Leelanau News and Events

Dispatch From The Dunes #3: Dunes After Dark

By Julie Den Uyl | June 17, 2022

This summer, wilderness guide Julie Den Uyl is sharing an insider’s view of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore with the Leelanau Ticker readers. Den Uyl, a former park ranger who now operates Sleeping Bear Tour Co. under a permit granted by the National Park Service, leads adventures in the park’s less-traveled trails and Great Lakes Piping Plover conservation habitat. She makes it her job to notice the subtle and spectacular natural occurrences within the Sleeping Bear Dune’s 71,199 acres. Here's what's happening now:

Northern Michigan radiates an abundance of daylight hours during the month of June. Days extend well into the ten o’clock hour. Revel in the evening twilight and partake in the “nightlife” at the dunes. Landscapes and sounds reflect differing tones and modes after sunset. Aspects are amplified. Yes, so are the mosquitoes, but with the proper protection, a headlamp at the ready, and positive mindset, a fresh perspective of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (SBDNL) is unveiled. 

Illuminations: The full “strawberry” moon of June has climaxed and begins to wane in brightness. Darkness returns to the night sky and the brilliance of stars appear brighter once more. The shorelines, inland lakes, and open fields of SBDNL endow numerous dark settings for quiet reflection and unobstructed viewing. Consider the practices of the Anishinaabe, utilizing the sky as a measurement of time and educational teachings.

What’s on the move? Encounter increased mammals during a nighttime trek. Your own instincts are enriched as paranoia enters your mindset. Movements in the treetops, the sound of dried leaves crackling underfoot, and the breaking of surface tension on lakes and streams will all be melodramatic with the diminished light. Cooler evening temperatures decrease heat stress for mammals. Coyote, bear, and bobcat are most active during heightened darkness. Bats take flight in forested habitat where insects are prevalent. Rejoice in the annoyance of pesky insects. The buzzes and hums within darkness are ecologically beneficial and balanced.

What’s blooming? Faux snow is drifting in the air: Seeds released by the cottonwood tree (Eastern Poplar) are the instigator of these squalls. The cottonwood tree is considered the only “common” tree of the dune landscape and plays a significant role in the protection of the dunes. The cottonwood is uniquely adaptive to the harsh environments of the Lakeshore. Strong sunlight, low soil fertility, and unrelenting winds are no match in the cottonwoods continuum. Known for rapid growth, the cottonwoods ability to create new limbs from their own root system allows the tree to keep pace with the blowing sands. These roots in turn provide stabilization for the dunes. Young trees provide food for rabbits and whitetail deer. Beavers enjoy gnawing saplings and use the trunks in dam construction.

Cottonwoods are also a favorite habitat for the firefly. Fireflies, often called lightning bugs, are in the beetle family, and use bioluminescence during twilight to attract mates or prey. Attraction is signified in the lighting pattern. With close observation you can decipher the differing displays. To increase favored habitat in your own backyard consider setting up a small water feature, allow organic decay to remain providing space for larvae to be deposited and turn off exterior lighting.

Songs of the night. The relentless chanting of the whip-poor-will, once an anthem during a northern Michigan summer, is increasingly lost. Eastern Whip-poor-wills were once a common bird, but their numbers have decreased annually by as much as 2 percent. The cumulative decline since 1970 reflects a very concerning 69 percent population decrease. At times their melody seems endless and when trying to sleep an annoyance. The musicality of the whip-poor-will is recited famously in folk songs, poems, and in literature. 

Euphonies within the darkness create aura and intrigue. Crickets, frogs, katydids, and owls will be a few of the common voices you will detect.

Venture (safely) outside into the dark of night. Feel your adrenaline flow or relax in the peacefulness. Focus on the intricate details or in the case of a night sky, allow a new realm to enter your imagination. Experience SBDNL in an entirely new light: darkness.

Photo courtesy Sleeping Bear Tour Co



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