28 August 2007

Sora Marks 101st Species for UNL Environs

By James Ed. Ducey

A dead Sora found 24 August on the 10th Street pedestrian bridge marks the 101st species for the campus environs of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The carcass was on the northern part of the bridge over the train tracks, on the walkway. There is a ca. four foot fence on each side, constructed of piping and chain link fence.

The occurrence of the bird was first noted by a passing pedestrian, and then reported. The demise of the bird had taken place overnight, as it was not present the previous day.

In the industrial area where the Sora occurred, there was a temporary pool of water from very recent heavy rains (shown in the photo, taken from the bridge to the west). The water extended to the east, beneath the walkway, and a short distance westward.

It is possible the Sora was flying in to land at the water when it got between the fencing. It may have also been at the spot and just died a natural death. It is uncertain since there was no witness.

The bird specimen provided a unique opportunity to study up close the plumage and feather colorations of the waterbird with its rich and brown tones and textures.

22 August 2007

Conservation of Prairies Benefits Native Flora and Fauna

By James Ed. Ducey

Conservation of prairie-grass habitats of southeast Nebraska continues a success in providing places for native flora and fauna.

"Some of my most gratifying times have been while walking across a waving sea of grass and seeing plants not seen in most pastures," said Ernie Rousek, chairman of the conservation committee, Wachiska Audubon Society. "It is a great deal of satisfaction to see the orange mounds of butterfly milkweed in bloom in June. One of our conserved prairies has over 100 of these plants just in one corner. In July the bluish purple flowers of leadplant are a good indication the prairie has never felt the bite of the plow. The names of the plant prairie shoestring was given by settlers whose plowshares caused a popping noise as they severed these tough roots. Purple spires of several species of gayfeather are a pleasant sight in late summer."

"Local flora does not survive the intense grazing that generally occurs on the majority of pastures," Rousek said. The prairies preserved by the Wachiska group are cut for hay or burned, and not pastured.

Their generally small size is an influence on the types of the wild birds. A minimum extent of habitat is needed for many species to occur. Spring Creek Prairie and Nine Mile Prairie are well known in the bird annals.

"A number of birds depend upon prairies for nesting," Rousek explained. Some birds will make use of smaller prairie tracts, others like prairie chickens require much larger areas. A wild turkey flushing from a clump of big bluestem, revealing a big clutch of eggs is a rewarding sight. As is the mid-air song of the Bobolink or the meadowlark on a fence post."

Ongoing efforts of the Wachiska Audubon Society has protected four prairies through ownership:

Dieken Prairie, 12 acres bought in 1995
Wildcat Creek Prairie, 30 ac. in 1998
Lamb Prairie, 6 ac. in 2000
Storm Prairie, 20 ac. in 2004.
These prairies are open for public visits.

Wildcat Creek Prairie. Photo by Ernie Rousek.

The group has 20 prairies under conservation easement, distributed in 12 counties in southeast Nebraska, said Rousek, who has been involved in the prairie conservation efforts for the group for nearly three decades. These parcels range from four acres to 40 acres in size, and total over 400 acres. The names of various tracts are typically those of the people selling the easementm such as Beethe Prairie, Horacek Prairie and Brey Prairie.

"The first prairie easement Wachiska Audubon bought was in 1994, from Dorothy Heavey whose father, Henry Wulf died in 1972," Rousek said. "She owned the farm which had an excellent 4 acre prairie along Hwy. 34 ("O" Street), seven miles east of Lincoln. When Wachiska Audubon contacted her about protecting the prairie, she was very willing, especially when we told her that we would put up a sign on the prairie with her father's name on it." It is thus named Wulf Prairie.

At the August meeting of the society's conservation committee, Rousek led the team discussing prairie concerns: a new easement contract, management options, fixing a grade crossing used as an equipment access by a land owner, and other relevant business. There were a couple of signs that had been renovated. There was some news about the wetland environs at Yutan Prairie.

Some of the most recent prairie projects within Wachiska's large southeast Nebraska region are the result of an advertisement placed in several county papers last winter, asking land owners interested in protecting prairie areas on their farms, to contact the group, Rousek said. "We received about 15 replies. Most were not good prairies, but about five were quite good and we have signed two of these as easements in the summer of 2007.

