Kayaking on the Santa Fe River, FL

At the end of March, Melissa and I drove to Florida again to visit our son and daughter-in-law Dan and Sunny. While we were there Dan and I went kayaking on the Santa Fe River which is very near where they live. It turned out to be a great outing. Dan and I got up about 7am and left for the river a little after 8am. We had already loaded their two kayaks into his truck the night before. It only took about ten minutes to drive to the river access on Highway 27 just north of High Springs.

Dan at the Santa Fe River - © Copyright 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Dan at the Santa Fe River – © Copyright 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

It was a pretty cool morning with a temperature around forty degrees and when we got to the river it was shrouded in mist. As we put the kayaks in and started on our way the air was full of birdsong–Chickadees, Titmice, Cardinals, and many more I couldn’t identify (or even see due to the thick woods and undergrowth).

Santa Fe River - © Copyright 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Santa Fe River – © Copyright 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

We started up the river in the cool shade and mist–Cypress and Live Oak trees adorned with Spanish Moss. As we gradually made our way up the river the sun rose higher above the treetops and began to light up the mist from behind.

Mist on the Santa Fe River - © Copyright 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Mist on the Santa Fe River – © Copyright 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

The river water felt warm to the touch and it almost looked like the river was steaming. It was then that I began to notice little whirls of mist that looked like miniature tornadoes or dust devils. Call them “mist devils.” As we watched we began to see dozens of them spread out at random up the river. As the warm air from the sun-heated river began to rise, the mist devils would form. Some were long and narrow, maybe six inches across and six to ten feet high. Others were shorter and wider. They would form, whirl for a while, then dissipate as others formed to take their place. As we made our way upstream we probably encountered hundreds of them. Out of curiosity, I stuck my hand into one but could only feel a very gentle movement of air.  Within another few minutes the mist was gone and along with it, the mist devils.

As the mist disappeared and the sun streamed onto the river, basking turtles began to climb out onto logs sticking up out of the water. They ranged in size from three or four inches across to a foot or more.

Basking Turtles - © Copyright 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Basking Turtles – © Copyright 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

To begin with, only a couple at a time would climb out but as the morning wore on I began to see more and more of them.

Hey! Get your foot out of my face. - © Copyright 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Hey! Get your foot out of my face. – © Copyright 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Eventually, on one log, I counted sixteen turtles crowded onto every available square inch of surface. If we passed too close they would unceremoniously flop into the water. I’m not sure what kinds of turtles these were but there seemed to be at least a couple of species. (According to my Peterson Guide, these may have been Florida Cooters and/or Suwannee Cooters.)

Rush hour traffic on the Santa Fe - © Copyright 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Rush hour traffic on the Santa Fe – © Copyright 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

There were several Red-shouldered Hawks, some just over the trees, some soaring high overhead. We saw one of a pair carrying sticks to a tree-top apparently to build a nest. There were Crows and Turkey Vultures and even Belted Kingfishers but we did not see any wading birds on the entire outing. The one new bird we did see, I later identified as a Swallow-tailed Kite, a large hawk-like bird with black and white wings, a white head and body, and a deeply forked swallow-like tail. We actually saw several of them soaring over the river. Their call is a harsh and high-pitched peerie-peerie-peerie sound. Another new bird for my life list. These birds and the mist devils were worth the trip by themselves.

Highway 441 Bridge - © Copyright 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Highway 441 Bridge – © Copyright 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

We made it through a couple of challenging rapids, past the Highway 441 bridge and turned around at Treehouse Spring. Next trip, I would like to start at the 441 bridge and paddle upstream to River Rise.

Darby Spring side channel - © Copyright 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Darby Spring side channel – © Copyright 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

We drifted and leisurely paddled back down the river in about half the time it took to paddle up it.

Returning to Highway 441 Bridge - © Copyright 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Returning to Highway 441 Bridge – © Copyright 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

About half-way back, I realized that I was thoroughly enjoying the trip and wondered why I didn’t do this sort of thing more often.

Almost back to the start - © Copyright 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Almost back to the start – © Copyright 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

I may have to invest in a kayak of my own soon!

