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A Busy Busy last two weeks!

We've combined two weeks into one blog, so this one is a little longer.

Two weeks ago

Big Oaks has been around for quite some time now… And so has the Barn Owl project! Back in 1998, when I (Audrey) was not even born yet and I (Ethan) was 1, Big Oaks set up multiple wooden boxes in the multiple bunkers scattered across the refuge to create homes for Barn Owls. Well, this past monday and friday, we went on a treasure hunt and found acorns, vulture feathers and feces, swallow nests, chimney sweeps nests, mouse nests, mosquitoes (yes you read that right – we now know where mosquitoes stay during the winter months), AND… no pellets 🙁.

Pellets are oval shaped undigested meals that Barn Owls regurgitate to make nests. We thought we had found one, but it turned out to be raccoon poop… But we do know that the bunkers and boxes are being used by other animals!

To attract Barn Owls, each bunker was completely shut except for a medium size hole carved out on the door or the side of the bunkers. Birds and raptors are attracted to holes; which might explain why birds always seem to fly into the house or garage if the windows or garage door are open. There must have been a hole somewhere for them to nest in (don't quote me (Audrey) on that! Just a thought!) There are a couple of reasons why this project did not work as successfully as hoped:

  1. The bunkers themselves have overgrown vegetation on them. Barn owls prefer open fields to better hear rodents running around.

  2. The presence of wasp nests - which we found a lot of

    1. The presence of another bird would not bother them; they will kick the other birds out of that nest if they want to make it their own.

  3. The hole to the bunker did not lead them directly into a nest. There were two holes they had to go through to get to the nest: the hole that led to the inside of the bunker AND the hole that led into the box. In other words, there were too many steps for them.

  4. There are a lot of open fields around the refuge better suited for them.

Overall, barn owls are present on the refuge, but they seem to prefer to nest not in the boxes. But they might just not have found them yet! Maybe in the future our boxes will be inhabited.

On Tuesday, I (Audrey) set up some more cameras with the Wildlife Ecology Institute researchers. Still no foxes…

On Thursday, we drove to Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge early in the morning to assist with a weekly sandhill crane survey. During the night, sandhill cranes gather in the wetlands of Muscatatuck. During the day, they fly off to find food in the farm lands next to the refuge. At first, we were unsure whether or not they would leave the wetlands because of the rain. But once we spotted the first few groups, the others kept coming and coming! In the three and a half hours we were there, we counted over 37,000 cranes! And that is most likely an underestimation!

It is impossible to count every single individual crane when they are flying in flocks of 100's. So you have to estimate. You first have to identify what a group of 10, 20, 30, etc. looks like and count from there. In other words, you have to count in groups. Muscatatuck estimates that there are about 40,000-50,000 cranes present on the refuge at this time. And there are more to come in the next coming months!

On Saturday evening, Big Oaks hosted its Christmas Holiday Party (for members only). On Wednesday, we drove around the refuge trying to find the perfect east cedar tree to decorate. We found a couple that would do the trick. On Thursday, two of the fire crew staff followed us to the first marked tree. I (Audrey) say first because, well, while it looked great standing 20 ft tall in the ground, once it was cut down to 12 ft it didn't look as good anymore. Attempt number one failed. We headed up to another marked tree. This particular tree was a lot taller than 20ft but it stood out to us when we first saw it due to its nice green color and nice shape. The fire staff told us to bring them to it. And that's the tree that was chosen and decorated by myself (Audrey) on Friday afternoon! Hopefully the people who were at the party enjoyed it. Multiple people mentioned the beautiful lights hanging on the chandeliers, that is my (Ethan's) work. Our masterpiece ( 😁) came to be with assistance from the beautiful melodies of Christmas tunes playing (ok, blasting) on the radio we had brought along.

The last week

Today I (Ethan) finally was able to take my pesticide core exam. I`ve been studying for it for the past two weeks now and as I’m sure some of you can guess; it is a huge relief to have it behind me now. I passed the exam with plenty of time to spare. I probably over studied for it but it definitely helped for the test to be over knowledgeable anyway. For those of you who may not know passing the exam doesn’t make someone fully certified to apply pesticides. In order for someone to be able to apply pesticide by themselves they must take a more focused categorical exam and must be licensed by their place of business. By passing the core exam I can be considered a registered technician. Registered technicians can only apply pesticides under the direct supervision of a licensed applicator or said licensed applicator must be immediately reachable by phone in order to address any issues the technician may have. It is important for someone to be certified before applying restricted use pesticides since they can be harmful to the environment and oneself if not applied properly using the recommended protective equipment. Overall I am happy that the studying is over but I believe it will be worth it in the long run to have this certification in my arsenal.

