Ode to Point Pleasant park

The MV Faust rounds the northwest tip of the harbour and ever so slowly makes its way toward its Port of Halifax berth.

It’s a big ship — one of the largest car carriers in the world, in fact. At over 227 metres long with a 71,583 gross tonnage, it can hold more than 8,000 cars. For such a large vessel, it makes a surprisingly quiet entrance. I can barely hear its engines from my vantage point on a bench near the Sailors Memorial cenotaph at Point Pleasant Park. 

This is one of my favourite spots in the park —  in the entire city, for that matter. The view of the harbour mouth and the open ocean beyond is hard to beat. 

Tugboats guide the MV Faust, one of the largest car carriers in the world, into Halifax Harbour. (JOHN McPHEE)

Tugboats guide the MV Faust, one of the largest car carriers in the world, into Halifax Harbour. (JOHN McPHEE)

The Faust is a regular visitor, which I know because I’m a regular myself on these harbour shores. It’s a rare week that I don’t make several trips to Point Pleasant from our north-end home.

I like dirt, trees and silence, so sometimes city life gets the best of me. The park may not be the deep woods but 75 hectares of green space and 39 kilometres of gravelled roads and woods trails? That'll do in a pinch.  

This was a popular place even when there wasn’t a city to escape. It was named Point Pleasant by the governor-who-shall-not-be-named — OK, it was Edward Cornwallis — who was impressed by the view after he dropped anchor in 1748.  

According to Halifax naturalist and author Stephanie Robertson, at that time the point supported "a relatively young, thick and healthy forest probably of spruces, pines, hemlock, white pine, fir, maple and other species typical of the Nova Scotian Acadian forests.”

Of course, the days of that lush forest were numbered as soon as Cornwallis and the thousands of soldiers and settlers sailed into the harbour, Robertson writes. They needed wood, and lots of it, so the area “was subjected to continuous biomass extraction and major disturbance of trees, and their roots and soil — for forts, firewood, kindling, furnaces, gates, fencing, and lumber; and removal and displacement of rocks for forts, roads, gates, walls, and trenches.”

Protection from exploitation began in 1866 when the British Crown leased the land to a local committee. That lease was extended in 1879 to 999 years — by my admittedly shaky math, that means the lease will end in the year 2878.  In the meantime, Halifax Regional Municipality leases the land from the British government for the astounding sum of one shilling a year.

A female red-breasted merganser dawdles in the waters off Point Pleasant. (JOHN McPHEE)

A female red-breasted merganser dawdles in the waters off Point Pleasant. (JOHN McPHEE)

While human interference has been curtailed, no legal arrangements can protect the park from Mother Nature. I'll never forget my first visit to the park after hurricane Juan struck in September 2003 — swaths of trees were laid waste by the storm. About three-quarters of the park's trees — between 60,000 and 70,000 — were lost. 

About 70,000 trees have been replanted thanks to government assistance after the devastating storm. But it will take decades, perhaps a century, for the park to regain its former majestic canopy. 

Even so, there's lots to appreciate at Point Pleasant for nature nerds like me, particularly birders. The harbour waters off the main shore road, Sailors Memorial Way, are home to a slew of bird species. The most common are mallards and American black ducks. But a quick look at my park list includes American wigeon, red-necked grebe, purple sandpiper, common eider, red-breasted merganser and common loons.

And despite Juan's devastation, on land you'll still hear the O Canada call of the white-throated sparrow in the spring. Off the top of my head, I've seen cardinals, pileated woodpeckers, various warblers, eagles, osprey, merlin and the ubiquitous black-capped chickadee. 

Besides the animals of the wild, there are plenty of the domestic variety at Point Pleasant.

Like any green space these days that allows dogs, you’ll find all manner of canines at the park. If you’re not a fan of the four-legged set, technically you can escape them on Sailors Memorial Way after 10 a.m. But some owners are either ignorant of the rule or just choose to ignore it; it’s not uncommon to see dogs on and off the leash on the road at all times of the day. 

This stand of purple flag is a dependable sight each spring at the Frog Pond. (JOHN McPHEE)

This stand of purple flag is a dependable sight each spring at the Frog Pond. (JOHN McPHEE)

Whether you're walking alone or with your Shih Tzu, you can't help but notice the remnants of human presence in the park. The batteries, towers and other fortifications from Halifax's military past are everywhere. One of the most impressive is the Prince of Wales Tower, about three-quarters the way down the main road from the upper parking lot. This fortification built in 1796 is the oldest example of the round "martello" towers built throughout the colonial world by the British military. 

If you're really into the cultural and historical vibe, you can take a walking audio tour of the park. (I'm a non-structured type and have yet to try out the tour.)

Back on my bench, I’ve finished my sandwich and stand up to complete my leisurely circuit of the park. Sometimes I’m more ambitious and take a wog around the park. (Jog, gasp, walk. Jog, gasp, walk.) But it's a lazy and mild December day, ripe for sauntering and daydreams. 

I look up to check the Faust’s slow progress into the sheltered part of the harbour. It’s got company now. Two tugboats — dwarfed by the huge vessel — have chugged out to take up positions along its port side.

The big boat and its diminutive guides glide out of view and the dark winter waters of the outer harbour are empty again, for now. 

In the company of the dead

The living come with grassy tread
To read the gravestones on the hill;
The graveyard draws the living still,
But never anymore the dead.

- Robert Frost, In A Disused Graveyard


The colourful beauty of early fall is yielding to the stark landscapes of winter.

The wind whispers through the barren branches. The autumnal sun that hangs low behind the trees casts long shadows upon the markers of the dead. It does little to warm our bones as we intrude upon the rest of those who lie beneath.

It’s a haunted time of year but have no fear — all is calm and peaceful as we walk these solemn pathways.

Yes, I love cemeteries.

I'm particularly partial to the isolated churchyards that dot the countryside but even the ones in the middle of the city offer an oasis amid the blare of urban life.  And in the spring and summer, they're great places for birdwatching

Of course, there are many parks and green spaces where you can enjoy nature and some solitude. Obviously what sets cemeteries apart is the fact we’re keeping company with those who have gone before.

And there’s no doubt, death fascinates us. It’s a theme of religious and cultural traditions around the world. Today’s celebration of All Hallows Eve competes in popularity with traditional holidays, much to the chagrin of the faithful. The origins of Halloween can be traced to Samhain, the pagan festival of the ancient Celts, who believed the boundary between this world and the one beyond could be more easily crossed at this time of year.  

Humans have buried their dead for tens of thousands of years. Before the practice became part of religious rites, it’s likely that interment was a health and safety issue — corpses attract wild animals that would be a threat to those still among the living.

Created as a burial ground for French military forces, the Garrison Cemetery in Annapolis Royal was subsequently used by Acadians, the British military and the parish of St. Luke's Anglican Church. It contains the oldest English gravestone in Canada. (JOHN McPHEE)

Created as a burial ground for French military forces, the Garrison Cemetery in Annapolis Royal was subsequently used by Acadians, the British military and the parish of St. Luke's Anglican Church. It contains the oldest English gravestone in Canada. (JOHN McPHEE)

My favourite cemeteries are the oldest ones. When I lived in Annapolis Royal in the 1990s, one of my regular haunts was the Garrison Cemetery on the grounds of Fort Anne National Historic Site. (Cultural interpreter Alain Melanson offers wonderful candlelit tours of the cemetery). This burying ground contains the oldest English gravestone in Canada, that of Bethiah Douglass who died Oct. 1, 1720.

Created as a burial ground for French military forces, the Garrison Cemetery in Annapolis Royal was subsequently used by Acadians, the British military and the parish of St. Luke's Anglican Church. It contains the oldest English gravestone in Canada. (JOHN McPHEE / Local Xpress)

The oldest cemetery in Halifax is the aptly named Old Burying Ground.  Founded in 1749 at what's now the busy intersection of Barrington Street and Spring Garden Road, it was originally non-denominational. But even after it became affiliated with St. Paul’s Anglican Church in 1793, it was the only cemetery in colonial Halifax.

“From 1749 until about 1830, there was no other place to bury,” Bernard Smith, chairman of the Old Burying Ground foundation board, told me during a chat at the cemetery in the summer.  

“Everyone who wanted to be buried were buried here. . . . 

"There are Jewish people, there are black people, there are white people, Mi'kmaq, there are people from other aboriginal groups, naval, army, just plain civilians, there are bootleggers —  all kinds of people."

The Old Burying Ground contains 1,310 headstones but the mortal remains of many more lie beneath.   

The Old Burying Ground is a popular destination for those seeking genealogical and historical information. About 8,000 people visit the site each year. (JOHN McPHEE) 

The Old Burying Ground is a popular destination for those seeking genealogical and historical information. About 8,000 people visit the site each year. (JOHN McPHEE) 

 “In the 95 years of the cemetery's use, it received burials of approximately 12,000 people,” according to the Old Burying Ground foundation’s website. They included “parishioners of St. Paul's and St. Matthew's, members of the British Army, the Royal Navy, seafarers, travellers, and citizens of Halifax of other denominations.”

Among the notables who take up real estate on the 2.2-acre site include the British Major-Gen. Robert Ross, best known for leading the attack on and burning of the White House during the War of 1812.

Ross was buried in Halifax on Sept. 29, 1814, with high military honours after he was killed en route to the Battle of Baltimore two weeks earlier (according to Wikipedia, his body was preserved in a rum barrel for the trip.)

Some burials weren’t what you would call officially sanctioned, Smith noted with a chuckle.

“One of the reasons for the fence, which I’ve been trying to get some funds to improve, (was) to stop people burying at night. . . . They used to find a hole had been dug and filled in and they didn’t know who the heck it was.”

