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Why Does The Harvest Moon Look So Big In The Evening Sky?
Posted on Tuesday, September 13, 2011 by eNature
Harvest Moon showing its characteristic cool red color
Harvest Moon showing its characteristic cool red color
© Roadcrusher, CCL

Summer is almost over and the Harvest Moon is looming large in the evening sky right now.

The Harvest Moon is the full moon that occurs closest to the autumnal equinox, the day on which summer ends and fall begins. 

This year’s equinox occurs on Friday, September 23.  And if we’re totally honest, the full moon happened last Sunday— but the moon is still big enough the next few days to provide a good look. 

The Harvest Moon is special because the time difference between moonrise on successive evenings is shorter than usual around the time of the equinox, with the full moon being about 30 minutes later each day versus approximately 50 minutes later most of the year. And since all full moons rise around the time of sunset, the additional light provided by a full moon in the autumn helped farmers working to bring in their crops since they could continue working by moonlight even after the sun had set. 

So the full moon this time of year came to be called the Harvest Moon.

Many folks observing the Harvest Moon believe it seems bigger, brighter or more colorful than other full moons.  In reality the moon’s large size is just a trick of the eye called a “moon illusion”, caused by the brain perceiving a low-hanging moon as larger than one that’s higher in the sky

The Moon’s warm color when seen at lower angles is caused by the relatively larger amount of of atmosphere through which one is observing it as compared to when the moon is right overhead.  This additional atmosphere scatters the bluish component of the light of the moon (which is actually sunlight reflected from the moon’s surface back towards earth), making the low-lying moon appear redder to the observer’s eyes.  If you look later when the moon is higher above the horizon, you’ll see it appears much whiter than earlier in the evening.

So go out and take a look— the moon was huge in the sky last night and the last days of summer are a perfect time for moon and stargazing.

Have you noticed the Harvest Moon this year?  Here in the Mid-Atlantic, our birds, squirrels, trees and the like are busily transitioning to fall. 

What have your noticed?  Please share your stories—we always enjoy reading them!


Great picture and details about the Harvest Moon in a recent LA Times story »

Here's a comprehensive explanation of the science behind the "moon illusion". »



The moon was a lovely big pearl nestled in mist last night here in Michigan. I’ll check it out tonight, though my neighbor has trees that unfortunately prevent me from seeing it on the horizon.

Posted by Laura Bien on 9/13

As much of an animal lover that I am, I find this season difficult and annoying. The furry critters are moving into my house! 1st a raccoon moved into my basement and gave birth to 5 little guys.Than a Deer gave birth on my brick patio (poor thing dropped on that hard surface). Now the mice have invaded my kitchen. To make matters worse, the bees have decided my guest room is a good place for a hive - in the plaster!!  Not to mention the family of ground hogs that have taken up residence under the deck, only leaving to help themselves to my squash and tomatoes in my garden.
I feel like i am running a B& B for Mother Nature. This hostess has had it!!!

Posted by cathy ravella on 9/13

Oh boy, those bees could be a trial. Yikes! I have the same problem with squirrels of all things in my garden, who have decided that tomatoes are tasty. VERY annoying!

Posted by Laura Bien on 9/13

Speaking of the squirrels, my neighbor has a Horse Chestnut tree in their yard and the critters are rather disappoointed this year that the nuts aren’t ripening due to all the rain we had on Long Island this summer (18” so far including the damaging hail storm with baseball sized hail and the hurricane). Well, I guess the stash won’t be too tasty for the winter!

Posted by Carolyn on 9/13

Our harvest moon, in Portland, Oregon, is even more orange, due to smoke from central Oregon wildfires. It drifted here on east winds, and stayed due to unseasonably warm weather last week.

Posted by Vickie Gantz on 9/13

Here on the Eastern Shore of VA we have had the mice moving in much earlier than usual. Not sure why. Weather is still mild, plenty of food available out in the fields. Just odd.

