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Open Spaces

A Talk on the Wild Side.

Great Fall Walks on National Wildlife Refuges

  person walks the the Nisqually Estuary Boardwalk Trail at the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge at sunriseA little time alone in nature can soothe the soul. In Washington state, the Nisqually Estuary Boardwalk Trail at the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge provides stunning views of the estuary — and the many birds that use it. The trail has a viewing tower and two viewing platforms. “Fantastic,” says one Trip Advisor reviewer. Photo by Steve Russell

It’s easy to see why fall is a favorite season for walks and hikes at national wildlife refuges.

The air is crisp, the colors breathtaking, the trails as varied as refuge landscapes.

   red-winged blackbird eats ticks sitting on a deer's head. A red-winged blackbird eats ticks on a deer. Photo Courtesy of Naomi Ballard

And wildlife offer continual surprises.

This week’s photo story from the National Wildlife Refuge System will leave you eager to hit the trail. 

Not sure what refuge trails are nearby? Check out trail descriptions on the Refuge Trail Guide. More than 70 refuge trails are designated National Recreation Trails. Refuge trails also include several hundred miles of National Historic Trails and National Scenic Trails

You live in the city? You’re in luck. Some refuge trails are surprisingly close by. At Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, 10 miles from downtown Denver, you can see bison from the one-mile Legacy Trail. At John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, a three-mile nature trail is right inside Philadelphia city limits. 

While you’re marveling at the sights along a refuge trail, you’ll also be doing your body good. 

Regular walks or hikes in nature promote good health – lowering blood pressure and risk of heart disease, and boosting bone density. Your mood may be better, too. Don’t take our word for it. Read what WebMD has to say about how the health benefits of walking or hiking. 

  Family on hike at Tidelands Trail Join free guided walks at many refuges. Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey is leading nightly sunset walks through Saturday for Refuge Week. On the West Coast, join the next monthly “Nature Walk for Health!” November 5 at Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge along its Tidelands Trail (pictured). At Washington’s Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually Refuge, bird walks take place every Wednesday at 8 a.m. Photo by USFWS


You can hike alone or in a group. Many refuges host free guided walks. See our story for examples.

Read the story here. See you on the trail!


Susan Morse, National Wildlife Refuge System communications

Rare Encounter with a Northern Hawk Owl

Northern Hawk OwlNorthern hawk owl in black cottonwoods in Alaska by Lisa Hupp, USFWS.

Northern hawk owls (Surnia ulula) are unusual hunters among their relatives. Instead of flying in twilight and darkness, they are active only in the daytime, using their keen sight to find small rodents up to half a mile away. As we waited in the bright October sunlight, a young hawk owl focused, hunched, and then silently swooped in a steep dive towards the grass before lifting suddenly to a nearby tree. No vole caught, but a new vantage gained.

The hunt for hawk owls...

We slowly stepped into the stand of cottonwood trees at the edge of the meadow. Our heads craned back, we walked carefully as leaves crunched under our boots. We looked down often to avoid the abundant piles of fresh bear scat dotting the ground. I had been to this patch of Kodiak’s forest several times before without luck, but today I felt hopeful.

Northern Hawk OwlNorthern hawk owl in black cottonwoods in Alaska by Lisa Hupp, USFWS.

Weaving in and out of the trees, we scanned the open branches and tops of dead snags. It was high noon, and our eyes searched for something slightly larger than a football silhouetted against the sun. As I turned away to head a different direction, I heard it: “I found one!” And there it was. Perched small and dark on a naked branch, with a long, sharp tail angled down and small yellow eyes glowing, a northern hawk owl swiveled its head looking for prey.

What’s in a name?

The daytime habits, hunting style, long tail and pointed wings of this singular owl are similar to those of hawks and falcons, earning it the name of hawk owl. Like a hawk, it may skim the ground in pursuit of prey, hover before a “pounce,” or capture prey from the air.

Northern Hawk OwlNorthern hawk owl by Lisa Hupp, USFWS.

Where to find them

A truly northern bird, the hawk owl is not migratory and lives in the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska. Lucky viewers in the northern continental United States may occasionally see a nomadic hawk owl searching for more temperate climate and food.

A photographer’s dream

We watched as the owl surveyed the meadow, ignoring us completely. Tolerance of humans and banker’s hours made it possible for our small group of shutterbugs to snap away as the owl swiveled and preened. When a second owl swooped past the first to settle in a nearby tree, we could hardly believe our luck. Hundreds of photos later, we collapsed our tripods and headed back to the road.

I returned alone in the late afternoon, not quite ready to end the encounter after my previous failed attempts. Repeating the slow, neck-straining walk through the trees, I wondered if I could find them again on my own. With a sense of deja-vu, I finally spotted the silhouette high above me. Before I could even set up the camera, the second owl soared past the first. And then began a kind of hopscotch, as the two owls dove and rose again through the fall foliage around me. I forgot about taking pictures and just watched.

