Published December 2nd, 2020 at 6:00 AM
On a cold morning at Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge, a huge flock of snow geese wasn’t paying attention to social-distancing guidelines.
Tens of thousands of waterfowl kept close quarters on the marsh in northwest Missouri, giving it the appearance of a landscape covered with a blanket of snow. When one of the birds lifted into flight, others followed and soon the sky was filled with a flurry of geese.
They rose in such chaotic fashion that you couldn’t help but wonder why some of them didn’t fly into each other. But by the time the din of their calls faded, the water was calm again.
And the birders on shore, socially distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, again were left in awe.
“For the size of our refuge, it really is amazing how many birds we will hold,” said Darrin Welchert, a wildlife biologist at the refuge for 10 years and the current acting manager. “There are times when it looks like you couldn’t fit another goose onto some sections of our marshes.”
Loess Bluffs, located near Mound City, Missouri, often reaches peak numbers of 200,000 to 300,000 snow geese and more than 100,000 ducks in the fall, Welchert said.
Considering that only 3,500 acres of the wildlife refuge is made up of managed wetlands, it’s not a stretch to say that Loess Bluffs (formerly known as Squaw Creek) packs them in during the fall.
Once late November arrives, the national refuge becomes a busy avian airport, with incoming flights of migrating ducks and geese arriving daily. Large numbers of the wildlife world’s grim reapers, bald eagles, will follow the waterfowl and perch in trees, waiting for an easy meal. In recent years, increasing numbers of trumpeter swans will migrate in, too.
The waterfowl will stay until the shallow marshes freeze tight. Then they will continue their migration south.
Add it up, and you have a fascinating look at the wildlife world, just 100 miles north of Kansas City off Interstate 29.
“It really is a gift. It’s a one-of-a-kind place,” said Dan Staples, who lives just two miles from the refuge, in rural Mound City.
“I don’t know how many people I’ve heard say, ‘This is my quarantine spot.’ My wife and I travel to other refuges and at almost all of them, you have to park and then hike in. Loess Bluffs in an anomaly. You can cover 10 miles and see all kinds of wildlife without even leaving your car.”
Staples was referring to the auto loop, a gravel path that puts visitors right in the middle of the wild world. The one-way loop circles marshes, passes tall trees with bald eagles perched in them and through timber where deer peer out.
Along the way, you’ll see vehicles pulled off to the side and visitors pointing cameras or binoculars at wildlife they spot.
“People will travel a long way to come here,” Staples said. “I talked to one person who drove 300 miles to spend a day here.”
You might not recognize the name, but the Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge has been around for a long time.
Squaw Creek, as it was known for years, became a refuge in 1935 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt deemed the wetlands worth protecting. It was named after the tributary that feeds the refuge.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service changed the name in 2017 after complaints about the negative connotations of the word “squaw.” It was renamed after the loess (pronounced “luss”) hills—made of fine, glacial soil that surrounds the refuge.
Even before it was designated as a national wildlife refuge, it was known as a gathering spot for migratory waterfowl. Located about five miles from the Missouri River, it was a large stopping point for ducks, geese, shorebirds and other water birds as they followed the major waterway during migration and looked for a place to rest.
“A big part of why we get so many ducks and geese is that we’re located at a funneling point on the migration paths,” Welchert said. “We’re technically in the Mississippi Flyway, but we’re right on the edge of the Central Flyway, so we get birds from both.”
The marshes originally were used as a private hunt club, but they eventually became public land worth saving.
Today, no waterfowl hunting is allowed on the refuge. But that doesn’t mean the area’s reputation for hunting has faded.
On the contrary, the private land surrounding the refuge, some of it right up to the refuge borders, is filled with hunting clubs.
For decades, those clubs have been famous for their outstanding duck hunting. They were also famous for the guests they have hosted. Legendary baseball players Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams and Roger Maris all came to the area to hunt.
Paul Knick, 86, who lives in Gladstone, has seen that history play out. He has hunted the Loess Bluffs area since he was a teenager.
“I’m an old geezer, but I still love to hunt,” Knick said during a hunt several years ago. “I go back far enough that I remember when Squaw Creek would hold a half-million ducks in the fall. It’s not like that anymore.
“We have a lot more refuges now and the ducks have a lot more options. But Squaw Creek still gets its share.”
A recent waterfowl count proved Knick’s point.
A survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages Loess Bluffs, indicated that 102,000 snow geese and 123,400 ducks, including 94,200 mallards, were using the wetlands. Wildlife workers also counted 122 bald eagles and 642 trumpeter swans.
That’s a lot of activity at one place, but it’s not uncommon for late November and early December at Loess Bluffs.
“This is the time to be here,” Welchert said. “This is the time a lot of people look forward to.”
Flatland contributor Brent Frazee is a Kansas City based outdoors writer.