Birding on Conservation Areas
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