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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge Goes Back to School

 Kegotank Elementary
Volunteers remove stumps and other debris to make the garden.

We know that to remain relevant to an American public that is growing less connected to the outdoors, we must go where the people are – meeting them where they live, work or learn. At Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia, this has meant going back to school.

The refuge is working with many community partners to create a pollinator garden in the courtyard of a local school, Kegotank Elementary. Once completed, this garden will serve as an outdoor classroom for the school.

Chincoteague Park Ranger John Fitzroy, who has two daughters at the school, puts the reason for building at the school plainly: “The project is not being constructed on the refuge simply because the children are not there.  Although the kids who attend the school live 15 miles or so away from the refuge, very few get the opportunity to visit.”

“Ideally,” he adds, “it will serve as a schoolyard habitat where children can learn and reflect.” It will also give us a place to provide environmental education programs. 

But the classroom won’t just be about environmental education. When it is done before school starts this fall, in addition to the pollinator garden, it will include a vegetable garden and greenhouse, benches, an exercise area and accessible playground equipment. 

John got the garden party started. He was named the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Visitor Services Professional of the Year in 2015 and put the award money into the project. The Refuge added an additional $25.000. 

But he has had a ton of help from the Fish and Wildlife Services regional pollinator coordinator Flavia Rutkowski as well as the community, which threw its support behind the outdoor classroom. Our partners include other federal, state and local agencies, the Master Gardeners, Coast Guard, Navy, Lowe’s Home Improvement, and other community volunteers, not to mention teachers and students. 


Thank You, Volunteers

This amazing group of 10th graders from the Coastal Studies for Girls recently volunteered with Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Maine. They worked all day in the rain and mud, singing as they planted native plants for wildlife like the New England cottontail. Photo by USFWS

What would you do if someone gave you $36 million – after you picked your jaw up off the ground, I mean?

That’s our happy predicament: Last year, nearly 40,000 volunteers donated 1.5 million hours, valued at more than $36 million, to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Those combined hours equal 681 full-time employees. The Service has a workforce of only a little over 9,000 employees, so those volunteer hours are a mighty big gift. 

We have an opportunity, however modest, to give all our volunteers a huge THANK YOU this week during National Volunteer Week.

INTERESTED? Get more information on volunteering with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It is almost impossible to list all the activities our volunteers help us with – everything probably describes it best – but here is a brief list: banding a bird, greeting a visitor, leading a birding tour, helping with a wildlife survey, sustaining a garden, planting native plants, pulling invasive weeds, working on various maintenance tasks and more.


Fun Facts about Bird Nests

Blue Eggs in Nest Box

If you pay careful attention to the birds this time of year, you may notice that some are carrying nesting material. Nests vary greatly across the country and different bird species have a number of unique techniques for building their perfect home to raise their young.

Here are just a few facts about nests from some of our beloved bird species:

  • Bald eagles build strong nests and use them year after year. They make improvements and add to the nest, it can weigh over a ton! The largest eagle nest was 20 feet deep and estimated to weigh 2 tons!  

>>Check out the nest on our eagle cam and watch them raise their chicks.

  • Some birds will use abandoned homes from other animals. Burrowing owls have been known to use abandoned prairie dog burrows to raise young. Unlike eagles,  great horned owls reuse nests built by other species and don’t make any improvements before moving in. It’s not unusual for their nests to collapse.

  • Blue-gray gnatcatchers makes their nests out of spiderwebs and lichen - and they didn’t even take basket weaving in college!

  • Ruby-throated hummingbirds have nests about the size of a thimble.  

  • Red-cockaded woodpecker nest in cavities that can take years to construct in a living tree. (But they sometimes have help.) They live in groups and will have as many as four helpers.

  • Gyrfalcons can use theirs for generations- one was discovered to be over 2,500 years old. They use rocky ledges or old raven nests.

  • Piping plovers make shallow depressions on the beach with a few twigs. Despite the lack of coverage, their nests can still be hard to spot because they are so well-camouflaged.

