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Kenneth Kieser: Time for a drive to view wildlife

The Examiner
You may see many beautiful sights like these migrating swans  in wildlife areas this time of year.

I’m sure some of you are starting to experience cabin fever – I am!

This is a great time to start visiting wildlife areas to photograph or view wildlife. Many wildlife areas don’t allow hunting for bigger species like deer and they are less spooky of vehicles. This may give you the chance to photograph deer up close.

Note that shedding takes place from mid-January to mid-April, but most mature bucks in good physical condition have dropped their antlers by the end of February. Young bucks may be a little slower. A full-grown buck will normally establish a pattern of dropping his antlers the same time annually.

You, too, may view flocks of wild turkeys. They are scrambling to find food, especially white acorns or row-crop grain to dig out from under the leaves and mud. The breeding season is a couple months away when turkeys go through their rituals and dominate gobblers finding hens.

Weather this time of year may determine if you see the flocks. Turkeys are most active during calm, clear days in morning and early afternoon hours. Bird activity decreases during bad weather conditions, including wind and rain. During extremely wet and rainy days, turkeys are neither vocal nor very active.

Turkeys are creatures of habit, so you could see birds daily in the same area, although not the precise locations and travel routes. Finding big winter turkey flocks is exciting, but those flocks will break up as spring approaches and birds may relocate to new home ranges before the season opens.

Small game and game birds will occasionally make an appearance. I remember watching two cock pheasants stand in the snow under a bush, looking around for predators and probably thinking about finding some food. Their heads were constantly moving to avoid becoming a meal.

Rabbits and quail are blessed with adequate cover and food sources on wildlife areas. They have a low survival percentage and generally a good reproduction rate. Yet, those that made it can be highly visible under bushes or at the edge of heavy brush.

Sitting still and watching small game may reward you with a predator sighting. Bobcats, coyotes or foxes try to sneak in for their daily meal, and many wildlife photographers use this type of setting to record some great photos. Hawks and eagles may dive down for a fresh quail dinner, so be ready.

Great horned owls, bluebirds, red-tailed hawks and species that build nests inside tree cavities or boxes will likely start nesting in February and become more visible for observation or photos. Some may be in open nests. Babies stay under their parents for warmth. But an extra layer of fat also insulates younger birds, especially birds that are eating well.

By early March short-distance migrants that are generally seedeaters return. Robins, field sparrows and other species that winter in the southern United States move north, eventually passing through our area. Long-distance migrants are still mainly in the tropics. This might include warblers, fly catchers and orioles. Hummingbirds follow the same pattern.

Waterfowl make beautiful photos. By now most of the ducks are likely south of here and will soon start their return north to the summer’s cooler breeding grounds. Mainly now you will see geese.

Midwestern residents enjoy a treat each winter watching eagles devour Canada geese on our ice-covered lakes. Male eagles with a wingspan of about seven feet only weigh 8 to 10 pounds, so they can’t fly off with a dead goose. Instead, they choose to perch on the goose and use their sharp beak and talons to dig through feathers to eat the succulent flesh – or in other words, goose on ice.

Huge numbers of Canada geese stop in Missouri and Kansas during their migration. Many drop in at night and leave at first light. Some geese die after landing, occasionally from old age, and some are crippled. Bald eagles are classified as scavengers and have no problem eating an already dead goose or duck.

A wounded goose is easy prey and you might be treated to watching an eagle fold in their wings and dive over 100 mph on the helpless creature. They accelerate dives when a fish is spotted, a common sight in lakes in which trout are wounded by bad hook sets or an angler uses poor catch and release techniques.

Occasionally a golden eagle will follow the waterfowl flocks. They are aggressive predators taking on healthy geese, turkey or in some recorded instances, small deer.

Goldens are one of the fastest land creatures on earth with a diving speed of 150 to 200 mph with a 6- to 7-foot wingspan. Missouri and Kansas wildlife areas occasionally report a golden eagle following migrations so one occasionally turns up here for a short stay.

Nature is cruel and a sick – old or wounded creatures often have a bad end. But don’t blame eagles or other predators, they are just making a living.

Your tax dollars pay for state wildlife areas, money well spent in my opinion. So, go enjoy these areas and view wildlife doing their daily routine. But be warned, this may lead to purchasing a long lens camera so you can own some of this beauty.

Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at kieserkenneth@gmail.com.

Kenneth L. Kieser