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Talking to People

Talking to People

By: Eliana Moustakas and Jake Rayapati

Quick show of hands, who’s heard this one before? “The whole reason I got into wildlife was so I wouldn’t have to talk to people.” It’s a common mantra among those of us who never grew out of the animal-obsessions of our childhoods. Unfortunately, it’s not sustainable. In the Anthropocene staring down the barrel of the planet’s sixth mass extinction, conservation requires communication. Whether by oral traditions or Instagram, communication is how you share a conservation ethic, and it all starts with talking to people.

2020 America looks a little different than it did a century ago. The population has noticeably acquired more people, more cities, and more melanin. Laudably, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is actively working to engage the public through its National Visitor Survey (NVS), so that 21st century conservation can reflect 21st century Americans. When we learned we were lucky enough to work with NVS, we did a little dance. Then we got to work.

Ten Thousand Islands NWR

After a week of training in Fort Collins with the USFWS Human Dimensions Branch, we hit the road. First on the docket was Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, TTI to the cognoscenti, which spans the marshes and mangroves of Southwest Florida. Our first day at TTI, we posted up at the beginning of Marsh Trail. The trail’s observation platform is particularly popular before sunset when thousands of wading birds descend from the skies and come home to roost.

Roosting pelicans and ibis at the Marsh Trail at Ten Thousand Islands NWR.

But, we aren’t here for the wildlife; we’re here for the people. Once you find your mark, it’s fairly simple. “What’s your name? What’s your address? What’s your primary activity on the Refuge today? Do you live within 50 miles? What year were you born?” Exchange a few pleasantries, then follow up with, “Thank you!” and, “You’ll receive a survey in the mail in about a week, but today you get a magnet.” Smile, rinse, and repeat. Our task isn’t to survey visitors directly, but rather recruit visitors to complete the survey at home.

That distinction didn’t stop folks from giving us a piece of their mind. In our day-to-day lives, we don’t normally get accused of being “The Man”. That changes when you’re wearing a uniform with the Fish and Wildlife logo. Suddenly, you represent the Refuge, the Department of the Interior, and the US of A. As it turns out, a lot of people have something to say about that. Talking to people, as you might have guessed, requires listening to them too.

An American Alligator.

Each refuge was a little different. At TTI, mostly we got the usual, “Where can I see alligators? Where can I see manatees?” Sometimes, it got a little more interesting, for example: “How can you seriously call yourself a refuge if you allow hunting?” or “There are too many manatees, they need to open season!” Did we receive micro-aggressions about our race and gender? You betchya. Still, it wasn’t all bad, not even close. “Thank you for what you’re doing!” was surprisingly common to hear. So was the somewhat incredulous, “You get paid to travel?” There were also exclamations of pure joy, like, “We just had the greatest view of a swallow-tailed kite in America!”

Nathaniel P. Reed Hobe Sound NWR

Right about the time we got into the swing of things, we were on the road again, crossing the peninsula to Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge – a testudine retreat on Florida’s Atlantic Coast for endangered gopher tortoises and nesting sea turtles. Surrounded by a sea of development, Hobe Sound is not only a refuge for wildlife, but for people too.

An endangered Gopher Tortoise at Hobe Sound NWR.

Many folks were enamored with the beauty of a natural beach and thanked us personally. Others didn’t want to be bothered – the refuge was their, well, refuge (pardon the cliché) and a place for peace and quiet. Interestingly, most locals didn’t self-identify as visitors. They weren’t tourists gosh darn-it, they lived there – at least some of the time. But, with some gentle convincing, they agreed to be surveyed too. Local or otherwise, the people at Hobe Sound often referred to the refuge as Southeast Florida’s hidden gem, and we have to agree.

A Ruddy Turnstone wears drab nonbreeding plumage at Hobe Sound NWR.

Bon Secour NWR

After Hobe Sound, we crossed back to the Gulf Coast, this time to Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge on Alabama’s Fort Morgan Peninsula. While showing us around, the Refuge Manager bent to point out the sandy tracks of the endangered Alabama Beach Mouse when a cat strolled out of the dunes. The felon feline approached us nonchalantly, and the manager scooped it up and brought it back to her truck. Cats eat mice, even endangered mice, which is why pets aren’t allowed on the refuge. Under questioning, the cat pled the fifth. However, it was betrayed by a tag on its collar: “Outdoor Cat, I Live Nearby, Please Leave Me Alone!” Talking to people, in this case, meant speaking for the beach mouse and mitigating human-wildlife conflict when we returned the cat to its owner.