Nice trip! - © Copyright 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Nice trip! – © Copyright 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Posted in Other Nature Studies

Eagle Viewing Trip to Reelfoot Lake, TN

Last Friday, I drove to Reelfoot Lake State Park in the northwest corner of Tennessee. It was an 80 mile drive from home and took about an hour and forty-five minutes. The lake was frozen all around the edges and one of the park rangers said that a few days earlier, about two-thirds of it had been frozen over.

Reelfoot Lake, TN - Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Reelfoot Lake, TN – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Reelfoot was created in 1811-1812 by a series of earthquakes along the New Madrid fault which caused the land to sag. This actually caused the Mississippi River to flow backwards for a short time as the subsided areas filled with water to form a 15,000 acre lake. It is a shallow swampy lake with lots of submerged tree stumps. Good for fishing but not water skiing.

Reelfoot Lake, TN - Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Reelfoot Lake, TN – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

I took a walk around the Boardwalk trail behind the Visitor Center which led out to the edge of the lake. Lots of Cypress trees surround the lake’s shores.

Reelfoot Lake, TN - Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Reelfoot Lake, TN – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

At 10am, I got on the state park’s Bald Eagle viewing bus tour (only $5 for 2 hours). We first went to the spillway area on the south end of the lake where the eagles apparently like to hang out. Again, you could see lots of ice around the border of the lake. I could also see what looked like more ice farther out but our bus guide pointed out that what looked like ice was really thousands of Snow Geese on the lake.

Snow Geese on Reelfoot Lake - Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Snow Geese on Reelfoot Lake – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

At the spillway we saw saw an adult and a juvenile Bald Eagle (later joined by others) eating a Snow Goose on the ice. Maybe that is what startled the Snow Geese flock into what happened next.

Bald Eagles at Reelfoot Lake, TN - Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Bald Eagles at Reelfoot Lake, TN – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

While we were watching the eagles, the entire flock of Snow Geese took flight with lots of boisterous honking and flapping of wings. I got a short (and pretty amateurish) video of it below.

Next, we drove to Tiptonville and up Highway 78 to the north. When we got on the back roads we started spotting more and more eagles, some closer and some farther away. They were mostly perched in trees but some were in flight. We also saw several eagle nests, the largest of which, the guide said, was about seven feet across and probably weighted a ton or more. Eventually we got on the Mississippi River Levee Road and crossed over into Kentucky. We spotted the adult I photographed below in a tree just next to the road. It was the closest I got to a wild eagle on the trip.

Bald Eagle at Reelfoot Lake, TN - Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Bald Eagle at Reelfoot Lake, TN – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

In addition to Bald Eagles and Snow Geese, we saw several Red-tailed Hawks, Northern Harriers, and American Kestrels. (On my way back home, I saw two more American Kestrels perched on power lines beside the road.) At our urging, the driver had taken us on a longer than usual tour and it was around 12:45pm by the time we got back to the Visitor Center. The picture below was the last eagle we saw on the tour. We had counted 80 in total, including many that were just spots in the distant trees a mile away.

Bald Eagle at Reelfoot Lake, TN - Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Bald Eagle at Reelfoot Lake, TN – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Posted in Other Nature Studies

Sunrise, Sunset

On my way to work yesterday morning I saw this nice Sun pillar about 5 minutes before sunrise. It reached a good 20-25 degrees above the horizon. Sun pillars are caused by sunlight reflecting off ice crystals in the atmosphere (which there should be plenty of since it has been extremely cold the last few days.)

01/09/2015 0700 CST Sun Pillar - Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

01/09/2015 0700 CST Sun Pillar – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Driving home the same day, I stopped to take a couple of pictures of Venus (upper left & brighter) and Mercury (lower right & dimmer). This is a close near conjunction of the two planets. They were fairly low in the early western evening sky.

Venus & Mercury in close near conjunction 01/09/2015 1730 CST - Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Venus & Mercury in close near conjunction 01/09/2015 1730 CST – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Venus & Mercury in close near conjunction 01/09/2015 1730 CST - Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Venus & Mercury in close near conjunction 01/09/2015 1730 CST – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Posted in Amateur Astronomy

Catch-Up Post #2

The following Galaxy Groups and Clusters observations are from late summer through early fall 2014.

