Wildlife at night

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From darting bats to big cats, the natural world awakens as evening falls. Mike Unwin journeys to the dark side

A few hours ago the scene was all heat and dust, with zebra tramping down from the horizon to slake their thirst under a burning sun. Now darkness has transformed the expansive African backdrop into an intimate stage set. An orchestra of insects has replaced the cooing doves. Bats and nightjars pursue moths under the lights, while a honey badger sniffs around in the shadows. Soon the first player enters, stage right: a female black rhino, calf at her heels. She pauses at the rumble of a distant lion – radar ears rotating. Then, with a stamp and a snort, she steps up to drink.

A night time waterhole vigil at Namibia's Etosha National Park (namibiatourism.com.na/national-parks) illustrates just how busy the natural world becomes when darkness falls. And it makes for an enthralling spectacle – partly, perhaps, because we find darkness so alien. There's little that's more intimidating to our species than being alone in the wild at night, lacking as we do any night vision or other special sensory gear. Every rustle brings a primal frisson of fear. We are as out of our element as a bat on a sun-lounger.

Among mammals, though, we are in a minority. Most species, from rodents to big cats, are primarily nocturnal. And you don't need a safari to discover this. In the UK, few people have seen more than a handful of our 45 or so native species, largely because at least two-thirds are nocturnal. Wander the woods at night and you'd see many more. And not just mammals: you might also hear the hoot of a tawny owl or, in the right place, the explosive melody of a nightingale – the sounds amplified by their isolation as the diurnal soundscape fades away. The butterflies of daylight are replaced by the moths of darkness, searching out nocturnal nectar and you might catch a toad hopping about in search of worms or glow-worms twinkling from the long grass.

Wandering your local heath at night might, of course, raise awkward questions ("badger watching" having long since entered the lexicon of political euphemism). Fortunately, there are now numerous organised opportunities all around the world to seek out nocturnal wildlife, with specialist operators offering everything from watching tapirs at a Malaysian rainforest salt lick (taman-negara.com) to free-tailed bats emerging by the million from a Texan cave (texascaves.org/bats.html). In Africa, many safari lodges run guided night drives or provide viewing hides over a floodlit waterhole. Closer to home, you could join a bat walk or visit a badger sett with your local wildlife trust (wildlifetrusts.org/whats-on).

It's not only on land. A different community of marine creatures takes over after dark on a coral reef, offering an alternative experience to the scuba diver, while bioluminescent plankton creates a magical spectacle for kayakers at Lugana Grande, in Puerto Rico (kayakingpuertorico.com), as every dip of the paddle leaves a phosphorescent swirl of blue.

And neither is it only about what you see. With vision limited, your hearing gets more of a workout after dark. A night in the tropical wilds offers a cacophonous wildlife symphony, with the chirrups of frogs, stridulations of insects and shrieks, hoots and whistles of night birds punctuated by an occasional rumble – or bellow – from something bigger. Some African safari operators now offer "sound safaris" among their activities. And, in Canada's Algonquin National Park, the nocturnal Wolf Howl – when visitors gather to listen for wild wolves responding to the howls of trained staff – is a major summer night attraction (algonquinpark.on.ca).

So, wherever you go looking for wildlife, don't forget that the natural world doesn't shut down when you turn off the light. Night time offers a whole spectrum of different creatures – or familiar creatures doing different things.

Diving in the dark

Scuba diving usually involves sunlight glittering on a watery kaleidoscope of fish and coral, but night diving offers a different thrill. Under the sweep of your torch, soft corals swell up into pink trees, while feather stars unfurl slender arms to trap plankton and a chorus of clicks emanates from countless crustaceans .

Some fish that you saw by day are now hiding, but others, such as soldierfish and squirrelfish, are more active, using their huge eyes to hunt in darkness. The first half-hour after sunset is the time to catch fish spawning and night diving is best on a reef you've visited by day, so you'll know the topography.

Ultimate Diving (020-8655 6455; ultimatediving.co.uk) has a week's Red Sea trip based in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, from £612pp including flights from London, B&B accommodation and 10 dives (including night dives).

Hide and seek

Evening tempts out some of Britain's most elusive wild animals, and there's no better place to see them than in the Scottish Highlands. On the Rothiemurchus Estate, in the Cairngorms National Park, a comfortable heated hide looks out through glass windows on to a spotlit viewing area, where wildlife comes to bait.