Posted by Robert Meehan on 9/13

but the article doesn’t explain what causes the “moon illusion”. just giving it a name doesn’t hack it.

Posted by oscar on 9/13

Many more sparrows than usual have been busy harvesting seeds and whatever else they want and it is delightful to watch dozens of them in our tiny patch of front yard.  But I am surprised and sorry that the robins seem to have migrated south very early!  Usually they stick around till around Halloween!

Posted by Rita on 9/13

I thought I had mice running around in my attic…causing an added annoyance to my insomnia.  My daughter and I crawled up to investigate and found 2 bats tucked into the air-vented screened area (outside of the attic).  If they could talk they would have said “can’t you see we’re sleeping” and just looked so annoyed while we shined the flashlight to get a better look.  Even though they still make noise around 5 a.m., the noise doesn’t bother me as much as when I thought it was coming from mice (which breed and chew).  We love the bats because they keep the mosquitoes under control!

Posted by Deb on 9/13

@ Cathy Ravella- I can really empathize with the wildlife claiming your home as thiers, but could it be that mother nature has hosted you for some time?

Posted by Pam Fitches on 9/13

I have lots of pigeons, very bad, they land on your backyard and do not want to leave. What do you know I should do to discorage them from making a mess of your backyard? The internet mentioned that the owls were the best.All my neighbors followed my advise, It doesn’t work, they need to invent a gadget that make noise to scare them. Nothing else will.Any ideas?

Posted by Merry on 9/13

@ Merry..
I have pigeons, by choice.  a flock.  I can tell you that nothing is going to work for them, noise or otherwise, (except a cat).  They just get used to the idea of noise, they get used to things flapping in the wind, the whole ‘owl’ idea just doesn’t work.  They aren’t dumb, they know when something is a threat.

Posted by Lori on 9/13

@Merry, Lori is right on. A cat will make it dangerous to live in your yard. Is there some food related reason for them to like your yard? They’re like any stray…feed ‘em once and they’ll hang on forever.

Posted by Robert Meehan on 9/13

All it takes is a gray fox and a red fox to keep all squirrels (red & gray) and the mice in check.  Hawks do the trick during the day.  The foxes aren’t allowed to mess with the flying squirrels or chipmunks.  Raccoons & skunks make quite a meal out of grubs in the yard.  I would never trade what I have here for anything.  Fix all the holes in your house (even the tiniest crack) to keep the critters out.  Those of you with squirrels might want to check the air cleaner on your car (they like to store peanuts there) and the tailpipe on your motorcycle, nothing worse then a lb. of sunflower seeds flying through the air at full force during spring start up.  In the meantime, enjoy Mother Nature, she has a wonderful sense of humor.

Posted by Diane Gilman on 9/14

Wow.  How cool to have so many beautiful wild animals come to your home and feel so welcome.  Look at it in a different perspective and you will feel lucky that they sought refuge in your home.  I love animals and would be elated to have a deer or raccoon come to my house, let alone to have babies!  We live in Europe on the edge of a forest and are fortunate enough to have several squirrels and foxes come and eat.  The mice are just expected and so we deal with them as needed but definitely do not let any animal take away from the gift of the moment of being in nature, the changing of the beautiful season or being fortunate enough to be blessed with their visit.  Always remember….we are the invaders of their space.  And as stewards of this earth we should treat all animals with love and respect.  Love nature for all it’s worth:)

Posted by Rena on 9/14

Enjoy all the posts. IT would be nice though if everyone mentioned where they are from so we can compare.  Have a happy nature day.

Posted by Elizabeth Marshall on 9/14

I live just north of Atlanta, GA
You can always tell when fall is near, we have two humming bird feeders on our desk, and right now there are at least twenty (20) birds drinking and fighting over the feeders, usually there is just two or three.  We are having to fill the feeders up every 8 hours or so, and they hold two cups each.  Also, the acorns are being dropped from high above from the squirrels trying to crack them open on my deck, therefore making a mess everywhere.

