Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge: Settled In

Our first Saturday bird hike had a grand total of two participants: us. Not surprising since refuge bird hikes had not been held often nor regularly, plus, we had barely gotten the word out. But by the end of November and into the beginning of December, a few locals who ranged from the experienced to just beginning, had become Saturday morning regulars. Added to the mix were birders from the upper Midwest and Northeast on vacation. And, on a few occasions, an outing by a birding club would boost attendance. While we were out on the refuge most days anyway, it was much more fulfilling when we could share our sightings.

Seminole Audubon Chapter
Most mornings, Wes Allie made his rounds of the impoundments to check water levels and look for anything out of the ordinary. Not a birder himself, nevertheless, his birds sightings proved extremely useful and were often followed up by one or both of us walking out to check things out. His comments were particularly useful in monitoring fluctuations of wintering duck populations in pool 2.

pool 2
As we continued to make more contacts with all visitors, not just birders, we felt that as representatives of the refuge we should always wear our refuge shirts, hats and name badges whether we were “on the clock” or not. As a result people were much more willing to become engaged and often ask questions. Carrying a scope as we did, we were able to share a closeup look through the scope, specially most satisfying to the non-birders who typically didn’t carry any optics. Kids and young adults especially enjoyed seeing wildlife in a new light.

Lincoln Sparrow
Use of the scope coupled with the iPhone’s camera (digiscoping) lead to capturing most of the still photos and videos that appeared on the refuge’s Facebook page. The phone was attached using an adapter made by KOWA, which made it possible for extreme closeups of wildlife that would otherwise require extremely bulky and expensive photo gear.

Merritt Island NWR
During November we began to explore further afield. Our first visit was to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (MINWR) located thirty-nine miles south of Daytona Beach. Oddly enough, establishment of MINWR began with the U.S. space program in 1950 when a missile testing range named Cape Canaveral was started. In 1958 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) began operations at the Cape. In 1962, the federal government acquired over 140,000 acres of the land, water, and marshes adjacent to the Cape to establish the John F. Kennedy Space Center. After the center was built, most of the remaining area was not needed for development and in 1963, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service signed an agreement to establish Merritt Island NWR. And in 1975, to establish the Canaveral National Seashore. Today the northern half of the refuge, about 20 miles of the 35 mile long refuge, is open to the public (although during space shuttle launches, most of the public roads were temporarily closed).

birds along the Black Point Wildlife Drive
Scrub Trail
For birders, MINWR is a major destination, mainly in the cooler months of October through November when hundreds of thousands of birds use the refuge as a temporary rest stop, or, to spend the entire winter. The refuge manages more than 70 impoundments and maintains dike roads including the Black Point Wildlife Drive. Hiking trails cut through major habitats of scrub and pine flatwoods as well as oak and palm. MINWR is one of the best locations in Florida to the state’s one endemic bird species: the Florida Scrub-Jay.

Florida Scrub-Jay
Scrub-Jays are excellent examples of a cooperative-breeding species where adult birds help raise offspring not of their own and where fledged offspring remain in their parents’ territory for several years. Scrub-Jays are also inquisitive and intelligent, attributes that make these birds extremely tame.

Florida Scrub-Jay - inquisitive and fearless
Following a drive through the auto tour and a brief visit to the seashore and visitor center, we parked at the Scrub Trail trail head. Signage at the trail head warned not to harass or feed scrub-jays. Walking through the scrub we listened and watched for scrub-jay presence but as we have since learned, you don’t find them - they find you. We knew they were tame and had heard reports of birds landing on people but, when a scrub-jay suddenly swooped in and landed on Tom’s head, it was still a bit of a shock. Apparently the scrub-jays are free to harass visitors. Just not the other way around.
For the next five minutes or so four scrub-jays continued to investigate. They perched in nearby shrubs, landed on outstretched hands and arms, and investigated boot laces. Then as quickly as they appeared, they vanished.