"A dedication was held for a seven acre prairie north of Syracuse on July 15, 2007. This excellent prairie was owned by Forrest Halvorsen who was 89 years old," Rousek said. "His wife had died some years earlier and he wanted her name, as well as his on the sign. There were 72 people in attendance; many were Forrest's relatives."

"Each time the society gets a prairie easement, a 4' x 6' wood sign is constructed, then erected. The painted sign has the prairie owners name as well as that of Wachiska Audubon Society, which is the holder of the easement."

"A dedication is held for each prairie. We ask the owner to invite his friends and relatives; at times put a notice in the county paper and invite the public," he said. Easements, the makeup and geology of prairies, some prominent prairie plants are identified, and other information is given during a presentation by an Audubon member.

[Dieken Prairie, July 2002 photo by Ernie Rousek]

Dieken Prairie, July 2002 photo by Ernie Rousek.

During the August committee meeting, Dr. David Wedin discussed at length the status of Nine-mile Prairie, its surrounding land and zoning concerns and an initiative to have a strategic planning session among interested parties to discuss the prairie's management and use.

"I leased the 230 acre Nine Mile Prairie, in the name of Wachiska in 1978, from the Lincoln Airport Authority," Rousek said. It was during his tenure as president of the society. "The purpose was to 'tie up' the prairie while finding some way to protect it. I notified the UNL Agronomy and Biological Science Departments that they could again use the prairie. The first year there were 11 different courses that used the prairie as an outdoor classroom and for research. With a lease of $4,600 per year, the grass was cut for prairie hay and then sold to pay the lease, meanwhile trying various sources of funding to purchase the Prairie."

"Nine mile Prairie had been used by the University of Nebraska since the 1920s when it was 800 acres. The Air Force took over the Lincoln Airport in the 1950's and placed a 100 acre bomb storage area on a part of the Prairie, making the site off limits to the public, including the University. When the Air Base was deactivated in the early 1970s, The Lincoln Airport bought the Prairie for $200 an acre, as an investment."

"Wachiska had the lease on the prairie for four years. Funds for a purchase eventually became available through the University of Nebraska Foundation. Mrs. Neal Hall donated $69,000, which was one half of the purchase price. Many other community donations helped the cause."

Once the land was bought in 1982 by the University of Nebraska Foundation, Rousek started fifteen years on the property management board in 1983. During this time he designed and built a wooden kiosk which was placed at the prairie foot path entrance, where visitors could register. During the next four years there were visitors from every state and 17 foreign countries. He fixed fence, and did most of the mowing of trails, the entrance and roadways for the benefit of visitors, and other tasks during a tenure through 1998.

About 80 acres of Nine-mile Prairie is burned each year and Rousek helped on a number of those past burns. Dr. Jim Stubbendieck, of UNL, was often involved in planning and conducting these burns to vitalize the prairie.

During several of these years, the Wachiska Audubon Society held a Prairie Appreciation Day for the public each autumn, Rousek said. Tents were setup for speakers and exhibits and, there were those mown trails for prairie walks with "tour guides". A horse and buggy club gave rides.

Rousek's prairie roots extend deep to his first school years attending Komensky, a one room country school in central Nebraska. "It was completely surrounded by rolling hills of prairie, which usually, in the fall and spring, was our playground. We would dig and eat indian turnips and violet wood sorrel, and throw the 'arrows' of porcupine grass at each other, and play a game of 'hide and seek' among the hills," he said.

At the home place west of Ord, a regular job as a boy in the country, was herding "cattle on an unfenced 80 acres of prairie, woodland, and crops. I became familiar with various plants throughout their growth cycles. The Nebraska Weed Book helped with identifying many plants."

A keen interest in flora "steered" Rousek to a major in conservation and agronomy at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His profession was soil scientist for the Soil Conservation Service, a district manager for a hybrid corn company, and with plant seed research when he retired.

An unusual event on the Spring Creek Prairie got Rousek out among the grasses again. He led hikes and shared history of the prairie schooner ruts of the Nebraska-City-Fort Kearny trail on the hill side; then came the outdoor saxophone quintet concert, a event of the Meadowlark Music Festival, this past July, during the prairie flower season.

