Division of Bird Habitat Conservation

Birdscapes: News from International Habitat Conservation Partnerships

Project Profiles - United States


The Bird That Captured Chicago's Navy Pier
by Stephen Packard, Chicago Wilderness

This story started with masculine posturing. Maybe even polygamy. Worse yet, it began with an attack on innocent bystanders. People strolling along Chicago's Navy Pier—out to have a good time, see the sights, ambling happily, unsuspecting. Then, repeatedly, near the Ferris wheel, a feathered thug rocketed down out of the sky and pecked their heads.

This is a story about sex and violence, but also generosity and love. We start with Ray Cachares, a big man with a big job. Assistant General Manager for the Navy Pier Exposition Authority, Cachares began to get reports about the attacks near the Ferris wheel. He was not amused.

"I went over there to check it out, and this bird went after my head," Cachares complained. "He got my bald spot. He got the Brinks guy, too. I didn't know if we were getting into a Hitchcock/Tippy Hedren kind of thing."

A male red-winged blackbird was defending a nest near the Ferris wheel. "Frankly, I thought we could do without that bird," said Cachares. But he also was aware that Mayor Richard Daley had a soft spot in his heart for nature, so he called the city's Department of the Environment, and the Department called the Audubon Society.

"When I first talked to Ray, I wasn't sure he was going to have a lot of patience for this," said Jerry Garden, Land Stewardship chair for the Chicago Audubon Society. Garden has an infectious passion for birds. "We hiked around the pier and looked at birds. I showed him the barn swallows that nest under the pier. They clear the air of a lot of flying insects. I told him about the rare ducks that birders see from the pier during migration." Cachares told him that 9 million human visitors flock to Navy Pier each year. They come because they want to have a good experience. They do not come to be dive-bombed by birds. No solution emerged.

Soon more Audubon activists were talking to more pier staff. A lot of issues and options were raised. "The turnaround came in kind of a funny way," said Garden. "I was trying to evoke some understanding for the red-wing. I explained that he probably had a number of mates scattered around the pier, each with a nest of eggs or babies." This bird was working to protect his family, or families, actually. Cachares started to joke about how this bird "thought he was Hugh Hefner." But a growing respect for this feisty red-wing began to spark conversations about how visitors to the pier might come to enjoy the birds.

Soon city naturalists and Audubon volunteers were designing interpretive signs. "The staff got excited," says Cachares, "including some people I hadn't seen excited for a long time." After last year's nesting season, bird-proof netting was placed over those shrubs near the Ferris wheel. The red-wings still nest, but in less exposed spots.

Now Cachares muses, "It's changed this place. And to think it all started with a red-winged blackbird attacking people in line."

For more information, contact Debra Shore, Editor, Chicago Wilderness, 5225 Old Orchard Road, Suite 37, Skokie, Illinois 60077, (847) 965-9275, editor@chicagowildernessmag.org.


The Way It Was
By Jim Hansen and Rick Northrup, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and Mike Rabenberg, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service

If ever in your musings, you contemplated how things must have been in the Old West, muse no longer. A conservation partnership can replace your imagination with reality if you are willing to travel to Montana.

Partners of the Northeastern Montana Prairie Pothole Joint Venture II Project have conserved and enhanced 68,072 acres of some of the best wetland and grassland complexes in the State. With over 40 percent of the project area in native cover, it is possible to see Montana as it once was, with pristine wetlands and unbroken prairie.

These habitats sustain a wide variety of shorebirds and waterfowl. More than 80 percent of Montana's breeding population of piping plovers and the State's highest densities of nesting ducks occur in the project area. Mallard recruitment rates are among the highest in the Prairie Pothole Region at twice the break-even point. The prairies support grassland species such as Baird's sparrow, chestnut-collared longspur, and lark bunting, which have experienced declining numbers due to sodbusting.

In addition to protecting habitat through fee-title acquisition, conservation easements, and management agreements, partners restored and enhanced habitats on private and public lands. This work was accomplished in six projects:

Fort Peck Reservation
The partnership restored or established 282 acres of wetlands and developed rest-rotation grazing systems on 41,500 acres of native prairie, including 24 miles of riparian habitat, all to benefit wildlife and native plants that hold special medicinal and religious significance for the Assiniboine and Sioux peoples.

Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge
The failing Indian Service Dam was replaced with a new structure, allowing refuge staff to continue to manage water levels on the 1,500-acre Homestead Unit marsh system. This system produces up to 10,000 ducks and 500 Canada geese annually and also hosts nesting colonies of eared grebes, western grebes, black-crowned night herons, and Forster's terns.

