Monday, 30 January 2012

Now I wonder what that was

Was out running past London Road lake today, taking in the sights, feeling pretty good, not having to nurse my legs too much, feeling insulated from the cold in my not really suitable for running purple fleece.

Anyway, was about halfway down the lake when I looked out onto the water and saw a Great Crested Grebe coasting along serenely.

But something didn't look right. I pulled up, and trotted back up a little way. The bird concerned seemed to have an all Black Head, with a very white front, none of the tan-orange feathers of a Great Crested Grebe. At a distance of about 75 yards or so, the beak was yellow and appeared to be quite thin.

I was thinking Goosander, colour scheme would be about right, but the beak is wrong. Damn I wish I had my field glasses or 10x50s with me, but they tend not to be practical when one is out there attempting to emulate Mo Farah.

And as we all know, I'm not the world's greatest birder! Maybe it was a Grebe that had been graffitied. Painted upon. Defaced...

Didn't really see anything else on the 7 and a half mile trip through Clay Lane and Beacon Hill reserve, bar a small tree overlooking a feeder, with a mixed flock of Chaffinches and Great Tits sat in it watching their suppers. The light was horrible and flat and grey, like my eyes had been part matte painted.

And I need matte painted eyes like...I need matte painted eyes.

The Beehive

A couple of nights ago, before work and lack of sleep took me away from my blog, I had a long thoughtful session of naked eye astronomy under a clear sky, Sirius blazing white from amongst the birdfeeders on the baby oak tree, Orion's belt skirting the rooves of the crumbling 19th century outhouses that belong to my downstairs neighbours.

Mars was visible twixt the Sycamore branches, this late at night always making me worry about dreaming of HG Wells style martian invasion and blood drainings - Damn you Jeff Wayne! - as has happened on a fair few occasions.

My attention was drawn to the left of Gemini's bright twins Castor and Pollux, into the faint constellation of Cancer.

I tested myself out on its Messier Objects.

The famous Messier 44 Beehive Cluster is easily visible to the naked eye as a misty patch almost as large as the full moon. I'm able to spot it easily these days, I must have better skies than my old house. Binculars resolve it beautifully of course.

Where I was really trying my eyesight was out was in seesing if I could spot the less well known Messier 67, which doesn't resolve in my 10x50s really. I think not. Above the head of the Hydra and slightly eastwards. I think I was convining myself I could see it, but my eyes were playing tricks. Wiki has its mag at 6.1 so under urban skies, not a chance in hell!

But as ever, I enjoyed my stargazing, despite the cold.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Signs of Spring? Nah, too dark

Ran out by london road lake today, was a bit lazy and heavy legged and eyelidded getting going today, and thus it was getting a little twilit as I headed out. But could still see a lot of Tufted Ducks on the lake, a fine little pied flotilla, and a lakeside tree held a little huddle of Great Tits.

No Pike were being caught on the river today, but I did see a cormorant fly across the river by The Castle. A group of Mallards sat by the lock, obviously not bothered by the gigantic killer Pike I now know for definite stalk the depths around here.

And then I headed for Sconce Hills as a police helicpter hovered above the bypass and an ambulance screamed by - hope nothing bad happened there. They've done a good little job with this park, I keep forgetting about the little nature reserve in here, must visit it again sometime!

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Signs of Spring and a Feathery Black Head

Went running yesterday, the tour of the two lakes! Started off though running through the cemetery, where snowdrops are in flower and crocuses are just about to flower, their colourful folded up heads like primary colour pods from Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Perhaps they are; the pixies are being taken over by emotionless alien consciousness!!!

Or, on the other hand, maybe not.

The Lakeside London Road lake was a haven for Black Headed Gulls, apart from when they were given a scare by a couple of military helicopters flying over. Curiously one of the gulls was sporting his Black Head way before time, so wonder what the deal with him was - genetic crazy pigment or a visitor from somewhere warmer? A Great Crested Grebe was there too, slightly unusual for this lake.

By contrast. cycle path lake was quiet, with all the mallards, tufed duck and coots and mallards being clustered down the far end of the lake. I ran down to the railway station and then back along the river before meeting a very interesting sight.

