Harry Potter, a high-heeled princess, and a skipping lizard shriek past on their way to the orientation booth, hoping to be first in line at the trailhead. They pause at the counter, collect a sack for the night’s goodies and follow the flickering pumpkin lanterns to where their guide awaits. She straightens her plush spider hat and grins mischievously at her charges.
As the line and the suspense grow for the night’s main feature, the princess taps her pink pointy toes on the pavement and nibbles at a handful of kettle korn. The lizard is far less reserved.
Finally, the guide breaks the tension. She waves them onto the trail with a flourish, calling, “Welcome to Runge! Now let’s go visit the creatures of the night!”
The first group of children surges through the entrance, jostling for position on the narrow paved trail. Masks pushed up on heads and parents in tow, they giggle and shush one another as they peer into the darkening woods. Even without the show, it’s rare and exciting to be on the trails at night.
The theme of Runge Conservation Nature Center’s 2008 Haunted Habits event is Nature’s Night Shift, and the group is off to meet some of Missouri’s nocturnal creatures as they go about their after-hours lives.
Around each turn of the lantern-lit trail, the group encounters a new character. The first is a singing sphinx moth, tending her garden. “A gardener helps things to grooow,” she trills, and explains that night-blooming flowers require moths and bats to pollinate them, as the bees and butterflies are tucked in for the night.
The next stop features humorous tales from a dancing skunk, Mephitis Mephitis, who works the night shift as an exterminator of rodents and insects. “Do you know what I really, really like?” she asks confidingly, smacking her lips at the guide’s hat. “Spiders!” she answers, winking at her laughing audience. Then the group is off to meet a well-traveled snow goose who explains how some animals manage to navigate and migrate at night. Everyone stocks up on prizes and treats along the way.
“This is our third year living in Jefferson City, and our third year at this event,” says Emily Rogers, mother of clone troopers Stephan, age 7, and Nathan, age 3, en route to the last stop. “We saw the listing in the newspaper and it’s been a countdown since. ‘Mom, it’s five days! Mom, now it’s two days! Mom, it’s today!’ The volunteers are just fantastic and the kids learn a lot. We really enjoy ourselves.”
Eventually, the trail winds down, but the children do not. The guide releases them back into the wild of the courtyard and they scatter like leaves.
The Party Continues
A zebra in distress requires detangling from the giant rope spider web, but otherwise, the obstacle course is a scene of happy chaos. At various stations, ‘spiderlings’ tend their web, ‘beavers’ sort and pile their logs, the ‘crawdads’ explore their burrow, the ‘armadillos’ practice their jumps, and the ‘nightcrawlers’ wriggle like pros. Powered by plentiful cocoa, cider and treats, many of the children have energy for more than one circuit.
As the temperature has sunk with the sun, the indoor festivities soon draw the greater part of the crowd. Inside the nature center, the party only gets wilder, and so do the stars of the evening—a great horned owl, an unusually patient and friendly bat, and a supporting cast of spiders, snakes and other nature center regulars. Eager fingers, both child and adult, take advantage of all the petting opportunities.
While some visitors join interpretive activities, enjoy exhibits based on the nocturnal lives of animals and play games to win prizes, others stop by the art room to make their own masks. Costumed volunteers answer questions, pique interest in the wild world, maintain order, locate parents and direct traffic to bathrooms, snacks and trails.
The evening’s momentum seems never to wane, but eventually the lantern candles gutter down, and the scent of charred pumpkin mixes with the hint of popcorn and autumn woods on the wind. Happy-tired families follow paths or catch shuttle busses to their cars, and young minds, full of the wonders of nature at night, start counting down the days until they can haunt some habitats again.
Haunt an Event Near You
*All events are free and open to all ages.
Anita B. Gorman Conservation Discovery Center
Nature’s Nightshift • Oct. 23, 4–8 p.m.
Our days are becoming shorter and our nights are lengthening, making this a perfect time to get a glimpse into the nocturnal world. As the sun sets, the animal nightshift gears up for survival. Explore mysteries of the night by learning about the bioluminescence of fireflies, bat echolocation and searching for spider eyes. In addition, Lakeside Nature Center is bringing both a screech owl and barn owl, with presentations from 4–7p.m. on the hour. No reservations required.
