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Refuges on Water

Refuges on Water

By: Justin Gole and Nicole Stagg

We arrived at Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge in Rhode Island after a short drive from Delaware. At only 244 acres, this refuge is the smallest we will visit all year. On top of being one of the most picturesque, it is surrounded by water on three sides and has a unique geological history. The coastline of Sachuest Point NWR has a point known as the Price Neck Formation that is over six hundred million years old and has been proven to have been a part of Africa before Pangaea split. Outside of cool topography and geology, this refuge has a fascinating history; it served as farmland, a landfill, and even as an U.S. Navy radio receiver station during WWII!

The Island Rocks, waves, and double-crested cormorants at Sachuest Point NWR. July 2018. Photo by Nicole Stagg.

While at Sachuest Point NWR, Justin spent a day working with the Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) at the refuge and got to break a sweat working on trimming growth along trails, watering pollinator gardens, and spreading gravel. YCC is a summer youth employment program, for ages 15-18, that allows young people to engage in meaningful work experiences with federal lands. He bonded with the young team and leader Tabatha Hawkins and even ate lunch out on the rocks that used to part of Africa with them!

Justin watering plants with the Youth Conservation Corps (YCC). July 2018. Photo by Nicole Stagg.

Nicole visited four of the five national wildlife refuges in Rhode Island. She walked all of the trails and took pictures of the viewpoints and wildlife she came across. While Trustom Pond NWR was beautiful and had many birds and water features, her favorite refuge in Rhode Island remains Sachuest Point NWR for its uniqueness in both formation and wildlife. She hopes to one day come back to Rhode Island to see the harlequin ducks, red-breasted mergansers, harbor seals, and snowy owls that live on the refuge during the winter months.

A monarch butterfly perched on common milkweed at Trustom Pond NWR. July 2018. Photo by Nicole Stagg.

Upon departure from Sachuest Point, Nicole flew home for a visit and Justin ventured on towards Ohio River Islands NWR where he had a handful of unique experiences. He met Visitor Services Chief Michael Schramm for orientation and they put their heads together to scheme about how to survey more visitors than the first sampling period at the refuge.

The refuge counts visitors from the Valley Gem Sternwheeler who take a tour around Buckley Island as part of their annual visitation, so Refuge Manager Rebecca Young and Justin went to visit the riverboat captains to see about surveying on the boat. They were more than happy to oblige and said he could come back and survey whenever he needed!

Justin “driving” the Valley Gem Sternwheeler on the Ohio River. July 2018.

That Sunday, Michael and Justin boarded the Valley Gem and Michael gave a speech about activities at the refuge. Justin took in the sights on the boat and paid attention to Michael’s talk since he would have to give the same speech during future sampling shifts. The refuge now has a working relationship with the Valley Gem for mutual exposure and benefit as a result of this survey effort!

On one of the final evenings at the refuge, Rebecca took Justin out on the river with the Friends Group President Sue Flowers and her husband. We rounded two islands and he even got to set foot on Buckley and Muskingum Islands. The group saw two bald eagles, an osprey, and one of the most beautiful sunsets around!

Night out with refuge staff and volunteers. July 2018.

Regrouping back at Great Meadows NWR for the refuge’s second sampling period, we both came back to find the invasive American Lotus at the Concord Unit in full bloom. While this plant acts as a weed by taking over wetland habitats, it was a major draw for the local Asiatic community, as families and organizations came out in droves to see this spiritually and culturally significant plant. We did have to admit there was an aesthetically pleasing draw to the plant, invasive aspects aside.

American Lotus at the Concord Unit of Great Meadows NWR. August 2018. Photo by Nicole Stagg.

While in Massachusetts, Nicole’s parents flew into Boston for a birthday visit. They went on a whale watching trip with the New England Aquarium to the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary to see humpback whales! On the boat, Nicole met interns working the aquarium doing wildlife surveys at the sanctuary and got to learn about working at the aquarium and the information gathered about the marine life outside the Boston Harbor.

A male humpback whale at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary outside Boston Harbor. August 2018. Photo by Nicole Stagg.

At Great Meadows NWR, we got to stay at the bunkhouse with the rest of the seasonal interns and Visitor Services employee Kelsey Mackey. The whole household bonded going out for pizza the first night and we ended our stay with a group movie night before heading back to Delaware!

For the final stop of these four refuges, we arrived back at Prime Hook NWR. On the first day of sampling, we got to help see off trailer volunteers Jay and Carol Tavor who we had randomly contacted for the visitor survey on their day off during the first sampling period. We enjoyed a pizza party with the refuge staff to wish Jay and Carol safe travels back home.

Going away party for the Travors. August 2018. (from left) Carol Travor, Nicole Stagg, intern Stormy, refuge manager Arthur Coppola, LE officer Sterling Valentine, Justin Gole, Jay Travor. Photo by Al Rizzo.

During our first go-round at Prime Hook, we were too busy to make it up to Bombay Hook NWR. However, on a rainy day during this visit, we finally made the trip to this beautiful refuge! It wasn’t all play; while we were there as we verified all the major points at the refuge for a GIS project. We also got to have a lot of fun taking pictures and hiking to overlooks along the wildlife drive. While the welcoming staff of Prime Hook NWR made our sampling destination our favorite in Delaware, missing out on Bombay Hook NWR would have been a mistake!