"Most of the people who own prairies and who wish to preserve them, are usually older," Rousek said. "They seem to look at the prairies as an unchanging connection with their earlier days, and perhaps with people who have since, passed on. The unchanging prairie may serve as a nostalgic bond with family members who may, or may not, have spent time on the prairie, and have passed on. Prairie owners have told me of their parents or grandparents who had owned their farm and the dates when these people bought the land or even homesteaded it. They tell of using horses to cut and rake the prairie hay, and then the stacking of it."

"Virgin prairies serve as a storehouse of soil which has not been contaminated by herbicides or insecticides and serves as a base line compared with cultivated fields. Prairie plants are well adapted for the often stressful climatic and soil conditions of the Great Plains where they serve to protect soil from erosion, yet furnish nutritious feed for livestock."

"Many prairie plants were used by plains Indians for medicinal, and other uses. Some years ago a doctor in Los Angeles doing research on the antibiotic properties of the root extract of the purple prairie coneflower (Echinacea), contacted me about getting some of the plants from prairies in this area. He had gotten plants from two other states previously. When I told him that it was possible, he made a plane trip to Lincoln, and we dug up several plants for his use. A couple of years later a national magazine reported of a very effective antibiotic which had been derived from echinacea roots. The source of this news was from - Los Angeles."

14 August 2007

Removal of Historic Chimneys Continues in Downtown Lincoln

[Three chimneys at 26th and O Street] By James Ed. Ducey

The Lincoln City council approved on August 13th, the demolition of three home structures along O Street in association with a planned redevelopment.

The three houses, are on the north side of O Street, between 25th and 26th street, in the historic "Kinneys O Street Addition." Screened chimney at 26th and O Street]

Two of the chimneys likely were suitable for use by Chimney Swifts, although one is covered with a screen mesh that would prohibit bird access.

Three businesses currently use the buildings. Two of the buildings are owned by an investment firm.

The Preservation Association of Lincoln is opposed to the removal of the buildings, according to a local press report. They prefer the buildings be renovated.

The area is expected to be converted into a large office building.

These three structures a five blocks from the Joint Antelope Valley Authority project to the west.

With the ongoing redevelopment in the area of the JAVA corridor, additional buildings will likely be razed. This includes the vacant three story brick building, formerly Ben's Auto parts. There are two chimneys here suit the swifts, including a larger one that serves as an autumn roost.

[Bens auto building] [Waldron building on O Street]

The Waldron Machine and Iron building is now vacant, after the business moved elsewhere. The larger chimney here is used as a nesting site.

11 August 2007

Record Year for the Endangered Whooping Cranes in Central Canada

[Whooping Crane chick]

With the onset of nesting and hatched young of the Whooping Cranes this summer, wildlife officials flew in to conduct the annual census of this endangered species at Wood Buffalo National Park, in Canada. Aerial surveys were done “soon after most of the chicks had hatched to try to maximize the number” observed.

The wetland region west of Lake Athabasca and south of Great Slave Lake, is the sole breeding habitat for the species. These plains of the Peace-Athabasca Delta are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Ramsar wetland of international significance.

A May survey by Brian Johns and Lea Craig-Moore of the Canadian Wildlife Service, located 62 nests during the survey of breeding pairs, according to the May 19 online survey report.

Fish and Wildlife Service pilot “Jim Bredy along with Brian Johns and Tom Stehn conducted whooping crane production surveys June 13-18, 2007. Three additional nests were located... The surveys located a record 65 nests and record 84 chicks, including 28 sets of twins.”

There were 62 nests in 2006 at the national park habitats, with 76 chicks that included 24 sets of twins.

“Fifty-six of the 65 nests (86.2%) produced one or more chicks. This is a very high percentage and comparable to other excellent production years (3% in 2005, 85% in 2004 and 86% in 1997). Of the 9 pairs that failed to hatch an egg, 2 of those pairs had their eggs predated in May and one bird was sitting on a nest with no eggs.

“Of the pairs that potentially could have had chicks in June, 56 of the 62 actually did. Thus, the record chick production in 2007 resulted from both high productivity and a large number of nests. Two pairs that are well known at Aransas (Lobstick and Big Tree) both had twin chicks in June.