These nocturnal interments were done to avoid the fees that St. Paul’s began to charge after 1793, when it received title to the Old Burying Ground property. The cemetery was closed to burials in August 1844. 

The Old Burying Ground is a popular destination for those seeking genealogical and historical information. About 8,000 people visit the site each year. (JOHN McPHEE / Local Xpress) 

Two hundred and sixty-seven years after it was founded, money remains an issue at the Old Burying Ground. One of the main tasks of Smith and the other foundation members is to raise money for the upkeep of the cemetery, which was named a National Historic Site in 1991, the first graveyard in Canada to receive such a designation. 

The foundation receives annual funding from the three levels of government but it also relies on public donations, said Smith, a chartered accountant and retired civil servant who emigrated to Canada from England in 1958. He became involved with the foundation upon the urging of then-mayor Ron Wallace, whom Smith worked with in the 1980s and remembers with great fondness. 

"He said, 'I want you on the board of the Old Burying Ground,' and I didn’t argue with Ron! If he wanted me on the board, that was where I went." 

Smith turned around on the bench to point out the low stone wall that encloses the site along with a lovely wrought-iron fence. "We've got terrible problems with this wall behind us," he said, estimating the repair bill at about $25,000. 

The foundation's long-term goal is to transform the cemetery into a first-class green space while retaining the dignity of its original purpose. 

"Do we want to hand (this site over) not to just the next generation but to the next six generations? . . . This is a special place."

A walk with Grandmother Moon

The full moon rises above Herring Cove in August. (JOHN McPHEE)

The full moon rises above Herring Cove in August. (JOHN McPHEE)

On this first evening of September, come outside with me and celebrate the coming autumnal equinox with a tour of the night sky. (The weather forecast isn’t hopeful so we may have to use our imaginations.)

Overhead  — we’ll also have to imagine there’s no light pollution — the path of gas and dust that marks the heart of our galaxy, the Milky Way, splits the sky.

To the south, let’s enjoy a final glimpse of Mars and Saturn as they close out their summer show in the constellation Scorpius.

Now where’s the moon? Nowhere to be found. It’s the time of new moon, also known as no moon. Our closest neighbour in space is hidden in the glare of the sun.

From new to first-quarter (to the eye, that’s a half-moon) to full to last-quarter and back to new: This cycle of phases is created by the changing angle of sunlight on the lunar surface as our satellite traces an elliptical loop around the Earth.

That’s the science behind the lunar cycle. But the changing face of the moon, particularly the timing of the 12 or 13 full phases during the year, carries a much deeper meaning in many cultures.

Ancient peoples such as the Mi’kmaq incorporated the lunar and other celestial cycles into their mythology as well as their daily lives. The Mi'kmaw calendar was based on crucial periods such as the hunt and the harvest.   

The Mi’kmaw yearly ecological cycle is represented by natural events such as the running of the maple sap (Si’ko’ku’s), the croaking of frogs (Sqoljuiku’s) and moose calling their mates (Wikumkewiku’s). The common 12 Mi'kmaw moon times and full moons take their names from these events. Occasionally a 13th moon time is needed to keep the moontimes in step with the sun.

“Our people lived off the land so knowing what was coming up, what resource, was very important to their survival,” Cathy Jean LeBlanc, an expert in Mi’kmaw culture, told me in a recent interview from her home in Newcombville, Lunenburg County.

“Knowing that the animals were about to get nice and fat and we were going into fall and that would be a time when we would hunt.”

The Mi’kmaw yearly ecological cycle is represented by natural events such as the running of the maple sap (Si’ko’ku’s), the croaking of frogs (Sqoljuiku’s) and moose calling their mates (Wikumkewiku’s). The common 12 Mi'kmaw moon times and full moons take their names from these events. Occasionally a 13th moon time is needed to keep the moontimes in step with the sun. (MI'KMAW MOONS)

The Mi’kmaw yearly ecological cycle is represented by natural events such as the running of the maple sap (Si’ko’ku’s), the croaking of frogs (Sqoljuiku’s) and moose calling their mates (Wikumkewiku’s). The common 12 Mi'kmaw moon times and full moons take their names from these events. Occasionally a 13th moon time is needed to keep the moontimes in step with the sun. (MI'KMAW MOONS)

LeBlanc and Dartmouth amateur astronomer Dave Chapman are the creators of the education website Mi’kmaw Moons, which celebrates the time-keeping and scientific interpretation traditions of the Mi'kmaq.

For LeBlanc, it’s all about the connection between daily life and the natural world, which for her is synonymous with the spiritual world.

“We believe every single thing in nature has spirit,” said LeBlanc, who is a physical activity co-ordinator for Acadia First Nation and previously worked at Kejimkujik National Park and Historic Site as a cultural interpreter.

“And so for us, everything is living and that’s why we respect everything around us. ... The rocks, the water, the trees, everything to us is a living being with a spirit.”

Not surprisingly, it’s sometimes a challenge for her to reconcile that spiritual view with the scientific approach of somebody like Dave Chapman. But it’s been a positive learning experience for both of them.

“We were working together ...  and we came across this concept of Two-Eyed Seeing,” Chapman recounted in an interview earlier this summer, an idea that was developed at Cape Breton University by Albert Marshall and Cheryl Bartlett.

 “It’s where you kind of look at everything from a traditional indigenous perspective but also from a western scientific perspective.

“You can express it different ways, it means different things to different people. A blend, a yin-yang, two ways of seeing and knowing, and one respects the other.”

The Mi’kmaw Moons project grew out of a 2014 presentation the pair gave to the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada's Halifax centre called In Search of the 13th Mi'kmaw Moon.

Mi'kmaw Moons collaborators Dave Chapman and Cathy Jean LeBlanc. (FACEBOOK)

“I’ve always been interested in the cultural side of astronomy,” said Chapman, a retired federal scientist who volunteers much of his time promoting astronomy at Kejimkujik and beyond.  

“For many decades, I’ve read books about archeoastronomy, the astronomy of ancient peoples, different civilizations,” which led him to explore how modern aboriginal cultures in our region see and interpret the sky.

LeBlanc said she gets particular satisfaction from sharing her knowledge with young people, such as the children she works with at Acadia First Nation, and with family members. 

“I always use my niece Holly for an example. She’s eight years old and she’s been learning about the Mi’kmaw moon times and she’s been celebrating and living those for the last two years. And that’s what’s important to me — it’s fine if you can give people 12 or 13 Mi’kmaq moon names and people can learn them and memorize them. But it’s that deep connection — once you have that connection to them (seasons), you don’t forget it.”

Mi'kmaw Moons collaborators Dave Chapman and Cathy Jean LeBlanc. (FACEBOOK)

Mi'kmaw Moons collaborators Dave Chapman and Cathy Jean LeBlanc. (FACEBOOK)

LeBlanc laughs as she recounts the first time that connection hit home for her. It was during a February day drive along the South Shore while holding a Bluetooth conversation with Chapman about the project. The glare off the snow was distracting her so “I said, 'Dave, I can’t see anything, I have to pull off and put my sunglasses on.'

“He said, ‘You know what time we’re in?’ And I said, 'Oh my God, I’m experiencing it, we’re in Snow-blinding Time!' ”

The Mi'kmaw Moons project has turned out to be a great success. LeBlanc and Chapman have held many presentations for groups such as the Confederacy of Mainland Mi’kmaq, schools and the Minas Astronomy Group.

The work has gained international recognition as well. The pair submitted a paper on the project for the respected Griffith Observer Magazine, which is produced by the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. The essay won second prize and will be published in the Observer in November, Chapman said. 

LeBlanc admits she didn’t spend a lot of time looking at the sky before she became involved in the project.

“I’ve learned to look up and appreciate all the things above me,” she said.

And it's reinforced those important connections with her culture, ancestry and the natural world. 

“The moon in our culture is our grandmother — so we have Mother Earth and Grandmother Moon. ... My ancestors would have been looking up and lying on the ground perhaps around the fires and wigwams and telling stories. I’d like to think there was this anticipation, this excitement about what was to come."

This article was originally published at www.localxpress.ca

The dark skies of Kejimkujik

The trails of red-filtered flashlights are seen during dark sky weekend at kejimkujik. (john mcphee)   

The trails of red-filtered flashlights are seen during dark sky weekend at kejimkujik. (john mcphee)   

Check out any astronomical event and you’ll find two kinds of observers.

There are the extroverted types for whom the social aspects of the gathering are just as important as the celestial.

During an interview in the spring, fellow observer Art Cole told me he often sets up his camera/telescope rig to automatically take photos or video of a particular celestial object for hours. Then he makes the rounds to chat with fellow astronomers.

On the other end of the extrovert/introvert spectrum, there are people like, well, me. My routine at an astronomical gathering is exchanging a few pleasantries after arrival and finding a good spot to plant my scope. For the rest of the evening, my eye is stuck to the eyepiece and you might hear an appreciative mumble once in a while when I get a good view of an object.

No, I’ll never be the life of the astronomical (or any other) party. But I try to come out of my shell each summer for Dark Sky Weekend at Kejimkujik National Park and National Historic Site in western Nova Scotia. I have offered my telescope and limited astronomical know-how several times at the event's public observing sessions.

It’s a great time. Hundreds of people converge in the evening at the “Sky Circle” in Jeremy’s Bay Campground for astronomical and native cultural presentations by RASC members and Parks Canada interpreters. Afterward people line up to peek through the telescopes set up around a large field surrounding the Sky Circle.

I particularly enjoy providing celestial views to enthusiastic younger observers, many of whom have never looked through a telescope. 

