Pelicans gather at Sand Lake

PHOTOS BY GARRY BRANDENBURG This past week’s wild weather seemed to confuse migrating birds. Sand Lake became a stopover and a temporary “bird convention headquarters” as their northward journey was interrupted by fickle weather events. So while the birds waited for an improved time to continue their migration, people going bird watching increased dramatically. This author was treated to a terrific “air show” of incredible precision formation flying by white pelicans, double-crested cormorants, common loons and white-fronted geese.

WHITE PELICANS (Pelevanus erythrorhynchos) dominated the waters of Sand Lake this past week. They got caught between snow, sleet, rain, wind and more snow events. Their best option was to wait out the weather until it improved. While scattered about the surface waters of Sand Lake, individuals and small groups of this majestic bird with a wingspan of eight to nine and one half feet, swam about to drive small fishes to the surface. When fish became vulnerable, the pelicans were quick to dash in, jab their heads and large bills into the water, and hopefully come up with a morsel of fish to swallow.

Mid week the pelicans were still waiting. Many were huddled on the island where they were somewhat sheltered from cold winds and air temperatures in the mid teens. Every trick in their bird book on how to conserve energy and stay warm was being employed for their benefit.

One cannot help but notice the large top side bill flange on a pelican. It is a seasonal temporary growth to indicate that this adult bird is in breeding condition. During other seasons, this flange will be absent. White pelicans will disperse throughout the great plains of North America to nest and raise their broods. They like to nest on isolated islands in freshwater lakes. Foraging for foods may take place as much as thirty miles distance from nest sites, so long distance travel is not a big issue with this species. Foods are typically small fish that inhabit shallow wetlands. These menu items are minnows, small carp, suckers, tadpoles, salamanders and crayfish.

While in full migration mode, look high in the sky as large flocks of white pelicans soar seemingly effortlessly in large spiraling circles. They are masters of thermals, winds and gliding to advance their journey. Flying pelicans could be described as precision graceful and just beautiful to watch. When landing on water, their glide is managed to the last second and then outstretched feet deploy to “water ski” to a stop. Takeoffs from water are quick after a few strong wing beats. That is the case in today’s image as this pelican quickly got airborne and proceeded to glide just above the surface of Sand Lake.

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Another Sand Lake visitor among the pelicans were hundreds of Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus). This all dark feathered bird looks somewhat pre-historic. However, upon closer inspection, it does have color of yellow-orange facial skin. If it opens its mouth wide, the throat lining is bright blue. Fish are what it chases underwater with strong webbed feet pushing it. They also use their wings to propel its body toward its aquatic morsels. The beak of a cormorant is filled with small teeth that are designed to hold slippery fish. The tip of the bill has a hook to enable a first strike on a fish to hold on. Once that is accomplished, the fish is flipped to re-grasp it headfirst for swallowing. If successful in chasing fish, any nearby pelican will also take note and try to steal fish away from its competition.

Common Loons (Gavia immer) were plying the water of Sand Lake. We are mostly familiar with this bird in the lake country of northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and southern Canada. I witnessed only a half dozen of this species as they swam low in the water. Enough of their profile was depicted to make a confirmed identification. A quick dive leaves hardly a trace of tiny waves at the surface. But underwater a common loon is a master of chasing fish. They are fast using strong feet to push it along like a prowling submarine. A beak full of backward facing projections are very good at holding slippery fish. Above the water while flying, they can reach speeds of 70 mph. But a takeoff from water requires a long foot splashing run as its tiny wings eventually gain the lift needed to go fully airborne.

Look for geese at Sand Lake. Mid week a large group of White-fronted geese, with one lone snow goose, made the sand bank beaches of the Martin-Marietta operation a staging area. The big flock of geese, also going by the nick name speckle belly, seemed anxious to go north but just continued to fly around, circle the area, and then gracefully alight on another portion of the waterfront. Somehow I believe these geese sense the unpredictable weather systems that have descended upon us this weekend. For us humans, it is time to take advantage of the mysteries of migration, to observe nature’s free air shows.

When you travel to Sand Lake this spring, do bring a good set of binoculars, or a spotting scope, to make close inspection of whatever feathered waterfowl or water loving critter is available. There is a lot of April left and lots of migrating birds still to come. Be there when they drop in for a visit at Sand Lake’s bird convention headquarters.

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The Marshall County Conservation Board had hoped to have completed several controlled prairie grass burning operations during late March and early April. Well, needless to say, Mother Nature has played her poker hand, again, and said in effect, you will adapt to my conditions or else. Prairie grass managed fires are one of several tools on the tool box to help maintain grassland. Prairie grass components at Green Castle, the Klauenberg Prairie, Marietta Sand Prairie, the Iowa River Wildlife Area or Arney Bend Wildlife Area are just a few areas where burning is contemplated. A public prairie burn is still planned at the Grimes Farm and Conservation Center. The only thing we can do is wait, be ready when all safe fire conditions exist, and do whatever one can to manipulate grasslands with the tool of fire. Stay tuned. Fire on a prairie will happen.

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Spring cleanups in area State Parks, County Parks, or even your own backyard, can take place anytime. This scribe would highly encourage local folks who delight in exercise by hiking foot paths at Timmons Grove, Green Castle, Grammer Grove, Sand Lake, Three Bridges or any other public area, to take along a garbage bag. Then while hiking, if you see litter, pick it up, pack it out. Our public areas will be better because you care. Thanks in advance.

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“Always be yourself because the people that matter don’t mind, and the ones that mind don’t matter.”

— Author unknown

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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 PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.