by SC Reporter Reese Holiday
In nearly two decades at the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge, Ranger Toni Westland had never witnessed the nests of the water loving gallinule birds.
“Visitors can walk down the Indigo Trail and see baby gallinules,” Westland said. “It’s the first time in my 18 years this bird has nested that we are able to see and document.”
While Westland said gallinules were sure to be hiding elsewhere in the refuge away from human eyes, these birds are just one of many sights to see in the refuge’s 2021 free guided tours. Those other sights can be seen on bike tours around the refuge, beach walks and nature walks where visitors can take in nature with all five of their senses.
These programs are held at the refuge every year from January to April, but Westland said there were hoops to jump through to make it happen during the global pandemic.
Earlier this year, the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge got a plan approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service to hold outdoor only tours with physical distancing, mask wearing, and limitations for the amount of tour guests.
In order to sign up for these outdoor tours, visitors must go to the scheduling website that the refuge uses here. Tours are limited to 10 people per program.
Westland said their first tour was held on Feb. 1, and they have had multiple programs every week since then. However, she said this is nothing compared to the number of programs the refuge is used to doing.
“We didn’t want people to miss the opportunity because they’ve become accustom,” Westland said. “We usually have over 30 free programs and tours every single week, and so to go from that to nothing was kind of disheartening. We know there is lots of people here, and we knew we could do it safely.”
One of those safe programs is a Mindfulness Walk where guests are encouraged to use all of their senses to take in the nature of the refuge. Westland said while guests can learn new things on these walks, it’s more about soaking in what’s around them.
“It’s not one of these walks where you’re going to learn every single bird and every single plant,” Westland said. “This is more about being present and about being able to see and observe nature with your five senses. Something completely different than we’ve ever done before.”
Westland said masks are required for all tours, but in order for guests to use their sense of smell, masks can be taken off in certain situations.
“When you’re trying to use all five senses, everybody spreads out, we’re even more than six feet apart, and you can take your mask off so that you can smell and feel,” Westland said. “When we can properly social distance, masks can come off.”
While guests spread out and enjoy nature safely, Westland said the refuge’s staff is helping out in ways that suite their skill sets. She said she is currently the only ranger on staff at the refuge, but gets help from interns and volunteers, one of which leads the Mindfulness Walks with her background in psychology.
“They come from such diverse backgrounds and skill sets that we can then develop the programs around them,” Westland said about the volunteers and interns.
With these programs and a diverse staff in place, Westland said more refuge visitors will soon come. However, she said guests should only come out and enjoy the wildlife when they feel that it is safe to do so.
“We know our visitation is down,” Westland said. “We want people to feel safe and when they’re ready cone out, they’re ready to come out.”
Despite numbers being down, Westland said the refuge can focus more on the programs they create rather than the numbers due to tax dollars funding a lot of what they do. With this, Westland said the refuge’s land is the people’s, allowing them to see sights like the gallinule bird and much more.
“What’s great about the refuge is it is owned by the people,” Westland said. “This land is their land.”