Keji’s dark sky program is the result of a collaboration between Parks Canada and the Halifax Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. The society, represented by members Quinn Smith and Dave Chapman, approached Parks Canada in 2009 about getting Keji designated as a dark sky preserve

Parks Canada would have to implement light pollution controls at the park, offer astronomical programming and public outreach activities, and promote Keji as a stargazing destination.

A former civil servant, Chapman braced for a long haul of bureaucratic stonewalling.

“What happened to our surprise was ... we got invited down and it turned out the people at Keji were all for it,” Chapman said in an interview.

RASC members helped train park interpreters on such things as features of the night sky and astronomical equipment (the park bought a large Go-To telescope for use at the Sky Circle). And society members remain heavily involved, particularly on Dark Sky Weekend every August.  

RASC members Dave Chapman and Quinn Smith spearheaded the creation of the Dark Sky Preserve at Kejimkujik National Park and National Historic Site.

Six years later, Chapman says he’s very pleased with how the program has evolved.

“I’m very impressed at how they’ve handled it. It wasn’t like, ‘OK thanks, we’ll take that and we’ll put it on a webpage.’ They’ve really embraced the whole idea of the preserve and how it adds to the park and they’ve incorporated it into their programming.”

RASC members Dave Chapman and Quinn Smith spearheaded the creation of the Dark Sky Preserve at Kejimkujik National Park and National Historic Site.

RASC members Dave Chapman and Quinn Smith spearheaded the creation of the Dark Sky Preserve at Kejimkujik National Park and National Historic Site.

RASC members have tailored their own contributions to Dark Sky Weekend over the years. For example, they’ve reduced the number of daytime activities, which weren’t drawing a lot of people, in favour of “drop-in” events, Chapman said.

“We set up a station, a little tent (near the Tuck Shoppe at Jeremy’s Bay Campground) where we could sit under the shade and we basically have a drop-in where people could just come to us,” he said. “We’ll show them free handouts, talk to them about telescopes and do solar observing. That was really quite successful last year so we’re going to do that again this year.”

Chapman’s involvement with the dark sky project is but one of his many irons in the astronomical fire. He’s edited the internationally renowned Observer’s Handbook published by the RASC, he curates the www.astronomynovascotia.ca website and, along with Mi’kmaq cultural interpreter Cathy Jean LeBlanc, he created the Mi’kmaw Moons project.

Public outreach in astronomy hadn’t been a big interest for him until relatively recently. But Chapman has come to enjoy the one-to-one contact with people at events such as Dark Sky Weekend.

“It’s amazing how many people you meet who just have never — well, they may have looked at the sky but they don’t know what they’re looking at. So ...  you point out the Milky Way, this is our galaxy, these are the stars, that one’s a double star, that one’s a planet — people love that stuff, they want to appreciate it.

“What I tell people all the time is, you don’t have to be a scientist or an astronomer to appreciate the sky. You can appreciate it for what it is, from wherever you’re coming from. You don’t have to understand the physics of it all. If you want to understand the physics, we can tell you that too, but if you just want to enjoy it, we can tell you what you’re looking at.”

Dark Sky Weekend will be held in 2017 from Aug. 12 to Aug. 15

This article was originally published at www.localxpress.ca

 

Secret codes and nocturnal encounters

Look closely at the bottom of the photo for four green streaks created by a passing firefly in this long exposure of Scorpius. (JOHN McPHEE / Local Xpress) 

Look closely at the bottom of the photo for four green streaks created by a passing firefly in this long exposure of Scorpius. (JOHN McPHEE / Local Xpress) 

Many a night I saw the Pleiads rising thro' the mellow shade,

Glitter like a swarm of fireflies tangled in a silver braid.

Alfred Tennyson

It’s a warm sultry summer night. The stars are twinkling, a light breeze teases the trees, a barred owl hoots in the distance.

Perfect for a little romance.

Actually, judging from the number of little lights flitting about the woods and lake shoreline where I’m observing the night sky, there’s lots of hooking up going on.

Yes, the fireflies have come out to play on this late June evening. Their mesmerizing now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t performance is keeping me entertained while my camera soaks up photons from the great beyond. The planets Mars and Saturn are passing by the constellation Scorpius low in the south so I’m shooting some long exposures to capture this celestial grouping for posterity.

A long exposure of fireflies on a summer evening. (WIKIPEDIA) 

Fireflies have been synonymous with summer for me since childhood. I was fascinated by these “lightning bugs” who seemed to be visitors from a magical fairy world.

Alas, the reality is less romantic. Fireflies aren’t actually even flies, they’re soft-bodied beetles. If you held one in your hand during the day, you’d see a bug with a dark backside and an orangish front.

And those ethereal lights are actually the result of a protein reacting with an enzyme. Nothing very magical there. 

After my night among the celestial and insectoid lights, I called up Andrew Hebda, the curator of zoology at the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History, for the scoop on these summer visitors.

There’s indeed a romantic aspect to the reason these insects light up the night. Well, romantic in a glowing beetle butt kind of way.

The light produced on the insect’s tail end is created by a fairly simple chemical reaction, Hebda explained.

“They have a photo-luminescent protein called luciferin. When it’s exposed to an enzyme called luciferase, which is released upon a given stimulus, it essentially causes the excitation of luciferin to a higher stage, and as it decays, then it releases light. It’s a very straightforward chemical decay process.”

Not so straightforward is exactly how the message “OK, turn my backdoor light on” is triggered in the beetle’s brain.  “That’s the process they don’t understand clearly,” Hebda said.

But the goal of this photochemical wizardry is clear:  Find a mate and fast. The males produce their signal in a particular pattern to tell females that they’re around, they’re available to mate, Hebda said.

A long exposure of fireflies. (WIKIPEDIA) 

A long exposure of fireflies. (WIKIPEDIA) 

“Essentially the pattern is sort of like a Morse code, it’s very species-specific. You can use the analogy that one may be flashing an S and one may be flashing the letter P.  Based on the pattern of flashes, the potential mate will recognize that and respond to that.”

Fireflies don’t have the best eyesight so the successful light signal must be close by, he said. 

The females also use light patterns to respond to males or to attract them both for sex or for a free lunch, it turns out. Some female fireflies mimic the light patterns of other species, lure the unsuspecting Romeo into their lair and gobble him up. Nice.

If there’s a happier ending to the love story, the female usually lays her eggs soon afterward. The mating and subsequent egg-laying usually takes place in sheltered wetlands and bays.

“You’re not going to find them in the middle of open, windy dry areas,” Hebda said. “They’re not aerodynamically designed to cope with strong winds so you tend to find them in wetland areas where you have some protection from wind ... They have to be near the appropriate habitat for both the eggs to be able to ripen and hatch and larvae to feed.”

There are about 2,000 species of fireflies across the world. The nine types found in Nova Scotia are true fireflies some species that fall into the Lampyridae family don’t light up. Exactly how many fireflies flit around on a typical Nova Scotia summer night isn't known, Hebda said. 

I have a farm on Cobequid Bay and there are a couple of wetland areas there and it’s not unusual to see 40 or 50 (fireflies). Within that individual one hectare of wetland, we may have several hundred individuals because, of course, you’re only seeing the males. The females will either be up in the shrubbery or down in the ground. You tend not to see those ones.

As a zoologist, Hebda is obviously interested in the creepy crawly set. Anything that runs, flies, swims or crawls. If its dead, it stinks. If it doesn’t stink, we call it palentology. (Weve only met on the phone but its clear this scientist comes equipped with a tinder-dry sense of humour). 

Its fair to say most people dont share his love of the insect world. Even those who enjoy the spectacle of fireflies at night would get out the broom if they spotted one of those beetles crawling across the floor in the daytime. 

“I blame our parents completely for that,” said Hebda, perhaps only half-jokingly. “Of course, we’re supposed to keep things clean ... ensuring that you don’t have vermin and insects that are crawling around.”

When it comes to fireflies, “the other elements that some people may find repulsive are masked by that absolutely gorgeous and mysterious sight. We may know the chemical processes as to how it works but still it’s a mystical thing.”

I can only agree as I later look over my exposures from the Scorpius session. A few have been firefly photobombed with short, green streaks of light. Just beetles. But pretty magical ones just the same. 

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Land and Sky Calendar

July 4 - New moon

July 7 & 21 - Halifax Planetarium show Journey to the Centre of Our Galaxy, both shows 7:15 p.m. Registration required.

July 8 - Jupiter above waxing crescent moon in evening west

July 9 - Beginning Birders, Taylor Head (Nova Scotia Bird Society)

July 11- First-quarter moon

July 14 - Mars to right of waxing gibbous moon, Saturn to left, in evening south

July 15 - Mars below waxing gibbous moon in evening south

July 17 -  Slow and easy birdwatching Taylor Head (Nova Scotia Bird Society)

July 19 - Full moon known as Thunder Moon, also Buck and Hay Moon.

July 23 - Neptune occulted (covered) by moon. Start looking after 1 a.m. Optical aid needed. 

July 26 - Last-quarter moon

Every Friday - Burke-Gaffney Observatory open houses

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This article was originally published at www.localxpress.ca. 

Planets in focus: Secrets of an astrophographer

Astrophotographer Art Cole stands next to his Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope at his Hammonds Plains home. (JOHN McPHEE)

Astrophotographer Art Cole stands next to his Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope at his Hammonds Plains home. (JOHN McPHEE)

When Art Cole started out in astronomy, he used a 20mm plastic refractor telescope to explore the skies.

“It was basically garbage but you could look at the moon with it and that’s pretty cool if you’re a kid,” Cole told me during a chat at his home in Hammonds Plains.

