UNUSUAL BIRDS can appear almost anywhere. Being in the right place at the right time can be a planned excursion to Mother Nature’s habitat realm where sightings are likely or just the occasional sighting at the backyard bird feeding station. Today’s photographs illustrate both scenarios.
It was in December 2017 near Clemons that a snowy owl was observed by several people, including the ornithologist Mark Proescholdt. He called me with the information and was happy to point out the great white owl. So I naturally wanted to see for myself.
I was fortunate indeed to find the owl, sitting on a fence post near a plucked cornfield along an uncrowded county gravel road, surveying its surroundings. To avoid disturbing the bird, I stayed in my vehicle and very slowly approached the area where it was perched. A long lens on my camera was already set up on a window mount, ready to click into my handy image collection business.
My camera recorded many images and I have kept about 30 of the best on my computer file. I am grateful for the opportunity because it was a rare event. It was a fleeting moment now preserved in a photograph.
Biologists call the sudden appearance of unusual or unusual birds an outbreak. This happens often enough to attract the attention of environmentalists, and especially those who specialize in birding. Bird watchers can reduce the odds by selecting areas of habitat where the odds might be greatest.
Examples could be area lakes with open water, tall grass meadows or unique forests. Local habitats that attract birds of all kinds and uncommon species are Lake Saylorville north of Des Moines and Red Rock Lake. And never forget to carefully examine other sources such as Green Castle, Sand Lake, Hendrickson Marsh or even the pond inside Riverside Cemetery.
Unexpected sightings of wildlife, in this case birds, add excitement to your day. Nature allows us to take a step back from the hustle and bustle of our busy life and seems to ask us to “take the time to smell the roses”. And if we take the time to enjoy a fleeting moment of natural history that is offered to us, we will be happy. These moments are like an unexpected gift under the Christmas tree, specially wrapped and given free just for you.
Outbreaks of bird species, particularly songbirds from Canada’s boreal forests, can occur when pine cones or spruce cones have a “rest” year. When bird food is scarce, some will go where it is needed for food. Finding food can also be referred to as resource tracking, going where food is outside of their normal ranges. And those southerly flights can bring these species closer to us, our binoculars, our cameras, and our naked eyesight detecting something unusual.
Snowy owls have a unique reason to travel to places far south of Canada. They may have abundant rodent populations in the tundra landscapes of subarctic habitats. An excellent food supply meant that adults could easily forage for food for their young. And with good populations of lemmings and voles, many young snowy owls have survived.
And then comes winter. And then comes the snow. And then comes the hard picking for too many owls. This can cause snowy owls to move to other locations well south of home ranges. Even in the Arctic, habitat variability is enormous. What can happen in Alaska can be very different from what happens in eastern Canada.
Iowa Bird Hotline is a good website to go to. Common and rare bird publications are listed, and birders may want to add a special bird species to their “life list” of feathered creatures they have observed. This activity is just one example of Christmas gifts available in any season and throughout the year.
GRAY PARTRIDGE are a native highland game bird. Smaller than a collar pheasant and bigger than a bobwhite quail, these fast flying creatures from the bird world surprised me the other day. On a gravel road surrounded by fields of picked corn and the same for soybeans, a large flock of gray partridges occurred on one side of the road crossing in front of me at close range. The rusty red tail feathers were easily discernible.
However, the open fields where they like to congregate or hang out make them inconspicuous. I watched the herd slide into an adjacent field. And when they landed, they were gone. Not really, but it was like that.
My binoculars knew where to look for these birds now on the ground, but I couldn’t find them. A spyglass may have helped, but even then it would have taken a skillful search for patterns to find a gray partridge sitting so well camouflaged among the stubble of last year’s crops.
Iowa has a gray partridge hunting season. It takes special technique, a lot of walking and luck to get within shotgun range of these birds. I have had very few conversations with dedicated partridge hunters, possibly because these birds are so difficult to hunt. Partridges can be hunted daily between 8 am and 4:30 pm, as can pheasants, the last day of the season being January 10, 2022. A daily limit of eight is allowed. I have never seen a hunter with more than one gray partridge, let alone eight.
COUGAR UPDATE: In the news last week was the report of a puma (cougar) found already dead by deer hunters in Poweshiek County. This event took place on Tuesday, December 7, 2021. The animal was reported to MNR conservation officer John Steinbach and after a series of calls to fur biologists and supervisors it was deemed preferable. to have the big cat examined by veterinarians in Iowa. State University for autopsy and tissue removal. The hunters voluntarily turned the cat over to Iowa DNR officials.
So far, examination has revealed that this as yet unknown, adult male cougar weighed 119.4 pounds. His stomach was empty. A trap around his neck had driven him to suffocation. And the unknown location of the trap was not where the cat was found. What remains to be determined by further testing are DNA samples to determine this cat’s place of origin.
We can speculate that the Black Hills of the SD is the birthplace, but this is only a possibility as the Black Hills have a resident mountain lion population. The dispersal of male lions from there in the past has been documented in all surrounding states, and in particular eastward along the Platte River system in Nebraska. A tooth sample will be sent to a lab for detailed microscopic analysis of the growth rings to determine age. As more facts become available, I will bring these details to your attention.
Meanwhile, Iowa does not have any resident mountain lions. The very few who make themselves known are most likely going to unknown regions. The home range of resident cougars in mountainous states is immense, in the order of over 100 square miles. And in these rugged forest and mountainous habitats, deer and elk, wild sheep, porcupines and wild turkeys make up the diet. Iowa simply does not have the type of habitat it takes to maintain a breeding population of this species of big cat.
DEER SHOTGUN SEASON number two goes down this weekend. As of midweek, reported harvest counts show more than 76,000 deer have been killed across the state. Hunters will continue to take deer during the late muzzleloading season, although at a slower rate than today.
If harvest trends remain similar to previous years, around 10,000 more deer will end the hunt in 2021-2022. Hunters have until midnight the day after a deer is captured to report it through a phone app, website, or phone call. MNR wildlife biologist Tyler Harms notes that a total harvest of around 100,000 is very likely for the current season.
Like every year, many deer were killed, about 55% of the total, which means that about 45% were does. Some very impressive timber males have been captured by hunters. And these hunters will be eager to have a special mount crafted in a taxidermist’s workshop in the coming year. A cleaned cranial plate, skull, or finished frame at least 60 days after being taken is required before an official spreadsheet is completed. This scribe can respond to scoring requests on a case-by-case basis after this 60-day drying period.
Please note that many Iowa deer from the 2021-22 season may be brought to the Iowa Deer Classic to be held in Des Moines from March 4-6, 2022. They may be entered in the Big Buck contest. Categories are available for youth, adults and the type of weapon used.
The latest Big Buck contest notice boards get pretty impressive when all entries are registered. A leaderboard shows the name and score of each deer with the normal first to fourth places. Before the end of the show, on Sunday afternoon around 3 p.m., prizes are given to the owners of each large male with specially prepared wooden plaques to commemorate the hunt and the hunter.