Thursday, January 5, 2012

All in a day's...

work volunteering at a National Wildlife Refuge. Have I told you how privileged I feel to be able to do this? Here's why (in part):

On Wednesday mornings during the winter this is where you'll find me drinking my coffee, waiting for the cranes to fly and be counted.

ah, glorious sunrise

Another view through the window of my mobile office.

The faraway lake is a perfect roosting site for a lovely winter's night

At this refuge the lesser Sandhill Crane population peaked at ~26,000 in early November, at which point we were counting by 100s and 1,000s as they took off en masse. This time of year the cranes are easier to count.

one, two, skip a few...99, 1257

This week is all about the mid-Winter Waterfowl Survey so after the sunrise crane count we head out to look for ducks, geese, etc., in all the usual places, plus in a few of the off-refuge dives they have been known to frequent.

Ross's and Snow Geese on the refuge were counted earlier in the morning so when we kick up this group (the picture is about 10% of what filled the sky), we just stop to enjoy the sights and sounds.

Hundreds of light geese, one small snapshot of a full sky

Our experts say that the refuge's light goose population is about 75% Ross's. In this photo you can see a few adult dark morph Ross's geese. If you embiggen you can endeavor to work out the proportion of this sample that are Ross's* by following Sibley's helpful guide to white goose identification.

Here's another notable refuge dweller who shares our interest in ducks and geese.

Great Horned Owl in a refuge penthouse.

aka Cat Owl guarding the nesting box**

During our bi-weekly bird counts we check the old barns on the refuge to see who is in residence and in the early spring we watch for owlets. In all likelihood this owl is already paired and since nesting season is January and February, we'll be giving these residents a wider berth for the next few months. Great Horned Owls are said to be ferociously protective of their young so for their safety -- and ours!-- we'll be taking pictures from afar until the owlets fledge. At least we hope there are owlets this year, you never know.

The 'farm' portion of refuge is also home to a small herd of Mule Deer, many of whom were taking advantage of the beautiful day.

"Do I look like a duck?!? Do you hear quacking? Move on..."

"Uh, no ma'am. If you're lookin' for ducks, check the water-y areas."

Oh yeah, the waterfowl count...done. Since we were doing a bi-weekly count anyway, the only really cool addition came from a private field that sits between two of the refuge tracts: ~1000 Wigeon (with a few Northern Pintails; you've seen them before).

It's hard to believe that I've been volunteering at the refuge for six months. You've seen my 'office' and met some of my neighbors and co-workers, you just can't beat this for a work environment. I am so lucky to be part of the BioCrew at this refuge, it's non-stop learning and so much fun! When I finally get the opportunity to go back to a full time desk job it will be quite difficult (but oh so necessary).

When I started this work I had no idea that the refuge system was so dependent on the talents, shared passions and sheer brawn of so many volunteers. Volunteers run visitor centers, remove invasive species, lay waterlines, survey all types of flora and fauna year-round (we have people who have been counting birds on a bi-weekly basis for decades!), raise funds for buildings and projects, provide environmental education and outreach, and otherwise fill the resource gaps between what's available to refuge staff and what they really need to fulfill their missions.

If you have an interest or passion for anything remotely related to nature, there's probably a local wildlife refuge with something for you to do. And they need you, for as little or as much time as you can give. Alone or with your family, working on something with which you are familiar or something you've never contemplated before, it's an investment that will give back ten-fold. Hope to see you at the water cooler...

*In our copious spare time, eh, Intrepid Reader? Until then I'll trust the experts.
**Excellent observation, Intrepid Reader! That is a cat litter box; prime real estate for owls the world over.