Nature Viewing Guide
Who needs television? In Missouri, the natural world can keep you entertained all year long. With nearly 400 species of birds, 209 species of fish, 82 types of reptiles, 70 species of mammals, 42 amphibians, 129 mussels, about 5,000 species of plants, around 15,000 insects, 303 spiders and 1,000 types of scorpions, mites and ticks, you shouldn't have any trouble finding something to interest you.
All you need is a little time and a little patience. And don't forget to take your camera, a picnic lunch and your binoculars, but don't take any of the animals or plants home with you - especially any of the ticks, if you can help it.
Nature viewing can be as easy as looking out your window or stepping out your back door. But it may take some traveling to get to some of the species that inhabit Missouri's diverse landscape. If you don't already have favorite spots to visit or if you want to try something new, here are seven Conservation Department lands that are sure to please. Look for the brown and white binocular signs that indicate prime wildlife viewing areas.
Osage Prairie Conservation Area
Six miles south of Nevada on Highway 71, then 1.5 miles west on an unnamed gravel road (watch for the area sign), then one-half mile south on another unnamed road.
The Osage Prairie Conservation Area has something to see and hear in every season. Listen for the booming calls of male prairie chickens as they compete for mates in March and April. Songbirds and scissor-tailed flycatchers flit through the sky in the spring. In the winter, migrating short-eared owls use the prairie for a hunting ground. In the summer, thousands of regal fritillary butterflies search out the purple coneflower and butterfly weed. In the fall, the big and little bluestem grasses, Indian grass, switch grass and wild rye turn the prairie into a sea of gold.
Woodson K. Woods Memorial Conservation Area
Southeast of St. James on Highway 8 in Crawford County.
The Meramec River flows through the Woodson K. Woods Memorial Conservation Area. Canoeing is a good way to sneak up on the many species of toads, frogs, turtles, snakes, fish and aquatic insects. Muskrat, mink and raccoon share the water with wood ducks, great blue and green herons and belted kingfishers. Songbirds use the river valley as a resting and feeding area during their spring and fall migrations. Park the canoe and hike through the forests and clearings, where white-tailed deer and wild turkey forage for food.
Amidon Memorial Conservation Area
The main entrance is in Madison County, east of Fredericktown on Highway J, south on Highway W, then east on County Road 208.
A one-mile trail leads to the pink granite shut-ins on the Castor River where mink, raccoon, little blue herons and belted kingfishers compete for fish. Further on, the trail passes through granite glades where songbirds, wild turkey, coyote and white-tailed deer can be spotted.
In the forests of oak and natural pine stands, you can hear the eerie call of the pileated woodpecker and see gray squirrels sunning in the trees. Also look for signs of bobcat and fox.
Star School Hill Prairie Conservation Area
In Atchison County just north of Rock Port, take Highway 136 to Highway 275. Go north on 275 for 14 miles to the area entrance on the right side of the highway.
Star School Hill Prairie Conservation Area is a refuge for rare and endangered plants, such as beard-tongue, yucca, downy painted cup and skeleton plant. These rugged river hills also are the home of many birds of prey. Look to the skies to see great-horned owls and red-tailed hawks. White-tailed deer, bobwhite quail, cottontail rabbits and wild turkey often can be seen on this 129-acre area that also offers a scenic view of the Missouri River Valley.
Ruth and Paul Henning Conservation Area
From the junction of U.S. 65 and Missouri 248 north of Branson, take 248 west 2.5 miles to the Shepherd of the Hills Expressway. Continue west on the expressway four miles to Missouri 76. Turn west on 76 for one-half mile to the area entrance on the right.
The dry, rocky glades of the Ruth and Paul Henning Conservation Area make this a great place to see tarantulas and scorpions and fence and eastern collared lizards. Look for them between the little bluestem and Indian grass and under the smoke trees and Ashe junipers. Wildflowers give the glades a continuous display of blooms from early spring to fall.
While in the area, take a drive east down Highway 76. Turn south on 165 until you get to Shepherd of the Hills Fish Hatchery where in the winter you can see birds of prey, including black vultures that live in large, social roosts before they disperse in the spring.
Fountain Grove Conservation Area
On Route W, five miles south of the Meadville junction. Off Highway 36 in Linn County near Swan Lake.
Fountain Grove Conservation Area is a paradise for water-loving birds and mammals. During a winter day, look for bald eagles perching in large trees around open water. In the spring and fall you can see as many as 1,500 white pelicans as they rest on their migration route, as well as ducks. Fall and winter are the best times to get a good look at snow and Canada geese. Spring and summer look for warblers and herons along the Grand River. At dusk, catch a glimpse of an otter or beaver in the many pools and lakes, or perhaps spot a coyote as it searches the fields for mice and rabbits. Wildlife viewing can be done on foot along the trails or by car.
Three Creeks Conservation Area
Five miles south of Columbia on Highway 63 and 1.75 miles west on Deer Park Road in Boone County.
Hike along the limestone ridges and bluffs to see colorful hardwoods in mid-October and turkey vultures as they congregate in the area in March. The forests and grasslands harbor a variety of songbirds year-round. Escape into the dark world of Hunter's Cave to see little brown and pipistrelle bats, cave salamanders and cave crickets. The cave is closed from April 1 to Oct. 31 to protect the wildlife.
Nature viewing tips
- Study field guides and other books before you head out. The more you know about the habits and habitats of the plants and animals you want to observe, the easier it will be to find them.
- Adjust your schedule to the animals or plants you want to watch. Beaver work mostly at night, and four-o'clocks bloom only in the afternoon, but you have to get up pretty early to hear the predawn chorus of tree swallows, vireos and warblers.
- Don't try to get too close to the animals. Stay back and enjoy watching them through a pair of binoculars as they go about their normal routine. It's okay to sneak up real close to an elusive lady-slipper orchid, just don't step on it!
- Be like Daniel Boone - learn to read the signs the animals leave behind. Sometimes it's just as much fun to find an impression in a grassy field where a deer has bedded down as to see the animal itself.
- Write down what you have seen. Serious birders keep a list of all the birds they have seen in their lifetime. You might want to keep a journal of all the plants and animals you find in a particular area, or perhaps be the first on your block to have personally discovered all 303 species of Missouri spiders.
Ready for more?
Send for your copy of the Nature Viewing Guide, which lists 101 of Missouri's most spectacular nature viewing sites. The easy-to-read format lets you know at a glance what awaits you at each area - everything from restroom availability to what animals you can see. Color photographs give you a preview of some of Missouri's most interesting plants and animals. To order, send $3.50, plus $2 for shipping and handling (Missouri residents should add 22 cents for sales tax) to: Missouri Department of Conservation, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City 65102-0180.