South for the Winter
By: Maddy Hoiland and Victoria Coraci
In February two strangers from opposite ends of the country (Washington and Florida) hopped in a truck and headed south for the winter, from snowy Colorado to sunny Florida. The adventure that followed was certainly one to write home about, complete with alligators, visitors from all over the world, and homemade pecan pie
Lower Suwannee NWR
Our orientation to the refuge started with a 7 am team meeting where we met the crew and started learning how they care for the Lower Suwannee. It immediately felt like we were sitting down together for a family meal! That night the volunteers living near HQ shared a campfire with us and the next morning we started our first sampling shift at the entrance to the Shell Mound Archaeological area. Dating from 900 to 1200 CE, the mound of discarded shells is about 5 acres wide and roughly crescent moon shaped. It rises about 28 feet above sea level, which is some serious elevation for Florida! We also sampled on the Dixie County portion of the refuge, where we met hunters, oysterers, anglers and so many campers. We set up along a popular fishing spot and were lucky enough to spend time with some visitors during our sampling shift, and learned how to throw a cast net.
The Lower Suwannee refuge is surrounded by an incredible mosaic of green space. From former logging areas the refuge was set aside to preserve the water quality of the area and now hosts migratory birds in addition to reptiles, fish and manatees. Ongoing restoration projects include the removal of the invasive plant Brazilian Pepper and the installation of artificial nesting areas for shorebirds. We assisted with building floating docks and covering them with a substrate to simulate what shorebirds would be looking for to nest. Creating the habitat on these floating docks allows them to be responsive to rising sea levels both through tides and over time.
We were also lucky enough to join the Friends of Lower Suwannee NWR for their meeting, learning about their adopted Swallow-tailed Kite “Suwannee” and the incredible 10,000+ mile journey she embarks on. We even observed an early migrant kite while at the refuge. The dates of their migration have been changing and may continue to change, as demonstrated in this neat widget Audubon developed which models how suitable habitat may change with the changing climate.
In our free time, we were able to borrow kayaks to explore the refuge and we came across egrets, herons and a large gator! We also explored outside the refuge and discovered that there is a whole community working on helping to protect the mature coast. We visited Manatee Springs State Park and Fanning Springs State Park and saw a manatee from the dock. We also toured the University of Florida Nature Coast Biological Center to learn about their research and met with a scientist designing experiments on monitoring water quality post oil spill and Terrapin Turtle habitat. We even were able to tag along on one of the field trips they were hosting that day and met Captain Kenny who began an ecotourism educational tour operation after retiring from the FWS. We also spent free time with staff from the refuge team enjoying the pristine nature that Florida had to offer. Andrew took us out spear fishing, letting us drive the boat and watch as he free dove 30 ft, bringing back multiple sheepsheads at a time. It was a beautiful day, and Maddy even caught one!
On our last day in Florida we sat in on a Florida Shorebird Alliance meeting and were able to see some of these partnerships in action as they worked together to help these species recover. One of the biologists had observed some really clever raven behavior where they observed predation from the nests they were monitoring but only those that were visited on a particular day. They set up game cams and found that the ravens were recognizing the biologist and following them from nest to nest!
After our first two weeks learning and exploring, we packed up our truck, said goodbye to the incredible and welcoming staff of Lower Suwannee and made our way back up north.
Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge is located in Decatur, Alabama on the Tennessee River. Founded in 1938 by Theodore Roosevelt as a refuge and breeding ground for waterfowl and other wildlife, it was the first refuge ever to be superimposed on a hydro-electric site. This refuge is known for the thousands of waterfowl, including Whooping and Sandhill cranes that make a stop along the Mississippi Flyway in the winter to feed, rest, and roost, entertaining crowds with their intricate dances and calls that fill the sky. Most cranes had moved on when we arrived, but there was still a pair of Sandhill Cranes feeding in the field outside the visitor center as we drove in, and one Whooping Crane nicknamed Louisiana around the refuge.
While we were surveying we met many visitors enjoying the diverse habitats found on the refuge, out for a drive on Mussel Camp Road, putting in their boats to go fishing from at Arrowhead Boat Ramp, and runners and bikers out enjoying the views of the Tennessee River. The visitor center was a popular attraction to learn about the flora and fauna of Alabama, and get answers to questions from the helpful volunteers. While surveying we hung out around the information desk, helping answer questions and enjoying the stories of visitors from near and far. Families and bird watchers alike enjoyed looking through the binoculars in the observation deck and snapping photos of the groups of waterfowl on the lake.
One of the coolest sampling shifts was during the “Wings to Soar” event in the visitor center, where the audience got up close and personal with birds of prey such as owls, hawks, and even a vulture. The presenters shared some facts about the species and the events that led to the bird being in their care. Many had been injured or raised around humans, not able to survive in the wild, so Wings to Soar took them in and now bring them around the country to share the importance of conservation with audiences. Those in the middle of the room had birds soaring over their heads and children squealing in delight as they saw their parents ducking from the wings just inches above them.
Wildlife conservation drives everything on refuges so monitoring and research are crucial to understanding how to best protect them. Staff and volunteers conduct several projects related to the waterfowl and caves located on the refuge, and we got to join them on a few. We assisted the biological technician with switching out the batteries in the Anabat acoustic monitoring box (a box that records the sounds from bats going in and out of the cave), getting to take a peek into the normally fenced off area. You could feel the cold air coming from the cave!
Before we left we got to squeeze one more project in, helping with stream inventorying on a private landowner’s property for the USFWS Partners for Fish and Wildlife program. We donned our waders, learned about techniques for electrofishing, and waded into the streams to catch fish and identify the species that were present. And soon enough it was time to keep swimming upstream to our next refuge.
Big Lake NWR
Our third, and as it turned out, final stop on this project was Big Lake NWR, one of the nation’s oldest refuges. It sure lived up to its name! Many visitors were there every day, locals and regulars fishing for crappie or just “sitting and clearing their mind”.
We were excited to learn about how Steven and Glenn work together with the Army Corps of Engineers and the state. Steven showed us how they use dams here to control the flooding. The lake often floods up to 99% of the area, so managing the water levels is crucial to avoid flooding the farms and town nearby. On a break from the clouds one afternoon, we had a chance to explore the refuge before surveying to hike out to the state champion Overcup Oak Tree!
Outside the refuge the University of Arkansas has a great museum where we were able to rock out to some rockabilly music and look into the state’s historic megafauna.
After our first weekend on the refuge the COVID-19 virus spread became a concern, so we had to stop surveying. In times like these, access to nature and a calm place to reflect is more important than ever. Even though our project got cut short it was a whirlwind of learning, exploring, and putting wildlife first!