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Exposed to the Elements

Exposed to the Elements

By: Lindsey Broadhead and Paul List

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.

Saddle Mountain fishermen hold two Chinook salmon caught from the Columbia (Photo by: Lindsey Broadhead)

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.

A view of the Columbia River White Bluffs boat launch (Photo by: Paul List)

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.

American bison at Wichita Mountains NWR (Photo by: Lindsey Broadhead)

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.

Paul and Lindsey with Miahna, a fellow intern at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge (Photo by: Miahna Corella)

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.

View of the Wasatch range from the auto tour at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge (Photo by: Lindsey Broadhead)

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.

Paul and Lindsey ready to help visitors make tracks (Photo by: Kathi Stopher)

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.

Conclusion

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.

East Bound and Down

East Bound and Down

By: Caroline Brown and Julia Guay

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.

A silly bison from Fort Niobrara NWR. Photo by Caroline Brown.

Clarks River

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!

Walking Path at Clarks River NWR. Photo by Julia Guay.

Mason Neck

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.

Sunset on the Potomac River from EH Mason Neck NWR. Photo by Caroline Brown.

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.

Enjoying a sunny day spent surveying. Photo by Caroline Brown.

Ch-ch-ch-changes!

Ch-ch-ch-changes!

By: Ben Schian and Jess Michalski

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

Bald Knob NWR has one of the most intricate water systems to manage waterways for waterfowl. (Photo by: Jess Michalski)

 

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

At the Cuddo Unit’s wildlife drive, days went by without seeing any American Alligators, until one day that changed- and we saw this +12 foot alligator! (Photo by Ben Schian)

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.

Sunset through the forests at Santee NWR. (Photo by: Jess Michalski)

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

Imagine all the changes this tree at Bull Island (>1,000 years old) has seen! (Photo by Ben Schian)

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.

Hoping that the population of these red wolves will change for the better! (Photo by Ben Schian)

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!

Best friends, travel buddies and partners during a sampling shift, let us survey you!

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.

Summer on the Water

Summer on the Water

By: Konner Magnuson and Andy Lisak

Upper Mississippi NWR – Winona District

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

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

Waccamaw NWR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Cape May NWR

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tales from the Mississippi River

Tales from the Mississippi River

By: Konner Magnuson and Andy Lisak

Trempealeau NWR

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

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

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

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

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

Upper Mississippi River NWR – Savanna District

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

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

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

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

Upper Mississippi River NWR – McGregor District

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

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

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

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

Upper Mississippi River NWR – La Crosse District

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

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

Coastal Adventures

Coastal Adventures

By: Erin Tague and Tom Kelly

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wild, Wild West

The Wild, Wild West

By: Mandi Ganje and Megan Schneider

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

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


Umatilla NWR

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

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

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

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

McNary NWR

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Sweet Southern Living

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

By: Dan Shahar and Amelia Liberatore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erin and Tom, Lake LaGoons

Lake LaGoons

By: Erin Tague and Tom Kelly

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


Wapanocca NWR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great Dismal Swamp NWR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clouds or Mountains?

Clouds or Mountains?

By: Mandi Ganje and Megan Schneider

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

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


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

National Elk Refuge

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

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

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

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

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

Columbia NWR

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

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

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

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

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

Sacramento River NWR

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dan and Amelia’s Most Awesome FWS Adventure

Dan & Amelia’s Most Awesome FWS Adventure

By: Dan Shahar and Amelia Liberatore

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


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

Bill Williams River NWR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita Mountains NWR

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Bon Secour NWR

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fond Memories and Final Reflections

Fond Memories and Final Reflections

By: Kylie Campbell and James Puckett

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


Loess Bluffs NWR

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

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

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

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

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

Tennessee NWR

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

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

J.N. Ding Darling NWR

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee NWR

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

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

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

Mattamuskeet NWR

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

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

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

Oh The Places We Go!

Oh The Places We Go!

By: Michelle Ferguson and Angelica Varela

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


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

San Diego NWR and San Diego Bay NWR

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

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

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

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

Canaan Valley NWR

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

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

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

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

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

Tennessee NWR

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

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

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

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

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

Winter Migration

Winter Migration

By: Justin Gole and Nicole Stagg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Falling Into Winter

Falling Into Winter

By: Angelica Varela and Michelle Ferguson

Hello readers! As the warm fall colors of Oregon waved goodbye, in a blink of an eye we found ourselves at Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually NWR in Washington. We also drove to Sherburne NWR in Minnesota and Kirwin NWR in Kansas where winter was waiting to give us a chilly embrace.

Kirwin NWR. November 2018. Photo by Michelle Ferguson.


Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually NWR

Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually NWR. October 2018. Photo by Michelle Ferguson.

Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually NWR is a breathtaking refuge in Olympia, Washington, where the big leaf maple tree stands tall, dropping leaves as large as our faces. When we arrived at the refuge near the Puget Sound, fall colors were in full effect, covering the boardwalk trail in hues of red, orange, and yellow — the perfect time to capture the autumn season in one swoop (we both have too many cliche pictures of leaves…but who’s to say what’s too many).

