Dan & Amelia’s Most Awesome FWS Adventure
By: Dan Shahar and Amelia Liberatore
In late February, two strangers hopped into a truck. They were on a mission with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to meet and greet visitors at National Wildlife Refuges across the country. These are their adventures.
Dan Shahar and Amelia Liberatore hiking Charon Gardens trail in Wichita Mountains NWR. March 2019. Photo by Dan Shahar.
Bill Williams River NWR
Bill Williams River NWR is about 6,000 acres of riparian habitat located in the mountainous desert of western Arizona. It features the southernmost end of Lake Havasu and the Bill Williams River; the refuge is shaded by cottonwood forest, willows, and saguaro cacti. We were fortunate to arrive after a wet winter and witness the typically red-brown desert bloom with yellow and purple – a display far beyond the reach of recent memory. While we were sitting in our “office” (two camp chairs and collapsible shade tent) we couldn’t help but notice that all of the butterflies were flying with a direct purpose, headed southwest. Unfortunately, they refused to take our survey or answer any questions about where they were going or why. We guessed they might be migrating, and therefore wouldn’t have been able to provide permanent addresses for the survey postcard anyway. It was quite a sight to see them pouring endlessly over the bank, through our office lobby, and into the distance.
Lupine (Lupinus arizonicus) blooming in front of the ridgeline on Bill Williams River NWR. March 2019. Photo by Dan Shahar.
The majority of the people we sampled were self-identified “snowbirds”. For those of you who don’t know, a snowbird is a person with the means to migrate seasonally from their northern summer homes to winter in the southern warmth. They can easily be identified by their white plumage, RVs, sunny demeanor, and far-flung mailing addresses.
At this wildlife refuge we had the unique opportunity to sample anglers and kayakers from the water itself. We went out on a refuge boat with the refuge biologist, and flagged down boaters as they came by. For the most part, recreators didn’t mind being interrupted or maneuvering their craft close to ours. Sampling from the water was a creative way to reach people that did not come into the refuge from land.
Dan Shahar is happy to approach anglers and boaters on Lake Havasu and the Bill Williams River. March 2019. Photo by Amelia Liberatore.
While stationed at Bill Williams NWR, we lived happily at Achii Hanyo Native Fish Facility on the Colorado River Indian Tribe’s Reservation. Our housing was simple: comfortable, remote, and sulfuric. Our water supply came from an on-site well that was pumped through a sulphur deposit, so we quickly learned how to conserve water when washing dishes and bathing to limit our exposure to the smell of rotten eggs. Thanks to our host and his connections, we had the great pleasure of learning the art of mesquite barbequing and off-roading, as well as touring Ahkahav Tribal Preserve.
Ahkahav Tribal Preserve Backwater canoe excursion. March 2019. Photo by Dan Shahar.
Our other adventures included a trip to the La Paz County Fair, where we saw a 4-H livestock show, rickety rides, award-winning home arts and crafts, and the county beauty pageant. It was here that we realized that there was more to the local culture than we were seeing in our work at Bill Williams NWR.
Festive lights of the La Paz County Fair. March 2019. Photo by Dan Shahar.
Wichita Mountains NWR
Our next stop, Wichita Mountains NWR, was a complete 180 from Bill Williams, with ten times the acreage and perhaps 100 times the visitation. The Wichita Mountains rise from the Southern Plains, and are the only significantly elevated landform in the region dominated by rolling plains. Buffalo and longhorn cattle roam free within the boundary of the refuge, and prairie dogs colonize the landscape. People regularly flock to the refuge from the nearby area, Houston, Kansas City and all corners of Oklahoma, to hike and view wildlife. Lichens paint the rocks day-glow hues of orange and yellow. The refuge is not only home to creatures of the land and lakes, but also hosts significant historical sites.
Thirteen lakes and dams, as well as the striking and long forgotten figure of the Jed Johnson Tower, stand as reminders of the New Deal Era of American labor and infrastructure. The refuge also hosts the “longest running outdoor Passion play in America”, according to the Holy City of the Wichitas, an organization that cares for the historic stone buildings of the Holy City. We were fascinated to explore the Holy City’s chapel and grounds on the refuge.
A resident of Wichita Mountains NWR (Bison bison) grazes the roadside. March 2019. Photo by Amelia Liberatore.
Jed Johnson Tower “towers” over Jed Johnson Lake at sunset just before a thunderstorm. March 2019. Photo by Dan Shahar.
Other explorations took us to the trails and boulder sweeps, so that we could get a sense of what visitors were experiencing on the refuge. Our favorite hike was Trail 15 – Charons Garden – it not only presented a fantastic view of the valley and led us to a magical rock room, but also provided an opportunity to get lost and navigate the boulders.
The view from Charons Garden trail features boulders “Apple and Pear” and the plains from which they rise. March 2019. Photo by Dan Shahar.
During our orientation to the refuge, we went to lunch with Park Ranger Quinton Smith and Visitor Services Manager Lynn Cartmell. It was a meal to remember, not only because it was filling and delicious, but because we learned that at Anne’s Country Kitchen, mac ‘n’ cheese is considered a vegetable. Another cultural experience we enjoyed in Oklahoma was attending Parkstomp Bluegrass Festival, the “New Year’s Eve of Medicine Park.” Locals and spring breakers gathered free of charge on the main street of Medicine Park to toast to the live bluegrass performances, support the local shops, and stomp in rhythm underneath the moon. Unlike our experience at the La Paz County Fair, we recognized some folks at Parkstomp that we had sampled on the refuge.
Bon Secour NWR
Bon Secour NWR is similar to Bill Williams NWR in that it is a small, peninsular refuge featuring neotropical migrating birds with habitat that is protected from surrounding development. Bon Secour’s unique characteristics include proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, lush live oak and pine forests, and alligators found in freshwater wetlands. Besides human activity, the main natural disturbances are hurricanes. We encountered lots of locals, a small population of snowbirds (which we saw plenty of at Bill Williams) and a related species, the northern spring break families. The northern spring break families can be easily identified by the presence of small children, sun-starved skin, and SUVs displaying license plates from states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.
A heron seeks dinner and a quiet evening in Gator Lake on Bon Secour NWR. April 2019. Photo by Dan Shahar.
During our stay at Bon Secour NWR, we lived with two other research teams in the on-site bunkhouse. One team was occupied with banding the neotropical migrating birds for research at the University of Southern Mississippi. The other team was serving the USFWS by assisting the refuge biologist with Alabama beach mouse surveys. From the bunkhouse we were able to enjoy peaceful views of the bay. Bird watching in the morning yielded diving pelicans, soaring osprey, and statue-like herons.We were also exposed to not-so-enjoyable creatures, namely chiggers, who found Dan delectable, as well as biting gnats and mosquitoes.
Dan enjoys making contacts at the Pine Street Beach access. April 2019. Photo by Amelia Liberatore.
One of our favorite adventures in Alabama was the Elberta German Sausage Festival. We ventured inland to find a boisterous community filling the central park grounds of Elberta with craft booths, two musical performance stages, and a billowing cloud of smoke from the delicious sausages cooking in a tent. Just one kind (of sausage) fit all; the young, the old, and the merry ate and sang and danced together in the early summer heat.
So far, we have seen that wildlife refuges are unique places that provide wildlife with much-needed habitat. Refuges also provide a natural space for people to connect to open air and greenery and with their loved ones. We feel extremely lucky to be able to visit these special features in America and learn from locals. Next, we will spend extensive time in the Southeast and we’re excited for the adventures ahead of us.