Haunted Habitats

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