Rose-Breasted Grosbeak

On April 23 of last year, I looked out my window and saw two Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks on the backyard feeder. Never having seen one here before (or anywhere else for that matter), they were new life birds for me. One was a mature male with vibrant, well defined colors: black and white with a red triangle on the breast. The other one had less distinct markings with much more streaking. I took it to be an immature male. They were a little large for the feeder but managed to balance well enough. They seemed somewhat finch-like in their behavior, remaining on the feeder while eating. They had a curious habit of grabbing a mouthful of seed from the feeder, then moving their heads back and forth looking for danger while gobbling down the seeds. According to both Peterson and Sibley, Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks are migratory here. They were probably heading north to Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, or even Canada, after wintering in Mexico. I just managed to get a picture of the mature male.

Rose-Breasted Grosbeak. Copyright (c) 2017 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Posted in Other Nature Studies

Ichetucknee Springs and O’Leno State Parks, Florida

Back in late March of 2016, Melissa and I drove to Florida again to visit our son and his wife and their newborn twin girls. While we were there, I took the opportunity to do some hiking in a couple of nearby state parks. The first one I visited was Ichetucknee Springs S.P. near Ft. White. I arrived fairly early on a cool, mostly cloudy day and decided to follow the Blue Hole Spring Trail. The first part of the trail crosses a nice long boardwalk and then follows along the heavily wooded edge of the Ichetucknee River. There were many bird species, including Barred Owls and Pileated Woodpeckers.

Blue Hole Spring Trail Boardwalk, Ichetucknee Springs State Park, Florida. Copyright (c) 2017 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

When I arrived at the Blue Hole Spring I immediately heard several Carolina Wrens making pretty loud agitated calls. Scanning around, I quickly discovered the reason for the ruckus–a Red Shouldered Hawk perched in a nearby tree.

Red Shouldered Hawk, Ichetucknee Springs State Park, Florida. Copyright (c) 2017 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

I watched for a few minutes until he left his perch, giving his characteristic kee-yer kee-yer call, made a wide circle around the area, and flew away.

26,668 gallons of pure clear 72 degree water pours out of a cave entrance at the bottom of Blue Hole Spring every minute. It is a favorite location for cave divers (including my son.)

Blue Hole Spring, Ichetucknee Springs State Park, Florida. Copyright (c) 2017 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

A couple of days later I returned to Ichetucknee to hike the Trestle Point and Pine Ridge Trails. Along the western side of the Trestle Point Trail, near some old phosphate mine pits, I thought I was hearing a Northern Parula Warbler. A little later, I met another birder who said he had heard it also. Unfortunately, I never actually saw the bird to confirm it.

The Pine Ridge Trail branches off of the Trestle Point Trail and enters a hardwood hammock of Laural Oaks, Sweetgums, Pignut Hickories, and Southern Magnolias.

Hardwood Hammock, Pine Ridge Trail, Ichetucknee Springs State Park, Florida. Copyright (c) 2017 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Shortly, the trail leaves the hammock and crosses an ecotone or habitat boundary and enters a dry sandhill forest of Longleaf Pines and scrubby bushes. Millions of years ago, this area was actually Florida’s coastline. The sand is very deep here and does not hold moisture well.

Sandhill Forest, Pine Ridge Trail, Ichetucknee Springs State Park, Florida. Copyright (c) 2017 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

After following the loop of trail through the Sandhill Forest I reentered the hardwood hammock where I came across a Barred Owl monitoring my hiking progress.

Barred Owl, Pine Ridge Trail, Ichetucknee Springs State Park, Florida. Copyright (c) 2017 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Coming back to the Trestle Point Trail, I took the eastern loop and followed the cool and shady path back along the Ichetucknee River to the parking lot. Looking forward to a return trip sometime in the future.

Ichetucknee River, Trestle Point Trail, Ichetucknee Springs State Park, Florida. Copyright (c) 2017 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

The day after my Ichetucknee trail walks, I visited nearby O’Leno State Park. I hiked the River Trail loop which mostly follows the Santa Fe River out to the “River Sink” where the water flows into an underground passage for about 3.5 miles until it resurfaces at “River Rise.” The trail begins at the suspension bridge built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1938.

CCC Suspension Bridge over Santa Fe River, OLeno State Park, FL. Copyright c) 2017 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Crossing the bridge offered a nice view downstream toward the River Sink.

Santa Fe River, OLeno State Park, FL. Copyright c) 2017 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

As I walked the trail upstream for a short distance I stopped several times to view the river through the lush greenery.

