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!
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Notes and Images From December 2014
We received an unexpected gift on Christmas when the clouds that had been hanging around earlier in the week suddenly cleared away. We walked outside around 10pm to a spectacular night sky. The bright stars of Orion and Canis Minor sparkled in the south, and Jupiter was a welcome sight among the stars of Leo.
There was a report of a comet that might be visible, so we took our binoculars with us. After a quick scan of the sky between Lepus, the Hare and the horizon-hugging stars of Columba, the Dove, we found it easily. Comet Lovejoy, C/2014 Q2, was a small but bright greenish glow. We suspected, but were not sure, that it was visible to the naked eye. "A comet named Lovejoy on Christmas day," my spouse mused.
Unfortunately, the clouds returned the next day, so we did not get to photograph Comet Lovejoy until December 30th. By then a waxing gibbous moon was directly overhead, tending to wash out the light of the comet. Even so, we made the above 4 minute exposure and caught just a bit of the faint tail.
The good news is that the comet is steadily climbing higher in the sky each night for us, and it does not reach peak brightness until later in January. By then, we'll have moonless conditions to view the comet. You can use the finder charts here, or better yet, download the outstanding app Sky Safari 4 to track the comet's position night by night (see the "Recommended" section below). Even the most basic version of Sky Safari 4 will show the comet. The cost of the app is about that of a cheeseburger and will not trash your New Year's diet.
We've seen some bright comets over the years, but we still love to spot even the fainter ones. Some of the most beautiful sights in the sky are small and nuanced, not bright and spectacular. To watch a comet catching a little sunlight during its brief passage around the sun is always a treat.
Sky Events for January 2015:
Earth is at perihelion, nearest the Sun, on January 4th. The latest sunrise of the year for our latitude occurs on January 6th.
Mars is less than 5 seconds of an arc now in apparent diameter, but still remains visible in the early evening. Look for it low in the southwest in Capricornus, and above and to the left of Venus and Mercury.
Venus continues to climb into the western sky after sunset in January. Look for it about 30 minutes after sunset. You can use it as a guide to find fainter Mercury and Mars. Mercury will be within 1 degree of Venus from January 8th through the 12th.
Mercury reaches greatest elongation from the Sun on January 14th. Use bright Venus to help find it.
Jupiter rises around 7:50pm CST at the beginning of the month in Leo. Wait for it to climb high in the sky in the morning hours to get the best telescopic view.
Saturn rises about 3:50am at the beginning of the month in Libra. Look for it low in the southeast. Saturn's rings have opened up to a nearly 24 degree tilt, giving a wonderful view of the ring system through just about any aperture telescope. Wait till just before dawn to get the best view.
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.
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 bright Jupiter shines among them. 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.
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 above scene), 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.
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 www.starrynight.com 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 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. The newest version, Sky Safari 4, is available from Play Store or from i-tunes.
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.
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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
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