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As the sun perches over the equator, spring begins

Perhaps you’ll be at lunch Thursday at 12:57pm. Or maybe you’ll be busy at work or school. At that particular time, however, the sun shines directly above the equator. That morning it rises due east, and that evening it sets directly west. This is the vernal equinox, the first day of spring for the 90 percent of the world’s population living in the Northern Hemisphere. In the Southern Hemisphere, it is the first day of fall. Regardless of where you live, your day will be more or less split equally between daylight and night.
    More or less, because the earth is not a perfect sphere, it is tilted at a 231⁄2-degree angle, and its orbit around the sun is not a true circle. As a result of all this imperfection, our day of equal night and day along Chesapeake Bay was Monday, March 17. From now until the autumnal equinox in September, our days will boast more light than darkness, and our sunlit hours will continue to grow until summer solstice 13 weeks hence.
    The waning moon rises a little before midnight Thursday, with golden Saturn just two degrees ahead of it. As the two shift to the west, Saturn pulls farther away, but they are still within a binoculars’ field of view high in the south at 4am Friday. Early morning Saturday the moon is less than 10 degrees above Antares, the red-glowing heart of Scorpius, the celestial harbinger of spring. By Thursday the 27th, the thin crescent moon rises just 90 minutes before the sun and is accompanied by brilliant Venus less than three degrees below.
    Each year as Scorpius rises in the east, Orion sets in the west. At 9pm he is high in the southwest, but by midnight the hunter already has one foot beneath the horizon, and each night he marches farther from our view.
    So for one last time, Orion is the focus of this year’s Globe at Night Campaign, an international effort to involve ordinary sky-watchers like yourself in gauging the darkness of the night sky. This session runs from March 21st through the 30th. The data help determine the effects of light pollution. Thousands of observers from all over the world have already compared their own sightings to those on the supplied star charts and uploaded their findings to the group’s website: www.globeatnight.org. Now’s your chance to join the cause.

To recover from cold weather and salt, your landscape needs TLC

It’s been a hard winter for plants as well as for us. Damage to landscapes reminds me of the winter of 1976-’77, when the Bay froze as far south as Norfolk. Compounding problems are the tons of salt and chemicals used on roads, sidewalks and driveways. On state highways alone, 480,000 tons of salt were spread this winter, more than double average usage over the past four years.
    Everywhere you look, you’ll see symptoms of winter injury to plants. The foliage of many ground cover plants such as liriope, pachysandra, St. John’s wort and creeping junipers is brown and brittle.  Many azaleas, Japanese hollies and camellias have dead branches, and many small flowering trees have broken branches from the weight of the snow and ice.
    Most of the ornamental plants used in landscaping are survivors. With patience and time, they will recover and resume growth come spring — providing their roots were not killed by low temperatures.
    Roots are not as cold-hardy as the aboveground stems and leaves. If the majority of the roots are growing in mulch as a result of over-mulching, it is highly possible that the roots died in killing temperatures of –4 degrees. If the majority of the roots were killed, the entire foliage of the affected plants will gradually turn brown as daily temperatures rise. The only solution is to wait and see. If half or more of the plant dies, it means replacing and avoiding future over-mulching.
    For injured ground cover, the best solution is to adjust the cutting height of your lawn mower to about three inches and mow the tops down so they won’t look so conspicuous. Most likely the roots of these ground covers have survived and the new growth will emerge form the crowns or rhizomes. Dead branches in juniper ground cover will have to be pruned away one dead branch at a time. Junipers are conifers and cannot rejuvenate unless there are live green or gray-green needles firmly attached to the stems.  If the entire plant appears dead, then the only choice is to replace it.
    Dead branches on azaleas, rhododendrons and Japanese hollies need to be pruned back to a main stem or branch that is alive. If the entire stem is dead, cut it within a few inches of the ground. If the root system is alive, these plants can regenerate from the stumps on stems smaller than one inch in diameter.  Recovery will be slow, however, and it may be best to replace the plant.
    Do not try to bolt together broken branches on trees and large shrubs. This will only result in rot problems in the future because the sapwood has already been exposed to rot-causing organisms. Bolted together, they will rot from the inside out. Broken branches should be pruned to a healthy stem with the cut made perpendicular to the broken branch. Never make a flush cut with the stem. If the bark on the stem has been damaged, use a sharp knife or chisel to smooth the bark and exposed sapwood so as to promote the growth of callus tissue. Do not paint with tree-wound dressing.
    Damaged grass and plants along sidewalks or driveways may be dead. Do not fertilize as this will only contribute to the salt problem. The best solution is dilution. Spade a one-inch layer of peat moss with a dusting of limestone into the affected layer to dilute the salt concentration to a tolerable level. During the growing season, the sodium concentration will be further reduced by leaching.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

Or two ... Or three.