The first, Additional Group #41 (aka the NGC 6211 Group), is from September. This group showed four galaxies in an 11′ long chain, more or less evenly spaced, running SW to NE. At the SW end of the chain, the brightest of these, NGC 6211, was visible with direct vision as a slightly elongated halo surrounding a brighter core and a dim, nearly stellar, nucleus. The other three galaxies were much dimmer faint fuzzies.

GG&C Additional #41 - Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Additional #41 – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Here are two observations from a very clear night in October. First is Hickson 97, a small clump of galaxies consisting of one bright one (IC 5357) surrounded by several smaller and dimmer ones.

GG&C Hickson #97 - Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Hickson #97 – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

The second is Abell #50 (2666), a cluster of galaxies in Pegasus. I could see a zig-zag chain of galaxies, one (NGC 7768 ) slightly elongated NNE/SSW and a bit brighter than the others. I spotted seven galaxies out of this cluster.

GG&C Abell #50 (2666) - Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Abell #50 (2666) – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

The next three GG&C’s were observed under clear but humid conditions at the October Twin Lakes Star Party at Pennyrile State Park in Kentucky. First is Hickson 4. At -21.4 degrees, it was pretty low in the south. I could only see one out of the five listed galaxies and it was extremely dim.

GG&C Hickson #4 - Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Hickson #4 – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Second is Hickson 91. Again at -27.8 degrees it was very low in the south. I saw two out of the four listed galaxies, one (NGC 7214) fairly bright and the other (M-5-52-36) pretty dim.

GG&C Hickson #91 - Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Hickson #91 – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

The third GG&C at TLSP was Hickson 90, even lower in the south at -31.9 degrees. However, these were all brighter 12th magnitude galaxies, and I was able to see all four listed. They appeared as a short chain of galaxies with two (NGC 7176 & NGC 7174) superimposed at the southern end of the chain. These two may be interacting.

GG&C Hickson #90 - Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Hickson #90 – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

The last group for this update was actually briefly observed at the TLSP in Kentucky but I was forced to curtail my observations and sketching because of the heavy dew. I re-observed a couple of days later back at home however I could only spot two out of the four listed galaxies. Those two were elongated and nearly touching (with a dim field star in between), giving the configuration a stubby “hockey stick” shape. Their magnitudes were listed as 13.7 and 15.7 while the two I could not see were listed as 16.2 and 17.2.

GG&C Hickson #98 - Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Hickson #98 – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Posted in Amateur Astronomy

Catch-Up Post #1

Autumn into early winter is the busiest time of the year for me, so I have fallen behind on my posting. However, I have done some more observing of Galaxy Groups and Clusters during this time. This will be the first of three catch-up posts.

First, from way back in June 2014, is the Additional Group #36 AKA the NGC 5490 group. I could only see three of the nine or so listed galaxies. By far the brightest of the group is NGC 5490. At magnitude 12.1 it is a direct vision galaxy with a dim stellar nucleus.

GG&C Additional 36 - Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Additional 36 – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Also from June is Trio #34 consisting of one bright direct vision galaxy and two other small quasi-stellar galaxies. One of the smaller galaxies, NGC 5615 is just to the NW of the center of the larger bright galaxy NGC 5614. I have included nearby NGC 5609 which is not part of the trio.

GG&C Trio 34 - Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Trio 34 – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

From July, I have Trio #38 which forms an elongated triangle about 7′ in length with one brighter galaxy (NGC 6120) and two dimmer ones.

GG&C Trio 38 - Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Trio 38 – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Also from July is Hickson 82, a rough parallelogram of four faint galaxies within about a 5′ diameter. All are small and roundish faint fuzzies.

GG&C Hickson 82 - Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Hickson 82 – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Last from July is Hickson 81. I could only spot two of the four listed galaxies and those two were at the extreme edge of visibility. Listed magnitudes for those I could just barely see are 16.3 and 16.5 while those I could not see are 17.1 and 17.2.

