Loess Bluffs NWR – Autumn, 2020

A mass-lift off of Snow Geese at dawn. Loess Bluffs NWR, MO.

A visit to Loess Bluffs NWR in Holt County near the far northwestern tip of Missouri is a must for any nature enthusiast who has the means to do so. I’ve made this trip approximately seven times during the Thanksgiving week over the past ten or so years. You can see more photos I’ve taken at this location here, here, here, and here. This year, since the pandemic limits so much of social gatherings and we hoped visitor numbers would be low, we made the trip on a very warm  Thanksgiving day itself. Today, I am sharing some of my favorite images made during this visit.

Use low-light situations to try your hand at an artistic pan-blur shot. A relatively slow shutter speed of 1/100 sec produces a greater sense of motion in the flight of these Snow Geese.

Not wanting to stay in a hotel during the great pandemic, we decided to make this a long day trip. We left St. Louis around 1:00 am. This gave us plenty of time to make the ~5 hour drive with stops and allowed for a quick nap before first light when we arrived.

During late autumn in Missouri, light is typically usable for nature photography all day. However, the warm glow of the golden hour is still the best time to be in the field, ready with camera in hand.

I highly recommend to anyone making the visit to be sure and be here for as much of the day as you can, whether it is one full day or over the course of days. I always find it amusing to watch photographers arrive 2-3 hours after sunrise or leave before last light. By doing so, you are missing some of the best light of the day and perhaps the most activity of the birds and other wildlife.

A great day on the refuge will be when more than 100,000 Snow Geese are present. Here, both phases of Snows can be seen – both juvenile and adult “blues” as well as the “snows”.
With the numbers of geese and the often-times great distances, finding a pair or a few geese to isolate from the group can be a challenging but rewarding way of creating a different type of photograph.
A trio of Snow Geese coming in to claim their spots.

Snow Geese may be the main attraction, but they are not the only species worth paying attention to. Approximately 25,000 Green-winged Teal were present on the refuge on the day of our visit. Not only that, but they were focused on foraging near the eastern banks of the large pools of the refuge, allowing easy access for getting a little closer.

Sitting still and low can yield a pleasant, eye-level view of your waterfowl subject.
A Green-winged Teal drake and hen. This species nests in the northern half of North America but follow the ice-line south during winter.
A handsome Green-winged Teal drake preens in shallow water.

We found this Pied-billed Grebe preening near the road and stopped to shoot way too many photos of it.

A Pied-billed Grebe preening under good light.
Reaching its head to collect secretions from the oil gland above the base of its tail, the Pied-billed Grebe will spend large amounts of time preening and water-proofing its feathers.

I have had much better success with raptors on other visits but we did find a few Bald Eagles. These birds are always present on the reserve at this time of year. I was surprised there were not more of these and other scavengers. We found at least a dozen goose carcasses in the pools of the refuge, likely the result of mid-air collisions as the blizzards blast off into the air.

This yearling Bald Eagle perches above the refuge drive, likely waiting to find an injured or dead waterfowl.

I have spotted Sandhill Cranes at the refuge during previous trips, but not in the numbers we saw this year. With a final count of near 35 birds, it was very nice to see. Unfortunately distance and light angle limited our photographic option.

A group of Sandhill Cranes forage together across a flooded field.
This individual Sandhill Crane was displaying in front of another, likely a subordinate or mate.

Muskrat mounds are always worth a closer inspection as you make the drive around the refuge. Not only will you likely find muskrat, but several species of birds like to perch upon the them.

An American White Pelican stretching and preening atop a muskrat mound.

Of course daylight is at a minimum this time of year and it’s always surprising to notice how quickly the sun begins to set. This is a fantastic location for sunsets and the snow geese are just as active as they have been all day.

A “blast off” of Snow Geese. I would love to know why these geese use their resources to lift off the water several times a day simply to fly around and land virtually in the same places of the pool they left from.
Situations like this may be my favorite. Here you can see that multiple large groups of Snow Geese have “blasted off” the pools at the same time. Seeing close to 250,000 geese in the sky at once is something that should not be missed!

Hopefully these images might persuade you to go and see this spectacle for yourself. It is a natural wonder of the world found in Missouri and should not be missed!

Snow Geese are still active during the last light of day.

-OZB