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Wild Angles
News from the National Wildlife Refuge System

Get the Travel Bug

Two national wildlife refuges are helping geocachers take their hobby to a new level.

Geocaching, for the uninitiated, is a high-tech treasure hunt in which players find the booty – hidden by other players – by using global position system, or GPS, devices. Then they generally record their find, return it to its original location and share their adventures online.

But two refuges – Upper Mississippi National Fish and Wildlife Refuge (stretching 261 miles along the river between Wabasha, Minn. and Rock Island, Ill.) and Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge in California – are putting new twists and turns into a sport that usually is anchored to those places where the booty is placed.

The targets of the geocache search are 22 stuffed toy birds, "hatched" on March 28, when they were distributed to geocachers attending a Curing Cabin Fever event at Upper Mississippi Refuge. Each bird wears a small, trackable metal tag (called a travel bug) and a mission card. The card reads, "I want to go to a National Wildlife Refuge in every state. Take a picture of you and me in front of the refuge sign, then place me in a geocache near the refuge. After my mission is completed, I want to migrate back to the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge where I was hatched."

Each geocacher travels to another refuge – ideally in another state – to take the required photo and deposit the bird in the nearest cache. Since it is not legal to leave anything on a national wildlife refuge, this cache might be a nearby box or canister located with the help of online data and a GPS unit. The next person who finds that cache will see that it contains a travel bug – and the bird is on its way again. Each time the bird is left in a cache, the coordinates of the cache are recorded online for the next person to find.

One week into the program, at least one bird, nicknamed Picasso, had made it to a new locale – the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa. And a geocacher who was new to the Upper Mississippi Refuge left this note online: "This place is absolutely awesome! I live only 15 miles away and have never been here. Thank you for bringing me here. I would never have found it without you."

Unlike real migratory birds, these birds have no deadline to reach California. "We like it because it's a new sport, it's a learning tool and it gets people outside," said ranger Cindy Samples at Upper Mississippi Refuge, who helped plan the hunt.

Read more about geocaching at http://www.geocaching.com. You can also follow the birds there once you register as a geocacher.

Contact: Jennifer Stockton, Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, 530-934-2801, Jstockton@fws.gov or Cindy Samples, Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge, 507-494-6216, csamples@fws.gov.

Last Update: November 23, 2009

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