Birds are preparing for migration

T-R PHOTO BY GARRY BRANDENBURG Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) hunt for insects, small frogs, worms or small rodents in a harvested grain field in central Wisconsin. This is a family unit of the parents and their one surviving chick. A bald red crown and bustlelike rear feathers help define this species. Crane calls can best be described as a rolling bugled garoo-a-a-a that is repeated numerous times. The adult cranes stand three to four feet tall and have wingspans of six to seven feet. When flying, the neck is extended and its legs are normally held straight back. Formation flying is common for this big bird, a master at long range flying.

SANDHILL CRANES are cool. Maybe a series of other terms would be more appropriate such as majestic, regal, powerful, graceful in flight and smooth sailors of the airwaves. Whenever I see them, or just hear them, a mental image of this big bird comes instantly to mind. A smile from my face is ready to accept this free gift of nature.

We have a few nesting pairs of Sandhill Cranes in Marshall County, perhaps a bit of territorial spillover from successful nests of the past twenty five years at Otter Creek Marsh, the state wildlife area located east of Tama within the flatland bottoms of the Iowa River valley. 1992 was the first documented successful Sandhill Crane nest at Otter Creek. Nesting cranes are suspected and being documented east toward Johnson County and of course west into Marshall. Other populations are located in Bremer County at Sweet Marsh and the Green Island bottoms of Jackson County. A census in 2006 estimated Iowa Sandhill Cranes at 170. An update one decade later can be safely said to be closer to 200.

Sandhill Cranes as a species have been around for a long long time. How long? Well, fossil evidence preserved in mineral form within rock strata says they are at least 2.5 million years old. They have managed as a species to adapt to wave after wave of natural climatic fluctuations that included advancing glacial systems followed by shorter inter glacial warm periods. Somehow through multiple episodes of ice and snow on northern landscapes to no ice at all on the land, the crane continued to live on within wetland habitats wherever adequate food and nesting sites could be found. This proves the resiliency of just one type of wildlife to live on. Many other species had to do exactly the same or we would not be seeing them as modern day birds.

Foods eaten by Sandhill Cranes include anything they can swallow. Because they are a generalist in this aspect, survival is easier. On the menu are insects of all sizes, small rodents, frogs, young birds, grain, bulbs, and a host of aquatic plants. Iowa Sandhills are part of a different sub-group than the huge 1.5 million migrating cranes that funnel into the Platte River Valley of central Nebraska each March to early April. While the Iowa Sandhill slip into and out of the state, their cousins from Siberia, Alaska, and Canada make a big splash of a migration.

If you need a bucket list item to accomplish, do travel between Kearney and North Platte, Neb., during mid to late March. Be prepared because the sky will be filled with birds. At evening time cranes come flocking into the sandbars of the river to roost. It is an awesome sight to see, to hear and to be part of.

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Several other states have had success with creating an increased awareness for the beauty of birds. Habitat creation is one part of the puzzle. Reducing threats to birds in another. And thirdly, educating and engaging people in bird conservation. There is a name for this program … it is called Bird Friendly Iowa. Designated cities and communities can be presented with street flags emblazoned with the program’s logo. Iowa’s program closely follows examples from Bird City Wisconsin and Bird City Minnesota.

A city desiring to get into the program makes an application by meeting seven to nine criteria. After three years of program participation (assuming the first year application was approved), a city’s status can be upgraded to “sustained flight.” This program is a cooperative venture and partnership of conservation organizations and agencies. They include Trees Forever, Iowa Audubon, Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, Iowa Ornithologists’ Union, Iowa Wildlife Center, Iowa DNR, NRCS, Conservation Districts of Iowa, Iowa Association of County Conservation Boards, plus many individual citizens. At the present time a bit of office space is being graciously provided by the Trees Forever organization.