“An estimated 4 known adult pairs failed to nest but were sighted present on their territories, comparable to the 10 pairs that failed to nest in 2006. Thus, there are a minimum of 69 breeding pairs in the population.

“A record 65 nests and 84 chicks, including 28 sets of twins, were surveyed. This compares to 2006 when 62 nests, 76 chicks and 24 sets of twins were found.

“This year’s record chick production was a result of both high productivity and the high number of nests,” said Tom Stehn whooping crane coordinator, based at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

“Favorable, warm weather” was “a big factor in the chick’s survival,” according to the aerial survey report. During the season, “habitat conditions were better than expected with water levels thought to be slightly above average. The weather during the June production surveys was exceptionally warm with no cold, wet weather.” “The North American population of whooping cranes now exceeds 500 birds for the first time in 100 years,” Stehn said.

This number of adult pairs on the surveys were “close to the 67 adult pairs identified present” during the 2006-07 winter at Aransas NWR.

Whooping Crane Recovery Program

Other wildbirds of the park area include "a typical community of boreal forest and wetland birds including Yellow-rumped Warbler, Wilson's Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Swamp Sparrow, Lincoln's Sparrow, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, and Bald Eagle," according to information at Birdlife International. The Peregrine Falcon also occurs.

06 August 2007

Dismal Years for Least Tern and Piping Plover Along the Middle Niobrara River

Portion of a sandbar used by Least Terns and Piping Plovers on the Niobrara National Scenic River. All images courtesy of the National Park Service office, Valentine.

By James Ed. Ducey. This article contains biological opinions of the author.

The number of Least Tern and Piping Plover present this season along the scenic river stretch of the Niobrara River was the lowest number recorded in the past twenty years.

Only four tern and six plover were noted during June and July surveys, according to a report from the National Park Service office in Valentine.

Heavy rains and subsequent higher water flows along the river may have washed away any nesting attempts. Weather related events also decimated river colonies last season.

The endangered Least Tern and threatened Piping Plover occupy variable sized, shifting sandbars each breeding season to scrape a small depression of a nest , then lay eggs and raise some young as they have for centuries.

The Niobrara valley is a challenging environment. Weather and rampaging water in a valley of different overall widths can result in flood flows that will wash away any nests, eggs or young on the sandbars elevated just inches above the river's usually languid surface. High water from heavy rains inundate the channel. Flood flows also shift river sediments that can modify and create suitable sandy bars habitat, with but a bit of vegetative growth.

Roaming predators and unconfined livestock from adjacent pastures can be a negative influence on colony sites for terns and the little brown plovers.

The species' recorded history for the Niobrara River extends back more than 100 years. Both species are first known from bird field notes from the Niobrara during the 1902 breeding season. Along the river south of Springview (now on Highway 183) were four Piping Plover, two of which were collected by scientists. A nest was found on June 21st; said nest with three known eggs then empty on June 25th. These plover "were noted commonly throughout the trip," down the river, said the bird journal of by professor Myron H. Swenk, along on an expedition from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

[Survey of tern and plover along the Niobrara river]

"The Least Tern was not observed until on August 4, when a few miles west of Badger we met with a flock of eight or nine flying about over the shallows. One male specimen was secured. From this point on to Niobrara it was very common, being noted every day, and every large bar was certain to have several of the little fellows hovering about, uttering their harsh, squeaky notes as they plunged into the shallows or chased each other about in the air. On one occasion one was seen flying straight towards a large bar with food in its mouth. Although lack of time prevented any stopping to search for nests, I have little doubt but that it breeds commonly on the large bars in that locality," the narrative said.

The active Badger postoffice was once near Big Sandy Creek, at the river in northwest Holt county.

Bird Surveys

Aerial views provided the results for the first surveys - starting in 1977 - and counting from Mariaville to Spencer Dam, and further east along the river course. These were continued by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission for many years. Since 2002, numerous riverine surveys have been conducted by biological technicians of the National Park Service, along the Niobrara National Scenic River. These are the detail surveys now conducted.

Results of surveys for Least Tern and Piping Plover on Niobrara National Scenic River segments. Information courtesy of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, and National Park Service.

