Jupiter is the bright “star” center left in the photo. Mars is slightly below Jupiter to the right and Saturn is the bright “star” left of and just below Jupiter.

The early morning sky and I are not well acquainted. Seeing stars before the sun can brighten the sky enough to hide them requires getting up about 4:30 a.m. in March, just a tad early for me. But when I read that Jupiter, Mars, Saturn and Venus would all be visible in the pre-dawn sky in the third week of March, I determined to see them.

So, on Thursday morning last, I rose at the requisite time, drove six miles to the top of a mountain in Chiricahua National Monument in southeast Arizona and set up my spotting scope facing east. Just as I had read, the inside of a rising sliver of a waning moon guided me to Jupiter, Saturn and Mars a fist width away to the south.

Jupiter was far easier to find than I expected. It is the brightest “star” in the sky, but just knowing to look to the right of the crescent moon gave me a great advantage. Mars was just below Jupiter and to the right, seeming to almost touch the super planet. Saturn was almost half way between the moon and Jupiter. A straight line between Jupiter and Saturn ran almost through Mercury just left of the moon, barely visible above the horizon.

I was most interested in Jupiter, our largest planetary neighbor, because of the potential role it played in the formation of Earth and mostly because of its reported role as Earth’s guardian. I was a bit disappointed when I found Jupiter in my spotting scope. Even at 45 power, about five times stronger than my binoculars, Jupiter still was just a larger super bright circle. I could see no detail.

Jupiter is truly huge. Eleven earths could fit across its diameter and it could swallow 1,300 earths without a burp. The story that I had heard at the Kitt Peak Observatory was that Jupiter, with its colossal size and equally strong gravitational pull, has saved Earth from many a meteor that could have destroyed it.

As I looked into this theory, I found, as usual, that there is more than one interpretation of the data, most of which comes from computer simulations. As a rule, Jupiter, along with Saturn, kept smaller space debris from coalescing into larger planet-like meteors that could threaten Earth during the formation of the solar system. Computer simulations of solar systems lacking giant planets found that massive impacts would occur more often and for a longer time period. Massive impacts could break off chunks of the Earth (astronomers believe our moon was formed when an enormous meteor knocked the moon-sized piece of Earth off) or even destroy our atmosphere, making the planet uninhabitable.

On the other hand, Jupiter has been accused of actually trying to hit Earth with a meteor. In 1770, a comet known as Lexell’s Comet, came within one million miles of Earth (in astronomy, that is a miss by a mere cat’s whisker and is still a record for the closest comet) after Jupiter’s gravity pulled it off course. After two orbits around the sun, Lexell’s Comet once again passed close to Jupiter which hurled it into deep space in 1779.

So, Jupiter’s role as big brother may be more complicated than I was led to believe, but I am still glad I made the effort to get acquainted with it. Getting to know our neighbors is always a good thing, and in the case of Jupiter, social distancing wasn’t an issue.


NOTE: Jupiter is visible in the morning sky from January 15-July 13 and evenings from July 14-December 31. If you know your constellations, Sagittarius will be in the background for much of the year.


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.

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

TAX DAY is coming! Here is a chance to do something good with a bit of your tax return and make the day less painful.

Donate part of your tax return to support wildlife in Idaho!

On the second page of the Idaho Individual Tax form 40 you have the opportunity to donate to the “Nongame Wildlife Conservation Fund”.

Check-off this box on your next return or ask your tax preparer to mark the Nongame check-off on your behalf. You can donate any amount you wish, it all helps to support the wildlife you love.

If you are not from Idaho, check with your own state wildlife agency about how you can help. Many states have a similar program.