Autumn Photography in the Shawnee – 2022

The following images were taken during the WGNSS Nature Photography Group’s trip to Garden of the Gods (GOTG) and other locations this past April. This group is currently being led by Miguel Acosta. If you are interested in joining us for one of the group’s monthly outings, please see details at http://www.WGNSS.org!

Late autumn colors on a mirror lake.

Many thanks to the photographers we met on the trail at Bell Smith Springs Wilderness who tipped us off to a spectacular mirror lake in the Shawnee. Miguel and I stopped at this location before heading back to St. Louis. The peak fall colors were obviously passed but this place screams potential and I hope to get there again next year. We had really nice conditions for this type of photography, with cloudy skies and winds which weren’t too bad. We could have found a few more compositions but the rains came and the winds got worse so we called it a day.

A different composition from the same scene as above.

The waters here were not as calm as to be desired for our purposes, but using polarizer and neutral density filters allowed us to get long shutter speeds that helped to lessen the effects of any wind-blown ripples on the water’s surface. All images in this post from this location were taken with shutter speeds between 20 and 30 seconds.

A wind-blown mirror lake

In the photo above the wind was starting to move pretty quickly across the wider portion of the lake. Using a shutter speed of 30 seconds allows the ripples created to appear with a more painterly appearance.

Monkey face with star trails

During this weekend trip, some of us enjoyed the camping experience while others chickened out and stayed at hotels or cabins. Similarly, some of us stayed late at GOTG to do a little astrophotography. Well, I should say that I stayed late. ūüėČ After my friends nabbed a couple of quick Milky Way images, they headed back to their air conditioned rooms and I was left by myself to work on the photo seen above. This photo was made by combining 213 30-second images in the computer to build the star trails with the iconic “monkey face” and other rock formations that GOTG is known for in the foreground.

This was a great weekend of friends, photography, hiking and camping.

Big Spring Country – Autumn 2022

A few pics from a trip Sarah and I took in late October to see some of the big springs in southern Missouri.

The large effluence boil of the aptly named, Big Spring.
A bit of a different angle, this shows the water shooting down the effluent stream just past the primary boil, on its way to the Current River.
Nearly a two-hour drive west of Big Spring is Hodgson Spring and Mill. Always one of my favorites of the many spectacular Missouri springs.

Post Oak (Quercus stellata) at Victoria Glades C.A.

I can’t help but to marvel at this grand post oak every time I visit Victoria Glades in Jefferson County, MO. I’m always hoping to be there in good light and skies to take a worthy photograph of it. On a morning of a WGNSS Nature Photo Group field trip, I arrived a little early with this in mind. Not an interesting sky, but I used the bright sun to my advantage to create a starburst.

Baptisia sphaerocarpa (Yellow Wild Indigo)

This nice patch of Baptisia sphaerocarpa was found back in May of 2021 at Rick Evans Grandview Prairie WMA in Hempstead Co., AR. Although this species is found in a few of our southwestern prairies, most consider these to be introductions and not a native plant of Missouri.

Baptisia sphaerocarpa (Yellow Wild Indigo)

Roaring River Conservation Area

I finally got to spend some time at Roaring River C.A. this past spring when Casey and I made a trip to the southwest of the state. This location is easily seen driving to and from Roaring River State Park. At this time, the Castilleja coccinea (Indian paintbrush) and Camassia scilloides (wild hyacinth) were the stars of the show, accenting the hilly glades and savannahs.

Castilleja coccinea (Indian paintbrush) in bloom at Roaring River Conservation Area.
A sepia treatment was given to this infra-red capture of the savannah at Roaring River Conservation Area.

Blanchard Springs

Casey introduced me to this location early in the spring. This is Blanchard Springs in Stone County, Arkansas. With an average daily flow rate of ~10 millon gallons per day, it doesn’t fall near the top ten of the fantastic and popular springs found in southern Missouri. However, this amount of water finding its way through a limestone rock face and plunging ten feet or more makes this a spectacular spring indeed!

Blanchard springs is a fun and easy spring to visit in north-central Arkansas.

Location Spotlight – Mingo National Wildlife Refuge and Wilderness

We had been anxious to get Steve’s newly acquired canoe wet for sometime. ¬†The only questions were, “where to put in?” and “how to find the time to do so?” ¬†Because we found ourselves near the halfway mark of the summer season, we knew the favored Ozark streams would potentially be packed with the pop-top kind of crowds. ¬†Getting familiar with Mingo, which lies near Puxico in south-east Missouri, had been near the top of my list for sometime. ¬†The opportunity to do so during what might be considered the most mildly pleasant summer of our lives made the decision easy.

On what was to turn out to be a perfect July day, I was on the road at 04:00, breaking my fast with¬†an apple, granola bar, and French press that I prepared the night before. ¬†Arriving at Steve’s promptly at 05:30, I found he already had his Dagger Legend canoe tied into his tiny Toyota Tacoma – a somewhat comical appearance. ¬†We hit the road and it worked out great. ¬†We were in the water within ditch number five by a little after 08:00, paddling slowly northward towards Monopoly Marsh, the true Wilderness of Mingo.

