Thursday, July 14, 2011

Ramble on!

Wet hike at Rapids Lake Unit.
Photo by Christine.
One of my duties as a Park Ranger cadet is to lead family-friendly wildlife observation hikes called “Refuge Rambles.” I create a different theme for these hikes each week and give people a little educational lesson before taking them out exploring every Sunday afternoon. I’ve had both good and bad experiences with the hikes so far, but have had mostly positive results.

The first hike I lead was about mammals. I called it “Neither Hide nor Tail.” I got the idea in my head to lead a hike about mammals from the taxidermied woodchuck that sits on our information desk in the visitor center. He’s not the correct stance to be in the display for our exhibits, but he's a great conversation starter for our visitors mainly because of the funny look on his face with his buck teeth sticking out. People almost always think he’s a beaver or a gopher, but he’s actually a woodchuck, which is also called a groundhog. I found this out the hard way after a Park Ranger told a visitor that he was a groundhog and I piped up and said “I thought he was a woodchuck?” only to be informed by the Park Ranger that a groundhog and a woodchuck are the same animal. Some Park Ranger cadet I am...

In addition to our woodchuck friend at the information desk, there are lots of other small – medium sized mammals on the Refuge that are commonly confused for being one another, but if you look closely, neither their hide nor their tails are the same. The woodchuck unlike the beaver, has a short bushy tail and is the largest member of the squirrel family. Also unlike the beaver, the woodchuck builds dens near buildings, usually around steps or other structures. They build an extensive tunnel system which is used by other critters such as rabbits and raccoons. Rather than chucking wood, woodchucks prefer to eat green vegetation, especially dandelions, and can be found climbing small trees to eat the green buds in the spring.

Another mammal that we see a lot of on the Refuge is the muskrat. Both the muskrat and the beaver are part of the rodent family and both build dens, but neither their hide nor their tails are the same. Muskrats are much smaller than beavers and while their tails are also flat and covered by scales like the beaver’s, muskrat tails are long and narrow rather than flat. I brought animal pelts along on the hike to show visitors the difference between the mammals. Muskrat fur is probably the softest of all the pelts I had. Muskrat pelts were historically very sought after during the time of the fur trade. Today, hunting and fishing regulations help protect the muskrat.
Bull snake constricting a 13-lined ground squirrel on our front doorstep! Photo by Christine.
Other pelts I brought along were river otter, mink, weasel, and finally a pocket gopher and a thirteen-lined ground squirrel. The last two pelts were to show that the University of Minnesota’s gopher mascot is actually a combination of a gopher and a ground squirrel. Even the U of M has trouble getting their hides and tails straight. Go Squirrel-Gophers!

Unfortunately, I don’t get a huge turnout for my hikes so I have gradually put less and less energy into developing them. My recent hikes have been a lot less formal than my previous hikes, but still fun and educational. While I love being around people and don’t have much trouble talking in front of crowds, these hikes have been intimidating, especially after my first experience froggin’ around.
Grey Tree Frog door greeter at bunkhouse. Photo by Christine.

My second hike was on frogs, which I am not very knowledgeable about. I borrowed the information for the hike from another intern who works at the Rapids Lake Education and Visitor Center by the bunkhouse that I live in. Apparently, he knew a lot about frogs while I had very little knowledge about them and attempted to teach myself and others in the few short days that I had time to prepare. Needless to say, things didn’t turn out so well. 

The plan was to bring nets and an aquarium on our hike so that we could collect frogs or whatever else we could find along the way, but the frogs didn’t cooperate and my fellow hikers were not pleased. One older woman criticized me to the point where I felt I needed to start thinking about a change in career while the mom and her two-year-old daughter who joined us were too worried about getting their shoes muddy to step off the trail and search for frogs. Heaven forbid they track mud through the Mall of America where they planned to go afterwards.  
Donnie hiking with us on the Long Meadow Lake Trail.
Photo by Christine.
My self-esteem was a little shot down after that, but luckily one of the volunteers at the Refuge has taken me under his wing for the summer. His name is Donnie and he joins me on each and every one of my hikes to help answer questions and keep people entertained. He is a wealth of knowledge and I’d be lost without him. The past couple of weeks, Donnie, the volunteer, brought his spotting scope along on our hikes which allowed us get an up close and personal view of wildlife we saw on the Refuge. 

