As the Birds Fly
30 Jul 2018

As the Birds Fly

ACE-EPIC: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Survey

30 Jul 2018

As the Birds Fly

by: Justin Gole & Nicole Stagg

We will be spending our time traveling along the Eastern Shoreline and the Midwest, and telling the story of how we migrate from refuge to refuge. Our trek across the country began with a 3-day drive from Fort Collins, CO to Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in New Orleans, LA. The first night on the road, we caravanned with another team heading to Hagerman NWR in Texas. A night of campfire songs and s’mores was a great way to kick off the survey season! The next morning we drove most of the day, stopping at Wichita Falls for a short side trip. As the sun set that night at Tyler State Park in Texas, we could hardly sleep in anticipation of arriving at our first refuge!

Nicole in front of historic Wichita Falls. March 2018. Photo: Nicole Stagg

We arrived at Bayou Sauvage having traveled more than 1,300 miles. To put that into perspective, the previously endangered brown pelican, the state bird of Louisiana, can only travel about 300 miles in the same amount of time.

Bayou Sauvage is the 2nd largest urban refuge, located within New Orleans city limits, right on Lake Pontchartrain. Most visitors come to the refuge for birding, fishing, or exploring the trails. We were amazed to see the before and after pictures of the devastation that Hurricane Katrina caused to the old growth forest but the refuge staff and volunteers have done amazing work rebuilding the area. We got to contribute to the effort by participating in a cleanup day and left New Orleans with confidence that the refuge is on the mend!

Justin helping to collect trash at the Crabbing Bridge at Bayou Sauvage NWR. March 2018. Photo: Nicole Stagg

Our 560-mile drive from Bayou Sauvage to Okefenokee NWR (in Native tongue “land of the trembling earth”) was completed in one day; this distance would have been a 2-day trip for the local Sandhill crane. Compared to Bayou Sauvage, Okefenokee is definitely a rural refuge. The clear night skies are well known, and people travel from around the world to gaze at the night stars, as well as see the gators and carnivorous plants. Okefenokee had Michigan native Justin trembling a little bit. While we saw over half a dozen alligators at Bayou Sauvage, that was nothing compared to Okefenokee where there are an estimated 100,000 gators on the more than 400,000 acres of refuge land!

Adult male alligator sunbathing at Okefenokee’s west entrance Stephen C. Foster State Park. April 2018. Photo: Nicole Stagg

We had a great time at the refuge, attending a pizza and bonfire night for volunteer appreciation and frequently embarking on late night quests to find reptiles such as water and corn snakes.

We left Okefenokee and traveled 700 miles in two days, winding up at Crab Orchard NWR, which was established in 1947 as a haven for nesting Canada geese. The geese could have made the trip in less than one day, but we took a break and spent a beautiful evening with our supervisor Katie Lyon at Cheatham Lake outside Nashville, TN.

After our brief pit stop and reunion, we were welcomed into the tight knit community of Crab Orchard NWR. We were lucky enough to be invited to the annual volunteer banquet at Giant City Lodge (which was featured in the movie “Gone Girl”). The highlights of the evening included learning that volunteers contributed 20,853 hours during 2017, a trivia competition about the refuge, and a dazzling, customized rendition of “You’ve Got a Friend” by one of the members of the local Friends group sung to the refuge manager.

High water at Crab Orchard Lake Dam after a week of rain. April 2018. Photo: Nicole Stagg

Crab Orchard NWR is a fisher’s paradise with three large lakes. A lake-record breaking 11.79 pound bass was caught the weekend before we came into town! Locals speculated that in order for a fish that big to be present, someone must have caught some bass in Florida, brought them up to Illinois and released them into the lake.

Our next refuge was Blackwater NWR in Maryland, where we managed to see a screech owl sticking its head out of a tree, several bald eagles, and osprey nesting over the water our first day when Blackwater Visitor Services Manager Ray was showing us around the refuge. Blackwater is home to 30-40 nesting pairs of bald eagles, and a couple hundred come to the refuge during summer months for feeding. The bald eagles roam the skies, traveling over 125 miles a day in search of food, so if you visit you will certainly see some if you pay attention!

During our time at Blackwater, Justin went out fishing several times to try and curtail the invasive snakehead population. Nicole went out on the Wildlife Drive most mornings determined to capture a better picture of the screech owl — and was met with success!

The Eastern Screech Owl at Blackwater NWR that Nicole was determined to get a photo of. May 2018. Photo: Nicole Stagg

We also had the chance to take a trip to Assateague National Park to see the wild horses, and stopped at Crabcake Factory USA for crab cakes.

Wild horses found on the entrance road to Assateague National Park. May 2018. Photo: Nicole Stagg

All in all, our adventure so far has been better than we could have imagined and we are excited to share it going forward!

Justin Gole

USFWS NWR Visitor Survey Intern

Justin graduated from Grand Valley State University in 2015 with a Bachelors in Accounting. He spent a few years in Management for Huntington National Bank before making the shift towards following his passion for the great outdoors and leaving the world a better place than he found it.

Nicole Stagg

USFWS NWR Visitor Survey Intern

A south Louisiana girl, Nicole graduated from Louisiana State University (LSU). She majored in Natural Resource Ecology and Management with a focus in Wildlife Habitat. Last summer she served as an intern at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia and fell in love with the Refuge System. Nicole is interested in pursuing a career in human dimensions and environmental education.

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