Thursday, July 19, 2012

Midwest Observin'!

Somehow I developed and cultured an interest in astronomy while growing up in Iowa.  I think it was some combination of youthful eyes and a dark countryside that may no longer exist some 45 years later!  We're currently in the Midwest enjoying time away from the desert, though here they are suffering a drought, so it is not so different from Arizona. 

About the one benefit of the drought for a skywatcher is that it has been clear most nights.  They do suffer from moderate humidity which affects viewing a lot more than people realize.  The big drawback around here is the constant embracing glow of light pollution.  You really can't get away from it and the humidity seems to enhance it, scattering even more light into the sky.  But we've been dutifully getting out a few times to look skyward.  The other good thing about the drought is that the nights are absolutely bug free!  Normally the bulk of summertime observing is spent swatting at mosquitos!  Makes for nice evenings this trip...

The big motivation, particularly from the northern tier of states, is that there was a big solar flare last week and the charged particles were to hit us over the weekend and cause some northern lights!  Rare in Arizona, I've not seen a reasonable display in decades, so with the above news we kept our eyes out during the reunion trip over the weekend.  But despite our attempts, none were seen.  Sunday, just about our last chance to see them and with the geomagnetic activity listed as high on Spaceweather, when it got dark (about 10:30 in these parts with Daylight Savings Time), we hit the road for a dark northern horizon.  We settled for a spot just north of Marengo, about a 45 minute drive from our home here.  Of course, we got there just about the time the clouds did, and while there were lights (I think from Harvard about 6 miles to the north), my first exposures showed a greenish band right next to the horizon that might well have been a little auroral glow - very little!  It is perhaps just imagined at left above the tree line and below the clouds...  Interestingly, not knowing the area very well, literally 30 seconds after we stopped to set up the camera, a county sheriff stopped, wanting to know if we needed any help!  Once the clouds socked us in, we headed back home...

The next day dawned clear and relatively dry.  We got an invite from a local amateur astronomer to join us out at an observing site the local club uses about an hour southwest of town.  We invited some friends to join us and we headed about 10 miles southwest of Dekalb.  But still, it was 70 miles west of Chicago, the largest source of light pollution in the Midwest, so the sky was highly affected by skyglow.  Even so, the Milky Way was easily visible, just not nearly as good as an Arizona sky, not that we expected it to be.  Here is a 30 second tripod shot.  A cornfield defines the southern horizon - for those of you reading from the southern states, you can see the Scorpius just clears the horizon here...  Of course, no aurora visible here, except the lights from the Illinois city of Aurora (har-har!).

So we've taken to our alternate form of observing - watching some of the birds we don't normally see in the desert.  We don't have a good choice of optics for birdwatching - the small telescope normally used isn't here with us, though we have a Nikon 500mm mirror lens that we used for the following shots.  First up is a Belted Kingfisher (shown at left) that we spotted on a walk down to the river near Tekakwitha Forest Preserve.  They are always shockingly large when you spot them, and they are pretty shy, so don't stick around long.  The Fox River is amazingly low this trip with the lack of rain, so actually I've seen a lot more aquatic birds along the river this trip.  I think it is because many of the wading birds can now walk along the bottom and fish.  If it were a foot deeper, that wouldn't be possible.  And speaking of which, almost every time I go down the bike path to the river, there is almost always egrets or herons fishing.  Here is one of the former, visible on the same trip that we saw the Kingfisher.  This one walked so close to us that I had to wait for him to walk against a darker background to keep from imaging him against the water reflecting skylight.

We're also spotting a heron that fishes along the canoe beach right down from our house every day.  While not as satisfying as spending time under a dark night time sky, the hunt to chase down and image these prey makes for entertainment here.

1 comment:

Anthony Vodraska and Anita Gilbert said...

So pleased to read that you both are in Iowa for awhile. I have often wondered whether auroral displays from these intense solar flares may have been visible from Iowa. No mosquitoes! Now that would be a small welcome compensation for the excessive heat and drought. Best wishes to your both.