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ACE Alumni Ambassador | Taylor Crews

Alumni Name:  Taylor Crews

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

Dates Served: February 6,2019 – February 28,2020

What roles was Taylor in: corpsmember and Assistant Team Leader

Location: Asheville, NC

Taylor Crews, corpsmember and Assistant Team Leader from 2019 to 2020, now steps into the new volunteer role of ACE Alumni Ambassador.  In this interview, we introduce our readers to Taylor and give a glimpse into her time during and after ACE.  Taylor shares her experience with the National Park Service, favorite ACE projects, and what she and her team did during their time off.  Continue reading to hear Taylor’s full interview!

Q:  What were you doing before ACE?

A: I had graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University a year before, I was mostly traveling around Scotland and California while also applying for jobs in my field which was environmental studies. I needed a change so I decided to  move to Asheville and start to apply for jobs there, that’s where I saw the job ad for ACE and immediately applied.

Q:  How did you hear about ACE?

A: My professor who I was pretty close with in college suggested ACE as an option after college. She said it was really hard work but could open a lot of doors career wise while also giving someone a great work ethic, she wasn’t wrong. So I decided to apply thinking it was a great place to start.

Q:  Walk me through your time at ACE – What was your favorite aspect of being an ACE Crew member?

A: I joined in the winter so it was a small group of us at first, we all got close really quick. I was hopping around projects in Nantahala National Forest, Alabama, Harper’s Ferry, Mammoth Cave NP and Daniel Boone National Forest. I was mostly doing trail work along with some vegetation management and historic preservation. It was awesome to be in a different place every few weeks with a new crew, exploring new places. There was honestly never a dull moment, ACE attracts such an open, eclectic group of people and I believe the people are what made my experience there so magical. I wanted to sign on for another term so I then joined the trail crew that was going to be working on the Trillium Gap Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains NP in spring of 2019.

The project was a little different than the way the rest of ACE worked because we would be the same crew of people in the same place for 6 months. We got to be in Asheville every weekend which was great. Those 6 months were some of the best and hardest months of my life. Our crew was so close, we did everything together. We lived, worked and camped together, even on the weekends we hung out and we never really got tired of each other. Of course every crew has their moments but we had a lot of love for one another and we worked so well together. We got to work closely with the National Park Service’s trail crew everyday and it was an incredible career building and networking opportunity, it helped land me the job with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park I have now.

ACE definitely made me tougher and established a strong work ethic that I don’t think many other jobs would have. My favorite aspect of being an ACE crew member was the strong sense of community that was inherent in the experience. I was working outside doing meaningful, hard work with my best friends. I know it kinda sounds cheesy but It’s hard to put into words how amazing it truly was, people who have been in ACE probably know exactly what I’m talking of though.

Q:  What was it like living in Asheville, NC? Any favorite activities? Hikes? What did you do on your off days?

A: Living in Asheville is awesome! You can hop on the Blue Ridge Parkway in 10 minutes and be on a hike in no time. There’s endless hiking here and we’re surrounded by National Forests like Pisgah, Nantahala and Cherokee. The Great Smoky Mountains NP is a short drive away as well. I think my favorite hike in the area is Pilot Cove or Black Balsam Knob in Pisgah. There’s a huge rock slab at the top you can hang out on with a 360 view of the mountains.

We all would usually float the French Broad River or go hiking during the days. We would go explore downtown and the West Asheville area quite a bit too. One of our favorite things to do was go to Dobra or High Climate downtown and grab some tea and just chat for hours. At night we would usually go out in town and see some live music and grab a beer. We had a good little group of musicians in ACE at the time so we would hang out on the front porch of the ACE house and watch them have jam sessions too.

Q:  Did you have a favorite project?  Why?

A: When I was on the Trillium Gap project in GRSMNP for sure. I felt I was learning in depth about trail work, learning how to build structures. We built a huge rock staircase and rock work is my favorite so that was awesome to see come together. My crew and I were super close too, we were a little family.          

Q:  What is ACE Eastern culture?  How do you feel you participated in that culture?

A: I would say it’s a “work hard, play hard” mentality. We would work our butts off during the week, then still be super active and go out and have a great time on our off days. You could tell everyone truly wanted to be there to challenge themselves and grow. It was an inspiring environment to be in. The sense of community was awesome as well. I’ve never met a more open, accepting, loving group of people in my life. I learned so much about myself as an individual just being around people who accepted and loved everyone for who they were.

I feel I participated in that culture by constantly showing up, mentally and physically. I tried to not only work hard but to constantly try and improve. Asking questions, trying new things, and taking on responsibilities while on hitch. On the off days, our crew always welcomed new members coming in and tried to get to know everyone. We always had something going on and invited everyone who was back in Asheville to do stuff. Sometimes there would be a group of 20 ACEr’s going out downtown, it was so much fun.

Q:  In what ways did ACE shape your life personally and professionally?

A: I would say ACE shaped me to be a harder worker than I even thought I could be. I learned how to maintain a good work ethic in some pretty harsh conditions, like freezing cold and pouring rain. I got really comfortable being uncomfortable, like not being able to shower for days and sleeping on the ground for a month straight. ACE just all around made me a tougher person which I’m so grateful for. I felt like I walked out of ACE with a greater sense of being able to take on challenges and also how to better care for those around me. You’re not only living for yourself in ACE so living within a crew dynamic held me accountable in a lot of ways that shaped me in a big way personally.

Q:  How long have you been an ACE Alumni?  Where are you now? 

A: I’ve been an ACE Alumni for about 9 months now. I just finished up my first season doing trail work for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I’m still living in Asheville with 5 other previous ACE members.

Q:  What are some of your favorite extracurricular activities?

A: I’m really into bird watching! Working in the Smokies in the spring was awesome because so many birds come through there during migration and it was so fun being outside doing trail work and getting to hear all the different species of birds come through.

I’ve recently developed an interest in learning more about the native plants in Appalachia, going on hikes and identifying wildflowers and trees has been super fun for me. I also enjoy learning about and reading tarot cards, herbalism and being active in any way I can. My friends and I will usually go to yoga classes together (pre-Covid times ha) or go on hikes.

Q:  What excites you most about becoming an ACE Alumni Ambassador?

A: Being able to share my experience to other people in hopes they could join and have just as an amazing one as I had. I want to be able to help get the word out to more people about ACE because it’s a great place to start in conservation work.

Q:  If a prospective ACE member were to ask you what the benefits of joining ACE are, what would you say?  

A: I would say the benefits will result in what you put into it, you could gain so much from ACE if you go into it with a good mindset. Here are some I found for myself.

