Home makeover TV shows are a dime a dozen these days. An energetic designer and a work crew show up at the front door of an unsuspecting family to breathe new life into their home and enhance the form and function of their derelict space. After successfully navigating a few road bumps, slapping up some new trim and a fresh coat of paint, the family has a new home.
That is great for reality television and generating business at home improvement stores, but if you’re like the rest of us, home renovation isn’t an easy task, and it most certainly doesn’t occur overnight. Over the past few years, we’ve been doing some renovation work of our own at Duck Creek Conservation Area. This is one of the Department’s oldest wetland management areas, and it was showing its age and had its own unique set of challenges (more This Old House than Spice Up My Kitchen). While the renovation isn’t quite complete, we’ve made it over the hump and are able to look back and see that things are shaping up nicely.
The neighborhood isn’t the same as it used to be. Actually, habitat and land use is constantly shifting right before our eyes. Currently, we only have 13 percent of the wetlands that used to lie across Missouri’s floodplains. In southeast Missouri, these wetlands were bottomland forests and open swamp. Today, the Duck Creek Conservation Area and the adjacent Mingo National Wildlife Refuge make up 23,794 acres of bottom ground and contain the best and biggest representation of these remaining habitats in the state.
Even in the 60-plus years that these two neighboring public areas have been around, the land isn’t the same as it used to be. Some forests have grown up, while other trees have aged and died. In other places, levees have been constructed just as farm fields on private land have been leveled. Ditches have required maintenance, and water control structures have rusted out and needed to be replaced. The Department’s Golden Anniversary Wetland Initiative has served to address the wear of time on older areas such as Duck Creek.
Before diving into the work, the Department needed to identify the past conditions, the changes that have occurred over time, and the habitats and opportunities that exist today. Through this review, four main objectives to renovate the “old house” of Duck Creek were identified.
- Much like a building with poor ventilation, one goal was to restore the flow of water to and through Duck Creek.
- Similar to a small farmhouse that has been added onto over the years, the function of the space isn’t always optimal as rooms were piecemealed together. By reconfiguring levees and sloughs we’ve made better use of our space.
- In the same way earthen homes help protect and insulate from climatic extremes and disastrous events, restoring a diversity of plant communities will help the wetlands of Duck Creek be more resilient through floods and drought.
- Just as adding safety features and redesigning rooms accommodates a range of ages and abilities in a family home, updates have been made to meet the needs of the range of people who come to enjoy the outdoors at Duck Creek. The underlying philosophy is understanding that quality wetland habitats are the result of complex interactions between water, land, and the associated plants and animals. If the opportunity exists, it is easier to let nature do its own thing than forcing it into a box. If the habitat is good, the critters will respond, and likewise the public use and experiences will benefit.
Ventilation: Restoring Natural Water Flow
In the same way that the movement of fresh air prevents stagnation, the movement of water on and off the land keeps wetlands fresh and productive. This flow also benefits the surrounding land.
We identified the location of historic drainages and installed a series of broad spillways (greater than 250 feet across) along the ditch and levee system to allow water to pulse through the notches during large rains and spread out and through the wetland pools. The first broad spillways were installed on either side of the Pool 3 timbered impoundment, just prior to the historic spring flood of 2011. The spillways operated successfully during the flood, allowing water to move through 500 acres without being trapped on the trees too long during the growing season. Additionally, this provided flood relief and helped reduce the duration of flooding on adjacent private land. Another benefit was the use of this flooded habitat by 46 different species of fish, nine of which were species of conservation concern or state endangered, and 17 species of amphibians and reptiles. A few years later, spillways were installed in the open swamp habitat in Units A and B. Preliminary sampling has shown the early colonization of 29 different species of fish already using the reconnected habitats.
