A monthly column in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Perseids Meteor Shower – A Top 10 List

Not a meteor shower, but 50 minutes as the Earth spins. Look for
the Perseids meteor shower Aug. 10-13. Photo by Benjamin Aldrich.
The Earth is slowly heading for a field of space debris … and that’s a good thing. Especially if you enjoy watching meteors.

Come August 10 through 13, the Earth will pass through that debris and we’ll be treated to the annual Perseids meteor shower. If you hit it on a good night (or morning), you could see as many as 50 meteors an hour, almost one per minute.

So, as you mark your calendar for this celestial show, keep in mind these top 10 cool things about the Perseids meteor shower.

No. 10: Constant Comet  – Every August, the Earth passes through the debris field left by comet Swift-Tuttle. The comet orbits the sun every 133 years or so and will make its next pass in July 2126. Mark your calendar now! It’s called Perseids because the meteors seem to come from the constellation Perseus.

No. 9: Lawnchair Amusement – Watching the Perseids meteor shower is one of the few big nature events that you can – and should – do from the comfort of a lawnchair. Even better if you have a reclining lawnchair so you can watch the skies.

No. 8: Make a Party of It – Since the Perseids happens in August, when the living is easy, you can make an event out of it. As Stoddard sky-watcher Fred Ward suggests, “Have fun with it! Invite some friends over and enjoy the show.”

No. 7: No Special Equipment – This is one celestial event when you don’t need a big, fancy telescope or even a pair of binoculars. The unaided eye is best, just scanning the heavens and patiently waiting for meteors to shoot across the sky. 

No. 6: Big Show / Small Stuff – The celestial debris that creates the Perseids meteor shower is pretty small stuff, mostly like the size of a grain of sand; sometimes as big as a marble.

No. 5: Speed Demons – When we see one of those meteors, it’s about 60 miles up, screaming into the Earth’s atmosphere at more than 133,000 mph. That’s pretty fast!

No. 4: Hot Stuff – As that little particle enters the atmosphere, it compresses the air in front of it, heating up both the air and the meteor itself, more than 3,000 degrees F. That intense heat vaporizes most meteors, which is the “shooting star” that you see.

No. 3: Moon-Free – This year’s show will benefit from the moon being small and disappearing early, making the night dark to enhance the meteor viewing. The moon will be a few days before its first quarter and will set below the horizon between 9:30 and 10:30 p.m. The darker the skies, the better the meteor viewing.

No. 2: The Early Show – If you’ve wanted a good reason to get up nice and early, this is it.  (How’s that for a positive spin?) Best viewing of Perseids is an hour or more before dawn. So around here, that would be roughly between 4 and 5 a.m. I know, those hours present all sorts of questions about coffee, going back to bed, work and the day ahead. Make the best of it and enjoy the show!

No. 1: Long-Running Tradition – We know that the Chinese observed the Perseids from as early as 36 AD, and other Eastern cultures observed the August meteor shower in the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries. Closer to home, my own family has often enjoyed the Perseids from the little dock of our camp in Maine, sometimes after a lobster dinner. What’s your tradition?

Finally, if you want a great front-row seat, check this out! The New Hampshire chapter of The Nature Conservancy and the NH Astronomical Society are hosting a skywatch hike up green hills on August 10 to see the Perseids meteor shower. Learn more!

Eric Aldrich writes and watches the sky from his home in Hancock.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Mothing … for Our Inner Scientist

A well-placed rosy maple moth.
The cusp of summer has a way of channeling my inner scientist, the one I’ve unsuccessfully suppressed since 5th grade. It’s the scientist who collects bones, rocks, feathers, scat, owl pellets or anything smelly, weird and from the woods and streams.

As June segues into July, my inner scientist keeps the porch light on all night to perform a highly unsophisticated biological survey: Count the Moths!

Whether you call it research or curiosity, it’s a great activity for the scientist inside a kid of any age. 

We call it “mothing,” and this is a great time to do it.

Mothing is a weird mix of science, bugs and outdoor fun. Take it as serious as you want, following protocol carefully or just wingin’ it and having fun. No matter; you and your kids will learn a thing or two and connect with nature. 

I got hooked on mothing a few years ago when I helped Nature Conservancy ecologist Jeff Lougee in New Hampshire. For an ecological study, Jeff and I gathered moths late at night in the OssipeePine Barrens. Now I do mothing at home with the kids.

Why Moths? 

Because moths are cool! And there are fun ways to attract moths and learn about this vast, diverse and secretive realm of insects. 

While there are about 1,000 species of butterflies in North America, the continent has more than 11,000 moth species. Worldwide, science has described more than 150,000 moth species so far, and the list is growing, compared to 28,000 butterfly species. 

On a good night of mothing, you could attract dozens of different moth species. Count ‘em. And check ‘em out. You might get the virgin tiger moth, with its checker-like top wing and pumpkin-orange underwing. You might get a giant leopard moth, pale white with curious black circles. You might get a wood nymph, with its amazing defense mechanism of imitating bird poop. What predator wants to eat bird poop?! 

You might get those big, beautiful celebrities of the moth world, like promethea, with its striking tawny color and bold “eye” patch on each wing, a defense mechanism. You might get the iconic luna moth, with its light green color and delicate teardrop wing. Beautiful. 

Don’t Just Sit There, Do Mothing 

Here are a few ways to attract moths, and all of them are pretty simple.

Porch Light Method: This is the easiest. Just leave the porch light on for a while and see what comes along. Among the theories about why moths are attracted to light is the notion that moths are actually trapped by light, like sensory overload. 

Black Light Method: You can switch the regular bulb in your porch light with a black light bulb. Instead of illuminating posters in the basement, you’re attracting cool moths to your porch. Another option is to rig up a small incandescent black light unit on your porch, or, with an extension cord, out in the yard a bit. It helps a lot to aim the black light at a white sheet, even if it’s on a clothesline. The sheet gives the moths a place to rest and be observed. 

Bait and Wait: A fun way to attract moths is with bait. With your kids, mix up a paste-like bait. You can use bananas, stale beer, and brown sugar. Ideally, you want to let this mix ferment for a few days. If you don’t have time for this, don’t sweat it, and don’t sweat the recipe. You can add maple syrup, honey, liqueur, watermelon, vanilla, etc. Experiment! 

Using a paint brush, paint a patch of bait on a line of trees, chest high, along a path or an edge of a field or lawn. Then wait. Go out a few hours after nightfall and check your bait stations, preferably with a flashlight softened with red cellophane, so as not to scare the moths. Be stealthy, because moths can hear. Gathered at these bait stations, you’ll see all sorts of moths, some of which won’t be drawn to lights, but love the bait. 

Identify Those Nighttime Jewels 

The fun part is identifying those moths that you’ve attracted. A great resource is the book, “Discovering Moths: Nighttime Jewels in Your Own Backyard,” by John Himmelman. He also has a great website:

If you’re a serious “mother,” check out Peterson’s Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America.

Finally, a great resource comes from National Moth Week (July 20-28): The week is a great way to build the interest in mothing, with events all over the world (including here in New Hampshire).

So, gather up the kids and see what’s out there. There’s mothing to do!

Eric Aldrich writes and goes mothing from his home in Hancock.