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Open Spaces

A Talk on the Wild Side.

Surrogate Leatherback Sea Turtle

  Turtle teamThe Turtle Survey Team at Sandy Point (Dana is second from left).

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, Dana DeSousa checks in from Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

  Dana DeSousa holding hatchlings
Dana DeSousa holding hatchlings. 

Ever wonder what it's like to work with dinosaurs? Well I can't tell you what it’s like to work with a Tyrannosaurus rex, but I can tell you about working with a reptile whose ancestors were around during the Cretaceous period.

Her body emerges from the surf indifferent to the waves crashing over her head and carapace. She moves slowly but methodically up the beach dragging her 700-pound-body a few feet with each stroke of her front flippers. All of a sudden she starts to swivel her body and rear flippers, throwing sand from side to side with her front limbs. Once this movement has created a body pit, she begins to dig. With her front flippers anchored in the beach, she alternates the use of her rear flippers to scoop sand to form an egg chamber. She is almost ready to lay her eggs. Unfortunately, this leatherback sea turtle has chosen to deposit her eggs in a known erosion zone, so tonight we will have to relocate them to a more stable stretch of beach. 

I crawl up right behind the astonishingly large creature and lie in the sand behind her to catch her eggs in a special double bag that will keep them in their natural state and enable me to remove the clutch in one swift movement. I lie motionless as she digs h

er chamber carefully. Finally, after she feels the space is the perfect depth and shape, I find the two- or three-second window in which I can put my bag under her cloaca and begin to catch the eggs. I see her entire body contract, and a wave of movement shudders across her, resulting in the release of four or five eggs. Each time she contracts, a few eggs fall into my bag as I keep a steady hold on the sides. After about 10 minutes, she starts to lay spacers, or yolkless eggs. I know they are spacers because fertilized leatherback eggs are the size of billiard balls; spacers come in all different sizes – marble, ping pong ball, sausage, etc.  Leatherback turtles are the only turtles that lay spacers. They are thought to aid in gas exchange within the nest. 

 The spacers are  my signal to prepare to move the bag because she will be done after a few more pushes. After the final egg is laid and her rear flippers start to make the slightest movement, I remove the bag in one fell swoop. She starts to cover her chamber as if the eggs are still there because she has no idea that her eggs have been removed. While I work to catch the eggs, other members of our team work up the turtle by taking measurements, checking for flipper and Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tags and examining her for injuries. These research activities all take place in the short period of time that the turtle is laying her eggs, ensuring minimal disturbance.

Turtle teamTurtle survey team. Photo by Shannon Borowy 

Now it's time to become a surrogate leatherback and dig a new chamber in a suitable beach. I try to be as methodical and precise as the nesting female was a few minutes prior. When I have reached the maximum depth of 60 centimeters, I release the eggs from the bottom of the bag to imitate the laying process as accurately as possible. Next I tamp the sand to cover the eggs in the same way that our nesting females do. This will hopefully ensure a high hatching success. 

This is what happens sometimes on patrol at Sandy Point. A team of six Student Conservation Association interns, NOAA marine biologist Kelly Stewart and refuge biologist Claudia Lombard monitor nesting and hatching success for leatherbacks. Each night we patrol for nesting females every 45 minutes until the sun begins to rise. When we come across a turtle who is nesting in the area of beach that slowly disappears due to wave erosion by the end of summer — the "erosion zone" — it's time for team members to spring into action.  

hatchlngLeatherback hatchling. Photo by Shannon Borowy 

Fast forward 60 days, and it’s time to scan the beach for small black noses poking up through the sand. We patiently watch and wait as the tiny heads pop up and out. Next shoulders and front flippers appear. Soon enough the hatchlings push off their brothers and sisters and climb all the way out, starting their journey to the ocean. 

