Nature Watch: In the Still of the Night

Author: Steve Ellis | 01/31/24

About the author: Steve Ellis is a naturalist and Land Trust member who enjoys sharing his love of the natural world. His blog series, “Nature Watch,” will appear each month in “Habitchat,” chronicling native plants and wildlife you can expect to see during that particular time of year. We thank Steve for sharing his passion, illustrating the importance of island conservation.


In February, nature doesn’t “roll up the sidewalks” after dusk. Instead, a host of creatures takes up the night shift.

Great Horned Owl males will be hard at work providing food for their mates who are incubating eggs. Their smaller cousins, Northern Saw-Whet owls may begin the breeding cycles as well.

The last of the long-toed salamanders are laying eggs just as the earliest-laid eggs are hatching. Northwestern salamanders will be moving to breeding ponds for their egg-laying. This journey is accomplished after dark.

Local beaches have their share of nighttime activity too. The lowest tides in February occur after dark so many ducks and shorebirds feed as the light fades. For ducks, late feeding allows them to spend large portions of daylight hours resting and engaging in courtship in anticipation of the breeding season.

Forests are replete with after-dark activity. Millipedes, beetles and other invertebrates actively on the move, energetically looking for food. Over 60% of insects are nocturnal, thus avoiding one of their major predator groups – small birds.

The fascinating Humboldt’s flying squirrels spend the colder times hunkered in their treetop nests. Warmer February nights stimulate them to increase their activity. Vagrant shrews and deer mice on the forest floor will also pick up the pace this month.

You can observe the night shift at work by going on an “owl prowl.” A good headlamp is essential (along with a reserve flashlight in your pocket). Walk slowly and scan a few yards in front of you. By stopping often and listening for a few minutes, you may observe any of the fauna mentioned in this blog entry. Once, my headlamp showed a Northern Saw-whet Owl in pursuit of a moth.

Watch your step; stay safe and don’t trespass. Some public properties don’t allow access after dark.

Still of the night? Hardly. Many forms of animal life run, jump, creep, fly, slither, or swim after the sun sets.

Deer Mouse cache found at at Admiralty Inlet Preserve. Photo by Steve Ellis.

Fauna: Western Deer Mouse (Peromyseus sonoriensis)

Other than Townsend’s voles, whose populations rise and fall, western deer mouse is the most numerous native mammal species in our area.

Named for their coloration similarity to deer, these nocturnal rodents range in color from grayish brown to blackish brown. The underside is white, as are the feet. They measure 5.5 to 8.25 inches in length, of which half is the bicolored tail. The fur is short, soft, and dense. Large ears and protruding black eyes round out the field marks.

Deer mice are true omnivores, with insects and other invertebrates on the menu along with seeds, nuts, fruit, flowers, and fungi. They carry surplus food items in cheek pouches to store in caches.

These amazing creatures are good climbers and can be observed in bushes and trees. We once witnessed a deer mouse plummet from a powerline, land, and dash for the cover of the nearest salal bush.

Females have multiple litters per year, starting in February. The four to five young are on their own in a month and able to reproduce by the age of six weeks.

Owl pellets reveal how much the nocturnal predators rely on this species. Very few deer mice can escape detection for long; an individual reaching one year old is a rarity.

Deer mice scatter seeds and fungi spores. Many salal, Oregon grape and wild roses owe their start to deer mice.

While conducting an owl prowl, look for deer mice in forested areas that have open stretches edged with salal, sword fern or short Oregon grape. They also inhabit hedges, brush piles and firewood stacks.

The Short Oregon Grape shrub offers shelter for small birds such as sparrows and wrens. Photo by Martha Ellis.

Flora: Short Oregon Grape (Mahonia nervosa)

Also known as dull Oregon grape.

This evergreen shrub is common in local forests. Short Oregon grape grows from 1 to 2 feet tall and has nine to 19 oblong leaflets on each stem. The leaflets are leathery and edged with spiny teeth. The alternate name of dull Oregon grape comes from the leaflets being less shiny than its more erect relative, tall Oregon grape.

This hardy shrub brightens the forest floor when its yellow blossoms emerge in spring. Bumblebees, echo blue butterflies and hummingbirds are the main pollinators. Clusters of blue berries with a whitish wash follow the blooms.

Thrushes and other small birds eat the berries. Short Oregon grape serves as a host plant for several moth species and echo blue butterflies. The shrub’s stems bend over, providing shelter for small birds such as sparrows and wrens. Also finding security beneath the stems and leaflets are amphibians and deer mice.

Short Oregon grape grows in a wide variety of forest situations, tolerating dry to moist conditions. It does particularly well under closed-canopy second-growth Douglas-fir forests. These tough shrubs are fairly deer-resistant, making them ideal candidates for planting in partially to fully shaded places.

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