The single best general-purpose fishing rod for Chesapeake perch is a six-foot-six-inch medium-power, medium-light-action spinning rod rated to cast one-eighth to one-half ounces of weight. Arm that with a light, good-quality spin reel that can carry approximately 100 to 125 yards of six-pound-test monofilament or an equal amount of eight- to 12-pound braid. That’s a great perch stick.
    This outfit can easily cast lip-hooked minnows or grass shrimp on a small shad dart suspended under a weighted bobber. This bobber and dart rig is right for the spring runs of both yellow and white perch. It’s also the traditional setup for most perch fishing in shallower Bay and tributary water the rest of the year.
    The tackle is likewise robust enough for deeper waters in the summer with a hi-lo rig with No. 2 or No. 4 hooks, a one-ounce sinker and blood worms, grass shrimp or — better yet — small pieces of peeler crab. Using the ultra-thin braided line to get deeper easier is the most productive technique in hot weather months when the fish are schooled in 15 to 30 feet of water throughout the Bay. In this deeper water, you’ll generally be fishing over shell bottom.
    That one setup will generally get the job done just about anywhere on the Chesapeake. Still, many dedicated perch anglers prefer very different tackle. One of my favorite outfits is designed for throwing small spinner baits around jetties and piers. It’s a short five-foot-four-inch extra-fast-action spin rod with an all-cork handle rather than a screw-type reel seat.
    The thick cork handle is especially comfortable to hold, even when wet, and the shorter rod allows me to shoot flat, underhand casts beneath docks and piers to reach the shaded areas that white perch love during the daytime.
    The setup is also ideal for working shoreline in the early morning when distinct shadows cast by overhanging trees tend to concentrate fish seeking shelter from the rising sun. In spring fishing on small creeks, the short rod also avoids overhead foliage and allows an angler to drop a bait precisely into very small openings.
    I fish strictly four-pound-test mono on this outfit for its stealth factor and the challenge of handling bigger fish. To tempt strikes, I rely on one-sixth- to one-quarter-ounce Super Rooster Tail spinner baits in Clown Coach Dog and Chartreuse Coach Dog colors. The short rod accentuates the stubborn fight perch give when the tackle is matched to their size. The extremely light setup makes an all-day casting marathon much easier on the arm.
    When I want to target citation-sized whities that hold on structure in the shallows starting in early June, I will often go to a seven-foot, light-action finesse casting rod with a Chronarch 50e reel spooled with 10-pound Super Slick Power Pro and a six-pound fluoro leader. With this rig, I can stand off at a distance to avoid spooking the older, smarter fish (a 12-inch perch is often 10 years old) and throw quarter-ounce Rat-L-Traps, Cordell Super Spots and No. 13 and even No. 14 Tony Accetta spoons.
    Larger perch like to key on bigger baitfish, such as young menhaden and yearling spot, so lipless crank baits like these and the Tony spoons are ideal imitations. The larger size of the lures also means you won’t waste a lot of time reeling in and releasing undersized perch because they can’t get the lure in their mouths.
    Coincidently, our Bay perch are a very under-rated fly-rod species. Try a four- to six-weight fly rod of from seven to nine feet, a floating line and throw a small Clouser Minnow in sizes 2 through 4 in just about any color, but especially chartreuse over white or olive over white. You can have a wonderful and productive day fishing the skinny water.
    Keeping a long-handled crab net on board during any of these sorties is a good idea. It’s perfect for scooping up any big perch that you hook. It also avoids the agony of losing a lunker trying to lift the fish into the boat with just the rod. It only takes the escape of one citation-sized fish to convince you of the value of this tip.
    White perch are the most numerous fish in the Bay, and Maryland anglers harvest more of them than any other species. They are superb on the table, and, if you use tackle matched to their size and strength, you can make each and every catch more memorable and a far richer sporting experience.