  • Growing as a person, both professionally and personally
  • Networking opportunities with project partners
  • Opportunity to travel to many National Parks and Forests
  • Learning a good variety of skill sets (trail work, vegetation management, historic preservation, planting)
  • Community with other ACE members
  • Getting to work and camp in beautiful areas










My ACE Journey | Demetria Toula Papadopoulos

Alumna Name:  Demetria Toula Papadopoulos

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

Dates Served: Feb 2015- May 2017 and May 2019- Present

What roles was Toula in: Crew Corpsmember, Crew Leader, Assistant Logistics Coordinator, Bureau of Land Management EPIC Internship (Currently Serving)

Location:  Hurricane, Utah and St. George, Utah

ACE Alumna, Demetria Toula Papadopoulos, walks us through her journey with ACE.  Toula started as an ACE corpsmember and years later is beginning her ACE EPIC Internship with the Bureau of Land Management.  Continue reading below to learn more about her favorite projects, thoughts on leadership, where she is headed next and so much more!

Q:  What were you doing before ACE?  

A:  Before joining ACE, I was attending college at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and working as a supervisor at a cafe in Boston, Massachusetts.  I attended for three semesters and ended up having to leave for mental health reasons.  I took the next year to continue to work, explore interests, and practice self-care.  I eventually decided to pursue a long-time curiosity in Willing Workers On Organic Farms (WWOOF) and spent a month volunteering on an Orchard in California.  I found that travel, meeting people, learning new skills, and working with the land fed my soul and left me feeling fulfilled and engaged.  This period of exploration is what led me to work in the outdoors and eventually ACE.

Q:  How did you hear about ACE?

A: Lots of Googling!  I had actually been searching for ways to get experience volunteering with wildlife, but I was unsuccessful in finding something I could either afford to do or held enough prior experience for.  ACE had shown up as a related option on  Even though the crew program was not directly related to wildlife work, I trusted that it could be a promising way to get a foot in the door of environmental work.

Q: Walk me through your time with ACE? What was your favorite aspect of being an ACE corps member?  

A: Ok, I’m going to break this down by positions so it’s lengthy, but hopefully shows one pathway to outdoor work!

I began volunteering with ACE MTW in February 2015 and had originally signed up for a 3 month llong term.  Ultimately, it passed in a flash and I ended up signing on for two more six month terms as a corpsmember. During my 15 months as a volunteer, I got trained as a sawyer, was selected for the flagship ACE Puerto Rico crew, became a housing supervisor, and participated in the early beginnings of the mentorship program and assistant crew leader position.

I was hired as a crew leader in May 2016 and led my first crew in Canyonlands National Park.  I focused on chainsaw work and maintenance and mostly led restoration projects.  The mentorship program really began to take off during this time and I was passionate about exploring leadership, empowering and teaching members.  I eventually found it was time to move on in May 2017 and spent time traveling in New Zealand.

After returning to the states, I was hired as the Assistant Logistics Coordinator for MTW.  This job combined the provisions and supplies position with vehicle/tool/shop upkeep.  This was also the time where I received my Forest Service B Faller certification.

I found out about the opening for the EPIC position I currently hold during this time as well.  It was with a project partner I had worked with previously and held a good relationship with.  This is just one of the reasons ACE is SO valuable due to the connections you can make if you are invested.  Ultimately, I am now working with the Bureau of the Land Management as an EPIC intern and working directly with wildlife.

Overall, I guess I would have to say one of my favorite aspects of working with ACE is community.  I found a community of lifelong friends, mentors, resources, support, opportunities, on and on.  

Q:  What is ACE MTW culture?  How do you feel you participated in that culture?

A:  ACE MTW culture is very dynamic.  I watched it change over and over during the two years or so that I lived in the Hurricane house.  The smaller nature of MTW lends itself to a tight knit feel (kind of like a small town neighborhood where everybody knows everybody).  But it also leaves room for interests and themes to blossom and shift so there were phases where everybody climbed, or learned card games, or played music, or gave mini learning sessions, baked cakes, practiced meditation, etc.  If you had something to share, there was room to share it.  Or if you wanted to learn something, there was a way to learn it.  I really enjoyed watching groups of corps members come in and bring a totally new quality to the community.  I like to think that as a crew leader, I supported the culture by creating an environment that encouraged others to explore their interests, take steps to teach each other, and just encourage creativity, sharing, and growth.

Q:  What was it like living in Hurricane, Utah?  Any favorite activities? Hikes? What did you do on your off days?

A: Hurricane is a pretty cool little place!  All your basic needs are within walking distance from the ACE house.  I especially loved reading in the park across the street, getting a coffee at River Rock and swimming in the Virgin River, or taking walks to the canyon just down the road.  The city of St. George is a 25 minute drive in one direction and Zion National Park is a 25 minute drive the other way.  It was also an eye opening experience being surrounded by an extremely different culture than what I was used to in the city/suburbs of Massachusetts.

I spent my off days taking road trips with other volunteers to nearby states and national parks.  I also had a motorcycle while I was living at the house so I took lots of solo trips all over the southwest.  I think these were some of my favorite experiences because I got to reach some beautiful places on my own and meet really interesting people along the way.  While you could travel to other places, there is also ENDLESS hiking and hidden jems to be experienced locally.  There was never a boring day at the ACE house either with lots of potlucks, jam sessions, game nights, etc.

Q:  Did you have a favorite project?  Why?

A:  Oddly enough, I feel like my favorite projects could be described as second hand fun haha.  It’s the most challenging ones that I feel like I appreciate the most.  I guess if I had to pick one, it would be crew leading the series of projects in Price, UT.  It was a semi backcountry project in that our gear had to be brought in by UTV.  It was also a restoration project so we hiked chainsaws to our worksite and faced an unbroken forest of tamarisk to remove.  We faced so many challenges in those weeks from multiple flash flooding, to more work than we imagined, to groover (backcountry toilet) malfunctions, and facing crew dynamics.  But somehow, I think/hope everybody there came out of it a little stronger.  I also met some of my best friends through overcoming these hard moments (Linnea remembers…)

All this being said, it’s worth mentioning that there was always sufficient support, communication, and planning from staff, so we were able to avoid getting into situations that were out of hand.

Q:  In what ways did ACE shape your life personally and professionally?

A: ACE was a huge step for me towards empowerment, learning invaluable skills, fulfilling my dream of travel, and what led me to take the job I currently hold.  A big bonus for me also happened to be helping overcome social anxiety through being in a supportive space.  Beginning as a shy art student, I left the crew program with self confidence, a sense of independence, and a deep appreciation of teamwork.  The skills I gained in ACE are what led me to pursue a lifelong dream of traveling to New Zealand.  I felt confident enough to travel solo, work and live on farms and communities, and volunteer with the Department of Conservation.  In addition, maintaining communication with a project partner I connected with is ultimately what led me to my current internship with the Bureau of Land Management and working with wildlife.

Q: What is leadership to you?  What did ACE teach you about leadership?

