Sun Dogs and Winter Robins

Text and photos by Robert Towe

From my nature journal, Monday, February 8: I just finished considering a timbered property for a forest management plan, northwest in the county. As I head back up the river a hazy winter sun descends over the jagged purple rim of western mountains.

Through a high veil of cirro-stratus, small vivid arcs of rainbow colors shimmer on either side of the lowering sun. Those of us who live close to the land and the weather know these sky-prisms as “sun dogs”, although the source of that name is not certain. They are caused by reflections of sunlight glazing trillions of ice crystals in high altitude clouds on the leading edge of a low pressure system. Multitudes of tiny frozen crystals refract the sunlight into a spectral range of colors.

Similar to a halo around the moon, sun dogs are often signs of approaching weather. The effect of such prescient beauty is both dazzling and ominous, as we knowingly behold the coming of another storm. (The next day, thick skeins of snow came unfurling down the wild sky). 

Monday morning, Jan. 25: As the sun climbs a bit higher each day, birds increase their singing into the vast and growing sweep of light. Today the cold air is clucking and chirping with winter robins. A small flock of them has flown in, settling on the yard and garden. Each year they suddenly appear in the depths of winter, tempting us to think an early Spring has blown in with them. But the weather-wise among us know better.     

Although we think of them as “common”, I enjoy watching robins---black heads, white eye-rings, yellow bills, dark slate upper parts, rusty undersides. In the garden their rich, red-brown breasts contrast with the pale straw of “broom sage”, and complement the hearty green clumps of winter kale. Robins hop about and pause intently, wings thrust sharply down, head cocked sideways with distinctive poise, “listening” for small invertebrates in the ground, pulling up worms and grubs from raw patches of thawed earth.     

Had we never seen a robin, their robust beauty and behavior would attract us. They bounce about our lawns and gardens with total aplomb, as if they owned the place. In truth, their tribe has been here far longer than we.     

Oddly enough these winter migrants began appearing the last few weeks of snowy weather. They are probably escaping harsher weather to the north, and will likely return there when the weather warms. These are not the same robins that will arrive as mating couples in another month or two. Those birds will stay with us to sweetly sing and nest, raising their young among apple blossoms in the windy boughs of mountain Spring.