Where the wild things are
Center showcases native plants, animals of Oak Mountain State Park
Story by Ginny Cooper McCarley
Photos by Jon Goering and David Frings
Birds chirp, water gurgles, and the resident rattlesnake takes a mid-afternoon nap at the Oak Mountain Interpretive Center, a 2,500 square foot space which features an interactive exhibit space, meeting room, and teaching laboratory.
The mission of the center is “conservation through awareness and education,” said director David Frings. “We want to give park visitors information to increase their knowledge and awareness of our native wildlife.”
Frings primarily puts the exhibits together himself: He takes the photographs, writes the information, and even builds the habitats by hand, with help from students at Samford University.
One of the newest exhibits, “Oak Mountain After Dark,” includes pictures of animals park-goers don’t get to see themselves gathered from game cameras set up in the park. The pictures show a white tailed deer nursing her fawn as well as coyote, rabbits and other wildlife.
Soon, a television will play short videos of the animals, such as the fox squirrel. Twice the size of the more common gray squirrel, the fox squirrel shies away from people, ensuring many visitors never catch a glimpse of the playful animal.
“You can see fox squirrels turning flips on camera,” Frings said. “There are a number of them in the park, but not many get to see them. They’re beautiful animals.”
Running almost the length of the room is a geologic cross section of Oak Mountain, which shows the different rock layers and types of rock within the mountain, along with examples of each rock type for visitors to touch, designed by Southern Custom Exhibits.
Bruce Andrews, executive director of the Shelby County Arts Council and local artist, painted a mural of Peavine Falls complete with a snake, butterflies, and a raccoon that lines a wall within the space.
“Most people, when they think about Oak Mountain State Park they think about Peavine Falls,” Frings said. “We’re trying to incorporate as many local people and organizations as possible, to showcase their talents.”
Several new exhibits are in the works: A wetland exhibit will house turtles and fish, with a diorama on top. “What’s blooming now in Oak Mountain State Park” will feature images of flowers throughout the park, such as the pink and white azaleas that bloom in the Spring.
“(Visitors) can see what’s in the park if they aren’t familiar, and where they can go out and see and photograph them,” Frings explained.
A joint venture between Oak Mountain State Park, Samford University, and Shelby County, the Oak Mountain Interpretive Center plays host to upwards of 100 visitors a week, with travelers from as far as France, Canada and Sweden stopping to see the sights.
“We are able to share our natural heritage here in Shelby County with people from around the world,” Frings said.
For Lauren Muncher—a junior at Samford University who has worked at the center for just over one year—interactions with visitors are a chance to help others appreciate nature as much as she does.
“I enjoy educating the public and hopefully getting people as passionate as I am about nature,” Muncher said.
The center has snakes on display—the favorite with visitors, Muncher said, is the rattlesnake—as well as three non-venomous education snakes visitors can touch or hold.
“I’ve had kids come in and be terrified of snakes and leave loving snakes,” Muncher laughed.
The center is open five days a week, from 9:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and from 1 p.m. until 5 p.m. on Sunday, and someone is always available to give tours and answer questions to groups of any size.
“We are always here to do programs and teach,” Muncher said.
For Park Superintendent Kelly Ezell, the center is a great asset to the park and a chance to share all of the natural resources within the park to visitors.
“This is a wonderful, wonderful interpretive opportunity for us,” Ezell said.
Outside the Oak Mountain Interpretive Center, a butterfly garden attracts between 25 to 30 species of native butterflies with non-invasive host plants such as milkweeds, bee balm and butterfly bushes grown in a greenhouse at Samford.
“Butterflies love it, monarchs love it,” Frings said, noting the best time for spotting butterflies is from May until the first frost in the fall.
A backyard habitat lined with colorful flowers and blueberry bushes attracts wildlife, and visitors can get tips for building their own as well.
For Frings, the center is about more than just showcasing indigenous plants and animals: It is also about promoting conservation of native species.
“Through our exhibits and taking people on trails, we can show them what we have. We have a high diversity in Alabama,” Frings said. “Hopefully that will lead to conservation efforts.”