On lawn and garden; never in the compost pile

If you’re burning wood, you get ashes. A reader asked if he could dump his ashes in the compost pile. My answer was a resounding no.
    Wood ashes are basic in nature and contain high levels of oxides, making them very reactive in raising the pH. Composting systems perform at their best when the feedstocks — those materials that are undergoing decomposition — are slightly acid. So adding wood ashes to an active composting pile will delay and/or stop the composting process.
    Store wood ashes in covered metal containers and keep them dry. They should never be stored in an open container where they can absorb water. I can remember watching my grandmother pour dishwater over a bed of wood ashes to extract a lye solution she used to make lye-soap. (Remember the song “Grandma’s Lye Soap”?) I can also remember the strainer she used becoming very hot after the lye water had drained away.
    Wood ashes are best applied directly on the garden or on the lawn. Ashes must be cool and dry when they are applied. Ashes spread in a garden and covered with dry leaves can start fires. I know because I’ve seen it happen.
    When applying ashes on lawns with a fertilizer spreader, first screen them through a half-inch screen to remove pieces of charred or raw wood. Directly from the container, they should be spread as uniformly as possible; use a lawn rake to spread them around to avoid creating hot spots that can kill the roots of the grass. Spread the ashes on a calm day, avoid inhaling the dust and wear safety goggles to avoid eye contact.
    In general, I recommend spreading a five-gallon pail of wood ashes over 100 to 200 square feet, especially on lawns. Higher levels can be applied on garden soils that are to be rototilled.
    Wood ashes are a tremendous source of calcium, potassium and some phosphorus as well as essential trace elements. If you are using wood ashes to maintain the pH of your lawn or garden, have your soil tested to avoid excessive high soil pHs and to assure that your soils contain adequate amounts of magnesium (Mg). Wood ashes tend to be almost free of magnesium, which is essential for the manufacturing of chlorophyll in plants.
    Save some of your wood ashes to spread around the zucchini plants this summer to help in controlling the stem borer. Before the zucchini plant starts spreading, apply a thin layer about two-feet wide around each plant. It will not provide 100 percent protection, but it does reduce infections.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

Five planets and a full moon grace our skies this week

With our return to Daylight Saving Time, I wake greeted by Venus blazing in the southeast. The Morning Star rises around 5:30, and an hour later it is well perched above the horizon, shining brighter than any object other than the moon and sun. As sunrise nears and if the sky is clear, another bright light appears 20 degrees in Venus’s wake, Mercury.
    Friday marks the innermost planet’s greatest western elongation — its farthest point from the sun as seen from Earth. Even so, it only climbs 10 degrees above the south-southeast horizon before sunrise. While Mercury doesn’t climb any higher, it brightens from +0.8 to –0.1 magnitude through March.
    Evening brings the other five naked-eye planets into view. As twilight gives way to darkness, Jupiter pops alight almost directly overhead. It is easily the brightest object other than the moon, which is far to the east this week.
    Mars rises around 9pm, as bright as any star. Compare its ruddy hue to the first magnitude star Spica’s blue-white glow just a half-dozen degrees away. Planet and star are at their highest in the south around 3am.
    By that time, Saturn is well above the southeast horizon, trailing 30 degrees behind Mars and Spica. The ringed planet is at its highest in the south a couple hours before sunrise.
    The moon is prominent this week, reaching full phase Sunday. Native Americans called this the Worm Moon, as this is the time of year when the ground softens and these creatures
begin to work the earth.
    Friday the waxing gibbous moon is just a few degrees to the west of the star Regulus in the constellation Leo, while Saturday the moon shines well below Regulus.
    Monday the just-full moon rises with Spica in tow. The lead star of Virgo stands almost directly below Luna, while ruddy Mars is just a few degrees left of Spica.
    Tuesday the moon, Mars and Spica rise in the southeast around 10pm and form a triangle. The waning gibbous moon shines four degrees to the lower right of Mars and one degree to the lower left of Spica. They remain tight all night and are high in the northwest as sunrise approaches Wednesday morning.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of fish

While it’s too cold and windy to fish, use your downtime to get ready to fish. Otherwise, you’re looking for trouble when you hit the water.
    Put fishing line first on your list. If you’re using monofilament, there is no question as to whether to replace the mono on your reel. Do it. Good monofilament can last two to three years, but even with the best of care it won’t retain 100 percent of its qualities.
    Sunlight, salt, friction and stress degrade mono beginning from the very first time you use it. Mono stretches before it breaks (often as much as 50 percent); after stretching, it does not return to the original length.

