A Wood duck by DaPuglet, licensed for public use via Creative Commons.

Building shallow-water emergent wetland habitat in the Grand Valley will keep local birders connected to the Central Flyway.

Cinnamon teals, wood ducks, ospreys, birders and hunters are all set to benefit from the Grand Valley Audubon Society’s inventive habitat improvement project. The Society is teaming up with Ducks Unlimited to convert a portion of their gravel pit ponds to shallow-water emergent wetlands. These marshlands, where grasses and forbs “emerge” above the surface, are a preferred habitat for migrating shorebirds and waterfowl.

Migrating is hard work and birds need stopover habitat where they can rest and find food to refuel. Wetlands provide these resources, but they are in short supply in the Grand Valley. That’s a big deal since it sits on the western edge of the Central Flyway, a major migration corridor stretching from South America to Canada. Preserving and improving habitat along the route is essential to protect what’s left of North American bird populations.

Historically, the Colorado River provided plenty of sloughs and wetlands for birds flying through, like the American avocet and long-billed dowitcher. But droughts, diversions, and changes in flow management have minimized these habitat types. Improving the wetlands at the Audubon property offsets these loses while providing wildlife and bird watching opportunities in the heart of Grand Junction. The property is open to the public, adjacent to a popular state park, and features a well-used walking and biking path.

Forever Our Rivers Foundation (FORF) provided grant funding to this collaborative project, creating critical habitat for migrating birds while connecting the Grand Valley community to one of its two rivers, the mighty Colorado.

American avocet by Andy Witchger licensed via Creative Commons.

The Science

Emergent wetlands are an important part of a healthy Grand Valley landscape. When mixed among riparian forests, they create a patchwork of habitat types that fulfill wildlife’s food and shelter needs. And the location of this wetland project is especially beneficial.

In 2000, the National Audubon Society included the project site in the Grand Valley Riparian Corridor Important Bird Area because “nearly 300 bird species have used the lowland riparian vegetation in the Grand Valley over the last 15 years, including nearly 70 breeding species and over 70 wintering species.”

The site was also identified as a priority by the Colorado Natural Heritage Program in a 2002 survey. Their “Survey of Critical Wetlands and Riparian Areas in Mesa County” considered 21 priority habitat areas for their conservation potential and ranked the Grand Valley Society’s project site third. These rankings are based on factors like biodiversity and wetland types.

A Wood duck by DaPuglet, licensed for public use via Creative Commons.

Leveraging Expertise: Ducks Unlimited and RiversEdge West

The Grand Valley Audubon Society’s property is positioned in the Colorado River floodplain, where groundwater fills former gravel mining pits. These ponds provide some wetland habitat as they are, but it isn’t ideal. The Society reached out to Ducks Unlimited for help with project planning and engineering. The resulting design involves filling a portion of the ponds to make them shallower and installing water flow management infrastructure to control water levels to coincide with bird migrations.

The Society will fill the shallow pools in the spring when the birds fly north, then let them dry. The grasses and forbs that grow and set seed in the summer months will be an important food source when they refill the wetlands for fall migrations.

RiversEdge West, a Grand Valley-based nonprofit working to improve riverside habitat in the Western U.S. and a FORF River Health Partner, is also pitching in.

Leveraging Funds

Building and maintaining this system will take more work, dedication and funding. The Grand Valley Audubon Society is wisely leveraging their resources to make it happen.

“Our wetland improvement project is an ambitious undertaking for our small Audubon chapter, but one that strains our resources,” says Walker. “We leveraged the funding and support we received from the Forever Our Rivers Foundation towards competitive applications for major grants that will help make this project a success.”

The project is also supported by Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Wetlands for Wildlife Program.