Feathered Friends Attract Flocks of Birdwatchers at Lake of the Ozarks

Story by:Guest Contributor

First posted on 05-03-2007

Lake of the Ozarks, Mo. – Springtime at Central Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks means the return of migrating birds – and birdwatchers.  With 1,150 miles of shoreline surrounded by thousands of acres of wooded hillsides, the Lake of the Ozarks is one of the best places in Missouri to spot a spectacular variety of birds, as well as to enjoy the Lake’s outstanding attractions, dining, lodging, shopping and other activities.


“Spring is spectacular at the Lake of the Ozarks, as the redbuds and dogwoods bloom throughout the Ozark hills,” says Rebecca Green, public relations manager at the Tri-County Lodging Association.  “It’s peaceful and serene, and a wonderful time to go birding, avoid the summertime crowds and take advantage of pre-season rates on lodging and attractions.”

Bird Superhighway

Estimates of birdwatchers in North America range from 30 to 75 million people.  In fact, birdwatching is said to be Americans’ most popular hobby, after gardening.  It’s not difficult to understand why, since birding is so easy and inexpensive.  All you need are a good bird book, binoculars and walking shoes.  Best of all, you don’t have to travel far to find birds, especially at the Lake of the Ozarks.


Where is the best place for birding at the Lake?  Just about anywhere outdoors – driving on a Lake road, sitting on the deck at your condo or resort, relaxing at the campground, hiking in the woods or boating on the Lake.  You’re sure to see quite a few of the 400-plus species of birds that have been recorded in Missouri.  About 150 species actually nest in the state.


Jocelyn Korsch, a naturalist at Lake of the Ozarks State Park, notes the Lake area is located on the migratory route called the Mississippi Flyway.  “It’s an invisible highway in the sky used by a wide variety of eastern and western birds that pass through the area as they migrate from their homes in Central and South America,” she says.  Traffic will peak on this thoroughfare toward the end of May, making springtime the perfect time for Lake-area birding.  “After that the birds that live up north will start leaving their nesting grounds, and the ones that stay and nest here will start to quiet down and get busy feeding the kids or chasing other birds away,” Korsch says. “Also, leaves on the trees will make it harder to find birds in the summer.”


She adds, “To me, what’s so amazing about the spring migration is the variety of birds that pass through here because of the varied habitat we have, including stream sides, lake shore, open and moist woods, glades and more.”


Among the returning birds, Korsch notes, are the neotropical migrants such as the indigo bunting, a blue bird with black on its wings, found in wooded areas; the beautiful scarlet tanager; the summer tanager which resembles a cardinal but does not have a crested head; “and lots of warblers of many different types like the Kentucky warbler and the ovenbird,” Korsch says.  “Another interesting neotropical bird is the Louisiana water thrush.  It picks little invertebrates out of the stream and nests on the stream banks.”


Korsch also enjoys listening to the unusual “clicking” sound of the yellow-billed cuckoo, also known as the rain crow, one of the last-arriving neotropical migrating birds.  “This cuckoo doesn’t say coo-coo, despite its name,” Korsch notes.  “It times its arrival to coincide with the availability of insects, its food source, so we’re always glad to see this bird.”


Though the yellow-billed cuckoo population is decreasing due to diminishing habitat, the popular ruby-throated hummingbird can be seen in great abundance at the Lake. “We put out feeders and visitors to the park are always amazed at how many hummingbirds the feeders attract – sometimes hundreds at a time,” Korsch says.  To honor this remarkable feathered visitor, the town of Gravois Mills hosts an annual early-summer Hummingbird Festival, set this year for June 23.  The event coincides with the high season of hummingbirds in the village, and features music, magic shows, square dancing, a judged car show, food and crafts booths, children’s activities and hummingbird tagging by Missouri Department of Conservation experts.


Korsch adds, “If you are interested in woodpeckers, the Lake area is a great place to see them year-round, especially the large pileated woodpeckers.  They are locally common and rare outside of the region, because they need an area like this with 17,000 acres of woods.”