hatchlngLeatherback hatchlings. Photo by Shannon Borowy 

Witnessing the full process from eggs being laid to hatchlings emerging really puts into perspective the work my team and I are doing each night. I have learned an extensive amount about sea turtles during my SCA internship, but what has affected me most is the knowledge that my work has made a real difference for an endangered species. For every nest that is relocated, 80 or so eggs, instead of being washed out or eroded away, will have a chance to develop into hatchlings, grow into adults and eventually return to the beach where they were born. It’s a time- and labor-intensive effort, but it has really paid off. The year that sea turtle conservation began here, 1982, only 19 leatherbacks nested at Sandy Point. For the past five years, the refuge has recorded an average of 95 individual nesting females. 95! With this knowledge, the long nights, the biting bugs and the soaking rain don't seem as daunting, and every bead of sweat is a small reminder of the hard work paying off. Every day of this internship provides further encouragement to continue on a career path in conservation.  

Chords for Conservation

  Songscape: Seedskadee

In a few weeks, Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in Wyoming will have some very special guests: North Carolina's NPR-acclaimed folk band, River Whyless!

During Songscape: Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge, a unique musical foray into the sage-steppe ecosystem, the band will make music inspired by Seedskadee’s unparalleled landscape in southwestern Wyoming. 

The experience is made possible through a unique partnership with Sustain, an organization that works to elevate the music industry’s role in conservation. Sustain organizes Songscapes, which pair talented bands with public land groups to make music inspired by protected landscapes. Songscapes celebrate the natural world and bring new awareness to public lands through music.

Pronghorns at Sunset Seedskadee NWRA group of pronghorns at Sunset on Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Tom Koerner/USFWS

The name Seedskadee originated from the Shoshone Indian word "Sisk-a-dee-agie" meaning "river of the prairie hen." Today, the 27,230 acre refuge protects a rich mosaic of riparian, wetland and upland shrub habitats along 36 miles of the Green River in southwest Wyoming.  The riparian corridor of the Green River is an important migration route and nesting area for a wide variety of migratory waterfowl and other bird species.  Many insects, big game and small mammals can also be found on the refuge. 

River Whyless will spend July 30-August 4 at the refuge. The band will learn about and draw inspiration from the landscape in a number of ways, including float trips down the Green River, early morning hikes alongside wagon wheel ruts of the pioneers and campfire tales under the starriest skies in the West. From this bounty of inspiration, River Whyless will create a song rooted in their Seedskadee experience. This song will help grow audiences, support and connection to your national wildlife refuges and the sage-steppe landscape.

The Pokémon Around Us

Finding them and their real world inspiration at national wildlife refuges, fish hatcheries and more.

Recently a number of digital wildlife called pokémon have been spotted at many of your national wildlife refuges, fish hatcheries and wetlands, visible only through an appropriately configured smartphone. In an effort to provide a field guide of sorts for people interested in catching these elusive creatures, we also wanted to introduce you to some of their real counterparts. As you come to these places looking for digital wildlife, be on the lookout for these real world species, too. No app required!

Please note, this blog post in no way is suggesting you catch wild animals. Please catch only pokémon, stay on trails and always be safe while you’re exploring.

Spicebush Swallowtail Caterpillar - Caterpie

Ryan Hagerty / USFWS || Caterpie photo by Laura Bonneau

Just like Caterpie, the eyespots of this caterpillar are defense mechanisms against predators. These caterpillars grow into one of the most beautiful and most common butterflies in the eastern U.S. The caterpie pokémon is exhibiting an “everted osmeterium” (what looks like a pair of orange horns), a defense organ that stays hidden until they feel threatened. This particular caterpie spotting was reported by Laura Bonneau at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake - Ekans
Aaron Drew / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Recently seen at Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, this ekans is very similar (though way more purple) to the Western diamondback rattlesnake that inhabits the region. Both of these snakes have venom and live in grassy habitats. However, there’s nothing virtual about the venom of a rattlesnake. If you are out exploring in rattlesnake territory, please watch your step, for your sake and that of all the creatures around you.

Red Fox - Eevee

At Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge both an eevee and a red fox were spotted on the same day! Red foxes and eevees are animals that can adapt to a number of environments and become better suited for them over time. Also—look at their awesome tail and ear similarities.