Greater yellowlegs and a snowy egret at Bombay Hook NWR. August 2018. Photo by Nicole Stagg.

This year we have had the chance to indulge in local cuisine including alligator, crawfish, shrimp, and Philly cheesesteaks, so to add to our foodie checklist we needed to have Maryland crab. After a long morning of watching people catch crabs at Fowler Beach, we decided it was time for us to try some crabs for ourselves. We picked up a dozen on the way home, and seafood veteran Nicole finished hers over twice as fast as Justin. Motivated by the meal, we wrote this blog post and started to dream about the local foods we’ll get to try at our next set of refuges. With any luck, that will include another authentic Philly cheesesteak!

Until next time,

Justin and Nicole

A Day in the Life

A Day in the Life

By: Michelle Ferguson and Angelica Varela

Welcome back readers! Halfway through our internship, we are now welcoming our first round of repeat refuges. We’re looking forward to reconnecting with staff and seeing familiar refuges in a different season. Our most recent refuges included a second visit at both Sullys Hill National Game Preserve in North Dakota and Balcones Canyonlands NWR in Texas. We also sampled at Canaan Valley NWR in West Virginia.


Freeland Boardwalk, Canaan Valley NWR. July 2018. Photo by Angelica Varela.

One of the most common questions we get along our journey is, “What do you actually do as visitor survey interns?” Join us on a typical day in the life of a budding social scientist on the National Visitor Survey ACE-EPIC project.

At each refuge we visit, we first meet with refuge staff to help orient ourselves to the refuge. The staff helps us scope out sampling locations, where we will station ourselves to intercept visitors and ask for their participation in a survey about their trip to the refuge. During orientation we often get to see parts of the refuge that aren’t accessible to the public. At Sullys Hill, we drove around the gated refuge perimeter on an ATV, getting our own private view of the wildlife and landscape. Our favorite part of the planning process is finding a day to hike refuge trails to better connect with the visitor experience. This is normally when we decide to become photographers, snapping pictures for later use.

Sullys Hill National Game Preserve entrance. July 2018. Photo by Angelica Varela.

Each refuge and its visitors are unique and it is our job to be flexible in our communication strategies. Sometimes a more direct method works and other times a casual approach is better received. In a typical shift, we strategize the most efficient way to find and contact visitors at certain times and locations. For instance, towards the end of our stay in Texas, hunters at the annual refuge dove hunt became the hunted as we tracked down the camo-clad visitors preparing for their hunts. We also adapt quickly to learning the local lingo. Most recently we learned that when you’re in West Virginia, if a visitor says they’re from “Washington,” it refers to Washington, D.C., not the state in the Pacific Northwest.

Of course we’ve had our fair share of unexpected weather and unforeseen factors, always keeping us on our toes navigating throughout any given day. At Sullys Hill we acquired the unexpected skill of strategically maneuvering around large ungulates who took over our sampling site (see below).

Bison herd, Sullys Hill National Game Preserve. August 2018. Photo by Michelle Ferguson.

A large part of our job is interacting with the public. We are lucky to have the opportunity to travel all over the U.S. and meet  individuals from all walks of life. Most of this includes visitors we encounter during our sampling shifts. At Sullys Hill, we met a visitor who fondly recalled volunteering for the refuge as a youngster and now brings his own children to see the bison. We also meet visitors with a fierce passion for the local area. Many enjoy sharing their knowledge of the geography and fun spots in the area with us. One of our favorite treasures was getting to know the gem that is Thomas, a charming small mountain town hidden in the pine trees of West Virginia, full of wild blueberries and fawns. After several locals exclaimed that we must go to The Purple Fiddle while in town we decided to check it out. To our pleasant surprise we enjoyed a groovy night of brass funk jams at this local music venue.

We are empowered by the visitors who’ve vocalized their appreciation for the visitor survey project, grateful that these landscapes continue to exist. Recently at Balcones Canyonlands NWR, we gushed over a couple who got engaged 2 years ago that very same evening at the Warbler Vista Sunset Deck on the refuge. These refuges represent a strong emotional connection to many visitors, and it’s humbling to share that experience.

Michelle sampling visitors driving through the wildlife auto tour at Sullys Hill national Game Preserve. August 2018. Photo by Angelica Varela.

Visitors at the dover hunt in Balcones Canyonlands NWR examine a map of the area to choose the best hunting spot. August 2018. Photo by Michelle Ferguson.

Along with our National Visitor Survey efforts, a part of our job is engaging directly with refuges on projects where they need an extra pair of hands. After we wrap up sampling, we’ve enjoyed giving our time to help out with sidework ranging from biology projects to trash clean up. In Canaan Valley, we traded in our surveying iPads for boots and trucked our way through muddy forest trails at midnight to look for the threatened Cheat Mountain salamander and record any other species in the area. At Sullys Hill NGP we assisted in a pollinator inventory and monitoring survey, becoming North Dakota butterfly masters.

Left: Baby Cheat Mountain salamander at Canaan Valley NWR, found during our night out on the conservation project. July 2018. Photo by Zach Dykema. Right: Angelica Varela assists salamander conservation project by setting up markers for the sampling area. July 2018. Photo by Michelle Ferguson.

