Sand and Stars

Apus, Beautiful Southern Bird

Apus in Johann Bayer’s 1603 Uranometria,

19 June 2017

There can be few places more fabulous for bird watching than the Kalahari – by day you lose yourself in an indescribably lovely world of colourful feathers and beautiful sounds… and by night in an indescribably lovely sky of beautiful stars, among which are those that sketch out the five southern birds: a toucan; a crane, a firebird, a peacock, and a bird of paradise. Unutterably exotic birds, it is not hard to see why Dutch navigators Pieter Dirkszoon Keyser and Frederick Houtman celebrated them by placing them in the skies.

I spent last night exploring the smallest of the southern bird constellations – Apus.

Lying in an area of the sky strangely devoid of bright stars, the little constellation’s four brightish stars form, to my eye, one of the prettiest little asterisms in the sky: a small sliver of stellar beauty representing a bird of utmost beauty – what 19th-century naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace called “the most extraordinary and the most beautiful of the feathered inhabitants of the earth”: the birds of paradise.

Birds of paradise are found in New Guinea and surrounding islands. They are strikingly beautiful with their glorious iridescent colours and fantastical trailing plumes, some of the feathers as delicate as lace, while others shimmer with a dazzling metallic sheen. These glorious birds really do look like something you could find only in an imaginary land.

British zoologist and ornithologist, Richard Bowdler Sharpe (1847-1909), published his remarkable book, Birds of Paradise in two volumes in 1891 and 1898. His illustrations showed these fabulous birds in radiant colour and exquisite detail.
British zoologist and ornithologist, Richard Bowdler Sharpe (1847-1909), published his remarkable book, Birds of Paradise, in two volumes in 1891 and 1898. His illustrations showed these fabulous birds in radiant colour and exquisite detail.

The brilliant plumes have long been prized as decorative objects in Asia. Hunters who traded the first specimens to Europeans in the 16th century often removed the birds’ wings and legs to emphasize the plumes. This inspired a notion that they were literally the birds of the gods, floating through the heavens without ever alighting, gathering sustenance from the paradisiacal mists, and only falling to the ground when they died. Hence the name of the constellation is derived from the Greek word apous, which means “footless.”

Between the months of May and December, the countryside of South Africa bursts into colour as the Strelitzia reginae blooms freely
Between the months of May and December, the countryside of South Africa bursts into colour as the Strelitzia reginae blooms freely

As a horticultural aside: These birds also lend their name to a beautiful indigenous South African flower ourStrelitzia reginae, more commonly known as the bird-of-paradise because its beautiful flower really does resemble the colours and shape of the exotic bird of paradise. (And for those who like to know this kind of stuff… The British scientist, explorer and botanist, Sir Joseph Banks [1743-1820] – who encouraged and patronised scientific activity all over the world – named the plant Stelitzia in honour of Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, from the house of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. The specific epithet reginae is Latin and means ‘of the queen’.)

In fact, we have birds of paradise all over the place here in South Africa – in our sky, in our veld and gardens and in our pockets! It also appears on our 50 cent coin.

Despite the dazzling bird it represents, Apus isn’t resplendent with bright deep sky objects for the observer (although, having said that, the few bright objects it does contain are beauties)… but oh my, an evening in Apus is as enchanting as the bird of paradise is beautiful.



16″ f/5 Dobs at magnifications of 150x, 228x, and 333x 

NGC 5833 – Galaxy  

RA 15 11 54.5   Dec -72 51 36   Mag 12.0   Size 12.1’x1.0’   SB 12.7

DSS image
NGC 5833. DSS image

This galaxy lies about 6’ south southwest of a bluish-white mag 6 star that hinders observation. But in spite of the bright star’s glow, the galaxy shows as a very thin oval shape with a bright centre that fades quickly outwards. Averted vision helped reveal a small nucleus that flickered in and out of view. It lies in a very pretty star-rich area.

NGC 6209 – Galaxy  

RA 16 54 58.2   Dec -72 35 14   Mag 12.2   Size 2.0’x1.6’   SB 13.3

DSS image
NGC 6209. DSS image

This galaxy appears as a small faint oval glow of soft grey light that brightens to a stellar nucleus. It lies in a rich starry background.

