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Lessons from the Hunt

Lessons from the Hunt

By: Kylie Campbell and James Puckett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kirwin NWR

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hagerman NWR

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Southwick Associates. (2013). America’s Sporting Heritage: Fueling the American Economy.

Same Faces in New Places

Same Faces in New Places

By: Justin Gole and Nicole Stagg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Oregon Trail

On the Oregon Trail

By: Michelle Ferguson and Angelica Varela

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

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

Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District

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

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

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

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


Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge

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

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

American Bittern, Steigerwald Lake NWR. Photo by Michelle Ferguson


Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge

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

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


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


Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge

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

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


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

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

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

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

Until next time,
Road Warriors- Angelica and Michelle

Stories from the Swamp

A Day in the Life

By: Kylie Campbell and James Puckett

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

USFWS. September 2018.

Sam D. Hamilton Noxubee NWR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Branch Marsh NWR

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bayou Sauvage NWR

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okefenokee NWR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Refuges on Water

Refuges on Water

By: Justin Gole and Nicole Stagg

We arrived at Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge in Rhode Island after a short drive from Delaware. At only 244 acres, this refuge is the smallest we will visit all year. On top of being one of the most picturesque, it is surrounded by water on three sides and has a unique geological history. The coastline of Sachuest Point NWR has a point known as the Price Neck Formation that is over six hundred million years old and has been proven to have been a part of Africa before Pangaea split. Outside of cool topography and geology, this refuge has a fascinating history; it served as farmland, a landfill, and even as an U.S. Navy radio receiver station during WWII!

The Island Rocks, waves, and double-crested cormorants at Sachuest Point NWR. July 2018. Photo by Nicole Stagg.

While at Sachuest Point NWR, Justin spent a day working with the Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) at the refuge and got to break a sweat working on trimming growth along trails, watering pollinator gardens, and spreading gravel. YCC is a summer youth employment program, for ages 15-18, that allows young people to engage in meaningful work experiences with federal lands. He bonded with the young team and leader Tabatha Hawkins and even ate lunch out on the rocks that used to part of Africa with them!

Justin watering plants with the Youth Conservation Corps (YCC). July 2018. Photo by Nicole Stagg.

Nicole visited four of the five national wildlife refuges in Rhode Island. She walked all of the trails and took pictures of the viewpoints and wildlife she came across. While Trustom Pond NWR was beautiful and had many birds and water features, her favorite refuge in Rhode Island remains Sachuest Point NWR for its uniqueness in both formation and wildlife. She hopes to one day come back to Rhode Island to see the harlequin ducks, red-breasted mergansers, harbor seals, and snowy owls that live on the refuge during the winter months.

A monarch butterfly perched on common milkweed at Trustom Pond NWR. July 2018. Photo by Nicole Stagg.

Upon departure from Sachuest Point, Nicole flew home for a visit and Justin ventured on towards Ohio River Islands NWR where he had a handful of unique experiences. He met Visitor Services Chief Michael Schramm for orientation and they put their heads together to scheme about how to survey more visitors than the first sampling period at the refuge.

The refuge counts visitors from the Valley Gem Sternwheeler who take a tour around Buckley Island as part of their annual visitation, so Refuge Manager Rebecca Young and Justin went to visit the riverboat captains to see about surveying on the boat. They were more than happy to oblige and said he could come back and survey whenever he needed!

Justin “driving” the Valley Gem Sternwheeler on the Ohio River. July 2018.

That Sunday, Michael and Justin boarded the Valley Gem and Michael gave a speech about activities at the refuge. Justin took in the sights on the boat and paid attention to Michael’s talk since he would have to give the same speech during future sampling shifts. The refuge now has a working relationship with the Valley Gem for mutual exposure and benefit as a result of this survey effort!

On one of the final evenings at the refuge, Rebecca took Justin out on the river with the Friends Group President Sue Flowers and her husband. We rounded two islands and he even got to set foot on Buckley and Muskingum Islands. The group saw two bald eagles, an osprey, and one of the most beautiful sunsets around!

Night out with refuge staff and volunteers. July 2018.

Regrouping back at Great Meadows NWR for the refuge’s second sampling period, we both came back to find the invasive American Lotus at the Concord Unit in full bloom. While this plant acts as a weed by taking over wetland habitats, it was a major draw for the local Asiatic community, as families and organizations came out in droves to see this spiritually and culturally significant plant. We did have to admit there was an aesthetically pleasing draw to the plant, invasive aspects aside.

American Lotus at the Concord Unit of Great Meadows NWR. August 2018. Photo by Nicole Stagg.

While in Massachusetts, Nicole’s parents flew into Boston for a birthday visit. They went on a whale watching trip with the New England Aquarium to the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary to see humpback whales! On the boat, Nicole met interns working the aquarium doing wildlife surveys at the sanctuary and got to learn about working at the aquarium and the information gathered about the marine life outside the Boston Harbor.

A male humpback whale at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary outside Boston Harbor. August 2018. Photo by Nicole Stagg.

At Great Meadows NWR, we got to stay at the bunkhouse with the rest of the seasonal interns and Visitor Services employee Kelsey Mackey. The whole household bonded going out for pizza the first night and we ended our stay with a group movie night before heading back to Delaware!

For the final stop of these four refuges, we arrived back at Prime Hook NWR. On the first day of sampling, we got to help see off trailer volunteers Jay and Carol Tavor who we had randomly contacted for the visitor survey on their day off during the first sampling period. We enjoyed a pizza party with the refuge staff to wish Jay and Carol safe travels back home.

Going away party for the Travors. August 2018. (from left) Carol Travor, Nicole Stagg, intern Stormy, refuge manager Arthur Coppola, LE officer Sterling Valentine, Justin Gole, Jay Travor. Photo by Al Rizzo.