A striking Green Anole at Bon Secour NWR.

Bon Secour’s sandy shores also attracted anglers who enjoyed casting into the surf. They often asked us what the folks down the beach were catching. Well, they weren’t catching much of anything, and soon neither were we. Chatting, comments, questions and even pet management ended when all those activities became public health concerns. Our time with the National Visitor Survey came to an abrupt end one week into our stay at Bon Secour (pesky pandemics).

Looking back, each refuge had its own unique set of conservation challenges and successes, and we have been inspired to continue exploring “America’s Best Kept Secret”. Over the past few months, we had the privilege to be supervised by incredible conservationists and mentors, and we also had the invaluable chance to hear from everyday people about what National Wildlife Refuges mean to them. Whether this will be your first internship out of college or your last, it’s a rare opportunity to contribute to a paradigm shift in conservation while travelling the country at the same time. Whether you want to get a foot in the door with federal service, receive an AmeriCorps Education Award or a Public Land Corp Hiring Certificate, or simply get yourself through the winter, ACE and USFWS have created an incredible opportunity to make this position your own. So, what will you make of it?

South for the Winter

South for the Winter

By: Maddy Hoiland and Victoria Coraci

In February two strangers from opposite ends of the country (Washington and Florida) hopped in a truck and headed south for the winter, from snowy Colorado to sunny Florida. The adventure that followed was certainly one to write home about, complete with alligators, visitors from all over the world, and homemade pecan pie

Lower Suwannee NWR

Our orientation to the refuge started with a 7 am team meeting where we met the crew and started learning how they care for the Lower Suwannee. It immediately felt like we were sitting down together for a family meal! That night the volunteers living near HQ shared a campfire with us and the next morning we started our first sampling shift at the entrance to the Shell Mound Archaeological area. Dating from 900 to 1200 CE, the mound of discarded shells is about 5 acres wide and roughly crescent moon shaped. It rises about 28 feet above sea level, which is some serious elevation for Florida! We also sampled on the Dixie County portion of the refuge, where we met hunters, oysterers, anglers and so many campers. We set up along a popular fishing spot and were lucky enough to spend time with some visitors during our sampling shift, and learned how to throw a cast net.

A net is cast at Lower Suwannee NWR.

The Lower Suwannee refuge is surrounded by an incredible mosaic of green space. From former logging areas the refuge was set aside to preserve the water quality of the area and now hosts migratory birds in addition to reptiles, fish and manatees. Ongoing restoration projects include the removal of the invasive plant Brazilian Pepper and the installation of artificial nesting areas for shorebirds. We assisted with building floating docks and covering them with a substrate to simulate what shorebirds would be looking for to nest. Creating the habitat on these floating docks allows them to be responsive to rising sea levels both through tides and over time.

Victoria helping staff install a floating barge to expand shorebird nesting habitat. Photo by Maddy Hoiland

We were also lucky enough to join the Friends of Lower Suwannee NWR for their meeting, learning about their adopted Swallow-tailed Kite “Suwannee” and the incredible 10,000+ mile journey she embarks on. We even observed an early migrant kite while at the refuge. The dates of their migration have been changing and may continue to change, as demonstrated in this neat widget Audubon developed which models how suitable habitat may change with the changing climate.

In our free time, we were able to borrow kayaks to explore the refuge and we came across egrets, herons and a large gator! We also explored outside the refuge and discovered that there is a whole community working on helping to protect the mature coast. We visited Manatee Springs State Park and Fanning Springs State Park and saw a manatee from the dock. We also toured the University of Florida Nature Coast Biological Center to learn about their research and met with a scientist designing experiments on monitoring water quality post oil spill and Terrapin Turtle habitat. We even were able to tag along on one of the field trips they were hosting that day and met Captain Kenny who began an ecotourism educational tour operation after retiring from the FWS. We also spent free time with staff from the refuge team enjoying the pristine nature that Florida had to offer. Andrew took us out spear fishing, letting us drive the boat and watch as he free dove 30 ft, bringing back multiple sheepsheads at a time. It was a beautiful day, and Maddy even caught one!

