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Open Spaces

A Talk on the Wild Side.

Balloons and Wildlife: Please Don't Release Your Balloons

Balloons collected from a beach cleanup Credit: USFWS

balloon scraps pose a threat to animalsBalloons are great at birthdays, weddings, graduations and more, but once they get loose, balloons can pose a threat to many animals.  

Birds, turtles and other animals commonly mistake balloons for food, which can harm or even kill them.

In addition, many animals can become entangled in balloon strings, which can strangle them or hurt their feet and hands.

For example, more than a hundred balloons were recently collected at Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey at a cleanup, and that’s just the number that made it to this one particular beach.

Some of the following pictures are hard to look at, but they make clearer than any words why we all should find alternatives to letting a balloon go.

bird strangled by balloon stringCredit: Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Program

bird hanging by balloon string
Photo: Pamela Denmon, USFWS

Dead Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtle Photo: USFWS Eastern Shore of VA and Fisherman Island NWR
Sea turtles are especially hit hard as they surface to breathe and eat and commonly eat balloons.

Avocets Help Intern Learn What it Takes to Become a Wildlife Biologist

SCA logo

Open Spaces is featuring monthly posts by Student Conservation Association (SCA) interns working to promote, protect and study wildlife on public lands all over the United States. Since 1957, SCA has been connecting young people from all backgrounds with life-changing, career-making conservation service opportunities. Learn how you can get involved at www.thesca.org . Today, Sara Prussing checks in from Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah.


  Sara Prussing
  A successful capture of an American avocet chick! Photo courtesy of Jen Christopherson

Summer has come with a bang to Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. Cool May showers and high river flows have become distant memories in the swelter of June and July. The wetlands resound with an enticing cacophony of breeding birds. Above the deep marshes, the oinks of white-faced ibises mix with the harsh scoldings of Forster’s terns and nasally laughs of Franklin’s gulls. Passing by a stand of reeds or bulrush, a lucky visitor might hear the whinny of a nearby sora or the territorial grunt of a Virginia rail. During May and June I listened for these reticent rails during secretive marsh bird surveys and was fortunate to spot a few. Today, though, my eyes are set on a less elusive target.

Refuge biologist Howard Browers and I are on a shorebird banding mission. While we drive, high-pitched kleets ring in our ears as the mascots of Bear River Refuge, American avocets, glide into view. The avocets are in full breeding mode, adorned with cinnamon hoods and shadowed by their offspring. Once I spot three avocet chicks wading idly on our right, the game is on.

I hop out of the truck, net in hand and wader boots pounding the ground. The chicks scatter in different directions to thwart me, but my attention is entirely focused on the farthest of the three. It runs freely above the sulfurous mud, and I follow with a galumphing stride. I start to close the gap and reach out my net, closer, closer… SCHLUMP! Without warning, my left boot slides off and I collapse in the muck. Scrambling up, I watch the chick disappear behind a curtain of bulrush. As I pass the spot, I glance down to see a bundle of feathers crouched between the stems. I gently close my fingers around its torso and begin the long trek back to shore.


App Addition Will Help Public Identify and Document Imperiled Species

The Fishbrain app includes threatened and endangered fish as well as other imperiled species, such as the California tiger salamander. Photo by Adam Clause

We've partnered with the producers of angling app FishBrain to add a feature enabling citizen scientists to identify and log 50 threatened, endangered and candidate species. This information will help in the conservation of native wildlife for future generations.

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Honoring the World's Rangers

  Marulapuku, North Luangwa/FZS/ZAWA
North Luangwa Conservation Programme anti-poaching staff. Photo by Michelle Gadd/USFWS

Today is World Ranger Day, a day when we can take a moment to celebrate the often thankless and always dangerous work rangers do around the world to protect wildlife.   

We also take a moment to acknowledge and honor rangers injured or killed in the line of duty.  It is a dangerous calling to stand watch over the world’s imperiled wildlife, and unfortunately, is getting more and more dangerous as poaching for rhinos, tigers, elephants and other species has increased and trafficking in wildlife contraband has escalated.  

In the past year, at least 52 rangers, game rangers, forest guards and wardens have lost their lives in the line of duty (reported by the International Ranger Federation).  In the past decade, more than 1,000 rangers have been killed.

Rangers are our first line of defense against poachers who threaten the survival of some of the world’s best known and most loved species. Tragically, poaching is taking the lives of wildlife and of numerous people dedicated to protecting them.

In a report released today, African Parks remembers that poachers recently caused “the tragic deaths of two of our Garamba rangers and two members of the Congolese Armed Forces who were assisting us with patrols in the park.”


Service Biologist Leroy Koch talks mussels with Prince Charles

Elsie Davis shares a fun story involving British royalty.

Leroy Koch and Prince Charles
Leroy Koch with Prince Charles. Photo by Gordon Garner, Kentucky Waterways Alliance

There are only six mussel species in the United Kingdom compared to more than 300  in the United States,  yet Leroy Koch, a biologist in our Kentucky Field Office, and Prince Charles share common interests in conservation and mussels.


