Thursday, October 28, 2010

Morning Stargazing

6:30 a.m. A quick update on the fun sky this morning, just a few minutes ago, and the sheer luck of stargazing at dawn. I was late looking, almost missed the whole show. Sure wish I could post a picture! Maybe I'll have to try drawing it.

The brilliant Winter Hexagon was aloft, as noted earlier, but now the waning Moon was near its center at Castor's feet. And "last night the Moon had a golden ring" (two points for pegging that poetic allusion!*), giving the hexagon a special glow. The ring stretched from Procyon to Bellatrix (Orion) and Menkalinan (Auriga), but left Aldebaran and Rigel outside its circumference, something like this.

As I glanced at Aldebaran, a sizable satellite cruised between the horns of the bull, and crossed the southern end of the hexagon! Definitely worth getting up early for...

*And three more for telling us what that forebodes! (What, no bites? Okay: Wreck of the Hesperus, by H.W. Longfellow. And hurricane.)

Update: November 4, 6:15 a.m. I'm pretty starstruck these darker mornings, and it seems I can't get enough of looking at the Winter Hexagon. This morning the sky was glorious (with less than 5% of crescent Moon just rising), and a few meteors flared across the hexagon's field. Another satellite zoomed in about the opposite direction to the one mentioned above, exiting the hexagon just to the right of Capella. Then lo! a simultaneous satellite appeared, so I watched as the two made near-parallel, but increasingly divergent paths off to the north.

Alas, another starry post is in the works. Maybe I'll get back down to Earth one of these days.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Winter's in the Southern Sky

6:50 a.m. Already the starlight from our nearby planetary space heater is washing out the light of more distant stellar fires. Practice these last few years is now the only means I have of picking out old friends in the bluing sky. But I can see them now and know that they'll be moving unseen across the sky all morning as we go on with our daily activities.

I count, at first, sixteen or seventeen visible stars in the great Winter Hexagon this morning. Soon the coming Sun fades out all but the brightest, the eight stars that give this configuration its name and define its shape. Remarkable to me has been this new lesson that the darker the night, the more difficult it is to find stars, or rather, to pick out a particular star. Just as it's easier to find a familiar face in a small group than in a crowd, getting to know the stars in moonlight or dawn trains my eye and improves my chances of finding them in darker skies.

As the World Turns
To compound the challenge, my spatial sense of what happens in the sky during daylight or when I'm asleep is developing only slowly. I have a real problem visualizing the whole rotation business. For example, last night at bedtime, the eastern sky looked something like this. No problem with Cassiopeia, she's circumpolar and always a good guide. As my eyes adjusted, I was able to pick out the fainter stars of Perseus just below her. Huh?

But then what in the universe is this next bright star, just above the horizon? And, off to its right, the orange one just cresting the hogback? Nothing looked right, despite the faint cluster above "orange" that could only be... the Pleiades. (Somehow it was easier to see them than to make out the closer stars that would have instantly told me who "orange" was!)

I know you're all ahead of me here, and I should know, no matter what, that if the "handle" of the Pleiades (which looks a little like a miniature Big Dipper) points to an orange star, that star has got to be... Aldebaran!

And that means Star-So-Bright must be Capella, in the constellation Auriga. My friendly face, the Winter Hexagon, is just peeking above the horizon and is somewhat disoriented (or, clearly, I am!). It's these puzzles that make figuring out the night sky so much fun.

Back to the Hexagon
But this morning the Big Sky Geometer is "right" side up, even if only a few of its stars remain visible in the dawn. The discovery of the Winter Hexagon* was, for me, a great stride forward in placing myself, finding my way around, in starry skies. Let's take a quick look at what else is out there.

*Introduced to me by astronomer Aileen O'Donoghue, in her lovely autobiography, The Sky is Not a Ceiling.

If we can just darken the sky a bit, and we accomplish this by getting up a half-hour earlier, we look for the Winter Hexagon and see more clearly its components—the six constellations whose brightest stars outline the figure. Each constellation has, of course, many more stars than I can show here.

Castor and Pollux, the twins of Gemini, dangle their feet toward the center of the hexagon. Capella, the She-goat, is joined now by her kids and several other stars. Continuing clockwise, we meet Aldebaran, now accompanied by the Hyades, a true open cluster of stars so near to us (150 light-years) that it spreads into a bigger area than the tightly bound (and more distant at 400 light-years) Pleiades.

Then of course, Orion—everyone's favorite, always recognizable—strides across the celestial equator and dominates winter skies here in the Northern Hemisphere. Innumerable stars, globular clusters, and several nebulae, especially in his "belt" and "sword," provide a lot of entertainment for observers. At his feet, behind my neighbors' house, lies Lepus the Hare, and behind Orion trails his faithful dog, Canis Major with bright Sirius, the brightest star in the winter sky. Around the final corner, Procyon (in Canis minor, another dog) completes the hexagon.