Angelica Varela and Michelle Ferguson prepare bee bowls along a transect with The Habitat and Population Evaluation Team in North Dakota. August 2018. Photo by Simon Doneski.

From surveying, to connecting with visitors, and helping with extra projects, this is our experience in a day on the visitor survey team. It is a treat to work with the Refuge System through several avenues, always learning more about what it means to both the wildlife that depend on these ecosystems and the visitors who enjoy them.

New Experiences in Every Time Zone

New Experiences in Every Time Zone

By: Kylie Campbell and James Puckett

From the cool coastline of the Pacific Northwest to the hot and humid riparian forests of the Ohio River Valley, it’s been a busy two months for this team of Visitor Survey Interns! We started off this leg of the journey in the Nisqually Delta near Olympia, the capital of Washington. Then we made our way clear across the country to West Virginia and finally southern Illinois. Read on to hear about the places we saw, the people we met, and the things we learned!


Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually NWR

At Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually NWR, we learned about the importance of salmon and the inspiring partnerships needed to protect this critically important species. The area around the refuge is a mosaic of federal, state, and tribal lands with all partners cooperating together to enhance habitat for salmon in the Nisqually Delta. This urban refuge is found right off of busy I-5, and is full of a variety of visitors everyday! Since we were easily able to reach our target number of visitors to sample, we had plenty of time to help the refuge with other tasks.

Aside from the visitor survey, the project that we spent the most time on was trail maintenance; we worked to cut back and remove invasive Himalayan blackberries which encroach on the trail with their thorny vines. Visitors and staff were extremely happy to see the paths clear of these vines. While out on the trails, we were happy to answer questions from visitors and enjoyed sharing the interesting history of Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually NWR.  

James trims blackberry vines along the dike path at Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually NWR. July 2018. Photo by Kylie Campbell.

Another project we were able to work on was picking up trash alongside the main entrance road to the refuge. The refuge staff was very appreciative of this roadside clean up because it helped beautify the area.

James poses with his bounty of collected trash. July 2018. Photo by Kylie Campbell.

The most enjoyable project that we helped with was locating marsh wren nests for a children’s program in the education center. After a few hours of searching, we were successful in locating three marsh wren nests. We learned a lot about the busy little birds in the process: male marsh wrens remarkably build up to 20 nests to mark their territory and the female bird picks just one to fill with more building materials and lay her eggs!

Kylie poses with two marsh wren nests. July 2018. Photo by James Puckett.

A unique program that the visitor center hosts is a weekly summer lecture series where each week a different speaker shares information on topics related to natural resources. We really enjoyed the first lecture in the series: So You Want to Be a Park Ranger. In the lecture, a former national park ranger shared stories from his career. We were able to learn about the history of the National Park Service and definitely added a few of the places he worked to our bucket list.

While in Olympia, we also had the opportunity to kayak in the Puget Sound. We spoke with visitors who love to kayak around the refuge and had to try it out for ourselves. We saw countless seals playing in the water and resting on floating logs, and it was definitely a highlight of our time in Washington!

Visitors kayak through the Nisqually Delta at low tide. July 2018. Photo by Kylie Campbell.

Sleepy seals watch as James and Kylie kayak through the Puget Sound. July 2018. Photo by Kylie Campbell.

Dungeness NWR

Our next stop was at Dungeness NWR. We had previously visited Dungeness and were happy to see familiar faces. Dungeness was by far the most popular refuge we have sampled at. Visitors from all around the country, and even the world, make their way to Sequim, WA, to hike the Dungeness Spit. Like Nisqually NWR, we found plenty of people to survey, so we had extra time to help with projects and explore the area. The projects we helped with were wonderful opportunities and experiences.

The beautiful bluffs along the coast at Dungeness NWR are enticing for young people to climb, but they erode easily and can be very hazardous. To protect wildlife habitat and ensure visitors’ safety we installed new boundary signs along the bluffs. Through this project we got an interesting lesson in the value of modern technology. For most of the installations we were able to use a gas powered post pounder which made the job quick and efficient. However, there was one instance where the gas powered machine was unable to be placed on top of the signpost. We then had to use a manual post pounder for this sign which really made us appreciate the convenience of today’s technology!

James uses a manual post pounder to install a boundary sigh, this was hard work! July 2018. Photo by Kylie Campbell.

During our time off, we were able to explore more of the Washington coast and made our way to the most northwestern point in the lower 48: Cape Flattery! This area is located on the Makah Indian Reservation and we loved learning about the indigenous history of the area. Camping on nearby Shi-Shi Beach and exploring the extensive tide pools was a major highlight of our internship thus far.

Tide pools on Shi Shi Beach that we were able to explore in our off time! July 2018. Photo by Kylie Campbell.

Towards the end of our stay we were invited to a picnic held by the Friends of Dungeness NWR. Everyone we had worked with over the past month was there, and Dave, our point of contact, was kind enough to give us a gift of departure. We were very grateful and happy to experience Dungeness NWR and hope to one day return!

After departing Dungeness, we enjoyed a week long journey back to the East Coast! Along the way we were able to see the Milky Way from our secluded campsite in Montana and listen to the prairie dogs chirp in Badlands National Park. Our time in Badlands National Park provided ample opportunities for us to reflect on the power of nature and the mindblowing history of this planet: we even found and documented our own fossil!