Fish-finder

Yellow perch have started up their run again after earlier efforts were halted by snow, ice and low temperatures. This time it should be for real. Try the upper Magothy, the Severn, the Choptank, Wye Mills and the mid-Patuxent. Small to medium bull minnows are the best bait, followed by grass shrimp and worms. Minimum size is nine inches; the limit is 10 fish.

    Consequently, 20-pound mono once stressed to its limits (by, say, breaking off on a snag) will no longer test full strength nor have the same shock-absorbing quality. Repeated episodes of extreme tension accumulate and can eventually cause significant degradation.
    Sunlight weakens mono, salt sucks the softening agents out and friction from the guides or dragging the line across underwater structure creates weak spots. Why risk the loss of a good fish or spoiling your first day on the water for such a minor investment? The average spin or casting reel can be respooled with fresh quality monofilament very inexpensively.
    More recently developed braided lines are much more resilient than mono and retain close to their full properties for a number of years. But they are not immune to wear. Strip off and discard the first 20 feet of braided line from each reel at the start of every year. Examine the spool closely. If you see any line fraying further down its length, consider replacing it.
    Braid is made from four to as many as eight strands of interwoven polyethylene. If any one of these strands has suffered abrasion in any particular place, your line test can be affected by as much as 25 percent, while two strands in different places reduces strength by 50 percent.
    Lines used for trolling suffer much more wear than lines on tackle used for casting, bait or bottom fishing. Dragging water-resistant bait setups such as parachutes, tandems, umbrella and chandelier rigs puts a lot of stress on the line over greater length. Add in the fact that the rods are continually flexing and the guides wearing back and forth in the same limited area over endless hours of fishing. Thus, annual replacement should be a minimum standard.
    The second show stopper for a new season is the condition of your hooks. Salt has a way of working its way into the most secure tackle box. Over the winter you may find that your hooks, especially (and perversely) those on your more expensive lures, have acquired a coating of rust.
    A rusted hook, even one lightly affected, requires exponentially more force to pierce a fish’s mouth because of its uneven surface. Removing the rust does not solve the problem; the corrosion has already pitted the steel. Unless you prefer near misses to hook-ups, replace any hook that has even a hint of rust.
    Finally, check your reel drags. Drags can freeze up if they’ve been exposed to saltwater or excessive dust and moisture, particularly if they’ve been put up without releasing the drag tension. Pull out a couple of handfuls of line against the drag to verify its functioning.
    If the drag is frozen or the line pulls out in uneven fits and starts, you need to disassemble the drag, clean out the components, grease, then reassemble them. It’s a relatively simple task and requires few tools. YouTube videos have tutorials on your brand or one similar to yours. If you don’t feel up to the task, seek a professional — promptly.
    We’re just about a month away from the start of rockfish season on April 19. There is no time to waste.

One-step potting

Larger seeds — such as those of broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, eggplants, marigolds, peppers, tomatoes and zinnias — can be direct seeded into the containers in which they will grow until they are ready to be transplanted into the garden. This eliminates the shock associated with transplanting. Direct seeding requires more space initially, but these large seeds do not require the tender care essential in germinating small seeds.
    They will germinate easily providing you keep the rooting medium moist but not wet.
    The container size you select for direct seeding will depend on the rate of growth of the species and the size you want the plant at transplant time. For most vegetable transplants and most flowering plants, three- to four-inch pots will be adequate.
    However, to produce tomato plants or pepper plants with fruit already well formed by the time you transplant them in the garden, you need two stages. To produce such plants, direct seed into three-inch pots. When the plants are eight to 10 inches tall, transplant them into six- to 10-inch pots. Transplant them before the roots circle the inside walls of the three-inch pots.
    To start all these larger seeds, fill the three-inch pots with commercial potting medium such as Pro-Mix, Sunshine Mix, Metro Mix or Farfard Mix to the top edge of each pot. Unless the seed packet indicates that seed germination is 100 percent, which is highly unlikely, place at least two seeds in the middle of each pot and press them in the soil lightly with your fingers. If you are using seeds that you stored from previous years, sow at least three seeds in each pot. As seeds age, germination is reduced.
    Irrigate each pot thoroughly until excess water drains from the bottom.
    Seeds of broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, Chinese cabbage, kohlrabi, pak choi and lettuce germinate best at temperatures of 65 to 70 degrees. Sow them in March to be tall enough to transplant into the garden in early to mid-April while temperatures are cool. To prevent sunscald, acclimate the plants by placing them in trays outdoors under light shade for at least a week before transplanting them to the garden.
    Seeds of tomatoes and peppers germinate best at temperatures near 80 degrees. Soon after the seeds have geminated, place them in full sun. Never allow them to dry out.
    Because seeds of peppers, both hot and sweet, are slow to germinate, they should be sown in March
    Like tomatoes, seeds of calendula, gazania, gaillardia, marigold, sunflowers and zinnia germinate rapidly and their seedlings develop rapidly. Delay starting these seeds until five or six weeks before you plan to transplant them into the garden.
    If you wish to grow your plants organically, blend any of the potting mixes with one-third by volume compost such as crab or lobster waste compost, which will provide all the nutrients the plants need until they are ready to be transplanted into the garden. Otherwise, within six weeks of germination, you will need to initiate a liquid fertilizer program.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

