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Winter birds, wildlife worth watching 

January 22, 2011

The PILEATED WOODPECKER is the big bird of the woodpecker variety. Only its very rare (possibly extinct) cousin, the Ivory-billed woodpecker is larger. Pileateds are approximately 16.5 to 17 inches long, have about 24 inch wingspan. A flaming red crest on its head and a white stripe down its neck are characteristic markings on an otherwise black body. In flight, its under wing markings have large white front half and a black trailing edge.

A big thank you to Bob and Norma Sogge for today's photo made from their home. It is nice to see this big bird at such close range. The bird is naturally shy and is easily spooked. This author's closest encounters with Pileated woodpeckers happen while I'm perched in a tree stand deep in the forest. I usually hear the bird first, but when the large splash of black and white wings darts through the trees, I know I have visual treat at hand.

If one comes across large feeding holes in dead trees that are mostly rectangular in shape, you can be assured that Pileated woodpeckers were the cause. For nesting, they will chip out a depression over 24 inches deep. Four white eggs are laid in the wood fiber base. The male does the incubation at night and parts of the day. Hatching happens on the eighteenth day. Twenty four to thirty days later, the young take their first flight. The young will learn from the parents and stay until autumn when they must strike out on their own.

Article Photos

A female Pileated Woodpecker, Dryocopus pileatus, checks out the feeder at a rural residence near the Sand Road northwest of Marshalltown. This crow-sized woodpecker is notable just due to its size. This species is non-migratory and will stay in or near mature woodland habitats all year long.  Its primary foods are carpenter ants, beetles and other insects.


Wildlife watching is in many respects much easier in the winter. Snow cover on the ground makes any animal movement easier to spot. So even the native big bird, the wild turkey, really stands out if a flock is feeding in corn fields close to a tall stand of timber. Deer are now pretty well herded up for several reasons: to help insure safety from predators and to increase the ability of the group to benefit from lots of noses sniffing the ground for waste grain, acorns or other plant material to eat. Although deer are really surviving to a large extent on the fat layer they accumulated last fall, the amount of forage required during a winter is much less than their spring, summer or fall metabolism requirements.

The number of deer killed state wide at this time is running about 10 percent below 2009-10's season. This is partly the result of more counties meeting or getting very close to wildlife management goals. Overall, a deer herd similar to the mid 1990s is what is desired. This number is a 'balance' between what landowners and hunters can live with. It is a social number primarily, meaning that the number of deer being managed for is far below what biological conditions could allow if that was the goal. However, political reality means that a very thin tight-rope must be walked between deer biologists and legislators.

For the Iowa 2011-12 deer season, when all the dust is settled and field survey numbers have been crunched, hunters can anticipate more counties without or at very low antlerless quotas in eastern, east-central and even portions of southeast Iowa. It is way too early to speculate on how this will play out. My cards are stacked in favor of hard facts from the field, biological data that proves how wildlife managers have and did plan for a reasonable level of deer for the benefit of everyone.


The Christmas Bird Count numbers are in from members of the Central Iowa Ornithologists. Several bird club members put in many hours and many miles to see what they could document Dec. 16, part of a nationwide winter bird observation network. Locally 1,756 birds representing 33 species were sighted. The largest were bald eagles or turkeys and Canada geese. The smallest were chickadees, nuthatches, tree sparrows and juncos. On the most unusual list were robins, bluebirds and a red-headed woodpecker. Most numerous were Canada geese, house sparrows, starlings and juncos.

On Thursday, Marshalltown Bird Club members invite you and your friends to the Fisher Community Center for a 7 p.m. meeting. The program will be a film about wildlife and the geological landscapes of Death Valley National Park in the state of Nevada. This scribe visited the area last March when temperatures were very comfortable. It was a very active place with lots of people and lots of solitude too, if that is what was desired. Death Valley is now the dry salty bottom of what was once a huge fresh water lake getting its runoff from receding glaciers far away.


HAWK WATCHING at Grammer Grove is a long tradition by the Proescholdt's of Liscomb and their cadre of serious birders. Every fall the group watches the skies over the Iowa River Valley from a vantage point of a bluff top. From Aug. 25 through Dec. 18, 2010, observations were recorded of all the raptors seen migrating along the river valley. Here is what they found.

In total 2,146 raptors, better known as birds of prey, the eagles, hawks and falcons, were seen in the sky. More than 221 hours of observation time was logged to see 14 species. On this list were the usual and the unusual, but still these birds were seen. Eagles of course, 491 bald eagles to be exact. Red-tailed hawks tallied 376 followed by 356 sharp-shinned hawks. Turkey vultures numbered 298.

Cooper's Hawks were noted 45 times, northern harriers 24 times, red-shouldered hawks at 4 and rough-legged hawks at 3. The biggest day in terms of most birds seen was September 24th when 348 birds passed the observation point. Most of those birds were Broad-winged Hawks.

A big thank you to Mark Proescholdt, Eugene and Eloise Armstrong, Ken and Mary Ann Gregory, Diane Pesek and a scattering of other binocular toting birders. Good work.


Correction: The Izaak Walton League will not be hosting one of its past events. The sports show event of the past several years, always held at the Coliseum, during the first weekend of March, is cancelled for 2011. The Ikes board of directors is investigating other activities for the public but no decisions have been made at this time. Stay tuned.


Last week I noted that Minnesota DNR had their poached deer display stolen. The Hall of Shame display helped tell the public of evil deeds by poachers. Well, all has almost ended well. A TIP call to authorities led to a stake-out in St. Paul. All of the stolen deer heads were recovered along with many tools and other items taken from within a locked and fenced DNR storage area. Two individuals have been arrested and the investigation continues.


Ruth Pearson, Administrative Assistant to the Marshall County Conservation Board for the last 22 years, will retire next week. Come join her retirement reception on Friday, January 28 from 3 to 6 p.m. at the Conservation Center. Pearson has been a dedicated and loyal public service employee who knows many conservation issues thoroughly. Her fishing and hunting background made her work for the conservation board a natural fit. Now her time will be her own to continue an active outdoor life and allow her to enjoy other hobbies on her time schedule. Congratulations Ruth for a job very well done.


Join the Marshall County Conservation Board Brown Bag Bunch on Thursday from 11:30 a.m. 1 p.m. at the GrimesFarm & Conservation Center for a program entitled "Images of Warmer Days." Bring your own lunch and drink.

The Marshall County Conservation Board will hold a cross country ski event (weather permitting) on Jan. 29 from 1 to 3 p.m. at GrimesFarm, 2359 233rd Street, just west of Marshalltown. A limited number of skis will be available for checkout at no cost during the event hours and basic instruction will also be provided.

Feb. 4 at noon is the deadline for entries in the MCCB's eighth annual natural resource/conservation photo contest. Complete rules are available on the MCCB website or at the GrimesFarm & Conservation Center.


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.



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