Maddy spots a large alligator during a kayaking trip. Photo by Victoria Coraci.

On our last day in Florida we sat in on a Florida Shorebird Alliance meeting and were able to see some of these partnerships in action as they worked together to help these species recover. One of the biologists had observed some really clever raven behavior where they observed predation from the nests they were monitoring but only those that were visited on a particular day. They set up game cams and found that the ravens were recognizing the biologist and following them from nest to nest!

After our first two weeks learning and exploring, we packed up our truck, said goodbye to the incredible and welcoming staff of Lower Suwannee and made our way back up north.

Wheeler NWR

Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge is located in Decatur, Alabama on the Tennessee River. Founded in 1938 by Theodore Roosevelt as a refuge and breeding ground for waterfowl and other wildlife, it was the first refuge ever to be superimposed on a hydro-electric site. This refuge is known for the thousands of waterfowl, including Whooping and Sandhill cranes that make a stop along the Mississippi Flyway in the winter to feed, rest, and roost, entertaining crowds with their intricate dances and calls that fill the sky. Most cranes had moved on when we arrived, but there was still a pair of Sandhill Cranes feeding in the field outside the visitor center as we drove in, and one Whooping Crane nicknamed Louisiana around the refuge.

Pair of sandhill cranes feeding in the cornfield. Photo by Maddy Hoiland.

While we were surveying we met many visitors enjoying the diverse habitats found on the refuge, out for a drive on Mussel Camp Road, putting in their boats to go fishing from at Arrowhead Boat Ramp, and runners and bikers out enjoying the views of the Tennessee River. The visitor center was a popular attraction to learn about the flora and fauna of Alabama, and get answers to questions from the helpful volunteers. While surveying we hung out around the information desk, helping answer questions and enjoying the stories of visitors from near and far. Families and bird watchers alike enjoyed looking through the binoculars in the observation deck and snapping photos of the groups of waterfowl on the lake.

View of songbirds through visitor center binoculars. Photo taken by Victoria Coraci.

One of the coolest sampling shifts was during the “Wings to Soar” event in the visitor center, where the audience got up close and personal with birds of prey such as owls, hawks, and even a vulture. The presenters shared some facts about the species and the events that led to the bird being in their care. Many had been injured or raised around humans, not able to survive in the wild, so Wings to Soar took them in and now bring them around the country to share the importance of conservation with audiences. Those in the middle of the room had birds soaring over their heads and children squealing in delight as they saw their parents ducking from the wings just inches above them.

Wildlife conservation drives everything on refuges so monitoring and research are crucial to understanding how to best protect them. Staff and volunteers conduct several projects related to the waterfowl and caves located on the refuge, and we got to join them on a few. We assisted the biological technician with switching out the batteries in the Anabat acoustic monitoring box (a box that records the sounds from bats going in and out of the cave), getting to take a peek into the normally fenced off area. You could feel the cold air coming from the cave!

Victoria and Drew maintaining the Anabat acoustic box in Key Cave. Photo by Maddy Hoiland.

Before we left we got to squeeze one more project in, helping with stream inventorying on a private landowner’s property for the USFWS Partners for Fish and Wildlife program. We donned our waders, learned about techniques for electrofishing, and waded into the streams to catch fish and identify the species that were present. And soon enough it was time to keep swimming upstream to our next refuge.

Big Lake NWR

Our third, and as it turned out, final stop on this project was Big Lake NWR, one of the nation’s oldest refuges. It sure lived up to its name! Many visitors were there every day, locals and regulars fishing for crappie or just “sitting and clearing their mind”.

We were excited to learn about how Steven and Glenn work together with the Army Corps of Engineers and the state. Steven showed us how they use dams here to control the flooding. The lake often floods up to 99% of the area, so managing the water levels is crucial to avoid flooding the farms and town nearby. On a break from the clouds one afternoon, we had a chance to explore the refuge before surveying to hike out to the state champion Overcup Oak Tree!

Arkansas state champion Overcup Oak.

