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Squaw Creek Birds
Although not a common sight, great egrets appear during spring, summer, and fall at the Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge.
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Courtesy of Missouri Division of Tourism
Squaw Creek Geese
Millions of geese make a pit stop here during the winter and spring migrations. Birders can download the checklist on the refuge’s website to see what species can be seen at different times of year.
By Alex Stewart
The sky is nowhere to be found. Instead, the air above your head is gray, white, and feathery. It’s vibrating ceaselessly. The mass seems to be approaching the ground, coming closer and closer until it falls, gracefully, and lands on the water. Suddenly, the shapes are discernible: migrating geese, swans, cranes, and ducks that stop at Squaw Creek before soldiering northward for the spring.
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Bald Eagle Squaw Creek
Bald eagles are quite the sight at squaw creek.
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Red-tailed Hawk Squaw Creek
Red-tailed hawks are commonly sighted at the refuge year-round.
“They are quite the sight and quite the noise,” says Christina Buhman, president of Friends of Squaw Creek, a nonprofit that fundraises and promotes the refuge. “They are so noisy when they get together.”
A million snow geese sound like a constant whirring or a million emergency vehicles with sirens blaring. It’s both deafening and hypnotic.
The Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge, near Mound City in Northwest Missouri, is home for more than three hundred bird species, forty-one mammal species, and thirty-seven reptile and amphibian species. Wetlands, grasslands, forests, and croplands make up this vast habitat of award-winning greenery.
In 2001, it made the American Bird Conservancy’s top 500 Globally Important Bird Areas in America. In 2007, the refuge was labeled a Site of Regional Importance by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. But its first recognition as a crucial part of Missouri wildlife occurred in the 1930s.
President Franklin Roosevelt established the Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge as a 7,415-acre feeding and breeding refuge for migratory birds and other wildlife on August 23, 1935. Why was it worthy of an executive order? Squaw Creek is a kind of bottleneck region for migrations, explains Squaw Creek wildlife refuge specialist Corey Kudrna.
“We’re part of the Mississippi Flyway, but we’re right on the line with the Missouri River, and across into Nebraska is the Central Flyway,” he says. “So you’ve got a lot of birds pushing through the area. We’re kind of a key wetland—almost a pinch point of an hourglass.”
Courtesy of National Fish and Wildlife Services
In addition to the walking trails, the auto tour route is a ten-mile drive where visitors can see coyotes, bald eagles, otters, and other wildlife. From your vehicle, you can often see birds of prey, waterfowl, beaver, and muskrat in marshes and pools.
Bird migrations are a sublime sight to see here February through April. In February 2014, refuge officials counted more than a million snow geese. Expect to see vibrant plumage and increasing numbers of trumpeter swans. At the refuge in the spring, Eagle Pool and Pelican Pool host the birds, and the Eagle Overlook Trail, which has a watchtower, is the best seat in the house.
For hikers seeking a spectacular tri-state view, the Loess Bluff Trail, originally built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, is a half-mile long and ends with a two-hundred-step ascent, rewarding hikers with a glimpse of eagles spiraling below to catch their prey.
“You’re about three hundred feet above the river valley at that point,” Corey says. “You’ll be looking through the flock.”
Loess hills cover seven hundred acres of the refuge on the east, along the Missouri River floodplain. There, visitors can trek past some of the state’s na- tive plants, like Indian grass, big bluestem, blazing star, compass plant, yucca, beard-tongue, and skeleton plant. May through September is a great time to visit the loess hills; wild flowers, butterflies, and passerine birds are abundant that time of year. March marks the beginning of prime fishing season.
“As soon as the ice is gone, and it’s not unbearable,” Corey says, “it’s time to come to the refuge.”
Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge is located five miles south of Mound City and thirty miles northwest of St. Joseph. Visitors can take I-29 to Exit 79 and then travel 2.5 miles west on Route 159 to the refuge.
The office is open Monday through Friday from 7:30 AM to 4 PM. Call 660- 442-3187 or visit fws.gov/refuge/squaw_creek for more information.