Author Archives: susanwojtowicz

About susanwojtowicz

Susan is a visitor services specialist at the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, a refuge that spans four states and protects over 36,000 acres within the Connecticut River watershed.

Rediscovering Muddy Creek


Young paddlers exploring Muddy Creek. Credit: Christine deSilva/

Paddlers have a brand new destination in Chatham and Harwich, MA, thanks to a wetland restoration project that was completed last May. The USFWS Northeast Region and its partners re-opened a previously isolated tidal wetland, providing easy access for kayaks, canoes and paddleboards. This site has quickly become a popular destination for paddlers. Throughout the summer and fall, many enjoyed the tranquility of quietly exploring the newly opened tidal marshes along the shores of Muddy Creek.


A look upriver into Muddy Creek. Credit: Susan Wojtowicz/USFWS

“This project has provided new access to a site with surprisingly little disturbance because it was so inaccessible historically. The banks to the creek are very steep, poison ivy is everywhere and there is no public boat launch,” explains Sarah Griscom, an analyst for the Town of Chatham’s Water Quality Laboratory and Science Director at Pleasant Bay Community Boating.

“There is much bird life, including osprey, great blue and green herons and kingfishers. A long stretch of the narrow creek gives you a sense of being away from civilization, with no houses or roads in view. The most striking sound is the piercing rattle of the kingfishers as they curse every intruder that paddles by their perch.”


USFWS Northeast Regional Director Wendi Weber posing with partners at the project’s dedication event. Credit: David Eisenhaur/USFWS

The success of this project is not only measured by environmental benefits, which are certainly plentiful, but by overwhelming partner and community support for the project. It has been easy to gain support for a project that will provide so many amazing benefits to the community, as well as to the environment.

The project involved the removal of an embankment with twin culverts that had been in place for over 100 years, blocking the tides from entering the marshes and greatly restricting flow into the upper reaches of the narrow, 1 kilometer-long creek. Without the daily flushing of tidal ocean water, the area had become stagnant with poor water quality, ruining historic shellfish beds and blocking migratory fish (herring and eel) attempting to travel to and from the ocean.


Aerial view of Muddy Creek wetland restoration project. Credit: Town of Chatham

The embankment and culverts have now been replaced by a bridge, allowing sea water to flow into Muddy Creek once more. This will restore the estuarine and subtidal wetlands, improving water quality and enhancing the system’s natural defenses against storm surge in the future. And it has already provided public access to a site difficult to reach before the bridge was constructed.


Muddy Creek Explorers collecting water quality data. Credit: Christine deSilva/

Griscom has observed the environmental and community benefits that the bridge construction has brought about first hand. For the past two years, she has been running Muddy Creek Explorers, a summer educational program provided through Pleasant Bay Community Boating, Inc., that teaches students ages 9-16 how to collect and analyze water quality data as well as encouraging environmental stewardship. Students work in small teams to collect data at several sites about water temperature, salinity (the amount of salt), turbidity (how cloudy the water is), and dissolved oxygen levels. At the end of each class the students graph their data, make a short presentation to the other teams and their families and compare their results to years of data collected by the Pleasant Bay Alliance citizen scientists.


This young scientist is using a secchi disk to test water turbidity in Muddy Creek. Credit: Christine deSilva/

The first season that the program was run, the bridge had not yet been constructed. During that time, Muddy Creek was very difficult to access and it was necessary to gain permission to cross private property to reach the creek. Students rowed small dinghies that were brought to the site for each class.

Griscom reflects, “For years, the upper reaches of Muddy Creek contained 10 times the nutrients found in the outer Pleasant Bay. Algal growth was extreme and caused large fluctuations in the dissolved oxygen levels. As the algae decayed the mud provided a periodic rotten egg stench. It was a stressful place for any bottom-dwelling organisms to eke out a living in the creek. The kids explored and most understood that it was not a healthy system.”


Students plot their water quality data in graphs to make it easier to visualize their results. Credit: Christine deSilva/

By the following summer, the new bridge was already in place. In fact, by working with the state Department of Transportation’s Accelerated Bridge Program, the bridge was built and installed in just 5 months, a huge relief to local motorists! This gave the Muddy Creek Explorers a much simpler way to access Muddy Creek, which was already showing signs of rejuvenation.

“In less than a few months, water clarity improved, salinity levels increased and large swings in the dissolved oxygen levels seem to have stabilized,” explains Griscom. “But time will tell. The ecosystem as a whole is in the early stages of equilibrating to these new conditions. The larger tidal range has already killed some plants along the edges of the creek, as was expected, but this will allow new marshlands to develop over time. Muddy Creek is an unfolding story.”