Outside the refuge the University of Arkansas has a great museum where we were able to rock out to some rockabilly music and look into the state’s historic megafauna.

A taste of local prehistory at the University of Arkansas museum.

After our first weekend on the refuge the COVID-19 virus spread became a concern, so we had to stop surveying. In times like these, access to nature and a calm place to reflect is more important than ever. Even though our project got cut short it was a whirlwind of learning, exploring, and putting wildlife first!

Flyways and Byways

Flyways and Byways

By: Lindsey Broadhead and Paul List

Each year millions of migratory birds utilize invisible superhighways to reach their nesting and wintering grounds. Our time surveying visitors these past few months was spent at a few important spots in the middle of one of these superhighways – the 4,000 mile long Pacific flyway. This flyway runs north-south from the Arctic to Mexico, crossing the entire west coast of the US and states such as Utah, Idaho, and Nevada. The diversity and abundance of birds in the wildlife refuges along the flyway bring joy to birders, photographers, hunters, and casual passersby alike as migration, one of nature’s grandest spectacles, occurs twice a year.

Snow geese along the Sacramento NWR auto tour. Photo by Lindsey Broadhead

Sacramento NWR Complex

In the heart of California’s Sacramento Valley lies the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex. The complex protects the last remaining riparian and wetland habitat in the valley, and is a vital wintering ground for thousands of waterfowl. While we were there, we spotted 5 species of goose (and a cackling/white-fronted goose hybrid!), 10 species of duck, tundra swans, and plenty of other migratory wetland birds such as long-billed curlews and sandhill cranes. With the influx of waterfowl comes an influx of predators, and birds of prey from bald eagles to great horned owls to red shouldered hawks were a common sight along the auto tours and viewing platforms of these refuges.

Our first three weeks in California were spent surveying visitors at Sacramento River NWR. This refuge is comprised of 30 disjointed units up and down the Sacramento River, all providing a safe haven for riparian wildlife and recreation opportunities for visitors. We were excited to learn that this refuge has frequent mountain lion sightings throughout its many units, but unfortunately neither of us were lucky enough to spot the elusive big cat. We were, however, just in time for prime sandhill crane viewing at the Llano Seco unit and met many birders and wildlife photographers that came to the unit specifically for the cranes.

Sandhill crane at Sacramento River NWR. Photo by Lindsey Broadhead

After our time along the river, we spent our remaining two weeks at Sacramento NWR, the hub of the complex. This refuge has plenty to offer- from birding to hiking to hunting, and because of its convenient location along I-5, we were able to speak to hundreds of people from all over the United States. We even had spare time to help out with an elementary school field trip and man the front desk of the visitor center for a few hours, which was a nice change of pace from surveying. Our housing at this refuge (appropriately named The Blue Goose Inn) was within walking distance of the visitor center and the beautiful wetland walking trails where mule deer, striped skunks, and great horned owls were a common sight. We spent many evenings enjoying the sunset along the trails and watching the thousands of geese fly off to feed in the nearby rice fields for the night.

The warm sunny climate of this region was a welcome change from colder temperatures up north, and it was easy to see why waterfowl would take advantage of this. With food aplenty and days filled with sun, this refuge felt like a waterfowl vacation destination, with population numbers steadily increasing the 5 weeks we spent there. When we left in mid November, the total waterfowl population was estimated to be 604,893 at Sacramento NWR, and a staggering 1,448,948 throughout the complex’s many other refuges in the valley.

White-fronted geese at Sacramento River NWR. Photo by Lindsey Broadhead

Mid Columbia River NWR Complex

After our time in California, we returned to Washington to continue sampling at the Mid Columbia River National Wildlife Refuge complex, home to additional stops for migrating birds along the Pacific Flyway. We had already sampled salmon anglers at one location in this complex: Hanford Reach National Monument (previously known as Saddle Mountain National Wildlife Refuge). But the new season brought out a new source of visitation-waterfowl hunters- at two new refuges: Columbia and McNary.

Located in the northern part of the complex, Columbia National Wildlife Refuge is a quiet site with dynamic scenery. With basalt cliffs shaped by volcanic activity and glacial flows thousands of years ago, this refuge attracts hunters seeking waterfowl, small upland game, and deer. While we had stayed at the Columbia bunkhouse when sampling at Saddle Mountain, we had not previously explored the refuge itself, and we enjoyed the opportunity to hike the trails and see our first snow of the season. While our exploring, Lindsey successfully uncovered one of the oldest geocaches in Washington, which is hidden somewhere beneath the refuge’s abundant sagebrush.