In less than fifteen minutes we spotted our first wildlife find of the day, this perched Mississippi Kite.  This was my first experience of the fact that Steve had previously explained; wildlife react differently to humans in the water than they do to people on land (a learning that caused me considerable agitation throughout the day).  We were able to glide right under this spectacular bird without disturbing it.  Not knowing how long I might have, I burned through nearly half a memory card before being satisfied.

Mississippi Kite
Mississippi Kite

Other birds of note in our list, which grew to near 60 species by the end of the day, were Acadian Flycatchers, Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Wood Duck, Yellow Warbler, and Canada Geese.

To save space in the dry bag inside the canoe, I brought only two lenses on this trip. ¬†Covering the extremes of focal lengths, I brought a wide-angle zoom and a fixed 400mm f5.6. ¬†As I mentioned above, this proved to be almost heartbreaking, as I have never experienced “having too much lens” in a wildlife photography situation. ¬†But, this would turn out to be the case on several run-ins with wildlife throughout the day. ¬†It was in ditch number five that we encountered our first of several groups of raccoon. ¬†A couple times we came across a mom with up to four youngsters. ¬†We were usually so close that I had to settle for head-shots! ¬†ūüėČ

Mingo Raccoons
Mingo Raccoons

In October, 1976 Mingo and Hercules Glades Wilderness areas became the first of the officially designated Wilderness Areas in Missouri (1).  At over 22,00o acres, Mingo is the last significant remnant of swamp and marshland in Missouri, which prior to European settlement were the primary habitats in the Missouri boot-heel.

Mingo Raccoons
Mingo Raccoons

Mingo was named for the mixed tribal peoples known by this name that were composed of assorted Iroquian tribes (2).

Mingo Raccoons
Mingo Raccoons

Oh, how I wish I would have had a medium-zoom lens on this trip.  I was often too close to take an image of any kind.  Oh well, enough about this, just learning for the future.  We continued following ditch number five, with the flooded hardwood forest of bald cypress, tupelo and assorted oaks on one side of us until we came upon the clearing known as Monopoly Marsh.

American Lotus
American Lotus

We knew that by this late into the green season the marsh might be impenetrable due to aquatic vegetation such as American Lotus, which we found in peak bloom.  For the most part we were able to make our way around well enough, although much of the marsh would have been quite difficult to navigate by paddle.

The Only Way to Travel
The Only Way to Travel

An auto tour route is available that gives access to the refuge area, but the only way to see the Wilderness is by boat. ¬†The Wilderness act of 1964 put into law that no motorized equipment can be used within a Wilderness area. ¬†It was interesting to hear the staff in the Refuge Visitor’s Center say they could only use hand tools to cut through tree falls across waterways in the Wilderness. ¬†I suppose this also means to not expect helicopters or ATVs to come to the rescue in case of emergency?

White-tailed Deer
White-tailed Deer

White-tailed deer where more numerous than the raccoons.  The refuge is more popular for the opportunities for waterfowl hunting, although I believe at least a couple managed dear hunts are conducted each year.  However, without true predators, it seemed to me that the wilderness area was already being potentially overrun by these animals.  We pushed groups into flight nearly every ten minutes along the waterways.

Did I mention all the raccoons?

IMG_5208
More Mingo Raccoons

Mammals and birds are definitely not the only groups of animals that thrive in this Wilderness.  Reptiles and amphibians are quite abundant and are probably second only to the insects in shear biomass.  We glided gently passed this Broad-banded Water Snake, which feeds on other reptiles, amphibians and fish.

Broad-banded Watersnake
Broad-banded Watersnake

While in Monopoly Marsh, we stopped under a couple of well-placed cypress in order to watch one of the year-long resident Bald Eagles soaring overhead.

IMG_0635
Swamp Thing

After going about as far into the Marsh as we dared try from the south, we headed back to our put-in and had some lunch.  Already the day was worth every bit of respiration, but there was so much more to come!

gg
The Dagger Legend

After lunching on the best hippy food Mother Earth provides and paying an entertaining visit to the newly constructed Visitor’s Center, we decided to put it at Stanley Creek. ¬†Here we planned on heading downstream and then up into the marsh again via the Mingo River. ¬†A GPS or good map skills are critical in finding your way in this area by boat.

We paddled down Stanley Creek with much ease, due to the nearly non-existent currents within these streams.  It was in this section that we came upon the highlight of the day for me and one I will never forget.  River Otters!!!!

Along a dry bank, almost perfectly eye-level to where we sat in the canoe, we watched a mom and four otter cubs. ¬†I tried my best to capture what Steve so wonderfully¬†described as a “collective ball of play”, but mostly struck out due to their non-stop activity and the fact that they were often obscured by vegetation.

