The Amateur Backyard Astronomer

Steve Owst

Look up

One of the things we really enjoy about the outdoors is exploring. Whether it's travelling, hiking or just taking a new turn off to see where it goes.  The thrill of exploring never leaves us. I guess another thing I should add to that list is to look up. Looking up specifically at night to explore all that we can see in the night sky. 

We find it just so interesting.   I will always remember the excitement in my wife's voice as she grabbed the binoculars and saw Jupiter's moons for the first time. Yes, you heard right. Our birding binoculars that I mentioned in a previous blog revealed Callisto, Io, Europa and Ganymede. Now agreed it's not always obvious which ones are which and not all our visible at all times but with the help of our favourite phone app "Stellarium" it's very easy to not just find Jupiter, but zoom in and identify wha'ts what. At the bottom of this blog I will list all the software and hardware we use. My eyesight is not quite as acute as hers, but I can always make out one or two of the moons.

What's in the bag

So let's chat about the basics: What's in the bag etc. in this blog entry. I will just discuss shooting with the camera and we will visit the Celestron another time.

Binoculars. As I mentioned before our go to binoculars are the Bushnell Trophy  Realtree Xtra 10 x 42mm.

Camera. This one was easy for us as we have been photographers for many years and still had a lot of our equipment from our wedding photographer days.  For the stars though we used our Canon 5D MKIII and usually our Sigma 150-6700 mm lens.  If we are chasing the Milky Way then we will swap the zoom for our Sigma 1.4 24mm

Telescope. Our go to telescope is the Celestron 31051 AstroMaster 130EQ .   This particular one works equally well for daytime and nighttime viewing. It is easy to see the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn with this one.  Of course any similar telescope will also do the trick.

Stellarium App.  We have been using this app on our phones for years.  It's simple to operate, will display exactly what you are looking at by just holding the phone in front of you, and best of all it's  FREE!  It shows a realistic sky in 3D --  just like what you see with the naked eye, binoculars or a telescope.  https://stellarium.org/

Telescope Camera Adapter.  These adapters allow you to attach your  EOS camera to the telescope with standard 1.25 inch Eyepiece Ports.  Basically you drop your telescope eye piece into it and connect it to your camera.  You then attach the whole unit into the telescope.

Tripod.  Any stable tripod will do, our go to to for many years has been Manfroto

Wireless Remote Shutter.  This is an important piece of equipment as camera shake is the enemy.  I set my camera up, hold my breath and fire the shutter through the remote.

Lightroom (Software). We have been using Lightroom for years as our go to software for post processing. It allows us to fine tune the images, remove a bit of noise etc.  We also have been using Capture One lately, but to be honest I still prefer Lightroom.  https://www.adobe.com/ca/products/photoshop-lightroom.html

What do we see

Using just our Binoculars and camera there is lots to observe.  A lot of it though depends on where you are and how dark your sky is.   We are lucky in that we have a deck with lots of Northern and Southern sky but not so lucky in that we are not far from the city so the lights are a constant thorn in our side.  But that does not deter us too much as even with that amount of light several moons and planets are quite clear most nights.  So what can I expect to see I hear you ask.  Well firstly let's consider where we are.  We are in the Northern Hemisphere just about on the 49th parallel ((Vancouver)  so our observations are based on this.

The moon is always an easy target (at least when you can see it - it is) and is very easy to photograph.  Let's talk about the image at the beginning of this blog for a second.   This was taken on July 29th, 2020 and is called a Waxing Gibbous (80.25% Full).    Wow I sound really smart huh? Well with a little help from this site  - https://www.moonpage.com/  you can identify the different phases of the moon.  Also it allows you to enter any date (past or future) and it will tell you exactly the phase of the moon on that particular day.

The trick in taking photos of the Moon (or any bright object) is to jump into manual mode on the camera.  For instance, the Moon is very bright so to take this image I needed a decent shutter speed and a low ISO setting.  In this case it was 250/sec at f/6.3 and an ISO of 100.  Being in manual mode allows me to experiment; you don't want the camera thinking at this point.  See below for my setup used to obtain the actual photo.

