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Loons on the Lake (Binocular Observing Report)

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Loons on the Lake

Loons on the Lake
July 8, 2007

The record of my binocular observing over recent vacation, this report captures both the images and sounds of day and night. Included here are the notes of observations for about 75 celestial objects.

It's been three days of a wonderful break from the routine. Mornings kayaking, afternoons swimming and much of the day spent barefoot. Even with rain every day, spirits were not dampened. That is of course with the exception of my hopes for celestial observing. Perched on the northernmost tip of Damariscotta Lake, 20 miles inland along the Maine mid-coast, I had hoped for exceptional viewing nights, but had begun to accept that I may not get any observing at all. I kept my optics busy with plenty of casual observing during the day. Boating activity everywhere was fun to watch. The loons on the lake were a real pleasure to observe. Although sometimes just as I would get a good focus, underwater would go the loon and after several minutes of waiting for it to surface I'd move on to find something else to observe. Do these birds have gills?

Last night things changed. I stepped outside around 10 o'clock and saw, for the most part, clear dark skies. The band of clouds that appeared to be passing didn't block much from view. I noticed a few things right away that left me struck with an exclamation, Wow, what is that? I was surprised to find out.

During the day, I used Garrett 10x50 on the porch, 20x80 Gemini on a tripod near the dock and my WO SDII 80mm scope set up in the yard with an SV binoviewer at 50x. For celestial viewing last night I chose the tripod mounted 20x80 Gemini.

The View over the Lake
Earlier in the evening I lounged about reading Sue French's Celestial Sampler, a book I recommend for all binocular observers. The July and August sections include charts for several areas I just don't get to see much from home. To give an idea, I had not yet seen Jupiter this year rise up above the trees in my yard. Jupiter is currently in the northern area of Scorpius. This night, looking out over the lake, all of Scorpius was visible down to and below the stinger.

So what are those things I saw that struck me as so unusual to spot naked eye? When I pointed the 20x80s in the direction of the first object, I found it was M7. I so rarely see into this part of the sky that I was surprised to see M7 naked eye, although I shouldn't be, since this cluster has an abundance of bright stars and at 20x I'd guess I saw 30-40 stars.

Sagitarius Nebulae
The second object was even more of a surprise. When I pointed the binoculars a little further north I realized this spot of glow that was so easy to see naked eye was M8, the Lagoon Nebula and open cluster complex. In 20x80s it was outstanding and I found it easy to look away from the binoculars and see it shining brightly in the Milky Way. An object I struggle to see through the trees at home in less dark skies, here it was ablaze with the glow of nebulosity with a few dark notches penetrating the bright glow. A broad dark streak running NE to SW seemed to separate the brighter west portion of the nebula from the east part with the embedded cluster.

This area was dense with stars, but bright glow of nebula still stood out. I made sure to orient with stars on the charts and clearly identified M20, the Trifid Nebula and associated open cluster, not nearly as large or bright as M8, and just north of M20 I saw M21 the small open cluster.

Star Clouds and the Teapot
I glanced up from the binoculars to see M24, the Star Cloud, and it was then that I realized, what I thought was a band of clouds passing thru the sky was the intense glow of the Milky Way thru Serpens, Scutum and Sagitarius, a view I've seen not many times before, and one of those times on a previous trip to Maine. M24 was so dense with stars it had the appearance of another cluster viewed a bit later, IC4756, only M24 is so large it goes beyond the edges of even the 3+¡ view of the binoculars.

Back down just above the teapot of Sagitarius, I first spotted M28 while looking for M22. Realizing my position to Lambda Sag, I panned left and landed on the huge globular M22. M28 was much smaller. M22 is very large, similar to M13. It did seem, at least I suspected, that I saw a few outlier stars resolved.

I began in earnest to hunt down many of the faint objects I knew and I referred to Sue's book to find several more I didn't know. Throughout the evening I found many of the objects of interest that Sue highlights for the months of July and August.

