Earth Day Is Every Day—And Night! Reasons to Go Outside in the Dark

By Wild Elements

4 min read

The theme of Earth Day 2023 is "Invest in Our Planet." Since there's no better bet on our future than the work of young scientists, we're proud to showcase the work of Duke University student Sophie Cox, who's sharing her experiences with nature before sunrise in the essay below. If you'd like to follow more of Sophie's work (and trust us, you do), visit her here

Sophie Cox EssaySunrise in a forest where I went to listen to eastern whip-poor-wills before dawn. Photo courtesy of my mom, Rachel Cox.


Being outside in the dark is magical. It can turn even the most familiar surroundings into another world entirely, a world full of creatures you may never have encountered during the day. Here are three of my favorite reasons to explore the natural world at night.

Particularly during the breeding season (spring and summer), many songbirds begin singing well before dawn in a breathtaking phenomenon known as the dawn chorus. Hearing the dawn chorus will require you to wake up early and get outside before the sky lightens, but it’s an experience you won’t soon forget. At first, you may hear just one or two species. Then more and more birds will join in, and overlapping warbles, chirps, and trills will fill the air until they crescendo into an entire symphony.

Moth Party
Some of the moths—and a few other critters, specifically snails and a house centipede—that I’ve seen on my sugar bait.

One of my favorite activities involves mixing up some sugar and rotting fruit (adding alcohol can help, too) and painting the tree trunks at dusk to attract moths. (Have I convinced you yet that this would be a good use of your time?

The process is great fun, though it can get messy. There are many recipes online—some of the most basic are just sugar dissolved in beer or mixed with mashed bananas. Avoid anything toxic or artificial.

Shortly before dusk, use a wide, clean brush to paint patches of your bait onto trees in your yard. An alternative is wine roping, which involves soaking lengths of thick rope in "bait" (traditionally a wine and sugar mixture, but you could use your own concoction here as well) and draping them over fences, trees, or other objects. (One source suggests boiling the rope first to remove chemicals.) After dark, check for any nocturnal visitors. Using a red light (or covering a normal flashlight with a piece of red cellophane) may disturb the moths less.

One of my favorite accounts of moth baiting is from a book published in 1905. The excitement of the writer, W.J. Holland, is palpable: “The woodland,” he writes, “is the haunt of many a joyous thing, which frequents the glades and hovers over the flowers. To-night the lightning in the air… will send a thrill through all the swarms, which have been hidden through the day on moss-grown trunks, or among the leaves, and they will rise, as the dusk gathers, in troops about the pathway.”

I have been baiting for moths for several years now, and some of those nights still stand out in my memory: The night in eighth grade when hundreds of moths cloaked nearly every inch of my bait with wings. The stormy night when I darted across my backyard with my brother to check the bait patches in the middle of a lightning storm. The shimmery gold moth that fluttered up my pajamas, half running and half flying.

Whipoorwill Hunting
The view from the pine-needle-strewn ground where I lay for twenty minutes on a cloudy morning, listening to a sound like no other: the song of the eastern whip-poor-will.

Two mornings in a row over spring break in March, I went to two different forests in upstate South Carolina where people had recently reported eastern whip-poor-wills on eBird, a global citizen science database. You can find location-specific information from eBird on when (or whether) whip-poor-wills or other bird species are present in your area. (You can even sign up to get hourly alerts when someone reports a rare bird or a species you haven’t seen.) 

Whip-poor-wills are sadly declining across much of their range, but even in forests where they still live, you may never know they’re there unless you seek them out. I have never actually seen one, but their song is distinctive and otherworldly. They say their own name—“Whip-poor-will! Whip-poor-will!”—again and again in a series of urgent, rolling, lilting strains.

The view from the pine-needle-strewn ground where I lay for twenty minutes on a cloudy morning, listening to a sound like no other: the song of the eastern whip-poor-will.

Nature is full of everyday miracles—leaves changing color, birds building nests, caterpillars wrapping themselves in silk and emerging as something completely new. Yet we can all too easily tune out these wonders when we see them every day. Traveling somewhere new is one way to rekindle the sense of awe that nature can bring, but there is a simpler way: visiting familiar places at unfamiliar times.

Step outside tonight and let yourself explore. Shine a flashlight across the lawn and see a dozen glowing spider eyes reflecting back. Paint rotting fruit on a tree and venture out after dusk to find out who else lives in your yard, hidden by day and feasting by night. Lie in a dark forest before dawn and simply listen. Let the magic begin.