The Great Conjunction of 2020

Yesterday, we tried and failed to observe the Saturn and Jupiter planetary conjunction due to clouds moving in around sunset. Today, we drove to Kerr Dam and Reservoir in Virginia near the border with North Carolina to get clear and dark skies.

Jupiter and four of its moons along with Saturn

We clearly saw Jupiter appear not long after sunset. It was relatively low in the sky around where we were expecting it. Saturn was also just barely visible with the naked eye.

We are definitely not experienced at any sort of astrophotography. Certainly not photographing planets! But we did the best we could using the gear we had on hand.

What was most surprising was that our 800mm f/11 lens could actually resolve the rings of Saturn! When taking the photo, Saturn looked like just a big disk. But after lowering the brightness a bit while editing, I realized we could see the planet in the center and rings around it! Unfortunately, if we had known this at the time, we would have reduced the exposure. There is only so much one can do when the photo is simply overexposed.

It was also surprising that four of Jupiter’s moons are visible. They’re a bit faint but they’re there! I had read that they may be visible with a telescope but didn’t expect the 800mm lens to pick them up. It turns out that even our 400mm could see them! One of them appears very close to Jupiter and likely can’t be seen in the photo unless you’re using a huge monitor or zoom in.

We ended up spending about half an hour watching and photographing the conjunction. We were going to try and take some Milky Way photos afterwards as it was faintly visible even with a half moon high up in the sky. Unfortunately, a big cloud decided to show up and cover the sky! That ended our evening as it started blocking Jupiter and Saturn as well and we were already very happy with the photos that we got.

Driving down to the southern edge of Virginia was definitely worth it! We had a fantastic clear and dark sky to observe this once in a lifetime event. Tonight is the closest the planets will appear during this event and is only observable for about two hours or so after sunset before they fall under the horizon.

Winter in Shenandoah National Park

After consulting Astrospheric, we decided to head to Shenandoah National Park to see the Jupiter and Saturn conjunction that is currently taking place. Tomorrow is supposed to be the closest that they will appear in the sky but tonight’s forecast was more favorable. Also, today is the first day that any of Skyline Drive, the road through the park, was open after the storm a few days ago. We were hoping to see some snow!

While it was overcast for most of the drive to the park, once we arrived it looked good! The sky was clear to the southwest where the planets would be after sunset! But then, it got quite cloudy. It ended up being an absolute failure, but we did get to see some pretty snowy scenery!

It turns out that the snow conditions really varied depending on exactly where you were in the park. Some areas had just a bit of snow on the ground with bare trees, while in other areas, the trees were completely snow covered. And in other areas they were encased in ice. We ended up driving through about half way through the middle portion of the park. It’s all we had time for!

The most beautiful areas that we saw were where the trees were encased in snow and ice! It was similar to what we saw the day after the storm further north in Maryland but with more snow and more ice. Jewell Hollow Overlook had the most beautiful trees of all the areas that we visited today. It was simply stunning!

We didn’t focus too much on the scenery that was further away. The snow and ice covered trees were simply more interesting to look at!

Around sunset, it was pretty apparent we weren’t going to see Jupiter or Saturn. We were hoping there might be some good color as parts of the clouds seemed rather thin. There was a tiny bit of color but that’s it. The snowy and icy trees still looked good though!

Tiny Strip of Color

That little strip of color on the horizon is the most color we saw this evening for sunset!

Snow in Maryland and West Virginia

The nor’easter yesterday blanketed western Maryland with snow. There wasn’t a huge amount of snow on the ground in the places we visited but it was still quite beautiful!

We were originally planning on driving to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia but Skyline Drive, the road through the park, was closed due to snow. We decided to visit some places in Maryland while waiting to see if any parts of Skyline Drive would open. Ultimately, none did.

Monocacy National Battlefield

Our fist stop was the Monocacy National Battlefield just south of Frederick, Maryland. The local roads were still being cleared as we arrived and many of the park roads were snow covered. We ended up parking at the visitor center parking lot as it was already fully plowed although the building was not open.

