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Let this be a lesson in nightlife on the wild side

Things that go bump in the night can make life quite miserable

For things that go bump in the night from ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggety beasties

And things that go bump in the night,

Good Lord, deliver us!

_ Scottish prayer.

Things that go bump in the night can be scary if you don't know what they are.

And sometimes they can be even more frightening when you do.

Night Hike in the Park, one of the non-credit courses offered by Hillsborough Community College, is designed to teach students about the night sounds that sometimes are forbidding but need not be so scary.

It's a perfect course for the Halloween season.

Donna Foley, program biologist, is the instructor. Sometimes on the hike she is assisted by her husband, Alan. During a recent class the two of them acted as nocturnal tour guides.

On this fall evening 12 students armed with flashlights and insect repellent trudged along a mushy path, following their instructor's advice to walk quietly and carefully. The rain-filled summer had created slushy walkways within Upper Tampa Bay Park, a park owned and maintained by Hillsborough County on Mobbly Bay at northernmost point of Tampa Bay and W Hillsborough Avenue.

Within a short distance from the start of the hike, sounds of thrashing in the bushes brought the class to a sudden halt.

Two cottonmouth water moccasins were either performing a mating ritual or engaged in a territorial dispute within nine feet of the group. As the snakes stood straight up and wrapped themselves around each other in a dance with music only they could hear, 12 flashlights turned on them like spotlights.

"I thought it was an armadillo when I heard them bumping into each other," said Karen Gebhardt, one of the students. "Then when I saw them I remembered that they can strike as far as 12 feet."

Gebhardt was wrong about the snake's striking ability but she was correct about the species. However, her observation of the snake's agility caused the group to quietly but quickly back up another six feet as they continued to observe the snakes until they slithered back under the bushes.

According to Fred Webb, dean of environmental programs at HCC, snakes can only strike from as far away as half their body length.

The snake show was the overture to the evening's program that included the sounds of frogs mingling with the aroma of insect repellent and other sights and sounds of the night. On the two-hour excursion, the students walked along paths lined with palmetto shrubs and tall pine trees.

After the snake encounter, they not only walked as quietly as possible but with extra caution and within touching distance of one another.

Two of the students were Carie Rube, 20, and Brian Peterson, 23. Both attend HCC.

"That was unbelievable," said Peterson after the snake encounter. "Now I'm nervous just walking."

Spiders were the most numerous inhabitants of the park _ at least that very warm and humid night. A full moon darted in and out behind the few clouds scattered in the sky, keeping the paths partially illuminated.

"We'll look for them by seeing the light of our flashlight reflected in their eyes," said Foley. "The reflection will be blue."

The first spider encountered was the golden silk, a small, multicolored arachnid that had built its web near the Nature Center.

The group was hoping to see raccoons, possums and armadillos _ but only the latter was seen burrowing around in the dark, damp dirt looking for grubs and other bugs. Two were sighted.

The class was also told that a gray fox, bobcat and some birds and owls could be seen at night around here _ but not this night.

"Frogs are also heard but rarely seen," explained Alan Foley as he played a tape recording of different frog sounds so the class could identify what they were hearing.

They learned to recognize the honking sound of the green frog that radiates from retention ponds; the peeping of oak toads; the tap-tap-tapping of the pinewood tree frogs; the shrieking of the eastern narrow frog; the grunting of the pig frog and finally the sound of the leopard frog, much like a balloon rubbing against skin.

Another creature of the night the class hoped to see _ but didn't _ was the bat.

"They are usually out catching insects," Foley said. "They can catch more than 600 mosquitoes an hour."

Foley debunked common myths about bats. They do not get tangled in hair and they fly just fine with their sonar abilities.

"Blind as a bat is inaccurate," she said.

She also answered a question several students had about a spider they see each night but seems to disappear during the day.

"It's the araneus spider," said Foley. "It builds its web every night and takes it down in the morning."

Sort of an arachnid RV.

Near the end of the night hike a rabbit hopped out of the undergrowth onto the path. It was a white, black and domesticated.

"Someone must of let him loose or else he's an escapee," Foley said. "We'll look for him tomorrow and try to find a home more secure for him. He won't survive in this environment."

A walk along the park's boardwalk that reached out into the bay a few yards proved to be uneventful as just a couple of small fiddler and mangrove crabs were sighted.

Still, the class did see a few raccoon footprints in the mudflats and memories of the snake dance were enough to teach all that not everything in nature sleeps the night away.

Other non-credit courses the school offers are on astronomy, edible plants, Florida reptiles and amphibians, canoe explorations, the Withlacoochee caves, the Florida Keys and a class about the Tampa Bay estuary. Call (813) 253-7592 for costs, dates and times.