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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Lessons from a Butterfly Basket

man sitting with two smiling little girls   Spike Jackson, with his duaghters, Coco Neytiri Jackson, 6, and Arrow Rose Jackson, 2, during the November 2018 Saline Valley monarch butterfly survey. Photo courtesy of Spike Jackson

Surrounded by blue skies and the vast open desert, Spike Jackson, a member and environmental director of the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe, describes a large basket, woven with ornate geometric patterns, and orange and black butterflies.

“The basket was handcrafted by my great-great aunt, who lived here (California’s Saline Valley) at one time,” Jackson says. “The butterflies must have been significant to my ancestors, but I don’t know why and I’d like to know.”

Inspired by a chance to visit the home of his ancestors and see the butterflies adorning his family’s handwoven basket, Jackson and his family volunteered to monitor monarchs as part of the second annual Saline Valley Monarch Count.

Relearning History (Full Story)

In Desert or Great Lakes Region, We All Need Water

2 photos, one of path through green forest and one of desert with cacti      Despite obvious differences between the Midwest and the Southwest, the need for water is the same. Photos by USFWS

Indu Roychowdhury works with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Water Resource Division in the Southwest Region.

We know water as a resource we all rely upon, but how does its role in nature and society change throughout the different areas of the United States? When talking water, the Midwest may just be the most drastically different area from the Southwest desert, and that’s why I made the 1,125 mile trip from Albuquerque to Minneapolis last year: to investigate the similarities and disparities.

As my car pulls up to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Midwest Region office, my groggy post-travel eyes can process only one thing: green. Even in the midst of the bustling city, the large office sits nestled in an alcove of trees—a testament to the abundance of water in the area. Hydrologist Jennifer Gruetzman (whom I would later accompany in monitoring fieldwork) guides me through the building. Large, glass windows allow for a romantic view:  Typing in a cubicle on the 10th floor feels comparable to wading in the field.

In both the Southwest and the Midwest, water is coveted, leading to conflicts. This similarity, of course, is laced with a multitude of differences. As human activity and shifting weather patterns continue to deplete the Rio Grande of water, the biggest issue in the Southwest rings glaringly clear: With everyone staking claims to it, there’s just not enough water to go around. Hydrologists and other employees with the   Fish and Wildlife Service Water Resource Division focus on resource distribution and use of the desert’s remaining water—and how to keep this use sustainable. 

   field with a pond  amid greenery

The Midwest may have enough water (they are, after all, renowned for it), but they face a number of alternative challenges. I travel to St. Croix Wetland Management District in west central Wisconsin and speak with Project Leader Bridget Olson. Wetland Management Districts are scattered across large landscapes. The main problem Olson reports has to do not with water scarcity but with pollution and damage to natural areas. She discusses the way ditches have destroyed wetland areas and outlines present-day restoration efforts. Conservation strategies include working closely with private landowners—placing conservation easements on properties, effectively “restricting building in that area and protecting all the cold water springs.” Another issue in the St. Croix area has to do with industrial groundwater use. Discussing the connections between groundwater extraction and surface wetland ecosystems, Olson laments the challenges in protecting both: explaining impacts of groundwater impacts on small wetlands.

Drainage is one of the biggest issues in the Midwest Region. Tile drainage, the extracting of water from beneath the Earth’s surface using underground “tiles” is a practice that can alter natural drainage through the soil and potentially pollute water. I speak with Doug Norris, the Minnesota State Department of Natural Resources Wetlands Program coordinator, who describes how agriculture “drained over 90 percent of the original wetlands in parts of Minnesota.” This loss of wetlands presents another concern–the subsequent depletion of aquifers—that is, groundwater. Lead hydrologist Josh Eash stresses the importance of water monitoring. “We’ve polluted so much of our surface water here in the Midwest that we’re now drawing from groundwater.”

I traveled to the Midwest to learn a bit about how the different arms of the Service complement and compare to each other. It’s easy to get caught in the perspective of the region you work from, but the United States boasts an incredible diversity of environment and culture. In the Southwest, we always have water on the mind; its scarcity makes it a hot commodity. Our growingly arid environment demands that we work toward conserving what little water we have. The Midwest, on the other hand, is one zone with a culture of abundant water pride. From fishing to boating to other water sports, the region relies on water and its protection. Whether in context of desert sand or Midwestern fields, water rules the way we live and thrive. It informs our cultures and lifestyles, our recreations and enjoyments, our wants and necessities. Everywhere, it demands active protection from depletion and pollution—it is the tie that binds us all together.

