As summer draws to an end and the darker evenings start to draw in, it is sometimes
easy to forget that wildlife is still all around us 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. When
we close our doors and curtains, and are busy on our smart phones or tablets it is
sometimes hard to imagine what is going on in nature outside – perhaps only a few
yards away in our own gardens. As humans we have evolved as diurnal animals;
meaning we are active during daytime and we rest at night. This rest period is
important for our bodies to reset our natural body clock called our ‘circadian clock’.
In today’s world, our rest period is interrupted with so many sources of artificial light
inside and outside our homes, our eyes are no longer accustomed to the darkness
but we do have a certain amount of night-vision and we can still use that skill if we
take a few moments to let our eyes adjust away from artificial light.
Many animals, birds and insects are very active in the dark and are known as
nocturnal. We often think of nocturnal creatures as more mysterious as we rarely
see them during the day. Their senses, such as hearing and night-vision, are highly
developed to help them hunt for food or clean and improve their bedding, some
migrating birds even use the patterns of the stars to help them navigate through the
sky at night.
So why are these creatures more active at night?
Most nocturnal animals sleep during the day in order to avoid predators. Animals
that are on the “night shift” also have less competition for food and some predators
like Owls have adapted to nighttime hunting. In hotter parts of the world, it makes
sense to sleep at night when it is cooler.
Let’s look at nature – The Pine Marten
Its Irish name Cait Crainn (meaning “Tree Cat”) gives us a good idea about where this
native mammal spends most of its time. Its natural dens are in hollow trees, rabbit
burrows and tree roots. The Pine Marten has become a rare sight due to hunting in
past times and loss of forestry habitat areas but the good news is that it its
population is starting to recover. They are about the size of a domestic cat with a
long tail and a rich dark brown fur coat. Their distinctive creamy patch and bushy
tail make them easy to identify at a glance. Pine Martens have a varied diet of
berries, insects, frogs and small mammals (including the non-native grey squirrel).
Dark Sky Rangers
As a Dark Sky Ranger, you can begin a night safari adventure in your own back
garden to spot creatures like; moths, cats, bats and even foxes. Pick a dry evening
and plan a sleepout in your garden (over a weekend so you won’t be up too late on a
school night) or just try it for a few hours and experience the sounds of nature after
the sun goes down. This is something you can do as a family or with some good
Look for clues of animal activity before it gets dark; you may find trapped hairs under
a fence or tracks in longer grassy areas, use any information you find to make notes
and perhaps even a map of your garden area to revisit later.
The first thing to do is to let your eyes adjust to the dark away from artificial light.
This can take up to 20 minutes but your eyes will become adjusted then and you can
practice your night vision.
Use red light – You can still keep a torch with you but place a red film or coating over
the bulb. Red light is less disturbing for animals and won’t affect your night vision.
Quietly explore your surroundings for night-life, always listening carefully. You're
almost certain to find moths congregating around outside lights, or bats flitting
around trees and hedges until late summer. Young foxes tend to hunt for food early
in the evening so you may spot them. Later in the evening, if you are very lucky and
quiet, you may even spot hedgehogs or badgers.
Finally make a note of any sounds or sightings you have experienced in the dark and
create a wild story before you get yourself comfortable for a snooze under the stars!
[Article by Ged Dowling, written for Primary Planet Magazine]