Sky Watching

There’s a sunrise and a sunset every single day, and they’re absolutely free. Don’t miss so many of them.

~Jo Walton

I had a trip to Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges with a great group this past weekend. The birds have arrived (well, maybe not all the birds as yet) and it was a beautiful weekend of clear skies and warm weather. Too warm for my tastes, but I don’t think my friends minded. In addition to the wildlife, we enjoyed some beautiful skies, especially at sunrise and sunset. While almost everyone I know appreciates a good sunset, I find that many people are not fond of the concept of sunrise. A teacher that attended one of our Yellowstone workshops one summer (when sunrises are really early) sent me a cartoon whose caption summed up her feelings…the only problem with sunrise is that it comes too damned early.

sunrise Lake Mattamuskeet from platform 1

Just before sunrise at Lake Mattamuskeet (click photos to enlarge)

To make it even tougher for the dawn-weary, the 15-30 minutes just before sunrise are often the most spectacular in terms of color. Such was the case Saturday at Lake Mattamuskeet. The usual spot for viewing the sunrise is the observation platform along the causeway (Hwy 94) over the lake. From that location, a small island of cypress trees provides a nice added element in any photograph. In fact, I think this may be the most photographed “island” in the state of North Carolina, based on the many entries in the annual Wildlife in NC Photo Competition that include this photogenic group of trees.

sunrie Mattamuskeet

Getting closer to sun popping up

As the sun started to peek above the horizon, the colors had subsided, and more clouds became visible in the eastern sky.

rising sun on lake mattamuskeet

Telephoto sunrise

Switching to my Canon 7D MII and a telephoto lens created a much different perspective on the orange orb coming over the distant trees. But, from what I have read, the actual sun may not quite be up in this photograph. Say what? Due to the bending of light (refraction) in the Earth’s atmosphere, we see the sun in a position slightly different from where it really is. If I understand this correctly, this effect means that we “see the sun” about two minutes before the actual position of the sun is above the horizon.

Sunset north shore of Mattamuskeet

Sunset along the north shore

Back to just appreciating the sky…After a full day of wildlife watching, we headed back to Belhaven in late afternoon. Cruising along the north shore of the lake we passed a perfect spot for a quick stop to appreciate the final light of the day, as watched by us and a lone Bald Cypress tree.


Ground fog and dawn light at the Pungo Unit

The next morning we were at the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. My car arrived first, and two of us got out and viewed the horizon as we waited for the remaining folks. The sky was on fire and had the added beauty of a thin layer of morning fog hanging just above the ground. This type of fog is often called radiation fog. On clear, calm nights, especially in fall and winter, the land cools after sunset by radiating heat upward into the sky. This causes condensation in the air above the cooling ground. Under calm conditions, the fog will often form a thin layer just above the ground. This type of fog usually dissipates shortly after sunrise as the ground warms back up.


Wide view from the corn field

The striking colors of the the sky on this trip had me wondering,,,why do winter sunrises and sunsets seem so much more intense? A quick online search produced this confirming statement in one scientific article In the middle latitudes and over the eastern half of the United States, fall and winter generally produce the most spectacular low-sun hues. In general, sunsets and sunrises tend to be more colorful because of something called Rayleigh Scattering. That is because air molecules tend to absorb and radiate (scatter) the shorter wavelengths of incoming light best. Since blue and violet are the shorter wavelengths in the sun’s spectrum of light, those colors are scattered in all directions first, which is why we see the daytime sky as blue.

During sunrise and sunset, sunlight must pass through more of our atmosphere before reaching us, so it comes into contact with more air molecules and particulates such as dust. This longer path causes even more of the shorter wavelengths of blue light to be scattered from the incoming beam. That means that more of the longer wavelengths reach our eyes, resulting in a red or orange tinted sky. In colder months, the air tends to be dry and clear with fewer particles. That means more colors of the spectrum make it through to our eyes, resulting in more vivid colors early and late in the day.

sunrise Pungo over field

Tree silhouette at dawn

While I find all of this interesting, for me, the beauty of a winter sunrise or sunset is enough reason to be outside to watch them. And I must admit, sunrise is my favorite time of day. It is usually the quietest time since most of the world is still asleep, or at least still inside. It is a good time to think and to reflect on the importance of the simple fact of being alive to greet another day. It is also a humbling experience, especially when viewed in the big sky country of Eastern North Carolina, or out West, in places like my beloved Yellowstone. So, give yourself (and others, if they are willing) a gift of sky watching this holiday season. It is simple, really. Make time to get outside at the right time of day, take a deep breath, and enjoy. I especially encourage the gift of a sunrise with the addition of a warm coat and a steaming mug of your favorite morning beverage. You won’t regret it.

10 thoughts on “Sky Watching

  1. Your post is filled with so many beautiful photos. I love it. I really enjoy photographing sunrises and sunsets. I often miss out on sunrises as I am driving to work while the sky puts on its beautiful light show.

  2. Beautiful photos!! I am like many others – not up early enough to see the sunrise, but you have given me good reason to make the effort!! Especially in winter when it rises later giving us lazybones a few extra minutes in bed! Have you ever been to Big Bend National Park in Texas? Lots of great photographic moments available in the wild, wild west.

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