Encountering Wildlife After Dark

It happens to many of us by accident the first time: We're out somewhere on a daytime walk in a favorite natural area, which turns into an evening walk, and then, whether we like it or not, a walk in the night. There's enough ambient light, courtesy of the moon or a metropolis, to see the trail and not get into serious trouble.

Pretty soon things get interesting. An animal is rummaging in some undergrowth a few feet away. It pauses, becomes silent as we approach, but if we stop and remain quiet for several minutes, the sounds resume. It's a raccoon, or a Virginia opossum, or maybe if we're really lucky, a fox. We remain silent.

The rummaging animal appears, a mother raccoon with four kits. They cross the path some ten feet ahead, the kits goofing off and checking us out, ready to come right over for a sniff. A gruff sound from mom lets them (and us) know it's best for people and wild creatures to go their separate ways. The family disappears into the night.

What began as an accident turned into a memorable encounter. Now we're thinking about doing it on purpose. It's wildlife viewing at night.

How to Get Started

Go to a place you already are well-acquainted with from daytime visits. Knowing where the different habitats, and hazards, are in the vicinity is a major advantage.

Check for game trails and other signs, such as tracks and scat, in the daytime, and pick a good vantage point for nightfall. It's usually more productive to stake out one area for a while than to wander all over, dispersing your scent and making noise.

Take a good-sized flashlight, and cover the lens with a circular piece of red plastic wrap, or thin plastic sheet cut to size. The eyes of many nocturnal creatures do not pick up the red end of the light spectrum so it's possible to sweep this light around and catch the glow of eye shine from creatures large and small, while causing them minimal disturbance.

I love to explore the edges of lakes and rivers at night. All sorts of animals, crayfish, salamanders, frogs and snakes, fish, large aquatic insects, and other weird and wonderful things are prowling in the shallows right next to shore. I work my way along the water's edge with a flashlight (no red lens), stopping here and there to scan the water. If I see something really neat, like a big fish or a salamander, I move the light away so it won't be startled.

Know the Call

Ears become even more important for locating and identifying wildlife. Brush up on the calls of a few owls, such as the great horned, barred, and screech; these are all relatively common species.

Red foxes yap, white-tailed deer snort; coyotes yip and howl. If it's spring or summer, a nocturnal symphony of frogs may be performing. June beetles, praying mantis, and other large insects are on the move. Bats flutter and dive through the night sky in pursuit of smaller insects.

For those given to high-tech gadgets, a few companies now produce night-vision viewing devices. Originally developed for law enforcement and military use, night-vision goggles or viewers reveal the nighttime world in a soft, greenish light, and provide an entirely new dimension to wildlife viewing after sunset.

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