Saw the Eclipse ... Sort Of (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Sat, 13 Apr 2024

Saw the Eclipse ... Sort Of

[Viewing the eclipse from 19 Mile Crossing, TX] I'm sorry, but I have no eclipse photos to share. I messed that up. But I did get to see totality.

For the April 8, 2024 eclipse, Dave and I committed early to Texas. Seemed like that was where the best long-range forecasts were. In the last week before the eclipse, the forecasts were no longer looking so good. But I've heard so many stories of people driving around trying to chase holes in the clouds, only to be skunked, while people who stayed put got a better view. We decided to stick with our plan, which was to stay in San Angelo (some 190 miles off the centerline) the night before, get up fairly early and drive to somewhere near the centerline.

Staring at maps, Dave found a place where the highway crossed the Nueces river very near the centerline. (Some locals told us it's pronounced "Natches".) It turned out the crossing has a name: Nineteen Mile Crossing. Street View seemed to show some pullouts, and possibly even a frontage road that looked perfect, though the ownership of the road and nearby land was unclear. There's only so much you can tell about a place without going.

[a turkey vulture soaring in the midst of a dense flock of swallows] So we went. Our expectations weren't all that high: we'd be fine with some barren road pullout like we found in Wyoming in 2017. But Nineteen Mile Crossing turned out to be a delightful place. It's in the hill country (turns out Texas really does have hills), and thick with trees and birds. That "frontage road" I'd seen on Google Street View went all the way down to the river and back up the other side — a remnant from when it really was a crossing, before they built the bridge. Swallow nests were thick under the bridge, and thousands of swallows darted in the sky above the crossing, joined by a few turkey vultures. People had driven along the gravel riverbank to campsites and fishing spots.

[an extremely blurry photo of a scissor-tailed flycatcher] You can hike the gravelly area along the amazingly clear river, so we went for a walk to shake off too-much-driving-butt. Almost immediately I heard birds singing that turned out to be cardinals — an exotic bird we don't see in New Mexico, and I don't think I'd ever heard their song before.

Even better, there were a pair of scissor-tailed flycatchers: a bird I've wanted to see ever since I was a kid. They're even more beautiful in person than they are in bird books: turns out that tail streams after the bird like a long showy ribbon, it isn't just straight like in the books. (Sadly, I never did get a decent photo of one. As you see.) Go ahead, make fun of me for getting excited about a small flycatcher, but the trip was already worthwhile for me, eclipse or no.

And it looked like no. The skies were pretty heavily overcast, though the low clouds were moving and every now and then the sun would peek through for half a minute or less.

[people camped along the river at 19 Mile Crossing, TX] There was quite a crowd at the crossing, and the atmosphere was festive. Kids and dogs were splashing in the shallows, older folks were having conversations or just flashing "fingers crossed" with a smile and an eye on the sky.

At first contact, there was no sign of the sun. I set up the scopes anyway, just in case. But even when the sun briefly peeked through the clouds, there was never enough sun to work with the solar finders, so I never managed to aim the scopes before the sun went away again.

That continued for an hour and a quarter, with fleeting glimpses every now and then through eclipse glasses or filtered binoculars to show us the eclipse's progress. Still, it was a beautiful place and a fun crowd.

About fifteen minutes before totality, it started raining. Not a lot, but enough that we dragged the telescopes under cover of the bridge. ARGH!

So we sat under the bridge and chatted with people and watched the clock. And — with less than two minutes before the onset of totality — suddenly the rain stopped and a big hole opened up in the low clouds. There were still some high, thin clouds, but we could see the sun, and in our eclipse glasses it was just a sliver. I dove to the back of the car and hurriedly got the good camera set up on its tripod with a cable release ... which I finished at approximately the same time I heard OOOOOOOOH! as the first diamond ring appeared through the high clouds and haze.

The high thin cloud layer didn't hurt the beauty of totality. That eerie sky color, the otherworldly feel of standing there with that Weird Beautiful Thing up there in the sky — if anything, it was better than 2017 had been because the surroundings were beautiful too.

The clouds might have interfered with photos of the corona, or with views through the white-light scope ... but I'll never know. I didn't even try to get the scope aimed, and as for photos ... My plan had been to shoot only totality, by setting up the camera beforehand then using a cable release while turning the shutter speed dial without looking, leaving my eyes free to watch the eclipse. That might have worked — if I'd had the camera set up with all the right settings to begin with. But in the rush to set up, I missed something, and all my photos came out black. I don't know why. When I look at the EXIF for the photos, the exposures are mostly in what I thought was a reasonable range (based on online shutter speed calculators I used when setting up my photography plan). But ... all the photos are black. Oh, well. I'm just glad I spent most of my totality time looking at the eclipsed sun rather than through the viewfinder.

And I didn't forget to try my binoculars, which was good, because there was an absolutely fabulous red prominence visible coming out of the bottom of the sun, visible throughout totality. I'm sure you've seen it in other people's photos. I wish I'd gotten some of my own, but mostly, I'm glad I got to see it.

All too soon totality ended, with a spectacular third contact diamond ring that raised a simultaneous OOOOOOOOOOH! from the crowd. I don't remember the diamond ring being that beautiful in 2017. Maybe it has something to do with thinking you've been clouded out, then getting a surprise gift like that, the whole of totality when you thought you wouldn't see anything.

And then right after the diamond ring, the clouds came back and covered the sun. We packed up and hit the road. One of our biggest lessons we learned in 2017 was to get moving early after the eclipse, and, most important, Never, ever plan to go toward any major city right after an eclipse. So we'd booked a room in a small town in the middle of nowhere in the opposite direction from San Antonio, and we got there with a minimum of hassle. Plus, I saw over sixty more scissor-tailed flycatchers from the car on the way; turns out they love to sit on power lines near highways.

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[ 12:36 Apr 13, 2024    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

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