By JEFF DURBIN, Missourian staff writer

March 22, 1999

Get out your mountain bike, daypack, tackle box, camera, wildflower guidebook and binoculars. Saturday's equinox makes spring official and outdoor recreation something to think about again.

Wildlife-watchers and photographers can head to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, along the Missouri River near McBaine, where the wetlands are host thousands of migrating birds.

The famous wintering bald eagles have nearly all departed, but another striking species showed up this month.

"We've spotted a bunch of white pelicans," said Eagle Bluffs manager Jim Loveless.

A bunch, he said, was about a thousand, though the number goes up and down. The unpredictable pelicans could remain for a few days, or a month or two; last year they stayed until July, Loveless said.

Tom Curtis of Columbia has observed more than 200 bird species at Eagle Bluffs, including the first-ever Missouri sighting of a curlew sandpiper in 1998. He averages about three visits a week to Eagle Bluffs and keeps track of the visiting pelicans.

"I wasn't surprised, but the first time I saw them, I was thrilled," he said. "You don't associate pelicans with Missouri."

Duck numbers at Eagle Bluffs also have increased steadily, from 6,000 in 1994 to 29,000 in 1997 to 52,000 counted in November 1998, Loveless said. Shovelers, blue-winged teal and pintails stop at the wetlands to eat and rest on their way to breeding areas in the prairie pothole region of the northern plains.

"We're just past the front end, not quite at the peak, of spring duck migration," Loveless said.

After the ducks, migrating shorebirds will pay Eagle Bluffs a visit, with numbers peaking around the second week of May.

People with time to go beyond Columbia's city limits don't necessarily need a car. The MKT bicycle and pedestrian trail from downtown links with the 186-mile -- soon to be longer -- Katy Trail. This summer, the trail will add about 37 miles between Sedalia and Clinton, said Sue Holst, information officer for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. The trail's eastern jumping-off point is St. Charles. New in Boone County this season will be a permanent restroom at the Hartsburg trailhead.

Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, seven miles south of Columbia on Missouri 163, is kicking off spring with wildflower walks from 5:30 to 7:30 every Thursday until May 20. Those interested should meet at the Devil's Icebox parking lot. A bike- and walkathon will be held to celebrate Earth Day on Saturday, April 24.

Besides the rock bridge, the remnant of a collapsed cave, the park features trails that wind through oak and hickory woods, cross limestone-bottomed streams and traverse grassy hillsides. Mountain bikers have a choice of six trails. The Gans Creek Wild Area within the park also serves horseback riders from June 1 to Oct. 31.

Another Rock Bridge attraction is entering its off-season, however. Devil's Icebox will close to cavers from April 1 to Aug. 31 so that federally endangered gray bats can roost and raise their young in peace.

In southern Boone County, Three Creeks Conservation Area protects the environmentally sensitive junction of Bonne Femme, Turkey and Bass creeks. The Bonne Femme watershed is Boone County's only home for the endangered Topeka shiner, a three-inch-long silver fish once abundant in prairie streams.

Three Creeks offers camping, hiking, mountain-biking, hunting and horseback riding. Campers will find a few primitive campsites -- no water or restrooms -- near the parking lots, but otherwise may camp anywhere as long as they stay at least 100 yards from the trail.

Deer Park Road off U.S. 63 provides the main access to the area. There is no fee, but groups of more than 10 people should get a special-use permit.

The Missouri Department of Conservation also manages other nearby areas, such as Rocky Fork Lakes and Little Dixie Lake, about 12 miles east of Columbia in Callaway County.

Little Dixie has been stocked for fishing, with black and largemouth bass, crappie, channel and blue catfish, and bluegill. Hiking trails circle the lake, and there's a wheelchair-accessible nature trail and fishing jetty near the southeast corner. Rowboats can be rented at the main south parking lot.

Finger Lakes State Park, 10 miles north of Columbia on U.S. 63, is short on natural features but long on recreation. The park was reclaimed from a coal strip-mine in the 1970s using federal grant money.

Swimming beaches at Finger Lakes are open, though only the hardy should enter the water before May.

Finger Lakes has more than 70 rugged miles of trails for off-road motorcyclists. Off-roaders pay a $2 daily fee, while mountain-bikers ride free of charge. Trail types range from a moto-cross race course to a beginner's trail.

Racing season opened earlier this month, and next up is a "hare scramble" for motorcycles and ATVs on May 16. Moto-crossers race June 13, with more races through the summer. The season's only mountain-bike race is August 1.

Park superintendent Rufus Winslow said trail conditions now are a little muddy.

"For every guy who gripes about the mudholes, there'll be 15 who love it," he said.