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.


WGNSS Nature Photography Group Visits Loess Bluff NWR – November 2018

Snow drops

Seven of us made the long drive to our destination on the morning of the 23rd . The week of
Thanksgiving can be an excellent choice for visiting Loess Bluff NWR, but always depends on the
weather. We were a bit concerned with the early cold snap our region experienced this autumn.
However, in the week or so preceding the trip, the weather warmed so we were not hampered by ice
that can completely cover the shallow waters of the wetlands. Having open water affords very close
views of our photographic subjects and the primary reason we drove such a distance – the blizzard.

The blizzard

Typically, one million to two million Snow Geese will make this location a stop over during spring
and autumn migration and numbers of over 500,000 birds on a single count are not uncommon.
During our visit, the official counts were slightly over 100,000 birds, but the feeling with the group
was that this was grossly underestimated.

Rising snow

If conditions allow, getting the moon behind the Snow Geese can make a nice composition.

Rising snow against setting moon


Lunar Liberty

On our first day of the trip we were faced with mostly cloudy weather. As I told the group, this provides an opportunity to more easily try panning motion shots like the one pictured below. This is not my most successful attempt at such an image, but I wanted to share it here to demonstrate the multitude of opportunities for a diversity of photos to be made.

Panning with the action

Snow Geese are not the only subjects that make this trip worthwhile. The refuge also provides
important habitat for birds such as Bald Eagles, sparrows, a variety of ducks and wading birds, as
well as mammals like white-tailed deer and muskrats. On our initial entry to the park, Dave and Bill
found a Merlin on a relatively good perch above the road. We spent some time photographing the
bird, but regretted that the rest off our party were on the other side of the refuge and would not
likely be able to get the looks we did. Fortunately, a Merlin – likely the same bird, was spotted on
our second day and was viewable by all.


With subjects in the hundreds of thousands to the millions, making a purposeful image can be challenging. It is quite natural to want to shoot at everything that moves, but try and focus. Finding smaller action scenes is one way the photographer can focus on the individuals and their stories that make up the grander scheme.

Goosing a goose

Although we experienced skies with periods of heavy overcast, we were presented with fantastic
sunsets on both days. Being able to make the birds part of the story made these images all the more special.

Sun setting on snowy waters


A beautiful end

The WGNSS Photo Group is committed to an overnight trip to this and similar locations within the Midwest on Thanksgiving week. If you’d like to join us next year, please let me know!


Return to Squaw Creek NWR

I have posted about Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge before.  One of the prime birding locations in the state, I asked Steve to accompany me for a Thanksgiving week’s trip.  Nothing is assured during this time on the calendar in Missouri, and we knew that there was a chance the entire refuge could be frozen over, pushing the 500,000 snow geese that could potentially be visiting to warmer, more southerly locations.  The weather that week was barely below freezing so we were optimistic that the refuge would be mostly open and the birding would be good.  Arriving in Mound City after dark, we were forced to wait until the next morning to check out the refuge.  Being the proper naturalists/photographer/birders that we are, we arose in plenty of time to fill ourselves with coffee and roughage, pack up the car with optics and winter gear and make it to the refuge before first light.  Driving around the well-placed road, we could hear little but wind.  At one point we left the car and Steve through a rock into the black.  The response was quite an unusual sound that was definitely not the plash expected of liquid water, but could only be the vibrations of a rock on a large flat ice sheet.  As the light grew we could see that most of the refuge was indeed frozen (>90%).  We would not get to see the numbers of snowies that could potentially be visiting, but we would see 10,00-20,000 birds that were using the two small ice-free spots.  Steve seemed impressed, nonetheless.

Presented first is an image of a few geese flying with the wind between us and the moon.  Any nature photographer worth their glass would have pre-visualized this and remembered to have taken a sharp capture of the moon in focus and then combined that with the in-focus geese to make a much nicer final photograph.  One of these days…


We were subjected to a few flybys of large groups of geese as they moved from the refuge to surrounding fields to feed on spent grain.  Collisions do occur, but when looking at it this way, it’s a wonder they don’t happen more regularly.  Of course, I was pooped on. 😉


The image below really shows the difference between the lighter, “snow” and the darker, “blue” phases this species comes in.


