Although we live in a town and therefore suffer from light pollution, on a clear night we can still see stars and constellations – though never that sparkling haze of the milky way that can be seen at Angledool.
This month we saw an astronomical event known as The Opposition of Mars which is where Mars lines up in opposition to the sun, and also comes very close to Earth. On January 27 at 9pm it was at its closest in this orbit – although not that close. 2003 for example saw an Opposition that was 4x brighter. So an Opposition may be an Opposition – but not all Oppositions are equal. Nonetheless from our point of view it looked fab. It was a clear cold evening, the moon dazzlingly bright and full, Mars red and vivid and located just to the left of the Moon making her a grand dancing partner.
I looked for Mars again the next night but it had vanished – how puzzling.
Apparently an Opposition is usually used by NASA and co to launch probes to Mars and Mars missions have been launched at every Opposition since 1994. This time though, Mars was allowed to pass by without Earth hurling stuff at it. There were 2 missions scheduled originally (Curiosity and Phobos-Grunt – don’t ask, don’t know) but both have been put off till 2011. Another recession cut?
We didn’t last long outside at 9pm as it was already below freezing and the cars and the grass beginning to sparkle with ice. This has been the coldest winter we have had in England, with more snow fall than we have ever experienced in our lives. The snow has all gone from Farnham now and this week we saw the very first snow drops appear in our garden. They haven’t opened fully yet, and are having to push their way past the dead leaves, but they are delightful. We planted these last year and were assured that in time they would spread to make a big clump if they were happy. We did not know if they would be happy– not all our plants survive and that part of the garden is quite mossy and damp, but here they are shiny white and indicating spring is not that far away.
A regular feature of our English calendar is the Big Garden Bird Watch. This is held on the last weekend of January every year. The RSPB basically harnesses the power of the consumer to become scientists. Everyone who participates has to count the number of birds that appear in their garden in a one hour period. The RSPB then collates all the data and uses it to keep an eye on bird numbers. Mob science as it were.
Now it is quite a tricky exercise. You have to be able to identify all the birds you see accurately – I have learnt all my birds but it has taken a while and I still am not confident telling a chiff chaff from a female sparrow or a female chaffinch. Trickier still is that you have to count them. You can only count those that actually land in your garden, not just fly over it, and you have to count the maximum number of each species you see at the same time. One bird can revisit the garden many times within an hour, so you can’t just recount the same bird over and over. But the birds move so quickly this is difficult, a bit like counting sheep in a paddock. Plus from far away the smaller ones look like leaves fluttering about so you get mixed up with the leaves.
But armed with binoculars, a cup of tea and a pen I identified the following within one hour:
3 Great Tits
5 Green Finches
1 Black Cap
4 Blue Tits
1 Gold Finch
1 Long-tailed Tit
1 Coal Tit
9 Collared Doves
Not bad considering that the first month we moved here I was quite depressed because we seemed to attract no birds – the wonders of fat balls, sunflower seeds, peanuts and soft bill mix with extra worms!
I include the squirrel as it eats lots of the bird food. Now I have no objection to this but we seem to have a bit of a super squirrel. I don’t mind her munching away with the birds, but I do mind when she nicks an entire fat ball and makes off with it across the garden. This was becoming a daily event and the poor bird brains weren’t getting a look in. So G started tying the fat balls to the container – but no good! After a bit the squirrel worked out how to untie it, unwrap it from its green netting, and still run off with it! Eventually G had to buy a special fat ball holder and lock the fat balls safely away in it. This now seems to be working.