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Cardinal Marsh Wildlife Area, March 23, 2024

March 24, 2024 9:01 AM | Tyler Harms (Administrator)

On Saturday, March 23, 11 young birders, parents, and friends visited Cardinal Marsh Wildlife Area in Winneshiek County to search for migrating waterfowl and other early spring arrivals. The morning was cold but calm and the rising sun gradually warmed us during our hike.

The songbirds were alive with activity this morning. We were greeted by a single Fox Sparrow perched in a tree near the parking lot. As we started our hike, we quickly noticed several American Robins flying about, foraging on berries produced by the line of shrubs along the road to the marsh. We learned they were eating berries produced by nearby American Bittersweet shrubs and Eastern Red Cedars. Several Red-winged Blackbirds were in the area as well, loudly announcing their presence with their “konk-kra-lee” songs. A couple blackbirds perched in the open offering great looks through the spotting scope. We also saw a single Black-capped Chickadee flitting from shrub to shrub along the road.

After seeing many waterfowl in the air from the parking lot, we were anxious to reach the first of a series of wetland units at Cardinal Marsh. Once there, our first birds were 3 Ring-necked Pheasants flying across the road and out over the mostly-frozen water. The several hundred waterfowl on the wetland quickly attracted our attention, however. Immediately obvious were 5 swans, the largest of the waterfowl family in North America. After close examination, we determined that 3 were Trumpeter Swans and the 2 remaining were less-common Tundra Swans. An unexpected treat for the morning! Also present on the wetland were several Canada Geese and 11 species of ducks, including a pair of very cooperative Ruddy Ducks that young birders viewed through the spotting scope. We also flushed a Wilson’s Snipe from the wetland edge.

While viewing the waterfowl, we heard occasional distant calls of Sandhill Cranes in the marsh. As we continued on our hike, the cranes came into view. We watched a total of 7 birds throughout the morning, flying overhead, calling, and foraging in various areas of the marsh. We learned that at least 4 pairs of cranes nest at Cardinal Marsh each year. As we watched a group of 4 cranes walking along a dike, we noticed one bird was much more gray in color compared to its nearby rust-colored friends. We learned that the rusty-orange color is actually not the color of their feathers, but rather is color produced by the iron-rich soil in the marsh that the cranes “paint” on their feathers with their bills. They do this shortly after returning from their wintering grounds. Chances are the gray crane just arrived in Iowa from its winter home and had not yet donned the marsh mud. Very cool!

Other highlights from our hike included a trio of Greater White-fronted Geese, 6 Killdeer, 2 Bald Eagles soaring in the distance, and other songbirds typical of this time of year including American Tree Sparrows, Song Sparrows, a pair of Northern Cardinals, and a single Dark-eyed Junco.

We learned a ton on our hike thanks to the vast knowledge of naturalist and local expert Larry Reis with Winneshiek County Conservation. Thanks very much to Larry for joining us! You can view photos from our trip here as well as a full species list here.


  • March 24, 2024 10:11 AM | Anonymous
    This is great,thanks so much for the recap on what we saw! It was a great trip!
    Link  •  Reply

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