This epic adventure begins as two strangers hop aboard a Toyota RAV-4 (affectionately nicknamed Ravioli) and depart into the great expanse known as the American West. Their adventures will take them through steep and dark mountain ranges, wide open prairies, ragged coastlines, and desolate deserts. Along the way they will meet a variety of amazing people, view some incredible wildlife, and sample all types of breakfast restaurants and Love’s travel stops.
Through our travels, we have noticed an elemental theme between our assigned refuges, and we want to take you on a journey with us through water, earth, and air.
Saddle Mountain National Wildlife Refuge: bringing people to the river
Nothing is as essential to life on earth as water. Especially in desolate areas like eastern Washington, water, more specifically the Columbia River, is critical in supporting the food we eat every day. Our first refuge was here, right in the heart of the Washington agricultural industry at Hanford Reach National Monument (Saddle Mountain NWR, the name is no longer used). Hanford Reach protects the longest free-flowing stretch of the Columbia river, and we saw the importance of the river firsthand while we were in the thick of salmon run. People from throughout the Pacific northwest converged to try their hand at catching the world-renowned Chinook salmon in the clear, cool waters of the Columbia. In fact, this spot was so popular that people set up “salmon camps” for months at a time, living on site so that they could fish every single day. From many vantage points along the river and refuge, visitors can also view the 9 decommissioned nuclear reactors of the of the Hanford Site for which the refuge is named. The refuge itself was and still is a buffer site between the surrounding communities and the nuclear reactors. Part of the reason that this place was chosen for the complex was the clean and abundant water supply from the Columbia river. The river here is truly the lifeblood of the region, a deep blue vein of life in a vast sagebrush sea.
In addition to our first two week sampling period at Saddle Mountain in late August, we returned for a third week a month later in October. During our first two weeks, the salmon had not yet begun their migration. We returned to Saddle Mountain just in time for the end of salmon season, encountering a significantly greater number of salmon fishers actively enjoying their access to the river. While the vast majority of visitors we met at Saddle Mountain were fishers, some came for other reasons. We met families looking to enjoy an afternoon boating, sightseers looking to explore this stretch of the Columbia River, and even a class out searching for macroinvertebrates. These groups helped remind us of the many different uses people might find for a river like the Columbia and the importance of continuing to preserve access for generations to come.
Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge: preserving an iconic American landscape
After our first period at Saddle Mountain, we headed inland for Oklahoma, home of Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. Here, the namesake mountains rise up out of one of the last remaining expanses of mixed grass prairie, creating a surprisingly diverse ecosystem rich in wildlife. The refuge is one of the oldest in the nation, founded in 1901 as a sanctuary for one of North America’s most iconic land animals: the American bison. Since then, the refuge has grown into an iconic attraction for nature lovers, with a wide array of activities and uses. An auto tour route takes visitors through the grasslands to admire wildlife from prairie dogs to longhorns, while a network of trails brings guests up into the mountains themselves. A state of the art visitor center allows guests to learn about the refuge’s unique natural history, while volunteer led educational programs take guests out into the field for a more in depth experience. With picnic areas and camping sites, this refuge feels in many ways like a national park.
Our slower start at Saddle Mountain did not prepare us for how popular Wichita Mountains would be. It is the most visited wildlife refuge in the system, and at 59,020 acres of wildlife and wilderness it is easy to see why. Visitors ranged from local regulars to international tourists looking to experience a piece of American history. It was clear that Oklahomans are incredibly proud of this place, as evidenced by the active volunteer group, Friends of the Wichitas. We spoke to people who have been coming here for generations, now taking their great grandchildren for the first time to experience its wonder. We also got a taste of wonder ourselves as we ogled over one of the oldest herds of American bison, intricately patterned Texas longhorns, charismatic prairie dogs, and majestic elk, all on the backdrop of beautiful red granite mountains. Our housing was a 1930’s CCC built bunkhouse surrounded by woods and mountains, and we made friends with a fellow intern named Miahna who was staying with us there. We had a grand old time going to local restaurants, discovering venomous snakes on nighttime drives, and snapping photos of tarantulas as you do when you are all hardcore nature nerds. Another highlight of this leg of the trip was our invitation to a boy named Robert’s 10th birthday party while we were sampling near a picnic area. The family generously provided us with hotdogs and (heavenly) homemade strawberry shortcake, a gesture that sealed our love for this place and the people of Oklahoma.
Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge: where the skies are filled by wings of thunder
After leaving the prairies of Oklahoma, we returned north to the Great Salt Lake region of Utah, home of Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. Like Wichita Mountains, this refuge is old, dating back to 1928 when it became the first wildlife refuge created by an act of Congress. Like Wichita Mountains, Bear River has an active Friends group and is loved by the local community. However, unlike Wichita Mountains, Bear River was designed as a refuge for migratory birds, preserving the famous sound of “wings of thunder.” From the bird shaped design of the visitor center to the giant American avocet that greets you as you enter, the importance of birds at the refuge is made abundantly clear. The visitor center also prominently displays an airboat, commemorating the wildlife biologists who developed this method of harnessing the power of air as a way to effectively navigate the refuge’s wetlands. In addition to the visitor center, the refuge features a 12 mile auto tour loop through the wetland area, with several pullovers and viewing platforms for birders.
Our first weekend at Bear River coincided with National Public Lands Day, a national day of service and celebration of our public land systems. We were able to assist with Bear River’s commemoration of the day by running activities for guests. The visitor center’s classroom, normally closed to guests, was opened up, allowing visitors to examine natural history specimens or enjoy the collection of bird puppets. To help guests learn more about the birds that call this refuge home, a station was set up to depict various beak types, with interactive components for hands on learning. In addition, we were provided with materials to set up a track making activity, allowing guests to leave with a free, educational souvenir. Unfortunately, the skies were not fully cooperative this day, as cold rain kept us from having the high visitation we were expecting. Nevertheless, those visitors who did join us were enthusiastic participants, eager to learn and grateful for our efforts.
Our last weekend at Bear River introduced us to a new kind of visitor: hunters. During hunting season, Bear River’s wetlands are opened up to waterfowl hunters, who came out in great numbers to take advantage of this opportunity. Purchases of duck stamps (which are required for hunting migratory waterfowl) provide an important source of income for the refuge, while refuge regulations and wardens help ensure that game species are sustainably hunted while nom-game species continue to be protected. The hunting community’s support was invaluable in the creation of the refuge almost a century ago, and this partnership continues to be crucial today.
From the Columbia River in Washington, to the Wichita Mountains in Oklahoma, to the Migratory birds in Utah, our adventures thus far have taken us to refuges defined by access to water, land, and sky. Along the way, we have met a wide variety of visitors, from dedicated local fishermen to international sightseers. Despite their diversity in uses, all were unified by their appreciation for the continued access to wildlife provided by these refuges. As we continue our journey through California and return to Washington, we expect to continue to see how both people and animals benefit from the work of the National Wildlife Refuge System.
Fort Niobrara and Upper Mississippi
When people said the midwest was nothing but cows and corn fields, we are glad to report that they must have missed a few spots. One such place was our first survey site, Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).Through it runs Niobrara River, a National Wild and Scenic River, where we were envious of many visitors floating down on tubes. This refuge also offered us an up-close opportunity to see bison in their native range. Sadly, we were only here for one week as we had to drive to our next make-up shift on the Upper Mississippi.
Both the LaCrosse District (part of Upper Mississippi NWR) and Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge offered amazing birding opportunities, as well as a wide variety of fish species that drew fishermen and women from across the midwest. One shift was spent at the re-opening party of a boat landing, where many locals were happy to have the launch reopened and we were happy for the free food. While in Mississippi, we stayed at Perrot State Park, where we had barred owls for neighbors and wood frogs as tent buddies. After a whirlwind of a week, we departed for Clarks River National Wildlife Refuge.
Upon arriving in Kentucky, after we camped for the night at Shawnee National Forest, we were happy to start our first two-week sampling period and have some time to settle down. Though the heat was an unwelcome change from chilly Wisconsin, we were excited nonetheless! Our first sampling shift at Clarks River NWR was one of our most successful and most fun! Clarks River NWR held a family fishing night event at their Environmental Education and Recreation Area (EERA).The event provided fishing poles and bait for children to come fish with their families, as well as other kid-friendly activities, including a table hosted by the Murray State Wildlife Society with furs and live snakes to show the visitors. During our other shifts at the EERA, we learned that the walking paths there are appreciated by the local community with many regular visitors who come to exercise and enjoy nature. When not surveying, we were able to learn about the unique forested environment of Clarks River NWR and ongoing forest restoration efforts. Our time at Clarks River NWR ended with the Wildlife Heritage Outdoors (WHO) Festival which took place at a local park. Clarks River NWR hosted a booth with “Animal Olympics” so kids could play and learn about local wildlife in the process. The booth also provided refuge information and hunting permits for those interested. The WHO festival included a nature photography contest, a calling contest, and various other activities. It was wonderful to see how the local community valued spending time in nature! At the end of our two week stay, we were sad to leave the great staff members we had gotten to know but we knew we would be back in November in the hopes of making contacts once hunting season was underway. We departed for EH Mason Neck NWR, hoping for some cooler weather!
