A downy woodpecker patrols the trunk of a tree, the white strip down its back almost glowing as the light turns to dark. Above, a blue jay is remarkably quiet as it works out some issues before roosting for the night. As predicted, a young raccoon ambles out from the bushes to start pulling plastic bags out of the garbage bin, one at a time, looking for wasted human food as a crowd of 50 of us watch and photograph from just feet away. It’s the long slow slide into summer twilight. The chirps are robins, snarfing the last grubs of the day. There’s a shift-change in process between the diurnal and the nocturnal animals. A big dragonfly patrols, zipping back and forth through the airborne density of the humid evening’s bugs, many attracted to the heat and chemistry of a clump of fifty humans. Bait; my calves will be dotted with mosquito bites soon. The twinkling lights of the fireflies, low to the ground suggest we could be across a harbor watching the lights of the town blinking on and off. But watch out, flashing mimics will pretend to be females of your own species, and eat you for your defensive chemistry. The film noir world of Coleoptera. In the trees, cicadas get their last licks in; they won’t rattle during the night. Not their scene. But the night chorus is already here, having been silent all day long. Carolina ground crickets stridulate, rubbing their body parts together, comb over rasp, from the bushes. Higher up, katydids, too, begin to emphatically say their name, which making them true katydids, not coneheads or angelwings, who have different sounds. You’ll hear them in street trees soon, ticking away, but the katydids like the thicker cover of the park.
And then, darkness, but in the light saturation of the city, never really dark. The bats emerge, dropping down from their daily roosts. We hear them first in an echolocator, which translates their high-frequencies for our limited hearing range. Then we see them, barely, the fast, fluttery things with unmistakable wings; flying mammals! Just a couple of them, one at a time. The bats of the Eastern U.S are beset by a fungus that wakes them from their hibernations, disorientates them, makes them sitting ducks for predators and starvation. They are beset by ignorance and popular cultural nonsense. But bats are quite awesome. Among other things, they make the world a better place for us. They are vital pollinators (of agava, for instance), and, in the northern hemisphere, insectivores of astonishing efficiency. Some can live 30 years. Twenty percent of all the mammal species in the world are bats, more than 1200 species. The smallest has a 2″ wingspan, the largest 6′, as big as an eagle.
Orbweavers are building their webs, as they do every night. Big beetles cross the path. That splash might be a night-heron aiming for a frog or a rat. It takes about a half hour for the human eye to really open up to the night, the rhodopsin blooming, as it were, to whatever light there may be. (Thank the horseshoe crabs for some of our discoveries about vision). This is an ability vary few of us ever have a chance of experiencing now in the glaring sprawl of Megalopolis. We are missing out on a whole world.