Northern Hawk OwlNorthern hawk owl by Lisa Hupp, USFWS.

-- Lisa Hupp, USFWS Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge

Badge Protector


Many years ago I traveled to Miami to speak with Christopher “Kip” Koss, the grandson of the great cartoonist and ex-director of the Service Jay N. “Ding” Darling. Kip generously donated a Deputy Game Warden badge to the museum. Ding had treasured the badge, which was awarded to him from the Service in appreciation of his tenure with us. I was so protective of that badge, that I didn’t want it out of my sight for the remainder of the trip. Actually, I couldn’t even let it out of my grasp!

Jeanne M. Harold, curator of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Museum and Archives at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, says the history surrounding the objects in the museum gives them life.

Next Curator's Corner

Fish & Wildlife News   This article is a preview of the fall issue of Fish & Wildlife News, our quarterly magazine. The fall issue is due out in mid-October.

Against the Odds: Wildlife Refuge Inspired Los Banos Student to Become a Biologist

Alex and his parents  Alex Alegria and his parents celebrate his graduation from Humboldt State University, in Arcata, California in May 2016. Photo by Kim Forrest/USFWS

The first time I met Alejandro “Alex” Alegria, the 15-year-old high school freshman arrived late and sweaty to our Youth Conservation Corps crew orientation. His brother had dropped him off at the front gate to our San Luis National Wildlife Refuge and drove away.  Our management office was then located in Los Banos, California. So, Alex ran the five miles around one of the tour routes looking for the office, eventually getting a ride 10 miles back to town, and managed to show up just 15 minutes late. This was not the first or last time Alex overcame great odds to achieve a goal.

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Diana Gu: From the Blue of an SCA Intern to 'Wearing Brown' of FWS

Meet Your Fish and Wildlife Service
Diana Gu on beach holding sea turtle hatchlingIn blue SCA garb and oversized nitrile gloves, Diana Gu holds the first excavated leatherback hatchling of the season.

Open Spaces is featuring 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, former SCA intern and current wildlife technician Diana Gu checks in from Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge in Florida.

It’s 6:32 a.m. The itching around my ankles indicates that the sandflies arrived before the eastward sea winds could pick up and I’m generously applying mostly ineffective citronella to prepare for my morning nesting sea turtle survey. I drive my ATV loaded with nest marking stakes, flagging tape, a sledgehammer, GPS unit, measuring tape, nitrile gloves, hand sanitizer and my hatchling bucket through a dark tunnel of seagrape groves. As I reach my start point at the south end of the refuge’s boundary on Jupiter Island, I look up at the pre-dawn sky and see the sun coyly creeping above the Atlantic. The water is calm and the sun is enormous, Lion King-esque, and sublime as it casts a warm lava glow on the gentle waves.  I breathe in the salty air and think to myself that sunrises have become a cliché for good reason—they are simply beautiful.

Brown pelicans at sunriseBrown pelicans fly over the water as the sun rises.

It’s still hard to believe that most of my work days really start like this. Nine months ago I arrived at Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge as a SCA intern with a background primarily in botany, uncertain about my future, but determined to make the crossover to wildlife biology. Familiarizing myself straight away with protocols and guidelines from the state and our permit holder as well as the database was daunting to say the least. But after receiving training, attending workshops, and with the unflagging support and confidence of my boss and co-workers, I eventually felt at ease in the position.

Hobe Sound Refuge is small, and besides the refuge manager and a part-time fee collector, we depend completely on volunteers, interns and the nonprofit that runs our visitor center. When funding for a wildlife technician became  available and I was offered the position, there was no hesitation in accepting it. 

Diana Gu on beach digging in pitDiana Gu searches for a green turtle clutch to be inventoried for a Nest Productivity Assessment, this time in an FWS uniform!

Today, I’m “wearing brown” (as Christine, the refuge manager, would say) and leading sea turtle, shorebird and exotic species surveys on a barrier island. It is truly is an honor and privilege to work here. As one of my volunteers pointed out, I look like something in between an Asian Adventure Barbie and a cardboard box, but I finally graduated from intern to completely legit name tag-wearing, benefits-receiving, uniformed, hired employee!

leatherback turtle on beachA nesting leatherback spotted during a survey. Leatherbacks are the largest sea turtle species weighing up to 1,500 pounds.