A: For me, leadership is less about directing people to do a job and more about watching and guiding the natural flow of a group towards their greatest potential.  In ACE, I learned that I didn’t have to be the most charismatic, the most outgoing, or the loudest to be a good leader.  I found my strengths in one on one connection and building relationships with individuals.  I found that in listening to each other, we could build ties and be better, stronger, and more efficient as a team.  In this way, we not only got the work done, but grew as individuals.  While it often took being the one to step forward, make calls, and take action; for me, mentoring and being a good leader was also often about stepping back, observing, and facilitating the flow of magic.

Being in a leadership role, I learned the most about myself in the shortest amount of time because your actions echo.  That being said, I don’t think that role has ever stopped and all of our actions are a small, daily act of leadership.

Q:  What are your responsibilities as an EPIC Intern with St. George, Bureau of Land Management?

A: As an EPIC Intern with St. George, Bureau of Land Management, my responsibilities range from heavy field work with wildlife to data management.  We work closely with the desert tortoise and most recently have been monitoring their population in the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area.  This has been especially important due to the recent fires.  The data we’ve collected will be used to help Federal Agencies make educated land management decisions.  Our work with the desert tortoise also includes radio telemetry, tortoise releases, monitoring during construction in tortoise habitat, and scat collection for DNA studies to determine diet in different habitats.  We’ve also conducted bat surveys using acoustic software, assessed Mexican spotted owl habitat, conducted plant surveys, and watered plants at habitat restoration sites.  My favorite part of my job has to be Gila monster surveys.  They are incredibly unique animals with fascinating behavior.  Unfortunately, they’re facing population decline due to human related habitat loss/fragmentation and poaching so research is incredibly important now.  In this job, I’ve really come to realize how every bit of effort in conservation is so vital even if your work feels small.

 Q:  How do you fill your time outside of your internship? What’s your favorite outdoor activity?

A: I still go hiking, camping, climbing and have recently gotten into mountain biking.  I try to take my incredible adventure cat, Baloo, out for walks when I can and when he’s not busy being a couch potato. I’ve also been working on making more art through landscape painting and wildlife studies.  I think my favorite outdoor activity is actually just sitting alone in one place and taking everything in.  I like to find time during hikes to stop and sketch a landscape that calls to me.  I never feel like I truly know a place until I do this.

Q:  What comes next?  What are your future goals?

A: I plan on fulfilling this EPIC internship in St. George, and would love to apply for a position at the BLM as a federal employee if something opens up.  I’m also taking online fisheries and wildlife management classes at Oregon State University at this time.  Ultimately, I would still like to combine this work with art, leadership, and sustainability either in one job or through different realms of my life.  I am passionate about sustainable agriculture as a tool for conservation and would love to find a way to merge these things.  Who knows where exactly it will all lead in 30 years, but I’m confident that following passions one step at a time will get me somewhere in the end.

Q:  If a prospective ACE member were to ask you what the benefits of joining ACE are, what would you say?  

A:  It’s hard to give a concrete answer but it is largely what you make of it.  You are aboard an ocean of resources, chances upon chances to learn new skills, living in a household of people with both similar interests and different interests, a boundless landscape filled with beauty and adventure, you receive an education award, and you have the rare gift of time on your hands for six off days.  These things are so hard to come by!  Much of it really is up to you what you will do and what it equals out to in the end.  But I suggest to be as proactive as you can, be flexible, be resilient, and be receptive.

In my ACE experience, I can tell you I have made the best- lifelong friends, experienced some of the most wonderous places, learned rare and valuable skills, gained invaluable job experience, met inspiring/powerful women and men who have served as huge role models, developed as a human, made lots of professional connections, and really would not be the same without it all.


ACE Alumni Ambassador | Libby Snethen

Alumna Name:  Libby Snethen

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Dates Served: May, 2017 to November, 2017

What roles was Libby in: Crew Member

Location: Mountain West, Hurricane, Utah

Libby Snethen, born in Washington and raised in Missouri, joined ACE Mountain West Crew division in May 2017.  Libby served a 6 month term with ACE and is now living in Salt Lake City, Utah.  Libby will be ACE’s very first Alumni Ambassador.  These volunteer positions will be spreading the word about all things ACE and engaging with prospective members.  Read Libbys interview below to learn more about our first Alumni Ambassador!

Q:  What were you doing before ACE?

A: I was a junior at the University of Missouri,  in Columbia, MO, studying sociology and working part time at the university hospital. My free time consisted of walking and running on the MKT trail through town.

Q:  How did you hear about ACE?

A: I randomly found the ACE website after Googling “Mount Zion Utah,” a place I had heard about from a friend that I would later know to be Zion National Park. My Google search took me through photos of towering sandstone spires and glowing arches, and then of unwashed, smiling faces in beige T-shirts. I watched every video about ACE that I could find and decided to apply for a six month term.

Q:  Walk me through your time at ACE – What was your favorite aspect of being an ACE Crew member?

A: Having never camped before I joined ACE, I had a lot to learn about the world of outdoor recreation. Immediately, I fell in love with hiking, camping, and not showering for days. While all of this was amazing, my favorite part of ACE was the people. I met dozens of wonderful people, each with their own styles, jokes, and dreams. The people of ACE became my family and I will always love them.

Q:  What was it like living in Hurricane, UT? Any favorite activities? Hikes? What did you do on your off days?

A: Hurricane was a fun place to live. I frequented Alfredo’s for burritos, and still visit whenever I’m in town. Chinatown Wash became a favorite hike of mine when I wanted to do something near the house. I didn’t know what to expect for my off days, but I could have never imagined them being filled with so much joy. Every single set of off days were spent traveling and getting to know my ACE friends better. We went on trips to Big Sur, Moab, the Grand Canyon, the Tetons, and more. We took naps under the arches that I had seen on Google Images. We strutted around art galleries in Carmel, CA wearing mismatched and inside out clothing. We laughed until we cried, and cried until we laughed. 

Q:  Did you have a favorite project?  Why?

A: My favorite project was a logout in Dixie National Forest. This was my first hitch using the chainsaw where I felt totally comfortable. I have to admit that the saw was very intimidating, but my Crew Leader, Katie Sena, was supportive and encouraging, which boosted my confidence. 

Q:  What is ACE MTW culture?  How do you feel you participated in that culture?

A: The ACE MTW culture is tight, to put it simply. We shared books, music, and fun recipes. I feel like I totally adopted the “dirtbag” lifestyle while in ACE, one of canned beans and remote adventures and without showers or flushing toilets. I loved coming back to the house and sharing stories with everyone while we packed for our next hitch. 

Q:  In what ways did ACE shape your life personally and professionally?

A: Personally, I grew so much and in ways that I didn’t imagine. The work pushed me physically and taught me what my body can do. I loved every new experience, and vowed to keep this momentum going. Professionally, I just wanted to do anything that would preserve this experience. Whether it’s working for a land management agency that protects the environment or for a local organization that encourages community engagement within the outdoors, I want everyone to have the opportunity to fall in love with nature in their own way.

Q:  How long have you been an ACE Alumna?  Where are you now? 