Red-tailed Hawks were quite common in this area of the state, but were very much different than the typical plumage seen from the eastern subspecies from the opposite side of Missouri.  This is what I believe should be considered the “western” subspecies, but can be difficult to distinguish from “Harlan’s” subspecies in winter.  The ABA has a nice article on this variably-plumed raptor.


The beauty of Squaw Creek is the potential for all sorts of bird species and other wildlife one is likely to find.  The snow show is definitely the main attraction this time of year, but other migrants are likely to be found as well.  Taking the ~10 mile auto route allows for close-up viewing in a variety of wetland habitats.  Across a canal, in some warm winter grasses we found a couple of familiar heads sticking up.  Two Sand-hill Cranes!  I got out of the car as silently as possible and set up the tripod and big lens.  They did not seem too concerned with us.  As they foraged we watched and I took photos.  A couple in an SUV pulled up not too far down the road and were not as considerate.  This seemed to be too much for the pair, who took to wing.  Luckily, I was prepared and was somehow able to squeeze this keeper.


Sunrise and sunset are the times to be in a wetland.  The lighting is perfect and the birds are most active, heading into open water for roost.  It really does seem that many birds on the wetlands fly around for the sheer enjoyment.  Trumpeter Swans are a favorite of mine to watch.


As we watched the show, we hear a familiar and longed-for music.  I can’t explain it better than Aldo… “High horns, low horns, silence, and finally a pandemonium of trumpets, rattles, croaks, and cries that almost shakes the bog with its nearness, but without yet disclosing whence it comes.”  Travelling south passed a group of Cranes.


The warm temperature of the light near sunset betrays the senses.  The skin knows the eye is false.  Even so, watching this show makes it all worthwhile.


Marsh grasses, muskrat mounds and loess hills.  Can you imagine a more satisfying landscape?


I’m not sure I’ll get there next year or not, but it goes without saying that I can’t get enough of Squaw Creek.


Location Spotlight: Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge

“Traditional Boundaries”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera,  EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 400,  f/10, 1/1250 sec

I’m finally taking a few of the images I made during my first visit to Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge last autumn and putting them into a blog post.  Living within miles of the Mississippi River Flyway – an ancestral route many migratory birds follow in their north-south seasonal movements – I have all sorts of options in visiting well-managed wetland areas to watch and photograph waterfowl.  Of all these locations none has the opportunities for getting great looks at numbers and diversity of bird species that can be found at Squaw Creek NWR, located near Mound City in north-western Missouri, not too far from the Nebraska Border.


Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera,  EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 1600,  f/5.6, 1/125 sec

The big stars at Squaw Creek around Thanksgiving and surrounding weeks are the Snow Geese.  For years I had read about and seen images of the more than one million birds that pass through this location every fall.  At peak times more than 500,000 birds can be counted on the reserve at one time.  I had images in mind that I hoped to make if I could find the birds present in these kinds of numbers.  I really had little clue of where and when I needed to be set up and if I had the ammunition (lenses) to make the images I had in mind.  I feel the photos I was able to get are of mixed success due to several reasons.  I was quite lucky in the numbers of birds that showed up.  A week before my visit the counts were only a little more than 10,000.  The day I arrived the latest weekly count suggested there were more than 250,000 on the reserve.  This is shy of the 500-600K that can be found during peek times, but for my first visit, it was quite a treat!  Of the 1.5 days I had to spend here, one full day was very cloudy and dark, making bird photography particularly troublesome.  Around noon on my last day the sky cleared and I was able to get some nice light.  Hopefully I can spend a few days more during my next visit.

“Let My Army Be The Rocks And The Trees And The Birds In The Sky”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera,  EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 400,  f/8,  1/1250 sec

Snow Geese are not the only waterfowl that can be found in good numbers here.  In almost every one of these types of images Greater White-fronted Geese, Green-winged Teal, Northern Pintail, Mallards and more can be found as well.

“The Snow & the Mist”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera,  EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 1600,  f/8,  1/100 sec

Squaw Creek NWR and its 7500 acres was established in 1935 just in time.  Close to 98% of the original marshes and related wetlands that border the Missouri River in the state of Missouri have been destroyed or permanently altered – mostly for use as farmland.  Thankfully sportsmen realized the importance for providing habitat for migrating and over-wintering waterfowl and a series of these man-made marshes were built near Kansas City, Columbia and St. Louis.  This image is actually a composite of two separate photographs – the foreground and the background, both taken in extremely cloudy and grey conditions.  I was surprised by how well this blending worked and I feel it represents what it was like on this first day, the geese constantly taking off in large groups and others taking their place in the marshes.

