I was making the first tracks of the day in fresh snow at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area when I noticed in the rearview mirror that the undercarriage of my 4x4 truck was dragging furrows into the soft, crystalline blanket. After passing through the entrance gate to the area, I attempted a right turn to check on an overlook and canoe launch on the Missouri River. Instead, the truck kept its forward momentum and slid slowly down the shallow bank of a levee and came to rest on the frozen edge of a wetland marsh. Where there was no cell phone reception.
There were two courses of action: panic or photography. I was dressed for the weather and had a fully charged camera battery, so I chose the latter. The truck could be dealt with later.
The weight of the tripod and large lens dug gently into my shoulder as I walked. The landscape was silent save for the wind through the marsh grass and the faint honks from a skein of geese passing high overhead. The solitude was comforting.
My footfalls crunched along the levee road and a bracing breeze off the wetland watered my eyes. The area was alive with activity easy to overlook from the comfort of a passing vehicle. A pair of swans circled by the edge of a slough, well camouflaged with their white plumage. A few mallards and a Canada goose flapped out of the water, startled, and waddled away over the snow at the sound of my approach. A pod of pelicans huddled close together on a small island, faces tucked under wings against the wind.
The American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynochos) can often be seen flying along the big rivers and resting in wetland pools. They feed on small fish, and groups of the birds will work together to herd the fish before plunging their heads underwater and scooping up mouthfuls, the pouches beneath their yellow bills drooping heavily.
I watched the pod bunch together for several minutes for warmth. Then several flapped their wings and made a show of taking off from the others with a squawk, to swim and feed together. After several minutes, the feeders returned to the main group, all the birds huddled against the wind, heads tucked beneath wings, and then the pattern repeated over and over.
The hike back to the truck warmed me, and watching the birds helped clear my mind. Strategic wedging of floor mats under my tires gave me enough traction to get back on the roadway. The unplanned hike turned out to be a great morning enjoying a slice of avian life that I might have driven past.
—Story and photograph by David Stonner
We help people discover nature through our online field guide. Visit mdc.mo.gov/node/73 to learn more about Missouri’s plants and animals.
Editor In Chief - Nichole LeClair Terrill
Art Director - Cliff White
Staff Writer/Editor - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Heather Feeler
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Circulation - Laura Scheuler