Sunday, August 24, 2014

Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge: Winding Down

Following our return from Ecuador we had less than a month left of our five month volunteer commitment to Lake Woodruff NWR. How quickly time had passed. But even with just a month left there was still plenty to do.

2014 was the 50th anniversary of the National Wildlife Refuge system and while a full blown festival was out of the question, a refuge open house seemed very doable. With that in mind, work set about in earnest to make it happen.

some of the LEEF tour participants (Lisa is 4th from the left)
While open house planning was underway we kept occupied with our regular volunteer activities. More people were showing up for the regularly scheduled Saturday morning bird hikes plus we had additional requests for personal tours. One such request came from the League of Environmental Educators in Florida (LEEF) which was meeting in nearby Ocala National Forest. One of their scheduled field trips was a tour of Lake Woodruff NWR. The group included Ranger Lisa Andrews, the outreach/education specialist at Big Cypress National Preserve. Apparently our tour made such a favorable impression that Lisa invited us to look her up if we were ever at Big Cypress (a stop we had planned to make after we departed Lake Woodruff).

online and properly spaced with driptorches waiting for the word to begin
Chris Wright, LWNWR Supervisory Fire Technician overseeing the burn
Wes Allie, LWNRW Engineering Equipment Operator heading in to spark more fires
burn underway (top), post burn with palmetto gone and long leaf pines standing
As part of the refuge’s management plan, USFWS firefighters conducted a 137 acre prescribed burn at Lake Woodruff to reduce the wildfire risk (reduce palmetto understory) and enhance the wildlife habitat (mainly long leaf pine) on the southern end of the refuge in the Volusia Tract. Planning and implementation was overseen by our refuge’s Supervisory Fire Technician, Chris Wright, with the assistance of staff from Merritt Island NWR. A controlled burn isn’t simply a matter of lighting a match and standing back. It involved comprehensive pre-fire planning to cover all aspects of the burn to include weather conditions, constant monitoring once the fire had begun, and contingency plans for all possible “what if” scenarios. Once the burn was finished, there was on-site post burn monitoring for any flare ups and an overall critical assessment report. Tom was invited to observe the day-of-burn meeting and accompany the fire crews to document the burn. Photos of the burn are posted on the Southeast U.S. Fish and Wildlife flickr site. What the photos don’t impart is how intense the heat was, even at some distance away, nor the amount of sheer physical work the crews undertook walking through the dense palmetto understory while constantly monitoring any change in weather patterns and altering the timing of individual ignition spots.

visiting with the Doles, Larry and Carol
Faithful blog readers will recall that upon our return from the Canadian Maritime Provinces, we stopped in New Hampshire and parked at the home of Larry and Carol Dole for three nights. Larry and Carol were now in our neck of the woods and we were delighted to show them around the refuge and help them eek out a few life birds. Larry and Carol’s visit was also our excuse to finally visit De Leon Springs State Park (just down the road from our refuge). We had heard about the do-it-yourself pancake breakfast at the park’s Sugar Mill Restaurant. Then a ride on the St. John’s River Cruise through the Spring Garden Run, which borders the refuge property, out to Lake Woodruff and back, finally gave Carol an opportunity to see much more of the refuge (Tom had seen quite a bit of the refuge by water when he accompanied a field biologist to check Wood Duck nesting boxes earlier in the year).

visiting with the Rominaks, Bob and Claire
Bob and Claire Rominak, a couple from Wisconsin, were also vacationing in Florida. This was our first chance to meet Bob. Claire we knew from her having been on our 2008 and 2010 birding trips to Ecuador. Naturally we proudly walked them around part of the refuge  followed by a meal out.

Sunday, March 16, was the date for the refuge’s open house. All the volunteers had worked hard to bring the event to fruition by promoting it through local media and soliciting area businesses and organizations for donations of food and beverages. A chance meeting with Kevin Winchell, the Assistant Director of Community Engagement at nearby Stetson University (Deland Campus) and his wife Alicia on one of our Saturday morning bird hikes proved most beneficial. Kevin obtained a four-piece jazz combo comprised of university musicians to provide musical entertainment (they were fantastic!).

Dr. Terry Farrell, Stetson University Professor of Biology, shares his knowledge of the refuge's reptiles and amphibians with lance and Robyn's daughter, Ailish
Faculty and students from the university’s biology department provided a hands-on learning opportunity by encouraging children of all ages to net and identify fish, salamanders, aquatic insects and other pond life found in the refuge’s impoundments. Port Orange, FL wildlife rehabilitator Sheriann Wentworth, from the East Coast Wildlife Rehab Center, exhibited an Eastern Screech-Owl and Barred Owl. The highlight of Sheriann’s visit was the release of a rehabilitated Great Egret into the refuge.

LR: LWNRW winter volunteers Ann Snyder, Dennis and Theda Farmer, Carol and Tom Sykes, Gail Palmer, Tom Snyder and kneeling, Lance Koch, refuge manager
The refuge displayed its own table top traveling exhibit along with one from Merritt Island NWR plus the local West Volusia Audubon Chapter. A cake cutting and brief speech by refuge manager Lance Koch commemorating the event wrapped up the festivities.

The refuge annually participates in many area festivals such as the Manatee Festival at Blue Springs State Park and the De Leon Springs Community Association (DSCA) “Among the Trees, Arts, Crafts and Music Festival” to name a few. This year Tom created a poster comprised of photos he had taken while working at the refuge to represent Lake Woodruff at this year’s DSCA event.

By late march a pair of Sandhill Cranes that had built a nest and incubated eggs in Pool 1 finally produced a pair of colts, much to the delight of all who had been following their progress. It wasn’t long before the youngsters were up and about as their parents started to take them on short forays for food almost from day one.

Meanwhile, a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers had begun chiseling a nest cavity in a dead tree next to the old headquarters building. What was fascinating about the nest building was the amount of wood chips - in the thousands - that littered the ground beneath the tree. Nest construction, mostly done by the male, may take upwards of three to six weeks with a finished depth of 10-24 inches. And while the original owners of the cavity typically don’t use the same cavity again, many other birds (other woodpeckers, wood ducks, flycatchers, or owls) or mammals (squirrels and raccoons) will find the cavity suitable in years to come. Nothing goes to waste in the wild and here was one more example of the importance of leaving a dead tree standing.
Late into our five month gig we discovered two excellent restaurants in DeLand. One a Thai restaurant, Oudom’s Thai and Sushi, and the other, the Dally in the Alley Bistro which used source ingredients from local area farms whenever possible. There were other eateries but these two were our favorites (along with Pitmasters BBQ just up the road).
During our time at Lake Refuge we certainly were made to feel a part of the “refuge family” as we had gotten to know the staff and their families quite well. Plus we had befriended several of the locals who were regulars on our bird hikes. While we had initially hoped to volunteer at Merritt Island NWR, in the end we were delighted with our being selected to volunteer at Lake Woodruff.


Working at a smaller refuge gave us the opportunity to be more than just a cog in a wheel and to make worthwhile, meaningful contributions.  We feel like we helped put the refuge a little bit more squarely on the map and educated all who we interacted with as to the importance of the refuge system. While we pretty much wound up doing what we would be doing anyway, it provided us yet one more opportunity to expand our knowledge of our natural world while having a great deal of fun.

Robyn Koch and volunteer Gail Palmer
Tom and Jerry Champa, his constant birding buddy at the refuge
Birders: Wes Carter, Carol Sykes, Amy Evanstad, Nancy Baron, Kevin and Alicia Winchell
our regular Saturday morning birder "gang of four": Cosmo, Jerry, Nancy, Wes
The last get together at the refuge was with Lance and his wife Robyn who hosted a potluck meal for the volunteers and staff at their home. Lots of laughter and recounting of our time at the refuge. While we won’t be returning (we had already made plans to travel west in 2014-15) we certainly will cherish our time at Lake Woodruff NWR. If you’re ever in Central Florida and wish to visit a gem of a refuge, you would be wise to search our Lake Woodruff NWR. You won’t be disappointed.

Note: We’ve since learned that Chris Wright has taken a position at another refuge in North Carolina and will be transferring shortly. And Lance Koch has taken a position as refuge manager at Neil Smith NWR, a tall grass prairie unit in Iowa (where we hope to stop and visit during our travels east and west). However, we’ve already informed Lance that we won’t be applying for any winter volunteer positions at Neil Smith. Iowa in the winter? No way!