Saw Palmettos along the Santa Fe River. Copyright c) 2017 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Moving away from the river, I entered more of a sandhill forest again. Here there were dense thickets of Saw-palmettos beneath pine trees.

Saw Palmettos in a Pine Barren. Copyright (c) 2017 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

As I wound my way around the trail loop, I came across a leaning tree with Resurrection Fern growing on it. The fronds of this fern roll up when conditions are dry and revive when wet conditions return. (Hence the name.)

Resurrection Fern. Copyright c) 2017 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Approaching more of a wetland area near the river again, I found a small patch of Baldcypress trees and knees.

Cypress Knees. Copyright (c) 2017 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Although the intent of my walk was to hear and see birds, I came across remarkably few this time. Instead I came across some beautiful flowers which I believe to be Wild Azaleas.

Species uncertain – Shrub – Wild Azalea? Copyright (c) 2017 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

I finally arrived at River Sink to the call and circling flight of a Red Shouldered Hawk and later, a Swallow Tailed Kite. The river strangely comes to a dead end here like a slowly swirling clogged drain and disappears into an underground passage.

River Sink – Santa Fe River, FL. Copyright (c) 2017 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Finishing the River Trail loop, I arrived back at the parking lot where I was honored by the presence of a foot-long Ringneck snake. A pleanant end to a pleasant walk.

A small Ringneck Snake. Copyright (c) 2017 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Posted in Other Nature Studies

Jupiter Double Shadow Transit

On the evening of 14 March 2016 it was a clear and cool 55 degrees. I went out to the observatory to look at Jupiter for a while before going to bed and immediately saw two moons on the following side pretty far away from the planet. These were later identified as Callisto (the outermost) and Ganymede. I then saw another moon very close to the following limb of Jupiter and, just within the limb, a moon shadow which I initially thought came from that moon. After a little research in the March 2016 Sky & Telescope, I found that the moon was Io but the shadow was from Europa which was transiting the planet somewhere ahead of the shadow but unseen due to a lack of contrast between the sunlit moon and the cloud-tops of Jupiter. A little more research showed that a double transit was in progress starring Io and Europa and their shadows.

After a few more minutes, Io crossed the following limb as Europa’s shadow progressed toward the preceding side. After about ten more minutes the shadow of Io began to show itself along the following limb. I could still see Io as a bright spot along Jupiter’s Northern Equatorial belt. The shadows of Io and Europa were also along this belt. I looked as carefully as I could but could never see Europa.

I watched a few more minutes of the double transit but could not watch all of it. I had to stop and go to bed so I could get up at 5:45 am and go to work the next morning.

Posted in Amateur Astronomy

Snowbird Partial Albinism?

On 22 January 2016 I awoke to a light snowfall. I estimated it to be about two inches deep when I went out to fill the bird feeder. Returning inside I looked out the window where several Dark-eyed Slate-colored Juncos were at the feeder and on the ground below. One of them, which I had seen before, had a white streak around the nape of the neck but another had an almost completely white head.

Partial Albino Dark-eyed Junco? Copyright (c) 2016 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

He had a dark splotch on the forehead and a dark gray “collar” around the front of his neck. Otherwise, he was marked like a Slate-colored Junco including the white tail bars, slate gray back, and flesh colored bill.

Partial Albino Dark-eyed Junco? Copyright (c) 2016 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

According to David Allen Sibley’s The Sibley Guide to Birds an aberrant plumage such as partial albinism results in some feathers being pure white. “Partial albinism often follows feather groups, so that white spectacles or an entirely white head might appear,” says Sibley.

Partial Albino Dark-eyed Junco? Copyright (c) 2016 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

I saw him once more the next morning but have not seen him since. I will be curious to see if he shows up again in 2017.

Posted in Other Nature Studies, Uncategorized

The Great 2016 Sandhill Crane Expedition

Way back in mid January, Melissa and I drove to the Hiwassee National Wildlife Refuge near Dayton, Tennessee to see the Sandhill Cranes that winter there. The weather was cold but clear and the trees and fields sparkled with frost on our drive over. We drove I-40 to I-840 and around to Murfreesboro. From there we took back roads (which were really pretty good) to McMinville and crossed the southern Cumberland Plateau.  We found heavier snow and frost on the plateau but the roads were still clear.

