Another Ghost Bird Search?

by Dana Ripper

A male Cerulean Warbler.
Photo Frode Jacobsen, Central Hardwoods Joint Venture. 

The Cerulean Warbler is a species of concern with continued population declines; conservation interest in this species peaked in the 90’s and 2000’s during the time the ornithological community was more interested in neotropical migrant songbirds than in most other guilds.  Since then, the Cerulean Warbler (CERW), along with most other warblers, has been pushed out of the conservation spotlight regardless of its lack of recovery.   Thankfully, surveys for this beautiful bird continue in several places across the eastern US, including on hard-to-access Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) and Department of Defense properties in Missouri.
For the second time in three years, Ethan was contracted by the very organized, competent, and friendly Kalamazoo Nature Center ( in Michigan to conduct CERW surveys in Missouri. Ethan worked with CERWs for several seasons in the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee, where the bird is much more abundant than in most areas of Missouri.  Our colleague Veronica Mecko was similarly contracted to search several areas in Iowa.  I was lucky enough to go on one part of the Missouri CERW search, the Long Island survey.  Long Island is a portion of the Great River National Wildlife Refuge, owned by the ACE but managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
A small channel of the Mississippi at sunset.
On the way to where we would launch, Ethan and I crossed the Mississippi River at Quincy, IL at about 5 p.m. the night before.  As I looked out over the bridge, I was thinking to myself….Hmmm.  Ethan and I both have canoe experience – in smaller rivers, in the bayou country of Arkansas and Louisiana, on some lakes and creeks in Tennessee, New York, and Wisconsin.  But were we really going to just hop in a canoe and cruise down one of the largest rivers in the western hemisphere?  One of the largest in the world? I was scared.  From the Quincy bridge, the Mississippi River looked absolutely HUGE.  It was going to eat us.
At the Quincy public boat ramp, we talked to a couple, clearly locals who were comfortable with the River, who were putting their boat on a trailer.  We asked them about the route, possible return channels to the Quincy launch, and whether or not we were crazy in the first place for canoeing the Mississippi.  Fortified by their totally laissez-faire attitude and specific directions, I left my truck at the parking lot and we continued towards the Bear Creek Public Use Area outside of Ursa, IL.
I love this job.  
A drive through vast cornfields – apparently industrial agricultural interests are dominant on the Illinois side of the Mississippi floodplain – ended at the federal levee and there was another world on the river side.  We continued through some mature bottomland forest to a gorgeous (and deserted) ACE campground right on the bank of the River.
Early the next morning, we launched the canoe and floated very peacefully down secondary channels through mature forests.  Contrary to my expectation of heavy river traffic (I had envisioned paddling madly to get out of the way of a barge), we saw only one fisherman the whole morning. Great-crested Flycatchers, Red-eyed Vireos, Northern Parulas, and Pileated Woodpeckers abounded, and I have not heard so many Prothonotary Warblers since my time in the White River NWR of Arkansas. But, we covered more than 12 river miles and did not catch even a glimpse or a song from a Cerulean Warbler.  The morning had been optimal for hearing birds at long distances, and it was still cool enough that many birds were singing unto 11 a.m. and noon. 

The presence of many other mature forest-dwelling species is indicative that the Long Island unit should be good habitat for the CERW.  Not a single individual turned up on later surveys in the Missouri bootheel, in the Fox Island Unit of the Great River NWR, nor on any of Veronica’s search areas in Iowa.  I hope that researchers continue to find strongholds for Ceruleans in the Missouri Ozarks and Tennessee; perhaps someday they will re-colonize our big river bottomlands as well.

One Response to “Another Ghost Bird Search?

  • My Cerulean Surveys on the Niangua River in SW MO have dwindled from a highcount of 18 about 8 years ago to 1 this year.