There was a period of freezing rain yesterday which resulted in all the trees being covered with ice! It was quite beautiful! The effect was really only noticeable when looking towards the sun. When viewed in the other direction, the ice was virtually invisible.

The snow was fresh when we arrived and virtually untouched by humans. However, various types of animals had walked by. We definitely aren’t even amateurs at identifying tracks, however, we guessed one set was a running deer based on the huge distance between footprints.

The cannons made for an interesting subject as we walked through the snow covered field next to the visitor center. They also had snow and ice on them though it didn’t produce quite the same effect as on the trees.


Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

Our second stop was Harpers Ferry, about 30 minutes south of Frederick and Monocacy. The town and park is located in West Virginia where the Shenandoah River flows into the Potomac River and borders both Maryland and Virginia.

We parked at the train station which is still actively used by both Amtrak and MARC, Maryland’s rail system. From the station, the town was into the sun which resulted in a beautiful view with the ice covered trees.

We decided to walk across the railroad bridge to the Maryland side. We saw a freight train rumble by on the adjacent bridge as we started walking. The chain link fence that separates the pedestrian walkway from the track was covered in ice though it was melting fast. This resulted in some interesting ice formations that protruded from the fence. We also saw a few pieces of ice suspended by spider silk! After admiring some of the icy trees on the Maryland side, we walked back to West Virginia.


A line of icicles suspended underneath a railing at the river’s edge. Maryland and the railroad bridge we walked across are in the background.

There were also a number of ice covered trees in the town. It was a bit hard to try to photograph them as the ice effect is only really noticeable when looking towards the sun. This is definitely one of those cases where it looked more beautiful in real life!


Antietam National Battlefield

Our next stop was Antietam National Battlefield, about 30 minutes to the north in Maryland.

Once again, we parked at the visitor center parking lot. It felt a bit warmer here and the trees did not have as much ice on them. We briefly took a look at the two large monuments that were nearby before continuing onwards.


Washington Monument State Park

Our final stop was the Washington Monument State Park, not to be confused with the tall obelisk in DC! This is the first monument to George Washington that was completed, though it has been rebuilt.

The monument is located at the top of a small mountain, or perhaps better described as a tall hill. It definitely snowed more here than the locations we visited earlier in the day. Looking at some of the snow covered trees reminded us of Colorado! Especially the pine trees with their branches bent downwards!

Unfortunately, the entrance to the stairs to the top of the monument was padlocked. It looked like it would have been perfectly safe! We did walk around to the back where there is an overlook with a great view of the land below.

While there were ice covered trees, the effect was often not as noticeable as what we saw in Monocacy. Sun angle and arriving before the sun has had a chance to melt much of the ice seems to make a big difference!

White-Throated Sparrow

As we neared the parking lot, we saw some birds foraging for food in the snow. They were White-Throated Sparrows! We watched them for a bit as they darted here and there, occasionally picking something up from the ground and eating it!

We also saw a Carolina Wren under a pile of leaves next to a picnic shelter. We initially heard the leaves rustle and saw them being tossed around. It was awhile before we actually saw and identified the bird!

We also saw what was likely a Red-Shouldered Hawk fly by.


Last Remnants of Fall

While the majority of the trees are without leaves and have been for a week or more now, there are a few stragglers that aren’t letting go. These few trees definitely stand out now that they’re just about all that is left!

Sharp-Shinned Hawk

Sharp-Shinned Hawk

We’ve been hoping to find a Sharp-Shinned Hawk for awhile now. Recently, we’ve seen a good number of the very similar Cooper’s Hawk. There’s been a few that we thought might have been “sharpies” but they weren’t. We were pretty lucky today as this bird flew right past us and into a nearby tree. It stayed there as we walked closer and remained until we found a good clear vantage point. We were a bit surprised at how small it was! Seeing it in real life and reading about it are two very different things!