Lake Creek Marsh
Partners enhanced a 58-acre, shallow wetland that provides excellent breeding habitat for ducks and for wet-meadow species such as common snipe, Wilson's phalarope, sora, Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrow, and LeConte's sparrow. Five hundred acres of adjacent native prairie were protected by fencing and grassland easements.

Mosquito Creek Marsh and Whitetail Dam
Both of these sites contain 32 acres of wetlands, with the former being a new wetland creation that will provide excellent shallow-water bird habitat. An old impoundment at the dam site was repaired, not only providing bird habitat but also supporting a yellow perch fishery.

Private Lands Restoration and Enhancement
Some 778 acres of wetland habitat on properties belonging to more than 80 private landowners were restored, enhanced, or created. Easements or fee-title acquisition were used to protect an additional 1,309 acres of wetlands and 5,453 acres of adjacent grasslands, and 17,370 acres of grasslands were enhanced or restored.

Future work with private landowners and the Fort Peck Tribes is planned. Building mutual trust over the years has been essential, and it is trust that will enable partners to take advantage of the many opportunities that remain.

For more information, contact Mike Rabenberg, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge, 223 North Shore Road, Medicine Lake, Montana 59247-9600, (406) 789-2305 extension 106, michael_rabenberg@fws.gov.

Northeastern Montana Prairie Pothole Joint Venture Project II Partners

Partners added $2,624,782 to a $640,000 North American Wetlands Conservation Act grant
to achieve their conservation goals.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks
Ducks Unlimited, Inc.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Assiniboine/Sioux Tribes
The Nature Conservancy
Private Landowners
Northeast Montana Wetland Management District Volunteers
Delta Waterfowl
Pheasants Forever-Daniels County Chapter
Dagmar Gun Club


Bringing Back Iowa's Prairie Potholes
By Dale Garner and James Zohrer, Iowa Department of Natural Resources

Iowa's Prairie Pothole Region was defined following the last glacial age some 12,000 to 14,000 years ago. Left in the path of retreating glaciers were a multitude of potholes and lakes scattered throughout an undulating terrain of fertile soils, all of which were exposed to a climate of favorable rainfall. Prairies flourished, wildlife was abundant. Not surprisingly, these conditions would draw European settlers west, followed by the inevitable: development. Development has taken a heavy toll on Iowa's wildlife habitat—the State has lost 98 percent of its wetlands and more than 99 percent of its prairies since settlement.

Tucked away in the northwest corner of the State's Prairie Pothole Region, the 62,300-acre Iowa Great Lakes watershed contains the greatest concentration of wetlands remaining in the State. Approximately 21,900 acres of existing or restorable pothole wetlands and deep-water lakes lie in this special place, including Iowa's two largest natural lakes: 5,684-acre Spirit Lake and 3,847-acre West Okoboji. This area relies heavily on tourism for its economic base (more than $60 million annually), and as one might guess, development and recreational pressures on remaining habitat abound.

In 1993, the Iowa Great Lakes partnership formed to protect and restore the watershed's habitats. They devised a multi-phased plan to guide and focus their efforts. To date, three large-scale projects have been completed involving $1.9 million in North American Wetlands Conservation Act grants and $2.5 million in partner funding to protect and/or restore 3,290 acres of wetlands and associated uplands. Partners of numerous smaller projects have added at least 1,500 acres more of protected habitat to the watershed.

The acquired lands and restored wetlands and prairies offer a multitude of benefits to waterfowl and wetland-associated wildlife by providing high quality production, staging, loafing, and feeding areas for both resident and migratory species. Mallards, blue-winged teal, wood ducks, and giant Canada geese are among the many waterfowl species using the project sites, and the project area is at the heart of Iowa's popular Trumpeter Swan Restoration Program. However, more than waterfowl have benefitted from this effort. At least 85 nongame bird species have been recorded in the project area, including species of management concern such as the northern harrier, cerulean warbler, and black tern.

Recreational use of these areas by hunters, birdwatchers, and environmental educators has increased substantially. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has nominated several sites within the project area as Bird Conservation Areas. Iowa Audubon is also proposing to list several locations within the project's boundaries as Important Bird Areas. The Iowa Watchable Wildlife Guide notes that the Iowa Great Lakes area provides some of the best birding areas in the State. Local communities recognize the importance of the work being done and offer support because of the benefits accruing to them. Examples include improved surface and groundwater quality and increased tourism, which boosts local economies.