The 800 mile journey to Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge was our longest trek so far this fall. Luckily, we were able to break it up by staying in western Virginia and then at a lovely campground in Shenandoah National Park. We woke early for a quick hike and then descended from the mountains towards the river banks of the Potomac to where Mason Neck NWR is located. Created to protect breeding habitat for bald eagles, this refuge has become a haven for other wildlife. Many of our shifts were spent chuckling over the antics of gray squirrels and listening to the calls of barred owls. Most visitors we made contact with were from the area and appreciated having the refuge, as it is 25 miles south of Washington D.C. and is one of several protected areas on this peninsula. One day off was spent exploring the many free museums in our nation’s capital. Though our feet may have been tired by the end of the day, we could not believe that such a bustling metropolis was just a short distance from this quiet refuge. When it came time to go, we were sad to say goodbye, but we were excited to see what adventures Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge would bring.
Alligator RiverLeaving the hustle and bustle of the DC area behind us, we headed south to the shores of North Carolina. We were excited to find our bunkhouse was on the Outer Banks and just a short walk from the beach. After bringing our belongings inside we took a walk to the beach. We were impressed by the huge waves and shore birds. The next day we made the drive inland to Alligator River NWR. Alligator River is comprised of both fields and various wetland habitats, making it home to lots of interesting wildlife! Alligator River NWR is perhaps best known for having a small population of the endangered red wolf both in captivity and in the wild on the refuge. We were lucky enough to participate in a Wings Over Water (WOW) event where we got to hear the captive red wolves howl! Though the red wolves are what the refuge is best known for, most visitors come in the hopes of spotting black bears. Alligator River NWR is believed to have the highest concentration of black bears on the east coast. We were lucky enough to see several black bears during our time at the refuge and observed them doing different activities such as wading in a canal and climbing a tree. Despite the name Alligator River NWR, alligators are not as common there as they are farther south but we were lucky enough to spot a young alligator who likes to hang out by the boat launch. With so much wetland habitat, waterfowl and migratory birds may be observed as well. There is truly something for every type of wildlife lover here! Due to its proximity to the Outer Banks, there are many tourists, both domestic and international, who visit Alligator River NWR so we were kept busy during our shifts making contacts. Locals enjoy Alligator River NWR as well, especially for hunting, so we were glad to get the chance to meet them. In our free time we were able to visit the beach, see the largest active dune on the east coast, visit a historic lighthouse, see the site of the lost colony of Roanoke, attend a play that a refuge staff member was starring in, and sample an Outer Banks staple: Duck Donuts. We were sad to leave such a unique and popular refuge but look forward to continuing our adventure at nearby Great Dismal Swamp.
In day-to-day life, most people have routines. They go do similar tasks at similar jobs in similar locations. This is not one of those stories. We have been experiencing a job that requires an understanding that everything changes, and that is the one consistency. Change has been the underlying theme of our time with the ACE National Visitor Survey team. We have found an abundance of changes throughout the two months of being on the road. When we began our journey to Fort Collins, CO for training, we arrived unsure of where the job would take us. We found out that we would be traveling across the entire US, coast to coast which was definitely unexpected as we had thought that we would be surveying just one region!
Immediately upon transferring towards our work assignment we felt the changes of being on the road.
Bald Knob NWR, AR
From the moment we left Fort Collins, Colorado everything began to change. In fact on our very first travel day our campsite changed, when we arrived and noticed that there was a nicer campsite open a few sites away from where we had originally planned. On our second day of travel from Fort Collins to Bald Knob, our plans also changed as we were originally going to camp in the Ozark National Forest, and instead camped about an hour from Bald Knob, at a campsite called Cove Creek. Before our sampling ever began, before we had even arrived at our first refuge we realized there would be constant change and that one thing that we would have to get comfortable with was adaptability. (Spoiler alert: we have become incredibly adaptable).
As natives of Niagara Falls, NY the first big change we had to adapt to was the change in temperature from New York to Arkansas. During our time in the “Natural State” it was consistently over 90 degrees. This high heat may have been a deterrent for refuge visitors, but the wildlife at Bald Knob sure seemed to enjoy the end of the summer. In the hot air you could always see great blue herons and white egrets flying around, until the heat became too much and they settled into the intricate waterways that the refuge maintains. Among the herons and egrets you could also see tons of butterflies and dragonflies, unless they were hiding away in the dense trees that cover close to half of the refuge.