This Sharp-Shinned Hawk is the 95th species that we’ve found in our local neighborhood. We’re slowly getting closer to 100!

Fall Is Done

Technically, there is still a bit more than a month left in fall. Winter isn’t quite here yet. But it sure felt that way today! It was below freezing when we went out for our morning walk and there was frost on the ground. And a particular tree that was full of leaves yesterday was almost completely bare today! It was quite a pretty tree, and a rather large tree, and now it’s just like most of the others. But the leaves on the ground were nice.

Many yellow leaves on the ground.
A close up of the yellow leaves on the ground.

There was another tree of the same species that isn’t nearly as tall and not as far along. Its leaves were still a mix of yellow and green. It also dropped nearly all its leaves, even the ones that were still green!

Many green and slightly yellow leaves on the ground.

Fall 2020

The earliest signs of fall began in late September when just a few leaves were starting to change color. Now, almost two months later, the majority of the trees are bare with just a few that have just begun changing colors. Normally, we would likely have traveled to various parks nearby and beyond for foliage season. But not so this year with COVID-19 raging. Hopefully, 2021?

Morning Walk Highlights

Fall is coming to an end! Most of the trees have lost their leaves though a few aren’t quite there yet. We’ve been seeing all of the same common birds nearly every day along with a handful of less common species. We haven’t seen any new species since the beginning of the month.

We’ve been seeing Dark-Eyed Juncos nearly every day now! They seem to be the most common of the species that we’ve seen which migrate here for the winter.

The White-Throated Sparrows are another species that we see almost every day, though perhaps not as often as the Dark-Eyed Juncos. We recently learned that a song we’ve been hearing since earlier this year is from this species! We heard it during spring and occasionally during the summer but are frequently hearing them sing now in the fall.

The House Sparrows are still the most numerous of all the birds that we see. They are absolutely everywhere! We often see large numbers of them feeding together on specific plants as well as in the grass.

We’ve been seeing more Downy Woodpeckers than we did in the past even though they are a year-round species here. This is probably because the trees are now mostly without leaves, making them easier to spot. They’re typically moving quickly along branches, flying to new places every once in awhile.

During the spring and summer, we saw American Goldfinches everywhere. But now in fall, they are much harder to find. We don’t hear them nearly as often and we rarely see them. Their winter colors are also rather drab so they are not nearly as obvious as when they are bright yellow. The other day, we saw a few of them feeding on pine cones. The most we’ve seen in awhile!

For awhile, American Robins were hard to find. But we’re seeing them everywhere once again! We typically see them perched in trees, or flying around in groups. Sometimes, we see them feeding in the grass but not like earlier in the year when we’d see them hunting worms everywhere.

The Northern Cardinals are still pretty common. We typically see them every day, though often just one or two. We still sometimes hear them without being able to find them.

Not too long ago, it seemed every day we were seeing Blue Jays flying around collecting acorns and taking them to their hiding spots. Recently, we haven’t been seeing them doing so as often but still sometimes see one carrying acorns. We also don’t see as many flying around as we did previously.

We’ve been seeing more and more hawks recently! This is almost certainly because there are almost no leaves left on the trees making them much easier to spot. In the last few days, we’ve seen Red-Shouldered, Red-Tailed, and Cooper’s Hawks.

We got lucky the other day and spotted a male and a female Northern Flicker. They were looking for insects on a tree. We spotted them when a number of European Starlings flew by and we noticed a bird that had some white color. That led us to find the two Northern Flickers!

Recently, we saw a Great Blue Heron land on a roof! It is our first time seeing one of these large birds do that!

We probably see as many Carolina Wrens now as we have during any other time of the year. We usually only see one at a time but recently we saw a number of them flying from place to place. They’re definitely one of the loudest birds out there, especially given their tiny size!

Tufted Titmice have never been a species that we see very often. We’ve seen them twice this week which is pretty good!