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

Building wetland habitat in the Grand Valley keeps local birders connected to the Central Flyway.

Cinnamon teals, wood ducks, ospreys, birdwatchers, and hunters will benefit from an inventive habitat improvement project. The Grand Valley Audubon 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 preferred habitat for migrating shorebirds and waterfowl.

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

Historically, the Colorado River provided plenty of wetland rest stops for migrating birds like the American avocet and long-billed dowitcher. But droughts, diversions, and flow management shifts have reduced these habitats. The Audubon project offsets these losses while providing 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.

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. The location of this wetland project is especially beneficial.

In 2000, the National Audubon Society declared the project site an “Important Bird Area” in the Grand Valley. It earned this distinction 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. Of 21 priority habitat areas surveyed for their conservation potential, the Grand Valley Society’s project site ranked 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 Society reached out to Ducks Unlimited for help with project planning and engineering. The resulting plan involves filling a portion of the property’s gravel pit ponds to make them shallower. The next step will be to install 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 in the fall.

RiversEdge West, a Grand Valley-based nonprofit working to improve riverside habitat in the Western U.S. is also providing support.

Leveraging Funds

Forever Our Rivers Foundation provided grant funding to this collaborative project. It falls in line with the foundation’s goals of creating and protecting critical habitat types and connecting the Grand Valley community to one of its rivers, the mighty Colorado.

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 Meredith Walker previous Executive Coordinator for the Society and current volunteer. “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.