Enjoy nature shows? Then watch the twilight zone.
As the black of night surrenders to the gray of dawn, the nocturnal, diurnal and crepuscular creatures — those most active at night, day, and dusk and dawn, respectively — all share nature’s stage.
It’s when bats, owls and other night-feeders are still on the hunt but soon will steal away. It’s when mate-seeking day feeders — songbirds and ruffed grouse, for example — announce their presence in song and drumbeats. And it is when species most active in low light (deer and bobcat, for example) feed as they avoid being fed upon.
Wildlife-watchers know first light is a special time. So do nature photographers, hunters and others. It is special, in part, because the light is the purest and softest it will be all day.
“God paints amazing pictures at sunrise,” said Tom Glines, a longtime waterfowl and turkey hunter from Coon Rapids. “Dawn is actually spiritual for me. When I am in a duck blind on a prairie pothole, I get caught up in the warm glow of first light, and all the noisy commotion in the slough — the ducks, the geese, the swans — well, it makes the moment unforgettable.”
Glines so loves first light that it defines who he is. “I have the saying ‘Just give me another sunrise’ etched into the leather game carrier I use while hunting,” he said. “I live to be outdoors when nature wakes up.”
So when is morning twilight?
Technically, twilight begins when the sky is no longer completely dark. Scientists say the sun is 18 degrees below the horizon then, which is when the fainter stars begin to disappear. Next comes dawn, when the sun is six degrees below the horizon. Dawn is when the world comes clear. In Minnesota, many hunting seasons start a half-hour before sunrise because animals are moving and there is enough light to identify them. Finally, sunrise occurs when the top of the sun pops over the horizon. Sunrise, of course, is a misnomer, since the sun is stationary. Astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus figured that out nearly 500 years ago. The great ball of fire 94 million miles away only appears to rise because Earth rotates.
First light is fetching, in part, because the night’s falling temperatures, rising humidity and calm settle airborne contaminants. It also is pleasing because the sun’s red, orange and yellow wavelengths dominate rather than the greens and blues that will strengthen later in the day. Landscape photographers refer to the period immediately before and after sunrise as “the golden hour” because the light quality is dramatic yet devoid of harsh shadows. It also is golden because that’s when many money shots are taken.
“Virtually all of my photos are taken at first light or toward evening,” said Gary Alan Nelson, a landscape photographer from Lindstrom, Minn. “I am up early to catch the best light because it doesn’t last long. Once the sun breaks the horizon, the egg is cracked and everything seeps out suddenly. Some days the sun goes from orange to white-hot almost instantly.”
Nelson’s work appears in National Geographic and Sierra Club publications as well as magazines such as Outside and Minnesota Conservation Volunteer. He stalks light as a hunter stalks prey. He even carries a compass when scoping the next day’s shoot so he knows precisely where the sun will rise.
“Every day is different, and you’re hoping to catch something special,” said Nelson. “I love misty mornings. I love fog. I love them because they help isolate the subject from background clutter.”
Nelson said landscape photography appears to be a calming vocation but isn’t. “Much of my work involves sleeping on a mattress in the back of my van, hiking in the dark to where I need to be and then scrambling to get the shot I want,” he said. “The results look peaceful, but the process isn’t.”
Wildlife photographer (and Star Tribune contributor) Bill Marchel agreed.
“Morning can be hectic because I need to get to my spots early,” said the veteran of more than 200 magazine covers and thousands of published photographs. “First light is great but it is secondary to my priority of actually getting close to wild animals.”
Marchel said that this time of year he looks forward to cold days when skies are clear and the wind almost nonexistent.
“That’s when, if you’re lucky, you can photograph a buck that still has the night’s frost iced to his back or steam forming from the mouth,” he said. “Those details enhance a photograph so much, and you don’t get those later in the day.”
Wildlife biologists also value first light. Several Minnesota population surveys commence at dawn because that’s when the target species is likely to be seen or heard. An example is the sharp-tailed grouse survey. For a few weeks each spring, sharptails gather on dancing grounds — called leks — for their annual mating ritual. Bill Berg, a retired wildlife biologist from Knife River, said one of his all-time favorite survey memories occurred just before dawn.
“I was scanning the dancing grounds with my binoculars and couldn’t find a single sharptail but did spot a sandhill crane,” he said. “I was watching the bird when I noticed a coyote sneak into view from the far side. It was low, prowling and clearly on the hunt. Super cool. I was feeling so lucky to see this. Then, get this, a bobcat comes creeping into view. It’s between me and the crane, and it is eyeing breakfast, too. It was such a rare sight to see a hunting bobcat from behind, seeing its muscles flex and freeze so methodically. Ultimately, both the bobcat and coyote were foiled but, oh, what a I-can-see-you-but-maybe-you-can’t-see-me drama it was.”
Anglers also have an affinity for first light. Said Ray Gildow, a noted angler and guide from Staples, Minn.: “I don’t know all the biological reasons why certain fish species are more active at dusk and dawn, but they are, and being on the water early really makes a difference on certain lakes.”
For some, first light is even inspirational. Linda Newman fits that group. Newman operates Points Unknown, an off-grid dog-sledding business northwest of Grand Marais. At the heart of her operation are 24 stunning Alaskan huskies of a strain known for smarts, stamina and friendly temperament.
“Like clockwork the sled dogs wake me up just as the sun begins to peek through the trees,” she said. “This time of year, when sun reflects off the crystalline ice that has formed on the dog houses overnight, I get all the inspiration I need for another day. In fact, for me there’s more motivation in the sunrise than any cup of coffee could provide.”
C.B. Bylander is a freelance writer. He lives near Baxter, Minn.