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Tag Archive: Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge

Aug 12

We know a rare bird when we meet one — from archived columns first published March 7, 2008, in the Examiner, an eastern Jackson County, Mo., daily newspaper

Editor’s Note: From archived columns first published March 7, 2008, in the Examiner, an eastern Jackson County, Mo., daily newspaper.

whooping crane flying


“A rare bird on this earth,”
—Juvenal, a Roman poet and author of Satires.

Each day I receive a dictionary word of the day in my email inbox. Today, it is a Latin word “rara avis” (pronounced RAIR-uh-AY-vis), a rare or unique person or thing.

Immediately, I thought of my friend Nancy, a rare bird herself.

Not incidentally, Nancy was an avid bird watcher and that pursuit is part of what brought us together. I will explain in a bit.

I did not know her last name, not for the longest time anyway.

Still, I count her as a one-of-a kind, a rare find of a friend. We met in an exercise class in which we only use our first names. Over time we came to know one another, and eventually we got around to mentioning our last names.

You may have noticed I speak of Nancy in the past tense, but not with sadness although that would be a perfectly fine thing to do. Nancy lost a short yet valiant battle with lung cancer just weeks ago. Since she never showed a spec of melancholy, I will try not to either.

The “ladies of the three o’clock class”, as we affectionately call ourselves, loved Nancy. She was in her early 70’s I think, but one could not really tell for sure. She was sprite, witty, and doggedly determined to make her weight-loss goal. If you do, then you get to be a queen for a day and are awarded a paper crown, flowers, and heaps of praise.

In the last months of her life, Nancy came to exercise class with an oxygen tank in tow and worked hard to meet her goal. Nancy did not quite make “queen” before she died, but she was close.

So, last week the ladies of the three o’clock class gathered outside on an exceptionally windy day, said our good-byes to Nancy, gave her a symbolic crown, and released balloons in her honor as our “queen for a day.”

I promised I would get back to how I met Nancy because it had a lot to do with rare birds.

The first time I noticed Nancy she was wearing a sweatshirt lauding Squaw Creek National Game Refuge and its famed Eagle Days. Since I grew up just across the road from the refuge and knew about the rare eagles there, it was a natural way to strike up a conversation. So, talk about rare birds we did, on many a day.

Last week at the balloon release in Nancy’s honor, wind currents quickly caught the balloons taking them high above us where they soon mingled with birds, all manner of birds.

Nancy would have loved seeing those birds sail with her balloons.

A fitting good-bye to a “rara avis”, rare bird herself.

Apr 15

A magic spring moment—finding wild mushrooms

“Not to presume to dictate but, but broiled fowl and mushrooms—capital thing!”—Charles Dickens

Waiting for mushroom hunting season to arrive is one of the things I look forward to every spring. I call it the “eureka, magical moment”.

Not only is mushroom hunting a pleasant outing in the woods hiking among the newly sprouted wildflowers, but it is also a chance to find something absolutely delicious.

A rare delicacy indeed.

In fact, in my humble opinion, nothing beats wild mushrooms sauteed in a hot skillet in melted butter. That is the way my grandmother and mother used to make them, nothing fancy, just mushrooms. Yum.

So every spring, some time between the second week of April and the middle of May, we kids would trek into the woods with our mother, grandmother, aunt, uncle and cousins searching for mushrooms.

The rules were simple: know your mushrooms and don’t eat them until you are absolutely certain they are safe. Better let Uncle Kenneth or cousin K.R. check them first, we were told.

You may remember the old adage: all mushrooms are edible—once.

Granted a few are deadly and some are mildly poisonous, but one example of an edible mushroom common to Missouri woodlands is the Morel. And, I might add, we found them by the ‘gunny sack’ full.

I also remember some do’s and don’ts about eating wild mushrooms, whose nickname incidentally, is Hen of the Woods:

• The first time you eat any mushroom that you absolutely cannot identify, try a tiny bite first. And never, ever drink ‘liquor’ with it, if you don’t know the mushroom. Sometimes those two don’t get along well together.

