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The staging of migrating Tundra Swans on Pool 9 of the Mississippi River is an Iowa birding spectacle that many travel to see each fall. On November 16, 2019, 10 young birders, parents, and grandparents traveled to Allamakee County to see these magnificent white birds along with other migrating waterbirds. Armed with an information sheet outlining differences in key characteristics of the three species of swans we see in Iowa (Trumpeter, Tundra, and Mute), we set off down Red Oak Road on a gorgeous fall morning with spotting scopes in hand.
Blue Jays and Black-capped Chickadees called to us as we strolled down the road in the warm morning sun, and Red-bellied, Hairy, and Downy Woodpeckers announced their presence while flying from tree to tree. We stopped occasionally along the road to view waterfowl that found some open water among the ice sheets on the river - flocks of Canada Geese and Mallards along with an occasional small group of Common Goldeneye and Buffleheads. We heard the swans before we saw them as we neared our vantage point, their high-pitched “hoo-hoo” echoing off the bluffs. The excitement was definitely building!
We crested a small hill at which there was a gap in the trees along the road, offering us the perfect view of the river below. From here, we enjoyed fantastic views of the nearly 300 Tundra Swans that were loafing and feeding on the river along with several Bald Eagles. Flocks of migrating ducks were consistently flying down river. The challenge of trying to identify them on the wing and at a distance was quite fun! We also had great looks at small groups of Common Goldeneyes and Buffleheads actively diving, and a duo of both American Wigeon and Canvasback were a treat. Enjoying the fabulous weather, we watched the waterfowl for nearly 2 hours, breaking away from the spotting scopes occasionally to catch glimpses of a Bald Eagle overhead or a Black-capped Chickadee flitting through the branches of a nearby tree.
As the sun went behind the clouds, we decided to head back to the cars and travel to the Driftless Area Education Center near Lansing to finish our morning. Managed by the Allamakee County Conservation Board, this fantastic resource combines nature with the history of the Mississippi River in northeast Iowa. The hour spent here definitely sparked curiosity among our group!
We’re grateful to Iowa birder Billy Reiter-Marolf from New Albin, who graciously scouted the area and provided us with valuable updates on access and local birds. You can view photos from our morning here and our species list here.
On a brisk but sunny fall morning, three young birders joined us on our search for migrating waterfowl at DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge, a premier rest area for migrating waterbirds in western Iowa. Park Ranger Peter Rea and volunteer Brad with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were our local experts, and we were grateful they could join us to guide our exploration of this neat area.
Before venturing out from the Visitor’s Center, however, Peter shared with us some information about the Refuge and its importance to migratory birds and other wildlife. He also talked briefly about wetland management and how properly managed wetlands provide food for migrating waterbirds, not only those fall migrating birds we were about to see that morning but also those birds passing through in spring. We learned that migrating waterbirds need protein (e.g., insects) in the spring, especially females, for breeding but need an energy boost from carbohydrates (e.g., seeds from annual plants) in the fall to continue their migratory journey south. As Peter said, wetlands are like an “all-you-can-eat buffet” for waterbirds all year!
After his presentation, Peter, along with Brad, took us out on the auto-tour route. Having already scouted the area earlier that morning, they knew some great birds were around. Not a quarter-mile down the road, we stopped for great looks at what was likely the best birds of the morning – a group of 7 White-faced Ibis! The birds were extremely cooperative, allowing us to view them through the spotting scope and study their field characteristics. Also in the area was a lone Snow Goose among several Canada Geese. Thousands of Northern Pintail nearby made for an amazing sight in the morning sun. It was a great start to the morning.
Continuing down the auto-tour road, we stopped occasionally to view other waterbirds using the numerous wetlands on the Refuge including some Pied-billed Grebes, Double-crested Cormorants, and a large group of American Coots. Additionally, we encountered new waterfowl species including small, scattered groups of Wood Ducks, a large concentration of Mallards that flushed as we drove by, littering the air with birds, and a duo of male Ring-necked Ducks from a vantage point overlooking DeSoto Lake. To finish the morning, Peter and Brad took us into an area closed to the public to continue our search, finishing our morning with a group of Great Egrets foraging along a flooded roadway and a distant group of Wild Turkeys, the third group of this upland species we encountered that morning.
It was an enjoyable and education morning thanks to the assistance of Peter and Brad from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service! You can see what other species we found by viewing our trip list and see photos from our morning here.
Our founder and past Executive Director Carl Bendorf is featured this month for our "Meet an IAYB Leader" series. Carl remains active in IAYB as our Board Treasurer. Learn more about him below!
