Boy was I worried about the weather on Saturday June 23rd. It was awful – cold, rainy and windy. Would anyone come out for the scheduled Park in the Dark at Washington Park Arboretum? I was just about to give up hope, when suddenly and miraculously, the skies cleared just in time for the night hike we had planned!
About 20 people (kids and adults) joined me for a delightful walk learning about nocturnal animals and how they use their senses to get around in the night.
Early on in the walk, we talked a little about the possibility of seeing barred owls (Strix varia). The Horticultural Staff and Garden Guides had been seeing the adults and their young for a couple of weeks. I played the Park in the Dark guests the barred owl “Who Cooks for You” call and the ascending high pitched sound the youngsters make when begging for food on my iPad. That way we could listen for their call and let our ears lead the way.
Lucky for us, we didn’t even have to use our ears, because as we were walking down Azalea Way, a very kind man said that the owls were out and about in the big leaf maple tree (Acer macrophyllum) just before the Winter Garden. Our large group quickly, and not so quietly, hustled to the spot.
Eureka! Three juvies were very low in three different trees begging for food. Their beg sounds a lot like they are whining, “Pleeeeaaaase!” We were all mesmerized. We probably stood and watched them for about 15 minutes.
We decided to move on to another activity and give the owls some space. We played a fun game called Bat and Moth in the Winter Garden and walked to one of my favorite spots in the Arboretum, Loderi Valley. The King George Rhododendrons (Rhododendron ‘Loderi King George’) look like upside down people; heads under the ground and limbs above reaching outward and upward.
On the ground we found leaf skeletons from the many varieties of magnolias that surround Loderi Valley. Among the leaf litter, one little girl found an Almond Scented Millipede (Harpaphe haydeniana).
These garden friendly critters release hydrogen cyanide when threatened. It smells like almonds, but tastes really bad to birds. Almond scented millipedes are excellent at breaking down the leaf litter and freeing up nutrients for other organisms.
On our way back to the Graham Visitors Center we stopped by the big leaf maple to see if the owls were still there. They were! Still making their whiney “feed me” call.
It was a great night and I hope the rest of our Park in the Dark night hikes are filled with as many surprises as Saturday’s.
Park in the Dark
July 14 8-9:30pm
August 25 8-9:30pm
September 15 7-8:30pm
October 13 7-8:30pm
$8.00 per person
Register online here
Lisa Sanphillippo is a Program Assistant and Garden Guide for Education and Outreach at UW Botanic Gardens.