I often tweet that the river is busy with Eastern European fishermen angling for pike with enormous sliding floats and sad looking deadbaits and I always say they are wasting their time as I've never seen a pike in the dyke stretch of river, although The Witham is full of them. Until yesterday...

A couple of admittedly non baltic guys were in the process of hauling a ferocious looking Pike out of the river just below the locks, taken on massive sliding float and sad looking deadbait. Ten pounds plus reckoned the catcher as I applauded him, two feet plus long, and jaws like, well, Jaws.

It certainly had a chance to take a couple of vicious snaps at the guy's hand, but it needn't have worried.

This Pike I suspect was for release, not for the pot.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

View from the Window

The theme of the day has been wind. A howling, screaming gale that makes bicycle riding difficult and makes your eyes the semblance of an olympic swimming pool that has been jumped in by Dawn French's entire family.

Running today was cancelled due to 1) this inclement weather and 2) Cat sitting neccisitating sitting on the sofa watching TV. While stroking the cat occasionally.

I will go on the exerise bike later, I'm sure.

Anyway, I went to my favourite little museum cafe for a pot of my favourite tea, carefully and obsessively drunk so the first cup is smaller than the second one. This is important.

So, I sat and watched the world, and the clouds, go past the window overlooking the river. Some eastern european fishermen were there, parked on the bank next to the rusting barge and involved in what to me is the quintissential baltic past-time in this town.

Fishing in the river for pike that aren't actually there.

This is normally a pursuit for more summery weather - when the days are long there are usally a few folk out with enormous sliding pike floats the size of nuclear submarines and a sad looking dead fish on the end of the line. I hae never seen any of them catch anything. I have never seen anyone catch a pike in the dyke full stop.

Today's hardy winter anglers were doubly handicapped by the fact that the wind was so strong it was whipping the static dirty dark grey water into a minuture maelstrom of chaos.

It was a beautiful effect, the wind seemed to be acting in curved fronts upon the water, criss crossing it with turbulence like a waffle, bouncing back and forth from the museum wall to the barge. Harmonics on the surface caused the water to leap up into a tower of droplets a few inches high, like a glass of the stuff upon a loudspeaker.

I found it hypnotic and fascinating. The wind patter curved across the surface, an invisible hand caressing the waters this way and that. The fishermen gave up. I sipped my tea. The world continued turning in that wnderful way it has. A small echelon of Canada Geese painted themselves upon it.

It was a pleasant way to spend a morning.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Wild Geese Chasing and Astronomy

Went out running this afternoon, along the cycle path past the London Road lake which is surprisingly frozen over, it wasn't a couple of days ago and I really didn't think that it wa cold enough to freeze over. Might explain why loads of Tufted Duck were on the river, there was only one rather sad looking individual on the lake.

All the Mallards - about 40 or so, were being fed by a family down the far end of the lake. As I ran along, a small bird flittering about caught my eye, tail somewhat cocked I thought. Figured it may be a wren, but as I looked it popped into plain view, and with the buff pink chest and characteristic white stripe down the back of its black head, was a Coal Tit! They really are tiny, smaller even that a Blue Tit.

What really caught my eye tonight were several echelons of what I figured would be geese in the distance, flying SW to NE I'd say, cast against the pinking light of a setting sun. About 7 or 8 groups over about 10 minutes. Perhaps they were looking for ice free water as well. They were certainly moving much faster than I was, lumbering along with a slightly grumpy leg.

A couple of groups of Starling were murmurating over the estate by the railway line.

Skies are a bit hazy tonight here, but did get in a look with my 10x50s - tonights target was Messier 34 in Perseus and I found it eventually, after thinking that it was a lot closer to Algol, the famous Medusa star, than it actually is. It's a cluster of similar appearance to Messier 35 in Gemini through the binoculars - it's apparently resolveable with binoculars, but not with mine, on this not really perfect night.

Interestingly, I've now got my stepfather's 20x40 Theodolite available, curious to see how that performs on the moon and on some of the brighter star clusters. Providing they aren't very high in the sky, as it doesn't elevate much!