In a few more hours, I'll try to picture the invisible Winter Hexagon hanging above the western horizon, rotated another click and preparing to set. That's the exact position in which I found our summer sky-map, the Summer Triangle (see Watcher's excellent post for more on this one) several dark nights ago.

That's the framework, but even with practice I can't help being startled when I go out early to wave The Husband off to work, as I did one day recently, and find a dark sky so sprinkled with stars it literally leaves me breathless. Then all the names I've been struggling to learn leave me completely and only wonder is left behind.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Surprise! Off to the Gardens

Herp Lady called on Friday, and suggested a trip to the Denver Botanic Gardens! Quite a treat, as I hadn't been there in quite some time. I daren't confess how long, or I'd lose my credentials as a plant lover! The attraction, for her, was a special exhibit of sculptures by Henry Moore. I have no credentials as an art patron, so can freely admit I'd never heard of him or the exhibit.

DBG, as it's fondly known, has an impressive amount of hardscape... and water! Despite the ever-presence of concrete and H2O, plants were everywhere. Just what we expect from a botanic garden. Oval with Points.

We were impressed at the number of species still blooming outdoors so late in the year, even tender Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis it was in my long-ago Arizona lifetime). All those flowers I pretty much ignored in favor of more subtle plants (except a patch or two of purple jewelweed, aka touch-me-not, ripe for the touching).

Everywhere we went, water flowed and bubbled and reflected. Quite a change from the unrelieved aridity the Foothills Farm has displayed lately. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time looking at the water; in quantities more than a rainbarrel-full, it's so foreign to me!

El Pomar Waterway, with interspersed fountains and, oddly, pots of Cereus and Crassula poised above the water.

I picked up some plant-display tips, too, and was quite captivated by this slope of partially submerged pots. It looked like a hobbit village! I can imagine it would help define plant spaces, as well as provide a little shade in full-sun spots. Can't wait to try this one at home. A nice inventory of broken pots should adapt well to this approach.

If not flowers, what? There was this lovely Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) in or near the Asian Garden. With foliage still soft green and vernal, we wondered how it weathers our winters. Apparently fine, as it appeared to have been there a while, although too young for coning. Here, Herp Lady gives it a closer look.

I was also drawn to another conifer, the lovely larches. These are captivating because of their unusual habit of deciduousity, although these particular trees also remained in springlike mode so far, showing little sign of the coming seasonal change.

The sun on their needles was particularly appealing, and the day was warm enough that we understood their reluctance to show color.

Although flowers were still everywhere, as shown below, the colors of the Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium, grass in foreground) testified to the coming winter. It's one of my favorite foothills grasses, here thriving in captivity.

Another sign of seasonal change was the occasional evidence of harvest. A pile of gourds here and there, trailing vines with beautiful gourds still attached, and the glow of the fruits and leaves of this Castor Bean plant (Ricinus communis), below, in the Euphorbiaceae.

Considered poisonous, as are most drugs, this plant also has had a host of pharmaceutical applications. Not one to mess with.

Paracelsus: Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy.

So much to see... more photos soon!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

First, Last, Always

Challenges always present themselves, and the one I find hardest to meet among nature observations is catching the last Hummingbird of summer, or the first returning Junco. You just never know. One day hummers are here, and you can assume you'll see them the next, but Poof! No more hummingbirds. This year it happened, I believe, the last week of September—a very late departure for hummingbirds.

A bit more than a week later, on October 9, I saw this little guy poking around in the weeds. He brought friends. If he wasn't the first Junco, he was definitely in the first returning wave.

It's mid-October now, and we've yet to have our first real frost. A cold spell last weekend brought rain and temps as low as the 40s (3-5C), but most days have been warm and sunny and nights rarely below 50 degrees (10C) in recent weeks. Without a frost, we can't even call it Indian Summer. Brought the house plants in last weekend; the geraniums are still outside enjoying 80-degree days (25C).

Others are "always with us, late and soon." First in the morning, last in the afternoon, or until it runs dry. This time of year, the Scrub Jays empty the sunflower feeder as fast as I can fill it.

Are they hungry? Not particularly... but they recognize opportunity and find it hard to pass up. First one, then two...

Four years ago, when this blog was new and posting perhaps more regular, I offered this little treasure about our ubiquitous Scrub Jays. I still think limericks have great potential as tools for environmental education! (Haven't been able to persuade anyone else, though!)

In case you missed it back then, here's our backyard version of

The Circle of Life

A garrulous bird is the Scrub Jay
He sits and he cackles all day
   For sunflower seeds
   To meet his winter needs
Then hides them wherever he may.

From sunflower seeds put away
By Scrub Jays against a cold day
   And never
   My yard is now
With sunflower plants gone astray.

If Scrub Jays could plan while they play
I’m sure they’d be happy to say
   These sunflowers reseeding
   Are going for feeding
A new crop of Scrub Jays next May.
      —S.L. White