Song Sparrow - Spearow

Recently at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, a roaming spearow was spotted on the boardwalk. The sharp calls of the spearow can be heard from half a mile away, and song sparrows are also very vocal birds singing a clattering song that is distinguishable to many who listen for it. Both of these are spotted frequently, so they are good to learn.

Tadpole - Poliwag

A poliwag that was found at  Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge shares the hind legs and characteristics with a number of developing tadpoles. In fact, this comparison isn’t even a stretch, because polliwog or pollywog are other names for a tadpole.  

Pitcher plants - Bellsprout

This bellsprout was caught at Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge.While bellsprout was likely named after a tropical species of pitcher plant, there are a number of carnivorous pitcher plant species that resemble this pokémon and can be found near or on refuges.

It’s no surprise that pokémon are inspired by real life wild animals and plants. The world around us is full of amazing and exciting creatures to learn about. We can all be inspired by them.  

--- Danielle Brigida, National Social Media Manager

Plovers and Terns: Mutual Tolerance

Interns Kim Snyder and Meaghan Lyon at Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Kennebunk, Maine, ward off bird bombardments to count chicks.

  piping plover and chickPlover chick and parent. Photo by Elizabeth Deletetsky/USFWS

A fact sheet from Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife calls the state-protected least tern “feisty.” Chick monitors at Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge would agree.

Refuge staff braved an onslaught of tern aerial attacks last month on the beaches of Kennebunk to survey nests within exclosures to keep predators away from the federally threatened piping plover.
 It turns out the aerial assaults were just on us.

Our least terns are courteous neighbors to their fellow birds, watching scurrying plover chicks run past before returning to checking up on their own eggs or calling loudly to their mate above the sound of the surf.

Mostly, that is. They do vocalize at plover parents who get too close. It is a peaceful coexistence at best, a mutually agreed tolerance at worst.

Puzzling Plover Parenting

  piping plover Plover chicks hiding under parents. Photo by Elizabeth Deletetsky/USFWS

In this 30th year of their listing as threatened, our piping plovers on Kennebunk beaches have been doing exceptionally well. All six nests survived excessive high tides in early June that pounded the dune line and upset several low-nesting least terns. Seventeen strong plover chicks have already hatched and are running through the dunes.

We expect that most of them will be fledging soon. One nest — in addition to hatching four rambunctious chicks — has perplexingly adopted three chicks from a neighboring pair. The large brood delights in attempting to all fit under the parents’ warm bellies at once and running together in a clump across the sand. Plover monitors were charmed by the sight of these puffballs on stilts racing to cover in the dunes or openly foraging at the high tide line along the beaches. The parents hover worriedly, peep-ing at any intrusions but the chicks have no hesitation to run toward the wet sands at low tide or poke their beaks among the rockweed washed up on the shore.

Nothing ‘Least’ About These Terns

  chick monitorsSurvey of Least Tern nests. Photo by Katrina Amaral/USFWS

The tern colony has settled around the plover nests in the dunes, scraping shallow abodes within two feet of some of the exclosures, and the terns have made it clear monitors aren’t welcome. Whether relaxed by repeated appearances of monitors or filled with heightened paranoia as eggs begin to hatch, chick monitors found that the terns upped their assaults on visitors as June began to fade away. They seemed to delight in coming after favorite pieces of clothing: hats and colored jackets worn on multiple watches. So, armed with clipboards and iron wills, we got to surveying. Stepping with infinite care and sweeping our gaze over sand and dune grass, our preparation and attention was rewarded with 169 active least tern nests (49 with one egg, 108 with two eggs and 12 with three eggs), and two common tern nests with two day-old chicks, whose picture below speaks for itself.

  Two-day-old tern chicksTwo-day-old common tern chicks. Photo by Katrina Amaral/USFWS

More chicks have hatched in the meantime, and despite the intrusion of an unidentified member of the mustelid family and the crashing high tides defying our fences, we are optimistic about this season’s broods. In the meantime, we will protect and monitor the captivating chaos of the avian residents of the dunes.

Visiting Lomami National Park Before it was Officially a Park

Bonobos
Bonobos in a camera trap.

