A heavy fog brought the sky down and closed us in. Snow geese banked their flight and set wings and feet for a landing in the pool beside the viewing tower. I shouted a greeting over the deafening honks to the person near me.
There were hundreds of thousands of snow geese at Squaw Creek National Refuge that weekend, and I was in the thick of them, watching, observing, absorbing every sound, smell and sight. Hours went by like minutes. Hundreds of visitors came past and many lingered, amazed, not wanting the moment to end.
Wildlife watching provides perspective on a great and powerful world. To most people, watching wildlife is, a wonderful escape from routine, fax machines, e-mail and all those little emergencies.
Missouri has a wealth of opportunities for watching wildlife, and they only require being in the right place at the right time. There's nothing scientific to watching wildlife, but a few techniques can maximize your discoveries while minimizing your impact on nature.
Oh, where to start! To help you learn about locations and available activities, the Conservation Department offers the Missouri Conservation Atlas, Missouri Nature Viewing Guide and Outdoor Missouri Map.
When you're planning, don't try to pack too much into a trip. A couple of nearby areas for a day trip is probably the best compromise. Call ahead to the site, where you can, and ask about migration activity in spring and fall or possible restrictions due to hunting seasons and migrations.
Take into account local conditions and weather. If you're going to a wetland, stream or prairie in summer, don't forget insect repellent. Come prepared with clothing and footwear to suit the trip. Remember that many roadways to wildlife are unpaved and that conditions are usually primitive.
Visit sites when animals are likely to be busy. In general, most species (especially mammals) are active in the hour before and after sunrise and sunset.
The peak of songbird activity begins one-half hour before sunrise and continues for four hours into the morning. Hawks and falcons are easier to view in midday as the air warms. Insects, amphibians and reptiles like the heat of a summer day, too. Nighttime offers "sound" rewards from owls and coyotes. See if you can find a sunrise and sunset chart in a calendar or almanac to improve your timing.
Spring and fall are busy seasons for wildlife. Carnivores and rodents breed in spring and are most active from March through June. Birds are in their brightest plumage in spring and ready to find a mate. Courting behaviors, such as the booming of prairie chickens or the strutting of turkeys, can be exciting to witness. Nocturnal animals, especially owls and flying squirrels, are active in summer at twilight. Fall migrations of waterfowl, shorebirds and raptors are more dramatic and longer lasting than spring migrations.
Call ahead to a site if you want to catch peak migrations of waterfowl, shorebirds or bald eagles, for the weather can quickly change viewing conditions. Eagle watching is most spectacular December through early February in Missouri. White-tailed deer and wild turkey bunch in winter; watch for small groups of them feeding in openings or fields late in the day.
If you have a bird feeder, you have probably learned that storms can be good for viewing wildlife, with peak activity before and after rain or snow. For night calls, owls begin in late January, while coyotes and foxes are good listening from December through summer.
Outfitted with just a couple of field guides and binoculars, you have the basic tools to make your trip exciting. A spotting scope is especially helpful for water birds. Use binoculars or a scope to scan open areas, hillsides, bluffs, lakes and stream banks.
Look in bookstores for field guides to birds, mammals, plants and others. Half the fun of seeing and identifying a new species is reading about it afterward to learn more of its habits and habitats.
Learn about the habitats you're going to visit. Most field guides have general habitat descriptions in the front. More specific references are available about primary habitats in the state including forests, grasslands, river bottomlands, rivers and streams, wetlands and caves and springs.
Cassette tape recorders can help you capture and learn bird songs and frog calls. Don't forget your camera.
Stop, look and listen as you go. Hike into the wind and avoid noisy ground covered with leaves and sticks. Walk slowly and quietly. Wear clothes that blend with the habitat. Sometimes using your car, truck or boat as a viewing blind is less disturbing to wildlife and allows you to watch animals go about their routines.
A pond or stream bank is a good place to sit and watch for wildlife coming and going. When you enter an area, you'll probably disturb the animals, so give them 10 to 15 minutes to lose their fear and return to their activities.
Think again about habitats and learn where to look for particular species. Make note of habitat conditions and observe closely. You may even want to keep a journal or create some habitats in your own yard.
A fresh snow in winter can be wonderful for observing wildlife signs. Many mammals, such as bobcat, river otter and beaver are active at night and hard to see, but they leave signs behind, such as tracks in snow or mud. Keep an eye out for scat, fur and gnawed or trampled vegetation.
Visit nearby nature centers or visit with naturalists about wildlife watching. Attend a meeting of the local chapter of the Audubon Society or some other outdoor organization. Most of these groups offer guest speakers, workshops and field trips to view wildlife.
While watching wildlife, try not to interfere with their daily activities. If an animal is jumpy, you're probably getting too close. To keep from disturbing young animals, stay away from nests or dens while animals are rearing their young. If you find young animals alone, the parent is likely nearby and will return. Feeding, handling or chasing wildlife can be harmful to you and the animal.
If you're visiting a public area with marked trails, remain on pathways or in designated areas. Keep a leash on any pets with you or, better yet, leave pets at home. Honor the rights of landowners and ask permission before entering private property.
Watching wildlife can be addictive. The more you go, the more you'll want to learn about animal activities and habitats. Missouri offers a variety of habitats, from big rivers and swamps to prairies and forests. Discover all of these as you enjoy our state's wildlife. triangle
Send for your copy of the Nature Viewing Guide, which lists 101 of Missouri's most spectacular nature viewing sites. The book's easy-to-read format lets you know at a glance what awaits you at each area -- everything from restroom availability to what animals you may 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, Fiscal Section, PO Box 180, Jefferson City 65102-0180.
Editor - Kathy Love
Assistant Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Staff Writer - Charlotte Overby
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer