I’ll never forget my first visit to a National Wildlife Refuge: a sixth grade school trip to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. I was overwhelmed by the large woodlands and marshes that seemed to go on forever. Huge flocks of waterfowl dotted the ponds. But what really stuck in my memory was my first sighting of, what at that time was very rare: a bald eagle.

The National Wildlife Refuge system is unique in that it is a network of public lands set aside specifically for the conservation of fish, wildlife and plants, including endangered and threatened species. Throughout the National Wildlife Refuge System, prairies, wetlands and woodlands have been protected and restored, providing much-needed habitat for America’s wildlife.

There are more than 520 national wildlife refuges and wetland management districts. Managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, refuges range in size from Minnesota’s tiny Mille Lacs (less than an acre) to Alaska’s sprawling Yukon Delta (almost 20 million acres).

Although teeming with wildlife, the National Wildlife Refuge System is great for people, too. National Wildlife Refuge Week, which will be celebrated Oct. 8–14 this year, provides the perfect opportunity to visit a refuge near you.

During National Wildlife Refuge Week, you can enjoy birding tours, exhibits, nature hikes and educational activities for children. National wildlife refuges also offer outstanding opportunities to enjoy wildlife and the outdoors all year long. Historical and archaeological sites are also found at some refuges.

To enhance the observation of wildlife in their natural settings, refuges offer a variety of wildlife-oriented recreational activities. These activities vary with each refuge and the season and may include hiking, auto tours, bicycling, photography, wildlife observation, hunting and fishing.

Refuges also host structured environmental education activities, such as outdoor and indoor classrooms and teacher workshops. The emphasis is on teacher training, as it allows a greater number of participants to be reached.

In 1997, more than 30 million people visited the National Wildlife Refuge System and almost 740,000 people took part in some type of refuge educational activity. So spice up your autumn with a trip to a national wildlife refuge near you.

For information about the National Wildlife Refuge System, call 800-344-WILD or visit http://refuges.fws.gov

Kathryn Reshetiloff is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office in Annapolis.

National Wildlife Refuge Week Events

Eastern Shore Birding Festival – October 6, 7 & 8

The Eastern Shore of Virginia NWR will staff a booth at the festival grounds, conduct six tours to Fisherman Island NWR and 4 trail hikes at Eastern Shore of Virginia NWR. Activities for children include building birdhouses, making wildlife buttons and painting a wildlife habitat mural. Videos will be shown in the visitor center during the festival and throughout the week. Contact: 757-331-2760

National Wildlife Refuge Celebration – 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. October 7 & 8

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, in Chincoteague, VA is offering a variety of family activities, from building birdhouses to creating crafty critters as well as workshops and guided walks for birders and wildlife lovers of all ages. The activities take place both days. Contact: 757-336-6122.

Fisherman Island Tour – October 14

The Eastern Shore of Virginia NWR will offer two tours that will provide visitors with information about the refuge, its management and the National Wildlife Refuge System. Contact: 757-331-2760.

5th Annual Blackwater Open House – 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. October 14

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge, MD is offering the following activities: bird walks, mist netting, rocket netting waterfowl demonstration, peregrine falcon program, slide shows, eagle prowl, Delmarva fox squirrel program, nutria trapping program and tours to remote areas of the refuge. Children’s programs include live animal exhibits, touch tank, Junior Refuge Manager Program, puppet show, Halloween wildlife program, treasure hunt and more. Contact: 410-228-2677.

Patuxent Wildlife Festival – 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. October 14

The Patuxent Research Refuge National Wildlife Visitor Center Laurel, MD is offering the opportunity to take a behind-the-scenes guided tour of Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, meet a researcher, explore interactive exhibits, ride a wildlife tram tour, walk a wildlife trail, meet live animals and more. Contact: 301-497-5760.

Girl Scout – Audubon Refuge Keepers Celebration – 9 a.m. to noon October 14

Refuge staff, Fairfax Audubon Society members and approximately 60 Girl Scouts from the Girl Scouts of the National Capital Council will gather at Occoquan Bay NWR in Woodbridge, VA to discuss the role of refuges and how partners like the Girl Scouts and Audubon Society can work with the refuge to make it a better place for wildlife and visitors. Scouts will be involved in brushing back trails, removing invasive exotic plants (phragmites) and shoreline stabilization. Advanced sign-up is required. Contact: 703-490-4979.

Other Refuges

Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge
Smyrna, DE, 302-653-9345

Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge
Milton, DE, 302-684-8419

Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge
Rock Hall, MD, 410-639-7056

John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum
Philadelphia, PA, 610-521-0662

Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge
Virginia Beach, VA, 757-721-2412

Potomac River National Wildlife Refuge Complex
Woodbridge, VA, 703-490-4979

Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge Complex
Prince George, VA, 804-733-6042