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Marbled Godwit on its breeding grounds in North Dakota. Photo by Mark Dolan.

Marbled Godwit on its breeding grounds in North Dakota. Photo by Mark Dolan.

Wind Birds: Making Pop-up Wetlands for Migratory Shorebirds in the Mississippi Delta

In the fall of 2013, Jason Hoeksema and several friends of his had a lot of luck finding shorebirds at the catfish ponds and flooded crop fields of the Mississippi Delta. Searching for shorebirds is a different kind of activity than songbird watching, and they slowly scanned mudflats with a scope, patiently sorting through hundreds or thousands of birds crowded together, from peeps like Least Sandpipers to American Avocets. Shorebirds are long-distance migrants, some coming from the Arctic, and how they ended up in these places offered its own mystery.

Dunlin and other "wind birds" congregate in large masses to feed in wetlands and mudflats. Photo by Mark Dolan.

Hoeksema, a professor of biology at the University of Mississippi who specializes in plants and fungi, loved shorebirds since he began birding as a teenager in western Michigan more than two decades earlier. He grew fascinated by their physiology and, if you will, their evolutionary courage. Their migratory feats are some of the greatest on the planet. Shorebirds cross hemispheres and oceans, in some cases flying nonstop for more than 3,000 miles over open waters. For their body mass, this is like a human working at a metabolic rate several times faster than elite marathoners – for days on end. A mentor of Hoeksema’s called them 'wind birds,' borrowing from the writer Peter Matthiessen.

In 1967, Matthiessen wrote in The New Yorker, “The restlessness of shorebirds, their kinship with the distance and swift seasons, the wistful signal of their voices down the long coastlines of the world make them, for me, the most affecting of wild creatures.”

In the fall, wind birds depend on places like the Mississippi Delta, which refers to the broad floodplain of the lower Mississippi River, an area that extends north from the Gulf Coast to also include Louisiana and Arkansas. Historically, natural backwaters and Oxbow lakes, in which water levels fluctuated from season to season, created excellent habitat for them. But the rich soil of the region lent itself to agriculture, too, and the industry’s heavy hand on the landscape blocked this natural flooding. And so the fall is a dry time of year now, which is disastrous for shorebirds on this important migratory flyway.

During their rounds that fall, however, Hoeksema spoke to farmers who had received money from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS, to flood their lands and create shallow water and mudflats for ducks and shorebirds. Flooding farm fields is a time-honored tradition in the Delta, but usually in the winter, for duck-hunting season. These pop-up wetlands were different: the funds came from the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, in which the Coast Guard sold the oil it skimmed off Gulf waters. The proceeds went to new bird habitat to ostensibly offset the coastal devastation.

Migrating Lesser Yellowlegs and Long-billed Dowitchers forage in temporary wetlands near Indianola, MS. This pop-up habitat was created by farmer James Failing and Delta Wind Birds by flooding a recently harvested corn field with recaptured surface water. Photo by Mark Dolan.

Alabama is one of America’s most biodiverse states, with landscapes ranging from its Gulf Coast migratory pit-stop to plateau country in the north, from coastal plain to mountains, and in between the rolling plains of the Black Belt region. Except Ansel Payne, the executive director of the 75-year-old Alabama Audubon, believes relatively few birders and nature lovers are aware of that – a realization he himself came to only fairly recently.

“I think the truth is, if people were only thinking about birds and nature, this would be on every birder’s wishlist,” he says. “There are just too many good things to see in one spot. Where else can you see Cerulean Warblers and then drive a couple hours and see Painted Buntings and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers?”

He pauses. “Nowhere!”

Payne moved to Alabama in the summer of 2015 after his wife received a professorship at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. He grew up in West Virginia, an hour north of Charleston, attended college in New England, and continued his studies at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. A year into his Alabama residence, he got a job as a naturalist for Alabama Audubon, and months later became its outreach director. He’s now a champion for the state and its birds.

Dave Ewert doing field research in The Bahamas, where Kirtland's Warblers winter.
Photo courtesy of ABC.

