02 December 2010

Birdwatching on Eagle Days at Squaw Creek

In recent days, splendid numbers of the special guests for "Eagle Days" have been winging their way southward along the Missouri River valley and gathering on the scene for the weekend event at Squaw Creek NWR.

Big flights of migrating Snow Geese have been noted flying southward along the river, with other fowl that have moved away from the snow and frigid cold temperatures of recent days on the northern Great Plains.

During a bird survey on November 29, staff of the refuge documented an impressive variety of wild birds, especially lots of waterfowl and another especially distinctive species, the Bald Eagle.

Consider these numbers:

  • Trumpeter Swan: 95
  • Snow Geese: 150,000
  • Mallard: 42,990
  • Northern Pintail: 8540
  • Ring-necked Duck: 510

Plus other species of dabbling and diving ducks.

There were also 36 Bald Eagles, and because of the vast numbers of ducks, more eagles could be expected to gather.

There is a phantasmagoria of birds, and many of them will be present when Eagle Days are held on December 3-5 at the refuge five miles south of Mound City, Missouri.

Shuttle bus and visitors at Eagle Days in 2009. Images courtesy of Ron Bell, U.S. F.W.S.

This is the 32nd annual Eagle Days, and the birds have been cooperative every year. The refuge makes the event a special time for visitor's to enjoy the vivid diversity presented.

"Eagle Days is a cooperative project and is successful only because of the many partners involved," said Ron Bell, manager of Squaw Creek NWR.

Highlights featured during the weekend include a "live eagle program" at the refuge maintenance building, where Bald Eagles will be presented "up-close" by volunteers of the Dickerson Park Zoo, from Springfield, Missouri. An eagle video will be shown in the headquarters auditorium.

Bus tours with a knowledgeable commentator, will take the visitors around the ten mile tour road of the refuge to show them the different birds and explain other notable features of the refuge, which is one of the few "Important Birding Areas" in the Missouri River valley.

During the weekend, volunteers will have spotting scopes set up at a few intervals along the auto-tour route, where the shuttle buses will stop, to allow people to get a close look at the wild birds. The live-eagle programs will be held hourly. The refuge headquarters will feature educational displays about Bald Eagles and other local natural history features.

When the first Eagle Days event took place it was done in conjunction with the Missouri Department of Conservation, Bell said. The state agency has been instrumental in getting school kids involved, Bell said, noting that they select the schools to be involved. This year about 600 kids are expected from many different schools, he said. In previous years, there have been 800-1000 kids from 15-20 schools.

Bell noted the following "partners" which contribute to the success of the three-day event:

* The Missouri Department of Transportation helps by placing signage along nearby Interstate 29, to inform people about the nearby bird refuge, and urging drivers to get people to slow their speed of travel to avoid any mishaps with the gathers flocks.
* The Ioway Tribe allows a 25-foot inflatable eagle to be placed in front of their headquarters, to bring attention to the event
* Volunteers from the Wildlife Society are hosts along some of the auto-tour stops, providing the spotting scopes so valuable in providing people a closer look.
* The Middle Empire Audubon Society promotes an interest in birds by selling bird seed during the weekend, with any profits used to fund activities at the refuge.
* The Friends of Squaw Creek, a vital part of the refuge, Bell said, sell tasty food, with profits used to promote environmental conservation and education at the refuge.

"I enjoy having each of the many partners helping us," said Bell. "We are all working to educate people about the value of Bald Eagles and the refuge lands." In addition to the Squaw Creek staff of eight people, Bell said, 13 other employees of the Fish and Wildlife Service will come to help make the day a success.

Spotting scope station at Squaw Creek NWR, 2009.

With 6-7000 people attending during previous years, the refuge has arranged for alternative parking and an easy means of getting to the refuge. Visitors can park at the nearby truck stop - up the hill - along Interstate 29, where free, hourly shuttle bus rides will be provided.

"Squaw Creek NWR has one of the largest visible concentrations of Bald Eagles east of the Rocky Mountains," said Bell, noting that the lowest number of eagles present during the past 23 years of the event was fifty, with one hundred a typical number. "Eagle Days is an important educational effort to show people these raptors and other birds here at the refuge."

The 7400 acre refuge has about 3600 acres of wetlands attractive to a great variety of birds.

Prominent among are a 600 acre and a 900 acre pool, as well as 15 other "moist-soil units" which are specifically managed to benefit resident and migratory bird life, Bell said. "Some have water all years. Some are drawn down in spring, then mown, burned or disced" to make the site attractive to birds."

"We have lots of active wetland management," Bell said.

The results are obvious, as shown by the number of fowl reported at the refuge, year after year, from visiting bird-watchers, whom document the species they note, which helps the refuge understand the avian diversity.

The number of birds which occur is "amazing," said Bell, who has been manager at the refuge for 23 years.

If unable to enjoy the special events of Eagle Days, the auto-tour route of the refuge is open each day during this time of the year. Many local birders visit the refuge to personally enjoy the huge flocks of gathered waterfowl, or to take a closer look and see what small birds such as sparrows or wrens or a whole array of Passerine species - might also be lurking among the variety of wildlife habitat.

Further information on Squaw Creek NWR is available on the refuges website, as well as at the Friends of Squaw Creek website.