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Summer on the Water

Summer on the Water

By: Konner Magnuson and Andy Lisak

Upper Mississippi NWR – Winona District

We didn’t even have to move our accommodations as we continued working our way up to our final district of the Upper Mississippi NWR. Much like the rest of the districts along the Upper Mississippi River a lot of the visitors were either fishing or boating. Our term in Winona started off strong with lots of visitors for Father’s Day and the Fourth of July. We were also able to finally use our MOCC (Motorboat Operator Certification Course) certification for the first time when invited to survey from a boat for one morning shift. It was an overcast morning so there weren’t too many people on the river but it was a fantastic change in scenery and it felt great to finally get out on the water .As things began to wrap up at the end of the sampling period, we turned our sights for South Carolina and the three-day drive we needed to take to get there.

Andy scouting for potential visitors from the boat at the Upper Mississippi NWR. Photo by Konner Magnuson.

Waccamaw NWR

After we finished up with the Upper Mississippi NWR (for now), we made the 1,200-mile trek southeast to the scorching hot Waccamaw NWR for its second period of sampling. This refuge featured many different habitats ranging from the upland forest of Sandy Island, where we were stationed, to tidal rice fields and wetlands. But the habitat was not the only unique thing about this sampling period. To get to our sampling location, we once again put our boat training to use and navigate the Great Pee Dee river until we found a beach filled with boats and loud music.

Konner navigating the boat to the sampling site at Waccamaw NWR. Photo by Andy Lisak.

During our stay at Sandy Island, we learned firsthand what southern hospitality is all about. The locals always made sure we never went hungry or thirsty in the sweltering 110-degree heat. All the locals loved this location because very few tourists know of its existence and because they have been going there since they were kids. All the locals seemed to very tight-knit and had no problems welcoming us with open arms and buckets of fried chicken.

When we were not sampling, we took the opportunity to hang out in the river and lagoon with the locals and learn more about the island and things to do in the area. We only got to leave the island a couple of times and we decided to make our way to Huntington Beach State Park, to cool off after a long, hot sampling period before driving north to the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Boaters enjoying the warm weather on the lagoon at Waccamaw NWR. Photo by Konner Magnuson.

From Sandy Island, it was only a short drive up to Alligator River in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Things were already off to a good start when we discovered we would be staying in the refuge’s bunkhouse just a block away from the beach. Despite their beachfront housing, Alligator River is actually located inland and is primarily made up of pocosin wetland habitats. This ecosystem provides homes for many species of birds, snakes and small mammals, as well as one of the most concentrated black bear populations in the Eastern US and a reintroduced population of critically endangered red wolves.

With a steady stream of visitors to survey through the auto-tour, we had some free time to assist with other refuge activities. Nearby, Pea Island NWR was in the midst of sea turtle nesting season and we were able to volunteer for their turtle watch program, which entailed going to the beach and watching for any turtle activity for an evening. We had three nests to observe, and after a short while, the first nest began to slowly emerge, one turtle after the other poking its tiny head out of the sand. Soon enough, the nest was ready to boil (when all of the hatchlings dig their way to the surface at once) and suddenly dozens of baby turtles were making the mad dash to the ocean. A few minutes after the excitement had died down, another turtle was beginning to emerge from the same nest and was quickly followed by more as the nest boiled for a second time on the same night! By the end of the night, we got to help 71 little loggerheads safely complete their first journey to the ocean.

A loggerhead sea turtle nest boils as dozens of baby turtles begin to make their way to the sea. Photo by Andy Lisak.

 

Andy navigating the canoe in the swamp at Alligator River NWR photo by Konner Magnuson.

Other notable animal encounters during our stay at the refuge include almost daily sightings of some of the refuge’s 400 black bears, a herpetologist’s trifecta of cottonmouth, copperhead, and timber rattlesnake, as well as getting an inside look into the refuge’s small population of captively bred red wolves.

A copperhead suns itself on the road at dusk at Alligator River NWR. Photo by Andy Lisak.

As our time in the Outer Banks came to a close, we also took advantage of some of the area’s more touristy attractions like delicious seafood restaurants, a series of lighthouses down the coast, and Kitty Hawk, the site of the Wright Brothers’ first flight. After finally getting our last few contacts, we packed up once again and prepared for another drive up the coast to Cape May, New Jersey.

Cape May NWR

Cape May NWR was one of the toughest places for us to sample due to a bike trail that ran down the middle of the Two-Mile Beach Unit. This bike path proved to be a tough obstacle to overcome as cyclists are a tough crowd to stop and talk to. Even when we did get them to stop there were quite a few who did not even know they were on a wildlife refuge.

The Two-Mile Beach Unit was acquired from the US Coast Guard in 1999 and is comprised of sand dunes, a beach, and wetlands. The beach itself is closed off to the public during the nesting season for birds such as the piping plover. While the closing of the beach upset some visitors, there was still plenty of opportunities to admire the shorebirds and ocean life from a distance and give the wildlife the respect that it deserved. Since we were getting enough visitors per shift we rolled up our sleeves and helped the maintenance staff trim grass and pull weeds around interpretive kiosks and signs. When we got done with that we threw on our jumpsuits and rubber boots and helped the other interns spray and cut the invasive bull thistle.

Two-Mile Beach unit at Cape May NWR. Photo by Konner Magnuson.

One of the most unique experiences at Cape May was when two visitors decided to stop in the middle of the road while we were at the end of our sampling shift. Oblivious as to what was going on, we decided to approach the car only to find Konner’s Aunt and Uncle had traveled several states to surprise us without any warning at all. After the initial excitement had simmered down, we gave them a tour of the refuge.

When we were not sampling, we took the opportunity to explore the local area some more, tried out the local seafood hotspots and made a visit to the town of Cape May with Konner’s family to check out the old Victorian style houses and the Cape May Lighthouse overlooking the Delaware Bay. We also spent quite a bit of time on the bay sorting through tons of perished horseshoe crabs in hopes of finding one that was tagged.

A horseshoe crab molt on the beach during sunset over the Cape. Photo by Andy Lisak.

Tales from the Mississippi River

Tales from the Mississippi River

By: Konner Magnuson and Andy Lisak

Trempealeau NWR

After a two-day journey from Fort Collins, Colorado we arrived at Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge. Nestled in the bluffs of the Mississippi River in western Wisconsin, this 6,446-acre refuge was established in the 1930s by FDR to serve as a breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife. This refuge also features many unique habitats such as rolling sand prairies, bottomland forests, and wetlands.

The main draw to this refuge is the migration of waterfowl such as trumpeter and tundra swans. Several visitors pointed out that during the peak swan migration there can be thousands of swans hanging out on the river before moving on to their wintering grounds. Even though it wasn’t “swam season,” there were plenty of locals who visited the refuge every day to walk their dogs or take a peaceful bike ride through the many habitats this refuge had to offer. We often think of refuges as a place for wildlife to escape to, but the locals’ love of this refuge shows that people need their public lands as well.

Sampling at this refuge was a challenge for several reasons. Prior to our arrival, the entrance road to the refuge was closed for an extended period due to flooding from the Mississippi River. The weather was uncooperative for us as well, as we were fighting against low temperatures and rain during most of our sampling shifts. However, we were still happy to have the chance to be outside and see the beautiful scenery.

Kieps Dike at Trempealeau NWR. May 2019. Photo by Andy Lisak.

Konner (left) and Andy (right) arrive at Trempealeau NWR. May 2019.

Upper Mississippi River NWR – Savanna District

After spending only five days at Trempealeau, we made the trek to the Savannah district of the Upper Mississippi River NWR in northwestern Illinois. The Savannah district is the southernmost district of the refuge, but we quickly realized that there is more to this district than just the river. This district houses the old Savanna Army Depot, which was used as a test firing site for artillery in the early 1900s, and was a storage and recycling site for ammunition until 2000. This portion of the refuge is also home to the largest remnant sand prairie in the state of Illinois and home to over 40 endangered and threatened plant and animal species.

Before coming to this refuge, we always thought of wildlife refuges as a place solely for wildlife, but we quickly realized that there are many recreational opportunities for hunters and anglers as well. Many of the anglers we encountered on the river travel from all over to use one of the lakes on the refuge and on several occasions they stated that this refuge is one of the best largemouth bass fisheries in the United States. This makes it a hot spot for both professional and amateur fishing tournaments.

Much like Trempealeau NWR and everywhere else on the upper Mississippi River, this refuge was dealing with flooding, which made sampling tricky for us. When we arrived the flooding had subsided somewhat and did not hinder our ability to snag visitors, but by the end of our sampling period the Mississippi River had flooded up into one of our most popular sampling locations, making one of the main areas anglers use inaccessible. This refuge also has many access points which meant we needed to be more proactive when trying to sample and we found ourselves splitting up between different locations in hopes of hitting our numbers. If we were surveying the gnat population of this refuge, we would have been done sampling the minute we got there!

Anglers weighing their catch at the Savanna district. May 2019. Photo by Konner Magnuson.

Upper Mississippi River NWR – McGregor District

Just a short drive upriver from Savanna, we entered the Driftless Area, which is not a knockoff of the Twilight Zone, but rather a whole region that was void of glaciers during the last glacial period. This resulted in rolling bluffs on either side of the gently meandering Mississippi. After a short but steep drive into the bluffs, we set up camp at Wyalusing State Park. We found an incredible scenic overlook at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers, and stayed to watch the sunset over the bluffs on the far side of the river. On the refuge, our high-water problems appeared to have followed us up from Savanna as only a handful of boat ramps were still open, and most were completely flooded out. In a testament to the dedication of some visitors (a.k.a. obsessed anglers) a few flooded ramps still had trailers parked nearby where courageous boaters had braved the shallows to launch… sometimes in what was essentially the middle of a road! Farther up the river, however, things got a little better. In Lansing, Iowa, a newly refurbished boat launch attracted all the boaters who couldn’t launch elsewhere.

Sunset over the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers. June 2019. Photo by Andy Lisak.

While the long drives took their toll during the slower weekdays, we sought our own refuge back at camp by relaxing for hours in our hammocks or exploring the forested trails around the bluffs. On the weekends, however, beautiful weather and a series of fishing tournaments filled boat launch parking lots and gave us the wonderful opportunity to talk to friendly anglers from across the region as they pulled in and waited to weigh their catches. After packing up camp at the end of our two weeks, we left for La Crosse, optimistic for sunny weather and happy boaters to survey.

Konner crosses a log bridge while hiking at Wyalusing State Park. June 2019. Photo by Andy Lisak.

Upper Mississippi River NWR – La Crosse District

Just a short drive up river, we arrived in La Crosse ready for a few days off from surveying while we took the Motorboat Operation Certification Course (MOCC). During our first three days in La Crosse, we learned how to tie knots, motorboat operations, boating maintenance, navigation, and regulations, how to tie knots again, and then we were finally able to get out on the water and get some experience behind the wheel (or tiller). After learning the ins and outs of boat driving and getting a feel for the handling of several different kinds of boats, we both passed the final exam with flying colors. We are proud to say that we’ve done what Spongebob never could and graduated from boating school! After completing MOCC, however, the weather once again turned against us and rainy days kept visitors off of the boat ramps.

