White Out at Squaw Creek NWR

White Out!
White Out!

Steve and I took advantage of a long holiday break by making a pilgrimage to Squaw Creek NWR. ¬†Even though the temps were in the 50s and 60s, you can see we still had white out conditions… ūüėČ

Take a look at the video below…

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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…

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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. ūüėČ

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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Location Spotlight: Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge

‚ÄúTraditional Boundaries‚ÄĚ

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.

‚ÄúCacophonic‚ÄĚ

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.

‚ÄúLet My Army Be The Rocks And The Trees And The Birds In The Sky‚ÄĚ

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.

‚ÄúThe Snow & the Mist‚ÄĚ

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 Рmostly 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 Рthe 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.

‚ÄúSquaw Creek Eagle‚ÄĚ

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.

‚ÄúWhite Ibis‚ÄĚ

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.

‚ÄúSnow Geese on Loess‚ÄĚ

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