle, shows the view through to the flight deck from the W/O station.

Looking towards the B-24 Flight Deck from the Bomb Bay

Looking towards the B-24 Flight Deck from the Bomb Bay

Warbirds Together

The B-24 wasn’t the only vintage aircraft visiting Santa Rosa. As shown below, a North American TF-51 trainer (2-seat version of the P-51 Mustang fighter) was just taxying in while I was inside the B-24.

TF-51 Taxying at Sonoma County Airport

TF-51 Taxying at Sonoma County Airport

Lined up alongside the B-24 was a North American B-25 Mitchell bomber, shown below in front of Sonoma Jet Center, who were hosting the visit.

B-25 Mitchell at Sonoma Jet Center

B-25 Mitchell at Sonoma Jet Center

Perhaps the most well-known of the visiting types was the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, shown below.

B-17 Flying Fortress at Sonoma Jet Center

B-17 Flying Fortress at Sonoma Jet Center

Gun Crazy

The US has become notorious for having too many guns, too freely available, but fortunately the realistic-looking machine gun shown below is just a dummy! It’s the waist gunner’s position inside the B-24.

Guns at the Airport!

Guns at the Airport!

As I was leaving, work continued to repair the B-24’s engine, as shown below. The aircraft were scheduled to leave the following day, so they had to get the airplane flying again.

Working on the B-24's Engine

Working on the B-24’s Engine

He Never Went Back

As a postscript to the description of my father’s wartime experience, I should mention that he never went back to Aden again (nor anywhere near it) after his military service, and I don’t think he was sorry about that!

I’ve described in earlier posts how the lives of both my parents were blighted by war, and how fortunate I feel that mine has not (so far). I think it’s important to remind ourselves every so often of the ordeals that our ancestors endured in order to maintain our freedoms.