Natural Calendar - January 2011

The purpose of this feature is to give scout leaders, educators and naturalists an idea of some of the natural events coming up each month.  We will try to cover a variety of natural events ranging from sky events to calling periods of amphibians, bird and mammal watching tips,  prominent wildflowers and anything else that comes to mind.  We will also note prominent constellations appearing over the eastern horizon at mid-evening each month for our area for those who would like to learn the constellations.  If you have suggestions for other types of natural information you would like to see added to this calendar, let us know!

Note: You can click on the hyperlinks to learn more about some of the featured items.  To return to the Calendar, hit the "back" button on your browser, NOT the "back" button on the web page.  All charts are available in a "printer friendly" mode, with black stars on a white background.  Left clicking on each chart will take you to a printable black and white image.  Please note that images on these pages are meant to be displayed at 100%.  If your browser zooms into a higher magnification than that, the images may lose quality.

Though we link book references to nationwide sources, we encourage you to support your local book store whenever possible.

Notes and Images From December 2010

 Sirius rising, December 8th, 2010.  Nikon D40x camera, 17mm lens. 

These cold winter evenings are great for naked eye observing.  The bright stars of Orion, Gemini and Taurus shine like beacons above the bare tree branches.  The air is particularly clear after the passage of a cold front, and on just such a night we photographed the bright star Sirius rising over the eastern horizon on our farm. 

Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky, and is the star just to the right of the cedar in the image at right.  It is the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major, the great dog, and is often called, "The Dog Star."  Above Sirius are the stars that form the constellation of Orion, and at the top of the image are the stars of Taurus, the bull.

Sirius is one of the closest stars to our Sun.  At a distance of around 8 light-years, it is by astronomical standards a close neighbor.  The other bright stars of Canis Major are much farther away, from a few hundred to a few thousand light-years distant.  Caught in the branches of the Shagbark Hickory at the left side of the image is another bright star, Procyon.  Its name literally means, "before the dog," a reference to the fact that it rises shortly before Sirius. 

While you are looking at the constellation of Orion, you may want to take time to compare the color of the red giant star Betelgeuse to the hotter blue star Rigel.  They are labeled in the star chart for December.  Rigel is a blue supergiant that has a temperature of around 11,000 degrees Kelvin.  Betelgeuse has a much cooler temperature of around 3,500 degrees Kelvin.

Inbound Comet: A new comet discovered in December of 2010 could be a fairly bright comet in August of this year.  Now just a 19th magnitude faint patch of light in Virgo, Comet Elenin's orbit looks promising.  For more on the story, check the Sky and Telescope news item here.


Sky Events for January 2011:

Earth reaches perihelion, the point in its orbit closest to the Sun, around 1:00pm CST on January 3rd.  It is then only 91,407,000 miles from the Sun.  Although the shortest day of the year is on the winter solstice in December, the latest sunrise of the year for our latitude does not occur until January 7th.  The earliest sunset occurs about 2 weeks before the solstice.

Evening Sky: 

Look for Jupiter in the southwest at dusk at mid-month, about 44 degrees above the horizon.  It will appear before any other star-like object.  This is a great time to view the giant planet. 

Saturn rises about 11:23pm in Virgo at mid-month, and will be in great position to view in the predawn sky before sunrise.  The rings have opened up to 10 degrees from an edge-on view.  


Morning Sky: 

Venus is a brilliant -4.6 magnitude and rises around 3:17am at the beginning of the month.  It will reach greatest elongation from the Sun on January 8th, and will be about 27 degrees above the southwest horizon at dawn.

Mercury reaches greatest elongation from the Sun on the morning of January 9th.  Look for it at that time down and to the left of Venus about 40 minutes before sunrise.

All times noted in the Sky Events are for Franklin, Tennessee and are Central Standard Time.  These times should be pretty close anywhere in the mid-state area.

 Messier 81, Ursa Major, February 18th and 19th, 2010. Six inch Apochromatic Refractor and ST-2000XCM CCD Camera.  Total exposure time six hours, 40 minutes.

Constellations: The views below show the sky looking east at 9:30pm CST on January 15th.  The first view shows the sky with the constellation outlines and names depicted.  Star and planet names are in green.  Constellation names are in blue.  The second view shows the same scene without labels. 

Ursa Major, the Great Bear, has now cleared the horizon in the northeast.  The bright stars of Leo, the Lion, are visible now and  Hydra, the Water Serpent, rears its head menacingly. Hydra's brightest star Alphard is known as "The Solitary One" because of its somewhat isolated location from other bright stars.  Canes Venatici, the Hunting Dogs, also makes its appearance just above the northeast horizon.  Among the fainter constellations visible in the east are Leo Minor, the Small Lion, Cancer, the Crab, and Sextans, the Sextant. 