It’s hard to imagine a job could be any better than this one. Every day feels a little surreal. My backyard is the Indian River Lagoon, the most biodiverse estuarine system in the Northern Hemisphere. People from all over the world flock to the island to their multimillion dollar vacation homes and reserve coveted spots on our sea turtle night walks months in advance. Whenever I have a long survey where there’s 90+ crawls to investigate and record, it’s 100 degrees out, a thunderstorm threatens, or I’m lying in a hole in the sand and on hour 2 of locating the clutch of a leatherback nest, I just remind myself that this is the life. Even on my worst days, I’d still rather be moments from a natural disaster or heat exhaustion than sitting through hours of monotonous meetings, working for the weekend, and wondering what life would be like as a field biologist.

sea turtle hatchlingThis green sea turtle hatchling found during an excavation for the Nest Productivity Assessment is ready for release.

The work we do is challenging but immeasurably rewarding. Our refuge has one of the longest data records for sea turtle nesting of any beach in the United States.  This year the Treasure Coast collectively produced record breaking nesting numbers thanks to decades of battling urban night glow, removal of beach debris, and of course continued research and public outreach. It’s an honor to be part of the process, and I wouldn’t have been able to do so without the opportunities, experience and mentorship the SCA and the refuge provided me.

Curator's Corner: Light on its Feet

  floating mountain lionHave you ever seen such a lovely mountain lion? It looks like he is floating on air.  Well, he is floating on air!  When an illegally taken animal is confiscated by our law enforcement folks, the mounting that it is perched on does not have to be surrendered. The perpetrator/criminal in this particular case decided to keep the log that this pretty kitty was lying on, just to be mean, our officers said. So I guess people who see him in our storage room might think that he is a new hovercraft species of puma or that he is resting on an invisible branch. In reality, he is just a reflection of resentful law breakers!

Jeanne M. Harold, curator of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Museum and Archives at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, says the history surrounding the objects in the museum gives them life.

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Fish & Wildlife News   This article is a preview of the fall issue of Fish & Wildlife News, our quarterly magazine. The fall issue is due out in mid-October.

Networking and Mosquito Bites for Conservation

  Jonas with a young conservationist from Kupu on rocksJonas Kambale Nyumu with a young conservationist from Kupu – a Hawaiian NGO. Photo by MENTOR-POP

The IUCN World Conservation Congress in Hawaii brought together more than 10,000 participants from 192 countries to discuss and find ways to address the most urgent conservation and sustainable development challenges such as wildlife trafficking. Jonas Kambale Nyumu and Linh Nguyen Ngoc Bao attended the IUCN Congress on behalf of MENTOR-POP (Progress on Pangolins), an 18-month program by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Zoological Society of London. Based in Yaoundé, Cameroon, MENTOR-POP is developing a trans-disciplinary team of nine early-career Central African and Asian conservation practitioners with academic and field-based training and internships to champion the conservation of the three Congo Basin pangolin species. All eight species of pangolins in the world are in peril due to international trafficking for their scales and meat. In perhaps a turning point, pangolins received increased protections last week under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Jonas’ report on IUCN:

The IUCN World Conservation Congress was my first big opportunity to network with global professional conservationists, especially ‘pangolin people’ - that’s what I call pangolin experts! It was great to jump into deep discussions with them about pangolins. Little is known about pangolin populations in Central Africa, so all advice and shared experiences are very helpful for determining distribution and abundance of pangolins and for figuring out how to ensure their survival in the future. 

  Jonas between two othersJonas gave a presentation about bushmeat.

But after discussing at length the dire threats to pangolins in Central Africa, including the unsustainable bushmeat trade, I needed something a little light-hearted. I found it, joining a “conservation campus,” a short, interactive training and capacity-building session built around peer-to-peer learning and academic sessions. The conservation campus I attended was led by U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, and hosted by a Hawaii-based Youth Conservation Corps, Kupu.  We met with young leaders who have experience working in Youth Conservation Corps. Then we participated in a service project removing invasive plants and planting native species along a stream. 

  Linh Nguyen Ngoc Bao plants a treeLinh Nguyen Ngoc Bao plants Hawaiian native tree by MENTOR-POP

We all got dirty and wet with mosquito bites, too! But it’s all about networking with young professionals, having fun and all above, learning and doing good things for nature and the local community. A Hawaiian from Kupu later on took us around Honolulu for hiking to see the beautiful Oahu Island, snorkeling to observe an amazing diversity of fish and marine life in Hanauma Bay and taking photos with sea turtles around the island’s North Shore. 

Thank you to WWF’s Education for Nature Program, which enabled me to attend the congress.  

This was my first time going to the beach and learning how to swim. And it’s Hawaii! How many people have that experience?


Refuge Week: Time for Discovery

  trees at Seney NWRAutumn at Seney National Wildlife Refuge in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula brings rich colors. As temperatures cool, migratory birds begin their long journey to their wintering grounds. Photo by Keri Boothe 

National Wildlife Refuge Week is October 9-15, and, as part of our weekly online storytelling the Refuge System is giving you this whirlwind tour of the some of the best that America has to offer.

National wildlife refugees have been part of America’s nature heritage since the first one was established in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt on tiny Pelican Island in Florida.