Sampling at this refuge was particularly fun. The visitors we talked to were very kind, enjoying the charismatic wildlife on the refuge such as minks, river otters, and green tree frogs who love to chirp in the rain. During one survey shift at Luhr Boat Launch, we saw what looked to be a dog swimming in the Nisqually River Delta. This was not a far fetched idea considering most visitors here were waterfowl hunting and had dogs to help them retrieve their quarry. We kept staring at this dog-like creature, but it wasn’t until the animal dove back into the water, revealing its spotted body, that we realized it was a harbor seal! Needless to say, we were both super excited to see this unsuspecting visitor.

Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually NWR. Nisqually Estuary Boardwalk Trail. Photo by Michelle Ferguson.

We were grateful for the staff who welcomed us with open arms and gave us the full refuge experience. Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually was full of hands-on opportunities. We joined two other AmeriCorps interns on an Oregon plant ID walk where we learned about Tall Oregon Grape, Western Red Cedar, and Lady Fern, to name a few. We also helped with the refuge education program, catching invertebrates for a second grade class. Every Wednesday the refuge also hosts an early morning bird walk that we tagged along on. Angelica’s only mission was to see the short eared owl that every visitor told her about during survey shifts. Just as we were about to give up, one of the more experienced birders found the beautiful owl and we got to watch it hunt. Another wildlife highlight! The short eared owl is often seen hunting during the day.

Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually NWR. Michelle sorting invertebrates for an educational program. Photo by Angelica Varela.

Sherburne NWR

Leaving the fall colors in Washington, we drove across the country and arrived to a wintery landscape in Minnesota at Sherburne NWR. Minnesota greeted us with the first snowfall of the season. The snow and below freezing temperatures did not keep native Minnesotans away from the outdoors. Once again the hunters become the hunted; outfitted in blaze orange, armed with our survey iPads and very cute stickers, we made friends with the unsuspecting deer hunters.

In Minnesota we were warmly welcomed and invited to join Sherburne’s volunteer social. With the sky still dark early in the morning we drove behind the refuge’s new Oak Savanna Learning Center to watch sandhill cranes leave their roosts at sunrise. Thousands of cranes find solace in the wetland habitat on the refuge. We were in awe as we listened to their prehistoric calls echo across the sky. On another cool morning, we bundled up, grabbed binoculars and tagged along with the refuge biologist to assist with crane counts. The refuge tracks crane numbers as they migrate to Florida; on the day we assisted, numbers peaked with 11,194 sandhill cranes! Before leaving the wintery midwest we also enjoyed a frosty hike on Sherburne’s 5 mile Blue Hill Trail. Visitors fondly spoke of this hike and we were delighted to experience it for ourselves, especially happy to stumble from oak savanna into the “Enchanted Forest.” Pine trees were planted there to alleviate effects of the dust bowl in the thirties to help establish the soils. We then followed the Snowflake path back down to Kirwin, Kansas to sample more friendly hunters!

Sherburne NWR. Angelica helps count migrating sandhill cranes. Photo by Michelle Ferguson.


Sherburne NWR volunteer social crane viewing event. Photo by Jessica Nelson.

Sherburne NWR. Photo by Angelica Varela.

Kirwin NWR

A familiar refuge in a new season, we were glad to work with staff at Kirwin NWR again. Similar to Minnesota, Kansas was full swing into hunting season. Visitors here primarily were out hunting pheasants, waterfowl, and deer. The hunters were up early so we were too. The early morning drives to our sampling sites were full of funny critters scurrying along, including deer, a badger, and the occasional skunk. One New York native was excited to learn of our willingness to see a freshly killed pheasant he had shot. We admired the birds’ rainbow plumage as we learned about this hunter’s experience on the refuge. Among pheasants, bucks, and hawks, this time of year Kirwin NWR is also flooded with snow geese. One evening out surveying, the geese made their way over our heads, and the flock was so large it blocked out the sun. Two visitors drove into the refuge that evening simply to watch the peaceful swirling vortex of the geese, an event most visitors called a tornado. Our last day in Kirwin we woke up to a winter wonderland as a blizzard blew through overnight coating the refuge in a fresh blanket of snow.

Kirwin NWR. Snow geese circling above Kirwin Reservoir. Photo by Michelle Ferguson.

We said farewell to the snowstorm in Kansas and drove west to warm beachy rays on the California coast. Stay tuned for our final adventures as national visitor survey interns as we wrap up our program with three final refuges!

Kirwin NWR: A Blizzard was brewing. Photo by Angelica Varela.

Lessons from the Hunt

Lessons from the Hunt

By: Kylie Campbell and James Puckett

We have spent the past two months following snow geese along the Central Flyway and surveying hunters of all types. This leg of our journey provided us with fodder for many introspective moments. Our previous perspectives about hunting were changed for the better and we discovered a new passion to pursue in the future. Read on to learn along with us as we travel from the Midwest, south to Texas, and back again!


Loess Bluffs NWR
On our way west towards Loess Bluffs NWR we kept our eyes peeled for eagles soaring through the sky, knowing that we were about to reach the winter home of one of the largest bald eagle concentrations in the country. Once we reached the refuge in Missouri, we learned that there was a lot going on in addition to the eagles! We first met with the refuge manager, Lindsey Landowski, and she explained that fall migration was in full swing and waterfowl was plentiful across the refuge. Snow geese, Canadian geese, pelicans, swans, mallards, and other ducks were a few of the species that we observed. Towards the end of our time at Loess Bluffs NWR we got to see thousands of snow geese land in the pools to rest every day. These charismatic birds would remain a common sight and sound for this leg of our journey!

A visitor enjoys birdwatching on a boardwalk at Loess Bluffs NWR. November 2018. Photo by Kylie Campbell.