During our first go-round at Prime Hook, we were too busy to make it up to Bombay Hook NWR. However, on a rainy day during this visit, we finally made the trip to this beautiful refuge! It wasn’t all play; while we were there as we verified all the major points at the refuge for a GIS project. We also got to have a lot of fun taking pictures and hiking to overlooks along the wildlife drive. While the welcoming staff of Prime Hook NWR made our sampling destination our favorite in Delaware, missing out on Bombay Hook NWR would have been a mistake!

Greater yellowlegs and a snowy egret at Bombay Hook NWR. August 2018. Photo by Nicole Stagg.

This year we have had the chance to indulge in local cuisine including alligator, crawfish, shrimp, and Philly cheesesteaks, so to add to our foodie checklist we needed to have Maryland crab. After a long morning of watching people catch crabs at Fowler Beach, we decided it was time for us to try some crabs for ourselves. We picked up a dozen on the way home, and seafood veteran Nicole finished hers over twice as fast as Justin. Motivated by the meal, we wrote this blog post and started to dream about the local foods we’ll get to try at our next set of refuges. With any luck, that will include another authentic Philly cheesesteak!

Until next time,

Justin and Nicole

A Day in the Life

A Day in the Life

By: Michelle Ferguson and Angelica Varela

Welcome back readers! Halfway through our internship, we are now welcoming our first round of repeat refuges. We’re looking forward to reconnecting with staff and seeing familiar refuges in a different season. Our most recent refuges included a second visit at both Sullys Hill National Game Preserve in North Dakota and Balcones Canyonlands NWR in Texas. We also sampled at Canaan Valley NWR in West Virginia.

Freeland Boardwalk, Canaan Valley NWR. July 2018. Photo by Angelica Varela.

One of the most common questions we get along our journey is, “What do you actually do as visitor survey interns?” Join us on a typical day in the life of a budding social scientist on the National Visitor Survey ACE-EPIC project.

At each refuge we visit, we first meet with refuge staff to help orient ourselves to the refuge. The staff helps us scope out sampling locations, where we will station ourselves to intercept visitors and ask for their participation in a survey about their trip to the refuge. During orientation we often get to see parts of the refuge that aren’t accessible to the public. At Sullys Hill, we drove around the gated refuge perimeter on an ATV, getting our own private view of the wildlife and landscape. Our favorite part of the planning process is finding a day to hike refuge trails to better connect with the visitor experience. This is normally when we decide to become photographers, snapping pictures for later use.

Sullys Hill National Game Preserve entrance. July 2018. Photo by Angelica Varela.

Each refuge and its visitors are unique and it is our job to be flexible in our communication strategies. Sometimes a more direct method works and other times a casual approach is better received. In a typical shift, we strategize the most efficient way to find and contact visitors at certain times and locations. For instance, towards the end of our stay in Texas, hunters at the annual refuge dove hunt became the hunted as we tracked down the camo-clad visitors preparing for their hunts. We also adapt quickly to learning the local lingo. Most recently we learned that when you’re in West Virginia, if a visitor says they’re from “Washington,” it refers to Washington, D.C., not the state in the Pacific Northwest.

Of course we’ve had our fair share of unexpected weather and unforeseen factors, always keeping us on our toes navigating throughout any given day. At Sullys Hill we acquired the unexpected skill of strategically maneuvering around large ungulates who took over our sampling site (see below).

Bison herd, Sullys Hill National Game Preserve. August 2018. Photo by Michelle Ferguson.

A large part of our job is interacting with the public. We are lucky to have the opportunity to travel all over the U.S. and meet  individuals from all walks of life. Most of this includes visitors we encounter during our sampling shifts. At Sullys Hill, we met a visitor who fondly recalled volunteering for the refuge as a youngster and now brings his own children to see the bison. We also meet visitors with a fierce passion for the local area. Many enjoy sharing their knowledge of the geography and fun spots in the area with us. One of our favorite treasures was getting to know the gem that is Thomas, a charming small mountain town hidden in the pine trees of West Virginia, full of wild blueberries and fawns. After several locals exclaimed that we must go to The Purple Fiddle while in town we decided to check it out. To our pleasant surprise we enjoyed a groovy night of brass funk jams at this local music venue.

We are empowered by the visitors who’ve vocalized their appreciation for the visitor survey project, grateful that these landscapes continue to exist. Recently at Balcones Canyonlands NWR, we gushed over a couple who got engaged 2 years ago that very same evening at the Warbler Vista Sunset Deck on the refuge. These refuges represent a strong emotional connection to many visitors, and it’s humbling to share that experience.

Michelle sampling visitors driving through the wildlife auto tour at Sullys Hill national Game Preserve. August 2018. Photo by Angelica Varela.

Visitors at the dover hunt in Balcones Canyonlands NWR examine a map of the area to choose the best hunting spot. August 2018. Photo by Michelle Ferguson.

Along with our National Visitor Survey efforts, a part of our job is engaging directly with refuges on projects where they need an extra pair of hands. After we wrap up sampling, we’ve enjoyed giving our time to help out with sidework ranging from biology projects to trash clean up. In Canaan Valley, we traded in our surveying iPads for boots and trucked our way through muddy forest trails at midnight to look for the threatened Cheat Mountain salamander and record any other species in the area. At Sullys Hill NGP we assisted in a pollinator inventory and monitoring survey, becoming North Dakota butterfly masters.

Left: Baby Cheat Mountain salamander at Canaan Valley NWR, found during our night out on the conservation project. July 2018. Photo by Zach Dykema. Right: Angelica Varela assists salamander conservation project by setting up markers for the sampling area. July 2018. Photo by Michelle Ferguson.

Angelica Varela and Michelle Ferguson prepare bee bowls along a transect with The Habitat and Population Evaluation Team in North Dakota. August 2018. Photo by Simon Doneski.

From surveying, to connecting with visitors, and helping with extra projects, this is our experience in a day on the visitor survey team. It is a treat to work with the Refuge System through several avenues, always learning more about what it means to both the wildlife that depend on these ecosystems and the visitors who enjoy them.