GG&C Hickson 81 - Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Hickson 81 – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

The last one for this update is from August 2014. It is Abell #37 (2147). There are many small dim galaxies in this cluster which I could not see but I could see three larger and brighter galaxies in a short chain just NW of a 9th magnitude star plus two other outliers to the S & E. Jim Shields, on the Adventures in Deep Space website, lists this cluster as having about the same red shift as the Hercules Cluster and therefore a similar distance of about 550 million light years!

GG&C Abell 37 - Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Abell 37 – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Posted in Amateur Astronomy

New Book Page and Articles

I have added a new book page with a link to my Kindle book, available on Amazon. You can get to it either by clicking on My Book in the header or clicking on the image of the book cover at the top right of the blog post.

I have also added several articles I wrote a few years ago for The Faint Fuzzy, the official newsletter of the West Kentucky Amateur Astronomers, to the articles page. Access the page by clicking on My Articles in the header.

Posted in Amateur Astronomy

Return To Pennyrile

Two years ago this spring Melissa and I took a long weekend getaway to Pennyrile State Park in Kentucky. (See my post on 13 May 2012.) This is where the West Kentucky Amateur Astronomers (of which I am the current president) host the Twin Lakes Star Party each fall. We rented a lakeside cabin there and stayed three peaceful days and two nights. It is a great place for relaxing and bird watching, and we enjoyed it so much we wanted to do it again this year.

On the way up we decided to swing by the new Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters & Visitor Center, which has just been built along the shores of Kentucky Lake east of Paris, Tennessee. We drove down a winding access road to find a long low building with tan walls, a brown roof and rock trim blending into a wide grassy peninsula. In addition to providing a headquarters for the NWR staff, the building will also provide an environmental education facility for students from local schools as well as the general public. The new building should open this summer and I have agreed to do an astronomy public night for them in September.

Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters  Visitor Center near Paris, TN - Copyright ©  2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters Visitor Center near Paris, TN – Copyright © 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

I was very glad to see full cutoff lighting fixtures in their parking lot! These kinds of fixtures keep the light shining on the ground where it is needed and not up into the sky where it just contributes to light pollution.

New Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center on Kentucky Lake - Copyright © 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

New Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center on Kentucky Lake – Copyright © 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Driving up the southern half of the Trace through the Land Between the Lakes, we stopped to take a tour of the 700 acre Bison Prairie. This is a 3.5 mile “drive-thru” habitat with reintroduced herds of bison and elk. Although we saw no elk this trip, we did see plenty of bison.

Bison Herd at Land Between the Lakes - Copyright © 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Bison Herd at Land Between the Lakes – Copyright © 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

As we slowly drove by the herd we saw three girls (we guessed they were Murray State College students) who had parked their car at the road and walked well out into the field within 100 feet or so of a lone bison. (According to posted rules you are supposed to stay in your car if bison are within 200 feet.) They were all three standing together with their backs to the bison. One of them held a camera at arm’s length to take a “selfie” with the bison in the background!

After we had passed, I continued to watch curiously in the rear view mirror as a park ranger rapidly drove his truck up to the girls and pointed meaningfully back toward their car. They were lucky the bison was lazy that day and didn’t decide to charge them. According to park information, they can run up to 35 miles per hour which would allow them to cover 100 feet in just a few seconds.

Bison on Bison Range, Land Between the Lakes, Ky - Copyright © 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Bison on Bison Range, Land Between the Lakes, Ky – Copyright © 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

After our LBL drive, Melissa and I made our way up to Pennyrile Park where we took up residence again in “our” lakeside cabin. The cabin has a nice large deck facing the lake that is a wonderful place to watch birds from and we found ourselves spending most of our time on the deck. The afternoon was quiet and relaxing and we settled into our “zero-gravity” chairs to listen to the wind in the trees and the birdsong. I could hear a couple of Gray Catbirds nearby as well as Titmice, an Eastern Phoebe, and a Wood Thrush. As I scanned the trees with binoculars, I spotted a smallish bird with a black “hood,” a light gray breast fading into a white belly, blackish wings, back, and tail, and a white band across the end of the tail. Its voice was a rapid chittering similar to a Chimney Swift only louder. A quick check of Peterson’s allowed me to identify it for the first time as an Eastern Kingbird. It was back in the U.S. apparently after wintering in South America as many birds do.

