By August 24, 2011 Read More →

Nightlife on the Ridge

Dusk comes early here on the mountaintop–or what passes for a mountaintop in New Jersey. Our home sits on top of the first ridge of the Watchung mountains; it is not even worthy of a name; it is simply the first ridge. We are surrounded by trees, and as the sun dips below the the uppermost branches, our light dims–nearly an hour before it does elsewhere in town.

As it gets dark, our daytime visitors–birds, bees and butterflies–are replaced with creatures of the night. They are no less beautiful, and no less fascinating. And every night, I get to see who has stopped by for a snack.

Heading out for the night
Before I head to bed, I offer One Last Potty to the pups; it’s our last outside visit of the day. Jasper and Tucker usually come running to the back door, but Lilah waits to see if I Really Mean It. She’s right, because sometimes I get distracted before we head outside; a load of laundry needs to folded or some dishes left in the sink cry out to be washed. Once Herself joins us, each dog gets to Ring the Bell (they’re learning to ring a bell as a sign that someone needs To Go). Then I attach a small color-coded light to his or her collar; it’s the only way I can see where they are at night, particularly Stealth Lilah, whose black fur causes her to disappear when she’s more than a yard away from me.  I then leash everyone, all dogs Sit, then Look at Me and await the magic word, “Release,” which allows them to go through the door.

And we’re Outside.

Everyone must walk nicely on their leashes as we cross the deck to the patio, where they must sit calmly again, allow me to take their leashes off, Look at Me once more, and then “Release” sets them free to run through the night and do their business.
I always carry a flashlight with me during Final Potty Time, so I can bag up and remove their “business,” but it also gives me an opportunity to see who has come to visit after dark.

Moths: spirits in the night
The moths come out first; as soon as the sun goes behind the trees, the butterflies disappear and are replaced by their nocturnal cousins. They feed on the same flowers, and flit around my butterfly bushes, supping nectar and unaware that they are not “moth” bushes.

Until I actually started searching them out, I had this generic visual picture of a moth as a dun-colored nonbutterfly that maniacally attacks light sources.  Let me be clear; I was Very Wrong. These creatures are really quite gorgeous. That said, identifying moths is much, much harder than identifying butterflies. For one thing, there are just so darn many of them: more than 10,500 species in North America alone by one estimate, compared to 750 butterfly species.

Here are just a few of my nighttime visitors:

Spotted Straw Moth on buddleia

I believe this is a Spotted Straw Moth, feeding on my buddleia, or butterfly bush.

Moth on butterfly bush at night

I haven’t a clue who this gorgeous creature is. The wings were tiger striped, orange and black. I only saw him once.

Moth on butterfly bush

This moth was about 2 inches wingtip to wingtip. But, again, I couldn’t identify him. Amazingly, there are a zillion butterfly identification books, but little or none for moths. And the online resources are not geared toward rank amateurs like me.

In addition to the the butterfly bushes, I also find moths on my front porch, where they congregate if we leave the lights on. This happens only when we’re expecting visitors, as I’m a firm believer in dark skies.

Moth on a porch light.

This moth got as close as he could to my porch light. But (pardon the pun), I could not shed a light on exactly what kind of moth he is. (On second thought, no pardon. I LIKE puns.)


Hanging out above my front door was this moth; I love his mottled wings. You can imagine if he was on the trunk of a tree, he disappear. Such perfect camouflage.

Lions and tigers and bears…or maybe bats and owls and deer
Sometimes, when I’m out in the yard, I see bats swooping and diving through the air. I LOVE bats. They eat mosquitoes, as well as other tiny insects. Did I say I love bats? And every once in a while, I’ll hear–but rarely see–an owl. Usually, it’s a great horned owl; I can recognize the call. And what’s so neat about the great horned is that if you do a half-decent imitation of their call, they’ll answer you. Many an evening will find me out in the backyard hooting at owls. Hey, the neighbors are far enough away; they probably think it’s just a owl with a funny voice. I’ve also heard screech owls; these birds make those sounds you always hear in scary movies when a half-dressed teenaged girl is lost in the woods. It’s very eerie, but way cool.

