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New river center for the birds

by Tom Uhlenbrock

WEST ALTON, Mo. – Right on cue, V-formations of migrating waterfowl flew in from the north as Patricia Hagen looked out from a wall of windows at the Audubon Center at Riverlands.

“Oh look, white pelicans!” said Hagen, who is executive director of the new $3.3 million bird-watching facility. “People know about the eagles, but they don’t know about the pelicans and the trumpeter swans that come here.”
The National Audubon Society partnered with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in developing the center, which is operated by Audubon.
The center is the latest addition to the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary, on the Mississippi River north of St. Louis. The Corps developed the sanctuary in 1988 after construction of the Melvin Price Locks and Dam to replace wetlands inundated by the dam’s pool.

Other federal and state projects have followed, including the opening in 2004 of Jones-Confluence Point State Park, which is the only place where a visitor can put one foot in the Mississippi and the other in the Missouri.

Add in U.S. Fish and Wildlife lands, and the 4,318 acres of the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Columbia Bottom Conservation Area, and a total of more than 10,000 acres of public land in Missouri serves as a welcome mat for migrating birds.
Up to 60 percent of North America’s waterfowl and songbirds, representing some 325 species, travels north and south on the Mississippi flyway each year.

The birds start arriving in October and November. Some feed and rest at Riverlands, and move on south. Others hang around through March. Bald eagles, especially, spend the winter as the churning water below the locks and dam remains open for fish-hunting during the coldest of weather.

“Winter is the best time to see the big iconic species here,” Hagen said. “Right out here on the bay, there will be trumpeter swans and lots of different ducks and waterfowl. The eagles, typically, roost in those trees on Ellis Island and hunt in the bay. Some pelicans also usually stick around.
“You’ll look out there and all the birds will be hanging out where the ice hasn’t formed yet.”
A big star
Riverlands has 3,700 acres of pools, marshes, wetlands and restored bottomland prairie with tall grasses that glow russet and orange in the fall.
“The River Projects office of the Corps of Engineers had a vision for creating a specific type of habitat that is disappearing along the Mississippi– prairie wetlands,” Hagen said. “A number of species depend on that type of habitat. It’s great to see that the original vision is working, because the habitat is attracting a wide diversity.”

Hagennoted that a local newspaper article on the center’s opening in October focused on the economic impact to the area. The towns of Alton and Grafton on the Illinois side of the river promote eagle watching in winter.

“There are 48 million people who say they are birders,” Hagen said. “They are usually higher income, and many like to travel to see birds.

“One of the species that many people come to see is the Eurasian tree sparrow – it’s a big star here. It doesn’t sound too sexy, but serious birders will fly into the area just to see that sparrow. This is the only place in the country where these birds live.”
What else is out there
Quinn Kelner, natural resource manager of Jones-Confluence Point State Park, said the Audubon Center adds two important ingredients to Riverlands.

“When the weather’s bad, they’ve got a nice viewing area inside,” Kellner said. “When it’s really cold, it’s hard to have the persistence to be outside.”
The center also is working with Missouri State Parks and state and federal partners to offer programs for schools and other groups.

“They’re interpreting the flyway and the birds that move through, and also talking about the species that are year-round residents,” Kellner said “It definitely will attract a greater audience and be more of a magnet to pull people in.”

The center, which was built as an addition to the Corps’ Rivers Project office, has exhibits inside and benches and spotting scopes looking out on the quiet waters of Ellis Bay, the largest pool at Riverlands. More benches and picnic tables are outside.

Hagensaid the long-term master plan includes a system of trails linking to Jones-Confluence State Park, as well as additional outside viewing structures and a possible connection to Ellis Island. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources gave a $100,000 grant for the trail system, which was matched by the Corps. The center also has raised more than $150,000 from private sources for enhancements to Riverlands.

“Here we are at the confluence of our nation’s two great rivers – on one of the most significant flyways on Earth,” Hagen said. “We have the opportunity to acquaint people with that habitat and the wildlife it supports.

“Once you’re hooked on the pelicans and eagles, you start asking what else is out there.”

For more information on the Audubon Center, visit www.riverlands.audubon.org.