The 19th annual GBBC will be held Friday, February 12, through Monday, February 15, 2016. Please visit the official website at birdcount.org for more information and be sure to check out the latest educational and promotional resources.
The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is a free, fun, and easy event that engages bird watchers of all ages in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of bird populations. Participants are asked to count birds for as little as 15 minutes (or as long as they wish) on one or more days of the four-day event and report their sightings online at birdcount.org. Anyone can take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count, from beginning bird watchers to experts, and you can participate from your backyard, or anywhere in the world.
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In Iowa look for these mergansers during spring migration. They sport a spiky hairdo that sets them apart from the sleek Common Mergansers.
Interesting facts about these birds:
- The Red-breasted Merganser is circumpolar in distribution—that is, it’s found across Eurasia as well as in North America, all the way around the pole.
- During winter, these birds are found mainly on saltwater.
- Mergansers eat mostly fish and Red-breasted Mergansers will often hunt cooperatively, herding fish into shallow water where they are easier to catch. -- Content courtesy of the National Audubon and Ibird Pro.
Here's the view 45 minutes before sunrise as plotted for February 1st, about when Mercury should be easiest to spot. For several days the waning Moon is marching eastward among the assembled planets.
A Plane of Planets
As you sweep your gaze from Mercury toward Jupiter, an arc of roughly 110°, notice that all these planets line along a single arc across the sky. That's no accident. All of the major planets lie very near the plane of Earth's orbit, which projects as a line — the ecliptic — across the sky. By defniition, the Sun always lies on the ecliptic — and our Moon is never far from it either. It's the superhighway of planetary motion among the stars.
As you're gazing at all these planets, think about their varied distances from us? Astronomers use the average Earth-Sun distance, called an astronomical unit, as a handy yardstick for intra-solar-system distances. Of the five planets you're seeing, right now Mercury is closest (about 0.8 a.u.), followed by Venus (1.3), Mars (1.4), Jupiter (4.7) and Saturn (10.6). The reflected sunlight you see coming from mercury took a brief 6½ minutes to reach Earth, where that from Saturn took just under 1½ hours to get here.
But don't let the vastness of interplanetary space keep you from enjoying for the simple visual beauty that awaits you before dawn. We haven't had this opportunity since this time 11 years ago. Back then their order in the sky briefly matched their relative order outward from the Sun. This time, Mars and Saturn apparently didn't get the memo, but we'll happily overlook that, right?