As for Bald Knob, our time there was during the change of seasons between the end of summer and the start of fall. One thing we are sure of after leaving Bald Knob is that it will be a completely different experience for our friends sampling during period 2 in the fall!
Santee NWR, SC
Upon leaving Bald Knob, we had the opportunity to camp in Alabama, at Monte Sano State Park, as our housemate in Arkansas (an Alabama-native) recommended. It was beautiful and peaceful full of white-tailed deer who roamed freely nearby. Just in time for sunset, it was wonderful through the trees. The next night we got to camp at Congaree National Park (sweet job right?!) but the coolest part was that we were the only visitors in the park camping that night! Imagine an empty National Park, with a full moon (and of course plenty of massive spider webs to dodge!) That was an experience like none other! The next morning we arrived at Santee NWR in South Carolina.
Santee is a 13,000 acre refuge on the edge of Lake Marion, the largest lake (Reservoir) in the state. We encountered our first American alligators, plenty of wild turkeys, as well as white-tailed deer, raccoons, hawks, and one very large snake. The folks at Santee were friendly; however, we met very few people. We tried to not take this too personally…the refuge biologist told us that visitation is hit-and-miss, especially with the transitional seasons. Just another change for us to roll with. Onto coastal South Carolina…
Cape Romain NWR, SC
Although Cape Romain was only approximately 1 hour from our last refuge, Santee NWR, it was a completely different experience. Upon arrival our schedule was still pretty much up in the air, and that quickly turned during our orientation with a very sweet refuge manager. She booked us a ride on a ferry to the uninhabited Bull Island where we surveyed for our first shift- a once in a lifetime experience and something vastly different from what we had done until then. Our next sampling day we had another once in a lifetime experience as we got to sample visitors during a red wolf feeding. There are about 20 red wolves left in the wild so it was very cool to see them walking around and eating (and hanging out with their vulture friend) while we also sampled visitors. With change in mind, hopefully the population changes for these beautiful red wolves, and it just may thanks to dedicated people like “Wolfman Rob.” As for populations that have been changing for the better, we also got to help out with a loggerhead sea turtle nesting project, where we helped count eggs. We were told that the population has been increasing year by year and this year was the largest population they had ever recorded since their surveying began, up from 1-2,000 to more than 3,000 turtles!!!
Within about one month of traveling the country and working on the National Visitor Survey, change had become something we had gotten used to, and impermanence was something we had become somewhat-comfortable with. Change and impermanence was shown to us to beautifully & symbolically during our time at Cape Romain on our off-time. Every chance we got, we went to the beach to swim in the Atlantic ocean. With the coming-and-going of each wave it was a beautiful reminder that nothing stays the same from moment to moment, but beautiful moments will always continue to come again and again.
Cross Creeks NWR, TN
About an hour west of Nashville lies Cross Creeks, an 8,862 acre refuge that features a focus on waterfowl habitat and co-op farming accordingly. Many of the folks were visiting to observe the variety of species there. These included armadillos, vultures, eagles, an abundance of white-tailed deer, turtles, heron, white pelicans, egrets, and bison (at Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area). We had the opportunity to encounter the bison relatively close, as one day we were driving through and two were less than 10 ft from the fence of grazing range. We got out of the car and gazed at them grazing…it is true peace to watch these majestic animals.
Our time in Cross Creeks was one of the first times that there was moderate consistency in our lives throughout our time on the road, with a pattern of light visitation that we followed to try to recruit as many survey participants as many as we could. This resulted in us having a daily routine of sorts. But not to worry, we remained in the state of change not through our daily actions but change to our physical bodies, we gave each other haircuts and got new tattoos. We must have just grown accustomed to change!
