Saturday 31 August 2013

Pina Colada Under the Stars

Managed to find a brief window of clear sky last night when I returned home, and so decided that the first priority was to...

...make a drink...

...then grad my 10x50s, and make my way outside.

I know it happens every year, but it is always sad to see the summer triangle begin to sink into the west. Ophiuchus and my favourite little IC4665 is gone, Scutum disappearing, and even Aquila the Eagle is looking a mite tired as he flaps his wings at 130am.

Obviously this means the autumnal sights are starting to rise, and I was thus able to pick out Messier 15 in Pegasus, The great Andromeda Spiral, the double cluster and Messier 34 in Pegasus, various open clusters in Cassiopeia, and of course Kemble's Cascade, which I study in depth now every chance I get.

New objects in view were Messier 33, the Triangulum Spiral, which I was now able to pick up, a ghostly ellipsoid whisping across the blackness of the universe behind it - and also the Pleides were definining Atumun's arrival by peeking above the church rooftop. They were beautiful in binoculars, blue white diamonds in the sky. I have never been able to pick up the nebulosity around them, well, this is a town, I'm glad to be able to see them at all.

But it also means that soon, it will be too cold to have Pina Colada's outside.

Monday 26 August 2013

I Broke my Wheel to see a Migrant Hawker

I've had a bad back, bad knees, and bad headaches. THis did not stop me heading out on my bicycle on Wednesday 21st August to RSPB Langford Lowfields to see what I might see, and also to stop myself from getting too chubby.

As is usual this time of year, dragonflies were numerous on the way in, and I tried to photograph a common darter male sat on a thistle by the entrance gate. Sadly, amazingly co-operative though the dragonfly was, my mobile phone camera doesn't like focussing on them - can't handle the clear wings I think - and these pictures were disappointing. Disappointment also followed when I looked for purple hairstreaks around the ash tree at the entrance. No joy, sadly.

So I cycled down to the screen, kicking up clouds of damselflies and darters, and large white butterflies. Like a true Jain, I tried not to hit anything.

At the hide, pretty much the same as last week, with fewer egrets and no marsh harrier. And somehow, even more lapwing, with amateur birdwatcher fooling juvenile starlings amongst them. Terns dipped their beaks in the water, and there were still a few sand martins around I think.

But it was on the path side of the screen where the action was. I failed to photograph a beautiful mating pair of common blue damselflies, that flew off still locked in a circular embrace. A common darter obligingly let me get a good picture this time, and all through the air, large yellow thoraxed, blue abdomened dragonflies abounded.

These kept their distance for the most part, and I cursed them mightily, but eventually I kept an eye on one that looked like it was looking to settle. And settle it did, its 6 legs wrapped round a twig.

I closed in, barely breathing, wishing I was weightless to avoid rustling the grass. From the pale blue markings on the abdomen I figured it as a migrant hawker, which the nice Langford people later confirmed for me. I came closer, and closer still, and it didn't move! I was able to spend ten minutes observing, filming, and taking photographs of this magnificent, beautiful insect - see previous picture posts - and this was able to distract me from the vicious attentions of the very bitey twin lobed dear flies.

This made the day. Typically, it also made the day too good to be true, for as I cycled home, a huge and blunt twig went through both sides of my inner tube 5 miles from home.

Lucky is the man who has a kindly stepfather!

Thursday 22 August 2013

Striking Pictures from Langford and Sconce Park

How fortunate have I been to at last see some of my most desired photographic targets close up!

Female common darter, actually near the second gate at Willow Holt
Female brown hawker laying eggs in River Devon, Sconce Park
Small copper by the river at Sconce Park
Male common darter by the hide at Langford Lowfields. Note colour contrast with the female
Glorious migrant hawker off the path near the hide, Langford Lowfields
Same migrant hawker, another view

Friday 16 August 2013

Butterfly Romance at Sconce Park

No small coppers or skippers in the devon-side thistles, but some male and female common blues were enjoying the day...

Female common blue grazes off a thistle
The beautiful underside is similar to the male, but the upper wing is brown rather than blue
She feeds peacefully, as elsewhere I spy a male chasing off a rival suitor
Here he comes! Beautiful deep blue upper wing
He moves in behind here
But the lady likes to be on top...

