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Spring bash celebrates wildlife with birthday at Patuxent Research Center

In March 1903, the very first National Wildlife Refuge System was founded in Florida by President Theodore Roosevelt to protect the habitat and wildlife on Pelican Island.

To commemorate those beginnings, the Patuxent Research Center, founded in 1936, typically hosts a birthday bash. On March 30, the center decided to try something different.

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A spring festival, with the theme of Our Forest Friends, drew more than 850 people to the National Wildlife Visitor Center for a day of puppet shows, archery, live reptiles and birds, nature songs and more — all for free.

“Both events are very similar,” admitted Jennifer Chin, recreation assistant/conference and outreach coordinator at the Patuxent Research Center, which is inside the Patuxent Research Refuge. “This season, we changed the name ... to focus more on wildlife.”

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Wildlife refuges are part of a federal system designed to protect fish, animals and plants in their native habitats.

“It is the home to critters and plants; they live there,” said Jeanne Latham, vice chairwoman of Friends of Patuxent, a nonprofit that supports the programs at the Patuxent Research Refuge and the Wildlife Research Center. “You have to respect that. We’re the visitors.”

The squawking bugle-like call of the whooping crane can no longer be heard in the woods of Maryland's Patuxent Research Refuge. The last of a flock of 75 cranes left the Laurel site on Wednesday, the U.S. Geological Survey said.

Encompassing almost 3,000 acres in two different counties — Prince George’s and Anne Arundel — Patuxent Research Refuge is considered an urban refuge because of its location between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, Chin said.

It is divided into three tracts.

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The North Tract has a small visitor center on Bald Eagle Drive and offers numerous trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding.

The Central Track is the headquarters for the refuge and its research partner, the U.S. Geological Survey. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Division of Migratory Bird Management is also based there. The area is not open to the public due to the nature of the research done.

Until this year, the Central Track was also home to whooping cranes, an endangered bird that made a remarkable comeback at the center. The program was disbanded this year and the cranes were relocated.

“It was a breeding colony,” Latham said. “Whooping cranes were raised there and released into the wild.”

The South Tract is home to the National Wildlife Visitor Center and the majority of the center’s free programs are held here.

“In the summer, we have 15 normal programs a month,” Chin said. “During the week, we have tons of school groups, senior citizen groups and groups with special needs.”

Programs for all ages — from 14 months to adults — offer everything from photography lessons and bike hikes to singalongs and animal visits. From April to October, a free, guided tram tour takes visitors on a 30-minute ride through parts of the park not accessible by trails.

“It is a nice, calm ride and gets you out in nature,” Chin said. “The guide talks about the different habitats and wildlife.”

In the past, the tram ran throughout the week. Due to cutbacks, the tram is scheduled to run only on Saturdays at 11:30 a.m., 1 and 2 p.m.

“We try not to cut down on events,” Chin said. “Our programs rely on live volunteers to do do great work.”

Latham has been a volunteer for 14 years, and her duties have varied from monitoring nest boxes to hosting programs for young children.

“I had to learn about spiders and why they are important and why we should not be afraid of them,” Latham said, who, along with her participants, went outside to find spiders and discuss them.

“It was a show-and-tell. They really got it,” Latham said. “I learned a lot.”

Now, as the vice chairwoman of Friends of Patuxent, she helps host such events as the Pollinator Festival in September and a popular wolf visit last year.

“We brought in a live wolf from Ohio,” Latham said. “That was really well attended. We may do that one again.”

Though the National Wildlife Visitor Center has been open since 1994, many people are unaware of tall it has to offer, Chin said.

“We get a lot of visitors from out of state traveling the B-W Parkway,” Chin said. “We want to reach out more to local groups. We want to get our name out there.”

Winter is a beautiful and scenic time at the National Wildlife Visitor Center in South Laurel. Part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the refuge continues its indoor and outdoor programs during the winter.

People need to experience this “amazing place,” Latham said.

“Too few people get outside,” Latham said. “People need to enjoy the outdoors, appreciate nature and appreciate what is around them.”

As to any concerns that more people could have a negative effect on the area, Latham shooed them away.

“Having more people come in would be wonderful,” Latham said. “I don’t think we’ll ever say we’ve got too many people coming in the doors of the visitor center.”

With 11 grandchildren, Latham hopes each can enjoy the wonders of Patuxent Research Refuge. They and future generations are the reason she volunteers and is a part of Friends of Patuxent.

“I’m really passionate about it,” Latham said. “I really like being a volunteer and supporting this refuge.”

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