- Associated Press - Sunday, November 19, 2017

DECATUR, Ala. (AP) - Fourteen years ago, after retiring from 40 years in real estate, a New Hampshire couple, along with their nine parrots, loaded into a recreational vehicle and set off on a journey across the country to volunteer at wildlife refuges and national parks.

They spent months at Grand Canyon’s north rim, Acadia National Park in Maine, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida and Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina. They saw endangered California condors in the West and piping plovers in the East.

Five years ago, lured by the winter bird migration of north Alabama and the chance to see at-risk whooping cranes, Russell and Carol Thompson rolled into the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge.

Like the migrating birds they love, the Thompsons return to the 35,000-acre refuge every November and leave at the end of January.

“The birds brought us here and they, along with the warm and friendly people at the visitors’ center keep bringing us back,” Carol Thompson said. “We’ve worked with a number of endangered or threatened species and that really interests both of us. Where else can you see endangered whooping cranes and thousands upon thousands of Sandhill cranes?”

As RV volunteers, in exchange for camping at the refuge, the Thompsons work at least 24 hours a week, greeting people at the visitors’ center, performing maintenance, conducting bird surveys and cleaning bathrooms.

“We are so thankful for the nature around us. This is our way of giving something back and going on adventures to these wildlife refuges and parks,” Russell Thompson said.

For Wheeler, the volunteers fill important roles left vacant due to funding cuts.

“The volunteers are extremely important,” said Teresa Adams, supervisory park ranger at Wheeler. “If we didn’t have them, we wouldn’t be able to keep the visitors center open seven days a week like we do in the winter. It would be too much for the refuge staff, which currently is just me and Daphne (Moland).”

The refuge, which started the volunteer program in 2005, added a second RV pad in early 2017 specifically to attract maintenance volunteers. Bob and Krysti Stengle, of Spokane, Washington, rolled into the spot a week ago. They, too, will remain at Wheeler through January.

“Bob and I both retired three years ago. So, we bought the RV, hopped in that baby and took off,” Krysti Stengle said. “We started volunteering at campgrounds, but moved quickly to refuges and they are awe-inspiring. What can we say, but, my gosh, thank you Teddy Roosevelt.”

While president, Roosevelt established Pelican Island on the Florida coast as the first site in the National Wildlife Refuge System. Currently, the system encompasses more than 150 million acres across 38 wetland management districts and 562 wildlife refuges, including Wheeler, which President Franklin Roosevelt protected as a breeding ground for migratory birds in 1938.

“Every national park and wildlife refuge is unique. We have the most beautiful country and are amazed by it all the time. We never realized there were mountains in north Alabama. We didn’t expect that. Go out and explore our country. Every place is different and beautiful and has its own special qualities,” Carol Thompson said.

The Thompsons and the Stengles take their roles as representatives of the refuge seriously. Last week, Russell and Carol Thompson explored the hiking trails, bike paths and creeks snaking through Morgan, Limestone and Madison counties.

“We like to let people know where the nicest trails are. We can let them know about different places to launch their boats or kayaks and the best spots for bird watching,” Carol Thompson said.

For glimpses of waterfowl, raptors, bald eagles and pelicans, the couple recommended the 1-mile Beaverdam Swamp Boardwalk on Frontage Road off exit 5 on Interstate 565, the Flint Creek Trail north of Alabama 67, the 12-mile White Springs Dike at Mooresville Road and old U.S. 20 and Dancy Bottom Trail, originally a 2.5-mile hike, which the beavers, due to their dams, condensed to a ½-mile to ¾-mile hike.

For adventures outside of Wheeler, the Thompsons pointed to Lake Guntersville, Joe Wheeler, Natchez Trace and Bankhead.

“It’s so interesting how migratory pathways change. People will tell us about how geese used to come here years ago. They are sad there are not as many of them. They share those stories with us. Hopefully, we will be able to help visitors to Wheeler create new stories about the Sandhill cranes and whooping cranes,” Carol Thompson said.

Last year, the first whooping crane, a chick named Zion, arrived at Wheeler on Nov. 11 with a flock of Sandhill cranes. Twenty-four whooping cranes - a quarter of the eastern United States’ experimental population - followed. The birds are identifiable by their white bodies, red crowns, black wing tips and whooping sounds.

The first Sandhill cranes of the season landed near the observation building on Nov. 3. The refuge staff expects the whooping cranes, which inspired the Festival of the Cranes, to appear soon. The annual free two-day event, which averages 3,000 visitors, will take place Jan. 13-14.

“What we are able to witness, like the whooping cranes, is amazing,” Carol Thompson said. “Some folks live in their motor homes year-round. We only live in ours about 11 months of the year. We can’t get enough of it.”

After 14 years on the road, the Thompsons, with Strider, their remaining living parrot, in tow, still find the natural wonders and wildlife they encounter at refuges, parks and along the nation’s back roads, such as Tennessee 57, breath-taking.

“People will ask us what do you need to know to do this. You just need a desire to visit these places and learn about them. That’s all,” Russell Thompson said.

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