Today, the National Wildlife Refuge System, part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, manages the world’s largest conservation estate at more than 850 million acres of lands and waters. There are 565 national wildlife refuges and 38 wetland management districts across the country, from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean, from Alaska to the U.S. Virgin Islands.

  REdfish at Papah?naumoku?keaHawaiian squirrelfish feed at Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Photo by James Watt

The Refuge System manages more than 737 million acres within four marine national monuments in the Pacific Ocean: Marianas Trench; Pacific Remote Islands; Papahanaumokuakea; and Rose Atoll. Oceanographer Sylvia Earle has called the monuments “hope spots”— places that not only feed the world, but are also critical to the life and health of the Pacific. Last month, President Obama designated the first marine national monument in the Atlantic: Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. 

FIND a refuge close to you

You can find at least one refuge in every state and U.S. territory. The nation’s last frontier, Alaska, has 16 national wildlife refuges protecting 76 million-plus acres.

In the most populous state – California – you have your choice of 40 refuges. The Southeast has 130 national wildlife refuges. Florida alone has 30 — most protecting coastal lands.

  bisonBison at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge nmear Denver. Photo by Douglas Bowen

Surrounded by asphalt? National wildlife refuges are close! Visit any of 100-plus refuges within 25 miles of big and medium-sized cities. You can see bison 10 miles from downtown Denver at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge.

About 180 national wildlife refuges dot the coastline of the United States and the Great Lakes, protecting incredible marine and coastal ecosystems.

birders use a scopeBirders at Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Photo by Alex Baranda 

Fishing. Hunting. Crabbing. Hiking, kayaking or snapping first-rate photos: National wildlife refuges offer world-class recreation, and almost all are open to the public free-of-charge. Any time is a great time to visit a national wildlife refuge. Find your adventure in any season.

Smelling a Rat Leads to a Bust

  USDA’s Louis Volpe, with gloves and mask, holds a dehydrated jungle rat.
USDA’s Louis Volpe holds a dehydrated jungle rat. Photo courtesy of USDA

Generally, we must clear all wildlife (including parts and products) imported into the United States. This prevents the importation of wildlife taken illegally as well as wildlife dangerous to our native ecosystems. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also looks at the importation of wildlife but focuses on wildlife capable of causing human disease.

The two frequently work together at U.S. ports of entry, and in December 2014, Fernando Gattorno, Special Agent with the Service’s Southeast Region, helped intercept about $200,000 worth of dried rats on sticks. They were shipped from Nigeria to South Florida for ceremonial use by people seeking help with spiritual and health problems, but CDC has banned most importations of live or dead African rodents ever since they were connected to an outbreak of monkeypox in the United States in 2003.  

Besides CDC, Gattorno worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Florida Department of Health for guidance on how to safely handle hundreds of Gambian pouched rats, called oketes, and other items.

The shipment of dead rats on sticks in a cardboard box initially shut down the West Palm Beach post office and attracted a bomb squad and hazardous materials team. A postal worker had noticed a bad smell coming from a leaky package bound for a local artifacts importer’s store. This was at the height of the Ebola crisis, so the U.S. Postal Service was taking precautions, wearing face masks and gloves handling the package. Postal Service police alerted USDA, which regulates agricultural items coming into the United States — in this case, the wooden sticks that held the dried rats.

“I called Fernando knowing there were also animals involved,” says USDA’s Louis Volpe. “Fernando and I are friends. We fish together. I said, ‘Hey, we’ve got something you might be interested in.’ ”

The oketes, other African rodents and rodent pieces weren’t the only problem.

“To add insult to injury, in one of the four boxes, there were a whole bunch of wild bird feathers with blood on their tips, which was a big deal because of the potential for avian flu,” Gattorno recalls.

Gattorno called CDC’s Miami Quarantine Station for advice on personal protection. Emily Davenport, a quarantine public health officer, took the call. “Because this was during the Ebola crisis and the package was coming from West Africa, people were on edge and being extra vigilant,” Davenport says. “We told them to follow their normal personal protective equipment protocol. The way they handled these regulated items was outstanding.”

Davenport praises Gattorno for his quick work and calm, cool demeanor, and for calling CDC. “Agent Gattorno and the rest of the Service’s team are really great. Their work helps us prevent diseases from entering the country.”

Gattorno and his Service colleagues and port partners met with the artifacts importer and his interpreter. They fined the importer and educated him about U.S. laws, explaining why rats, bird feathers and wooden items are regulated, and how to process items to avoid disease and to comply with regulations. Their efforts seem to have worked. “We haven’t had a problem since to my knowledge,” says Gattorno.

Ronda Robinson, CDC

Fish & Wildlife News   This article is a preview of the fall issue of Fish & Wildlife News, our quarterly magazine. The fall issue is due out in mid-October.

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