Monday, 16 January 2012

How to get (back) into Stargazing


I write this as someone who has always followed astronomical events, but pretty much gave up on observing a long long time ago, when I was heading into my A-Levels. I'd always follow the big time astronomical stories, but never really pay much attention to the sky, except for maybe the odd meteor shower.

Well, I'm nearly damn 40 now, and gradually over the last year or so I have been getting more and more back into it. Last month, I dug out my old 6 inch F8 Newtonian from my parents spare room, and found that 23 years out of use, you could still actually look through it and see something. I even took a really cruddy picture of Jupiter and its moons at x60. It was fun!

But it was also clear the old scope was very tired, mirror dirty and needing silvering, the finder out of alignment and the collimation shot to hell. I'm as clumsy as anything, and figure a resilvering job as expensive.

So it was with great delight that I got a pair of 10x50s for xmas, ostensibly more for birdwatching which you can probably tell I write about my hopelessness at elsewhere on this here blog. But I'm loving them for Stargazing. So, for someone who feels his love for the sky coming back big time, here's a few things I've learnt, and wish I'd learned back when I was 16.

1) Before you do anything - learn the sky! It seems obvious, but really knowing the constellations and principle stars will make things a ton easier later on. Nowadays folk are lucky with the new applications for phones and ipads. The Starwalk for Ipad is so amazing. Feels a bit like cheating really!

Some sort of good star atlas or planisphere will also be useful.

2) The sky is beautiful. Love it with the naked eye first.

3) When you want to try actually looking through something at the sky, binoculars 7-10x50 or so are best. Chances are you have access to a pair already, and they are a ton better than the nasty cheap telescopes you see in some camera shops and department stores, as well as showing stuff the right way up. But if like me you don't have super steady hands, don't go bigger than 10x without a tripod. Any less than a 50mm objective won't show enough stars either.

With binoculars, you will see lunar craters, jupiters moons, phases of Venus, and more stars and open clusters than you can imagine. The sights are beautiful, drink them in! I can find loads of Messier Objects with my 10x50s.

4) Oh did I say before? Don't buy cheap telescopes from non specialist outlets. Don't don't don't. They will be crappy. Do your research.

5) I see a lot of advice saying when it comes to your first telescope, spend as much as you can afford, aperture is king etc etc. Me, I don't buy into this. If you spend a lot of money, like I did back in 1987 - £600 for a 6 inch Broadhurst Clarkson and Clarkson reflector like a length of drainpipe. Spend a lot of money, you find yourself starting to force yourself to use the thing when you don't feel like doing so. You burn yourself out. This is not a good thing. It's what happened to me after a couple of years.

Nowadays, with decent quality telescopes at lower prices, if the kid gives up on the hobby, well, no harm, no foul.

These days, good quality small telescopes are much cheaper. Even big name proper telescopes like, say, Celestron, do good quality small scopes that don't cost a lot. Look at review sites, Cloudynights, Amazon, ebay, whatever!

6) Make sure that it has a good steady mount that isn't too heavy. If it shakes, its useless. But if the mounting is too heavy, you won't be bothered to take the damn thing in or out. Telescopes get heavier much quicker than the aperture gets bigger! Another reason to stay small.

7) As a very general rule, refractors - lenses, you look straight through them - tend to be better at looking at the moon and planets, than newtonian reflectors - mirrors, you look into the side of them - which tend to have wider fields of views and be better for star clusters and galaxies. What are you interested in looking at.

8) I like wide fields! Lower magnifications mean lots of pretty stars, and make it easier to find your way around. Higher mags make it easy to get frustratingly lost.

9) If you have a telescope, make sure it has a good finder or other method of homing in on an object so you see it in the main telescope. Optical finders of less than 50mm aperture are useless. I had a 6x30 on my telescope, and it was useless. It made it very difficult to find stuff from an urban back yard and drove me mad.

Nowadays some small scopes have laser pointers, I've never tried them! Sounds kind of fun.

10) Have a simple non polar aligned alt-azimuth or Dobsonian mounting. It's much more intuitive for the beginner to use and find stars and planets with, and at lower magnifications and wide field views, the tracking problem is not a major one. My equatorial mount frustrated me, you need to know what you are doing to properly align them, and it makes it awkward to find objects quickly and easily. This gets worse if you throw in those worm gears.

