President’s Message – April 2017
Posted On April 1, 2017
By Barbara Toy
Spring at Anza:
Our Anza site, along with the rest of California, got more than its usual allotment of winter rain this year, so we have a bumper crop of weeds growing on the site. While the rains have given us more wildflowers than in recent years, the grasses are growing thick and strong, and the mustard, which generally comes a bit later than the grasses and becomes tough and woody as it matures, is already sprouting in many areas on our site as I write this. All of this is fuel for fire, and also can harbor critters that we want to avoid – more about the critters later.
Several years ago, we had a wildfire burn across the top part of our site and down as far as Mars Hill. Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of the local fire fighters, we didn’t lose any structures, but we did have damage to benches and power outlets for some of the pads. The pattern we saw after the fire was that fire damage occurred in areas that hadn’t been cleared of weeds, particularly where weeds and grasses were growing up to the edge of the pad. Because of all of the growth of flammable grasses and shrubs in the areas surrounding our site as well as on it, there is going to be a particularly high risk of fire out there this year, so if you are a pad or observatory holder at Anza, it is particularly important to clear a safety zone around your pad or observatory, and the earlier in the season you do it the better.
For those who don’t themselves have a pad license but use other member pads because the pad holder is generally not out there – please show your appreciation for being able to use them by clearing the area around them if the pad holders haven’t done it yet. For people who use the Football Field and/or Anza House, please help clear the weeds in those areas so they will be defensible in case of fire.
Because of the particularly high fire risk this year, we may pay someone to do the clearing of weeds in common areas on the site, but weeds will be an ongoing problem this year and one clearance alone won’t take care of it. If you’re going out to Anza, take along some tools, such as clippers, maybe a weed whacker if you have one that’s reasonable portable, gloves, some bags to haul away what’s cleared, and do some clearance work while you’re waiting for sunset. The Anza site and your fellow club members will thank you!
The reason we have reasonably dark skies at our Anza site is that it is in a rural area, but this also means that our site features all of the wildlife common to rural areas. Things like birds and bats enhance the experience out there, but we also have mice, rats, rattlesnakes, scorpions, black widow spiders and coyotes (and probably some big cats, too, periodically, but they’re much harder to spot and seem to avoid people – as do the coyotes). So far, we haven’t had any injuries from any of these, and we’d like that to continue. Keeping a weather eye out and taking reasonable precautions is generally enough to avoid problems.
As the area is warming, rattlesnakes are hatching, and these babies can actually be more dangerous than adults as they don’t know how to regulate how much poison they inject yet so they tend to put all they have into any bite. Size is therefore not necessarily a good gauge of danger level. To minimize the chance you’ll have a problem with any snake, it’s best to stick to main routes on the site, particularly after dark, don’t be shy about making noise to let them know you’re coming, and also use enough light to see ahead of where you’re walking so you can see anything that hasn’t gotten out of your way and stay out of striking distance. The only snake bite we know of on site was to a large puppy who put his muzzle right on a baby rattlesnake while investigating it in the brush – if you bring your dog with you to the site, please keep him/her on a leash and out of the brush to minimize the chance of problems.
I’ve never seen a scorpion at Anza myself, but I’m told by folks who were out there in the early days that they used to be a significant problem, particularly if one decided to take refuge in a sleeping bag or shoe that was left out in the open. To minimize problems with them and any other critter that might be looking for a home, we recommend that you don’t leave shoes, clothes or sleeping bags out in the open. If you use a tent while at Anza, it’s a good idea to keep it zipped closed to avoid anything moving in with you.
If you go into a shed or other area at Anza that hasn’t been opened for a while, you should check for black widow spiders, which are very common in that area (and also in Orange County, for that matter). Even if you can’t get a good look at the abdomen to see if it has an hourglass mark on it, if you see a shiny black spider in an untidy web in an area that hasn’t been disturbed for a while, it’s quite likely to be a black widow and should be dispatched accordingly.