A: My last hitch was at the end of November in 2017. After ACE I decided to stay and transfer to the University of Utah. I graduated this year, and am currently the intern at TreeUtah, a nonprofit based in SLC that plants trees in communities that need them. 

Q:  What are some of your favorite extracurricular activities?  What is it like living in Salt Lake City, Utah?

A: Living in Salt Lake City is pretty great. I try to go hiking as often as I can. I try to fill my free time with things that make me feel good, like reading, visiting the mountains, painting, and socially distant picnics. Recently, I’ve been painting watercolors on my hikes, which has been pretty awesome.

Q:  What excites you most about becoming an ACE Alumni Ambassador?

A: I am so excited to be in a supportive role for future ACEers. The opportunities available to people in ACE are outstanding, and made even better when these people are encouraged to grow and explore as individuals. My experience doesn’t look like anyone else’s, and that’s what makes ACE so special. I hope that as an ACE Alumni Ambassador I can meet new people and encourage personal growth in them through environmental stewardship.

Q:  If a prospective ACE member were to ask you what the benefits of joining ACE are, what would you say?  

A: As cheesy as it may sound, the benefits are what you make them to be. I chose to put myself out there and fall down a lot because I wanted something new. Making close friends, exploring new places with said friends, and overcoming challenges are my major takeaways from ACE. For this experience, I will always be grateful.

Corps to Career | Maria Rago

ACE is proud to share a Corps To Career story with former ACE volunteer and staff, Maria Rago.  Maria started as a corpsmember and would soon move up in the organization due to her passion for conservation and leadership. After her career with ACE, Maria became a Wildland Firefighter for Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument and then Zion National Park.  Maria serves as a role model to those in search of outdoor experience and a future in Wildland Firefighting.     

Alumna Name:  Maria Rago

Pronouns: She/Her 

Dates Served: July 2017- February 2020

What roles was Maria in: corpsmember, assistant team leader, crew leader

Location: Mountain West, Hurricane, Utah

Q:  What were you doing before ACE?  

A: After I graduated from Slippery Rock University in Dec 2016, I moved back home to Pittsburgh. I was working at a daycare program called the Eagle’s Nest that looked after kids while their parents were shopping at the grocery store the daycare was located in.

Q:  How did you hear about ACE?

A: I heard about ACE from someone that I went to college with that just got a job as a crew leader. He graduated a semester before me and reached out after he spent a few months at ACE and thought I would fit in well.

Q: Walk me through your time with ACE? What was your favorite aspect of being an ACE corps member?  

A: My favorite thing about ACE was moving to a place completely different from where I was living in Pittsburgh. I felt like I was getting introduced to a whole new world. I had never even been on a camping trip before so everything about ACE and outdoor recreation was new to me. I loved meeting people with different hobbies and varying experience levels so some of us could experience firsts together while being guided by the more experienced crew members who were excited to share their knowledge. There is such a great community at ACE MTW. I really felt like I met “my people.” I think doing hard physical work and experiencing the outdoors together creates a unique bond. I know that I will always have those friendships that formed at ACE.

Q:  What is ACE MTW culture?  How do you feel you participated in that culture?

A: ACE MTW culture is about getting outside, trying new hobbies, and including as many people in them as you can. My boss in Zion asked me and another former ACEr on our crew why whenever he sees ACErs at a climbing spot there are always so many people. We explained that’s how ACE is, whenever someone says they are going out to do something everyone joins in. It is especially welcoming when you first move into the house in Hurricane. As soon as you are no longer the new person in the house you become one of the people inviting the new members out for a hike and making them feel welcome. I went on so many hikes and trips with so many different people while I was in ACE.

Q:  What was it like living in Hurricane, Utah?  Any favorite activities? Hikes? What did you do on your off days?

A: Living in Hurricane made me fall in love with the desert and I haven’t really left since I got here 3 years ago. There are so many places in the area to go hiking, backpacking, and climbing. The people I met in ACE introduced me to all of these activities and when I was a part of ACE we all spent every off day doing as much of them as we could. The views are also mind blowing. I love looking around and being able to see West Temple in Zion and the Pine Valley Mountains at the same time. Especially when they are covered in snow!

Q:  Did you have a favorite project?  Why?

A: One of my favorite projects was the Death Valley project that we would do in the winter. We had a small crew and worked directly with the project partner removing invasive species like palm trees and tamarisk. We went back for a few hitches so we got to spend a lot of time in the park and explore more than most people will ever see. That was also one of my first hitches after I got chainsaw trained and I was cutting palm trees in the desert. I think that’s a pretty once in a lifetime kind of experience.

Q:  In what ways did ACE shape your life personally and professionally?

A: Without exaggerating, I feel safe to say that ACE drastically changed my life. It took me in a whole new direction that I hadn’t even considered for myself. I studied Art Education when I was in college and the thought never crossed my mind that one day I would be working in Zion National Park as a Wildland FireFighter. I didn’t really even know what that job was. ACE opened up this world of seeing women work alongside men in a very physical job and excel at it. I met so many strong, impressive women that really inspired me and gave me the confidence to venture into a field that is very male dominated. Being surrounded by amazing women and sharing stories and experiences created a great environment for me to grow both at work and outside of it.

Q: How did you attain your positions as a wildland firefighter in Utah?

A: I actually had my first interaction with the Fire Crew I am currently on when I was a corpsmember at ACE. We did a fuels reduction hitch in Zion National Park and part of our daily routine was meeting with the Engine Captain and Assistant Engine Captain to ask them questions and learn about the Wildland Firefighting profession. That’s when I decided that I wanted to pursue a job in this field. After that, I tried to get on as many saw projects as I could and started applying to Wildland Fire jobs. I did not end up getting a fire job the first season I applied so I tried to get more experience and applied to an ACL position but was not selected. I then found a position on a saw crew at the UCC that helped me get all the basic Wildland Firefighting certifications. After my 6 month term there I was able to get an ACL job with ACE MTW where I continued to gain relevant job experience. The summer after that term was when I started my first fire season in Escalante. Now I work with people who were once my project partners in Zion. I was told by both of the people in charge of hiring me for my two fire seasons that my work experience at conservation corps was the main reason I was hired.

Q:  What are your responsibilities as a wildland firefighter with ZNP?

A: I am part of a 6-7 person engine crew in Zion. We are available to get sent to a fire in the whole color country area from the Arizona Strip up to Cedar City and all the way out to Escalante. Within our crew, our roles when we are on a fire change frequently. I’ve been the person spraying water from the hose, the sawyer, the swamper, and the person digging the fire line. I would say my main responsibility being a newer firefighter is to gain as much knowledge as I can about how to work on a crew, how to fight fire, and how to stay safe so that I can help teach and lead in the future.

Q:  How do you fill your time outside of Fire? What’s your favorite outdoor activity?

A: Although I haven’t had much time outside of fire this season, backpacking and climbing are my top two favorites. I am also hoping to get into trail running this off season.

Q:  What comes next?  What are your future goals?