Hardly taking a breath, the partnership is developing another project, expanding on the benefits created in the past by bringing back more of Iowa's prairie potholes.

For more information, contact Dale Garner, Special Projects Coordinator, Iowa Department of Natural Resources – Wildlife Bureau, Wallace Building, 502 East 9th Street, Des Moines, Iowa 50319-0034, (515) 281-7127, dale.garner@dnr.state.ia.us.

Iowa Great Lakes Project Partners

U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Iowa Department of Natural Resources
Environmental Protection Agency
Dickinson Soil and Water Conservation District
Jackson Soil and Water Conservation District
Dickinson County Conservation Board
Ducks Unlimited, Inc.
Great Lakes Chapter of Ducks Unlimited, Inc.
Dickinson County Pheasants Forever
Emmet County Pheasants Forever
Northern Iowa Prairie Lakes Audubon Society
Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation
Okoboji Protective Association
Spirit Lake Protective Association
Tommy Thompson
Doug Harr
Dale Lundstrom
Erwin Wackerbarth, Jr.
Neil Heiser


Getting Things Under Control
by Jeff McCreary, Ducks Unlimited, Inc.

Wetland habitats in the Intermountain West's Great Basin are few and far between, and, as one could deduce, they are crucial habitats for millions of migrating and breeding waterbirds. Established in 1968, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Bear Lake National Wildlife Refuge (Refuge) lies within one of the largest wetland complexes in the Great Basin's northern reaches. Located approximately 60 miles northeast of the Great Salt Lake, the Refuge secured 18,000 acres of emergent marsh and open-water habitat used by breeding redheads, canvasbacks, Canada geese, white-faced ibis, and migrating trumpeter swans, as well as a wide variety of other waterfowl and shorebirds.

While the Refuge ensured the presence of wetlands for birds, its ability to provide quality habitat has not been without its ups and downs. Since the early 1900s, Bear Lake water resources have been managed for human uses. Water for power and irrigation has been manipulated through a system of constructed canals and pumping stations. Functionally, this system controlled the lake's water level and disrupted the hydrology of its surrounding marshes. The continuous fluctuation of water levels in the marshes made nesting for waterbirds uncertain at best and often destroyed most or all nests.

To complicate matters, carp were introduced into the lake's irrigation system to control vegetative growth in canals and ditches. These non-native, bottom-feeding fish soon made their way into the Refuge's Bear Lake Marsh, compounding problems for waterbirds by effectively removing most of the marsh's aquatic vegetation—a needed food source. Bear Lake water management and the carp infestation converted the marsh from an area recognized for its incredible waterbird production to an area primarily used only as a stopover during migration.

Refuge staff has worked continually to improve habitat conditions in the marsh. A recently completed partnership effort, aimed at restoring the marsh to its former condition, was supported by a $468,000 North American Wetlands Conservation Act grant and $1.6 million from partners. The project's goals were to improve water management capabilities, eliminate carp in the marsh, and re-establish the once high water quality within the Refuge's 1,900-acre Bloomington Unit.

Restoration work involved construction of an approximately 5-mile-long dike that separates the marsh from the canal. Four 48-inch culverts containing water-control structures fitted with fish screens were installed in the dike at approximately 1-mile intervals. PacifiCorp, a multi-state power company, installed a water-control structure on the main Bear Lake canal, improving water management for its operations and those of the Refuge. After completion of the dike in spring 2000, the Bloomington Unit was drawn down, and carp were removed. Beginning in October 2001, water re-entered the marsh free of carp.

With vegetation replenished and water levels under control, partners believe their efforts will result in an eight-fold increase in breeding bird numbers in spring 2002, giving all of us throughout the Pacific and Central Flyways who care about birds something to look forward to.

For more information, contact Mark Biddlecomb, Ducks Unlimited, Inc., Western Regional Office, 3074 Gold Canal Drive, Rancho Cordova California, 95670-6116, (916) 852-2000, mbiddlecomb@ducks.org.

Bloomington Unit Wetland Restoration Project Partners

Ducks Unlimited, Inc.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
PacifiCorp
Idaho Department of Fish and Game


Rolling Plains, Still Water
by Scott Sudkamp, Texas Parks and Wildlife

"Small, but important." That's how Texas Parks and Wildlife biologist Bill Johnson describes the water-table lakes of the Taylor Lakes Wildlife Management Area (WMA) tucked away in the Rolling Plains of Texas near Clarendon.