Cumberland Plateau, TN–Copyright (c) 2016 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

After about a five-and-a-half hour drive we arrived at the Hiwassee NWR overlook near where the Hiwassee and the Tennessee Rivers converge. There were Sandhill Cranes at the water’s edge to our North, in the corn fields to our West and flying overhead. Their “rattle-calls” were almost ceaseless . As I set up the spotting scope we made a conservative estimate of 1000.

Sandhill Cranes, Hiwassee NWR, TN–Copyright (c) 2016 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Sandhill Cranes, Hiwassee NWR, TN–Copyright (c) 2016 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Sandhill Cranes, Hiwassee NWR, TN–Copyright (c) 2016 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

In addition to the cranes, we could see a couple of hundred Mallards, a dozen or so Hooded Mergansers and Canvasbacks, about 30 Canada Geese, and maybe 20 Great Blue Herons.

Melissa watching Sandhill Cranes, Hiwassee NWR, TN–Copyright (c) 2016 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Me watching Sandhill Cranes, Hiwassee NWR, TN–Copyright (c) 2016 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

While we were observing we met a nice fellow birder named Charles Murray who lived locally and was therefore familiar with the area. After we had been there a couple of hours, he suggested an alternate viewing location nearby at the Trail-of-Tears Park overlook so we followed him there. The view was not as open there due to the surrounding trees but you could see more of the Tennessee and Hiwassee Rivers and the island where they joined. There we saw perhaps another 1000 Sandhills, mostly at a considerable distance flying in flocks toward the Hiwassee NWR to spend the evening. There were also quite a few on the sandbars in the river. Our friend Charles supplied a running commentary on the cranes and also pointed out a lone adult Bald Eagle in the distance perched in a tree along the river.

Sandhill Cranes, Hiwassee NWR, TN–Copyright (c) 2016 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Before too much longer, it was getting too dark to see well so we decided to go to our Motel and have dinner. The following morning we arrived at the platform and set up. Again, about 1000 Cranes were visible, many flying overhead in groups. A large number were in a field on the other side of the bay.

Sandhill Cranes, Hiwassee NWR, TN–Copyright (c) 2016 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Charles Murray showed up again and he helped Melissa and me to spot and identify Pintail, Redhead, and Canvasback ducks. The Mallards, Ring-Billed Gulls, Hooded Mergansers, and Canada Geese were still there but we did not see the Great Blue Herons.

Sandhill Cranes, Hiwassee NWR, TN–Copyright (c) 2016 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Sandhill Cranes, Hiwassee NWR, TN–Copyright (c) 2016 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

By 10 o’clock there were a handful of people at the platform and we decided that we had seen all that we had come to see so we packed up our equipment and headed back toward home.

Cumberland Plateau, TN–Copyright (c) 2016 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

On the way back, Melissa and I decided to take a short side trip to Mousetail Landing State Park on the Tennessee River near Parsons, TN. There really wasn’t much of interest there but as we drove through the park we got a chuckle out of a sign we saw warning us of the steep road ahead.

Very steep hill–Mousetail Landing State Park, TN–Copyright (c) 2016 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

No, it wasn’t really that bad!

Posted in Other Nature Studies

Galaxy Groups & Clusters – January through March 2016

Here are some more GG&C observations for early 2016.

The first three are from January 1st. Abell #1 (Abell14) was pretty challenging and I could only see two of the six listed galaxies and both were extremely dim.

GG&C Abell #1 (Abell 14)–Copyright (c) 2016 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Hickson 22 was a revisit from 22 February 2014. Due to better weather I was able to add two more NGC galaxies (N1189 & N1190) to the one I had seen before (N1199).

GG&C Hickson #22–Copyright (c) 2016 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

For Hickson 23 I was able to see the three brightest galaxies out of five.

GG&C Hickson #23–Copyright (c) 2016 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

The next night (January 2nd) I observed Additional Galaxy Group #4. This is a fairly compact group ranging in brightness from two direct vision galaxies (N80 & N83) to extremely dim (PGC1384). Twelve galaxies were visible.

GG&C Additional #4–Copyright (c) 2016 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Hickson #1 was observed on the next night (January 3rd). I was able to see three out of four listed galaxies. Oddly enough, the dimmest listed galaxy (P1618 at mag 16.5) was the easiest to see because of its brighter stellar nucleus.

GG&C Hickson #1–Copyright (c) 2016 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

On February 12th I observed both Trio #11 and Trio #12. The first is a fairly tight group of three galaxies (N1721, N1725, & N172Smilie: 8) plus a more distant fourth galaxy (N1723) not part of the trio. All were direct vision.

