Strangers in the Night

By and large, the environments where I stargaze are pretty predictable. There will be cars passing by, the distant sounds of trucks and trains, night birds, and so on. In the city or suburbs, I expect to encounter dog walkers, teenagers quiet or rowdy, and even occasionally another stargazer. But every now and then I get a genuine surprise.

The Hound of the Baskervilles features Sherlock Holmes versus a gigantic dog that glows in the night. But I never expected to see a glowing dog myself.
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At my country home, I'm used to hearing extended conservations among the local canid population, both domestic and wild. Often it will start with some coyotes yipping in the swamp, then the big dogs up the hill will join in, and pretty soon the neighborhood for miles around is resonating with yelps, howls, and barks. Sometimes the coyotes come closer, even walking up the road right past my driveway.

One night last summer, I was alarmed to hear a howling that was clearly heading straight toward me. Coyotes don't usually worry me at all, but I din't like the idea that one of them was actively seeking me out. Fortunately, this sounded a lot more like a beagle than a coyote. On the other hand, coyotes have a huge range of vocalizations, so you never know.

Looking toward the howling, which by then was just 20 yards away, I saw a red light. Now this was just too strange to handle. Here I have a coyote who's mimicking a beagle and has already attacked another stargazer and stolen his red flashlight. Yikes!

Right about then a car drove up the hill with just its parking lights on and stopped a little above my driveway. The red light ran over to the car, whereupon a conversation ensued between the two people in the car about how far their dog had gone.

On inquiring, I discovered that they were training the dog to hunt raccoons. They'd set it loose about a half mile away, and it eventually found not a raccoon but me. The red light is on a radio beacon that they use to follow the dog as it hunts. The owner was quite apologetic about disturbing me, and came by during daylight some time later to explain all about how he trains dogs for competitions.

It all goes to show, you never know what you'll learn when you head outside to look at the stars.

I had an equally strange experience in my local city park about a year earlier, but I'll save that story for another day. Meanwhile, how about you? What's the oddest encounter you've ever had at night?

4 thoughts on “Strangers in the Night

  1. Dustin

    I have often set out observing in all seasons here in Colorado. Out east, the skies are often very dark, with great views of the northern Milky Way. I have a concrete patio right outside a french door that I push my Vixen 104mm refractor, standing on an Orion Pier stand with wheels, out to view the skies.
    One night about three years ago, it was about 2 in the morning and I just couldn’t sleep. Although I had work in the morning, yet I thought what better thing to do when insomnia strikes, right? So out I go with my trusty Vixen.
    Now you have to understand, I live about forty miles SE of Denver, CO…AKA “out in the boonies” as many people percieve it. Anyway, after several carefree minutes of observing I hear a slight crinkling out in the brush somewhere. With no moon whatsoever it was very hard to see what, if anything was out there. So I proceeded to get lost back in the views of my eyepiece. I heard the noise again, closer, which this time I stood up (as my Vixen’s long tube requires me to sit on the ground), again without seeing anything.
    The third time I heard the noise, out pops Pepe La Peau with white stripe and all about five feet from where I am sitting down…yikes! Needless to say neither I nor my equipment recieved a scent bath that night, but I decided it was time to try and go back to sleep!

  2. Mitchell

    My oddest encounter was over a year ago when I was observing in my backyard in central California. I was looking at a galaxy in my 10-inch dobsonian when I heard something flying by my head. I didn’t pay much attention to it because I though it was only a butterfly or a large insect of some sort. But, it kept flying over my head, almost touching my head at times, so I became anxious to know what it really was. I didn’t have a flashlight, so I took out my digital camera and turned the flash on and took a picture. I looked at the camera screen and what do you know…a bat. I was very surprised it was a bat because it didn’t sound like a bat. This wasn’t my first time encountering a bat, so I wasn’t scared at all. I continued observing for about 30 more minutes and went inside, but the bat was still busy finding insects to eat. Although, I do regret showing the picture to my mother! I’ve also encountered blue glowing earth worms at night in my backyard.

  3. Dan

    A while back I was on a vacation to Southern Florida, and was excited because I’d never stargazed from so far south. I planned to head out on a path through the everglades to some boardwalks with platforms above the water. I had my red flashlight, but hadn’t brought a standard one. My wife encouraged me to stop and get one before heading out, to make sure that I could make my way along the path. I dutifully obeyed, buying a blue LED headlamp. I strapped it on and headed for the boardwalks. The path curved around a large pool, and looking out, my first thought was that there were an amazing number of bright stars reflected in the pool. Then it occured to me that they were all blue. And they were all in pairs. Then I realized that Alligator eyes reflect light amazing well. I was grateful that I had the headlamp, and was glad when I was safely on the boardwalk, with the gators swimming silently below me. For all that, the stars were beautiful — I fell in love with the graceful curve of scorpius that night, higher than I’d ever seen him, and for me, scorpius remains the most beautiful of the constellations in the night sky today.

  4. Micki

    One evening a friend and I had set up a telescope at Lake of the Ozarks State Park where we were camping on a trip from Maryland to the Southwest. I often bring my cat on trips like this, although I hadn’t on this occasion, but it didn’t startle me too much when a small furry animal strolled over and rubbed gently against my leg. Thinking another camper’s cet was visiting, I reached down to pet “kitty,” but the fur didn’t seem right. Risking the light, I discovered the friendly little visitor was a skunk.
    We packed up soon after.

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