It is often easy to tell the difference between a natural stream and a ditch. Ditches are typically deep and straight to get water off fast and efficiently, while natural channels meander back and forth without any urgency. The trick to restore natural flow patterns is to unstraighten the artificial streamline and raise the once degraded channel bed. The open swamp habitat in Units A and B was ideal for this treatment. A 1-mile section of entrenched ditch was filled in and converted into a much shallower 2-mile meandering channel that now weaves its way back and forth as water spills out into the bottoms. Just in this section, we have produced four times as much streambank edge for herons and shorebirds to forage from in the summer and a lot of flight deck for teal to buzz through in the early fall.
The reconfigured channel allows us to capture water from the surrounding watershed instead of quickly passing us by as it had in the past. Additionally,
we use our existing wells to simulate back-flooding and distribute water through this curvy channel to flood the adjacent floodplain habitats for migratory waterfowl and early season duck hunting opportunity.
Reconfiguring the Ol’ Farm House
Over the years, adding rooms here and there helps accommodate a growing family, but it isn’t as ideal as having an architect create the structure from scratch. In a similar fashion, levees had been constructed over the years that didn’t make the best use of space on Duck Creek.
By using the fall of the land and reconfiguring the open swamp habitat in Units A and B, we have enhanced our wetland management capability. Short levees placed along the contours of the land ensure that the majority of the shallow water column is distributed evenly to allow native seeds, bugs, and plant parts to be available for foraging waterfowl. The restored sloughs across these impounded flats provide habitat diversity and a more natural means to move water off and on the land at appropriate times.
Earthen Insulation: Restoring Vegetation
The advantage of earthen homes is that the ground and plants buffer the climatic extremes, keeping the house safe through storms and regulating the heat and chill through the seasons. Diverse wetland vegetation also provides a buffer through climatic extremes. Some plants prosper during drought, while others thrive through flooded conditions.
Post-construction in Units A and B, we experienced two drastically different weather patterns, yet still produced adequate food for migratory waterfowl. Immediately following the completion of most of the dirt work, the drought of 2012 hit. Despite the lack of any water control, abundant smartweed, millet, and toothcup was produced, especially along the saturated edges of the restored sloughs. Last year, a much wetter year resulted in a bumper crop of millet and sedges in the drier locations, duck potato and plantain in the wetter pockets. This illustrates the variation, yet consistency of food production that can occur in resilient wetland habitats.
Within the newly constructed sloughs, other plants now have more space to stretch their stems and sink their roots. Species like watershield and common water-starwort have responded quickly through natural germination. In other locations, we decided to give nature a boost by planting species that are tougher to establish due to their limited distribution. While pickerelweed, bull’s tongue, and water stargrass may not be on the top 10 list for well-known wetland species, they provide structure, shade, and food for wetland critters of fin and feather. During the past two growing seasons, these plants have flourished and expanded the diversity of habitat available in Units A and B.
By establishing a foundation for native plants, we have provided an open buffet for species passing through the basin. In the past two years on Duck Creek and Mingo, the peak waterfowl numbers for the basin at the end of November and beginning of December was around 124,000 in 2012 and just under 106,000 in 2013. Depending upon the kind of duck and the time of year, the birds search for a variety of food types, including seeds, bugs, plant parts, and waste grains.
In early fall, the native seeds and bugs found in Units A and B provide energy, but ducks also require essential nutrients and proteins for a balanced diet that will sustain them on their continental trek. Successive cold fronts typically usher early migrants on south and eventually bring down the mallards. As the season progresses, the green-headed ducks will begin to use the windbreaks and foods that the flooded timber and wooly buttonbush provide.
Building off our existing blocks of trees and expanding forested habitats is another component in restoring our native plant communities. Although our initial efforts may not be obvious, we’re laying the groundwork for future forests. On the drier edges of Units A and B, 12,000 trees have already been planted to beef up and broaden the woody corridor along McGee Creek.
Accommodating Multiple Public Uses
House renovation projects often reflect the people living in the space. A railing along the deck isn’t vital until you have little ones running under foot, and having disabled-accessible doorways may not be considered unless you or your loved one needs them. There is a wide range of people who come to Duck Creek to hunt, fish, or just enjoy the outdoors.