A hiking club out exploring the sagebrush wilderness. Photo by Lindsey Broadhead

Columbia NWR, with its protected wetlands and expansive habitat, is an important stopping point for many waterfowl during their migrations. It is home to an annual sandhill crane festival every spring as these great birds stop at the refuge on their way back north. Although we left a few months earlier than the sandhill cranes we saw at Sacramento NWR, it was nice to see the place where many of them would likely be stopping on their spring migration.

After Columbia, we had a short drive south to McNary National Wildlife Refuge, the headquarters for the Mid Columbia complex. Located along the Columbia River, this refuge featured ample opportunities for waterfowl hunting, viewing areas for photographers and birders, a two mile trail for walkers and explorers, and an environmental education center. While thick fog and ice on the water were less than ideal for visitation, the team was still able to meet a number of hunters and other visitors.

Lindsey surveys hunters at the hunt check station, which is also the environmental education building. Photo by Paul List.

In addition to visitors, Paul and Lindsey were able to meet with the Friends of Mid-Columbia River Wildlife Refuges. As was the case at other refuges, the friends group is instrumental in maintaining and growing the refuge, from manning the hunt check station to carrying out improvement projects around the headquarters. Paul and Lindsey got a taste of this sort of work by spending an afternoon volunteering with one of the Friends on various projects. They also got a taste of some delicious desserts at the Friends’ holiday party/planning meeting for the upcoming year. Paul is currently accepting suggestions for what to do with the new vest he won in the raffle (it has 14 pockets-he counted).

Paul and his 14-pocketed vest. Photo by Lindsey Broadhead

Like the birds that rely on these important refuges, we have spent the past four months migrating across the country. And like these birds, we found it necessary (or at least enjoyable) to make some stops along the way. The wildlife refuges discussed in our blog may have been our primary destinations (and worthy destinations they are), but our journey would not have been the same without many other stops. Should you find yourself in the Pacific Flyway (or Oklahoma), we encourage you to give these places a visit.

National Park System:
Rocky Mountain NP
Mesa Verde NP
Mt Rainier NP
Lassen Volcanic NP
Lava Beds NM
Golden Spike NHS

Restaurants:
Absolute Bakery & Cafe (Mancos, CO)
Yogurty Smogurty (Othello, WA)
Mayan Fusion (Fort Bragg, CA)
Anne’s Country Kitchen (Lawton, OK)
The Meers Store (Meers, OK)
Donut Wheel (Willows, CA)
Angie’s Restaurant (Logan, UT)
Black Bear Diner (CA chain)
Thai Orchid Cafe (Klamath Falls, CA)
Buckin’ Bean Coffee Roasters (Pendleton, OR)
Ironworks Cafe and Market (Othello, WA)
Smith’s-get the deli pizza (UT grocery store)

Attractions:
High Desert Museum (Bend, OR)
REACH Museum (Richland, WA)
National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center (Baker City, OR)
Stokes Nature Center (Logan, UT)
NOYO Center (Fort Bragg, CA)
MacKerricher State Park (Fort Bragg, CA)
Three Island Crossing State Park (Glenn’s Ferry, ID)
Antelope Island State Park (Syracuse, UT)
North Cheyenne Canyon Park (Colorado Springs, CO)
Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens (Fort Bragg, CA)
Sacramento Zoo (Sacramento, CA)
Shoshone Falls (Twin Falls, Oregon)
Berkeley Pit-aka the “Death Pit” (Butte, MT)
Wilson’s Arch and Looking Glass Arch (Hwy 191, near Moab, UT)
Sierra Nevada Brewery (Chico, CA)
The World’s Largest Functioning Yo-Yo (Chico, CA)
Utah State University (Logan, UT)
Klamath Basin Wildlife Refuges (CA & OR) – shoutout to Jeremy who gave us pumice rocks and sugar pine cones at Klamath Marsh!

