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Wings of Spring Festival shows off birdwatching paradise

Better Homes & Gardens recently reported what locals have known all along: the Alton area is a bird-watching paradise, and not just because of its eagles.

More than 300 species of migratory and residential birds can be found along the Mississippi River at different times of the year.

"We have as good a habitat for birds as any place in the country," said Frank Graser, 77, of Bethalto, an avid bird-watcher and member of the National Audubon Society's Great Rivers Chapter.

Graser and other "birders" (the preferred Audubon term) take birding trips every Saturday morning. They volunteer at Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge in Calhoun County and participate in official bird counts.

Ken Buchholz, St. Louis-based director of development for Audubon Missouri, is working with government and tourism officials to expand birding opportunities throughout the region.

"It's the fastest growing hobby in the United States," Buchholz said. "There are 70 million people who watch birds, and there's always been a stable audience in St. Louis."

Last year, Buchholz helped organize the first Wings of Spring Confluence Birding Festival at Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary in West Alton, Mo. The second festival will be held Saturday and Sunday.

Seasoned birders will bring binoculars, spotting scopes and guidebooks to help with identification. Graser keeps a list of all birds he has spotted, but he won't reveal the number.

"That's top-secret information," said Graser, a retired inspection supervisor at McDonnell Douglas.

Bird intersection

Rivers are like highways for migratory birds such as eagles, pelicans, geese, ducks, swans and egrets. They winter in warm southern climates, summer in cool northern climates and spend spring and fall somewhere in between.

The Alton area contains three major bird "highways." The Mississippi merges with the Missouri River near Hartford and the Illinois River near Grafton.

Many birds stay a few weeks or months because of the area's open space and variety of natural habitats.

"We have forest, open prairie and water," said Katy Manar, a biologist in the Rivers Project Office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "That pretty much covers the foraging needs of all types of birds."

Manar is stationed at Riverlands, where the federal government owns 2,500 acres, including Ellis Island and Ellis Bay, just across the Mississippi from Alton.

Officials flood and drain restored native-prairie marshes seasonally to attract waterfowl. Three years ago, they joined forces with Audubon volunteers to build a nesting island for the least tern, an endangered species.

"We have a couple sightings of rare birds each year," Manar said. "We had a smew (small, black-and-white duck) in 2002. People flew in from Germany to see it."

Other birding hot spots include Two Rivers, Olin Nature Preserve and Mississippi Sanctuary in Godfrey (The Nature Institute), Pere Marquette State Park north of Grafton, National Great Rivers Museum in Alton, Lewis and Clark State Historic Site in Hartford, Columbia Bottom Conservation Area in North St. Louis County and Jones Confluence Point State Park and Lincoln Shields Recreation Area in West Alton.

Eagle ogling

In the past 10 years, the Alton area has enjoyed a tourism boom related to bald eagles that migrate from Canada and the Great Lakes and stay for the winter.

Thousands of people line riverbanks from mid-November to mid-March to watch America's national symbol soar through the air, perch in trees and swoop down to catch fish.

"(Eagle-watching) brings in at least a million dollars in revenue each year," said Suzanne Halbrook, public relations specialist for Alton Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau. "There's a huge impact."

The visitors bureau serves as a clearinghouse for eagle hikes, eagle bus tours, eagle cruises, eagle lectures and eagle demonstrations. The largest event is Trailnet's Eagle Days, a two-day festival on the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge, west of Madison.

Another popular species is the trumpeter swan, whose migration patterns are similar to those of bald eagles. Numbers have been growing at Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary (formerly Riverlands Environmental Demonstration Area) since it was established in the late 1980s.

"Ten years ago, we were excited to see 10 trumpeter swans in the morning when we got to work," Manar said. "And this year, we broke the record. We had 176 (at one time)."

White pelicans pass through the region in the spring and fall. A few have taken up permanent residence, roosting on sandbars and fishing in shallow water.

This year, an estimated 10,000 pelicans used Riverlands as a pit stop beginning in late February. About 1,000 still were hanging out last week.

The April issue of Better Homes & Gardens magazine listed the Mississippi-Missouri-Illinois confluence as one of six key birding areas in North America, along with locations in New Jersey, Idaho, Texas, California and Ontario, Canada.