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The FEDERAL MIGRATORY WATERFOWL STAMP for 2017-18 features a trio of flying Canada Geese. The artist winner of an extensive competition was James Hautman of Chaska, Minn. Purchase of this stamp is a requirement of those waterfowl hunters who pursue ducks and geese each fall from boat or field setting. Any waterfowl or bird enthusiast can and should buy this stamp just for the conservation value that funding provides. Habitat is habitat and protection, management and long term schemes to enhance wildlife corridors is important. Ninety-eight percent of the funds derived from the purchase of a federal “duck stamp” goes directly to help acquire and protect wetland habitat and purchase conservation easements for the National Wildlife Refuge System.

The value of wetlands as filters of water is a proven fact. Runoff of water going through a wetland complex allows clean water to eventually exit. Soil is held in place or if sediments do get in, they settle out. Even wide buffer strips along any creek drainage system works like a filter to catch runoff water, slow it down, and allow time to work on taking potentially harmful products out of the runoff.

Purchases of the waterfowl stamp was conceived in 1934 when Congress passed and President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed it into law. The first stamp design was made by J. N. “Ding” Darling, then director of the Bureau of Biological Survey, forerunner to today’s U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

This waterfowl stamp has a host of other uses. One being the bearer’s admission or free pass into any national wildlife refuge that charges an entry fee. Because nearly all of the proceeds are used to conserve habitat for birds and other wildlife, birders, nature photographers and others who buy the stamp help ensure that they can always see wildlife at their favorite outdoors settings. Federal Duck Stamps are sold at major post offices, many sporting goods stores and other retail locations that sell sporting and recreational equipment.

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IOWA DNR 2017-18 regulations booklets will be arriving soon at license vendors across the state. Certainly by state fair time this publication should be available. For this year only one regulation booklet will be printed instead of the traditional two. Changes with the setting calendar by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service allowed the duck, goose and other migratory game bird hunting regulations to be included with the seasons for other species. Waterfowl seasons, zones and bag limits now have their own section. Also for this fall, the little tri-fold card will not be available. It is available however online at

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ROADSIDE BIRD COUNTS have been started. Completion is expected by the middle of August. After that the data will be compiled to add to trend line data for upland game like pheasants, quail, partridge and rabbit. Weather conditions play a major role in wildlife survival. Mile winters help. Relatively warm and dry spring weather helps. Good grassland cover helps. The tenacity of resilient wildlife helps.

A low volume of snow last winter resulted in good hen pheasant survival. Pheasants do best during mild winters with less than 30 inches of snow followed by warm, dry spring nesting season with less than eight inches of rain. Last winter Iowa’s average snowfall was 20.4 inches. Spring rain average was 8.7 inches.

Biologists and game wardens conduct the roadside surveys following prescribed criteria for best results. More than 200 standardized routes are slowly driven and each route is 30 miles long. The entire state is blanketed by the survey system. Tyson Brown has one of his two assigned routes completed so far. His first route check in northern Grundy County on Aug. 1 found three rabbits, five pheasants and 24 gray partridge. Only slight variations from 2016 were noted. However it is too soon to tell if overall trend lines for upland game populations will be up, down or about the same as last year. Stay tuned later this month for statewide results.

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The last Marshall County area HUNTER SAFETY CLASS for 2017 will be held on Aug. 17 and 19. The Thursday evening session at the Izaak Walton Clubhouse will be from 6-9 p.m. On Saturday, Aug. 19 the class begins at 8 a.m. and goes until completion of test time at 4 p.m. Attendance at both sessions is required. Do register online for any youth age 12 or older by going to the DNR website for inquiry into hunter safety class schedules.

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Did you know that as of today, our sunrise time is 34 minutes later than it was on June 20. And our sunset time is now 26 minutes earlier. End result: Our daytime length is now one hour less than it was at the summer solstice. Do you need a reminder that summer is gradually transitioning into fall? All is preparation for a new winter to come. As for this scribe, fall is magic with its crisper air, hunting seasons, trees having leaves turning brilliant gold, yellow, red and bronze. Harvest time will soon be upon us. Get ready.


Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at P.O. Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.