On the surface, a tranquil bird nature preserve exists in West Alton at the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary.

But upon sinking into its sandy soils, listen closely, and your ears will reveal a buzzing, vibrant ecosystem stirring beneath that surface, complete with group bird-speak rippling on the water’s surface and lofting through trees and shrubs, camouflaged by the foliage.

My experience there was more birding-by-ear, compared to traditional bird identification, done mostly by sight.

The sanctuary is on an impressive 3,700 acres of Mississippi River banks near the Missouri River confluence. Depending on the time of year, one can see 40 percent of the nation’s waterfowl move through this key flyway, says Ken Buchholz, director of the on-site Audubon Center.

Visiting the sanctuary for the first time was on my summer to-do list; however, Mother Nature’s flood waves this year made sure I had to wait for more than a month, until the sanctuary reopened in July after floodwaters receded.
It was an exciting place to contemplate. As a young girl, I started my own birdwatching club, creating little journals for my parents to meticulously record what birds they noticed. I was too young to really know what I was doing then, but it was reassuring to see at the sanctuary’s museum I wasn’t the only one compelled to study birds at an early age. On display was an interactive book with examples of how people personally journaled birds through the decades.

The sanctuary can be experienced in a variety of ways. Serious birders may want to dress appropriately and take a small chair to sit at the edge of tree groves, patiently waiting for birds to settle down nearby. Seniors with limited mobility may enjoy the sanctuary’s bank of outdoor rocking chairs, while families can pack breakfast picnics for outside tables, followed by walking or bicycling the trails. Those with physical challenges can enjoy birds through the spacious windows and learn from interactive exhibits and samples of taxidermy specimens and real nests.

Tara Hohman, conservation science associate for the sanctuary, recommends visiting at their 8 am opening to maximize bird viewing. She says some bird species will allow enthusiasts to get near, but visitors should slowly move closer in increments.

To be truly understood, this sanctuary would best be witnessed at various times of the year, by seeing migratory waterfowl, different shore birds, wildlife, conservation experts, and diverse natural resources at work in complementary ways. There’s definitely more there than meets the eye—or ear.

This sanctuary is on public lands managed by US Army Corps of Engineers St. Louis District personnel in West Alton. Opened in 2011, the Audubon Center at Riverlands is one of 41 US Audubon Centers. More than 40,000 visitors move through the sanctuary annually.