Tom and Ann Snyder staffing the refuge table at a festival
Early in December, the remaining volunteer couple, Tom and Ann Snyder arrived. Like us, Tom and Ann are full time RVers who alternate their seasons by moving north and south to avoid winter. Like Dennis and Theda, Tom and Anne were returning volunteers which made us the new kids on the block. Between us, Tom and Ann, Dennis and Theda, and Gail we managed to fill all the visitor center shifts. Ann kept busy overseeing the visitor center butterfly garden while Tom joined Dennis to work on various maintenance projects. Along with Gail’s expertise, we became a formidable volunteer force!

yes, that white stuff is not sand on a beach
By December, and with a full compliment of volunteers, we were able to get away for a long weekend visit with Chris and his family in Colorado. We had missed seeing them earlier in the year what with our travels east.

view from Chris and Robyn's home in Summit Cove
Ah, yes. That's why they call it a snow scraper.
As were most of the northern tier states of the U.S., Colorado was also having a record breaking winter season. That would be record cold weather - not warm weather. When we boarded our plane in Orlando, the temperature was in the low 80’s. When we landed in Denver, the temperature was in the upper teens…but with a minus sign. We’d experienced a 100 degree drop which was a bit of a shock given that we had no winter clothes.

breakfast at the Mountain Lyon and tree hunting success
However, most of our time was spent indoors or in heated vehicles and the excitement of seeing Chris, Robyn, Callie and Carter far overshadowed any discomfort we might have felt from the cold. Well, mostly. Besides, it wasn’t like we were going to be in the cold weather for an extended period.

you can open gifts but not until the tree is decorated
We went Christmas tree hunting followed by a family tree decoration. Carol and Robyn shopped for Christmas gifts so we were able to celebrate an early Christmas gift opening much to the delight of Callie and Carter. What kid wouldn’t like having more than one Christmas in a given year? The smell of fresh pine and kids beaming made for a heartwarming early holiday.

You can see the trail left where the truck slid off the road (far right)
Fortunately for us, Chris was able to take time off from work at Copper Mountain to pick us up at the Denver airport and then drop us off. Instead of staying on the Interstate, part of our route back to Denver took us over Loveland Pass. With its hairpin turns it's a particularly dangerous pass in the winter. But, then there were beautiful snow-covered vistas which we would not normally see during our summer Colorado visits that made the detour worth the risk. Loveland is also the only route for trucks carrying hazardous materials that are not allowed to drive through the Eisenhower Tunnel. On our way down the east side we came upon a recovery effort of a tractor trailer that had gone over the side. No idea of any injuries but we learned that shortly after we had passed the crash site, the pass was closed for several hours to allow huge wreckers the road space needed to retrieve the semi which had become lodged in trees several hundred feet below the roadside.
How appropriate to have the 1st Limpkin we saw on the refuge show up on the CBC
December was also when the West Volusia Audubon Chapter held its annual Christmas Bird Count. We offered to help WVA member Dave Stock cover the section of the count circle that included the refuge impoundments. We also searched the East Tract and part of the Volusia Tract while Dave continued searching elsewhere. Not nearly the numbers we were used to tallying when we did CBC’s in South Texas but we did manage to add a handful of species not found by other count participants. Total count: 117 species (12,856 birds) in all. Not the highest CBC count for the chapter but it tied the second highest.
Our own Christmas celebration was pretty subdued as we enjoyed some Facetime chats with Jennie and Alrick, phone calls with Melissa, Graham and Caitlin, and Marge. Knowing that so many of our friends and family were enduring what turned out to be one of the coldest winters on record made our own bouts with a few chilly and frosty mornings hardly worth mentioning. But we mentioned them anyway, of course.

Lynn and Laurel
Tom, Lynn and the Stokes
The pace in January picked up again in part due to getting together with several friends who had briefly escaped the northern winter. Laurel Mills and Lynn Koss from Appleton (Lynn has gone on several of our tropical birding trips) had rented a house on Sanibel Island for a month and had invited us to visit. After a four an a half hour drive, we arrived mid afternoon just in time for a visit to nearby Ding Darling NWR. Hoping to find a Mangrove Cuckoo (an ABA life bird) we drove/walked the auto tour but with no luck. However, we did bump into Don and Lillian Stokes who helped us with a shorebird ID. The problem was, according to Don who glanced at out open Sibley, that we were using the wrong field guide (you have to be a birder to enjoy the humor). Lillian was taken with Tom’s use of the iPhone/scope setup which morphed into a brief “how to” workshop. Alas, no Mangrove Cuckoo but there were plenty of other birds present to distract us. Later that evening Laurel and Lynn treated us to a home cooked meal with the promise of more birding in the morning.