Scorpius - Southern Ophiuchus
M4, the very wide globular near Antares, was easy to find. It was broad and more evenly lit than M22. Sue tells us this is one of the closest globulars. M4 was near equal in size to M22, but M22 seemed to brighten more towards the center. I also suspected a few stars resolved in M4, especially at the south end. Not far NW of M4 is M80. I had never before seen M80 in binoculars. It took little effort to find this much smaller globular. M80 was just large enough to not be mistaken for a star.

Further NE from Antares, in Ophiuchus, I knew where to look for M9 near eta Oph. I found it easily enough and also saw the much fainter ngc6356 close-by. Two globulars that I had never seen before were next. I panned down from M9 through an area of very obvious bright and dark patches in the Milky Way. Along this path I saw dark nebula that I made no attempt to identify, but in this vicinity lies the Pipe Nebula. Once down in the vicinity of a few bright stars that I could identify with the charts, I panned west to find M19, a very bright easy object. Then it was easy to pan south to smaller M62. Both of these are new objects for me.

Northern and Central Ophiuchus
Further northwest in Ophiuchus I set my sights first on Yed Prior and it's partner Yed Posterior. With these two stars as guideposts I went out in every direction to find more. Below the next brightest star just SE of these, I easily found M107. Back to my guideposts, then panning east I found M10 exceptionally bright and large and then nearby M12, which can often be difficult from home and always seems smaller than M10. This time M12 appeared larger than usual and near equal of M10. Not too far west it was easy to find very large M5 in Serpens.

Of these various large globulars, M4 and M12 were alike, both with less brightening to the center and M22, M10 and M5 were alike, all three with considerable more brightening towards the center.

I moved up to Beta Oph as my next guide star. A view of the triangle of stars to the southeast of Beta is identified in Sue's book as an asterism mimicking a miniature V of Taurus. The wide uneven double 67 Oph was noted. Moving just north of Beta, I took a quick glance at the bright loose cluster IC4665, easily 30-40 stars visible. Then looking just south I stopped to see the 21" double 61 Oph. About a degree west of here is another fainter and much wider double. Before moving away from this area, I stopped by to look at the very loosely grouped cluster Cr350, fewer stars and all much fainter than IC4665. Once reoriented to the faint double, I slowly moved south in search of M14. From home, this one is very difficult, so I was surprised to find M14 easily and so bright. I continued further SW to search for ngc6366. I'm fairly certain I saw this as just a very faint patch.

With these dark sky conditions providing me the opportunity, I moved SE to nu Oph to try for several other faint globulars. Between nu and tau Oph is ngc6517. I did not confirm seeing anything more than a star at this location, but just north of the small triangle of stars formed with tau, I did see ngc6539 as just the faintest disk of a slight glow. Some of these last few, ngc6366 and ngc6539 were the faintest and most difficult globulars of the night, also both new objects for me. M80 I think was the smallest of the bright ones.

Loons on the Lake
Throughout the night, I was kept aware of my location at this beautiful lake by the sounds of the loons. The call is a bit eerie, a loud and varied cry, but unmistakable. Although many floated by during the daytime, the cry of the loon was reserved for night and early morning. This morning as I set about to record all that I had seen the night before, it's raining again for the 4th consecutive day and I sit in the glass enclosed porch. Loons float by throughout the day, singly and in groups of three or four. The hummingbird that has visited each morning flits about outside. Two large turtles, so large they look to be too big for the average man to grab hold of, surfaced just off the dock, looking like small prehistoric animals. All of these became the targets of my attention as I turned my optics to catch the sights. Even as I sit here and write, I take a few moments with the 10x50s to watch the black headed and zebra striped neck loons in the waters 100 yards out.

Dark Clouds
About an hour into my observing session I had already observed more than two dozen objects but now noticed the stinger of Scorpius was no longer visible. M7, which started my evening, had disappeared behind a low cloud. All the lower portion of the teapot was hidden from view. I could not see this cloud, but the lower portion of the southern sky was now hidden from view. I had hoped to scour the remaining area of the teapot and scorpion for many objects I've never seen, including several Messiers, but missed the chance. So I redirected my plan a little north. I revisited the Lagoon and the M24 Star Cloud and moved on from there.