New Experiences in Every Time Zone

New Experiences in Every Time Zone

By: Kylie Campbell and James Puckett

From the cool coastline of the Pacific Northwest to the hot and humid riparian forests of the Ohio River Valley, it’s been a busy two months for this team of Visitor Survey Interns! We started off this leg of the journey in the Nisqually Delta near Olympia, the capital of Washington. Then we made our way clear across the country to West Virginia and finally southern Illinois. Read on to hear about the places we saw, the people we met, and the things we learned!

Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually NWR

At Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually NWR, we learned about the importance of salmon and the inspiring partnerships needed to protect this critically important species. The area around the refuge is a mosaic of federal, state, and tribal lands with all partners cooperating together to enhance habitat for salmon in the Nisqually Delta. This urban refuge is found right off of busy I-5, and is full of a variety of visitors everyday! Since we were easily able to reach our target number of visitors to sample, we had plenty of time to help the refuge with other tasks.

Aside from the visitor survey, the project that we spent the most time on was trail maintenance; we worked to cut back and remove invasive Himalayan blackberries which encroach on the trail with their thorny vines. Visitors and staff were extremely happy to see the paths clear of these vines. While out on the trails, we were happy to answer questions from visitors and enjoyed sharing the interesting history of Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually NWR.  

James trims blackberry vines along the dike path at Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually NWR. July 2018. Photo by Kylie Campbell.

Another project we were able to work on was picking up trash alongside the main entrance road to the refuge. The refuge staff was very appreciative of this roadside clean up because it helped beautify the area.

James poses with his bounty of collected trash. July 2018. Photo by Kylie Campbell.

The most enjoyable project that we helped with was locating marsh wren nests for a children’s program in the education center. After a few hours of searching, we were successful in locating three marsh wren nests. We learned a lot about the busy little birds in the process: male marsh wrens remarkably build up to 20 nests to mark their territory and the female bird picks just one to fill with more building materials and lay her eggs!

Kylie poses with two marsh wren nests. July 2018. Photo by James Puckett.

A unique program that the visitor center hosts is a weekly summer lecture series where each week a different speaker shares information on topics related to natural resources. We really enjoyed the first lecture in the series: So You Want to Be a Park Ranger. In the lecture, a former national park ranger shared stories from his career. We were able to learn about the history of the National Park Service and definitely added a few of the places he worked to our bucket list.

While in Olympia, we also had the opportunity to kayak in the Puget Sound. We spoke with visitors who love to kayak around the refuge and had to try it out for ourselves. We saw countless seals playing in the water and resting on floating logs, and it was definitely a highlight of our time in Washington!

Visitors kayak through the Nisqually Delta at low tide. July 2018. Photo by Kylie Campbell.

Sleepy seals watch as James and Kylie kayak through the Puget Sound. July 2018. Photo by Kylie Campbell.

Dungeness NWR

Our next stop was at Dungeness NWR. We had previously visited Dungeness and were happy to see familiar faces. Dungeness was by far the most popular refuge we have sampled at. Visitors from all around the country, and even the world, make their way to Sequim, WA, to hike the Dungeness Spit. Like Nisqually NWR, we found plenty of people to survey, so we had extra time to help with projects and explore the area. The projects we helped with were wonderful opportunities and experiences.

The beautiful bluffs along the coast at Dungeness NWR are enticing for young people to climb, but they erode easily and can be very hazardous. To protect wildlife habitat and ensure visitors’ safety we installed new boundary signs along the bluffs. Through this project we got an interesting lesson in the value of modern technology. For most of the installations we were able to use a gas powered post pounder which made the job quick and efficient. However, there was one instance where the gas powered machine was unable to be placed on top of the signpost. We then had to use a manual post pounder for this sign which really made us appreciate the convenience of today’s technology!

James uses a manual post pounder to install a boundary sigh, this was hard work! July 2018. Photo by Kylie Campbell.

During our time off, we were able to explore more of the Washington coast and made our way to the most northwestern point in the lower 48: Cape Flattery! This area is located on the Makah Indian Reservation and we loved learning about the indigenous history of the area. Camping on nearby Shi-Shi Beach and exploring the extensive tide pools was a major highlight of our internship thus far.

Tide pools on Shi Shi Beach that we were able to explore in our off time! July 2018. Photo by Kylie Campbell.

Towards the end of our stay we were invited to a picnic held by the Friends of Dungeness NWR. Everyone we had worked with over the past month was there, and Dave, our point of contact, was kind enough to give us a gift of departure. We were very grateful and happy to experience Dungeness NWR and hope to one day return!

After departing Dungeness, we enjoyed a week long journey back to the East Coast! Along the way we were able to see the Milky Way from our secluded campsite in Montana and listen to the prairie dogs chirp in Badlands National Park. Our time in Badlands National Park provided ample opportunities for us to reflect on the power of nature and the mindblowing history of this planet: we even found and documented our own fossil!

Kylie poses with Badlands formations in South Dakota. August 2018. Photo by James Puckett.

While camping in the Badlands we woke up to a local resident strolling through our campsite — a giant bison just feet from our tent! He was just one of the many awe inspiring creatures that we saw that day. Watching bison in the national park definitely made us yearn to see what America looked like when millions of them freely roamed the endless plains, but it also made us deeply appreciative of the conservation efforts that have ensured bison still exist.

Bison in Sage Creek Campground, Badlands National Park. August 2018. Photo by Kylie Campbell.

Ohio River Islands NWR

Our first stop back east was Ohio River Islands NWR in Williamstown, WV. Our favorite river from our college days, the New River, flows into the Ohio River so being at this refuge felt like we were back at home! We were also closer to our families and were able to spend time with them on our days off, which was a welcome treat after being in different time zones for so long. Since this refuge is made up of a string of islands in the Ohio River, the majority of visitors are out on the water which made sampling a bit of a challenge. Still, we were able to find plenty of people out fishing and joyriding on their pontoon boats.

Paddlewheel of the Valley Gem chuns up water on the Ohio River with refuge island in the background. August 2018. Photo by Kylie Campbell.