Birdwatching from the cabin's lakeside deck - Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Birdwatching from the cabin’s lakeside deck – Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

We enjoyed dinner that evening on the deck and sat watching the gloaming progress until weariness finally overtook us and we moved back indoors.

Cool spiral staircase in our lakeside cabin - Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Cool spiral staircase in our lakeside cabin – Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

The next morning we ate our free continental breakfast at the lodge and sat at our favorite table to watch the geese and ducks on the lake. We had arrived the day before on a Sunday afternoon just as everyone else was leaving. On a quiet Monday morning we had the restaurant almost to ourselves.

View from our favorite table at Pennyrile Lodge Restaurant - Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

View from our favorite table at Pennyrile Lodge Restaurant – Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

A day outing to Henderson, KY brought us to the John James Audubon State Park again where we made another tour of the museum, watched a couple of videos on the history of the park, and took a walk in the 700 acre woods. The park lies right next to one of the busiest highways, densely packed with gas stations, stores, billboards, and fast food restaurants, that I have ever seen.

Entrance to Audubon State Park in Henderson, Kentucky - Copyright © 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Entrance to Audubon State Park in Henderson, Kentucky – Copyright © 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

It was like passing through a time warp into another world.

Taking a walk through Audubon State Park - Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Taking a walk through Audubon State Park – Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

When we got back to the cabin, I again took up residence on the deck, inspired by the art and journals of John James Aububon to look for more birds. Circling and diving over the lake was some kind of swallow, but I couldn’t tell what kind. I could also hear a Red-Bellied Woodpecker calling and drumming in the distance as well as the song of another new bird that I did not know, a fairly complicated series of twelve or so rapid notes (3-6-3) repeated in the same pattern. I followed the new song around the trees until I finally got a clear view. It was a dark bird with a black head, a brick red breast, belly, and rump, and black wings and tail. Again to Peterson’s and another new bird was identified, a male Orchard Oriole.

Male Orchard Oriole, Pennyrile State Park, Ky - Copyright © 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Male Orchard Oriole, Pennyrile State Park, Ky – Copyright © 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

As the late afternoon progressed, a gibbous Moon rose over the lake, two days before full.

Gibbous Moon Rising over Pennyrile State Park, Ky - Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Gibbous Moon Rising over Pennyrile State Park, Ky – Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Once again, I sat on the deck and just enjoyed the sounds of the birds and the cool wind in the trees. The Sun slowly sank below the horizon allowing Mars and some of the brighter stars to come out. The moonlight sparkled on the water.

Moonrise over Pennyrile Lake, Ky - Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Moonrise over Pennyrile Lake, Ky – Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

The next morning, I decided to walk from the cabin a short distance to the Pennyrile Lake dam. In the pine trees along the trail I first heard, then observed another male Orchard Oriole (or maybe it was the same one as the night before). Then, nearby, I also spotted an immature (first year) male, yellow with olive wings and a black patch under the chin.

While walking across the dam, I watched the swallows perform their aerial acrobatics over the lake. It was increasingly windy but the wind did not seem to deter the birds. Close observation of their markings and their voice identified them as Rough Winged Swallows; another new species for me. These were the ones I had seen flying around the cabin but they had been too fast to identify and I could only see them as silhouettes against the sky. As they flew over the dam, the spillway, and the lake, I could make out their brown backs and wings, their white belly, and the dusky brownish color under their chin. They circled and dove in playful flight, uttering a harsh rolling “trit.”

As I came back up the hill toward the cabin, I saw the male Orchard Oriole again, but this time he landed next to a female. The female was very similar to the immature male, having a yellow body and olive wings but it lacked the black patch under the chin. So, I saw a male, an immature male, and a female all within about 45 minutes!

By late morning, Melissa and I reluctantly departed Pennyrile State Park and drove to Kentucky Dam Village just to sight-see. On the way there, we crossed both the Cumberland and the Tennessee Rivers and saw the dams across these rivers. At Kentucky Dam Village, we stopped at the lodge and walked outside to view the bird-feeders on the side facing the Tennessee River. There were Common Grackles and Chickadees. There was also a beautiful Red-headed Woodpecker. These gorgeous birds have a completely red head while the body and wings are a starkly contrasting black and white.

