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Through the Lens

Winter Wonders at Riverlands

Mon, January 15, 2018

While many of us think only of a warm fire and hot toddy during the dark cold months of winter – I think of big white birds.  Trumpeter and tundra swans, pelicans and of course snow geese. Big white birds, and lots of them!



Perhaps one of my most favorite places in winter is the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary in West Alton, MO. Riverlands is just a quick trip across the Lewis and Clark bridge from historic Alton, Illinois.

Given its handiness to historic Aton, Elsah, Grafton and Pere Marquette State Park, I usually encourage folks to make a winter getaway out of visiting Riverlands. There’s so much in the area that you will want to explore, that a single day trip is often not enough!

The jewel in the crown of the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary is the Audubon Center.

Located on the banks of the Mississippi River, near the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi rivers, The Audubon Center at Riverlands is truly a destination in and of itself.  It’s a destination visited by not just birders, waterfowl lovers, students and families from the Midwest, but also draws visitors from across the nation and the world thanks to Riverlands’ designation as a recognized Global Important Bird Area.

The center is cooperative project between the National Audubon Society and Audubon Missouri, the Center offers world class birding, educational programs, and multiple outdoor opportunities along one of the most major and significant migratory flyways in the world – the Mississippi River.

The Center also has a unique partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Rivers Project Office within its Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary. The Sanctuary is comprised of 3700 acres of prairie marsh and forest. The Audubon Center is housed in the Corps’ visitor orientation facility at Riverlands.

Built in 2011, the Audubon Center building tells an important story of renewable building practices, water resource management, and river habitat preservation. Connected to the Corps’ River Project Office the Audubon Center features 45’ diameter gathering space that looks out over Ellis Bay; an indoor classroom; an outdoor classroom; and a large deck area.  This outstanding viewing area allows winter visitors to come inside and warm up, while continuing to watch the waterfowl, eagles, and wildlife along Ellis Bay. It’s furnished with spotting scopes, reference books and guides, and plenty of comfortable seating for just gathering to visit about the day’s adventure and warm up frozen toes and noses.

The two story circular bay windows constructed in an open timber frame was designed to resemble the complexity of a bird’s nest and provide a 140° grand view of the water and the many species of birds and wildlife that live in the surrounding wetlands, forests, and prairie.

What draws me, along with hundreds of other visitors to Riverlands each winter are the ever-growing numbers of trumpeter swans that over winter there. The swans usually begin arriving in late November and peak in late December and early January. Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary along the Mississippi River in St. Charles County, is the single most important wintering site of the southern states with counts of hovering around 1000 as recently as last year. During a recent mid-December visit I made, the numbers were already over 400.

Once hunted to near extinction in the late 1800’s trumpeter swans are making a comeback thanks to multiple restoration efforts in several Midwest states.  From the initial restoration efforts in the mid 90’s when only a very few trumpeters we originally noted and sighted in and around Riverlands and southern Illinois, the numbers continue to grow each year.

While visitors often will first encounter swans when entering the Riverlands Sanctuary at Ellis Bay, Teal Pond, and throughout the Riverlands Way road, the best place to see Trumpeter Swans in the sanctuary is at Heron Pond. Perhaps the most unique feature at Riverlands is The Heron Pond Avian Observatory. The observatory provides outstanding viewing opportunities for swans, all type of waterfowl, as well as many other bird and wildlife species that inhabit the wetland. The unique design of the observatory allows visitors to get a very close look at the birds and wildlife and makes a spectacular blind for photography.  There is nothing quite so soothing as sitting in the observatory listening to the constant conversation and chatter among the swans, ducks, and geese. It’s truly a wonderful place to learn the different sounds of the waterfowl and what the different calls and cries mean.

Adding to the cache of the observatory is its unique design.  Per the Riverlands Audubon Center web site, “The one-of-a-kind observatory was designed and constructed by students of the Washington University School of Architecture for a class that their professor, Andrew Colopy, titled “Studio Confluence.” The purpose of the class was to design, fabricate and build an avian observatory at Riverlands in collaboration with the Audubon Center at Riverlands and the Rivers Project Office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Studio Confluence was awarded a grant from the Gephardt Institute at Washington University to engage in a positive process of community-based teaching and learning.  Students’ design research focused on camouflage for enhanced bird viewing as well as innovative, earth-friendly building concepts. “

The best times for viewing the swans are like those of all wildlife – early morning and late afternoon. Trumpeter swans head to farm fields during the day to forage. The best time to see the swans on Heron Pond is in the morning before they go to the farm fields. As the days grow colder and more and more areas of once open water freeze over the swans will tend to congregate in any area of open water and can often be viewed easily from inside the Center while they inhabit Ellis Bay.

When planning your visit, be sure to dress warmly, take along binoculars, a spotting scope if you are so inclined, a good bird field guide, and of course your camera.  Several areas of Riverlands Way road have very wide shoulders that easily accommodate a vehicle so that you may pull over to view and photograph the swans and other waterfowl. There are also multiple parking areas and pull offs for those who wish to park for a longer period. Plant to extend your visit by driving all the way down to the Lock and Dam area where Eagles feeding on fish are common sight, as well as making a quick roughly 4-mile trip to the Edward and Pat Jones Confluence Park, where you can take a short bird and wildlife filled hike out to the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.

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