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Starry skies to count on: an idea that is not (only) for the birds.

I THINK the two most popular nature hobbies in North America are birding and astronomy. Both make frequent use of optics. Both offer opportunities for amateur enthusiasts to contribute to mainstream science. And both hobbies focus on entities that hold mystery and appeal for us all.

Unfortunately, birds and stars are in danger of being obliterated--from life (birds) or from view (stars)--by wasteful and avoidable human activities. Most birds and most celestial objects are desperately in need of our conservation efforts. We should all be worried enough to get involved. First step: check out the International Dark-Sky Association (

Of course, while striving to preserve our birds and our starry skies, we should retain our joy in observing them and share that joy with others. So in this month's column, before getting to an exciting project that could help battle light pollution, let's turn first to the joys of July night skies.

JULY'S VARIED CELESTIAL TREASURES. Take a look at our allsky map, which features many outposts of brightness. Spica is joined in the southwest by brilliant Jupiter this summer. The Big Dipper is in the northwest, pointing with its Handle to blazing Arcturus. That star is high in the west, but equally high in the east is the Summer Triangle, featuring Vega and two other 1st-magnitude gems, Deneb and Altair. Finally, low in the south sits fiery Antares, heart of all-bright Scorpius and trailed by the unmistakable Teapot asterism of Sagittarius.

July nights offer treasures for almost every observing interest. There are double stars galore in Bootes and Cygnus, and variable stars like Beta ([beta]) Lyrae, Delta ([delta]) Cephei, and now-bright Delta Scorpii. There are great open star clusters like Messier 6 and 7 in Scorpius and M11 in Scutum. There are mighty globular clusters in Hercules, Scorpius, and Sagittarius. This last constellation holds more bright diffuse nebulae than any other in the heavens. The sky's two most famous planetary nebulae, the Ring Nebula (M57) and the Dumbbell Nebula (M27), are on display in Lyra and Vulpecula, respectively.

Only galaxy seekers might seem to have it hard on July evenings, for galaxy-rich Virgo is getting low and Andromeda has barely risen. But if your skies are fairly dark you can see the most majestic galaxy of all: the Milky Way, bridging the sky from northeast to south.

LET'S CREATE THE GREAT BACKYARD STAR COUNT. Until this past winter, I was only vaguely aware of something called the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). Then I visited this yearly project's Web site ( and was amazed, delighted, and immediately struck by the GBBC's relevance to astronomy and light pollution.

The GBBC is actually only one of several yearly projects run through the interactive Web site called BirdSource. Designed and managed by the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, BirdSource is a "revolutionary partnership between citizens and scientists" and a powerful new tool for bird conservation and education. "Participants improve their scientific literacy as they contribute data that help scientists and conservationists.... BirdSource will use these data to track and display the density and movement of birds just like meteorologists track the weather."

These claims are not exaggerated. This year's GBBC, held in the US and Canada February 18-21, produced 51,829 checklists from people who observed a total of 6,182,255 birds of 613 species. All the individual data--displayed in hundreds of lists, spectacular maps, and map animations--were posted on the site by March 3rd.

"BirdSource's interactive information system," we read, "will become the definitive long-term record of North American bird populations throughout the 21st Century." It may also be the tool that saves those populations.

We need a Great Backyard Star Count (GBSC) to provide raw data on light pollution, educate the public in astronomy, and help rescue our starry skies. For more about this idea, see Light-Pollution Notes (page 83).

Fred Schaaf welcomes mail at 681 Elizabeth-Cumberland Rd., Millville, NJ 08332, or at
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Title Annotation:northern hemisphere's sky
Author:Schaaf, Fred
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2005
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