Posted by John on 9/14

“Here on the Eastern Shore of VA we have had the mice moving in much earlier than usual. Not sure why. Weather is still mild, plenty of food available out in the fields. Just odd.”—Robert

Same in Michigan. I’ve never 1. seen so many mice around to begin with and 2. they started moving in in August (?!)—or, trying to. Thought it was weird; there’s no food available to them; everything’s high on shelves in pantry space or in the fridge.

Posted by Laura Bien on 9/14

I love animals also I know we have a groundhog many squirrels See a red fox every once and awhile. I don’t understand why people want to destroy these animals. I would love to just feed all the critters.

Posted by janice on 9/14

“Those of you with squirrels might want to check . . . the tailpipe on your motorcycle, nothing worse then a lb. of sunflower seeds flying through the air at full force during spring start up.” -Diane

Oh my, what a “delightful surprise!”  smile  That is just hilarious. What a mental image.

Posted by Laura Bien on 9/14

We might set new record lows tonight.  I painted a couple of chairs under my hickory tree.  The squirrels decided to eat their meal above them!  Oh well, a little texture never hurt anyone!  I am happy I don’t have mice….....but on occasion I think I have a bat in the attic.

Posted by elaine on 9/14

Diane’s post reminded me of the time we fired up my 1931 Model A, and after a couple of stalls, several ounces of dry dog food came blasting out the tail pipe. We ruined an entire season’s work for the local mice with one go.

Here in south central Wisconsin, we awoke to the first bits of fall color in the leaves. We are on the flight path to the Horicon Marsh, so I expect to start seeing migrating water fowl any day now. They fly overhead by the thousand. I feel so lucky to live here!

Posted by Lisa Delestienne on 9/14

It does explain the reason for the illusion if you read the whole article. Atmosphere; dust, smoke and anything else in the air that is between us and the moon, obstructing visibility more when it’s low in the sky.

Posted by Dolores evans on 9/14

How is it we are invaders of their (the animals) space.
I appreciate animals and certainly don’t do them harm but we are here as well as they are and with just as much right. We also are in the animal kingdom and many of those animals would eat us in a minute if they could and some would just kill us because they feel threatened by us whether they have good reason or not.

Posted by Dolores evans on 9/14

To Kathy Ravella:
My house is also a refuge for all kinds of animals: bats, squirrels and mice (that I know of) live under my front porch roof, an occasional bird gets down my chimney, and when I open the stove door to start a fire in the morning, it flies out in my face!  Then I have to chase it all over, trying to get it before the dogs do so I can let it out.  Deer rummage in my garden, a rabbit (hare, actually) eats my pansies, and in high summer a hawk makes my chickens go under the house over and over all day.  It makes me realize that before I built my house, 15 years ago, they all had full run of the area.  Now I’ve plunked myself down right in the middle of their space and they are still learning limits, like a toddler!  Anyhow, it’s all well worth it just to get to see that gorgeous moonrise I saw last night.

Posted by Barbara Bernhardt on 9/14

To Oscar:
Check over the article again: the explanation is there, not just a name for it.

‘a trick of the eye called a “moon illusion”, caused by the brain perceiving a low-hanging moon as larger than one that’s higher in the sky
The Moon’s warm color when seen at lower angles is caused by the relatively larger amount of of atmosphere through which one is observing it as compared to when the moon is right overhead.  This additional atmosphere scatters the bluish component of the light of the moon (which is actually sunlight reflected from the moon’s surface back towards earth), making the low-lying moon appear redder to the observer’s eyes.’

Posted by Barbara Bernhardt on 9/14

My high school science class taught that all low-horizon moons appear larger because of the magnifying effect of the large amount of atmosphere through which we are viewing it.  It is like looking through the central part of a magnifying glass - which is what it actually does.
As the moon rises, there is less atmosphere through which we are viewing it, thus minimal magnification.

Posted by Frank Gillen on 9/14

The moon appears larger when close to the horizon because of the Earth’s gravitational field. The field in general relativity represent the curvature of spacetime which can actually bend light.