“I was hesitant to move here, frankly. Here’s the thing, though,” he says. “People have to overcome what they think Alabama means to them. That’s our history. I wish people would recognize the complexity of the state, and how so many of the terrible stories of American history happened here, but also the heroic response to those terrible stories also happened here.”

Birmingham Audubon Society, as the organization was known when Payne joined (he led its name change last year), had been run by dedicated volunteers until 2013, but with significant support from the estate of a local family, it has grown its staff and its ambitions. With federal and state money, too, it opened a field office on the Gulf Coast to manage the protection and monitoring of beach-nesting birds there. Payne became executive director in the spring of 2018; their staff is now up to 10 employees, with several coastal biologists plus a conservation director.

“I think we’re developing a reputation as a national leader among Audubon organizations,” he says.

LaFond saw the need to do something. In 2010, while volunteering on a local winter raptor survey, she learned about a large parcel of farmland that was going to be sold and subdivided into tract housing, fragmenting the unbroken habitat that grassland birds need to survive. A few years earlier, New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) had purchased almost 300 acres of critical habitat within the IBA in Fort Edward, and they were considering protecting another 180 acres, but town officials opposed further acquisitions. The state did not pay taxes on the land – although it was open to it, since it did so already in the Catskills and Adirondacks – and the town worried about that financial loss.

LaFond realized that a non-profit land trust was needed. She founded the Friends of the IBA, which would later be renamed Grassland Bird Trust, and in 2011 the organization held its first event, a Winter Raptor Fest. More than a thousand people showed up at a large dairy barn in the middle of snow-covered grasslands. Buoyed by this support, LaFond sprung into action. 

Part of that reputation comes from their efforts to make Alabama Audubon more representative of the state. For decades, Payne says, the organization would run field trips to the Black Belt Prairie Region, or Black Belt, a crescent-shaped, biologically and geologically distinct area that extends from southwestern Tennessee through east-central Mississippi and then across central Alabama. The Black Belt owes its name to its rich soil but also the agricultural slave economy that grew there because of this fertile land. Later, Civil Rights struggles played out in towns like Selma and Greensboro. Today, it remains extremely poor.

“This region is characterized by weathered rolling plains of relatively low relief developed on chalk and marl of the Cretaceous Selma chalk,” according to one ecological assessment. “Historically, the natural communities of the Black Belt consisted of a mosaic of various hardwood and mixed hardwood/pine forests, chalk outcrops and prairies.”

Kirtland's Warbler. Photo by Joel Trick, USFWS.

To learn more about the organization and its efforts, as well as to contribute directly, please visit the Grassland Bird Trust website or click the donateb  

But this program, called the Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative, was about to end, Hoeksema learned. So this group of birders decided to start their own nonprofit organization to help pick up some of the slack. They called it Delta Wind Birds.

DWB volunteers brave the mud to study shorebird stopover times at agricultural research sites in the Mississippi Delta, where DWB is creating temporary wetlands on crop fields for migratory shorebirds. From left to right: Ryan Phillips, Emma Counce, Cullen Brown, DWB board member Kristina Mitchell, and Norah Bruce. Photo by Mark Dolan.

Next they needed a logo. One Saturday that September, heavy storms rolled through and grounded migrating birds on their southbound flights. Hoeksema hoped to spot a bird that had eluded him over many years, the Hudsonian Godwit, a large shorebird with a long upturned bill. These birds breed on grassy northern tundra and then fly close to 10,000 miles to winter near the tip of South America. On this journey connecting the ends of the earth, they occasionally stop over in the Delta to rest and refuel, but usually only when forced to do so by inclement weather.

His group arrived at nine in the morning at the catfish ponds of Chat Phillips, a Yazoo County farmer who had received funds from the oil spill. He gave them permission to go around, and coming up the rise of one impoundment, they spotted a pond with large shorebirds going in and out. Dozens of Wood Storks and Roseate Spoonbills flew overhead.

Hudsonian Godwit at the Phillips Brothers' catfish ponds. Photo by Jason Hoeksema.

Gene Knight, a veteran birder in the group, pointed toward a large gray wind bird with a long bill surrounded by dozens of skinny-legged American Avocets and several hundred Black-necked Stilts.