What should you do if you find a bird nest?

Admire it from afar!

Many bird nests are protected by law this time of year, because they are considered “active”. Tampering with an active nest is against the law.  An active nest is any nest where there are birds or eggs present. If you have a special situation where you must move the nest, you can apply for a permit but these are issued under very limited circumstances.

Some other interesting legal facts about bird nests? Bald and Golden eagle nests are always protected even when unoccupied. And it’s actually important that you get a permit to keep an unoccupied nest for educational purposes.

By maintaining a respectful distance from the bird nests, we can help ensure that the birds will not be sensitive to disturbance since if they feel threatened they may even abandon young.We certainly don’t want to detract from the incubation process and we don’t want to interfere with them in their home.  

Love birds?
Join Us in Celebrating the Migratory Bird Treaty and 100 Years of Bird Conservation ~ 1916-2016! #birdyear

Stepping Twice into the Same Stream: Terlingua Creek at Big Bend

Terlingua Creek
Willow poles planted six feet deep in the bed to Terlingua Creek near the juncture with the Rio Grande. Photo by Jeffery Bennett/NPS

Craig Springer of our Southwest Region tellsus about some amazing stream restoration work in west Texas.

The notion is as old as human experience—that people and places change over time. Heraclites reasoned 2,500 years ago that "Everything changes and nothing remains still and you cannot step twice into the same stream."

But you can try.

And try they are:  Jeff Bennett, a physical scientist at Big Bend National Park in west Texas, is a specialist in hydrology, the science of how water moves on and under the land. He’s working in partnership with Mike Montagne, a fish biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stationed at the Texas Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office in San Marcos.  Big Bend is in Montagne’s bailiwick. These two, along with other important partners, strive to recreate some semblance of the stream that was Terlingua Creek more than a century ago to improve fish and wildlife habitat, some of it essential for the conservation of threatened or endangered bird and fish species.


Really, All Refuges are the Best

Last month, the folks at USA TODAY 10 Best asked the public to choose the best places to see various critters. Not surprisingly, National Wildlife Refuges were popular spots in all three categories.

None of the winners near you? Find a refuge close by at http://www.fws.gov/refuges/refugeLocatorMaps/index.html

Best Place to See Wildlife

American Bison are native to the Oklahoma Prairie. Photo by R Wood/USFWS

1. Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge - Oklahoma

At Wichita Mountains, which won an earlier 10 Best as best National Wildlife Refuge, three native herds dominate its 59,000 acres – American bison, Rocky Mountain elk and white-tailed deer. A total of 240 species of birds, 50 species of mammals, 64 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 36 species of fish have been documented on the refuge.

4. Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge - Colorado

One of the latest draws at Rocky Mountain Arsenal is the black-footed ferret, the most endangered mammal in North America. Its 15,000 acres of prairie and lakes attract raptors, migrating songbirds, wintering ducks and geese, and provide habitat for a variety of mammals including bison, coyotes and deer.

10. Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge - Alaska

You say Kodiak, and its namesake brown bears spring to mind.  But bald eagles, salmon, and a diversity of other fish and wildlife abound on the 1.9 million acres of pristine upland and waters.

Best Place to See Aquatic Life

Manatees swimming near Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. Photo by Keith Ramos/USFWS

3. Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge - Florida

Crystal River is the only refuge created specifically for the protection of the endangered Florida manatee, a subspecies of the West Indian manatee.

4. Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge - Hawaii

Spinner dolphins, humpback whales, Hawaiian monk seals and green turtles can all be spotted in the waters or on the beach below Kilauea Point.

7. J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge - Florida

It may be best known for its bevy of beautiful birds, but Ding Darling has manatees, crocodiles, terrapins, frogs, fish and more.

