Waterfowl and shorebirds are spring harbingers at wetlands

News from the region
Kansas City
Published Date


Kansas City, Mo. – The seasons can seem jumbled on a March hike between Redhead Slough and Middle Marsh at the Nodaway Valley Conservation Area. Winter’s lingering chill keeps the breeze cool in northwest Missouri. Trees are still leafless and last-summer’s grass is still brown. But the mallards, teal and geese noisily rising from the wetlands indicate a spring migration is in progress, a good time to see wildlife at Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) wetlands.

Wildlife watchers interested in seeing waterfowl at wetlands should not hesitate. The spring migration is well underway and lasts only weeks. Snow geese are the first migrants to head back north and most have gone, though some still lingered at northwest Missouri wetlands on March 21. The Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge near Mound City reported 113,000 snow geese on that day. But they will soon move north, and later spring migrating waterfowl such as teal are also appearing at wetlands in western Missouri.

“The wide variety of species right now makes it a good time to visit,” said Craig Crisler, MDC wildlife management biologist based at Nodaway Valley north of St. Joseph.

Ducks are most commonly seen. But some geese are present. Canada geese are pairing up for nesting. Hawks and sometimes bald eagles are lingering near the marshes. What a visitor sees may depend on how quickly the weather warms and sends migrating birds northward. In autumn the smaller birds like teal migrate southward first, followed by larger ducks such as mallards and the geese. But in spring the pattern reverses. The geese go north first and the teal are the late arrivals.

All the species mix some during the transition between seasons. Visitors watching wildlife can drive past some marshes. On others, service roads may be closed to vehicles but open for hiking. A long-range camera lens or binoculars can be handy for close views, as wildlife will flush as people approach.

The wetlands at the Settle's Ford Conservation Area in Cass and Bates counties south of Kansas City are attracting a variety of migrants this spring, said Brian Bokern, MDC wildlife management biologist. Many of the early migrants have already moved north. But some linger, and a variety of ducks are at the marshes along with paired-up Canada geese, pelicans, and cormorants.

“There’s still a wide range of things here,” Bokern said. “It’s a great place to be outside and see stuff.”

The Four Rivers Conservation Area in Vernon and Bates counties south of Kansas City attracts a wide variety of migrating birds, too. A number of roads offer vehicle access to the wetlands. From late March of early May wetlands attract shore birds such as a greater and lesser yellowlegs, spotted sandpipers and Wilson’s phalaropes. 

“We’ve got a fair number of spring-migrating waterfowl,” Chris Daniel, MDC wildlife management biologist, said on March 22. “There are not huge concentrations, but plenty to see.”

MDC manages wetlands at conservation areas throughout Missouri. For locations, maps, and habitat descriptions, visit https://nature.mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/places.