Sand and Stars

Hornbills and Tucana

Tucana, holding in its beak a branch with a berry, as seen in Johann Bode’s 1801 Uranographia star atlas

21 Oct 2016

Last night, sitting out in the dark with a cup of tea and watching Tucana’s faint but beautiful sweep of stars take shape as my eyes adapted to the dark, I was musing about the bird it represents.

Tucana was first depicted as a constellation in 1598 when it appeared on a celestial globe published in Amsterdam by the Dutch astronomer and cartographer Petrus Plancius and his associate, Flemish cartographer and engraver Jodocus Hondius. It was based on the observations of Pieter Dirkszoon Keyser and Frederick de Houtman who mapped the southern sky on the first Dutch trading expedition to the East Indies, known as the Eerste Schipvaart.

The new constellations’s first depiction in a celestial atlas was in Johann Beyer’s Uranometeria of 1603.

Both Plancius and Bayer depicted it as a South American toucan. But interestingly, Frederick de Houtman included it in his southern star catalogue the same year under the Dutch name Den Indiaenschen Exster, op Indies Lang ghenaemt – “the Indian magpie, named Lang in the Indies”. He was describing the hornbill, a bird that is native to the East Indies and Malaysia.

The Kalahari is also home to hornbills, the most beautiful being the yellow billed hornbill.

The yellow hornbill’s beak, like the toucan’s, is huge in comparison to its body

A couple of days ago, as my dog, Waldo and I returned from our early morning walk, I saw a pair of these magnificent birds investigating a hollow in a Camelthorn tree, a mere twenty five metres or so from my little cottage’s back door. What a talkative pair of birds, chatting non-stop as they examined every inch of the tree and the hole. Apparently, they have used that nest for years (they are monogamous birds), and will probably use it again. How enchanting will it be to have these exquisite birds as neighbours?

They have an extraordinary nesting arrangement. The male finds a suitable natural tree hole and lines the inside with grasses and twigs. Once the nest is suitably lined, the female enters the nest, and they both seal the entrance with mud, although the female does most of the work from within, building a wall with the mud brought by her mate. She leaves only a narrow vertical slit, through which her mate delivers food and out of which she ejects remains of food and droppings.

She molts all her flight and tail feathers at once and throws them out the slit. She incubates 3 or 4 eggs which take 25 days to hatch. When the chicks are three weeks old, the female (whose flight and tail feathers have regrown by now) breaks out of the nest in order to help the male in his feeding duties. The parents and young repair the wall with their droppings. Both parents bring food to the chicks for the next six weeks, after which the fully fledged youngsters break out of the nest and, with some tough-love prodding from their parents, learn to fly.

Having watched the beautiful pair pick their nesting site decided me on the constellation Tucana as my observing target last night…



10″ f/5 Dobs; magnifications of 90x, 144x and 208x

The Small Magellanic Cloud is such a showstopper – so full of goodies and so magnificent an object to explore that it requires a night all to itself – that I realised it would swamp my gentle little hornbill-inspired expedition around Tucana, so I left it aside for this session. Instead I headed straight for Tucana’s other showstopper… 

47 Tuc (NGC 104) – Globular Cluster

RA 00 24 05.2   Dec -72 04 51   Mag 4.0   Size 50.0′

 Image credit Eso / Hubble
47 Tuc. Image credit ESO/Hubble

I’ll never tire of looking at this globular cluster; to me it defines the essence of globular clusters – awe-inspiring, mysterious and breathtakingly beautiful. From binoculars to high magnification, this is truly one of the globular showstoppers! And like all globular clusters, the longer you look, the more intricate and beautiful the view becomes – the spiralling arms of stars that swirl outwards, the layers of stars upon the layers of starlight, the small dark bars and patches that slice into the brilliant glow, the tangles of starlight that take shape and resolve briefly into stars that spark on the eye and disappear again, the beautiful tight core… a luminous ball of brilliant starlight dusted with crushed diamonds. This wondrous swarm of ancient stars is among the most beautiful sights, and it stirs me to my core.