A: Right now my goal is to work towards leadership qualifications within Wildland Fire. I hope to get my squad boss task book signed off in the next couple years. Another one of my goals is to recruit more women into Wildland Fire!

Q:  If a prospective corpsmember were to ask you what the benefits of joining ACE are, what would you say?  

A: There are so many benefits. I would say learning to work as a part of a crew and then learning how to lead a crew. I worked with a variety of leadership styles and was able to see how to be an effective leader for different groups of people. ACE is also a great way to network with potential future employers from land management agencies that are project partners. I know a few people, including myself, that have gotten jobs working for project partners from a hitch they were on. You can also get a feel for the different types of work that go into managing public lands. Trying out the types of work through hitches can help you decide what kind of outdoor work you are interested in. I also got to work in so many beautiful places. My appreciation for nature grew with every hitch that I went on. ACE is a great place for meeting friends with similar interests and then using your time off to explore with them.

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!

Following the River

Following the River

By: Ally Wood and Eric Rios-Bretado

This blog tells the story of two strangers turned friends and the first leg of their journey through Texas and New Mexico. Here, they encounter people from all over the world, beautiful birds, striking sunsets, and a brief stint as a FWS mascot. We started off in snowy Fort Collins, Colorado and soon after left for South Texas, a birder’s winter paradise!

Eric is a recent grad from Texas A&M-Commerce eager to learn more about the wildlife refuge system. Ally is a New Yorker exploring the southern and western USA for the first time! Photo by Ally Wood.

Santa Ana NWR

It seemed the cold followed us, as our first day in Texas we had snow fall over night and well into the next morning. Undeterred by what Eric’s people call a “snowstorm”, we moved on. We stopped briefly in historic San Antonio, just minutes away from the Alamo! Our ultimate destination was Santa Ana NWR, which some people consider the jewel of the whole Wildlife Refuge System.

We had a most excellent orientation of the refuge where we were given a personal tour by the refuge manager and one of the park rangers. Santa Ana has an impressive 40 foot observation tower, a swing bridge situated 25 feet above the ground, a graveyard that has the remains of Santa Ana’s original land grant owners, and a view of the mighty Rio Grande. The refuge manager explained how refuge biologists recreate flooding events on the refuge to mimic what the Rio Grande once did before it was managed by people. Wildlife depends on the wetlands here for food and habitat, which is important since several major bird flyways meet at Santa Ana. Javelinas, bobcats, elusive indigo snakes, chatty green jays, and dazzling Altamira orioles where some of the most impressive wildlife here.

The forty-foot observation tour was often busy with birders hoping to see the elusive hook billed kite. Photo by Ally Wood.

As there is only one point of entry into the refuge, we were able to work the fee booth and sample from there! On one rather slow day and an eventful conversation with a certain park ranger, we decided dressing up as Puddles the Blue Goose would get people to come by the refuge instead of just passing through. It didn’t bring more people in, but it sure did get some laughs at the visitor center and a few pictures of Puddles getting up to some shenanigans! Another highlight of our time there was going out with the refuge manager to an elementary school where we helped students plant native flora for their school garden. The kids had fun planting and playing in the dirt while also learning about the importance of pollination. Sadly, we had to leave this jewel called Santa Ana. Though we would miss the colorful birds and friendly staff, our next destination was close to the beach and home to a few endangered species we were eager to encounter!

Puddles the Blue Goose (AKA Eric) radios Santa Ana dispatch to tell them we’re in the Fee Booth. Photo by Ally Wood.

Laguna Atascosa NWR

At Santa Ana NWR, the powerful Rio Grande was the backdrop of our surveying efforts. Our second refuge, Laguna Atascosa, took us to the River’s outflow – the Gulf of Mexico. Laguna Atascosa NWR is situated on Laguna Madre, which, in combination with South Padre Island, protects the coast line from the ocean’s powerful waves. Laguna Atascosa, like Santa Ana, is a birder’s dream and a popular destination for Winter Texans. The intersection of several habitat types, such as temperate, coastal, and desert, draws in migrating birds who need some TLC before continuing their journeys. We often surveyed visitors next to one of the refuge’s bird feeders and enjoyed the familiar calls of green jays, Altamira orioles, chachalacas, and the ever-present great tailed grackles as we worked.

One morning, we managed to snag seats on Laguna’s coveted tram ride, a 3 hour habitat tour that takes passengers from the thorn scrub to the Laguna Madre and back again. Wanda, one of the refuge’s volunteers, narrated the trip. Although she promised that she wasn’t a birder, she succeeded in pointing out white tailed hawks, caracaras, Caspian turns, and a long billed curlew, among many others. We also saw Nilgai, an invasive but impressive antelope originally from Asia, and a flotilla of ducks. Like many visitors, we had hoped to see evidence of ocelots, a medium sized wild cat with a sleek, dappled fur coat. Laguna Atascosa’s abundance of thorn scrub makes a desirable habitat for the endangered cat and is home to some of the remaining North American population. Although we didn’t spot the elusive ocelot on our tram tour, we did get to help the refuge with Ocelot Conservation Day!

Renee’s Overlook was one of the few stops we made on the tram tour. Photo by Ally Wood.

Ocelot Conservation Day, which took place at nearby Gladys Porter Zoo, featured a very special guest: Clyde the ocelot! Clyde was visiting from The Texas Zoo in Victoria, TX. We helped refuge staff and volunteers set up and break down the event and provided extra crowd control for Clyde. Ocelot Conservation Day was a purr-fect way to wrap up our time at Laguna Atascosa (yes, ocelots purr!) before heading to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico.

Clyde waits patiently for his daily meal. Photo by Ally Wood.

Bosque del Apache NWR

Although we were sad to leave south Texas, it was exciting to visit New Mexico since neither of us had spent much time there before. We were treated to stunning mountain vistas for the last leg of the drive, a big contrast to the picturesque plains of southern Texas. Although many things changed between our Texan refuges and Bosque del Apache, one thing stayed the same: the importance of the Rio Grande.

Like Santa Ana, Bosque del Apache staff manipulate water levels in the refuge’s wetlands to mimic historic cycles of the River. This repetitive filling and draining of the wetlands allows vital waterfowl food sources to grow on the refuge each year. On one of our first mornings at the refuge, we took a break from contacting visitors and hopped in a truck with Susan, the wildlife refuge specialist, to help with wetland monitoring. We used binoculars to read the water depth on a measuring stick in the wetland and recorded the data. It was awesome to be included in one of the most important jobs on the refuge!

One of Bosque Del Apache’s many wetlands aglow at sunset. Photo by Eric Rios-Bretado.

