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Parks for the birds?

By Tom Uhlenbrock

Missouri State Parks

Missouri parks can be noisy places in late spring and early summer, especially around daybreak.

Some of North America’s most colorful birds, and best singers, have returned from their winter homes south of the border and are marking territories and advertising for mates.

You’ll often hear them before you see them, and will need binoculars to spot them in the treetops and underbrush. But the thrill of the search can be rewarding.

“You get a good look at an oriole or a scarlet tanager, you just marvel at how beautiful it is,” said Bruce Schuette, an avid birder with the Missouri Division of State Parks, and a naturalist at Cuivre River State Park near Troy.

“People will go to the zoo and ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’ at the colorful birds of the world,” Schuette said. “They don’t realize we have birds moving through our backyards and countrysides that certainly rival those.”

Referred to as “neotropical migrants,” more than 200 species spend the winter in Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean, returning to the United States and Canada to breed in summer.

“Many of them actually fly non-stop over a good chunk of the Gulf of Mexico,” Schuette said. “It can be a pretty arduous journey for them, so they’re looking for places to rest and refuel.”

From the air, large tracts of park woodland with a bounty of insects appear as an attractive place to stop for birds that have flown hundreds of miles, especially a park that stands out as a green oasis amid farm fields or urban sprawl.

Forest Park and Tower Grove Park are St. Louis city parks that are popular with birdwatchers. Birders also use Castlewood State Park in the St. Louis suburbs. Weston Bend State Park near Kansas City and Rock Bridge Memorial State Park near Columbia are hot spots for birding.

Big Oak Tree State Park near the Bootheel, which had to close this spring due to flooding,  boasts more than 150 bird species as a remnant of ancient forest amid the vast agricultural expanse of the Mississippi Delta.

Pershing State Park, with its bottomland forest and remnant of wet prairie, is a 5,770-acre birding paradise surrounded by the corn, wheat and soybean fields of north-central Missouri. Knob Noster, Van Meter, St. Joe and Big Sugar Creek are good state parks for birding.

Cuivre River,  north of the St. Louis metropolitan area, is largely a green space surrounded by farm fields and development.

“From a satellite or aerial photo, the park really stands out,” Schuette said. “The large isolated block of habitat supports birds that don’t have, in many cases, other places to nest in the vicinity.”


A triple whammy

Many of the migrants stop to rest in Missouri before continuing their journey north. However, some remain to breed, and some of those birds require expanses of forest for their nesting grounds.

“These area-sensitive species just don’t simply nest in a couple acres of woods, they need a large block to nest,” Schuette said. “Birds also establish territories to nest. As you get bigger tracts of land, you can fit in more pairs. That helps maintain productivity and increases their populations.”

Cuivre River includes the Lincoln Hills Natural Area, which is nearly three square miles of excellent habitat. More than 60 species of birds, including 36 neotropical migrants, use the area for nesting, which is more than a third of the state’s 173 nesting species.  In addition, more than 20 other species of neotropical migrants use the area as a stopover.

“Among the nesting species are many neotropical migrants that are absent, or nearly so, in the surrounding landscape because of habitat loss and fragmentation,” Schuette said.

Migrating birds have a harder time maintaining their populations when compared to birds that live in Missouri year-round, Schuette said.

“These long-distance migrants have a lot of obstacles to face,” he said. “You have to protect their breeding habitat in North America, and their winter habitat in Central and South America, and they need stopover places along the Gulf Coast. It’s a triple whammy.”

 A big trip for a tiny bird

In mid-May, Schuette spent three hours birding around Camp Sherwood Forest at Cuivre River and spotted 64 species, including 39 neotropical migrants. His species were listed on the SPARKS page of the Audubon Society of Missouri’s website, www.mobirds.org.

“Most of the nesting species are back, including just about all the warblers,” Schuette said. “The last few days, I’ve seen or heard Kentucky warblers, ovenbirds, cerulean warblers, blue-winger warblers, magnolia warblers, wood thrush, the vireos and both tanagers, summer and scarlet.”

The only equipment needed for birding is binoculars and a guidebook, Schuette said. He recommended hitting the woods as early as possible, preferably around dawn when birds are most active. He also suggested getting to know the songs of the year-round birds, so you become aware when a migrant sings.

“It’s much easier if you know the basic calls,” he said. “Then, when you hear something different, it’s intriguing.”

Spring is much better for birding than fall, when the migrants aren’t singing and are wearing their drab plumage as they head back south. May through June are best for birding in Missouri.

 “May is the peak migration, but in June, the ones nesting here are still pretty active and singing,” Schuette said. “After June, they’re seriously into raising their young ones and aren’t singing as much.”

Asked his favorites, Schuette hedged, then mentioned the Baltimore oriole, a blackburnian warbler with its neon-orange throat and head, and the delicate markings of the chestnut-sided warbler.

“Two months ago, that bird was down in Costa Rica or Panama,” he said. “In just a few weeks, that tiny bird has made the trip across the Gulf of Mexico and all the way up here.”