When I first started my work on the Mississippi River, I went up to Riverlands to listen to the people up there who know wetlands and birds. They defined the success of Riverlands as a bird sanctuary: “If you build it, they will come.” Congress ordered the Corps to replace “acre for acre” every bit of land flooded by the construction of Lock and Dam 26. The Corps built Riverlands. The birds came.
The day started beautifully and then turned grey, but I was already halfway to Riverlands, a sixty mile drive. I wanted to see the tern barge, a Corps of Engineer experiment to provide nesting places for Least Terns, an endangered bird.
Terns like their privacy and want to nest on open sand bars where they can see any and all predators that may attack their nests. Last spring and this spring, the sand bars on the Mississippi south of St. Louis have been mostly under water during the nesting season. The barge is an attempt to create a floating sand barge that rises and falls with the river. The engineers covered the barge with sand, added a few bits of drift wood, decoys, a call box, and cover for the chicks, if the terns came. The terns came.
“If you build it, they will come.”
The St. Louis District of the Army Corps of Engineers has been providing nesting place for terns for several years. Before they put out the barge at Riverlands, the bird sanctuary behind Lock and Dam 26 on the Upper Mississippi, they were creating side channels in sandy dikes field by notching the dikes to allow water to scour out a channel between the shore and the field. The terns nest on the sand bars, protecting from predators by the side channel, where they can find fish.
The Corps tried to scour a channel between the dike field and the Illinois shore at the Jefferson Barracks Dike Field, but found there were too many chemicals contaminating the river and abandoned the project.