Wichita Mtns NWR #6 1800 Lee Hoy copy

Our Favourite National Wildlife Refuges

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Oct 14, 2020 | by Adrian Binns

Exploring wide open spaces is one of the greatest joys of being outdoors. Fortunately, there are more than 560 National Wildlife Refuges in the United States, encompassing 95 million acres of open space waiting to be explored! Refuges range widely in location, size and habitat, offering opportunity to experience a wide variety of wonderful wildlife. Wildside Nature Tours visits a number of refuges during our trips, each unique and exciting in it’s own way. Here are some thoughts about National Wildlife Refuges from some of our guides:

Roseate Spoonbill, J.N. ‘Ding’ Darling NWR, Florida

Adrian Binns  ~ My first visit to a National Wildlife Refuge was in Florida, when I visited the well-known J.N. “Ding” Darling NWR on Sanibel Island. I was awe-struck by the numbers and diversity of species thriving in this protected gulf coast area. Egrets and herons congregated in a feeding frenzy; brilliantly-coloured Roseate Spoonbills flew-in at sunset; a flotilla of American White Pelicans paddled lagoons; Bald Eagle, Black Skimmers, numerous shorebirds, and a 12 foot American Crocodile (uncommon on west coast) were observed well. The sight of all that wildlife in a sunny, tropical-style paradise was a real treat. I’ve since returned to Ding Darling many times, and enjoyed exploring dozens of National Wildlife Refuges all around the country. I’ve spent countless hours at my local John Heinz NWR in Philadelphia, where I’ve seen more than 225 bird species including a number of exciting rarities.

Eastern Collared Lizard, Wichita Mountains NWR, Oklahoma

Lee Hoy  ~ As a young child, my family would often travel to the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge in southwest Oklahoma for day trips. We would fish, picnic, and most importantly, wildlife watch. My dad taught me how to listen for and spot wildlife. Over the years, I saw my first ever Mountain Lion, Elk, Buffalo, Black-tailed Prairie Dogs, Texas Longhorns, and countless other inhabitants of the refuge. With the beautiful granite outcrops covered in gorgeous lichens often harboring basking Eastern Collared Lizards, the oak tree mottes, hiking trails, and countless impoundments, there is an outdoor activity for virtually every user. It is the oldest managed wildlife facility in the United States. Here is where my passion for wildlife photography was born and fond memories still linger with me today.

Red-winged Blackbirds, Pocosin Lakes NWR, North Carolina

Rob KnightMy friend Juan Pons invited me to lead a photo workshop with him in Pocosin Lakes NWR in North Carolina early in my teaching career. The opportunity to see and photograph everything from black bears to water fowl in a pristine protected area was an amazing teaching experience.  I believe this was the first time I became aware of the importance and scope of the NWR system. I’ve been enjoying and supporting the National Wildlife Refuge System ever since.

Alex Lamoreaux  ~ Edwin B. Forsythe NWR (aka ‘Brig’ to locals) is dear to the hearts of many on the Wildside team. The refuge protects over 40,000 acres of pristine saltmarsh habitat on the coast of New Jersey. Some of my earliest birding memories are of driving the auto tour loop with my family. I’d be plastered to the window; spotting shorebirds, ducks, and other seaside birds that I rarely encountered except for occasional vacations to the coast. Meanwhile my little brother and sister would be in the backseat, crying that they just wanted to go home! I distinctly remember my first Ruddy Ducks, Glossy Ibis, and Red-breasted Mergansers in the marshes at Brig, and seeing chunky, adorable Brant for the first time really sticks out in my mind. I saw my first Whimbrel here; stately shorebirds quietly grazing the mudflats for fiddler crabs. During college, my friends and I would visit Brig during the winter months and found Snow Buntings, truly massive flocks of Dunlin and Northern Pintail, and even once a Snowy Owl! On September 6, 2020, I chased a reported Little Stint – my first ever! This vagrant was incredibly cooperative, and provided a great chance to compare the differences between Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers. Then just this past week, on October 9th, a Northern Wheatear was discovered at the refuge! Chris Brown and I were among the first on the scene. Not a lifer for me, but an incredible rarity for New Jersey and another wonderful memory from this special place.

Laguna Cartegena NWR, Puerto Rico

Gabriel Lugo  ~ Since I started birding in my early 20’s, the Laguna Cartegena NWR in Lajos, Puerto Rico, became my favorite destination for many reasons. The 1,043-acre landscape, comprised of freshwater wetlands, lagoons, and grasslands, changes constantly, depending on the amount of rainfall in the southwest region. The refuge is a hotspot for a great diversity of resident and migratory birds, and provides critical habitat for Yellow-shouldered Blackbirds. Yellow-breasted Crake, West Indian Whistling-Duck, and Least Bittern are some of my favorites. The first-ever records of Tufted Duck and Aplomado Falcon, among other species, were reported in the picturesque lagoons.

Yellow-breasted Crake, Laguna Cartegena NWR, Puerto Rico



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