THE BIRD SANCTUARY – A TREASURE AROUND US
By Tom Hohenstein © 2016
When in 1924, the original owners of what is now Bellerive Acres, John D. Furstenberg and his wife (sorry, the records don’t name her) submitted the plat for Bellerive Acres, they reserved for themselves the approximately 22 acres of unbuildable forested slopes along the northern and western edges of the platted lots. Many years later, in the early 50’s I believe, their descendants conveyed this land to the Village of Bellerive forever as a “bird sanctuary”, and it still carries that name on St. Louis County maps.
The sanctuary is densely wooded. While there remain a significant number of large century oaks and other older trees throughout the sanctuary, the sanctuary is now, unfortunately, overgrown with invasive bush honeysuckle and, to a lesser extent, wild grape vines. Many typical kinds of urban wildlife (and some not so typical) call it home.
The sanctuary is defined by two creeks. Both creeks flow over bedrock and gravel, so the water runs clear. One meanders along the western side of the village and is fed primarily by adjacent storm sewers which directly feed into the creek and runoff from the surrounding terrain. Folklore says that this creek is fed by an underground spring located under the childhood home of Bellerive Acres’ longtime caretaker, Floyd Johnson. Although an intermittent stream, there are always pools of standing water. The other creek runs along the northeast border, is wider and runs continuously—even during extended dry spells. It enters the sanctuary from “under” UMSL through a large subsurface pipe. I have always wondered if it is fed in part by an underground spring. Though fed, in part, by urban run-off the water quality in both streams is good enough to support fish and other aquatic life. Where the creek enters from UMSL, we have concrete walls and abutments. One encases an MSD sewer line and acts as a dam – with a deep pool behind it. Adjacent is the remnants of a steel truss bridge which at one time led to several out buildings (parts of which are still present) where, as the story goes, horses were once stabled. The stream then winds 200 yards or so to the “waterfall”, where the water passes over a rock ledge and drops a couple feet or so into a clear pool, perhaps three feet deep. From there it joins the other creek and passes out of the village, runs between UMSL and Express Scripts and then along South Florissant Road (yes, it is the same creek which passes in front of the former Schnucks). It finally joins Maline Creek at Paul Avenue in Ferguson.
There is no public access point to the bird sanctuary and it can be difficult – but not impossible—to access it from the lots which about it. There is, however, an infrequently-maintained service road which runs north and south along the western section from “Floyd’s shed” (accessible from North Hanley at the end of Katherine Ave.) to just south of the Metrolink viaduct near Express Scripts (accessible from Geiger Road). There are no other trails or roads through the sanctuary other than a well-worn path from the service road which passes over the western creek to the “waterfall”, and the ones I clear from time to time. From there you can access both creeks, and it is actually quite simple to walk along the bedrock of the larger creek to its source.
Most of the animals in the sanctuary are not confined there, but regularly make their way into the City. We, of course, have raccoons, opossums and ground hogs (gophers) – each a common form of urban wildlife. We also have less common forms of urban wildlife which I am sure many of you have seen from time to time. These include red foxes and turkeys, neither of which appears to be permanent “residents” of the sanctuary given the relative infrequency of sightings. But foxes were again sighted this year by members of my family and I suspect many of you saw the “tom” turkey courting a hen throughout the City this past spring. Less common are coyotes and white tail deer - but even they have passed through the sanctuary from time to time (I ran into a family of coyotes in the sanctuary about two years ago and last year my family saw a deer in our front yard). Both the three toed and ornate box turtles can be found in the sanctuary (and in your yards at times), as well as various snakes, including the common garter snake, a “ring necked” snake and several I can’t identify.
Of course there are many birds in the bird sanctuary, most of which are commonly seen throughout the area. We do have one or more nesting pairs of great horned owls - the largest in the owl family. They are often heard and seen in your yards at night, but they nest in the bird sanctuary. In my frequent walks through the sanctuary, more often than not I will disturb one or more and watch them move from roost to roost. From time to time we have also seen a large white coopers hawk, which I believe also makes its home in the sanctuary. I have also often come across ducks in deeper portions of the creek.