Best Place for Birding

whooping crane
Whooping Cranes at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Steve Hillebrand/USFWS

1. Aransas National Wildlife Refuge - Texas

The mild winters, bay waters and abundant food supply attract more than 400 species of birds to the Aransas. But one species of that 400 stands out: the whooping crane, one of North America’s rarest birds. The only natural wild flock of whooping cranes winters at Aransas. All of the whooping cranes alive today, both wild and captive, are descendants of the last 15 remaining cranes that were found wintering at the refuge in 1941.

2. Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge/Magee Marsh - Ohio

Much of Ottawa Refuge and the surrounding lands, on the shore of Lake Erie, were part of the Great Black Swamp. The 1,500 square mile Great Black Swamp was a vast network of forests, wetlands and grasslands. The refuge manages about 6,500 acres of wetland, grassland and wooded habitat. It provides valuable habitat for a diversity of waterfowl and other migratory birds. For instance, Ottawa may host as many as 38 different species of warbler including the yellow-rumped warbler during migration season.  

7. Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge - Hawaii

Each year, thousands of migratory seabirds use double winner Kilauea Point for nesting, foraging or resting. Laysan albatross, red-footed boobies, brown boobies, red-tailed and white-tailed tropicbirds, great frigatebirds and wedge-tailed shearwaters all visit the refuge. In addition, migratory shorebirds, such as the kolea can be seen August through May. A small population of endangered nene were reintroduced on the refuge in the 1990s and are continuing to do well.

8. Cape May National Wildlife Refuge - New Jersey

Cape May's five-mile stretch along the Delaware Bay is a major resting and feeding area for migrating shorebirds and wading birds each spring such as the red knot. The arrival at Cape May of red knots and about 20 other shorebird species coincides with the horseshoe crab spawning season which occurs in May/early June. The crab eggs provide an abundant food supply these long-distance flyers use to replenish their energy reserves before moving on. 

10. Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge - New Mexico

Dancing Sandhill cranes draw visitors to Bosque del Apache each year for the Festival of  Cranes. Other birds pass through the refuge on their way north or south. And some are year-round visitors.

California Condor Egg Hatches on Camera

Hey, eagle chicks, make way for a California condor!

A California condor egg hatched in the wild Monday, and for the first time in history, anyone with an Internet connection can watch it. And a live streaming video from a cliffside nest at Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge in Ventura County, California, will capture the young condor's journey to adulthood.

Interested? Condor biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Santa Barbara Zoo will answer questions about the condor nest from the public during an online livestream video chat hosted by Cornell Lab of Ornithology on April 14 at 10 a.m. PT/1 p.m. ET. 

“We’re eager and excited to not only be able to share this experience with the world, but also open up the opportunity for more people to learn about California condors, what makes them such remarkable birds, and draw attention to the very real threats they face in the wild,” says Joseph Brandt, one of our condor biologists.

The egg was incubated as part of the California Condor Recovery Program’s captive breeding effort at Los Angeles Zoo and replaced the California condor #111 and California condor #509 pair’s wild-laid egg that went missing in March. Biologists quickly mobilized to replace the missing egg with a dummy egg to ensure the male and female continued to incubate at the nest. On April 2, the captive-bred egg was placed into the nest. The soon-to-be condor parents, 22-year-old female condor, California condor #111 and her seven-year-old mate, California condor #509, have been courting since fall of 2014, and hatched their first wild chick together in April 2015. Sadly, the pair’s first chick died from lead poisoning, a harsh reality of the man-made threat condors continue to face in the wild.  

Learn More

Washington Post coverage

Great Horned Owls Weathering the Storm

great horned owlPhoto by Courtney Celley/USFWS

Public Affairs Specialists Tina Shaw and Courtney Celley, from our Midwest Region, show us an urban great horned owl nest that has overcome the odds!

Even though we may not see them often, great horned owls are quite common across nearly all of North America and much of South America. These owls can be found in remote forests, but they can also thrive in urban areas and city parks. We recently discovered a nest in a busy Minneapolis park, and it turns out there’s quite a backstory.

