Winter brings new chances for a nature escape at Patuxent Research Refuge

The eastern screech owl perched on Jennifer Chin’s arm outside the Patuxent Research Refuge had perfected the stink eye.

The bird, whose species is known for their squinty eyes and ability to blend into their forested surroundings, is one of two birds specially brought out at the Laurel nature center for programming, including several events this winter.

Chin, the refuge’s recreation assistant and conference and outreach coordinator, said the two birds, the other being an American kestrel, are “birds in training” for use in public programming. While the refuge has several screech owls and American kestrels for research purposes, these two only made their public debut in October, and have been busy getting acclimated to crowds, she said.

Patuxent Research Refuge, a national wildlife refuge and part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is the only national wildlife refuge in the country established to support wildlife research. The 12,800-acre refuge includes not only programming at its visitor center on its South Tract, but several wildlife observation trails and fishing, hunting and outdoor education sites.

In the winter months of December and January, the refuge is full of activities and programs at its visitor center, ranging from camera basics lessons to falcon demonstrations and indoor campfires.

These programs allow visitors, many of them young children, to get exposure to nature and wildlife like the screech owl. One of Chin’s favorite facts about the owls, which she often shares with the refuge’s youngest visitors, is the size of their eyes. Owls’ eyes, which they can’t roll, are huge in proportion to their face— if humans had eyes that big, Chin said they’d be the size of oranges.

The winter months are some of Refuge Manager Brad Knudsen’s favorite at the refuge, when trails are less crowded and views through the trees are clearer. While the number of wildlife on the refuge’s land does dwindle during the winter, Knudsen said those birds and other critters that do stay are resilient.

“It’s amazing the sort of weather they can get through,” he said.

Throughout the year the refuge is home to 270 species of birds, ranging from ducks and swans to ospreys and cranes. Knudsen said the variety of habitats at the refuge helps support the variety of species that live there.

Knudsen is an expert on the refuge, pointing to the various birds and plant life the refuge is home to as he walks the Cash Lake Trail. Despite the fact that some of the refuge’s birds do fly to warmer climates in the winter, Knudsen said “it’s never a slow time” at the refuge, or for the many birders who visit.

As he walks along the man-made, 53-acre Cash Lake, Knudsen performs a bird call. The squeaking sound draws a few dark-eyed junco birds, one of the refuge’s winter bird species.

Nearly 250,000 people visited the refuge last year, according to Knudsen, coming to enjoy its numerous outdoor activities or the museum inside the visitor center. Despite its popularity, Knudsen said there has been a “slow erosion” of the refuge’s budget over the last few years, to the detriment of the refuge and its care. In fiscal 2017, the refuge’s budget was just over $3 million, according to Knudsen; he said he is expecting a 3 to 5 percent cut to that in the next budget cycle.

Knudsen said due to budget cuts, the visitor center has had to start closing on Thursdays, and hasn’t been able to fill some full-time positions when they’ve become vacant, meaning there are fewer staff available to care for the maintenance of the refuge.

Luckily for the refuge, it has a strong network of more than 200 volunteers, who last year contributed mor than 28,000 hours of volunteer work, Knudsen said. The volunteers donate their time to do everything from outreach and interpreting to environmental education and offering their knowledge as experts, such as area botanists who have conducted plant surveys.

These hundreds of volunteers have discovered what Chin and Knudsen said they love about the refuge— the tranquility and beauty of the landscape. One of the greatest benefits of the refuge, Knudsen said, is its ability to provide green space for people, so “they can come and relax, de-stress and get exercise.”

This exposure to tranquility is only one of several physical and mental health benefits experts say can be gained from spending time outdoors. Jennifer Roberts, an assistant professor in the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health, said spending time outdoors can help strengthen an individual’s immune system, as well as boost stress management and improve self esteem.

Julie Maier, a research assistant in University of Maryland’s kinesiology department, said there is also a spiritual component to spending time in such beautiful places as a national park or wildlife refuge.

“You can have this sense of awe, this sense that there’s something bigger than you,” Maier said.

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