New Relations with Cuba Lead to Better Understanding of South Florida’s Ghost Orchids

ghost orchid team
Orchid Research team 2015: From left to right: Ashlee O'Connor, Wendy Mazuk, Shannon Sharka, Justin Mably, Mark Danaher, Dr. Ernesto Mujica. Photos by USFWS

A lunchtime chat between scientists a few years ago at an orchid conference began a relationship that brought Dr. Ernesto Mujica from the Cuba’s Ministry of Science ECOVIDA Research Center to Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge to lend his expertise in conservation work for the ghost orchid.

ghost orchid

The ghost orchid is a leafless epiphyte orchid consisting of large masses of photosynthetic roots anchored to trees. It is perhaps the most revered orchid in the United States, because it is such a rare and fascinating sight to see a ghost orchid in bloom. Nobody knows how many ghost orchids there are, although it is estimated that only 2,000 plants reside in the wetlands of South Florida. Before Dr. Mujica’s arrival, we had cataloged 11 ghost orchids on the refuge. With the help of Dr. Mujica, researchers found, identified and cataloged 80+ new ghost orchids. 



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A Pledge for Pollinators

Elizabeth Braatz


Teaching a pollinator workshop. Exhibit A: bee in a jar!

Open Spaces is featuring monthly posts by Student Conservation Association (SCA) interns working to promote, protect and study wildlife on public lands all over the United States. Since 1957, SCA has been connecting young people from all backgrounds with life-changing, career-making conservation service opportunities. Learn how you can get involved at www.thesca.org. Today, Elizabeth Braatz checks in from St. Croix Wetland Management District in Wisconsin. Elizabeth is part of the Career Discover Internship Program, a collaboration between SCA and the Service that’s strengthening the next generation of conservation leaders by connecting culturally and ethnically diverse college students to wildlife-focused career opportunities. 


Early on in my SCA internship at St. Croix Wetland Management District, I learned three interesting facts about monarch butterflies.

1. Monarchs journey up to 3,000 miles between Mexico and the northern United States and Canada each year, and this annual epic journey is actually undertaken by four generations of butterflies.


Hunting Tool Leads to Safer Prescribed Burns

Karen Miranda shares a story about a firefighter who has improved safety using dog collars.

GPS Collars
The wildland fire crew at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida equips its ignition specialists, ATVs and helicopter with GPS collars to track multiple real-time locations on a single handheld unit. Photo by USFWS

Who knew that an American hunting tradition could help keep wildland firefighters safe?

Bart Rye, a prescribed fire/fuels technician at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge along Florida’s Gulf Coast, has deer hunted for more than 20 years in nearby national forest using specially trained hounds that run miles at a time. The way he tracks his seven dogs gave him an idea for better monitoring his co-workers in heavy forest on the 70,000-acre refuge.

In these southeastern longleaf pine forests, it is easy to become disoriented in thickets of sprawling saw palmetto, sinkholes and sawgrass up to 10 feet high while walking or riding an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) during a prescribed fire. Hard-to-spot stumps can cause an especially dangerous situation for vehicles such as dozers and ATVs along an active fireline.

Rye suggested that his fire crew carry GPS transmitter collars, like those worn by his hunting dogs, so fireline supervisors could more easily locate multiple firefighters, vehicles and aircraft during prescribed burns over large areas.

Rye has used the GPS system with his dogs in recent years, in place of older radio telemetry collars, like those used to tag wildlife.


Gatherer of Duck Data: Satellite Technology Informs Redhead Conservation on the Texas Gulf Coast

Craig Springer shares the story of just one of the people who make up the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A redhead with a transmitter.Photo by USFWS

The redhead is arguably among the handsomest of waterfowl. That is of course a matter of opinion. But here’s a fact: Eighty percent of all North American redheads spend their winters concentrated along the lower Gulf Coast of Texas in the Laguna Madre. The birds have an affinity for, if not an obligation to, freshwaters near salty shores. They feed on shoalgrass in the Laguna and fly inland to purge excess salts. Redheads, like most birds that feed in saltwater, have a salt gland near the eye that excretes excess salts ingested while feeding. It is essential that salt be purged daily in freshwater ponds. And knowing the array of habitats frequented by the bird during south Texas winter sojourns is essential for Dan Collins.

He’s as much a geographer as he is a wildlife biologist. For Collins, a scientist in the Service’s Division of Migratory Birds in Albuquerque, New Mexico, avian fauna are his forte. With research into redheads in south Texas, he is waist-deep in remote-sensing—using photovoltaic cells, GPS and Doppler radar to find and follow the position of ducks. The technology lends an amazing advantage in learning how birds behave and how wildlife managers can make better informed decisions for the bird.


'Nautilus Girl' Keeps up her Work to Conserve Species

In January, we told you about an 8-year-old who has been working to conserve the chambered nautilus for several years.

Gretchen Googe
Gretchen Googe with her donations for Save the Nautilus. Photos courtesy Courtney Googe  

Well, Gretchen Googe of Texas is at it again.

Mom Courtney Googe reports that for her ninth birthday earlier this month, Gretchen held a Nautilus Pot Luck and asked for donations to Save the Nautilus and Children's Aquarium at Fair Park in Dallas instead of presents. So far, the donations have topped $300. Gretchen also gave a presentation to her party guests describing how she got involved in nautilus conservation and why it’s important to save them.


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