Tom and carol with Jose
Piping Plover
Another ABA life bird bird we were hoping to add was a Saltmarsh Sparrow, one of those secretive, skulking birds restricted to the salt marshes of the Atlantic and Upper Gulf Coasts. Carol had contacted a birding friend of a friend, Jose Padilla, prior to our arrival in the Fort Meyers area. Jose graciously found the time to meet us the next morning and walk us through one of those little known birding hot spots only the locals know how to find. After over an hour of careful and meticulous scouring, we finally found a couple of cooperative sparrows although “cooperative” might be overly kind. Let’s just say we were happy to get brief but very good looks.

boardwalk at Six Mile and White Ibis
On Lynn’s bird bucket list was to see a life bird Piping Plover so Jose drove us to Bunche Beach, one of Lee County’s Park and Recreation properties. To Lynn’s delight, it didn’t long to find a Piping Plover…which, as it turned out, were present in good numbers.
Jose was on a roll and wanted us to visit another local hot spot, Six Mile Cypress Slough. Eleven miles long and over 3,400 acres of wetland, this was much easier to find. The slough is a natural drainage catch basin part of a 33-mile square watershed. Fresh water flows through the slough and empties into the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve. We had hoped to glimpse a Short-tailed Hawk (no luck) and had to settle for viewing a diverse population of plants and animals while walking over 1.2 miles of elevated boardwalk. Dang.

Carol, Rick Nirschl, Tom
As luck would have it, another birding friend from Ohio, Rick Nirschl, who we knew from our days birding in South Texas was also staying in the Fort Meyers area. We bumped into Rick on our way out of Six Mile and who then joined us for lunch. Rick was one of two birders who discovered the ABA record sighting of a Bare-throated Tiger-Heron in South Texas. He has also gotten deeply involved studying Odonata and is now making U.S. record discoveries of dragonflies.
Tom, Ray and Sue
A few days after our return to the refuge we drove over to an RV park where Fulltime friends Ray and Sue Morris (and Mickey) were working as volunteers. We’ve managed to catch up with Ray and Sue in South Texas, New York, South Carolina and now Florida. Part of the thrill as fulltime RVers is staying in touch with people we’ve met and reconnecting whenever we can (usually over food and drink).

Tom, Carol, Betty and Dave
scoping at Merritt Island NWR
Betty and Dave, Carol at Lakw Woodruff NWR
In late January dear friends Dave and Betty Dunsmore drove to Florida and stayed in nearby DeLand for several days. By now we were pretty familiar with local birding spots and shepherded them around the area. A revisit to Merritt Island NWR, Blue Springs State Park (wintering Manatees), a drive through a section of Ocala National Forest, a walk through the Lyonia Preserve and Environmental Center (more up close and personal encounters with Florida Scrub-Jays), and of course a few local eateries. Dave and Betty continued on to South Florida before returning to the brutal winter raging in Wisconsin as we started to seriously get psyched and packed for our upcoming trip to Ecuador.


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge: First Impressions

Friday, November 1, 2013. Having familiarized ourselves with the layout of Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge via Google Maps, we easily found the correct turnoff that lead to where the volunteer RV pads were located. In no time at all we were backed into and parked at what would be our “home” for the next five months.
We were immediately greeted by Dennis and Theda Farmer from Vermont, who had arrived the day before. They were one of the other two volunteer couples we would be getting to know. Not long after, Lance Koch, the refuge manager, stopped over to welcome us and set up a time for the following Monday to begin our refuge orientation and review our responsibilities.

LWNRW Admin/Visitor Center building and our site
Our site, the use of which we received in return for our volunteer work, had water, 50amp electric, and sewer. Just a short walk back up the service entrance road was the former visitor center structure where a clothes washer and dryer, expressly for volunteer use, were located. This pleased Carol to no end (no having to dig for quarters for quite some time).
We had extensively researched the refuge online so we already had a pretty good sense of what to expect as far as the physical layout. However, there’s nothing like seeing a place in person so over the weekend we spent a little time familiarizing ourselves with our immediate area.

area map
The nearest large town (i.e., Target, Kohl’s, etc.) was Daytona Beach, some 25 miles to the east. The closest town to the refuge proper was De Leon Springs, population 2,358. Not a very large spot on the map but for our purposes, it had a post office and hardware store. The latter provided a good source for refilling our propane tanks.
About a 20-minute drive was the city of DeLand, population 27,031. It was also the county seat for Volusia County. DeLand had local supermarket options (Publix was the best), and Stetson University, Florida’s oldest college. The latter was no doubt responsible for a decent selection of local eateries.  DeLand’s downtown had an attractive historic district which hosted several annual festivals of various stripes throughout the year. Of note was the DeLand Mural Walk, an impressive collection of several large and small murals which offered a visual time capsule depicting the city’s history.