Due to Covid-19, we suspended our visitor sampling a week after arriving at Bosque and cut the rest of our journey short. Although we wish we could keep working on the survey, this change has allowed us to work with the refuge on several different projects. We spent one day prepping an authentic Adobe-style bunkhouse for future refuge visitors and imagining what it would be like to live in such a cool place. The next morning, we set out with two refuge volunteers, Wendy and Pam, to do trail maintenance in the Chupadera Peak Wilderness Unit. Wendy and Pam have been working on the 9.5 mile round trip Chupadera trail over several seasons and are almost done! We helped by trimming back prickly pear cactus, abundant grasses, and some four wing saltbush in the canyon portion of the trail to make it safer. It was amazing to see the Chihuahuan desert and the refuge wetlands spread out below us as we gained altitude on the mountain.

Ally, Pam, and Wendy head down Chupadera after a day of trail work. Photo by Eric Rios-Bretado.

Although our journey will end sooner than expected, we had an incredible experience exploring and sampling the southwest. We surveyed and met people from across the globe, learned their stories, and shared in their joy of nature and the wild world. This internship took us to new places and helped us grow into more confident and experienced stewards of the environment.We are so thankful for the excellent USFWS staff and volunteers and ACE employees who made this the most amazing internship imaginable.

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

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)

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.

Exposed to the Elements

Exposed to the Elements

By: Lindsey Broadhead and Paul List

This epic adventure begins as two strangers hop aboard a Toyota RAV-4 (affectionately nicknamed Ravioli) and depart into the great expanse known as the American West. Their adventures will take them through steep and dark mountain ranges, wide open prairies, ragged coastlines, and desolate deserts. Along the way they will meet a variety of amazing people, view some incredible wildlife, and sample all types of breakfast restaurants and Love’s travel stops.

Through our travels, we have noticed an elemental theme between our assigned refuges, and we want to take you on a journey with us through water, earth, and air.

Saddle Mountain National Wildlife Refuge: bringing people to the river

Nothing is as essential to life on earth as water. Especially in desolate areas like eastern Washington, water, more specifically the Columbia River, is critical in supporting the food we eat every day. Our first refuge was here, right in the heart of the Washington agricultural industry at Hanford Reach National Monument (Saddle Mountain NWR, the name is no longer used). Hanford Reach protects the longest free-flowing stretch of the Columbia river, and we saw the importance of the river firsthand while we were in the thick of salmon run. People from throughout the Pacific northwest converged to try their hand at catching the world-renowned Chinook salmon in the clear, cool waters of the Columbia. In fact, this spot was so popular that people set up “salmon camps” for months at a time, living on site so that they could fish every single day. From many vantage points along the river and refuge, visitors can also view the 9 decommissioned nuclear reactors of the of the Hanford Site for which the refuge is named. The refuge itself was and still is a buffer site between the surrounding communities and the nuclear reactors. Part of the reason that this place was chosen for the complex was the clean and abundant water supply from the Columbia river. The river here is truly the lifeblood of the region, a deep blue vein of life in a vast sagebrush sea.

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

In addition to our first two week sampling period at Saddle Mountain in late August, we returned for a third week a month later in October. During our first two weeks, the salmon had not yet begun their migration. We returned to Saddle Mountain just in time for the end of salmon season, encountering a significantly greater number of salmon fishers actively enjoying their access to the river. While the vast majority of visitors we met at Saddle Mountain were fishers, some came for other reasons. We met families looking to enjoy an afternoon boating, sightseers looking to explore this stretch of the Columbia River, and even a class out searching for macroinvertebrates. These groups helped remind us of the many different uses people might find for a river like the Columbia and the importance of continuing to preserve access for generations to come.

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

Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge: preserving an iconic American landscape

After our first period at Saddle Mountain, we headed inland for Oklahoma, home of Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. Here, the namesake mountains rise up out of one of the last remaining expanses of mixed grass prairie, creating a surprisingly diverse ecosystem rich in wildlife. The refuge is one of the oldest in the nation, founded in 1901 as a sanctuary for one of North America’s most iconic land animals: the American bison. Since then, the refuge has grown into an iconic attraction for nature lovers, with a wide array of activities and uses. An auto tour route takes visitors through the grasslands to admire wildlife from prairie dogs to longhorns, while a network of trails brings guests up into the mountains themselves. A state of the art visitor center allows guests to learn about the refuge’s unique natural history, while volunteer led educational programs take guests out into the field for a more in depth experience. With picnic areas and camping sites, this refuge feels in many ways like a national park.

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

Our slower start at Saddle Mountain did not prepare us for how popular Wichita Mountains would be. It is the most visited wildlife refuge in the system, and at 59,020 acres of wildlife and wilderness it is easy to see why. Visitors ranged from local regulars to international tourists looking to experience a piece of American history. It was clear that Oklahomans are incredibly proud of this place, as evidenced by the active volunteer group, Friends of the Wichitas. We spoke to people who have been coming here for generations, now taking their great grandchildren for the first time to experience its wonder. We also got a taste of wonder ourselves as we ogled over one of the oldest herds of American bison, intricately patterned Texas longhorns, charismatic prairie dogs, and majestic elk, all on the backdrop of beautiful red granite mountains. Our housing was a 1930’s CCC built bunkhouse surrounded by woods and mountains, and we made friends with a fellow intern named Miahna who was staying with us there. We had a grand old time going to local restaurants, discovering venomous snakes on nighttime drives, and snapping photos of tarantulas as you do when you are all hardcore nature nerds. Another highlight of this leg of the trip was our invitation to a boy named Robert’s 10th birthday party while we were sampling near a picnic area. The family generously provided us with hotdogs and (heavenly) homemade strawberry shortcake, a gesture that sealed our love for this place and the people of Oklahoma.

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

Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge: where the skies are filled by wings of thunder

After leaving the prairies of Oklahoma, we returned north to the Great Salt Lake region of Utah, home of Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. Like Wichita Mountains, this refuge is old, dating back to 1928 when it became the first wildlife refuge created by an act of Congress. Like Wichita Mountains, Bear River has an active Friends group and is loved by the local community. However, unlike Wichita Mountains, Bear River was designed as a refuge for migratory birds, preserving the famous sound of “wings of thunder.” From the bird shaped design of the visitor center to the giant American avocet that greets you as you enter, the importance of birds at the refuge is made abundantly clear. The visitor center also prominently displays an airboat, commemorating the wildlife biologists who developed this method of harnessing the power of air as a way to effectively navigate the refuge’s wetlands. In addition to the visitor center, the refuge features a 12 mile auto tour loop through the wetland area, with several pullovers and viewing platforms for birders.

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

Our first weekend at Bear River coincided with National Public Lands Day, a national day of service and celebration of our public land systems. We were able to assist with Bear River’s commemoration of the day by running activities for guests. The visitor center’s classroom, normally closed to guests, was opened up, allowing visitors to examine natural history specimens or enjoy the collection of bird puppets. To help guests learn more about the birds that call this refuge home, a station was set up to depict various beak types, with interactive components for hands on learning. In addition, we were provided with materials to set up a track making activity, allowing guests to leave with a free, educational souvenir. Unfortunately, the skies were not fully cooperative this day, as cold rain kept us from having the high visitation we were expecting. Nevertheless, those visitors who did join us were enthusiastic participants, eager to learn and grateful for our efforts.

