Bird is the word: Swamp Candle Birders brings local birdwatchers together for outings

Sunday, March 28, 2010
Members of Swamp Candle Birders of Southeast Missouri from left, Rita Counts, Karin Pelton, George Counts, Les and Pat Wells and Ellen Hahs watch a northern flicker woodpecker March 20 at the Sand Prairie Conservation Area in Scott County. The group holds a meeting and goes on a bird outing once a month. (LAURA SIMON)

When an Illinois birding group visited the Cape Girardeau Conservation Nature Center in September for a migratory bird event, local volunteers began asking one another why there was no similar group in this area.

Ellen Hahs is president of the group that was formed a short time later. She said the group's starting members put out a survey to find out what locals would like in a group relating to birds. They learned people wanted three things: field trips, an opportunity to socialize with other birders and education on birds.

The group took the nickname of a prothonotary warbler, a bird fairly common to areas of wooded swamps and streams in Southeast Missouri, and the Swamp Candle Birders were official.

The group has grown to 50 members, who don't pay dues. Meetings at the Nature Center are held once a month and outings to sight birds are held as often as a group of birders decides to get together, Hahs said. The group also publishes a newsletter every two months called The Beakon.

Hahs said their outings have taken them to many locations in Southeast Missouri and Southern Illinois. The trips are normally on Saturdays.

Members of the "Swamp Candle Birders" of southeast Missouri close in on a Le Conte's Sparrow at the sand prairie in Scott County Saturday, March 20, 2010. Members from left, Dennis Wheeler, Ellen Hahs, Karin Pelton, Rita and George Counts. The group meets and go on bird outings once a month. (LAURA SIMON)

"We had one outing on my farm west of Jackson and saw over 50 species," she said. "It's a really easy thing to get hooked on."

Hahs said she was shocked at the varieties of birds in the area. Some outings have looked for raptors, songbirds, ducks and geese.

Chris Barrigar, who sometimes leads outings, said the groups visit mainly public land kept by the Missouri Department of Conservation. National conservation areas, like Mingo National Wildlife Refuge, are also good locations.

Barrigar lives in Stoddard County and is an avid birder who goes on solo outings most days of the week. He said he is partial to Otter Slough because it is wide open and has varying habitats.

"On any given day you can see over 40 species throughout the year," Barrigar said.

Barrigar has led outings at Apple Creek Conservation Area and Sand Prairie Conservation Area. Barrigar said he has been a wildlife enthusiast since childhood, and got involved in birding when he lived in Michigan. He and his wife moved to Southeast Missouri three years ago. He also photographs birds.

Barrigar said the Swamp Candle Birders think it's important to visiting the state parks and help birders in the rural areas communicate with one another. Barrigar said he had thought there were plenty of bird watchers around, they just weren't unified.

"One of the things about a rural area is a lack of communication that allows individuals to find out there are others out there with the same interests," he said.

Rare varieties of birds can be found in Missouri, he said, but the problem with finding them is having enough people to cover a large area to spot the birds. However, there are some possibilities for seeing rare species, and there is always a good chance to see some more colorful varieties, such as roseate spoonbills. The pink birds can often be spotted in late summer in marshy areas.

"I believe the topography and habitat of Southeast Missouri is very different than other parts of the state, which lends itself to bird species that may not necessarily be seen in other parts," Barrigar said.

Birders not associated with the Swamp Candle Birders spotted a mottled duck just west of Otter Slough, which was the first official sighting of the bird in the state, Barrigar said. Others located a broad-billed hummingbird near Farmington, Mo.

Dr. Bill Eddleman, a biology professor at Southeast Missouri State University, is involved with the Missouri Audubon Society and said since the area's chapter disbanded several years ago, the Swamp Candle Birders are providing a good opportunity for a younger generation to get interested in birds and go on outings.

"If you don't know a much about birds, it's a good group to go with because you'll have a lot of company," Eddleman said.

Barrigar said the beauty of the group and its outings is that there are all levels of birders participating. Members who know more about bird identification and species traits willingly share their knowledge with other participants.

Barrigar likes to keep the number of people below 15 for an outing. If there are more participants, he likes to split members into two groups.

Swamp Candle Birders meet every third Wednesday of the month at 6:30 p.m. at the Nature Center. The next outing is planned for Saturday at General Watkins Conservation area near Benton, Mo.

The group can be contacted at

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