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Field Trip: Magnuson Nature Programs' Family Nighttime Nature Walk

Beavers and frogs and ducks, oh my!

Published on: May 02, 2016

Peering over the Magnuson ponds. Photo credit: Elisa Murray

Did you know that the frogs you hear in Seattle parks such as Magnuson emit such a classic "ribbit ribbit" sound that many of the frog vocalizations you hear in movies are from this area? Or that a beaver's teeth are so sharp that it can cut down a small tree in about 30 minutes? These are just a couple of the things you and your kids will learn in a family walk through the restored wetlands of Magnuson Park, with Magnuson Nature Programs director Emily Bishton as your guide. My son and I did a recent nighttime walk with two friends (and a group of others), and it was absolutely worth the late bedtime, for the insights it offered into a park we thought we knew well. 

Titled "Spring Symphony," the walk was one of many regular family events run by Magnuson Nature Programs, which also organizes summer camps, kids' classes, daytime nature walks and more. The group — around 10–12 adults and at least eight children — met at 7:30 p.m. near the boat launch on the southeast lakeshore end of the huge park. 

With kids jumping off logs and calling to each other at the start of the walk, we wondered if that would be the main "symphony" that we'd hear that night, but Bishton, a summer camp veteran, quickly engaged the kids by gathering them and telling them about the Pacific chorus frogs at Magnuson. She played recordings and shared frog stories, such as the fact that the frogs were unpaid movie extras for Hollywood. By the time Emily's volunteer assistant gave all the kids binoculars, they were hooked. 

Heron sighting over the wetlands. Photo credit: Elisa Murray

After an exciting great blue heron sighting, we started down the wetland trails from the boat launch, stopping at one pond to look at baby mallard ducks (Bishton drew the kids out with questions about the ducks' coloring), and at another to look for one of the park's beavers; gratifyingly, we saw a tiny brown head swimming industriously across. Bishton shared the park's fascinating beaver backstory: After the restoration of Magnuson's wetlands was completed several years ago, beavers built such a huge dam in the wetlands that some of the paths were flooded. 

To fool the beavers, the city installed a pipe (or "beaver deceiver," as Bishton called it) to quietly drain the extra water that was pooled by the dam; undeterred, the beavers built an even bigger dam. Eventually, more adjustments were made that resolved in a mostly peaceful coexistence between park visitors and the hard-working critter builders. 

Peering at pond life at a Magnuson Nature program.
Peering at pond life at a Magnuson Nature program. Photo credit: Elisa Murray

After that lead-up, kids were excited to walk in small groups down a narrow path to see a beaver dam, a 6-foot-tall masterwork that we viewed from the top.  A final highlight of the evening was a chance to peruse pond samples, teeming with tadpoles, mayflies and damselfly larvae. Microscopic magic. 

Although you can explore Magnuson Park on your own, the opportunity to have a guided, family-oriented tour of the park's ongoing transformation is really worth the time and low cost. As Bishton said in a later conversation about the park: "It’s almost like watching a child grow up because the changes are so rapid. It’s never the same park month to month." 


The groups can be large, but Bishton and her volunteer docent managed the size well and made sure everyone got a close look at the materials she showed.

Age recommendation

Most of the family walks run by Magnuson Nature Program are truly appropriate for all ages; the nighttime walk is later than many kids' bedtimes, of course, so plan accordingly. My 6-year-old was thrilled to be running around a park in the dark.  

Nearby bonus — all of Magnuson Park

You could spend a week exploring Magnuson Park and still have more to do. Some of our favorite places include the Junior League playground; the children's garden across the street from the Junior League playground (also run by Magnuson Nature Programs, don't miss the log pile). If you're in the beach area, Kite Hill is of big appeal. 

Magnuson Nature Programs also hosts a number of fun, free family events, including a summer children's concert series. Find details here.

If you go ...

Where: Magnuson Park is at 7400 Sand Point Way, Seattle. Find a map of the park here.

Upcoming classes: Magnuson Nature Programs offers several family nature walks this summer; next up is a nighttime nature walk on Saturday, June 11. It's currently full, but there is a wait list. 

Cost: Magnuson Nature Programs family classes are $3/person. 


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