A Marsh Harrier at RSPB Langford Lowfields

Wednesday 14th August, I realised I hadn't paid a visit to RSPB Langford Lowfields in an awfully long time, so I saddled up, and headed out on a bright day with the sunshine taking the edge off a fresh breeze.

The trip out was uneventful. It was getting late in the afternoon, so pushed myself hard until reaching the reserve. There I performed an undignified gate limbo at the site entrance, pausing in my contortions to take in the excellent sightings board they have here, where a Marsh Harrier was advertised as having been seen that day.

"Fat chance", I thought. "The fun birds are never there when I show up."

 I cycled down the path, flushing out various butterflies, and what I'm guessing were the common darters found low down on the Langford path this time of year. And as I came up to the gate between Phase 1 and the First Lake, I noticed a large dark raptor making a circling anti-clockwise turn low across the path ahead of me. It was buzzard sized, but the wingplan was different, even broader looking and the tail seemed narrower and slightly longer. It slowly glided across the path and disappeared behind the treeline.

I knew instinctively it was the reported Marsh Harrier - it seemed to fly like no raptor I'd seen before. It was difficult to make out the colouration - essentially a dark brown bird with a pronounced pale buff area underneath the wing, which seemed darker at the edges.

So, I was feeling rather pleased with myself, and settled into the hide to take in the beautiful egrets out on the reedbed, along with a large number of coots and young, and out on the islands, the largest flock of lapwings I'd ever seen, easily numbering in the hundreds. Chased off by a couple of these smartly dressed peewits, a small dabbling duck made its way out on to the water. I wondered if it might have been a teal, details were hard to make out at this distance.

A small wader dashed out of the reeds for a second, before thinking better of the idea. A sandpiper possibly, I have no idea.

Every so often a group of common terns would appear, flying up from the river, every so often hovering before making a swift dive onto the water to hunt. Large dragonflies - perhaps southern or migrant hawker, patrolled the hedgerow. I had a look for the marbled white and clouded yellow butterflies I'd seen as numerous on site, but no joy.

I returned to the hide, and as I swept left to right, I caught a glimpse of large raptor flying low and slow from the left - it was actually below my vantage point. A chocolate brown bird, it was obviously the marsh harrier again. It flew at a very leisurely pace towards the river, but just fast enough to stop me getting the 10x50s on it! A first for me however, a genuinely uncommon bird, and thanks to RSPB Langford Lowfields, I'd seen it!

Wednesday 14 August 2013

Picture Post from Langford Lowfields 14.08.13

So much to report from this trip, but that's a whole other post! Enjoy these pictures for now.
Male common blue damselfly just after mating
Small copper by the hide
Fuzzy bee on clover
A better view
Large white
Blue tailed damselfly refused to focus
Red tailed bumblebee
A different bumblebee
Meadow brown on the ever popular thistle
You can't see us, but we see you Mr Wasp
Cinnabar moth caterpillar
Buff tailed bumblebee?
Marmalade Hoverfly?
Nasty nasty fly
Unidentified pretty plant

Tuesday 13 August 2013

Perseid Report 2013

I attempted to dedicate two evenings to proper Perseid observations - Sunday 11th - 12th and Monday 12th - 13th.

Sunday was a terrible disappointment. My initial reading led me to believe that this would be the best evening for observing, but as it transpired, I was clouded out for the most part, indeed my initial drink at the pub where I attempted to do some "outreach" work over a pint of a very fine Adnams ale. The clouds half cleared for about 15 minutes when I got home, and I stood outside hopefully, but I saw precisely one meteor before the clouds completely rolled in and killed off observing for the night.

I was gutted, and I was not the only one by the looks of things.

However, reports the next day suggested that the peak may be later than first though, and that the ZHR (Zenithal Hourly Maximum" rate was still increasing. So, as I had another fine pint of ale pre midnight, and was able to show a Perseid off at the pub - several were seen from here after I went home.

Me, I was a good and conscientious citizen scientist. I headed home, got out my garden chair reclined to the max, my 10x50s, and a warm jacket. I had about a third of the sky in view, the radiant to Square of Pegasus, to Ursa Major, and over the zenith to Hercules.