“You know who that is, right?” he asked Hoeksema.

“Who?”

“HUGO,” Knight answered, using the four-letter banding code for Hudsonian Godwit.

Hoeksema snapped photos, and this bird in flight became the logo for Delta Wind Birds.

Golden-winged Warblers nest in young forests, or brushy wetland openings within mixed-age deciduous forests, also known as early-successional habitat. The types of disturbances that once created these gaps in a forest, like blow-downs or local wildfires, rarely happen anymore. And it isn’t only Golden-winged Warblers that have suffered, but other fellow travelers like American Woodcock and Ruffed Grouse.

A decade ago, a coalition of agencies and organizations identified the Golden-winged Warbler as an urgent priority and created comprehensive plans to reverse its decline. ABC answered the call for action, securing funding to hire foresters who would restore or create their preferred habitat. With a grant from the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Fund, ABC hired a forester to work on state, federal, and tribal lands. And in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, ABC has partnered with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, a federal agency that provides incentives to private landowners for proper forest management. ABC’s team is now up to seven foresters.

It was an auspicious sign for their new group. Hoeksema became its president, and it slowly made inroads in the Delta. Taking a working-lands approach to conservation for migratory birds was gaining momentum in the field; in 2013, the Nature Conservancy began paying rice farmers in California’s agricultural Central Valley to create temporary wetland habitats for a few weeks each year. But this was a challenge in the Delta; one major issue was water. Hoeksema said they couldn’t justify pumping groundwater and adding to the growing depletion of aquifers there. They had to find landowners who had existing sources of surface water and were willing to pump it onto their fields after their crop harvest.

They had some success, especially partnering with duck hunters who could control water levels on their recreational properties, where former catfish ponds had been repurposed as wildlife habitat. But their first crop farm partner was James Failing, a third-generation corn and soybean farmer who had infrastructure in place that channeled excess water into a reservoir. In early September, 2018, Delta Wind Birds paid him to pump some of it onto his fields, creating temporary ("pop-up") wetlands. Hoeksema was reminded of the uncertainty any gardener – or plant scientist like himself – feels in that moment before realization. “When you plant seeds there’s always this little bit of mystery about whether they're going to grow, and it’s always a bit of a miracle when plants pop up.”

At Failing’s farm, the shorebirds popped up alright – or came bombing in, as Failing put it to Living Bird in a 2021 article. Within 24 hours Killdeer arrived, followed by Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, and soon hundreds of shorebirds were feeding on tiny invertebrates in the flooded fields. Least, Semipalmated, Stilt, and Pectoral Sandpipers gathered in bunches. “How quickly they can find that ephemeral habitat is amazing,” Hoeksema said.

DWB President Jason Hoeksema & USGS biologist T.J. Zenzal set a mist net on agricultural land near Indianola, MS. Photo by Mark Dolan.

In addition to conservation, education and outreach are important parts of DWB’s mission. Here, participants in DWB's annual Winter Grassland Birding & Sparrow Identification Workshop explore Sardis Waterfowl Refuge in northern Mississippi. Photo by Mark Dolan.

For the next three seasons, Hoeksema and several graduate students and Delta Wind Birds volunteers studied the birds that came through each fall and even some that stayed through the winter. In 2020, a backyard fire-pit conversation with his friend and Delta Wind Birds co-founder J.R. Rigby, and his neighbor Jason Taylor, an aquatic ecologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research service, broadened their research on Failing’s farm.

Taylor thought this flooding might reduce the downstream nitrogen pollution that results from the use of fertilizers and then creates harmful algal blooms, oxygen depletion, and large dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. They found that the pop-up wetlands on Failing’s farm removed 30-40% of the excess nitrogen that would have entered the waterways; their research also showed benefits to the soil and a small but meaningful bump in Failing’s soybean yield.

Thanks to this research, Taylor and Hoeksema secured a three-year, $1 million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to expand to four farm sites in 2021. For Hoeksema, who once considered a career in ornithology, birds and bird conservation had now merged into his academic life. This year, efforts began to start tagging birds at the sites to determine their length of stay at the pop-up wetlands, and Hoeksema’s had conversations with staff at the NRCS, which is part of the USDA, about making government aid available to other farmers who want to flood their fields in the fall.