Serpens Cauda and South
Either side of the M24 Star Cloud lie open clusters. I viewed both M25 to the east and M23 to the west. Not too different in size, still these are very different clusters. M23 has many more stars but all are fainter and more evenly bright than those in M25. I panned around this entire area for awhile, each little move seemingly landing on another cluster or nebula or dense population of stars. Then I moved up to see the Serpens nebulae.

Embedded in another very dense star cloud-like area are M16, M17 and M18. At the top, M16 usually appears from home only as nebulous on the best of nights. On this occasion it looks like the open cluster sits near the north edge of a large diffuse nebula. M17 was even more impressive. The nebula surrounding M17 was large and very bright. The bright inverted swan was easily visible. Both stood out well in the same field of view. Below them, the open cluster M18 was a compact little spot of stars.

Just off the southwesterly most stars of Aquila lies M11. There are so many stars in the sky that I need to orient myself to the major outline of constellations and then find my way from there. Within a minute or so, I was on M11. There was some resolution of stars in M11. Within 1 degree of M11 is a small trapezoidal asterism. I saw both of the double stars in this asterism and took notice that the variable R Scu, as usual, was near maximum and was the brightest star in the group. What I noticed more than ever before was all the nearly pure black dark areas around M11. These dark nebula all have designations, but I just enjoyed the big picture, without names. The dark empty areas lie in stark contrast to the nearby dense star studded fields.

I moved SW from M11 towards Alpha Ser. The whole area got a bit confusing to me since I rarely see it with so many stars visible. Once on alpha Ser, the open cluster ngc6664 was easily visible. This cluster is so faint that views from home, if seen at all, are recorded as just 2 or 3 stars or not much more. This view showed it as an obvious cluster of about 10 stars, larger and more populous than I've ever seen it before. The surrounding area is very dense with stars, but o.c. M26 still stood out pretty easily. What did not stand out so easily is the nearby globular ngc6712. I was so confused by the density of stars that my usual method of star hopping from M26 to 6712 was obscured. After a few tries, ngc6712 was found, a small globular glow amongst the dense star fields.

Both M11 and M26 are tiny compact open clusters that could easily be mistaken for a globular cluster when viewed at this low binocular power. Both have stars mostly fainter than mag 11. They made a fine contrast to some of the much larger and brighter open clusters viewed.

Serpens Cauda North
About 10 degrees north of M11 lies the bright even double star theta Serpens. Alya is 4.5-5.0/22", an easy target for even small binoculars. It is also my guidepost to find these next two clusters. NGC6633 is about 5¡ NW of Alya. It shows as a mix of loose bright stars, very much in contrast to this next cluster. Only about 3¡ NW of Alya lies IC4756, one of the most impressive open clusters in all the sky. I likened it earlier to a smaller version of the M24 Star Cloud. NGC4756 is composed of few bright stars, but has a vast multitude of fainter, evenly bright stars. The numbers are too dense for an easy count, but it would seem there may be more than 100 stars in view. The cluster filled a large part of the binocular field of view.

Maine Chill
I took a break from writing this morning. We went down to the local general store for breakfast. News says temperature in Boston today should hit the 90s. Although yesterday we were swimming in brief sunshine and mid 70s temperatures, back at the lake house this morning we had a fire going to take the damp mid 50s chill out of the house.

Hercules - Bootes
Up to this point all my viewing had been facing south. Finally I moved to another position in the yard to take advantage of another section of sky. I looked first directly overhead and easily spotted M13, the largest and brightest globular in the northern hemisphere. Also in Hercules, I spotted M92, not quite so large but still very bright. Then I took my usual star hop to find M3 From Murphrid in Bootes, I panned 10¡ north and just a few degrees west and landed right on M3. Back in Hercules, I had a little trouble orienting to so many visible stars, but after a few tries found the area where the double 100 Herc was visible. The two stars are small, perfectly even and easily split at 20x.

Small Constellations
Lyra was my next stop. M57 was seen as just a very small round spot, at 20x easily bigger than a star, but without any other detail. I moved from there east to the pair of doubles Struve 2470 and 2474. The fainter companion to each was seen on the west side. After that I panned southeast towards Albireo and quickly found M56, still not my last globular of the night. The last would be my next object, M71 in Sagitta the Arrow. This last one was pretty faint in comparison to most all the other M globulars. I moved up from the tip of Sagitta to catch M27, the Dumbell nebula. It was large and bright.