So far we have been enjoying our visitor survey adventure, and can’t wait to share more with you as we travel southeast.

Coastal Adventures

Coastal Adventures

By: Erin Tague and Tom Kelly

Welcome to the second blog post of the LaGoons – Erin and Tom! We have been very busy on our trek across the country in search of more visitor contacts. Our last post ended with us at Great Dismal Swamp NWR, so let’s begin right where we left off in Virginia.


On our way from Great Dismal Swamp NWR to our next refuge in Cambridge, Maryland, we made a few stops along the coast. We saw a 16’ WWII gun at Eastern Shore NWR, wild horses at Assateague Island, and most importantly, we visited Ocean City MD where Tom got to try his very first soft shell crab (which was delicious).

The third refuge we worked at during our sampling road trip was Blackwater NWR in Cambridge, Maryland. This refuge was established in 1933 as a waterfowl sanctuary for migrating birds along the Atlantic flyway. The refuge also contains one-third of Maryland’s tidal wetlands and has the largest natural population of the formerly endangered Delmarva Peninsula Fox Squirrel. A major visitor attraction is the resident American bald eagles, which nest throughout the refuge. These magnificent birds brought visitors from throughout the tri-state area to Blackwater NWR to get a glimpse of them and their eaglets. One of those visitors included Tom’s mom, who came to visit us at Blackwater and took some great pictures along the Wildlife Drive of the native creatures.

[Left] A Delmarva Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger cinereus) and [Right] American Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) along the Wildlife Drive at Blackwater NWR. Photos by Linda Kelly.

With so many visitors, we were able to make our shift quota, which freed us up to help the refuge Friends Group by clearing the Woods Trail of debris and weeding the Blackwater native species garden. We also assisted in the set up of the First Shot turkey hunt where first time hunters are paired with volunteer mentors to get their “first shot” at turkey hunting on the refuge.

On one of our last days at Blackwater NWR we were able to head out on a morning bird watching tour with local visitors and a birding expert, Harry Armistead. It was really interesting to learn facts about all the native birds we had been seeing on the Wildlife Drive and near the visitor center but had not had a good chance to observe. We even got to see a Common Gallinule (Gallinula galeata) at the observation Platform, a bird which Harry had only seen on the refuge once before!

Local bird watchers scan the side of the Wildlife Drive for Piping Plovers (Charadrius melodus) during a guided birding tour with Harry Armistead at Blackwater NWR. Photo by Erin Tague.

After a quick final stop at the visitor center and gift shop, it was time to head to our next refuge in Lorton, Virginia. On the way across to Virginia from Cambridge, Maryland we stopped for lunch at Ledo’s Pizza on Kent Island. Tom got to try Ledo’s for the first time and Erin got to see if one of her favorite childhood pizza restaurants was as good as she remembered…it most certainly was!

Our next refuge was Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck NWR, an urban refuge tucked into a wooded peninsula on the Potomac River. This refuge is well-known for being the first refuge created specifically for bald eagle conservation. It was renamed for Elizabeth Hartwell, the local activist who halted development on the site and advocated for the protection of its bald eagle population. Here, we enjoyed speaking to the many cyclists, hikers, and families utilizing the refuge trails regardless of the rainy weather.

Sunset over the Potomac River at Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck NWR. Photo by Thomas Kelly.

During our time at Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck, we took the time to visit Washington D.C. and tour through the African American History Museum. The museum was amazing and gave a comprehensive history of African Americans in the United States from the founding of the nation to the present. We finished our day of historical education by visiting the Washington Monument and the National Mall.
One of the largest events at Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck NWR is the annual Eagle Festival. This event is coordinated by both the Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge and Mason Neck State Park, and is a day packed full of animal shows, crafts, demonstrations, and food trucks. The festival brought visitors from all over the refuge and state park grounds and many of them were more than happy to sign up for our survey. We were also able to help out the refuge volunteers at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tent. We assisted in set up as well as helping visitors construct flower shaped hummingbird feeders and candlesticks made from honeycombs.

Tom asks Eagle Festival attendee: “How many licks does it take to get to the center of a tootsie pop?” Photo by Erin Tague.

As we left for our next refuge, we reminisced about the many different events held at refuges, and acknowledged the massive and essential role volunteer groups play in making those efforts happen. From introducing visitors to beautiful native plants and local birds, to teaching people to hunt, to running a festival, the Friends Groups at Blackwater NWR, Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck NWR, and the Mason Neck State Park make awesome things happen for their communities. We were glad to see the impact that volunteers have on the refuge system and were happy that we were able to help at the events in any small way we could.

The Wild, Wild West

The Wild, Wild West

By: Mandi Ganje and Megan Schneider

For the second leg of our NWR journey, we stuck around the western land of cowboys, river gorges, and mountains. We saw the beautiful scenery of these states, a diverse array of migratory birds and deer that seemed to follow us to each refuge. We found ourselves making frequent trips to WinCo, the best budget-friendly grocery store the West has to offer. As one of wildlife refuges was located in Utah, we had to break out a beaten copy of Desert Solitaire, and enjoyed reading it under the hot sun and blooming, spring landscapes.

“No, wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.”
-Edward Abbey


Umatilla NWR

After surveying at Sacramento River NWR, we headed up north to the Columbia Basin. One of the prior refuges we had sampled, Columbia NWR, was part of this refuge complex. We surveyed at Umatilla NWR in Irrigon, OR which was home to parts of the famous Lewis and Clark trail. This refuge is nestled along the Columbia River, resulting in portions of the refuge in both Oregon and Washington. The primary visitors are fishermen, which was no surprise given the river and fishing sloughs located throughout the refuge. The Columbia River is full of salmon making their annual trips up the river for spawning and back down to the Pacific Ocean for food. Salmon is one of the most prized fish to eat throughout the PNW. They add to the rich history of the land with their economical and ecological value, and they’re a big motivator for conservation efforts. During our stay we were lucky enough to see some pretty spectacular sunrises and sunsets over the Columbia as we tried to get on an angler’s schedule!

Sunrise over the Columbia River. Photo by Megan Schneider. April 2019.

This refuge wasn’t only known for the Columbia River, it is full of shrub-steppe and a mix of managed and natural wetlands which provide a home for a variety of species. The area is known for its waterfowl and mule deer hunting opportunities, which draw in visitors like fish to a worm. However, game animals aren’t the only important species on the refuge. One reptile of concern is the sagebrush lizard. The lizards are adverse to an invasive species known as cheatgrass, which can be common in sagebrush habitat. At Umatilla NWR, a portion of the refuge was dedicated to restoring sagebrush lizard habitat by removing cheatgrass and planting sagebrush. We enjoyed getting to see efforts to help these little guys.

Protected habitat for sagebrush lizards. Photo by Megan Schneider. April 2019.

McNary NWR

From Umatilla, we took a quick one hour drive along the Columbia River Gorge to get to our next refuge in the Mid-Columbia Basin: McNary NWR in Burbank WA. McNary is located near the bustling Tri-Cities of Pasco, Kennwick, and Richland. Being so close to the cities brought in the most visitors we’ve seen in awhile! McNary has a shrub-steppe ecosystem with walking trails and multiple fishing opportunities, in addition to endless sunshine during our time there. A majority of the visitors spend their days out in the sun casting a rod and reel. There are even a few locals that we saw fishing daily. We always enjoyed getting to catch up with them. Along with some nature walkers and photographers, we had our first experience surveying horseback riders. It seemed to be a popular area for people to exercise their horses and see some beautiful scenery in this unique part of Washington.

Visitors fishing at Quarry Pond. Photo by Megan Schneider. April 2019.

During our stay at McNary NWR, the refuge held its native plant festival. The festival occurs annually to educate and promote the importance of native plants. This was a bustling day at the refuge headquarters filled with nature walks, educational booths, native plant sales, and activities for the kids. We got to survey a wide array of visitors, from families trying to get their kids outside, to people buying native plants for their garden, to others simply stopping by to learn about the refuge. McNary NWR has a large volunteer group and we were lucky enough to meet some of these nature loving folks at the festival. They welcomed us with open arms and were quick to tell us how much they appreciate the refuge and enjoy volunteering.

Volunteers helping make shrub-steppe buttons for the kids and handing out native plant seeds at the native plant festival. Photo by Megan Schneider. April 2019.

A portion of our time at McNary NWR fell on the holiday of Cinco de Mayo. The nearby city of Pasco is deeply rooted in hispanic culture, and during the weekend of Cinco de Mayo, they had a three day festival. We had a chance to attend the first night of the festival and see a light parade, dozens of dancing horses, live music, and food vendors. It was a great opportunity to see the town and eat some incredible Spanish baked goods!

Crowds gathered in downtown Pasco, WA for the Cinco de Mayo celebration. Photo by Megan Schneider. May 2019.

Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge

After a sunny two weeks at McNary NWR, we headed south to our next refuge near Salt Lake City, Utah. Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge is regarded as the largest migratory bird refuge in the West, and we thoroughly enjoyed all the bird watching opportunities this refuge had to offer. Located west of Brigham City, this refuge was made up of a marshy wetland area with picturesque mountain ranges on either side. A perfect spot for waterfowl, we got to see grebes, pelicans, cinnamon teals, egrets, white faced ibises and the refuge mascot, avocets. The pelicans remained among one of our favorite birds to watch. This was the first time either of us had been to Utah, so we took full advantage of all of the hiking and sightseeing the area had to offer.

View of mountains from refuge housing. Photo by Mandi Ganje. May 2019.

 

Stare off with a great-tailed grackle. Photo by Mandi Ganje. May 2019.

The first weekend we were there, the Heritage Festival was going on to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad being built. The refuge saw a large amount of visitors who were exploring the area after being at the crowded festival all morning. After doing visitor surveys, we got to go over to Ogden, Utah where the historic 25th Street was closed off for all the activities. There were games, live music, and vendors selling every type of food imaginable. We enjoyed learning about the history of the area and watching the local bands play on the warm spring evening.

Western grebes and cliff swallows on the refuge. Photo by Megan Schneider. May 2019.

When we were at Sacramento River NWR, we were able to watch the California Junior Duck Stamp competition, and while at Bear River, we attended Utah’s Junior Duck Stamp award ceremony! The education center was bustling with proud families and kids who had won awards. During our last weekend at Bear River, Salt Lake City was hosting a migratory bird festival. Even though it rained the entire weekend, it did not keep these determined birders from coming out to the refuge.
These trips to the western refuges were full of rain and shine, varying events, lots of visitors, and breathtaking views. We were sad our time in Utah had to come to an end, but excited to start the next leg of our journey.

Sweet Southern Living

Sweet Southern Living: Santee, Waccamaw, and Harris Neck NWRs

By: Dan Shahar and Amelia Liberatore

After getting a taste of the south at Bon Secour NWR in Gulf Shores, Alabama, we arrived at Santee NWR in South Carolina feeling prepared to be residents of this region for the next few months. Santee NWR was founded as protection and feeding grounds for ducks, geese, neo-tropical migratory birds, and more. People from the area, as well as travelers along I-95, primarily come to the refuge for bird watching, hiking, and seeing alligators.

