During a post-rainstorm lull Sunday afternoon, Hutton Lake National Wildlife Refuge re-opened for business.
Pronghorn trotted across the open hillside. A raptor perched on a fencepost. Prairie dogs stood sentinel at the openings to their dens, peering at passing cars.
A pair of swallows floated to rest on a barbed wire fence.
The sun broke from behind fast-moving clouds and the cool air grew still.
A convoy of Girl Scouts had also convened at the refuge, looking for hard data about the wildlife activity around them.
Working their way along a fence line in a small group, several scouts approached a wooden box attached to a fence pole. One scout unscrewed one side of the box and tipped it open for a quick peek inside, hoping to see signs of nest-building activity.
“We’re looking for nests, pretty much, or any nesting material,” 12-year-old Kieran Burns said.
As spring turns to summer and the weather warms, they’ll also be looking for eggs, and eventually, hatchlings.
“One of the nests last week was complete, so they might have young this week,” she said.
The project is a collaboration between Laramie Girl Scouts and the Laramie Audubon Society. Audubon maintains a collection of nest boxes at the wildlife refuge, and the group enlisted the scouts to participate in the weekly monitoring of tree swallows, the primary users of the boxes.
They’ll report their findings to a nationwide monitoring program called NestWatch, which is building a database of the activity of breeding bird populations. The goal is to track population changes throughout time and see how birds are affected by habitat loss, invasive species, climate change and other challenges. The program is run through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
“The tree swallow is one species they want data for,” Audubon member Libby Megna said.
She said the nest boxes were constructed for the refuge as part of a recent Eagle Scout project.
She and fellow Audubon member Lindsey Sanders decided to involve more Laramie youths in checking them.
“There’s not a lot of data to know exactly when they stop breeding out here, but they’ll be done by July,” she said. “We’ll follow them until they’re totally done.”
Laura Buckner, service unit manager for Laramie Girl Scouts, said the group loves anything that involves science and nature.
“When we ask the girls what they want to do as scouts, the first thing they say is to go outside, so it’s a good fit for us,” she said.
Despite cool temperatures and plenty of mud, several dozen scouts, parents and siblings made the trek to the refuge last weekend. Hutton Lake National Wildlife Refuge, which sits about 10 miles south of Laramie, includes almost 2,000 acres of mixed grasses, sagebrush and wetlands, providing habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s snowy, muddy or rainy, there are girls turning out,” Buckner said.
Burns, who has been a member of Girl Scouts since kindergarten, said she appreciates being part of a research project gathering information that will be used by scientists and wildlife managers.
“We’re actually helping people,” she said. “We’re doing stuff that will be important.”