The earth’s pulse is quickening

Despite our recent snowy, cold spell, signs of spring are everywhere as the earth awakens from its winter hibernation. Long ago, the Celts of pre-Christian western Europe called this time of year the quickening. To them, all objects of Earth — not just creatures, but trees, stones and the ground itself — were alive, all sharing the same sap of life. Now, deep within the still-bare trees, the sap of life flows, birds build new nests; shoots of the earliest spring flowers pierce the frozen soil. All around us, the earth’s pulse is picking up its pace.
    These last weeks before the vernal equinox bring some of the greatest seasonal changes. Perhaps most noticeable is the growing length of daylight. Since solstice, December 21, we have gained more than an hour of sunlight in both the morning and at day’s end. Now, as the earth reaches an apex in its elliptical orbit around the sun, the days grow longer all the faster, adding another 20 minutes of sunlight in the morning and nearly 15 minutes in the afternoon between now and equinox March 21.
    Overhead, too, the changing constellations foretell the coming of spring. The familiar shape of Leo the lion crouches over the eastern horizon, its blazing heart, Regulus, piercing the darkness. Following the great lion is Virgo, the goddess of crops and harvest, holding in her hand an ear of wheat in the form of the brilliant star Spica.
    Behind those two zodiacal constellations is Boötes, the herdsman of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. In Greek legend, Boötes is Arcas, son of the nymph Callisto and Zeus and the first to tie a team of oxen to plow, revolutionizing farming and ushering in the era of agriculture that led to the rise of civilization. Each year, Boötes returns to our evening skies to usher in the spring planting season.
    All five planets grace our darkened skies this week, with Jupiter appearing at sunset followed by Mars and Saturn later in the evening. Venus rises in the east around 4am — 5am with Sunday’s implementation of Daylight Saving Time. And Mercury glimmers low in the east-southeast during dawn, far to the lower left of Venus.
    Thursday, March 6, the moon nears the constellation Taurus and its first-magnitude star Aldebaran, which is to the upper left of the moon.The Pleiades star cluster is to the upper right of the moon, while the bull’s V-shaped face, the Hyades, is farther to the upper left of the moon. Friday night the moon is just two degrees above Aldebaran, which is roughly the width of a finger held at arm’s length.
    Sunday and Monday nights, the waxing gibbous moon joins bright Jupiter. Farther below the moon is the first-magnitude star Procyon of Canis Minor, the Little Dog.
    Daylight Saving Time begins at 2am Sunday morning, when we spring forward an hour. While we’ll lose an hour’s sleep in the morning, it will provide a reprieve for night-time sky-watching.
    The International Space Station races across our predawn skies. Tuesday it appears above the south-southwest horizon at 6:43am and arcs to the east-southeast horizon before setting at 6:46am. Thursday, March 13, it appears in the southwest at 6:40am and sets six minutes later in the northeast. It’s brighter than any star and moves faster than a jet.

