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.
Our first stop on our refuge tour was Wapanocca NWR in Turrell, Arkansas. This 5,484 acre refuge is an island of wooded wetland in a sea of agriculture. Once owned by the Wapanocca Outing Club for waterfowl hunting, the area is now a sanctuary for the water-loving birds migrating along the Mississippi flyway.
We were excited to see what birds were making the mid-south refuge their home. As always, there were great blue herons, mallards, Canada geese and backyard birds, but to our surprise and delight we saw many pairs of wood ducks looking for potential cavity nests in the trees. For the first time, we encountered (and instantly loved) dozens of American coots eating aquatic vegetation in the canals that run along the refuge roads. They may look like ducks at a glance, but look much more like chickens when they walk on land.
Of course, there were more than just American Coots enjoying the cypress trees on the refuge. We encountered nutria, beavers, and our first armadillo! Though we didn’t see any, Steven Rimer, the active refuge manager, told us about the invasive hog problem Wapanocca is currently facing. He also showed us a remote-controlled hog trap that can be activated via app.
In the end though, most encounters we had were with the human visitors enjoying the fishing at Lake Wapanocca. We greatly enjoyed listening to visitors share their experiences of fishing as well as the deep ties they had with Lake Wapanocca. Many visitors had been frequenting the area since they were children. Some visitors were even members of the outdoor club in the ‘60s. Almost everyone we contacted were frequent local visitors, so we would often recognize people we had spoken to previously and chat with them about what they were doing that day at the refuge. Their answer? Fishing for crappie.
Crappie (pronounced “craw-pee” as Erin quickly learned) was the lifeblood of Lake Wapanocca during our stay and almost every day was filled with locals asking us where most people were fishing and if anyone had caught anything. Apparently, the fish has a flakey melt-in-your-mouth taste after it’s been fried. Learning that, we completely understood what the hype was about, and decided we need to find ourselves some local cuisine.
We did find some local places across the Mississippi, in the form of Memphis style BBQ (crappie can’t be served commercially it turns out), and we highly recommend a basement BBQ restaurant found in an alley, called Rendezvous, home of the Memphis rub.
We also found entertainment in the form of parading Peabody Ducks in a luxurious hotel lobby, and a ceremonial “raising of the goat” during the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. This event involves a taxidermied goat being raised on a scissor lift in the middle of the famous Beale Street.
Due to flooding, we were unable to head to Cross Creeks NWR in Tennessee after our sampling period in Arkansas. Instead, we stayed an extra week at Wapanocca, then a few days with ACE Asheville in Asheville, NC. While staying with ACE Asheville, we camped in Sumter National Forest to assist one of the crews with trail maintenance and bring them extra equipment. It was really cool to meet the crew and help out with clearing excess branching and fallen trees (called swamping) from the trails in the forest. Once we returned for the weekend, we set out to explore the town of Asheville and were treated to a multitude of specialty shops and unique restaurants.
Great Dismal Swamp NWR
After our time with ACE Asheville, we embarked to our next stop, Great Dismal Swamp NWR in Suffolk, Virginia. When we got to the refuge we were greeted by our point of contact Deloras Freeman. That night we met the Americorps members we would be sharing the bunk house with. The crew was doing prescribed burn work in the area and it was really cool to not only meet an Americorps crew, but to hear about their experiences so far in their Americorps term.
Deloras gave us a comprehensive tour of the refuge grounds the next day as part of our orientation, and we discovered that The Great Dismal Swamp is extremely rich in history. The swamp was originally comprised of 1,200,000 acres and was planned to be drained of lake water to use for plantation land back in colonial times. George Washington was one of the people who tried to drain the lake using ditches. This led to the creation of Washington Ditch which is currently a hotspot trail for birders. Another historical fact: the refuge was used as a safe haven for escaped slaves during the Civil War era. The slaves created maroon settlements on the mesic islands present in the swamp.
Deloras also showed us the area of the refuge which had been severely affected by forest fires. Specifically, she mentioned the Lateral West fire of 2011 which smoldered for 4 months and completely destroyed a large section of the forest along the Wildlife Drive. At present the area has made remarkable progress, as many plants seem to be growing in the marshy area.
With all of our information about the Great Dismal Swamp, we set out to recruit visitors for the survey. We soon discovered that birding was the main event at the Great Dismal. About 60-70% of people we surveyed were out looking for avian entertainment and it was awesome to see flocks of people in bird tours looking for particular birds in the area. We were often asked about certain warblers such as the Swainson’s warbler. Birds are such a spectacle at the Great Dismal Swamp; as we are typing up this post we are listening to five different song bird calls, two courting great horned owls, and a bachelor turkey at the Jericho Ditch!
We were invited to attend the Volunteer Appreciation Dinner hosted by Deloras and the refuge manager Chris. We met expert naturalists and birders who volunteered their time to help out the refuge by doing bird walks, interpretive tours and refuge events. These naturalists had incredible insight into the world of birding and wildlife observation. Additionally, they regularly work to collect data on the flora and fauna of the Great Dismal Swamp for the iNaturalist program. We even got to speak with one man who had seen California Condor reintroductions at the Grand Canyon!
While birding may be the main attraction at the Great Dismal Swamp, plenty of other animals were out for us and visitors to see. During a hike, we saw a large broad headed skink as well as a multitude of spotted turtles. We also saw rat snakes, and one day we even had a rat snake crawl back and forth underneath our chairs throughout the afternoon! Additionally, butterflies and bees were constantly flying around our sampling spots. There were also tons of dams and lodges built by beavers around the area. We did not see them, but visitors told us they were seeing river otters, black bears and mountain lions.
Our time off of the refuge grounds was also a blast, as we explored the towns of Suffolk and Norfolk, and visited the Chesapeake Bay. We also visited a local bookstore in search of a book recommended to us about escaped slaves set in the Great Dismal Swamp. Overall the Great Dismal Swamp was anything but dismal and we are so glad to have met such wonderful visitors and staff members.
After our first two refuges, we found it interesting that the primary focus for many of the visitors was their search for seasonal animals. Whether it be with a fishing rod or a pair of binoculars, these visitors were adamant about the thrill of finding wildlife. At Wapanocca, crappie was king, whereas warblers won the hearts of visitors at the Great Dismal Swamp. Of course you could forgo exploring the outdoors and simply buy fish at a supermarket or look up photos of songbirds, but where is the fun in that? Look at our team for example. Here we are, living nomadically, on the hunt for visitors in their most commonly found habitats. Like bird watching, we search for visitors by first researching where they are most commonly found on the refuge. Like fishing, we try to reel in a contact with friendly chit-chat and an alluring magnet. And just as fishermen and birders love the thrill of finding an animal, a big part of the fun of our job is the search and success of making a visitor contact. We know this excitement will only grow further as we move on to our next refuge adventure.