Date - Survey Segment

Least Tern

Piping Plover

1982, July 14 - Highway 183 to Meadville

25 adults

8 adults

1983 - Highway 183 to Meadville

7 adults on 13 July; 4 on 19 July; and 2 on 26 July

2 adults on 13 July; 5 on 19 July

1984, 22 June - Mariaville to Highway 183

10 adults

6 adults

1985 - Mariaville to Highway 183

16 adults and six nests on 4 June; 3 adults on 23 July

10 adults and 5 nests on 4 June; 20 adults on 23 July

1987, 9 June - Mariaville to Highway 183

10 adults and 3 nests

8 adults and 2 nests

- 5 June - Highway 183 to Meadville
- 18 and 20 June - Mariaville to Hwy 183
- 2 adults
- 3 nests on 18 June and 2 adults on 20th
- 4 adults
- 2 nests with eggs on 18 June and 1 adult
2001, 5 June
- Highway 183 to Meadville
- Mariaville to Highway 183
- 2 adults
- 13 adults at four sites
- 4 adults
- 6 adults at two sites and a nest with eggs
- Highway 183 to Highway 7
- Highway 7 to Carns Bridge
- Carns Bridge to Highway 137
- 6 adults and 3 nests
- 4 adults
- 4 adults
- 6 adults and 2 nests
- 5 adults and 1 nest
- 2 adults and 1 nest
- 13-25 June - Highway 183 Bridge to Highway 7 Bridge
- 12 June to 7 July - Carns Bridge to Highway 137
- colony 1 with 16 nests; colony 2 with 5 nests
- 11 nests
- colony 1 with 9 nests; colony 2 with 4 nests
- 6 nests
2007 - Highway 183 to Highway 7
- 22 June:
- 27 June:
- 6 July:
- 4 adults and nest with eggs
- 2 adults
- 2 adults
- 6 adults and nest with eggs
- 6 adults and two additional nests, 3 fledged chicks
- 6 plovers, 3 chicks

* Numbers given represent the highest seasonal count.

The count numbers for 2007 are exceptionally less, being the least number seen in any of the years with available survey results. There is no exact reason for this loss, according to Park Service staff.

Extensive rainfall from several early storms during the breeding season may have influenced the nesting by these species.

On May 5th a slow moving system dumped some rain, giving Valentine a record rainfall exceeding 1.25 inches. Tornadoes were reported, with hail prevalent. Ainsworth reported 4.3 inches in town and 5.83 inches elsewhere that washed out county roads.

Showers and thunderstorms brought a rainfall of 3.44 inches to Ainsworth on May 30th. Valentine had 1.73 inches.

On June 12th, another intense weather system moved through the Niobrara valley. Rainfall measured 1.97 inches at Valentine. O'Neill had 1.92 inches. Atkinson had a report for 1.62 inches. A flash flood watch was issued for the 13th, as showers continued. Weather reports indicated wide-spread 1-2" rainfall reports throughout the drainage of the Niobrara.

Another extensive storm accompanied by large hail hit the region on June 21st.

The magnitude of precipitation from these storms likely flooded the channel of the Niobrara River, with an influx from some tributaries adding to the flows. These weather events may have had an impact on the bird nests on the riverine sandbars inundated by higher water flows.

[Least Tern nest on the Niobrara River]

Least Tern nest along the Niobrara River.

[Piping Plover nest on the Niobrara River]

Piping Plover nest along the Niobrara River.

The primary nest initiation dates for the Least Tern in 2006 were during June to early July, according to the Park Service survey report. For Piping Plover the period extends from latter May to early July.

Flooding may have been a recurring event during the breeding season, resulting in the low population when an initial survey was done in latter June.

Summary of number of birds surveyed along the scenic river section of the middle Niobrara River.


Least Tern

Piping Plover





aerial survey




aerial survey




aerial survey







aerial survey










An adult and a juvenile Least Tern were at Cornell Dam in late July


32, 22

18, 8

Highway 183 Bridge to Highway 7 Bridge, and Carns Bridge to Highway 137




Three plover chicks fledged; defensive adult terns but no actual nesting success noted

Several large sandbars which appeared suitable for use by terns or plovers, did not have either, according to the season's summary report. At a colony location near Carns, "4-wheeler tracks criss-crossed the sandbar" that seemed promising for tern or plover use, the survey report said. There were 25 Killdeer present. Elsewhere, including between the Carns Bridge and Highway 137, a large number of Killdeer were present, raising the question if this species was out-competing the tern or smaller plover.

