A wild night out

We spend a third of our lives asleep. What a waste, says Dominic Couzens – we are missing out on some of the best wildlife experiences that Britain has to offer. 

 

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Wild night out article spread
We spend a third of our lives asleep. What a waste – we are missing out on some of the best wildlife experiences that Britain has to offer.
 
When night falls, our world loses its certainty. We need to see clearly to be sure of ourselves; when the sky is dark, we feel the urge to illuminate everything with artificial light.
 
But when we venture outside our comfort zone, we start to discover new experiences, and that’s not always a bad thing. This article is about the wildlife adventures that can be had at the flick of a switch – the off switch.
 
Have you ever wandered around your garden or neighbourhood after dark to really experience and feel the outside? Without a torch, in the very dead of night, so that you are plunged into inky blackness? And have you ever been brave enough to do this right out in the countryside, where there are hardly any lights? Very few people have. 
 
I want to encourage you to take the plunge, first on your doorstep and then further afield. Prepare to be surprised: a wonderful world awaits you.
 
In the night garden
 
A great place to start your exploration of the night is your back garden. Failing that, any safe area of rough ground near where you live will do.
 
First, simply immerse yourself. Go outside on a warm, still night and stand in the darkest place you can find (there’s no need to hide: choose a relatively open area). After a while, you will notice that your senses of hearing and smell change up a gear.
 
Garden flowers appear to have stronger scents, for example – and that’s no illusion, for many plants pump out more perfume after sundown to attract night-flying pollinators. Evening primrose and honeysuckle are prime examples: you could even say that such blooms are semi-nocturnal.
 
But as night falls what really hits you are the sounds: not just a dog barking, or the rumble of traffic. Occasionally, a wild animal makes itself heard: a robin quietly warbling, a hedgehog shuffling, an owl hooting or a gull, goose or duck calling as it passes overhead. There can be a great deal of nocturnal bird traffic at any time of year.
 
Get into the rhythm
 
A major benefit of the stand-and-wait approach is that, gradually, the rhythms of night animals begin to reveal themselves. Just as wildlife behaviour varies during the day, so it does in the hours of darkness.
 
One of the busiest times of night is actually at the beginning: dusk. Moth and other insect activity peaks after the sun sets, making it your best chance to see bats swooping to and fro over your garden.
 
Bats operate a strict shift system, with noctules the earliest to appear, followed by pipistrelles. Other species, such as Daubenton’s and brown long-eareds, emerge much later.
 
Birdsong also reaches a crescendo at dusk, reducing in strength until only species with relatively large eyes, such as blackbirds, song thrushes and robins, are still performing. By the time it is pitch-black only the robins will be left, a sort of reverse dawn chorus.
 
Shed some light on the subject
 
Of course, standing around patiently in the dark is not everyone’s cup of tea, which is where exploring with a torch comes in. There will always be plenty to see this way in summer, just don’t expect any megafauna. Quite the reverse, in fact.
 
A host of invertebrates, including some distinctly annoying ones, are active at night. They are nocturnal for the simple reason that their worst enemies – birds – are asleep then, though the cool, moist air also appeals to animals such as snails, slugs and woodlice.
 
A torch beam anywhere in the UK will reveal moths, and the sheer variety found in a garden can be extraordinary. One rural plot in southern England has recorded 1,000 species, and even the most urban location will be visited by at least 100 each year.

Incredible insects
 
Moths are easy to see and catch, though with so many species to choose from, identifying them is often tricky. But in the early summer, an impressive supporting cast of invertebrates shares the air currents. Beetles such as stag beetles and cockchafers, shieldbugs, bush-crickets, lacewings and a multitude of flies are all on the move.
 
Try searching foliage and the ground, too. Believe it or not, many caterpillars are nocturnal, and you should also be able to watch the antics of earwigs, spiders, earthworms, snails and slugs.
 
Most of these creatures cannot see red light, so attach a red filter to your torch to avoid disturbing them (you can buy one from a theatrical or disco supplier, but a sweet wrapper will do).
 
Pondlife comes alive
 
One patch of the garden that can be a revelation at night is the pond. Far from being quiet and still, it comes alive in the dark, when many of its residents are much easier to see.
 
Newts and a variety of aquatic invertebrates are attracted to light, so shine your torch on the water’s surface and settle down to wait: you could find that your perspective of these animals changes forever. Insects such as great diving beetles, water boatmen and pond-skaters take to the air at night to disperse, and with luck some will drop in while you’re there.
 
An alien place
 
Having sampled the delights of garden-watching at night, your appetite should be whetted for nocturnal trips further afield. But we’re so used to our indoor, electric-lit lives that the British countryside can seem a truly alien place when the sun goes down.
 
Be prepared to be disorientated at times – and even alarmed. Disturb a roosting woodpigeon and the explosion of frantically flapping wings will send your heart rate soaring, especially if you are alone. The bark of a deer can be equally unnerving.
 
But this, of course, is what adventure is all about. A few hours of nature watching in the wilds ‘after hours’ can be a transforming experience.
 
There is simply no comparison between a chance sighting of badgers in a wood or meadow and gazing through a hide or living-room window at floodlit animals guzzling peanuts. Charming though the latter is, it lacks the unpredictability of a genuinely wild encounter.
 
Night walks
 
If you are planning a longer night walk, a few ground rules apply. Visit a place that you know well by day; follow some kind of line, such as a hedgerow or the edge of a wood; make sure that the landowner is aware of your activities, and that somebody knows where you are going and when you will be back. Then the night is yours.
 
Again, it is worth trying two different approaches: nocturnal ‘immersion’ and spotlighting. Heading out with your torch turned off will attune you to a different sensory world.
 
After about half an hour, you will notice that you are able to pick out more and more detail in the landscape – our night-time vision may be inferior to that of many animals, but it is nowhere near as bad as you might think. You may be astonished by how you cope, especially if there is a full or nearly full moon.

 

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