Don't let shorter days keep you from enjoying the outdoors at night

Jennie Vasarhelyi
Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Due to the lack of leaves, a full moon in winter provides even more light for those who take nighttime walks.

As fall moves to winter, daylight becomes increasingly shorter. Evenings become shrouded in darkness. It isn't just cold that drives us inside. After work, instead of heading to a park as we might in the summer, we feel the impulse to stay inside where it is light.

There are rewards, however, for fighting this impulse and heading outside. You can continue to enjoy physical activity in the calming setting of nature. You may experience a different side of wildlife, the animal activity that occurs after dark.

Undeveloped areas like Cuyahoga Valley National Park are good places to experience night. Starry night skies and natural darkness are important components of the special places the National Park Service protects. National parks hold some of the last remaining harbors of darkness and provide an excellent opportunity for the public to experience this endangered resource.

The NPS uses the term "natural lightscape" to describe resources and values that exist in the absence of human-caused light at night. Natural lightscapes are critical for nighttime scenery, such as viewing a starry sky, but are also critical for maintaining nocturnal habitat.

Many wildlife species rely on natural patterns of light and dark for navigation, to cue behaviors, or hide from predators. Perhaps the best known example of a problem that can occur due to too much night light is the confusion that sea turtle hatchlings experience from beach lighting. Without artificial lights, the phosphorescence of waves on dark nights helps newly hatched sea turtles orient to the ocean. Artificial lights can point them away from the ocean.

When you come to Cuyahoga Valley National Park after dark, take note of the efforts to limit artificial lighting. Trailheads and road lighting are kept to a minimum. Where lights exist, they are often low and designed to keep light contained in a limited area.

Night darkness does not mean the absence of light. Stars provide some light; the moon, significantly more. Late fall and winter have advantages that can make it easier to see at night.

Without leaves on trees to block the light, more light reaches the ground and our eyes. Light-colored surfaces reflect available light better than dark surfaces, so snow makes the ground easier to see. The light color of the crushed limestone surface of the Towpath Trail has a similar effect, which can make this a good choice for a night walk. In Cuyahoga Valley National Park, this trail does not close at night.

Full moon nights are particularly inviting times to venture into the park after dark. Human eyes can adjust easily to the amount of light provided by the moon, so walking without aid of a flashlight is more feasible.

We may feel less comfortable outside at night, but many animals feel safer. By November, many animals are beginning to settle down for the winter, so nature is quieting down both during the day and at night. Coyotes are one exception. They are primarily nocturnal, with peak activity occurring at dusk and dawn to avoid interactions with people.

You may hear coyotes any time of the year, but calling increases during late fall because coyotes born in the spring start to leave their parents to hunt on their own. Calling lets the coyote parents keep track of their young. While we associate coyotes with howling, their call is actually a series of high pitched yips and yelps.

White-tailed deer are another exception. Now is the rutting season, when deer are on the move in pursuit of mates, especially at dusk and dawn. When you encounter them on a trail, they may stand their ground, snort at you, and stamp their feet rather than run immediately away.

This aggressive posture is intended to get you to back away. Even though deer pose less of a threat to humans than larger animals, it is wise to do as they wish and give them space. It is also important to remember that deer on the move are a driving hazard this time of year.

This year, with Covid-19, many people are finding time spent outdoors in nature is more important than ever. By venturing into the darkness, you do not need to let shorter days keep you inside.

Vasarhelyi is Chief of Interpretation, Education & Visitor Services for Cuyahoga Valley National Park.