After about 10 or 15 minutes outside, the dogs have sniffed the important sniffs and barked at any deer in the vicinity. Who ignore them, having learned that not only does a deer fence keep deer out of my yard, but also keep dogs in my yard. Most nights, if there are deer, they might stand up if they were laying down, but usually they just stare at the dogs, with only a slight ear flick indicating that they even hear the ruckus of the hounds. And they don’t move. Which of course, drives the dogs nuts. I’m sure the deer are amused.

Inside, outside, leave me alone
Let it be noted, though, that the deer fence does NOT keep out skunks. No. It. Does. Not. We learned that the hard way last year, BT (Before Tucker) when Jasper and Lilah cornered a skunk behind the storage can we use for bird seed.That’s a topic for another post, when I can discuss, among other things, What I Learned about Removing Skunk Smell (and it doesn’t involve tomato juice.)

Another creature not stopped by the deer fence is the raccoon. While I’ve not met one personally–nor have the dogs–I often see the telltale footprints, as well as the creative destruction, that are their calling cards. I have to put a heavy rock on the bird seed can, or they’ll open it up and snarf down the sunflower seeds. And every night I have to remove one particular bird feeder that the raccoons have learned to knock off its branch so that it crashes to the ground and breaks open: an easy feast.

So every night, I carry that feeder into the garage, where I put it in a large plastic tub, so the mice don’t get it. That worked swell until one night a scrabbling noise stopped me just as I was about to drop the heavy feeder into the tub. Flashlight in hand, I looked into the tub to discover that a friendly neighborhood mouse had stopped by.

Caught ya, little mouse!

Well hello there Mr. Mouse. You’re cute, but you’re cuter when you’re in the woods instead of my garage. And with Dawn and Athena around, your life expectancy is much greater outside my house versus inside.

He must have jumped in and couldn’t jump out. I brought the tub to the side of my driveway, and let Mr. Mouse scurry away beneath the forsythia. It should be noted that the next night, Mrs. Mouse tried the same trick, followed one day later by Uncle Mouse. Hopefully, that was the last of them.

Boris and Natasha stop by the buffet
As part of my routine, I then head back into the house through the garage, where I grab a spatula full of peanut butter, which I then bring back outside so that I can feed our flying squirrels. (For more about Boris and Natasha and family, read my posts Gliding in the Night and Photoshoot: Boris and Natasha.)

For those of you unfamiliar with these creatures, it turns out that New Jersey is home to Southern Flying Squirrels, who feed on mushrooms, fruits, berries, insects, and, apparently, peanut butter. A family of at least five squirrels live nearby and they know when I bring the peanut butter out, and usually make an appearance within five minutes after I’ve slathered Skippy into what has become the Squirrel Feeder.

Flying squirrel on a tree

Flying squirrels don’t really fly; they glide using flaps of skin between their front and rear legs. Imagine a furry washcloth with paws at each corner and a head and tail centered on either end. Here you can see the skin flap as one of them scurries down our maple tree.\

Flying squirrel looking at peanut butter on a feeder.

Checking out the peanut butter.


Three flying squirrels eating peanut butter

Flying squirrel buffet: three squirrels settle down for their evening meal.

Dawn and Athena hope for a night’s entertainment 

By now it’s time to bring the dogs inside, as they Really Want To Get the Squirrels, and I really Don’t want them to get the squirrels. In the mean time, Dawn and Athena have set up a moth patrol in the laundry room, having learned that sometimes, if they are Very Lucky, a Gift will fly into the house as three dogs tromp in. And oh! What happy times when the cats get to chase a moth.

Cats on washing machine watching moths at night.

Moths do get in every so often, and when it happens, the cats are mesmerized.


Cats and dog watch a moth on the wall.

And so is Tucker. He wants to Get the Moth, too. If you look carefully, at the top right of the picture is a tiny dark speck. No, your computer screen isn’t dirty; that’s The Moth.

Common Gray moth

This guy wound up in our laundry room recently. He had a 3-inch wingspan. I’m pretty sure he was a Common Gray moth, but I thought he was anything but common. Even though the cats Wanted to Get the Moth really bad, we rescued him and set him free back outside.


Usually, we try to Live and Let Live, and help the moth back outside to enjoy the rest of its short life. The cats aren’t disappointed for long, as part of the nighttime routine is a small bowl of crunchy kitteh noms, which more than make up for the loss of the moth.

And while we non-nocturnal creatures head to bed, the nightlife of the residents on the first ridge of the Watchung Mountains has only just begun.

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