Lindsey also helped us pronounce the name of the refuge, which was originally known as Squaw Creek NWR. The name was changed to Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge on January 11, 2017, in order to remove the derogatory word “squaw” from the name. Ironically, the creek that flows through the northern end of the refuge is still named Squaw Creek, but the southern side flowing out of the refuge is named Davis Creek.

Overlooking the refuge from the east, the loess bluffs habitat is a unique geological formation of fine silt deposited by wind. The sandy soil of the bluffs erodes easily which makes it interesting considering how long the formations have been there! These unique hills stretch from about 30 miles south of St. Joseph, Missouri, to extreme northern Iowa. Loess, pronounced “luss,” soils support Missouri’s native prairie plants such as Indian grass, big bluestem, blazing star, yucca, beard-tongue, and skeleton plant. On the refuge, however, large trees were planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps while the refuge was being built. While these trees provided an absolutely beautiful display of fall colors, they are not necessarily native and the refuge is actively trying to restore native plants back to the Loess Hills.

A scenic fall view of Eagle Pool from high up in the loess bluffs. November 2018. Photo by Kylie Campbell.

While samping at this refuge we were able to observe a managed deer hunt for mobility impaired individuals. This hunt was the beginning of a lesson that we’d continue to learn as we traveled to our next refuges. Perhaps one of the most eye opening things that we’ve learned through this internship is the benefits that hunting provides; we have gained a much deeper awareness and appreciation for the conservation ethic of America’s sportsmen and women. While sampling at Loess Bluffs, we were asked many times by visitors why hunting was was allowed in a place where animals seek refuge. With our new appreciation of hunting, we answered that hunting is used as a wildlife management tool and oftentimes results in healthier populations. Hunting limits crop damage, curtails disease outbreaks, and helps balance wildlife populations with what the land can support.

Our respect for hunting grew as we sampled the hunters themselves; every single person was very thankful to have accessible public land to hunt on, and we realized that most are even stronger conservationists than birders and hikers are. In one way or another, almost all hunters say that they hunt in order to experience nature directly as a participant, not simply a spectator. We were drawn to this philosophy because we have seen first hand how much more money hunters place into conservation efforts than other users of wildlife refuges. This hunt gives an opportunity for those who have a deep appreciation of the outdoors, but who might not get to enjoy it otherwise, to continue to express their rights and use public lands.

Kirwin NWR

We traveled from northern Missouri to western Kansas, where we encountered many more snow geese resting in the Kirwin Reservoir at Kirwin NWR. Perhaps these geese traveled from Loess Bluffs and followed our truck to Kirwin. Our time in Kansas was brief, but enlightening. We learned more lessons about hunting and were even inspired to take up a new hobby! We went to Kirwin specifically to sample visitors during the opening weekend of pheasant season, and it sure did look like fun! Large groups all work together with their dogs to flush out the beautiful birds. Despite long, cold days, everyone we talked with was having a blast. We ended up mailing a toy pheasant to our dog back home in hopes that maybe we can train her to love hunting!

Pheasant hunters and their canine best friends relish in their first kills of the season. November 2018. Photo by Kylie Campbell.

Much like the hunters we spoke with at Loess Bluffs, the groups out hunting at Kirwin all had a deep appreciation for the outdoors. A unique economic impact these hunters have on the local economy was not at the refuge itself but instead in the local town of Kirwin. As refuge staff explained to us, several of the properties in the town have been abandoned and had not paid property taxes for numerous years. Hunters from all over the country who come hunt at the refuge year after year have chosen to buy local properties to use as their hunting cabins. This was a great example of how healthy wildlife populations, and the hunters who are attracted to them, can bring income into an area with few other economic opportunities. Before this experience, we didn’t have much of an understanding about hunting and didn’t see how the activity can really benefit wildlife and local communities in the long term. Now, we have met people in camo from all over the country and have realized that they are some of the friendliest visitors we get to talk with. It also showed us that a struggling town can be revitalized with money brought in from hunters.

Duck hunter poses with the birds he harvested on Kirwin NWR. November 2018. Photo by Kylie Campbell.

While pheasant hunting was definitely the most common activity on the refuge, archery deer hunting and duck hunting were also popular. Even with temperatures below freezing, we still found many people using the refuge to hunt. The deer in this part of Kansas were top class, and we heard from multiple people that the refuge offers some of the best deer hunting in the country. We saw multiple bucks with huge racks chasing does. The state and refuge are able to make a significant amount of money off of the licenses and permits for hunters who come from as far as Maryland and New York.

We also learned that some hunters will donate their deer meat to people in need. Since the bucks in the Kirwin area have such impressive racks, some hunters are only interested in keeping their big trophy. To prevent the meat from being wasted, local food banks will accept the deer meat and then provide local families in need with both meat and recipe books that teach them how to prepare the nutritious food.

Hagerman NWR

After the bitter chill that we experienced at Kirwin, the sunny warmth of Hagerman NWR was a warm welcome. Hagerman NWR is located on a branch of Lake Texoma, a reservoir of the Red River along the border of Texas and Oklahoma. A management priority for this refuge is to provide food and places to rest for our old friends the snow geese. To do this, the refuge plants wheat fields; unfortunately, there were two major floods that destroyed the crops.The refuge typically would have a few thousand snow geese migrating from up north every day, but as soon as they saw that no food was available they wouldn’t stick around long. We arrived just as the waters were receding and the wildlife drive opened in time to sample visitors. The flooding provided an interesting lesson in how different land management agencies sometimes have conflicting priorities. The refuge had no control over the level of the water in the reservoir because the dam is controlled by the Army Corp of Engineers. While the refuge may have preferred to keep the reservoir levels lower to protect their wheat crop, the Army Corps is obligated to ensure that flooding of downstream areas is controlled.

