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updated: 7/18/2014 2:40 PM

Summer twilight: an enchanting time

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  • Grasshoppers are part of the group of long-legged insects called orthoptera, who make music by rubbing wings and legs together. Many are heard making loud music at night.

       Grasshoppers are part of the group of long-legged insects called orthoptera, who make music by rubbing wings and legs together. Many are heard making loud music at night.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer ¬

  • Before setting out on a group walk to see fireflies, Kane County Forest Preserve Naturalist Valerie Blaine explains how to identify the male and female of species.

       Before setting out on a group walk to see fireflies, Kane County Forest Preserve Naturalist Valerie Blaine explains how to identify the male and female of species.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer ¬

  • Forest Preserve District of Kane County naturalists lead a group of participants on a firefly nature walk in the Freeman Kame-Maegher Forest Preserve on Freeman Road in Gilberts. After a walk, the group stopped to play games with the children and catch fireflies.

       Forest Preserve District of Kane County naturalists lead a group of participants on a firefly nature walk in the Freeman Kame-Maegher Forest Preserve on Freeman Road in Gilberts. After a walk, the group stopped to play games with the children and catch fireflies.
    John Starks | Staff Photographer, 2007

  • Head outdoors for a walk on a summer night, and you might be fortunate enough to see fireflies.

       Head outdoors for a walk on a summer night, and you might be fortunate enough to see fireflies.
    John Starks | Staff Photographer ¬

  • The setting sun glows at LeRoy Oakes Forest Preserve in St. Charles.

       The setting sun glows at LeRoy Oakes Forest Preserve in St. Charles.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • A nighthawk is one of the birds that can be spotted at twilight.

      A nighthawk is one of the birds that can be spotted at twilight.
    Daily Herald File Photo

  • The sun sets near Big Timber Road and Route 72 in Elgin. As darkness falls, a whole world comes alive outdoors.

       The sun sets near Big Timber Road and Route 72 in Elgin. As darkness falls, a whole world comes alive outdoors.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer.

 

The long, hot day melts in the dimming light. Faintly, the evening star appears in the sky. Animals begin to shift in the shadows. It's twilight. It's summer. And summer twilight is an enchanting time.

Many of us have memories of playing outside on summering evenings -- running barefoot in the cool grass, chasing fireflies, and catching katydids as darkness fell. But lots of people grow up these days without knowing what twilight in summer is like.

Perhaps it's the lure of air conditioning. Maybe it's the distraction of electronics. Maybe shopping is a bigger draw. Whatever the reason, missing out on summer twilight is a loss.

The loss can easily be reversed. You just need to open your door. Take a walk with the kids. Find a prairie or a field as the sun sets, and let the kids run in the grass. Then, wait for dusk.

What can you expect to see? First, you'll see more if you can get away from artificial light. Our eyes need to adjust to natural light, especially at dusk. Light pollution from streetlights, porch lights, and parking lots can greatly reduce your ability to see naturally. You'll be surprised at how much you can see if you give your eyes a chance.

You're likely to see birds zooming around at dusk. There are lots of little guys, some that look like flying cigars high in the sky. These are chimney swifts, busy at work catching insects. If you're really lucky, you'll see the swifts come to roost at night in an old chimney. It's a pretty cool phenomenon. Clouds of swifts seem to be suddenly sucked into a chimney like a disappearing tornado.

Some twilight birds are bigger, with long pointed wings that flap erratically as the birds dart this way and that. These are nighthawks. Not true hawks, rather insectivores that, like chimney swifts, consume prodigious amounts of insects.

And you may see other insectivores as darkness falls, the bats. Bats have been part of the twilight scene for many centuries, coming out at dusk to begin their nightly rounds. Bat populations, however, are in serious danger due to a devastating disease called white-nose syndrome, caused by a fungal pathogen that has wiped out entire colonies of bats in many eastern states. You'll be lucky indeed to see some bats darting in the dark scooping up their insect prey.

The earthly stars of the twilight show in July are fireflies. They're waning now, their ephemeral adult lives almost complete. But you may still see some blinking above the grass as they cruise for one last chance to find a mate.

Your eyes may also pick out the faint silhouettes of deer at the edge of the woods. Or rabbits making a mad dash to shelter for the night, hoping not to get caught by the nearby owl or coyote.

There's much more than meets the eye at twilight. Our ears pick up where our eyes fail us. There's no shortage of sounds in late summer, from the chimney swifts' chatter to the nighthawks' weird "Peent!" calls. But the insects rules the soundscape of late summer. At twilight, the day shift insects -- most notably cicadas -- wind down for the day, and the nocturnal crew -- katydids and crickets -- rev up. The latter are called orthopterans, after the order of insects to which they belong. If you stop and really listen, you can pick out buzzes, trills, "tsks!" and every orthopteran love song imaginable.

It takes a bit of practice to block out traffic and other human noise in the background, but you'll begin to differentiate a dozen different kinds of insects in the cacophony of twilight.

Our sense of smell is underplayed in our daylight world, but smell is key in the twilight experience. Summer evenings are fragrant and rich with scents. At dusk, the smell of green growth and rain and flowers combine. (Of course, the not-so-delicate perfume of insect repellent is often in the mix of twilight fragrance!)

When the not yet darkened day shifts into twilight, it's time to go outside. Experience a twilight or two this summer. Chances are, you'll be enthralled, enriched, and amazed -- and your kids will build memories that last a lifetime.

• Valerie Blaine is a naturalist with the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. You may reach her by email at blainevalerie@kaneforest.com.

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