Several decades later, he’s still captivated by the moon, as well as the planets and deep sky objects such as nebulae and galaxies.

SEE ALSO: Skylights

Of course, the equipment he uses has moved up several notches on the cool scale since his observing days as a child in Lower Sackville. Cole’s setup includes an eight-inch Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, an 80mm Orion refractor, two DSLRs (Canon 7d Mark II and Canon T3i) and an array of photo-processing software programs.

As the cameras and processing wizardry indicate, Cole’s specialty is astrophotography, which is why I ended up in his living room sipping tea and munching cookies under the watchful eye of the family dog Romeo.

As a fellow member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, I’ve come to admire his work on planets such as Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, as well as deep sky targets such as the Orion Nebula and the Andromeda Galaxy. (Check out his Flickr page here).

Cole and other RASC astrophotographers such as Blair MacDonald and Jeff Donaldson produce amazing celestial portraits full of detail and colour.

I wanted to talk about Cole’s planetary photography techniques in particular because Mars (in the constellation Scorpius) and Saturn (in Ophiuchus) are rising into view in the evening southeast.

While Saturn and its famous ring system is a perennial favourite of astrophotographers, Mars’ disc is often too small to capture details of polar ice caps and vast lava plains. ButMars is closer to Earth than it’s been for 13 years so many planetary specialists are turning their camera-laden telescopes toward the Red Planet this time around.

So how does Cole get those sharp, detail-filled planetary shots? The short explanation is, don’t take photos, take video. And be prepared to spend a lot of time with those photo-processing programs.

Cole explains.

“If you’re looking through a telescope at an object, they’re blurry and all of a sudden, boom, you can see the Great Red Spot (on Jupiter). Or if you’re looking at Mars, boom, you can see the polar ice cap and other features and all of a sudden it disappears again.”

That inconsistency is caused by atmospheric turbulence. When the atmosphere is calmer, that’s known as a night of good "seeing."

“The idea behind video astrophotography is, you’re capturing an incredible amount of frames. ... I usually capture about 30 frames per second with my gear. ...  Most of those frames are going to be in moments of poor seeing when the planet’s blurry and you’ll never get any detail. Whereas a certain percentage of them will be moments of good seeing. The planetary imaging details will be nice and sharp.”

That’s where the processing software comes in.  

He recommends a popular, and free, software program called Registax. He also uses PIPP, which stands for Planetary Image Pre Processor.

“It goes through your video, every single frame. It determines whether or not they’re blurry or they’re sharp. And it will re-order them from best to worst. And you can say, I want to keep the best 10 per cent or 25 per cent or whatever.

“If you have really, really good seeing, you might keep 80 per cent of the frames. With poor seeing, you might keep 10 per cent. But usually I keep around 25 per cent, that’s OK. In the end, you wind up with a much shorter video with much better frames in it.”

 But wait, there’s more — processing, that is.

Because it’s video and the exposures are short, they tend to be very grainy: there’s a lot of “noise” from the camera. As well, the image of the planet will jump around in the video because the wind slightly nudged your telescope or your tracking drifted a bit.

Registax and PIPP can be used to align the frames so the planet remains in the same spot and reduce the noise.  

For the finishing touches, such as bringing out the details in the image, you guessed it. More processing! Cole favours Images Plus, although other programs such as Photoshop can be used.

Cole offered a few other tips to budding astrophotographers:

  • Use the gear you have (if you have it.) Don't spend money on expensive new gear until you've mastered what you have. 
  • Learn the ins and outs of your processing software. You can work miracles out of digital data if you understand what digital processing tools you have at your disposal. 
  • Be creative in your processing techniques and try out lots of new ideas.
  • Learn from other people to find out how they create their images. The Internet can be helpful too, but beware  much of the information in online discussion forms can be misleading or just plain wrong. 

Cole’s grasp of the technical aspects of astrophotography comes naturally. He’s an engineer for JASCO Applied Sciences, an underwater acoustics company that measures the exact amount and impact of sound for environmental reviews of offshore and other projects.

He’s also worked as a systems engineer at MDA Corporation, a communications company that specializes in satellite technology and robotics. MDA’s projects have included the Canadarm on the International Space Station and the Earth observation satellites RADARSAT-1 and 2.

“I’ve always been interested in all kinds of sciences — biology, physics, math, astronomy, the whole thing,” Cole said. “I used to read encyclopedias for fun when I was a kid!” (Courtesy of his mom, who bought an entire set from a door-to-door salesman.) 

Not surprisingly, he’s put his engineering and design skills to good use as an astrophotographer. He designed his own bracket (see photo above) to attach his iPhone to his telescope, which in fact sparked his interest in astrophotography several years ago. He wrote an article for Sky and Telescope's February 2013 issue about the project, which in turn led to an invitation from Mount Wilson observatory near Los Angeles to experiment with the iPhone bracket on the venerable 60-inch telescope.

Besides possible upgrades in equipment (“there’s always the appeal of better cameras”), Cole doesn’t foresee any big changes in how he captures his celestial portraits.

When he started out in astrophotography, he figured he’d be able to image three deep-sky objects a night. Not so much.

“You might do three nights per object. At this rate, I’m never going to run out of stuff to take pictures of. I just really enjoy it.”

This article was originally published on the Local Xpress news website. (www.localxpress.ca

Finding light in the darkness

A little light painting can help pass the time during a long exposure of the night sky. (JOHN McPHEE)

The constellation Orion is sinking in the west and Lyra is rising on the other side of the sky.

I’m driving as slowly as possible to avoid breaking an axle on this obstacle course of bumps and potholes, otherwise known as a road. 

It’s cold but not so cold that I have to don long undies and heavy duty footwear to prepare for an evening of stargazing. 

Yes, it’s springtime in Nova Scotia.

The dirt road that’s giving my aging car such a hard time leads to an observing site owned by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (Halifax Centre). Since we moved to the city five years ago, it’s been my go-to observing site when I want to see fainter objects than planets or the moon. 

While secluded enough for decent dark sky observing, it’s a fairly quick drive from Halifax.  (That’s about all I’ll say on that score because the society prefers to keep its specific location under wraps for security reasons.)

If you’ve been a member for long enough and have been given a rundown on site operations, you get a key that gets you past the locked gate.

Quick, raise your hand if you’re good at not losing things like keys. Not so fast, McPhee. 

No problem. I’ll just heave my Orion Dobsonian telescope, camera gear and observing chair over the gate and forgo the comforts of the warm-up room. One thing about astronomy as a hobby, you learn how to lug things around in the darkness. (Pro tip: Get a good headlamp with a red-filter option to keep your eyes dark-adapted and your hands free for the lugging. Mine is a Petzl Tikka XP. ) 

Usually I don’t have to jump the gate because other key-carrying members are around. But there’s a moon tonight and even though it will set quickly, observers usually wait for moonless nights. Fainter objects such as galaxies and nebulae are washed out even when the moon is not full, like tonight. 

As it turns out, that crescent moon is one of my photo targets. The bright reddish star Aldebaran will be very close by, known in the business as a conjunction. Usually these events involve the moon and planets, but sometimes a star that lies on the ecliptic (the path in the sky followed by the moon, sun and planets) steps up for a conjunction photo-op.

The star Aldebaran is seen in conjunction with the crescent moon on April 10.  (JOHN McPHEE) 

After the moon sets and true dark sets in, I’ll point my camera and telescope toward Leo and Virgo to do some galaxy hunting

But mostly I’ll just sit back in the darkness and soak up the silence. In these parts, the quiet is often punctuated by hoots of barred owls and howls of eastern coyotes. Even better. 

If I’m to remain a respectable member of society, I must escape it on a regular basis. Halifax may be a small city but it’s got more than enough concrete, noise and people for my comfort level.  

The urge to escape has been more intense than usual lately. I and over 50 other newsroom staffers have been on strike from a certain Halifax newspaper for about 100 days now. It’s been an incredibly stressful and uncertain time for us and our families.

I’ve never been a glass-half-full guy. If you’re looking for somebody with a sharp eye for the downside, I’m your man. But in the cesspool of negativity that constitutes a bitter strike, you’ve got to hang on to the positive things. 

For me,  it’s hearing, “Come over here, Poppa,” from a twinkle eyed two-year-old beckoning me to the sofa to watch The Wiggles.

It’s the amazing support we’ve received from other unions or from strangers who drop by the picket line with coffee, gift cards or simply words of encouragement.

It's that warm feeling when you've nailed Famous Blue Raincoat, even after your third glass of wine. 

It's my spouse's laugh. Kathy's got a great laugh. 

And it’s nights like this one under the starlit sky.  I’m alone in the dark but hey, I’ve got my fancy headlamp. All’s well. 


Spring ahead to the vernal equinox

THE SUN SETS OVER KEJIMKUJIK LAKE IN NOVA SCOTIA. THE SUN WILL CROSS THE CELESTIAL EQUATOR INTO THE NORTHERN HEMISPHERE ON MARCH 20 AT 1:30 A.M., MARKING THE BEGINNING OF SPRING. (JOHN MCPHEE)

While the bright constellations of winter depart the celestial stage, the star that gives us life will also make a noteworthy transition this month. 

The sun will cross the celestial equator from the southern hemisphere to the northern half on March 20 at 1:30 a.m. ADT - the vernal equinox

Of course, the sun isn't actually moving - we are. As the Earth zips around our home star, different parts of the planet get more or less sunlight at various points in that orbit.

SEE ALSO: March skylights

That's because the Earth's spin is a little crooked - it's tilted 23.5 degrees compared to the plane of our orbit. 