just one of the many murals in DeLand
In 2004, Lake Woodruff NWR was “complexed” (a polite way of imposing staff and budget cuts) with Merritt Island NWR. Complexing is an administrative grouping of two or more refuges, wildlife management areas, or other refuge conservation areas that are primarily managed from a central office location.  Refuges are grouped into a complex structure because they occur in a similar ecological region, such as a watershed or specific habitat type, and have a related purpose and management needs.  Typically, a project leader or complex manager oversees the general management of all refuges within the complex and on site refuge managers are responsible for operations at specific refuges. Supporting staff, composed of administrative, law enforcement, biological, fire, and maintenance professionals, are centrally located (i.e., shared) and support all refuges within the complex. Along with Lake Woodruff NWR, Lake Wales NWR, Pelican Island NWR, and St. Johns NWR were grouped under the Merritt Island umbrella.
A small but incredibly dedicated staff (a refuge manager, a fire specialist and a heavy equipment operator) kept LWNWR humming along. But thank goodness for seasonal volunteers, eh?

Spring Garden Lake/Pool 1 trail looking out across Pool 1
The refuge, at 22,574 acres, is medium-sized for a National Wildlife Refuge. But as they say, good things come in small (even medium-sized) packages.
The following Monday was spent learning more about the refuge property via two driving tours followed by a conversation with Lance who outlined what would be expected of us for our minimum 16 hours per week time commitment. Fortunately, we were able to work our 16 hours in tandem which, theoretically at least, freed us up with four days in a row of downtime.

levee trail dividing Pools 2 (left) and 3 (right); looking over Pool 3
The first driving tour was with Wesley (“Wes”) Allie, the engineering heavy equipment manager, who also conducted local hunter safety courses. During our drive around the three impoundment areas, we learned that Wes was a two tour veteran of the Iraq War so he and Tom had a good deal to discuss abut their respective military experiences.

Road entering the impoundment area
The entrance to the impoundment area was reached by driving about a mile down Mudd Lake Road. The gated entrance (a gate controlled by an automated timer) opened at sunrise and closed at sunset. Two parking areas were available. The general public was welcome to explore most of the impoundment area but only on foot or bicycle.
Unauthorized vehicles were prohibited from driving on the impoundment dikes. And while we were authorized to drive refuge vehicles, we too were discouraged from routinely driving the dikes in order to minimize wear and tear on the ground cover.

East Tract (top); Volusia Tract (below)
For our second driving tour, Lance took us through the East Tract and the Volusia Tract (aka, the Tomoka Wildlife Management Area Volusia Recharge Tract). The latter, located about five miles from the refuge's admin building, was a jointly managed tract of land (state and Feds) but with overall management authority by U.S. Fish and Wildlife. At the end of the day we had our tours, keys, shirts, refuge hats, a three-ring binder volunteer handbook to review, and a much better sense of the refuge’s layout. 22,574 acres might be small to some but to us, it was huge.
It didn’t take us long to setup some bird feeders and a water drip next to our RV which immediately started to attract birds. The down side was that we would have to take the feeders down each night due to raccoons and black bear.
We quickly fell into our work routine. We covered the opening, closing and staffing of the visitor center on Sundays and Mondays. The other volunteer couple on site, Dennis and Theda, staffed the visitor center on Fridays and Saturdays. The third couple, not due to arrive until just after the 1st of December, would cover two of the remaining three days. In the meantime, we and the Farmers would perform extended coverage of the visitor center as needed.

a few of our Saturday morning bird hike participants
One of the first changes we suggested and implemented was moving the once a month bird hike from Wednesday mornings to a weekly Saturday morning schedule, thus making it an event to allow for working family participation. A volunteer from the local Audubon chapter who had been leading the monthly Wednesday field trips gladly relinquished field trip responsibilities with an offer to fill in if needed. It meant extra hours on our part but we were passionate about promoting the refuge through guided bird hikes. A flyer was quickly designed, printed and distributed.

Part of the visitor center space was devoted to a gift store which in theory was operated by the Friends of Lake Woodruff. Technically, the refuge volunteers worked for the refuge and not the Friends group. But the reality was, that the refuge volunteers happened to be the one’s on site when anyone expressed an interest to buy a gift item.
Friends groups are an important component to any park or refuge. Among other things, they generate additional revenue for special projects beyond a refuge’s operating budget. Friends groups also act as advocates for the refuge when it comes to lobbying and building community involvement and support. Unfortunately, this Friends group had fallen under poor leadership and was also in non-compliance as far as the group’s charter. During the first few months of our refuge stay, the Friends group was disbanded and the store emptied out.

