Musings about life on Earth in all its aspects…

Category: Natural History

Skies Scattered with Stars

Living in a large, well-lit city means losing sight of the stupendous night sky. I think something fundamentally wrong with our worldview comes with that absence. We no longer see ourselves as part of something so much bigger than we and our dazzling civilization. We no longer see ourselves and all we have built as minuscule specks in the midst of a seemingly infinite world; we and our lives become all too important, become foremost in importance.

I grew up in a small town, back in the days when the dark was complete: black velvet, deep and light-absorbing, with stars that crystallized out of the depths of that absence of light, that sparked and glistened, that led you to believe you could never count them all. And in summer, our home galaxy arched up from the southern sky across the bowl of the heavens, waves of phosphorescence, stars and star systems dense with color and brightness. Small wonder that we spent so much time outdoors, our eyes directed skyward.

Back when our son and daughter were in elementary and high school, we spent most of our summer vacations backpacking in various mountain ranges in the western United States. We loved to hike above tree line, and camping up there always left us awestruck at the immensity of the sky, at the unparalleled clarity. The whole night sky took on a three-dimensional feel. Those vacations were healing for many reasons, the night sky one of them.

Our kids and their kids are now well along on their live’s trajectories. It has been many years since my wife and I experienced the night sky; with old age and infirmity and absent-mindedness we let things go, complained to one another about not having seen the stars for so long. The acceleration of our perception of time contributes to that feeling of something valuable escaping us, I believe, and we finally made our minds up to find a dark place and enjoy the sky, buoyed on by the prediction of clear skies (except for the smoke from the California fires), a recent new moon, and the waning days of the Perseid meteor showers.

We drove thirty miles out of town, found a place to park (too close to the highway, but traffic was sparse enough that it worked out), and reclined on a blanket beneath the starry night. It was good for our souls. We gasped to one another about how magnificently the Milky Way wound its bright swath across the sky, identified barely remembered constellations and planets (Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars were arrayed along the ecliptic like beads on a necklace), and felt how we are certainly all too finite (an idea acknowledged recently by an untimely death in the family), felt blessed that we could still take this all in through these old and less than perfect eyes.

Here are two less than wonderful images I took with my camera. Both show the southern sky, the Milky Way. In the first, Mars is the bright spot of red light to the left. Saturn is visible over toward the right, a little higher in the sky than Mars, and located just at the right edge of the brightest patch of galactic light. The second is cropped in on a tighter portion of the sky, Mars out of view, Saturn now the brightest object visible, and there are two faint meteor tracks visible well over to the right of Saturn and nearly directly above the telephone pole. These, of course, do not capture reality very well. I only hope that they inspire you to stay up late some night soon, drive out beyond the lights of your city, town, or homestead, park, find a grassy spot to loll on and recapture your childlike awe at the wonder of skies scattered with stars.






























~Roy Beckemeyer, August 12, 2018


Konza Journal 2017 Issue Now Online

The 2017 issue of the Kansas Area Watershed (KAW) Council annual publication, Konza Journal, is now online. I was fortunate to be asked by editors Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg and Ken Lassman to participate as a contributing editor and also as a featured photographer (photo essays on Birds, Insects, South Africa, the Changing Faces of Water, and Landscapes). Please check it out. Essays on Climate Change by Ken Lassman, the Cretaceous oceans of Kansas by Mike Everhart, poems by Annette Hope Billings, April Pameticky, Dennis Etzel, Jr.Victoria Sherry, and Janet Jenkins-Stotts, Olive Sullivan, and Kansas Poets Laureate Kevin Rabas, Denise Low, Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Eric McHenry, and Wyatt Townley.  Videos by Stephen Locke, and a marvelous essay on language and sense of place as it relates to the prairie by Cindy Crosby.

There is so much more I can’t fit all the links here, so just go to the Konza Journal page, browse, and enjoy.

-Roy Beckemeyer, September 28, 2017

September Segue

A week into September and fall sneaks in a hint: small yellowed leaves drifting from trees in ones and twos and threes so intermittently that they almost don’t register.

They might as well be the sulphur butterflies, flitting goldfinches.

Everything else, after all, is still vibrantly verdant; the shades of green multitudinous, the number of leaves converging on infinity. Then comes the morning when you step out the door into a new 5:00 a.m., one that is bracing, the air still yet brisk, the world suddenly sharper, more clear; Venus hovers in the east, honed to brilliance.

