Changes in water bird migration along the Missouri River Valley have created a late winter opportunity for wildlife enthusiasts to enjoy both spectacle and subtle beauty.
More than 1 million snow geese have stopped at Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge in northwest Missouri.
The massive flocks, with their synchronized turns, deliver one of the prettiest, easily seen images in North America bird migration. And there's a bonus at Squaw Creek: a record 400-plus trumpeter swans.
By contrast, visitors to DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge near the town of Missouri Valley, Iowa, will see the greatest number and variety of ducks there in more than a decade. Besides about 58,000 ducks, DeSoto offers a bonus of more than 170 eagles — significantly higher than the number at Squaw Creek.
Neither refuge could boast similar numbers five years ago.
“These refuges have different strengths and reasons to visit,” said Ken Block, visitor services manager at DeSoto.
“It's well worth a visit to Squaw Creek for the spectacle of a million snow geese if you haven't gone there. DeSoto takes a little more time and perhaps more patience. When you come here, you'll see a wide variety of beautiful birds.”
In the 2000s, the sprawling Squaw Creek refuge, long known for its fall migration of snow geese, began attracting the geese during their return north, said Squaw Creek manager Ron Bell.
The number of northward migrating snow geese topped 1 million for the first time in 2008, he said.
Likewise, visits by trumpeter swans, which were nonexistent there in the early 2000s, have steadily increased, setting records each year. None were stopping there as of 2002, nearly 80 stopped in 2008, and 418 are at the refuge based on this week's count.
“It's incredible,'' he said.
Bell said he's not sure why migratory patterns of trumpeter swans and snow geese have changed.
Hunting may be a factor with snow geese. A population explosion of snow geese has prompted wildlife managers to relax hunting regulations, so more snow geese may be seeking refuge at Squaw Creek.
At DeSoto, waterbird populations crashed around 2000, and the reason for their return is obvious: a more than sixfold increase in wetland acreage in the past three years.
DeSoto manager Tom Cox began replacing farmland with wetlands in 2010. Work at the refuge is nearly complete, based on current acreage, and his next effort will be at the nearby Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge.
Since 2010, Cox said, water bird numbers have increased about five-fold.
“That's a quick turnaround,” he said.
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