Red-headed Woodpecker at Kentucky Dam Village State Park, KY - Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Red-headed Woodpecker at Kentucky Dam Village State Park, KY – Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

After eating too much lunch at Patti’s in Grand Rivers, we drove down the northern half of the Trace through LBL and from there on to home. We have come to really enjoy these getaways to Pennyrile and they are rapidly becoming a tradition with us.

Until next time…

Posted in Other Nature Studies

Long Overdue GG&C Post

Here are a couple of Galaxy Trios and a couple of Hicksons observed over the past month or so. The first is Galaxy Trio 21 or the NGC 3128 Trio in Hydra. These three very elongated galaxies form a nearly equilateral triangle. They each have a fairly even brightness around magnitude 14.

GG&C Trio 21 - Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Trio 21 – Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

On the opposite end of the shape spectrum is Trio 22 or the NGC 3202 trio. It is a compact group of three roundish galaxies in Ursa Major, all around magnitude 13.2. NGC 3207 actually appears to me to be the brightest of the three and is visible with direct vision. It has a bright, almost stellar, nucleus surrounded by a small roundish halo.

GG&C Trio 22 - Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Trio 22 – Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

On the same evening that I observed the galaxy trio above, I also found the two bright asteriods Vesta and Ceres. They were about two degrees apart in the constellation Virgo, Vesta near 84 Virginis and Ceres near 78 Virginis. The view through my finder scope (sketched below) reminded me of the “double-double” star Epsilon Lyrae. They will appear closest in the sky on July 5th at only 10 arcminutes apart.

Asteroids Vesta & Ceres - Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Asteroids Vesta & Ceres – Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

The Hickson 42 compact galaxy group consists of one larger and brighter galaxy (NGC 3091) surrounded by three smaller and dimmer ones. I managed to snag all of these galaxies, even P28926 which, at magnitude 15.8, was an extremely dim round spot on the very edge of visibility.

Hickson Galaxy Group 42 - Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Hickson Galaxy Group 42 – Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Finally, was the Hickson compact galaxy group 61, also known as “The Box.” This group is an interesting rectangular or box-shaped arrangement of four fairly bright, mostly elongated galaxies. Two of them, NGC 4169 and NGC 4174 were visible with direct vision while the dimmest, NGC 4173, was visible only as an elusive dim haze. N4173 is actually a foreground galaxy about 60 million light years distant. The other three galaxies are about 180 million light years away. (See the Sky & Telescope article: The Gossamers of Coma Berenices by Sue French in the May 2010 issue, page 67.)

Hickson Galaxy Group 61 (AKA "The Box"<img src=

- Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr." width="500" height="294" /> Hickson Galaxy Group 61 (AKA “The Box”Smilie: ;) – Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Posted in Amateur Astronomy

February Hicksons

Believe it or not, there were a few clear nights in February. Although very cold (think polar vortex!), the transparency was excellent and I managed to view a few more Hickson Compact Galaxy Groups. Many of the individual galaxies in these groups are very dim and I was unable to see all the galaxies in any given group.

GG&C Hickson Compact Galaxy Group 31 - Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Hickson Compact Galaxy Group 31 – Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

The first group was Hickson 31, AKA the NGC 1741 group. This is a very interesting group with two heavily interacting galaxies, NGC 1741 and P16573. These two are listed as the “a” and “c” elements of Hickson 31. The brightest is actually P16573 as it contains the central starburst which shows as a bright stellar nucleus. NGC 1741 is only visible as a vague, hazy extension of P16573 to the ENE. Even though the “b” element, P16570, is listed as brighter than N1741, I could not make it out. Neither could I see the tiny and ridiculously dim d element, P16571, at magnitude 17.3. I could, however, see another galaxy (IC399) a few arc minutes to the SE. This roundish galaxy which becomes brighter toward the center is not listed in the Astronomical League GG&C booklet but is listed in other sources as element “g”, a possible member of the group. The distance to Hickson 31 is given as about 166 million light years.

GG&C Hickson Compact Galaxy Group 22 - Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Hickson Compact Galaxy Group 22 – Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

I only managed to see one galaxy in the next group, Hickson 22, before the clouds moved in. NGC 1199 appeared slightly elongated SW/NE with a stellar nucleus. It is by far the largest and brightest of the group at mag 12.2, but I did not even have a chance to look for the other elements. I will have to re-visit this group sometime in the future.