An interesting aspect of our time at this refuge was learning about the history of the area. The nearby town of Marietta traces its history back to the Revolutionary era; we learned all this and more while taking the a tour on Valley Gem along the Muskingham River, which flows into the Ohio River. The Valley Gem is the largest sternwheeler between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati and is powered only by the large paddle wheel on the back. As the Valley Gem cruised by islands within the refuge, we were able to give an educational talk about the history and ecology of the area as well as the management strategies that refuge staff use to improve habitat for the many resident bird and mussel species. Sampling visitors aboard the Valley Gem was definitely one of our most enjoyable work days so far!

James and Kylie pose aboard the Valley Gem. August 2018. Photo by Rob Campbell.

Crab Orchard NWR

Our final stop in this stretch of the journey was Crab Orchard NWR in Marion, IL. We enjoyed learning about the unique history and management of this refuge. Before the refuge was established, local industry thrived in the area and many manufacturing firms existed to support World War II. Crab Orchard still allows for mixed usage of refuge lands including industry and agriculture, and many unique recreational opportunities also exist on the refuge. It was exciting to see that so many different types of users enjoy time at Crab Orchard, from people exercising on the trails to people relaxing on their boats!

Even while off the refuge, we were able to see first hand how special Crab Orchard is to the local community. From the grocery store to the auto mechanic shop, everyone we interacted with was quick to suggest that we check out the refuge while we were in the area! Every visitor loves it here and they are very proud of the unique history of the refuge.

James surveys a visitor at the Grassy Lake Marina, which was full of families visiting for Labor Day weekend. August 2018. Photo by Kylie Campbell.

One fun event that we had the opportunity to participate in at Crab Orchard NWR was a kayak tour. While visitors kayaked through Devil’s Kitchen Lake, Ranger Dona shared interesting tidbits about the unique history of the refuge, such as how the lake got its curious name. Legend has it that when pioneers first arrived in the area they saw smoke rising from the deep canyon where the lake now exists. The smoke was likely from the cooking fires of Native Americans, but the people were not visible from a distance and the pioneers termed the spooky sight “The Devil’s Kitchen.”

While in Illinois, we were also able to help out with a project at Cypress Creek NWR. We tagged along with a team of AmeriCorps interns, one of whom was our roommate. We shadowed them while they continued work on a forest inventory project that aims to quantify native and invasive plant species. We gained a deeper appreciation for the forests by learning about the immense diversity around us and even learned a few plant IDs by the end of the day!

While helping Cypress Creek interns with an inventory of native and invasive plants, we saw lots of evidence of busy beavers! This chewed tree told a story of beavers taking advantage of flooding. September 2018. Photo by Kylie Campbell.

From the rugged coastline of the Pacific Northwest to the charming Heartland, we were able to make lifelong memories across four time zones over the past two months. We continue to be amazed by the diversity of wildlife we encountered and the friendliness of people from all walks of life. Thankfully we still have many more places to explore and people to meet so be sure to check back in with us in a few months!

Repeat Season and Familiar Refuges

Repeat Season and Familiar Refuges

By: Nicole Stagg and Justin Gole

Thanks for coming back to read about the next four refuges on our awesome adventure! This period starts what we affectionately refer to as the “repeat season,” as we will visit all four of these refuges more than once, and vicariously, so will you!

We arrived at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) on Lake Erie after a long drive from Maryland. We learned that we had just missed out on “The Biggest Week in Birding,” when an estimated 70,000 visitors flowed through the refuge and surrounding lands to view the migrating neotropical birds that pass through every year. While we missed the heaviest influx of visitors, we did not miss the neotropical birds. Nicole has been trying to add at least one new bird species to her ID guide at each refuge we have visited. Ottawa so far holds the record for new birds in her book. Birds she has added include the Baltimore Oriole, the Blackpoll Warbler and Warbling Vireo.

Baltimore Oriole on feeder behind Ottawa’s Visitor Center, May 2018. Photo: Nicole Stagg

 When not surveying, we spent some time trimming the grass around the refuge and Nicole earned the nickname “Weed Whacker” from the refuge volunteers. The wildlife drive is open sporadically, but we made the most out of the time we were able to spend out there, and were lucky enough to see a bald eagle and a sandhill crane in flight at the same time! We were not able to capture a great picture of either of them but we did let a visitor with a longer distance lens know where the eagle was, and he appreciated the tip!

Bald eagle at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, May 2018. Photo by: Nicole Stagg

The following weekend Justin’s parents visited Ottawa NWR and drove through the wildlife drive. They managed to get stuck behind a road block of trumpeter swans, and after listening to a symphony of swans for about a half hour, a truck came through and broke up the traffic jam.

Trumpeter Swans on the Wildlife Drive at Ottawa NWR, May 2018. Photo by: Nicole Stagg

Our next stop was the first urban refuge opened in America, John Heinz NWR at Tinicum. This thousand-acre refuge, located right next to Philadelphia International Airport, was truly was a unique experience. While the drive was only a few hundred miles from Ohio, we were in an entirely different world. Every single day at John Heinz there was one or more school groups that visited, and we helped supervise and guide them through activities such as archery, fishing, dipnetting, and wildlife identification. We even got to participate in archery ourselves, although we realized we should not quit our day jobs!

After one of the school groups left, Justin got to practice a few rounds with refuge staff and interns before the evening crowd showed up, June 2018. Video by: Nicole Stagg

We have had great experiences with visitor service programs at all of the refuges we’ve visited, but we were especially blown away by the volume of outreach and education work that is done at John Heinz. Virtually every single day there was at least one different group that showed up, but what really made an impression on us was the “Philly Nature Kids” program. These school groups make multiple visits throughout the year, and refuge interns and staff go to the schools for educational programs and the end of year graduation ceremonies.