Posted by Matt on 9/14

I see a number of folks mentioning the early and feverish fury shown by many animals preparing for winter, even though there seems to be plenty of food.  We also have noticed our horses and cattle building their winter coats quite heavy and earlier than recent years.  My bet is by next May (2012) we’ll still be talking about the “hard winter” we just came through!  Mother Nature trys to stay in touch, if you just take the time to notice!

Posted by Karen P. on 9/14

to Rena, I do enjoy the critters- outside- not in MY space. I have lived in rural Western PA for 27 years and this past year has been the most troubling. I think they are invading my space as this area has increased in population .
But thanks to that bright moon I did see a fox running across my tennis court last night - perhaps he will rid me of a few mice.
The farmers use to say when the birds start migrating early and the locals feed heavily we are in for a very cold winter.

Posted by cathy ravella on 9/14

My wife and I just finished building a house on a wooded piece of property in Upstate New York. When we got there in early summer we were greeted by a mother and father turkey along with several babies. One night we looked out our living room window and saw a mother bear and four cubs in front of the house lumbering into the woods. What a thrill! The next night we were greated by the distinct aroma of a skunk welcoming us back to our wonderful house in the woods.  Seeing these beautiful creatures is not only a privledge but a blessing we will always appreciate.

Posted by PeterJ. on 9/14

north central SD here.  have seen the moon, very nice.  but havent noticed the critters moving in early, just a few spiders and crickets.  A LOT OF CRICKETS.  walls of businesses here in town were just black with them.  dont know whats up with that, its never been that bad before.  havent noticed much different with the birds, but our forcast is for a colder winter with more snow than the last 3.  120” inches is what im hearing from the rumors!

Posted by jared on 9/14

You don’t have to live in the country to enjoy nature.  We live in a suburb of Kansas City and have gray squirrels, ground squirrels, mice, raccoons, opossums, bats, and all kinds of birds.  This summer a pair of Sharp-Shinned Hawks nested here and had 5 babies.  With all the bird feeders in the neighborhood, the doves are as fat as chickens.  I guess the parents decided it was just easier to bring up babies near the most plentiful food source.  It was really a treat watching them grow up.  The most they could manage to fit into the large birdbath was three at a time,  but they could all play in the water from the sprinklers that accumulated in the driveway.  Then one day they all went back to the country.  Now we only see them one at a time.

Posted by Pam Bennett on 9/15

In this part of Oregon (near Eugene) the mushrooms are starting to pop up.  I’ve been watching—and taking pictures—of one coming out of a crack in an old tree.  It started out about a week ago as what look like wad of yellow chewing gum.  Now, the top is bigger than my 2 hands spread together, and there are about 5 tiers.  It’s bright yellow on the edges and underside with an orange center.

Posted by Linda Hanchett on 9/15

As I was returning from the wheatfiesd last night the moon was rising last night and I took a photo of it because it was so dramatic here in SW Saskatchewan.  We are in the final days of completing harvest of 3000 A. of wheat and rye.  We feel blest because of the long stretch of dry, warm, sunny days…unlike last year.
We live a mile north of the Big Stick Lake which has runoff from the Cypress Hills following the big flood of the town of Maple Creek and washing out the Queen’s Highway #1.  The lake is full of water 6 miles long, the first time my husband had seen in his 82 years of life. 
The water fowl love the lake and we see Canada geese flying overhead the last couple of days getting ready for their long flight south.  We have white geese, swans, and many ducks that fly through here.
We have had a resident fox that raised a family under one of the farm buildings this spring.  A couple of the young foxes were seen jumping up to enjoy raspberries from the bushes.  A coyote chased a fox until the hunted one nearly played out and my husband intercepted the coyote.
This is really the place where “the deer and the antelope play”.  The antelope which are mostly seen singly or mother with baby during the summer are now gathering in groups for the winter.  The deer are rightly named ‘rats with antlers’ have marauded our garden…ravaging the tomato plants, eating cucumber vines as well as cucumbers, eating the Swiss chard (which they didn’t even touch last year!). 
Deer have been the cause for loss of several lives just this year.  They jump unexpectedly onto the highway and cause accidents.  We had an accident just about to our driveway last year when a deer jumped out of the ditch, hit the car which was already slowed down for the upcoming turn, killed the deer and did several thousand dollars worth of damage to the car.
We don’t see much ‘global warming’ here since last winter was a long hard winter with a LOT of snow that was ploughed into banks on the side of the road as high as 15 feet in places.
For those not accustomed to the prairies it is a most rewarding sight in every season to see the beauty of change in color.  And harvest season is most satisfying with the golden color of the grain flowing from the combine into the truck, the breathtaking beauty of the fields before and after harvest—shades of gold arrayed against a blue sky and then when the color dims there is the glorious sight of the HUGE harvest moon.

