The night-time garden is a whole different world. A completely new range of creatures takes over our flower beds, lawns and ponds as the sun sets, and many of Britain’s most familiar and best loved wildlife, big and small, belong to this group of nocturnal visitors – from the likes of badgers and foxes, to owls, toads and hedgehogs.
Although the larger species tend to be naturally wary, it’s not particularly difficult to watch many of the garden’s night-shifters at work, and with a bit of care – and luck – you can soon be keeping an eye on the bigger beasts too.
Pick Your Spot
There’s an old photographer’s saying that the perfect sunset can’t be chased; you have to be ready, set up and in position in plenty of time to get the picture. It’s pretty much the same thing with nocturnal wildlife. You can’t go crashing about the garden in the hopes you’ll see something. Chances are, you won’t – so pick your spot ahead of time and lay in wait for them to come to you.
The clever trick to this is, of course, to be like that photographer, and know exactly where you have to be, and when. This is where the back-garden wildlife watcher has a tremendous advantage over anyone trying to do the same thing in the wild. It’s your garden, so you already know the terrain and what the conditions are like in it very well – the boggy, damp areas that might hide a toad or two, the pile of old twigs and leaves that might be the daytime refuge of a hedgehog. It’s valuable knowledge and if you use it wisely, it should significantly improve your chances of success.
Talk of equipment for watching wildlife in the dark, and one of the first things that pops into most people’s heads is night vision goggles. While the tumbling price of this kind of optics means that you no longer need the equivalent of a small nation’s defence budget to be able to afford the technology, it still isn’t what you’d call cheap. There’s no denying that if you like high-tech gadgets and you can afford it, the results can be amazing – but you certainly don’t need night-vision or heat imaging devices to be able to enjoy some night-time wildlife spotting.
To begin with, a sturdy stool, a notebook and a low-powered torch is about all the equipment necessary to get started. A ‘hide’ of some kind can also sometimes be helpful, especially if you’re hoping to spot some of our bigger mammals, but it doesn’t have to be anything elaborate. Something like a beach wind-break or a small tent, if you have one, can double up very effectively – and even hiding behind the shrubbery or behind garden furniture can often disguise a person well enough to pass unnoticed, so long as you stay still. Whatever you do decide to take with you, try to choose items which aren’t silvery or reflective, or noisy to use or carry – that way they shouldn’t give the game away to your quarry.
Being comfortable is a very important part of successful wildlife watching at any time, but it’s doubly so at night. Once you’ve got yourself into the right place, you need to know that you’ll be able to stay there, undetected, for some time – and that’s difficult to do if you’re too hot or too cold, wearing a leaky coat, or acutely aware of how much your feet – or your backside – are hurting.
It’s not just about clothes; the seat which felt perfectly comfortable when you tried it out for five minutes in the shop or your living room may rapidly seem like an instrument of torture after you’ve been sitting still on it for an hour or two. Make sure that whatever you wear, use or sit on will add to your comfort, not work against it – and if the whole family are coming with you, this obviously applies to all of them too.
A Bit of Field Craft
Even gardens in the middle of cities become incredibly quiet at night, compared to the routine din of the day. Add to this the fact that most nocturnal animals tend to have well developed hearing and eyes adapted to seeing in very low levels of light, and it’s easy to see why a bit of field craft can come in handy if you’re going to stand a chance of seeing them before they become aware of you – and vanish.
It may be your garden, but from their point of view it’s their territory, and they almost certainly know its general ‘feel’ at this time of night far better than you do. Anything unexpected or out of the ordinary will register, so the smaller your impact on their surroundings, the less likely they are to perceive you as a threat. The two biggest give-aways are light and sound, but with a little thought, the problems can be avoided.
- Cover the lens of your torch with red cellophane to reduce the glare and lessen its visibility to wildlife.
- Use your torch sparingly – not only will it lessen the chance of frightening the animals off, but it protects your own natural night vision also.
- Avoid anything that clinks, jingles or rustles – it will be heard.
- Keep chatter to an absolute minimum; it may be a challenge if nothing much is going on, but few things frighten off animals so quickly as the sound of a human voice.
Think about the prevailing wind too; most mammals have a very good sense of smell, so try to chose a vantage point that won’t carry your scent straight towards them. Within the confines of a garden, it’s not always possible to do, but it’s definitely something to be aware of, whenever you can.
A night-time wildlife watching expedition in your own back garden can be a real education – a window on a world few of us ever get to see, that’s well worth the loss of a few hours sleep!