The swan and eagle are flying high in the night sky, near the zenith in the early evening darkness. Not the real birds; I’m referring to the constellations Cygnus the Swan and Aquila the Eagle, both located in the heart of the Milky Way. They are slowly setting earlier and earlier in the west, making way for the autumn stars and the fall equinox.
I’m renewing another hobby of childhood, that of astronomy, but now with the added twist and additional complication of astrophotography. In recent years the mounts that track the stars from the rotating earth and make long exposures possible, have become affordable. These rigs accept your already-owned camera and birding lenses; no telescope is necessary.
But all this has put a crimp in my birding life, at least for now. Instead of early bird walks, I’m staying up late and observing Cygnus and Aquila and their associates. The real birds are not happy. A couple nights ago I meticulously set up the rig in the yard for twenty long exposures of the Andromeda Galaxy, M31. There is software available that stacks these multiple photos into one, bringing out the faint stars and nebulae. The camera’s exposures are all controlled by an intervalometer and the tracking is monitored by a laptop computer. This allows you to leave it all on autopilot and retreat inside to watch the latest TV series with the spouse.
An hour later I went out to check on it and low and behold, the computer, tripod, camera, and lens were all covered with fresh bird guano; a direct hit. I looked around for the culprit and only heard two Great Horned Owls calling to each other from the woods. I doubt it was them. The more likely villains were the resident mockingbirds or doves, seeking revenge for my recent neglect. I admit to being a little slack these days in cleaning their bath and setting out new bird seed.
But a little, actually quite a bit, of guano will not deter me. I also had a scare last night from another nocturnal creature. I wear a red headlamp while dithering with my star rig and looked up to see two red eyes staring back at me from about twenty-five feet. It let out a loud, guttural screech like I had never heard before. Not knowing what else to do, I screeched right back and slowly retreated toward safety. I’ve since learned that this was the sound of a White-tailed Deer acting a little territorial. At least it did not deposit scat on my equipment.
The Andromeda Galaxy is one of the most distant objects visible with the naked eye. If you know where to look in the fall sky you’ll see it, perhaps only in your peripheral vision as a faint smudge. It’s still a sight to behold. The galaxy lies outside our own Milky Way galaxy and is 2.5 million light years away. That means the light that left it 2.5 million years ago, before Homo sapiens roamed the continents, just reached me last night. Who knows if the galaxy even exists today, or whose eyes it’s light might fall on millions of years from today?
Both the constellations, Cygnus and Aquila, have checkered stories in Greek mythology. Yes, these stars were in exactly the same configuration in ancient times when they inspired the Greek storytellers. Zeus figures in both cases as an unhinged God. He disguised himself as the swan to seduce Leda, the wife of the Spartan king, and used the eagle to carry the thunderbolts and kidnap the shepherd boy, Gaymede, for his personal pleasure. But forget this tabloid conspiracy theory; I’m content to just stick to the science of the stars.
I’ve been working on these new photography skills by repeatedly shooting the Andromeda Galaxy. My best effort is below, and leaves much room for improvement. But if you look carefully you’ll see another fainter galaxy just above Andromeda. Astrophotography is in many ways similar to bird photography. With both there is a wealth of background knowledge to learn about your aerial targets. Each have specific techniques to perfect in order to obtain a pleasing picture. And then, both require post-processing time indoors to create the final product. The avian world has its seasons: migration, mating, nesting, molting, etc. The stars and constellations are also seasonal. Except for the circumpolar stars, the skies are continuously changing as the earth revolves around our star.
Then there’s the unexpected and exciting events for each avocation. For astronomers it’s the exploding supernova, or a newly discovered comet, or a sudden flash of a bright meteor as space debris enters our atmosphere and is vaporized. For birders it’s the appearance of a rarity, a new tick on a life list, or even a close flyover of an eagle or hawk. Both keep me coming back for more.
So, I’m negotiating a truce with the birds, after all, I did recently free a cardinal and hummingbird that were trapped in the garage. No more bombing runs, and I promise, in return, to maintain at least some level of interest in your lives. I’ll check out the owls and nighthawks even as I focus on the stars. I’ll even set out some feed as the cold winter fast approaches. Just let me be.