Archive for Iowa
Our insatiable hordes of gobbling Pine Siskins have pretty much moved on, greatly to the relief of our savings account, but we’re still enjoying the sweet little Red-breasted Nuthatches that seem to have settled in for the season. They’re no less ravenous than the streaky finches, and every bit as tame. I can hardly rehang the feeder before one of the little tooters lights on it, and it’s just a matter of time before they start landing on me, too.
Lots of backyard birders in the east have been taking advantage of the birds’ tameness this fall to train them to take food from the hand. I disapprove, in my puritanically strict hands-offitude, but the dozens upon dozens of accounts of hand-feeding I’ve read over the past couple of months got me to wondering: who first figured out that you could coax wild birds to take sunflower seed directly from a human?
There’s probably no answer to that, at least not until we’ve identified the original domesticator of the chicken. Meanwhile, though, let me introduce you to young Harriet Kinsley of McGregor, Iowa.
Exactly a hundred years ago this fall, Harriet and her mother discovered a new bird in their yard, one that
took it for granted that he was the sole owner of the feeding table, and it took a great deal of his time trying to keep the other birds away,
among them the numerous “chickadees, downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers, juncoes, a pair of cardinals, blue jays and the white-breasted nuthatches.” Neither Harriet nor her mother had seen the species before, but they took careful note of the bird’s plumage characters:
a bluish slate-colored back with black stripes running back above each eye and the breast tinged with rufous.
Harriet looked the stranger up in her bird book, and correctly identified it as a Red-breasted Nuthatch. It was her mother’s idea to teach the bird, which was soon burdened with the inevitable nickname “Hatchie,” to eat from her hand:
One day my mother thought she would put a nut meat on her hand and see how near he would come to it. He wanted the nut very much, but was a little shy about coming down to get it ; he scolded, cocking his head first on one side and then on the other. The temptation was too great; he would risk his life: he made a swoop, lighting on her hand, and away he went with the nut. The next day we all tried the same thing and found he would take them after a great deal of scolding. We fed him every day and he gradually grew less timid.
We had to keep little piles of nuts by several of the windows so we would not have to go so far.
Well known today — better known than in her lifetime, I’d guess — as a champion of the Chimney Swift and an equally fervent enemy of House Wrens and screech-owls, Sherman was also an enthusiastic feeder of the winter birds, particularly fond of the woodpeckers that visited her dooryard to partake of her special mixture of suet, cornmeal, and walnuts. Like Harriet Kinsley and Mary Hatch, she took special note of the Red-bellied Woodpecker,
whose habitat is in deep, wooded ravines, [and is] very rarely … seen upon the prairie. To have one come in mid-winter, find food, even to visit the feeding-stick and linger around for three weeks, was as pleasant as it was unexpected.
My lecture went well enough at the IOU meeting, with 100 kind listeners ready to ponder just what it means when we speak of “the warblers” each spring. And Sunday morning’s field trip was as exciting as the day before: good birds + good company = great birding.
The distant Bald Eagle nest at Blackhawk was occupied and busy, an eloquent sign of that species’ recovery since the days I regularly birded the midwest.
And Double-crested Cormorants have increased even more noticeably over the past three decades, with hundreds flying by Sunday morning or loafing in the water or pausing in the treetops to show off their fancy springtime headgear.
There have been many more changes to the birdlife of the midwest in the intervening years, but none is as striking and complete as the explosion in the breeding population of Canada Goose. It’s hard to imagine now, but just 50 years ago the large prairie-nesting race maxima was thought to be extinct–and now birds with at least some maxima blood coursing through their veins are conspicuous and successful on every puddle and slough in the midwest. Families of cuddly-looking goslings were everywhere this first week of May, and their parents sometimes took surprising perches:
Unimpressed? Try this:
Now that’s a commanding view for a goose!
I got to Carroll in the late afternoon, checked in to my motel, and headed north and east a few miles to the very aptly named Treasure Road Ponds, a series of small abandoned gravel pits on the bank of the Raccoon River. It was here that a Black-bellied Whistling-Duck had appeared the day before, and while that bird–which I missed–was the reason for my choice of destination, I was prepared to be happy with anything I saw.
And I saw a lot. The woods were crawling with Yellow-rumped Warblers, bright Myrtle Warblers bringing back decades-old memories of a time when any parulid could get the heart beating faster. There were a couple of Orange-crowned Warblers in the lot, too, more somber in plumage but just as exciting–particularly when one showed me, ever so briefly, its eponymous cap. The abundance of Ruby-crowned Kinglets confirmed that it was still early for most late-season migrants, but that didn’t bother me at all: the Blue-winged Teal on the ponds, a Marsh Wren rattling on the edges, and Tree Swallows overhead made it a midwestern evening such as I hadn’t seen for a long time.
The next morning started at the civilized hour of 6:00–civilized, that is, for those from the Central Time Zone, a bit harder on those of us from two hours back. But as always, the excitement of a birding day helped wipe the sleep from my eyes, and we were off. On Steve’s advice, I joined Matt and Mike for a trip to Dunbar Slough, and it turned out to be a good choice.
