Natural history moments energizing

T-R PHOTO BY GARRY BRANDENBURG Natural history moments present themselves to us all the time. Example: An adult Bald Eagle lifts off from its cornfield perch only one mile west of Marshalltown. Resident Bald Eagles, and those that are drifting south from more northern summer ranges, will soon increase the numbers of eagles we may see. As winter approaches, colder air and snow up north will make it imperative for many raptors to go south in search of food. While eagles specialize in fish, they will also take just about any small mammal or even feed on carrion. Road-killed deer is one source of protein eagles.

It is the season when the weather is really unpredictable. Colder air blasting down from the northwest, rain with snow flurries, then followed by a bright sunny day that seems so peaceful. We humans sometimes wonder if Mother Nature is having a hard time making up her mind. I think she likes to keep humans guessing on this topic. Predicting the weather does have good science behind it, but one need not go too many days on future forecasts to know that the odds of getting a long range prediction correct gets slimmer and slimmer. I for one like the unpredictable courses by nature calling the shots, not us.

What is predictable during November involves deer and deer movements. It is rut time, or breeding time for deer. Bucks may throw caution to the wind and go places they should not, like crossing highways at any time of the day or night. What we do not see is the majority of deer going about their survival duties far away from roadways, out on harvested corn fields or deep in forested river courses. Each year, just like clockwork, statistics compiled on a spike of vehicle/deer encounters tell DNR and DOT officials that the huge increase of deer movements is correlated with the rut.

Iowa archery deer hunters and those that took part in the early muzzle loader seasons have combined at this point to put approximately 13,000 deer into sportsmen’s freezers. All the usual northeast Iowa counties rank high in total deer taken. The entire Mississippi River border counties see high numbers. Clayton County hunters have reported over 500 deer so far. Some north central counties have only singe digit deer kills reported. But the season is early and lots of time remains before the big push of shotgun seasons one and two. Stay tuned for more info as deer season progresses this month.

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My field notes from more than 50 hours of deer tree stand time this year have netted typical sightings of deer, some too far away and not on a course to bring them close to me. That is okay, as it is just a matter of time that I’ll be in the right place at the right time, hopefully. However, this right time scenario did take place to illustrate another one of natures predator/prey survival games. I witnessed a bird of prey, a small one, winging it sway toward the area where my tree stand islocated. The bird was not huge and it seemed to be struggling with whatever it was carrying. Finally it took a perch only 20 yards away where it landed on a down and dead tree. Slowly I raised my binoculars to observe more detail of life in the forest.

A Sharp-shinned Hawk was the bird of prey. Its body is only about 12 to 14 inches long. Skinny legs with sharp talons held an almost dead bird. And I got a good look at the bird it held tight at its feet. It appeared to be a white-throated sparrow. The sparrow did struggle a bit but it was useless against the strong grip of the little hawk. Finally it was meal time and the hawk plucked feathers out of the carcass and let them float to the ground. Each feather looked like a little parachute drifting slowly with the wind. With feathers out of the way, the hawk took meat pieces away from the sparrow. Life’s cycles of energy transfer was taking place right in front of me.

While the sharp-shinned hawk is quite tiny for a raptor, it is effective at its assigned task of catching songbirds. Ninety percent of its diet are songbirds. The other ten percent can be small rodents like mice and voles, grasshoppers or moths. Forest edges are preferred hunting sites. A backyard bird feeder may also be the sharpy’s hunting realm. The hawk likes to hide in trees and with a big burst of speed, strike out to take small birds from the air. They know how to be stealthy so as to get as close to a prey animal as possible before it knows what is happening. I feel fortunate that Mother Nature offered me the opportunity to witness the timeless predator/prey struggle, another gift of natural history story telling.

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Another field observation and a really cool example of natural history awaited me recently. While walking out of the forest at the end of an evening sit in the forest, a clear night sky was beginning to reveal thousands of stars. Darkness progressed as my long walk continued. After I arrived at the parking area, and before I put my gear away, I looked up.The night sky was incredible. The unaided human eye may be able to discern about 6,000 stars. I did not bother to count them, rather I just stood in awe at the view. One big very black sky reached from horizon to horizon. And little spots of light decorated the sky’s entire span. It was beautiful. Perhaps the coyotes howling from distant ridges had the same idea, who knows.

We do know that in our “tiny” segment of the Universe within our Milky Way system, there are billions of stars. The ones we can see with the naked eye are usually of magnitude 6 or greater. If you or I use binoculars to look in the star field, an entire new set of stars appear that are too weakly illuminated otherwise. And every star is not on the same plain, in other words they are not equal distance from the earth. Big bright stars may be thousands of light years away and what appears to be tiny weak stars even further away into deep space. The light we perceive from each star has been traveling for eons of light-years to reach us. By comparison our Sun’s light takes on average just eight minutes to reach earth.

Telescopes from small to large will reveal even more stars. And the Hubble space telescope has opened up a entire new set of images of stars so far away that only the resolution of Hubble’s equipment can detect it. I’m content with knowing that astronomers who work on these matters are willing to share what they see, when they see it, and when we should be looking up to marvel at deep dark space and it light show of stars. Deep space exploration helps to put in perspective our earth and its place in our solar system. For us humans to comprehend and appreciate all of this is a gift of understanding and a gift brought to us by science. Thanks Mother Nature for another great free gift.


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.