The students were given a budget and free reign to come up with a project of their choice. We were lucky enough to be there at the end of the school year to see many of these finished projects, including a trash cleanup project, a pollinator garden, bird houses built on school grounds, and an educational booklet created and “mass-produced” for students in lower grades. It was truly inspiring to see the passion for nature being instilled in the Philly Nature Kids!

Ranger Sean Brinninger teaching a school group about trees and how to identify them, June 2018. Photo: Nicole Stagg

Since we were staying in the great city of Philadelphia, we had to do some tourist activities! We started by getting Philly cheesesteaks at the Reading Market before walking downtown to see the Constitution Center, Liberty Bell, and other historical landmarks. At the Benjamin Franklin Museum, we saw how an old fashioned printing press works. We took plenty of pictures at each place we visited, but the best photo of the day was probably the one we took at Love Park.

Nicole and Justin at Love Park in Philadelphia, June 2018.

Next we took a trip through the heart of the northeast, driving through New York City and eventually winding up at Great Meadows NWR right outside of Boston. The most visited section of the refuge, the Concord Unit, is located just minutes away from historic locations such as Minuteman National Park and Walden Pond, which is famous for being the home of Henry David Thoreau while he wrote his book Walden.

We got to experience the annual River Fest at Great Meadows NWR, which is a large outreach program they hold at their headquarters location as part of a larger weeklong event hosted with several other organizations. Dozens upon dozens of people poured in to go fishing with their families as well as participate in other activities such as yoga, animal exhibits, singing, and painting. Rick Roth and the Cape Ann Vernal Pool Team took the stage at the end of the event, and we got to witness one of the best educational programs of our young lives, and made a long yellow friend in the process!

Justin and Nicole posing with a yellow burmese python at River Fest, June 2018. Photo: Nicole Stagg, Justin Gole

Justin had the opportunity to tag along for Blanding’s turtle nest monitoring and was lucky enough to witness one turtle’s egg laying efforts first hand. A night spent walking miles in search for these important four legged friends was well worth it, and the coolest part of this learning opportunity was relocating the eggs about a meter because they had been laid in an ant hill.

Blanding’s Turtle with tracking code on shell and freshly laid eggs, June 2018. Photos: Justin Gole

From Massachusetts, we drove south along the coast to Prime Hook NWR in Delaware. We were lucky enough to be staying two blocks from the ocean in Rehoboth Beach and spent many mornings and evenings on the sand. Justin got to spend his birthday, July 4th, baking like a crab on the seashore.

One of the primary user groups at Prime Hook were crabbers, and we managed to make many friends on lazy Delaware mornings sitting out at Fowler Beach. We watched many different techniques for catching crabs including: standard crab traps, fishing with chicken wings, and simply scooping them up in the current from the bridge.

Atlantic Blue Crab too small for harvest in the Fowler Beach parking lot at Prime Hook NWR, July 2018. Photo: Nicole Stagg

Perhaps the highlight of our time in Delaware was running into our old roommates from Blackwater NWR, Dan and Lindsay! They are part of the Rapid Demo team for the Saltmarsh Habitat & Avian Research Program (SHARP, We had spent a few days with them at Blackwater, and we managed to see them on first day at Prime Hook and then again the next morning as they were emerging from the marshes. The following day we got together with them and enjoyed some merriment at Dogfish Head Brewery.

Reunion at Dogfish Head Brewery, July 2018.
(from left) Chris Sayers, Dan Rochocinco, Justin Gole, Emily, Nicole Stagg, Lindsay Forrette
Photo: Lindsay Forrette

We will be visiting all of these refuges again starting in August with what we call our “Season of Repeats”. We can’t wait to see how these refuges will change while we are gone and we look forward to reuniting with the friends we have made. We are excited for our next batch of refuges and can’t wait to start the repeat season with our second visit to Great Meadows in our next blog!


Gators and Eagles and Bison, Oh My!

Gators and Eagles and Bison, Oh My!

By: Angelica Varela and Michelle Ferguson

The Road Warriors are back with our second round of four new refuges. We were excited to dive into these locations where the wildlife was a bit bigger than the little songbirds we’d become accustomed to. This stretch of visitor surveying took us down to Louisiana, up through Kansas and North Dakota and over to Michigan, adding roughly 3000 miles to our journey.

Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge

We were met with a large batch of southern hospitality at Big Branch Marsh NWR in Louisiana. Complete with a crawfish boil, coffee, and beignets, we quickly felt welcomed in. An ecosystem new to both of us, we were in awe of the Spanish moss decorating the marshland. One of the primary activities visitors enjoyed here on the refuge was kayaking. Early one Monday morning, we went kayaking for ourselves on the bayou out to Lake Pontchartrain. Belting Disney songs along the way, we turned around the riverbend and came face to face with the resident 12-foot American alligator, Joe. This was the furthest up the river anyone had seen him this season. The locals were all fairly calm and snapping photos as Joe sauntered past, while the two of us had utter shock painted across our faces. The rest of our of time in Louisiana we enjoyed exploring the French Quarter and Magazine Street in New Orleans, soaking up the rich historic culture before heading to the prairies of Kansas.

Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, May 21, 2018. Photo by: Kevin, Canoe and Trail Adventures

Kirwin National Wildlife Refuge

Kansas greeted us with beautiful rolling grasslands and some amazing wildlife. Our backyard was hustling and bustling with the familiar sound of the Bobwhite quail. Although the bunkhouse did not have TV or Wi-Fi, we found that our back porch was a much better alternative as we watched the white-tailed deer, ring-necked pheasants, and cottontails munch away in the prairies. We were also visited by a bull snake that lingered outside of our porch soaking up the sun during the day. The staff told us of some bald eagles that made residence at the wildlife refuge, so we kept our eyes to the sky in hopes of seeing such a prideful bird. After spending an afternoon driving around Kirwin Reservoir, we not only discovered the tree that was home to the bald eagle nests but also witnessed one eagle fly right over our car holding a fish in its talons!