Collective Ball of Play I
Collective Ball of Play I

It was quite the experience.  We let our momentum move us slowly closer to the bank, watching as play was interrupted by periodic rests and grooming opportunities.

Collective Ball of Play II
Collective Ball of Play II

Whether due to poor eyesight or that we were mainly a floating log that was downwind, we were quite surprised how close we were able to drift without the alarm being raised. ¬†Finally, we put on the breaks and maintained our distance to take in the show. ¬†Once in a while the play would evolve into a slide into the water by one or two of the animals, followed by heading back onto the land, not to stray too far from mom’s protective gaze.

Lontra
Lontra

The history of the River Otter in the Show-me State is, of course, terrible and controversial.  Between the 1930s and early 1980s otter numbers hovered somewhere between 30-70 animals, due primarily to the loss of marsh and swamp habitats like those of Mingo and because of over-harvesting by the fur industry.  Following the River Otter being classified as endangered in Missouri, the Missouri Department of Conservation finally began a restoration project in 1982.  This was considered a success as River Otter numbers rebounded into the 1990s.  As the animals searched outside their minuscule and not-increasing natural habitats, they discovered that other animals, such as one of their primary prey items Рfish, were also being stocked by man (3, 4, 5, 6).

To Relax or Play?
To Relax or Play?

Finding easy prey in stock-ponds, the population grew even more.  Unsurprisingly, the naked apes could no-longer put up with a species trying to compete with its sport and maintenance of the Missouri River Otter population began via a trapping season in 1996.

Collective Ball of Play III
Collective Ball of Play III

Destruction of commercial stock fish ponds and natural fishing holes along with the usual claims of “property damage” were used to justify the change from restoration to management.

Please don’t get me wrong, I have nothing necessarily against hunting or trapping, especially when we have exterminated all the original predators long ago. ¬†However, I cannot see justification in this day and age for the hunting season on any predator in this country.

Commercial Menace?
Commercial Menace?

Finally, maybe from the odors of so many digesting fruits, ūüėČ the jig was up. ¬†We were spotted and all five animals headed to the water. ¬†The next two minutes was like being in some sort of reverse “whack a mole” game. ¬†The pups, sometimes getting within 6-8 feet of our boat, would pop their heads out of the water just long enough to get a look before disappearing. ¬†Mom, keeping a greater distance, would snort and snap at the water, throwing splashes in our direction. ¬†In the photo below, you can see a curious pup immediately in front of mom’s suspicious private eyes.

I See You, You See Me
I See You, You See Me

Finally, just when we started to worry if we should be worried, the entire group disappeared.  We watched them briefly as they resurfaced downstream about 25 yards.  After getting ourselves together, we portaged the boat over Flat Banks Rd to continue into the marsh.

Just prior to getting into the marsh, we spot this handsome Cottonmouth.  We slowly followed the snake as it swam along the bank.  I heard some sort of whimpering coming from the back of the boat, but that fell silent with a dull thud when the snake raised its head and looked back towards us.  Remembering that these guys can be a little more curious, or potentially aggressive when in the water, I called for reverse engines, rather than gaining a new passenger.

No, no, no, it ain't me babe, it ain't me you're looking for, babe
No, No, No, It Ain’t Me Babe, It Ain’t Me You’re Looking For

Arriving into the marsh from this direction got us up close to what must be some of the oldest living organisms in Missouri.

Bald Cypress
I Shall Not Be Moved

Hooded Mergansers, Belted Kingfishers and Barred Owls were some of the creatures keeping us company as the sun began to fall.  We arrived just in time to tie the boat on to the vehicle before last of light.  Just before we did, we observed that the night shift was checking in.  This juvenile Yellow-crowned Night Heron was preening and stretching on an overhead snag.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron
Yellow-crowned Night Heron

Well, that’s all from Mingo for now. ¬†These being the highlights from a single day, I can’t wait for another visit!

Bald Cypress
Bald Cypress

Oh, in case you were wondering, yes, that is an 18-pointed sun-star. ¬†ūüėČ

Works Cited:

1) Farmer, Charles J. “Unspoiled Beauty – A Personal Guide to Missouri Wilderness”, University of Missouri Press, 1999.

2) http://www.cynthiaswope.com/withinthevines/penna/native/Mingo.html

3) Schwartz, Charles J., Elizabeth R. Schwartz. “The Wild Mammals of Missouri – Second Revised Edition”, ¬†University of Missouri Press and Missouri Department of Conservation, 2001.

4) http://www.otternet.com/ROA/Fall2001/missouri.htm

5) http://www.ozarksfirst.com/story/d/story/conservation-dept-reacts-to-effots-to-lessen-otter/45884/Yxj4OaGNIECRU6_1NJ5a8Q

6) http://mdc.mo.gov/conmag/2007/06/missouri-river-otter-saga?page=full