Equatorial mounts are heavy as hell as well. I'm not sure they are neccessary for smaller telescopes.

11) Make it social! Throw star parties. I plan to! I hate the fact that stargazing can be lonely.

12) Don't expect to see glorious colourful galaxies that you would see on a hubble picture. Our eyes aren't as good as that, alas!

13) Just love what you are seeing. Always! Even if you can't put a name to it!

Running to Willow Holt Reserve

Really gritted the teeth of my still post xmas tubby self, and in no way aided by a glitchy FM radio on my phone, headed out into the frosty wilds to Willow Holt reserve.

Lincs FM stopping and starting in my ears all the damn way.

I've never been out here at this time of year before, but I figured, occasionally wrongly, that the hard frost would stop it being too muddy and difficult to run in. As it happened it was damn slippy at times.

Without leaves on the trees, The Holt has a bleak beauty and tranquility. The birds are quieter, there aren't so many folk about walking their dogs, the frost crisps up the grass with a silvery sheen.

Didn't see many songbirds about in the Holt or along the river bank, although I think I flushed 4 Redwing out of a tree opposite the power station. There was a large amount of Tufted Duck on the river at Farndon Ferry, which is an unusual sight, I always, probably wrongly, associate the second most common duck I see with still water.

The best thing I saw today though was at the Weir by the Power Station. The entrance the weir drop is lined by these curious and rather purposeless looking sort of flagpoles, and atop two of these were sat very sleek and raven black Cormorants, necks coiled like snakes resting on their prehistoric looking shoulders.

I swear one of them was eyeing me carefully as I ran by, wondering no doubt on a cold day with the fish sleepy, whether I was too  large to make a meal...

Astronomy, rum and no lash

After a couple of quiet drinks in the pub, where the legendary bass playing of Jaco Pastorius was discussed and Oliver Reed's cinematic and TV antics, I headed home under what even through sodium streetlight haze was a glittering sky. Bitterly cold though it was, I slipped outside with my 10x50s for a lookaround, happy that I wouldn't have to contend with the downstaris neighbors security light.

I looked at the usual suspect objects first - the Orion Nebula always being a fine sight even in binoculars, you can only see half the Trapezium! So that would be a straight line I guess! I always find sweeping through Orion a pretty sight, there are so many faint stars like pinpricks in a backlit velvet curtain you just lose yourself following the rivers of starlight round and about.

This night I was able to just about fit Messier 37,36 and 38 in Auriga into the same field of binocular view, all of them looking like hazy patches of nebulosity, with 37 the brightest looking and 38 the largest. M38, I remember, was an attractive sight in my 6 inch reflector.

I then scooted across through Perseus, through the Alpha Perseii cluster, and on to the Double Cluster, the Sword Handle. How Messier missed these pair of beauties I don't know, because they are easily visible in Binoculars and even resolve into a few stars in my 10x50s, one of the clusters being markedly more open than the other.

I always forget to look for Messier 34.

Coming back through Orion, I turned left at Betelgeuse, an angry vermillion beacon in my binoculars, and found a small but slightly resolved star cluster. Investigation reveals this to be conclusively the Christmas Tree cluster NGC2264. It looks look nebular behind the resolved stars, but this will be starlight, rather than the nebula that surrounds the cluster.

Finally I stopped off at Messier 35 in Gemini, another fine telescopic sight, before heading off into Cancer.

The Beehive Cluster M44 looks like a mini Pleides in binoculars, smaller and somehow prettier! All it's individual stars are resolved in 10x50s, and I found that once you know where you are looking, it's easy to see with the naked eye.

A little lower is Messier 67, which is easy to find with the 10x50s when you relaise the way to find it is to look  above and a little to the left of the head of the Hydra, the deadly Herculean watersnake that forms the largest constellation in the sky.

It just looks like a nebular patch in 10x50s.

I had another look for the Crab Nebula, I thought I had it with averted vision, but it is so difficult! Really dark skies, it should be plain to see, it's certainly easy to find near Zeta Taurii. Will keep trying! Not that I want to catch a crab on a night out.