In early March, a storm had knocked down the nest and chicks were discovered on the ground. This is a common occurrence for great horned owls because they reuse nests built by other species and don’t make any improvements before moving in.

As with most species, great horned owl parents will continue to care for their young on the ground, feeding them and protecting them as much as they can. Normally, the best thing you can do if you find baby birds on the ground is to not interfere with Mother Nature; she will take care of them. But because this nest was in a busy park filled with people and domestic animals, staff at the University of Minnesota Raptor Center decided to assist.

The first step to protecting these young owls was to create a sturdy nest structure that could withstand strong storms. The nest also had to be big enough to provide enough room for the quickly growing owlets. Volunteers trained in nest creation assisted by building a new, reinforced platform. Next, the platform was placed high in a large white pine to protect the owls from the potential dangers of living in such a high traffic area. The tree provides cover, allowing people passing by to view the owls from a safe and respectable distance.

Today, the owlets seem to be doing quite well, and mom has been keeping a close eye on them. They’ve been practicing flapping and strengthening their wings. Soon enough, these young owls will be venturing out onto nearby branches as they start to explore the world just outside their nest. Thanks to the Raptor Center for making this nest a success!

Note: The location of this nest is no secret to the local community. On a nice day, it’s hard to miss the crowds watching these young owls through binoculars and camera lenses. This is a great opportunity for people of all ages to get interested in birding and enjoy nature. Since these owls draw such a crowd, and have already experienced several traumas, we’ve decided not to publish the location of this nest. If you live in Minneapolis, get out to your local parks and explore. Walk or bike the paths, and enjoy the fresh air. You just might stumble upon this nest!

If you’re specifically looking for birding opportunities, we recommend visiting the Bloomington Visitor Center at Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. Here you’ll have the opportunity to see many different bird species and learn about local wildlife. Bald eagles and great horned owls have been spotted nesting in the area in recent years, so you could even discover a nest. The refuge is free and can be easily accessed by public transportation.

The Geese are Coming! The Geese are Coming!

Photo by Keith Frankki/USFWS

Public Affairs Specialist
Ryan Moehring and Biologist Kristine Askerooth, both in our Mountain-Prairie Region, tell us about an amazing event that happened recently at Tewaukon National Wildlife Refuge in southeast North Dakota. 

Warm spring temperatures may not have sprung everywhere just yet, but spring is definitely springing.

Just ask the geese. 

More than 750,000 of these migratory birds began arriving at Tewaukon National Wildlife Refuge in southeast North Dakota on March 10. The flock consisted primarily of snow geese, although some blue geese were sprinkled in.  

The birds stayed on Lake Tewaukon for several days, enjoying the only open water in the area. As other lakes and ponds in the area became free of ice, the numbers at Tewaukon dropped -- some days there were 300,000, other days just 50,000. (Editor’s note: Even 50,000 birds in one area seems pretty stunning to me.)

Photo by Keith Frankki/USFWS

The birds visited Tewaukon on their way to their Arctic breeding grounds.

Hundreds of people flocked (pun intended) to the refuge to witness this spectacular wildlife show! The sound of that many geese is deafening, and it is impossible to imagine unless you’ve experienced it first-hand. Anglers standing side-by-side on the shore told our refuge staff that when the geese would take off or land in large numbers it was impossible to hear each other speak.

This year’s count is the second highest number of snow geese ever recorded on Tewaukon National Wildlife Refuge. The highest count occurred in the spring of 1992 when once again Lake Tewaukon was the only open water around and more than 800,000 snow geese piled into the open water.

Filling Urban Minds with a Sense of Wonder

 Director Dan Ashe and Refuge Chief Cynthia Martinez with SCA interns
Director Dan Ashe and Refuge Chief Cynthia Martinez with Student Conservation Association interns at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum in Pennsylvania. Photo by USFWS | More Photos

It has been a busy few weeks for our Urban Wildlife Conservation Program.