On top of this conservation work, Delta Wind Birds also recently completed the purchase of a 14-acre parcel of bottomland hardwood forest on the shore of Sky Lake, a natural oxbow lake with thousand-year-old bald cypresses, some of the largest and oldest on earth. Prothonotary Warblers nest in their cavities. Delta Wind Bird’s Sky Lake Nature Reserve is now open to the public, with a canoeing and kayaking launch, and they would like to add a boardwalk and observation platform. From its beginning, Delta Wind Birds has conducted field trips and bird ID workshops, and these educational activities come out of its mission to promote a bird-rich region that is first known as the birthplace of the blues.

With a little luck, say a rare shorebird that shows up at a Delta Wind Birds site and sends a buzz through the birding community, recognition of the area’s ecological importance might begin to grow. Hoeksema is still waiting for another Hudsonian Godwit. He hasn’t seen one since that memorable day in 2013, so he had to settle for a tattoo of that bird on his left forearm. 

“I’ve been lucky enough to see Black-tailed Godwits in Europe and Bar-tailed Godwits in Oregon, but Hudsonian Godwit is almost a ghost bird for me now,” he said. “But it’ll happen again one of these days.”

As long as the reach of Delta Wind Birds continues to grow, the chances of that look good. 

Jason Hoeksema leads high school students on a bird walk to observe nesting Prothonotary Warblers among old-growth bald cypress trees at the Sky Lake Boardwalk in Humphreys County, MS. Photo by Mark Dolan.

In the fall of 2013, Jason Hoeksema and several friends of his had a lot of luck finding shorebirds at the catfish ponds and flooded crop fields of the Mississippi Delta. Searching for shorebirds is a different kind of activity than songbird watching, and they slowly scanned mudflats with a scope, patiently sorting through hundreds or thousands of birds crowded together, from peeps like Least Sandpipers to American Avocets. Shorebirds are long-distance migrants, some coming from the Arctic, and how they ended up in these places offered its own mystery.

Hoeksema, a professor of biology at the University of Mississippi who specializes in plants and fungi, loved shorebirds since he began birding as a teenager in western Michigan more than two decades earlier. He grew fascinated by their physiology and, if you will, their evolutionary courage. Their migratory feats are some of the greatest on the planet. Shorebirds cross hemispheres and oceans, in some cases flying nonstop for more than 3,000 miles over open waters. For their body mass, this is like a human working at a metabolic rate several times faster than elite marathoners – for days on end. A mentor of Hoeksema’s called them 'wind birds,' borrowing from the writer Peter Matthiessen.

Dunlin and other "wind birds" congregate in large masses to feed in wetlands and mudflats. Photo by Mark Dolan.

In 1967, Matthiessen wrote in The New Yorker, “The restlessness of shorebirds, their kinship with the distance and swift seasons, the wistful signal of their voices down the long coastlines of the world make them, for me, the most affecting of wild creatures.”

In the fall, wind birds depend on places like the Mississippi Delta, which refers to the broad floodplain of the lower Mississippi River, an area that extends north from the Gulf Coast to also include Louisiana and Arkansas. Historically, natural backwaters and Oxbow lakes, in which water levels fluctuated from season to season, created excellent habitat for them. But the rich soil of the region lent itself to agriculture, too, and the industry’s heavy hand on the landscape blocked this natural flooding. And so the fall is a dry time of year now, which is disastrous for shorebirds on this important migratory flyway.

Kirtland's Warbler. Photo by Joel Trick, USFWS.

Migrating Lesser Yellowlegs and Long-billed Dowitchers forage in temporary wetlands near Indianola, MS. This pop-up habitat was created by farmer James Failing and Delta Wind Birds (DWB) by flooding a recently harvested corn field with recaptured surface water. Photo by Mark Dolan.

