As she prepared to lead a wildlife walk into the suburban summer night, Stephanie Mason offered a short to-do list: Use plenty of insect repellent. Wrap your flashlight in red cellophane. And bring some rotten fruit.
The walk she guided last weekend was at Hughes Hollow in western Montgomery County, but it could have been any tract of land with a mix of swamp, meadow and forest. The goal was to see and hear creatures that emerge from evening into darkness, without scaring them off or being bitten.
Summer nights are great for wildlife watching, said Mason, a naturalist with the Audubon Naturalist Society, because of the "explosion of life" in the insect world, which provides a food supply for birds, reptiles, amphibians and others. The insect population and noise level grow as summer goes on.
Early July is a good time to go looking, because the light lingers: Sunset is not until 8:30 or so. By the last week in August, daylight will end an hour earlier.
As her group assembled in the parking lot of Hughes Hollow, part of the McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area, insect repellent had been deployed. Mason handed out scraps of red cellophane and rubber bands to cover the flashlight beams. Most nocturnal animals do not have good color vision and do not see red, she explained. "It allows us to be less intrusive."
She brought out a plastic container with "an old family recipe" she called "eau de rotten fruit," a ripe blend of molasses, yeast, a splash of beer, an over-the-hill banana and corn syrup. She dipped a brush in it and painted a swath across a nearby tree. Mason calls her technique "sugaring for moths" and said it emulates the rotten fruit or night-blooming flowers beloved by insects. She brought the group back later to see whether it worked.
Bigger creatures also come out, such as coyotes, foxes, raccoons and owls. Before the group left the parking lot, a bullfrog made a deep, lowing call. Frogs like the night because it is moister than the day and easier on their skin -- and because so many insects come out.
Farther down the path, Mason warned her group to watch their step. The day before, she had come upon some recently hatched frogs called spring peepers, "as small as my fingernail." Their mating call is one of the early signs of spring, and now the results were out and underfoot.
Then came a gurgling sound that Mason identified as a gray tree frog. "I always describe it as sounding like a sick woodpecker," she said. It can be heard in local back yards through the end of July. A mid-size frog, it resembles a piece of lichen and will often perch on a branch.
In the trees bordering the main path, songbirds stalked insects. Among the birds were an orchard oriole, a kingbird, a brown thrasher and a scarlet tanager. Green heron flew back and forth. A great blue heron winged high overhead.
Dragonflies perched atop the trees along the path, waiting for their prey -- other insects -- to fly by.
As the sky faded to pale white with pink and orange streaks, someone spotted four cedar waxwings, a bird that often travels in groups, on a forked snag. Fireflies flashed, rising toward the treetops as evening went on.
A bat whizzed by. It was gone before anyone could identify it, but Mason said it likely was a red bat or a big brown bat, both insect-eaters.
Mason steered her group off the path and into a meadow, suggesting that people watch for frogs. Someone caught a small leopard frog and then a green frog, recognizable by a ridge from its eye to the back of its leg. Each was passed around in a small glass jar, then released. Another catch was a wolf spider, a hairy creature that also hunts insects at night.
By 9:15, the sky was going gray, preparing to dip into darkness. A barred owl called. Wooo-hooo!
Back in the parking lot, Mason checked her eau de rotten fruit. It was crawling with daddy longlegs, wood roaches and beetles. "Do try this at home," she advised, "and do try this as the season progresses."
-- D'Vera Cohn