GG&C Hickson Compact Galaxy Group 32 - Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Hickson Compact Galaxy Group 32 – Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

I could see only the two brightest galaxies in Hickson 32, M-3-13-53 and P16578. Both were small, round, fuzzy spots of light with M-3-13-53 having a dim star-like nucleus.

GG&C Hickson Compact Galaxy Group 33 - Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Hickson Compact Galaxy Group 33 – Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Lastly, I observed the brightest two galaxies of Hickson 33, P16867 and P16866. They were both small, round, fuzzy spots with no stellar nuclei. I was surprised to be able to see them at all due to their magnitudes of 15.4. I figured that I was probably only able to see them because the group was very high in the sky with a +18.0 degree declination so I was looking through much less atmosphere. None of the galaxies in this group were even plotted in Uranometria.

Posted in Amateur Astronomy

My New Book

For anyone who is interested, I have written a short book which is now available on Amazon. It has been a long time coming (several years) but I have finally declared it to be finished.  It is basically a memoir of some of my experiences in amateur astronomy prompted by my Herschel 400 observing project from 2004 to 2006.

Book Cover 7

Currently, it is a Kindle version only but even if you don’t own a Kindle, you can download the Kindle for PC app (for free) which will allow you to read it on your PC.

The book is normally $2.99, but I have set up a three day promotion for Sunday, February 9th, through Tuesday, February 11th, where you can download for free. Click on the cover image above to link to the Amazon page.

I hope you enjoy it.

Posted in Amateur Astronomy, Other Nature Studies

More Abells, Hicksons, and Trios of Galaxies

As with most Abells it seems, Abell 2589 (GG&C #46) offered only a fraction of the total number in the cluster that were bright enough for me to see at all. I saw two out of the fifteen plotted galaxies, and both required extreme averted vision. Most of the remaining galaxies were very dim PGC (Principal Galaxies Catalog) galaxies. The brightest galaxy (NGC 7647) was only magnitude 14.6.

GG&C Abell #46 (Abell 2589) Galaxy Cluster - Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Abell #46 (Abell 2589) Galaxy Cluster – Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Abell 2593 (GG&C #47) was not much better at four visible galaxies out of thirty-two plotted. Again, all were visible only with averted vision. The largest and “brightest” galaxy of the bunch is NGC 7649 at mag 15.0.

GG&C Abell #47 (Abell 2593) Galaxy Cluster - Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Abell #47 (Abell 2593) Galaxy Cluster – Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

I could see two of the four galaxies in Hickson 96, both with averted vision.

GG&C Hickson 96 Galaxy Group - Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Hickson 96 Galaxy Group – Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

In Trio #48, I could see two of the three, one (NGC 7701) with direct vision. At mag 15.9, NGC 7699 was not visible. A very uneven trio.

GG&C Galaxy Trio #48 - Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Galaxy Trio #48 – Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Abell 2634 (also called the Pegasus II Cluster) is a good collection of small but fairly bright galaxies. It consists of a central clump of five brighter galaxies and a few more scattered dimmer ones.

GG&C Abell #48 (Abell 2634) Galaxy Cluster - Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Abell #48 (Abell 2634) Galaxy Cluster – Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

When I observed Trio #50, I didn’t realize it at the time but I missed one of the trio galaxies (NGC 7781). Instead, I saw nearby NGC 7782 and sketched it instead. Sometime in the future I will try to come back and look for the “lost” galaxy. These are all fairly bright at mags 12.7 to 13.9.

GG&C Galaxy Trio #50 - Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Galaxy Trio #50 – Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Last, but not least, is Trio #1. It is a string of three fairly bright NGC galaxies, all roundish. Mags 13.1 – 13.7.

