Sun Dog celestial phenomenon
A rare sun dog spotted on a winter day. Credit: Elsa Lichman

One late afternoon, I sit on my porch as the sun lowers and spot a sun dog — a vertical, rainbow-like phenomenon — to the left of the giant orb. A vulture flies on enormous wings above, as the sun dog gradually transforms into a complete rainbow halo around the setting sun, and a mourning dove coos its plaintive melody. 

When the sun is low, amid thin cirrus clouds composed of hexagonal ice crystals, light refracts at 22 degrees to form either one or two sun dogs, usually on either side of the sun. They only last 15 to 30 minutes and are actually a rather unusual find. The name is reputed to refer to the Greek god Zeus walking his dogs in the sky, in the waning light. The halo occurs under the same conditions. 

Another related phenomenon is the moonbow. A variety of weather and astronomical conditions have to be met for one to form: the moon has to be very close to the horizon and the phase full or nearly full. Moonlight shines on water droplets, bends or refracts off the back of the droplet and again at the front, creating individual wavelengths of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. The process is similar for a daytime rainbow. 

Clouds were first named by an amateur meteorologist in England, Luke Howard, in 1802. Prior to this they were considered to be ephemeral and unique. He named three categories — cumulus, stratus, and cirrus — as well as a series of intermediate and compound modifications, such as cirrostratus and cirrocumulus. His sketches and watercolors of clouds, as well as his essays, were lovely enough to inspire known artists and writers of his era. 

In 2017, the International Cloud Atlas added the first new cloud types in 30 years, based on observations and photos sent in by the Cloud Appreciation society, a global group of citizen scientists. When there is enough documentation of specific types of clouds, a pattern emerges and a new type is added. Modern technology was introduced to the Atlas, allowing for these updates. Amazingly, among the five new “special clouds” was “homogenitus,” a contrail created by airplanes! The others are asperitas, murus, cauda, cavum, and fluctus.                     

People have been forecasting the weather for centuries, utilizing animal and plant behavior and sky conditions. Some ancient proverbs date back to the Bible, and others are more recent, but several have proven surprisingly valid. Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky at morning, sailors take warning. Mares tails and mackerel scales make tall ships take in their sails. Halo around the sun or moon, rain or snow soon. Rainbow in the morning gives you fair warning. When the stars begin to huddle, the earth will soon become a puddle.

Nature offers up more clues with bird and animal behavior, most of which can be accurate, at least in the short term. Tsunamis have been prefaced by many animals and birds seeking high ground. Falling pressure may affect people with joint problems, women in late pregnancy, and cow’s digestive systems, causing them to lie down rather than forage, while some birds call frequently. Certain species may feed more before a storm. Particular flowers close up as the humidity rises, so rain does not wash away their pollen. And the leaves of some trees curl just before a storm.

Today I visit the dam at the Mystic lakes. The day started out sunny with blue skies, not a cloud in sight. But now it is overcast, with a hazy sun appearing and vanishing like the Cheshire cat. I meet up with our local raptor expert by chance, and as we chat about recent nature observations, he suddenly calls out, “Six tv’s right above us! Floating on air currents, getting a free ride as they migrate north for the spring and summer.” He had never seen so many turkey vultures in a group here before. They remain with us for quite a while, and he tells us some interesting facts about them. They are capable of projectile vomiting when threatened, foul smelling enough to deter even the most dangerous of predators! 

Just as we have been graced by nature’s unexpected gift, another large shape flaps overhead, a huge adult female bald eagle, which lands on a tall bare tree across the water, allowing us a perfect view, before flying off. 

The sky holds many surprises and delights for us, if during our busy and preoccupied lives, we remember to look up.

Join the Conversation


  1. No mention of man-made clouds at all? A little misleading don’t you think? It’s nice to think that everything we see in the sky these days is natural, most is. But, mankind has been manipulating the weather for a long time. Hence the “rare” , “unusual” sightings of vertical rainbows and strange clouds.

  2. Thank you! I LOVED the insightful FACTS! And of course those older Stories/Myths which are actually FACTS about the Rainbow around the Moon and Sun.. those sayings still REMAIN INTACT in FACTS –NOT MYTHS!!

  3. I love this article, so knowledgeable in an enjoyable way, through rhythmic poetry, and historical facts, Elsa makes reading about nature a pleasure I always look forward to, and learn something new every time, like the turkey birds with disgusting projectile vomit! Yucky! Thank you for a wonderful read!

  4. What a beautiful photo of the sky and the delightful weather phenomenon! Thank you for sharing this with us!

  5. Elsa, You are a very talented, insightful writer. Thanks for sharing your gentle wisdom. You enrich us all. Ann

  6. Wow Elsa! You lucky dog, seeing that Sundog! I’ll be keeping my eyes on the sky! Thank you !

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