A scream rips out of the darkness, somewhere in the shadows of a pond at the Desert Botanical Garden, along with another sound almost as disturbing.
“Sounds like someone is murdering somebody,” says Robert Parker, a docent at the Papago Park preserve, where the summer night tours are under way. “And the other one like somebody is standing on a cat’s tail.”
But “what you are hearing is a woodhouse toad, mostly,” Parker tells a group of parents and young children, their faces illuminated green by glow-stick necklaces. As for the cat-tail croak, it’s a spadefoot frog — another of the garden’s many denizens best seen and appreciated at night, says Parker.
Summer Flashlight Tours have a long history at the garden, where, at least during the hot months, the desert starts to stir when the sun sets. That’s when some otherwise unseen cactus blossoms bloom, when night hawks fly and snakes are more likely to slither.
“We call it a ‘Twilight Adventure,’ ” says Pam Levin, who oversees the 90-minute tours and other programs at the 145-acre garden. “The whole atmosphere is different.
“You are not going to see as many things as during the daytime, but your whole senses will be heightened — your hearing, your smell. . . .
“We really like these tours and would like to see them grow, because not many people know about the desert at nighttime,” Levin says.
The garden at night is not just more palatable to emerging wildlife — tour participants also benefit from the cooler breezes that typically sweep in after twilight as well as the postcard-perfect desert vistas silhouetted by the setting sun, says Brennan Basler, who acts as troubleshooter after visitors are sent out with docents and who, beforehand, scouts the gardens for budding cactuses and other attractions.
“We have those serendipitous moments,” says Basler, who in just minutes on the path points out a blooming organ cactus and a soaring nighthawk. “They troll the night for bugs,” he says, pointing to the bird overhead.
Fortunate visitors might even see the large, white blossom of the Arizona queen of the night, a stick of a cactus that once a year produces an inordinately large white blossom (4 to 5 inches across), Levin says. Cicadas sing, scorpions occasionally emerge, guppies float in shallow ponds and coyotes sometimes howl. “One thing about the botanical garden — it really is an oasis in the middle of the city,” says Basler. Though dark, natural light and decoratively illuminated desert pathways keep visitors from stumbling about.
Additionally, as the title of the tour suggests, anyone who wants one is provided a flashlight. That’s how 4-year-old Drew Gibbons of Phoenix was the first in his group to spot a king snake winding its way through bushes next to the trail. Within seconds, a dozen or so more flashlights were fixed on the striped snake. “Good job, Drew,” says docent Nancy Bushway.
His mother, Penny Gibbons, says Drew didn’t initially understand the attraction of walking outside at night. “He’s like, ‘Why are we going to the desert?’ And I said, ‘Just wait for it,’ ” says Gibbons.