Thursday, April 23, 2015

Palomar Observatory

Palomar Observatory
Palomar Observatory. April 19, 2015. Greg Gillson.
I recently injured my shoulder. It is still recovering. One symptom is that I am currently unable to raise my arm. Thus, I am unable to hold my large camera and telephoto lens to take pictures. In fact, I have to use my binoculars one-handed. Adjusting the focus that way is slow and cumbersome, as you might imagine. So all the photos in this post were taken with my phone.

This past weekend Marlene and I got away for a few hours and headed up into the hills to explore the region around the Palomar Observatory. It was more exploration than birding--Oh, who do I think I'm fooling?--I am always birding! I visited many different areas for short periods of time while birding. That's exploring, right?

We started up on Palomar Mountain at 5600 feet elevation. That is higher than the highway passes over the Oregon Cascades. It is almost as high as Timberline Lodge on Oregon's 11,000 foot Mt. Hood.

Astrophysics is an interest of mine. I'd like astronomy a lot more if one didn't have to do it at night when my body really wants to sleep! And I don't like to be cold. But in order not to stress the telescope and cause focusing issues, the observatory is kept constantly at the night-time temperature of the mountain (after all, that's when the dome opens--at night). This time of year that is in the upper 40's or low 50's, but in winter that would be freezing or below.

The observatory is owned and operated by Caltech. The dome is as tall as a 12-story building. And architecturally is as wide as it is tall. The dome houses the Hale Telescope, a 200-inch telescope (16.7 feet lens width) that was the largest in world from 1949-1992. Tours are available daily, though Marlene and I just walked around the grounds and peered through the glass windows at the telescope. Photos through the glass didn't really turn out, with lots of glare from ceiling lights and reflections in through the window.

Observatory web site

Palomar Mountain
From smallest to largest: sage, manzanita, canyon live oak, black oak, incense cedar.
Common birds in the immediate area were Acorn Woodpeckers, Mountain Chickadees, Band-tailed Pigeons, Oak Titmouses, Steller's Jays, Western Bluebirds, White-breasted Nuthatches, Western Scrub-Jays, Common Ravens, and Spotted Towhees.

Marlene pointed out a small bird hopping in a tree and I spotted it--a Cassin's Vireo. It was my first record for San Diego County. New for the year was Black-chinned Hummingbird.

eBird Hotspot information.

Coulter pine cones on Palomar Mountain
Coulter pine cones are 10 inches long, dwarfing my full-sized 8x42 binoculars.
Palomar Mountain
Scenic view looking west.
After we were done here we drove through some of the campgrounds and Palomar Mountain State Park (first and second hills, respectively in the photo above). We drove into Fry Creek Campground. We drove up to the fire lookout on Boucher Hill. Then drove through the State Park (Chipping Sparrow was new year bird). We walked around Doane Pond where I found another new County Bird--Red-breasted Sapsucker. New birds for the year here included Brown Creeper, Warbling Vireo, Hammond's Flycatcher, and Pacific-slope Flycatcher.

Then we drove down Nate Harrison Grade. It only travels horizontally about 1/2 mile, but drops 3500 feet or more--zigzagging back and forth scores of times on tight switchbacks. Much of the road is single-lane gravel/dirt. Several areas were deeply rutted and washed out. I think it was worse than last year. I did spot another new Year Bird on the way down, an Olive-sided Flycatcher.

Anyway, a good day getting away from work for a while.