Summer on the Water
By: Konner Magnuson and Andy Lisak
Upper Mississippi NWR – Winona District
We didn’t even have to move our accommodations as we continued working our way up to our final district of the Upper Mississippi NWR. Much like the rest of the districts along the Upper Mississippi River a lot of the visitors were either fishing or boating. Our term in Winona started off strong with lots of visitors for Father’s Day and the Fourth of July. We were also able to finally use our MOCC (Motorboat Operator Certification Course) certification for the first time when invited to survey from a boat for one morning shift. It was an overcast morning so there weren’t too many people on the river but it was a fantastic change in scenery and it felt great to finally get out on the water .As things began to wrap up at the end of the sampling period, we turned our sights for South Carolina and the three-day drive we needed to take to get there.
After we finished up with the Upper Mississippi NWR (for now), we made the 1,200-mile trek southeast to the scorching hot Waccamaw NWR for its second period of sampling. This refuge featured many different habitats ranging from the upland forest of Sandy Island, where we were stationed, to tidal rice fields and wetlands. But the habitat was not the only unique thing about this sampling period. To get to our sampling location, we once again put our boat training to use and navigate the Great Pee Dee river until we found a beach filled with boats and loud music.
During our stay at Sandy Island, we learned firsthand what southern hospitality is all about. The locals always made sure we never went hungry or thirsty in the sweltering 110-degree heat. All the locals loved this location because very few tourists know of its existence and because they have been going there since they were kids. All the locals seemed to very tight-knit and had no problems welcoming us with open arms and buckets of fried chicken.
When we were not sampling, we took the opportunity to hang out in the river and lagoon with the locals and learn more about the island and things to do in the area. We only got to leave the island a couple of times and we decided to make our way to Huntington Beach State Park, to cool off after a long, hot sampling period before driving north to the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
From Sandy Island, it was only a short drive up to Alligator River in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Things were already off to a good start when we discovered we would be staying in the refuge’s bunkhouse just a block away from the beach. Despite their beachfront housing, Alligator River is actually located inland and is primarily made up of pocosin wetland habitats. This ecosystem provides homes for many species of birds, snakes and small mammals, as well as one of the most concentrated black bear populations in the Eastern US and a reintroduced population of critically endangered red wolves.
With a steady stream of visitors to survey through the auto-tour, we had some free time to assist with other refuge activities. Nearby, Pea Island NWR was in the midst of sea turtle nesting season and we were able to volunteer for their turtle watch program, which entailed going to the beach and watching for any turtle activity for an evening. We had three nests to observe, and after a short while, the first nest began to slowly emerge, one turtle after the other poking its tiny head out of the sand. Soon enough, the nest was ready to boil (when all of the hatchlings dig their way to the surface at once) and suddenly dozens of baby turtles were making the mad dash to the ocean. A few minutes after the excitement had died down, another turtle was beginning to emerge from the same nest and was quickly followed by more as the nest boiled for a second time on the same night! By the end of the night, we got to help 71 little loggerheads safely complete their first journey to the ocean.
Other notable animal encounters during our stay at the refuge include almost daily sightings of some of the refuge’s 400 black bears, a herpetologist’s trifecta of cottonmouth, copperhead, and timber rattlesnake, as well as getting an inside look into the refuge’s small population of captively bred red wolves.
As our time in the Outer Banks came to a close, we also took advantage of some of the area’s more touristy attractions like delicious seafood restaurants, a series of lighthouses down the coast, and Kitty Hawk, the site of the Wright Brothers’ first flight. After finally getting our last few contacts, we packed up once again and prepared for another drive up the coast to Cape May, New Jersey.
Cape May NWR
Cape May NWR was one of the toughest places for us to sample due to a bike trail that ran down the middle of the Two-Mile Beach Unit. This bike path proved to be a tough obstacle to overcome as cyclists are a tough crowd to stop and talk to. Even when we did get them to stop there were quite a few who did not even know they were on a wildlife refuge.
The Two-Mile Beach Unit was acquired from the US Coast Guard in 1999 and is comprised of sand dunes, a beach, and wetlands. The beach itself is closed off to the public during the nesting season for birds such as the piping plover. While the closing of the beach upset some visitors, there was still plenty of opportunities to admire the shorebirds and ocean life from a distance and give the wildlife the respect that it deserved. Since we were getting enough visitors per shift we rolled up our sleeves and helped the maintenance staff trim grass and pull weeds around interpretive kiosks and signs. When we got done with that we threw on our jumpsuits and rubber boots and helped the other interns spray and cut the invasive bull thistle.
One of the most unique experiences at Cape May was when two visitors decided to stop in the middle of the road while we were at the end of our sampling shift. Oblivious as to what was going on, we decided to approach the car only to find Konner’s Aunt and Uncle had traveled several states to surprise us without any warning at all. After the initial excitement had simmered down, we gave them a tour of the refuge.
When we were not sampling, we took the opportunity to explore the local area some more, tried out the local seafood hotspots and made a visit to the town of Cape May with Konner’s family to check out the old Victorian style houses and the Cape May Lighthouse overlooking the Delaware Bay. We also spent quite a bit of time on the bay sorting through tons of perished horseshoe crabs in hopes of finding one that was tagged.