Under The Shadow Of The Moon

April 8, 2024 – The anticipation of witnessing another total solar eclipse in Illinois grew as the calendar neared the date in early April 2024. I remember talking about the 2024 eclipse with my brother while stuck in traffic just north of Carbondale after witnessing the 2017 Great American Eclipse at Giant City State Park. 2024 seemed so far away at the time. Crossing the United States from Texas to Maine on the 8th, the path of darkness came smack-dab over Southern Illinois again, similar to the August 21, 2017, eclipse, this time with the shadow covering almost twice the width as it moved to the northeast unlike in 2017 when the shadow went from northwest to southeast. Many people had made plans months, even years, in advance so they could choose where in the path of totality they should be for this life-changing celestial event. Travelers had turned to historical weather data to help select the most likely locations for clear skies in the United States along the shadow path for April 8. I just relied on the current weather reports for Southern Illinois, and it was starting to look pretty good leading up to the event with only some high wispy clouds possible, but some of the historically cloudless areas began to look problematic; it was like nature was playing a dirty trick on those proactive and relying on weather science. But on eclipse day, while there were spotty areas of cloud cover across the path, most locations were treated to some great views of the eclipse from Texas to Maine, although some may have had to make last-minute changes to find open skies. Members of my family who gathered at my sister’s house near Raccoon Lake in Centralia were excited and lucky to be under clear skies as the moon started to move across the sun. An awe fell upon us as we looked towards the sky, and the moon became a coal-black door slowly and silently, sliding across the sun, extinguishing the bright, warm light that feeds all life on our little planet. Confused birds were flying low with urgency toward their evening roosts and singing sunset songs as the cool darkness set in and totality was at the door. Venus called out to the crowd with its brilliant glimmer in the ever-dimming light, look here, I am here. And without hesitation, down to the second, in an implosion of silver and black, the sun was reduced to a shimmer of plasma and flame with prominences many times the size of the Earth bulging from the edges, and humanity reacted. For those fleeting moments, under that shadowy ooze, voices of joy and wonder echoed, sending those worldly problems deep into the Earth towards its molten core from where they came; within those few minutes, across the land, without myth or fear, many millions became one and humans embraced a moment of enlightenment while standing spellbound under the shadow of the moon.

A Murmuration of Blackbirds

Looking like a prairie cyclone, thousands of Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles rise in a storm of organized chaos.

March 5, 2020 – A few miles to the northeast I could see some strange and ominous dark, rolling clouds floating just above a large wooded tract of leafless late-winter Pin oak and Hickory. Within a short time after observing what appeared to be dark puffs of smoke, I began to notice the odd undulating movements of those faux clouds and quickly realized that it was not smoke at all but flocks of birds flying in a tight formation known as a murmuration. After a short drive I pulled to the side of the road, exited the car, and found I was in the midst of this huge noisy flock of Red-winged blackbirds and Common Grackles. The perched birds looked somewhat like dark sentries filling stems and branches in every tree that continued back to the north for at least a half mile. The trees that were full of blackbirds connected with a larger woods that ran east and west that also held many perched blackbirds. Scanning the trees with my binoculars for Starlings and Cowbirds turned up none. It seems that this huge number of birds were only Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles. There were a few hawks and eagles in the area causing anxiety among the flock and that nervousness could be detected in their chatter which would reach a deafening volume when a bird of prey flew near the perched birds. At times a hawk would cause some of the birds to go silent and to flush a short distance to the other side of the tree as it glided low above the wary flock. Soon the birds began leaving the trees for the fields on the south side of the road passing right in front of me. I have read about enormous flocks of flying blackbirds like this one, described as, “rivers of blackbirds”, when they are on the move and that seems to fit quite well as thousands of birds flowed past me like a swollen river for 15 minutes landing in the nearby fields. Behind me, coming from the west at the same time, was another huge river of blackbirds all converging in the same fields just to my right with a flow that lasted just as long as the other flock. At times thousands of these birds would rise above the fields in a typical murmuration of swooping tight patterns, flying back and forth above the terrain before settling back to the ground. The sounds coming from the wings of these birds as they took to the air sounded like tightly wounded rubber bands on millions of toy balsa wood airplanes being released at the same time. Barns, houses, and trees would disappear from view as the murmuration crossed the landscape. A wall of black would cause vehicles coming towards me to slow and disappear until the birds passed. This late-winter, late-afternoon observation of a such a huge flock of blackbirds is not unheard of, although sightings are usually that of much smaller flocks. I am not certain of the exact number of birds witnessed that afternoon but I say with confidence that I did see a concentration of Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds that reached into the hundreds of thousands, perhaps a half million, a sight that will linger in my memory as one of natures great gifts.

A large flock of many thousands of blackbirds move across the road in a cloud that eventually blocks the view ahead in a wall of black.

The Great American Solar eclipse

Sunspots

Sunspots could be seen just before the eclipse started.

August 21, 2017 – The great American solar eclipse from the center of the path of totality at Giant City State park near Makanda Illinois. This was certainly an amazing experience and when the sun was completely blocked by the moon some stars and planets could be seen. Temperatures had dropped at least 15 degrees by that time and a soft orange glow could be seen on the horizon. The sounds of people cheering was replaced with the soft sounds of voices and a reverence with childlike excitement by this celestial event that seemed to create a unified emotion among strangers in a field surrounded by a summer woods on this hot and humid August day in Southern Illinois.

LISTEN: Sounds of the viewers during the eclipse.

Total Eclipse

Total Eclipse