Across the West

Across the West

By: Jess Michalski and Ben Schian

In the past two months, we have seen a wide variety of unique, beautiful ecosystems. From salt flats in Oklahoma, to a desert and oasis in California and Arizona, to the snowy mountains in Wyoming. Each ecosystem has been unique, lovely, and something new we had never had the opportunity to see before. It’s impossible to choose a favorite, so we are happy to write about each. We’ve done our surveying at Salt Plains NWR in Oklahoma, Bill Williams River NWR in Arizona, Havasu NWR in California, and National Elk Refuge in Wyoming, and in between survey sites we have seen even more beautiful ecosystems and landscapes, from the Grand Canyon, to the Pacific Ocean, to national parks such as Joshua Tree, Death Valley, and Grand Teton! Of course, completing a coast-to-coast trip would allow us to see an immense amount of natural wonders, but we never could’ve dreamed of seeing so much unique beauty.

Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge

We didn’t know what to expect when coming to Salt Plains, as the town it lays in has a population of ~200 people, and many of the refuge activities had recently closed for the season when we arrived. We thought it might be sort of slow there, but we were way wrong! Salt Plains draws thousands of visitors each year for the ability to dig for selenite crystals- not just any selenite crystals though – the crystals that develop in the salt flats here have a unique hourglass shape that you can’t find anywhere else on Earth. Although the crystal digging season was over there were two big positives, one being the refuge manager personally taking us out to dig for crystals when we arrived, and the other big positive was the reason why the crystal dig site had closed- for the safety of thousands and thousands of migrating sandhill cranes. If you haven’t personally seen or heard thousands of sandhill cranes flying across the sky, you’ve got to add this to your bucket list!

When one door closes another one opens, and although visitors couldn’t dig for crystals, we had visitors come from all across the country to view the sandhill cranes flying overhead. There were also several people on the lookout for the endangered whooping crane. We didn’t get to see any, but we know from conversations with visitors and staff that they were there. Which gives us another reason to return one day! Some people may think Oklahoma City would be the go-to place to see in Oklahoma, but the very unique and very striking salt plains may make you think twice about that.

Salt Plains NWR, where visitors can crystal-dig or see sandhill cranes (Photo by Ben Schian)

Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge

Our time in Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge began with the understanding that we would be in this area for longer than usual. It did not take long for us to become comfortable in the area. Although the region was so strangely beautiful, it felt like Mars! Our work in “Bill Will”, as it is called locally, was a warm surprise after Oklahoma! We spent our days surveying the warm Arizonan sun, November was the perfect time to visit. We met with visitors coming to do use the amazing hiking trails through the refuge, go kayaking or canoeing, or driving down the wild Planet Ranch Road… which truly felt like you left Arizona, and travelled to a new planet! On one occasion, we had the opportunity to work with refuge volunteers and staff to go to a remote area of the refuge to scout for future projects. It was a fun road trip for the day, and included some historic elements, as we got to learn about the Mexican ranchers who previously utilized the land for their livelihood when the land was not part of the US. After work was through for the day, we would often watch the sunset over the water, and see all the stars come out! There were many jackrabbits, roadrunners, and quail, as well as many bird species we weren’t familiar with, but loved to watch! Definitely put Bill Williams River on your list of refuges to see if you love being surrounded by mountains and bright blue waters!

Our survey location at Bill Williams River NWR! (Photo by Jess Michalski)

Havasu National Wildlife Refuge

Getting to Havasu refuge was very simple after Bill Williams River – just about an hour away, and some locations were even closer! Our time here was slightly longer, and we continued to enjoy the sunshine (and occasional downpour) of the area. Havasu means blue-green water in the Havasupai people’s language. This name holds true for the water of the lake that encompasses the refuge. It brings in many visitors to walk the trails, fish, and to kayak. Daily we would cross the boundary between Pacific Time and Mountain Time from California, where the headquarters and housing were, to Arizona, where the majority of the refuge is! It seemed like we were getting 25 or 26 hours in a day! Beyond surveying we also worked at a local animal shelter to acquire our service hours for AmeriCorps. We loved spending time with the shelter dogs so much that we ended up being there almost everyday before work! We wrapped up surveying Havasu, with the help of our logistic coordinator, Jessie, who visited to see how surveying goes on the ground! We showed her how the surveying efforts go, in terms of day-to-day work, so she is ready to get 2020 interns ready to go soon!