We were lucky enough to start this job, traveling the country, as best friends and we’re glad to say that is one thing that has not changed. In fact we’ve become much closer than ever before! Along with the turning of the seasons, the changes from place to place and the changing climate that is affecting these refuges, we have noticed major inner changes within ourselves. We have gotten better at not jumping to conclusions about people or places, and really getting to live life with genuine wonder and awe for everyone and everything we see! Working at National Wildlife Refuges has shown us that although the refuges are primarily for the wildlife, they are just as important to the public, and to ourselves as we have found a deep sense of inner peace while sampling at some of the most beautiful places on the planet.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This summer, ACE EPIC member April Alix worked with the Partnership for Providence Parks (PPP) in Providence, Rhode Island. The Partnership was established in the Spring of 2012 in order to bring the Parks Department and area Friends Groups together with nearby businesses, nonprofits and schools committed to their local neighborhoods and the value of flourishing community green spaces. April assisted the organization as an Urban Educator, focused on creating free and open play for children, as well as offering innovative programs and events to get children and adults healthy, moving, and inspired. Through an Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Partnership for Providence Parks is able to continuously reach a wide-range of audiences and offer authentic outdoor experiences using city parks as exploratory spaces.
During the program, April helped with a variety of trainings and programs connecting urban children and families to the outdoors. Partnering with the Roger Williams Park Zoo, she helped facilitate outdoor play dates at local libraries and parks that allowed children to play and explore. April also participated in an annual BioBlitz run by the RI Natural History Survey, in which volunteers, working scientists, and avocational naturalists worked to tally as many species of organisms as possible in 24 hours on a particular parcel of land. This year, the BioBlitz took place in a large city park with more than 1,127 species recorded! Through another collaboration with the Zoo, April took part in the Teacher Institute, a program engaging 10 Providence Public School teachers-in-training in the best practices for teaching outdoors. Teachers had the opportunity to learn about local biodiversity, conservation projects in the state, climate change education practices, and urban ecology. A fan favorite of this program was setting pit-fall traps to capture carrion beetles, baiting them with rotting chicken in the heat of July!
Throughout her term, April routinely assisted with field trips on Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, inspiring local Providence youth through activities such as hiking and seining in a salt pond. In the community event Cops and Bobbers, April joined partner organizations and local police officers to teach children how to fish while making positive interactions and meaningful conversation.
Overall, it was exciting to see these urban spaces activated with so many programs! April thoroughly enjoyed working as an Urban Educator with a variety of partners throughout Rhode Island that make these meaningful programs possible.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Today ACE is celebrating the achievements of ACE/EPIC Fellow, Porsha Ra’Chelle Dossie. Porsha is an emerging public historian from Miami, Florida specializing in black history, urban studies, and the postwar era.
She is currently serving at the National Park Service, Park History Program in Washington, D.C., serving as the lead program assistant for the African American Civil Rights Network (AACRN), a national network charged with engaging the public in the rich history of the Civil Rights Movement through historical sites.
Porsha was recently awarded the National Council on Public History’s New Professional Award. She was also just awarded the Governor LeRoy Collins Award for Best Post-Graduate Thesis from the Florida Historical Society.
Porsha’s passion for representation and equity in our cultural institutions led her to the
Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016 where
she was a Minority Awards Fellow in the Curatorial Affairs department. In January 2018
she joined the National Park Service as a National Council for Preservation Education Intern.
Porsha received her Bachelor of Arts degree in History (2014) and Master of Arts in Public History (2018) both at the University of Central Florida (UCF). Her scholarship, community service, and teaching practice have won her numerous accolades, including various grants, fellowships, and the Order of Pegasus, the University of Central Florida’s most prestigious student award.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
The Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge, run by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, is now also home to two USFWS EPIC interns! This is the first group of interns to have the opportunity to work with USFWS biologist, Angela Dedrickson at this particular refuge. Interns Rose Caplan, and Shannon Finnerty started their year-long internship in September of 2018. During their time with the refuge, they have been an integral part of the US Fish and Wildlife Service team.
The refuge was established in 1975 under the authority of the Endangered Species Act to protect the critically endangered Mississippi sandhill cranes and their unique, and itself endangered, wet pine savanna habitat.The population was once at a low of 30-35 individuals, however, with the efforts of the refuge they have been brought up to over a hundred individuals as of 2019. The 20,000 acres of the refuge also protects the critically endangered Mississippi gopher frog, more commonly known as the dusky gopher frog.
Each morning the interns monitor the new cranes which are brought in from another facility to be released on the refuge. Through captive rearing and reintroduction to the area, as well as wild birds nesting in the savannas, the crane population continues to grow. The interns monitor their behavior and reactions to potential threats, as well as monitoring the wild population through camera traps. Rose and Shannon have also played a roll in the dusky gopher frog project from the time they arrived as tadpoles to their eventual release later this year.
Both ACE and the US Fish and Wildlife Service are excited to see the partnership grow and continue into the future. An in-depth video for follow on the refuge and the role ACE EPIC interns are playing in the protection of these species.