Gail and Carol strategizing in the volunteers office
Serendipitously, Gail Palmer had arrived in central Florida to escape the winter in the northeast U.S. She had been initially recruited to manage the Friend’s store. Her efforts to establish a business plan for the store on behalf of the Friends group rapidly morphed into her becoming the seventh 2013 -14 seasonal refuge volunteer. With a background in business and journalism, she quickly assumed the role of aggressively promoting the refuge through local media outlets and community organizations. Gail was also instrumental in helping revise the refuge’s official brochure. She wound up covering the visitor center on most Wednesdays and Thursdays.
We had specifically been hired to work as volunteer naturalists. That’s not to say we didn’t share in other “typical” maintenance responsibilities but our primary focus was on dealing with the public and raising the public’s awareness of the refuge. Early on, Tom was granted admin access to the refuge’s Facebook page and immediately began posting photos and videos he had started capturing during walks on the refuge. At one point, the social media hits became so significant that Sallie Gentry, the Regional Visitor Center Specialist and Education Volunteer Coordinator (from the Atlanta regional office) inquired as to how the refuge was able to garner such massive and positive spikes of "likes" and "follows" on Facebook. “What are you guys doing and is this something other refuges could or should be doing?”

visitor center display area, complete with mounted alligator
We quickly became the "bird people" since we both spent a good deal of time hiking the impoundment and recording our sightings on eBird. A grease board was started in the visitor center displaying the names of bird species tallied during our weekly bird hikes. The board was refreshed each month and not only became a popular tool for visiting bird watchers but served as an invaluable reference for the other non-birder volunteers.
Tom revised the refuge’s bird checklist to reflect current ABA taxonomy. Printing cost of the checklist was underwritten by the West Volusia Audubon Chapter which had assumed the role of "refuge custodians" following the demise of the Friends of Lake Woodruff group.
As for explaining the refuge’s habitat makeup, we are going to defer to a web page constructed by Peter May, a member of the Biology Department, Stetson University. No sense reinventing a wheel that had already been so well constructed. Peter also writes an excellent blog titled “Volusia Naturalist” which is updated regularly.

refuge map
Looking at the map of the refuge, two things should be readily apparent. One, there are several miles of hiking/biking trails. And two, the large body of water that visitors encounter is NOT Lake Woodruff. The only access to Lake Woodruff proper is by boat (mainly along Spring Garden Run) or by way of a very long and arduous slog. Given that Lake Woodruff NWR has the highest number of alligators per shoreline acre, the latter access choice is not one a rational person would make.
Spring Garden Lake is most easily seen and accessed along the east edge of Pool 1. And it was the 1.5 mile trail around Pool 1 where the greatest diversity of bird species were routinely observed, and, where the majority of our bird hikes took place. The second most productive area was the combined Pontoon Landing Trail through Jones Island and the 2.5 mile trail around Pool 2 (also through part of Jones Island) and bordered the north side of Pool 3. Finally, there was a third, shorter trail option not clearly denoted on the map that ran from the Myaca Parking Lot (the first parking lot encountered as one drove toward the impoundment area) and intersected with the southeast corner of Pool 1. These were the areas where we spent most of our time monitoring birds.
Located directly across from the Myacca Parking Lot, was a gated, gravel road. The road stretched for about three miles into the East Tract and was good for finding gopher tortoises. Again, hiking and biking only by the general public (but where we were allowed to drive a refuge vehicle through it as needed).

Gopher Tortoise; Dusky Pygmy Rattlesnake
All the trails were level and easily traversed. With luck one might encounter another of the refuge’s common inhabitants: the Dusky Pygmy Rattlesnake. A very small snake but venomous…which is why we discouraged hikers from wearing open-toed footwear.
As we became more familiar with more sections of the refuge, the easier it became to direct visitors to areas they might be most interested in finding specific species of wildlife. Like the Pileated Woodpecker and Bald Eagle nests along the Myacca Trail.

Pileated Woodpecker and Bald Eagle
It was gratifying to find so many families with young children hiking or biking the trails. Even several of the people who came to the refuge to “just fish” were easily engaged in conversation about various observations of wildlife they may have witnessed. Like their seeing an otter, bobcat, Bald Eagle (there were two active nests within view), or the occasional black bear.
Wes and Stan checking wood duck boxes
During our first month Tom was invited to accompany Wes Allie and Stan Howarter, a field biologist from Merritt Island, to check wood duck boxes scattered across the refuge. They spent almost an entire day afloat checking the status of several boxes. This was one of the few opportunities either of us had to get out and explore a good section of the refuge by boat. Given how much access to the refuge was dependent on watercraft, we wished we had our own kayaks. Well, at least until Carol saw just how large some of the alligators got to be.