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

Our last weekend at Bear River introduced us to a new kind of visitor: hunters. During hunting season, Bear River’s wetlands are opened up to waterfowl hunters, who came out in great numbers to take advantage of this opportunity. Purchases of duck stamps (which are required for hunting migratory waterfowl) provide an important source of income for the refuge, while refuge regulations and wardens help ensure that game species are sustainably hunted while nom-game species continue to be protected. The hunting community’s support was invaluable in the creation of the refuge almost a century ago, and this partnership continues to be crucial today.


From the Columbia River in Washington, to the Wichita Mountains in Oklahoma, to the Migratory birds in Utah, our adventures thus far have taken us to refuges defined by access to water, land, and sky. Along the way, we have met a wide variety of visitors, from dedicated local fishermen to international sightseers. Despite their diversity in uses, all were unified by their appreciation for the continued access to wildlife provided by these refuges. As we continue our journey through California and return to Washington, we expect to continue to see how both people and animals benefit from the work of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

East Bound and Down

East Bound and Down

By: Caroline Brown and Julia Guay

Fort Niobrara and Upper Mississippi

When people said the midwest was nothing but cows and corn fields, we are glad to report that they must have missed a few spots. One such place was our first survey site, Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).Through it runs Niobrara River, a National Wild and Scenic River, where we were envious of many visitors floating down on tubes. This refuge also offered us an up-close opportunity to see bison in their native range. Sadly, we were only here for one week as we had to drive to our next make-up shift on the Upper Mississippi.

Both the LaCrosse District (part of Upper Mississippi NWR) and Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge offered amazing birding opportunities, as well as a wide variety of fish species that drew fishermen and women from across the midwest. One shift was spent at the re-opening party of a boat landing, where many locals were happy to have the launch reopened and we were happy for the free food. While in Mississippi, we stayed at Perrot State Park, where we had barred owls for neighbors and wood frogs as tent buddies. After a whirlwind of a week, we departed for Clarks River National Wildlife Refuge.

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

Clarks River

Upon arriving in Kentucky, after we camped for the night at Shawnee National Forest, we were happy to start our first two-week sampling period and have some time to settle down. Though the heat was an unwelcome change from chilly Wisconsin, we were excited nonetheless! Our first sampling shift at Clarks River NWR was one of our most successful and most fun! Clarks River NWR held a family fishing night event at their Environmental Education and Recreation Area (EERA).The event provided fishing poles and bait for children to come fish with their families, as well as other kid-friendly activities, including a table hosted by the Murray State Wildlife Society with furs and live snakes to show the visitors. During our other shifts at the EERA, we learned that the walking paths there are appreciated by the local community with many regular visitors who come to exercise and enjoy nature. When not surveying, we were able to learn about the unique forested environment of Clarks River NWR and ongoing forest restoration efforts. Our time at Clarks River NWR ended with the Wildlife Heritage Outdoors (WHO) Festival which took place at a local park. Clarks River NWR hosted a booth with “Animal Olympics” so kids could play and learn about local wildlife in the process. The booth also provided refuge information and hunting permits for those interested. The WHO festival included a nature photography contest, a calling contest, and various other activities. It was wonderful to see how the local community valued spending time in nature! At the end of our two week stay, we were sad to leave the great staff members we had gotten to know but we knew we would be back in November in the hopes of making contacts once hunting season was underway. We departed for EH Mason Neck NWR, hoping for some cooler weather!

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

Mason Neck

The 800 mile journey to Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge was our longest trek so far this fall. Luckily, we were able to break it up by staying in western Virginia and then at a lovely campground in Shenandoah National Park. We woke early for a quick hike and then descended from the mountains towards the river banks of the Potomac to where Mason Neck NWR is located. Created to protect breeding habitat for bald eagles, this refuge has become a haven for other wildlife. Many of our shifts were spent chuckling over the antics of gray squirrels and listening to the calls of barred owls. Most visitors we made contact with were from the area and appreciated having the refuge, as it is 25 miles south of Washington D.C. and is one of several protected areas on this peninsula. One day off was spent exploring the many free museums in our nation’s capital. Though our feet may have been tired by the end of the day, we could not believe that such a bustling metropolis was just a short distance from this quiet refuge. When it came time to go, we were sad to say goodbye, but we were excited to see what adventures Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge would bring.

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

Alligator RiverLeaving the hustle and bustle of the DC area behind us, we headed south to the shores of North Carolina. We were excited to find our bunkhouse was on the Outer Banks and just a short walk from the beach. After bringing our belongings inside we took a walk to the beach. We were impressed by the huge waves and shore birds. The next day we made the drive inland to Alligator River NWR. Alligator River is comprised of both fields and various wetland habitats, making it home to lots of interesting wildlife! Alligator River NWR is perhaps best known for having a small population of the endangered red wolf both in captivity and in the wild on the refuge. We were lucky enough to participate in a Wings Over Water (WOW) event where we got to hear the captive red wolves howl! Though the red wolves are what the refuge is best known for, most visitors come in the hopes of spotting black bears. Alligator River NWR is believed to have the highest concentration of black bears on the east coast. We were lucky enough to see several black bears during our time at the refuge and observed them doing different activities such as wading in a canal and climbing a tree. Despite the name Alligator River NWR, alligators are not as common there as they are farther south but we were lucky enough to spot a young alligator who likes to hang out by the boat launch. With so much wetland habitat, waterfowl and migratory birds may be observed as well. There is truly something for every type of wildlife lover here! Due to its proximity to the Outer Banks, there are many tourists, both domestic and international, who visit Alligator River NWR so we were kept busy during our shifts making contacts. Locals enjoy Alligator River NWR as well, especially for hunting, so we were glad to get the chance to meet them. In our free time we were able to visit the beach, see the largest active dune on the east coast, visit a historic lighthouse, see the site of the lost colony of Roanoke, attend a play that a refuge staff member was starring in, and sample an Outer Banks staple: Duck Donuts. We were sad to leave such a unique and popular refuge but look forward to continuing our adventure at nearby Great Dismal Swamp.

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



By: Ben Schian and Jess Michalski

In day-to-day life, most people have routines. They go do similar tasks at similar jobs in similar locations. This is not one of those stories. We have been experiencing a job that requires an understanding that everything changes, and that is the one consistency. Change has been the underlying theme of our time with the ACE National Visitor Survey team. We have found an abundance of changes throughout the two months of being on the road. When we began our journey to Fort Collins, CO for training, we arrived unsure of where the job would take us. We found out that we would be traveling across the entire US, coast to coast which was definitely unexpected as we had thought that we would be surveying just one region!

Immediately upon transferring towards our work assignment we felt the changes of being on the road.

