By Tom Uhlenbrock
Missouri State Parks
North America’s greatest wildlife migration is underway – and Missouri is smack dab in the middle of it.
Millions of ducks, geese, swans, pelicans and other waterfowl are on their annual trek to warmer climes for winter, generally along four major flyways that go north to south across the continent – the Atlantic, Mississippi, Central and Pacific flyways.
The Mississippi Flyway starts in Canada and follows the river to its mouth on the Gulf of Mexico. The Central Flyway begins in the Arctic and crosses the Great Plains along the Missouri River, moving east across the state of Missouri to join the Mississippi Flyway.
Birds making the long journey seek out places to rest and feed amid the largely agricultural landscape. Missouri is home to five state parks that offer stops along the route – Lewis and Clark, Van Meter, Pershing, Wakonda and Confluence.
The parks are prime places to view the mass gathering of waterfowl. The birds will stay around until freezing temperatures send them further south. In a moderate winter, some may remain until spring.
Amber Terry, the new superintendent at Lewis and Clark State Park north of Kansas City, took the job in time to see the birds’ arrival last fall.
“It blew me away how many birds we got – it was awesome,” Terry said. “By mid-November, they were coming in pretty heavily. The white pelicans seemed to be the first ones to come and the first ones to go.”
Van Meter State Park, south of the Missouri River near Marshall, benefits by its location next to the Grand Pass Conservation Area, which is 5,300 acres of wetlands along six miles of the river.
“I counted 40 bald eagles over at Grand Pass, and they get thousands of snow geese,” said Eric Fuemmeler, interpretative resource technician at Van Meter. “We’re kind of like an island in the middle of the farmland.”
Wakonda, in the northeast corner of the state, features six lakes near the Mississippi River.
“We pick up Canada geese, mallards, pintails, goldeneye, eagles – you name it,” said Kyle Scott, the park’s natural resource manager. “We’re a destination location on the Mississippi Valley Birding Trail.”
Confluence State Park, at the meeting of America’s two greatest rivers north of St. Louis, may be the state’s best place to see winter waterfowl. State and federal agencies have created a 10,000-acre welcome mat of wetlands, marshes and lakes. Melvin Price Locks and Dam is nearby, and has a pool of open water for fish-eating birds even in the coldest of winters.
“Last year, we had close to 100 trumpeter swans,” said Quinn Kellner, the park’s natural resource manager. “The eagles like to congregate here when the ice builds up on the rivers. They’ll sit around open holes in the water.”
Pershing State Park, near Laclede in north-central Missouri, is part of the Golden Triangle, along with Fountain Grove Conservation Area and Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Together, the three represent nearly 25,000 acres of wildlife habitat amid the corn and soybean fields.
“It’s a little oasis for the birds to drop down and feed,” said Steve Kinder of the Grand River Audubon Society. “Teal are the first to come, late October and November brings the geese, swans and a good number of pelicans. They’ll stick around as long as there’s food and open water.”
New wetlands at Pershing
Pershing State Park has a new attraction for migrating birds this year. Locust Creek flows through the park, and is prone to flooding. The park coordinated a land swap in which it got 1,500 low-lying acres from an adjacent farm family, which received an equivalent value in higher land.
The federal Natural Resource Conservation Service, which works to increase wildlife habitat and reduce flood damage, sculpted the land into a mosaic of pools and berms, which were planted in native grasses. Levees that protected the former farmland were breached to allow water to meander through the newly created wetlands.
Tom Woodward, natural resource manager of Pershing State Park, predicted that waterfowl migrating overhead will be drawn to the area.
“We’ll have every species of duck and geese,” Woodward said. “We’ll probably have pelicans, a variety of shorebirds and wading birds. We’ll also see quail production increase. We already are getting blue-winged teal, killdeer, yellowlegs and willet. And I think I’ve seen sandpiper in here.”
Although not yet in place, the park may create a hiking trail along the 2.5 miles of levee for visitors to observe the wildlife, said Dan Files, supervisor of the northern district of Missouri State Parks.
“Between the three agencies in the Golden Triangle, we’ll have a perfect waterfowl and wetland complex,” Files said. “We’re losing wetlands – we have less than one-tenth of what we had, just in Missouri. If we can increase flood plain storage and water quality, and stop soil erosion, that benefits agriculture, too.”
A look at the five parks
Lewis and Clark: The expedition came through in 1804 and William Clark named a large oxbow lake Gosling Lake, for the geese that were there. Now called Sugar Lake, the geese are still there, by the thousands during migration. “The lake also attracts eagles; you can see them on the ice waiting to fish,” said Terry, the park superintendent. “There’s an eagle nest about a mile away. We saw the mother teaching a young one to fly.”
Van Meter: The park is on the site of an ancient Indian village, and features the 300-acre Oumessourit Natural Area, which shows what the Missouri River floodplain looked like before the river was channelized and constricted by levees. Three short boardwalks lead out into the marsh, wet prairie and forest. The park also is home to Missouri’s American Indian Cultural Center, which has displays describing the nine tribes that once called Missouri home.
Pershing: The centerpiece is a looping boardwalk that begins at Locust Creek and winds 1.5 miles through the bottomland forest to reach an overlook with views of the park’s wet prairie. The 800-acre prairie is a remnant of a landscape disappearing in Missouri. The forest draws the smaller songbirds called neo-tropical migrants during the fall and spring.
Wakonda: The park’s six lakes were created by gravel dredging for road building. Clear water filtered up to fill the lakes, which became popular for fishing, swimming and bird watching. The park’s birding list has 76 species. The park also is home to a rare sand prairie that has plants found in no other state park.
Confluence: The park is the only spot where a visitor can place one foot in the Mississippi, and the other in the Missouri. The Corps of Engineers operates the adjacent Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary, and partnered with the National Audubon Society to open a new $3.3 million bird-watching facility, called the Audubon Center at Riverlands.
Missouri State Parks is a division of the Department of Natural Resources. For more information, visit mostateparks.com.