Visitors range from diminutive wood mice to barrelling badgers, but the star of the show is the pine marten. This handsome carnivore with its yellow bib and rich russet coat, is a sucker for peanuts. Both red and roe deer roam the woods, and you may glimpse – or hear – nocturnal birds such as tawny owls and woodcocks. Summer evening watches, led by an expert guide, start at 9pm. Photographers have excellent opportunities to snap otherwise retiring wildlife, and night-vision cameras reveal what was out and about the night before. The hide seats 12 and can be booked from Speyside Wildlife (01479 812498; spey sidewildlife.co.uk) at £20pp or £220 if you want the whole hide to yourselves.

Birds on the beach

Darkness means safety for many species of seabird which ply the waves by day and only return to their nesting colonies once daytime predators have turned in for the night. These mass landfalls after dark can be impressive spectacles.

On Bonnet Island, off Tasmania's west coast, nightfall brings little penguins waddling out of the surf to their burrows among the dunes. Nesting alongside them are short-tailed shearwaters, locally known as muttonbirds, which swoop in from the sea to land clumsily among the tussock grass. Guided boat tours take groups of 10 from the nearby town of Strahan, landing in time to enjoy local Tasmanian gourmet specialities and learn something of the island's aboriginal history.

Next, you head off with torches to watch the birds coming ashore. Artificial burrows are equipped with in-built cameras which allow you a peek at life from within the colony. The Bonnet Island Experience (00 61 3 6225 7000; bonnetisland.com.au) offers a two and-a-half-hour tour, departing at sunset, for A$95 (£63) per person. The seabirds' breeding season runs between September and April.

Heart of darkness

You might think walking in the jungle after dark is asking for trouble. But with a good guide and a decent torch, a night time rainforest stroll opens a window on a fascinating – and perfectly safe – world of nocturnal wildlife.

Costa Rica offers excellent opportunities. You might be lucky enough to catch some of the forest's more elusive residents, such as an armadillo or even an ocelot, while swinging the beam through the tree canopy above often reveals the eyeshine of a possum or kinkajou. This is peak time for cold-blooded critters, too, with snakes such as pit vipers foraging through the leaf litter and red-eyed tree frogs clinging to foliage with their sucker-pad toes.

While larger animals are never guaranteed, you will certainly encounter a pageant of mini-beasts, from crickets and millipedes to not-so-mini tarantulas, which your guide may tempt from their silk-lined tunnel with a blade of grass. Two different guided night tours operate in the cloud forest of Costa Rica's Monteverde (00 506 2479 8811; monteverdeinfo.com); the price of US$25 (£16.70) includes entrance fee and transport.

Cat's eyes on the road

The African bush at night has an intimacy and tension that makes a drive very different from its daytime equivalent. Your guide will find animals by picking up their reflective "eyeshine" in a spotlight beam. Targets include genets, owls, porcupines and, if you're lucky, larger predators. Lions, leopards and hyenas spied after dark are very different and more active beasts.

A single red eye on the road is probably a nightjar (perched side-on), while two eyes bouncing about will belong to a bushbaby. And when you kill the engine, the nocturnal bush chorus – from belching frogs to whooping hyenas – is impressive.

South Africa's Kruger National Park (www.sanparks.org) was one of the first to offer night drives. They run from most public rest camps, lasting around three hours, from £10pp, on top of accommodation and entry fees.

Star tips for nocturnal nature

* A head torch leaves your hands free, making it easier to hold binoculars or take photographs.

* Binoculars work well at night. Focus down the beam of the torch or spotlight.

* Use a red filter over a torch or spotlight to avoid dazzling light- sensitive animals. Professional guides should come equipped accordingly. Never shine your light in the eyes of large mammals, such as elephants or rhinos, as this may disorientate them.

* Take plenty of time to stop and listen, whether on foot or in a vehicle. You will hear many distant night noises and may detect the rustle of something closer.

* Check when choosing a safari whether your destination offers night drives. Some countries have regulations that prohibit these in national parks.

* Check around your camp after dark with a torch. Nocturnal creatures often call round in search of titbits. In unfenced safari camps, never wander away from the buildings.

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