A flock of snow geese takes a short rest stop at Hagerman NWR. November 2018. Photo by Kylie Campbell.

Another interesting management challenge was the presence of oil and gas extraction on the refuge. When the refuge was established, the federal government didn’t acquire the mineral rights so private companies still have the right to continue oil and gas operations on refuge lands. Dozens of oil pumps were a foreign sight in such an otherwise beautiful ecosystem, but the wildlife seemed to ignore the industrial sights and sounds.

Our lessons in hunting culture continued down in Texas: we observed two separate bow hunts for deer on the refuge while sampling. Each hunt had 50 hunters who had to apply months in advance and win a spot through a lottery system. We helped man the hunter check station and interacted with all 100 of the hunters. The ethic of conservation was the same as those in other parts of the country: everyone we interacted with had a deep appreciation for nature and public lands. We’ve realized that hunting is a healthy way to connect with nature and eat some of the most organic, lean, free-range meat. We were inspired to research a little more about deer hunting and we learned that an 11% tax on guns, ammo, bows and arrows generates $371 million a year for conservation 1. This is a great example of how people can “vote with their dollar” and again demonstrates that consumptive users often spend more money on conservation than non-consumptive users. This money has supported conservation efforts that allow whitetail deer populations to grow. In 1900, only 500,000 whitetails remained and today there are more than 32 million. We have learned a lot about the legacy of hunting in America and why it is so important to many families. We have been inspired by all that we have learned and want to pursue hunting as a hobby of our own in the future!

A deer hunter poses with his buck at Hagerman NWR. November 2018. Photo by: James Puckett.

This leg of our journey provided us with multiple opportunities to make connections and reflect on what we’ve learned throughout our internship. We have found it so interesting that although each refuge has its own unique habitats, we can often view the same species in so many different states. Through interactions with all types of visitors, we have realized that conservationists come in many forms. In particular, our interactions with hunters have thoroughly changed the preconceived notions we had about hunting and we hope to join this special group of people in the future!

Sources
1. Southwick Associates. (2013). America’s Sporting Heritage: Fueling the American Economy.
http://www.sportsmenslink.org/uploads/page/Economic_Impact_Report_E-version.pdf

Same Faces in New Places

Same Faces in New Places

By: Justin Gole and Nicole Stagg

We are at the end of our “repeat season” and have started to visit some new places again! It has been exciting to run into people we met earlier in the year in different places and we are eager to share our experiences with you!


We returned to the Ocean State for round two at Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). We were welcomed back by Visitor Services Manager Janice Nepshinsky and reintroduced to our old friend and intern Christina Seymour who we lived next door to during our last stay at the refuge! This time we boarded in the same trailer as Christina, and we had a blast hanging out with her.

Monarch caterpillars hanging out on milkweed along the Oceanview Trail at Sachuest Point NWR. September 2018. Photo by Nicole Stagg.

The possibility of Hurricane Florence hung over our head the entirety of our stay, and we also dealt with E. coli contamination in the greater South Kingstown area where we were housed. We had to boil our water before using it and were on alert to evacuate if the hurricane changed direction towards us, but we did not let that get in the way of having a great time!

Waves at Second Beach during the flood tide at Sachuest Point NWR. September 2018. Photo by Nicole Stagg.

Christina reintroduced Justin to rock climbing and Justin repaid the favor by leading nightly yoga on the various platforms around Trustom Pond NWR where we stayed. We also took advantage of a beautiful night to grab dinner and all three of us headed to the beach to watch the ocean waves for a clear and peaceful Rhode Island evening.

Adventurous Justin also went on a road trip to hike in the Presidential Mountains in New Hampshire. His old friend Eric was stationed in Groton, Connecticut, and the two managed to make the hike to the top of Mount Washington to enjoy the beautiful views and sunset!

Justin at the top of Mt. Washington. September 2018. Photo by Eric Zandstra.

We were sad to leave this beautiful coastal area. As was tradition all summer driving through New York, Justin played “New York State of Mind” by Billy Joel as we crossed the Hudson River and headed to Philadelphia!

We arrived at John Heinz NWR to be welcomed back by Visitor Services Manager David Stoughton and Brianna Patrick. While refuge operations in Rhode Island were interrupted by the possible hurricane, there was almost no rest while at John Heinz and we were more than glad to stay busy the whole time!

John Heinz’s staff wrote down the reasons they loved their volunteers on this awesome banner which was displayed at the Volunteer Banquet. September 2018. Photo by Nicole Stagg.

Our first weekend in Philadelphia was headlined by the Volunteer Banquet where we were lucky enough to meet the countless refuge volunteers and friends group members who support the refuge. It was an honor to get to watch the award ceremony and play refuge trivia with all the volunteers. After dinner we helped visitor services employee Sean Binninger set up for the last movie night of the summer, “Birders: The Central Park Effect,” which we watched with a mix of refuge volunteers and visitors!

Staff Wingyi Kung and SCA intern Jake Kauffman feeding down branches and debris through a wood chipper at John Heinz NWR. September 2018. Photo by Nicole Stagg.

