WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
Darkness: for some it’s a fearful time. A simple walk in the woods in the waning days of October stirs over active imaginations and creates imagery of ferocious fanged creatures with sharp claws and nasty temperament. Illusions of reality run wild. For others, the darkness of autumn is a soothing and magical time of nature when the woods are alive with nocturnal creatures and the songs of owls, the whispering of the winds, and perhaps the distant yip of coyotes.
It was Friday the 13th of this month when I headed off to Bloomer Park, a 200-acre park managed by Rochester Hills Parks and Recreation to partake in their Hoot and Howl Hayride, a special evening nature event for children and their parents to explore the creatures of the nocturnal world. What happened on the hayride will forever remain unforgettable, for the staff, for the children and their parents, and for me.
I arrived an hour early to talk with Park Director Alan Buckenmeyer and naturalists Lance DeVoe and Lauren Oxlade. With 75 people expected, the participants would rotate in three groups, one on the hayride, and the other two switching between Naturalist Oxlade and Assistant Ranger Garret DeVoe with their live animal presentations at the Stone House. As the staff prepared, Alan and I wandered about the historic Stone House, the meeting place for the special event.
The Stone House is an eye-catching historic structure sitting at the top of a steep wooded bluff. The entire site and the Stone House was a Michigan State Park from 1924 until 1994 when the City of Rochester Hills took ownership of the property. It is also a well-known location for many hikers and trail runners, for as a participant explained to me at her early arrival for the event, ”Powering up and then down the 200 steps through the woods from near the banks of the Clinton River to the Stone House at the top is a mental work out as well as a physical one. There are moments when the steps seem to never end.” I opted out of her playful challenge to try the steps a few times before the hayride got underway.
Buckenmeyer briefed me on the hayride route that would follow a closed park road that meanders through the woods. I would ride along on the first trip out with Lance. The plan was simple. The wagon would pause at planned locations where ‘live mounts’ of wildlife were hidden and would be visible with a spotlight and then be used as focal points for nocturnal creature education. Live mounts are deceased creatures that have been placed back into realistic poses by taxidermists for display and educational purposes.
One of those creatures on the route was an Eastern Screech Owl, a small and very common owl of Oakland County. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes them this way, “If a mysterious trill catches your attention in the night, bear in mind the spooky sound may come from an owl no bigger than a pint glass. Common east of the Rockies in woods, suburbs, and parks, the Eastern Screech-Owl is found wherever trees are, and they’re even willing to nest in backyard nest boxes. These supremely camouflaged birds hide out in nooks and tree crannies throughout the day, so train your ears and listen for them at night”. A park staffer was already hidden in the woods with a tape recording of screech owls and when Lance turned the spotlight on to expose the owl, he would activate the tape recording for realism.
As darkness fell, the first group of children and I climbed onto the bales of straw in the back of the truck-pulled hay wagon. The sense of anticipation and excitement was palpable as Lance chatted to the group and the wagon began to move. Had nothing unusual happened on the hayride it still would have been a memorable moment on a beautiful windless and starry October evening.
A few minutes passed before we arrived at the location of the hidden Screech Owl, suspended from a roadside tree branch. Lance chatted about owl behavior and their night hunting ability. He turned the spotlight onto the live mount owl and that alone excited the kids. The hidden tape recorder activated and the kids were mesmerized by the high-pitched, horse-like whinny call of the owl, but it did not end there.
We were almost instantly gifted with winged reality and nature’s wildness as two live Screech Owls flew into the spotlight’s beam in response to the tape to “have words” with the intruder owl, the live mount, bringing to mind the timeless words of John Muir, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks”. Lance later described that encounter this way:
“The stars really have to align for a program to go as well as the Hoot and Howl Hayride did on Friday the 13th! Perfect weather, great people and cooperative wildlife! I have been leading nature programs for 25 years and done countless night hikes and owl prowls. Never have I had not one but a pair of Screech Owls come bombing in 30 seconds after hearing a screech owl recording on an owl walk, then to have them stick around for two more hayrides so that everyone got the chance to see them, unreal! I heard numerous participants mention that they had never seen an owl in the wild. Young and old, including this naturalist, marveled again at the wonders nature has to offer.”
I’ve led nature programs and owl walks as long as Lance, and I will echo his words and add it truly was a magical moment on the wilder side of Oakland County. With the Screech Owl encounter behind us, and a few images of their appearance perched on tree branches captured on camera, we continued along the route pausing for other live mount nocturnal creatures including a Great Horned Owl, an eastern coyote, and a gray fox placed up on a tree branch. The gray fox location was a superb teaching point as the participants discovered that gray fox live in our county and are excellent tree climbers because of the shape of their sharp claws.
The kids, parents and I all had a great time and we also encountered a deer and a raccoon that crossed the road near the wagon. We had more grand adventures back at the Stone House, partaking in the contiguously enthusiastic presentation of naturalist Lauren Oxlade with her spiders and Giant African Millipedes and tales of local nocturnal creatures. On the other side of the Stone House assistant ranger Garret DeVoe thrilled the children as he discussed snake biology and behavior using his pet reticulated python as a living prop.
As the evening wrapped up and some sleepy children dozed, everyone enjoyed cider and donuts near the Stone House fireplace, while Director Buckenmeyer explained to me that reorganization is underway and the Natural Resources Division of Rochester Hills Parks will include forestry, green space, outdoor engagement, environmental education, wildlife issues, and natural features. He said, “Most of these areas are already functioning but we want to have a more focused approach for engaging our residents and protecting the many natural features our city is blessed with.” That night adventure tells me they are on the right track. For more information on Bloomer Park and other parks managed by Rochester Hills Parks and upcoming events, visit their website.
Jonathan Schechter is the Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way, trails, and wildlife on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.