GG&C Trio #11–Copyright (c) 2016 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Trio #12 consists of two close interacting galaxies and one more distant edge-on galaxy. An interesting trio, all fairly bright.

GG&C Trio #12–Copyright (c) 2016 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

I observed Hickson #27 on February 27th but could only see one extremely faint galaxy (P14863 at mag 15.7) of the five listed.

GG&C Hickson #27–Copyright (c) 2016 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Posted in Amateur Astronomy

Catch-Up Post #3

I have added twelve sketches to my Galaxy Groups & Clusters page, beginning with Additional Galaxy Group #1 (AKA IC5370 group). This is a small, irregular chain of five galaxies, all of which were only visible with averted vision.

GG&C Additional #1 – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Additional #1 – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Next is Hickson 99, a fairly tight grouping of five galaxies of which I was able to see three. The B component (U12899) was visible with direct vision, while the A component only showed as a dim, very elongated north/south streak with a dim field star near the southern tip.

GG&C Hickson #99 – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Hickson #99 – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Hickson 100 showed me two of its four components. The brightest member, visible with direct vision, is NGC 7803, which has a large, elongated halo running east/west. It becomes brighter toward the center and has a dim stellar nucleus.

GG&C Hickson #100 – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Hickson #100 – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Additional Galaxy Group #2 (the NGC 3 group) consists of five galaxies in a scattered grouping, all of which are averted vision objects. NGC 3 is the brightest member. It is elongated east/west, becomes brighter toward the center, and has a dim stellar nucleus.

GG&C Additional #2 – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Additional #2 – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Additional Galaxy Group #3 is a fairly tight but uneven group of ten galaxies of which I managed to view eight. It consists of a couple of brighter galaxies and several dimmer ones, all visible only with averted vision.

GG&C Additional #3 – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Additional #3 – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

I viewed the Trio #13 (NGC 2379 Trio) earlier this year and it turned out to be a bit more difficult than I had anticipated. NGC 2379 (small and concentrated) was easy enough as a direct vision object, but the two other galaxies in this string, NGC 2375 and NGC 2373, were very hazy and diffuse spots. All three seemed dimmer than the listed magnitudes.

GG&C Trio 13 – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Trio 13 – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Abell #14 (569) is a rather large and loose cluster. I observed the “center” of this cluster, which is a crooked string of one or two brighter galaxies and several dimmer ones. The two brightest galaxies are NGC 2329 (which has an elongated halo running north-northeast/south-southwest with a brighter core and a dim stellar nucleus) and UGC 3696 (which is smaller but also has an elongated halo running northeast/southwest).

GG&C Abell #14 (569) – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Abell #14 (569) – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

I was able to observe seven out of the nine galaxies in Additional Group #12 (NGC 2340 group), a “U” shaped string of galaxies with one bright NGC galaxy (NGC 2340) and six dimmer IC galaxies. NGC 2340 is fairly large and bright with an elliptical halo, a bright elongated core, and a dim stellar nucleus.

GG&C Additional #12 – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Additional #12 – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

I could only spot a handful of galaxies in the Abell #15 (576) Cluster. They are just a scattering of five very dim galaxies visible only with extreme averted vision. I am also unsure of the designations for a couple of them.

GG&C Abell #15 (576) – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Abell #15 (576) – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Abell #22 (1185) is a large cluster of 82 or more galaxies with a clump of brighter galaxies toward the middle. Its distance is listed as around 433 million lightyears. The only direct vision galaxy is NGC 3550. It is a large, roundish cloud with no nucleus and fairly even in brightness. NGC 3561 and NGC 3561A together are part of Arp 105 (The Guitar). I could not see any other detail of The Guitar. Nor could I see another feature called Ambartsumian’s knot (a small tidal dwarf galaxy at the base of The Guitar). (See Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) for 22 November 2005.)

GG&C Abell #22 (1185) – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Abell #22 (1185) – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

I viewed three of the Hickson 84 galaxies, a very dim and compact group.

GG&C Hickson #84 – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Hickson #84 – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Abell #38 (2151) (AKA the Hercules Cluster of Galaxies) is a bit overwhelming due to the shear number of galaxies (87 listed). I concentrated on the center, a long rectangular group of fairly dim galaxies. Although these are the brighter galaxies for the most part, they are still at least an AV3 (object seen more than 50% of the time) or dimmer. I will have to revisit this cluster in the future and try to pick off some more faint fuzzies.

GG&C Abell #38 (2151) – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

GG&C Abell #38 (2151) – Copyright (c) 2015 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Posted in Amateur Astronomy, Uncategorized

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