For more information, call (816) 759-7300.
Burr Oak Woods Conservation Nature Center
Nature … Through the Looking Glass
Oct. 16 and 17, 6–9 p.m.
By and by we see a rabbit appear on the trail in front of us. Curiosity prevails. Of course we follow him. There is a looking glass just ahead on the trail. Where did that come from? And what is on the other side? Experience the enchanted forest as we step through the looking glass and discover Hansel and Gretel, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Pinocchio and even Dorothy on the other side! There will be a few tickets available the nights of the event, but advanced registration is requested. Registration begins Oct. 1 at 8:30 a.m. and runs each weekday from 8:30–4:30 p.m. Tickets are assigned for hikes during the 6, 7 and 8 p.m. time period (hikes start every 15 minutes during the hour).
For reservations, call (816) 655-6263 and dial ext. 223 for 6–7 p.m. time slots Friday or Saturday; dial ext. 232 for 7–8 p.m. slots Friday or Saturday; or dial ext. 233 for 8–9 p.m. time slots Friday or Saturday.
Cape Girardeau Conservation Nature Center
Creatures of the Night: The Lizard of Oz
Oct. 23 and 24, 6:30–9:30 p.m.
"I would waddle and be merry; life just would not be so dreary, if I only had some food," sings the Armadillo as he meets Dorothy on their quest to visit the Lizard of Oz. In a world where habitat is poor, the Lizard promises a return to a more natural environment where all creatures can find food, water, shelter and space. Join Dorothy and all her friends as they guide you down the yellow brick road to the Land of Oz. Inside the nature center there will be crafts, presentations and much more. No reservations required.
For more information, call (573) 290-5218.
Powder Valley Conservation Nature Center
Nightlife Boogie • Oct. 16, 6–9 p.m.
Creatures are lurking in the night! Spend an evening at Powder Valley and learn about Missouri’s nocturnal animals. Bring the whole family for storytelling, guided hikes, live animals, door prizes and more. Can you find a spider just by using your nose? Sign up at the door for a spider sniff! Come dressed as your favorite Missouri animal. Come early as the live animals are here for only a limited time. No reservations required.
For more information, call (573) 301-1500.
Runge Conservation Nature Center
Haunted Habitats • Oct. 23, 6–9 p.m. • Rain date Oct. 24, 6–9 p.m.
From armadillos to zebra swallowtails, Missouri is home to a multitude of wild animals. Learn your ABCs with a natural twist at this year’s Haunted Habitats event. Walk the Alphabet Trail and meet some of our Missouri animal friends, then venture inside to ﬁnd more of our Animal Alphabet! Enjoy games, kettle korn, the Alphabet Obstacle Course, lighted pumpkins and more. No reservations required.
For more information, call (573) 526-5544.
Springfield Conservation Nature Center
Little Red Riding Hood’s Forest Foray
Oct. 29 and Oct. 30, 6:30–9:30 p.m.
Join Little Red Riding Hood as she faces her fear of the dark and learns some important lessons about how animals survive during this Halloween-style look at conservation. Guided hikes will be led on a first-come, first-served basis with the last hike leaving at 9 p.m. Indoor activities are also included. This event is guaranteed to be insightful, not frightful! No reservations required.
For more information, call (417) 888-4237.
Twin Pines Conservation Education Center
National Scenic Riverways’ Haunting of the Hills at Alley Spring
Oct. 10 and 11, Sat. 10 a.m. –4 p.m. and 7–9:30 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m. –3 p.m.
Rather than hosting a separate event at the center, Twin Pines joins forces with National Scenic Riverways to help present Haunting of the Hills. Enjoy traditional Ozark storytelling and music amid the beautiful setting of the Alley Mill and Alley Spring. Traditional Ozark craftsmen will be demonstrating skills of yesteryear on the grounds. Be sure to join the hunt for the Karkaghne monster (a spider hike) and visit with divers in the spring to learn more about this special habitat.
For more information, call (573) 226-3945.