Kirwin National Wildlife Refuge, June 4, 2018. Photo by: Angelica Varela

Belted Kingfisher looking over Kirwin Reservoir, Kirwin National Wildlife Refuge. June 7, 2018. Photo by: Michelle Ferguson

Sullys Hill National Game Preserve

We quickly fell in love with Sullys Hill NGP as we drove in the first day and found that the bison had been waiting for us to arrive. The herd had four new calves with them, which we learned are called “red dogs.” We grew awfully fond of the herd, making sure to go through the wildlife drive each evening to say goodnight to our bison friends as well as the elk, pelicans, and prairie dogs. Seriously, we drove it every night, 14 days in a row. We were not the only ones who were fond saying goodnight to the refuge wildlife, many of the the visitors we encountered during our evening sampling shifts also drove through the refuge after work to say their farewells. We enjoyed watching the sun set over the rolling plains around Devils Lake; North Dakota had some of the best sunsets we’ve seen on our journey thus far. When we weren’t sampling for the visitor survey, we discovered fun places to visit around the area, including the Geological Center of North America in Rugby, ND. We also stepped into Canada for a few hours and spent an afternoon enjoying the International Peace Gardens.

Bison herd at Sullys Hill National Game Preserve, June 15, 2018. Photo by: Angelica Varela

Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge

On our drive to Shiawassee NWR in Michigan, we decided to make a much needed rest stop in Duluth, Minnesota. We enjoyed the cool air and the pine trees along Lake Superior, and stretched our legs by touring around the Lake Superior Maritime Museum. It poured rain for our first 24 hours at Shiawassee. We took a driving tour around the wildlife refuge, an activity most visitors we met partook in here. Fawns, muskrats, and goslings were out, thankful for the wet weather. Cass River was one of our visitor sampling locations for our project, and on the 4th of July after a morning of surveying we got the chance to be visitors ourselves. To celebrate the holiday the refuge staff invited us onto a boat on the Cass River where we watched the fireworks display sparkle above us. We also participated in the refuge’s family backyard day event where the community came out to explore Shiawassee NWR.

Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge, June 29, 2018. Photo By: Michelle Ferguson

It is humbling the places we have gotten to visit so far for this project, and to see how vastly different the ecosystems are in each refuge we work. From alligators and pheasants to bison and eagles, we are getting a chance to see everything the National Wildlife Refuge System has to offer. With the diversity of each refuge, we’ve found they are each united by adventurous visitors, many of whom have graciously participated in our survey efforts and have been a joy to talk to. We are excited to let you into our world so stay tuned for more fun and unique adventures.

From yours truly,

Angelica Varela and Michelle Ferguson, Road Warriors

Behind the Scenes at Wildlife Refuges

Behind the Scenes at Wildlife Refuges

By: Kylie Campbell and James Puckett

Growing up we both spent lots of time at wildlife refuges, and always had the impression that these areas were largely left to function on their own with little human intervention. The first two months of our cross country tour of the National Wildlife Refuge System have opened our eyes to how wrong we were!  We’ve had the pleasure of serving alongside staff members “behind the scenes” at multiple refuges and we are proud of how we’ve helped wildlife and improved visitors’ experiences on the refuges. The wide array of management strategies that we’ve seen have changed our perspectives dramatically and given us a deeper appreciation for the hard work that refuge staff puts in for the benefit of communities and wildlife.

The first refuge we visited was Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Minnesota. This refuge is home to a diversity of species from beavers and muskrats to herons and sandhill cranes. At Sherburne we got our first glimpse at how important public lands are to the communities around them. One couple was particularly memorable; they visited the refuge almost every day that we were out sampling and they were so excited to share their favorite memories and photos of the refuge with us.

James surveys a visitor at Sherburne NWR. The prairie on the right side of the road shows evidence of the recent prescribed fire while the left side of the road shows how quickly plants regenerate after an earlier burn. May 2018. Photo by: Kylie Campbell

When we arrived at Sherburne NWR, refuge staff was just finishing a prescribed burn. It was fascinating to learn about the benefits of fire and rewarding to share this knowledge with curious visitors. It was astounding to see how fast the plants grew back in just the two week period that we spent there. The prescribed burns help maintain the native Oak Savannah habitat that has been diminished from 50 million acres prior to European settlement to less than 30,000 acres currently. Restoring this fire-dependent habitat is critically important for many endangered and threatened species. Fire is key to these restoration efforts because it opens up the canopy and removes invasive species. We learned that after refuge staff burns an area, they often reseed it with native wildflower seeds to help restore prairie habitat. We never would have guessed the level of planning and management that goes into these systems!

Also at Sherburne, we were able to shadow the biologist while he did rounds to check the water levels and adjust the water control structures as needed in various pools across the refuge. We learned how different bird species and their food sources need precise water levels, and laughed with the biologist when he described how beavers often disagree with the water management plans and attempt to dam up the water control structures.

Views and 4-legged visitors at Portland-Vancouver refuges. June 2018. Photos by: Kylie Campbell

While all refuges are unique, something all of them have shared is the deep connections that visitors make to these spaces: we met a woman at Ridgefield NWR in Portland, OR who truly embodied this connection. She spent a while talking with us and she got emotional when she discussed how blessed she feels to be able to experience the wildlife at the refuge, from playful river otters to magnificent bald eagles. Her genuine gratitude was heartwarming and really opened our eyes to how the refuge system connects people to the natural world. Tualatin River NWR, also in Portland, is a great example of the importance of refuges to people in the area. It’s creation began with a grassroots effort in the community, when the people in the area recognized how quickly their open spaces were being developed. In 1990 a local citizen proposed the creation of a wildlife refuge, and the refuge was created two years later when a couple donated the first 12 acres of land to USFWS. The public continues to be heavily involved in the restoration efforts at Tualatin River NWR.

We worked alongside a team of volunteers at Dungeness NWR to trap and remove invasive European Green crabs. July 2018.