Another thing to consider is that nothing is stationary so if you are shooting the stars etc. you have to be aware that with a long exposure they are going to move so how long you leave the shutter open for is critical.  If you are shooting with a wide angle for example you would be lucky to get away with a 20 second exposure before you get star trails.  My advice is to experiment. It's all good learning.

Canon 5D mkIII Sigma 150 - 600mm lens and a Manfroto tripod.

The photos below are all from the Canon and Sigma 150-600 mm lens..  Saturn, Jupiter, Jupiter and 4 of its moons. 
The last image is from Stellarium and shows the names of the moons.

Next I think I will have a go at the Milky Way and Andromeda. This will need a dark sky and a much more advanced setup, so our back deck is not going to work.  Stay tuned and I will add more later.

Click here for most products mentioned above 

Read more →

Birding Binoculars

Steve Owst

When choosing birding as a hobby there are a couple of things that you need right from the start.  Number one would have to be a love of birds and the outdoors. Of course, patience is a good virtue to have as well and I would say running a very close second would have to be a good pair of binoculars.  Agreed, binoculars are not 100% essential --  personally I often take my camera ahead of mine and some people use spotters -- but generally speaking a pair of binoculars would be right up there.

I like to speak from experience. My wife and I always go out together; she spots and I have the camera with the big lens.  Lately I will also be seen with the binoculars around my neck as well.  In the words of Sean O'Connell "If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don't like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it."  It's those times when I put the camera down, grab the binoculars and just stay in the moment.

I'm not here to review binoculars as I don't have the technical skill set to do so but just like red wine, I know what I like.  I know what works for me, and that experience also extends to what happens if I break them.

Of course, we are also a store and as such promote certain products but as I said I will only blog about things I have first hand experience of. 

Our preferred lenses for our binoculars are 10 x 42. For those of you new to this, let me explain what that means.  It's quite simple really. The 10 simply means that a picture seen through the binocular lens will appear 10 times more magnified or closer than as you see it with your naked eye.  But what about the 42?  Well that refers to the lens diameter: in this case 42 mm.  When comparing binoculars think of the second number in terms of how much light is let in. Obviously a bigger number lets in more light but at a slight cost in weight and dollars of course.

So enter stage left -- the Bushnell Trophy 10 x 42 waterproof binoculars.  


My wife was using hers for about a year before I decided to get a pair for me as well. I can honestly say that these binoculars are great.  They are armor-plated, waterproof, fog proof and super bright.  Is it sounding like an advert yet? Sorry but we really do love them.  Not that they are perfect. We have lost a couple of the covers: they fall off easily so we literally glued the strap to the body so we would stop losing them.

One of the cool things we are able to do (and this is not limited to Bushnell) is that with a steady hand you can take photos through the eyepiece with your smartphone.  It takes a little practice. An example is here...

As you can see, i'ts not bad and a useful trick for those days when you forget your camera or in my case here I forgot my memory card at home (again!)

But where we were really impressed and hence keep gushing about them is Bushnell's warranty.  A clip holding an eyepiece had broken -- nothing major but it was annoying.  Had a second one broke we would have been toast.  By now the binoculars were over two years old but we reached out to Bushnell anyway.  We were told that they come with a no question asked (no receipt required) warranty.  Just send them back and they would fix them for free.  So we sent it off. What Bushnell actually did was to send us a brand new pair. Incredible!!  We are now fans of Bushnell for life. How could we not be with service like that?  We have that piece of mind knowing that we are protected no matter what.

          

 

If you would like to be kept updated on new updates please sign up in the bottom right corner. 

Read more →

indoor garden

Steve Owst

I’m guessing a lot of you have heard the term green thumb. Well I do not have a green thumb however I am exceptionally good at growing grass in the garden and populating it with a wide variety of weeds.  I know I am not alone in this skill.  Our garden does have six types of flowers though, but only one of them was deliberate.  We did make sure that we bought the indestructible type of flower (it is a Lupine) the type that will grow every year despite my best efforts at neglect, so at least some success there.  I just found out that buttercups are poisonous! It is a wonder I made it to the age I am now. 

The reason I mention this is that we have a garden so there is really no excuse for me not finding some plant seeds, reading a few manuals and planting garden seeds in the garden. Wrong. I know myself: I would start the project and I would lose interest when I do not see any measurable results quickly. So that is when we decided to turn our eyes to hydroponics -- an indoor garden -- something where I can switch it on feed it and then hopefully just reap the benefits as the plants grow.