The 530-acre WMA contains four shallow lakes, which cover approximately 15 percent of the total management area. Largely due to a lack of surface water on the Texas plains, the lakes are a gathering place for a multitude of birds. Local birders have recorded more than 205 species in the WMA, and the majority of these are associated with the lakes. Great numbers of migrating shorebirds, including Wilson's phalaropes, American avocets, and upland, least, western, and Baird's sandpipers, use these wetlands. Waterfowl, such as mallards, northern pintails, green-winged teal, lesser scaup, and Canada geese, also use the lakes in large numbers during migration and in the winter. Tundra swans, sandhill cranes, and least terns make their way here, too.

Natural Resources Conservation Service personnel assisted Texas Parks and Wildlife biologists in designing two additional wetlands in the WMA. Construction of dikes and water-control structures was completed last spring. Totaling about 14 acres, these new wetlands function as moist-soil management units. Their design allows managers to regulate water levels to enhance conditions for growth of important food plants, such as smartweed and barnyard grass. These managed wetlands provide important food resources for waterfowl, particularly dabbling ducks, as well as several species of seed-eating birds and mammals.

Because rainfall in the region is unpredictable, and a more dependable water supply is needed for effective management, biologists are making plans to further enhance the WMA's wetlands by installing wells and pumps. These will help to control water levels on the lakes and moist-soil units.

A project to restore a degraded wetland on the WMA also is in the works. Cattail Lake, as the name implies, is choked with cattail and bulrush. Historical aerial photos show that this was not always the case. Until the 1970s, Cattail Lake was a shallow, open-water lake. Decades of cotton farming on the adjacent uplands, along with the loss of field terraces, allowed the lake to silt in and gave the cattails and bulrush the toehold they needed. Removing the vegetation and installing a water-control structure to regulate water levels should restore the lake to its historic condition, adding about 20 acres more of open water to the WMA.

So, the next time you are passing through Clarendon, Texas, and dark, clouded skies portend a storm moving through, take a closer look. It's probably just the multitude of birds at the Taylor Lakes Wildlife Management Area lifting off the lakes.

For more information, contact Scott Sudkamp, Wildlife Biologist, Texas Parks and Wildlife, Matador Wildlife Management Area, 3036 FM 3256, Paducah, Texas 79248, (806) 492-3405, ssudkamp@caprock-spur.com.

Taylor Lakes Wildlife Management Area Partners

Texas Parks and Wildlife
Playa Lakes Joint Venture
Ducks Unlimited, Inc.
Natural Resources Conservation Service


Where Fresh and Saltwater Meet
by Thomas Abello, The Nature Conservancy

Merrymeeting Bay and the Lower Kennebec River estuary of southwestern Maine constitute one of the largest and most important freshwater/tidal ecosystems in the United States. The habitats associated with these water bodies provide critical nesting and wintering habitat for resident and migratory birds and spawning and nursery habitat for freshwater and anandromous fish.

More than 50 species of freshwater fish, and all 10 of Maine's anadromous fish species, including the endangered Atlantic salmon and shortnose sturgeon, are found in the estuary's waters. The river is rich with nearly 15 miles of tidal marshes—a scarce habitat in Maine—and significant stretches of its brackish waters remain open in freezing temperatures. This combination provides vital habitat for many wintering wetland-dependent birds: bald eagle, common loon, American black duck, osprey, and northern pintail to name a few. The Federally endangered piping plover, the State-endangered least tern, great blue heron, northern saw-whet owl, saltmarsh sharp-tailed sparrow, and goshawk exemplify the diversity of birds breeding in the area. In all, 140 bird species have been recorded here.

To protect the integrity of the area's natural resources, 10 governmental and private conservation organizations assembled themselves into the Maine Wetlands Protection Coalition (Coalition) nearly a decade ago. The Coalition's mission is today what it was then: to protect the region's existing wildlife values and restore the ecosystem's health. The partners focus their efforts on land acquisition, wetland restoration, and improved access to spawning grounds for migratory fish. They work with municipalities, private landowners, commercial and recreational fisherman, and hunting and recreational-boating enthusiasts to accomplish their goals. Thus far, public support of the Coalition's efforts has been strong. Community leaders, landowners, and businesses are reaching out to the partnership to help conserve this remarkable landscape.

With a focus area of more than 27,000 acres, which includes 9,000 acres of marsh and intertidal habitat, and faced with increasing development pressure from Maine's three major urban centers only 30 minutes away, the pace of the Coalition's work within the estuary is quickening and is more important than ever.

