Nocturnal wild neighbors, around, but seldom seen

by Erika K. Yery

SkunkDuring these long nights and often dark and dismal days, having more time to reflect, I tend to concentrate on our Nocturnal Wild Neighbors.

Nocturnal animals have lived among us for a long time, many of them we have never laid eyes upon, and will probably never see. You might have noticed some of them driving at night, a fleeting glimpse of movement, gleaming eyes in the darkness and movement along the road. Eerie noises during the night. Concerned people worried what they might be. Raccoons, foxes, red and gray, opossums, flying squirrels, deer, snakes, bats, owls are all common nightly creatures in our area. Bobcats, bears, and coyotes are rare, but at times, pay visits as well, especially in the outlaying areas of the metropolitan area.

At times you might wake up and hear an eerie sound of growling, hissing, snarling in your backyard, sounds like domestic cats make, but much deeper and louder, and after completely waking up and investigating, finding nothing, wondering if it was a dream. This could have been the sound of bobcats competing for a female especially in the months where mating takes place, January and February. A woman living near River Bend Park in Fairfax County called me and was sure that the sounds she heard came from bobcats living in the woods behind her house. Indeed, I have received several calls from Great Falls and McLean about bobcat sightings.

More often the noises during the night that sounds like wildcats wailing, churrs, whining, growling and snarling, are from our abundant raccoon population. Competition for food is usually the case during the winter months. Later in the year, usually late spring, early summer it could indicate a mother raccoon looking for her youngster that got lost. Several years ago, I woke up one night and heard a pitiful crying and wining. I went outside and saw a small raccoon in my neighbor's yard walking around and crying the whole time. I debated what I should do, was it an injured animal, lost its mother? This went on for several hours, it seemed all night, when all of a sudden a large raccoon started climbing over the fence into the yard where the youngster was crying. A concert of all kind of sounds from mother and youngster until the mother ran up to her infant and started shaking it, scolding in a loud voice, infant crying pitifully and finally happy reunion, both disappearing together in the night. Glad neighbors did not wake up.

In addition, there is the flying squirrel, abundant in our area, but hardly ever seen. After living in my current home in the city of Alexandria, for over a decade, and before I became a rehabilitator, I thought the creatures swarming around my house where bats, as I have a large colony nearby. One night I turned the spotlight on and to my great surprise, there where numerous flying squirrels gliding around, running up and down my large oak tree, jumping into a birdfeeder, just plain having a party. I am still in awe when I watch these interesting creatures. Flying squirrels do not fly as the name indicates; they glide and can do so up to 150 feet. The membrane, called a patagium, permits the flying squirrels to soar through the air. Their tails are very flat, which allows the tail to act as a stabilizer or rudder. The very large eyes are necessary to collect light. These smallest of all squirrels are very beneficial animals as they eat large amounts of insects and various moths active during the night.

Foxes, both red and gray are also nocturnal neighbors. At times one might think the sounds one hears during the night are from dogs, as the barking can sound like it. When I have red foxes in my outdoor facility, I am always hopeful my neighbors think dogs are barking rather than knowing that my foxes are doing the barking. Red foxes are more common and have a large array of vocalization. They scream, growl, yap, hiss, but mostly bark. They tend to hunt for mice and other rodents during the night and hunting pairs keep in touch with each other by frequent barking. Gray foxes are very shy and not as vocal, but at times one can hear the growling and barking coughing, they tend to make. Loud churring sounds could come from a mother looking for a missing youngster.

Deer, opossum and the striped skunk are roaming during the night. One might not notice them because of vocalization, as they tend to be less vocal, but one can encounter them driving on dark roads and hopefully just see them disappear into the bushes in the dark of the night. Unfortunately, some of these animals tend to freeze when they see the car headlights, and often are killed.

Snakes of course are also active during the night; the most common one in the metropolitan area is the black rat snake, active also during the day. This snake is a very good climber and will go after bird nests, baby flying and gray squirrels. Since the main diet consists of 30 or more mice at a setting, I hope if I ever find one in my yard, it will take care of my rodent problem and not devour some of the baby birds and mammals that have found homes in my backyard. In outlaying areas, one will encounter other types of snakes, several of them poisonous as a fellow rehabber in Fauquier County found out a few years ago. She went to a neighbor's house after dark barefoot and stepped on a copperhead in the driveway.

Let us not forget owls, nightly creatures, but also out during the day, but camouflaged so well that it is nearly impossible to see them.

The screech owl is the smallest of all the owls and very common in this area. If you hear a sound like a mournful whistle, it could be a screechy, as we affection ally call them. The "who cooks for you", "who cooks for you" sound will likely come from a barred owl, not an unusual nightly guest. The great horned owl also called the hoot owl, for the hooting sound it makes is the largest of the area owls. The great horned owls have varied calls, the most common one is a series of muffled hoots, hoo, hooo.

Coyotes have been heard and occasionally sighted in Fairfax, Prince William and other outlaying Virginia Counties. A llactating female coyote was struck by a car one night on the George Washington Parkway in Fairfax County according to the National Park Service. I could not find out what happened to her kits. Surely, this would indicate that these secretive wild creatures are around.

Although mainly nocturnal wild neighbors, raccoons, foxes, skunks and opossums are quite often seen during the day. When these animals lose their den, evicted from under porches, dens, sheds, attics, or the natural habitat where they dwelled was destroyed . These animals will be out during the day seeking new dens. Lactating females who need to replenish their energy will search for food during the day, when infants are asleep. Young and inexperienced animals will be naïve and recklessly stroll around until they become street-smart and follow the normal food foraging route during the night.

Observe and enjoy your Nocturnal Wild Neighbors, it can be a very rewarding and fun experience!