Bald Knob NWR, AR

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


From the moment we left Fort Collins, Colorado everything began to change. In fact on our very first travel day our campsite changed, when we arrived and noticed that there was a nicer campsite open a few sites away from where we had originally planned. On our second day of travel from Fort Collins to Bald Knob, our plans also changed as we were originally going to camp in the Ozark National Forest, and instead camped about an hour from Bald Knob, at a campsite called Cove Creek. Before our sampling ever began, before we had even arrived at our first refuge we realized there would be constant change and that one thing that we would have to get comfortable with was adaptability. (Spoiler alert: we have become incredibly adaptable).

As natives of Niagara Falls, NY the first big change we had to adapt to was the change in temperature from New York to Arkansas. During our time in the “Natural State” it was consistently over 90 degrees. This high heat may have been a deterrent for refuge visitors, but the wildlife at Bald Knob sure seemed to enjoy the end of the summer. In the hot air you could always see great blue herons and white egrets flying around, until the heat became too much and they settled into the intricate waterways that the refuge maintains. Among the herons and egrets you could also see tons of butterflies and dragonflies, unless they were hiding away in the dense trees that cover close to half of the refuge.

As for Bald Knob, our time there was during the change of seasons between the end of summer and the start of fall. One thing we are sure of after leaving Bald Knob is that it will be a completely different experience for our friends sampling during period 2 in the fall!

Santee NWR, SC

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

Upon leaving Bald Knob, we had the opportunity to camp in Alabama, at Monte Sano State Park, as our housemate in Arkansas (an Alabama-native) recommended. It was beautiful and peaceful full of white-tailed deer who roamed freely nearby. Just in time for sunset, it was wonderful through the trees. The next night we got to camp at Congaree National Park (sweet job right?!) but the coolest part was that we were the only visitors in the park camping that night! Imagine an empty National Park, with a full moon (and of course plenty of massive spider webs to dodge!) That was an experience like none other! The next morning we arrived at Santee NWR in South Carolina.

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

Santee is a 13,000 acre refuge on the edge of Lake Marion, the largest lake (Reservoir) in the state. We encountered our first American alligators, plenty of wild turkeys, as well as white-tailed deer, raccoons, hawks, and one very large snake. The folks at Santee were friendly; however, we met very few people. We tried to not take this too personally…the refuge biologist told us that visitation is hit-and-miss, especially with the transitional seasons. Just another change for us to roll with. Onto coastal South Carolina…

Cape Romain NWR, SC

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

Although Cape Romain was only approximately 1 hour from our last refuge, Santee NWR, it was a completely different experience. Upon arrival our schedule was still pretty much up in the air, and that quickly turned during our orientation with a very sweet refuge manager. She booked us a ride on a ferry to the uninhabited Bull Island where we surveyed for our first shift- a once in a lifetime experience and something vastly different from what we had done until then. Our next sampling day we had another once in a lifetime experience as we got to sample visitors during a red wolf feeding. There are about 20 red wolves left in the wild so it was very cool to see them walking around and eating (and hanging out with their vulture friend) while we also sampled visitors. With change in mind, hopefully the population changes for these beautiful red wolves, and it just may thanks to dedicated people like “Wolfman Rob.” As for populations that have been changing for the better, we also got to help out with a loggerhead sea turtle nesting project, where we helped count eggs. We were told that the population has been increasing year by year and this year was the largest population they had ever recorded since their surveying began, up from 1-2,000 to more than 3,000 turtles!!!

Within about one month of traveling the country and working on the National Visitor Survey, change had become something we had gotten used to, and impermanence was something we had become somewhat-comfortable with. Change and impermanence was shown to us to beautifully & symbolically during our time at Cape Romain on our off-time. Every chance we got, we went to the beach to swim in the Atlantic ocean. With the coming-and-going of each wave it was a beautiful reminder that nothing stays the same from moment to moment, but beautiful moments will always continue to come again and again.

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

Cross Creeks NWR, TN

About an hour west of Nashville lies Cross Creeks, an 8,862 acre refuge that features a focus on waterfowl habitat and co-op farming accordingly. Many of the folks were visiting to observe the variety of species there. These included armadillos, vultures, eagles, an abundance of white-tailed deer, turtles, heron, white pelicans, egrets, and bison (at Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area). We had the opportunity to encounter the bison relatively close, as one day we were driving through and two were less than 10 ft from the fence of grazing range. We got out of the car and gazed at them grazing…it is true peace to watch these majestic animals.

Our time in Cross Creeks was one of the first times that there was moderate consistency in our lives throughout our time on the road, with a pattern of light visitation that we followed to try to recruit as many survey participants as many as we could. This resulted in us having a daily routine of sorts. But not to worry, we remained in the state of change not through our daily actions but change to our physical bodies, we gave each other haircuts and got new tattoos. We must have just grown accustomed to change!

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

We were lucky enough to start this job, traveling the country, as best friends and we’re glad to say that is one thing that has not changed. In fact we’ve become much closer than ever before! Along with the turning of the seasons, the changes from place to place and the changing climate that is affecting these refuges, we have noticed major inner changes within ourselves. We have gotten better at not jumping to conclusions about people or places, and really getting to live life with genuine wonder and awe for everyone and everything we see! Working at National Wildlife Refuges has shown us that although the refuges are primarily for the wildlife, they are just as important to the public, and to ourselves as we have found a deep sense of inner peace while sampling at some of the most beautiful places on the planet.

Summer on the Water

Summer on the Water

By: Konner Magnuson and Andy Lisak

Upper Mississippi NWR – Winona District

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

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

Waccamaw NWR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Cape May NWR

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tales from the Mississippi River

Tales from the Mississippi River

By: Konner Magnuson and Andy Lisak

Trempealeau NWR

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

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

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

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

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

Upper Mississippi River NWR – Savanna District

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

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

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

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

Upper Mississippi River NWR – McGregor District

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

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

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

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

Upper Mississippi River NWR – La Crosse District

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

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

Coastal Adventures

Coastal Adventures

By: Erin Tague and Tom Kelly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wild, Wild West

The Wild, Wild West

By: Mandi Ganje and Megan Schneider

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

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

Umatilla NWR

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

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

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

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

McNary NWR

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge

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

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


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

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

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

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

Sweet Southern Living

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

By: Dan Shahar and Amelia Liberatore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erin and Tom, Lake LaGoons

Lake LaGoons

By: Erin Tague and Tom Kelly

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

Wapanocca NWR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great Dismal Swamp NWR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clouds or Mountains?

Clouds or Mountains?

By: Mandi Ganje and Megan Schneider

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

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

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

National Elk Refuge

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

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

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

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

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

Columbia NWR

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

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

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

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

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

Sacramento River NWR

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dan and Amelia’s Most Awesome FWS Adventure

Dan & Amelia’s Most Awesome FWS Adventure

By: Dan Shahar and Amelia Liberatore

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

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

Bill Williams River NWR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita Mountains NWR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bon Secour NWR

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

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

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

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

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

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