By afternoon and on into evening the cicadas will continue to have their monotonous say, squelching all our preconceived notions about the harmonies of Eros. And so we balance here for a while, in this time both of and between summer and fall: the harvest moon still weeks away, baking-hot afternoons still a distinct possibility; yet the world is winding down, turning summer’s abundant and almost astounding fecundity down from a full boil to a slow simmer.

~ Roy Beckemeyer, September 8, 2017


Three Short Non-fiction Articles in KONZA: A Bioregional Journal

Here are links to three non-fiction articles that appear in the 2016 issue of KONZA: A Bioregional Journal.

Click to access nature-journal.pdf

Click to access wilsons-phalarope-feminist-shorebird.pdf

Click to access roy-beckemeyer-dainty-dancers-corrected.pdf

  • Roy Beckemeyer, July, 2016

Five of My Poems on Syzygy Poetry Journal’s Vol. 1, Issue 3.

Pleased to have five of my poems on the on-line literary magazine The Syzygy Poetry Journal. Link to them here:

“Skull of Sirius, Crossbones of Cassiopeia” is a sci-fi sort of a poem. “The Chase” a sort of mythological one, with Orion and the canids chasing the moon across the sky. “Daylight’s Starring Role” is a sort of extended metaphor, with the arrival of dawn the lifting of a stage curtain. “Sunset” imagines the setting sun seen through a fluttering dragonflies wings and stretches that image into some other but related metaphoric ones. “Magisterial Moon” is a sort of adult nursery rhyme personification of the Moon and Sun.

Hope you enjoy.

  • Roy Beckemeyer, April 12, 2016


In the Antarctic, krill, which means ‘whale food’ in Norwegian, sustain not only whales, but also penguins, seals, squid, fish, albatross, and other seabirds. These small, shrimp-like creatures represent the very cornerstone of the Antarctic ecosystem — processing the energy of the sun stored in phytoplankton (microscopic free-floating plants) and breeding by the thousands to provide an abundant source of nourishment for higher-order predators. Virtually all the larger animals of the Antarctic are either directly or indirectly dependent on krill.” – from Krill: Cornerstone of the Antarctic,

From my journal:

“Chinstrap Penguins at Bailey Head stream up the slopes in a continuous river of movement: swirls of penguins, freshets of penguins, long sweeping arcs of penguins, occasional eddies of penguins that hesitate briefly before continuing on.

Chinstrap 1

I point the viewfinder of my video camera into this chaos of penguins, then zoom in to focus on a square meter of black sand. I can cope with this small patch, analyze it just as I would a fluid flow problem. Establish a fixed reference volume and measure what goes in, what goes out. Thirty-eight penguins pass through my little box in two minutes. That’s nineteen penguins per minute per meter. The penguin stream here is about six meters wide. One hundred and fourteen penguins per minute passing this point, flowing uphill, uphill. Uphill to the chicks.

I change experimental techniques. One can also study flowing fluids by tracking the path of individual particles within the flow. I pan the camera back to the source of penguins, the rolling swells at the beach. Catch a knot of penguins at the water’s edge. Choose one. Watch the swell sweep it up onto the beach. It stands erect and steps. Step, step, step. Halt. Shake. Joins the flow: step, step, step. The penguin particle traces a path, a penguin streamline, up the beach toward the colony.

At this time of day, the net flow of penguins is uphill. Occasionally individuals or small groups can be found bucking the tide, going down toward the sea. Perhaps one in forty, one in fifty. Also going down the hill is a small stream of fresh water. The sea below penguin colonies seems always to be tinted, muddy, reddish, murky with suspended sediments of earth and guano: guano dyed pink with krill colors, organic krill dyes.


Krill fuel this system, provide the energy that pushes this flow of penguins uphill in defiance of gravity. Step, step, step. Each footstep like a meshing gear tooth in a machine. Lifting krill soup, krill stew. Kilocalories of krill being carried up in discrete penguin packets, levered up the hill step by step.

I first sit on the sand, then move to a rock further up the slope. I use my brain as a signal processor, filtering out the squawks, creaks and groans of penguin vocal cords. Filter out the rolling swish of water onto the beach. I focus on the background sound, the stepping sounds, the almost sibilant slapping of feet onto the ground. Step, step, step. The quiet, insistent background sound of energy going uphill, always uphill.

