Empowering the Next Generation of Conservation Leaders

Summer is here and our student interns are having a blast! Every year the National Wildlife Refuge Association coordinates a 10-week long summer internship program for dedicated and passionate students on national wildlife refuges. These students gain real-world wildlife management experience to propel them into careers in conservation.

In the summer of 2013, we launched our internship program in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) with two incredible students. This year, we have over 20 students on refuges across the country. These students are working on a wide-range of initiatives for the USFWS including endangered species management, summer education programs, and habitat restoration work. Below we share a few of their inspiring experiences and we hope that you enjoy them!

During the recent West Mims Fire at Okefenokee, water levels were low in the swamp. Nicole went out on a boat to check the water trails.
During the recent West Mims Fire at Okefenokee, water levels were low in the swamp. Nicole went out on a boat to check the water trails.


Nicole Stagg:

Have you ever been accepted to a new job, only for the place to be set on fire? In March of this year, I was accepted into a visitor services internship at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia. I was looking forward to my summer adventure until I received a phone call. I was informed that a raging wildfire started on the refuge due to a lightning strike and it was spreading fast. Usually, if your workplace is on fire, you don’t show up to work, but that is different when it comes to a career in wildlife.

My name is Nicole Stagg and I’m studying wildlife habitat conservation & management at Louisiana State University. After I finished my final exams, I made the drive to Folkston, Georgia expecting to see lots of charred foliage. To my surprise, everything looked normal. As I was driving down the main entryway, I noticed that the trees were slightly blackened part of the way up but the foliage around those trees looked untouched. Based on my course work, I knew that it was the result of prescribed burning to promote new growth and decrease vegetation. In the past 80 years, Okefenokee has had 17 fires.

Right from the beginning, I learned that fire is an important and much-needed part of the ecosystem in Okefenokee. There are four different habitat types here: upland forests, scrub-shrub, forested wetlands, and wetland prairies. Longleaf pine, located in the upland forests, provides great nesting sites for red-cockaded woodpeckers, which are dependent on fire for seed germination.

During the fire, firemen and firewomen would come to the visitor’s center with incredible stories about the situation and how they were managing the fire. Every day, we sold t-shirts about the West Mims Fire to raise money for the firefighters and the refuge. It was a unique experience to be able to see all the operations that go into fighting wildfires.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is 403,000 acres, 354,000 of which is designated wilderness. According to the Incident Information System, the West Mims Fire covered 152,515 acres inside and outside of the refuge affecting surrounding communities and forest operations. After the fire subsided, the visitor center and refuge opened to the public and we are now up and running.

It has truly been an amazing experience here! I wake up to the sounds of northern bobwhite quail and can often spot a sleeping American alligator outside of the visitor center. In the evening, I can always hear the Chuck-will’s-widow with their distinctive rolling, whistle-like call. Things are just starting to come back together but my adventure here has just begun.


Nicole Vidal:

Hi! My name is Nicole Vidal and I recently graduated from Georgia State University in Atlanta with a Masters in Communications and Film. Recently, I had the pleasure to work on a great film project on the Altamaha River with the regional office.

Traveling from Atlanta to the Altamaha River felt like crossing into another country, with deserted beaches, uninhabited longleaf pine forests, and cypress trees older than Christopher Columbus.

At the mouth of the river, at Wolf Island National Wildlife Refuge, miles of salt marsh and deserted beach stretched in front of me and the generous Altamaha flowed behind me. I saw threatened species of birds, like the red knot, in abundance, foraging, while in the distance, spartina grass changed with the light, from green to gold, then green again.

The Altama Plantation, which once was reserved for rich landowners, now serves as a 4,000-acre nature preserve. Ancient live oak trees thrive beside the cracked pool and garden ruins. When I was on the preserve, I was walking through threatened longleaf pine forests, where I saw at least twenty gopher tortoise burrows.

When I was in the swamp along the river, I had a great opportunity to walk with a landowner who showed me 500-year-old cypress trees. Their roots were planted under the muddy swamp water, patterns of light escaped into the dense canopy, highlighting the Spanish moss blowing in the wind. We paused, and the landowner said, “these are natural resource heirlooms.” I quietly agreed.

Elizabeth Sicard:

Elizabeth Sicard out on Red River National Wildlife Refuge
Elizabeth Sicard out on Red River National Wildlife Refuge

Hi everyone! My name is Elizabeth Sicard and I’m interning here at Red River National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana. I’ve had the pleasure to work the USFWS wildlife biologists to learn about birds on and around the refuge. The only downside was waking up at 4 am in the morning to drive to the site. Thankfully I didn’t have to work the whole day! Although I knew nothing about birds and could hardly identify them at the time, I was excited to experience something new. When we arrived at the site, the biologist explained to me she was taking me to a MAPS (Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship) station, run by the Institute for Bird Populations, that she checks every ten days to determine how many resident, migrant, and passing birds were in the area.

When I walked up to her truck, she held a small, blue bird between her fingers and asked me if I knew what it was. Unfortunately, I had no idea, so all I could say was “Not at all!” She explained it was an Indigo Bunting, the first of many that we would see on the refuge. After she finished weighing the bird, she allowed me to take a picture with it and release it again. The biologist regularly checks a series of miss-nets within a five-mile radius to determine species, age, sex, and weight of the birds within the area. I was fascinated by how much she knew about birds, but also was very overwhelmed by how much I did not know! Later that day, I came across “the unicorn of the birds,” otherwise, known as the painted bunting. I had the honor of untangling it from the net…and sneaked a quick picture with that one too! Although I felt intimidated by my lack of knowledge with bird species, I was awed by how much she knew about what she was doing. It was amazing to work with her and be a part of bird banding, even if it was just for that one day!

 This is a Red-Cockaded Woodpecker chick extracted from its cavity to be banded for monitoring the population of the threatened species of woodpecker.
This is a Red-Cockaded Woodpecker chick extracted from its cavity to be banded for monitoring the population of the threatened species of woodpecker.

Collin Mulchay:

 My name is Collin Mulcahy and I am interning at Sam D. Hamilton Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge in Mississippi. Within the first two weeks of my internship, I had an incredible experience banding federally endangered red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW) chicks.

Here on the refuge, red-cockaded woodpeckers prefer open savannah landscapes scattered with longleaf, loblolly, or shortleaf pines for cavity nesting and feeding. Throughout the refuge, RCWs can be found in clusters and it was our job to go find them.

In order to find and identify RCWs within the clusters, we used a peeping camera, which is a long extended camera to see into the cavities. If we were fortunate to find chicks within the cavity, we would determine if it would be appropriate to band them depending on their age. To do so, we would climb the tree with a ladder and rope system to extract and band birds. It was an amazing feeling to have such a delicate creature in my hands. Because it was endangered, I had the utmost respect and gentleness when I was handling the chicks. To help the birds with nesting, artificial nests are created and protected from potential predators. This experience has given me an incredible opportunity to work with world-class professionals in the conservation field. I am very grateful that I’ve been able to work with the Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge to help take the red-cockaded woodpecker off of the federally endangered species list. 

Stay tuned to learn more about the incredible experiences that our student interns are having on refuges.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.refugeassociation.org/2017/07/empowering-the-next-generation-of-conservation-leaders/

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