Posted by Leora on 9/15

To Leora. Thank you so much for your wonderful description of this season on the Prairie. I can hear the love you and your husband have for the world around you there. I’m from NY State and have lived on the East Coast my whole life but had the good fortune to visit a friend in Iowa during a Summer and a Winter visit. There is something about farm land that just helps me notice the color changes in a much more subtle way. And by the way, all that extra snow could be a direct result of Global Warming. It will continue to disrupt normal weather patterns, and I’ve noticed that already just in my lifetime. Again, thanks for the mental picture of life on the Northern Plains.

Posted by Robert Meehan on 9/15

Here in south central Texas all of the animals are in exist mode. Just exist until it rains. (People are too, but we’re talking about animals here…)
We haven’t had rain since March and the wildlife is taking a hard hit. There are few blooming flowers for those that live for them. The bees are regular visitors to the hummingbird feeder and cluster around the holes to get what meager benefits the sugared water offers. Even the woodpeckers become giant hummers as they cling for sips.
Finches are regulars at the thistle feeder. Not just the goldfinches, but sparrows and any other thistle seed eater that passes through.
We keep our side yard watered for the foundation, and find there are enough bugs around to keep the wrens and visiting flycatchers busy.
There is water in a bucket and two bird baths out front. The deer pass through several times a day for long drinks and the birds line up through the branches of surrounding trees for turns at baths and drinks. That’s just during the day. I’m sure many others visit at night.
The dish feeder brings other seed eaters (dove, scrub jays, titmice, chickadees) and even squirrels.
Effectively, we have turned into a dust bowl of sorts down here. Wild fires start at the spark of a thought and race across thousands of acres before petering out, only to flare up in another area.
The wildlife have had an incredibly hard time this year and from what forecasters are saying, it’s not going to get any better for awhile. (the ranchers have lost their animals or sent them to slaughter early because they couldn’t afford to keep feeding them.)
Global warming? Maybe. The way things are? Possibly. But certainly there is a change occurring.
And them moon yesterday was amazing!

Posted by Robin on 9/16

To Leora and Robin, I love reading your well written descriptions of far spaced places. I feel I am armchair traveler. Last night it dropped to 42* and it is still summer??  Guess like the critters we will prepare for winter and grease up the snow plow.No moon at all due to the cloud cover in Western PA.

Posted by cathy ravella on 9/16

I’m hoping for a nice winter snow cover this year.  Didn’t lose a plant in my garden last winter since we had such a nice white blanket.

Posted by Pam Bennett on 9/17

So far, experts have not been able to explain why the moon always looks bigger as it is rising.

Posted by Michael G. on 9/19

To Michael G.- I can!  PFM.  Pure #!*^#* Magic. smile  Seriously, I thought it was a magnifying effect caused by the light passing thru more of the atmosphere.

Posted by Robert on 9/19

I was wondering if one of those motion-sensor sprinklers might discourage flocks of pigeons? They don’t cost much, and you probably have to do some watering anyway. It might be worth a try!

Posted by Tracey on 9/21
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