Nighttime brings a whole new slant to nature – and some national wildlife refuges are going out of their way to help you see and hear it. Several times a year, they're delaying normal sunset closing times to host night star-viewings, swamp paddles, scorpion hunts and wolf howl serenades in settings hard to beat for natural scenery and wildlife.
If you want to jolt a youngster out of complacency and off a smart phone, this may be the ticket. You'll need to plan ahead – most events occur on scheduled dates only, and some require reservations – but the effort is worth it.
"If you take a hike in the day,you're pretty much just looking," says Park Ranger Denise McInturff at Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge http://www.fws.gov/bonsecour/, AL, which is hosting five night hikes this summer. "At nighttime, you have to use your other senses. There's a lot more to hear and you're paying attention more because you don't see as well. I tell kids, 'You don't have to be afraid at night. It's not scary. It's just darker.'
"Darker is darker still at remote refuges like Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge http://www.fws.gov/refuge/conboy_lake/, WA, and Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge http://southwest.fws.gov/refuges/newmex/bosque, NM. You can't help but look upward at night.
Conboy Lake, which will host an "Astronomy Night" Sept. 1, is "a spectacular location for star-gazing," says Sue McDonald, visitor services manager for that refuge and six others. "It's not only that there's no light pollution. There's this huge open camas prairie" that makes an ideal viewing platform. Adds assistant refuge manager Lisa Wilson, "On a summer night, you can see a glow on Mt. Adams, and hear greater sandhill cranes call at dusk."
Of course, some refuges turn downright creepy at night, and that's a part of their attraction, too. The thrill of seeing giant reptiles on the prowl draws hundreds of visitors a year to night boat trips at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge http://www.fws.gov/okefenokee/ in Georgia.
"It's cool to see the bigger gators at night, when they do their hunting," says Brittany Waryjas, a visitor services intern at the refuge. A reflective layer of tissue in the retina makes their eyes glow red at night – a good way to spot them, if you don't hear them first. They hiss when threatened and bellow to call mates or mark territory. Refuge ranger Cynthia McIntyre recalls hearing the sound for the first time: "It sounded like a lion roaring in the jungle."
Visitors who like their swamp adventures mild can take a guided sunset motorboat tour. The braver can opt for multi-day kayak or canoe trips that feature overnight camping on platforms that might have growling gators below.
Different shiver-inducing night sounds draw nature lovers to Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge http://www.fws.gov/alligatorriver, NC. Red wolf "howling safaris," held on scheduled dates from April to December, feature the eerie calls of endangered red wolves, whose recovery through captive breeding began on the refuge in the 1980s. The refuge is the only place in the world where you can hear these wolves in the wild. Listening online can't match being there, but here's a taste: http://bit.ly/Zy74V8
Here are some refuge night events to plan for this summer and fall:
Night Sky Events
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