A visit to Loess Bluffs NWR

PHOTO BY GARRY BRANDENBURG During a recent excursion to Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge in northwest Missouri, snow geese were waiting for spring on the shallow water habitat water pools. While making images of the geese, several inquisitive bald eagles made a pass over the flock, causing a mass take-off that seemed to fill the sky with geese. Snow geese move north and south to stay just outside the snow line. They will fly to adjacent open crop land fields to find waste grain and then return to the refuge at night. Spring is only two months away. Migrating snow geese will be ready to move anytime the weather allows. Longer day lengths trigger the urge to migrate.

LOESS BLUFFS NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE is a good place to visit at any time of the year. It can be become spectacular with several hundred thousand geese each spring around mid March.

However, even in mid January, the refuge is far from a sterile environment. On the day my wife and I visited the refuge there were only about 14,000 snow geese. One week prior there were about 89,000. What made the difference: the first big snow storm of the season which brought colder air, snow and enough snow to help make finding waste grain harder to find. So many of the geese moved south a bit and just enough to where food would be easier to secure.

By the way, the word Loess has German roots, for fine wind blown soil particles. The way to pronounce the word is to think of “luss.” Loess is a geologic name for the windblown bedrock erosional remnants over the course of deposition between 500,000 and 30,000 years ago. Winds piled this fine grained soil element into large dunes along the entire length of the Missouri River from north of Sioux City to well downstream of Mound City, Mo. The unique soil type offers places for plants found nowhere else in Missouri. At undisturbed portions of the loess bluffs south facing slopes can be found native prairie plants such as Indiangrass, Big bluestem, and Blazingstar.

Part of the reason to visit the NWR was to see it again after many years absence, was to see it after the big flood events on the Missouri River had passed. Refuge access roadways were open where they once had been completely underwater during maximum flood stage. The visitor center however is always safely high and dry on an upland site that overlooks the refuge water pools.

Getting to the refuge from the Nebraska side was a bit tricky. Flood waters had severely impacted several access roadways. So I followed marked detour signs to eventually arrive at this waterfowl magnet site. A visitor center volunteer showed my wife and I an aerial photo of before and after flood conditions. That was an impressive comparison that supremely illustrated the power of water while in flood conditions. From the visitor center looking west, the entire Missouri River floodplain was one uninterrupted body of water about 10 miles wide. Now the river has retreated to within its banks, but left a heavy toll of damages to farm land, roadways and communities.

While at the refuge, we found lots of snow geese and succeeded in using quality binocular time and long lens photo equipment to make lots of images. Other critters seen were numerous bald eagles, trumpeter swans, Canada geese, mallard, northern shovelers, ring-necked ducks, goldeneye, coot and even a few flocks of sandhill cranes. Eagles were already standing guard over nest trees with existing huge nests from former years use.

Loess Bluffs NWR has a tour roadway that allows people to observe many of its 7,440 acres of wetlands, forests and prairie. Observation towers and platforms allow for an elevated view over water filled pools. If one was to count all the wildlife known to live there, a list will show 30 species of mammals, almost 40 species of reptiles and amphibians and more than 300 species of birds. Resident wildlife include coyote, fox, otter, muskrat, raccoon, bobcat and white-tailed deer. Camping on the refuge is not allowed but one can find camping at the nearby Big Lake State Park. (And, yes, this state park was out of commission during the flood, but is being renovated for the 2020 season).

To learn more about the Loess Bluffs NWR, you can write to them at PO Box 158, Mound City, Mo., 64470 or phone them at 660-442-3187. Website address is www.fws.gov/refuge/Loess_Bluffs/.

I highly encourage all wildlife enthusiasts to make a journey to the far northwest corner of Missouri at least once in your lifetime. It is a relatively close to home wildlife magnet for migrating waterfowl and birds of prey. And if you call on Tuesday mornings, the refuge staff will have updated numbers of all observed species from the previous day. Counts are updated once per week on Monday. That is why you should call on a Tuesday.

IOWA DEER HUNT numbers have peaked. Mid week totals statewide show hunters took 93,446 deer. This number consists of antlered bucks 40,322, adult doe deer 42,555, female young of the year 2,149, button bucks at 7,607 and shed-antlered bucks of 813. Some of these trophy class deer may show up at the upcoming Iowa Deer Classic show in Des Moines on March 6, 7 and 8. The Deer Classic will have even more exhibitors and exhibit space this year than last year. Demand for exhibitors always exceeds available space. This is a testament to this well run show and a known crowd of public attendees above 20,000.

THANK YOU to guest writers Joe Herring, Iowa Department of Natural Resources Forester, and Mike Stegmann, Marshall County Conservation Board Director for furnishing fill-in stories while this scribe attended to duties out-of-state during the last two weeks. Those duties included deer hunting for either mule deer or the very small white-tail called Coues deer in Arizona. After that my wife and I visited relatives and friends in -[ and Tucson, Ariz. Yes the weather was nice in Arizona. And yes I did get snowed on in the foothill mountains near Willcox, Ariz. Note: the snow did not last long. I learned many things about Arizona deer and their ability to climb steep mountain sides where stalks were possible but very very hard to do. Was it fun? Absolutely. My family with Iowa roots had questions about Iowa but sadly no desire to leave Arizona. They did question our sanity for not staying in Arizona. Sorry, our Iowa roots are too deep to leave. Until next week, stay warm.

Quote” “Time you enjoy wasting is never a waste of time.”

— Bertand Russel


Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.