Sunset over Lake Marion, Santee NWR. Photo by Dan Shahar.

Historically this area was occupied by the Santee Native Americans until colonial times, and a ceremonial mound still stands on the eastern edge of Lake Marion. During the Revolutionary War, the mound site became Fort Watson, a strategic holding for the British army between Charleston and other outposts further inland. In the spring of 1781, US General Francis Marion (known as the Swamp Fox) and his militia took over the fort in one night by constructing a tower taller than the walls of the fort to give themselves the ability to fire on British troops from above. We had the unique opportunity to attend a commemoration ceremony for this event, organized by the Sons of the American Revolution, during our time at Santee. After telling the story of the siege of Fort Watson, the event culminated with the firing of a memorial cannon into Lake Marion. The costumed cannon master was excited to hear that Dan was from Philadelphia, and let him fire the cannon after the ceremonies had ended.

Two members of the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR) show Dan how to load and fire a replica cannon. Photo by Amelia Liberatore.

Living with us at Santee was the refuge biologist, who happened to be a licensed pilot. After a long day of sampling on Dan’s birthday, we had the opportunity to fly in a four-seater Piper plane down to Beaufort, SC for a nice birthday dinner. We felt like the birds that we often observe from the ground. On one of our days off we went to the capital of South Carolina, Columbia. There we toured the capitol building and learned some interesting history of the state. Afterwards we biked around the university campus until nightfall when we got to go into the observatory and gaze upon the Orion Nebula.

Another notable experience was being at Santee around Easter. A lot of our neighbors were Jehovah’s Witnesses, Evangelicals, and Baptists. At the same time, we started celebrating Passover with Chabad communities in both Columbia and Charleston. Even though we were followers of different faiths, it was easy to see that our holidays and the migrations of wild animals speak to the liberation of springtime.

After Santee, we moved east to Waccamaw NWR which is not too far from Myrtle Beach, SC and right next to Coastal Carolina University. Founded in 1997 for the protection and management of coastal river habitat, Waccamaw NWR is a large non-contiguous collection of units with recreation opportunities. We lived in a hunting cabin in the middle of the woods next to a swamp, which offered us an immersive experience with the wildlife. Every night frogs would congregate on our windows to feast upon the flies that were attracted to the lights. Our neighbors were white tailed deer, nesting yellow-belly slider turtles, snakes, egrets, skinks, and many insects to defy the imagination.

Amelia helps our slow neighbor cross the road so we can continue driving back to our cabin. Photo by Dan Shahar.

From our first day to our last we were cared for by resident volunteers and their pug Gator. They helped us with their knowledge of visitation and trails and we were entertained by their stories and good humor. On our days off we were able to explore Myrtle Beach and Georgetown. Highlights of these trips include a labyrinthine gift shop on the boardwalk in Myrtle Beach and a visit to the Maritime Museum followed by a taco feast on the bay in Georgetown.

Amelia says farewell to volunteers Ray and Suzanne, with Gator at Waccamaw NWR. Photo by Dan Shahar.

Our next refuge was Harris Neck NWR in Townsend, Georgia. This refuge was established to serve as nesting, foraging, and wintering habitat for many species of wildlife including wood storks, alligators, and armadillos (Amelia’s favorite). Prior to becoming a wildlife refuge this property was owned by an African-American community of farmers whose land was purchased by the US military during World War II to serve as an airfield and pilot training facility. Most of the runways are still visible even as the vegetation grows through the asphalt. The runways currently serve as a network of hiking and biking trails and a wildlife drive. We would often talk to visitors whose ancestors owned parts of the land that is now Harris Neck NWR, and they still live in the neighborhood. They are very proud of their heritage and many often visit the refuge to fish, crab, and explore the area.

Wood storks and Spoonbills spending an evening at Snipe Pond on Harris Neck NWR. Photo by Dan Shahar.

While staying at Harris Neck we helped with a project doing inventory of all refuge signs. We had the opportunity to continue this project on another refuge nearby, Blackbeard Island NWR. We were driven around in a UTV by a volunteer named Mike through the dense live oak forest featuring Palmettos and Spanish Moss. Historically this island was used during a Yellow Fever outbreak as a place for the sick to recover while remaining quarantined. The only remaining structure from that time is the crematorium located on the northern tip of the island. Experienced refuge maintenance man, Daryl, regaled the storm that separated the southern tip of the island from the rest and created Blackbeard Island II. He shared with us his knowledge of the ever-changing dunes and sandbars, as well as his expertise in recognizing tides and currents for navigating the dynamic waters.

A crematorium remains on Blackbeard Island as a relic of the years of yellow fever quarantine. Photo by Amelia Liberatore.

Here we’ve met some of the nicest people on our trip. On our first day we were invited to dinner by two bird and butterfly observers. They served crab cakes made from blue crabs caught earlier that season from the river behind their home. On Memorial Day, our last day of sampling, a group of visitors from Jacksonville, Florida invited us to join their barbecue and low country boil. The hospitality we received in Georgia was overwhelmingly gracious and we are thankful to have met such kind and generous people. A favorite establishment of ours that embodied southern hospitality was the Old School Diner, where portions are extreme, the food is unparalleled, and chef Jerome refers to everyone as family (even transients like us).

Off-refuge adventures included day trips to Savannah, Amelia Island, and Jekyll Island. In Savannah we toured the temple of the oldest southern Jewish congregation (third oldest in the country) as well as the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. Afterward, we moseyed along River Street and into several shops and galleries. For Amelia’s birthday, we rode bikes around Amelia Island, spent time at the beach, and went out to dinner at a lovely patio restaurant. On Jekyll Island, after wading in the suspiciously muddy ocean and climbing trees on Driftwood Beach, we walked around the area where wealthy Industrial Era families built magnificent beach cottages with stunning views of the bay and sunset.

Driftwood Beach, Jekyll Island, Georgia. Photo by Dan Shahar

These three refuges forged our understanding of the ecosystems and culture of the deep south. We have tasted food and visited art galleries that have all been influenced by the surrounding ecosystems. In the coming weeks we will keep exploring the south and contrast our experiences with our final refuge up north.

Erin and Tom, Lake LaGoons

Lake LaGoons

By: Erin Tague and Tom Kelly

Welcome to the first installment of the LaGoons blog! We are a two person team and we’ve set out as an ACE-EPIC field team from our headquarters in Fort Collins, Colorado to recruit visitors to participate in the National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Survey. Erin is a recent graduate of Delaware Valley University with a BS in Conservation and Wildlife Management, interested in helping create and manage public spaces that have a balance of thriving ecosystems and recreational opportunities. Thomas Kelly is also a recent graduate of Delaware Valley University who in the future hopes to focus on ecological field research of endangered primates and lemurs. As we travel around the country visiting various wildlife refuges, we hope to meet interesting people and help out on the refuges however we can.


Wapanocca NWR

Our first stop on our refuge tour was Wapanocca NWR in Turrell, Arkansas. This 5,484 acre refuge is an island of wooded wetland in a sea of agriculture. Once owned by the Wapanocca Outing Club for waterfowl hunting, the area is now a sanctuary for the water-loving birds migrating along the Mississippi flyway.

We were excited to see what birds were making the mid-south refuge their home. As always, there were great blue herons, mallards, Canada geese and backyard birds, but to our surprise and delight we saw many pairs of wood ducks looking for potential cavity nests in the trees. For the first time, we encountered (and instantly loved) dozens of American coots eating aquatic vegetation in the canals that run along the refuge roads. They may look like ducks at a glance, but look much more like chickens when they walk on land.

American coots (Fulica americana) swimming along a Wapanocca canal. March 2019. Photo by Thomas Kelly.

Of course, there were more than just American Coots enjoying the cypress trees on the refuge. We encountered nutria, beavers, and our first armadillo! Though we didn’t see any, Steven Rimer, the active refuge manager, told us about the invasive hog problem Wapanocca is currently facing. He also showed us a remote-controlled hog trap that can be activated via app.

A ninebanded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) looking for a snack in the leaves at Wapanocca NWR. March 2019. Photo by Thomas Kelly.

In the end though, most encounters we had were with the human visitors enjoying the fishing at Lake Wapanocca. We greatly enjoyed listening to visitors share their experiences of fishing as well as the deep ties they had with Lake Wapanocca. Many visitors had been frequenting the area since they were children. Some visitors were even members of the outdoor club in the ‘60s. Almost everyone we contacted were frequent local visitors, so we would often recognize people we had spoken to previously and chat with them about what they were doing that day at the refuge. Their answer? Fishing for crappie.

Local fisherman shows us a white crappie (Pomoxis annularis) that he caught on Lake Wapanocca. March 2019. Photo by Tom Kelly.

Crappie (pronounced “craw-pee” as Erin quickly learned) was the lifeblood of Lake Wapanocca during our stay and almost every day was filled with locals asking us where most people were fishing and if anyone had caught anything. Apparently, the fish has a flakey melt-in-your-mouth taste after it’s been fried. Learning that, we completely understood what the hype was about, and decided we need to find ourselves some local cuisine.

We did find some local places across the Mississippi, in the form of Memphis style BBQ (crappie can’t be served commercially it turns out), and we highly recommend a basement BBQ restaurant found in an alley, called Rendezvous, home of the Memphis rub.
We also found entertainment in the form of parading Peabody Ducks in a luxurious hotel lobby, and a ceremonial “raising of the goat” during the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. This event involves a taxidermied goat being raised on a scissor lift in the middle of the famous Beale Street.

“Raising of the Goat” as part of a St. Patrick’s Day tradition on Memphis’ Beale Street. March 2019. Photo by Erin Tague.

Due to flooding, we were unable to head to Cross Creeks NWR in Tennessee after our sampling period in Arkansas. Instead, we stayed an extra week at Wapanocca, then a few days with ACE Asheville in Asheville, NC. While staying with ACE Asheville, we camped in Sumter National Forest to assist one of the crews with trail maintenance and bring them extra equipment. It was really cool to meet the crew and help out with clearing excess branching and fallen trees (called swamping) from the trails in the forest. Once we returned for the weekend, we set out to explore the town of Asheville and were treated to a multitude of specialty shops and unique restaurants.

Great Dismal Swamp NWR

After our time with ACE Asheville, we embarked to our next stop, Great Dismal Swamp NWR in Suffolk, Virginia. When we got to the refuge we were greeted by our point of contact Deloras Freeman. That night we met the Americorps members we would be sharing the bunk house with. The crew was doing prescribed burn work in the area and it was really cool to not only meet an Americorps crew, but to hear about their experiences so far in their Americorps term.

Deloras gave us a comprehensive tour of the refuge grounds the next day as part of our orientation, and we discovered that The Great Dismal Swamp is extremely rich in history. The swamp was originally comprised of 1,200,000 acres and was planned to be drained of lake water to use for plantation land back in colonial times. George Washington was one of the people who tried to drain the lake using ditches. This led to the creation of Washington Ditch which is currently a hotspot trail for birders. Another historical fact: the refuge was used as a safe haven for escaped slaves during the Civil War era. The slaves created maroon settlements on the mesic islands present in the swamp.

