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Exploring the Brecks by Night

Take two walks with us and explore nature at night – the world we don’t usually see.

Biofluorescence at Barnham Cross Common 

By day, Barnham Cross Common looks ordinary. Ordinary trees and gorse bushes, ordinary paths meandering across an ordinary heath at the edge of the town. But, by night, and under the glow of our UV torches, we entered into an alien world. In this world, the paths are flecked with jagged, orange flint, the grass is a deep, midnight blue, and the nettles form clots of red beneath trees covered in vivid orange lichen. When we explored the dark shape of a fallen branch, woodlice in electric blue armour scuttled for cover and a spider with lime green stripes sat tucked into a crevice. Velvety black slugs, with leopard-print spots, slimed trails that shone high-vis yellow then turned to neon blue and, beneath their shells, snails glowed yellow with dark blue eyes.

By day, Barnham Cross Common looks ordinary. By night, it shines with colours we cannot see.


Dusk Exploration at West Stow Country Park

Sunsets at West Stow Country Park, and two herons circle above the tree tops of the nearby Kings Forest. A group gather ready for a Dusk Exploration and, as the clouds part briefly, we glimpse the moon and a special glimmer of far off Jupiter. There are several stages to night fall. First, there is Civil Twilight, a gentle fading of daylight. Then there is Nautical Twilight, when we can see the most stars with the naked eye. The name dates back to when sailors used the stars for navigation. Finally, there is Astronomical Twilight and dusk when the night truly arrives. Walking in the gloom without torches, we let our eyes naturally adjust to these changes of light. It is surprising how effectively our eyes adapt, and we walk comfortably around the Country Park with no artificial light. As we stroll, an owl calls out a solitary hoot. And, soon, there are multiple owls chatting away from different directions above us as we stand at the site of an ancient Neolithic ring ditch burial mound.

In avoiding artificial light, we explore the phenomena of natural light. In an enclosure of birch trees, pale white against the darkening horizon, we light a ‘birch torch’. The small section of birch bark burns contentedly for several minutes. We learn that the natural oils in birch bark act as fuel to the flames, that there is evidence of birch being used this way throughout ancient history. Later, we see real magic, in the form of triboluminescence. This is a phenomena in which light is created by friction, when rubbing certain objects together. Quartz has the correct crystalline structure to perform this trick, creating a faint glow of light when rubbed hard together. The party trick version, and one to perhaps try at home, is with sugar cubes! Biting down hard on a sugar cube in the dark creates a small flash of blue light in your mouth!

Finally, we explore how light (or a lack of it) effects our ability to see colour. We are each given a coloured crayon, and invited to write down the colour we think it is on pieces of card. Later, looking under torch light, we see that many of our colours have ‘changed’.

With torches back on, the darkness suddenly draws in around us, and we return to the lights of our homes and towns. In the park however, the night continues. The owls chatter, the stars peek through the clouds, and the ancient landscape pauses for reflection.