Butterfly Tagging and Other Offbeat Fun


An expert tags a monarch  butterfly
An expert tags a monarch butterfly at a fall monarch festival at a national wildlife refuge. The netting and tagging of butterflies for tracking are highlights of the popular festivals. Once tagged, the butterfly is released to continue on its migratory route. (Photo: USFWS)

Like your nature a bit offbeat? Some national wildlife refuges read your mind. Consider these events scheduled for this year.

Top, selenite crystals found at Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge
Top, selenite crystals found at Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge are popular souvenirs. Bottom, a snowy plover nest at the refuge incorporates selenite crystals common to the area. (Photos: Tim Jones; USFWS)

Get your hands dirty and dig for selenite crystals
April 1 to October 15, 2017, sunup to sundown
Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, Jet, Oklahoma

Unearth a distinctive souvenir from just below the salt-encrusted surface of northwestern Oklahoma: selenite crystals with an hourglass shape. Digging for selenite — a form of the mineral gypsum — predates the establishment of the refuge in 1930. The refuge allows the practice to continue and last year welcomed 75,000 diggers.

Digging is allowed on about 200 of the 13,000 acres of salt flats. Sites are subject to change. Wear a hat and sunblock. Bring plenty of bottled water and a change of clothes — crystal hunting can be messy. Diggers may bring home up to 10 pounds of crystals a day or one large cluster. Selling the crystals is prohibited. More information here or at 580-626-4794.

male Attwater’s prairie chicken puffs out orange sacks
A male Attwater’s prairie chicken puffs out orange sacs on the sides of its neck and fans its tail in a signature courtship dance. The annual Prairie Chicken Festival every spring at Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge in Texas gives visitors a chance to see the bird’s colorful courtship ritual.  (Photo: USFWS)

Learn lessons in love at a Prairie Chicken Festival
April 8-9, 2017
Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, Eagle Lake, Texas

Valentine’s Day may have passed, but prairie chickens are still in the mood for romance. See males of the species perform their flamboyant courtship dance – complete with foot stomps, fanned tail feathers, inflated orange air sacs and strange booming sounds. Bring your binoculars for a morning trip through the coastal prairies of southeastern Texas. Save time for refuge wildflower tours and walks to explore the diversity of the habitat.

Participants in a Wolf Howl
Participants in a Wolf Howl at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina howl to endangered red wolves and wait for the wolves to howl back. (Photo: Steve Hillebrand/USFWS)

Get goosebumps on a Wolf Howl
Saturday, April 8, 2017;  7 to 8:30 p.m.
Saturday, May 13, 2017;  7:30 to 9 p.m.
Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, Manteo, North Carolina

Head into the woods after dark with Alligator River Refuge staff and hear the chilling howl of endangered red wolves. The wolves are bred in captivity as part of a species recovery effort in northeastern North Carolina. Here’s an update on the status of the red wolf recovery program

Both spring wolf howls are free. Summertime howling events (every Wednesday in June, July and August, from 7:30 to 9 p.m.) cost $10 each for adults. Children under 12 attend free. Look for more free howling events this fall.

Meet at Creef Cut Wildlife Trail parking lot (Milltail Road and Hwy 64, west of Manns Harbor).

Jackson District Boy Scouts carry elk antlers
In Wyoming, Jackson District Boy Scouts carry elk antlers gathered with special permission at National Elk Refuge for auction at Jackson’s annual ElkFest. (Photo: Lori Iverson/USFWS)

Bid on antlers at ElkFest
Saturday, May 20, 2017
Jackson, Wyoming

Each spring, thousands of elk at Wyoming’s National Elk Refuge shed their antlers and begin migrating north. Jackson District Boy Scouts help refuge staff gather the antlers. Then the antlers are auctioned off in Jackson town square. Place your bid! Most ElkFest proceeds help fund National Elk Refuge conservation efforts.

Other ElkFest events later in the week generally include the Mountain Man Rendezvous, a competition in archery and knife throwing, and the High Noon Chili Cook-Off.  Check the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce for updates.