Valle de Oro Refuge Manager Jennifer Owen-White with students in the Isleta Pueblo Language Program.
Valle de Oro Refuge Manager Jennifer Owen-White with students in the Isleta Pueblo Language Program. Photo by USFWS | More Photos

Last week, we  learned that Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge in Albuquerque, New Mexico, had won $1 million in additional annual funding to engage urban communities and youth in conservation and outdoor recreation.

Today, John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, became our latest “Million Dollar Refuge.”


The Stories Told by Manatee Scars

Red Hot Poker the ManateeEach scar on a manatee tells a story, and enabled a USGS biologist to identify this individual manatee as a lady nicknamed "Red Hot Poker." Photo by Joyce Kleen, USFWS.

Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge Complex’s Facebook page recently received a lot 
of interest when they posted a story of a female manatee completely covered in scars. The 
manatee known as “Red Hot Poker” has a history of visiting Crystal River dating back to 
1979! Cathy Beck is a wildlife biologist at U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) who was able 
to identify Red Hot Poker from her scars. This method of scar cataloging has been used 
for over three decades to estimate adult manatee survival and reproductive rates, and to 
study their life history.

We caught up with Cathy to learn more. 

How does scar cataloging help you keep track of manatees?
We’re able to identify some manatees by the scars and mutilations they've acquired 
during their lives, primarily from non-lethal encounters with boats. We use these unique 
features to identify and then "follow" these manatees through resightings using 
photographic documentation. Each photographic record includes date, location, and 
other details of the sighting, which allows us to document the manatee's habitat use and 
preference of a specific site, movements, reproductive status, etc. The collective records 
of these individual manatees (our sample from the population) allow us to estimate 
annual survival and reproduction for the Florida manatee population.  
What can we learn from their scars?
In addition to enabling individual identification, we sometimes can determine when, 
where, and how a manatee acquired its scars. For example, with fresh scars we can 
sometimes determine if it was hit by a boat, and if so, what part of the boat - propeller or 
hull, or type of boat. Manatees also may be scarred after exposure to very cold 
temperatures, and these features become evident during cold winters.

Scars on Red Hot Poker the ManateeManatees live an average of 40 years in the wild, making this lady very old. From her scars it would seem Red Hot Poker is certainly a survivor. Photo by Joyce Kleen, USFWS.

Do we know why the "Red Hot Poker Manatee" has so many scars?
Her age is most likely a major factor, but her numerous scars may also be due to her use 
of habitats that vary by season. During summer, manatees that have wintered at Crystal 
River move out onto the sea grass beds along the Gulf of Mexico. They may encounter 
more boat traffic during the summer, and are using areas that do not have boat speed 
regulations. Manatees often continue to acquire new features throughout their lives, i.e., 
they are repeatedly struck by boats leaving a permanent feature that we are able to use for 
What else do we know about her life?
CR125, nicknamed Red Hot Poker, was first documented in November 1979 at Crystal 
River. She is not our oldest known, and still living, manatee, but she is one of the earliest 
manatees that we photo-documented. We know that she is over 36-years-old (she was an 
adult in 1979), and has had many encounters with boats through the years. We have 
documented CR125 at Crystal River nearly every winter since her first sighting in 1979. In fact, unlike some other manatees, she has never been sighted elsewhere! She's also 
been documented with 11 calves from 1981-2010.  

Do the majority of manatees have scars? 
By the time they are adults, many, maybe most, manatees have at least one permanent 
identifying mark, primarily a scar or mutilation from being hit by a boat. In clear waters 
like Crystal River, the evidence of repeated strikes is especially apparent.

Is this a threat to their health??
It depends on the severity of the boat encounter. Since many manatees have a large 
number of scars from different encounters, it appears that some individuals are okay, but 
others may not be. We currently are analyzing the data in an effort to determine if 
acquisition of these features does (or doesn't) have an affect on long-term survival and/or 


-- Katherine Taylor, Digital Content Specialist, Southeast Region

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