As I pulled into the parking lot at the Ruth and Paul Henning Conservation Area near Branson, I felt comfortable asking the husband and wife with binoculars what they were trying to see.
I wasn't surprised when they said "painted bunting." Henning Conservation Area is one of the prime locations in southwestern Missouri to see the rare and colorful bird, as well as other rarities like greater roadrunners. I was able to help them spot a male painted bunting perched in a distant cedar tree.
Moments later, two women arrived in a car that had Texas license plates and stepped outside. Armed with binoculars, field guides and day-packs, they, too, were looking for birds.
I asked one of them how she found this location so far from Texas. She said she performed some Internet searches using keywords that included "birding" and "Missouri. She also visited the Conservation Department's and the Audubon Society of Missouri's web sites.
After they arrived in Branson, the women visited the Shepherd of the Hills Fish Hatchery. Friendly staffers at the popular facility directed them to the Henning Conservation Area. The women said the simple fact that this was public land attracted them to the area. They knew that many conservation areas offered parking, privies and well maintained trails.
I joined them for a walk along the wood-chip trail through the woodland and out into the large glade. Although strangers a short time earlier, we listened as friends to bird songs and enjoyed the views from the trail together. Nature lovers, especially birders, usually have much in common and form friendships quickly.
My newfound Texas friends were just two of the thousands of birders who reap the harvest of sound wildlife management and stewardship on Conservation Department lands.
Birding likely wasn't a high priority when the "first generation" of conservation areas were acquired and developed. That was 50 years ago, when areas like August A. Busch, James A. Reed, Fountain Grove and Trimble, which was lost to the Smithville Reservoir, were created. Wildlife areas, as they were then called, were generally thought to be places where the public could go hunting and fishing. Funding for these lands came almost exclusively from hunters and anglers and federal excise taxes on hunting and fishing gear.
However, the wildlife professionals of the Conservation Department knew the game management practices they were prescribing for these areas not only benefited cottontails, bobwhite quail, deer and squirrels, but a host of non-game species, as well.
For example, one of the early practices in the drought prone soils of the Ozarks was construction of small water holes to help the recovery of wild turkey and white-tailed deer populations. These scattered, often fishless ponds also created new homes for amphibians, and drinking and bathing sites for countless numbers of forest birds.
Likewise, small annual food plots of corn, milo and millet helped quail, turkeys and deer survive harsh winter conditions, but they also provided an important food source for cardinals, finches and other seed eating birds.
The conservation landscape changed in November of 1976 when Missouri voters passed the conservation sales tax amendment to the state Constitution. Land management practices and department programs began to change in response to a broader funding base that included "non-consumptive" outdoor enthusiasts.
Following the plans outlined in the Department's Design for Conservation, researchers began studying the long-term effects of traditional wildlife management on "non-game" bird species. For example, the longrunning statewide great blue heron rookery survey by conservation agents dates to that period, as do restoration projects for bringing back nesting populations of bald eagles, trumpeter swans, barn owls and ospreys. The Department also teamed with state universities and colleges to increase knowledge about a host of species, from Swainson's warblers to loggerhead shrikes. The Department's management of public land generally reflects a more natural and diverse approach.
Like hunters and anglers, birders take advantage of public conservation lands in Missouri. For example, Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area south of Columbia attracts birders from around the state, especially during the migration periods. Late last spring I met there with a group of birders from the Ozark Rivers Audubon Society in Rolla.
Sandy Elbert, an active local birder, served as leader and guide. After briefly visiting the City of Columbia wetland cell and glimpsing a rarely seen common moorhen, we headed to 3,500-acre Eagle Bluffs.
During our trek along the gravel road which bisects the wetland, Lynda Richards of Rolla told me how she and a group of friends often visit Little Prairie and White River Trace conservation areas to see birds.
"We like the trails," she said, "but we'll also brushbust to find more secretive species."
Our Eagle Bluffs group was watching a lone cattle egret and a few lingering blue-winged teal when two endangered least terns flew overhead. Lorraine McFarland of Rolla mentioned that she and her husband keep maps of the Department's conservation areas in their cars so they can discover new birding opportunities as they travel.
The Conservation Department is making every effort to accommodate and welcome birders to conservation areas.
Eagle Bluffs area manager Tim James said the Conservation Department has benefited from contact with the birding community.
"Rarely a day goes by during migration that I don't hear from a birder by phone or e-mail about an unusual sighting or the general progress of shorebird migration," James said. "These reports help me make management decisions that are better both for the birds and for the people who enjoy watching them."
James has even scheduled what he calls, "A day in the van with Tim."
"It's my personal outreach to people in birding groups," he said. "These sessions allow us to get to know each other and see things from one another's perspective. The shared time also gives us the chance to discuss management practices."
Wildlife Division Administrator Dave Erickson feels so strongly about the need to strengthen partnerships between the department and organized birding groups that he's asked each district wildlife manager to make contact with local bird clubs.
"From this initiative, good things are already emerging," Erickson said. "Local groups are generating bird check lists for many conservation areas. Larry Rieken, biologist in the Ozark region, was instrumental in hosting the annual spring meeting of The Audubon Society of Missouri in West Plains. Birders from around the state were given guided tours of Conservation Department lands."
Last year, biologist Rob Chapman hosted a group of birders from the Rolla-Salem area on a walking tour of White River Trace Conservation Area. He demonstrated a bird capture technique called mist netting. Rob explained that his management plan relies on the use of prescribed fire to provide diverse habitat for bobwhites, deer, turkey, and myriad species of songbirds.
Conservation Department ornithologist Andy Forbes is assigned to the Missouri Audubon Society office in Columbia.
"The benefits of being located in the same office are great," he said. "It's been much easier for me to recruit volunteer birders to conduct bird censuses such as the North American Breeding Bird Survey. The ongoing partnership between the Department and Audubon focuses each on common goals and increases the effectiveness of both organizations.
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