Current town: Longmont, Colorado
Hometown: I grew up in Amana, Iowa and lived in Iowa City for 35 years.
What sparked your interest in birds/nature?
As early as I can remember, we had a number of books around home about animals, nature, and birds. I used to pore over those books for hours and wonder where these cool things could be found. Later on, a friend and I would ride our bicycles out in the country and at some point, we started looking at birds. When I was about 11 years old, I hooked a toy parabolic microphone up to a small Sony reel-to-reel tape recorder and my first recording was of an Eastern Bluebird.
What is your favorite bird?
Since moving to Colorado four years ago, I think my favorite bird has become the White-tailed Ptarmigan. They never leave the alpine tundra (above 11,000 ft. in Colorado) and change from pure white in the winter to looking like a lichen-covered stone in the summer. I’ve had a great time finding and showing these interesting birds to dozens of birders.
What is your favorite birding/outdoor space?
Being from flatland Iowa, the mountains have always been a mysterious place to me. Now I get to visit the mountains regularly but they are still mysterious (and host a lot of cool birds!)
Do you have young birders in your family?
Our children are grown and we don’t have any grand-children so, sadly, no.
How did you first learn about Iowa Young Birders?
I had the idea in 2010 to start an organization in Iowa that could provide the same type of support for young birders that is provided by, for example, a youth soccer league. I’m thrilled that IAYB continues to thrive under Tyler Harms' leadership and the great support from the IAYB Board and all the parents, grandparents, families and friends of the young birders.
Do you remember your first IAYB field trip?
I remember wondering if anyone would show up for our first IAYB field trip at Terra Park in July 2012. It was a thrill when perhaps a dozen kids plus parents/grandparents turned out and we had a great time.
What has been your favorite trip thus far?
Well, I could cheat and say it was the family birding adventure we organized out here in Colorado in the summer of 2016! I also remember being pushed around in a wheelchair during our woodcock evening after I’d broken my ankle following a slip on the ice (while carrying a bag of bird seed!) Actually, every trip was a wonderful experience.
What motivated you to become an IAYB Board member?
It’s been a bit of a challenge to be active on the IAYB Board from here in Colorado but Tyler has always arranged for me to be able to participate in meetings by conference call and we get great reports on the activities. It’s great to be able to stay involved.
Why do you feel exposing kids to birds and nature is important?
Of course, there is overwhelming evidence of the value of exposure to birds and nature. I’ll just reflect on my own experience as to what birding has meant in my own life in terms of unforgettable experiences, great friends, and being a wonderful window into the larger world around us.
Our search for migrating shorebirds at Saylorville Reservoir on September 7 was a success! Ten young birders, parents, and grandparents got to see seven different species of shorebirds including a flock of 16 Red-necked Phalaropes, an uncommon shorebird in Iowa, and close looks at a Baird's Sandpiper! Along with the shorebirds, we found an additional 23 species including Caspian Tern, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and Cooper's Hawk to name a few. It was a great morning of fall birding in Iowa! You can view photos from our trip here and our complete species list here.
On a pleasant summer morning, 26 young birders, parents, and grand parents gathered at Hawkeye Wildlife Area near Iowa City for a unique and exciting opportunity to band Wood Ducks. Our knowledgeable and very experienced leaders were Tom Billerbeck, Dave Kutz, and Dave Nicholson with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Tom, Dave, and Dave assist with the Iowa DNR’s banding program each year, banding mostly Wood Ducks, Mourning Doves, and Canada Geese. Waiting for us, although not so patiently, were 12 Wood Ducks in a handmade transport cage that resembled a small pet carrier. The birds immediately caught our attention and sparked excitement among the group, so we wasted no time kicking off what would surely be a memorable morning for all!
We first learned all about banding birds, including the different types of bird bands used and the information we can gain from banding birds. While sharing this great information with us, Tom showed a map of locations where Wood Ducks that were banded at Hawkeye Wildlife Area and nearby Otter Creek Marsh have been found. Birds banded in Iowa were recovered as far north as Canada and as far south as the Gulf Coast! We were also taught how to properly and safely hold Wood Ducks for banding. Equipped with this information, we were ready to band some ducks! Tom, Dave, and Dave carefully and skillfully extracted the nervous ducks from the box, placing each in the hands of an eager young birder for holding prior to banding. Dave K. then placed a uniquely-numbered metal band on each bird, at least those that were not keen enough to escape, before they were released. It was 30 minutes of pure excitement!
