Resident birds adapt to winter

T-R PHOTO BY GARRY BRANDENBURG Earlier this week the wind blew really hard. This Cardinal would have been swept off the feeder edge if not for its tight grip by its right foot. The bird managed to stay in place to grab another sunflower seed. This month, and into early January of 2018, is the National Audubon's 118th Christmas Bird Count. The official count days begin on Dec. 14 and end Jan. 5. Participants will record as many species of overwintering birds seen within a 15-mile diameter of a specific location. Some can also chose to record all bird species and numbers at a local feeder site.

WEATHER dominated this week. Because weather is a un-escapable natural history event, I’m taking the liberty to talk about a bit this week. From a high in the upper 60s to an overnight change to the the teens was a real awakening to the realities of our approaching winter season. While celestial winter does not begin until Dec. 21, in the real world we live in, any cold, windy and/or snowy day is winter-like. Since we can’t do anything about it except adapt, we just have to plug along at our daily tasks.

On this date in history, in the year 1970, a winter storm produced heavy snow across northern Iowa. How much you ask? Sheldon had 10.2 inches, Emmetsburg measured 10.5, Clarion recorded 11 inches, Osage had 12 inches and Mason City got 15 inches of the white stuff. Then seven year later in 1977, moderate snows of 8-9 inches fell followed by strong winds that brought bitterly cold temperatures and blizzard conditions across the eastern two-thirds of Iowa. Once the snow ended, air temperatures fell below zero and winds exceeded 50 mph. The wind chill factor was noted at -70! Lots of power lines were broken by the force of the wind. Snow drifts of 10 feet high were common in some places.

Also on this date, our Waterloo friends had to endure the lowest low temperature for this date of -29. That record was tied again on Dec. 25, 2000. The flip side of these low low temps are highest high temps. Mid 60s were noted on Dec. 4, 1998, Dec. 5, 2001 and Dec. 3, 2012. The natural variability of weather events is to be expected any time of the year. We just seem to take notice more often as winter conditions prevail. An no, it is not caused by people on earth, or cow flatulence. Earth’s weather machine is too huge and too complicated to be precisely defined or contained within any computer models.

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Many DUCKS and GEESE are still holding out in northern big lakes that have not frozen over. They are waiting out the weather. A lack of big snow events allows these birds to find food in harvested grain fields. A combination of really cold temps and deep snow to come will force geese to move south to the snow line. Duck numbers of all species have been particularly good in Illinois. The Mississippi River corridor is a major migration route for waterfowl. Across central Iowa waterfowl a quite a bit less numerous.

However, if you want to see some great accumulations of wild birds, head over to Otter Creek Marsh in Tama County. From the wildlife viewing platform on the north side of the refuge, approximately 200 Trumpeter Swans and 180 Sandhill Cranes are gathered. They will probably stay due to the milder weather forecast for yesterday and today. Do check them out with binoculars or spotting scopes.

Another bird to watch for, and if you see one please call me, are SNOWY OWLS. There seems to be a invasion of snowy owls in the Midwest at this time. Periodic invasions of uncommon birds, to us, does happen. If snowy owls had a good hatch year, this is part of the reason. Lack of food sources in Canada can be an additional factor. Anyway, seeing a big white snowy owl would be a great Christmas Bird Count item to note. Juvenile snowy owls have lots of dark brown tips to their body feathers. Adult snow owls gradually lose those spotty effects over time and will appear almost entirely white. Eye color is bright yellow.

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Look to the sky at night, right now and all this week, for the GEMINID METEOR SHOWER. Prime times will be on clear dark nights between Dec. 4-16. Peak shower displays will be Dec. 14-16. Geminids are not associated with a comet, but with an asteroid specifically called 3200 Phaethon. This asteroid takes 1.4 years to orbit around our Sun. You can expect to see between 60 and 120 “shooting stars” per hour. Best times will be from vantage points away from big city lights, so travel to the countryside where minimal yard light interference exists, starting about 10 p.m. You will be able to see the meteor shower with your naked eye. Binoculars can be used also. Just like bird watching, meteor watching is a waiting game. Sit outside on a lawn chair, dressed for cold weather with a good blanket, hot chocolate or coffee, and enjoy the show.

Want to save some money? Then do not fall for the scam advertisement heard on radio about star registry. Stars are officially given numbers, not names, by the Astronomical Union. But if you want a worthless piece of paper with your name on it supposedly associated with a star, go ahead. Fools and their money are soon parted.

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CHRISTMAS TREE SALES end on the 17th at the Marshall County Izaak Walton League. They still have a good supply of conifers to chose from. This is a select and cut your own arrangement. All trees are $40 and a calendar is included with the purchase.

One recent customer and her husband commented that where they used to live, Chandler, Ariz., the tree they selected would have cost them $150. So they thought a $40 tree was a bargain. Support the Izaak Walton League, its lands and its recreational/conservation mission by buying a tree. And if so inclined, join the Ikes local organization. President of the Ikes is Charles Strobbe. Call him at 754-4095.

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DEER SEASON No. 2 started yesterday and will continue through the 17th at 30 minutes after sunset. Gun season No. 1 had hunters taking over 30,000 deer out of Iowa’s population. The Iowa harvest of deer is running ahead of 2016 by 4.5 percent. Current numbers of deer taken statewide is a bit more than 60,000.

Marshall County deer hunters beginning with youth seasons and followed by archers and early muzzle-loader hunters and including gun season No. 1 have taken approximately 400 deer. Clayton County is nearing the 4,000 mark. Osceola County has recorded only about 55 deer.

The late muzzle-loader deer season begins Dec. 18 and runs through Jan. 10, 2018. Archery deer season also reopens on the 18th.

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2018 HUNTING LICENSES go on sale Dec. 15, 2017. There are a number of combination licenses such as the resident Outdoor Combo package. It includes hunting/fishing/habitat fee for $47. A fishing combo for three years goes for $53. And the hunter’s special combo three year license with habitat fee will cost $86. Fishermen can also avail themselves of a third fishing line option for $12. All non-residents can begin purchasing licenses on Jan. 1.

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From Lessons Learned in Life: “When you try to control everything, you enjoy nothing. Relax, breathe, let go, and just live.”


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.