Deloras also showed us the area of the refuge which had been severely affected by forest fires. Specifically, she mentioned the Lateral West fire of 2011 which smoldered for 4 months and completely destroyed a large section of the forest along the Wildlife Drive. At present the area has made remarkable progress, as many plants seem to be growing in the marshy area.

Black vultures (Coragyps atratus) fly over the remains of a dense forest now called the Lateral West Burn Scar. April 2019. Photo by Erin Tague.

With all of our information about the Great Dismal Swamp, we set out to recruit visitors for the survey. We soon discovered that birding was the main event at the Great Dismal. About 60-70% of people we surveyed were out looking for avian entertainment and it was awesome to see flocks of people in bird tours looking for particular birds in the area. We were often asked about certain warblers such as the Swainson’s warbler. Birds are such a spectacle at the Great Dismal Swamp; as we are typing up this post we are listening to five different song bird calls, two courting great horned owls, and a bachelor turkey at the Jericho Ditch!

We were invited to attend the Volunteer Appreciation Dinner hosted by Deloras and the refuge manager Chris. We met expert naturalists and birders who volunteered their time to help out the refuge by doing bird walks, interpretive tours and refuge events. These naturalists had incredible insight into the world of birding and wildlife observation. Additionally, they regularly work to collect data on the flora and fauna of the Great Dismal Swamp for the iNaturalist program. We even got to speak with one man who had seen California Condor reintroductions at the Grand Canyon!

While birding may be the main attraction at the Great Dismal Swamp, plenty of other animals were out for us and visitors to see. During a hike, we saw a large broad headed skink as well as a multitude of spotted turtles. We also saw rat snakes, and one day we even had a rat snake crawl back and forth underneath our chairs throughout the afternoon! Additionally, butterflies and bees were constantly flying around our sampling spots. There were also tons of dams and lodges built by beavers around the area. We did not see them, but visitors told us they were seeing river otters, black bears and mountain lions.

A Fowler’s Toad (Anaxyrus fowleri) vocalizing behind our station at the Wildlife Drive at Great Dismal Swamp NWR. April 2019. Photo by Tom Kelly.

Our time off of the refuge grounds was also a blast, as we explored the towns of Suffolk and Norfolk, and visited the Chesapeake Bay. We also visited a local bookstore in search of a book recommended to us about escaped slaves set in the Great Dismal Swamp. Overall the Great Dismal Swamp was anything but dismal and we are so glad to have met such wonderful visitors and staff members.

After our first two refuges, we found it interesting that the primary focus for many of the visitors was their search for seasonal animals. Whether it be with a fishing rod or a pair of binoculars, these visitors were adamant about the thrill of finding wildlife. At Wapanocca, crappie was king, whereas warblers won the hearts of visitors at the Great Dismal Swamp. Of course you could forgo exploring the outdoors and simply buy fish at a supermarket or look up photos of songbirds, but where is the fun in that? Look at our team for example. Here we are, living nomadically, on the hunt for visitors in their most commonly found habitats. Like bird watching, we search for visitors by first researching where they are most commonly found on the refuge. Like fishing, we try to reel in a contact with friendly chit-chat and an alluring magnet. And just as fishermen and birders love the thrill of finding an animal, a big part of the fun of our job is the search and success of making a visitor contact. We know this excitement will only grow further as we move on to our next refuge adventure.

Interns Thomas Kelly and Erin Tague (Homo sapiens) pose in front of Monument Rocks in Kansas. March 2019.

Clouds or Mountains?

Clouds or Mountains?

By: Mandi Ganje and Megan Schneider

Hello! It’s your new favorite traveling duo Mandi and Megan, m&m, m^2, whichever floats your boat. We are starting our journey to different National Wildlife Refuges located in some of the best states this country has to offer (Mandi grew up in Arizona and went to college in Oregon – may or may not be biased). For the next five months, we will be documenting our time spent signing up visitors for the national visitor survey, helping out at different wildlife refuges, and drinking endless cups of coffee.

Megan (left) and Mandi (right) on the elk sleigh ride. March 2019. Photo by Mandi Ganje.


We finished our training in Fort Collins, CO, packed up our truck (whom we’ve affectionately named Hurley), and headed out on the first leg of our five-month long adventure. After a long uneventful stretch of driving through southern Wyoming to our first location in Jackson, WY, we saw a white, puffy figure in the distance. We couldn’t figure out whether it was clouds or mountains…turns out it was mountains! This phrase quickly became common for us, as this happened on more than one occasion while traveling west for our first three refuges.

National Elk Refuge

We were welcomed with cold temperatures and plenty of snow at the National Elk Refuge. This refuge is nestled in the Jackson Hole Valley, surrounded by the Grand Tetons, which provided a stunning view during our sampling shifts. This area prides itself on providing winter habitat for the Jackson Elk Herd. During the winter, thousands of elk come down from the mountains to feed on native vegetation, and when food sources are low, the refuge staff distributes alfalfa pellets to help provide the nutrition the elk need. Tourists are drawn to this refuge in the winter for the sleigh rides that are offered. A horse drawn sleigh takes visitors within feet of the elk herd. We participated in one of these sleigh rides, and it was one of the coolest wildlife viewing experiences we’ve ever had!

This refuge is also home to bighorn sheep, who fearlessly approach cars to lick the salt off the surface of the road and the cars. As cute as this seems, we were told to discourage the sheep from doing this and other visitors allowing them to since the sheep have ingested harmful chemicals in the past this way and it’s an easy way for disease to spread. Five second rule does not apply here.

Bighorn sheep on the refuge road after attempting to lick salt off one of the parked cars. March 2019. Photo by Megan Schneider.

We spent a lot of time sampling at the Jackson Hole & Greater Yellowstone Visitor Center, which was a hub for visitors coming for the Elk Refuge, Grand Teton National Park, and Yellowstone. We were lucky enough to be sampling there during one of their “Feathered Fridays”. The Teton Raptor Center hosts a free interpretive event for the public, and we got to see and learn about multiple species of owls, from the small Western Screech-Owl (named Otis) to the large Great Grey Owl (named Tyga). On our time off we got to explore the area and saw coyotes, bald eagles, moose and a herd of bison. Needless to say, we were sad to say goodbye to this exciting refuge.

Great Grey Owl, Tyga, from Teton Raptor Center. March 2019. Photo by Megan Schneider.

Columbia NWR

We said our goodbyes to the festive town of Jackson and headed west to a more remote area with warmer temperatures at Columbia NWR, located in Washington. Set in the high desert, we quickly fell in love with the blue skies, diversity of waterfowl, and impressive lichen covered basalt columns that this refuge offered. With hiking trails and a marsh overlook, this wild western refuge was full of prime areas to birdwatch.

Views of basalt columns, open water, and sagebrush, the main components of this refuge. March 2019. Photo by Megan Schneider.

The beautiful geology of the area was formed during the last Ice Age as a result of the Missoula floods. March 2019. Photo Mandi Ganje.

We arrived in time for the annual Sandhill Crane festival which draws a large number of visitors to the area. Thousands of sandhill cranes descend on the refuge, using it as their rest spot, as they migrate from central California to Alaska. Getting to watch these elegant travelers on their journey was very special and it was fun to see birdwatchers who were just as excited about wildlife as we are! The festival featured daily lectures by special guests from all over, tours of the refuge, a banquet, and even a silent auction.

While we were here, we worked on picking up trash at the more highly trafficked locations on the refuge. Megan got to tag along on a sunset scouting adventure around the town of Othello to find cranes for the upcoming festival tours! Not only were Sandhill Cranes found, but so were multiple flocks of thousands of waterfowl.

Sacramento River NWR

We continued our migration to warmer temperatures at Sacramento River NWR in sunny California. This refuge had the most ground for us to cover yet, as we had four different visitor sampling sites along the Sacramento River, with sites up to an hour apart. This sprawling, lush area is home to turkeys, waterfowl, deer, mountain lions, feral pigs, and California poppies.

Stare down with a California pipevine swallowtail hanging out by a patch of California poppies. April 2019. Photo by Mandi Ganje.

While we were in this area, the California Junior Duck Stamp competition took place at Sacramento NWR. Each state has their own contest and chooses one piece of art done by kids in kindergarten through twelfth grade to compete at the national level to become the Federal Duck Stamp for the year. California got the most submissions of all the states, with almost 2,500 entries this year! We had the chance to help out with the event by laying out and removing art between rounds of judging and helping to clean up afterwards. We had a blast watching the judges of different backgrounds, including biologists, law enforcement, and artists, argue their reasoning behind who should get first place. After much debate, a lovely painting of snow geese was chosen as the victor!

Winner of the California Junior Duck Stamp Competition. April 2019. Photo by Megan Schneider.

The first weekend we were at Sacramento River NWR was also the opening weekend of spring turkey hunting. One of the units we sampled was popular with turkey hunters and we got experience surveying these users for the first time. The unit had a designated area for youth hunters and over the weekend we got to see some kids come out of the woods with a big turkey and an even bigger smile on their face! We enjoyed talking to the hunters and seeing how they utilized the refuge for hunting, as compared to the hikers, birders and wildlife viewers we were used to.

After two weeks of visitor sampling, hiking through fields of wildflowers, olive tastings, and In-N-Out burgers, we said a sweet farewell to California and headed back up north to continue our sampling efforts along the Columbia River.

Dan and Amelia’s Most Awesome FWS Adventure

Dan & Amelia’s Most Awesome FWS Adventure

By: Dan Shahar and Amelia Liberatore

In late February, two strangers hopped into a truck. They were on a mission with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to meet and greet visitors at National Wildlife Refuges across the country. These are their adventures.


Dan Shahar and Amelia Liberatore hiking Charon Gardens trail in Wichita Mountains NWR. March 2019. Photo by Dan Shahar.

Bill Williams River NWR

Bill Williams River NWR is about 6,000 acres of riparian habitat located in the mountainous desert of western Arizona. It features the southernmost end of Lake Havasu and the Bill Williams River; the refuge is shaded by cottonwood forest, willows, and saguaro cacti. We were fortunate to arrive after a wet winter and witness the typically red-brown desert bloom with yellow and purple – a display far beyond the reach of recent memory. While we were sitting in our “office” (two camp chairs and collapsible shade tent) we couldn’t help but notice that all of the butterflies were flying with a direct purpose, headed southwest. Unfortunately, they refused to take our survey or answer any questions about where they were going or why. We guessed they might be migrating, and therefore wouldn’t have been able to provide permanent addresses for the survey postcard anyway. It was quite a sight to see them pouring endlessly over the bank, through our office lobby, and into the distance.

Lupine (Lupinus arizonicus) blooming in front of the ridgeline on Bill Williams River NWR. March 2019. Photo by Dan Shahar.

The majority of the people we sampled were self-identified “snowbirds”. For those of you who don’t know, a snowbird is a person with the means to migrate seasonally from their northern summer homes to winter in the southern warmth. They can easily be identified by their white plumage, RVs, sunny demeanor, and far-flung mailing addresses.