Pool 1 is the 1,800-acre lake in the center of Duck Creek. From January to October this serves as our water reservoir for flooding the timber and is the best flat-water fishing area in the region. From October through December this large pool with scattered cypress and floating plants is the heart of our waterfowl refuge. Several modifications have been made to meet its varying uses.
We’ve enhanced our ability to capture water within the lake by replacing worn-out water control structures. This helped the management of the area, but it also helped us work with our surrounding landowners. Another enhancement to Pool 1 is the addition of two floating fishing docks. These are disabled-accessible jetties that extend 40 feet over the water for those who may not have access to a boat. Additionally, the once-crumbling boat ramps have been renovated and now provide courtesy docks to aid in trailering your boat.
The renovations have also added new opportunities for waterfowl hunters. In the past, using stationary waterfowl blinds was the dominant hunting style besides the wade-and-shoot opportunity in the timber of Pool 8. We’ve maintained and updated a few blinds in Pools 2 and 3, which have a rich history. However, in Units A and B, reconfiguring habitat has allowed us to provide for another hunting style. Similar to what hunters encounter at Ten Mile Pond or Otter Slough CA’s, in Units A and B hunters now have the freedom to go to where the birds are, within a designated hunting spot. This wade-and-shoot hunting style requires a little ingenuity and can range from using a small, shallow draft boat to hunkering down in the weeds and food plots with your choice of native vegetation, camouflage, or fabricated
grass panels. It is a great way to experience the swamp and bag a limit of ducks in the fall.
Much has been accomplished at Duck Creek, and things look great for this upcoming waterfowl season and throughout the rest of the annual cycle for years to come. Like any home renovation, this project is taking a little more time than any reality TV project, and there is still work to be done. These projects have helped the function of the area, which will be reflected in the habitat and public use for the next 60 years.
Thank you for your support, and for valuing wetland conservation in the state of Missouri. If you are interested in more information on what is going on at Duck Creek, visit our Duck Creek updates page at mdc.mo.gov/node/8656
Funding the Renovations
The North American Wetland Conservation Act was critical in providing federal dollars for three grants that have benefited the Mingo Basin. This program rewards initiatives that include multiple partners working together towards wetlands conservation for the benefit of wetlands-associated migratory birds and other wildlife. Two grants helped contribute to the Duck Creek renovation costs and the third grant is funding work on Mingo National Wildlife Refuge. These partnership funds have allowed us to make the most out of our collaborative dollar, and we thank them for their donations and collaboration to make this work possible.
- Ducks Unlimited
- Wetlands America Trust
- National Wild Turkey Federation
- Audubon Society of Missouri
- Missouri Conservation Heritage Foundation
- Missouri Conservation Pioneers
- Missouri Bird Conservation Initiative
- Missouri Department of Conservation
- Missouri Department of Transportation
- Mingo Swamp Friends
- Mississippi Valley Duck Hunters
- Conservation Federation of Missouri
- Conservation Employees Credit Union
- United Country Realty
- Cato Slough Hunting Club, LLC
- Greenbrier Wetland Services
- Little River Drainage District
- Army Corps of Engineers
- Natural Resources Conservation Service
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Mingo NWR
- U.S. Forest Service
Waterfowl Hunting on Duck Creek
The fall waterfowl hunting opportunity is allocated through a daily one member per party draw system. More information and a video on this procedure can be found at mdc.mo.gov/node/3719.
Depending upon the available flooded habitat, hunting locations in Units A and B, Dark Cypress, timbered Pools 2 and 3 on Duck Creek, and timbered Pools 7 and 8 on Mingo NWR, will be distributed through the season. Although the timing of flooding and availability of positions may vary, there are a total of 28 blinds on Duck Creek and 26 wade-and-shoot opportunities. If conditions allow, there may be as many as 50 individuals allowed in the timbered wade-and-shoot opportunities in Pool 8, and up to 25 individuals in Pool 7.