Riparian Habitat

Birding in Riparian Zones

Forest Riparian Habitat
Reza/Flickr/CC by 2.0

Definition

(noun) A riparian habitat or riparian zone is a type of wildlife habitat found along the banks of a river, stream, or other actively moving source of water such as a spring or waterfall. The term generally refers only to freshwater or mildly brackish habitats surrounded by vegetation and may include marshes, swamps, or bogs adjacent to rivers. Riparian is not generally used to describe coastal shorelines, beach areas, or pelagic environments. Barren areas, such as a river moving through bare rock, are also not considered riparian zones.

Pronunciation

rip-PAIR-eee-an
(Rhymes with "zip air me in", "trip care tee fin", and "flip pare key bin")

The Diversity of Riparian Habitats

Riparian habitats are ecologically diverse and may occur in a range of general habitat types, including damp grasslands, wetlands, marshes, forests, jungles, canyons, mountains, and even along streams or springs in desert areas. In the case of desert or drought-ridden habitats, riparian areas may be seasonal or temporary depending on rainfall and moisture patterns, including localized flooding.

The primary characteristics of riparian areas are an active water source and the subsequent vegetation that relies on that water. Like a desert oasis, these areas can become very rich habitats, and are often home to a wide range of flora and fauna, easily meeting all of birds' basic survival needs, including:

  • Food: Insects, amphibians, seeds, grain, fruits, berries, mollusks, flowers, fish, and many other food sources thrive in riparian areas, giving birds plenty of foraging options no matter what their diet type. If the water source is isolated, such as in a desert, it may also attract significant prey for raptors as the local watering hole.
  • Water: The essential water source that defines a riparian habitat is also a water source for birds. These areas are often more humid as a result, and the surrounding damp soil and puddles are other useful water sources where birds may drink, bathe, and preen.
  • Shelter: The dense growth and vegetation of a riparian area provides a good deal of shelter for birds, including thick grasses, shrubby thickets, and larger trees. As moving water carves into the land, banks, overhangs, and niches can develop that will also shelter birds.
  • Nesting Sites: Birds' nesting needs vary, but the diversity of a riparian zone is ideal for all types of nests, including cavities in decaying trees or dug out of stream banks, scrapes on shorelines or under brush, or other types of nests. Furthermore, the abundant plant life of the habitat provides a wide range of nesting material, including mosses, lichens, grasses, leaves, twigs, and more, suiting many different birds' nesting preferences.

    Riparian Birds and Wildlife

    A wide variety of birds can be found in riparian habitats. The overall avifauna will vary depending on the exact type of surrounding habitat, including what vegetation is present, how water levels change seasonally, the overall size of the habitat, and what birds are found in the region. Different birds will be found alongside a mountain stream compared to a grassland river, a tropical marsh, or a desert oasis. Birds that are frequently spotted in riparian habitats include:

    In addition to birds, riparian areas are often home to a great deal of other wildlife, including mammals such as otters, mink, raccoons, beaver, moose, muskrats, and many other visitors who browse the vegetation or visit the water source. Amphibians such as frogs, toads, and salamanders and reptiles such as snakes and turtles are also found in these habitats. The water itself is home to plentiful fish in a rich riparian zone.

    Birding in Riparian Areas

    Birding in these habitats can be very rewarding and productive. Birders should be prepared for the moisture and humidity of the area, using insecticide as needed and taking steps to protect gear from excessive moisture or spray from rapids or waterfalls. Proper footwear is essential for safe, comfortable footing, particularly close to the water where rocks or mud can be slippery. Because riparian habitats are generally more heavily vegetated, a spotting scope tends to be less useful than smaller binoculars.

    Depending on the type of water source, it may be possible to go birding by kayak, boat, or canoe in riparian areas, if birders are skilled at that type of activity.

    Also Known As

    Riparian Zone, Riparian Area, Riparian Corridor, Riparian Strip

    Common Misspellings

    Ripairian, riparean