There is something quite exhilarating about spending time outdoors by night – each sound, each rustle in the shrubbery and splash in the water indicative of hidden treasures lying just out of sight amid the gloom. Watching wildlife by night is intoxicating, plain and simple, and recently, has become somewhat of a hobby of mine. A pastime born of necessity, with my days of late spent catching up on university work carrying and out a host of more menial tasks, thus leaving little time for adventure.
Last night, I spent three hours in the garden – watching, waiting and, most rewarding of all, listening, with only the blue glow of my actinic moth trap to light my way. My watch beginning at 10 pm as, with the light fading fast, the local Pipistrelles arrived to feed. Their coming timed to perfection to coincide with the departure of the first moths from their daylight hideaways. Indeed, as I watched, more and more moths emerged – springing forth from the Privet hedge and the nearby Hawthorns before heading upwards, often with the bats in close pursuit. I am yet to see a bat actually catch a moth, though I did witness one interesting piece of behaviour as a rather large individual – a large yellow underwing, I think – plummeted downwards, rigid as a stone, clearly having caught wind of its would-be pursuer. An interesting defence mechanism, and something that, to date, I have only seen on TV.
By 11 pm the last vestiges of light had faded and the moth trap had been fired up – the first arrivals, as ever, being the underwings. Followed closely by a number of Smoky Wainscot, Riband Wave and Snout – some of the more numerous species to inhabit my urban garden. Many moths came and went as I watched, with some – a rather beautiful Straw Underwing included – landing conveniently in the trap, and others, missing it entirely. No matter.
Before long, a faint rustling in the compost heap diverted my attention away from the trap. The sound of crunching, desiccated vegetation easily audible as a fleet of Common Frogs began to emerge. Ambling forward, into the open, before splitting up in all directions: towards the lawn, pond, borders and hedge. Easily counted by torchlight, a total of seven frogs were found, with another, concealed in some waterside vegetation, croaking loudly upon my approach. This particular individual joined amid the Water Mint by a delightful Smooth Newt. The latter watched and enjoyed as it emerged from the shallows before slinking, with surprising speed, out of sight. My efforts to facilitate my local amphibians are paying off, it would seem.
Come midnight, I had resumed my watch of the moth trap, adding Light Emerald and Common Plume to my list as I listened to the screeches of a distant Tawny Owl in the park adjacent to the house. I had just about grown tired when another sound caught my attention: an undoubtedly familiar call of a bird above that, for the life of me, I could not place for some time. I did eventually, however: it was a tern. A very unusual addition to the list of animals seen and heard from the garden, and a quite unexpected one, if that – I do, after all, live some way from the coast. Doubtless, this had to have been a migrating bird heading overland on its way South for Winter.
The tern was not the only migrant heard this night, however, and soon the call of an Oystercatcher became audible as it passed overhead. The high-pitched flight calls of the bird (or birds) followed soon, by the much more exciting sound of a Whimbrel, and then, the honking of geese. It really is amazing what you can hear from the comfort of your own deck chair at night, once the hustle and bustle of urban life has died down and others have succumbed to slumber.
My night outdoors finished as it began: with moths. A graceful Barred Red the last species to enter my trap before it was sealed and concealed for study the next day. Making my way to the house 1 am – placing my feet carefully so not the injure any of the snails moving slowly across the lawn – I found myself rather giddy, and grinning profusely. It really was an evening well spent.
Oh yes, and I am pleased to announce that, following their arrival last Spring, our garden foxes have returned. Hurrah!