Register for the antler auction at 307-733-5935 or info@elkfest.org. More information here.

While you’re in the area, visit the refuge to look for wild elk that haven’t left yet.

Note: Antler collection is permitted only by special agreement between the refuge and the Jackson District Boy Scouts. Others may not collect antlers. Weeks of preparation – as well as collecting, sorting, tagging and weighing – precede the auction.

Cyclists spread out along their route through a lush
Cyclists spread out along their route through a lush, green landscape in May’s Pedal the Prairie event at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa. (Photo: Linda Frazier)

Get rolling and Pedal the Prairie
Saturday, May 20, 2017, 9 a.m.
Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, Prairie City, Iowa

Join your neighbors in a free 10-mile spring bike ride on the refuge’s Prairie Parkway Bike Trail. If you’re lucky, you might see bison and elk along the way. Native wildflowers are an even surer bet. The newly paved and expanded refuge entry road features four-foot bike lanes on each side. When you’re done cycling, hike the trails and explore the refuge visitor center.

Not sure you want to commit to 10 miles? Opt for the Family Fun Ride (1.5 miles) instead. Sag wagons will also be available.

No advance registration is necessary. More than 800 people took part last year. For updates and maps, check the 2017 event page on Facebook.

Participants in Moth Night Out
Participants in Moth Night Out examine moths drawn to bright lights around the headquarters building of Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. (Photo: Stuart Marcus/USFWS)

Show moths some love on Moth Night Out  
Saturday, July 22, 2017, 9 to 11:30 p.m.
Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge, Liberty, Texas

What better time than National Moth Week in July to shine a light on these oft-slighted but ecologically important butterfly cousins? See and photograph some of the more than 750 species of moths documented around the refuge headquarters building. (Refuge manager Stuart Marcus hopes to top 800 before this year’s event.) Using online biological data depositories, you can help map moth distribution and add to information on moth life history. Black lights and mercury vapor lights will aid in attracting and viewing moths. All ages are welcome. For more information, call 936-336-9786.

Build-a-Bison event
Put these bones together in the right sequence, and you’ll get the framework of a bison. That’s the challenge facing participants in a Build-a-Bison event at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado. (Photo: George Ho)

Sunday, March 26 and Sunday, April 30, 1 to 2 p.m.
Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, Denver

North America’s largest land mammals need big bones to bear their 1,000-to-2,000 pounds. How big? Find out. You and your team are handed a bag of real bison bones. Your job: Assemble them into a recognizable part — ribs, hip or leg — of the animal’s skeleton. Next, join your 3D puzzle segment with another team’s part. When all six parts are joined, you’ll have the life-size, head-to-tail framework of a bison.

Netting a butterfly
Netting a butterfly might not prove as easy as you thought. But for participants in the annual Monarch Mania festival at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in Kansas, it’s fun trying. Netted monarchs are tagged and then released. (Photo: Ryan Moehring/USFWS)

Net a butterfly
Lace up your sneakers and join in Monarch Madness at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa or Monarch Mania at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in Kansas. Join other festival-goers in racing around the refuges, nets in hand, to collect monarch butterflies for tagging. Weather patterns and other conditions outside your control may affect your game. Then turn over your catch — carefully — to the wildlife pros to tag the colorful insects. Monarch tagging continues the next month at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. The monarchs already will have been netted when you get there. You can watch biologists tag and release them.

September 16, 2017, 9 a.m. to noon. Monarch Madness 
Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, Prairie City, Iowa
Participants try to catch monarchs. Staff tag them. The person who catches a butterfly gets to release it!

September 16, 2017, 9 a.m. to noon. Monarch Mania  
Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, Stafford, Kansas
Participants try to catch monarchs. Staff tag them. The festival also includes crafts, netting demonstrations, a live butterfly pavilion and face-painting. 

October 28, 2017, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monarch Festival
St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, St. Marks, Florida

Compiled by Susan_Morse@fws.gov, March 15, 2017