Into the gloaming

Jeff Tome For The Audubon

The grass, stiff with frost, crunches under my feet as I walked swiftly along the dimly lit trail. The sun isn’t due to come up for a few minutes. The birds are just starting to wake up, with lazy tweets and chirps coming from the trees and bushes nearby. A deer, startled by my early approach, rises stiffly to its feet and stretches warily as I walk nearby. The world is just waking up.

This gray times at the beginning and end of the day have multiple names. Some refer to dusk and dawn. Others call these gray times twilight or the gloaming. Those are the terms I prefer. Twilight and gloaming make the time sound like the magical in-between time it is. The boundary between day and night is full of possibilities.

As the nocturnal animals prepare for sleep and the daytime animals are not yet awake, there is another type of animal that inhabits the gloaming. These animals are considered crepuscular. They are most active in the gray times at the beginning and end of the day.

Many local animals are crepuscular. Bears, rabbits, and deer are all most active at twilight. In fact, the word crepuscular comes from the Latin word for twilight. Some of these animals are surprising. Great Horned Owls tend to be crepuscular, hunting their prey in the grey light of the gloaming. This is true except on those moonlit nights where the moon is so bright that it casts shadows across the land.

My goal has been to walk a mile or two every day. Right now, the sun rises at 7:45 a.m. and sets at 5:00 p.m., so walking in the twilight before or after work seems to be the only way to find time to move outside. The upside of this is that I witness sunrise and sunset almost daily.

Every sunset and sunrise is different. Sometimes the sun rises in a spectacular show or oranges and reds. Other times, the sun comes up as a brightening of the general gray and hardly seems to come up at all. At Audubon, every crepuscular hike seems to be full of deer running, Blue Jays screeching, and the soft tweets of an awakening forest.

My morning hikes generally finish once the sun is up and the daytime animals start to come out. My last hike ended with the usual calls of Blue Jays, but they seemed louder and more raucous than usual. I slowly wandered over to find a flock that included Blue Jays, Eastern Bluebirds, and some woodpeckers. They were all staring intently at a large nest box designed to provide nesting space for Wood Ducks.

The Blue Jays were doing what scientists call mobbing. Many smaller birds swarm around and bother birds of prey like owls and hawks to chase them away. Many birds do this to chase away predators. I have seen Blue Jays swarm around and bother a Long-eared Owl. Crows are known to mob hawks, Bald Eagles, and Great Horned Owls. Truthfully, I often listen for the drawn-out calls of birds that are mobbing, hoping to catch a rare glimpse of an owl or other bird of prey.

Why were the Blue Jays mobbing the nest box? I presume that there was a screech owl inside the box that they saw fly in just before sunrise. Screech owls are known to prey on birds and have been known to eat cardinals, chickadees and other songbirds. Though the owl was out of sight, the birds knew it was there and mobbed. Do I know this for sure? No, though I hope to sneak back later in the day and see if the owl pokes its head out in the day to get some warm sun.

Perhaps this is why I love my hikes in the gloaming. There is often an interesting surprise in the hike someplace. Some days there are otter tracks. Other days there are Bald Eagles. Some days, there is nothing but deer on the trail with me. Every hike, every day is a new experience. The sun rarely rises the same way twice.


Jeff Tome is a naturalist with the Audubon Community Nature Center.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.