Celebrating Our National Wildlife Refuges

For amazing photo opportunities, flock to your nearest wildlife haven
Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, Utah
A yellow-headed blackbird performs its courtship display at the edge of a marsh in Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, Utah.

Do you love wildlife photography, but come up short on ideas for destinations? Did you know there are almost 600 areas set aside all across the U.S. that are havens for wildlife? That these havens are actively managed to attract birds and other animals, and are often sited along migratory pathways? That they’re places eager for people to visit, observe and photograph nature? These places offer auto tours, hiking trails, occasional photo blinds and thousands of acres to roam.

Some of these havens are located in remote areas, while others lie within an hour’s drive of major cities. These places provide habitat for more than 700 species of birds, 220 species of mammals, 1,000 species of fish, and 250 reptile and amphibian species. More than 380 of our endangered or threatened species find refuge here, from the Florida panther to the leatherback sea turtle.

These are our National Wildlife Refuges. They’re all over the United States, yet many Americans are barely aware of them, or confuse them with other federal land. The NWR System is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with the mission “to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.”

Back in 1948, legendary naturalist and ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson wrote: “The insignia of the flying goose marks the Fish and Wildlife Service refuges. These sanctuaries are usually the best places for wildlife for miles around, and bird watchers who live within striking distance of one often make it their headquarters on weekend trips.”

My own immersion in refuges first took place a couple of years ago when I planned a trip to Medicine Lake and Bowdoin Lake NWRs in Montana. From a blind, I photographed sharp-tailed grouse displaying on a lek, and I spent many hours lying flat on my belly along the edge of the lakes, my camera trained on dozens of grebes, avocets, phalaropes and stilts. Hours would go by, and I wouldn’t see another soul. Sometimes I would only see a couple of other cars the entire day. Though I was grateful for the solitude, I also wondered why these places weren’t better visited. Some of the photos I left with went on to win awards and garner magazine covers. And now I have a long list of refuges I want to visit. I hope you’ll make a list, too. Let me help you with some tips.

Bowdoin Lake National Wildlife Refuge
Twilight falls on Bowdoin Lake National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Montana in early spring.

Research and Plan Your Trip

  • Find a refuge by visiting the FWS page, fws.gov/refuges/. You may be surprised to find there’s one or more within driving distance of your home.
  • Pore over the refuge’s website. Make sure you locate their wildlife and plants checklists to find out what’s there.
  • Download the myRefuge app; it locates nearby refuges and features maps.
  • Look for refuges with a tour road or wildlife drive. Birds and other animals tend to be more comfortable with you when you’re in a car, and this is how I’ve best been able to photograph many shy species such as meadowlarks and pronghorn. Refuge tour routes are generally open sunrise to sunset, but check this, as hours vary across refuges and seasons.
  • Do an image search on Google and Flickr by plugging in the name of the refuge to see what others have photographed there and what the landscape looks like.
  • Make sure you’re not going during hunting season, as hunting is allowed on some refuges, and all animals will be more difficult to find during those times.
  • Pay attention to tide charts for coastal refuges like Ding Darling, Bombay Hook or Merritt Island. (I once went to Ding Darling at high tide and it was a complete bust with no birds to be found.)
  • If traveling, find a nearby motel or camping spot. Camping isn’t allowed in most refuges.
  • Call a refuge’s Visitor Services and ask to speak to a biologist or refuge officer. You can determine likelihood and locations of species you’re interested in, as well as whether any areas will be closed off while you’re there. Offering to contribute photos of sensitive species to refuge literature is a nice exchange for useful information.
  • Build in an extra day or two at the outset of your trip, both to stop by the visitor center and speak with staff in person, and to spend time scouting for locations, determining sun angle and possibility for natural cover to shoot from, etc. Consider joining a guided tour.

Blinds
Blinds are often available for photography, free of charge. Some blinds are on a first-come basis; others require advance reservations. Ask for a map and directions to the blind, and try to scout out the location the day before so you can find it in the dark. Don’t forget your headlamp!

