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.
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!
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.
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.
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