Looking out into Unit A you can still see a few gadwall and blue-winged teal waddling around in the shallow water. If you look closer, you may see several shorebirds zipping back and forth, sifting and probing through the soft mud with their beaks looking for bugs. Although they don’t get much credit, if you stop and think about what they are doing and where they are going, you might be amazed.
I know, I know; they are just a bunch of little brown birds that you can’t shoot or eat, so who cares? Well, bear with me for a minute and I’ll explain how they are a great example of wetland variability and resourcefulness.
Not your ordinary killdeer
At first glance the semipalmated plover may look like a common killdeer. However, this bird is less than half the size of its cousin and weighs in at only 45 grams on average. Additionally, it has only one black band across its chest, whereas a killdeer has two broad bands. Another difference between the two is that the semipalmated plover briefly passes through our neck of the woods only twice a year. A one-way trip to or from the breeding grounds near the arctic to the wintering grounds along the coast is roughly 3,000 miles at minimum.
No matter what size you are, a journey that far takes a lot of gas. Most shorebirds, plovers included, primarily eat bugs or fly larvae called bloodworms. Bloodworms feed on algae that are busy breaking down plant matter. These larvae emerge during the late winter and early spring as the sun heats up the mud within wetlands, shorelines and flooded agricultural fields. During the spring as the water line recedes and mudflats are exposed these bugs are devoured as the shorebirds move back north to start their annual cycle anew.
On average a 45-gram shorebird, like our semipalmated plover, must forage 8 grams of bloodworms a day for it to survive and have enough fat to help with the next leg of migration. In a wetland area like Duck Creek, a plover could probably find its necessary food requirements within 43 square feet of mudflats per day. Although 40 square feet doesn’t seem like much at first, if you multiply that by several hundred birds over a month, you’ll start adding up some acreage. Luckily, much of this habitat is provided at the same time we draw down water in our wetlands to stimulate moist soil plants or dry things out for food plots.
However, we don’t always have control and seasonal precipitation patterns often play a larger role in habitat availability for shorebirds. For example, think of where the waterlines were at this time last year. Water was everywhere in Southeast Missouri. This year it has been remarkably dry and the waterlines are drastically reduced. Odds are, next year’s habitat conditions will also be different and such is the natural variability of wetland habitats.
To me this is why shorebirds are incredible. They thrive on habitats that are in constant transition and are never in the exact same condition from one year or season to the next. For a person like myself who isn’t always open to change, maybe I should learn something from these small, resourceful little birds.
All in all there are 33 different species of shorebirds that regularly occur within the Mississippi Flyway. They each have a different strategy that allows them to take advantage of the landscape and complete their continental voyage each spring and fall.
I know over the last few paragraphs I haven’t been able to add these birds to the bag or put them on the grill. However, you have to give them some respect for working so hard, travelling that far and not being noticed. There is something to be said about that. Thanks again for your time and interest. We hope you enjoy your next outing on Duck Creek.