Chinstrap 2

I go with the flow. Climb the hill myself. The stream of penguins opens, parting to form a tear-drop shape of penguin-less space around me, as if I were a boulder in the stream. As I top the hill the stream begins to lose its identity, to diffuse, to disappear into the melee of the colony. Here raucous groups stand in the sun on the rounded slopes above the beach. Chicks beg for food, insistently pecking at adult bills. The chicks are of course the reason for all the commotion, all the movement, all the flowing river of black and white that stretches back across the sand into the distance. The penguins in the distance are barely distinguishable, but their rocking, pendulum-like motion looks like ripples on water, like the fine-grained capillary waves that dapple otherwise calm seas. Each roll, each bob represents a step. Step, step, step. Nearly countless feet taking nearly countless steps, right, left, right, left, a sound like light rainfall. As time passes and my memories of Antarctica fade, I know that it will be the memory of these soft sounds of penguins stepping slowly, steadily up the slopes of Bailey Head that will make this precious moment real for me once again.”

– Roy Beckemeyer, Deception Island, South Shetlands, January 31, 1998.


“I now belong to a higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the albatross!” – Robert Cushman Murphy, Logbook for Grace

From my journal:

“God seems to have graced some living things more abundantly than others. He was particularly generous to pelagic birds. Our days between Ushuaia and South Georgia on the open waters of the South Atlantic Sea provide ample evidence of this.

Storm Petrels are a case in point. They dash across the sea like frenzied ice skaters, like Bolshoi dancers. They stop in place and dap their toes into the water like ballerinas en pointe. They careen off again, rolling back and forth, back and forth. Watch them closely enough, long enough, with sure and agile enough tracking, and they will reveal their identity by way of their belly plumage: dark for Wilson’s, white with a black streak for Black-bellied.

Wilsons StormPetrel Photo Filtered

But it is the stiff-winged albatrosses that to me best reveal the sea birds’ special grace. The first species we encounter is the lovely Black-browed, with its snowy white head and stunning black stripe through the eye. These birds wheel and glide behind the ship showing off their natty black and white plumage from all angles. Later we see Light-mantled Sooty and Gray-headed Albatrosses as well, each with equally pretty plumage. They are much rarer than the seemingly ubiquitous Black-browed, however, and for that reason seem more precious.

Wandering Albatross Quick Sketch

Soon the Wandering Albatross appears. We see mostly immature birds of this species, which even in the adult plumage is somewhat drab when compared with the other albatrosses. But this bird’s blessings are not cosmetic, not skin-deep. The Wanderer possesses unimaginably efficient wings. Wings capable of keeping the bird airborne day after day after day, almost never needing to be flapped. Wings sensitive to the slightest nuance of wind, of updraft, of gradients in the boundary layer. This species’ grace and beauty are functional, structural, geometric, aerodynamic. This bird is the consummate flier, with slender sail-plane like wings that can bring tears of joy to the eyes of an aerodynamicist.

Wandering Photo

Occasionally bestowing on us a close look as they glide over our heads, these huge birds with their eleven foot spans more often skim the wave tops one or two hundred meters away. They are nearly always within sight of the ship, but not tethered in its wake like their molly-mauk and petrel cousins.

Wandering ALbatross SKetches

I have dreamed of seeing the Wandering Albatross for years, since reading The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as a child. My desire only intensified when I became an engineer and read the works that document the astounding feats performed by Diomedea exsulans. In 1964 Clarence Cone of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science published a mathematical analysis of the energetics of dynamic soaring that showed albatrosses to be the original wind machines, able to extract energy from wind and wave with the clarity, precision and unerring control with which they maintain their attitude and position in time and space.

Cone Analysis SKetcvh.

In 1982 Colin Pennycuick made field observations of the gliding performance of the albatrosses of South Georgia and quantified their impressive performance. P. Jouventin and H. Weimerskirsch tracked Wandering Albatrosses using satellites in 1990 and determined that the birds made foraging flights away from their nests of from 3 to 33 days that covered from several thousand to 15,000 kilometers. Credible documentation of incredible feats.

Now I stand at the stern of the Akademik Ioffe, shifting my weight from leg to leg as the ship lifts and rolls on the swells of the Drake Passage, the wind whipping my cheeks with spume plucked from white-fringed waves. The surface of the sea is almost alive, in constant motion. I stand and watch them: Real albatrosses. Live albatrosses. Albatrosses sharing with me this position in time, this position in space, this raw and lovely intersection of nostalgia and reality.