The view from where we surveyed at in Havasu NWR. (Photo by Jess Michalski)

Tiara and Bambino from Needles Animal Shelter taking a walk one morning with us! (Photo by Jess Michalski)



National Elk Refuge

We couldn’t have dreamed of a more unique or beautiful location for our final refuge. Once again, the National Elk Refuge makes you question whether or not you’re actually on planet Earth or some other mystical wonderland. Situated less than an hour from Yellowstone National Park, less than 10 minutes from Grand Teton National Park, and surrounded by the Bridger-Teton National Forest, National Elk Refuge could be considered to be in the Mecca of natural beauty. That being said, the wildlife is the true attraction here. It would be easy to think National ELK Refuge is all about the elk, but honestly there are so many other species who call this place home. Elk are just one of four beings in the deer family here, alongside moose, mule deer, and white-tailed deer. And that’s just the deer family! As for birds, there was a lot of diversity too, with swans, ravens and even bald eagles in the area. From afar we got the chance to see some grey wolves, which was a lot more comfortable than if they were right next to us! Our favorite animals here, the bighorn sheep, did in fact get really close and comfortable with us. On the wildlife drive at this refuge, dozens of bighorns would walk around, cross the roads, and come within 20 feet of people!

We were only in National Elk Refuge for 5 days, as opposed to 2 weeks like we had gotten used to. Despite being there for less than half the amount of time we usually spent in a refuge, we probably saw more wildlife here than anywhere else.

The humans here were cool too! This was the first place where we surveyed inside a visitor center, and all the staff there were very kind. One of the naturalists here ended up being our roommate and she made the nights in the bunkhouse really fun and full of laughter. The visitors we spoke to here came from all across the state, the country, and even some international visitors had to see what National Elk was all about!

After having travelled across the country nearly 2 full times, and getting to stay in so many memorable places, the only negative part of staying in National Elk, was that we couldn’t stay longer. Once again though, that just gives us another reason to come back (maybe next time in the summer!)

A Bighorn sheep showing that it’s not just about elks at National Elk Refuge. (Photo by Ben

Our journey as National Visitor Survey interns for USFWS and AmeriCorps can be parallel with the ecosystems. Each day we found new things to be excited about, saw new wildlife, learned new facts, met new faces. We saw the beauty of the US, from each coast, from the mountains, forests, marshes, beach, salt flats, desert, and the snow covered mountains. Each place and day held a new lesson for us, whether that be professional, educational, or personal. We can comfortably say that our four months as NVS interns left a lasting impression and appreciation for the natural world in our country. We hope that the survey will help more people to come to enjoy these natural spaces as much as we have.

ACE Pacific West South | Santa Margarita River

ACE Pacific West South had the unique opportunity this past fall to partner with California Trout on an invasive species removal project just outside of Temecula, CA. The eight-person ACE crew led by Joseph Ortiz worked alongside the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in the Santa Margarita River.  Electrofishing is a common scientific survey method that is often used to determine species abundance and density. When used in surveys, the fish are usually measured and recorded and then returned to their habitat unharmed. For invasive species removal, electrofishing is used to briefly stun and slow down the non-native species so that they can be removed manually from the habitat. This method allows the native species to quickly recover from the electric shock and return to their natural state. Electrofishing uses direct current electricity, which flows between a submerged cathode and anode. The current causes the fish to swim toward the anode where they are removed using nets and buckets. Once the US Fish and Wildlife Service and CA Department of Fish and Wildlife administered the electric current, the ACE crew members followed with nets to retrieve the fish. The crew also assisted in surveying, classifying, and using extermination techniques for invasive fish. In situations where the river was too high to administer the electric current via standing on the river bed, the team utilized a small pontoon to get the job done safely.The species removed included green sunfish, black bullhead, golden shiner, bluegill, largemouth bass, mosquitofish, American bullfrog, and red swamp crayfish. These species do not exist naturally in this area and outcompete the native species for food and resources. The project will continue in the fall of 2020.  ACE is excited to have had this unique opportunity to learn about these techniques alongside our partners in the field. 

