Walking through the woods on a sultry evening, Jim Higgins suddenly stops and waves something that looks like a transistor radio in the air. It's a bat detector, which picks up sounds humans can't hear and beeps when it senses a bat nearby. Whenever he hears a beep, Higgins scans the bushes, branches, and sky for the bat, then points it out to the group he's leading through the woods.
But the bat detector isn't beeping at the moment. So Higgins focuses on other sounds. "Listen for the tick-tick-tick," he says, referring to the southern cricket frog, whose croak sounds like two pebbles being tapped together.
Less than a hundred yards away is busy Sunrise Boulevard, which leads to the beach in Fort Lauderdale. But with frogs croaking, leaves rustling, and insects humming, the woodsy grounds of the historic Bonnet House are as peaceful as some remote island. They are not, however, devoid of activity, thanks to Higgins, who conducts a Night Walk and Lecture once a month. Although he's assistant park manager at Hugh Taylor Birch State Recreation Area, which is just across Sunrise, his stomping grounds, so to speak, are the Bonnet House's 35 acres of natural and landscaped coastal vegetation. At the beginning of each 90-minute excursion, visitors gather in the Bonnet House, where Higgins talks informally about the theme for the night -- insects, bats, or sea turtles, for example.
Once outside, the visitors adjust their eyes to the dark and follow Higgins, who, at the moment, is aiming his flashlight at a few swans gliding lazily across a pond. The swans continue to swim, as if not noticing -- or caring about -- the intrusion. But not every creature is so casual. Higgins says that he rarely uses his flashlight, because it disrupts their nighttime routines.
Among a stand of palm trees on a small hill near the pond, however, Higgins sweeps a black light over the bark on the trees. Yellow spots are visible in the purple glow. They're lichen, Higgins says, a crustlike fungus that grows on trees.
At another stop he points out a group of long, skinny cactus shoots. Called cereus, they bloom only at night, and once a year they sport spectacular, cream-colored blossoms. Though there are no blossoms tonight, Higgins says that last year one of his groups passed by at just the right time. The message: Visitors never know what they're in for.
The Bonnet House isn't the only place to enjoy some nighttime navigating. West Lake Park in Hollywood will launch a Moonlight Canoe Tour June 10. Occasional Owl Prowls are conducted in Tree Tops Park in Davie (954-370-3750). And Secret Woods Nature Center in Fort Lauderdale (954-791-1030) and Fern Forest Nature Center in Pompano Beach (954-970-0150) will offer night hikes in July.
Among the attractions: wolf spiders spinning webs, beetles glowing in the dark, and raccoons enjoying the nightlife. Night-blooming plants are also in abundance, as are owls, which screech as they soar through the sky. Susan Banks, who recently participated in a Bonnet House walk, says that exploring nature at night is an adventure filled with shadows, silhouettes, and sounds. "There's kind of drama to all that," she says.
Surprises, too. As placid as those swans seem, they're currently bringing up a brood of baby swans, says Higgins. So if you get too close, he adds, mama may swat you with one of her powerful wings.
Upcoming nighttime nature activities include a Moonlight Canoe Tour Wednesday, June 10 from 7 to 9 p.m. at West Lake Park, 751 Sheridan St., Hollywood. Cost is $8. Call 954-926-2480. The next Night Walk and Lecture at Bonnet House, 900 N. Birch Rd., Fort Lauderdale, is scheduled for June 18 from 7:30 to 10 p.m. Admission is $7 to $9. Call 954-563-5393.