You will find other forms of wildlife only in the sanctuary, particularly those which live in the two creeks I described in my first article. There are crayfish and frogs in widely-fluctuating numbers. Sometimes they are common and other times they are hard to find or not seen at all. In many of the “pools” we have various species of fish, both minnows and larger fish which I take to be bluegill and even small bass of some sort.
The most remarkable critters, in my view, were the families of beaver we had had on at least two occasions here. I first noticed their presence about ten years ago in the portion of the creek behind #37 along the border with the university. I never saw the beaver, but several trees were cut down; within a week or two it had disappeared. Floyd told me someone from the County or State had trapped it to remove it (and, not long after, I stumbled across an untended trap along the bank of the creek which had snagged a raccoon). More recently, starting in approximately 2011, the beavers set up a permanent presence on the northern part of the sanctuary and built three dams over a period of three years, cutting down trees along the bank. Although beavers are largely nocturnal, on two occasions I came across juveniles playing behind one of the dams. After a very heavy rainfall in April 2013, the three dams were washed away and I have seen no trace of any beaver since then. But their legacy remains in the form of cut tree stumps and new growth along the creek banks they inhabited.
I think it remarkable that although we live in an inner suburb, we still have many of the types of wildlife associated with the more rural areas of our state. I’m sure many of these species (such as the deer, fox, turkey, coyote and beaver) did not inhabit the bird sanctuary until relatively recent times as all forms of wildlife in urban environments have become more common. But the suitability of the bird sanctuary as a habitat for wildlife is increasingly threatened by the unchecked spread of invasive honeysuckle, which now covers much of the sanctuary and destroys the diversity of plants in the woods themselves and also potentially affects the diversity of wildlife.
I now pivot somewhat and talk about a relatively recent development which not only threatens the health of the bird sanctuary as an urban nature reserve, but also affects the health and diversity of urban forests throughout the state and, indeed, throughout the entire Midwest. I am talking, of course, about the various species of invasive “Asian” honeysuckle bushes.
Some species of honeysuckle are actually native to Missouri, and pose no threat or problem. But in the last century, horticulturalists and others, undoubtedly with good intentions, introduced several species of sturdy non-native honeysuckle bushes as ornamental plants, and they spread quite rapidly and successfully on their own. We have known them for years as the sturdy bushes sprouting yellow or white tubular flowers in the spring, and red berries in the fall and have likely thought nothing of them. But I ask you to take a look out your back door - particularly if you back up to the bird sanctuary or a fence line. The presence of honeysuckle is particularly noticeable in late fall and early spring because they sprout their leaves earlier, and hold them longer than the natural fauna. That canopy of green you see up to 10 or more feet off the ground is, for the most part, the invasive honeysuckle. You also will see it along highway right-of-ways, fence lines, along creeks and streams and well into the wooded areas – just about any place the mower does not go and that gets adequate sunlight to get started.
Our bird sanctuary provides an excellent, and particularly serious, example of what happens when honeysuckle takes over. With few exceptions, the woodland floor is virtually impenetrable by foot. It not only impacts the people who want to enjoy its features, it delivers a double blow to wildlife, obstructing their movements and depriving them of the biodiversity which they need to thrive.
So why the concern? While the older trees, those in place before the honeysuckle took over, will continue to survive for now, very few seedlings get through because of the competition for sunlight and nutrients. Frankly, in areas of serious honeysuckle infestation, like our bird sanctuary, native trees are not replenishing themselves as they once did, and it will only continue to get worse. Because the infestation has been so gradual, there has been very little public awareness or alarm about its effects. (However a simple Google search will pull multiple articles about the effects of invasive honeysuckle).
So what to do? While individual homeowners can certainly remove the honeysuckle from their own properties (or leave selected bushes in place for the ornamental purposes for which they were originally introduced), the real problem exists on public land, particularly along right-of-ways, streams and in public wooded areas (as well as on larger tracts of undeveloped private land). Left unchecked, the very fabric of these wooded areas is at risk. For this reason, the state of Missouri has a big effort at present to warn rural landowners about honeysuckle and encourage them to remove any on their land before it takes over (see stophoneysuckle.org).
Late in 2016 Bellerive won over $18,000 in grant money to remove honeysuckle and other invasive species from the bird sanctuary and introduce native plants in a years-long effort to restore the bird sanctuary to full health.