Buoyed by three North American Wetlands Conservation Act grants received over 7 years and totaling nearly $2 million, the Coalition has conserved more than 4,000 acres of habitat important to waterfowl, raptors, shorebirds, wading birds, passerines, and fish. But wildlife are not the only beneficiaries of the Coalition's work. Conserved lands, which are open for hiking, birding, boating, and hunting, help to maintain a quality of life that so many of southwestern Maine's residents enjoy.

For more information, contact Thomas Abello, The Nature Conservancy - Maine Chapter, 14 Maine Street, Suite 401, Brunswick, Maine 04011, (207) 729-5181 extension 202, tabello@tnc.org.

Maine Wetlands Protection Coalition

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Gulf of Maine Program
The Nature Conservancy
Maine Coast Heritage Trust
Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife
Friends of Merrymeeting Bay
Lower Kennebec Regional Land Trust
Maine Natural Areas Program
Land for Maine's Future Program
Phippsburg Land Trust
Ducks Unlimited, Inc.


The Katy Prairie Initiative: A Clarion Call to Action
by Mary Anne Piacentini, Katy Prairie Conservancy and Carter Smith, The Nature Conservancy

Situated in Harris and Waller Counties, Texas, the Gulf Coast Joint Venture's Katy Prairie Initiative represents an important ecological link on the Central Flyway's southern terminus in the United States. The prairie's assemblage of palustrine farmland, natural depressional wetlands, pasture, and riparian woodlands provide critical wintering, breeding, and stopover habitat for more than 200 bird species.

Despite the relatively intensive agricultural land use in the project area, the landscape has remained enormously productive for wintering waterfowl. With the extensive loss of coastal marsh and depressional wetlands, wintering birds have become increasingly dependent upon inland agricultural wetlands.

The project area contains seasonally flooded rice stubble, transitional prairie wetlands in various stages of succession, fallow fields, and large reservoir impoundments, all of which provide essential resting, roosting, and foraging areas for approximately 25 percent of the mid-continent population of snow geese that winter along the Texas coast. Fifteen species of ducks, including northern pintails, black-bellied whistling-duck, American wigeon, mottled ducks, and ring-necked ducks, rely upon the small ponds and shallow water habitats of flooded fields for foraging and roosting.

These flooded fields also generate rich sources of aquatic invertebrates, crustaceans, and seeds for wetland-associated species, such as great blue herons, great egrets, roseate spoonbills, and Wilson's phalaropes, that stop over during spring and fall migrations. Depressional-wetland complexes in pastures and abandoned rice fields provide abundant moist-soil vegetation, like panicums, smartweed, and spangletop, that ducks forage.

The gallery forest along Cypress Creek contains mature stands of water oak, ash, and live oak, creating a canopy that is frequented by wintering bald eagles and red-shouldered hawks. Ideal nesting and brood-rearing habitat within the creek's wooded sloughs attract wood ducks. Rare neotropical migrants such as Swainson's and golden-winged warblers use the gallery forest for resting and stopover habitat during migration.

The Katy Prairie Initiative has become something of a clarion call to action for those in Texas concerned with the ramifications of unfettered urban sprawl on wildlife and wetlands. Long heralded for its premier waterfowl hunting and bird watching opportunities, the project area is under siege from rapid urbanization. From 1970 to 1990, the population of the Katy Prairie increased 800 percent, and in the next 10 years, the population is expected to double. More than 50 percent of the prairie has been permanently lost to urbanization. Subdivisions and rural residential development in the eastern portion of the area provide a harbinger of the future diminution and fragmentation of available habitat.

Private landowners, real estate developers, conservation organizations, and government entities involved in this project are emblematic of the broad-based support for a system of viable migratory preserves on the prairie. In addition to permanently protecting 1,663 acres within the Texas Rice Prairies Region for wildlife, the project benefits outdoor-recreation enthusiasts who frequent the prairie. Wildlife viewing, educational programs, and hunting opportunities are available on the acquired lands through guided tours and leasing operations. The watershed's significance in attenuating flood damage for downstream residents of Houston further increases the project's value to Texans. What's good for wildlife is good for people.

For more information, contact Mary Anne Piacentini, Katy Prairie Conservancy, 3015 Richmond Avenue, Suite 230, Houston, Texas 77098, (713) 523-6135, maryanne@katyprairie.org, www.katyprairie.org.

Katy Prairie Initiative Partners

Partners matched a $744,000 North American Wetlands Conservation Act grant with $1,116,000
to achieve their project goals.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department
Live Oaks Ranch
The Mills Corporation
The Trust for Public Land
Katy Prairie Conservancy
Legacy Land Trust