Birds of the Great Confluence – Part One – Riverlands MBS and Confluence SP

The Great Rivers Confluence is the area where North America’s two largest rivers, the Missouri and the Mississippi, meet together and flow as the Mississippi.  This confluence is just north of St. Louis, Missouri and provides many opportunities for birds along the Mississippi migratory flyway to find the habitat they need.  These areas provide great opportunities for bird-watchers, hunters, and other outdoors types and go by names such as Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary, Jones Confluence State Park, Columbia Bottom Conservation Area, Marais Temps Clair CA, and a handful of other public properties that have been given mandates based on conserving the basic habitat that wild birds and our other wildlife kin rely upon for their existence.

I have been bird watching in this region for about five years and taking bird photographs here for the last two or three.  In this post, I will be showcasing six of my favorite images I have made at Riverlands MBS and Confluence SP.  I will feature another group taken at Columbia Bottom CA, which sets on the south side of the Missouri River at another time.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 640,  f/5.6, 1/800 sec

The bird pictured above is an Osprey, also known as the Fish Hawk and is one of several species of conservation concern that benefit from the types of refuge that Riverlands and the other preserved and well-managed habitats in the confluence region provide.  These birds feed almost exclusively on fish so it is of no surprise that these birds utilize the Mississippi River and surrounding waterways during their migration for their supper.  These birds will use man-made structures, such as telephone poles to build their nests.  At RMBS you can find special structures designed for this specific purpose.  To my knowledge, these structures have not been used but the birds have nested in trees nearby for the past several years.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 400,  f/5.6, 1/640 sec

Probably the best known group of birds that rely on the habitat of the confluence region are the waterfowl.  In this day and age, hunting has been one of the bright spots in conservation and management of the types of habitat that ducks and swans rely on during migration.  Without hunters and the money they spend we probably would have lost much more land to development along the Mississippi flyway than we have.  The number of waterfowl hunters has decreased over the past few decades, while the number of bird-watchers, nature photographers and other conservation-minded types has increased.  This is somewhat ironical because organizations that have relied on funds generated from hunting to purchase, protect and manage wetlands are now experiencing budget shortages.  Bird-watching, photography and hiking do not, naturally put money back into the system.  If a new method of fundraising is not found, we may be facing a crisis in the management and protection of these wetlands and the chance to procure new properties for this purpose.  An obvious solution would be for private donations to be given by anyone interested in the protection of these habitats.  Anyone can purchase Duck Stamps, which monies go into managing habitats in which migratory waterfowl rely.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/ozark_bill/6135882341/in/set-72157622457983078/lightbox/

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 640,  f/5.6, 1/400 sec

Other groups of birds, the waders, shorebirds, songbirds and others also rely on the habitat found at Riverlands.  This Yellow-crowned Knight Heron, for instance, is a species that is seldomly found here.  One early August morning I came across a group of these juveniles who were making their way south through the Mississippi flyway together.  As you can see, their colors and patterns make them difficult to spot in almost any natural habitat.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 250,  f/6.3, 1/1600 sec

Winter gulls are a very challenging group of birds to identify.  During normal winters, unlike the tropical winter we are experiencing this year, several rare northern migrants can be found along the dam and other man-made structures.  During the dead of winter it is not uncommon to find groups of experienced birders shivering under the frigid temperatures and gale-force winds at the lock and dam at Riverlands looking at hard to distinguish, rather drab gulls through 60X scopes hoping to find that rare gull to add to their year list.  I have done a little of this myself and it can become addicting!  These cute and graceful Bonaparte’s Gulls are rather earlier migrants that favor warmer weather than many other gulls.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 400,  f/5.6, 1/800 sec

Another challenging group of birds that will have the uber-birder skipping work, church and ignoring family is the shore-birds.  These birds, whom I have recently become enamored with, move through the confluence region mostly during March-May in the spring and August-October in the fall.  These are beautiful, photogenic and biologically fascinating and diverse birds.  The shorebirds are almost strictly a migratory group concerning the confluence region.  These birds have some of the largest migratory routes in the animal kingdom and their routes across Missouri and Illinois vary and can be tricky in predicting.  Farming and other land development practices are hurting this group badly across their migratory route.  Most species of shorebird have pretty narrow requirements or preferences when it comes to the particular habitat and water depth they need to thrive.  Managing a wetland becomes troublesome when the specific needs for a species is considered and skilled management practices are a must.  Unfortunately, almost half of the shorebirds of the new-world are experiencing declining populations, due almost solely to man-made influences.  Serious action needs to be taken to preserve these populations.  You can read more about this by reading the United States Shorebird Conservation Plan.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 400,  f/5.6, 1/800 sec

Next to the Bald Eagle, the Trumpeter Swan may be the most recognized bird species of conservation concern that calls the confluence region home during the winter.  Upwards of 400 of these birds and lower numbers of the similar, Tundra Swan can be seen in a single day at Riverlands and surrounding area.  These birds are rugged survivors that spend the majority of their day searching the surrounding farm fields for wasted grain and overnighting in the sanctuary’s water bodies.  These birds, the world’s heaviest that are still capable of flight, are a treasure to watch and photograph.

I often tell people that photographing birds is simultaneously the most rewarding and the most frustrating experience I can think of.  For each of these six images that I am relatively proud of there are at least 500 that were unusable.  Fortune favors the prepared photographer who understands not only how to use their equipment, but understands the behavior of the birds they are after.  Getting close is key, but not getting so close as to disturb the natural behavior and sense of security these wild animals should expect to have.  This is often a fine line.

The confluence region where the Big Muddy and the Father of Waters join was once one of the greatest wetlands areas in all the temperate regions of the world.  Farming and urban sprawl have made considerable changes to these natural habitats.  We can do something to maintain and potentially repair some of what has been lost.

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