During their rounds that fall, however, Hoeksema spoke to farmers who had received money from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS, to flood their lands and create shallow water and mudflats for ducks and shorebirds. Flooding farm fields is a time-honored tradition in the Delta, but usually in the winter, for duck-hunting season. These pop-up wetlands were different: the funds came from the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, in which the Coast Guard sold the oil it skimmed off Gulf waters. The proceeds went to new bird habitat to ostensibly offset the coastal devastation.

But this program, called the Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative, was about to end, Hoeksema learned. So this group of birders decided to start their own nonprofit organization to help pick up some of the slack. They called it Delta Wind Birds.

DWB volunteers brave the mud to study shorebird stopover times at agricultural research sites in the Mississippi Delta, where DWB is creating temporary wetlands on crop fields for migratory shorebirds. From left to right: Ryan Phillips, Emma Counce, Cullen Brown, DWB board member Kristina Mitchell, and Norah Bruce. Photo by Mark Dolan.

Next they needed a logo. One Saturday that September, heavy storms rolled through and grounded migrating birds on their southbound flights. Hoeksema hoped to spot a bird that had eluded him over many years, the Hudsonian Godwit, a large shorebird with a long upturned bill. These birds breed on grassy northern tundra and then fly close to 10,000 miles to winter near the tip of South America. On this journey connecting the ends of the earth, they occasionally stop over in the Delta to rest and refuel, but usually only when forced to do so by inclement weather.

His group arrived at nine in the morning at the catfish ponds of Chat Phillips, a Yazoo County farmer who had received funds from the oil spill. He gave them permission to go around, and coming up the rise of one impoundment, they spotted a pond with large shorebirds going in and out. Dozens of Wood Storks and Roseate Spoonbills flew overhead.

Hudsonian Godwit at the Phillips Brothers' catfish ponds. Photo by Jason Hoeksema.

Gene Knight, a veteran birder in the group, pointed toward a large gray wind bird with a long bill surrounded by dozens of skinny-legged American Avocets and several hundred Black-necked Stilts.

“You know who that is, right?” he asked Hoeksema.

“Who?”

“HUGO,” Knight answered, using the four-letter banding code for Hudsonian Godwit.

Hoeksema snapped photos, and this bird in flight became the logo for Delta Wind Birds.

It was an auspicious sign for their new group. Hoeksema became its president, and it slowly made inroads in the Delta. Taking a working-lands approach to conservation for migratory birds was gaining momentum in the field; in 2013, the Nature Conservancy began paying rice farmers in California’s agricultural Central Valley to create temporary wetland habitats for a few weeks each year. But this was a challenge in the Delta; one major issue was water. Hoeksema said they couldn’t justify pumping groundwater and adding to the growing depletion of aquifers there. They had to find landowners who had existing sources of surface water and were willing to pump it onto their fields after their crop harvest.

DWB President Jason Hoeksema & USGS biologist T.J. Zenzal set a mist net on agricultural land near Indianola, MS. Photo by Mark Dolan.

They had some success, especially partnering with duck hunters who could control water levels on their recreational properties, where former catfish ponds had been repurposed as wildlife habitat. But their first crop farm partner was James Failing, a third-generation corn and soybean farmer who had infrastructure in place that channeled excess water into a reservoir. In early September, 2018, Delta Wind Birds paid him to pump some of it onto his fields, creating temporary ("pop-up") wetlands. Hoeksema was reminded of the uncertainty any gardener – or plant scientist like himself – feels in that moment before realization. “When you plant seeds there’s always this little bit of mystery about whether they're going to grow, and it’s always a bit of a miracle when plants pop up.”

At Failing’s farm, the shorebirds popped up alright – or came bombing in, as Failing put it to Living Bird in a 2021 article. Within 24 hours Killdeer arrived, followed by Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, and soon hundreds of shorebirds were feeding on tiny invertebrates in the flooded fields. Least, Semipalmated, Stilt, and Pectoral Sandpipers gathered in bunches. “How quickly they can find that ephemeral habitat is amazing,” Hoeksema said.

DWB volunteers set a mist net to capture shorebirds as part of a radio-tagging study to track stopover patterns. Photo by Mark Dolan.