Muddy Creek Explorers displaying their data, Credit: Sarah Griscom

Official nutrient data for the Muddy Creek restoration project are currently being analyzed by the marine laboratory at UMass, Dartmouth. These results are expected to be released by the springtime. However, citizen science projects like those conducted by the Pleasant Bay Alliance and by stewardship programs such as the Muddy Creek Explorers can give us a good overview of the progress we are making in improving water and habitat quality in Muddy Creek. Along the way, they are providing a shining example of what can be gained when partnerships truly work together, among themselves and the community, to improve natural places for the benefit of both people and wildlife.

The Muddy Creek Restoration Project was funded in large part by federal sources, including the Hurricane Sandy coastal resilience grants from the Department of the Interior, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s Habitat Conservation Program. The remainder of the funding was provided by the state Division of Ecological Restoration, the Town of Chatham, and the Town of Harwich.

For more information, please check out the following links:

USFWS Muddy Creek Restoration Project Website

Pleasant Bay Alliance

Pleasant Bay Community Boating, Inc.


Introducing New Refuge Manager Keith Ramos

This past summer, Keith Ramos joined the Northern Maine National Wildlife Refuge Complex as its new Refuge Manager. This Refuge Complex includes Moosehorn, Aroostook, and Sunkhaze Meadows National Wildlife Refuges. To help you get acquainted with him, I asked Keith to answer a few questions about his past and share his hopes for the future of the Refuge Complex. Here is what he had to say…


How did you become interested in pursuing a career in environmental conservation?
I grew up in Puerto Rico and my parents are not outdoors people, but I remember watching the show “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” in Spanish on the Telemundo TV station. It came on Saturday mornings and I loved seeing the wildlife. Growing up we would visit my family in Connecticut and it was always so exciting to see white-tailed deer and go fishing with my uncle. When I started college, I thought I would become a pediatrician but that changed after my freshman year. I went to visit my parents in Swaziland, Southern Africa for the summer, while my dad was stationed there for the Coca-Cola Company. My dad took us to see Kruger National Park and that’s where I learned, after seeing the park rangers, that people could actually get paid to work with wildlife. I returned to UMass that following semester and found out that they had a Wildlife Conservation degree. I changed career paths right away, much to my dad’s dismay, but I’m very grateful to have made that decision and my dad now knows how much I love it.


What other types of work have you done with the US Fish and Wildlife Service?
I have been truly blessed throughout my 17 years with the Service. I have been able to work in four different regions and have seen some incredible places. I have spawned Atlantic salmon in freezing raceways to support Connecticut River restoration and have climbed to the top of the canopy at El Yunque rainforest to survey for Puerto Rican parrots. I got to fly over western Alaska surveying for musk oxen.


There were countless hours spent searching for nesting Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles on the Texas coast.

I have rescued manatees in the Florida springs and tracked ocelots through the south Texas brush.



I have stood under a flock of thousands of ducks and geese while trying to count their wings to divide them by two (haha), and have worked with some of the most caring and dedicated people in the World. I have the best job in the World!


How is Northern Maine National Wildlife Refuge Complex different from other refuges you’ve worked on?
This is my first opportunity to work in New England since my college days and I love it. I have spent most of my career working in flat coastal refuges, with the exception of my time in interior Alaska. Northern Maine has some incredible forests and it sure is nice to work in a refuge with some contour to the land that is accessible by roads. The three refuges within this complex have a lot of similarities and at the same time they provide very different challenges. We are protecting habitat for migratory birds, just like in some of my previous refuges, but the forest and management practices are very different. It is a good thing for me that I have an excellent staff with a lot of experience that I can depend on to help me make the right decisions.


What are your hopes for the future of the Northern Maine National Wildlife Refuge Complex?
My biggest priority as the new manager for this Complex is to guide our staff in the completion of the Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) for the Moosehorn NWR, which has been in the works for several years. There are various exciting projects going on in our three refuges, but the CCP for Moosehorn is the number one priority. We are doing important work with aquatic connectivity projects within and outside our boundaries, which is reopening habitat and providing for fish passage to millions of anadromous fish. These projects have brought together multiple partners, including our local tribe, and are helping us to support the Service’s priorities.


How do you spend time enjoying the outdoors with your family?
As a family we love spending time outdoors, especially hiking, hunting, fishing and doing wildlife photography. My wife home schools our two older boys and she takes them out on the refuge trails often. Not having grown up doing a lot of outdoor activities with my parents, it has been a top priority for me to make sure that my boys do and that they grow to love the nature around us. My wife grew up in Zambia and did a lot of camping, hunting and fishing with her parents, so I’ve been learning from her as well. There is so much to learn and explore and I want to pass that love on to my children. The only way they will love nature is to be out in it, exploring it, and learning about it. It’s awesome that my job and family life can join together in so many ways.