An EPIC Summer in Providence, RI | April Alix

This summer, ACE EPIC member April Alix worked with the Partnership for Providence Parks (PPP) in Providence, Rhode Island. The Partnership was established in the Spring of 2012 in order to bring the Parks Department and area Friends Groups together with nearby businesses, nonprofits and schools committed to their local neighborhoods and the value of flourishing community green spaces. April assisted the organization as an Urban Educator, focused on creating free and open play for children, as well as offering innovative programs and events to get children and adults healthy, moving, and inspired. Through an Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Partnership for Providence Parks is able to continuously reach a wide-range of audiences and offer authentic outdoor experiences using city parks as exploratory spaces. 

Member April Alix interacts with a sloth at the Teacher Institute during her ACE EPIC term with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

During the program, April helped with a variety of trainings and programs connecting urban children and families to the outdoors. Partnering with the Roger Williams Park Zoo, she helped facilitate outdoor play dates at local libraries and parks that allowed children to play and explore. April also participated in an annual BioBlitz run by the RI Natural History Survey, in which volunteers, working scientists, and avocational naturalists worked to tally as many species of organisms as possible in 24 hours on a particular parcel of land. This year, the BioBlitz took place in a large city park with more than 1,127 species recorded! Through another collaboration with the Zoo, April took part in the Teacher Institute, a program engaging 10 Providence Public School teachers-in-training in the best practices for teaching outdoors. Teachers had the opportunity to learn about local biodiversity, conservation projects in the state, climate change education practices, and urban ecology. A fan favorite of this program was setting pit-fall traps to capture carrion beetles, baiting them with rotting chicken in the heat of July! 

Member April Alix works with the Teacher Institute to bait carrion beetles.

 

Member April Alix holds a container full of captured carrion beetles.

Throughout her term, April routinely assisted with field trips on Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, inspiring local Providence youth through activities such as hiking and seining in a salt pond. In the community event Cops and Bobbers, April joined partner organizations and local police officers to teach children how to fish while making positive interactions and meaningful conversation. 

Member April Alix works on conservation crafts with local youth.

Overall, it was exciting to see these urban spaces activated with so many programs! April thoroughly enjoyed working as an Urban Educator with a variety of partners throughout Rhode Island that make these meaningful programs possible. 

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.

EPIC Experience | Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge

The Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge, run by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, is now also home to two USFWS EPIC interns! This is the first group of interns to have the opportunity to work with USFWS biologist, Angela Dedrickson at this particular refuge. Interns Rose Caplan, and Shannon Finnerty started their year-long internship in September of 2018. During their time with the refuge, they have been an integral part of the US Fish and Wildlife Service team.

Interns in the bird blind to conduct monitoring with a refuge volunteer.

Mississippi sandhill cranes in their temporary enclosure.

The refuge was established in 1975 under the authority of the Endangered Species Act to protect the critically endangered Mississippi sandhill cranes and their unique, and itself endangered, wet pine savanna habitat.The population was once at a low of 30-35 individuals, however, with the efforts of the refuge they have been brought up to over a hundred individuals as of 2019. The 20,000 acres of the refuge also protects the critically endangered Mississippi gopher frog, more commonly known as the dusky gopher frog.

Intern Rose and Shannon check camera traps and fill feeds to monitor and track the wild cranes on the refuge.

Each morning the interns monitor the new cranes which are brought in from another facility to be released on the refuge. Through captive rearing and reintroduction to the area, as well as wild birds nesting in the savannas, the crane population continues to grow. The interns monitor their behavior and reactions to potential threats, as well as monitoring the wild population through camera traps. Rose and Shannon have also played a roll in the dusky gopher frog project from the time they arrived as tadpoles to their eventual release later this year. 

A intern dons a “crane suit” which allows her to approach the crane enclosure in somewhat of a disguise. This is done to prevent the cranes from becoming comfortable with humans.

Interns work with USFWS biologist, Angela Dedrickson to survey the potential release site of the dusky gopher frogs.

Interns on the refuge bayou conducting wildlife surveys from a boat.

A squirrel tree frog.

Both ACE and the US Fish and Wildlife Service are excited to see the partnership grow and continue into the future. An in-depth video for follow on the refuge and the role ACE EPIC interns are playing in the protection of these species.

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