Too freezing to stay out for long, my hands were a fetching shade of dark blue. It took a double slug of Havana Club rum to revive me! But a worthy reward indeed, another warm glow to end the evening.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

A Messy Messier Update

So, I found darker skies, but no Dark and Stormy alas, before the waning halfish moon rose, and got the 10x50s out to try the Auriga open clusters again.

M36, M37 and M38 were all easily seen, or rather 37,36 and 38 as that is the order they kind of appear in. I could get two of them in the field of view at once, but not three. The Perseus Double cluster looked great - in binocular terms, and the Orion and Monoceros corner of the sky is a fantastic starfield. I reckon I'm deceiving myself, but I swear I can pick up nebulosity around the Pleides.

Don't know what the limiting mag of the 10x50s is under urban skies, probably about 8-9 I guess.

General sweeping reveals all manner of little knots of stars and fuzzy nebular blobs that could be anything - I have no star map to hand nor my OHs StarWalk I pad app, but I reckon I spotted two open clusters in Monoceros low over a neighbours rooftop - M50 would be one, the other, Christmas Tree cluster???

I am as bad with deep sky objects as I am with birds! But I guess, why does anything have to be anything? In some ways, it's pretty enough just being there without having to know exactly what it is!

However, Messier 1 Crab Nebula was not doable - it might be too small to show at 10x. And by then my badly out of practice eyes were beginning to tire. And my fingers were beginning to turn a fetching shade of purple!

PS - I think talking about "Messier objects" is getting folk excited who are looking for sploshing fetish stuff online! Messy Messy Messy! There you go. It puts my blog stats up and makes me think people care!

Friday, 13 January 2012

Messier Hunting

Or rather two sessions.

First was midnight last night, where a waning gibbous moon was the target for my 10x50s. Too bad I've got a fearfully shaky grip, which makes seeing details really difficult! Two big craters were easily defined on the terminator though, perhaps craters like Langrenus or Petavius. The moon made deep sky viewing difficult, and air conditions weren't great either.

So, earlier tonight, shivering and fresh off my bicycle from yet another unrewarded day at work, I got the binoculars and went on a  deep sky object hunt.

The three open clusters in Auriga were my target, and I reckon I picked up Messier 38 despite the neighbours deploying the outside light to scare away non existent demons of the early evening. These Messier objects in Auriga are always a bit of a confuser for me, I remember looking at M38 in my 6in reflector years ago, supposing it was M38 as it was the brightest! For all I know I was looking at reflected nodules on my retina or something.

Messier 35 in Gemini was also easy to find, as was The Andromeda Galaxy - the satellites are a bit much for my shaky hands. The Double Cluster in Perseus is an easy view, and The Alpha Perseii cluster looks great in binoculars, like a half Hyades. Didn't even know that was such a thing until fairly recently. Looks cool though!

With clearer skies and darker non terrified neighbour settings, wondering infMessier 1 The Crab Nebula is possible, or Messier 33?

What is possible, a whole lot of whatever, is that I can have a Dark and Stormy or a Cuba Libre, or some other nice drink while I observe. And I shall!

Monday, 9 January 2012

Running after the sun

Yesterday, headed out towards Sconce Hills, going through the hospital grounds and admiring the mobile scanner wagon they have parked up their every month or so.

I always think that perhaps one day they will be doing a really powerful MRI scan and I'll get lifted into the air and slammed into the side of the trailer by the strong magnetic field.

Maybe not.

Anyway, this run was another 330 pm effort, and the out part of the journey had me trying to run towards what was a very attractive sunset, oranges, reds and purples. I would have loved to have run fast enough after it to keep up with it and keep its glowing glory going for longer, but no, the sun always escapes from you. By the time I was running through Sconce Hills park and by the river, the warm hues had been replaced by the greys and indigos of the twilight that impends a long night.

Strangely this end of town despite the fact there ought to be plenty of roosting sites, you never get the murmarations of Starlings over on the South - South West end of the town. It's always a bit wildlife dry actually,despite the small reserve adjoining the park - few songbirds, the mallards and hybrids on the river Devon annoying the eastern european folk rather hopefully fishing for pike.