Lifelong Connection with Nature can Blossom with Just One Experience

   man in checked shirt sitting with child on lap

We frequently talk about the need for a lifelong connection with nature, and we hold events to help people develop it. To some, that may seem overblown. Sure, they think, the outdoors is fun but it is no big thing. Try telling that to Brent Lawrence, a public affairs officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Pacific Region in Portland, Oregon. Brent’s Dad, who died recently, didn’t get a chance to enjoy the outdoors a lot, but he carried it with him always. 

World War II Veteran Carried Special Memories of Outdoors to the Very End

Fayetteville Woodpeckers Pick the Perfect Mascot

 A woodpecker mascot with red hair and a bat with holes chewed through  Photo courtesy of the Fayetteville Woodpeckers

In Florida and Arizona, pitchers and catchers are reporting for workouts to prepare for another baseball season. One club we’ll be keeping an eye on: the Fayetteville Woodpeckers. As U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Mark Davis wrote back in November when the team was established:

black and white bird at hole in tree

Note the fierce gleam in the eye, topped by a scarlet crest.

Yes. It is our friend, good ol’ Leuconotopicus borealis. But most folks know him as the red-cockaded woodpecker, or RCW.

The endangered woodpecker makes its home on public and private lands around Fayetteville, North Carolina, including Fort Bragg, but it is also found in 11 states in the South, as far west as Texas.

It once numbered more than 1 million woodpecker clusters, but that number fell precipitously as the longleaf pine ecosystem disappeared.

The bird was protected as endangered in 1970, and while too early to declare recovery, “With few exceptions, the woodpecker is coming back strong,” says Will McDearman, who heads up Service efforts to rebuild the bird’s numbers.

Today, 7,200 active clusters, or male-female pairs of birds, exist from Virginia to Texas. In 2003, there were 5,600 clusters.

If the Fayetteville Woodpeckers face a slump where their bats just aren’t working, they can just look at everything their “tough and persistent” mascot has faced and is overcoming.

Albatross Wisdom is a new mom again

   white bird stands over grayish chickWisdom’s mate Akeakamai stands over their newly hatched chick.  Photo by Bob Peyton/USFWS

Wisdom, a Laysan albatross and world’s oldest known banded wild bird, hatched another chick recently at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway National Memorial. She is at least 68 years old, has raised more than 30 chicks in her lifetime.

“She’s incredibly powerful as a symbol of why we do what we do and why people all over the world pay attention to her,” says Beth Flint, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Wildlife biologist.  

Wisdom and mate Akeakamai spent about two months incubating the egg, and now they will raise the chick, which needs five to six months before it leaves the island to fly out to sea, or “fledge.” This process takes up so much time and energy, so most Laysan albatross do not lay an egg every year.

“Because Laysan albatross don’t lay eggs every year and when they do, they raise only one chick at a time, the contribution of even one bird to the population makes a difference,” says Bob Peyton, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service project leader for Midway Atoll Refuge and Memorial.

For the first years of their lives, albatross grow and mature at sea. Starting around age 5, juvenile Laysan return to their home colony during breeding season and begin the search for a mate - a process that can take years.  During nesting season, juvenile albatross can be found all over Midway Atoll practicing elaborate courtship dances or dozens of ritualized movements. When they find that special bird to dip, bow and preen with, the pair stays bonded for life.

More on Wisdom        

How Do They Do That?

line of  birds on a tree limb all cuddled together in the snowTree swallows during spring snowstorm. Photo courtesy of Keith Williams/Creative Commons

If you live anywhere where it gets cold, you have probably wondered how in the world birds keep warm. Some cuddle; some even have brains that get bigger in the fall. Find out more tricks and how you can help.

Learn how you can help

'Tis the Season for the Christmas Bird Count

Tufted TitmouseTufted Titmouse by Bill Thompson/USFWS

On a calendar, Christmas might appear as one day, but if you are a bird watcher, the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is actually a twenty-three day event. The CBC is one of the world’s oldest and longest-running citizen science efforts. The count takes place from December 14 to January 5. It is organized into circles, and each circle counts as many birds as possible on one day, either on a predetermined route, or at their backyard bird feeder. Data is compiled, and used to learn about long-term bird trends. The data collected has been used in many reports and publications, such as the State of the Birds Report, which the Service produces.  

The CBC began on Christmas Day, 1900.  Previously, many families would have Christmas hunting competitions-- known as side hunts--to see who could kill the most birds. Frank Chapman, and early Audubon officer, wanted to offer an alternative. The first count took place in 25 locations, from California to Canada, counting 90 species.  

