They come quietly in the night, announcing their arrival at daybreak by filling the woods with their songs.
Wearing their gaudy breeding plumage and singing their loudest to mark territories and attract a mate, the songbirds are among the millions of ducks, geese, swans, cranes, pelicans and other birds that take part in North America’s greatest wildlife migration.
Flying from as far away as South America – some travel nonstop over the Gulf of Mexico - they begin arriving in early spring, and continue in waves throughout May into early summer.
Missouri is in the middle of two of the four major flyways that cross the continent. Many of the birds travel north on the Mississippi Flyway; some detour west on the Central Flyway that follows the Missouri River to the Great Plains.
They may rest and refuel for a while in Missouri before continuing their arduous journey north to as far as Canada. Some will stay in Missouri and build nests, joining the year-round residents.
Missouri State Parks, especially those on lakes or along rivers, act like magnets to draw the birds. To a weary bird in flight, the parks are a green oasis amid the agricultural fields and urban sprawl below. Some parks have been designated “Important Bird Areas” by the Audubon Society and act like rest stops on an interstate for a migrating bird.
Parks on both sides of the state have scheduled free events for the public to learn about birds and their migration. Weston Bend State Park, north of Kansas City, has “Wings Over Weston” on May 10 and Sam A. Baker State Park, near Patterson in southeast Missouri, has “Birds Over Baker” on May 31.
The Audubon Society of Missouri and Missouri State Parks, a division of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, have created a website where volunteers list the birds they see in state parks and conservation areas. At mobirds.org, data for state parks is listed at the SPARKS icon.
“We’re looking for what birds are seen, where and when,” said Edge Wade, a self-described Audubon “birding bum” who helped set up the website. “Our parks are particularly good places to see them.”
The data is valuable to researchers, who may want to track the past and future numbers of a particular species. For land managers, they can see which birds are present, and which aren’t, and make habitat decisions. And for birders, they can see where they might find a special species.
“For example, the data base shows 59 reports for winter wren in Rock Bridge Memorial State Park in late March and early April,” Wade said. “It’ll be right there on the creek near the parking lot, usually.”
Asked for her favorite birding parks, Wade listed Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, near her home in Columbia, and Roaring River, Trail of Tears, Van Meter, Meramec and Johnson’s Shut-Ins state parks.
“I’ve been to all of them,” she said. “Most of our parks are just pretty doggone good.”
Prescribed Burns Mean More Birds
Management practices by Missouri State Parks have made park landscapes more attractive to birds.
Prescribed burns help maintain healthy ecosystems and encourage the return of native grasses and wildflowers, said Allison Vaughn, a natural resource steward with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
“We’ve now had fire on the ground in state parks for 31 years,” she said.
Vaughn pointed to the research done by Terry Callahan, a researcher at the University of Missouri at Columbia. In the 1990s, he surveyed bird populations in woodlands that had been burned and compared the populations to woodlands that had not been burned.
“He found that bird populations not only increased in species numbers, but also in abundance of birds in the burned areas,” Vaughn said.
For three years, Vaughn replicated Callahan’s work at Ha Ha Tonka State Park, and got the same results – birds increased in species and numbers in burned areas compared to unburned areas.
“Part of the reason for that is, whenever a prescribed burn is used in quality woodlands, plants that produce seeds and attract insects are stimulated – the food sources that birds depend on,” Vaughn said. “Nesting materials for many species of birds also are abundant in burned woodlands.”
Fire defines the quality of the woods, Vaughn said, creating light to the woodland floor beneath widely spaced trees with a distinct shrub layer.
“A lot of birds use that shrub layer, and it is missing from many unburned landscapes,” Vaughn said. “Woodland structure is shaped by fire. There’s an old growth component that is really beneficial for birds, and state parks have that.”
Every Color in the Rainbow
“Birds Over Baker” at Sam A. Baker State Park begins at 9 a.m. on May 31 with a guided bird hike. It ends at 7 p.m. with a raptor awareness program in which handlers from the World Bird Sanctuary in St. Louis will talk about hawks, owls and other raptors while real birds fly over the heads of the audience in the park’s amphitheater.
“Wings Over Weston” at Weston Bend State Park runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on May 10 and will feature guided bird hikes, live eagle shows, falconry presentations, bird banding, native plant sales and some 25 booths set up by volunteers from the Missouri Master Naturalists, Burroughs Audubon and the Wildlife Society at Missouri Western State University.
Weston Bend is a part of the Iatan/Weston Bend River Corridor Important Bird Area and is in one of several state parks located on America’s two great rivers, the prime routes for the spring migration. Weston Bend, Van Meter, Lewis and Clark, Big Lake and sections of Kay Trail are on the Missouri River. Big Oak Tree, Trail of Tears, Confluence and Wakonda are on the Mississippi.
“Over 300 species of birds use the IBA corridor and fly through Weston Bend,” said Christine Kline, a volunteer who organizes the birding event with Lee Wilbeck of Missouri State Parks. “We have the largest surviving tract of old-growth bottomland forest along the entire length of the Missouri River. It’s the only tract that is the way it was when Lewis and Clark came through.”
The goal of “Wings Over Weston” is to recruit a new generation of bird watchers, Kline said.
“Our focus is to introduce birds and birding to children, and teach them about migration and the importance of conservation of habitat,” she said. “On the guided bird hikes, they’ll be shown how to use binoculars and where to look for birds
“The children are told that a bird from every color of the rainbow flies through Weston Bend State Park each spring.”