And now both of us are pesticide certified! Hooray!

On Tuesday, we joined a Wildlife Biologist and Wetland Ecologist named Tom Biebighauser (website: in designing wetlands on the refuge and for a private landowner near Madison. As we've mentioned before, Big Oaks holds the largest population of crawfish frogs in the state. The hope is to increase population levels by increasing habitat availability.

There are so many things to consider when building a wetland! Here are a few things to consider:

  1. The slope of the land: for a wetland to dry up in the Fall each year, the slope of the land needs to be less than 6%. So we were looking for flatter land. Crawfish frogs use ponds from March to August (sometimes into Septembre). Crawfish frogs are susceptible to other species using their ponds. That means that each September, Big Oaks has to drain the ponds to avoid colonization by other animals.

  2. The vegetation: we want sedges, rushes and grasses.

    1. Here's a little rhyme for you: sedges have edges, rushes are round and grasses have nodes that go all the way to the ground

  3. Ground surface: you want rough ground. The bottom of the wetland should not be flat. You want mounds to it. The reason for that is that it discourages the growth of cat tails which are not desirable plants for crawfish frog ponds.

  4. The wetland disposition: the wetland shape is basically a shallow bowl. Think of those huge satellite dishes. The deepest part is the center which gradually slopes upward to reach the sides of the "dish". A steep side increases willow growth blocking the sunlight from reaching the water. Crawfish want sunlight for warmer water for their eggs. During the day, crawfish frogs sometimes move to colder warters, which are found at deeper depths. However, if the pond is not deep enough, then willows may not be a bad idea to have on one side of the pond… Lots of things to consider!

  5. The drainage: Some drainage options are: water structures such as flood control pipes, drop board systems, dams, and other equipment. Another way to drain wetlands is to do it without water control structures. By digging a small hole down to the permeable layer and leaving a rock drain the wetland will slowly drain by itself.

  6. The soil: The soil will have silt, sand, and clay in it but we want an abundance of clay. We look at soil texture color to determine soil saturation: gray soil has been saturated for a very long time which means it holds a lot of ground water and will have a harder time drying up. If the soil is hard and brown then it hasn’t been saturated in water and therefore the wetland that is built there will dry up more easily.

  7. And a lot more that we did not even get into!

  8. A great way to know if it's a good place to put a pond for crawfish frogs is if you have crawfish burrows!

To prepare for the Christmas bird count (December 17th) on Saturday, the interns (as staff like to call us) went out onto the refuge to practice our birding skills. I (Audrey) have none. I (Ethan) have a little. We helped spot 35 different bird species with three birders here on the refuge. This number may sound low for a place as big as Big Oaks but the weather was not ideal for birding this past Wednesday. It was cold and the main made it not a great time for birds to be out foraging. Animals survive on their calorie intake. If foraging in the rain will burn too many calories for the amount they can find then it isn’t worth it for them to be foraging too far from their home. Birds get cold as well so they don’t like to be out in the cold if they can help it. If you’ve ever seen a small bird standing on a branch with one of its legs tucked up closer to its body it is because it is trying to warm up that leg. Hopefully Saturday will have better weather for us. Overall though even with the bad weather we did encounter some rare species here on the refuge and will hopefully be able to show them to you saturday. This early birding trip was great practice for us but we’ll just have to wait and see how we do on Saturday 😅.

The western perimeter has a lot of bird boxes on the telephone post which we checked and cleaned on Thursday. 3 little mice had found a home in them! Very cute.

This will be our last blog of the year. We are both going home for the holidays and the month of January. Thank you to everyone who reads our blogs! We hope you enjoy learning about our experience on the refuge. Who knows who will take over for us in the spring?

Happy Holidays! 🕎 🎄

Audrey and Ethan, BONWR Interns Fall 2022

White Breasted Nuthatch

Northern Harrier


Photos taken by Ethan Crane.


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