What do you get when you combine passionate volunteers, dedicated biologists, and a unique landscape in the northern Ozarks on a Saturday in June? The Mill Creek BioBlitz, where almost 400 distinct species of plants and animals were recorded in one day. The group documented a wide diversity of plants and animals in a 29,000-acre watershed, and they removed a dumpster’s worth of trash from the landscape.
A BioBlitz is a 24-hour event in which scientists lead teams of volunteers to find and identify as many species of plants, animals, insects, and other organisms as possible. The Mill Creek BioBlitz was put together by a wide array of people who care about the area and want to use this data to help develop a watershed plan. This plan will help residents and government agencies work together to create and carry out projects to conserve this unique landscape.
An Outstanding Area
Mill Creek lies in Phelps County, not far from Interstate 44, southwest of the town of Newburg. Most people know Mill Creek because it is one of the few streams in Missouri with naturally reproducing rainbow trout. For those up to the challenge, it is a fly-fishing paradise. However, Mill Creek is also loaded with other amazing plants and animals. The creek and its watershed are a priority for both the Conservation Department and Mark Twain National Forest (MTNF). More than 60 percent of land in the watershed is held in public trust by the Conservation Department or MTNF. There is also a passionate group of people looking to conserve the land and water for future generations called the Mill Creek Watershed Coalition (MCWC).
What was found in that special landscape? Biologists and their volunteers recorded 392 species between 8 p.m. Friday, June 14, and 1 p.m. Saturday, June 15, 2013. They recorded five bats, 69 birds, 17 fish, 20 amphibians and reptiles, 11 mammals, 95 insects/macroinvertebrates, and 175 plants. An impressive list for a relatively small area!
The Big Event
The BioBlitz kicked off on Friday evening when three groups mist-netted for bats. The netting effort lasted well into Saturday morning. The most common bats caught were red bats and northern long-eared bats. Unfortunately, no endangered bats, such as Indiana bats, were captured, though they are known to be in the area.
Another group of early risers recorded birds by call and sight, starting at 5:30 Saturday morning. Their trails transversed both upland and bottomland habitats. A total of 69 species of birds was recorded, with the most common species being red-eyed vireos, American crows, blue-gray gnatcatchers, and northern cardinals. Beautiful birds with specific habitat requirements, such as the prothonotary warbler and scarlet tanager, were also observed.
The remaining biological collections happened from 8:30 a.m. until 1 p.m. on Saturday.
Aquatic groups searched for fish and macroinvertebrates (species large enough to be seen with the naked eye, but which lack a backbone, such as clams, snails, and worms) along the creek and in the fens and wetland areas using seines. Volunteers got wet collecting 17 species of fish, two species of crayfish, and 26 other species of macroinvertebrates. Two fish species of conservation concern were collected in abundance, the plains topminnow and least darter, proving that Mill Creek has high-quality aquatic habitats. Rainbow trout, bluegill, bleeding shiners, and rainbow darters were also collected in large numbers.
Twenty species of amphibians and reptiles were collected by groups in the bottomlands along Mill Creek and in an oak woodland called Western Star Flatwoods. These volunteers came back covered in mud, yet asking when they could do it again. Their tally included five turtles, two salamanders, six frogs, four snakes, and three lizards. The most commonly collected species were painted turtles and gray tree frogs. One of the most unusual, according to the volunteers, was a worm snake.
Insects were collected by two groups who checked traps set the night before and netted additional species during the day. Volunteers observed 70 species, and most of those were collected in sites along Mill Creek. One group leader said it was a sight to see adults acting like children chasing butterflies. The watershed is also home to the Hines emerald dragonfly, which is federally endangered.
Large and small mammals proved to be the hardest to find during the start of summer, and only 13 species were recorded. Volunteers used flour traps, game cameras, and baited traps as well as active searching to document these species during the BioBlitz. Whitetail deer, gray squirrels, and raccoons were the most common.
Volunteers identifying plants had the most daunting task. Four groups tackled trees, woodland plants, or nonnative invasive plants, and they collectively recorded 175 plant species. Each group had some overlap in species identified, except for 15 aquaticplants. The plants encountered most often were oaks, sedges, blackberries, goldenrods, lespedezas, milkweeds, and tick trefoil. No extremely rare plants were found, but some beneficial, as well as some potentially detrimental, were documented that were not previously known to be in the watershed.
The land and water cleanup portion of the BioBlitz was handled by MCWC through their affiliation with Missouri Stream Team. Three groups of volunteers, equipped with boats to haul trash, cleaned up the creek. An additional three groups of volunteers walked and collected litter along the most heavily used roads. The whole cleanup effort filled a large roll-off dumpster at the end of the day. The trash included scrap metal from farms, old fencing, bent posts, random plastic pieces, cable, and other assorted junk, filling 29 large green mesh trash bags, plus 17 tires for recycling. The result was a much cleaner landscape for both Missouri’s citizens and the animal and plant residents to enjoy.
The groups returned by 1 p.m. on Saturday, wet, muddy, itchy, and tired. They were greeted with food and music back in Newburg. The biologists worked up data sheets to give preliminary results, and the volunteers mingled and shared tales of their adventures.
In the end, this collaboration of citizens and scientists resulted in an incredible amount of data that will be used to create an important watershed plan. The biologists and volunteers also developed relationships that will long outlast this event. As one volunteer said, despite the muck and effort, “Thanks for this opportunity…what a wonderful day that I will treasure forever. Let’s do it again.”
To learn more about the Mill Creek Watershed Coalition, visit MillCreekMO.org.
A special thank you to:
Americorp (St. Louis) • City of Newburg • Fort Leonard Wood Natural Resources Branch • Friends of Mill Creek • Houston House — Newburg • Local Landowners • Mark Twain National Forest • Mill Creek Watershed Coalition • Missouri Audubon Society • Missouri Department of Conservation • Missouri Department of Natural Resources • Missouri Master Naturalist (7 different chapters) • Missouri River Relief • Missouri Stream Teams (5 different teams) • Missouri Stream Team Watershed Coalition • Missouri State University — Springfield • Missouri State University — West Plains • Missouri University of Science and Technology • Ozark Fly Fishers • Roubidoux Flyfishers • State Representative Dr. Keith Frederick — District 149 • Splash Designs • Troutbusters • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service • USA Tours