GG&C Galaxy Trio #1 - Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Galaxy Trio #1 – Copyright (c) 2014 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Posted in Amateur Astronomy

Himalia

The skies last Saturday night turned out to be much better than I thought they would. Daytime clouds dissipated and the evening stars appeared. After checking on the new supernova (SN2014J) in M82, which was quite easy to see, I decided to turn my scope to something closer to home but a lot harder to see. In addition to its four Galilean moons, Jupiter has at least one more moon that is visible in amateur telescopes. It is called Himalia, a 170 km (102 mile) diameter hunk of rock orbiting way outside the orbits of Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Calisto. It was discovered by Charles Dillon Perrine at the Lick Observatory in 1904. It has an orbital period of 251 Earth days and a visual brightness between 14th and 15th magnitude. Being this dim it is easily overwhelmed by Jupiter’s glare when it is close to the planet. Fortunately, its orbit takes it as much as a degree from Jupiter (equivalent to the diameters of two full Moons side by side) and this is the best time to view it. Himalia has been on my bucket list since I read an article in the September 2000 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine titled Moons of the Outer Planets by Roger W. Sinnott, but I only just recently researched how to find it in the telescope. I began (as I do most of my research projects nowadays) with a Google search for “Observing Himalia.” The search turned up two sources of information: The Whassupinthemilkyway.blogspot.com posts for Saturday December 10, 2011, & Monday August 13, 2012, by Karen Keese, which references an earlier online article (http://www.astronomy.net/articles/18/) by Rick Scott from October 20, 2003, which also references the aforementioned Sky & Telescope article. Given these guides and Jupiter’s recent opposition, I figured that now was the perfect time to try for Himalia.

I pretty much followed Karen’s instructions so I will not go into great detail here but will instead send you to her article for a step-by-step guide. I went first to the JPL Horizons website and generated an ephemeris for Himalia for the evening which showed its exact position in the sky (Right Ascension and Declination) at hourly intervals. I chose one time listing, in this case for 2300 CST or 0500 UT, as my projected time of observation. I then went to the Digitized Sky Survey (DSS) website and entered the coordinates. I produced two star field printouts, one at 30’ x 30’ and one at 15’ x 15’. I was able to match one approximately 7.5 magnitude star in the 30’ x 30’ printout with one of my Uranometria charts covering the lower half of Gemini. I also used a ruler to draw reticle lines to bracket the exact spot on the 15’ x 15’ printout where Himalia should appear.

Armed with charts, printouts, and a great deal of enthusiasm, I went back out to the scope to begin my search. Beginning at the star Mekbuda in Gemini, I then found 36d Gem through the finder and starhopped a little over one degree to the northeast and the 7.5 mag star shown on the Uranometria chart. This was the star that was also on the 30’ x 30’ printout. Near the center of the printout (Himalia’s theroretical location) was another dimmer star which also showed near the center of the 15’ x 15’ printout. I starhopped to the dimmer star, which was about half a degree from Jupiter’s glare, and scanned just to its west-southwest. About 0.5 arc-minutes from the star, I found (using averted vision) a very dim “star” where none should be. It was slightly to the east of my reticle lines but the time was only 2230 CST. Bingo! With continued averted vision scanning, I spotted two more dim stars nearby that I could confirm on the printout. Both were dimmer than Himalia’s apparent visual magnitude of 14.81 (according to the JPL ephemeris). I plotted its position and watched for a while. As my eyes adjusted more to the darkness, I could find Himalia with averted vision but could hold it for a while with direct vision. I called Melissa to come out and look and after some adaptation time and some coaching she was able to barely see it too with averted vision.

After about a half hour it became obvious that the distance was widening between my Himalia candidate and the nearby star. I continued to watch for about an hour until I was absolutely sure of its slow drift westward and slightly northward. In the course of an hour I estimate that it moved about 23 arc-seconds. Wow! One of my best observing nights in quite a while, and I was a long time getting to sleep….

Himalia: 1/25/14 Plotted at 2230/2300/2330 CST East to West. Digitized Sky Survey (DSS) image.

Himalia: 1/25/14 Plotted at 2230/2300/2330 CST East to West. Digitized Sky Survey (DSS) image.

“The sight has the appeal of the purely passive, like the racing of light under clouds on a field, the beautiful dream at the moment of being dreamed. The breeze is the merest puff, but you yourself sail headlong and breathless under the gale force of the spirit.”–Annie Dillard (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)

Posted in Amateur Astronomy