January 15th, 9:30pm, Looking East


January 15th, 9:30pm, Looking East

On Learning the Constellations:  We advise learning a few constellations each month, and then following them through the seasons.  Once you associate a particular constellation coming over the eastern horizon at a certain time of year, you may start thinking about it like an old friend, looking forward to its arrival each season.  The stars in the evening scene above, for instance, will always be in the same place relative to the horizon at the same time and date each January.  Of course, planets like Mars do move slowly through the constellations, but with practice you will learn to identify them from their appearance.  In particular, learn the brightest stars (like Regulus and Procyon in the scene looking east), for they will guide you to the fainter stars.  Once you can locate the more prominent constellations, you can "branch out" to other constellations around them.  It may take you a little while to get a sense of scale, to translate what you see on the computer screen or what you see on the page of a book to what you see in the sky.  Look for patterns, like the stars of Leo.

The earth's rotation causes the constellations to appear to move across the sky just as the sun and the moon appear to do.  If you go outside earlier than the time shown on the charts, the constellations will be lower to the eastern horizon.  If you observe later, they will have climbed higher. 

As each season progresses, the earth's motion around the sun causes the constellations to appear a little farther towards the west each night for any given time of night.  If you want to see where the constellations in the above figures will be on February 15th at 9:30pm CST, you can stay up till 11:30pm CST on the January 15th and get a preview.  The westward motion of the constellations is equivalent to two hours per month.  For instance, if you want to see what stars will be on your eastern horizon on April 15th at 9:30pm CST (3 months later), you would need to get up at 3:30am CST  in the morning on January 15th (3 months times 2 hours/month = 6 hours). 


Sky & Telescope's Pocket Star Atlas is beautiful, compact star atlas.  It is destined to become a classic, and is a joy to use at the telescope. 

A good book to learn the constellations is Patterns in the Sky, by Hewitt-White.  You may also want to check out at H. A. Rey's classic, The Stars, A New Way to See Them.

For skywatching tips, an inexpensive good guide is Secrets of Stargazing, by Becky Ramotowski. 

A good general reference book on astronomy is the Peterson Field Guide, A Field Guide to the Stars and Planets, by Pasachoff.  The book retails for around $14.00. 

Starry Night has several software programs for learning the night sky.  Visit the Starry Night web site at for details.



Wood Frog

A lot of things happen with amphibians in January.  To see them, though, you have to be out in the sort of weather that makes most people stay indoors.  The trick is to go out on mild (50 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer) rainy nights.  For safety, it is important that you have another person with you to watch for traffic as you slowly drive the back roads, looking for things that cross the road in front of you.  Make frequent stops to listen for calling frogs.  In January, both Spring Peepers and Upland Chorus Frogs are not uncommon, and  Wood Frogs have their short-lived breeding choruses in woodland ponds.  Southern Leopard Frogs are also sometimes calling on mild January nights.  We have seen Northern Cricket Frogs, Green Frogs, American Bullfrogs and American Toads foraging in January.  And just about anything is possible.  On January 22, 1999, we found a Eastern Spadefoot out in the stormy weather.  That same day a tornado ripped through Clarksville, Tennessee, doing much damage to the Austin Peay campus.  January is an exciting time of year to look for herps!

Recommended:  The Frogs and Toads of North America, Lang Elliott, Houghton Mifflin Co.


Winter Pond Life:

Although some Tennessee wildlife is in a dormant state during the winter months, many species remain active.  Small ponds are a good habitat to check for some of these species.  Frogs and toads forage around the edges of ponds on mild winter evenings, and you can see them by placing a flashlight or spotlight beside your temple and slowly scanning the banks.  It is important to have the beam of light close to your eyes, as this maximizes the amount of reflected eye-shine that you see.  You can also do your scan with a spotlight and binoculars.  We have found many frogs and toads in the winter this way.  Being familiar with the calls of frogs that breed during the winter is also helpful.  Upland Chorus Frogs, Spring Peepers and Wood Frogs all call in January.   

Spotted Salamander, February 17th, 2008, Nikon D40X, 105mm Macro Lens

Tiger Salamanders and Spotted Salamanders breed during the early winter, and you can sometimes find their egg masses in ponds.  Rainy nights are the best time to check for adult salamanders, but you can check for the egg masses anytime.  Red-spotted Newts can also be seen with a spotlight in the shallow water near the pond's edge. 




Beneath the Ice - Pond Life in Winter, Nikon D70, Special Macro Setup. All images are highly magnified in order to show detail - scale varies.

Some of the most interesting wildlife to be found in winter ponds occurs on a small scale.  Many insects and crustaceans can be found in the water or beneath the ice, and collecting a few water samples and examining them with a hand lens or small microscope will give you a window into their world.  Freshwater crustaceans like the Daphnia, Cyclops and Seed Shrimp are common in ponds and pools, as are many types of small snails.  Dragonfly larvae will spend the winter as larvae before transforming to their summer adult form.  The word larva comes from the Latin word for ghost or specter.  Both larval and the adult dragonflies are voracious predators.  The larval dragonflies are in turn preyed upon by frogs and newts.  With the exception of the dragonfly larva, all of the creatures shown at right are less than three millimeters in length.  All came from one small sample of water we took by breaking through the ice covering a small pond near Springfield, Tennessee.  After photographing them, we released them back into the pond.



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Nature Notes Archives:  Nature Notes was a page we published in 2001 and 2002 containing our observations about everything from the northern lights display of November 2001 to frog and salamander egg masses.

Night scenes prepared with The Sky Professional from Software Bisque

All images and recordings 2011 Leaps