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Missouri has Central Role in Wildlife Migration

November 15, 2012

Trumpeter swans are among the migratory birds that may spend the winter at Missouri State Parks. (Photo by Al Smith/Audubon Center at Riverlands)

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 (the Atlantic, Mississippi, Central and Pacific) that go north to south across the continent.

The Mississippi Flyway starts in Canada and follows the Mississippi 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 birds a stopping place along the route: Lewis and Clark, Van Meter, Pershing, Wakonda and Confluence Point.

These parks are prime places to view the mass gathering of waterfowl. The birds will stay around until freezing temperatures send them farther south. In a moderate winter, some may remain until spring.

Lewis and Clark is on the Missouri River, north of Kansas City. 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.

Wakonda, in the northeast corner of the state, features six lakes near the Mississippi River.

Confluence Point 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.

American white pelicans often are the first migratory birds to arrive each fall in Missouri State Parks. (Photo by Al Smith/Audubon Center at Riverlands)

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.

Pershing State Park has a new attraction for migrating birds this year. Locust Creek, which is prone to flooding, flows through the park. The park coordinated a land swap in which it accepted 1,500 low-lying acres from an adjacent farm family, which received an equivalent value in higher land in return.

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.

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.

Here’s a quick look at the five State 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.

Van Meter: The park is on the site of an ancient American Indian village. It 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 into the marsh, wet prairie and forest. The park 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 that is 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 is home to a rare sand prairie that has plants found in no other Missouri state park.

Confluence: The park is the only spot where a visitor can place one foot in the Mississippi River, and the other in the Missouri River. 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.

As you can see, there are many places in Missouri to enjoy the great migration. If you get a chance to explore these sites in person, you’ll find it’s definitely worth the trip.

Written by Tom Uhlenbrock for Missouri State Parks, a division of the Department of Natural Resources.

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