NGC 6392 – Galaxy 

RA 17 43 30.9   Dec -69 47 07   Mag 11.6   Size 1.3’x1.3’   SB 12.0

DSS image
NGC 6392. DSS image

This galaxy appears as a small, smooth round glow of soft grey light; its nucleus showing as a small central slightly-brighter brightening. Averted vision revealed a couple of tiny stars superimposed on it south of the nucleus.

IC 4608 – Galaxy  

RA 16 46 54.4   Dec -77 29 23   Mag 13.7   Size 0.9’x0.8’   SB  13.2   

DSS image
IC 4608. DSS image

This was one of those catches that takes your breath away; not for being breathtakingly beautiful or complex, but for being so small and dim… yet visible. It was very small, a mere droplet of exceedingly faint grey light.

IC 4618 – Galaxy  

RA 16 57 50.0   Dec -76 59 3”   Mag 12.0   Size 1.7’x1.3’   SB 12.8

DSS image
IC 4618. DSS image

This galaxy appears as a very faint, oval-shaped halo elongated northwest-southeast. Using averted vision, I could see an unevenness in the tiny faint glow; not strong enough to be called knots; not even enough be mottling, just a few hints of grey-er grey in the overall grey. 

IC 4633 – Galaxy 

RA 17 13 47.1   Dec -77 32 11   Mag 13.07   Size 4.0’x 3.0’   SB 15.5

DSS image
IC 4633. DSS image

This galaxy shows as an extremely faint, oval shaped halo glow, elongated northwest-southeast. The envelope of light is uniform, smooth and even, and there is a miniscule somewhat brighter stellar nucleus.

IC 4635 – Galaxy

RA 17 15 40.17   Dec -77 29 26   Mag 13.0   Size 3.0’x0.7’   SB14.6

DSS image
IC 4635. DSS image

With averted vision this galaxy appears as a very faint thin streak of silky grey light elongated north-south. A pretty little roughly 12th mag star touches its southern tip.

IC 4499 – Globular Cluster

RA 15 00 18.5   Dec -82 12 49   Mag 10.1   B * V m 14.6   HB V m 17.7   Size 8.0’  

Image credit Hubble / ESO
Image credit Hubble / ESO

This globular appears as a soft, round glow that stands out well from the star field. It doesn’t have a dense core, rather it appears as a somewhat brighter central region that appears a little granular; an unusual and interesting effect. With higher power a handful of tiny stars danced in and out of view, giving the globular a lovely glittering frosted appearance.

NGC 6101 – Globular Cluster

RA 16 25 48.6   Dec -72 12 06   Mag 9.2   B * V m 13.5   HB V m 16.6   Size 5.0’

Image credit Hubble
Image credit Hubble

This globular cluster is a lovely sight – a bright, round glow of intense unresolved star light. Its core is relatively compact but doesn’t stand out in the brilliant way the cores of so may other globulars do. The hazy unresolved periphery thins out gradually and mingles with the background stars. With higher power faint stars scintillate in and out of view across the face of the globular which gives it a beautiful sparkling appearance.

PN G308.6-12.2 – Planetary Nebula

RA 14 15 25.7   Dec -74 12 49   Mag 13.4   Size 31”   Mag cent * 14.7

DSS image
PN G308.6-12.2. DSS image

This little planetary nebula lies in a pretty field, cradled in a ragged east-west arc of 11th and 12th mag stars that lie south of it. Using the OIII filter, the little planetary nebula appears as a very faint round glow, very small; a soft, smooth silky grey colour. No sign of its centre star.

ESO 021- 6 – Open Cluster

RA 14 15 54.0   Dec -78 30 00   Mag –    Diam 9’

DSS image
ESO 021- 6. DSS image

I find it peculiar how, while looking at a pattern of stars, a new pattern – and often quite different – suddenly emerges. At first this pretty little open cluster’s stars appeared to be arranged in a Z-shaped chain of bright stars. A striking pattern… and while I was examining the stars within it, the Z vanished and instead the cluster’s bright stars looked remarkably like a somewhat irregular Southern Cross. The stars stand out well against the starry background of faint stars, a very pretty little open cluster.

ESO 043- 13 – Open Cluster

RA 17 04 06.0   Dec -74 20 00   Mag –    Diam 8’

DSS image
ESO 043- 13. DSS image

Another unexpected open cluster in Apus; a pretty arrangement of a couple of bright stars trailed by a handful of smaller and less-bright stars. The stars stand out well against the starry background of faint stars.

Copyright © Susan Young 2017