Wandering Albatross Photo FIltered.

At the edge of the horizon a Wandering Albatross skims the waves. The swells reveal then hide, reveal then hide the bird. It suddenly wheels up above the plane of the water, dark against the leaden sky, showing me its perfect planform. The arc of its path brings it nearly vertical to the surface of the sea. There is a catching in my throat. The bird reaches across the water and captures a bit of my soul. I hold my breath. The bird hangs there in mid air. I have seen my albatross at last!”

– Roy Beckemeyer, Drake Passage, 22 January, 1998

My travel journal entries from a trip I made 15 years ago to Antarctica have long been posted on my web site I have decided to extract some of them and post them here on my blog so that they are exposed to a different audience. The text and rough sketches are from my Antarctic Journal. The schematic diagram is from the cover of “A Mathematical Analysis of the Dynamic Soaring Flight of the Albatross with Ecological Interpretations,” by Clarence D. Cone, Jr., Virginia Institute of Marine Science Special Scientific Report No. 50, May 1964. The color images are from photos I took on the 1998 Antarctic trip and are of a Wilson’s Storm Petrel and two different Wandering Albatrosses. I used Photoshop filters to make the photos look like paintings.



In a winter cantonment near Council Bluff, on the west bank of the Missouri in the fall of 1819, scientist and explorer Thomas Say tried to collect specimens of the species of ”prairie wolves” that he would name Canis latrans, Latin for “The Barking Dog.”  He and Mr. Peale, his assistant, tried many kinds of traps, with many kinds of baiting, but failed over and over.  They said that this animal had “wonderful intelligence.”

The coyote is clever and cunning.
To get to know him, go to Oklahoma.
Lie on the ground along those red banks
that the Cimarron cut in days
when it was an energetic youth
of a river, then make a sound
like a dying rabbit.

It is best on a cold October night
when Orion’s belt is pointing his path
through the sky and his hunting dogs
frolic and course around him
and the dog star, Sirius, binary eye
of the Hunter’s big hound,
glows and glitters.


Live traps and cage traps and steel traps were no good.  In the end Say caught his specimen in a log trap baited with the body of a wild cat.  The coyote was three feet and nine and a half inches long, and a foot of that was tail.  The dead animal’s pelt was “Cinerous or gray,varied with black above, and dull fulvous, or cinnamon” in color.

I remember climbing down
into a cut bank cave above a bend
of the river and finding the perfect skull
of a coyote pup, so long on the dry ground
that it was as white and clean
as a dead, dry cottonwood branch.

The moon was rising out of the gully
and a family of coyotes had just begun
yipping and howling
and I felt as if I had disturbed
a shrine to missing coyote children.


Say’s dead coyote had hair that was at its “base dusky plumbeous, in the middle of its length dull cinnamon, and at the tip gray or black.”  Its ears were four inches long and “…erect, rounded at tip, cinnamon behind…inside lined with gray hair; eyelids edged with black, superior eyelashes black…iris yellow; pupil black-blue…”

I once watched a coyote mother look up
from a meadowlark nest,
ears and stance all at attention,
yolk dripping from her muzzle,
her fur ruffling in the morning wind,
her yellow eyes unblinking, as if she was
Canis major come to earth,
bright eyes reinvented to flavescence.


“The prairie wolves roam over the plains in considerable numbers, and during the night, the principal season of their hunts, they venture very near to the encampment of the traveler.”

One night I came suddenly
awake in my tent to the midnight
chortling chorus of coyotes.
I pulled my sleeping bag up
around me, as their plangent call
and response set the hairs on my neck
to bristling.  My dog was sitting at attention,
staring into the black night,
and I reached out my hand
to stroked his quivering neck.

Together we listened
to the prairie wolves declare
their ownership of the night,
their principal season,
while overhead Orion quietly
climbed into the sky,
stalking the moon across
the high heavens of Oklahoma.

Quotes are taken from Early Western Travels 1748-1846.  Volume XIV: Part 1 of James’s Account of S. H. Long’s Expedition, 1819-1820, by Rueben Gold Thwaites, The Arthur H. Clark Company, Cleveland, Ohio, 1905, and are directly from the Long Expedition Journals and Thomas Say’s Notes.