For the next three seasons, Hoeksema and several graduate students and Delta Wind Birds volunteers studied the birds that came through each fall and even some that stayed through the winter. In 2020, a backyard fire-pit conversation with his friend and Delta Wind Birds co-founder J.R. Rigby, and his neighbor Jason Taylor, an aquatic ecologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research service, broadened their research on Failing’s farm. 

Taylor thought this flooding might reduce the downstream nitrogen pollution that results from the use of fertilizers and then creates harmful algal blooms, oxygen depletion, and large dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. They found that the pop-up wetlands on Failing’s farm removed 30-40% of the excess nitrogen that would have entered the waterways; their research also showed benefits to the soil and a small but meaningful bump in Failing’s soybean yield.

Thanks to this research, Taylor and Hoeksema secured a three-year, $1 million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to expand to four farm sites in 2021. For Hoeksema, who once considered a career in ornithology, birds and bird conservation had now merged into his academic life. This year, efforts began to start tagging birds at the sites to determine their length of stay at the pop-up wetlands, and Hoeksema’s had conversations with staff at the NRCS, which is part of the USDA, about making government aid available to other farmers who want to flood their fields in the fall.

But this program, called the Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative, was about to end, Hoeksema learned. So this group of birders decided to start their own nonprofit organization to help pick up some of the slack. They called it Delta Wind Birds.

Next they needed a logo. One Saturday that September, heavy storms rolled through and grounded migrating birds on their southbound flights. Hoeksema hoped to spot a bird that had eluded him over many years, the Hudsonian Godwit, a large shorebird with a long upturned bill. These birds breed on grassy northern tundra and then fly close to 10,000 miles to winter near the tip of South America. On this journey connecting the ends of the earth, they occasionally stop over in the Delta to rest and refuel, but usually only when forced to do so by inclement weather.

His group arrived at nine in the morning at the catfish ponds of Chat Phillips, a Yazoo County farmer who had received funds from the oil spill. He gave them permission to go around, and coming up the rise of one impoundment, they spotted a pond with large shorebirds going in and out. Dozens of Wood Storks and Roseate Spoonbills flew overhead.

Hudsonian Godwit at the Phillips Brothers' catfish ponds. Photo by Jason Hoeksema.

In addition to conservation, education and outreach are important parts of DWB’s mission. Here, participants in DWB's annual Winter Grassland Birding & Sparrow Identification Workshop explore Sardis Waterfowl Refuge in northern Mississippi. Photo by Mark Dolan.

On top of this conservation work, Delta Wind Birds also recently completed the purchase of a 14-acre parcel of bottomland hardwood forest on the shore of Sky Lake, a natural oxbow lake with thousand-year-old bald cypresses, some of the largest and oldest on earth. Prothonotary Warblers nest in their cavities. Delta Wind Bird’s Sky Lake Nature Reserve is now open to the public, with a canoeing and kayaking launch, and they would like to add a boardwalk and observation platform. From its beginning, Delta Wind Birds has conducted field trips and bird ID workshops, and these educational activities come out of its mission to promote a bird-rich region that is first known as the birthplace of the blues.

With a little luck, say a rare shorebird that shows up at a Delta Wind Birds site and sends a buzz through the birding community, recognition of the area’s ecological importance might begin to grow. Hoeksema is still waiting for another Hudsonian Godwit. He hasn’t seen one since that memorable day in 2013, so he had to settle for a tattoo of that bird on his left forearm. 

Jason Hoeksema leads high school students on a bird walk to observe nesting Prothonotary Warblers among old-growth bald cypress trees at the Sky Lake Boardwalk in Humphreys County, MS. Photo by Mark Dolan.

“I’ve been lucky enough to see Black-tailed Godwits in Europe and Bar-tailed Godwits in Oregon, but Hudsonian Godwit is almost a ghost bird for me now,” he said. “But it’ll happen again one of these days.”

As long as the reach of Delta Wind Birds continues to grow, the chances of that look good.

To learn more about Delta Wind Birds, as well as to contribute directly, please visit its website or click the DONATE button below.

Our newest collection celebrates Delta Wind Birds, an organization dedicated to protecting and creating wetlands, fostering ecotourism, and raising awareness of migratory birds and their habitats in the Mississippi Delta region.