In 2006 on another obviously suited sandbar, the species showed the largest numbers recorded for these species within the scenic river section. Habitat had to be expansive enough for the many sites used for nesting. The counts indicate the extent of birds that can occur when there is exceptional, suitable habitat. Fewer Least Tern could be expected where there is a lesser extent of suitable sandbars habitat.

Piping Plover would be influenced by the river factors that create suitable habitat.

During the 2006 season, a smaller colony on the segment Highway 183 Bridge to Highway 7 Bridge was affected by two influences. The "sandbar experienced several weather events and cattle damages that led to multiple re-nest attempts by both species," according to the survey report. There was a large colony along the Carns Bridge to Highway 137 stretch, with 11 tern nests and 6 plover nests. "A large rain event wiped this colony off the river in early July."

Notable are the 1982 numbers for a colony on the river a few kilometers east of Meadville. Activities at this lively breeding place were gathered during avifauna studies in 1983 for the Niobrara Valley Preserve, after it was established. The colony had several plover nests and more than 15 chicks noted on July 22nd. There were nests with 3 eggs, chicks and a flying fledgling for the Least Tern on July 24th. The sandbar here was apparently very suitable habitat.

Survey results indicate there are usually fewer tern and plover during recent breeding seasons. There are enough exceptions to these lesser counts for larger numbers. There are no apparent trends or obvious population level represented. The numbers seem to highly variable to determine an average. The numbers do suggest a regular population of more than 15 Least Tern could be expected from the Highway 183 Bridge to east of Meadville. There could a similar number of Piping Plover. Habitat has more limitations in this region than further down the river, and is possibly the greatest limiting factor along the river.

Other facets which may have a role in the occurrence of these two species along the Niobrara, may include the extent of habitat along the Missouri National Recreation River influencing the bird's use of the running water tributary. Do fewer birds occur on the Niobrara when habitat is more prevalent on the wide variety of Missouri river sandbars?

Extensive and detailed Least Tern and Piping Plover surveys are conducted on the MNRR each season by Corps of Engineer staff.

Niobrara Tern and Plover Populations

The Niobrara River population of Least Tern and Piping Plover is highly variable, based on a summary of some survey results from aerial counts, and recent ground-based investigations.

Populations for the Niobrara River. Given is a summary of values recorded for multiple segments, sometimes with multiple entries referring to a colony locale. These estimates are based on several accounts added together to furnish an approximate total for the river. Detail survey information is courtesy of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and National Park Service.

Survey Information

Least Tern

Piping Plover

1977, 30 June - Mariaville to Spencer Dam



1978, 27-29 June - mouth to Mariaville



1979, 17 and 26 July - mouth to Highway 183, and westward from Meadville


No count data

1980, 13-14 July - mouth to Highway 183


No count data

1981, 5-7 July - Pischelville to Highway 183



1982, 1-2 and 13-14 July - mouth to Meadville


19 in partial count

1983, 20-22 June - mouth to Highway 183; mid-July, Highway 183 to Meadville



1984: 19-22 June - mouth to Highway 183


38 in partial count

30 May - mouth to Mariaville
4-6 June - mouth to Highway 183
23-25 July - mouth to Highway 183
- 79
- 183
- 110
- NA
- 114
- 60
9-11 June - mouth to Highway 183
6-19 June - mouth to Mariaville
13-15 July - mouth to Highway 183
- 115, with more than 50 nests
- 109
- 68
- 98, with more than 55 nests
- 85
- 91 with nests and chicks
14-16 June - mouth to Mariaville
19-20 July - mouth to Mariaville
- 181, more than 80 nests
- 124, with 47 chicks noted
- 83, with more than 35 nests
- 54, with 22 chicks noted

2001, 5-8 June - mouth to Meadville

148, with about 40 nests

88, with about 25 nests

- 22 June - Highway 183 to Highway 7
- Lower Niobrara River
- 4
- 33
- 19

Counts doing using consistent survey methods in recent years has improved the means for devising the river's population of these two species. Populations can readily exceed 125 Least Tern and 75 Piping Plover, with greater numbers when suitable habitat conditions are more prevalent.