We were late for waterfowl, of course, but still turned up a good tally of species, including Hooded Merganser at a nestbox (!) and a couple of Ross’s Geese among the lingering Snows and Greater White-fronteds. Blue-winged Teal were on every pond and slough, and the muddy edges of those where the water wasn’t too terribly high had a few shorebirds, too.
Pectoral Sandpipers, a bird I generally see only in fall now that I live in the southwest, were arriving in good numbers, and there were a few Baird’s Sandpipers still around, while the vanguard of the White-rumped Sandpipers was just arriving (there’s one in the photo above). We encountered Least Sandpipers at a few sites, with the odd Semipalmated Sandpiper, too–another bird I don’t get to see often enough in spring any more. I’m fairly certain that we had both Long-billed and hendersoni Short-billed Dowitchers, though group birding isn’t my favorite way to puzzle those two out.
Plovers were scarce, only Killdeer really common. Blackhawk Wildlife Area on Sunday had a dozen Semipalmated Plover and a single Piping Plover, while one of our last stops at Dunbar Slough on Saturday produced 13 American Golden-Plover overhead, two of them in black plumage, the others still the dingy brown of spring.
Wilson’s Phalaropes were scattered here and there, too, and on Sunday, driving from Blackhawk back to our concluding lunch, Steve and I picked up an Upland Sandpiper, the only one I saw all weekend, on a roadside fencepost.
The most exciting aspect of the two days was visible migration.
American White Pelicans and other big birds are easy enough to see on their passage north, but passerines are sneakier (and more nocturnal), so it was a real treat to find flocks of Myrtle Warblers sweeping across the farm fields, and gangs of 10-25 Blue Jays were overhead most of the time.
Hard as we tried, other migrant passerines were thin on the ground. My tally of two warbler species at Treasure Road was not surpassed on either of the two formal field trips I went on–Black-and-white Warbler substituted for Orange-crowned–but sparrow watching was good at sites with scattered trees and grass. White-throated Sparrow is always a delight, and though it was commonplace enough for the others, I enjoyed watching Clay-colored Sparrows sing as much as anything else all weekend.
Would I live in the midwest again? I don’t think so. But I’m resolved to spend more time there in Mays to come, reliving the early days of my birding “career” and hanging out with some of the nicest birders–and the nicest birds–I know.
It may sound pathetically fallacious, but I firmly believe that the weather participated in, or at very least sympathized with, every aspect of my rare springtime visit to the midwest. There was rain and wind and mist and fog, but there were also brilliant sunny patches; it was so cold that I had to buy a pair of flannel pajamas to wear under my jeans, then so warm that even a t-shirt chafed.
I’m rarely in the midwest at the height of spring, and this year, again, only a funeral got me back to Nebraska at what is often the most beautiful, and often, somehow, the saddest time of year.
The first few days of my visit this time were busy ones and good, as we said goodbye to my uncle and spent precious time with the family. More than once I found myself remembering to tell Kevin about a bird I’d seen–the Chimney Swifts over the mortuary during the visitation, the Chipping Sparrows and Brown Thrashers in the cemetery trees. He would have been happy, I think, to know that an adult Red-headed Woodpecker, my first of the spring, crossed the road over the impressively long funeral procession.
I’d already planned to be in western Iowa for the spring meeting of the Iowa Ornithologists’ Union, and so set off Friday for the short drive to Carroll and Swan Lake State Park. It turned out to be a good afternoon for a drive by myself, and I rode along with the windows down, pulling off whenever the sweet din of the Field Sparrows became too loud to resist. One Spizella-lined road led me to Ahart Rudd Wildlife Area, a collection of hard-used but recovering fields with brome and some ridgetop prairie grasses, with a rough wooded gully leading down to the usual farm pond.
The abundant trilling Field Sparrows were joined on the edges by White-crowned and White-throated Sparrows, and Tree Swallows were checking out every bit of wood that might, just might, contain a suitable nest cavity.
Areas like this are often created for Ring-necked Pheasant and White-tailed Deer (though my choice of preposition may be a bit misleading, as I expect this deer might agree).
There were plenty of cock pheasants honking and beating their breasts everywhere you looked, a startling set of sounds I don’t often hear nowadays. I later learned that Iowa’s pheasant population is in massive decline (and that, hurray, the state is no longer interested in stocking non-native species!), but I thought there were still plenty of them.
There were muskrat huts on the pond, and this raccoon, the only live one I saw all week, was snoozing high among the riotous blooms of a black willow.
The warmth, the sun, the quiet, the animals, and above all the bitter, soapy, heartbreakingly beautiful smell of wild plum blossoms could have kept me there all day.
But I was eager, too, to get to Carroll, to check in to the meeting, catch up with friends old and new, and look for the Black-bellied Whistling Duck that had been reported the day before. I managed the first two tasks, and slept well that night, waking before the alarm to get out and into the field.