Newsroom Midwest Region

Celebrating the future and appreciating the past

Providing essential migratory waterfowl habitat for 80 years in Missouri

February 27, 2017

Mallards at Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by USFWS.
Mallards at Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by USFWS.

Today marks the 80th birthday for Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Missouri. Established in 1937 by Franklin D. Roosevelt through executive order as a breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife, the refuge continues to be an essential network of lands and waters for migratory birds including waterfowl, geese, and shorebirds.

Swan Lake is a refuge born from the floodplain. It is uniquely positioned at a coming-together point of many streams and rivers. Overtime, these streams and rivers have shaped the landscape, delivered the rich soils and supported the plants, animals and people that call this place home. The small Elk and Turkey Creeks come together on the refuge and serve as a water supply for refuge habitats. Downstream, Elk Creek joins the larger Yellow Creek whose forested corridor forms the refuge's southeastern boundary, just before it flows into the massive Grand River. The refuge is positioned on the edge of the large Lower Grand River floodplain.

Historically, the Lower Grand River was a highly diverse ecosystem. Best described as a mesic habitat, which in simple terms means that the soils of the area are regularly moist or wet. The consistent moisture and topography created a mix of wet forests and prairies that occurred on glacial terraces and through bottomland forest in the floodplains. The widely meandering Grand River and its tributaries formed numerous oxbows and abandoned channel depressions in the region, which added to this diversity and welcomed an array of wildlife, both migratory and resident.

This unique complex of habitat types created a mosaic of vegetation and aquatic resources that were used by many fish and wildlife species. The central position of the large north-south ¬†Grand River Basin that narrowed to the Lower Grand River made the region a natural “funnel” for movement of water and nutrients and was a major corridor of movement and stopover area for migratory birds.

Today, we know the Lower Grand River Region in very different terms, since a large portion of it has been highly altered. In more recent times, this degradation is largely due to agricultural production in combination with major topographic and hydrologic changes. The watershed now struggles with resulting sedimentation and contamination. As Aristotle once surmised, nature abhors a vacuum. An invasion of non-native plants and animal species have taken advantage of these changes, diminishing plant diversity as a further result.

These changes have increased the importance of conservation lands within the area. With more than 3,000 acres of wetlands, the refuge provides habitat for hundreds of thousands of migrating waterfowl and shorebirds. Refuge biologists and land managers are adapting around hydrogeomorphic changes and invasive species by working with local and state organizations and citizens and stay focused on keeping a diverse network of habitats for the benefit of wildlife and people.

Since the late 1930s, Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge has been an integral part of Missouri Wildlife Conservation history. If you talk with almost any outdoor enthusiast from Missouri, most of them will know of the refuge. As a matter of fact, many will tell you they shot their first Canada goose at the refuge. Canada geese have such a history at Swan Lake that the town of Sumner has the world's largest Canada Goose statue in the their city park. Referred to as Maxie the statue stands 40 feet-tall, has a wingspan of 61 feet and weighs 4,000 pounds! Sumner hails itself as the "Goose Capitol of the World.”

The most unique thing about Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge is its connection with people. With Kansas City, Missouri just 100 miles away, almost 470,000 people are an easy drive to Swan Lake. The refuge usually receives between 20,000 and 30,000 visitors every year, with folks coming for great bird watching opportunities. Perhaps the refuge’s greatest connection with people is with the hunting community. Like a lot of national wildlife refuges, people come to hunt goose, duck, deer and small game. Visitors also come antler shed hunting, mushrooming, and berry gathering.

Greater yellowlegs courtesy of Frank D. Lospalluto/Creative Commons.
Greater yellowlegs courtesy of Frank D. Lospalluto/Creative Commons.

During the late spring and late summer, shorebirds like greater yellowlegs stop over to take advantage of refuge mudflat habitat to feed and rest during migration. Greater yellowleg pick over these mudflats, feeding on small aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates. To accommodate these birds, refuge staff drawdown flooded wetlands, referred to as moist soil units, as a way to mimic the diverse wetlands of the past.

During the spring and fall you can see large gatherings of northern pintails using the the refuge during migration. Pintails primarily feed by using their bill to filter out grains, seeds, weeds, aquatic insects and crustaceans from the water. The male is easily distinguished by its beautiful color pattern and long tail for which it gets its name.

Swan Lake is more than birds!

While birds are a huge draw for visitors, Swan Lake boasts a special history with river otters too. American river otters were reintroduced onto the refuge in 1982 by the Missouri Department of Conservation, and the success of the experiment led to a statewide reintroduction program. Today, river otter populations are doing quite well on the refuge, and though they are shy, they can occasionally be seen in one of the sloughs and creeks.

White-tailed deer are a common sight at the refuge and are best viewed in the evening. During mid-summer, keep an eye out for fawns with their mothers grazing and frolicking in the refuge fields. Also keep an eye out for some of our other commonly seen resident wildlife species like fox squirrels, raccoons, coyotes, beaver, muskrats, opossums, and cottontail rabbits.

The most unusual sighting at the refuge, as reported in an early narrative by a past manager,  was a bull moose. The refuge can attract some very rare sightings of birds usually not seen in Missouri, like wood storks and roseate spoonbill. The past few years the wintering population of trumpeter swans has increased from rare to around 500 wintering Swans at the refuge.

The refuge has a unique relationship with the Missouri Department of Conservation, which used to assist with managing the refuge through a partnership agreement. It is always amazing how frequently you meet employees in the Missouri Department of Conservation that at one time worked at the refuge.

Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge was once featured on Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom with Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler. The show featured cannon netting and banding geese.

Learn more about Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge:

Celebrating the future and appreciating the past

This series of articles is inspired by the long history of land managers and biologists who protect, restore and conserve our National Wildlife Refuge System lands. As our midwest refuges reach milestone anniversaries, we will highlight what makes them special. Look for historic photos, lesser known biological and geological tidbits and reflections from the people who know them best - refuge field staff. Learn more »