The biggest problem I’ve heard of from rats and mice is that they like to chew things, particularly computer cables and wiring or hoses in cars or other vehicles. We’ve lost several cables to rodent damage in the club observatory, and I’ve heard reports of cars that wouldn’t start after rodents did some chewing around the engine. People have taken different approaches to minimizing problems with them, including leaving the hood of the car open so the engine cools faster, as engine warmth may attract them, and setting traps by the wheels of the car and keeping the car away from anything that will help a rodent climb up into the engine area. This seems to be less of an issue in the busier areas on the site, particularly if the weeds have been cleared so where vehicles are parked is very open – added incentive for some weed clearance….
To put all this in perspective, I’ve been going out to Anza for about 15 years, and often have wandered around portions of the site after dark as well as during the day. I’ve never seen a live snake on site myself (though I’ve been shown some dead ones), never had rodent damage to my car, and never really had a problem with any other critters, though I have had to deal with a few black widows over the years and have crossed paths with a couple of coyotes at different times – both of which looked very surprised to see me, as most people had left the site at the time, and both of which went on about their business without giving me more than a glance. If you stay aware of possible dangers and are reasonably careful, our wildlife neighbors shouldn’t give you any significant problems.
Changes with Our Editor, Steve Condrey:
When I wrote about Steve Condrey in the last President’s Message, I didn’t know that he was likely to be having a major change in his life – specifically, a transfer out of state. If this goes through (as I write this, there is still some uncertainty about it), he and his family would be leaving California around June. The positive side of this for them is that they would be moving closer to family which, for family-oriented people like Steve and Sandy, is an important consideration. The downside for us, of course, is that we will be losing them, which is a great loss, indeed.
Steve gave us advance notice of this to give us time to find a new editor for the Sirius Astronomer, so he could work with that person to make the transition as smooth as possible before he leaves. Essentially, the editor gathers the articles, pictures, etc., for each issue (and sometimes solicits things to be included), works out the appropriate layout using a publishing program that Steve would be passing on to the new editor, and then sends it off to the publisher electronically and also sends it to our webmaster, Reza AmirArjomand, to be posted on the website. When the newsletter is printed, those copies go to Charlie Oostdyk, who handles mailing them out to the members, so the editor doesn’t have to worry about that.
It will be a sad day for us when Steve and his family leave, though I hope they will stay in touch. In the meantime, if you’ve been thinking you really should let Steve know how much his hard work on the Sirius Astronomer is appreciated – time is short, so do let him know without delay!
Some Parting Thoughts:
As I write this, the Messier Marathon is coming up, as it’s scheduled for the March Anza star party. If you did the Marathon and haven’t done so yet, please turn your sheet of sightings in to Alan Smallbone, Charlie Oostdyk or me, or send it to the club’s PO Box, so we can provide you with your 2017 Messier Marathon Certificate. I say that with a certain sense of guilt, as I recently found a form turned in last year by Martin Christensen (who I think was the only one who decided to try it last year – as I recall, the sky conditions weren’t very good during the 2016 Messier Marathon season, but it looks like he still managed to get 66 objects). Unfortunately, I don’t have any record that we gave him his certificate for the 2016 Messier Marathon, in spite of his diligence. My apologies, Martin, and we’ll make sure we print that for 2016 when we do the certificates for 2017.
The period around the time of the Messier Marathon each year is also a great time at Anza for watching Omega Centauri rising over the hills to the south of our site, ultimately becoming lost in the light dome to the west of those hills. It should still be visible in April – if you haven’t seen it yet, it’s well worth checking out, even though it never rises very far above our southern horizon. In binoculars it’s a distinct fuzzy ball of stars that looks bigger and denser than other globular clusters, and in a telescope you can see individual stars surrounding a great, glowing core. It’s a beautiful object, a southern hemisphere object that we can only see for a couple of months each year, so I hope you’ll take advantage of it – if the skies clear up enough on dark sky weekends to let us do any viewing, that is!
© Barbara Toy, March 2017