Monday, August 2, 2010

Sights, sounds of twilight a sensory delight

Colorful cloud formations are one of many twilight pleasures

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel August 2, 2010)

In summer, 8:30 p.m. is neither day nor night. It's in-between time when the sun has already set but darkness has not yet settled in. Although twilight lasts but a moment, it's a magical moment. At a time when people are usually winding down, nocturnal animals are gearing up. It's one of the only chances we daylight dwellers have to peek into the world of night.

I like to be there when the night show begins so I try to go outside at dusk. If I'm tired, I may only step out the door, look up at the sky and listen, but if I'm feeling energetic I might jump on the trampoline, go for a swim or row in the lake. When I'm doing any of those things, my body is busy but my eyes are free to observe my surroundings. There's so much to see if I take the time to look.

On a recent night I was bouncing. I'm always amazed how much wildlife I see while jumping up and down on a taut webbed surface. As I jumped, one, two and then three bats appeared out of nowhere. They circled overhead in their swerving, irregular flight. I watched as they swooped and dove and dove again in their dizzying dance for dinner. I imagined all the mosquitoes they were catching and it made me smile. A single bat can eat up to 3,000 insects a night and I was watching three bats dine on the pesky bugs. It's no wonder mosquitoes have never been a bother even though we live next to a lake. I gave the bats a silent "thank you" and bounced a bit higher.

A few moments later — much to my surprise — an owl flew by. I have no idea what kind of owl it was, where it came from or where it went. The owl flew low and passed right in front of me but it swept by so fast, it was all I could do to take in its distinctive shape.

Other birds soared past more slowly. A pair of sandhill cranes — diurnal animals, active during daylight hours — crossed overhead toward their evening roost. Another daytime bird, a white heron, flew solo toward its nighttime perch. Off to the east, several nighthawks appeared whooshing their way up and down over the lake — more bug hunters relishing the smorgasbord of insect delights. Frogs also became active. As I rhythmically jumped up and down, small and medium size frogs hopped across the lawn and into the garden beds.

I didn't see any large mammals on this night but sometimes I do. Occasionally, I catch a glimpse of armadillos shuffling along in search of grubs, or raccoons hoping to score an easy meal in the compost pile. Although big animals tend to avoid people in their nocturnal wanderings, raccoons and armadillos seem less concerned with human encounters than with where their next meal is located.

As I continued bouncing, wildlife wasn't all I observed. I had an entire sky-show to behold. The shifting cloud formations, the darkening tones, the fading hues of blue and red added up to a sensory delight. To top things off, the moon rose slowly over the lake — a full moon, big and round, reflecting moonlight on the still water.

By the time I finished bouncing, less than 15 minutes after I'd begun, the sky was almost completely dark. Whichever insects managed to avoid capture by nighthawks, bats or frogs filled the air with chirps and buzzes. I went into the lake for a quick dip and by the time I returned to the house, the air was reverberating with the sounds of insects and frogs.

I'm not a night person. Being outside at dusk is about as much nighttime exposure as I'm likely to have. That doesn't stop me from enjoying it to the fullest. From bats to bullfrogs, owls to nighthawks, sunset to moonrise, there's magic in the moment too special to miss.

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