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Giving Tuesday: See the Forest in an all new way

Before my recent appointment as Fontenelle Forest’s Interim Executive Director, I served the Forest as a long-time Teacher Naturalist volunteer. As a TN I’ve had the privilege of leading scores of hikes and other interpretive programs at the Forest. In particular, I enjoy leading visitors on night hikes. Member-only night hikes are unique and exciting ways for visitors to experience the flora and fauna of the Forest. Since the Forest is generally closed to visitors after normal business hours, night hikes afford members special moonlit adventures on trails in Fontenelle Forest and Neale Woods.

For example, once after a big wind storm, a group hiking at night near the Great Marsh learned they were far more capable of functioning in the dark than they knew. During the day, high winds had blown two large trees across the trail. When the night hikers reached the fallen trees, they faced two options – turn back and retrace their steps – or help each other climb over the trees in the dark. Fortunately, by this point on their night hike, the hikers’ eyes had adjusted to the dim evening light. The night hikers surprised themselves with the ease in which they were able to climb over the fallen trees in the dark – without the aid of flashlights.

In the course of leading numerous night hikes over the past dozen or so years, I’ve observed that unusual animal encounters seem to occur in places and moments of transition – such as at dusk, near the water’s edge, change of seasons, etc. During the evening transition, the diurnal animals bed down for the evening and the nocturnal animals become active. This is especially the case in the vicinity of Fontenelle Forest’s Great Marsh located on the Missouri river floodplain near Bellevue. The Great Marsh and surrounding wetlands formed from a Missouri river ox-bow. This natural area teems with all manner of native wildlife. Many species of birds, mammals, amphibians and other critters visit or live in the Great Marsh and wetlands.

When transition moments occur during night hikes, the natural world sometimes creates remarkable human-animal encounters. An encounter with a beaver on one of our night hikes stands out as both memorable and notable. Picture this: The moonlit evening was clear and crisp. Our night hike group stood gazing across the Great Marsh near the junction of two trails. As the moon cast its image across the Great Marsh right in front of us, a beaver swam right through the moonbeam – only a few yards offshore. Our hiking group was thrilled to see the beaver swimming so close to them!

Another noteworthy night hike moment occurred on a silent night hike. The group stood stock still on a trail listening to the night sounds. The group’s motionless, silent behavior seemed to arouse the curiosity of a nearby barred owl. The raptor flew into a tree right above the group and silently stare­­­­d down at them for several minutes. When the group finally moved on, the owl still sat perched on the tree branch looking down at the group.

I hope this brief moment of sharing helps to whet your appetite to participate on a members-only night hike. Come join us on a moonlit adventure in Fontenelle Forest or Neale Woods. See you on the trails!

Tad Leeper
Interim Executive Director

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