By: Justin Gole and Nicole Stagg
Our adventure that started at Bayou Sauvage in New Orleans and has since led us all around the Midwest and East Coast and is soon coming to a close. Nicole spent the entire year talking about how great Louisiana was, while Justin did the same for his home state of Michigan. It turns out that November in Michigan gets COLD, as we found out during our foray to Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge.
We were met by Lelaina Muth for refuge orientation and saw immediately that our work would be cut out for us. The wildlife drive was closed as were most of the trails for hunting season, so we spent long hours waiting for hunters to get back to their cars. Waiting out in the cold was worth it because of how friendly the hunters were when we surveyed them.
We also got to spend early mornings working at the waterfowl check station, starting at 5 a.m. While getting up this early to survey was not ideal, we had a blast bonding with temporary biology technician Cameron Dole who is a Saginaw native. Over coffee, we got to hear about his career path and talk about our adventures throughout the year. Chatting with him made the early mornings more fun!
Running into old faces in new places is one of our aforementioned favorite parts of our job! Another person we ran into for a second time was intern Gabe Jimenez, who had come to Ottawa NWR to help with the Youth Waterfowl Workshop a month earlier. Gabe was working as a volunteer at Shiawassee to get hours to hopefully get into the Fish & Wildlife Service law enforcement academy. Refuge Manager Pamela Repp said “this is the future of the Fish & Wildlife Service” as she took a picture of the three of us.
Although Justin had been raving about his home state of Michigan all year, he was more than happy to escape the snow and start the journey south for the winter. Camping at Camp Creek State Park in West Virginia and Colleton State Park in South Carolina was rainy, cold, and a bit icy, but once we made it to Pinckney Island NWR we were more than happy to shed a few layers of clothes.
Pinckney Island NWR is located near Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. We stayed at what used to be the refuge manager’s house at the back of the island, and our back porch was on the water. We were able to watch the tides and saw many spectacular sunsets. The island has several miles of trails and visitors were usually out walking, biking, or running. Otherwise, they were taking pictures and looking for birds and alligators. Since it was late November, it was too cold for alligators to be out and about much, but the egrets and ibis like to gather in the ponds in the evenings, making for a spectacular view with the already amazing sunsets.
Pinckney Island is part of the Savannah Coastal Refuges Complex so the headquarters office was located at the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. One day after working in the office, Nicole decided to check out the Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive. The drive has an audio tour through the AM radio and the recording changes at each checkpoint along the drive. Therefore, while getting to see lots of birds out on the water, Nicole also learned about the history of the refuge and some of the old structures still out in the fields.There were a wide range of birds including an Anhinga, mottled duck, American coot, and more. There were also a few alligators out since it was a sunny day.
We were in South Carolina for Thanksgiving, so Justin put together a feast for us to enjoy out on the island. It was a calm day of food and movies with an occasional call to loved ones at home.
Our last day working at Pinckney, Justin saw a bufflehead at the boat ramp. It was the first one to show up in the area for the winter and let us know it was time to move further south again.
As we said goodbye to South Carolina, we moved to our farthest south location of the year. Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee NWR is located at the northernmost tip of the Everglades and just beneath Lake Okeechobee, the headwaters of the Everglades. Our first full day at the refuge was gave us all sorts of surprises. Interpretation Specialist Serena Rinker took us around the refuge to see all the locations that we would be working at and the wildlife pulled out all the stops. We saw the formerly endangered Everglade snail kite, alligators, iguanas, and even a bobcat the size of a large dog. We had seen a bobcat earlier this year while camping in Texas, but it had nothing on the size of this Florida feline!
We were so excited to see more of the area, and we went on a nature walk with Florida Master Naturalist and volunteer Bruce Rosenberg. Bruce taught us about the history of the area and the uses of many of the plants, both in the past and present. One of the last plants we discussed was coontie, also known as Florida arrowroot, which is toxic to most animals. However, it has a very unique importance. It is the host plant for Atala butterfly larvae. The Atala butterfly is a Florida native and was announced as nearly extinct in 2016. Since then, nature preserves such as Loxahatchee NWR have been raising larva, and they have been making a comeback. The front sidewalk of the Visitor Center is lined with coontie, and Atala butterflies can be found hanging out there at all times of the day.
The most common activity at Loxahatchee during our visit was fishing from boats. We spent a good bit of time hanging out at boat ramps to recruit visitors for the survey. While at the south entrance to the refuge, we were often visited by a flock of monk parakeets. It was a shock to see them there and definitely emphasized that we were in a tropical climate. These parakeets most likely escaped a pet store during a hurricane but they acted as a reminder to us of the diversity of habitats we have seen throughout the country.
We were given one last surprise treat during our last week at Loxahatchee. Wading birds would gather in the evenings in the rookery behind the Visitor Center, including newly arrived wood storks. It was like something out of a Cajun fairytale, at least for Nicole. The trees were lined with egrets, herons, and storks, and they were perched to rest for the evening or fighting over fish in the water. It was a beautiful sight and a privilege to experience.
