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Illinois hunting and fishing

Shorebirds wade in the shallows as the north pool of Lake Chautauqua is slowly drained to create habitat for migratory birds. Chris Young/The State Journal-Register.

Summer drawdowns provide habitat for shorebirds now and ducks this fall

August 06, 2011 at 10:23 PM

The State Journal-Register

It doesn’t look like much right now, but bare ground exposed by receding waters at Lake Chautauqua near Havana soon will be lush and green.

For the first time in a dozen years, the water of the lake’s north pool slowly is being drained.

Shorebirds, herons, egrets and others are finding food in shallow water or newly exposed areas.

“It’s been a long time since these shorebirds have had that kind of habitat to use on either one of these pools,” said Lee Albright, manager of the Illinois River Wildlife and Fish Refuge.

“We’re kind of excited to do this drawdown to provide mudflats for the shorebirds and then re-flood it to provide habitat for migrating waterfowl later on.”

He says birders have reported seeing about a dozen species of shorebirds so far, and the bird watching is expected to get better in the next couple of weeks.

Illinois hunting and fishing

The drawdown is a manmade event meant to mimic a natural occurrence.

Before dams and levees were built in an attempt to control the Illinois River and make it suitable for navigation, backwater lakes would dry out in the summer time.

Plants would sprout, grow and set seed, leaving behind plenty of food for migrating waterfowl in the fall.

Today, managers of wildlife refuges and public hunting sites have to artificially manipulate water levels because the Illinois River is kept at a higher level to support barge traffic.

The past four years have been wet, with flood conditions lasting well into the summer, and water has poured into wildlife areas guarded by levees much lower than those protecting farmland and towns.

“The flooding was prolonged throughout the summer and into August so (for four years) we didn’t have any place to put the water,” Albright said.

With little food for migrating birds, most stayed only briefly or kept going - disappointing both hunters and birders.

While the north pool is drying out, water is being kept high in the south pool to help kill willow trees that sprouted and tried to take over.

“Back in the 1990s we had to draw down the south pool for an extended period of time to do some construction work, and that’s when the willows got established out there,” Albright said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was working on a multi-million dollar project to improve levees and water control structures and install a new pump.

The work was intended to help staff better control water levels, but willows came in and became dominant.

The willows are able to withstand being in water for period of time, but not forever.

That’s why the south pool remains high, and the willows appear to be dying back.

Lake Chautauqua isn’t the only site along the Illinois River taking advantage of the recent hot and dry weather.

At the Sanganois State Fish and Wildlife Area near Chandlerville, extensive mudflats have appeared and birds are congregating around pools of water where stranded fish are easy pickings.

“Things are looking up,” said site superintendent Doug Jallas.

Agricultural crops sometimes are used to supplement naturally grown food.

“We have over 2,000 pounds of millet that we have aerial seeded,” Jallas said. “We haven’t been able to get feed in for the past four years.
“But with the upswing of waterfowl the populations in Canada and the prospects for feed in the area, we hope it will be a successful hunting season.”

Across the river at The Nature Conservancy’s Emiquon Preserve, Thompson Lake is growing smaller and wet prairie plantings around the lake are blooming bright yellow.

Albright said closing the north pool boat launch has caused some confusion.

The south pool remains open for boats and fishing.

“They’re wondering why we’re doing it,” Albright said of the fishermen who use the north pool. “They don’t like not having access to the fish right now.

“But this is how this area functioned historically.”

Albright said the current management efforts are an attempt to increase the productivity of the refuge for migratory birds.

“We have not been getting the migratory bird use the past few years because we didn’t have productive habitat out there,” he said.

Chris Young can be reached at (217) 788-1528.

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