By Matt Muir 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working to conserve wildlife in some of the most remote and wild regions on Earth, and as a biologist for the Service’s Africa Program, I had never visited a site as remote as the newly established - then only proposed -  Lomami National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

RELATED: A Milestone in Conservation for Central African Wildlife

It takes multiple days of air travel for visitors to arrive in the city of Kindu on the banks of the Lualaba River, the greatest tributary of the Congo River and about 1,200 river miles from where the Congo empties into the Atlantic Ocean. From Kindu, it takes a full day by motorized transport and pirogue (a dug-out canoe traditionally made from a single tree trunk) to reach Chombe Kilima, a village in the park’s buffer zone. From Chombe Kilima, you hike. And hike and hike and hike.

  Bonobo NestA bonobo nest. Photo by Terese Hart

We forded rivers up to our neck, crossed open savannas with orchids and other botanical marvels, and passed through primary rainforest under the leaf nests built daily by bonobos, one of human’s closest relatives and nicknamed the “make-love-not-war” ape.

  mapThe Tshuapa-Lualaba-Lomami Landscap is a remote landscape in the middle of the Democratic Republic of Congo, home to bonobos, forest elephants, gray parrots and other species.

  orchid
An orchid (Eulophia cucullata) is one of the botanical marvels found in the savannas of Lomami National Park. Photo by Matt Muir/USFWS

When I first visited in December 2014, I was with a dynamic team working to make the national park a reality. This broad group of conservationists included DRC’s protected area authority, the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN); governors from the two provinces of Maniema and Orientale who had taken a critical first step by granting provincial park status to Lomami; community members and elders surrounding the park who had helped define its boundaries, and a technical team from the Lukuru Wildlife Research Foundation, also known as the TL2 Project.

It was with the TL2 Project team, including Drs. John and Terese Hart that I hiked into the wilderness. The Harts are a husband and wife team that has worked in DRC since arriving as Peace Corps volunteers in the 1970s. You can read more about the TL2 Project’s achievements, the Harts and the rest of the team, and highlights of the Service’s support for on-the-ground conservation efforts at Lomami at the blog of Terese Hart’s field notes (Searching for Bonobo in Congo). 

  Shining-Blue KingfisherAn aptly named shining-blue kingfisher (Alcedo quadribrachys) on the banks of the Lomami River. This dramatically colored kingfisher occurs from Senegal to Uganda. Photo by Matt Muir/USFWS

Apart from the signs of bonobos mentioned above, we were fortunate to also see monkeys such as the black mangabey, birds like the shining-blue kingfisher and the crested Guineafowl, and a variety of fish, reptiles and herps. Seeing large wildlife in a dense rainforest is an uncommon occurrence across the Congo Basin, so I was overjoyed to turn my attention to the area’s abundant and spectacular insect life. I was particularly interested to look for dragonflies and damselflies because the area had never been surveyed for these species.

 Rhyothemis A dragonfly species (Rhyothemis splendens) not seen since 1952 when it was first described for science. Photo by Matt Muir/USFWS

I’m a complete amateur in the study of insects, so I took photos and shared with experts. To all our delight, I had photographed a dragonfly species that had not been seen since 1952 when it was first described for science. The experts, Drs. KD Dijkstra and Jens Kipping, described this observation as the “MEGA-discovery” of the trip.

 Rhyothemis KD Dijkstra and Jens Kipping identified the dragonfly species and highlighted the significance of the observation. The genus Rhyothemis are known as the “flutterers” and resemble butterflies in flight. Photo by Matt Muir/USFWS

More discoveries surely await Lomami National Park and I’m extremely proud to work for the Service and with our partners in the field to help explore and conserve the wildlife and habitats of this under-explored part of the world.

Battling the Invasion of Watersnakes

Nerodia invading the west

"We found one," said Bob Reed, as he emerged from an eight-foot tall wall of cattails and marsh grass into the chest-deep water and muck of an irrigation ditch. His expression reflected both good news and bad news.