The drive to our next refuge was our shortest this year. We simply drove to the other side of the Florida peninsula to Sanibel Island and the famous J.N. “Ding” Darling NWR. The drive itself went through three major wildlife areas: Everglades and Francis S. Taylor Wildlife Management Area, Big Cypress National Preserve, and Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. There were pull-offs every mile or so to stop at observation towers but even without stopping we saw hundreds of alligators, wading birds, and a few dozen Everglade snail kites. The drive on I-75 was worth a day trip to see all the cool wildlife the Everglades hosts.
Ding Darling has a very extensive and highly involved volunteer group, the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society (https://www.dingdarlingsociety.org). Within our first few days on the island, we attended a luncheon which was attended by about one-hundred of the refuge’s volunteers. The event was held at the local community center and was potluck style. There was lots of food and of course a massive dessert table. Even with so many people, only a small dent was made in all the delicious goodies.
It was at this event that we met Wendy, the owner of Tarpon Bay Explorers, Inc. (https://tarponbayexplorers.com). Tarpon Bay Explorers runs the tram tours for the wildlife drive, does boat tours out of Tarpon Bay, and even rents out all sorts of equipment, from kayaks to bikes. Wendy invited us out on a paddleboard tour the next morning. Neither of us had been on a paddleboard before so this was quite a unique experience for us. The water was very calm that day which made it a great day for beginners. While it took a bit of balance to stay up on the board, it was mostly about getting comfortable and not letting your legs cramp up. Out in the Bay we saw sea stars, blue crabs, and even the rustling of a manatee.
Nicole had the opportunity to help out with the school visits a few days. We went along with a school group on the wildlife drive where the students got to learn how to use binoculars. Education intern Shay gave them small bird guide pamphlets and they got to try their hand at identifying birds. The kids caught on fast and eventually were finding birds we hadn’t noticed. The other half of the day, we took a walk along the Indigo Trail behind the Education Center. There, education intern Emily taught them about the different mangrove trees and wildlife that live on the refuge. Helping out with the kids was so much fun and very informative. We learned a lot about the refuge just by following around the education employees and helping with the school groups.
Like all the refuges we have visited this year, Ding Darling has a remarkable assortment of wildlife. The most popular would be the alligators, manatees, and Roseate Spoonbills, but the refuge also hosts white and brown pelicans, osprey, mangrove tree crabs, and hundreds of shorebirds. One day while out on the wildlife drive, Nicole visited with one of the volunteers stationed out to answer visitors’ questions. He was very friendly and eventually offered to let her try his camera. It was one of those massive cameras that serious wildlife photographers have; he just popped Nicole’s memory card in it and said to have at it! It took awhile to figure out how to use it but Nicole was able to get some amazing pictures of the Roseate Spoonbills that were hanging out that day.
After the warm weather on Sanibel Island, we had to venture a little farther north towards Samuel D. Hamilton Noxubee NWR. We were met by Steve Reagan for refuge orientation and got to learn a little bit about the diverse refuge that’s used frequently by deer hunters, anglers, birders, and of course hammockers!Samuel D. Hamilton Noxubee NWR is about twenty miles from Mississippi State University and on sunny evenings, and especially weekends, the college students flock to the lakefront to get prime hammock real estate. Some students even set up a slackline. If we could have balanced on it long enough to get a picture of ourselves on it, we would have!
We were on the refuge for the end of gun season for deer hunting and, while we benefited by getting some free hot dogs and potato salad from some hunters, several hunters got a bigger prize and left with some beautiful venison for the winter.
One of the high points for Justin came from a group of Michigan natives whose son was a student at Mississippi State. We ran into them on a couple different days and they were dead set on seeing an alligator before they left Mississippi. The first time they were there was an overcast day, so we told them to come back on a sunny day when the gators would be active. When they showed back up on a beautiful, sunny Saturday, Justin scoured the side of the lake and managed to find a sunbathing gator. We were happy to be able to send them back north with some good memories. Getting to help make people’s visits better is the best part of our job!
From Mississippi, we drove northwest for our second stint at Cache River NWR. Due to the partial government shutdown, our orientation was brief. Fortunately we knew what to expect based on our first visit to the refuge.
The first time here you may remember we primarily ran into deer hunters, but our second time around we were in the market for waterfowl hunters. We had a lot of early mornings, getting up as early as 2:30 a.m. to get out to boat ramps before the boats were allowed in the water, but boaters were more than happy to share coffee with us, and that made the early mornings more tolerable.
We were also surprised by the vast range of home states represented by the hunters this time around. While it was rare to run into people from even as far away as Little Rock during our last sampling period, this time we ran into hunters from Mississippi, Missouri, Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky! It’s always cool to see how much traffic refuges can bring to the local area!
While here, we also got to enjoy hanging out with our old friend Matthew Sieja. We had several pizza and movie nights and it was a great way to get to unwind at our last refuge.
Finally we drove back towards Fort Collins, Colorado, to end our internship where we started. Our odometer hit the 30,000 mile mark which was a point to reflect on. Having traveled so many miles and getting to see so many unique places, while meeting so many unique faces, truly has been a once in a lifetime opportunity.