From late March onward, we northerners get the benefit of the tilt, while the sunlight begins to fall more directly on the southern hemisphere in September. 

Earth isn't the only off-kilter planet in our system. On the extreme end is the cold gas giant Uranus, which rotates virtually sideways in space at 82 degrees, according to NASA's website on weather in the solar system. 

But another gas giant, Jupiter, is tilted only three degrees. And Jupiter's spin isn't only super straight, it's super fast.  The planet whirls around so quickly that its poles are slightly flattened.

Jupiter has moved into prime viewing position in the evening sky this month, after being part of the planetary party at dawn last month. It's high in the southeast by 10 p.m. in Nova Scotia in the constellation Leo.

Even a small telescope will reveal the faint cloud bands that wrap around this gas giant. You’ll also notice dots of light around the planet, which are Jupiter’s largest moons. 

I took this photo on Feb. 23,  2016, when all four of Jupiter's Galilean moons were visible. 

You’ll often see all four of the “Galilean” moons Callisto, Io, Europa and Ganymede, which are named after the Italian astronomer who first saw them in his crude 8x telescope in either December 1609 or January 1610.

Turning our gaze out beyond our solar system, we see the changing of the guard from the winter showpieces of Orion, Canis Major and Taurus to the more subtle spring constellations.

Leo the Lion leads the charge in the east ‐ this rather faint constellation is easier to locate than usual. As noted above, this month it encompasses the planet Jupiter, the third brightest object in the night sky after the moon and Venus.   Above Jupiter is the brightest star in Leo, the blue‐white Regulus, which marks the bottom of the constellation's trademark reverse question‐mark.

The much brighter Arcturus marks the otherwise dim constellation Bootes (buh‐OH‐teez) to the east of Leo. When you see this striking rusty star rise in the evening, you know winter's days are numbered. 

 

King of the planets rising

There’s lots to admire about the planet Jupiter, which rises in the evening in late January into February.

It’s the largest body in the solar system, besides the sun of course. About 1,321 Earths could fit within its sphere.

A celestial body this size creates huge gravitational field in space. Its effects reach all the way to our planet from 778 million kilometres away, which can be a good thing. Asteroids and comets headed for the Earth can be deflected out of harm’s way.

On the other hand, this immense gravitational slingshot can fling objects toward us. It all depends from what part of the solar system the comet or asteroid originates

Mars at top left, Jupiter below with nicely arrayed line of moons (bottom up) Callisto, Ganymede, Europe and Io. The star to the far left is HIP54057. I shot this  last year through my old Meade refractor. (JOHN MCPHEE) 

Besides the grandeur of the planet itself, Jupiter’s array of moons is unparalleled in our system. At last count, 67 bodies were known to orbit the planet.

The four largest  - Callisto, Io, Europa and Ganymede - are known as the Galilean moons, after the Italian astronomer who first documented them using his rudimentary telescope.

Over 400 years later, they remain a favourite target of astronomical observers. In typical backyard telescopes and good quality binoculars, they appear as specks of light lined up on one or both sides of the planet. Sometimes  the moons and/or their shadows can be seen slowly crossing Jupiter's disc, known as transits.  You’ll need a telescope that has a lens or mirror at least 90 millimetres in diameter to observe these events. 

Usually only one moon or one shadow can be seen at a time but occasionally two are visible. Much rarer, usually only once or twice a decade, is a triple transit. Check out Sky and Telescope's calendar of Jovian moon events here

Jupiter is the only planet that's prominent in the evening this month. But early birds can catch the sight of all five naked eye planets. From east to west, Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter will span the sky at dawn. Mercury will be the toughest to spot low in the east because it's relatively dim and closest to the sun. But this plenitude of planets hasn't happened for a decade so get up early and enjoy the show. 

October skies

As the days get shorter and colder, the night sky offers a refuge of things bright and beautiful. And in October, we get a few bonuses as the seasons turn - at least for stargazers willing to lose a little sleep.

After midnight, the glittering constellations of Orion the Hunter and Gemini are rising in the east, while the Summer Triangle of the stars Altair, Deneb and Vega are hanging on for dear life in the west.

The cusp of the seasons is a good time to compare the brightness of stars that make up the constellations.

Orion's appearance is always a mixed blessing - if the Hunter is coming up, the temperatures are going down. But on the bright side, excuse the pun, this is an extraordinary group of stars.

That's obvious when you turn from Orion to look overhead or to the west in late-night October. Most constellations have only one or two bright stars: you usually have to work to connect the dots with the dimmer remainder.

I can remember risking a neck strain trying to make out the six stars of the Northern Cross, officially known as Cygnus the Swan. This constellation straddles the Milky Way with its brightest, or alpha, star Deneb at the top of the cross.

Cygnus is now a familiar sight after years of exploring its treasures, such as the gold and blue double-star Albireo at the foot of the cross.

Then there's Orion. The brightness, or magnitude, of many of its stars are in the 0 to 2 range. That might not sound all that impressive. But under the magnitude system - which was created 2,000 years ago by the Greek astronomer Hipparchus and tuned up by the English astronomer Norman Pogson in the 1800s - the lower the number, the brighter the star.

In fact, really bright objects such as Venus, the full Moon and, of course, the Sun, go into the negative at -4, -13 and -26 magnitudes respectively.

The other constellation that stands out as we scan the late-night October sky is Ursa Major or Great Bear, which prowls the northern regions.

Ursa Major boasts a number of second- and third-magnitude stars, which come together in the famous Big Dipper group.

So for the dedicated night owls out there, it's a rewarding time of year.

But there's lots to see at a more civilized hour. For example, the royal couple of autumn holds court in the northeast. Queen Cassiopeia (cass-ee-oh-PEE-uh) and the king Cepheus (SEE-fee-us) reign in the eastern wing of the Milky Way, which is studded with star clusters.

The big draw in this region is the Double Cluster, which technically is in the constellation Perseus. However, I find that two stars in Cassiopeia act as a handy pointer to this beautiful pair of star clusters, located about 7,500 light-years away from Earth.

In dark skies with the naked eye, the Double Cluster looks like a couple of dim, fuzzy stars. But through binoculars, the clusters break down into glittering splashes of stars that easily fit into one binocular field.

To find them, locate the slanted W of Cassiopeia. The central star in the W and the dimmer star below and to the left point toward Perseus. The Double Cluster lies in this direction about halfway to Perseus. (See star chart.)

Another nearby cluster, called M52, boasts more than 100 stars. It can be found between Cassiopeia (its top two stars point toward the cluster) and the house-shaped and relatively dim constellation of Cepheus.

Turning to the south, the skies in this direction look pretty desolate in late-evening October, after Sagittarius and Scorpius dip below the horizon. Shining a little light into the gloom is the first-magnitude star Fomalhaut (FO-mal-owt) which reaches its highest point in the south this month. At a distance of 22 light-years, it's one of our closer neighbours in space.

If you like stuff that moves, two meteor showers are coming up. The Orionids (Oct.21/22 ) and Northern Taurids (Nov. 11/ 12) aren't big events, producing about 10 to 25 meteors an hour. But both showers have been known to feature bright meteors and even fireballs.

For the Orionids, the first-quarter moon will wash out some meteors by the time it sets at 1:28 a.m. on Oct. 22. But the hardcore meteor watchers will still be up -  the peak of the show occurs from one to two hours before dawn. 

 

Ancient names in the sky

THE LITTLE DIPPER AS SEEN FROM PEI, CANADA

THE LITTLE DIPPER AS SEEN FROM PEI, CANADA

About 10,000 years ago, skywatchers in the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia, were the first to put names to what they saw in the heavens.

And they came up with some great ones: Zubenelgenubi. Unukalhai. Rasalhague.

The stars that inspired these names were more than just pretty things to look at for the ancient Arabs. Since agriculture was crucial to the civilization in what's now Iraq, the stars that accompanied the changing seasons helped mark the best time to sow and to reap.

SEE ALSO: Skylights for May

Many of the names they gave the stars have survived the ages.  The star that gets my vote for best name, Zubenelgenubi (zoo-BEN-el-ja-NOO-bee), is found in the constellation Libra. (Look to the right of the waning gibbous moon after midnight on April 7).

Zubenelgenubi can be found at the western corner of the triangle formed by Libra's brighter stars. To find this faint constellation, look between the bright stars Antares low in the south and Arcturus, higher and to the west.  

If you've got sharp eyesight, and are away from city lights, you'll notice that Zubenelgenubi has a much fainter companion. The pair, which is likely a true double-star related in space about 77 light-years away, gets more interesting in binoculars or a wide-field telescope. You can see a striking contrast between the blue main star and the whitish (some observers say it's yellow) companion.

Another celestial tongue-twister, Unukulhai (uh-NOO-kul-lye), can be seen in small, dim constellation above and to the east of Libra. Unukalhai is the only star that stands out in Serpens Caput, the Neck of the Snake. It's also a multiple-star system but its two other companions aren't visible.

Not just any star 

Look to the opposite side of the sky to find another star whose name dates back through the millennia. It's easier one to pronounce, Kochab (KO-cab), which may come from al-kawkab, Arabic for "the star." According to good old Wikipedia, this singular name may refer to the fact Kochab was close to the northern pole at about 1,100 B.C. (It's the star in the image above at the bottom left of the Little Dipper bowl. Polaris is the star at the end of the dipper's handle.)  

For us, of course, another star has that distinction. All stars in the sky appear to revolve around Polaris, the North Star, because now it's located directly above the Earth's northern axis.

You can easily track this motion by watching the Little Dipper through the night, as Kochab and the other Dipper stars swing around steadfast Polaris.

