By JESSICA WELSHANS
HILLS CREEK - In a fine drizzle, 12 people hiked the Yellow Birch Trail at Hills Creek State Park after dark on June 30. Park naturalist Jim Mucci led them into the forest and stopped, leaving the group staring into the darkness.
A shrill distress cry shrieked in the blackness around them.
It might sound like the beginning of a horror story, but in reality the group was perfectly safe and the cry was a taped version that emitted from Mucci's tape recorder.
The naturalist wore a red-lensed light on his head and scanned the area, using the light as a beacon.
He hoped to catch the glow of a gray fox's eyes.
The "hunt" was part of Critter Call, a program held at the park to show attendees how using a recorded call can bring an animal, such as the gray fox, up close and personal.
Earlier that evening, the group had gathered at the park's nature center, where Mucci explained what they might experience.
"When it works, you think I am the greatest naturalist in the world," he joked.
In this instance, Mucci hoped to lure a fox in by using a distress call from a fox pup.
Those who signed up for the program were asked to wear dark clothing and no perfume, so they couldn't be spotted or smelled.
Mucci told them to remove anything that could make noise from their pockets and to remember to pick up their feet. He even asked that car doors were shut delicately, avoiding slamming noises.
And he warned them that foxes make a variety of noises, including raspy barks.
"You are going to jump right out of your shoes if you have never heard it before," he said.
There was a bit of tension, especially when Mucci mentioned it was possible to run into a bear.
"The key is these red lights," he said.
Foxes, along with many other predators that stalk Pennsylvania's woods at night, cannot see the red-colored light. However, it will reflect in their eyes, allowing humans to see them.
The eyes of a fox are designed to gather much light at night, making them very good hunters. Their vision is second to none, and their hearing is prime.
Mucci assured the group there was plenty of light so they would be able to see, even though it was drizzling.
In a line, the group began its first hike, then made a second and third one. During each, one person with a red light led the line and another with a light brought up the rear.
The group spotted just one fox, at the last stop, near a state game land outside the park. It came within feet of some of the group members.
But the gray fox is mighty sly and it caught on to what was going on when it got a glimpse of 12 humans eying it.
Each person caught a fleeting glimpse of the predator, making it a satisfying outing for all.
One person asked, "Can we go back to the second spot?"
Mucci declined the request.
"I can only do this two times a year. The animals tend to catch on," he said. "They learn and get burnt out."