The third refuge that we visited in the Portland area was Steigerwald Lake NWR. The behind the scenes work at this refuge is still in the planning process, but will dramatically improve habitat for salmon and other wildlife once completed. Currently, the refuge is separated from the Columbia River by a large dike. Refuge staff are planning to breach part of this dike and restore connections between the Columbia River and its floodplain to improve habitat. It sure will be exciting to visit this refuge in the future and see how wildlife responds to these improvements!

While working on invasive green crab removal we spotted a Giant Pacific Octopus washed up in the mudflats. July 2018.

Across the refuges that we have visited we have been astounded by the effort that volunteers put in to help support the refuge. Without the hardworking hands of refuge volunteers, many refuge programs and projects would not be possible. In fact, a staff member at Dungeness NWR told us that last year their group of volunteers contributed enough hours to equal the time of five full time staff members.

It has been an amazing learning experience to understand and help with all of the different projects that go on behind the scenes in the National Wildlife Refuge System. Our experiences have shown us that management actually has a large role in ensuring that habitat is ideal for a diverse range of wildlife species and we’re looking forward to learning more as we visit more refuges!

Kylie Campbell

USFWS NWR Visitor Survey Intern

Kylie is recent Virginia Tech graduate with a passion for public land conservation and outdoor recreation. Kylie Campbell grew up playing in the streams on her family’s farm in Virginia, and this lifelong interest in water inspired her to pursue a degree in Water: Resources, Management, and Policy. Kylie aims to use her degree to understand and protect America’s water resources through a career in public service.

James Puckett

USFWS NWR Visitor Survey Intern

James Puckett is a also a recent Virginia Tech graduate. He is an avid outdoorsman and spends all his free time outdoors. He grew up on the tidal wetlands of North Carolina experiencing wildlife within estuaries. He studied Political Science and has two minors in Environmental Policy and Planning and Public Urban Affairs. He hopes to implement long lasting policies to improve natural areas and to protect nature for future generations to come.

As the Birds Fly

As the Birds Fly

by: Justin Gole & Nicole Stagg

We will be spending our time traveling along the Eastern Shoreline and the Midwest, and telling the story of how we migrate from refuge to refuge. Our trek across the country began with a 3-day drive from Fort Collins, CO to Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in New Orleans, LA. The first night on the road, we caravanned with another team heading to Hagerman NWR in Texas. A night of campfire songs and s’mores was a great way to kick off the survey season! The next morning we drove most of the day, stopping at Wichita Falls for a short side trip. As the sun set that night at Tyler State Park in Texas, we could hardly sleep in anticipation of arriving at our first refuge!

Nicole in front of historic Wichita Falls. March 2018. Photo: Nicole Stagg

We arrived at Bayou Sauvage having traveled more than 1,300 miles. To put that into perspective, the previously endangered brown pelican, the state bird of Louisiana, can only travel about 300 miles in the same amount of time.

Bayou Sauvage is the 2nd largest urban refuge, located within New Orleans city limits, right on Lake Pontchartrain. Most visitors come to the refuge for birding, fishing, or exploring the trails. We were amazed to see the before and after pictures of the devastation that Hurricane Katrina caused to the old growth forest but the refuge staff and volunteers have done amazing work rebuilding the area. We got to contribute to the effort by participating in a cleanup day and left New Orleans with confidence that the refuge is on the mend!

Justin helping to collect trash at the Crabbing Bridge at Bayou Sauvage NWR. March 2018. Photo: Nicole Stagg

Our 560-mile drive from Bayou Sauvage to Okefenokee NWR (in Native tongue “land of the trembling earth”) was completed in one day; this distance would have been a 2-day trip for the local Sandhill crane. Compared to Bayou Sauvage, Okefenokee is definitely a rural refuge. The clear night skies are well known, and people travel from around the world to gaze at the night stars, as well as see the gators and carnivorous plants. Okefenokee had Michigan native Justin trembling a little bit. While we saw over half a dozen alligators at Bayou Sauvage, that was nothing compared to Okefenokee where there are an estimated 100,000 gators on the more than 400,000 acres of refuge land!

Adult male alligator sunbathing at Okefenokee’s west entrance Stephen C. Foster State Park. April 2018. Photo: Nicole Stagg

We had a great time at the refuge, attending a pizza and bonfire night for volunteer appreciation and frequently embarking on late night quests to find reptiles such as water and corn snakes.

We left Okefenokee and traveled 700 miles in two days, winding up at Crab Orchard NWR, which was established in 1947 as a haven for nesting Canada geese. The geese could have made the trip in less than one day, but we took a break and spent a beautiful evening with our supervisor Katie Lyon at Cheatham Lake outside Nashville, TN.

After our brief pit stop and reunion, we were welcomed into the tight knit community of Crab Orchard NWR. We were lucky enough to be invited to the annual volunteer banquet at Giant City Lodge (which was featured in the movie “Gone Girl”). The highlights of the evening included learning that volunteers contributed 20,853 hours during 2017, a trivia competition about the refuge, and a dazzling, customized rendition of “You’ve Got a Friend” by one of the members of the local Friends group sung to the refuge manager.

High water at Crab Orchard Lake Dam after a week of rain. April 2018. Photo: Nicole Stagg

Crab Orchard NWR is a fisher’s paradise with three large lakes. A lake-record breaking 11.79 pound bass was caught the weekend before we came into town! Locals speculated that in order for a fish that big to be present, someone must have caught some bass in Florida, brought them up to Illinois and released them into the lake.

Our next refuge was Blackwater NWR in Maryland, where we managed to see a screech owl sticking its head out of a tree, several bald eagles, and osprey nesting over the water our first day when Blackwater Visitor Services Manager Ray was showing us around the refuge. Blackwater is home to 30-40 nesting pairs of bald eagles, and a couple hundred come to the refuge during summer months for feeding. The bald eagles roam the skies, traveling over 125 miles a day in search of food, so if you visit you will certainly see some if you pay attention!

During our time at Blackwater, Justin went out fishing several times to try and curtail the invasive snakehead population. Nicole went out on the Wildlife Drive most mornings determined to capture a better picture of the screech owl — and was met with success!

