Recollections from the Marais des Cygnes National Wildlife Refuge Field Trip

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As one of the trip coordinators for this year’s field trip, I must say that even though I was a bit stressed when our journey began and not everyone decided to take advantage of the free van transportation, it didn’t take long for me to relax as I watched the participants striking up conversations with each other in the field.

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Our first stop was at the Headquarters of the Marais des Cygnes National Wildlife Refuge where we met with Kim Martin, Federal Law Officer at the refuge.  She showed us a 12 minutes video introducing us to the history and growth of the national wildlife refuge system.  She then talked and answered questions about the Marais des Cygnes refuge and her duties in federal law enforcement.

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After our introduction, we check 15 small mammal traps that had been baited and set the afternoon before.  The traps were set in a recently burned restoration area, a non-burned restoration area, and a non-burned area that within a remnant tallgrass prairie.  We had no success in either of the restorations but captured a single hispid cotton rat and lone deer mouse in the prairie remnant.  While traversing the prairies the young naturalist in our party enjoyed netting the numerous great spangled fritillary butterflies we observed pollinating a stand of dogbane.

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From there we travel to another prairie restoration along Yardley Road to search for Mead’s Milkweed.  This federally endangered plant is known to exist naturally at three locations on the NWR property.  The plants we saw were individuals that had been planted into one of their restorations.  Participants were able to find a couple of plants that were in full bloom.

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From there we returned to Linn County Park for lunch and a short siesta.  When finished, we returned the NWR and headed to Stick Pond adjacent to the photoblind to check 4 turtle traps that had been baited and set the evening prior.  Three of the traps were hoop traps and one was a cage trap.  Each were baited with creamed corn and mackerel.  Interestingly enough, three of the traps had not a single turtle while one of the hoop traps contained 13 turtles of three species – 1 large snapping turtles, 1 painted turtle, and 12 large sliders (2 males and 10 females based on fore fingernail length).  It took us awhile to safely position the snapping turtle for removal from the trap and get a few pictures.  You’ll have to check out the KABT Facebook site for images of the turtles.  I had my hands full and didn’t want to get my camera wet.

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After our interactions with the chelonians, we traveled a wooded area surrounding an abandoned coal mining operation.  We were in search of the only stand of swamp white oak in the entire state of Kansas.  We read the informative email from MdCNWR Biologist, Tim Menard, which contained the following information –  “As you walk west from the state line parking lot, the swamp white will begin to appear before you get to the old service road, and definitely before you get to the flowing creek.  many of these trees are forked at the base.  Then you can see many more as you walk to the northwest.  The leaves look like chinkapin (which are just on the other side of the hill).  However, look for last year’s acorn caps with the long stem attached.”  We successfully found the trees.  At this stop we also witnessed a ringneck snake and the caterpillar of the pipe-vine swallowtail butterfly.  Chris Ollig from Blue Valley North High School introduced the group to dendrochronology and the appropriate use of the increment borer.

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Next, we traveled to Turkey Foot Pond, a man-made pond resulting from previous coal mining activities.  There we checked four additional turtle traps as well as surveyed for freshwater mussels known to occur at the site.  As the name implies, Turkey Foot Pond has three fingers.  On our descent to the western most finger, we encountered a lush stand of equisetum.  Two young snakes were observed – a plain-bellied water snake and a northern water snake – and a horsehair worm was discovered swimming in the pond along the shore.  We found a number of mussels the most abundant of which was the three ridge mussel.  The identities of the other mussels encountered awaits verification by mussel experts.  In the second finger we searched, we captured two sliders in one of four traps deployed.  Check out the aged slider that doesn’t look like a slider anymore in the images below.

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Finally, we travelled to the Marais des Cygnes River itself to search for the mussels beds that eluded Kelley Tuel and I on our previous trip to the refuge.  The group rallied their remaining reserves of energy to make the 1/2 mile walk into the site.  Along the way a number of gravid ribbon snakes were found hanging out in a warm ephemeral watered ditch.  Most of the kids and only two adults made there way into the river.  Not thinking, I swam downstream looking for mussels and found a few weathered shells and a young slider basking on a log.  Otherwise, the kids enjoyed this final swim one of the parents of the big muddy.

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On Sunday, those that were left travelled to the Smith Ranch newt pond.  We encountered a large plain-bellied water snake (check out the story on the KS Herpetology Facebook), a worm snake, and a ground skink.  None of us braved the muddy pond to seine for newts.

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I will be adding some links in the future, and subsequently will be creating individual posts for some of the information that we planned on sharing but didn’t seem the time to.

Enjoy!

 

 

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