Kylie poses with Badlands formations in South Dakota. August 2018. Photo by James Puckett.

While camping in the Badlands we woke up to a local resident strolling through our campsite — a giant bison just feet from our tent! He was just one of the many awe inspiring creatures that we saw that day. Watching bison in the national park definitely made us yearn to see what America looked like when millions of them freely roamed the endless plains, but it also made us deeply appreciative of the conservation efforts that have ensured bison still exist.

Bison in Sage Creek Campground, Badlands National Park. August 2018. Photo by Kylie Campbell.

Ohio River Islands NWR

Our first stop back east was Ohio River Islands NWR in Williamstown, WV. Our favorite river from our college days, the New River, flows into the Ohio River so being at this refuge felt like we were back at home! We were also closer to our families and were able to spend time with them on our days off, which was a welcome treat after being in different time zones for so long. Since this refuge is made up of a string of islands in the Ohio River, the majority of visitors are out on the water which made sampling a bit of a challenge. Still, we were able to find plenty of people out fishing and joyriding on their pontoon boats.

Paddlewheel of the Valley Gem chuns up water on the Ohio River with refuge island in the background. August 2018. Photo by Kylie Campbell.

An interesting aspect of our time at this refuge was learning about the history of the area. The nearby town of Marietta traces its history back to the Revolutionary era; we learned all this and more while taking the a tour on Valley Gem along the Muskingham River, which flows into the Ohio River. The Valley Gem is the largest sternwheeler between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati and is powered only by the large paddle wheel on the back. As the Valley Gem cruised by islands within the refuge, we were able to give an educational talk about the history and ecology of the area as well as the management strategies that refuge staff use to improve habitat for the many resident bird and mussel species. Sampling visitors aboard the Valley Gem was definitely one of our most enjoyable work days so far!

James and Kylie pose aboard the Valley Gem. August 2018. Photo by Rob Campbell.

Crab Orchard NWR

Our final stop in this stretch of the journey was Crab Orchard NWR in Marion, IL. We enjoyed learning about the unique history and management of this refuge. Before the refuge was established, local industry thrived in the area and many manufacturing firms existed to support World War II. Crab Orchard still allows for mixed usage of refuge lands including industry and agriculture, and many unique recreational opportunities also exist on the refuge. It was exciting to see that so many different types of users enjoy time at Crab Orchard, from people exercising on the trails to people relaxing on their boats!

Even while off the refuge, we were able to see first hand how special Crab Orchard is to the local community. From the grocery store to the auto mechanic shop, everyone we interacted with was quick to suggest that we check out the refuge while we were in the area! Every visitor loves it here and they are very proud of the unique history of the refuge.

James surveys a visitor at the Grassy Lake Marina, which was full of families visiting for Labor Day weekend. August 2018. Photo by Kylie Campbell.

One fun event that we had the opportunity to participate in at Crab Orchard NWR was a kayak tour. While visitors kayaked through Devil’s Kitchen Lake, Ranger Dona shared interesting tidbits about the unique history of the refuge, such as how the lake got its curious name. Legend has it that when pioneers first arrived in the area they saw smoke rising from the deep canyon where the lake now exists. The smoke was likely from the cooking fires of Native Americans, but the people were not visible from a distance and the pioneers termed the spooky sight “The Devil’s Kitchen.”

While in Illinois, we were also able to help out with a project at Cypress Creek NWR. We tagged along with a team of AmeriCorps interns, one of whom was our roommate. We shadowed them while they continued work on a forest inventory project that aims to quantify native and invasive plant species. We gained a deeper appreciation for the forests by learning about the immense diversity around us and even learned a few plant IDs by the end of the day!

While helping Cypress Creek interns with an inventory of native and invasive plants, we saw lots of evidence of busy beavers! This chewed tree told a story of beavers taking advantage of flooding. September 2018. Photo by Kylie Campbell.

From the rugged coastline of the Pacific Northwest to the charming Heartland, we were able to make lifelong memories across four time zones over the past two months. We continue to be amazed by the diversity of wildlife we encountered and the friendliness of people from all walks of life. Thankfully we still have many more places to explore and people to meet so be sure to check back in with us in a few months!

Repeat Season and Familiar Refuges

Repeat Season and Familiar Refuges

By: Nicole Stagg and Justin Gole

Thanks for coming back to read about the next four refuges on our awesome adventure! This period starts what we affectionately refer to as the “repeat season,” as we will visit all four of these refuges more than once, and vicariously, so will you!


We arrived at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) on Lake Erie after a long drive from Maryland. We learned that we had just missed out on “The Biggest Week in Birding,” when an estimated 70,000 visitors flowed through the refuge and surrounding lands to view the migrating neotropical birds that pass through every year. While we missed the heaviest influx of visitors, we did not miss the neotropical birds. Nicole has been trying to add at least one new bird species to her ID guide at each refuge we have visited. Ottawa so far holds the record for new birds in her book. Birds she has added include the Baltimore Oriole, the Blackpoll Warbler and Warbling Vireo.