The Eastern Screech Owl at Blackwater NWR that Nicole was determined to get a photo of. May 2018. Photo: Nicole Stagg

We also had the chance to take a trip to Assateague National Park to see the wild horses, and stopped at Crabcake Factory USA for crab cakes.

Wild horses found on the entrance road to Assateague National Park. May 2018. Photo: Nicole Stagg

All in all, our adventure so far has been better than we could have imagined and we are excited to share it going forward!

Justin Gole

USFWS NWR Visitor Survey Intern

Justin graduated from Grand Valley State University in 2015 with a Bachelors in Accounting. He spent a few years in Management for Huntington National Bank before making the shift towards following his passion for the great outdoors and leaving the world a better place than he found it.

Nicole Stagg

USFWS NWR Visitor Survey Intern

A south Louisiana girl, Nicole graduated from Louisiana State University (LSU). She majored in Natural Resource Ecology and Management with a focus in Wildlife Habitat. Last summer she served as an intern at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia and fell in love with the Refuge System. Nicole is interested in pursuing a career in human dimensions and environmental education.

Road Warriors

Road Warriors

By: Michelle Ferguson and Angelica Varela

Hello! And welcome to our first blog. We have logged thousands of miles so far in our journey and we’ve only just begun! Join us road warriors as we drive across the states, jumping head first into new rhythms at every refuge.

Night one on the road we spent our evening camping under the stars in Moab before driving to Desert National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) near Las Vegas, Nevada. A rainstorm welcomed us to Las Vegas, and the refreshing scent of creosote hung in the air. A smell quite familiar to us Southwest gals, we were grateful our first refuge felt close to home. One night at Desert, we grabbed our headlamps and trekked along muddy cattails under the moonlight surveying the endangered relict leopard frog with researcher Rebecca Rivera from University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Rebecca works to restore populations of relict leopard frogs in their historic range. After a few weeks of seeing more lizards, Cooper’s hawks, and burrowing owls than visitors, we traded our hiking boots for flip-flops and headed to the beach.

Desert National Wildlife Refuge, March 2018. Photos: Michelle Ferguson

San Diego welcomed us with kind hearts and a glorious amount of tacos. We also got a taste of the challenges that urban refuges face while working at San Diego and San Diego Bay NWRs. There is a continuous battle with misused trails and graffiti, and the staff’s tenacity when it came to maintaining their refuge grounds was impressive.
After long days of visitor surveying, we came home to our groovy hostel two blocks from the Pacific Ocean, enjoying evenings around the bonfire teaching our new international friends how to make s’mores. April 15th, toes in the sand, we watched our final sunset on the west coast before an early start the next morning with a long drive to Marble Falls, TX.

San Diego Bay NWR, April 2018. Photo: Angelica Varela.

Taking a 180-degree turn from living in San Diego, where the hang loose beach lifestyle echoed in the streets below our window all night, we landed in a quiet 1960’s ranch house at Balcones Canyonlands NWR. Located in Texas Hill Country, our stay was peaceful with no neighbors or Wi-Fi for miles.

During our second week of sampling at Balcones Canyonlands, we were extremely fortunate to see the Golden-Cheeked Warbler flying above our sampling spot. The Golden-Cheeked Warbler is an endangered species that only nests in the oak-juniper woodlands of Texas. This wildlife interaction was considerably more favorable than the encounters with our red wasp, wolf spider and Texas redheaded centipede roommates.

Balcones Canyonlands NWR. Warbler Vista Observation Deck, April 2018. Photo: Michelle Ferguson.

After travelling from Texas across the Midwest, we sat on the edge of West Virginia with our back porch looking out across Ohio River Islands NWR. Here we learned all about freshwater mussels’ life cycle and the lures they display to attract fish. While most of the refuge staff focused on the “May is Mussel Month” initiatives, one staff member was eager to teach us local bird song mnemonics, the most memorable of which were the barred owl song, “who cooks for you, who cooks for you all!” and the eastern towhee’s call, “drink your teeeeea!” To this day, we sing along with them when we hear their cries.
Our last evening in town brought in thunderstorms. Afterward, the refuge manager scooped us up to hike through the backwoods behind our apartment. We stumbled upon a twinkling array of fireflies under a low, moonlit canopy still dripping from the rainfall.

Ohio River Islands NWR, May 2018. Photo: Michelle Ferguson.

Promethea Moth at Ohio River Islands NWR, May 2018. Photo: Michelle Ferguson.

Although working with the public sometimes results in uncomfortable or negative interactions, we have found ourselves most uplifted by an unexpected piece of the job. Among our travels for survey sampling, we have the opportunity to get to know many remarkable women in science at each refuge we have visited. In a male-dominated field, we stand at every refuge with females who are holding their ground: researchers, biologists, fire dispatchers, and managers to name a few. These women are leaders. They have shown us to stand strong as females in conservation careers. As two aspiring women in the environmental sciences, we have felt immense inspiration from the women on our journey. The phrase, ‘I wish I had something like this when I was growing up,’ is something we hear often. We are humbled to know that these women helped pave the trail we chose to walk on. Encouraged by these women, we are getting our chance to lay yet another layer on this rough trail to make it easier for future women in science to hike upon. We are grateful to know we walk among and behind hard-working women in our careers and we are grateful for the opportunity American Conservation Experience has given us to meet them.

Michelle Ferguson

USFWS NWR Visitor Survey Intern

I’m Michelle, a Colorado native and recent graduate from Northern Arizona University with my masters in Environmental Sciences and Policy. I’m interested in the human dimensions of natural resources, and using social science to inform conservation work. Specifically, I am interested in the balance of meeting human needs without compromising ecological resources.

Angelica Varela

USFWS NWR Visitor Survey Intern

I’m Angelica. I grew up in the harsh Sonoran desert of Arizona. I received my undergrad in Biological Science at Arizona State University and I hope to pursue my masters soon. I am interested in birds, specifically raptors, and hope to work with them one day.