Friday, October 1, 2010

Strange lights seen at Boyce Thompson Arboretum

At one of the night time member events at Boyce Thompson Arboretum this summer, I discovered that Turkey Vultures are as sensitive to the light beam from a common, handheld laser pointer as are those touchy airline pilots and officials at the FAA. Just one stray millimeter-wide beam from a red or green laser (often carried legitimately by star gazers to point out distant skyward constellations) can cause a group of thirty buzzards to scatter from their nighttime roosts like each one had been goosed simultaneously by an invisible human finger. It’s a raucous explosion of 60 panicked, tangled wings that propels the vultures into the air, followed immediately by complete silence again as the outstretched wings carry each buzzard noiselessly into the darkness. It’s a clear case of overreaction to a harmless laser pointer that is, at worst, a really annoying part of most Powerpoint presentations, but try convincing them of that.

Another kind of light that is now as commonly available as a Bic Flick is a portable, battery-operated, fluorescent LED flashlight. “Black light” technology has come a long way since Spencer Gifts pioneered the overuse of it in every shopping mall from Los Angeles to Cherry Hill, New Jersey in the 60’s and 70’s. Now you can pick one up for about $10 in the decidedly less psychedelic confines of Walgreens and Home Depot. Not only do black lights make the Led Zeppelin posters glow on your dorm room wall, they also cause scorpions to involuntarily glow a subtle green color at night and have now become the method of choice for scorpion locating.

Scorpiontologist and Mesa Community College professor Andy Baldwin led a recent nighttime excursion at the Arboretum and picked up dozens of glowing scorpions by their tails with his quick, bare fingers, holding each stinger tightly like one might hold the untied end of an inflated balloon. He identified six or seven different species and showed us the all important sexual differences between males and females, both of which sting with equal enthusiasm. His personal record of being stung is 17 times in one night. Personally, I consider one sting to be a singular event, but after nine or ten, who’s counting?

Red lights generally convince advancing motorists to stop, or, in red light districts, invite them to stop “in”. At the Arboretum, they’re used to help people negotiate the night at our frequent Star Night events with the East Valley Astronomy Club. Our eyes use the retina’s rod cells for night vision and these cells are conveniently blind to red light, so astronomers carry red light flashlights, wear red, backlit wristwatches, and use red-on-black computer screens to function in the inky blackness. They even mount red lights on the legs of their telescope tripods to keep klutzes like me from tripping over them. With soft red lights reflecting off faces, clothing, and star-viewing equipment, all under a few billion stars and assorted galaxies, the scene can be other worldly -- not unlike Spencer Gifts, but without the sandalwood incense.