Shoal Creek Conservation Education Center

Thousands of I-44 drivers zoom past it every day, unaware that they are so close to this one-of-a-kind attraction: Shoal Creek Conservation Education Center, and the globally unique chert glades that surround it.

 

Located just south of the busy interstate, this center has been one of my family’s favorite places ever since it opened in 2007 as Wildcat Glades Conservation and Audubon Center.

 

 

In 2018, the center closed after its partnership with the Audubon Society ended, prompting many mopey faces at our house. But the time has come to turn our frowns upside down as the center has reopened with a new name under the direction of the Missouri Department of Conservation.

 

Shoal Creek Conservation Education Center is situated in front of an area containing rare chert glades.

 

The rock in the foreground is chert.

In Missouri the term “glade” is used to describe a place where underlying rock cuts through thin soil to develop its own unique ecosystem. In the area behind the center, the rock that cuts through the soil is chert, which is extremely rare and extremely hard, and it breaks sharply. Like flint, chert was used to make spears and arrows, and archaeologists have found many in the area.

 

The chert glade ecosystem is very dry, and plants that are native to arid climates can grow here (yes, that means prickly pear cacti in Missouri!). These plants also attract wildlife native to arid climates, such as lizards, tarantulas, and scorpions (eek!).

 

This is the rear of the building, which faces the chert glades. 

 

Inside the center, you can learn all about this ecosystem, as well as the wildlife found in nearby Shoal Creek. The center boasts a large aquarium divided into three sections which are designed to show visitors what types of plants and animals are found in various depths of Shoal Creek: the wetlands, riffle, and deep pool areas.

 

 

While the fish in the deep pool section seem a bit skittish, the turtles in the wetlands section love to work the crowd.

 

 

In addition to the aquarium, you’ll find habitats containing reptiles commonly found in the surrounding area, as well as interactive exhibits that educate and entertain kids and adults alike.

 

 

In this exhibit, a red light illuminates whenever you correctly point to a fire hazard using a pen. It reminds me of playing a game of Operation.

 

There are large windows at the rear of the center which look out toward the chert glades, providing a picturesque vantage point from which to watch area birds as they land at the many feeders.

 

The netting helps keep the birds from flying into the glass.

 

The mission of Shoal Creek Conservation Education Center is twofold: to inform visitors about the area’s natural history and resources, and to educate people on how to care for it themselves. The variety of programming that the center provides each month in the classrooms helps to further that goal.

 

Some classes and events, like the Monarch Festival, are open to people of all ages, while other programs, like “Little Acorns: Terrific Trees” and “Reptiles of Missouri” are geared toward children (and sometimes include the opportunity for them to make cute crafts).

 

Turtle craft. 

Monarch craft.

 

The center offers Hunter Education sessions, as well. Click here to see a list of upcoming programs.

 

Before you leave the building, sneak a peek inside the gift shop for further inspiration.

 

We usually pair a visit to the center with an outdoor activity, like eating a meal al fresco at one of the picnic tables,

 

 

exploring the native garden out front (and getting ideas on what we might like to plant in our own yard),

 

 

or walking on the trails that surround the center in the area known as Wildcat Park.

 

 

Having Shoal Creek Conservation Education Center nearby allows us to squeeze in bite-sized snacks of nature on a regular basis, and we always leave with our spirits full.

 

Shoal Creek Conservation Education Center is located at 201 West Riviera Drive.

 

To read more about my adventures in the area, visit JoplinMOLife.com.

Christmas Bird Count

This morning, I was standing at my kitchen counter whisking an egg for breakfast when, suddenly, I felt my skin prickle.

 

I was being watched.

 

I turned toward the kitchen window and saw two beady eyes fixated on my every move; they belonged to a sweet female finch that was perched atop our bird feeder.

 

I halted my breakfast preparations (how could I cook an egg while a bird watched me, for heaven’s sake?) and cautiously approached the window, coming eye-to-eye with the bird.

 

Even then, the finch didn’t flinch.

 

christmas bird count chloe 2

I watched her for a good half hour, awed by her serenity and mystified her uncanny interest in watching me.

 

So, why me? Was she trying to prevent me from consuming eggs this morning by doing some sort of cosmic intervention?

 

Was she one of the birds that I’d observed in their area habitats a few weeks ago when I’d participated in the Christmas Bird Count? Maybe she was, and now she’s turning the tables by having me experience what it feels like to be watched in my own habitat.