At this wildlife refuge we had the unique opportunity to sample anglers and kayakers from the water itself. We went out on a refuge boat with the refuge biologist, and flagged down boaters as they came by. For the most part, recreators didn’t mind being interrupted or maneuvering their craft close to ours. Sampling from the water was a creative way to reach people that did not come into the refuge from land.

Dan Shahar is happy to approach anglers and boaters on Lake Havasu and the Bill Williams River. March 2019. Photo by Amelia Liberatore.

While stationed at Bill Williams NWR, we lived happily at Achii Hanyo Native Fish Facility on the Colorado River Indian Tribe’s Reservation. Our housing was simple: comfortable, remote, and sulfuric. Our water supply came from an on-site well that was pumped through a sulphur deposit, so we quickly learned how to conserve water when washing dishes and bathing to limit our exposure to the smell of rotten eggs. Thanks to our host and his connections, we had the great pleasure of learning the art of mesquite barbequing and off-roading, as well as touring Ahkahav Tribal Preserve.

Ahkahav Tribal Preserve Backwater canoe excursion. March 2019. Photo by Dan Shahar.

Our other adventures included a trip to the La Paz County Fair, where we saw a 4-H livestock show, rickety rides, award-winning home arts and crafts, and the county beauty pageant. It was here that we realized that there was more to the local culture than we were seeing in our work at Bill Williams NWR.

Festive lights of the La Paz County Fair. March 2019. Photo by Dan Shahar.

Wichita Mountains NWR

Our next stop, Wichita Mountains NWR, was a complete 180 from Bill Williams, with ten times the acreage and perhaps 100 times the visitation. The Wichita Mountains rise from the Southern Plains, and are the only significantly elevated landform in the region dominated by rolling plains. Buffalo and longhorn cattle roam free within the boundary of the refuge, and prairie dogs colonize the landscape. People regularly flock to the refuge from the nearby area, Houston, Kansas City and all corners of Oklahoma, to hike and view wildlife. Lichens paint the rocks day-glow hues of orange and yellow. The refuge is not only home to creatures of the land and lakes, but also hosts significant historical sites.

A resident of Wichita Mountains NWR (Bison bison) grazes the roadside. March 2019. Photo by Amelia Liberatore.


Thirteen lakes and dams, as well as the striking and long forgotten figure of the Jed Johnson Tower, stand as reminders of the New Deal Era of American labor and infrastructure. The refuge also hosts the “longest running outdoor Passion play in America”, according to the Holy City of the Wichitas, an organization that cares for the historic stone buildings of the Holy City. We were fascinated to explore the Holy City’s chapel and grounds on the refuge.

Jed Johnson Tower “towers” over Jed Johnson Lake at sunset just before a thunderstorm. March 2019. Photo by Dan Shahar.

Other explorations took us to the trails and boulder sweeps, so that we could get a sense of what visitors were experiencing on the refuge. Our favorite hike was Trail 15 – Charons Garden – it not only presented a fantastic view of the valley and led us to a magical rock room, but also provided an opportunity to get lost and navigate the boulders.

The view from Charons Garden trail features boulders “Apple and Pear” and the plains from which they rise. March 2019. Photo by Dan Shahar.

During our orientation to the refuge, we went to lunch with Park Ranger Quinton Smith and Visitor Services Manager Lynn Cartmell. It was a meal to remember, not only because it was filling and delicious, but because we learned that at Anne’s Country Kitchen, mac ‘n’ cheese is considered a vegetable. Another cultural experience we enjoyed in Oklahoma was attending Parkstomp Bluegrass Festival, the “New Year’s Eve of Medicine Park.” Locals and spring breakers gathered free of charge on the main street of Medicine Park to toast to the live bluegrass performances, support the local shops, and stomp in rhythm underneath the moon. Unlike our experience at the La Paz County Fair, we recognized some folks at Parkstomp that we had sampled on the refuge.

Bon Secour NWR

Bon Secour NWR is similar to Bill Williams NWR in that it is a small, peninsular refuge featuring neotropical migrating birds with habitat that is protected from surrounding development. Bon Secour’s unique characteristics include proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, lush live oak and pine forests, and alligators found in freshwater wetlands. Besides human activity, the main natural disturbances are hurricanes. We encountered lots of locals, a small population of snowbirds (which we saw plenty of at Bill Williams) and a related species, the northern spring break families. The northern spring break families can be easily identified by the presence of small children, sun-starved skin, and SUVs displaying license plates from states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

A heron seeks dinner and a quiet evening in Gator Lake on Bon Secour NWR. April 2019. Photo by Dan Shahar.

During our stay at Bon Secour NWR, we lived with two other research teams in the on-site bunkhouse. One team was occupied with banding the neotropical migrating birds for research at the University of Southern Mississippi. The other team was serving the USFWS by assisting the refuge biologist with Alabama beach mouse surveys. From the bunkhouse we were able to enjoy peaceful views of the bay. Bird watching in the morning yielded diving pelicans, soaring osprey, and statue-like herons.We were also exposed to not-so-enjoyable creatures, namely chiggers, who found Dan delectable, as well as biting gnats and mosquitoes.

Dan enjoys making contacts at the Pine Street Beach access. April 2019. Photo by Amelia Liberatore.

One of our favorite adventures in Alabama was the Elberta German Sausage Festival. We ventured inland to find a boisterous community filling the central park grounds of Elberta with craft booths, two musical performance stages, and a billowing cloud of smoke from the delicious sausages cooking in a tent. Just one kind (of sausage) fit all; the young, the old, and the merry ate and sang and danced together in the early summer heat.

So far, we have seen that wildlife refuges are unique places that provide wildlife with much-needed habitat. Refuges also provide a natural space for people to connect to open air and greenery and with their loved ones. We feel extremely lucky to be able to visit these special features in America and learn from locals. Next, we will spend extensive time in the Southeast and we’re excited for the adventures ahead of us.

Fond Memories and Final Reflections

Fond Memories and Final Reflections

By: Kylie Campbell and James Puckett

We have traveled over 30,000 miles through 34 states in the past ten months, and every moment was jam packed full of amazing memories and lifelong lessons. Each refuge that we visited provided us with unique opportunities to see the world from a new perspective. Our final blog details our last refuge visits and overall reflections inspired by our experiences in each place. Thank you for following us along our journey!


Loess Bluffs NWR

The last leg of our journey started with a second sampling period at Loess Bluffs NWR. While the pools were completely covered with ice when we first got there, it felt like we brought the warmth with us because many of the pools thawed within a few days of our arrival. The thawing meant that many birds returned back to the refuge: we could often hear them approaching even before we could see them. As the flocks of migrating snow geese got closer, you could look up and see hundreds of geese forming giant v-lines in the sky. Loess Bluffs is a common resting area along the Western Central Flyway. This migration route is the most common corridor that the snow geese use and it is more than 3,000 mi (4,800 km) from the tundra to traditional wintering areas. Because the snow geese are such a big attraction, we got many questions from visitors about their numbers and migration patterns.

Trumpeter swans take a sunset swim across a pool at Loess Bluffs NWR. December 2018. Photo by Kylie Campbell.

We had the opportunity to get up close and personal with the snow geese as well as other waterfowl while helping with a weekly waterfowl count. We joined the refuge biologist for a full day of methodically counting all of the birds in all 24 pools of the refuge. We counted over 100,000 snow geese and a record high number of trumpeter swans! We also got to assist with a research study investigating how windmills impact bird migration. We went to a wind farm near the refuge and set up a radar system that detected birds flying overhead. Whenever the radar would detect a bird, we had to use the birding skills that we’ve developed during this internship to quickly identify the bird.

The opportunity to work alongside U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff has been one of our favorite aspects of the internship. The dedicated men and women that we’ve interacted with have inspired us and strengthened our motivation to pursue our own careers in public service.

Bird detection radar in action during an early morning bird count. December 2018. Photo by Kylie Campbell.

Tennessee NWR

After an unexpectedly long break over the holidays due to the government shutdown, we arrived at Tennessee NWR and met up with another ACE team, Angelica and Michelle. The winter waterfowl residents were present in large numbers while we were there. A birdwatching festival, Wings of Winter, occurred on the refuge while we were in town. Despite some rainy weather, the participants in this event happily donned their rain gear and were still rewarded with great birding! During this event we had the opportunity to survey visitors from all across Tennessee who traveled to the refuge to observe the wintering waterfowl.

While duck hunting is not allowed on the refuge, we were able to interact with lots of hunters who come observe the ducks after hunting private lands in the morning. These interactions with hunters have provided us with new perspectives that we will cherish forever. Prior to this internship, we didn’t know much about hunting and generally couldn’t understand how people could enjoying killing innocent creatures. Now, we’ve seen how harvesting an animal is much more complex than simply shooting and killing. After witnessing it firsthand across the entire country, we’re able to appreciate how deeply hunting is woven throughout American culture and family traditions. We’ve learned that sportsmen (and women!) are some of the most well informed, conservation-minded individuals who truly support public lands. This lesson has not only opened our minds to hunting, but has broadly shown us the importance of getting to know all sides of an issue before forming an opinion.

J.N. Ding Darling NWR

After a brief dusting of snow on our last day in Tennessee, we headed south to the sunshine and warmth of Florida. Our first stop in Florida was J.N. Ding Darling NWR on Sanibel Island, and it was a stop for many other travelers as well! This refuge sometimes felt like an amusement park with how many visitors were there every day. We sampled visitors from all over the United States who, much like the wintering birds, were in town for the absolutely beautiful weather. We were able to see was the Roseate Spoonbills, a beautiful pink wading bird that definitely added to the tropical feel of the refuge.

While at this refuge, we saw how the refuge successfully partners with other conservation groups and businesses. The refuge partners with a very popular concessionaire, Tarpon Bay Explorers, and a portion of this business’ profits go back to the refuge. Tarpon Bay Explorers offers educational cruises as well as guided kayaking and paddle boarding. We enjoyed a paddle board tour offered by Tarpon Bay and we could certainly appreciate how this business allows visitors to experience the refuge in an educational and memorable way.

James and Kylie enjoying a sunny day on Tarpon Bay. February 2019. Photo by Kylie Campbell.

J.N. Ding Darling NWR also has a particularly active volunteer group, the Ding Darling Wildlife Society (DDWS). Like other volunteer groups that we’ve encountered, DDWS is very successful at raising funds that support environmental education and other refuge projects. The refuge wouldn’t be able to do all the amazing work that it does without the support of the Ding Darling Wildlife Society and active volunteers.

Another unique partnership that we witnessed was between the refuge and the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF). A new marine laboratory that exemplifies this successful partnership was recently opened on refuge land. USFWS provided funding to build the new laboratory that is staffed and operated by SCCF. The scientists employed by SCCF will be able to collect and analyze data that will aid refuge staff in their management of refuge lands and wildlife.

While the power of partnerships was particularly apparent on Sanibel Island, it reflected a theme that we’ve seen in many other places. These types of partnerships allow resources from multiple sources to derive their maximum benefit, which is increasingly important as we face ever more complex environmental challenges.

Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee NWR

Our second stop in Florida took us across Alligator Alley to Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. This urban refuge protects the remaining Northern Everglades habitat in a region that is quickly growing even more developed. To the trained eye, the refuge was brimming with life; we saw alligators, turtles, lizards, and many different species of birds. However, we found it interesting that some first time visitors would comment that they thought it was “boring” because they couldn’t see any animals. It seemed that sometimes these visitors heard the words “wildlife refuge” and imagined that they would experience something more like a zoo. They would talk a short walk and feel disappointed that there were not animals waiting for them around every corner. Conversely, more experienced wildlife observers would take their time walking the numerous trails and then excitedly tell us about the many different creatures that they saw.

These interactions with different types of visitors reminded us of ourselves and how much we have learned through this internship. A year ago we had a vague understanding of what a wildlife refuge was, but now we are truly experts! We now understand that there are so many different types of public lands that each have their own management priorities. In our future travels we will certainly seek out more National Wildlife Refuges and the serenity that can be found there, rather than always hitting the bustling National Parks.

Beautiful sunsets at Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee NWR provided ample opportunities to walk and reflect on this transformative internship. February 2019. Photo by: Kylie Campbell.

Mattamuskeet NWR

After the fast pace of our time in Florida, the quiet atmosphere at Mattamuskeet NWR in North Carolina was a welcome change. We sampled mostly fishermen enjoying sunny days on Lake Mattamuskeet. The visitors to this refuge are routine visitors and we often saw the same groups out multiple days in a row. While the majority of the wintering waterfowl had already left the refuge, we still saw a few swans, ducks, and dedicated birdwatchers.

While it was full of wildlife and beautiful in its own way, Lake Mattamuskeet is not a destination that would have ever been on our travel bucket lists. It is precisely for this reason that this refuge was perfect for our final stop. The tiny town of Swan Quarter in rural North Carolina exemplified all of the unique little communities that we’ve been able to experience during the past 10 months that life otherwise never would have taken us to. Through these travels, we have been able to see what life is like for so many different people in every corner of this vast country. We’ve heard opinions from countless points of view, and now have a deeper understanding of the reasoning behind this diversity of perspectives.

A heartwarming characteristic that has been common across all of the refuges that we’ve been to is how incredibly important these spaces are to the communities that surround them. Public lands truly bring people together in an inspiring and refreshing way. Whether people are gathering to reel in fish that will feed their families or to unwind from the stress of an urban workweek, wildlife refuges ensure the continued health of more than wild animals. As John Muir said, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”

Oh The Places We Go!

Oh The Places We Go!

By: Michelle Ferguson and Angelica Varela

The day is here! Can you believe it? We surely can’t. Our last three refuges have come and gone in a blink of our unsuspecting eyes. We felt lucky to revisit some of our most loved refuges, San Diego Bay, San Diego, and Canaan Valley NWRs. We also got the chance to sample Tennessee NWR, our final refuge. Join us on our last blog as we close this wild and wonderful chapter of our lives.


Northern harrier, San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge. December 2018. Photo by Angelica Varela.

San Diego NWR and San Diego Bay NWR

The refuge staff at San Diego and San Diego Bay NWRs greeted us as though we had never left. One of the best parts of this internship has been being immersed in the presence of the driven, empowering staff of the wildlife refuge system. Words cannot fully express how much kindness our refuge contacts Jill Terp and Chantel Jimenez extended towards us, and they’ve had a tremendous positive impact on our experience. Jill and Chantel have been an unyielding support system throughout this internship; we are so grateful to have worked with them.

Osprey catches a fish over San Diego Bay NWR. December 2018. Photo by Michelle Ferguson.

As the second refuge we traveled to for the visitor survey project, it was particularly neat to return to the same place, now as seasoned surveyors. We stayed at ACE’s eclectic housing in Dulzura and were welcomed in by ACE’s Southern California branch. Operating as a team of 2 for most of our internship, we enjoyed bonding with fellow ACErs who are working on restoration projects and trail crews across Southern California.

Surveying in California a second time we had the opportunity to see the progression of the new trail on Mother Miguel, a popular hiking and biking spot in Chula Vista at San Diego NWR. When sampling here in April, the trail work had just begun. One of the best moments we had while surveying was watching when the trail crew let two young boys test out their bikes on the unopened trail. The boys finished their ride with huge grins across their faces exclaiming how much they loved the new trail. This was one of many moments we’ve experienced visitors expressing pure joy for their wildlife refuges. While at San Diego Bay NWR we enjoyed watching the osprey and black-necked stilts who frequented our survey location along the birding trail in Imperial Beach. As these birds stuck around in the warmer winter weather, we migrated east to cooler temperatures.

Canaan Valley NWR

Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge. January 2019. Photo by Michelle Ferguson.

We left the sandy beaches of San Diego to head back east to a snow-covered wonderland (although the snow didn’t stay long). With the snowfall, visitors at Canaan Valley NWR like to cross-country ski, snowshoe, and hunt this time of the year. Here in West Virginia we rang in the new year with the locals, having a grand time at The Purple Fiddle. As we went back to our normal sampling schedule, the locals recalled meeting us earlier this summer when they were hiking at Beall Trailhead. They expressed their interest in the progression of our internship since they had last seen us! It’s always comforting to know that the local community is rooting for us on our adventures. Visitors we meet often are making sure we stay warm, and asking us if we have had time to explore and have some fun in their beloved town.

We were especially glad to touch base with refuge manager Ron Hollis again while in Canaan Valley. Working closely with USFWS has exposed us to the variety of elements involved with taking this career avenue. The refuge staff always showed their support for us and their tenacity, no matter what challenges came their way. As we returned our keys, the valley winds of Canaan blew us to our last refuge in Tennessee.

Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Beall Trailhead. January 2019. Photo by Angelica Varela.

Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Freeland Boardwalk. January 2019. Photo by Angelica Varela.

Tennessee NWR

While at Tennessee NWR, we stationed ourselves mostly at the Duck River Bottoms unit where visitors enjoy birding, fishing and scouting for ducks. This season visitors also attended the Wings of Winter (WOW) birding festival on the refuge, showing their perseverance for bird watching even with the steady rainfall that weekend. In between surveying visitors we played “duck, duck, cormorant” as we expanded our knowledge of local waterfowl on the aptly named Duck River. We added the Hooded Merganser, ring-necked duck, and canvasback to our game.

Tennessee NWR was a unique survey spot because it was there that we joined forces with another intern team, James and Kylie. We enjoyed several evenings together swapping fond refuge stories (Be sure to check out their blog posts as they continue their journey through March!). Collectively we were all thoroughly entertained by the family of playful river otters who hung out in the Duck River munching on fish. The otters were a dinner time hot topic at the Tennessee bunkhouse. On one of our last nights in the wilds of Tennessee, we stayed awake to watch the blood wolf moon peak through the clouds. It was a perfect way to end our time at our last refuge. We reflected on the past year as ACE-EPIC National Visitor Survey interns with good memories and excitement for our careers in this field to follow.

Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge. January 2019. Photo by Michelle Ferguson.

After 35,000 miles,16 different refuges, over 30 states, and a new found friendship, it’s time to say our final goodbyes. This internship has been one wild drive. From meeting amazing staff members who have shown us that we too can one day pay our bills, to viewing an array of our nation’s wildlife, wild lands, and traveling the country, 2018 is one for the books. Here’s to new connections, adventures, and driving into a promising future!

Signing out for the last time,
         Road Warriors: Michelle Ferguson and Angelica Varela

Winter Migration

Winter Migration

By: Justin Gole and Nicole Stagg

Our adventure that started at Bayou Sauvage in New Orleans and has since led us all around the Midwest and East Coast and is soon coming to a close. Nicole spent the entire year talking about how great Louisiana was, while Justin did the same for his home state of Michigan. It turns out that November in Michigan gets COLD, as we found out during our foray to Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge.

First day of snow in Saginaw, Michigan. November 2018. Photo by Nicole Stagg

We were met by Lelaina Muth for refuge orientation and saw immediately that our work would be cut out for us. The wildlife drive was closed as were most of the trails for hunting season, so we spent long hours waiting for hunters to get back to their cars. Waiting out in the cold was worth it because of how friendly the hunters were when we surveyed them.

Deer hanging out near the road, successfully avoiding all the hidden hunters. November 2018. Photo by Nicole Stagg.

We also got to spend early mornings working at the waterfowl check station, starting at 5 a.m. While getting up this early to survey was not ideal, we had a blast bonding with temporary biology technician Cameron Dole who is a Saginaw native. Over coffee, we got to hear about his career path and talk about our adventures throughout the year. Chatting with him made the early mornings more fun!

Running into old faces in new places is one of our aforementioned favorite parts of our job! Another person we ran into for a second time was intern Gabe Jimenez, who had come to Ottawa NWR to help with the Youth Waterfowl Workshop a month earlier. Gabe was working as a volunteer at Shiawassee to get hours to hopefully get into the Fish & Wildlife Service law enforcement academy. Refuge Manager Pamela Repp said “this is the future of the Fish & Wildlife Service” as she took a picture of the three of us.

Nicole Stagg, Gabe Jimenez, and Justin Gole. November 2018. Photo by Refuge Manager Pamela Repp.

Although Justin had been raving about his home state of Michigan all year, he was more than happy to escape the snow and start the journey south for the winter. Camping at Camp Creek State Park in West Virginia and Colleton State Park in South Carolina was rainy, cold, and a bit icy, but once we made it to Pinckney Island NWR we were more than happy to shed a few layers of clothes.
Pinckney Island NWR is located near Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. We stayed at what used to be the refuge manager’s house at the back of the island, and our back porch was on the water. We were able to watch the tides and saw many spectacular sunsets. The island has several miles of trails and visitors were usually out walking, biking, or running. Otherwise, they were taking pictures and looking for birds and alligators. Since it was late November, it was too cold for alligators to be out and about much, but the egrets and ibis like to gather in the ponds in the evenings, making for a spectacular view with the already amazing sunsets.

A fiery sunset from Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge. November 2018. Photo by Nicole Stagg.

Pinckney Island is part of the Savannah Coastal Refuges Complex so the headquarters office was located at the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. One day after working in the office, Nicole decided to check out the Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive. The drive has an audio tour through the AM radio and the recording changes at each checkpoint along the drive. Therefore, while getting to see lots of birds out on the water, Nicole also learned about the history of the refuge and some of the old structures still out in the fields.There were a wide range of birds including an Anhinga, mottled duck, American coot, and more. There were also a few alligators out since it was a sunny day.

American coot at the Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive at Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. November 2018. Photo by Nicole Stagg

We were in South Carolina for Thanksgiving, so Justin put together a feast for us to enjoy out on the island. It was a calm day of food and movies with an occasional call to loved ones at home.

Thanksgiving feast prepared by Justin Gole. November 2018. Photo by Nicole Stagg.

Our last day working at Pinckney, Justin saw a bufflehead at the boat ramp. It was the first one to show up in the area for the winter and let us know it was time to move further south again.