It was a slow start at about 1230am, and it took a few minutes to see my first meteor, but as the radiant rose higher, the view just got better and better. As I usually tend to expect from the Perseids, most meteors were fast moving, short lived, and not too far from the radiant - I find the Geminids tend to be much more widely ranged across the sky.

The typical Perseid was usually about Mag 2, and distinctly orange in colour. There were three or four much brighter, Mag 0 specimens, leaving distinct smoky trails, but sadly no spectacular fireballs for me! I observed for an hour, counting around 30 Perseids and 1 sporadic - I lost count!

In between Perseids, I got in some nice looks at Kemble's Cascade, Cassiopeia clusters, and Cygnus and Lacerta too, and all the while I listened to some interesting tech reports on the BBC World service.

All in all, it was a very rewarding night's observing, I hope many new observers were outside with a warm drink and their eyes turned skyward!

Friday 9 August 2013

How to Observe the Perseid Meteor Shower

Some of you may have noticed the increasing coverage of the upcoming Perseid meteor shower on the night of 11/12th August - Sunday into Monday. I'm going to give you a few tips on how best to get outside and see a few meteors.

The good news is twofold. 1) Meteor activity is already increasing; if you were to head outside tonight under clear skies and watch for a few minutes, you would be unlucky not to see one. 2) The best time to see them is after the pub closes. Probably in every sense.

The Perseid meteors are grains of dust, smaller than a grain of sand, that were once a part of Comet Swift-Tuttle, a comet with a nucleus 27km acrosss the orbits the Earth every 133 years leaving behind a trail of iccey and dusty particles. Every August 12th, our home planet intersects the centre of the orbit of these particles, each one the age of the solar system, and they slam into our atmosphere at high speed, leaving a fast moving, bright trail as friction causes them to burn up.

Meteor showers appear to emanate from a single spot in the sky called a radiant - the Perseids radiant is in the constellation of Perseus, the ancient Medusa slaying warrior. This diagram from Sky and Telescope magazine explains it.

As the radiant rises higher in the sky, the chance of seeing meteors increases, so the best time for observing Perseids will be after midnight as the 11th of August turns into the 12th, Sunday to Monday. My plan will be get a reclining garden chair out and face it roughly East, or North East, and lie back looking in the rough direction of the prominent W shaped constellation of Cassiopeia and above. I shall have a drink of some variety, a warm jacket on, and be listening to some spacey stories on my mobile phone.

The meteors will be fast moving, mainly white "shooting stars", similar brightness to the brighter stars, brighter ones possibly leaving a smoky trail. Look out for any leaving a different coloured trail, possibly yellow or blue-ish, and for really bright fireballs that will perhaps glow pink or green and leave a trail of sparks.

Don't be confused with the International Space Station, that will be brighter than most of the meteors, and be much slower moving from West to East if one of its passes occurs while you are observing.

The shower will continue until dawn, with the numbers of meteors rising as the radiant does. Under clear skies, perhaps up to 50-60 an hour may be visible, but from a town sight, 25-30 might be a good return.

This is a fascinating even that anyone can take part in, for free. Give your kids a treat and let the stay up and watch if skies are clear. And remember, Perseids will be visible for a few days either side of the early morning of the 12th.

Don't miss them!

Wednesday 7 August 2013

Todays Weird and Wonderful Nature

Been all over the place today...Beacon Hill reserve, Devon Park, the window, and everywhere there have been great things to see...

Another peacock on a buddleiah
Small white
Small white. Couldn't find a green veined white that would let me photograph it
Insect threesome
No idea what this amorous couple are!
OMG what creature is this!
Pretty moth this

Kemble's Cascade and the Mystery Cluster

I had another fine night's observing last night; a dull day had given way to clear skies, and a chance to do some astronomy outreach work using the Interrnational Space Station - at the pub.

At home, I quickly had the 10x50s and enjoyed the sights of the mixed summer / autumn skies  - beautiful endless stars along the milky way, cygnus full of endless knots and unidentified clusters of stellar bodies. Messier 71 in Sagitta was easily seen, and then Messier 27, the dumbell nebula and the easiest planetary nebula in the sky to see.

The night's main target was Kemble's Cascade, sat lowish in the great blank patch of sky that marks the constelation of Camelopardalis. Ironically Alpha is one of the more distant and thus luminous naked eye stars visible from earth, being 6000 light years from earth, but you wouldn't think so looking at this undistinguished patch of sky.

