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March 3rd, 2011

Squaw Creek NWR Snow Geese

Spring Migration - 1.3 Million

Spring 2011 brought some fairly insane numbers of snow geese to Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge, located in Mound City, MO. It's tough to get all the necessary elements to come together to make over a million geese happen, but it's done it two out of the last three years now. 1.3 million in 2011 and I think 1.4 million in 2012. To get them to pile up in huge numbers at Squaw, a couple things have to happen. First, an early start of spring warmth to start bringing them back north to the refuge. But not too warm, or they'll just keep going north. That's where snow comes in. Put down a good amount of snowpack just north of the refuge in southern IA or so and you should be set. They come north with the warmth, then see the snowpack to the north and decide to sit on the refuge for a while. Then on top of that you have the ice issue. Get too many cold nights in a row and the waters at Squaw (which are pretty shallow, especially this year) will freeze over. Frozen feet do not make for a happy snow goose. Get enough of them there and they can generally keep enough water open just with their body heat, but if it gets too cold and too much of the lake freezes over, back south they go.

Squaw Creek NWR is only about a 90-minute drive from Omaha, so considering the number of ops that are there, it's usually worth it to go at least a couple times a year. Like a fairly local storm chase, where you're guaranteed not to bust! (since the geese are pretty much guaranteed to be there). Just a matter of monitoring the bird numbers on their website (they count 1-2 times per week) and factoring in the weather.

Anyway, on with the images. This first day didn't yield a ton of photo ops since the light was bad until the evening, but I'll share what I got!

The first and pretty much only eagle shot of the day. Not sure what it was about this day as we usually have better luck, but they seemed especially skittish. Believe most of them were either hiding out on one of the impossible-to-reach islands of the refuge or were hunting elsewhere. Not a huge deal though, as the sheer number of snow geese would turn out to be the op worth shooting.

Before we get to the millions, how about a couple lonely geese? Lol. Thought the poor guy at the top had a broken leg or something, but I guess that's just how they fly sometimes. Goose at the bottom was carrying a lump of lake grass.

Alright here we go, goose time lol. Light through morning and afternoon sucked, so I don't think I got any real "keeper" geese group shots until late afternoon when we were nearing golden hour.

Here's a higher-res pano during one of the crazier moments of the day. Every once in a while you'll get an eagle to fly over and scare them up. Not sure what good that really does them, as it just creates a bunch of chaos. Guess it would help eagles sort out who's healthy enough to fly and who's an injured easy target. Most of the time though, it just ends up creating a big goose tsunami like this, which is one hell of a thing to hear.

(Click the image to see the high-res version)

You never really think you're going to hit the million until you do. Definitely getting close to it in the image above. The geese leave between sunrise and 10am to go feed in the fields surrounding Squaw. Then like clockwork, they start coming back around 11am-noon. The bigger the numbers are, the more staggered these times will be. Those who left at sunrise will be the first to come back around 11, and those who left later around 10 will come back later in the afternoon. By evening  before they leave to feed again, you have yourself a pretty huge number. And then you still have the newcomers, more migrators from the south. You'll look up in the sky and really only see the close groups, but with the help of a telephoto you can pick up more and more geese along the horizon. Then you start to understand yeah, we're gonna hit that million no problem lol.

The rest of the day is pretty much just spent driving around the lake finding new things to shoot and new angles for the geese. The "loop" is a few miles around, and you can usually find some other form of wildlife along there. The eagles like to sit in the trees along the road, but we didn't have much luck this day. We did, however, spot a muskrat swimming to shore. They're basically big rodents, the ones that build the mounds of straw/grass you see strewn across the lake (hence the name, Mound City, MO).

This is one of my favorite angles to shoot the geese from, against the bluffs. Sort of gives the whole scene some scale. You can actually hike up along that ridge where they have a little viewing scope at the top. Did that back in 2010, but my images from that trip are pretty terrible lol. Will have to do that again sometime in the future.

Very rarely will you see all of the geese together in one big pile. Especially when their numbers are huge, they tend to get separated out into different pockets. In this shot you can see another large grouping of geese on the other side of the lake taking off, as our closer group is content in the water.

Finally, our geese were done filtering back in and numbers were about at their max for the day. Lighting was decent too with near-golden-hour sun at our backs, though I think it caused me to shoot all of my images a bit "warm." Didn't shoot them in RAW either so no magical white balance correction in post-processing, but you get what you get. Live and learn and shoot better next time, so you can actually do scenes like this justice.

You think this hurts your eyes? Try editing images like this for a day!

That's about all she wrote for day one. Mike left fairly early on in the afternoon, but Chris and I stayed for another 30 minutes or so. I think Mike just got tired of the bees that kept buzzing around his telephoto lol. One of the downsides of early spring warmth... insects!

We would return in a few days to find much more favorable light and even more geese!  Additionally, we were treated to a display of countless red-winged blackbirds swarming at sunset. Think I had maybe 15 keepers from March 3rd, but over a hundred for March 6th. Definitely some of my better bird images in that account in terms of mass migration. Feel free to give it a look!

Click here to see Part 2 of this account!

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