Fees and Rules
Some refuges are free to enter, some charge a nominal fee. The best bet is to buy a Duck Stamp (at the refuge, or in advance at your post office or online). With that stamp, you’re entitled to free admission to any U.S. refuge. What’s more, your monies go directly to acquisition of wetland habitat and conservation easements for the NWR System. It’s wonderful to be able to directly support the critical habitat these refuges provide the wild animals we love.

Will you need to purchase a photography permit? There’s been a lot of confusion about this, but what you need to know is that as stated in 43 CFR 5.2, Code of Federal Regulations, still photography doesn’t require a permit unless:

  1. It uses a model, set, or prop; or
  2. The agency determines a permit is necessary because:
  • It takes place at a location where or when members of the public are not allowed; or
  • The agency would incur costs for providing on-site management and oversight to protect agency resources or minimize visitor use conflicts.

These conditions apply to very few of us photographers.

Know the other regulations of refuges that may pertain to photography. Operating drones on refuges is illegal, as are trail cameras or remotely controlled cameras. Baiting of wildlife and altering their habitat is illegal. Keep a safe and respectful distance from animals.

Refuge Suggestions

A couple of other personal favorites:

  • Chincoteague, Virginia, for its wading birds, seabirds and shorebirds.
  • Bear River in Utah, has a 12-mile auto tour around water impoundment areas, with waterfowl, raptors and shorebirds.

Some crowd favorites:

  • Bosque del Apache, New Mexico, known for its fly-ins and fly-outs of thousands of snow geese and sandhill cranes in fall and winter.
  • Aransas, Texas, winter home for endangered whooping cranes.
  • Ding Darling, Florida, for its four-mile Wildlife Drive that winds through mangrove forest, cordgrass marsh and hardwood hammocks.
  • Cape May, New Jersey.

Kenn Kaufman, leading birder and conservationist, shares with us some of his recommendations:

  • Santa Ana, Texas, for its sheer variety of both birds and butterflies.
  • Ottawa, Ohio, for its concentrations of eagles and waterbirds, and warblers during spring migration.
  • Salt Plains, Oklahoma, critical habitat for endangered whooping cranes, least terns, threatened snowy plovers, bald eagles and peregrine falcons, and one of the most important habitats for shorebirds in the Western Hemisphere.
  • Pea Island, North Carolina, is fabulous for shorebirds during spring and fall migration, and waterfowl in winter.
  • Quivira, Kansas, has a wonderful number of birds, as they do a particularly good job managing their water levels. This, plus its proximity to the Central Flyway migration route, yields birds uncommon in other parts of Kansas or even the central part of the continent.
  • Tamarac, Minnesota, little-visited, but boasting more than 250 species of birds and 50 mammal species. It’s a premier site for trumpeter swans, nesting bald eagles, golden-winged warblers, otters, porcupine, wolves and more.

Recently, I asked my Facebook followers to name their favorite NWRs. My favorite response was from someone who simply wrote, “Mine is wherever I can go….”

To see more of Melissa Groo’s photography and learn about workshop opportunities, visit melissagroo.com.

Melissa Groo is a wildlife photographer, writer and conservationist. She believes that photography can be both fine art and a powerful vehicle for storytelling and education, and considers herself a “wildlife biographer” as much as a wildlife photographer. Passionate about ethics in nature photography, Groo is represented by Nat Geo Creative, a contributing editor to Audubon magazine and an Associate Fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers. She advises the National Audubon Society on ethical photography, and has also counseled National Wildlife magazine and NANPA (North American Nature Photography) on guidelines for ethical wildlife photography. She also serves as a member of NANPA’s Ethics Committee. In 2017, Melissa received the Katie O'Brien Lifetime Achievement Award from Audubon Connecticut, for demonstrating exceptional leadership and commitment to the conservation of birds, other wildlife and their habitats. She also received the NANPA 2017 Vision Award, given to a photographer every two years in recognition of early career excellence, vision and inspiration to others in nature photography, conservation and education.

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