Migrating birds find refuge at St. Catherine Creek

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 24, 2002

Published Saturday, February 24, 2001 4:05 PM CST

The big green truck squashed the mud, flinging it first this way, then that as it bumped slowly along the narrow passageway.

Icy rain fell deliciously on waterfowl feeding in the reedy waters on both sides of Swamp Road.

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It was just about the perfect day for coots, ducks, egrets and others making their seasonal stopover at St. Catherine National Wildlife Refuge.

Maintenance supervisor Nathan Hill maneuvered the rutted road with a skill that showed the confidence of one who had driven regularly in the wintry mire.

Still, the perfect day for waterfowl was indeed a messy one for the human well-wisher come to admire them.

“Look, you can see where the water is beginning to come up along the road here,” Hill said, pointing to a pool encroaching the passenger side of the drive.

“The water should be all over here, but the drought last summer brought us way down.”

In fact, the swamp was completely dry in the summer of 2000, and the water has not reached its optimum winter stage yet, he said, explaining that the swamp is fed by natural springs and by runoff water.

Hill had a big project on his mind on this cold January day.

“We’ll put the wood duck boxes up next week,” he said. “They’ll be nesting in February.”

Winter does not put a damper on work at the refuge.

Each season heralds new winged visitors with new needs and expectations.

Refuge management is complex, said Pat Stinson, a wildlife biologist serving part time as acting manager until a full-time appointment can be made.

Stinson, whose regular position is in Jackson and involves working with refuges and private landowners, said the St. Catherine property is ideal as a bird and waterfowl stopover.

St. Catherine is large enough – more than 24,000 acres – and diverse enough – including lakes, swamps, agricultural land and forest areas – to give birds and waterfowl the variety of habitats and food they need at the different seasons they visit.

“It really is below what we call the delta land in Mississippi, but St. Catherine is a small extension of that same delta land, and it complements the delta land across the river in Louisiana,” Stinson said.

Water management requires man-generated plans, including diverting and rerouting water and creating dams to control its flow.

Several thousands of refuge acres are managed to provide adequate and appropriate food, Stinson said.

“We have a cooperative program with farmers, who plant soybeans, corn and milo,” he said.

“This agricultural food we call ‘hot food,’ because it generates high energy for the birds in the winter months and it’s easily accessed.”

The farmers harvest about 70 percent of the crops and leave the remaining 30 percent for the birds’ feasting.

“Everyone benefits from this program,” Stinson said.

Other parts of the refuge are maintained in natural foods, which, though not as high in energy, contain more of the nutrients birds need.

“We keep the annual and moist-soil plants like sedges, millets, smartweeds and smartgrasses in those areas and keep the land from becoming reforested.”

However, trees do make up certain portions of the refuge. They play an important role for many birds during mating season.

“As they pair up, they need the wooded habitat,” Stinson said.

“You have to provide different types of habitat, such as the trees and shrubs they need for protection from the inclement weather, too.”

The flat swamplands of the refuge rise slowly but dramatically into hilly woods, where an occasional sighting of a black bear or a panther causes excitement.

For the most part, however, the hills provide another type of refuge, where deer and other animals common to the region are under the watchful eye of the managers.

“We’re able to control the number of people going in and out and the amount of hunting that goes on,” Stinson said.

“And we’re therefore able to manage that wildlife and their habitat.”

Measuring the value of a wildlife refuge to the people who live near it would be hard to do, Stinson said.

St. Catherine is aesthetically pleasing. The area enhances the environmental character of southwest Mississippi.

For the animals who visit, the refuge promotes their welfare and the continuity of their species.

Eagles nest and bear young near Gilliard Lake. Refuges have played a role in the remarkable comeback made by the nearly decimated great national bird.

“It’s always great to see eagles,” Stinson said, adding that the birds have done so well in the last few years that he expects they may be taken off the endangered species list in 2001.

In the summer, neo-tropical birds stop for a visit, providing great treats for area bird watchers.

St. Catherine in a way is a refuge for people as well as for birds and wildlife, Stinson said.

“Here is a place where you can take your family and feel safe. You can see wildlife in their habitat. Without our national refuges, most people would never have opportunities like this.”

Best of all, the people own the refuge, he said.

“We encourage people to come out and enjoy the refuge. It belongs to everyone, and they should take advantage of what it offers.”