We finished the morning with a hike around Hawkeye Wildlife Area, which included a stop at the trapping site where we observed and learned about the trapping methods used to capture Wood Ducks (which also includes setting separate traps to capture bait-thieving critters such as raccoons). Continuing on our hike, we observed several great birds including multiple singing Sedge Wrens, one of which provided us with great views perched high in the grassland. We also heard a singing Eastern Towhee and Bell’s Vireo and saw an Osprey soaring at a distance. Before heading back to the vehicles, Tom spoke with us about early-successional habitat management and the birds that benefit from such management including Northern Bobwhite and Field Sparrow. We’re always learn a ton when we have experts like Tom join us!
We’re extremely grateful to Tom, Dave, and Dave with the Iowa DNR for teaching us about bird banding and for keeping some cooperative Wood Ducks for us. Thanks also to Annalise Skrade and Kathy Solko for capturing some great photos of our fun morning. And as always, thanks to those who joined us! You can view photos from our morning here and our species list here.
Despite rain and thunderstorms earlier in the morning, the clouds vacated and the sun appeared just as 10 young birders, parents, and grandparents gathered at Voas Nature Area with Dallas County Conservation Board (DCCB) for a morning of summer birding. Mike Havlik with DCCB was our leader and local expert. Mike has a wealth of knowledge about birds and a contagious enthusiasm for the outdoors. We were lucky to have him along on this fine morning!
Before embarking on our search for wetland birds, Mike shared briefly with us the history of this critical habitat area for grassland and wetland birds. It started as a crop field, but a donation from a conservation-minded individual sparked a series of wetland restorations through a mitigation program that resulted in this fantastic 700-acre area. “If you build it, they will come”, Mike continued to say as we experienced the many great birds of this area, and Mike’s statement was certainly true!
After listening carefully for a Yellow-billed Cuckoo in the parking lot, we loaded the van to head to the first stop. En route, we spotted an American Kestrel near a nest box and stopped to view Mallards, Blue-winged Teal, and Canada Geese on a sheetwater wetland. At the first stop, we heard and saw several Marsh Wrens as well as a few Yellow-headed Blackbirds and Great-tailed Grackles, three of our target species for the morning. We also had spectacular views of a pair of Ruddy Ducks as well as an American Coot and Pied-billed Grebe. On a distant wetland, we watched a flock of American White Pelicans lift off among foraging Forster’s and Black Terns.
We stopped at another wetland basin briefly where we had great looks at an Eastern Kingbird perched on a sign, heard an Eastern Meadowlark singing, and carefully studied a female Red-winged Blackbird, a bird often confused with other species. A couple stops along the east side of the area produced singing Alder and Willow Flycatchers, a Yellow Warbler, and a Song Sparrow.
Next, we returned to the parking lot to hike through a recently-restored savanna. Mike shared with us the importance of this unique habitat type to some birds and the great success story of this restoration effort as we hiked, listening to Red-headed Woodpeckers, Eastern Wood-Pewees, and watching an Eastern Bluebird flit from branch to branch. We also heard a Northern Cardinal and Indigo Bunting singing and stopped to admire a Barn Owl nest box. A Northern Leopard Frog and Eastern Garter Snake captured our attention on the return hike to the parking lot.
We had a ton of fun on this sunny morning! A huge thanks to Mike Havlik for his leadership and for sharing his knowledge and passion with us. Thanks also to young birder Noelle Wagner for keeping our trip list, which you can view here. You can view photos from our morning here.
The desire to learn both a fun and valuable skill brought eight young birders and parents together on a fantastic morning at Loya’s Little House Bed and Breakfast near Ames for our Field Sketching Workshop. Guest artists Dean Biechler (also our host) and Michaela Henke of Wild Birds Unlimited in Ames kindly joined us to share their sketching tips and expertise. We were excited to get started!
An important first step in sketching birds is to learn the different field marks of a bird, otherwise known as the bird “topography”. Executive Director Tyler Harms spent a few minutes discussing with us various field marks that are important to notice and sketch to aid in identifying birds later. The black forehead of the American Goldfinch or the rusty orange undertail coverts (the feathers under the tail) of the Gray Catbird are a couple examples of field characteristics on common birds that often go unnoticed when birding but are important to note for field sketching.
One of the first sketching tips from Dean was to practice skills in “seeing”. Sketching is highly dependent on good observational skills, especially in a field setting, so Dean encouraged young birders to practice observing nature and its many components (e.g., shapes and colors). We continued learning about other aspects of field sketching such as incorporating movement or habitat features. We also discussed perspective and how it can change depending on where you are relative to the bird.
