Published December 23rd, 2022 at 6:00 AM
A pickup truck rolled to a stop, and a telephoto camera lens quickly poked out of the passenger side.
A white-capped bald eagle perched on a limb above quickly peered down, almost as if posing for a picture.
The rapid click of the shutter sounded, and the truck rolled away, only to be replaced by another vehicle of photographers.
That’s life at the Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge in December, when bald eagles rule the roost.
The regal birds of prey, once rare, could be spotted everywhere on this raw, gray day recently.
They perched on the limbs of trees overlooking the marshes. They soared over the water, looking for dead or crippled waterfowl. And they played king of the hill on muskrat mounds, seemingly daring other birds to challenge their lookout spots.
A mid-December waterfowl count at the refuge in northwest Missouri estimated more than 700 bald eagles followed the waterfowl migration to these historic wetlands for a rest stop on their way south.
My family was lucky enough to visit during that peak. The count has since dwindled as a cold front pushed many of the birds they prey on to resume their migration south.
But some stay, feeding on the dead or crippled waterfowl that didn’t survive. A count on Monday found 261 eagles and about 32,000 ducks and geese.
Whatever the case, many birders will remember a December when the giant birds returned to Loess Bluffs and put on a show.
My daughter, Becky Franklin, was among those who marveled at the rare sight.
A week earlier, I asked her how she wanted to celebrate her 46th birthday. She replied, “Let’s go to Loess Bluffs.”
That wasn’t a whim. Our family has a tradition of visiting Loess Bluffs (formerly Squaw Creek) ever year in late fall or early December.
The wetlands didn’t disappoint on our trip in mid-December. Thousands of ducks, geese and trumpeter swans swarmed the open water in the marshes. But the bald eagles were the stars of the show.
“This is fascinating,” Becky said as we drove the 10-mile wildlife auto trail around the marshes. “I’ve never seen so many bald eagles.”
Loess Bluffs is one of the nation’s top spots for attracting winter eagles. Wildlife biologists attribute that to the refuge’s location in the Mississippi Flyway. Located only a few miles from the Missouri River, Loess Bluffs annually attracts gaudy numbers of migrating ducks and snow geese. That’s fast food for the bald eagles that follow.
“The eagles follow the geese on their migration path,” said Darrin Welchert, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Loess Bluffs. “We’re located a few miles from the Missouri River as the crow flies, but I’m sure it doesn’t look that far from the sky.
“Plus, the white from the snow geese stands out. So, the eagles know there is a food source nearby.
“That’s just a theory, but that might play a part in why we get so many eagles each winter.”
Established in 1935, Loess Bluffs features marshes teeming with shallow water and rich vegetation, ideal habitat for the traveling waterfowl.
It freezes early because of its shallow water, but large concentrations of ducks, geese and swans often keep patches of the marshes open with their activity. Even when the marshes freeze, the birds often will not leave town immediately. They typically move to nearby Big Lake or the Missouri River, where the water stays open longer.
Those waterfowl are food for the bald eagles that perch in trees overlooking the marshes. If there is a dead goose or duck bobbing in the water, it doesn’t go undetected for long.
The food chain is on display at Loess Bluffs. One December morning, two bald eagles were fighting over a dead snow goose on the ice. Once they left, a coyote gingerly tip-toed across the ice to fetch the leftovers.
The coyote fell through the thin ice several times but didn’t panic. It struggled to get back on its feet and kept going. Upon arriving, it discovered there wasn’t much left of its intended meal, and it turned and slowly returned to land.
Such scenes attract hundreds of visitors to Loess Bluffs each winter. Located about 100 miles north of Kansas City off Interstate 29, the historic refuge is a wildlife watcher’s dream. It’s 10-mile auto loop puts visitors near views straight out of a nature documentary.
The gravel road rims the marshes, giving visitors an up-close look at teeming waterfowl. But they aren’t the only ones keeping a close eye on those ducks and geese. Bald eagles perch in tall trees along the auto tour, waiting for signs of weakness among the waterfowl.
Once, such eagle sightings were rare. It wasn’t that long ago that bald eagles were on the brink of extinction. Numbers dropped dangerously low due to the pesticide DDT and other factors. By 1963, the lower 48 states were down to 417 nesting pairs.
Bald eagles were placed on the federal endangered species list in 1978, and extraordinary steps were taken to protect the birds of prey and bring them back.
The biggest factor was banning DDT. But habitat work, strong regulations protecting the birds of prey and reintroduction projects also played a part.
By 2007, bald eagles were removed from the federal list of threatened and endangered species, and nowhere is that comeback clearer than at Loess Bluffs.
But Loess Bluffs is just part of the equation in Missouri, said Janet Haslerig, a resource scientist for the Missouri Department of Conservation.
“We have so much open water in Missouri with our rivers and large reservoirs, we’ve always attracted large numbers of wintering bald eagles,” she said.
A Mississippi Flyway mid-winter waterfowl count in early 2022 found 3,678 bald eagles in Missouri. That was the highest total ever.
In mild winters, some of those migrating eagles might fly no further south than Missouri, Haslerig said.
That offers many viewing opportunities for hardy bird watchers willing to brave the cold at places like Loess Bluffs, Lake of the Ozarks, Smithville Lake and the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.
“It really has become a winter tradition for some people,” Haslerig said. “A lot of our residents look forward to December and January when they can get out and view the eagles.”
Flatland contributor Brent Frazee is a Kansas City based outdoors writer.