East Bound and Down
By: Caroline Brown and Julia Guay
Fort Niobrara and Upper Mississippi
When people said the midwest was nothing but cows and corn fields, we are glad to report that they must have missed a few spots. One such place was our first survey site, Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).Through it runs Niobrara River, a National Wild and Scenic River, where we were envious of many visitors floating down on tubes. This refuge also offered us an up-close opportunity to see bison in their native range. Sadly, we were only here for one week as we had to drive to our next make-up shift on the Upper Mississippi.
Both the LaCrosse District (part of Upper Mississippi NWR) and Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge offered amazing birding opportunities, as well as a wide variety of fish species that drew fishermen and women from across the midwest. One shift was spent at the re-opening party of a boat landing, where many locals were happy to have the launch reopened and we were happy for the free food. While in Mississippi, we stayed at Perrot State Park, where we had barred owls for neighbors and wood frogs as tent buddies. After a whirlwind of a week, we departed for Clarks River National Wildlife Refuge.
Upon arriving in Kentucky, after we camped for the night at Shawnee National Forest, we were happy to start our first two-week sampling period and have some time to settle down. Though the heat was an unwelcome change from chilly Wisconsin, we were excited nonetheless! Our first sampling shift at Clarks River NWR was one of our most successful and most fun! Clarks River NWR held a family fishing night event at their Environmental Education and Recreation Area (EERA).The event provided fishing poles and bait for children to come fish with their families, as well as other kid-friendly activities, including a table hosted by the Murray State Wildlife Society with furs and live snakes to show the visitors. During our other shifts at the EERA, we learned that the walking paths there are appreciated by the local community with many regular visitors who come to exercise and enjoy nature. When not surveying, we were able to learn about the unique forested environment of Clarks River NWR and ongoing forest restoration efforts. Our time at Clarks River NWR ended with the Wildlife Heritage Outdoors (WHO) Festival which took place at a local park. Clarks River NWR hosted a booth with “Animal Olympics” so kids could play and learn about local wildlife in the process. The booth also provided refuge information and hunting permits for those interested. The WHO festival included a nature photography contest, a calling contest, and various other activities. It was wonderful to see how the local community valued spending time in nature! At the end of our two week stay, we were sad to leave the great staff members we had gotten to know but we knew we would be back in November in the hopes of making contacts once hunting season was underway. We departed for EH Mason Neck NWR, hoping for some cooler weather!
The 800 mile journey to Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge was our longest trek so far this fall. Luckily, we were able to break it up by staying in western Virginia and then at a lovely campground in Shenandoah National Park. We woke early for a quick hike and then descended from the mountains towards the river banks of the Potomac to where Mason Neck NWR is located. Created to protect breeding habitat for bald eagles, this refuge has become a haven for other wildlife. Many of our shifts were spent chuckling over the antics of gray squirrels and listening to the calls of barred owls. Most visitors we made contact with were from the area and appreciated having the refuge, as it is 25 miles south of Washington D.C. and is one of several protected areas on this peninsula. One day off was spent exploring the many free museums in our nation’s capital. Though our feet may have been tired by the end of the day, we could not believe that such a bustling metropolis was just a short distance from this quiet refuge. When it came time to go, we were sad to say goodbye, but we were excited to see what adventures Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge would bring.
Alligator RiverLeaving the hustle and bustle of the DC area behind us, we headed south to the shores of North Carolina. We were excited to find our bunkhouse was on the Outer Banks and just a short walk from the beach. After bringing our belongings inside we took a walk to the beach. We were impressed by the huge waves and shore birds. The next day we made the drive inland to Alligator River NWR. Alligator River is comprised of both fields and various wetland habitats, making it home to lots of interesting wildlife! Alligator River NWR is perhaps best known for having a small population of the endangered red wolf both in captivity and in the wild on the refuge. We were lucky enough to participate in a Wings Over Water (WOW) event where we got to hear the captive red wolves howl! Though the red wolves are what the refuge is best known for, most visitors come in the hopes of spotting black bears. Alligator River NWR is believed to have the highest concentration of black bears on the east coast. We were lucky enough to see several black bears during our time at the refuge and observed them doing different activities such as wading in a canal and climbing a tree. Despite the name Alligator River NWR, alligators are not as common there as they are farther south but we were lucky enough to spot a young alligator who likes to hang out by the boat launch. With so much wetland habitat, waterfowl and migratory birds may be observed as well. There is truly something for every type of wildlife lover here! Due to its proximity to the Outer Banks, there are many tourists, both domestic and international, who visit Alligator River NWR so we were kept busy during our shifts making contacts. Locals enjoy Alligator River NWR as well, especially for hunting, so we were glad to get the chance to meet them. In our free time we were able to visit the beach, see the largest active dune on the east coast, visit a historic lighthouse, see the site of the lost colony of Roanoke, attend a play that a refuge staff member was starring in, and sample an Outer Banks staple: Duck Donuts. We were sad to leave such a unique and popular refuge but look forward to continuing our adventure at nearby Great Dismal Swamp.