The Dipper's appearance can be predicted from month to month as well. On April evenings,  Kochab can be seen at about the 3 o'clock position, if Polaris were the centre of the clock.

You'll probably notice Kochab before you see Polaris, even though Kochab is slightly dimmer. It has a distinctive orange hue that really jumps out in binoculars or a scope. Kochab is an impressive star by any measure - it's 500 times brighter and 50 times the size of our sun.

The Hunter ascendent

Orion the Hunter has risen into view above the city skyline on this frosty late November night.

That’s no small feat given the light pollution that blights the sky above that cityscape. Even on the clearest and most transparent nights, all but the brightest stars are dimmed by the ever-expanding orange washout that comes with urbanization.

Luckily, the winter constellations such as Orion and Canis Major boast some of those stellar beacons.  

It’s particularly easy to track down the Hunter, mainly because of the diagonal trio of stars that make up his belt. (The photo above shows a dark sky view with Orion at upper right and Canis Major to the left). 

Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka (from bottom up) appear to line up neatly to hold up the Hunter’s pants. In fact, these stars are dozens and hundreds of light-years away from each other in space.

If you look above Orion in December's evening skies, two bright stars might catch your eye, one red and the other blazing yellow.

Let's begin with the brighter of the pair, the yellow star Capella. This is the brightest star nearest the northern celestial pole, so it's visible every night at some time in our latitude. Capella, the fifth-brightest star in the northern night sky, is quite similar to the sun, except for its huge size. It's the alpha star of the constellation Auriga (oh-RYE-guh), which contains some interesting sights for binocular and telescope observers.

Its main attractions are three open star clusters, M36, M37 and M38. It's rare to have so many bright clusters in one constellation, especially in the relatively sparse winter skies.

In summer, the Milky Way, particularly around Sagittarius, fairly bursts with open and globular clusters.

You don't have to look far from Auriga to find more clusters high in the December sky. That red star I mentioned would be Aldebaran (al-DEB-uh-ran), a supergiant that marks the spot for the huge open cluster, the Hyades (HY-uh-deez). Aldebaran is not actually part of the V-shaped cluster; it lies only 68 light-years from Earth, while the cluster is 150 light-years away.

The Hyades contains about 200 stars and it's a spectacular sight in binoculars, covering too much of the sky to be easily viewed in a telescope.

Another must-see for binocular observers is M45, also known as the Pleiades (PLEE-uh-deez). There's nothing else like it in northern skies. This open cluster is small enough to present a stunning sight when using low-power views in a telescope. But it's big enough to be easily visible to the naked eye; it's claimed that people with excellent eyesight can see six or even seven of the cluster's brightest stars. No problem seeing those stars with binoculars - the cluster fits easily in most binocular fields. Your neck will probably give out before you want to move on from this celestial jewel box.

You can put away your binoculars and still enjoy another highlight of the winter sky.  The constellation Perseus (PURR-see-us) rewards you with a glittering ladder of stars that climbs toward the zenith in mid-evening. Look just to the east of M45 to find this much larger celestial group. 

You can give your neck a rest and look low in the east to find the brightest planet in the evening sky this month, Jupiter. This largest of the planets (and second brightest after Venus) rises after 10:30 p.m. in November.

If you’re up with the birds, you’ll see the ringed planet  Saturn (but you’ll need a small telescope to see those rings). It rises just before the sun in the southeast in November and later as the winter really takes hold. 

Springing into the night sky

 

I'm dreaming of the mountains, where the children learn the stars. Rexroth's Daughter, Greg Brown

 

IN THIS light-polluted, screen-obsessed time, learning the stars probably doesn't rank high on many to-do lists. That's too bad. It's really not that difficult to develop at least a passing acquaintance with the universe around us.

And it's free, at least before you get hooked enough to start buying equipment. Once you get a feel for the patterns and motions of the stars, you get a new appreciation for how our planet fits into the scheme of things.

There's a lot of talk about reality this and reality that, these days. Well, turn off the TV, step outside on a clear night and there's a beautiful reality for you. It's home. We're hitching a ride on a hunk of rock circling a huge nuclear furnace, our sun, which is a pretty ordinary star among the 400 billion or so that make up our Milky Way galaxy alone.

This is a good time of year for getting to know our cosmic neighbourhood - at some point, surely, we'll enjoy real spring temperatures, before the invasion of the insect world has yet to begin.

Celestial guidebooks

Before you venture out under the stars, make sure you spend some time indoors with some good guidebooks. I have sung the praises of Nightwatch (Firefly Books) before in this space, and I may as well repeat the chorus. Canadian astronomer Terence Dickinson offers an appealing, informative source of information for the beginning and intermediate stargazer.

A couple of Firefly publications may help as well. These are lower-cost alternatives to larger format tomes such as Nightwatch. Practical astronomy: A Beginner's Guide to the Night Sky, by Storm Dunlop, covers the whole gamut of amateur astronomy, while the title of the Moon Observer's Guide, by Peter Grego, explains its purpose.

Both publications have their good points, which I'll get to, but let's get the quibbles over with first. With any guidebook, I want to know the background and expertise of the author. Strangely, the books offer no information at all about Dunlop or Grego. Both are based in Britain, and a Google search revealed they are prolific writers and members of the astronomical community.

Dunlop's book calls itself a beginner's guide but doesn't pitch itself to the younger reader, and that's probably a smart move.

Only young adults and older readers who have a serious interest in the hobby would likely get through this book: Dunlop offers a lot of information here.

But it's almost too much of a good thing. This compact volume is stuffed with graphics, sidebars and illustrations. There are no obvious divisions of content, so everything tends to run together.

But if you are intent on absorbing as much as possible about this hobby, this is a reasonably priced, valuable volume. I particularly like Practical Astronomy's mini-tables of contents that direct the reader to pages within a section that refer to more specific observing topics.

I'm also impressed with the Moon Observer's Guide. Like many such volumes, it's organized by lunar days - that is, the first day after new moon, Day 2 and so on. Each section includes a map of that particular slice of moon, accompanied by descriptions of the craters, "seas" and other lunar sights to be seen during that phase.

Grego also gives tips on instruments best suited for observing the moon, as well as pointers on photography, videography and drawing your observations. The final chapters offer a glossary of terms and information on eclipses and exploration programs such as Apollo.

Under the dome

If you've yet to delve into the bookstore, buy a magazine such as the Canadian publication Sky News or Sky and Telescope from the United States. These magazines have simple star charts so you can begin orienting yourself under the celestial bowl.

Hold the star chart at about chest level and face south. Turn the chart so that south is at bottom - this way the chart accurately reflects the orientation of the stars when you look up.

As I've mentioned before, star charts can be tricky and take a bit of mental gymnastics. For example, the southern horizon as represented on our chart may look like it should be behind you, when that direction is oriented at bottom. But remember that's the direction you're facing - the sky is like an inverted bowl, so the usual terrestrial map orientations don't work.

So give it a try on the next clear night. Look south. If you have a clear view of the horizon, you will see the star Spica (SPIKE-uh). As your chart should indicate, this star is in the faint constellation Virgo. Spica stands out, because it's one of our brightest stars and it's located in a sparse section of sky.

Look higher in the sky and to the left for another bright star, Arcturus (arc-TOUR-us), in the kite-shaped constellation Bootes (buh-OH-teez), the Herdsman. 

The most recent maps also should include the planets, at least the ones visible at about 10 p.m. You'll have plenty of opportunity to spot a planet this summer.

Let's start with the ringed jewel of the solar system, Saturn, which will put on a great show this summer as it climbs higher in the sky.  Go back to Spica in the south.  Look below it and to the left for Saturn, a pale yellowish orb that is slightly brighter than the blue Spica. 

Turn your gaze above and slightly right of Spica to find a closer solar system neighbour, Mars. The Red Planet, which has more of a subdued rusty hue to the naked eye, is making one of its closer approaches to Earth. 

Now turn around and face the west. You’ll find Jupiter, the largest planet, closing out its winter apparition in the west. Later this month in the west after sunset, tiny Mercury (it's only slightly larger than our moon) will put on a good show.  This sun-hugging planet is always relatively low in the west at dusk or in the east at dawn. But this time around it will climb high enough for a good view, particularly on May 30-31 when a very thin crescent moon will appear to the left of this little rocky world. 

Solitary

 

It’s late October and evening is falling on the woods of Kejimkujik National Park.

A pot of water bubbles away on my campfire. In a few minutes, I’ll dump the contents of my Harvest Works pasta primavera into the pot and wait the prescribed 10 to 12 minutes for my dinner to rehydrate.

The stars begin to materialize above the canopy of hemlock and birch. There’s good old Vega, the bluish-white beacon of the summer night sky. Vega has started its autumn descent but remains high in the west.   The stars are welcome company as the light drains from the sky. It can be an unsettling feeling when you’re alone among the deepening shadows of the backcountry.

I came out here seeking solitude and I’ve got it in spades. The nearest campsite on land (as opposed to the lake island sites)  is about 10 kilometres away. And anyway, there aren’t many other campers around as far as I can tell.  It’s midweek in the off-season, after all.

I spend a couple of days at a backcountry site once or twice a year. It’s a ritual that my spouse at once admires and dreads. She worries that I’ll chop my hand off cutting wood or fall into a lake. She knows me well - these are not unreasonable fears.

 And while I’m certainly in shape, I’m not going to register for a marathon anytime soon. But I can handle a loaded backpack for the six kilometres it takes to reach Yurt 1 near Peskowesk Lake. The yurt, a hexagonal metal frame covered in thick canvas, provides a little more peace of mind than my 1980s-era tent.