Other birds that can be seen at the Lake of the Ozarks are the robin, nuthatch, northern cardinal, goldfinch, eastern bluebird, tufted titmouse, tern, bobwhite, whippoorwill, blue jay, wood thrush and eastern meadowlark.  Eastern phoebes and northern rough-winged swallows frequently can be seen making their mud nests on the bluffs that surround the Lake.


Sky Johnson, proprietor of Eagles Nest Resort & Condominiums in Sunrise Beach, says her husband, Bill, is about to put up the fourth purple martin house on the property. “The martins come back year after year and use the houses,” she says.  “We have bird feeders everywhere and we do whatever we can to attract a variety of birds.  Our guests really enjoy it.” 


Sean Ernst, an agent with the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Camdenton office, says, “Bright orange Baltimore orioles also show up at the Lake from time to time. The best way to attract them is to put grape jelly in the birdfeeder.”  Notes Korsch, ”Baltimore orioles are an unusual sight but they do pass through the Ozarks on their migration.  We also see the yellow and black orchard oriole sometimes at our hummingbird feeders.” The oriole’s nest looks like a basket or sack, hanging from a branch.

Where Eagles Soar

Birds also migrate south from Canada and the Great Lakes region to the Lake of the Ozarks. The most spectacular are the American bald eagles and occasionally the rare golden eagle. In fact, only Alaska and Washington have more wintering bald eagles than Missouri.  About 2,800 bald eagles annually migrate to Missouri, including more than 100 that congregate at the Lake of the Ozarks to spend the winter soaring high above the Osage River and Bagnell Dam and diving for fish.  These majestic birds arrive in October and remain in the area until middle or late March.


“Every season, the eagles seem to stay longer,“ Ernst says.  “In fact I saw a bald eagle in late March and they have usually moved on by then.”  Ernst adds, for his annual eagle survey, in 2007 he counted 52 bald eagles and one golden eagle during a 50-mile run on the Lake.


Eagle-watching is so popular at the Lake of the Ozarks that an annual event, Eagle Days, is held in early January at historic Willmore Lodge. Sponsored by the Lake Area Chamber of Commerce and the Missouri Department of Conservation, the free program offers the public the opportunity to view live eagles in the wild through high-power scopes, as well as captive eagles up-close.  Naturalists always are on hand to answer questions and interactive exhibits and videos explain the fascinating facts about eagles.


In addition to eagles, the Lake area also attracts other birds – and birdwatchers – in the winter.  “It’s a good time to see the winter songbirds like juncos, sparrows and cardinals,” says Larry Webb, naturalist at Ha Ha Tonka State Park. 

Other winter-loving birds include the purple finch, warblers and woodpeckers, yellow bellied sapsucker, snow bunting, chickadee, coot and Carolina wren. Birders can pick up a bird list and map at both the Ha Ha Tonka and Lake of the Ozarks State Park offices.

Birds Present and Past

In addition, the great blue heron is not uncommon at the Lake and its serene beauty is always a welcome sight. The heron lives in colonies, or rookeries, in quieter spots along secluded rivers or creeks, away from human activity.  One notable rookery can be found three-quarters of a mile south of Bagnell Dam on the east side of the Osage River, where as many as 80 nests have been counted.


Other birds that have been sighted at the Lake of the Ozarks as they migrate are Canada geese, white pelicans, trumpeter swans and double crested cormorants.


“During my childhood years my grandparents would put bread on the porch and hang several types of birdfeeders around the yard, and I recall spending many happy hours watching the birds with my grandparents,” Ernst says.  “So birdwatching, for a lot of people, is not just a connection to wildlife and the outdoors, but it also can be a link to the past.”


For more facts about birdwatching at Central Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks – as well as information about lodging, dining, shopping, attractions and festivals – call the Lake of the Ozarks Convention & Visitor Bureau at 800-FUN-LAKE or visit http://www.funlake.com