golden gate park after dark?

golden gate park at night (by photographer Chris MacArthur, SF Weekly)

Marie Winn’s delightful book,  Central Park in the Dark: More Mysteries of Urban Wildlife (New York:   Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  2008) begins: “The first time I walked through the Ramble at night I was terrified.  I had been there in the daytime often enough;  that thirty-seven acre wilderness in the heart of central Park is where I first became a birdwatcher. But the very features that enchanted me by day — the winding paths, the thicket of trees blocking out the city in all directions, the rock formations cropping up out of nowhere, the secret coves, the rustic bridges and sylvan streams — all looked grotesque and menacing in the darkness  .  .  .

.  .  .  That was many years ago.  Today the things that once made my heart start pounding are full of possibility.  That rustling in the leaf litter could be a white-footed mouse;  the odd yips and yowls — squabbling raccoons.  Now I recognize the particular rocks and trees that cast ominous shadows on the path.  Of course I keep my wits about me walking through the park at night, but not more than I do during the day.  You learn to be jungle-smart living in New York.”

Curiosity and fascination with the mysteries of nature lured Marie Winn and her band of “nature lovers”  into the “wilderness” of Central Park after dark beginning in 1995 and they found amazing things going on  .  .  .  creatures and events that would never be seen in daylight  .  .  .  “owls flying off to hunt, bats calling unheard as they circle at the water’s edge, spiders spinning elaborate webs, slugs embracing, cicadas unfolding their lacy green wings, hawks falling asleep in concealment, large, colorful moths arriving from the mysterious dark to feed on tree sap.”

Reading these tales of adventure make me wonder about wild nightlife in Golden Gate Park.  Do we have bats, a moth tree that comes alive in the dark, mating slugs?  Where do the birds sleep?  I’m reminded of a trip I took once to the Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland which extends into parts of Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia and is teaming with wildlife.  One night, on a night hike, our guide pointed his flashlight beam out at a nearby marsh. Hundreds of pairs of yellow eyes shown up at us out of the dark grasses  .  .  .   Yacare Caiman (Caiman yacare)!

What wildlife would we startle out of the thickets of Golden Gate Park in the night?  I’m guessing owls, raccoons, lots of rodents, bats  .  .  .  maybe a coyote?

For more photos Golden Gate Park at night by Chris MacArthur:


About fromthethicket

I'm a landscape historian and professor emeritus of landscape architecture, UC Davis. I live in San Francisco.
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2 Responses to golden gate park after dark?

  1. milliontrees says:

    Yes! There are bats in GG Park! There is a lovely blog done by someone (Jennifer Krauel) who studied the bats in San Francisco’s parks for her master’s dissertation at SF State: In this post on her blog, she reports that she has heard “hundreds of Mexican freetail calls, and a few Yuma Myotis calls from the location [Stowe Lake].”

    She also reports that her research was funded by San Francisco’s Natural Areas Program. They were hoping that she would find an association between bat populations and native plants in the parks. She found no correlation between the population of bats and the number of native plants in San Francisco’s parks. Hmmmm.

    This photo of GG Park at dusk is lovely. The light glowing in the background is surreal. Do you think that was achieved without the help of Photoshop?

  2. Janet says:

    Hi —

    I know a little bit about wildlife in Golden Gate Park, and would like to throw out some food for thought. That you visited Paraguay creates an unusual connection — I grew up there!

    I have a website with many photos taken from Golden Gate Park. Taking photos is my way of celebrating and advocating for these wild animals in our urban areas. To protect the animals I don’t advertise precise locations. But people interested in wildlife need only keep their eyes open — including during twilight hours.

    During the day you can see hundreds of song birds and aquatic birds, turtles, snakes, lizards, frogs, voles, gophers, squirrels, butterflies, moths, various hawks, and maybe a peregrine falcon or a mole if you are lucky. During the darker hours, you may come across various owls — they are more likely to be heard hooting than seen silently hunting. Baby owls have been seen in their nests during daylight hours. In the evening you might catch the reflection of a group of eyes caused by your headlights — it will be a raccoon family — they tend to stick together as they look for food. I’ve seen a mother and her cubs descend a tall tree when they sky was still light. Opossums and skunks are shy, as are all of these animals, but keep your eyes open because after dusk they are there, often by the edge of a bush. Bats move so erratically and fast that you can’t really focus on them — they can be seen as rapidly flitting silhouettes against the darkening night sky. Bats are noisy, but you would need ultrasonic hearing to hear them. You might be lucky enough to spot a lone coyote or even a fox feeding in a field or crossing the roadway in the early hours of the day or in the evening, and the top prize is hearing a group of coyotes howling in the distance. I’m sure I’ve missed many animals, but this gives you an idea of the teaming wildlife in our parks. Even if you don’t see too much of it, it is nice to just know that it is out there. Please visit my website for photos:

    Of great concern to me is preserving habitat. Animal habitat is defined as dense growth — thickets and undergrowth — which are impenetrable to humans and dogs. Recently, more and more animal habitat is being cleared and pruned away for planting native plants and grasslands.

    Native plants are wonderful, but they do not have the same habitat value as what is already in place. The Native Plant Program wants to return the landscape to what it was in 1776 — supposedly that was a “pristine” environment. But the fact is that Native Americans, too, cleared and altered the landscape for their own use, so that it was “unnatural”, in the sense of being altered by humans, even before the Europeans first arrived. Natural succession had not been allowed to take place back then — and it is not being allowed now. The result was grasslands. Now, native plants such as willow, coyote brush and poison oak which could be allowed to thrive in some of our “natural area parks”, are being removed to mimic what the Europeans saw when they first discovered the area — grasslands and low growing plants. That settlers brought in plants to increase biodiversity and break the monotony of sandy dune-type plants should be considered part of the evolutionary process — humans have engaged in plant transportation since the beginning of time. If it had not been done, we would all be eating acorns in this area.

    One of my biggest bones of contention is the use of poisons. To keep non-native plants from encroaching upon the more fragile native plants, gardeners “must” manage these areas “forevermore”, and “must” use powerful poisons on a continuing basis, which means that these so-named “natural areas” are really artificial creations — created gardens — akin to living museums of the past — they are not natural areas at all.

    So, my plug is for retaining as many wilderness areas as possible. These serve as animal habitat for our wild critters, critters who might otherwise just leave or die, or they might migrate to housing areas where they could become “behavioral nuisances” to homeowners. I’m all for native plants, but they need not replace our forested areas. Let’s not take out the few wilderness spots that still remain, where the animals can make their homes. These areas and the critters in them have evolved together over the last hundreds of years and now belong here.

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