I always have a cellphone in my shirt pocket and a whistle around my neck. Cellphone reception can be dodgy in the park but you can usually pull in a bar or two on the 3G register. The whistle is recommended in place of wearing out your throat yelling for help in the event of trouble. I usually envision using it in a confrontation with a snarling black bear or coyote. (As if an annoying shrill noise would deter an animal intent on having me for dinner.)

Such are the thoughts that pass through a nervous mind in the darkness. Balancing out the primal fears in my monkey brain is the joy of silence. Halifax is a small city, hardly a bustling metropolis.  But a brief escape from the noise, concrete and humanity is good for my soul.

I lack the filter that handles external stimuli most folks appear to possess. I have a hard time focusing on one conversation in a crowded room. And loud noises - well, let’s just say I always avoid walking near the Citadel at noon.

So the silence and solitude may be a bit spooky. But my pasta is taking on a vaguely familiar form in the pot. The stars are lovely. And I’ve got Eleanor Wachtel for company on my iPhone.

Time for dinner in the woods.

 

 

 

Finding stillness

Keeping still isn't easy out here in the world.  

Just try it. If you stand still long enough in public, even in a park like this in the middle of the city, odds are you'll get a visit from the local security forces.

"What are you doing, sir?"

"Just. keeping still, officer."

Likely that won't be a satisfactory answer and more questions, at the least, will follow. But today, as is the case on most days, there's a camera in my hands. It's like a magic talisman that keeps questions at bay.

"What are you doing, sir?

"Taking photos of birds, officer."

"Oh. OK."

So it's acceptable to just to stand here in the relative silence of this less-trodden part of Point Pleasant Park and .... wait.

What I'm waiting for is a common yellowthroat, a visually striking little warbler that resembles a masked bandit with its band of black around the eyes. I heard its distinct  'witchety-witchety" call as I walked by and I may have spotted him flickering through the bushes.

I keep still, camera on and with the proper bird-friendly settings. I study the small slice of the wooded world in front of me and open myself up to it, alert to any movement or sound in the shadowy underbrush. After a bit, I realize I'm enjoying the moment just as much as I might enjoy getting a shot of the yellowthroat.

Too often, even in the real woods, not the reasonable facsimile of the urban park, I see a bird or snake or deer, and the urge to record and crystallize the moment overtakes the moment itself. I want the photo NOW. 

It's not a natural skill for me, keeping still. I'm the guy whose legs are jittery and bouncy beneath the desk at the office. I'm impatient for that red to change to green, dammit, I've got places to be, not here at the traffic lights where we supposedly spend an average six months of our lives. 

So I've learned to appreciate the times like these when I will myself to become part of the scenery and simply stop.

No yellowthroat. Too bad. The only shot of one I've taken is pretty weak.

So the only documentation will be these words and the memory of stillness on a summer day. That will do. 

 

Welcome back

The song sparrows have returned to Point Pleasant Park. This guy was quite co-operative as I snapped shots from about three metres away on April 4, 2013. This isn't unusual - I've found they are content to let you linger close by as they belt out their mating message. He had lots of competition that day as he traded melodies with at least two other males in the vicinity.

 It always lifts the heart to hear the song sparrow's melodic serenade for the first time in the spring. These chubby, dishevelled-looking passerines often return to their northern breeding grounds when there is still snow on the ground, as early as mid-March. 

A few hardier specimens spend the winter in Nova Scotia, as well as Ontario and other parts of southern Canada. But most escape the cold in the southern United States. They can be found as far north as the Aleutian Islands in breeding season.

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Identification please

The wood chips are flying on this blustery early spring day in Point Pleasant Park.

No, the park crews aren't taking down trees in this precious green space in south-end Halifax. The workers are, in fact, hard at it widening drainage ditches along the park roads in preparation for the spring rains.

The only woodworker in sight is of the avian kind. A hairy woodpecker is earning his lunch of insects and other delicacies on a tree trunk in the southern-most tip of the park near the shore. I've watched a lot of woodpeckers at their task over the years and every time, their tenacity and resilience amazes me.

Most woodpeckers aren't hardy looking types - (the glaring exception being the outrageous pileated woodpecker). But what they lack in size and muscle, they more than make up for it in work ethic. This hairy is is aware of me and I'm creeping up pretty close camera in hand, but he continues to hammer away at the bark.

When I posted my shots of this guy on the Nova Scotia Bird Society's Facebook page, I called it a downy woodpecker. BUZZZZZZ. Wrong answer. I was quickly made aware of the error of my ways (most politely) by one of the many experienced birders. The hairy and downy are very similar in plumage with their black and white bodies and red caps. But the hairy is a bit heftier and has a longer beak, which I did know but missed with this specimen.

What's in a name?

Despite the daily and disturbing loss of species - whether naturally occurring or as a result of human activity - the variety of different animals and plants in the natural world is mind-boggling.   And I'd really enjoy being able to quickly ascertain the type and genus of everything I come upon.

But to call me less than visually perceptive would be giving myself credit. Some people can quickly make the connection in their head with plumage patterns, colour and body shape and voila, "That's a northern three-toed woodpecker, not a black-backed woodpecker." I'd be still fumbling through my Petersen guide long after many birders had identified and moved on.

 My auditory memory is more reliable. Perhaps because I've got decent musical pitch, I can pin down a bird song fairly quickly, even if it's distant and I only hear it once. But unfortunately most things in nature don't sing - so the tree that hairy woodpecker was exploring was also a mystery to me when I started writing and wanted to add that detail.

Now that's more a matter of being more excited about the bird (or insect or whatever)  and not taking the time to note the context, which is just as important. If I'd stopped, taken a good look at the tree and took some notes and detailed photos, likely I could have pinned it down.

Alas, I had to turn once again to my online support community and as usual, I was impressed by the depth of knowledge among nature lovers in Nova Scotia. Just from a Google map photo, a bird society member was able to talk in detail about the possibilities.

He did immediately identify the general species, which I truly wish was some obscure park variety. Sigh. A maple. Yes, one that has been extensively pruned and the leaves were in curling winter mode but still, a maple! Either sugar or red. 

Now Googling "how to improve your visual observation skills in 10 easy steps"....

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Just ducky

“Tufted duck! Tufted duck!”

The urgent call rings out just as our group had crossed a busy road in Eastern Passage, Nova Scotia, planning to warm up with a cuppa at a nearby Tim Horton’s.

We draw some curious looks from the occupants of passing cars, outfitted as we are with binoculars, cameras and spotting scopes.

We dutifully make our way carefully back to cove shoreline and start scanning  for the unusual specimen. The tufted duck is usually found only  in Europe and Asia but it’s been spotted more frequently in North America (according to my Roger Tory Petersen guide.)

The defining characteristic of this small black and white diving duck is a tuft of feathers that curves downward from its head.

The observer who identified the duck and called us back, Clarence Stevens Jr., tries to narrow down its location among the mass of birds offshore to the rest of the group. An expert birder, he’s the author of the Birding in Metro Halifax.

As for me, I wouldn’t know a tufted duck if it walked up and introduced itself.  But I try to track it down in my 10 by 50 binoculars and yes, maybe that one has the tell-tale crest. Hmm, then again maybe not....

Sewer strolling

I’m taking part in what the Nova Scotia Bird Society calls a “sewer stroll” on a blustery winter day. No, we’re not getting a tour of the municipal sanitation system. The facetious name refers to the fact winter ducks, gulls and alcids (duck-like birds such as razorbills)  often congregate near sewer outflows to grab some dinner.

Sewage, it turns out, is quite the delicacy for fish. And they must come close to the surface to nibble away, making them easy pickings for the water birds.

By the end of the morning, we had spotted many of the duck species that frequent Halifax Harbour, including red-breasted mergansers (with their signature punk hairstyle), common eiders, bufflehead, goldeneye and of course, the ubiquitous mallard.

Besides the tufted duck, some of the more unusual finds were dovekies, a cute little diving bird in the alcid family, snow geese, one very rare Ross’s goose and Eurasian wigeon at Sullivan’s Pond

The expedition included several sightings of unusual land birds, such as a lovely northern mockingbird on a lane in Eastern Passage.

Just ducky

But it was the incredible variety of sea birds that stuck in my mind after the trip. My exploration of the birding universe has mostly involved land birds, particularly the many varieties of warblers that grace our province from spring to fall.

You can get up close and personal with a warbler, if you’re lucky. Not so with sea birds and maybe that’s part of the attraction - they have an aura of mystery has they live out their lives in the watery world offshore.

That also creates some frustration, obviously, for the folks trying to observe them. But when they venture close enough to shore, ducks make much more co-operative photographic subjects than the flitting behaviour of perching birds on land.

Photography has become a big part of my ventures into the natural world, whether it’s the daytime exploration of the bird world or observing the equally varied sights of the nighttime sky.

When it comes to water bird photography, two words sum up the first priority: big lens. Even when sea birds are helpful enough to come closer to shore, you’ll need magnification to capture any kind of detail.

While today’s image stabilized lenses make it much easier to get a decent hand-held shot, the other crucial tool of the bird photographer is a tripod. I’ve found that images taken on a mounted camera, particularly using a “live view” screen for focusing, are much sharper.

My tripod does the job but I’ve found that my 250mm lens doesn’t quite cut it.  So it’s into the bank account I go for a longer lens, something in the 400mm range.

As if my geek factor wasn’t already apparent, I’ll remove all doubt by saying I’m really excited at the prospect of filling the frame with one bird.

Now to find a map of the local sewers....