Armed with these great tips from Michaela and Dean, we ventured down to Dean’s lower apartment (a.k.a. the bird blind) to practice our skills. Dean and Michaela worked with young birders as hummingbirds, orioles, and other birds quickly appeared on paper. It certainly didn’t take these talented young birders long to perfect this valuable skill!
We are grateful for the patient and wonderful instruction of Dean and Michaela. Thanks also to Loya’s Little House Bed and Breakfast and Wild Birds Unlimited, both of Ames, for hosting us and assisting with this fun event! You can view photos from the workshop here.
A rainy, windy, and cool forecast didn’t stop 7 young birders, parents, and grandparents from gathering at Stephens State Forest in southern Iowa on May 18, 2019 for a couple days of birding as part of our Nightjar and Warbler Weekend. The name of the field trip hints to our goals for the weekend – any migrating warblers we could find, a chance to hear both Eastern Whip-poor-will and Chuck-will’s-widow, two species of nightjars known to be regularly heard at the Forest, and other forest birds we could stumble upon in the process. Before heading out in our rain coats, we learned a bit about the history of the 15,000-acre forest in which we were parked (currently the largest of the state forests in Iowa), including how the Forest contributed to the re-introduction of Wild Turkeys to Iowa. The lesson was brief, however, because the skies were threatening rain and we wanted to get as much birding in as possible before the shower!
We started Saturday afternoon in the Lucas Unit of the Forest with our hopes for a Scarlet Tanager, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and warblers. We heard a Yellow-billed Cuckoo singing from a distance shortly after exiting the cars, but hoped to hear it better as we continued on our hike. We also heard an Eastern Wood-Pewee singing distant in the woods, a first of 2019 for many. A couple vociferous Ovenbirds were singing nearby and Indigo Buntings were vocal from the forest edges, somehow hiding their deep blue bodies among the green foliage. At the end of the trail, a couple American Redstarts were heard singing and later spotted and young birders observed an American Goldfinch in an opening that lead to a meadow. The darkening skies prompted us to head back towards the vehicles, but on the way we saw a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak, a migrating Wilson’s warbler, and heard a Yellow-throated Warbler singing from the treetops. Back at the cars and still no rain, we decided to continue our hike and it was a rewarding decision. We had great looks at a cooperative pair of Yellow-throated Vireos and heard a Wood Thrush singing its gorgeous song, but the “icing on the cake” was watching a female Scarlet Tanager build a nest concealed in the branches of a hickory tree. The rain ended our afternoon a bit early, but we were all very pleased with the short hike!
Despite an evening full of thunderstorms, our good fortune produced a perfect night to listen for nightjars. We returned to the Lucas Unit at dusk and were not disappointed. After listening for a short couple minutes at our first stop, we heard multiple Eastern Whip-poor-wills singing and even an American Woodcock displaying overhead. After a few more minutes, we heard our first Chuck-will’s-widow singing up the road. And as if this first stop couldn’t get any better, we all watched a nearby Eastern Whip-poor-will land on the side of the road not 20 feet in front of our vehicles! A couple more stops along the road produced at least 5 different Eastern Whip-poor-wills and 3 Chuck-will’s-widows as well as a bonus Barred Owl and an amazing chorus of Eastern Gray Treefrogs and Spring Peepers.
Expecting the rain to again change our plans on Sunday morning, the sun greeted us briefly as we gathered to travel towards the Whitebreast Unit of Stephens State Forest. The winds picked up once there, however, making the birding a bit challenging. We did add a few new species to our weekend list including Cedar Waxwing, Eastern Phoebe, Brown-headed Cowbird, and Swainson’s Thrush. We also had great looks at an Ovenbird (one of many we heard singing again this morning) and saw several Red-eyed Vireos. We completed the morning by clearing hearing another Yellow-billed Cuckoo “kooing” from the trees, a fine finish to a fun weekend.
Many thanks to the young birders, parents, and grandparents didn’t let some rain and sloppy gravel roads keep them from spending a great weekend with us in the Iowa outdoors! You can view photos from our trip here as well as our various species lists from the weekend below:
Saturday afternoon (May 18)
Saturday evening (May 18)
Sunday morning (May 19)
On Sunday, April 28, 2019, 10 young birders, parents, and volunteers rendezvoused at Hickory Hill Park in Iowa City with hopes of capturing a small window of spring migration. After a cold, rainy, and windy Saturday forced us to postpone our trip to Sunday, everyone was anxious to take advantage of the fantastic weather and see which birds arrived after the recent weather system.
