On Saturday, April 22, 2023, 19 young birders, parents, grandparents, and friends gathered at Hickory Hill Park in Iowa City to search for early spring migrants. The morning temperature of 35 degrees Fahrenheit and the occasional snow flurry made it challenging to think of spring, but the birds didn’t let the weather stop them and neither did we!
Our first spring migrant, an Eastern Phoebe, appeared before we even finished introductions. It perched low along the edge of the woods for a brief look before disappearing into the understory. We also enjoyed a pair of Eastern Bluebirds moving about among the trees and a brightly colored American Robin vocalizing in a tree right above our heads!
As we started down the first part of the trail, we stopped to appreciate the many singing birds we could hear including Black-capped Chickadees, Northern Cardinals, and White-throated Sparrows. A keen-eyed participant then spotted a group of warblers high in the trees, and we were able to identify some exciting early spring migrants: two Orange-Crowned Warblers amongst a flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers. Much to our delight, we were able to watch up to 12 Yellow-rumped Warblers foraging on the trail right in front of us. Unlike with many warbler species, we were able to get amazing looks at them through the scope as they picked at food among the gravel and leaves.
Hickory Hill Park is home to many breeding woodland birds, and we took a few minutes to examine the various nest holes we could see. We were amazed at how perfectly round many of the holes were and learned about the differences between primary cavity nesters (which build their own nest cavities) and secondary cavity nesters (which use holes and cavities they find, but don’t build themselves.) As we moved on from the nest cavities we were able to get fleeting glimpses of a crow-sized bird flying ahead of us along the trail; a Pileated Woodpecker, almost on cue for our discussion about nest cavities!
Shortly after, we saw a raptor soar through the trees. It was an adult Cooper’s Hawk, and we watched on while it paused for a moment in its nest before flying down and joining its mate in a nearby tree! The pair took a few moments to copulate and then sat side by side on the same limb, giving everyone an opportunity to see them close up in the scope before they relocated, providing even better looks!
As we began to head back to the parking area, we came across a flock of White-throated Sparrows that obligingly paused in the trees above us so we could admire their crisp patterns. We took this opportunity to practice our “pishing” and watched in delight as more and more sparrows emerged from the brush. Suddenly, a larger bird darted from bush to bush, pausing only briefly to reveal itself as a Hermit Thrush. As we wrapped up our trip we took some time to learn the “peter-peter-peter” and single note songs of the Tufted Titmouse. We were greeted in the parking area by the resident Eastern Bluebirds before taking a group photo and saying goodbye. Despite the not-so-spring-like conditions, we were able to see and hear many of the cornerstone species of Iowa forests and as always, enjoy the wonderful companionship of fellow birders.
We are grateful to volunteer leader Jim Kettlekamp for his keen eyes and local expertise on the trip. Thanks also to the young birders and their families who helped make this a fun morning! You can view photos from our morning here and our eBird checklist here.