Next we turned our attention towards preparing for an upcoming event. We spent a day doing trail maintenance with the entire refuge staff. The well oiled machine of people was headlined by Refuge Manager Lamar Gore working with a chainsaw. Almost a dozen refuge employees and Student Conservation Association interns worked to put debris through a wood chipper to get the trails cleaned up for the next weekend.

Justin at the beginning of the Monarch 5K at the first National Urban Wildlife Refuge Day at John Heinz NWR. September 2018. Photo by Nicole Stagg.

AmeriCorp intern Madilyn Schwer, Nicole, and SCA intern Colleen Quinn at National Urban Wildlife Refuge Day at John Heinz NWR. September 2018. Photo by Justin Gole.

We did all this trail maintenance to prepare for the first ever National Urban Wildlife Refuge Day. The day started with the inaugural Monarch 5K in which Justin placed 8th. He finished a few spots behind Department of the Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary Aurelia Skipwith, who was the headline speaker for the event. The day was full of fishing, archery, mussel surveys, planting of native plants and kayaking to celebrate the first urban refuge on this first National Urban Wildlife Refuge Day!

A caravan of waterfowl hunters coming in for the day at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area. October 2018. Photo by Nicole Stagg.

After our last stop in the Northeast, we reported to Ottawa NWR for our second visit, and Nicole got her first feeling of what fall is like in the north. We met with Visitor Services Manager Justin Woldt again and got to learn about how waterfowl hunting works at the refuge. This was our first sampling period during a hunting season, so it was an exciting change of pace to get to talk to a new type of user!

Kids learning about hunting blinds and duck decoys at the Youth Waterfowl Workshop at Ottawa NWR. October 2018. Photo by Nicole Stagg.

Ottawa hosts a Youth Waterfowl Workshop every year where kids all over the state can learn about, and often experience, waterfowl hunting for the first time! The event is free and the kids get to walk away with all sorts of cool gear and a memorable experience. Nicole surveyed parents during this event and got to learn more about hunting and duck identification. The coolest thing was getting to try fresh grilled goose for the first time!

The spoils of the hunt at the Youth Waterfowl Workshop. This young hunter hit his limit and was designated the “sharpshooter” of the event! October 2018. Photo by Nicole Stagg.

The second week Gabe Jimenez, an intern from Shiawassee NWR, came to stay with us and help at the Youth Waterfowl Workshop. We will be visiting the refuge he works at next month so we hope to see him again! A few days after he left, our friend Christina Seymour from Rhode Island stopped through on her way out west to go rock climbing. We all drank tea and talked about the fun we had back in Rhode Island and how small the refuge system makes the country seem!

The last weekend we got to help hand out candy at the Apple Festival Parade. The refuge had a float that volunteers helped put together, and we walked with a mixture of volunteers and employees. It was a blast to get to be a part of the refuge family for this fun annual parade in Oak Harbor, Ohio.

Ottawa NWR’s float for the Oak Harbor Apple Festival Parade. October 2018. Photo by Nicole Stagg.

On the way to our next refuge, we had a longer than normal trip. Not only was the distance farther, but we also stopped along the way in Casey, Illinois, where beating world records is an everyday occurrence. After stopping to see the World’s Largest Wind Chime, we went on to spend our first night camping since April!

Justin ringing the World’s Largest Wind Chime. October 2018. Photo by Nicole Stagg.

The next morning we drove the rest of the way to Cache River NWR in Arkansas. We met Project Leader Keith Weaver for a brief introduction to the refuge before heading to the bunkhouse and a reunion with intern Matt Seija, who we knew from Okefenokee NWR.. The next morning we toured the refuge with longtime maintenance employee Billy Culbreath. On top of getting to see the refuge with a local, we also got to eat catfish and buffalo fish caught in the Cache River at White’s Fish Market!

While at Ottawa we primarily ran into waterfowl hunters, but the majority of visitors at Cache River were deer hunting. This was the first refuge where we did not have a single refusal as all the visitors were warm and welcoming!

We also got right into the fall spirit by going to Pebbles Farm and finding our way through a corn maze. We picked up pumpkins on the way out of the maze and carved them the next night.

Nicole, Matt Siega, Justin, and a volunteer for the photo at Pebbles Farm, October 2018.

Saying goodbye to Matt was as hard as saying goodbye to all our other friends and all the places we’ve called home so far this year, but we are excited to head to Justin’s home state of Michigan and our next stop where “It’s Cool to Care About Fish and Wildlife!”

Justin’s “It’s Cool to Care About Fish & Wildlife” pumpkin, October 2018. Photo by Nicole Stagg.

On the Oregon Trail

On the Oregon Trail

By: Michelle Ferguson and Angelica Varela

As we said our final goodbyes to Texas and the ranch house that stood high on a hill, we made our way to Kearney, Nebraska, then followed the Oregon Trail along I-80 west to the Pacific. At this set of refuges, we learned more about various management projects that refuges take on in efforts to restore beneficial ecosystems. We also had some fun surveying and participating in Urban National Wildlife Refuge Day and Birdfest & Bluegrass refuge events.


Rest stop along I-80 going west. September 2018. Photo by Angelica Varela.

Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District

Landing in Nebraska, we surveyed visitors at Rainwater Basin WMD, the only Wetland Management District participating in the survey this year. While being on the lookout to contact waterfowl hunters hiding in the wetlands, we learned about the restoration efforts that take place at the refuge. Rainwater Basin provides important wetland habitat for migratory birds, including waterfowl, shorebirds, and the endangered Whooping Crane. One of the many threats to these habitats is sediment build up from surrounding farm areas, making restoration of Waterfowl Production Areas (WPAs) in the district a high priority. In 2018, Rainwater Basin removed excess sediment from the Atlanta WPA, their largest restoration effort to date. Atlanta WPA contains a large wetland basin which provides accessible water for migratory waterfowl. Restoration efforts encouraged the growth of native vegetation, provided for spring foraging, and improved the overall function of the wetland. Atlanta was a major success story and landed in a local newsletter. Restoration WIN!

Rainwater Basin WMD. September 2018. Photo by Angelica Varela.

After surveying waterfowl hunters and learning about wetland restoration in Nebraska, we continued our journey along the historic Oregon Trail, which roughly follows Interstate 80 west to Portland, Oregon. Lucky for us we took an SUV instead of a covered wagon. In the Pacific Northwest we were off to survey Steigerwald Lake, Tualatin River, and Ridgefield NWRs.

Waterfowl hunter at Rainwater Basin WMD. September 2018. Photo by Angelica Varela.

 

Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Steigerwald Lake NWR is located right along the Columbia River Gorge, or as one of our favorite young visitors called it, “The River George!” Similar to Rainwater Basin WMD, Steigerwald Lake has several large collaborative restoration projects underway. The refuge has plans to reconnect refuge floodplains to the Columbia River by removing portions of the Columbia River dike. This restoration will re-establish habitat for steelhead and cutthroat trout along with other native species, including salmon populations that many locals depend on. On a crisp fall evening we had the opportunity to walk the part of the dike that will be removed. That night we attended a bat walk hosted by the refuge as a celebration of the many volunteers who dedicate their time helping out on the refuge. On our walk we spotted a great horned owl silhouetted by the moonlight, perched high on a tree right off the dike. The work for this restoration project, as many restoration efforts in the refuge system, has undergone several years of dedicated planning and partnerships committed to making meaningful ecological progress on public lands.

Back on the refuge in the daylight we admired the October colors while hiking the Gibbons Creek Wildlife Art Trail. Along the boardwalk we witnessed an American bittern hunting for food. The bittern is elusive as its brown plumage is well camouflaged in the cattails along ponds. That afternoon visitors eagerly scribbled the bird’s name on the “wildlife sightings” whiteboard hung at the trailhead.

American Bittern, Steigerwald Lake NWR. Photo by Michelle Ferguson

 

Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge

While we were at Tualatin River NWR, one of the nation’s first urban wildlife refuges, September 29 was officially recognized as Urban National Wildlife Refuge Day! With 80% of Americans living in metro areas like Portland, the refuge system focuses on extending natural spaces to communities who otherwise wouldn’t have access in urban areas. On this special day, we were able to see the staff and community partners at Tualatin River NWR join together to commemorate “U in Nature, at Your Urban Wildlife Refuge Day.” This event was full of fun activities for visitors to participate in, including stations where youth could learn how to fish and practice archery. There were also guided interpretive walks, a salmon migration obstacle course, and the opportunity to meet “Teddy” Roosevelt. We enjoyed getting to know the supportive community that is the solid grounding of Tualatin River NWR. The refuge was established through the strong voice of local residents banding together with a desire for a functioning natural area in an urban setting. Some of our highlights at Tualatin included watching a pair of bald eagles frequent our survey area. We also grew fond of the wooly bear, a charismatic freeze-tolerant caterpillar who can live for up to a decade, scurrying across refuge trails!

Kim Strassburg, visitor services manager, welcomes visitors with “Teddy” Roosevelt on Urban National Wildlife Refuge Day at Tualatin NWR. September 2018. Photo by Angelica Varela.

 

Archery station, Urban National Wildlife Refuge Day at Tualatin NWR. September 2018. Photo by Angelica Varela.

 

Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge

Ridgefield NWR holds a special place in the hearts of birders and naturalists. Every October volunteers put together a highly anticipated weekend of events and live music to celebrate, fittingly called Birdfest & Bluegrass. Rain was in the forecast the weekend of Birdfest, but that did not stop visitors from fully enjoying all that the festival had to offer. We surveyed many visitors coming to join the celebration, which included naturalist led hikes, Sandhill Crane Tours at the wildlife drive, and arts and crafts around the Chinookan-style cedar Cathlapotle Plankhouse. After sampling we enjoyed touring the plankhouse ourselves which would soon be closed for the season. We also attended the Chinookan salmon bake, which offered visitors traditionally baked salmon and seafood stew.

Cathlapotle Plankhouse at Ridgefield NWR. October 2018. Photo by Angelica Varela.

 

Chinookan-style salmon bake at Birdfest & Bluegrass Festival. October 2018. Photo by Michelle Ferguson.

During the month we stayed in the Pacific Northwest we took full advantage of days we weren’t sampling to explore Oregon. One of our most memorable adventures was exploring the Columbia Gorge and seeing all the beautiful waterfalls in the surrounding area.

Umbrella Falls, Mt. Hood Oregon. October 2018. Photo By Michelle Ferguson.

We are constantly inspired to get a first hand look at the devoted teamwork poured into restoration projects and community events at every refuge. It takes driven partners, who are passionate about managing these public lands for the enjoyment of wildlife and communities around. Take the opportunity to embrace the National Wildlife Refuge System. It’s wild, it’s yours!

