Crepuscular

Nugent Mountain, Big Bend N.P. -Photo by Time Giller
Nugent Mountain, Big Bend N.P. -Photo by Time Giller

Only a clear desert sunset sky can be so seamless. A complex landscape of buttes and mesas with the Chisos Mountains beyond has become a sharp black silhouette but rising from that is a prefect gradient, the glowing horizon of pastel yellow bleeding incrementally upward into oranges and reds eventually becoming a deep electric blue. The colors deepen imperceptibly defying measurement and obscuring time; my eyes struggle to adjust with the growing twilight. Puncturing the tapestry are the first celestial lights, Venus tonight, with Mars not far behind and over her shoulder. The varieties of daytime birds that populate the scrub and evade view have ceased their chattering end of day crescendo leaving silence in the still air. It is so silent that I can hear the leathery wings of a single bat that is breaking the perfection of the skyline, erratically hunting tiny insect prey. Soon high chirps from his companions tell me that he’s not alone. Suddenly a whirl of barely audible wing beats rises from the creosote in front of me tracing a few odd loops before abruptly becoming an oblong rock in the gravel before me. A Poorwill has mottled feathers that make it hard to distinguish in the dim light it prefers to hunt in, taking quick fights after moths then alighting back to the ground. Straining my eyes to make out this rarely seen bird I manage to notice that a Kangaroo Rat has also chosen to venture out now that the darkness has thickened. Light brown with a white belly and large black eyes, it has strong, oversized back legs that carry it around unpredictably and a long tufted tail whips along behind. If the Poorwill hadn’t drawn my eyes the other little critter would have been just another soft mysterious noise rising from the dusk.

It’s a really great word, crepuscular. From the Latin word for twilight, it refers to those creatures that are active primarily at dawn and dusk. The word has an exotic, enigmatic sound that matches these transition times between light and dark, the shadowy zone between worlds. In the desert this can be an especially useful time to be active. The heat of the day can be unforgiving for most animals and a majority of them take advantage of the cooler nighttime temperatures, especially predators. A little fella like a Kangaroo Rat avoids the daytime raptors who have gone to bed well as the nocturnal snakes who may not yet have awakened by slipping into the in between time. The subtle changes in lighting provide venue for camouflage.

Coyote Yosemite N.P. - Photo by Tim Giller
Coyote Yosemite N.P. - Photo by Tim Giller

Wildlife doesn’t always conform to our labels though. I’ve seen owls awake at midday and like us, many diurnal creatures stay up late to finish their business. We humans clearly defy this categorization. Perhaps the coyote got his trickster reputation because of his refusal to conform to such labels. Generally considered a nocturnal animal they can be spotted at any hour, sometimes boldly making their presence known like the beautifully healthy one Rachael and I caught traipsing midday through the Presidio in San Francisco. These savvy animals also traverse the twilight period and we’ve heard their evening cackles on more evenings than not during our travels so far. Often deep into the night their yips and howls punctuate the darkness and on until the first hint of light in the east. I will never tire of this sound. At close range the disembodied laughing of coyote conversation on three sides of me does raise the hair on the back of my neck but it also ignites a primitive joy.