Thursday, January 22, 2015

A winter catbird

It's amazing how a fresh layer snow—even just a dusting—can suddenly make birds more active. We got about half of an inch here last night, enough to obscure the frozen ground. I'm not sure if natural food sources were now inaccessible or what, but the feeders were more active this morning than during the past few days. A small flock of half a dozen goldfinches has been loitering in the trees on the edge of the yard, but this morning they dared to fill up the available perches on the hanging sunflower feeder.

As I headed outside around noon, the sun was just starting to poke through the overcast, and the haze in front of the mountain began to clear. 

I crossed the road and headed to the edge of our field, where I thought I heard some sparrow commotion. Sure enough, I flushed about fifty birds into the brush. After the birds flew into woods, they sat atop the tangles of wineberry, barberry, and greenbrier long enough for me to get a quick look at them. Most were juncos and white-throated sparrows, with a smattering of cardinals, song sparrows, and American tree sparrows. 

American tree sparrow

A few chickadees and titmice and a single downy woodpecker moved around in the walnut above me, but it was another bird that caught my attention. When a bunch of the sparrows took flight, a larger bird went with them. It was pretty far back, but I could see that it was dark, flew with its tail drooped down, and had noticeable dopey wing beats as it made this short flight. I was confused for a second, then realized it must have been a catbird! Gray catbirds are one of the most abundant summertime birds here, but it should be in Central America or at least the southern United States this time of year!  
I've seen a few of these in the winter here in Pennsylvania, both during Christmas Bird Counts. However, this was the first wintering catbird I've seen on my property.

The bird eventually came out in the open, where I was able to confirm my identification and get a few quick photographs.

The catbird eventually took off along the forest edge and disappeared. About half and hour later, I was walking along a fencerow in another part of the field and found the bird again. This time, it was picking poison ivy berries off the vine alongside a Hermit Thrush.

poison ivy berries

My catbird is a perfect example of why I find winter birding so exciting. Sure, the bright warblers have left and nothing is singing, but there is a much higher chance of surprises. Western vagrants pop up, finches and owls invade from the North, and sometimes local breeders decide to stick around. Of course I love spring migration, but I basically know what to expect when I go out. That certainty is decreased somewhat in the winter months!

a wren's summer home... maybe home to a deermouse right now

Before I went back inside, a single pine siskin flew over the yard, chreeeeeeing as it moved west. Siskins are one of those winter finches I mentioned, and they are heading south with some redpolls right now. They've reached Pennsylvania just as I head back to the city for the spring semester, but I'm glad I got a glimpse of one before I leave home again.

American goldfinch and pine siskins at a feeder a few years back

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Rebirth and Lovejoy

Ever since I started this blog back in 2009, I have focused my posts on the exciting critters and plants that I found while exploring the outdoors. Then college happened. My time to write posts was greatly reduced, and more importantly, it became more difficult to spend time outdoors and away from the city.

As somewhat of a resolution for 2015, I've decided to revive The Baypoll Blog. While I will still  write about nature as I have for years, this rebirth will allow me to expand my blog to my other interests. I have a passion for photography, other aspects of science, and music to name a few.

One such interest is astronomy, and there happens to be something new in the nighttime sky right now!

I first heard about Comet Lovejoy in an online post last week. The article showed a brilliant image of a bright green comet with a thin, turquoise tail behind. Intrigued, I headed outside with binoculars in hand on a recent clear night. I scanned the sky between Orion and Taurus until...

taken with a 400mm lens
There it is. That fuzzy green spot. After seeing all the dramatic pictures online, I was hoping for a little more than a blurry dot, but it was not to be. I suppose it makes sense that something 44 million miles away doesn't look too interesting through binoculars.

I have not seen many comets in my lifetime. I can only think of three. Vague memories remind me of my dad pointing out Hale-Bopp when I was quite young, then I saw Comet PanSTARRS almost two years ago:

Comets are interesting, as they come and go. I was lucky enough to see Hale-Bopp, but that particular ice and rock chunk won't come close to Earth for another two millennia or so. PanSTARRS may take over 100,000 years.

Meteor showers and comets convince people to peer into the night sky, but many of the fascinating interstellar phenomena that are visible every night are generally ignored! To me, seeing a galaxy full of stars and planets situated millions of light years away from Earth is more exciting than a small piece of rock that burns up as it enters our atmosphere! While I was out taking a look at Comet Lovejoy, I took a moment to find a few of my favorite space objects that are visible this time of year.

The first was Jupiter, which was sitting fairly low in the eastern sky. I became familiar with Jupiter in my senior year of high school, when I worked on a project that involved photographing Jupiter and its four Galilean moons. Here is a photo series taken over one night of observation, which shows Jupiter and its moons. With images like this, I was able to plot the sine curves that modeled the periods of Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto (and from there, it is possible to approximate some physical properties of Jupiter).

Jupiter hasn't changed much, but it is always incredible to look up and see what Galileo first noticed at the beginning of the 17th century.

Jupiter and two of its moons

Orion is a favorite constellation of many. His distinctive belt makes him easy to find—especially this time of year, when he stands at the southern horizon at dusk, then moves higher up in the southern sky through the night. 

The three stars lined up on the top left constitute Orion's belt

Despite Orion's popularity, few people know about the nebula that sits right about where his knees should be. 

A cropped version of the image above, showing the Orion Nebula

A nebula is a cluster of gas and dust, which acts as a center for the formation of new stars. This particular nebula resides with us in the Milky Way. The faint coloration of the nebula comes from the gas composition inside the cluster—primarily hydrogen and helium.

During my second semester at Harvard, I had a chance to explore another interesting interstellar object, supernova SN 2014J, which was located within the Cigar Galaxy (M82). I was able to use the fancy Clay Telescope to observe and photograph this exploding star.

The Cigar Nebula with SN 2014J

After reaching its brightest in January 2014, the supernova faded dramatically over the next few months. This GIF shows a similar view of M82 before and after the supernova:

source: Wikipedia

The next time you're out trying to find a comet or enjoying a meteor shower, take some time to consider and appreciate all that you've been missing in the nighttime sky. I've shared a few of my favorites, but there is much, much more to see. If Terry Lovejoy is any indication, maybe you'll find something new...