Nightfall turns everything new. When the dark slowly takes away vision, every sound is magnified. A small animal scurrying through leaves sounds like a bear crashing through the brush. Familiar places turn unfamiliar when they disappear from view.
There are many terms for that time of day. It is called dusk or twilight or the gloaming. It is the gray time that marks the end of day and the beginning of night. The familiar daytime animals disappear and the night shift appears in an invisible wave that is more often heard than seen.
Night is an enchanting time to go outside, as well as a slightly unnerving one. It is one thing to walk around a yard or neighborhood in the dark and another to walk a mile or two through the woods in the dark.
On some night hikes, my feet tell me more about where I am than my eyes. The hard packed earth under my feet feels different than the soft forest floor. There is a distinct difference that can be felt in the dark that is almost unnoticeable during the day.
This area is full of amazing animals that come out at night. Flying squirrels glide from tree to tree with flaps of skin stretched from ankle to wrist, allowing them to move like paper airplanes in the darkened forest.
Fireflies come out at dusk, but species vary as the night moves on. There are many kinds of fireflies, each with a distinct color and flash pattern. There are orange, red, yellow and green flashers, each with a different pattern of flashes. Some are active early in the night, others later. A dedicated firefly watcher can stay up all night and watch the changes in color and patterns as the night wears on.
Around 10:00 p.m. the Synchronous Fireflies emerge. These bright fireflies slowly synch their lights to all flash five times all at once. The pattern goes something like this: flash five times together, dark for a count of 12. Repeat. Some people travel hundreds of miles to visit the Great Smokey Mountains to see these fireflies, but they can be found in forests throughout the region.
Owls also come out at night. There is a great variety of local owls, but they are often misunderstood. Screech Owls, often blamed for horrendous screaming in the woods, actually make a mellow little horse whinny. Barred Owls and Great Horned Owls hoot, though Barred Owls have a huge variety of noises they make, including screams, monkey noises and more.
One of the saddest stories of my life is that of the bat. When I started at Audubon, bats swooped and dove over every pond and trail. Their aeronautical feats as they pursued moths and other insects stunned me. One bat researcher, known as a chiropterist, showed me how he used a microphone and this weird device called a bat detector to listen to and identify the bats flying overhead as they made sounds high above the range of human hearing.
The tiny clicks the bats made got faster and faster as they hunted flying insects. Bats use echolocation to hunt. The sounds they make bounce off their prey and the clicks get faster and faster as they close in on a juicy moth or mayfly. That was over ten years ago.
Since that day, bat populations have been almost wiped out. A disease known as White Nose Syndrome killed millions of bats. Skies that were once alive with the inaudible clicks of hunting bats are now simply silent as most of the local bats are dead. There are a few that wander the skies at night and seem to be holding their own.
The Audubon Community Nature Center is looking for people who want to experience the night. On June 23, from 9:00 to 11:00 p.m., they will host Audubon After Dark. This event allows visitors to explore the night and features Owl Prowls to find owls, a moth light to view the amazing local moths, a night hike to explore the night, a chiropterist with a bat detector to help visitors hear bats, a Synchronous Firefly hike and a bonfire with s’mores. The event costs $16 for adults and $12 for member and children 16 and under. Learn more at the Audubon Community Nature Center website, auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345 for more information.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located at 1600 Riverside Road just east off Route 62 between Jamestown and Warren. Trails are open dawn to dusk.
Jeff Tome is a naturalist at ACNC.