A Ph. D., research biologist and invasive species branch chief for the U.S. Geological Survey based at the Fort Collins (Colo.) Science Center, Reed had come to the Colorado River Basin north of Yuma, Arizona, in May to investigate the presence of the southern watersnake – Nerodia fasciata – a non-venomous snake native to the southeast U.S.

The good news, of course, was that his traps were successful. The bad news: he captured the first live southern watersnake in southwestern Arizona. And in the next few days, Reed's team would capture six more. His suspicion was confirmed: a thriving population of Nerodia fasciata exists in the Colorado River basin.

The Toads are Back in Town

wy toadThe Wyoming toad, listed as an endangered species in 1984, occurs only in Albany County, Wyoming. Photo by Sara Armstrong/USFWS

Earlier this month, biologists in Wyoming made history by releasing 900 adult Wyoming toads into the wild in the largest toad release ever.

Fifty years ago, if you added 900 of these toads to the wetlands of Wyoming, nobody would bat an eye. (Actually, people would probably be impressed with your efficient toad-adding abilities, but the toads themselves wouldn’t be a big deal.) For hundreds of years, the Laramie River basin was chock-full of Wyoming toads, a species found only in Albany County, Wyoming. Everything changed, however, in the 1970s when toad populations suddenly started plummeting. 

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Mathematician Uses Big Data to Save Tiny Smelt

 Ken Newman

For more than 30 years, Ken Newman has used his statistical methods to help endangered fish and wildlife species in some of the most complex ecosystems across the United States and Scotland. His work with the Delta smelt may be his most daunting task. The Fish and Wildlife Service statistician is working in California’s Bay-Delta to determine population numbers and trends, and ultimately help reverse the decline of a struggling, much-maligned Delta smelt.

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Biologists Work Together to Return Bull Trout to Remote Oregon River

After a day-long bull trout conservation meeting in June, some of our biologists teamed up with counterparts at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and left behind the city to back up their meeting with actions. 

They got together to translocate bull trout into the Clackamas River. This is the sixth year of an ongoing effort to secure a population of bull trout, previously extirpated, in this watershed.

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Navajo Nation Protects Eagles

Craig Springer, External Affairs in our Southwest Region, tells us about the nation’s newest eagle aviary.

 FWS employees Michael Eldon Brown left and Joe Early release golden eagle at Navajo Zoo FWS employees Michael Eldon Brown left and Joe Early release golden eagle at the Navajo Zoo .

The Navajo people know it as Atsá: the golden eagle. They revere the regal bird, moved by its beauty on the perch and its grace as it soars in the Southwestern sky. The golden eagle represents eternal life; it’s fearless, they believe, and it can see where no mortal man can see. The animal’s spirit is a healer of the human spirit, thus the Native people use its naturally molted feathers and parts to cure illness and keep evil at bay in ceremonies. In short, the golden eagle is a protector of the Navajo.

The golden eagle is protected under federal law. This majestic raptor is protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. But through regulations and permitting via our Division of Migratory Birds, Native people have access to these culturally significant animals for use in indigenous religious ceremonies and customs.

Toward that end, the Navajo Nation dedicated its Eagle Aviary and Education Center at the Navajo Zoo in Window Rock, Arizona, on July 1. The expansion of the zoo/addition of the aviary was paid for in part by a Tribal Wildlife Grant we awarded the Navajo Nation several years ago.

The dedication involved heartfelt songs and passionate speeches from Navajo dignitaries and zoo employees. The highlight was no doubt the release of the zoo’s four golden eagles, previously injured and non-releasable into the wild, into the new aviary as a large and silent crowd looked on. 

Two of our employees from the Southwest Region, Michael Eldon Brown, Migratory Bird Permits Branch Chief, and Joe Early, Native American Liaison, were together given the honor of releasing one of the eagles. Both are Native American themselves, and were professionally involved in seeing the aviary through the permitting process.

“I appreciate the collaboration of Native people to support the conservation of birds of prey that are culturally significant to tribes and that are a trust responsibility of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” said Dr. Benjamin Tuggle, Regional Director of the Southwest Region.

The new eagle aviary at Navajo Zoo is the sixth and largest eagle aviary in the United States, all of which are located in the Southwest Region.

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