I am a high school science teacher, National Geographic Grosvenor's Fellow and a nature columnist. This blog highlights nature columns that appear weekly in local seacoast New England Newspapers
"The best thing one can do when it is raining is to let it rain" - Longfellow
The constellation Orion the Hunter photo by Sue Pike
by Sue Pike email@example.com published Feb 7 2017
Of the many magical encounters my students and I had on our recent trip to the Cape Eleuthera Institute in the Bahamas, one of the best was a night hike in search of the remnants of a long-abandoned resort at the end of the island. We stopped in
the middle of an old road and lay down to look at the stars and listen to the frogs and insects and nocturnal bird noises coming from the surrounding forest. There is almost no light pollution there, the night sky was twinkling with more stars than I have ever seen. We looked for constellations and talked about the myths behind them. I loved this. I grew up with a dad who was a physicist and amateur astronomer. We used to go camping out in remote New Hampshire (we lived in suburban New York where the sky glow from city lights drowned out the night sky) in the fall. We didn't use tents, just lay among the roots of an old tree where we could see the night sky through the leafless branches. I would fall asleep listening to my father tell stories about the stars.
As an optical physicist, my dad also knew all about the light energy emitted by stars, the various intensities and colors and what they meant. I remember he loved talking about Betelgeuse, a red supergiant star. Betelgeuse is currently shedding much of its mass into space - the physics behind how it is doing this is currently a hot topic because the gas shed by Betelgeuse is much cooler than expected and no one can explain exactly why. Betelgeuse is in its death throes; according to astronomer Larry Sessions (earthsky.org). "Someday soon (astronomically speaking), it will run out of fuel, collapse under its own weight, and then rebound in a spectacular supernova explosion. When this happens, Betelgeuse will brighten enormously for a few weeks or months, perhaps as bright as the full moon and visible in broad daylight." Someday soon is on the order of hundreds of thousands of years, so chances are we won't live to see this happen.
Betelgeuse is part of my favorite constellation, Orion the Hunter, probably the most recognizable cluster of stars in the winter sky. To find Orion look for his belt, three bright stars in a straight line. A sword hangs down from his belt. The central star of the sword is the Great Orion Nebula: a stellar nursery where new stars are being born and one of the most studied regions in all of space. Orion's belt lies between two of the brightest stars in the night sky - Betelgeuse defines his right shoulder and Rigel his left knee. Less bright are a club he holds in his upraised right hand and a shield (or in some versions a lion skin - I think it looks more like a shield) in his left. I don't think I've ever seen the club, but the shield was obvious down in dark of the Bahamas - I'm excited to look for it next time I am in a similarly remote place.
Every culture whose people could see the constellation we call Orion has a name and a myth for this distinctive cluster of stars. I grew up with the story of Orion as told by Bulfinch's Mythology: The Age of Fable. In this version Orion was the son of Neptune. He was a great hunter, a favorite of Diana (aka Artemis the goddess of the hunt and the moon, sister to Apollo). Apollo was jealous of their closeness. "One day, observing Orion wading through the sea with his head just above the water, Apollo pointed it out to his sister and maintained that she could not hit that black thing on the sea. The archer-goddess discharged a shaft with fatal aim. The waves rolled the dead body of Orion to the land, and bewailing her fatal error with many tears, Diana placed him among the stars, where he appears as a giant, with a girdle, sword, lion's skin and club. Sirius, his dog, follows him, and the Pleiads fly before him."
There are a number of versions of Greek and Roman myths explaining how exactly Orion made it into the night sky. In one Scorpio the scorpion is chasing him through the heavens. In another he is there in punishment for the wanton killing of animals. However he got there, every fall, when Orion begins to appear over the horizon I feel like I am greeting an old friend.
by Sue Pike
appeared week of August 28 2017 in the York Weekly, Portsmouth Herald, Foster's Daily and more
I was hiking up Mt Moosilauke last weekend. Toward the start, about 20 feet back from the trail, a Chicken of the Woods mushroom beckoned to us. The size of a stop sign, at least a couple pounds in weight, its bright yellow color glowing, it seemed to be asking us to come collect and eat it. We still had many miles to go so we decided to pick it up on the return. Coming back down we looked and looked but couldn’t find it, I think this loss is probably going to haunt me forever. It looked like the most perfect Chicken of the Woods fungi I have ever seen.
While I love the subtlety of nature, I also like things that are easy to identify - blue jays and cardinals, oak and maple trees, and edible mushrooms that cannot be mistaken for anything else. Chicken of the Woods fungi are one such mushroom. If you know a little bit about mushroom anatomy they really are unmistakable.
by Sue Pike
8/19/2017 The York Weekly/Portsmouth Herald/Fosters Daily Democrat and more
Of the many mysterious things you can find while beachcombing, one of the most difficult to understand is (I think) the egg collar of the moon snail. These beautifully-sculpted ribbons of sand show up on our beaches this time of year. A friend recently brought me one - it had washed up above the tide line, dried out and was starting to crumble. I knew it was a moon snail egg case but had to wonder how it was crafted; I certainly couldn’t have made such a thing. The story of how the female moon snail does this is spectacular - a nice example of the myriad of solutions nature has come up with to help with the task of reproduction.
Moon snails are beautiful, round, moon-shaped snails (hence the name) that live just offshore of sandy beaches and on tidal sand and mudflats. They burrow in and through the sand in search of their prey. Pick up a clam or mussel shell, even a moon snail shell, if there is a…
When I was a kid we had yellow-
shafted flickers on the East Coast and red-shafted flickers on the West Coast. Now they've been lumped together as one species-the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus). Flickers are common around here and easy to identify-they are large tannish-brown woodpeckers with a prominent white rump patch that is easy to see when they are flying away from you. Not as easy to see is the beautiful yellow coloration of the undersides of the tail and wing feathers.
One neat thing about them-you're as likely to see them on the ground as in a tree digging for ants and beetles with their slightly curved bill. They have barbed tongues that they use to snag the ants.