By Eric Duran
There are a number of animals creeping and crawling around our backyards in West University and Bellaire, and here in Russ Pitman Park, which many of us rarely encounter — creatures of the night.
Some of the nocturnal animals living near us may surprise you. Some of them commonly visit our bird feeders, trashcans, pet food bowls and back porches, so you may already know them indirectly. Here, we’ll take a look at a few that most people never notice.
We all know the daytime squirrels that visit our parks and yards, but did you know that we have a species of nocturnal squirrel? The Southern Flying Squirrel comes out at night and feeds on seeds, berries and small nuts. Like our daytime (diurnal) gray squirrels and fox squirrels, they are arboreal, meaning they usually live in tree holes in hardwood trees. As with many nocturnal animals, these small squirrels have large eyes that help them see in low light.
Flying squirrels are more social than other tree squirrels, often found feeding and nesting together in small groups. Despite the name, flying squirrels aren’t capable of true flight. They use the skin flaps on the sides of their bodies (patagia) to glide from one tree to another, somewhat like a kite or a paper airplane.
When most of us see bats, we just see a shape fly by, and if you have excellent hearing, you may hear high pitched squeaks. However, most of us don’t get a chance to them see up close. The Hoary Bat is one of our larger, heftier bat species. Like most of our bats, they feed on flying insects, mostly moths. While not terribly common in Texas, we can find them occasionally roosting in pine trees. They can sometimes be found sleeping in Spanish moss during colder days. They become more common in Houston when bats that live in the north migrate through this area in the Fall.
Ask someone to name a nocturnal bird, and most people will mention owls. There are other birds of the night, however. One of the nightjars (a group of wide-mouthed nocturnal birds) that calls Houston home is the Common Nighthawk. Sometimes called “Bullbats,” these birds have long slender wings, and resemble a boomerang or oversized bat. They are often seen over parking lots and sports fields at night, where they feed on flying insects attracted to the lights. They make a loud nasal “peent” as they fly high above, swooping dragonflies and mosquitoes into their mouths.
It’s not difficult to encounter nocturnal animals, if you go out on nature center night hikes, out into your back yard, or even public parks for baseball games and karate classes. You just have to make the effort to look and listen.
One way you can learn more about nocturnal animals is to join us on our Adult Nature Night on Friday, Oct. 26. We’ll have booze and snacks, a brief slide show, and then a night hike through the park. Visit our website to learn more and register at www.naturediscoverycenter.org.
Duran is a staff naturalist at the Nature Discovery Center at Russ Pitman Park, 7112 Newcastle Dr.