Mysteries of the Winter Sky: Snowbirds and a Total Solar Eclipse

Learn the mysteries of the winter sky including which snowbirds grace the U.S. and how to safely view a total solar eclipse.
By Fred Schaaf
February/March 1998
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Snow buntings can easily withstand temperatures as low as negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
HANS REINHARD/BRUCE COLEMAN INC.
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The Eclipsed Season

If you're getting just plain sick of winter, perhaps some fine February and March birds and eclipses can help brighten things up a bit. By making the heavens, birds, and nature in general an important part of your life, you'll be following in the footsteps of a number of the men whose lives we are supposed to collectively celebrate each February on Presidents' Day.

Snowbirds 

February is often the snowiest month in many parts of the U.S. The swallows may still be many weeks away from returning; what birds can we look for to cheer us up? There may be chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, and of course brilliant cardinals and blue jays at our feeders. But there are two other kinds of birds which may bolster us against wintry weather partly by virtue of their own incredible hardiness in the face of cold and snow. I'm referring to the "snowbirds": juncoes and snow buntings.

Juncoes

The juncoes are much more common across the U.S. The most widespread species of them was, until a few decades ago, called the slate-colored junco. Then a decision was made that slate-colored juncoes and the Oregon junco should really be considered variants of the same species, the dark-eyed junco. The slate-colored junco seems rather drab in its plumage: gray head and back (darker gray in males), white underneath. Thoreau described them as "leaden skies above, snow below." But there is one wonderfully distinguishing surprise when a junco flies off: the feathers on either edge of the tail flash white. Juncoes also have pinkish beaks but this is generally a pale color and not immediately noticed.

Juncoes spend the winter across most of the U.S. north of Georgia. It's easy to attract flocks of them, but they are almost always ground-feeders—even their nests are hidden on or near the ground — so leave food for them beneath your feeder. In New Jersey where I live, they spend almost exactly six months, typically arriving from the north in mid-October and leaving for the north in mid-April. Along the Appalachians and across New England, some juncoes are year-long residents.

Most, however, summer in Canada —  as far north as the southern part of Hudson Bay in the east but as far north as the shores of the Arctic Ocean in western Canada and Alaska. Many of our warblers and other songbirds that arrive in spring are inherently tropical or sub-tropical birds and they look it, with their bright colors. But we should be equally impressed that the juncoes are natives of the sub Arctic and Arctic who come visit us in the U.S. to enjoy our "mild" weather in winter!

The Snow Bunting

The juncoes are not nearly as polar or winter-hardy as the other "snowbird," the snow bunting. In winter, snow buntings are mottled gray and rust-color on top — they have a rusty cap — and white underneath with prominent white wing-patches. In summer, in their far-north homes, they are almost entirely white, save for some small striking patches of black left on the wings and back. Most winters, you won't see snow buntings in great numbers farther south than about New England, Chicago, Nebraska, Montana, and the Washington-British Columbia border. Some years, however, they may throng south to the Carolinas, Tennessee, Kansas, Utah, and Oregon. Whereas juncoes prefer to pick seeds out of shallow snow, snow buntings are adept at feeding on the seeds of tall grasses and weeds sticking up out of the snow, even if they have to flutter up to get to the seeds.

How far north do snow buntings go to nest in summer? They are common throughout Alaska, the Northwest Territories, and the islands in the Arctic Ocean. Snow buntings can easily withstand temperatures of  negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit. One study showed that their body temperature falls rapidly when the air temperature drops to  negative 58 degrees Fahrenheit. But in such conditions they simply burrow under the snow to stay warm.

The Total Solar Eclipse of 1998

Eclipses tend to come in bunches at certain times in the year. In 1998, the world got two eclipses — one of the Sun, one of the Moon — just a few weeks apart. Some version of both events could be seen from most of the United States.

The first eclipse was solar. Within a narrow band of Earth's surface which crosses Colombia, Venezuela, and the southern Caribbean, the eclipse was total. A total eclipse of the Sun is probably the most awesome natural event which can be predicted long in advance. The final darkness suddenly falls and bright planets and stars peek out from a deep purple sky. During the total part of a total eclipse you can safely stare up and see the black silhouette of the Moon surrounded with the gently glowing pearly petals and streamers of the ghostly outer atmosphere of the sun, the "corona." At the start or end of a total eclipse, a speck of the Sun's surface may shine through a deep valley on the edge of the Moon, sparkling like a star of peerless brilliance on the still-visible circle of the solar corona—the "diamond ring."

A total solar eclipse only occurs at a given spot on Earth — say, your home — an average of about once every 360 years. So it's very likely you'll have to travel if you ever want to see one. The February 26 eclipse of 1998 occurred in the southern Caribbean — including islands like Aruba, Guadeloupe, and Antigua. There was also the eclipse of August 11, 1999 — that one crossed a corner of England, passed near Paris, and went right over Munich, Germany. It will be many years after that before another total solar eclipse is visible from anywhere either very convenient or very popular to most American tourists. At least a tiny piece of the Sun was hidden if you lived anywhere in the U.S. south or east of a line that runs from San Diego to Chicago. The question, of course, is: how can you observe an eclipse safely?

How to View a Solar Eclipse

Never look at a partial solar eclipse directly, either with the naked eye, binoculars, or telescope. The retina of the eye has no pain sensors and before you know it you can permanently blind yourself. There are filters that are safe, but I'd recommend only one for unsupervised beginners: shade No. 14 welder's glass. You can buy a big enough piece of this to look through from a welding supply company for just a few dollars.

The easiest and safest way for a beginner to see a partial solar eclipse is by "projection." Place the sun behind you and adjust the tube or tubes of your telescope or binoculars until they cast the smallest, roundest shadow possible. Then hold or place a piece of cardboard in front of the eyepiece(s), making sure never to look through the eyepiece. You can even burn your hand at the proper focus point of heat, so be careful! What you'll see on your screen is an image of the sun with a bite out of it. The bite is the moon moving in front of it! You can sharpen the image by moving the screen a little closer or farther from the eyepiece. A telescope may be sharp enough to enable you to see some sunspots on the screen. You can even project a tiny image of the sun with a piece of cardboard with a pinhole in it. 

 There was also a very minor eclipse which took place on the evening of March 12. All the lower 48 states got to see this "penumbral" eclipse of the Moon. The slight shadowing on the moon's lower right edge was best visible around 11:20 P.M. EST, 10:20 P.M. CST, and so on.

Presidents and Nature

You're not the only one who enjoys watching birds or eclipses. Presidents' Day is good to think about some of our great leaders who, in their day, were amateur birders, astronomers, or meteorologists themselves. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson took daily weather readings, including temperature, for most of their lives — Washington right up until the day he died. Jefferson recorded a temperature of 76 degrees Farhenheit in Philadelphia on the afternoon of July 4, 1776. Jefferson also had a tremendous interest in astronomy. He was only following the general consensus of astronomers of his day when in December 1807 he refused to believe that the more than 300 pounds of meteorites that fell in Weston, Connecticut could have come from outer space. Lincoln's Sparrow, surprisingly, is named not for Abraham Lincoln, but for bird artist John James Audubon's friend Thomas Lincoln. Laura Erickson also points out in her wonderful book For the Birds: An Uncommon Guide that Theodore Roosevelt may have been the last person to see a passenger pigeon alive in the wild and that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a lifelong member of the American Ornithologists' Union.


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