Another hike I lead had a waterfowl theme. Prior to working at Minnesota Valley, I had an internship at Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in Missouri. My boss, Tim Haller, was responsible for coordinating the Missouri Junior Duck Stamp program with my assistance. So, I am fairly knowledgeable about waterfowl. Plus, Minnesota Valley has a plethora of taxidermied waterfowl they like to call “ducks on a stick.” Just in case the waterfowl were as scarce as the frogs on my previous hike, I made sure to bring out the ducks on a stick so even if we didn’t see any waterfowl on the refuge, people would at least get a good view of the birds.

Snapping turtle at our bunkhouse. Photo by Christine.
To my surprise, the waterfowl living on the Refuge turned out to be right on cue. As soon as we got to the wetland on our hike, we saw movement in the water and luckily, Donnie was able to zoom right up on what we were seeing with his spotting scope. Very rare to see this time of year was a female hooded merganser and a trail of ducklings following behind her. No sooner did she swim away before a wood duck and its babies came swimming past. In addition to this waterfowl action, the egrets on Long Meadow Lake were thick and at one point in time a great blue heron came swooping in. Before we headed back we saw on a turtle on a log that appeared to be doing some calisthenics with one of his back legs. The up close view with the spotting scope showed us that rather than doing a yoga pose, the poor little guy was trying to shake a leach off his leg that just wouldn’t come unstuck. One of his turtle friends attempted to help his comrade but couldn’t figure out how to get up on the log.

My last hike was a success as well. This past Friday the other visitor services intern that we have been expecting to join us at the dorm finally arrived all the way from North Carolina. So this time, I had not only my regular helper Donnie join me on my hike but another friendly face as well. Best of all I had a frog expert leading my hike this time.

Christine holding Crayfish.
The Saturday before my herpetology (reptiles and amphibians) theme hike, I went out to catch a few frogs so I would definitely have some to share this time in case we didn’t run into any on the hike. As I was walking out the door I asked an inquisitive little boy and his mom that were in the visitor center if they wanted to join me. They ecstatically agreed to help out and help they did. Alex, the little boy, caught five baby American toads to use for show and tell during my hike and asked if it was O.K. if he could lead the hike the next day. Any reason to take me out of the hot seat is fine by me, so I told me that he sure could. 

It was nice not being the center of attention for a change and both Alex and the wildlife helped with that. On our herpin’ hike we caught even more baby American toads as well as two adult toads, a garter snake, and a crayfish. In the middle of all the excitement, two white-tailed deer came strolling almost right up to us. It was a sight so see. Everyone left with a smile and I was able to let out a sigh of relief.
Peregrine Falcon released on refuge after rehabilitation from injury.
Photo by Chirstine.

Despite some struggles that I had along the way, everything seems to be coming into full circle now. I’ve got to see a lot of Minnesota thanks to some friendly locals and friends and family that have came to visit. Over my 4th of July weekend, my mom came to visit with a friend for a few days. We stayed in Rochester and biked and tubed along the Root River one day and the Zumbro River the next, biking about 50 miles total over the weekend. All in all, I’ve had a good experience here in Minnesota and I’m glad that things are finally looking up. 

Great Spangled Fritillary
Photos in Butterfly Garden by Christine. Bottom: Red Admiral posed on Purple Cone Flowers. 
I've also gone on hikes on my days off with both Donnie and Warren another volunteer. Warren is a retiree who is very active in the nonprofit organization Earth Watch. He travels around the world helping the environment in a variety of ways through Earth Watch Expeditions. This week Warren took the new intern and I to the the Grey Cloud Dunes Scientific and Natural Area on one of our days off where we hike around and identified wildflowers. With Warren's help, I plan on leading a wildflower walk for my last hike before I vacation back to Missouri for 10 days. 'Til next time I’ll keep rambling on!      
Warren and I at the Grey Cloud Dune SNA with the Mississippi River at our backs.

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