This idea clearly caught on. This was a time of growing awareness of bird conservation, culminating with the signing of the first Migratory Bird Treaty, so it came at the right time, and touched a chord with people. Today, there are thousands of bird circles, in all 50 states, and foreign countries, with tens of thousands of participants. Last year, more than 60 million birds were tallied!

Get Involved
By now, you might be wondering on how you can be a part of this tradition (if you aren’t already). It is pretty simple. You can find a circle near you, and get in touch with the circle lead to find out the day of the count and determine whether you will follow a route or monitor your feeder. After the data is collected, it is sent you your compiler, and added to a report. You are welcome to participate in as many circles as you wish.

Hundreds of national wildlife refuges from Alaska to Texas to New Jersey will be hosting Christmas Bird Counts, so be sure to check out wildlife refuges near you or check out the winter events

"The majority of refuges are within a Christmas Bird Count circle, which is wonderful because CBCs are one of the world's oldest examples of citizen scientists contributing to wildlife conservation," says Mike Carlo, National Wildlife Refuge System birding coordinator. 

Short-Eared Owl on Seedskadee NWR


Short-eared Owl by Tom Koerner/USFWS 

Legendary biologist, founding author of the Golden Guides, and retired 60 year U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee Chan Robbins had this to say about the CBC: “If we had not had a Christmas Bird Count in those early years, we would not have as strong an understanding of long term bird trends. Many of these changes take place gradually.”  

It is a busy season, but if you are considering starting a new tradition that gets you outside, contributes to bird conservation and understanding, and helps build lifelong relationships, consider being part of the Christmas Bird Count this year.

-- Chris Deets, Outreach and Education Coordinator, Migratory Bird Program

Surveying for Survivors

   man holding stick with 7 amber globe stuck to  it“When I found the newt egg masses attached to the reed, I realized that this species had somehow been able to survive despite the fire. That, and the new vegetation growth, gave me hope that the ecosystem would rebound and perhaps our target species, the California red-legged frog, had also weathered the event.” —John Cleckler, fish and wildlife biologist, Fish and Wildlife Service. Photo by Veronica Davison/USFWS

In October 2017, the Nuns wildfire ripped through California’s Ledson Marsh leaving charred vegetation and wildlife behind. Nearly six months late, members of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Office joined a team of volunteers who work with Cook to collect water samples, count amphibian egg masses, and document other observations at the marsh. 

What did they find?

A Most Wonderful Time of the Year

   sign reading  Welcome to your National Wildlife Refuge System  in  snowCanaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge in West Virginia. Photo by Ken Sturm/USFWS

If you enjoy clean, crisp air and the great outdoors, winter is a special time of year at national wildlife refuges in northern latitudes. As the National Wildlife Refuge System home page story A Most Wonderful Time of the Year points out, refuges offer invigorating recreation, a serene respite from the daily grind and a chance to glimpse wildlife.

8 eagles    in a snowy treeEight bald eagles in one tree at Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge in California. Yes, eight. One is partially hidden. Photo by Dave Menke/USFWS

You can see majestic bald eagles at Lower Klamath and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuges along the California-Oregon border, Camas National Wildlife Refuge in Idaho, Upper Mississippi River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland and numerous other refuges across the country.

4 pics of cross-country skiingGet your heart pumping, your muscles stretched and your lungs refreshed with some cross-country skiing at dozens of refuges, including Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge (top) in Idaho,  Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge (bottom left) in New Jersey, Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge (middle) in Maine and Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge (right) in Minnesota. Photos by Dorey Rowland, David Sagan, USFWS and Dennis Mudderman

A Most Wonderful Time of the Year is part of the Refuge System’s series of online stories that highlight the conservation work and visitor opportunities at national wildlife refuges, wetland management districts and marine national monuments. New stories are posted on the Refuge System home page on Wednesdays. The stories are archived here.

A Yearly Dose of Wisdom the Laysan Albatross

Wisdom incubating her egg, December 2018. Photo credit: Madalyn Riley/USFWS Volunteer

In cheesy horror movies, the bad guy always comes back. Real life tends to have more finality to it. But on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway National Memorial, a Laysan albatross keeps coming back year after year after year. In fact, she’s been coming back for more than 60 years, and we’re delighted each time.  

PHOTOS: Wisdom through the years

Wisdom, the world’s oldest known wild bird, was first banded on Midway Atoll as an adult in 1956 and is at least 68 years old

She and recent mate Akeakamai have returned to the same nest site on Midway Atoll to lay and hatch an egg every year since 2006.

And biologists on Midway have confirmed that she has laid an egg again this year.

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