Natural Calendar - January 2013

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, Images and Video From December 2012

A bright Geminid meteor lights up the western sky in the early morning hours of December 14th. Castor and Pollux of Gemini are in the center of the image. Jupiter is bottom right & Sirius is lower left.  Orion is setting behind our White Oak.  Nikon D5100 camera and Tokina 11-16mm lens.  Click the image to go to the time lapse video of the Geminid Meteor Shower.

The Cherokee word for meteor translates as "fire panther."  The words aptly describe the appearance of a bright meteor arcing overhead.  On December 14th, we set up a camera at midnight to try to capture some of the Geminid meteor shower during the early morning hours.

The Geminids appear to radiate from a point near the bright star Castor.  This is where the image at right is centered.

It was a very cold night, one of those beautiful, transparent nights where an extra layer of faint stars is visible. The camera was set up to track the stars.  One 20 second image was made every 22 seconds (automatically, thankfully) for the next 4 1/2 hours.

The field of view stretches from the horizon to past the zenith.  The lens captured 104 degrees of sky, from Orion on one side of the field to the feet of Ursa Major on the other.

The following day we assembled 688 images into a time lapse video of the shower.  The meteors were bright but sparse.  High cirrus clouds moved in towards the end of the sequence.  Though I saw little movement of the clouds when I took the camera down, I wondered what they would look like in the time lapse.

Click the image above to open the video page.  If the "HD" icon is not colored blue on the Vimeo player, click it to turn it on, then click the play icon.  Immediately after the video starts to play, click the full screen icon to see the entire field of view.  Since the camera tracks the stars perfectly, you may not be aware that the video has started until you see a meteor flash on the screen. 

Each second of the video is about 11 minutes of real time.  In this altered temporal realm, the high cirrus clouds race across the star field.  One day on this time scale lasts less than three minutes!  Just before the end of the video, you can see where the camera drive is turned off.  At that point the tree line stops moving, and the stars begin moving relative to the tree line.  As the video ends the two "pointer" stars of the "Big Dipper" come into view at the top of the frame.

For maximum playback size and quality, a horizontal format, slower speed HD version of the video can be found here


Sky Events for January 2013:

Earth is at perihelion, nearest the Sun, on January 2nd.  The latest sunrise of the year for our latitude occurs on January 7th.  

Evening Sky: 

Jupiter shines brightly in the night sky during January.  On January 1st, look for it in the eastern sky in Taurus near the bright star Aldebaran.  It will be the brightest star-like object in the eastern sky.  Binoculars, if held steady, will show the four Galilean moons when they are not transiting the planet or being eclipsed.

At the beginning of the month, Mars appears low in the southwestern sky after sunset in in Capricornus.  A good time to look for it is about 40 minutes after sunset.  Telescopically, it is tiny, only about 4.2 arc-seconds in apparent diameter.

Morning Sky: 

The Quandrantid Meteor Shower peaks in the morning hours of January 3rd.  Best meteor rates should be just before dawn, looking northeast.  A waning gibbous Moon will prevent some fainter meteors from being visible. 

Venus rises around 5:26am CST on January 1st.  As January progresses, it will sink into the dawn twilight glow. 

Saturn rises about 2:07am on January 1st.  Saturn's rings have opened up to more than 19 degrees of tilt.  To get the best views wait until the planet has climbed higher in the sky just before dawn.

All times noted in the Sky Events are for Franklin, Tennessee and are Central Standard Time.


Spiral Galaxy NGC 2903 In Leo, January 3rd and January 8th, 2011.  Six inch Refractor and ST-2000XCM CCD Camera.  Five hours total exposure time.  For a higher resolution version and a finder chart, click the image above.

Constellations:  The views below show the sky looking east at 9:30pm CST on January 15th.  The first view shows the sky with the constellations outlined 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. Look below Pollux and see if you can spot the faint glow of M44, the "Beehive Cluster."  This cluster is located in Cancer, the Crab.  It is easily seen in the Geminid Meteor Shower video as a hazy spot. 

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.  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. 

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.

The Virtual Moon Atlas is a terrific way to learn the surface features of the Moon.  And it's free software.  You can download the Virtual Moon Atlas here.

Cartes du Ciel (described in the monthly notes above) is a great program for finding your way around the sky.  It is also free, and can be downloaded here.

Apps:  We really love the Sky Safari 3 Pro application described here.  For upcoming events, the Sky Week application is quite nice.  Both apps are available for both I-phone and Android operating systems.



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 2013 Leaps