Where bird biologists ‘Give Wing to Their Wild Side’

In honor of National Wildlife Refuge Week, I asked two of our Region’s bird biologists to answer the question, “When you go birding, which National Wildlife Refuge do you like to visit and why?” As you can see from their responses, picking just one proved to be impossible! Read on to hear some of the amazing experiences they have had while birding on America’s beautiful National Wildlife Refuges!

Mitch Hartley


Hartley looks on while a student examines a tufted titmouse. Credit: Bennett Gould

Asking me what my favorite refuge is for birding isn’t a hard question…  It’s an impossible question!  It’s a bit like asking me which of my children I love the most.  To me, birding is about experiencing the wonder and diversity of nature in its many forms.  I have more refuge birding memories than I can count, many of them uniquely special and irreplaceable.


A puffin swimming at Seal Island NWR. Credit: LightHart via Flickr

That includes seeing Atlantic Puffins and Razorbills up close on Maine’s Seal Island NWR, hearing–and feeling–the force of hundreds of wingbeats as flocks of shorebirds poured over my head (a Peregrine Falcon in close pursuite) at Montezuma NWR in New York, and waiting patiently to get a great look at one of the more secretive–and rarest–birds on the Atlantic Coast, the tiny Saltmarsh Sparrow, at Parker River NWR in Massachusetts.


The elusive saltmarsh sparrow. Credit: Brian C. Harris

I was lucky enough once to visit some of the hundreds of potholes that make up the refuge system’s Wetland Management Districts in North Dakota, surely some of our most productive “refuges” on a per acre basis.  I had more exciting and satisfying duck hunting in a few days there than I had experienced over twenty five years in other states.


A duck takes flight. Credit: Ryan Moehring

The joy of birding is seeing new species, seeing something you haven’t seen in a while, or just getting a great look at something unusual.  I’ll never forget the first rail I saw in the open, walking along the edge of the marsh at New Jersey’s Forsythe NWR.  But it’s nearly as exciting when a Whimbrel lands near you on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, or you get really clear views of a Magnolia Warbler, Bay-breasted Warbler, and Blackburnian Warbler in the same conifer forest at Umbagog NWR in New Hampshire.


Hartley scanning a Connecticut field for birds.

Each visit to a refuge is another great chance to have one of these unexpected moments, where I get the thrill of feeling like I am connected directly to nature.  I look forward to those encounters every time I’m birding, whether they involve a relatively common bird or a rarity from far away.

Caleb Spiegel


Spiegel spotting piping plovers. Credit: Craig Watson

During 20 years as a wildlife biologist I have been lucky enough to spend numerous hours watching and studying birds, both on and off the job. Some of my most memorable bird experiences have been on National Wildlife Refuges across the country. Here are a few of my favorites:


The forest at Hakalau NWR. Credit: David Patte/USFWS

Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge, Big Island of Hawaii: Some of the rarest birds in the world find sanctuary from threats such as avian malaria and habitat loss among the massive native koa and o’hia trees on this jewel of a refuge. One of my favorite birding experiences was at Hakalau while helping to lead public birding tours during a refuge open house. Many species of native forest birds fluttered from tree top to tree top, from the flame orange ‘Akepa, to the long-billed ‘Akiapola’au.  I can’t think of another refuge where you can see so many incredible endemic forest birds in one place.

The flame orange ‘Akepa. Credit: HarmonyonPlanetEarth via Flickr

Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge: Amidst the hustle and bustle of the San Francisco Bay area, this refuge provides critical habitat to a huge variety of waterfowl, shorebirds, and marsh birds…Not to mention bird lovers. In 1996, while a Student Conservation Association Intern at Don Edwards, I lived in a staff trailer only feet away from one of the most beautiful brackish marshes I have ever encountered. Every day after breakfast, I’d grab by binoculars, climb down the steps of my trailer, and stroll the boardwalks of my ‘home’ marsh. I really got to know the birds that lived next to me.  This experience helped solidify my career path.
Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge: Many miles of ever-changing sands and marshes of Monomoy refuge jut off the ‘elbow’ of Cape Cod and out into the ocean as far as the eye can see. A great number of breeding, migratory, and wintering birds call this spectacular place home. Since 1998 I have had the opportunity to go out to (and even fly over) Monomoy several times to help hard-working Refuge Biologists and other partners study shorebirds and waterbirds, including the listed Piping Plover and Roseate Tern. My times on Monomoy have always been memorable, from watching the sun set over a tidal flat with several hundred foraging Red Knots, to the cacophony of thousands of Common Terns circling above my head.

Spiegel releasing a common tern. Credit: Pam Loring/USFWS

 If you would like to go on a birding adventure at a nearby Refuge, plan your visit on the Northeast Region National Wildlife Refuge System website!