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Owls work the night shift

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By Kellie Parkin

The Friends and staff of the Lower Suwannee & Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuges held an Open House last Saturday at the Suwannee Community Center in the town of Suwannee.

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Normally held at the Cedar Key NWR, this was the first time the annual event took place in Dixie County.

“We wanted to give people over here an opportunity to get to know the Refuge,” said Refuge Manager John Kasbohm. “Based on the turnout we’ll probably rotate years – one year in Cedar Key, one here in Suwannee.”

Nearly 100 people turned out to support the refuges and participate in events that included a visit from Dr. Dawn Miller of Eye of the Eagle Wildlife Sanctuary who shared some of her rehabilitated birds of prey, including a red-tailed hawk, a barn owl and great horned owl.

“Lots of people ask me about owls being nocturnal and sleeping during the day,” she quipped. “I tell them, yes – but these are working owls – and they work the night shift.”

Refuge Officer and Cedar Key native Kenny McCain served his specialty chicken, ribs, baked beans and swamp cabbage for lunch. A giant southern-style dessert spread covered a table, tempting visitors back for seconds and more.

During the luncheon special recognition was given to The Nature Conservancy, a Refuge partner in conservation. An interactive panel was dedicated in the group’s honor and will be displayed on one of the trails in the refuge.

“They helped broker over 21,000 of the 53,000 acres of land we have,” said Refuge Ranger Pam Darty. “If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have that land.”

Jeff Danter, The Nature Conservancy State Director for Florida, thanked the supporters of the NWR. “The staff is doing heroic work with too few resources,” he said. “So what you do as Friends is vitally important.”

The afternoon featured hayrides into the Refuge with a Forester, boat rides courtesy of Captain Russ McCallister of Suwannee Guides and Outfitters and a fire demonstration addressing habitat management with an emphasis on controlled burning.

Prescribed Fire Specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Vic Doig addressed the importance of controlled burning in the refuge. “Fire is as natural to the landscape in Florida as is rainfall,” Doig said. “It is neither good nor bad, it’s natural ecology.”

“If we can burn three to four or 5,000 acres a year it would be very good for this particular refuge,” he said. “It’s all done to manage and protect the habitat.” Burning opens up the canopy so that native plant species can grow. Much of the refuge was previously planted in non-native timber trees. The natural fire cycle for the refuge is three to five years, he said.

Doig introduced the crowd to a variety of tools used in controlled burning such as shovels, backpack sprayers and the all-aluminum Marsh Master. The vehicle features 80-gallon tanks on each side and can shoot water 50 feet.

“It has wide tracks and it’s very, very light weight so it can essentially walk on the mud,” he said. “It’s completely amphibious. The tracks act like paddle wheels so you can pull yourself through the water.”

Passengers returned from the 45 minute boat rides talking about the beauty of the Suwannee River, settlement history and wildlife seen such as eagles, osprey and alligators. Captain Russ McCallister of Suwannee Guides and Outfitters donated his time, two boats and additional personnel to share the river with visitors. He also threw in his humor and historical knowledge to make for a memorable experience – especially for one 9-year-old who could not believe it when McCallister told him that little boys used to paddle their way down the Suwannee to get to school.

To learn more about the Cedar Key and Lower Suwannee Refuges call (352) 493-0238 or visit the Web site www.fws.gov/lowersuwannee.