“Squaw Creek Eagle”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera,  EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 800,  f/5.6,  1/400 sec

Waterfowl are not the only birds or wildlife that utilize the reserve.  Although you can see more Bald Eagles in spots along the Mississippi River, I have never been able to get as close to these birds perched as I did during this visit.  This is true with the wildlife in general.  The auto-route roads were set perfectly in the reserve, in my opinion.  Getting close enough to the wildlife can be troublesome from the roads at other places I visit, but here the roads are much better situated near the pools and the wildlife never seem to be overly stressed.  During the time of my visit with cloudy weather and poor light, I was able to get closer to several duck species than I have ever been able to before.

“White Ibis”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera,  EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 400,  f/5.6,  1/640 sec

This White Ibis was actually a very late bird for this part of Missouri and it made a bit of noise in the MO birding community.  This was also one of my best looks at this species.  I had found it the day before and took some rather poor photos.  I was happy to see it still in the same pool the next day when light was better.

“Snow Geese on Loess”

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF70-200mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 150mm, ISO 100,  f/10,  1/200 sec

This image is probably my favorite from this trip.  To me, it really captures the essence of the place and I believe this is what this area looked like when Lewis and Clark first laid eyes to this part of the country.  The bluffs in the background are known as loess hills and are formed by the actions of glaciers.  Along with draining the natural wetland habitats along the Big Muddy, European settlers also got busy destroying many of the impressive loess hills, using the fertile soil for numerous development and farming projects.  Many of these features are still being harvested and destroyed to this day.

There are several more nationally well-known reserves like this throughout the country that scores of photographers, nature lovers, biologists and sportsmen flock to every year.  I can’t imagine a spot being more suited for these activities than Squaw Creek NWR.  I hope to make an annual pilgrimage to this location on Thanksgiving week.

If you make the visit and are looking for a nice place to eat, I highly recommend “Klub”.  This is a great place to enjoy a late dinner after spending the day at the reserve, which is only about ten minutes away.  They have a great menu using a lot of fresh, local ingredients.  I ate here twice during my visit and I was quite surprised to find such a quality establishment in such a little town like Mound City.

Thanks for paying a visit.  You can find more photographs taken from this location by visiting my Squaw Creek Flickr Set

Migrating to What End?

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 100,  f/5.6, 1/320 sec

The Snow Goose ranks right up there with the warblers, in my opinion, in a peculiar sector of the natural world that lie conspicuously under the noses of the vast majority of our neighbors who have no idea they even exist.  Take one of your friends outside for a spring-migratory birding experience.  Explain to them that the population of the bird we call Snow Geese stands at more than five million and that the majority of these birds travel twice a year through the Mississippi River Flyway Migratory Corridor, which ranges from eastern Nebraska and Kansas to Eastern Illinois.  In February and March, find a nice open piece of high land within 50 or so miles of either side of the Mississippi River and let them watch with binoculars or scope as groups of birds ranging from 50 to 5000 birds or more travel back to Canada for their nesting season.  Similarly to the beautifully colored and tiny wood warblers who travel through Missouri northward bound mainly during the months of April and May, your friend or neighbor will most likely tell you that they had no idea these beings even existed, much less spent some time in the trees or skies right outside their own front doors.

The Snow Goose population may actually be a harbinger of things to come for the human species.  Low numbers of traditional predators combined with the fact that these birds are both extremely difficult to hunt (compared to other water fowl) and are not a source of desirable meat are resulting in this species’ increasing population to a critical mass.  These birds taste for a particular diet in their nesting grounds and as stated above, low levels of predation, are pushing this species very close to a population crash.  Current research is showing that Snow Geese are currently experiencing increased levels of starvation and disease incidence.

In my opinion, this could be analogous to the human population’s pace of continued growth with too little concern for population control and resource management.  As long as political “leaders” focus the majority of their efforts on up to the minute economic concerns, rather than the long-term prosperity of our planet and the resources of the commons, we will continue towards a similar state.