White River National Wildlife Refuge
Southeast Region
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“Dry Socks”

by Matt Conner, Park Ranger White River NWR

Like many species, the Blue Wing Teal migrate thousands of miles to White River NWR. Credit: Matt, Conner, USFWS

Like many species, the Blue Wing Teal migrate thousands of miles to White River NWR. Credit: Matt, Conner, USFWS

I remember it like it was yesterday. I was an eleven-year old Boy Scout waking up in my tent in anticipation to hike the 20 mile Lincoln Heritage Trail in Springfield , Illinois . Participating in this hike was a right of passage to every young Boy Scout that lived in the Land of Lincoln .

I had on my uniform with the green hiking socks with the red stripe on the top and my hiking boots had been oiled the night before to make them water resistant as waterproof hiking boots were not heard of at that time. My backpack had the essential first aid supplies as well as a large bag of trail mix along with an aluminum canteen to complete my supplies for the trip.

The first couple of miles were pleasant enough as we hiked along with high spirits and full canteens. But as the day wore on, my green boy scout socks wore thin, my energy drained, and my canteen became a constant reminder that I needed more water. Somehow I finished that hike and after loading up in the van, I went home and received some much needed rest and relaxation.

I remember with vivid detail taking off my hiking boots and peeling the socks off my feet. Based on the pain I felt I fully expected to remove my sock and see nothing but nubs where my toes used to be and a barely recognizable human heel where my boot had been unmercifully rubbing for that last 8 miles. To my relief and amazement, I still had toes and a heel, all of which were red in color with several raised blisters.

I hobbled my way to the shower and stood relaxing in the water as 20 miles of dirt and grime washed away. This felt like the most amazing shower of my entire life. Every muscle and stiff joint seemed to sigh with relief as the water massaged my overburdened body and I felt better than I ever remembered feeling. Next I put on a warm, dry pair of socks that seemed to wrap my feet in a cloud of comfort as I lay down on the couch with a tall glass of ice water. To this day, I have never felt a couch so comfortable, a shower so energizing, socks so pleasing, or a glass of water as delicious as the one I drank that day.

My accomplishment seems small when compared to the species that travel each year to the forests of the Big Woods of Arkansas. Each year thousands of ducks fly south for the winter and take advantage of the habitat and food provided by flooded timber and wetlands. As wintering waterfowl return north for nesting in the spring, a new group of migrants move into our forest. We call these songbirds “neo-tropical migrants” because they winter in central and South America and migrate north to nest and raise young in the United States and Canada . And other migrants, such as the Solitary Sandpiper, are referred to as shorebirds as they feed primarily in shallow water near the edge of wetlands and marshes. Some shorebirds may only stay for a day or two as they migrate from the Artic all the way to South America .

Little do these species realize that White River NWR and Cache River NWR have been preparing for their visit years in advance to provide them with all their needs whether they are coming for winter food, staying for the summer to nest and raise young, or just stopping for a “fill up” before heading back on their way.

Our forest management focuses on many different species and utilizes a variety of management techniques to satisfy a variety of palates and domicile preferences. Areas of the forest have been designed to provide openings in the forest canopy allowing light to penetrate to the forest floor and produce annual and perennial plants. The plants produce seeds for waterfowl providing needed carbohydrates after their arduous journey. Just as long –distance runners need carbohydrates for a marathon, waterfowl rely on these foods to complete their migration. When these same areas become flooded, the same vegetation provides food and habitat for millions of invertebrates that will provide necessary protein for production of new feathers for flight and nutrients hens will need to produce eggs.

The neo-tropical migrants such as the Indigo Bunting, Painted Bunting, Summer Tanager, Prothonotary Warbler, and Ruby-Throated Hummingbird will arrive in spring and summer with different needs. Providing habitat for these species takes years of planning. Foresters first created openings in the dense canopy, which allowed sunlight to penetrate to the forest floor and stimulate a new growth of trees. These trees were allowed to grow and form a mid-canopy layer, which is favored habitat for some neotropical migrants and other songbirds. They use the mid-canopy to nest in as it gives them access to the forest floor for feeding and protection as the top canopy hides their nests from the threat of raptors flying overhead.

Thinking back to my 20 mile hike, I realize I had it easy compared to the migrants that depend on forest management to provide their needs. I only had to “migrate” for one day and carried most of my supplies with me. These migrants are unable to do this and rely on public and private lands to supply these needs. Refuges have been established along every major migration flyway in North America to act as “trail mix” and “canteens” for weary travelers. Each Refuge is vital in supplying food and habitat for these species as they migrate.

I try to imagine how these species feel as they fly thousands of miles. Their feathers must start to wear thin like my old Boy Scout socks but the prospect of arriving to the Big Woods of Arkansas must keep them flying everyday. Just like an old boot taking one step after another, their wings bring them a little closer to their destination with each purposeful beat. When they finally arrive, I can't help but wonder if they find that the food tastes sweeter than before take-off, and the treetops give better shelter than before they migrated, and the relief of reaching their destination has helped in imprinting their desire to migrate again next year. I don't know whether or not animals think about these things, but I see the habitat we provide as the dry pair of socks, the cool drink of water, and the soft couch. And just as sure as they will return next year, we will use our habitat management to provide a rest stop to shorebirds, a winter buffet for waterfowl, and a summer home for the neo-tropical migrants.

As my son grows up and becomes a Boy Scout, perhaps I will return to the Lincoln Heritage Trail and show him the path that his father took many years before him. I will do my best to show him the correct route, limit his blisters, and keep his supplies stocked, but I also know that without experiencing the sting of the struggle, he would not experience the elation once he completes his journey and relaxes and takes “refuge” in a dry pair of socks.

Last updated: September 10, 2008