"Although dams and farming destroyed most original marshes and bottomlands (at the confluence), remaining habitat and wetlands offer critical stopovers for millions of migrants, as well as year-round loons, stilts and ducks," according to the magazine.

Wings of Spring

The Wings of Spring Confluence Birding Festival is open to both seasoned and novice birders. Naturalists will lead trips at Riverlands, Two Rivers, Pere Marquette, Columbia Bottom, Olin Nature Preserve and Mississippi Sanctuary.

Other activities include birding cruises, kayak trips, demonstrations, art, storytelling, crafts for kids, food booths, live music and other entertainment.

The festival is designed not only to promote birding but to give people a chance to spend time along the mighty Mississippi.

"There's a pent-up demand that people have throughout the region to reconnect with the river," Buchholz said. "For a long time, we've been sort of closed off from it, and there's been a renewed interest. I think the Lewis and Clark bicentennial (2003-2004) had something to do with it."

Festival hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, except birding trips start at 7:30 a.m. both days, and there's an owling event at 8 p.m. Saturday. Most activities are free. Registration is required for trips and cruises.

The festival was only held one day last year. Organizers were impressed with turnout, considering it was a new event and the weather was bad.

"We had 1,000 to 1,500 people," Buchholz said. "There were 35-mph wind gusts, and we had stinging rain coming down sideways. At one point, we were holding the tent down to get people out safely. It was not great festival weather."

To reach Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary, cross the Clark Bridge from Alton and take the first left. For more information, call (800) 258-6645 or visit the Web sites at www.wingsofspring.org,www.visitalton.com or www.mvs.usace.army.mil/rivers.

Contact reporter Teri Maddox at tmaddox@bnd.com or 345-7822, ext. 26.

Wings of Spring Confluence Birding Festival at a glance

Where: Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary in West Alton, Mo.

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, except birding hikes start at 7:30 a.m. both days and an owling event starts at 8 p.m. Saturday.

Admission: Free (except for cruises and kayak trips).

Registration: Required for birding trips and cruises.

Directions: From Alton, cross the Clark Bridge and take the first left.

Information: Call (800) 258-6645 or visit the Web sites at www.wingsofspring.org,www.visitalton.com or www.mvs.usace.army.mil/rivers.

Wings of Spring Confluence Birding Festival schedule

ACTIVITIES THAT REQUIRE RESERVATIONS

7:30 a.m. to noon Saturday -- Birding trips at Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge and Olin Nature Preserve (free).

7:30 a.m. to noon Saturday and Sunday -- Birding trips at Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary (free).

1 to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday -- Mississippi River birding cruises from Alton Marina ($25 per person).

8 p.m. Saturday -- Night birding and weenie roast at Pere Marquette State Park.

7:30 a.m. to noon Sunday -- Birding trip at Columbia Bottom Conservation Area (free).

10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday -- Ellis Bay boat rides, every hour on the hour ($10 for adults, $7 for children 6 and older).

10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. Saturday and noon and 2 p.m. Sunday -- Ellis Bay kayak tours ($30 a person).

OTHER ACTIVITIESMeeting of the Great Rivers shuttle rides -- All day both days, every hour on the hour.

Riverlands nature hikes -- 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday.

Birdhouse building -- 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Folk music by Carter & Connelly -- 10 and 11:30 a.m. and 1 and 2:30 p.m. Saturday.

Rap, reggae, big band and blues by Wild Heart -- 10:30 a.m., noon, 1:30 and 3 p.m. Saturday.

Canoe Song storytelling by Fox Tales -- 12:30 and 3:30 p.m. Saturday.

Folk music about rivers and history by the Lodge Brothers Band -- Noon, 1, 1:30, 2 and 3 p.m. Sunday.

Raptor Awareness demonstration by Wild Bird Sanctuary -- 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

Bird stories by Fox Tales -- 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday.

Wildlife art and photography exhibit -- 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday.

Bird journaling workshop -- 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

Hand's-on educational activities -- All day both days.

Non-profit conservation booths and displays -- All day both days.

Taste of the River food booths and other vendors -- All day both days.

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