Hay carts at Mass Audubon’s Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary in Marshfield.

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When I was a teenager, I got into trouble more than once for attempting to visit some of our local nature preserves at night. Most of them are only open from dawn until dusk, and if you park in their designated lots after sunset, you run the risk of getting ticketed or towed. Not to mention that you’re disobeying the rules!
But these places are so inviting! I know I’m not the only one who is curious about what our conservation properties are like after dark. Part of the reason the rules are in place is to prevent people from getting into mischief on public land. What’s a well-intentioned explorer to do?
Fortunately, some of the region’s earth-friendly organizations and other stewards of the land occasionally offer guided tours of conservation lands at night. The North and South Rivers Watershed Association hosts a moonlight hike (or paddling trip) every now and then. The South Shore Natural Science Center has its Owl Prowl and other evening programs. And Mass Audubon offers the occasional hike or hayride.
This September, my son and I and several of our family friends signed up together for Audubon’s “Summer’s Last Hurrah! Hayride,” which took place at Marshfield’s Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary. We met at dusk on a cool Saturday evening, and enjoyed snacks around a small bonfire while Audubon’s Education Coordinator Amy Quist shared myths and stories about the changing seasons. Then we all piled into a tractor-towed cart lined with loose hay and took a tour through the sanctuary.
Night had fallen by then, so we were there just as much to listen as to see. Occasionally Quist and her assistant would stop the cart and encourage us to pay attention to our surroundings. How many different sounds could we hear? What did we think they were? How was the sanctuary different at night?
Daniel Webster Sanctuary was once a farm. In fact, from 1832 until his death 20 years later, it was renowned statesman Daniel Webster’s farm! The property retained its agricultural purpose well into the 20th century. Since the 1980s Mass Audubon has managed it. It’s now a popular wildlife sanctuary, and exploration is permitted only on foot, so it was a treat to be literally carted around to see the various features at night. Webster’s orchard, the Green Harbor River, and Fox Hill each take on a different character after dark.
Quist also asked us to look up. When you get away from the lights of civilization – even just a little bit – the stars seem so much brighter. It was a clear night, so there was plenty to observe in the Autumn Equinox sky. Quist pointed our various constellations and fielded questions from adults and children alike.
Some of our crew liked the bonfire and stories (and homemade cookies) best. Others enjoyed the novelty of riding in the hay cart, and making “nests.” For me, the most memorable moment was when we stopped near the top of Fox Hill, and had a chance to look up at the night sky. It’s been a while since I’ve seen so many stars!
Mass Audubon offers guided hayrides a few times a year. You can also arrange a private one, for birthday parties or other events. Visit the website www.massaudubon.org for details on the organization, its properties, and the programs it offers throughout the year. Or call the South Shore Sanctuaries headquarters at 781-837-9400 to find out what’s happening next.
by Kezia Bacon
October 2015