We are a few weeks into autumn, the sun sets earlier in the day only to rise ever later, the evenings are longer, and the nights a little colder. The trees and fields look sparse as the leaves fall and the corn is cut. While earlier sunsets might make us want to cozy up inside, there is still a world of activity afoot. As it gets a little darker, other living things become more active.
Creatures of the night
What makes a plant or animal nocturnal ? As opposed to diurnal (active during the day), or crepuscular (most active around sunrise and sundown), nocturnal beings are most active at night. This includes mammals like bats and opossums, as well as a variety of night-blooming flowers–there is an entire world of flora that truly comes to life under the moonlit sky.
On the SouthCoast, we only experience night blooming plants during the hotter growing months of summer, but many nocturnal animals move about readily at night throughout the year. Let’s take the opossum, one of the most charismatic of the North American marsupials. These creatures exhibit a range of behaviors, including occupying pre-dug burrows. Perhaps their most recognized behavior is feigning death when encountered by a potential predator. “Playing possum” is a defensive mechanism and includes going unconscious, grinning as though in rigor mortis and emitting a nasty smell. All of which is intended to discourage predators who do not want to eat a decaying meal!
Possums have other traits in common with other nocturnal animals.
- Night vision: With highly dilated pupils, possums are adapted to seeing in low light.
- Strong non-visual senses: Possums have ears designed to hear. Like their nocturnal colleagues bats, possums don’t need to rely on sight.
- Undercover: Possums take refuge in the darkness, and with sharp claws and their whippy tail, they are excellent climbers, making them harder to catch. (In bitterly cold winters, possums will forage during the day, as their large ears–great for hearing sounds at a distance–and thin tail–great for balancing and climbing–are not well insulated, but generally they make their living at night and curl up during the day.)
Who Else Is Out at Night?
Creatures of the night occupy a variety of spaces. In addition to living in burrows, some mammals emerge from their living spaces and truly become more active at night. The little brown bat comes out from its roost at sunset. They spend two cycles over the course of the evening hunting and foraging, finally coming to a rest before sunrise. They are one of the most recognizable of our nocturnal animals.
Listen! You might hear a barred owl as the last of dusk disappears. A few hours later, coyotes will start their nightly hunt, calling to one another in their pack.
If you are very still, out in the dark before dawn, you may see a Red Fox on the prowl. Unlike the possum, foxes are well protected from the cold, and on snowy mornings you might follow their tracks.
As the nights lengthen and the days shorten, keep your eyes and ears peeled for the creatures of the night. With the longer nights, there is a much better chance you will encounter some oft-unseen species, particularly as autumn continues along and these night movers prepare for the winter ahead. Hoot-knows what you might hear calling in the woods, or flying at sunset, in this darkening season.
Visit our pop-up tent exploring Nocturnal Animals October 23rd -30th at Westport Woods Conservation Park. Look for the white tent!
Join us for Bats Before Bedtime, an evening walk and talk, 5:30-6:30, October 24th at Westport Woods.