Until next time,
Road Warriors- Angelica and Michelle

Stories from the Swamp

A Day in the Life

By: Kylie Campbell and James Puckett

We have spent the past two months at southern refuges where the water moves slow, alligators bask in the hot sun, and the local communities abound with food, culture, and hospitality. We’ve spent lots of time with a paddle in hand, exploring big lakes, bayous, and backcountry trails. Read on to learn about four unique refuges that share many common species.


USFWS. September 2018.

Sam D. Hamilton Noxubee NWR

The unique habitat at Sam D. Hamilton Noxubee NWR was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930’s. As we serve with AmeriCorps, it has been inspiring to see how the hard work of the CCC men is still enjoyed today. We are proud to follow in their footsteps as we positively impact natural places for future generations. The CCC built dikes and dug out the low lying areas to create two lakes that are now home to many wading birds. Throughout history, refuge staff introduced various species into these reservoirs, including beavers. The beavers quickly became a nuisance and the refuge decided to control the population with alligators. This was eventually effective in reducing the population, despite some troubles bringing the alligators to the refuge (the airline used to transport them only allowed 7 foot long containers, and the alligators arrived at the airport in 7.5 foot long containers). Today, there are an estimated 200 alligators that occupy the refuge. Alligators are rare this far north in Mississippi and they are quite an attraction for visitors. We enjoyed helping visitors find the gators and taught many little kids the difference between an alligator and a crocodile.

Another unique aspect of this refuge was the wide range of users that visit. The most common visitors were college students from nearby Mississippi State University, who came there to relax in a hammock or study by the lake. Other users frequently fish at the refuge and depend on this food source to feed their families. It was exciting to see how groups from vastly different backgrounds could come together and use the refuge in harmony.

A visitor catches fish off of the Cypress Cove Boardwalk. September 2018. Photo by James Puckett.

College student naps in a hammock on a sunny afternoon. September 2018. Photo by Kylie Campbell.

On our days off, we enjoyed kayaking around Bluff Lake, although it took some convincing for Kylie to believe that the gators really wouldn’t bother us. At the time there were prolific lily pads that prevented motor boats from using the lake, and even paddling through them on our kayaks was a challenge. Still, the flowers on the aquatic plants were beautiful and it is hard to think of them as invasive despite the problems they cause.

Kylie kayaking on Bluff Lake. September 2018. Photo by James Puckett.

We were fortunate to be invited to a local community meeting by Steve Reagan, the project leader at the refuge. We were welcomed with open arms to a former church that had been renovated to hold these meetings. The community has met every single month since the 1920s and we loved joining them in this tradition. We enjoyed home cooked red beans and rice and learned about photography techniques from a professor at Mississippi State. We also met the former refuge manager, and it was great to see that former employees and volunteers of the refuge are still actively involved in preserving the refuge and its history.

Big Branch Marsh NWR

Next, our travels took us down to Louisiana. Our first refuge in the area was Big Branch Marsh NWR. This refuge reminded us of Noxubee NWR because of all the white banded pine trees, which ended up being common throughout our southern travels. We learned that these trees were marked because they contained nest cavities for endangered red cockaded woodpeckers. The refuge would actually install modified nests for these birds because new growth trees are not big enough for the birds to build their own nests in. The woodpeckers need old growth forest, which was all logged many years ago. These birds can commonly be seen on the Boy Scout Trail: most people use the area for peaceful exercise but some were searching for the red cockaded woodpeckers, binoculars in hand. While sitting in the parking lot one evening we were lucky to see at least five of these beautiful birds pecking away.

Big Branch Marsh NWR had multiple other habitats besides the pine forest. We did a guided kayak tour of Cane Bayou and the guide described that the two mile paddle through the refuge was like a snapshot of how habitats change as you travel south through Louisiana: we went through an oak forest to the cypress and pine forests and ended in the grassy salt marsh along Lake Pontrachain. The most popular area of the refuge was within this salt marsh habitat. People would park right along the road and crab from both sides. On a busy weekend up to 50 people would be lined up on the road crabbing. We purchased our own crabbing nets to try it out in our free time, after being convinced by visitors who were successful every day. We also encountered people fishing and duck hunting at this location. This was one of the first refuges that we’ve visited where the dominant uses were consumptive, and it was exciting to see how many people take advantage of the opportunities available.

Visitors crabbing along Lake Road. October 2018. Photo by James Puckett.

James catching crabs at sunset. October 2018. Photo by Kylie Campbell.

When we weren’t sampling, we spent much of our time at the Southeast Louisiana Refuge Complex Headquarters. This building is located at Big Branch Marsh NWR in Lacombe, LA, and contains a visitor center as well as offices where staff for all eight refuges in the complex work. This was also the site of a big annual celebration called Wild Things. In the days leading up to the event it was truly an all hands on deck venture, and we helped alongside staff to prepare. Helping with these projects allowed us to form great relationships with staff and even refuge law enforcement. All the hard work paid off and the day of the event had perfect weather. Over 6,000 people came to the refuge to enjoy exhibits, boat tours, music, and crafts. There were numerous stations to teach kids the importance of wildlife all while having a fun experience.

Visitors enjoyed a variety of activities at the Wild Things Festival. October 2018.