Baltimore Oriole on feeder behind Ottawa’s Visitor Center, May 2018. Photo: Nicole Stagg

 When not surveying, we spent some time trimming the grass around the refuge and Nicole earned the nickname “Weed Whacker” from the refuge volunteers. The wildlife drive is open sporadically, but we made the most out of the time we were able to spend out there, and were lucky enough to see a bald eagle and a sandhill crane in flight at the same time! We were not able to capture a great picture of either of them but we did let a visitor with a longer distance lens know where the eagle was, and he appreciated the tip!

Bald eagle at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, May 2018. Photo by: Nicole Stagg

The following weekend Justin’s parents visited Ottawa NWR and drove through the wildlife drive. They managed to get stuck behind a road block of trumpeter swans, and after listening to a symphony of swans for about a half hour, a truck came through and broke up the traffic jam.

Trumpeter Swans on the Wildlife Drive at Ottawa NWR, May 2018. Photo by: Nicole Stagg

Our next stop was the first urban refuge opened in America, John Heinz NWR at Tinicum. This thousand-acre refuge, located right next to Philadelphia International Airport, was truly was a unique experience. While the drive was only a few hundred miles from Ohio, we were in an entirely different world. Every single day at John Heinz there was one or more school groups that visited, and we helped supervise and guide them through activities such as archery, fishing, dipnetting, and wildlife identification. We even got to participate in archery ourselves, although we realized we should not quit our day jobs!

After one of the school groups left, Justin got to practice a few rounds with refuge staff and interns before the evening crowd showed up, June 2018. Video by: Nicole Stagg

We have had great experiences with visitor service programs at all of the refuges we’ve visited, but we were especially blown away by the volume of outreach and education work that is done at John Heinz. Virtually every single day there was at least one different group that showed up, but what really made an impression on us was the “Philly Nature Kids” program. These school groups make multiple visits throughout the year, and refuge interns and staff go to the schools for educational programs and the end of year graduation ceremonies.

The students were given a budget and free reign to come up with a project of their choice. We were lucky enough to be there at the end of the school year to see many of these finished projects, including a trash cleanup project, a pollinator garden, bird houses built on school grounds, and an educational booklet created and “mass-produced” for students in lower grades. It was truly inspiring to see the passion for nature being instilled in the Philly Nature Kids!

Ranger Sean Brinninger teaching a school group about trees and how to identify them, June 2018. Photo: Nicole Stagg

Since we were staying in the great city of Philadelphia, we had to do some tourist activities! We started by getting Philly cheesesteaks at the Reading Market before walking downtown to see the Constitution Center, Liberty Bell, and other historical landmarks. At the Benjamin Franklin Museum, we saw how an old fashioned printing press works. We took plenty of pictures at each place we visited, but the best photo of the day was probably the one we took at Love Park.

Nicole and Justin at Love Park in Philadelphia, June 2018.

Next we took a trip through the heart of the northeast, driving through New York City and eventually winding up at Great Meadows NWR right outside of Boston. The most visited section of the refuge, the Concord Unit, is located just minutes away from historic locations such as Minuteman National Park and Walden Pond, which is famous for being the home of Henry David Thoreau while he wrote his book Walden.

We got to experience the annual River Fest at Great Meadows NWR, which is a large outreach program they hold at their headquarters location as part of a larger weeklong event hosted with several other organizations. Dozens upon dozens of people poured in to go fishing with their families as well as participate in other activities such as yoga, animal exhibits, singing, and painting. Rick Roth and the Cape Ann Vernal Pool Team took the stage at the end of the event, and we got to witness one of the best educational programs of our young lives, and made a long yellow friend in the process!

Justin and Nicole posing with a yellow burmese python at River Fest, June 2018. Photo: Nicole Stagg, Justin Gole

Justin had the opportunity to tag along for Blanding’s turtle nest monitoring and was lucky enough to witness one turtle’s egg laying efforts first hand. A night spent walking miles in search for these important four legged friends was well worth it, and the coolest part of this learning opportunity was relocating the eggs about a meter because they had been laid in an ant hill.

Blanding’s Turtle with tracking code on shell and freshly laid eggs, June 2018. Photos: Justin Gole

From Massachusetts, we drove south along the coast to Prime Hook NWR in Delaware. We were lucky enough to be staying two blocks from the ocean in Rehoboth Beach and spent many mornings and evenings on the sand. Justin got to spend his birthday, July 4th, baking like a crab on the seashore.

One of the primary user groups at Prime Hook were crabbers, and we managed to make many friends on lazy Delaware mornings sitting out at Fowler Beach. We watched many different techniques for catching crabs including: standard crab traps, fishing with chicken wings, and simply scooping them up in the current from the bridge.

Atlantic Blue Crab too small for harvest in the Fowler Beach parking lot at Prime Hook NWR, July 2018. Photo: Nicole Stagg

Perhaps the highlight of our time in Delaware was running into our old roommates from Blackwater NWR, Dan and Lindsay! They are part of the Rapid Demo team for the Saltmarsh Habitat & Avian Research Program (SHARP, https://www.tidalmarshbirds.org). We had spent a few days with them at Blackwater, and we managed to see them on first day at Prime Hook and then again the next morning as they were emerging from the marshes. The following day we got together with them and enjoyed some merriment at Dogfish Head Brewery.

