For 83 percent of the world, seeing the Milky Way isn’t an option because of light pollution.
When I photograph the night sky on a moonless night, I have to leave the camera shutter open for around 20 seconds. Any more than that and the rotation of the Earth will cause the stars to be lines, not points of light. In those 20 seconds, the light from stars I cannot even see with my eye builds and registers on the camera sensor, and the final image shows far more stars than I can see. Often, there are so many “unseen” stars that I cannot determine the shape of the constellations in the image, leaving me astounded at the vastness of the universe.
Over the past several months, we have been in places designated as Dark Sky Areas—Big Bend National Park, Texas, Portal, Arizona and Oklahoma’s Black Mesa State Park to name a few. These are areas where the environment contributes so little human-caused light that the universe is once again visible in its entirety—pretty much the polar opposite of cities. It is amazing/shocking at what most of us are missing.
In most places, night skies are fading because of light pollution. What is light pollution? Essentially, any artificial light that isn’t needed for us to function safely at night. There is a lot more of that than you might suppose. I have heard of a person in Island Park who leaves his lights on 24-7-365 even though he only visits a few times a year. That is light pollution. But it is much more than that. Most lights are inefficient, are adjusted improperly, are poorly shielded or just plainly unnecessary. The result is that much of that light spills into the night sky instead of illuminating what it was intended to light. A more classic example is to drive toward Las Vegas, Nevada at night. The first time we did this, we could see the glow of the city from 100 miles away and I was stunned by the incredible brightness of the light pouring out into space and how it impacted what stars we could see.
There are consequences to lighting the night sky. For wildlife, the night is like a separate habitat. Creatures forage at night to reduce predation. Predators adapt to this and hunt at night. Excess light upsets this balance.
Many birds and insects migrate or navigate at night, using the stars to guide them. We are familiar with the loggerhead turtle hatchlings on Florida beaches. They are attracted to city lights more strongly than to the light of the normally brighter horizon and head inland to their demise instead of to the sea. That is just one of many examples. Too much light at night also attracts and kills insects and disorients birds, causing them to fly into buildings.
Too much night light can alter circadian rhythms essential for the timing of events such as migration, but also the timing of such basic functions as blossom set. Changes in timing of events can unbalance entire systems.
Humans are also affected by too much artificial light. Artificial light at night can alter our own circadian rhythms and suppress the production of the hormone, melatonin. This hormone serves us in many ways including antioxidant properties, inducing sleep, boosting the immune system and lowering cholesterol.
April 22-30 is designated as Dark Sky Week (slightly longer than a week) to educate us on what we can do to reduce light pollution. There are a lot of steps that can be taken, but the International Dark Sky Association lists these five attributes of good lighting that will produce a minimum of pollution. Lights should: only be on when needed, only light the area that needs it, be no brighter than necessary, minimize blue light emissions and be fully shielded (pointing downward and covered on top and sides).
You can learn a lot more about how to properly use light at night and find night sky-friendly fixtures approved by the IDSA by visiting: https://www.darksky.org/our-work/lighting/lighting-for-industry/fsa/fsa-products/. After that, take some time during Dark Sky Week to look deeply into the darkest sky you can find. You may see more than you imagined.
Help Idaho Wildlife
When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.
C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles!
See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live.
And tell them that you heard about it from Nature-track.com!
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program. Go figure.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Harriman State Park, Island Park
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho