By Erika Webb
A strong south wind blew through the loamy marsh at Lake Woodruff Wildlife Refuge Sunday, March 16.
From a distance all appeared still and unchanging there, but the day of the 50th anniversary celebration cool breezes, brilliant sunshine and clear blue skies inspired walking and paying attention to endless details that comprise the timeless place brimming with life and in constant flux.
True observation rewards with a deeply comforting message: nature's essence is never ending.
The refuge was established in 1964 to provide habitat for migrating and wintering birds. It contains 21,574 acres of freshwater marshes, 5,800 acres of Cypress and mixed hardwood swamps, 2,400 acres of uplands, and more than 1,000 acres of lakes, streams and canals, according to fws.gov.
The celebration started at 1 p.m. with an open house at refuge headquarters on Mud Lake Road in DeLeon Springs.
Representatives from the West Volusia Audubon Society, National Wildlife Refuge System and East Coast Wildlife Rehabilitation Center were on hand to educate, and refreshments were served.
A four-piece jazz combo from Stetson University's music department entertained the crowd.
A six-month old screech owl named Oden was unfazed by the people milling around him. A permanently injured wing prevents him from living in the wild, so the center's founder, Sherriann Wentworth, gives him a home. Oden spends his days touring the county for educational purposes.
Stetson University's Professor of Biology Terence Farrell, Associate Professor Kirsten Work and several Stetson biology students were set up by pool 1 to educate the public on "everything from bacteria to turtles," as Dr. Work promised in a refuge news release. Participants were invited to submerge nets into the pond and examine "whatever emerges."
The professors had -- temporarily housed and on display -- water bugs, crayfish, a small corn snake, a leech and a Greater Siren -- a large, eel-like salamander with two forelimbs, external gills and a flattened tail.
"They're called Siren 'cause they sing," Dr. Farrell said. "They really don't bring sailors into the rocks and make them destroy their boats ... they really don't sing much, either."
The salamanders are in the middle of the food chain, Dr. Farrell explained. They eat small crayfish, worms, insects, snails and small fish.
They become food for otters and other larger refuge residents.
Dr. Farrell was taken with a tiny -- dark green and brown with white accents -- fishing spider in one of the aquariums.
"I think they're quite attractive," he said. "These fish should be worried. It grabs fish and sucks their juices out."
Dr. Work was on the hunt for dragon and damsel flies and larvae while the students persevered in searching for as many different species as possible to help educate interested visitors.
Toward the end of the day a bird walk was led by refuge volunteers Carol and Tom Sykes.
More than 230 bird species have been counted on the refuge, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Before the bird walks and refuge tours got underway, a crowd gathered around pool 1 to watch the release of a white Great Egret.
The bird was rescued by East Coast Rehabilitation Center after being found in Port Orange.
Its toe had to be amputated after being severely injured, possibly by another animal, such as a turtle, Ms. Wentworth explained.
Though the egret was living in Port Orange prior to the incident she said Lake Woodruff will provide a much better habitat for the wading bird.
"We have to release raptors where they came from because they have families," she said.
Other birds, like the egret, are not quite so tied down.
This one had its eye on a kindred spirit across the pond as it awaited freedom from the cage.
Without hesitation and in a burst of wing power, as soon as the door was opened, the great bird took off to a spot in the tall grass on the other side of the water where moments before another white Great Egret stood.
Everyone clapped. Eyes welled and spirits soared right along with the freed bird.
Whether or not the two hunters would be friends was a question to take home as the first egret was no longer visible.
Fully rehabilitated, Ms. Wentworth said the bird was well able to perch and fend for itself.
"This will be paradise for him," she said.
Other refuge tours were led by Florida Master Naturalist Roger Fulton and Cyndy Barrow of the West Volusia Audubon Society.
Wildlife photographer and West Volusia Audubon Co-President Arnette Sherman, of DeLand, took one of the shorter tours, which did not venture around the impoundments.
The group saw a Great Egret, a Downy Woodpecker and Yellow-rump Warblers, she said.
"There was a raft of coots way out on the lake, also," she added.
Mrs. Sykes said strong winds and warmer weather had "things hunkered down."
"Generally, on our normal Saturday walks, we see between 50 and 60 species," Mrs. Sykes said, "but I'd be surprised if we had 40. It was the wrong time of day (later in the afternoon) so it was a little slow."
On the route she said there are at least two "teenager-type" bald eagles preparing to leave the nest.
"One nest got a late start and the adults are feeding the young," she said. "They're small enough that they're down in the bowl in the nest so we can't tell how many."
Near pool 1 there are a couple of sand hill crane nests, and Mrs. Sykes said it is amazing to watch the proceedings of the adults "switching their incubation duties".
"When they change position they bugle and turn the eggs," she said. "It's all very formal."
She said there is a Great Blue Heron nest in a pine tree by pool 1 as well.
"That's kind of fun, the kind of stuff people can look at," Mrs. Sykes added.
Acknowledging the site's half-century anniversary as a refuge is a big deal, Refuge Manager Lance Koch said showing appreciation for all of the hands that help is even a bigger reason to celebrate.
"The main point is the event was entirely organized, put together and hosted by our volunteers," Mr. Koch said. "It was about recognizing the 50th anniversary of the refuge but just as ... or more importantly it was about recognizing all of our partners -- Stetson University, the Audubon Society, Friends of Lake Woodruff, the volunteers and all of our supporters."
Without the individuals, groups and agencies, Mr. Koch said events like the Youth Fishing Derby scheduled for April 26, the permitted archery and muzzle loading deer hunts or 365-days-a-year licensed fishing opportunities would not be possible.
Though a nominal -- $16 -- draw and permitting fee is required for the hunts, all other refuge activities are free to the public.
A not-so-rare Don Malmborg sighting occurred on the refuge the day of the celebration. The DeLeon Springs Community Association president, and tireless promoter, shows up at every happening he can to support the community he loves.
The DSCA sent out an email blast to give as many people as possible advance notice of the March 15 event.
Mr. Koch is grateful to the association as well.
"They've done so much in support of the refuge," he said. "They have written Congress people to advocate for keeping the refuge open and adequately funded and to emphasize its importance to the community."
As part of the USFWS national wildlife refuge system, the starkly beautiful Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge represents thousands of more than 150 million protected acres of land and water from the Caribbean to the Pacific, and from Maine to Alaska.
That kind of saving is more than reason enough to celebrate.
To see some of the sights go to the refuge's Facebook page. No doubt you'll be motivated to lace up and go for a hike.