NGC 121 – Globular Cluster

RA 00 26 41.3   Dec -71 31 24   Mag –   Size 1.5′

NGC 121. Image credit Hubble/ESO

I can’t look at  NGC 104 without nudging the telescope about 10′ north-northeast of its outer halo to look at this little drop of starlight, a globular cluster that resides in the Small Magellanic Cloud.  You can see the tiny globular cluster in the left hand DSS image of 47 Tuc  lying above and to the left (and the gorgeous glow of the SMC in the left hand corner of the image).

It appears as a tiny puffball of light that brightens to a small dense core. Despite being but a droplet of light, I find it strangely appealing, perhaps because it is such a treat to see a Milky Way globular and a globular from another galaxy so close together, yet so incredibly distant from each other.

NGC 362 Globular Cluster

RA 01 04 14.3   Dec -70 50 54   Mag 6.8   Size 4.0′

NGC 362. Image credit Hubble

Another gorgeous globular cluster. Its core is large and brilliantly bright; I can’t resolve any stars across it but I feel as if I am looking deep into layer upon endless layer of blazing silver starlight. The outer edges of the core appear to thin suddenly and the diamond dust of tiny resolved stars swirl outwards, a glittering turmoil of stars in the pearly glow of the outer envelope.

NGC 7205 Galaxy 

RA 22 08 33.7   Dec -57 26 38   Mag 11.0   Size 4.1′ x 2.0′  Surf Br 13.1   PA 73° 

DSS image
NGC 7205. DSS image

Located between two stars- a roughly 11th mag star to the NE and a roughly 9th mag star to the SW – the galaxy appears as a small, pretty faint oval of soft light, but it stands out well against the background field. It brightens gradually to a small not-very-bright nucleus. With averted vision I can make out some slightly darker patches that I suspect indicate some structure, but I’m not too sure.  

NGC 7329 Galaxy 

RA 22 40 23.6   Dec -66 28 44   Mag 11.3   Size 3.9′ x 2.6′  Surf Br 13.7   PA 73° 

DSS image
NGC 7329. DSS image

This galaxy appears as a small, fairly bright oval glow of soft light, brightening to a bright stellar nucleus. With averted vision I can see the very faint glow of an outer halo.

Kappa Tucanae – Quadruple Star 

RA 01 15.8  Dec -68 53 Mag 4.25   AB:   Sep 5″   PA 322°

DSS image
Kappa Tucanae. DSS image

A lovely quadruple star. The AB pair is gorgeous – the A star a lovely yellow colour; the B star an orangey-yellow. I couldn’t split the CD pair; they steadfastly remained a silvery figure of eight of starlight. 

Beta Tucanae – Double Star 

RA 00 31.5  Dec -62 57    Sep 26.9″   PA 168°

DSS image
Beta Tucanae. DSS image

A brilliant wide pair set in a beautiful field. Both bright pale yellow. There is a third bright star around 11’ to the southeast. And always a double treat… also in the field, some 12′ to the south, a faint pair of tiny pale white stars. 

Lambda Tucanae – Double Star 

RA 00 52.4   Dec -69 30   Sep 20.4″   PA 81°   Sep 20.4″   PA 81°

DSS image
Lambda Tucanae. DSS image

A wide and bright pair of beautiful yellow stars, set in a beautiful field of faint stars.

Delta Tucanae 

RA 22 27.6   Dec -64  58   Sep 6.9″   PA 280°

DSS image
Delta Tucanae. DSS image

A beautiful pair in a beautiful field. The primary is a bright pale lemon-yellow star; its smaller companion is a yellowish-to-almost-orange star.

h 5392 

RA 23 18.6   Dec -58 18   Sep 45.1″   PA 319°

DSS image
h5392. DSS image

This double is striking as it lies in the same field as Gamma Tucanae, itself a beautiful bright yellowy-white sparkler. It is a very wide and easy uneven pair. The primary is a deep yellowy-orange star, its companion a small pale white star.

GLi 1 

RA 01 10.0   Dec -72  57  Sep 3.4″   PA 357°

GLi 1 

The primary is a pretty bright pale yellow-lemon star, its companion a small faint ash-grey star.

Copyright © Susan Young 2016