So with that in mind, this is our story (so far).

A visit to our daughter and son-in-law's exposed us to the power of Hydroponics, in this case an Aerogarden Harvest.  Once home we dug deeper (note the cool pun) and with the power of our friend Google found that this was a PERFECT match.  I mean, listen to this:

  • Grow veggies, herbs & flowers 5 times faster than soil - no soil, no mess!
  • Up to 12" of grow height for herbs, lettuces, tomatoes & more
  • Easy-to-use simple control panel reminds you when to add water and plant food
  • Everything is included and looks nice and kept together
  • I calculated the cost of electricity to be just over 85c a month for us here in BC.

I could go on but honestly it grows everything for you; all I have to do is add water, food and light (basically turn it on).  Sounds too good to be true right? 

So here we go.  Time to order one and try it out.

We ordered our unit through our friends at Amazon and as Prime members received it in just a few days.

                     

Inside the box was everything we needed including the unit itself, a pack of 6 gourmet herbs, 6 plant holders and 6 covers.  These small plastic domes apparently create little incubation chambers for the plants.  Also included was the instruction manual and plant food.

                    

It didn't take long to be honest. It was pretty straightforward.  Once I had added the water and food it was time to find a spot for it.   Now I knew it would be bright, but it still surprised me.  It is VERY VERY bright.  So we found a corner of the kitchen for it and turned it on.  After a bit of experimenting we decided to have the light on during the night so we are not there to see it.  So as it stands it comes on at 6 pm and goes off at 9 am.  We are told this is OK for herbs as they do not need a specific night time.  Flowering plants though need a dark period, so something to keep in mind.  So now we wait...

Okay time travel time. Here we are 8 days later and something is happening!

                    

Every morning now this is our first stop -- to see how our seedlings are growing. So far we have 4 out of 6 sprouting, the other two take a little longer according to the labels.  So there we have it!  Free herbs from our very own garden, plants that we should be able to harvest for 6 - 12 months and then we can replant them if we want.  I will update this blog entry as we go so you can see the progress.

We here at Birdly are now well and truly hooked.  So much so that we have created a whole collection for Hydroponics (Click here) which we keep adding to.

Stay tuned :o)

As promised, here are a few updates.

One week in

This next photo is after 3 weeks, from here on it's constant trimming and lots of fresh Basil etc.  It was amazing how quick and easy this was.

 

Click below for our current Hydroponic products

 

 

 

Read more →

Smart Birds, I had no idea

Steve Owst

My wife and I are great fans of bird watching. In fact we love the outdoors and many a day we can be found with other bird watchers searching for birds and studying the habits of our feathered friends.

Who would have thought that after growing up with sayings like "Bird brain" and considering it to be of a negative connotation, that it indeed should be a compliment.  Considering their size, and the amount of brain they have to work with, some birds have demonstrated how incredibly smart they are.

Let's take migration for instance.  Could you start out in Mexico walking and find the same pond in Alaska year after year without a compass or any other aid to help guide you.  People say it's in their genes, but does that make it any less an incredible feat? How about recognizing your partner among 1000 other bids that to us look exactly the same!!! 

One day we were wandering through the woods only to see a Killdeer standing on the path.  As we approached, the poor thing starting limping heavily and wandering away from us.  Now we were totally intrigued by this and followed to see if she was okay.  Then, up she pops takes off and lands back where we started behind us.  Turns out the little fella was a great actor and this was all part of an elaborate ruse to pull us away from her nest.  Smart cookie for sure.  Of course if she didn't lay her eggs on the path in the first place that would have been even smarter but that's another debate.

I must admit even though I love birds I never really considered them to be the smartest of creatures. That was of course until I read the "The Genius of Birds".  I'm not going to go into detail here but boy I will never look at a crow the same way again.  I've been outsmarted by raccoons before but some of the stories in this book are just incredible.

Anyway, enough., Don't take my word for it. Check it out yourself.  It's well worth the read.

 

If you would like to be kept updated on new updates please sign up in the bottom right corner. 

Read more →