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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Though we link book references to nationwide sources, we encourage you to support your local book store whenever possible.
Notes and Images From January 2017
On January 16th we made a trip out to west Tennessee to do some winter birding. Though the day was cloudy, it was nice to get away from our computers for a short time and see a little of the natural world.
We spotted this Red-tail Hawk near the highway and turned the car around to see if we could get an image. It flew back from the highway and landed in a stubble field not too far away. The shot would have been pretty static with the hawk just standing there, but we waited until it leaned forward, then hit the camera shutter in the burst mode. In doing so, we caught the Red-tail launching skyward, raising its wings for its first flap.
We were struck by the beauty of the colors of the raptors we saw that day against the muted colors of the winter landscape. For more on birds, see our section on winter birds below.
Lynn Faust's book, Fireflies, Glow-worms, and Lightning Bugs (The University of Georgia Press) is now out. The book is a wonderful guide to the identification and natural history of the fireflies of the Eastern and Central United States and Canada. Besides in-depth species accounts, including flash pattern charts, the book is filled with firefly lore. In my first twenty minutes of perusing this book, I learned more about fireflies than I had in the last twenty years! We highly recommend it.
Planet Earth II, with David Attenborough, is coming soon, and judging from the preview, will be spectacular. If you need something to pick you up, go here and watch the preview (sound on, full screen, fasten seatbelts). Besides being able to watch it on BBC America, there are a number of other places you can download the episodes in HD, including i-Tunes.
Sky Events for February 2017:
Venus sets in the southwest around 8:55pm at the beginning of the month. Look for pretty pairings of Venus, Mars and the crescent Moon early in the month.
Mars is in Pisces this month. Look for the red planet above and to the left of Venus. The color contrast between Mars and Venus is striking!
Jupiter rises about 10:40pm CST at the beginning of the month in Virgo.
Saturn moves from Ophiuchus into Sagittarius this month. It rises about 3:38am CST at the beginning of the month. Look for it low in the southeast before sunrise.
You may be able to spot Mercury low in the southeast about 40 minutes before sunrise at the beginning of the month. It will gradually sink into the dawn glow as the month goes on. A flat southeastern horizon will help, as will binoculars.
Constellations: The views below show the sky looking east at 9:30pm CST on February 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, is now prominent in the northeast. All of the bright stars of Leo, the Lion, are visible now, includingDenebola, the bright star at the tip of the Lion's tail. Part of the constellation of Virgo is visible below Leo. It's handy to know where Denebola is, because below it, if you imagine sliding down the Lion's tail, is the great Virgo cluster of galaxies. Left of Denebola, on a line towards the handle end of the "big dipper," you will see the faint star cluster Mellotte 111, in Coma Berenices. With a telescope, you can use the stars in this cluster to star-hop to the wonderful edge-on galaxy NGC 4565. The faint constellation of Crater has now cleared the horizon.
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 February. In particular, learn the brightest stars (like Regulus and Denebola 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 March 15th at 9:30pm CST, you can stay up till 11:30pm CST on the February 15th and get a preview. The westward motion of the constellations is equivalent to two hours per month.
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.
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 5 Pro. It is available for both iOS and Android operating systems. There are three versions. The Pro is simply the best astronomy app we've ever seen. The description of the Pro version reads, "includes over 27 million stars, 740,000 galaxies down to 18th magnitude, and 620,000 solar system objects; including every comet and asteroid ever discovered."
For upcoming events, theSky Week application is quite nice. Available for both I-phone and Android operating systems.
Another great app is the Photographer's Ephemeris. Great for finding sunrise, moonrise, sunset and moonset times and the precise place on the horizon that the event will occur. Invaluable not only for planning photographs, but also nice to plan an outing to watch the full moon rise. Available for both androids and iOS.
The amphibian season continues to build in February. One trick to finding amphibians in winter is to go out on mild (50 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer) rainy nights. It is important for safety reasons that you have another person with you to help watch for traffic as you slowly drive the back roads. Look for things that cross the road in front of you and stop frequently and listen. Early breeding frogs like Upland Chorus Frogs, Spring Peepers and Wood Frogs are already calling by the first of the month. On warmer nights listen for Southern Leopard Frogs. Spotted Salamanders and Tiger Salamanders also breed in January and February, and the eggs of both can often be found this time of year. Towards the end of the month, given mild temperatures, you can sometimes hear American Toads beginning to call. In west Tennessee, Crawfish Frogs give their loud snoring calls starting in late February and continuing on into early March. At higher elevations, listen for Mountain Chorus Frogs towards the end of the month. Remember that on mild nights you may find frogs and toads out foraging that you do not hear until later in the season.
Recommended: The Frogs and Toads of North America, Lang Elliott, Houghton Mifflin Co.
Many times when we have been out looking for amphibians in February we've witnessed courtship flights of the American Woodcock. Listen for the "peent" call at dusk and watch as the male Woodcock spirals upward till it's almost out of sight, then dives back to the ground, twisting and turning. For more about watching American Woodcocks see, "The Woodcock's Call."
Red-Shouldered Hawks mate as early as February in Tennessee. Watch for courtship activities of these and other hawks.
Stick Nests: With the leaves down, this is a great time of year to find raptor stick nests. I make notes of all the nests I find and then periodically check them to see if anyone has "moved in." Many times Great Horned Owls make use of an old Red-Tailed Hawk's nest from the previous year. The owls can already be incubating eggs in January. Of the hawks, Arthur Cleveland Bent, in his "Life Histories of North American Birds of Prey," writes,
"[Red-tailed Hawks]...begin their nest building late in February or early in March; I have seen a wholly new nest half completed and decorated with green pine twigs and down as early as February 18th, over a month before the eggs are laid...Typical nests are from 28 to 30 inches in outside diameter, the inner cavity being 14 or 15 inches wide and 4 or 5 inches deep...The nests are well made of sticks and twigs, half an inch or less in thickness, and neatly lined with strips of inner bark, of cedar, grapevine or chestnut, usnea, and usually at least a few green sprigs of pine, cedar or hemlock. Some nests are profusely and beautifully lined with fresh green sprigs of white pine, which are frequently renewed during incubation and during the earlier stages of growth of the young...They "stake out their claim" late in February or early in March...by marking the nest they propose to use with a sprig of green pine...I believe that the birds prefer to build a new nest each year, but they sometimes use the same nest for consecutive years..."
Bent was writing about the Red-Tail Hawks in New England, so our times could be a little earlier.
You probably have already put out your bird feeders, but if you havenít you're missing out on a lot of good looks at winter feeder birds. This is a great time of year to start learning your birds. Watch and listen for winter residents such as White-throated and White-crowned Sparrows, Purple Finches, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Golden-crowned Kinglets and Brown Creepers.
The Sibley Guide to Birds, David Allen Sibley
The Sibley Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, David Allen Sibley
Apps:The Sibley eGuide to the Birds of North America - $19.99 and worth every penny!
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Natural Calendar December 2013
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 BisqueAll images and recordings © 2017 Leaps.