Reunion at Dogfish Head Brewery, July 2018.
(from left) Chris Sayers, Dan Rochocinco, Justin Gole, Emily, Nicole Stagg, Lindsay Forrette
Photo: Lindsay Forrette

We will be visiting all of these refuges again starting in August with what we call our “Season of Repeats”. We can’t wait to see how these refuges will change while we are gone and we look forward to reuniting with the friends we have made. We are excited for our next batch of refuges and can’t wait to start the repeat season with our second visit to Great Meadows in our next blog!

 

Gators and Eagles and Bison, Oh My!

Gators and Eagles and Bison, Oh My!

By: Angelica Varela and Michelle Ferguson

The Road Warriors are back with our second round of four new refuges. We were excited to dive into these locations where the wildlife was a bit bigger than the little songbirds we’d become accustomed to. This stretch of visitor surveying took us down to Louisiana, up through Kansas and North Dakota and over to Michigan, adding roughly 3000 miles to our journey.


Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge

We were met with a large batch of southern hospitality at Big Branch Marsh NWR in Louisiana. Complete with a crawfish boil, coffee, and beignets, we quickly felt welcomed in. An ecosystem new to both of us, we were in awe of the Spanish moss decorating the marshland. One of the primary activities visitors enjoyed here on the refuge was kayaking. Early one Monday morning, we went kayaking for ourselves on the bayou out to Lake Pontchartrain. Belting Disney songs along the way, we turned around the riverbend and came face to face with the resident 12-foot American alligator, Joe. This was the furthest up the river anyone had seen him this season. The locals were all fairly calm and snapping photos as Joe sauntered past, while the two of us had utter shock painted across our faces. The rest of our of time in Louisiana we enjoyed exploring the French Quarter and Magazine Street in New Orleans, soaking up the rich historic culture before heading to the prairies of Kansas.

Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, May 21, 2018. Photo by: Kevin, Canoe and Trail Adventures

Kirwin National Wildlife Refuge

Kansas greeted us with beautiful rolling grasslands and some amazing wildlife. Our backyard was hustling and bustling with the familiar sound of the Bobwhite quail. Although the bunkhouse did not have TV or Wi-Fi, we found that our back porch was a much better alternative as we watched the white-tailed deer, ring-necked pheasants, and cottontails munch away in the prairies. We were also visited by a bull snake that lingered outside of our porch soaking up the sun during the day. The staff told us of some bald eagles that made residence at the wildlife refuge, so we kept our eyes to the sky in hopes of seeing such a prideful bird. After spending an afternoon driving around Kirwin Reservoir, we not only discovered the tree that was home to the bald eagle nests but also witnessed one eagle fly right over our car holding a fish in its talons!

Kirwin National Wildlife Refuge, June 4, 2018. Photo by: Angelica Varela

Belted Kingfisher looking over Kirwin Reservoir, Kirwin National Wildlife Refuge. June 7, 2018. Photo by: Michelle Ferguson

Sullys Hill National Game Preserve

We quickly fell in love with Sullys Hill NGP as we drove in the first day and found that the bison had been waiting for us to arrive. The herd had four new calves with them, which we learned are called “red dogs.” We grew awfully fond of the herd, making sure to go through the wildlife drive each evening to say goodnight to our bison friends as well as the elk, pelicans, and prairie dogs. Seriously, we drove it every night, 14 days in a row. We were not the only ones who were fond saying goodnight to the refuge wildlife, many of the the visitors we encountered during our evening sampling shifts also drove through the refuge after work to say their farewells. We enjoyed watching the sun set over the rolling plains around Devils Lake; North Dakota had some of the best sunsets we’ve seen on our journey thus far. When we weren’t sampling for the visitor survey, we discovered fun places to visit around the area, including the Geological Center of North America in Rugby, ND. We also stepped into Canada for a few hours and spent an afternoon enjoying the International Peace Gardens.

Bison herd at Sullys Hill National Game Preserve, June 15, 2018. Photo by: Angelica Varela

Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge

On our drive to Shiawassee NWR in Michigan, we decided to make a much needed rest stop in Duluth, Minnesota. We enjoyed the cool air and the pine trees along Lake Superior, and stretched our legs by touring around the Lake Superior Maritime Museum. It poured rain for our first 24 hours at Shiawassee. We took a driving tour around the wildlife refuge, an activity most visitors we met partook in here. Fawns, muskrats, and goslings were out, thankful for the wet weather. Cass River was one of our visitor sampling locations for our project, and on the 4th of July after a morning of surveying we got the chance to be visitors ourselves. To celebrate the holiday the refuge staff invited us onto a boat on the Cass River where we watched the fireworks display sparkle above us. We also participated in the refuge’s family backyard day event where the community came out to explore Shiawassee NWR.

Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge, June 29, 2018. Photo By: Michelle Ferguson

It is humbling the places we have gotten to visit so far for this project, and to see how vastly different the ecosystems are in each refuge we work. From alligators and pheasants to bison and eagles, we are getting a chance to see everything the National Wildlife Refuge System has to offer. With the diversity of each refuge, we’ve found they are each united by adventurous visitors, many of whom have graciously participated in our survey efforts and have been a joy to talk to. We are excited to let you into our world so stay tuned for more fun and unique adventures.

