[Tweeters] Birding To The Stars

Jeff Gibson gibsondesign at msn.com
Thu Jan 1 09:49:10 PST 2015

Forty years and a few days ago, I made my first trip to Southern California.
It was Christmas break from college up there in Bellingham, and I, along with a fellow geology student, hitchhiked down the coast to LA, where my friend had family to visit for Christmas. It was a great trip.
As a young Puget Sound yokel, I was unprepared for the Southern California experience, even though I'd watched a lot of TeeVee. For one thing, Northwest indoor houseplant's could be seen growing outdoors and achieving large sizes. The traffic was beyond bad. While New Mexico is known as "The Land of Enchantment", Southern California could be called "The Land of Enhancement " - it's the only place in the Universe I've been with giant roadside billboards advertising boob-jobs. I found it to be a really strange place.
It is a really interesting region for a naturalist though, and I had a great time meeting new plants and animals, and landscapes. One of those spots was Mount Palomar, about halfway between LA and San Diego. Just a tad over 6,000 ft in elevation, it rises up from the coastal chaparral , and oak savannas of the lowlands, and sports an interesting conifer forest on top. It was there I spotted my very first Nuttall's Woodpecker, which was sharing a fir tree with several White-headed Woodpeckers. According to my journal, I saw all sorts of other cool birds up there, including a Townsend's Solitaire. I'd forgotten all that.
What I really remember from that day on Palomar, were the stars. Of course it was daytime, and no stars were showing, except our nearest show-off. No, it was because of that big honkin' telescope, of astronomical proportions - that Palomar is most famous for - the 200 inch Hale Telescope.
There, in the visitor center, they had this incredible series of photos taken through the telescope. These high res photos were about 30 x 36 inches or so, and in the lower corner of each was a little couple inch frame - which delineated the area of the next big print. I think there were maybe six or so big prints. The first of the series was mind boggling enough - a detailed view of the night sky. But then the next blow-up showed even more from that one tiny section, and so on. In short order, all those little dots were not just stars, but galaxies! A real mind-blower.
These memories all came up for me recently, with clear starry nights in Port Townsend, which suffers from less light pollution than glaring Everett. I got interested in the night sky again, a bit. I used to work in the mountains back when my eyesight was better, and reveled in the sight of the Milky Way (our neighborhood) Galaxy, and a lot of other stars, seen in abundance in the clear air of higher elevations, in truly dark locations.
Now, even newly armed with eyeglasses in a good dark spot, apparently I would only be able to see a couple thousand stars by eye in the night sky. According to various estimates, just our Milky Way Galaxy has more than 100 billion stars, and there are more than 90 billion galaxies. Not being much of a numbers guy, and sort of a slow counter, I did figure that , counting stars one second at a time, it would take me 32 years to count one billion.
To date I've only seen two Nuttall's Woodpeckers, although I'm sure there are more out there. Stars? I've seen lots more of those, but haven't really been counting. They say that the mind is a terrible thing to waste, but a wonderful thing to blow. At least a little bit. Once and awhile. That astronomy stuff is dangerous - probably safer to stick with birding.
Jeff Gibsonnot counting too much, inPort Townsend Wa

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