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Explore the Mississippi River

Day 8 — A Sentry for Shorebirds

Story Highlights
  • The Nature Conservancy has joined other nonprofit organizations and state and federal agencies in an effort known as Confluence Greenway to create a network of natural areas, parks, recreation areas and historic sites in the area surrounding the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.
  • During spring and fall migrations, 326 bird species pass through the Confluence.
  • In the winter of 1993, 180 bald eagles were spotted on Ellis Island offshore of the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary. Large numbers of bald eagles are attracted to this area when the river freezes farther north.

By Tom Eisenhart

With a seemingly unending parade of barges moving up and down the Mississippi, it's easy to see how vital the river is as a corridor for shipping tons of grain, coal and other commodities. But the river is also a vital corridor for far lighter travelers: 40 percent of North America's waterfowl and 60 percent of its bird species migrate through the Mississippi River flyway.

Birds and barges may pass each other with little fanfare, but at times, the two can intersect in interesting ways. Standing on an observation platform at the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary near St. Louis, Missouri, avid birder Paul Bauer points out one of these.

We're looking out over a stretch of the Mississippi called Ellis Bay, where two barges sit anchored off shore. Their 'cargo' isn't corn or cement, but rather the least tern, an endangered shorebird. The least tern's population has declined because much of the sand flat habitat the birds prefer to nest on is subject to wide variations in water levels. Covered with sand, the barges serve as a habitat surrogate for the birds. And a successful one at that: in the spring of 2009, 12 pairs of least terns bred on the barges.

Shorebirds in Peril

Having identified more than 300 species in the St. Louis area alone, shorebirds hold a special place in Paul's heart. The Sanctuary, operated by the Army Corps of Engineers, is a place he can indulge his passion for viewing and photographing the graceful movements of shorebird species such as the American avocet, one of his favorites.

A birder since he was a Boy Scout more than 60 years ago, Paul is struck by the "exceptional beauty" of shorebirds and how challenging they are to identify, compared to waterfowl that have more distinctive variations among species.

Paul explains that shorebirds are not only tough to identify but also have to be tough to survive, given how far they migrate — and how relatively few spots they have to rest along the way.

"Some shorebirds migrate as far as from the Arctic to Argentina and don't have many resting places in between. They need more wetland habitat to survive," he explains.

In the early 1990s, Paul, a former president of the Audubon Society of Missouri and the St. Louis Audubon Society, encouraged the Army Corps to create a managed shorebird habitat. His dream is now becoming a reality in an area of the Sanctuary called Heron Pond.

Formerly an 18-acre wetland, the Army Corps is enlarging the pond to encompass 42 acres. It features a 1.8-mile trail that loops around the pond and two viewing blinds. Paul is proud of the fact that his suggestion to have diagonal viewing slits was incorporated into the blinds' design. The slits allow visitors of any height to bird-watch.

The 'managed' part of Heron Pond comes in the form of a water control structure. When completed, the structure, which connects the Mississippi to Heron Pond through a buried pipe, will allow the Army Corps to raise or lower the water level. That helps ensure optimal conditions for shorebirds and waterfowl.

In the spring and summer, the Army Corps will release water from the pond into Ellis Bay. This enables moist soil vegetation to grow and exposes mud flats. The flats contain crustaceans and invertebrate creatures that shorebirds feast on. During the fall and winter, the Army Corps will fill the pond to create a resting and feeding area for waterfowl.

Paul beams when he says that the project is a "dream come true for me. If this works, I would love to see it replicated."

Paul plans to continue advocating for more shorebird habitat. Yet he believes that, ultimately, the success of efforts to conserve shorebirds and other wildlife hinges on building the next generation of supporters.

"We've made strides, but the real test will be whether the next generation carries the ball forward."

He is doing his part to encourage that. Paul has taken his grandsons to the Sanctuary to view birds like migrating trumpeter swans. "They told me that was cool to see."

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