Wildlife refuge for migrating birds

Snow geese feeding and resting at Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge, just across the Missouri River from Rulo, Nebraska.
December 2, 2011 - 12:42pm

Ten miles east of Rulo, Neb., the Missouri River floodplain gives way to Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge. This week, Squaw Creek's 7,400 acres of woods, grass and marshland is home to a several hundred thousand migrating snow geese.

"It's just really cool to see that many in the sky at once," said Mickey Sigmund, a National Wildlife Service intern at Squaw Creek. He said the sound of 200,000 honking geese is hard to describe.Barney McCoy for NET News
"It's so loud that you have to turn you music down and say, Was that on the radio?'

" No, it was the birds.'"

For thousands of years, time in the Missouri River Basin has been measured by this annual migration.

"They've got to have a place to stop, going from Canada down to the Gulf, and we're one of the big stopping areas," said Ron Bell, the manager of Squaw Creek.

But it's not as big a stop this year as in past years. The five months of Missouri River flooding wiped out food for some migrating wildlife, Bell said.

"Unfortunately, everything flooded to the west of us, so areas that would have had corn stubble or something, it's gone," he said.

Mike Stoekes, an Audubon Society volunteer, guides visitors through Squaw Creek's thousands of marshland acres to see the migrating snow geese.

"The geese will stay around here until the water starts to freeze up," he said, "and then they'll move further south."

That might not be long from now. Day-long freezing temperatures are in the forecast for next week, and could push this show of nature south. But while it's here, Kansas City photographer Brad Richmond says it's something everyone should see.

"It's something you ought to put on your list of things that you really should do that don't cost much, and reconnect you with the natural beauty that's around us," he said.

It wasn't that way here 75 years ago. It was the Great Depression, and one in four Americans were unemployed.

At the time, then-President Franklin Roosevelt said, "My most immediate concern is carrying out purposes of the great work program just enacted by Congress."

Part of that economic recovery plan, called the New Deal, provided for the Civilian Conservation Corps, or the CCC.

"Franklin Roosevelt very much wanted to preserve and restore the natural habitat," said UNL history professor Lloyd Ambrosius. He said the CCC put 3.5 million jobless men to work.

"A federal aid project to save and enjoy a country," touted a newsreel from the period. "To keep nature unsullied and unspoiled wherever possible."

Workers earned 30 dollars a month working on more than 1,300 conservation and nature restoration projects nationwide - projects like Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge.

"I'm amazed at the insight that people had 75 years ago or more, when people thought about these areas, setting them aside," said Bell, the refuge manager. "And if they hadn't been set aside, then they probably wouldn't be here today, at least in the condition that they're in today."

75 years after the CCC developed Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge, the area attracts 140,000 visitors annually. Most come in the spring and fall to watch and listen to more than 300 bird species as they migrate through. Like Mike Stoekes and Brad Richmond, for many, a visit here evokes deep emotions.

"I still get a little choked up just talking about it, but it's dramatic, and somebody who loves nature, you just never get tired of that," Stoekes said.

Richmond said it's more than just beautiful - it's a necessity.

"We have to have nature," Richmond said. "Especially these grand collections of nature like this, which remind people how profound life is and how beautiful this planet is and everything on it."

As the geese depart, the endangered bald eagles have begun arriving to feast on weaker migrating waterfowl. So this weekend it's Squaw Creek's Eagle Days, and the public's invited.

"We'll have scopes set up for people to see eagles in the wild," Bell said. "We'll have a good number of eagles here, between 150 and 200.

"We're preserving things for the future," he added. "For other people to enjoy."



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