November 26, 2014 by
Photography by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services

Fall is the perfect time to make a 40-minute road trip north to DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge and get the family back to nature for a couple of hours. You may end up witnessing a pelican feeding frenzy, beholding the mind-boggling sight of tens of thousands of mallards flocking together, or even spotting a “convocation” of eagles. Every day brings new wonders, says Tom Cox, project leader for the refuge.

“This time of year is prime for seeing different wildlife on the refuge. All wildlife will become more visible but the main reason—the purpose of the refuge—is that it is an inviolate refuge for migratory birds,” Cox says. “The numbers and species will continue to diversify as we continue through fall.”

The refuge, established in 1958, is located in the migratory bird corridor of the Missouri River floodplain and serves as a habitat for resident, migratory, and endangered species. The grounds cover 8,365 acres in both Nebraska and Iowa, “a mosaic of floodplain habitats that includes wetlands, forest, bottomland forest, and grassland/prairie,” Cox says. Visitors can enter the grounds 30 minutes before sunrise and stay until 30 minutes after sunset year-round, and the visitor center
is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily.

“For regular family visitors, weekends are a great time to come. If you have binoculars, you should bring those along,” Ashley Danielson, visitor services specialist, says. “And if you really want to see large concentrations of wildlife, early in the morning and later towards the evening is the best time; anywhere up until 10 or so in the morning and 3 or 4 in the afternoon.”

The DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge is one of the top-visited refuges in the region, but the welfare of the wildlife always takes precedence, so visitors won’t get as close to the fauna as they might expect, Cox says. The tradeoff is being able to observe migratory and nesting birds in an entirely natural habitat.

“It’s a natural area, so the wildlife should act accordingly. The national park system is set up with more of a philosophy that it’s for the people; our core philosophy is that a refuge is where wildlife comes first. We are a federal entity set up to protect species that are protected by the federal government,” explains Cox. “We manage the wildlife that is either threatened or endangered or migrates across state lines.”

Plus, it’s a natural outdoor classroom that has a lot to teach students through established, year-round partnerships with Blair High School; the West Harrison school district in Mondamin, Iowa; and Omaha Public Schools’ Edison Elementary.

“I think the education program is one of the best in the nation,” Cox says.

“We really try to take what they’re learning in the classroom and take it to our outdoor classroom,” Danielson adds. “We really try to make it so that coming to the refuge is not a field trip; it’s school outside.”

The staff strives to ensure that other school groups get a meaningful learning experience when they visit, too. That means less lecture time and a more hands-on, interactive experience.

“We offer a variety of things for our one-time visitors,” Danielson says. “We have a curriculum-based activity guide that the school can use inside the visitor center. With a lot of our programs now we’re trying to use inquiry-based learning, where the students have the chance to experience nature and study it from their own perspective.”

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