The first bufflehead of the winter season at Pinckney Island NWR. November 2018. Photo by Nicole Stagg.

As we said goodbye to South Carolina, we moved to our farthest south location of the year. Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee NWR is located at the northernmost tip of the Everglades and just beneath Lake Okeechobee, the headwaters of the Everglades. Our first full day at the refuge was gave us all sorts of surprises. Interpretation Specialist Serena Rinker took us around the refuge to see all the locations that we would be working at and the wildlife pulled out all the stops. We saw the formerly endangered Everglade snail kite, alligators, iguanas, and even a bobcat the size of a large dog. We had seen a bobcat earlier this year while camping in Texas, but it had nothing on the size of this Florida feline!

Iguana hanging out at the south entrance of Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee NWR. December 2018. Photo by Nicole Stagg.

We were so excited to see more of the area, and we went on a nature walk with Florida Master Naturalist and volunteer Bruce Rosenberg. Bruce taught us about the history of the area and the uses of many of the plants, both in the past and present. One of the last plants we discussed was coontie, also known as Florida arrowroot, which is toxic to most animals. However, it has a very unique importance. It is the host plant for Atala butterfly larvae. The Atala butterfly is a Florida native and was announced as nearly extinct in 2016. Since then, nature preserves such as Loxahatchee NWR have been raising larva, and they have been making a comeback. The front sidewalk of the Visitor Center is lined with coontie, and Atala butterflies can be found hanging out there at all times of the day.

Florida native Atala butterfly on larval host plant coontie. December 2018. Photo by Nicole Stagg.

The most common activity at Loxahatchee during our visit was fishing from boats. We spent a good bit of time hanging out at boat ramps to recruit visitors for the survey. While at the south entrance to the refuge, we were often visited by a flock of monk parakeets. It was a shock to see them there and definitely emphasized that we were in a tropical climate. These parakeets most likely escaped a pet store during a hurricane but they acted as a reminder to us of the diversity of habitats we have seen throughout the country.

Monk parakeet hanging out at the south entrance of Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee NWR. December 2018. Photo by Nicole Stagg.

We were given one last surprise treat during our last week at Loxahatchee. Wading birds would gather in the evenings in the rookery behind the Visitor Center, including newly arrived wood storks. It was like something out of a Cajun fairytale, at least for Nicole. The trees were lined with egrets, herons, and storks, and they were perched to rest for the evening or fighting over fish in the water. It was a beautiful sight and a privilege to experience.

Wood Stork fishing behind the Visitor Center. December 2018. Photo by Nicole Stagg.

The drive to our next refuge was our shortest this year. We simply drove to the other side of the Florida peninsula to Sanibel Island and the famous J.N. “Ding” Darling NWR. The drive itself went through three major wildlife areas: Everglades and Francis S. Taylor Wildlife Management Area, Big Cypress National Preserve, and Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. There were pull-offs every mile or so to stop at observation towers but even without stopping we saw hundreds of alligators, wading birds, and a few dozen Everglade snail kites. The drive on I-75 was worth a day trip to see all the cool wildlife the Everglades hosts.

Ding Darling has a very extensive and highly involved volunteer group, the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society (https://www.dingdarlingsociety.org). Within our first few days on the island, we attended a luncheon which was attended by about one-hundred of the refuge’s volunteers. The event was held at the local community center and was potluck style. There was lots of food and of course a massive dessert table. Even with so many people, only a small dent was made in all the delicious goodies.

It was at this event that we met Wendy, the owner of Tarpon Bay Explorers, Inc. (https://tarponbayexplorers.com). Tarpon Bay Explorers runs the tram tours for the wildlife drive, does boat tours out of Tarpon Bay, and even rents out all sorts of equipment, from kayaks to bikes. Wendy invited us out on a paddleboard tour the next morning. Neither of us had been on a paddleboard before so this was quite a unique experience for us. The water was very calm that day which made it a great day for beginners. While it took a bit of balance to stay up on the board, it was mostly about getting comfortable and not letting your legs cramp up. Out in the Bay we saw sea stars, blue crabs, and even the rustling of a manatee.

Justin Gole and Nicole Stagg on paddleboard tour with Tarpon Bay Explorers Inc. December 2018. Photo by Nicole Stagg.

Nicole had the opportunity to help out with the school visits a few days. We went along with a school group on the wildlife drive where the students got to learn how to use binoculars. Education intern Shay gave them small bird guide pamphlets and they got to try their hand at identifying birds. The kids caught on fast and eventually were finding birds we hadn’t noticed. The other half of the day, we took a walk along the Indigo Trail behind the Education Center. There, education intern Emily taught them about the different mangrove trees and wildlife that live on the refuge. Helping out with the kids was so much fun and very informative. We learned a lot about the refuge just by following around the education employees and helping with the school groups.

Fourth graders learning how to use binoculars for the first time on the Wildlife Drive. December 2018. Photo by Nicole Stagg.

Like all the refuges we have visited this year, Ding Darling has a remarkable assortment of wildlife. The most popular would be the alligators, manatees, and Roseate Spoonbills, but the refuge also hosts white and brown pelicans, osprey, mangrove tree crabs, and hundreds of shorebirds. One day while out on the wildlife drive, Nicole visited with one of the volunteers stationed out to answer visitors’ questions. He was very friendly and eventually offered to let her try his camera. It was one of those massive cameras that serious wildlife photographers have; he just popped Nicole’s memory card in it and said to have at it! It took awhile to figure out how to use it but Nicole was able to get some amazing pictures of the Roseate Spoonbills that were hanging out that day.

Roseate Spoonbills on Wildlife Drive. December 2018. Photo by Nicole Stagg

After the warm weather on Sanibel Island, we had to venture a little farther north towards Samuel D. Hamilton Noxubee NWR. We were met by Steve Reagan for refuge orientation and got to learn a little bit about the diverse refuge that’s used frequently by deer hunters, anglers, birders, and of course hammockers!Samuel D. Hamilton Noxubee NWR is about twenty miles from Mississippi State University and on sunny evenings, and especially weekends, the college students flock to the lakefront to get prime hammock real estate. Some students even set up a slackline. If we could have balanced on it long enough to get a picture of ourselves on it, we would have!

The famous “pod people” as dubbed by the Noxubee staff. January 2019. Photo by Justin Gole

We were on the refuge for the end of gun season for deer hunting and, while we benefited by getting some free hot dogs and potato salad from some hunters, several hunters got a bigger prize and left with some beautiful venison for the winter.

One of the high points for Justin came from a group of Michigan natives whose son was a student at Mississippi State. We ran into them on a couple different days and they were dead set on seeing an alligator before they left Mississippi. The first time they were there was an overcast day, so we told them to come back on a sunny day when the gators would be active. When they showed back up on a beautiful, sunny Saturday, Justin scoured the side of the lake and managed to find a sunbathing gator. We were happy to be able to send them back north with some good memories. Getting to help make people’s visits better is the best part of our job!

Visiting Michiganders, my people. January 2019. Photo by Justin Gole.

From Mississippi, we drove northwest for our second stint at Cache River NWR. Due to the partial government shutdown, our orientation was brief. Fortunately we knew what to expect based on our first visit to the refuge.

The first time here you may remember we primarily ran into deer hunters, but our second time around we were in the market for waterfowl hunters. We had a lot of early mornings, getting up as early as 2:30 a.m. to get out to boat ramps before the boats were allowed in the water, but boaters were more than happy to share coffee with us, and that made the early mornings more tolerable.

We were also surprised by the vast range of home states represented by the hunters this time around. While it was rare to run into people from even as far away as Little Rock during our last sampling period, this time we ran into hunters from Mississippi, Missouri, Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky! It’s always cool to see how much traffic refuges can bring to the local area!

While here, we also got to enjoy hanging out with our old friend Matthew Sieja. We had several pizza and movie nights and it was a great way to get to unwind at our last refuge.

Finally we drove back towards Fort Collins, Colorado, to end our internship where we started. Our odometer hit the 30,000 mile mark which was a point to reflect on. Having traveled so many miles and getting to see so many unique places, while meeting so many unique faces, truly has been a once in a lifetime opportunity.

ACE California – Fort Ord Dunes Native Species Planting

ACE has been planting native species in the Ford Ord dunes since late November 2017. By the conclusion of the project, over 23,000 will be planted. Located on Monterey Bay, Fort Ord offers beautiful ocean views, and is now an area of recreation for tourists and locals alike.

Marisa, a 900 hour Americorps member, clears a patch of dead Ice Plant to make room for a Beach Aster sapling. In one day, Marisa will plant about 100 of these. By replacing the invasive Ice Plant with the native Beach Aster, the Fort Ord Dunes are likely to see a positive reduction in erosion, water consumption, and wildlife populations as the saplings grow and reintroduce themselves to the coastal habitat.

Marisa, a 900 hour Americorps member, clears a patch of dead Ice Plant to make room for a Beach Aster sapling. In one day, Marisa will plant about 100 of these. By replacing the invasive Ice Plant with the native Beach Aster, the Fort Ord Dunes are likely to see a positive reduction in erosion, water consumption, and wildlife populations as the saplings grow and reintroduce themselves to the coastal habitat.

Human History: Land use and impact

There is no mistaking the immense impact humans have had on the area. Evidence of this can be seen by both natural and unnatural materials on the dunes.

Fort Ord was originally an Army installation that encompassed 15 rifle ranges, officially closed in 1994. To this day it is not uncommon to find bullet casings in the dunes. ACE Crew leaders and Americorps members underwent bomb recognition training in the event any explosives are found while working.

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“Restoration is experimental because it will take a while to see the effects of our efforts. Restoration is such a large part of conservation, when you’re trail building it’s easy to forget that.” -Jesse, Americorps ACL

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Natural History and Restoration:

Since November 2017, ACE staff and crew have been working alongside California State Parks representatives at Fort Ord Dunes State Park in a longer-term habitat restoration effort. ACE crews are now planting natives in soil beneath the dead Ice Plant, including Beach Aster, Coastal Buckwheat, Lizard tail, Sticky Monkey Flower, Sage Brush, Sage Wart, and Lupin. Each four-day project produces about 4,000 new plants. Reintroduction of these native plants will have a lasting impact on the area, improving water intake, plant biodiversity, and native animal populations.

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Green patches of native plants are reemerging after a past herbicide project cleared the Ice Plant. The Smith’s Blue Butterfly used to thrive in this area, particularly due to the native Coastal Buckwheat.

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“It’s nice to plant instead of just ripping plants out. Some people want to learn about biological systems, so this is a good learning opportunity.” -Vince, AmeriCorps ACL

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“I’m into restoration and I’m down to be any part of the process, but planting feels the most valuable. My background is in ecology and I feel that this is in line with my education. Seeing whales is a big highlight too.  -Marisa, AmeriCorps member

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Pecos Wilderness | Borrego Trail | Crosscut

Pecos Wilderness campsite as seen at night.

Pecos Wilderness campsite as seen at night.