Niobrara River locales.

01 August 2007

Missouri River Mitigation Projects Provide New Wildbirds Habitat

Mitigation wetland along the Missouri River. All pictures courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers.

By James Ed. Ducey

Ongoing habitat projects being carried out in conjunction with the Missouri River Mitigation Project are providing new habitat for a variety of wild birds.

"The primary focus of the mitigation project is to establish slower flowing and shallower water along the Missouri river," said Michael Sandine, natural resources manager for the Missouri River mitigation project, in the Omaha district of the Army Corps of Engineers. "The goal is to provide a corridor of habitat for various native species, including amphibians, birds, fish and mammals."

The habitat development practices being implemented at numerous mitigation sites include:

* "Create native and diverse habitats
* Preserve and improve riverine habitats and processes
* Preserve and restore wetland habitats
* Preserve and restore upland terrestrial habitats
* Create opportunities to reconnect the floodplain to the river
* Create areas that will require mostly passive management," according to the 2006 annual report for the project.

There were 46,555 acres of mitigation lands acquired as of September 30, 2006. A variety of habitat types have resulted, with a return to native type vegetation the most extensive, followed by grassland and forest.

Water conditions at Saint Marys Island mitigation project site.

Project lands are purchased only from willing sellers.

New shorebird habitat created at Copeland Bend in 2006 has been used by shorebirds.

"Two depressional wetlands were built on the protected side of the river levee which seem to be attractive to shorebirds and serve as a water hole for other species," Sandine said.

This bend project was developed by the Corps, and is now managed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Bank Swallows have established a breeding colony at Kansas Bend, near Peru, Nebraska.

After two new water chutes were established in 2006, the effects of erosional activity of the river water in one chute created earthen banks 12-14 feet in height, Sandine said. The swallows dug nesting burrows this season.

Additional chute creation work occurred at Schilling WMA northeast of Plattsmouth last season, and is currently undergoing the erosional affects of the river flows.

Examples of sites where work has been underway this season include: excavations of backwater areas at Hole in the Rock, finishing excavation of a mile-long chute at Council Bend on the Iowa side of the river northwest of Council Bluffs, and wetland construction at Langdon Bend, Nebraska.

Digging a mitigation wetland.

Dig work at mitigation wetland.

A particular emphasis this current fiscal year is to acquire strips of land along the river channel, to allow the completion of "structural modifications to the existing bank protection and navigation dikes. The changes will encourage the river to widen and create more shallow water habitat in the dike fields," the annual report said.

Map of restoration project at Langdon Bend, Missouri River. Courtesy of ACE.

Sandine enjoys seeing the changes in habitat as mitigation sites evolve from their former land use. "It is interesting and gratifying to see smaller species on the successional ground, such as the profusion of native sunflowers that are used as a seed source for small wild birds."

"The Missouri River Mitigation Project (Project) is designed to mitigate, or compensate, for fish and wildlife habitat losses that resulted from past channelization efforts on the Missouri River. The Project extends from Sioux City, Iowa to the mouth of the Missouri River near St. Louis, a length of 735 river miles," according to the project website.

Congress authorized construction of the mitigation project in 1986.

Implementation of the project started in 1991, with the first project the re-opening of a riverine chute near Marshall, Missouri at the Grand Pass Conservation Area.

There was $132,792,000 of federal funds expended on mitigation efforts in the Corps' Kansas City and Omaha districts, from fiscal year 1992 through fiscal year 2006, according to the projects' December 2006 Annual Implementation Report. An additional $23 million was provided for the 2007 fiscal year. Cost of the overall, authorized project is expected to exceed $1 billion with additional activities in the next few years.

The Corps typically licenses mitigation sites to state agencies which then manage the tracts for uses such as bird watching, fishing, hunting, and other outdoor recreation. The Omaha Nation manages the Hole in the Rock site.


This alternative version of the map has a link to the site webpage, if available.
Missouri River Mitigation Project Website