Published: Nov/Dec 2003

Bird-watchers zeroing in on their quarry (above). /Missouri Department of Conservation. A flock of geese at Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge near Sumner, Mo. (below). /Missouri Division of Tourism

Gazing at geese, looking at loons &
peeking at pelicans
Take the family and head outdoors this autumn and winter for some bird-watching fun

By Sylvia Forbes

Fall and winter are wonderful times of the year to bird-watch in Missouri, when thousands of birds migrate through the state. According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, of the 900 species of birds in North America, about 400 are found in Missouri, providing a colorful and diverse display of birds in a variety of habitats.

Great bird-watching spots

Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge, considered one of the best bird-watching spots in North America, is located in northwest Missouri south of Mound City. Brad Jacobs, Missouri Department of Conservation ornithologist and author of “Birds in Missouri,” explains the excitement of the area.

“You can imagine that you’re back in the 1800s when you see the geese and ducks whirling around in the evening and coming in to roost. There’s a big commotion at sunset, with hundreds of thousands of birds all in the air at one time. It’s one of the spectacular winter migration events.”

Jacobs estimates that more than 300,000 Snow Geese can be seen during November.

The area, which contains more than 7,000 acres in the Missouri River floodplain, is also a great place for eagles and 300 may be found in the area at one time. Other visiting species include large numbers of Canada, Greater White-fronted and Ross’s Geese, Tundra Swans, White Pelicans, Sandhill Cranes, and ducks.

Another great spot is Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge in north-central Missouri near Sumner. The refuge, containing approximately 11,000 acres, is an important overwintering site for thousands of Canada Geese. Bald Eagles, gulls, mergansers, Snow Geese, and diving ducks are also found here. Red-headed Woodpeckers are numerous in wooded areas.

Edge Wade, an avid birder and the compiler of the Missouri Bird Alert (an online listing of sightings of unusual birds in Missouri) highly recommends Riverlands Environmental Demonstration Area in West Alton, which extends along the Mississippi River north of St. Louis. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created it when they built the Melvin Price Lock and Dam No. 26.

“Because of the dam and locks, the water doesn’t freeze, and with the chewed up fish from the dam, birds can easily get food here,” said Wade. “It also has to do with the river system. It’s a combination of open water, geography and weather. You get lots of vagrants here that you don’t normally find in the Midwest.”

Some species seen include Surf Scoters, Harlequin Ducks, Great and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, Snow Buntings, and Smew, a Eurasian vagrant that looks like vanilla ice cream with chocolate drizzled over it, Wade said. The first Missouri record for the Smew was in 2001, according to Wade. A bird found here, the Eurasian Tree Sparrow, is an import to St. Louis; it is difficult to find anywhere else in North America.

Two additional noteworthy spots along the Mississippi River include the Ted Shanks Conservation Area, south of Hannibal, containing more than 6,000 acres of bottomland, forest and marshes along the Mississippi River, and Clarence Cannon National Wildlife Refuge, containing almost 4,000 acres of marshland in the Mississippi River floodplain southeast of Clarksville. Both areas are inundated with birds during the fall migration, and species include Wood Ducks, Canada and Snow Geese, Pintail, and many other types of waterfowl.

Dr. Mark Ryan, chairman of the Wildlife Conservation Department at the University of Missouri, recommends Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, south of Columbia, with more than 4,000 acres of wetlands, as an excellent place to view a variety of early winter birds.

“In addition to the wetlands along the Missouri River, the area encompasses the edge of the Katy Trail (State Park), where there’s lots of trees, so you can also watch for forest birds,” he says.

Eagle Bluffs was created in the 1990s as part of a unique wastewater treatment system for the City of Columbia. About 15 million gallons of treated wastewater flow through the wetlands daily, providing habitat for waterfowl and shorebirds.

Later in winter, reservoirs are good places to see birds because deep water doesn’t freeze. Smithville Reservoir east of Weston, Thomas Hill Reservoir northwest of Moberly, Long Branch Lake Conservation Area near Macon, and Stockton Lake State Park east of Stockton are good birding spots.

One can often see diving ducks such as Scaup, Buffleheads and Redheads, as well as Common and Red-throated Loons, Horned and Eared Grebes, scoters and unusual gulls at reservoirs.

Jacobs recommends heading to the southern third of the state in winter, where temperatures are slightly warmer. He suggests the Osage Plains north of Springfield and the Bootheel region for viewing Red-shouldered Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks and Rough-legged Hawks, as well as merlins, Golden Eagles, and Short-eared Owls. Also in southern Missouri are Mingo National Wildlife Area, Duck Creek Conservation Area, Otter Slough, and Ten-Mile Pond Conservation Area, all providing large bodies of water that attract migrating birds.

Jacobs also suggests visiting some of the prairie regions in west and southwest Missouri, such as Dunn Ranch, Pawnee Prairie, Prairie State Park, and Taberville Prairie to find additional species of birds, such as Lapland Longspurs, grosbeaks, Snow Buntings, Greater Prairie Chickens, and different varieties of sparrows. He notes that many of the state parks are excellent places for bird-watching, especially during the winter hunting season.

Two birds that barely reach the state on the south edge of their winter range are the Northern Shrike and the Snowy Owl.

“Seeing a Snowy Owl is always a surprise and a special winter treat,” says Ryan. “We don’t see them every year–it’s uncommon to find them this far south.”
Several smaller birds that migrate south to Missouri in winter are Pine Siskins, Purple Finches, crossbills, and Red-breasted Nuthatches, which sometimes show up at backyard bird feeders.

For more ideas on where to find birds, read “A Guide to Birding in Missouri” by Kay and Bill Palmer, or “Birding Missouri: A Guide to Seasonal Highlights” by Robert Folzenlogen.

Eagle Days

It’s always a thrill to see our majestic national bird, the Bald Eagle, soaring high in Missouri skies. More than 2,000 Bald Eagles recently spent winter in Missouri, making it one of the top viewing states in the country, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Each winter, the Missouri Department of Conservation sponsors Eagle Days at various locations around the state, and provides interpreters, spotting scopes, activities, and sometimes live eagles, to help people learn more about eagles. Find out more details about Eagle Days on the Web at events/eagledays/.

Christmas Bird Counts (CBC)

The annual Christmas Bird Count is a popular winter activity among birders. Counts are held in late December on one specific day, and birders start out before dawn to count as many birds as possible before midnight. Data collected from the bird counts is analyzed and used to measure winter distribution of birds and changes in bird populations.

Randy Korotev, a research professor at Washington University and compiler of Missouri’s CBC data, noted that there were 27 counts in Missouri last year, with almost 400 people participating.
To participate in a Christmas Bird Count, visit the National Audubon Society’s Web site,, and click on “Get Involved.”

What to take

Not much equipment is needed to go bird-watching, just a pair of binoculars and an identification guide. In colder weather, a thermos filled with a hot beverage is always welcome, along with extra layers of warm clothing. Sturdy hiking shoes or boots are always a good idea.

Whether you live east, west, north, or south in or around Missouri, there’s a great bird-watching spot near you.

Sylvia Forbes is a contributor from Fayette, Mo.

Before you go
For more information, contact the Missouri Division of Tourism at 1-800-519-4800 or visit online at
To plan your winter bird-watching trip, stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, TripTiks and TourBook guides.

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