From yours truly,

Angelica Varela and Michelle Ferguson, Road Warriors

Behind the Scenes at Wildlife Refuges

Behind the Scenes at Wildlife Refuges

By: Kylie Campbell and James Puckett

Growing up we both spent lots of time at wildlife refuges, and always had the impression that these areas were largely left to function on their own with little human intervention. The first two months of our cross country tour of the National Wildlife Refuge System have opened our eyes to how wrong we were!  We’ve had the pleasure of serving alongside staff members “behind the scenes” at multiple refuges and we are proud of how we’ve helped wildlife and improved visitors’ experiences on the refuges. The wide array of management strategies that we’ve seen have changed our perspectives dramatically and given us a deeper appreciation for the hard work that refuge staff puts in for the benefit of communities and wildlife.

The first refuge we visited was Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Minnesota. This refuge is home to a diversity of species from beavers and muskrats to herons and sandhill cranes. At Sherburne we got our first glimpse at how important public lands are to the communities around them. One couple was particularly memorable; they visited the refuge almost every day that we were out sampling and they were so excited to share their favorite memories and photos of the refuge with us.

James surveys a visitor at Sherburne NWR. The prairie on the right side of the road shows evidence of the recent prescribed fire while the left side of the road shows how quickly plants regenerate after an earlier burn. May 2018. Photo by: Kylie Campbell

When we arrived at Sherburne NWR, refuge staff was just finishing a prescribed burn. It was fascinating to learn about the benefits of fire and rewarding to share this knowledge with curious visitors. It was astounding to see how fast the plants grew back in just the two week period that we spent there. The prescribed burns help maintain the native Oak Savannah habitat that has been diminished from 50 million acres prior to European settlement to less than 30,000 acres currently. Restoring this fire-dependent habitat is critically important for many endangered and threatened species. Fire is key to these restoration efforts because it opens up the canopy and removes invasive species. We learned that after refuge staff burns an area, they often reseed it with native wildflower seeds to help restore prairie habitat. We never would have guessed the level of planning and management that goes into these systems!

Also at Sherburne, we were able to shadow the biologist while he did rounds to check the water levels and adjust the water control structures as needed in various pools across the refuge. We learned how different bird species and their food sources need precise water levels, and laughed with the biologist when he described how beavers often disagree with the water management plans and attempt to dam up the water control structures.

Views and 4-legged visitors at Portland-Vancouver refuges. June 2018. Photos by: Kylie Campbell

While all refuges are unique, something all of them have shared is the deep connections that visitors make to these spaces: we met a woman at Ridgefield NWR in Portland, OR who truly embodied this connection. She spent a while talking with us and she got emotional when she discussed how blessed she feels to be able to experience the wildlife at the refuge, from playful river otters to magnificent bald eagles. Her genuine gratitude was heartwarming and really opened our eyes to how the refuge system connects people to the natural world. Tualatin River NWR, also in Portland, is a great example of the importance of refuges to people in the area. It’s creation began with a grassroots effort in the community, when the people in the area recognized how quickly their open spaces were being developed. In 1990 a local citizen proposed the creation of a wildlife refuge, and the refuge was created two years later when a couple donated the first 12 acres of land to USFWS. The public continues to be heavily involved in the restoration efforts at Tualatin River NWR.

We worked alongside a team of volunteers at Dungeness NWR to trap and remove invasive European Green crabs. July 2018.

The third refuge that we visited in the Portland area was Steigerwald Lake NWR. The behind the scenes work at this refuge is still in the planning process, but will dramatically improve habitat for salmon and other wildlife once completed. Currently, the refuge is separated from the Columbia River by a large dike. Refuge staff are planning to breach part of this dike and restore connections between the Columbia River and its floodplain to improve habitat. It sure will be exciting to visit this refuge in the future and see how wildlife responds to these improvements!

While working on invasive green crab removal we spotted a Giant Pacific Octopus washed up in the mudflats. July 2018.

Across the refuges that we have visited we have been astounded by the effort that volunteers put in to help support the refuge. Without the hardworking hands of refuge volunteers, many refuge programs and projects would not be possible. In fact, a staff member at Dungeness NWR told us that last year their group of volunteers contributed enough hours to equal the time of five full time staff members.

It has been an amazing learning experience to understand and help with all of the different projects that go on behind the scenes in the National Wildlife Refuge System. Our experiences have shown us that management actually has a large role in ensuring that habitat is ideal for a diverse range of wildlife species and we’re looking forward to learning more as we visit more refuges!

Kylie Campbell

USFWS NWR Visitor Survey Intern

Kylie is recent Virginia Tech graduate with a passion for public land conservation and outdoor recreation. Kylie Campbell grew up playing in the streams on her family’s farm in Virginia, and this lifelong interest in water inspired her to pursue a degree in Water: Resources, Management, and Policy. Kylie aims to use her degree to understand and protect America’s water resources through a career in public service.

James Puckett

USFWS NWR Visitor Survey Intern

James Puckett is a also a recent Virginia Tech graduate. He is an avid outdoorsman and spends all his free time outdoors. He grew up on the tidal wetlands of North Carolina experiencing wildlife within estuaries. He studied Political Science and has two minors in Environmental Policy and Planning and Public Urban Affairs. He hopes to implement long lasting policies to improve natural areas and to protect nature for future generations to come.

