Sun Dogs

Sun dogs form when sunlight reflects off of ice crystals in the air. The larger the crystals, the taller the sun dog will be. Here a small sun dog can be seen far left of the setting sun.

As the sun rose over Yellowstone’s Pitchstone Plateau, it sent long rays skipping across Island Park and through the cold air that enveloped me. I could see bright crystals floating in the clear air; diamond dust that made me cough with each super chilled breath. I searched the sky for a phenomenon I was sure would appear and found it south of the rising sun.

It was a sun dog, a bright spot to one or both sides of the sun. Aristotle called them mock suns, and their appearance often concerned our ancestors who seemed to always attempt to attach supernatural significance to marvels they did not understand. Natural phenomena were often construed as omens, and frequently used to predict the future as well as the weather.

In our area, sun dogs are most frequently seen during the winter time. This isn’t so strange considering that it takes atmospheric ice crystals to make sun dogs appear. Sun dogs form when light from a low angle sun (sunrise, sunset) refracts and reflects off the surface of hexagonal ice crystal plates in the air. This occurs up to six miles high in cold cirrus or cirrostratus clouds but can also happen much closer to the earth during frigid weather that creates ice particles in the air.

As the ice plates float downward, the sunlight is bent and deflected at a minimum of 22°. This usually causes a sun dog on each side of the sun although only one may be visible from a given location. The larger the ice plate, the taller the sun dog.

The crystals act like prisms, splitting the light into colors. The side of the sun dog toward the sun is always red. The far side may be green, blue, yellow or bright white.

It would be inaccurate to call every heavenly optical spectacle a sun dog. Sun dogs are members of the ice crystal halo family of optical phenomena. The two bright spots on either side of the sun are the sun dogs and are called parhelia (singular: parhelion) which is a Greek term meaning, “beside the sun”. There are also halos of which the 22° halo is the most common. It is a full circle ring around the sun that makes it look like a hole in the sky. Pillars are columns of light directly above the sun. Circumzenithal arcs of many types may also appear, often looking like upside down rainbows. Other optical phenomena such as rainbows, coronas and glories are formed by light refraction through water droplets.

It isn’t uncommon for multiple ice crystal phenomena to happen in complex associations. Pillars, 22° halos, sun dogs and several different kinds of arcs can all appear at the same time when conditions are right.

All of these phenomena can also occur in association with the moon or even with street lights. The common factor is ice crystals and any strong light source will do if the angles are right.

These recent cold clear days have been ripe for the formation of sun dogs and their relatives. Discovering ice crystal halos, whether sun dogs, pillars, halos or arcs, is just one of the many things that make winter great.

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.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"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.

Readers Write:

"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:

Post Register

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