Some MDC areas offer good chances to see wading birds in spring

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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – Nature viewing opportunities exist throughout the year at many Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) areas but in spring, migrating wading birds that visit some of MDC’s wetland areas provide special viewing and photo opportunities.

Though not an official taxonomic classification, the term “wading birds” is usually used for birds in the Pelicaniformes order. The terms “wading birds” and “shorebirds” are sometimes used interchangeably, although “shorebirds” generally refers to smaller wetland birds like plovers and sandpipers. "Wading birds" is a term specific to long-beaked, long-legged birds such as egrets, ibises, and herons – birds that people usually associate with coastal marshes or southern swamps rather than Missouri. However, the Show-Me State is a stopping place for some of these species during spring and fall migrations for several reasons.

“The abundance and diversity of wading birds in Missouri reflects the large extent and diversity of wetland habitat that this state has to offer,” said MDC State Ornithologist Kristen Heath-Acre. “Missouri is also part of the Mississippi Flyway, a migratory pathway for more than 320 species of birds that follows the Mississippi River from its headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico. This makes Missouri wetlands important stopover habitat for many migrating species, including wading birds.”

Great egrets and white-faced ibises are wading birds that will always make nature viewers reach for their cameras and/or binoculars. Great blue herons (one of several heron species that can be seen in Missouri) are seen in Missouri throughout much of the spring and summer but are still always an interesting sight. Some of the more uncommon – but still possible – sightings in spring include sandhill cranes, black-necked stilts, and American avocets.

“Your best opportunity to see wading birds, like most birds, is probably in the morning when birds are most likely to be foraging,” Heath-Acre said. “Look for shallow water with vegetation for them to forage and hide in. Be patient and, as always, keep an eye out for other birders who are all looking in the same direction.”

April and May are good times to start seeing these birds in Missouri, which means now is a good time to plan some spring birding trips. The shallow areas of all of Missouri’s large reservoirs are good places to look for these birds, but some MDC areas also provide opportunities to see wading birds. Here are some viewing options in southwest Missouri:

August A. Busch Jr. Memorial Wetlands at Four Rivers Conservation Area, Vernon and Bates counties: This 13,929-acre area is mostly wetlands with several large tracts of bottomland forest that is an attractive stop-over for wading birds traveling through the region. The boardwalk and the Unit 1 reservoir are particularly good spots for wading birds but keep your eyes open throughout the area. It should be noted that construction projects are going on in a portion of Unit 1 that includes wetland pools (located south of the Unit 1 reservoir) and also in Unit 2. These projects are scheduled to be completed later this spring. Four Rivers is located approximately 15 miles north of Nevada and five miles south of Rich Hill. For more information about the Four Rivers Area, call 417-876-5226 or visit:

Aldrich Refuge, Stockton Lake, Polk County – The Aldrich Refuge, located on the Little Sac Arm of Stockton Lake, is a 750-acre portion of MDC’s Stockton Lake Management Lands. A constructed wetland on the refuge’s east end contains a viewing blind for nature viewing. A combination of vegetative management and water level control creates a spot that appeals to a wide range of wading birds and waterfowl. Aldrich Refuge is located at the intersection of Highway 123 and Polk County Highway T. For more information, contact MDC’s Southwest Regional Office at 417-895-6880 or visit:

Schell-Osage Conservation Area, St. Clair and Vernon counties: This 1,425-acre area of managed wetlands provide habitat for a variety of waterfowl, wading birds, and other wetland-dependent species, making this area popular with hunters during the fall waterfowl seasons and with nature viewers and photographers during the rest of the year. The area features a unique combination of habitats – besides wetlands Schell-Osage also features upland and bottomland forests, old fields, lakes, and ponds. Habitat management will have a different look this spring due to preparations for renovations to the area. However, due to topography, wading bird habitat will exist at different spots across the area. For more information, call 417-432-3414 or visit

Springfield Conservation Nature Center, Greene County: The proximity of MDC’s Springfield Conservation Nature Center to Galloway Creek and Lake Springfield makes this popular site even more popular with wading birds (and people who like to see wading birds) in spring. Keep your eyes open and your cameras ready when walking the Boardwalk Trail, the Sycamore Cutoff Trail and the Photo Blind Trail at the nature center. For more information, call 417-888-4237 or visit:

Wah-Sha-She Prairie, Jasper County: Though prairies are usually more associated with wildflowers, butterflies, and songbirds than wading birds, this 160-acre prairie is an “off-the-beaten-path” birding site that can produce viewing rewards in a wet spring. The wet-weather drainage area that cuts east-west across the southern part of the area offers good potential because it has several intermittent pools. Wah-Sha-She Prairie is owned by The Nature Conservancy and managed by MDC. To get to Wah-Sha-She Prairie, take Highway 171 two miles north from Asbury, then take Jasper County Highway M approximately three-fourths of mile east. For more information, call MDC’s Southwest Regional Office at 417-895-6880 or MDC’s Shoal Creek Conservation Education Center at 417-629-3434 or go to:

Belladonna Educational Fishing Pond at Shepherd of the Hills Fish Hatchery (and nearby Lake Taneycomo), Taney County: This pond is used for MDC fishing programs throughout the summer, but this small (approximately quarter-acre) pond located east of the hatchery buildings – and a wetland area adjacent to the pond – can  be a quality birding site when it’s not being used for fishing. Its proximity to Lake Taneycomo and to a nearby heron rookery makes it a good site to see herons and other species of wading birds. This site is easily accessed: Go east from the hatchery’s visitors’ parking lot and turn right on Belladonna Road. If there’s nothing to see at the pond, drive to the parking lot and boat ramp at the end of Belladonna and check out Lake Taneycomo for possible bird sightings. It should be noted that, while construction is underway on the new MDC Shepherd of the Hills Conservation Center, the hatchery fish raceway complex will be closed to the public. However, the sites mentioned above will still be accessible for nature viewing. For more information, call MDC’s Southwest Regional Office at 417-895-6880.

Wading birds can be a source for eye-catching photos, but like all other wildlife photos, getting that keeper-photograph of an egret or great blue heron takes a little luck and a lot of planning.

“Photographing wildlife can be a challenge, especially birds,” said award-winning MDC photographer Noppadol Paothong. “However, using patience, time, and having some knowledge of the species you’re trying to photograph can help you in many ways. Early morning and the early evening period right around sunset offer opportunities to get good photographs because of the quality of light and because animals will be more active during their feeding times.”

When taking pictures of wading birds and other wildlife, here are some of Paothong’s tips on how to turn an average photo into a great one:

  • The subject, itself, must be interesting, either by its position or behavior.
  • The quality of the light (early morning and evening are the best).
  • Don’t overlook the background. It makes a good photograph even better if the background is also interesting.

“Last and maybe most important,” Paothong adds, “always keep your eye on the subject. Too often, photographers missed out on the best moment for a picture when they took their eyes off the subject. The more time you spend looking through the viewfinder, the better shots you will capture.”

Download MDC’s free MO Outdoors app to find MDC areas close by, including driving directions to those areas. You can also find information at