How to catch the first fish of the year

With the end of February news that the yellow perch bite had started, I imagined an immediate sortie. But the next three days brought deep snow and temperatures in the low 20s.
    That ruled out any perch action for now. But following the big chill, a couple of series of days promise to reach the high 40s. That’s the window I want. I plan to hit water the second day in each series.
    At this time of year, if you wait for a fishing report to trigger your outing you will always miss the bite. The day you are hoping for has to be anticipated. By the time you get a good report, that opportunity will have passed. You’ll rarely get more than one good day in any series in March; the weather is just too ­inconsistent.
    Water temperatures this month will often hover only a few degrees above freezing. But a 45-degree (or higher) sunny day can warm just about any shallow water up into the high 40s in a matter of very few hours, instigating spawning. The second day of a short warming spell is as good a time as any to try for the yellow neds.
    Find a place along tributary headwaters with relatively shallow water (two to four feet), good current and submerged structure such as brush, downed trees, rocks or even old collapsed docks. You’ll be in likely ­territory. These are the areas the females will choose for spawning.
    If you are fishing from a skiff, you can target the deeper holes where the fish will collect and hold while awaiting more comfortable temps to arrive.
    Yellow neds are unique in that the females exude their eggs in a gelatinous, milky, accordion-like sheath about two inches in diameter and as long as five or six feet. That egg ribbon is intended to entangle on the submerged structure, keeping it off the bottom until the eggs hatch in two to six days.
    The males come first to the spawning grounds and remain there as long as females continue to arrive and spawn. As individual females begin to exude their milky, egg ribbon, multiple males follow and fertilize the eggs. After the females have emptied themselves of their roe, they return down river.
    Tide is your third critical piece of information. The website www.tides.info gives tide predictions for many locations on almost all the rivers feeding Chesapeake Bay, including prime yellow perch waters like the Tuckahoe and the Choptank.
    Having a flexible plan is essential to harvesting a limit. Knowledge of the approximate tide stages for an area lets you try multiple sites. If you find no action at your first choice, dropping downstream or moving upstream you can anticipate the water levels until you manage to locate fish. Neds tend to move onto the shallows during high water and drop down to the deeper holes as the tide recedes.
    The published tide predictions may not be specific to your favorite (or targeted) spot. But if you can find one listed anywhere on the tributary itself, after a visit or two you should be able to calculate the differential and note it for future estimates.
    Yellow perch can be very selective about bait. My general rule is small to medium bull minnows and grass shrimp followed by bloodworms, then night crawlers. One of those is sure to do the trick. Adding the bait onto a bright lure such as a shad dart, jig head or small spoon can also increase your chances of success.
    The fish are also sensitive to your line size. Heavier mono or braid is, unfortunately, more obvious to them, especially the larger fish. Four-pound mono is my favorite option, though some friends score well using heavier test braid and fluorocarbon leaders.
    The first fish of the new season, yellow perch are delicious, some say more so than their white cousins. After a horrible winter like this one, chasing a yellow ned is far preferable to staying inside one day longer than you must.

The Dog Star’s neighbor once shined almost as bright as Venus

The Globe at Night campaign continues through the end of the month, so you still have a chance to contribute to this stellar effort. “Citizen scientists” — that’s you and me — are asked to study the constellation Orion and upload your sightings to the organization’s web site. Find details at www.globeatnight.org.
    The hunter’s neatly aligned belt stars point almost straight down to the brightest star in the heavens, Sirius in Canis Major, the Great Dog. A Greek-rooted word, Sirius means sparkling and scorching. The ancient Egyptians worshiped this star as their god, the dog-headed Anubis.
    Marking the dog’s forward paw is the constellation’s third-brightest star Mirzam, meaning the announcer in Arabic, as this star rises just before Sirius.
    The second-brightest star in Canis Major is Adhara, marking the great dog’s loin. Five million years ago, Adhara was a mere 34 light years away, and it blazed at –4 magnitude — nearly as bright as Venus! Seen from earth, no other star has ever shone so bright except our own sun. Since then, Adhara has raced from us and is now some 430 light years away and shines at a still-respectable magnitude 1.5.
    Less than five degrees directly below Sirius is the open star cluster M41, named after the 18th century French astronomer Charles Messier, who catalogued the night sky’s brightest objects. With today’s light-drenched skies, M41 appears as a single point of light. But that wasn’t always so. Around 325 BC, Aristotle wrote: “one of the stars in the thigh of the Dog had a tail, though a dim one: if you looked hard at it the light used to become dim, but to less intent glance it was brighter.”
    Staring at a point in the darkened sky, you’ll see what the Greek philosopher meant. Gaze straight at a star, and it dims. Look at it out of the corner of your eye, however, and the same star appears noticeably brighter. This is because our eyes have two distinct light-recognizing cells: Rods and cones. When we stare intently at something, the cone cells to the center of our retina react, providing us detail and color. However, in dim lighting, the rods at the retina’s outer edge respond.
    Today astronomers know that M41 is in fact hundreds of stars, but if you hope to see more than one point of light in this cluster, you’ll need binoculars or a modest telescope.