Back roads and celestial highways

C’mon now child, we’re gonna go for a ride
Car wheels on a gravel road.
Lucinda Williams

One of my favourite sounds is that first crunch of dirt when you move from pavement to a country road.
Dirt roads take you to places where you’re bound to find silence and trees, lakes dotted by pickerel weed, the ghostly path of the Milky Way. 
Nova Scotia has some great dirt roads. They may be paved by now but I remember watching the dust trails behind the car as we drove to our cabin near Gillis Lake in Cape Breton. In my mind, a drive in the car was synonymous with  a stop at one store or another. So my Gillis Lake memories come with the  taste of lime rickey and potato chips. (Total cost: 25 cents).

Back road rambling
When we moved from Cape Breton to the mainland, I was introduced to the hilly north-south roads of the Annapolis Valley. Most of them are paved but there are still a lot of good old gravel roads that take you from the lowlands to the Fundy shore.
Then there’s the logging roads that are now connecting routes and walking trails at  Kejimkujik National Park.
(Let me pause here to express my bitterness that I won’t be able to traverse those Keji roads once the snow flies, thanks to federal budget cuts. There will be no services and no access through the park's main entrance road , effectively turning Keji into a summer only recreation area. And yes, I've let my political representatives know exactly how I feel about that.)
I don't know of any place that rivals P.E.I. when it comes to non-paved vehicular transit.  If you want to move from Point A to Point B on the island, it's hard to avoid those wonderful red-dirt roads.
During a visit this summer, we put our GPS to use and found ourselves passing houses that, until the advent of this handy satellite technology, likely didn't see too much traffic going by.

Galactic highway
But back to that ghostly path that spans the October sky. There’s dust in the galactic road of the Milky Way, and there’s a lot of gas as well. Throw in the interaction of gamma rays and you get that eerie glow that gives our galaxy its name. 
Under “black” skies, the light of the Milky Way can be so luminous that it casts shadows, which must be a thoroughly surreal experience. But if you're observing any distance from city lights,  you’ll notice a path of darker areas that splits the bright starry path. Called the Great Rift, this ribbon of darkness is made up of dust created during the star formation process. 
Besides light pollution, moonlight is the bane of Milky Way pilgrims. It’s best viewed during the thin crescent and new moon phases. 
 It’s a great time of year to enjoy this celestial spectacle in the evening hours, when the Milky Way arcs overhead from Sagittarius low in the southeast and northwest to Cassiopeia. 

Roadside attractions
On the night of Oct. 20/21, we’ll have the added bonus of meteors streaking across the galactic vista. The Orionid shower peaks on this night, well after the waxing crescent moon has set. 
The Orionids usually don’t escalate into the meteor storms sometimes associated with showers such showers as the Leonid or Perseids.
But the average of 50 to 70 meteors per hour and the bearable night temperatures of late October is well worth putting off your bedtime. 
Time to rub our eyes, pack up the trunk and clean the dust off the windshield. Our road trip ends in the bleary hours of the October dawn, when the brilliant beacon of the planet Venus will light our way home.

Lost among the galaxies

OK, I’M TRYING not to panic but I’m definitely lost.

I’m supposed to be at the spiral galaxy M98, but this really looks more like M87. Or maybe it’s M99.

Don’t you hate it when you’re 50 million light-years from home and you get off at the wrong stop?

When you’re exploring the Virgo galaxy cluster, it’s easy to lose your way. This is my first journey into an incredible conglomeration of galaxies with a larger scope, which can bring out the “faint fuzzies,” each of which represents billions upon billions of stars.

You can track down the brightest galaxies with binoculars, through which they will look like out-of-focus stars.

But in a good-sized telescope (an eight- to 12-inch Dobsonian or Schmidt-Cassegrain), you can tease out hints of structure such as the arms of spiral galaxies, which look so spectacular in long-exposure pho­tographs.

This huge Virgo cluster of about 2,000 galaxies lies about 50 to 90 mil­lion light-years away. How many you can actually see in a telescope de­pends on light pollution — galaxy hunting requires dark skies away from city lights — and your scope.

For example, in my Dobsonian reflector, which has an eight-inch mirror, I should be able to nab over 20 members of the cluster. That number zooms up to more than 100 if you have a 12-inch telescope, according to Saint Mary’s astronomer David Lane, a fellow member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. He also has created a telescope and planetarium software program called Earth-Centred Universe, which can be used to calculate just this sort of thing. (Go to www.nova-astro.com for more information.)

Once you start exploring the clus­ter, you’ll notice most of the galaxies appear as oval blobs of light, like faint comets. These are called elliptical galaxies, which are the most numer­ous and brightest type in the Virgo region. They’re not as interesting visually as spiral galaxies, which boast starry arms curling out from a bright core, but ellipticals are far from boring.

A bright elliptical, M87, lies at the heart of the Virgo cluster, to the west of the star Denebola that marks the tail of Leo, the Lion.  It’s an unimaginably huge city of stars — M87’s mass has been estimated in the range of several trillion times that of our sun. Even at 80 million light-years away, it’s visible in large binoculars and certainly small telescopes.

Besides sheer size and luminosity, M87 is known for the incredible jet of subatomic energy streaming out from the galaxy. The jet originates from a disc of superheated gas around a massive black hole at M87’s centre.

I’ve found the book Astronomy: The De­finitive Guide very helpful as I make tentative steps into this incredible realm of star cities. The book's “galaxy-hop­ping” chart for the Virgo and Coma clusters is clear and simple, but provides enough detail to make it easier to figure out which fuzzy is which in your eyepiece.

For those who just want a quick look at something beautiful, the most modest binoculars will reveal a rich spattering of stars that make up the dim, tiny constellation Coma Berenic­es. It can be found between Denebola and the bright star Arcturus (see chart).

Leo lies on the ecliptic, the path followed by the sun, moon and planets. The outer planets such Saturn and Jupiter are regular visitors to the Lion's den.

Saturn, with its magnificent ring system, is familiar even to those who haven’t actually looked at it through a telescope.

But you really haven’t seen Saturn until you’ve done just that.

There’s a surreal quality to the sight of this strange object floating in your field of view that can’t be duplicated in photos.

As for those famous rings, they can either be really prominent or almost invisible, depending on how the planet is tilted from our perspective on Earth. If you’re observing with a telescope, try to find the tiny speck of Saturn’s brightest moon, Titan, and the many dimmer moons closer to the planet.

Escaping the light

THERE'S no doubt, the farther you are from the city lights, the better your stargazing will be. Light pollution robs us of the subtle beauties to be found in the night sky, whether it's the ribbon of stars and glowing gases of the Milky Way or the faint constellations of spring.

For instance, if you're in the city, you'd be hard-pressed to pick out groups like Virgo, low in the east, or Hydra's sprawling ladder of stars that now stretches from the southeast to the high southwest.

There are plenty of places in my province, Nova Scotia, where you can find dark skies. In fact, some of them rank among the best in Canada. More on that later. But there's good news for urban observers: light pollution doesn't affect planet observation. The sun does a great job of lighting up these objects for our enjoyment and even small details in planets' atmospheres and surfaces make it through the glare.

Of course, sometimes nearby lights that shine directly into your eyes can make even planet watching difficult. In that case, you have to do some creative positioning to use trees or structures to block these offending photons.

I usually drape an old blanket over deck rails or a high deck chair and sit on a lower chair in my attempts to shut out neighbours' porch lights or street illumination.

The most interesting planets to observe in a telescope, I think most observers would agree, would be Saturn and Jupiter.

While you need a telescope to enjoy Saturn's rings and surface features, a good pair of binoculars are enough to keep you coming back to Jupiter night after night. That's because its four brightest moons - Ganymede, Io, Callisto and Europa - are easily visible with just 10x power, although as tiny specks. You can detect changes in their positions over a matter of hours as they orbit around Jupiter.

This moon dance is obvious when you take another look on the following night - the lineup will likely be quite different.

If you're more ambitious and have your eye on objects a lot farther down the cosmic road than our solar system, such as galaxies, you must flee the light and seek out a nice dark spot in the country.

In Nova Scotia, it doesn't take too much of a drive to escape light blight,  even if you live in Halifax or Sydney. But you should get at least an hour's drive away from the city, since it doesn't take much sky glow to wash away detail in deep-sky objects.

Some of the province's dark sky areas are described on cleardarksky.com, a website that mainly focuses on weather and sky conditions for amateur astronomers. I say some because the website gets its light pollution information from the World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness, which oddly enough doesn't include Cape Breton and other parts of the province.

However, cleardarksky does indicate that areas such as Kejimkujik Natinoal Park in Queens County and the Argyle area near Yarmouth are little affected by light pollution. The Milky Way, the central region of our galaxy best visible in the summer, is so bright in these areas that it can cast shadows.

If you look at the entire light pollution map of North America, it's clear that this kind of observing is to be treasured.

While the Liscombe Game Sanctuary area on the Eastern Shore is one of those areas left out of the light pollution grading, it's well known among local amateur astronomers as an excellent dark-sky site.

As for Cape Breton, the skies over the East Bay and Bras d'Or area first tweaked my interest in stargazing, way back when. I can remember being more interested in the satellites and airplanes zooming across the sky, but I was also captivated by the glittering blanket of stars over the island hills. 

If you do find yourself a dark, safe place, and you have even a small telescope, you can observe many galaxies in April and May. Hundreds of galaxies are visible with a larger telescope in the Leo-Virgo region.

Two of the brightest in April, M65 and M66, can be found in the isosceles group that makes up the Lion's hindquarters. Find the star at the right bottom corner of the triangle, and look slightly below and to the left for M65 and M66. These two are so close together that they both fit into the viewing field of a small telescope.

It's worth escaping the city lights to marvel at these star cities so many light-years away.