As the Birds Fly

As the Birds Fly

by: Justin Gole & Nicole Stagg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Justin Gole

USFWS NWR Visitor Survey Intern

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

Nicole Stagg

USFWS NWR Visitor Survey Intern

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

Road Warriors

Road Warriors

By: Michelle Ferguson and Angelica Varela

Hello! And welcome to our first blog. We have logged thousands of miles so far in our journey and we’ve only just begun! Join us road warriors as we drive across the states, jumping head first into new rhythms at every refuge.

Night one on the road we spent our evening camping under the stars in Moab before driving to Desert National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) near Las Vegas, Nevada. A rainstorm welcomed us to Las Vegas, and the refreshing scent of creosote hung in the air. A smell quite familiar to us Southwest gals, we were grateful our first refuge felt close to home. One night at Desert, we grabbed our headlamps and trekked along muddy cattails under the moonlight surveying the endangered relict leopard frog with researcher Rebecca Rivera from University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Rebecca works to restore populations of relict leopard frogs in their historic range. After a few weeks of seeing more lizards, Cooper’s hawks, and burrowing owls than visitors, we traded our hiking boots for flip-flops and headed to the beach.

Desert National Wildlife Refuge, March 2018. Photos: Michelle Ferguson

San Diego welcomed us with kind hearts and a glorious amount of tacos. We also got a taste of the challenges that urban refuges face while working at San Diego and San Diego Bay NWRs. There is a continuous battle with misused trails and graffiti, and the staff’s tenacity when it came to maintaining their refuge grounds was impressive.
After long days of visitor surveying, we came home to our groovy hostel two blocks from the Pacific Ocean, enjoying evenings around the bonfire teaching our new international friends how to make s’mores. April 15th, toes in the sand, we watched our final sunset on the west coast before an early start the next morning with a long drive to Marble Falls, TX.

San Diego Bay NWR, April 2018. Photo: Angelica Varela.

Taking a 180-degree turn from living in San Diego, where the hang loose beach lifestyle echoed in the streets below our window all night, we landed in a quiet 1960’s ranch house at Balcones Canyonlands NWR. Located in Texas Hill Country, our stay was peaceful with no neighbors or Wi-Fi for miles.

During our second week of sampling at Balcones Canyonlands, we were extremely fortunate to see the Golden-Cheeked Warbler flying above our sampling spot. The Golden-Cheeked Warbler is an endangered species that only nests in the oak-juniper woodlands of Texas. This wildlife interaction was considerably more favorable than the encounters with our red wasp, wolf spider and Texas redheaded centipede roommates.

Balcones Canyonlands NWR. Warbler Vista Observation Deck, April 2018. Photo: Michelle Ferguson.

After travelling from Texas across the Midwest, we sat on the edge of West Virginia with our back porch looking out across Ohio River Islands NWR. Here we learned all about freshwater mussels’ life cycle and the lures they display to attract fish. While most of the refuge staff focused on the “May is Mussel Month” initiatives, one staff member was eager to teach us local bird song mnemonics, the most memorable of which were the barred owl song, “who cooks for you, who cooks for you all!” and the eastern towhee’s call, “drink your teeeeea!” To this day, we sing along with them when we hear their cries.
Our last evening in town brought in thunderstorms. Afterward, the refuge manager scooped us up to hike through the backwoods behind our apartment. We stumbled upon a twinkling array of fireflies under a low, moonlit canopy still dripping from the rainfall.

Ohio River Islands NWR, May 2018. Photo: Michelle Ferguson.

Promethea Moth at Ohio River Islands NWR, May 2018. Photo: Michelle Ferguson.

Although working with the public sometimes results in uncomfortable or negative interactions, we have found ourselves most uplifted by an unexpected piece of the job. Among our travels for survey sampling, we have the opportunity to get to know many remarkable women in science at each refuge we have visited. In a male-dominated field, we stand at every refuge with females who are holding their ground: researchers, biologists, fire dispatchers, and managers to name a few. These women are leaders. They have shown us to stand strong as females in conservation careers. As two aspiring women in the environmental sciences, we have felt immense inspiration from the women on our journey. The phrase, ‘I wish I had something like this when I was growing up,’ is something we hear often. We are humbled to know that these women helped pave the trail we chose to walk on. Encouraged by these women, we are getting our chance to lay yet another layer on this rough trail to make it easier for future women in science to hike upon. We are grateful to know we walk among and behind hard-working women in our careers and we are grateful for the opportunity American Conservation Experience has given us to meet them.

Michelle Ferguson

USFWS NWR Visitor Survey Intern

I’m Michelle, a Colorado native and recent graduate from Northern Arizona University with my masters in Environmental Sciences and Policy. I’m interested in the human dimensions of natural resources, and using social science to inform conservation work. Specifically, I am interested in the balance of meeting human needs without compromising ecological resources.

Angelica Varela

USFWS NWR Visitor Survey Intern

I’m Angelica. I grew up in the harsh Sonoran desert of Arizona. I received my undergrad in Biological Science at Arizona State University and I hope to pursue my masters soon. I am interested in birds, specifically raptors, and hope to work with them one day.

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