I did search for two more globulars in Delphinus, but tried without charts and had no luck. In Delphinus, I settled for a pair of doubles. First gamma Del, the nose of the dolphin, an easy 10" pair. And then easier Stf2690 in the tail, a fainter even mag 7 wider 16" pair. I missed the globulars ngc7006 and 6934.

Bright Stars
All along the way, not only did I search for the deep sky beauties, but I stopped to view many of the bright stars, Antares, Arcturus, Albireo, Vega, and the constellations that are targets in there own right. Scorpius, Sagitarius, Scutum, Serpens, Hercules, Lyra, Sagitta, Delphinus, all give that little pleasure of finding the pictures in the sky that can only be enjoyed with low powered views.

An Asterism
Naked eye I could see Cr399 the Coathanger had a line of stars and a hook. I could not count any stars nor pick out any individuals. I had no true confirmation of the naked eye limiting magnitude for the night but I'd estimate it over mag 6 and maybe about mag 6.2. I did easily identify several stars mag 5.7, 5.8 and 5.9. I tried to spot some mag12 stars in the Coathanger with the 20x80s, but no luck.

Cygnus Milkyway
I moved up in the sky to Deneb. From there I jumped to Sadr, the center of the cross. Once again I found myself in areas of such increased star density that it was a bit more difficult to pick my way around. I can generally find several clusters in and around this area. With so many more stars visible, it was more difficult, although still easy enough to find the butterfly shape of M29. I moved southeast to search for the Veil nebula, but I see now that I was in the wrong spot last night. I was searching around the star 41Cyg when I should have been at 52Cyg. I did find the open cluster 6940, evenly bright faint stars in Vulpeculla. Also in Vul, I spotted the smaller cluster of mixed stars, ngc6882.

To finish off my night I moved back up to Deneb and slid a little southeast to land on ngc7000, the North America Nebula. This was easy, bright and boldly outlined against dark lanes thru the Gulf and around the east coast. Whereas on most nights it seems that the Central America area is the brightest, last night I thought the Florida/Georgia area was the brightest.

Window Closes
It had reached midnight. I had been observing for two hours. But now, I noticed large patches of sky disappearing. Clouds were rolling in. It was spotty and would come and go, but I had seen enough. I had taken advantage of my window of time. This certainly will be one of my most memorable nights of observing. When it seemed that the dark skies of Maine might not give up their treasures for my pleasure, at last I was given that window of opportunity to take advantage. It's not many nights I get to observe 50-60 deep sky objects and fewer yet that I can do so to the sounds of loons on the lake.

The Calm
The following night I returned to my spot at the lake's edge. This night found the lake nearly as calm as a sheet of glass. I was amazed that the calm on the lake allowed me to pick out the reflections of both M7 and M24.

Missing Pieces
I was able to clearly see the southern boundary of Sagitarius, an area that I missed the previous night, so took this opportunity to search for some M objects I've never seen before. I easily found M69, M70 and M54, all in the bottom of the teapot. All were fairly small and not so bright. However M55, SE of the teapot was larger and much brighter than these other three. Near M69, I also saw ngc6652.

Across near M7, I took a look for M6 an easy object I missed the night before. It is much smaller than M7 with fewer bright stars. Near M4, and very near Antares, I found the globular ngc6144, just a faint diffuse glow. Also I noticed how easy it was to see the double star Beta Sco. The much fainter component was straight above the bright primary. Jupiter, which had four moons to the right the previous night now had but one to the right with the three others forming a triangle on the left. The bands of Jupiter were easy to see. Several meteors were observed both nights. They appeared to originate from nearly directly overhead, between Lyra and Hercules.

The End
Along with the new objects seen on my first night out, these few gave me a total of 10 new objects seen. I revisited many of the objects I saw the night before and once again listened as the loons on the lake sang their song in the night. Within an hour the entire lake was shrouded in a thick blanket of fog. The sky had all but disappeared and my two nights of outstanding viewing had come to an end.


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