Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The John J. Dinan Memorial Bird Conservation Area

This article was published in NEBRASKAland magazine, April 2010.

Back in early 2006, a 200-acre tract of land along the Platte River in southcentral Nebraska was purchased by Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary with the help of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. The acquisition helped complete the protection of another mile of river channel and created an opportunity to restore habitat for at-risk wildlife, especially the threatened and endangered species that rely on the broad, braided river channels of the Platte.

Lights from the city of Kearney glow in the distance at twilight as thousands of sandhill cranes gather
on a Platte River roost at the Dinan tract of Audubon's Rowe Sanctuary.
Located immediately upstream of Rowe’s western boundary, the site – mostly river channel – already had high conservation value: It contained one of the largest roost sites in the Platte River corridor for sandhill cranes during spring migration and was situated within a five-mile stretch of river which has had more confirmed whooping crane sightings since 1980 than any other five-mile stretch on the Platte. But like most lands brought under the conservation umbrella in the Platte River Valley in modern times, it was in need of a habitat makeover to combat the combined effects of decades of reduced water flows due to a history of dams and diversion. It needed to be reshaped to take on the character of the broad-braided, prairie river it once was if it was going to serve the needs of wildlife far into the future.
Evening light sets off the silk-like seed hairs of common milkweed.
In late-spring 2006, shortly after its acquisition, a major habitat restoration project began. The Commission, Rowe Sanctuary and several other public and private partners used federal, state and private conservation dollars to build sandbar islands in the river channel to supply nesting habitat for threatened and endangered least terns and piping plovers, restore backwater sloughs and prairie, and remove the acres of trees and brush that had encroached on the channel since 1940, when upstream dams and diversions first significantly started to alter water flows and change the character of the river and its habitat.
A remote camera captures a federally threatened piping plover and its hours-old chick at the nest
on a restored sandbar island in the Platte River channel.
The nest islands were the first ever built on the central Platte. Nearly one mile of sloughs were sculpted 30 to 40 feet wide, and the removal of 28 acres of trees and brush was part of the 75 acres of mature trees from a former channel and another 60 acres of small cedars from wet meadow prairie that had been removed elsewhere on Rowe property.

By fall 2006 the restoration was complete. Almost as if on cue, a migrating family of three endangered whooping cranes were observed roosting on its restored braided channels and using the newly created prairie sloughs. The following summer, federally threatened piping plovers and endangered least terns nested successfully on the sandbar islands, marking the first time in a decade that either species had been documented nesting in the channel on the Big Bend reach of the Platte. Needless to say, conservation was getting an early return on its investment.

In early fall, a doe pauses along the woodland edge on its way to the river.
The land was dedicated in April 2007 in memory of the Commission’s longtime nongame bird program manager, John Dinan, who died of cancer in 2005 at the age of 51. The John J. Dinan Memorial Bird Conservation Area continues to be a restoration success story and is managed as part of the five miles of river corridor and adjacent lands at Rowe. Now, almost four years later, whooping cranes continue to be seen on this reach of river, least terns and piping plovers have nested successfully on the nesting islands every year since 2007, and its mix of riparian habitats serve the needs of a vast diversity of both resident and migratory wildlife – everything from cranes to waterfowl, shorebirds to snakes, native fish, otters, mink, bobcat and deer.
Over his 28-year career, John Dinan was keen at identifying threats to the threatened and endangered wildlife he cared so much about. His easy manner, deep knowledge of the natural world and focused, common sense approach also made him just as keenly adept at finding solutions and moving conservation forward. His work and vision on least terns and piping plovers, for example, helped establish the Tern and lover Conservation Partnership, and his careful field observations helped guide the design of the nesting islands on the site that now honors his memory.
In early winter a bobcat moves along a game trail connecting river, woodland and prairie.
Today, the rich diversity of wildlife on the land that bears Dinan’s name is testament to the commitment and impact that he and so many of his colleagues in conservation, past and present, have had working as guardians of the river and its wildlife, protecting part of our natural heritage here in Nebraska for us and future generations.

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