But, I always enjoy being out there, even if the sun got away from me for another day.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Starling Hunt

OK, I wasn't really hunting Starlings. I didn't have a rifle, catapult or even a pea shooter as I set off on what ended up being my longest run for a fair old while. I just had my eyes, and an ancient mp3 player with rubbish sports headphones that keep falling off my ears.

London Road lake, plenty of male tufted duck in their neat plumage, the solitary grebe, blackheaded gulls and the usual coots and moorhens. The baby moorhens are growing up. They were born late, but the winter has so far been a mild one.

Now that I've written that, I'm sure I'll be frozen to death while cycling to work, miserable, cursing, at 6am in the next few days.

I ran the whole muddy length of Clay Lane, proper cross country running that, but too twilight to see much, r indeed anything, before I headed across Beacon Hill estate and through Beacon Hill reserve; not much to be seen here either - note to self, start your runs earlier.

But on the industrial estate, things were rather more fun. The Starlings were in their "murmurations" (blame Autumnwatch if that is not a proper word...) - lots of them.

The first group, about 200 birds or so, was up by X2 Connect on Brunel Drive, there was a flock here yesterday as well. But as opposed to yesterday, when I was a bit earlier, these birds were not gradually coming up and gradually merging into one flock, these birds were commencing their first tentative dives down into the trees and bushes in which they roost.

Another flock, the largest, which absorbed a smaller flock as I ran past, was bigger, and was at the other end of Brunel Drive where it meets the main road by KFC. Turning towards town, another small flock of 100 birds was about 200 metres further down the road, and over the Winthorpe Road estate another flock was making these strange, flowing, punctuation marks in the sky.

A fifth flock - this sounds like the narrator of HG Wells' War of the Worlds meeting the dying martians in their fighting machines in Dead London - was operating over the Mace store and post office apart half way towards the bridge, and as I looked towards town in the distance, there was another flock over the new Co-Op, I reckoned.

But as I arrived a couple of minutes later, the light fading to grey, a darker grey, they had gone. They had decided enough was enough, and settled for the night! And as I looked back, the other flocks were down as well.

All the Starlings asleep for the night! Their flying, commas and full stops and brackets upon the sky, was over, so much easier for them than if I bought one of those gliders I admire so much on Brunel Drive whenever I run by.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Quadrantids? I think not.

I did have a couple of brief observing sessions, in between howling gusts of wind and splatters of rain, but alas, as I looked Northish and Eastish I can't say I saw very much. In fact I thought I saw one faintish third-fourth magnitude meteor streak through Auriga, but my eyes were watering and I'm afraid they may have been playing tricks with me.

This morning as I was about to cycle to work at 6am I had another look and saw nothing, Virgo dominating the Southern aspect of my view, but really meteorwatching on a bicycle is not recommended and is really rather stupid.

I do enjoy meteor showers though. It is the  easiest form of useful astronomy to get into I reckon, and there's always the chance of seeing a really spectacular fireball. Also, it lends itself well to istting in a reclining garden chair with some beer, wine or rum in my case, and maybe even some music.

However, at this time of year, there is a sort of frostbitey deathwish about this

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Brighton runnings

Spending a few days down south, have managed to get out for several runs, 4-6 miles long.

Each and every time, it has absoloutely hammered down. I have been blattered on down the Hove Seafront, on Palmeira Square, and had the sky personally wet its pants on me as I swept (ha) by The Royal Sussex Hospital.

But it's always worth it, and it always makes me feel better.

I have run down to the Hove harbour, past the Lagoons water park, a rather unfriendly looking place at this time of year as its boats and windsurfers shiver in the watery breeze. I quested after a fish shop, and found it shut; luckily I have an excellent cook to make delicious battered whiting for me, which is much appreciated. I look out for interesting things, constantly.

Wildlife wise, the seafront isn't great really. Although today, I saw a wagtail down at the harbour and instead of the usual immature Herring Gulls that seem to comprise most of the bird life here, I saw three black backed gulls, probably lesser I guess, bobbing around on the Jade green sea as yummy families attempt to hold insane barbecues in the wet.

Rich though it is for me to speak of madness, as my drenched self ambles past.