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.
Explore the natural world at nightExplore the natural world during these evening programs offered by the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. Advance registration is required; call (630) 444-3190 or email email@example.com.
Twilight Camp: This evening camp for kids entering grades three to five is from 7 -- 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, Aug. 4-7, at Creek Bend Nature Center, 37W700 Dean St., St. Charles. Led by district naturalists, kids will explore the prairie as the sun goes down, learn to use all five senses, and discover what it means to be nocturnal. Participants will stargaze, go on adventurous night hikes in the woods, and build a campfire. The fee is $40 per child.
Bat Watch: 8 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, July 30, at Binnie Marsh Forest Preserve, 38W040 Binnie Road, West Dundee. Bats are noisy creatures, but our ears can't hear them. Unless, of course, we use a super special "Bat Detector." This device picks up the bats' "clicks" used in echolocation. During this free family program, participants will use the bat detector to locate bats and follow their movements. Participants will play some bat games and learn about bat ecology.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.