Before starting down the trail into the woods, we watched and listened for birds from the parking lot which was completely surrounded by trees. Several birds were foraging in shrubs along the edges including a pair of House Wrens, a Northern Cardinal, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-capped Chickadee, and Blue Jay. Binoculars were pointing in all directions as young birders and parents called out different birds in a moment of birding excitement! We then turned to head towards the trail, but paused briefly to watch a Turkey Vulture, Northern Harrier, and Broad-winged Hawk soaring overhead and a Chipping Sparrow singing low in a nearby tree. We were even offered the great fortune of seeing a second Broad-winged Hawk perched in a tree, offering a great opportunity for all to study this bird from a short distance.
Once in the woods, we all looked and listened intently for birds high and low, hoping for views of a Hermit Thrush, Scarlet Tanager, or any other warbler species in the area. Shortly down the trail, we paused briefly at the sight of a Hairy Woodpecker working in a nearby tree. Not long after, a Downy Woodpecker landed in a different tree allowing us to learn about the subtle differences in these similar species. We also heard a Red-bellied Woodpecker calling from a distance and a Tufted Titmouse occasionally announcing his presence. A tip from a fellow birder resulted in our first migrant of the day - a Great Crested Flycatcher was foraging high in the canopy. Further down the trail, we watched a Barred Owl fly through the trees back to a small group of pine trees from which we watched some Blue Jays chase it off earlier. Owls are always a treat to see!
As the time passed, the birding slowed, but we still enjoyed time in the woods observing other woodland inhabitants including various woodland wildflowers and glimpses of a beautiful Red Fox working through the understory. We continued to see Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, and finally were able to see a White-breasted Nuthatch and American Goldfinch, both species we had been hearing but had not yet seen. As we hiked back towards the parking lot, we stopped to view the Barred Owl again napping in the same pine trees and noticed it had a friend sharing the napping place. We also encountered a Hermit Thrush, Eastern Bluebird, and Eastern Phoebe before finishing up our 2-mile hike on this fantastic day.
As always, we’re grateful to all who joined us! You can view photos from our morning here and our species list here.
On this installment of "Meet an IAYB Leader", we meet our Board Vice Chair Jennifer Owens. Thanks for your leadership Jennifer!
Current town: Ames, Iowa
Hometown: Monmouth, Illinois
Jennifer with her new puppy, winter 2018
Growing up, my family was always interested in nature and the outdoors. We did a lot of camping and picnics. My interest in birding started with my grandmother who passed it along to my mother and then to me and now to my children. My grandmother kept a backyard bird list of numbers/types of birds seen at her backyard feeder for every month of every year for much of her adult life. When she died, my mom and her siblings found boxes of the little notebooks she used for this.
That is a tough one- so many to choose from! One of my favorites would have to be the Rose-breasted Grosbeak because it reminds me of my childhood- we usually saw them at our favorite camping park. I’m also fond of Great Horned Owls as I worked in a small raptor rehab facility as an undergraduate and used live owls to do educational programming for local schools.
I like to bird anywhere and everywhere! One of my go-to favorites is Brookside Park in Ames.
Both of my “young” birders are now young adults. While both of my kids enjoy birding, my daughter (who recently graduated from college) does so only casually. My son William is a graduated Iowa Young Birder and is a very active birder. William is currently a Biology and Math major at Iowa State.
I can’t remember how I heard of the opportunity, but I signed William up for an Iowa Young Birder event at Iowa State University when he was in middle school. The Ames Tribune ended up interviewing William before the event and writing a really nice article about him! After the Iowa State event (which I think featured Steve Dinsmore), I officially signed William up for IAYB and I believe our first official trip was to Ledges State Park.
What has been your favorite IAYB trip thus far?
Tough call. I would say I really enjoyed seeing Prairie Chickens in southern Iowa but both William and I enjoyed the Hawk watch trip to western Iowa a lot.
What motivated you to become an IAYB Board Member?
I have always tried to be involved in things my kids love. As William’s passion for birding developed, it was a natural step for me to be involved. As William aged out of the organization I have continued to be involved with the board. While my contribution in the last two years, has mainly been limited to board meetings, I enjoy helping the organization move forward.
Why do you feel exposing young people to birds and nature is important?
I truly believe this generation of young people will be responsible for saving the Earth as we know it. Discovering the beauty and wonder of nature is an important step to being willing to fight to preserve it. Birding is one of the most rewarding, yet simple way to enjoy nature. Birds are everywhere, from city rooftops to country fence lines. All you need is a pair of binoculars and your curiosity. I love to help people discover how easy it is to watch birds and how amazing they are when you watch!
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