A sultry afternoon hush has fallen in the woods near Liberty. The birds have quieted, their calls replaced by laughter of unseen children in the hills and around the bends.
For Ashley Koch of North Kansas City, it’s a day of remembrance at the Martha Lafite Thompson Nature Sanctuary. The preserve is a place she used to visit often with her grandmother, Kay M. McNair, who was a speech and language pathologist at one of Kansas City’s urban schools.
Sometimes on Mother’s Days like this one she brings the family out to celebrate the memory of a grandmother who often took her family on hikes in the woods.
“She used to bring us out here. We’d go catch tadpoles in the creek,” Koch said. “She knew a lot of birds’ names.”
That love spilled over into her teaching, too.
“She used nature to communicate with the kids,” her granddaughter said.
Now Koch and her husband, Wayne. are doing the same. In a minute or two, Katelynn, 7, Cameron, 9, Caden, 10, and possibly even baby Jase will be looking at tadpoles they catch and release from Rush Creek.
Education is a big part of the 100-acre nature preserve located about a mile from downtown Liberty. Some 10,000 to 15,000 kids come every year with school, scout, church and 4-H groups. They make up the biggest share of the roughly 20,000 people who visit the center in a typical year, said director Michael Sandy.
And the center provides a cornucopia of activities. There are nature-themed birthday parties with birdhouse-making sessions and guided tours with binoculars so the kids can see the birds. There are amphibian programs, insect programs, snake programs and a monthly session on stargazing.
And there are creek walks, like the one taken by King of Kings Lutheran Church’s preschool recently. About 40 4- and 5-year-olds in rain boots split up into two groups to look for tadpoles, nymphs, eggs or anything else they might find in the less-than-ankle-deep rill.
The creek walk is a favorite field trip, said Kathy O’Donnell, director of the preschool.
“They love it. They get to go wading in the creek,” she said.
After some preparation along the way about how far to go and what to look for in the creek, volunteer naturalist Sue Scoggan sets the group loose.
“We want them to have a hands-on experience,” Scoggan said.
The creek walk shows that with a little looking, kids can find all kinds of little animals and unexpected things.
“They’re used to looking at the tops of things,” Scoggan said, “but we get them looking under the rocks.”
In a few minutes the group has found a worm, some tiny crayfish, a claw left behind by a larger crawfish and a leaf with eggs on it. After the group examines their finds, they carefully pour them back into the creek. That is rule No. 1 at the preserve: Don’t take anything home you didn’t also bring in. It’s prominently mentioned on signs at the trailheads, with particular attention to mushroom hunting, which is not allowed.
“We do have a problem with people wanting to pick mushrooms,” said Sandy.
The problem is, mushrooms usually appear about the same time box turtles come out of hibernation with a hearty appetite. And mushroom hunters tend not to leave any fungi behind, he said.
Illegal mushrooming aside, the center has also been popular with adults. As the preschoolers headed for the creek, Sandy talked about square-foot gardening with Gail Pruett and Brian Thomas, both of Liberty. Pruett and Thomas were taking part in the center’s newest program: a community garden at Moore Park near downtown Liberty, in a partnership with the city parks and recreation department.
The center offers workshops on gardening, and participants can try their hands in the nine 4- by 12-foot raised beds. The children’s gardening program, which included a pumpkin patch last year, is at the sanctuary and is about 2 years old.
“There’s something about working with dirt,” said Pruett. “I can’t garden where I live. My friends talk about it all the time, and I wanted to experience it.”
Adults also come out to identify wildflowers on guided hikes. And to watch birds.
“Birding here is huge,” said Sandy.
Mark McKellar, owner of the Backyard Bird Center in Kansas City, said the preserve is prime territory for serious birders because of its location. Rush Creek empties directly into the Missouri River, a large and reliable water source for the migrating birds that are seen in this area only once or twice a year.
Birdwatchers love those migrating birds — the warblers, the tanagers, the thrushes, the orioles. McKellar has even seen a secretive Connecticut warbler, one of the birds on his “life list” of rare birds he especially wants to see.
