For The Birds
America’s national wildlife refuge system offers a clear view of nature
By David Hart
What started as a trickle of white Vs in the distant sky grew into a blizzard of cackling snow geese. Dozens turned into hundreds as the evening sun dropped and then into thousands as the birds locked their wings and settled on the marsh that surrounded me. Some were so close, I could see their pink feet.
I was standing on an observation platform in 10,000-acre Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge, a salt marsh and upland sanctuary on the western shore of Delaware Bay. The arrival of so many geese is a spectacle that takes place daily during the peak migration, when as many as 100,000 snow geese use the refuge as a nighttime roost after feeding in surrounding grain fields during the day. It wasn’t just geese that attracted me and dozens of other wildlife enthusiasts on this early spring afternoon. Swarms of ducks circled the marsh and songbirds bounced through the low brush along the trails that wind through the refuge.
Prime Hook is a bird-watcher’s paradise, but it’s just one of 551 national wildlife refuges (NWR) scattered throughout the country. Like all the others, it has a primary purpose of protecting wildlife and giving them a place to live or rest that isn’t threatened by development and other human intrusions. But Prime Hook serves another purpose. Located on the bustling Atlantic coast, just a few hours from the crowded suburbs of Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Baltimore, the bucolic refuge is a place for people to seek refuge themselves. No traffic jams, no crowded sidewalks, no hassles. Just the silence of nature or the cacophony of ducks and geese.
The first refuge was set aside in Florida by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903 to protect wading birds like herons and egrets. At the time, the birds were shot en masse by market hunters who sold their feathers as ornamental additions to hats and clothes. Alarmed by the rapid destruction of those graceful birds, Roosevelt and a group of conservationists convinced Congress to protect a tiny three-acre island on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Pelican Island was just the beginning of a national movement. By the time he left office in 1909, Roosevelt had designated 52 biological survey reservations designed to protect certain birds and animals and the places they live.
Now, every state has at least one national wildlife refuge. California has 40, and Alaska has 14 of the 15 largest refuges in the country, including the 19 million acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They are some of the last great wild places we have and they are open to the public, offering not just a place to watch clouds of geese or herds of elk, but to escape from the daily hustle. Instead of the honk of car horns and the steady chatter of the two-way radio, you’ll be treated to the bugle of a bull elk, the cheery call of a bluebird or soulful howl of a timber wolf.
Some of the most unique refuges include the National Elk Refuge in Jackson, Wyo., where 5,000 elk and more than 800 bison spend their winter after migrating out of the high country in and around Yellowstone National Park. Visitors can take a horse-drawn sleigh ride across the refuge and get a close-up view of the majestic animals. Florida’s Crystal River NWR provides a haven for manatees in air-clear water, while the sprawling Cabeza Prieta NWR on the Arizona-Mexico border offers sanctuary for desert bighorn sheep and the endangered Sonoran pronghorn antelope. Refuges in California’s Sacramento Valley hold more than a million ducks and hundreds of thousands of geese each winter, and Montana’s Charles Russell NWR encompasses more than 900,000 acres of some of the most rugged and beautiful landscape in the country.
With few exceptions, refuges offer little in the way of “touristy” distractions like tacky gift shops or overpriced restaurants. Some have visitor centers and others have roads open to vehicular traffic, but most are little more than marsh, prairie or woods set aside for the fish and wildlife that live there. Lots of birds and animals loaf in sight of those roads, but in order to get the most out of any refuge visit, it’s best to get out of your vehicle and walk down a trail or across a boardwalk that spans a marsh or lagoon. It also helps to carry a good pair of binoculars. Some wild birds and animals will let you get close, but others won’t. If you stand in the right place, however, you may get closer to more geese than you could imagine.