 

Guess what, little finch?

 

It feels magical.

 

I get it now, this birdwatching activity. And I’m grateful that there’s an annual community event that is geared toward bird-lovers like me: the Christmas Bird Count.

 

christmas bird count center facade

 

Considered the longest-running citizen science survey, this event is orchestrated through the National Audubon Society and takes place from December 14 through January 5 each year.

 

Over 72,000 volunteers in the Western Hemisphere participate in this count, providing data for scientists to track the bird population. On one Saturday during this time, the Ozark Gateway Audubon Society Chapter organizes an event for community members who want to participate in the count, which is helpful for novice birders like me.

 

I participated in this event a few years ago, and I honestly didn’t have a clue about what to expect on that chilly December morning. I’d envisioned bundling up in multiple layers of bulky clothing, hiking to a field, and then standing still and silent for several hours while counting each bird I spotted.

 

I guess I thought I’d be like a scarecrow for a day.

 

But the event was nothing like that (except for the part about warm clothes). Bird count participants met at Shoal Creek Conservation Education Center  at 8:00 a.m. and everyone was divided everyone into groups, with each group covering a different geographical region.

 

christmas bird count welcome garden 2

 

While we were waiting for our assignments, I had the chance to talk to several people. For some of them, participating in the Christmas Bird Count was a family tradition, a way to spend quality time together while enjoying nature. Other people just come to the center to pick up the paperwork and then return to their homes to do the counting there. Then there’s Larry Herbert, an enthusiastic birder who’s been participating in the Christmas Bird Count for about 50 years, organizing the event locally for most of those years. That’s dedication!

 

My group leader was Chris Pistole, who was Education Director for the nature center when it was affiliated with the Audubon Society. Chris is a fantastic educator and definitely knows his birds! And, no, we didn’t have to brave the elements and stand in a field counting the birds that landed on our limbs. We enjoyed the warmth inside Chris’ heated car as he drove us to our assigned territory.

 

Chris occasionally pulled the car to the side of the road so we could sit quietly (all nice and snug), looking and listening for any birds. Any that we counted were recorded in the paperwork that we would turn in later at the center.

 

christmas bird count male cardinal

 

For people who aren’t birders, this might sounds boring, and I would have thought the same thing years ago. But participating in the bird count made me feel like I was on a scavenger hunt (well, I guess I kind of was). I’d squeal excitedly whenever I was able to identify a bird by its distinct call or flight pattern, liked I’d uncovered a clue.

 

Chris taught me a lot about birds in the few hours I spent with him. I learned that robins don’t leave our region during the winter; they only leave our backyards and gather together in the woods near a water source and return to our yards when the weather gets warmer. I learned that goldfinches change color in the winter, and I also learned how to tell the difference between a Red-headed Woodpecker and a Red-bellied Woodpecker (both of them have a degree of red markings on their head).

 

As far as the birds we counted, the majority of them were Northern Cardinals and European Starlings, but we saw many others, including this Northern Mockingbird in a field.

 

christmas bird count mocking 1

 

On our way back to the center, we came across this Red-shouldered Hawk in pursuit of a meal.

 

christmas bird count hawk wings

 

We watched as it stalked a mouse, grabbed it from the field, then flew with it to a nearby tree (which happened to be right above Chris’ car, so I had a close-up view of it tearing into its meal – yum).

 

christmas bird count hawk mouse

 

christmas bird count hawk tree

 

All of the groups met back at the center at noon to turn in their count paperwork, and a potluck lunch was provided by the Ozark Gateway Audubon Society Chapter.

 

There is also a Kids’ Christmas Bird Count event held in early January for little birders-to-be. Held at Shoal Creek Conservation Education Center, this event is organized by the Missouri Department of Conservation.

 

What a great idea to introduce this hobby to people while they’re young, so that they can experience, early on, the magical feeling of connecting with nature.

 

christmas bird count chloe 3

I dedicate this post to Chloe, my new outdoor friend. She returned to the feeder later today and I snapped this photo. Isn’t she heavenly?

 

 

 

For more information on the Christmas Bird Count and other nature programs, stop by Shoal Creek Conservation Education Center at 201 West Riviera Drive, or visit its website by clicking here.

 

To read more about my adventures in the area, visit JoplinMOLife.com.

 

*This post was updated on 12/11/19.