“I’ve had some absolutely fantastic days at Martha Lafite,” he said.
If Lafite herself were around to see it all, no doubt she’d be smiling. The nature sanctuary was a dream of hers that wasn’t quite fulfilled when she died of a stroke in 1975.
Lafite and her husband, Omar Thompson, bought 53 acres in 1954 and set about building a trail system and picnic area of what the couple hoped would become the nature preserve. The year after she died, the sanctuary was incorporated as a private nonprofit organization. Not too long after that, 46 adjacent acres around Rush Creek came up for sale. The Missouri Department of Conservation bought them and leases the land back to the sanctuary.
The wildlife center building was added in 1988 and expanded in 1997.
Now the area is a labyrinth of about five miles of trails running through all kinds of habitats — prairie, forest, river, ponds and marshes. There are strenuous trails and easy trails, mulched trails and wheelchair accessible asphalt ones. Visitors can also spot the old Interurban Railroad bed running through the area, although there are no longer any ties or rails.
The whole thing is run by the nonprofit, with money coming from donations ($5 per car suggested), memberships, program and school field trip fees, as well as fundraisers like the Walk of 100 Jack-o’-Lanterns and the Elves’ Workshop around Christmas.
But cutbacks rippling out from the recession have taken their toll. Attendance was down last year, 18,000 compared to the typical 20,000 or 25,000. Sandy said that was mostly due to schools cutting back on field trips as their budgets tightened.
“Every nature center I’ve talked to has said school groups are down,” Sandy said.
That decline has affected everything.
“It has really cut the budget dramatically,” he said.
In fact, the sanctuary has about a third less money to work with now than it did four years ago, mainly due to the loss of field trips.
Although the Missouri Department of Conservation owns half of the land and supports the sanctuary in other ways, there is no state money for operating costs.
The upshot: “We’ve had to do more with less,” Sandy said.
However, the budget cutting also means that there isn’t money to pay someone to develop and conduct new programs or to fix up some exhibits.
“We have all these great programs designed to support curriculum, but we need to renovate some exhibits,” he said.
Inside the nature center, past the gift shop, is an open room where groups can meet before going out on their trail walks. Along the walls are aquariums with fish, a rat snake, a hairless rat, a box turtle, a salamander and a scorpion. And a large bull snake dubbed Wally, according to the crayon sign.
Nearby is a cylindrical tube with a model of the habitats, a few stuffed birds on top. Some of the exhibits are more than 15 years old, though, and need a little refreshing.
“We’d love to get some donations to renovate the exhibits,” Sandy said.
In the meantime, the programs, private parties, even weddings continue.
On a recent Saturday, naturalist Chris Willig handed out binoculars to nine kids attending the birthday party of Anna Chiselita of Liberty, who was turning 8. The kids had made a morning of it, poring over bird books on the floor of the center and later fashioning bird feeders out of empty tennis ball cans.
The walk to search for birds was the grand finale. But it’s hard to get kids to focus, even when binoculars are involved.
“Does anybody hear birds right now?” Willig asked as the group walked and talked its way down the path.
“I hear a cockroach,” one excited child volunteered.
But really, it’s all about families enjoying nature together.
Crystal St. Romain of Independence brought the whole family, including her husband, Michael, two kids, and her mother-, sister- and brother-in-law. The group stopped at the overlook to listen for frogs croaking down the way and dipped their feet in the still waters.
“I like that it’s kind of secluded, and it gets you in touch with nature. It’s very beautiful,” Crystal St. Romain said. “We’re just out here to spend time with family. And it’s a beautiful day.”
Martha Lafite Thompson Nature Sanctuary
Where: 407 N. LaFrenz Road in Liberty
Hours: Trails are open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily now, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. October through March. The interpretive center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday now, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday October through March.
Rules: No pets. No release of outside animals into the park. No removal of any plant, animal or mineral from the park.