Bayou Sauvage NWR

Next we traveled to Bayou Sauvage NWR, the second largest urban refuge in the United States. Bayou Sauvage is inside the city limits of New Orleans, and we got new perspectives into the challenges and opportunities that urban refuges are presented with. Kayaking was a recreational opportunity here; however, conflicts with wildlife discourage paddlers from the boat launch off Highway 11. Unfortunately, many visitors choose to feed alligators at this location and this results in some boldly curious gators. The big reptiles here come right to the dock when a visitor arrives, sometimes more than a dozen at a time. We informed people that if an officer was here they would be severely fined if caught feeding wildlife, and often joked with people about how junk food isn’t healthy for the gators just like it isn’t healthy for us. Sometimes people would stop, but usually visitors would continue as soon as we walked away. This behavior is frustrating because it could potentially cause the alligators to become more aggressive which could endanger visitors and the gators. However, people still enjoy fishing and kayaking on parts of the refuge where alligators were not as acclimated to humans.

An alligator rests on a boat launch at Bayou Sauvage NWR, eating marshmallows thrown by visitors. October 2018. Photo by James Puckett.

Another challenge that this refuge faces is crime in the surrounding communities. Illegal dumping is a common theme throughout the entire city of New Orleans, and we often found trash and other evidence of criminal activity on refuge property. Abandoned or completely burned out cars are a frequent occurrence. To curtail some of the vandalism and other issues on the refuge, staff have installed video monitoring and even a few hidden cameras at recreation sites. Despite crime being a problem in the area, we had very positive interactions with visitors and, like all refuges, the majority of people are out to enjoy peaceful time in nature.

One wonderful aspect of our time in New Orleans was the Vietnamese community and their delicious food! There was a restaurant and bakery near the refuge called Dong Phoung, and they had the best four dollar sandwiches money could buy! We enjoyed lunch here during our sampling days. This vibrant, diverse community represented one of the awesome opportunities that urban refuges have to interact with new groups of visitors. We met people from all over the world who were visiting the city of New Orleans and included a hike at Bayou Sauvage NWR in their travels.

During our time off we really enjoyed exploring “the big easy”; we are rarely the type to enjoy a day in the city but we truly relished in our time in New Orleans and would love to go back. The French Quarter was quite touristy but we enjoyed embracing all it had to offer, from wonderful French beignets to fresh shrimp po’ boys. One of our favorite experiences was requesting songs at the famous Pat O’Brien’s Piano Bar while we sipped on historic hurricane drinks.

James and Kylie enjoyed a sunset over the Big Muddy in the historic French Quarter. October 2018.

Okefenokee NWR

From the slow moving bayous of Louisiana, we traveled next to the swampy waters of the “Land of the Trembling Earth”. We found very similar wildlife at Okefeneokee NWR as we’d seen at our previous three southern refuges, but this area had a completely different atmosphere. Here, the familiar pecking of red cockaded woodpeckers had plenty of room to echo: this refuge was the biggest one we’ve visited yet at over 400,000 acres. The vast majority of this refuge is designated as a National Wilderness Area which ensures that no development will take place there. This vast area draws visitors from all over the world to experience its unique charm.

Sign designating the boundary of the National Wilderness Area along the Suwannee Canal. October 2018. Photo by Kylie Campbell.

The main activity that visitors engage in is taking boat rides out into the swamp: on the east side, the refuge has a private concessionaire to charter guided tour rides on the canals through the refuge. Also on the east side of the refuge was a wildlife drive, boardwalk, and even a homestead left by the last family to live in the Okefenokee swamp, the Chessers. On the west side, Stephen C. Foster State Park leases land from the refuge and offers boat tours from their facilities. At the state park, it was also popular for people to camp and stay in the cabins. Canoeing and hiking are popular on both parts of the refuge and we enjoyed spending our off time exploring the trails both on and off the water.

Sunset over the Chesser Island Boardwalk. October 2018. Photo by James Puckett.

Okefenokee has over 120 miles of wilderness canoe trails. The wonderful thing about these water trails is that every few miles there are floating platforms or docks for overnight paddlers to pitch their tent on. Some people traveled for up to five days and four nights. We were fortunate to paddle six miles to one of these platforms and have our lunch within the wilderness of the swamp. We did get a laugh at the floating porta-john for visitors to use as they reached the two mile mark. We were thrilled to see baby gators as well as ten foot gators while paddling, as we were comfortable with them by the end of our time in swamp country.

We were all smiles on our day long paddle through the Okefenokee! October 2018. Photo by Kylie Campbell.

This was the only refuge we had visited before our time working with ACE. Like many of the visitors that we sampled, we stopped to see the Okefenokee swamp as part of a long road trip to Florida a few years ago. We really enjoyed getting a behind the scenes look and a deeper understanding of a place that we loved as visitors. The volunteers here, as at any refuge, truly do make the refuge a better place to visit. We enjoyed getting to know the resident volunteers and we definitely aspire to live in an RV and volunteer along our travels like many of the volunteers that we’ve met.

We relished in the last bit of summer warmth before we travel to the midwest by running on the trails through the pine forest at Okefenokee. On a morning run, Kylie encountered a gopher tortoise on the trail. However, no one told him that tortoises are supposed to move slowly because the speedy fellow was on his way before she could capture a picture! After leaving Okefenokee, we traveled through the mountains of Georgia and Tennessee and enjoyed camping in the fall leaves on our way to our next refuge: Loess Bluffs NWR in Missouri!

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

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