Summer 2017 was a tremendously busy season for ACE’s Crew Program. ACE Southwest teams had the opportunity to work on a two-month project in the Pecos Wilderness just outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico, on the Borrego Trail. ACE is proud to offer our corps members a wide range of training on different types of equipment and a variety of of tools. This project called for our teams to use the classic crosscut saw.

A blue ribbon is tied to the fence on the corner of West Clay Avenue, Flagstaff March 22nd, 2017.

The use of crosscut saws dates back to the 15th century, and they are still in use today with very little change in their design. “It’s really cool to be using these saws that have been used for centuries”, explained crew member, Emily Merlo. These saws are used to cut against the wood grain of trees. The crew is using them to “buck up” already down trees. Bucking is a term that refers to the cutting up of already down trees.

Andrew Palomo removes the bark from the log before beginning the cut.

Andrew Palomo removes the bark from the log before beginning the cut.

A bucking saw generally has a straighter back and less of a pronounced curve on its cutting surface. Since bucking saws are more often used on trees that are already downed, the greater stiffness and weight aids swift cutting, and allows two-man saws to also be used by one person, pushing as well as pulling.

The crew enjoying a lunch break in the Pecos Wilderness.

The crew enjoying a lunch break in the Pecos Wilderness.

There are several reasons why crosscut saws are preferred over chainsaws, on certain projects. First, crosscut saws are lighter which makes it easier for crews to carry in to remote locations as most ACE crews backpack in all of their camping gear, food, and tools. This particular crew hiked over ten miles into the forest to reach the project site. The weight of chainsaws and fuel make crosscuts saws a better choice for these long hikes in. Additionally, many areas of the National Forests of the United States are designated as Wilderness Areas and as such the use of mechanized and motorized equipment is prohibited, except by special circumstance, as the noise chainsaws  have the potential to disturb wildlife.

Crew member, Emily Merlo completes the cut.

Crew member, Emily Merlo completes the cut.

ACE crew leader, Kaitlin Egan led the project for the entire duration. The primary objective of this project was to clear downed trees that blocked the trail. The crews worked in two-person teams with the crosscut saw requiring one person on each side. Prior to beginning the work the team starts by assessing each tree, then decides on an approach based on how the tree fell from flooding and wind, where there is tension on the tree, and which way the log will roll once it is cut. And last, the decision is made as to who will take the saw when the cut is complete. It’s a very calculated process to ensure the safety of our crews and that the proper technique is utilized.

A two-man team works to bring down a tree that has fallen from natural causes and was left suspended over the trail.

This project is the second year of work on the Borrego Trail for ACE.  On this particular project the crews cleared the first four miles of trail where they set up camp in the backcountry of the Pecos Wilderness. As they worked their way up the trail, they eventually made it to the campsite at mile ten. Within the first month the crew was able to clear fourteen miles of trail from fallen trees.

ACE corps member, Alexander Hesketh records the diameter of the tree he and his partner have just bucked.

ACE corps member, Alexander Hesketh records the diameter of the tree he and his partner have just bucked.

ACE is proud to be able to provide our teams with  backcountry and wilderness skills to allow our corps members to be a part of improving access to this beautiful trail. We’d like to thank our partners at Pecos Wilderness and the USFS for your guidance and partnership as well as our ACE Southwest Crew for your hard work and dedication on this project.

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The Pecos Wilderness crosscut crew at sunset on the first day of the two-month long project.

Arizona Trail | Pine, AZ

ACE Arizona has been working with the Arizona Trail Association on several different sections of the 800-mile trail. In September ACE had a crew led by Katherine Dickey and Natalie Kolesar working just outside of Pine, AZ. Over the course of two eight-day projects, the crew worked on general trail maintenance as well as building rock structures and building footbridges with timber construction.

Crew members debark the logs to prevent the logs from rotting.

Crew members debark the logs to prevent the logs from rotting.

The crew put in two puncheon foot bridges within approximately the first mile of the trail. The process of putting in these creek crossings involves debarking, “ripping” the log, hauling the split logs up to the puncheon sites and setting them in place. Ripping refers to the act of splitting the tree lengthwise; each half provides the walking surface of the bridge. The bark is first removed from the tree trunk because the bark holds in moisture, to keep these wood structures from rotting the bark is scraped off by hand. To set the logs, the crew members dig holes for smaller logs to sit in on either side of the creek. Those logs are then reinforced with crush (small rock fragments) to hold the logs in place. Then, the larger logs receive saddle notches so that they fit like puzzle pieces on top of their smaller counterparts.

National Trails Trainer, Mark Loseth teaches crew leader, Katherine Dickey to make measurements on the log for saddle notches.

National Trails Trainer, Mark Loseth teaches crew leader, Katherine Dickey to make measurements on the log for saddle notches.

The purpose of putting in bridges over creek crossings is to prevent erosion and sedimentation in the creek. This area of Arizona is a very delicate riparian zone. It is one of the few places in Arizona where you can see a multitude of tree species including maple and alder trees. This type of lumber work requires a lot of measuring, leveling, and precision with the chainsaw. ACE National Trails Trainer, Mark Loseth visited the crew and made sure that crew was entirely equipt with the tools and knowledge to get the work done.

Crew members roll the log into position to be cut.

Crew members roll the log into position to be cut.

During the second half of this project, the crew built armored drain pans along some of the eroded parts of the trail. The armored drain pans protect the path and direct water off of the trail. A multi-tiered rock wall and rock steps were also put in by the crew during the duration of this project.

Crew Leader, Katherine Dickey rips the log in half to create the platform for the footbridge.

Crew Leader, Katherine Dickey rips the log in half to create the platform for the footbridge.

ACE has been fortunate to have completed multiple sections of trail work along the 800-mile Arizona Trail and would like to thank our partners at the Arizona Trails Association. For more information on this trail follow the link below:

https://aztrail.org/the-trail/

Crew members haul the logs by hand to the puncheon sites.

Crew members haul the logs by hand to the puncheon sites.

Garrapata State Park – Big Sur, California

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Since January of 2017 ACE California has had a crew working along the coast in Garrapata State Park. This ongoing project is the first in partnership with California State Parks, a relationship ACE hopes to continue to build in the years to come. The ACE crew has been lead by Kevin Magallanes since the start of the project and will continue to be lead by Kevin until its completion.

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ACE corps members have been working on two different projects with the California State Parks crew. Half of the crew were building wooden steps along the trail. With the use of drills, saws, and the frequent double checking of measurements the crew constructed the wooden base for a staircase that will later be filled with small rocks. These steps make the hike more easily traversable by reducing the trail’s steepness.

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The other half of the crew was building a multi-tier retaining wall which will be a lookout over the coast when it is completed. “Rock work is this strange meditative process,” explained Jesse Wherry who has been on the project for three months, “you can spend your entire day on something and in the end you just have to take it all down.” This extensive amount of rock building requires a lot of patience, skill, and experience from the crew members.

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The crew brought on three new members during this project who got to learn about both rock work and step building. This lookout is one of two multiple week long projects that the crew will complete for the trail. ACE looks forward to the continuation of this project over the upcoming months in the best office anyone could ever ask for.

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Happy National Bike Month!

ACE Arizona – Rockhound State Park – New Mexico – Trail Work

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During the week of March 27th, ACE Arizona crew members served at Rockhound State park in New Mexico. The crews were lead by Katherine Dickey. Rockhound is located in the Little Florida Mountains and known for its abundance of minerals that visitors are allowed to collect. This is the second project ACE has participated in at the state park.

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The ACE crews worked on two separate trails in the park. One crew reconstructed part of the Spring Canyon trail which has been closed since 2002. The reconstruction included creating a reroute on the trail because the original route was too steep for hikers. This involved building check steps, a rock staircase, tread widening and brushing. There were also many social trails that the crew worked to block off to concentrate foot traffic to the main trail.

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The second crew worked on the Lovers Leap trail with three main objectives. The crew built a retaining wall, a staircase, and widened the tread of the trail. After the main objectives were completed, the crew provided general maintenance which included brushing and back sloping the tread.

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The previous ACE crew that went out to the park and worked on the Lovers Leap trail trail created switchbacks. The ACE’s New Mexico state park partners were excited to have the crew back to put finishing touches on the trail; the crew was grateful to have the opportunity to spend time in such a beautiful park.

ACE in Huffington Post – Engaging Women in Conservation by The Corps Network

Last month was Women in History month. In recognition of this month-long celebration, our amazing partners at The Corps Network did an informative piece for Huffington Post Blog. They reached out to women within the conservation world who literally blaze trails: the women of Conservation Corps.

We are thrilled that some of the women on our ACE staff as well as some of our female crew leaders and crews were quoted and shown throughout this article.

Thank you to our staff that contributed to this wonderful article: Director of California, Sarah Miggins, National Restoration Program Manager Afton McKusick, Crew Leaders, Jenny Diamond and Krish Karau, photo of corps member, Kyia Foster, Photojournalist, Jessica Plance, Director of Communications, Susie Jardine, President/CEO, Christopher Baker.

Click here for article: Engaging Woman in Conservation

 

 

 

#IamACE – Meet Kyia Foster

We had a few minutes to catch up with Corps Member, Kyia Foster this past fall as she was volunteering at the Grand Canyon. Like all of our amazing corps members, Kyia was very busy working on a trail. We were happy she had a moment to take a break and tell us a little about herself and her experience with ACE. Thanks Kyia! kyia3

Can you tell me a little bit about your background and what drew you to the world of environmental conservation?

I was born in Illinois, raised in Georgia. I had no knowledge of the outdoors until I came to college and I worked at an outdoor recreation center doing trips, rentals, and a rock-wall challenge course. From there, I was a part of the Outdoor Recreation Conference and they send out emails about all outdoor jobs and everything like that and I got something through them about ACE. I graduated in December and I was just working and I really wanted to see if ACE and conservation work was a path I wanted to pursue for the future. I studied Health Care Administration so this has been pretty different for me.

What has been a challenge and a highlight for you?

For me, the most challenging thing is hiking. I know I am a slow hiker but I like to keep up with everyone else but they have a naturally fast pace and I do not. I like to coast, we’ll say. The work is good, it brings me back to my working days. It’s different every time we go out. The highlight for me is the view and getting to know more people so when we go back to off days I actually know who these people are and were able to hang out if we want to. And that we can go wherever we want to on our off days. As far as the work goes, it’s very just rewarding in itself.

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Where are you hoping that this position with ACE leads you in future?

Already, I know that I should get on USA Jobs and if I do want to do outdoor recreation type of work, I should possibly serve another AmeriCorps term or something similar, perhaps at a park or even with the National Parks Service. I’m thinking about the National Parks Service but that’s probably because all of the hitches that I have been on have been in the Grand Canyon so that’s the only thing I have been involved with. So far that’s what I’m thinking but I don’t know for certain.

 

What sets ACE apart from other positions you have had in the past?

I do think that it’s good that you get that taste of different things when you go on hitches because you are able to network and speak with the project partners or the crew leaders and get a feel of how they got to where they are. I like to ask the people I work with how they got to where they are which gives me more ideas about where I want to go. And I think the variety is great. kyia-2

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