Luckily I'm able to pick out the Cascade more or less automatically now. I looked at it totally afresh last night, leading to extra discovery about it.

I hope.

The bright northern part of the cascade is what I tend to have been identifying as the whole asterism. After last night, I think I was wrong - at this time of year that bright part extends east for a couple of lunar diameters or so, then curves to the south out of the field of view . Trouble is, I think, is that these stars are fainter, and the Cascade tends to look a bit like it has gaps in it. The NGC1502 cluster was not apparent, but again this cluster to the south-west is very prominent.

I can't find anything on star maps of the area, but if this cluster is NGC1502, I'm looking at the Cascade in entirely the wrong way.

Perhaps the readers will see this formation better!

Tuesday 6 August 2013

Autumnal Skies are on the Way

0130 am last night, or rather this morning, and I found myself outside with a drink and my trusty 10x50s to do a spot of observing. The skies were sharp and clear, and the milky way arced from Sagitta to Cassiopeia.

This is a transitional time of year, observed at transitional time of the night. The stars of spring are all but gone, Arcturus fights on in the West, but Virgo and Saturn are long gone. The Scorpion's all too brief visitation is over; Sagitarrius never really appeared. Even the Summer Triangle is dipping down into the South East.

I began with a whisk around the major summer binocular objects - Messier 13 and Messier 92 the two bright globular clusters in Hercules, Messier 11 faint and low in Scutum, Messier 29 and big Messier 39 in Cygnus, and my favourite open cluster, dinky but distinct IC4665 in Ophiuchus, with IC6633 prominent nearby;

But rising in the East are the objects of Autumn and the yellow orb of Capella is starting to make its long climb back up towards the zenith. Two globulars were first on this cold weather list - Messier 15 in Pegasus and Messier 2 in Aquarius, both of which are easily visible in my 10x50s and are easy to find near prominent stars. Of course the Andromeda galaxy was there, filling my field of view like a misty teardrop not far from the firey orange Beta Andromedae. The double cluster in Perseus is easily seen, Messier 34 the open cluster less so, and the galaxy Messier 33 in Triangulum not observable alas.

I always enjoy looking at the Mirfak cluster of hot blue white stars, with its faint but unmissable orange interloper. Unlike the Hyades, which this cluster always reminds me of, I don't remember this cluster even being treated as such until fairly recently; it is certainly a wonderful sight in binoculars.

I finished up in the vicinity of Cassiopeia - Messier 103 visible, and then a look at Kemble's Cascade, which just never looks as amazing from my urban site as all the reports I read about it. NGC 1502 the small open cluster was visible at it's end was just apparent. A brighter cluster was visible some degrees away to the South East, I have not been able to identify this.

Colder weather is on the way. Soon it will be time to switch to Rum, rather than Pimms.

Friday 2 August 2013

Fine Skies Amid the Trees

Surprising as it has been in these incredibly sultry, sticky nights we have been having, there have been some gorgeous skies to see from my urban garden.

Well I call it a garden, it's more of a sort of driveway, surrounded by tall sycamore trees that leaf out in spring to take out most of my view of the south and east, as my flat takes care of the west. But even still, the skies have been clear enough the last few nights to allow me to see the milky way clear overhead, and follow it from Cassiopeia, across Lacerta, through Cygnus where the famous rift has been visible, and finally through Sagitta towards Scutum.

Binoculars reveal a glittering carpet of stars, a single field of view in my 10x50s may contain stars anywhere between 20 and 6,000 light years away, and blurry knots of light indicate the presence of star cluster after star cluster both genuine and co-incidental.

Messier 39 in Cygnus is probably the best of these, easily resolved overhead even from my sulfur tinged skies, but my particular favourite has always been to the west of the milky way, little IC4665 in Ophiuchus, the Serpent Bearer. Ophiuchus has always been a great mystery to me, reminding reminds me of the black sail of a satanically posessed oriental junk, a great void in the sky.

I understand that a twitter star party is taking place tonight. Enjoy whatever clear skies you can, whether you have a telescope, binoculars, or just your plain old eyes! I shall be joining you later for a naked eye session, looking out for meteors and Iridium Flares, perhaps with a small swig of rum if I have any left!