• Cut mushrooms in half, soak in warm water so the ants and other insects can crawl out. Yes, it’s true. Wild mushrooms have a co-habitant, ants, since mushrooms are actually the fruit of fungi, which ants just happen to love.

• After soaking, it is safe to cook the mushrooms in butter or cream sauce, as we did when I was a kid, or cook them on the grill with vegetables as we do today. Or, make a Hen of the Woods salad with tomatoes, onions and bacon and all sorts of other ingredients that I can’t remember.

When I was a kid, we lived near Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge in northwest Missouri, a boon location for would-be or experienced mushroom hunters. If we couldn’t find mushrooms in our own woods, we could venture onto the refuge where we were sure to find them.

Here’s a tip: mushroom hunting is allowed at Squaw Creek, this year from April 10th until May 20th, and no legal permit is required. It’s a short day trip from Kansas City, especially if one cannot find mushrooms closer to home.

Any trained mushroom hunter will know exactly which variety is safe, but if you are unsure and want to try your hand at mushroom hunting, I recommend this guide: Barbara Bassett’s “Edible and Poisonous Mushrooms.”

Then, it is happy mushroom eating time!

Hope you find a gunny sack full.

May 02

May brings out more than spring flowers

Spring is here and besides bringing out flowers, it brings out rattlesnakes. Yes, rattlesnakes.

I will bet dollars to donuts that you thought I was going to write something about May flowers, May baskets, or May poles when I mentioned spring.

No indeedy. I have rattlers on my mind, as weird as that may seem, because they are in abundance right now in many parts of the Midwest and Southwest.

Like it or not, they are in “them thar hills.”

The reason I happen to know this little piece of trivia is because I grew up in the bluffs above the Missouri River in an area known to locals as Rattlesnake Bottoms.

Rattlesnakes are coming out of hibernation so it is no wonder that certain rattlesnake traditions abound this time of year. In fact, some folks are so thrilled by this annual rite of spring that they go looking for rattlers.

Near Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge where I grew up, there are rare Massasauga Rattlesnakes and some Timber Rattlers. Elsewhere around Missouri one can find plenty of Timber Rattlers but the Massasauga are only in the north.  That is, if you sincerely want to find them.

Some folks, particularly a good number of rattlesnake lovers in Oklahoma, cannot wait until the rattlers come out of hiding.

In fact, the first week of May showcases the oldest rattlesnake event of its kind, the Okeene Oklahoma Rattlesnake Roundup.  This affair is 69 years old and features live snake exhibits as well as caravan-style travel to the snake-hunting grounds, according to americanprofile.com.  I have not heard of any similar event in Missouri.

Although snakehunting can provide a real adrenaline rush to those who like to live on the edge, it is not without its hazards. Snake hunters can tell long and scary stories about how many times they were bitten and nearly died.

Where I grew up in the 50s in the river bottoms across from the game refuge, we were not particularly keen on finding rattlers. In fact while cutting weeds out of soybeans, we encountered far too many of these critters.

If one went fishing on the refuge or if one hiked around on the river bluffs, a hoe would come in handy.

If anyone thinks finding rattlesnakes beneficial, it could be Louise Pound (1872-1958), Nebraska folklore author and rattlesnake aficionado.

She once wrote, “Rattlesnake rattles will cure a headache if held against the head…Wear the rattles of a rattlesnake in your hat to cure rheumatism. Let the baby chew rattlesnake rattles to help his teeth through…A snakehead bound on a bruise will affect a cure. The bite of a rattlesnake will cure tuberculosis. The warm intestines of a rattlesnake are especially curative for pneumonia.”

And, if you tire of rattlesnake folklore or rattler hunting, mushroom hunting season is just around the corner.

May in Missouri brings out much more than the flowers.