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Iowa River Valley sleeps tonight

December 24, 2011
By GARRY BRANDENBURG , Times-Republican

The VALLEY OF THE IOWA sleeps tonight, resting after another year of the normal ups and downs of lots of water from too much rain and then low flows from too little rain. In Iowa, as in other regions of the country, the saying goes like this ... "if you don't like the weather, wait five minutes." Us mortal humans must always keep a proper perspective on weather due to the fact that earth's driving forces for weather normals and weather anomalies is just par for Mother Nature's course as each year passes into history.

I hope you will enjoy again the traditional story of the First Christmas on the Iowa River Valley as written long ago by the Times-Republican's past and the late outdoor writer John Garwood. He painted a word picture of wildlife at Christmas time, with snow, enveloped in a framework of peace on this special night.

Garwood wrote news of the outdoors, its hunters, trappers, fishermen, hikers, mushroomers, flower watchers, bird watchers and more for 50 years. He retired from his column at the end of September, 1991 as we bid farewell to SIGHTING UPSTREAM, and we thanked him for a job well done. John loved the Iowa River and the neat things it offered at all seasons of the year.

Article Photos

Early morning fog fills the valley of the Iowa River in Marshall County in this view made several years ago from the vantage point where eagles fly, more than two thousand feet above the ground. The fog may look like snow, but in this case it is outlining the river on its way eastward toward Tama County. The fog formed due to cooler air passing over warmer waters in the river. This may be one Christmas season not likely to have the white stuff covering the ground. We still have a lot of winter to go, three months of it, so this scribe is sure that snow will blanket the landscape soon.

In John's youthful days, getting to his beloved river was by 'shanks mare', an old term that meant he walked several miles from his home. No cars, no ATV's, no snow machines and no complaining ... just the boot leather express to get the job done. In the spring or summer, a backpack filled with a water bottle and home made sandwiches, plus a few fishing worms and a cane pole over his shoulder was all that was needed for adventures along the banks of the Iowa. In the fall, he repeated the process but this time carrying his shotgun openly along the city streets as he hiked past the last homes and into the valley. In those days, no one was worried about a young man going hunting. He walked many miles to hunt ducks, squirrels, rabbits or pheasants which were all brought home for the cooking pot. Wild game meat supplemented other kitchen foods and stretched the few dollars the family had a lot further.

With many decades of Iowa River memories firmly etched into his mind, Garwood told the tales and adventures that folks liked to read about in his weekly stories. That is the basis for how he formulated the fanciful story for the First Christmas on the Iowa. Enjoy it and remember. And I urge you to take this challenge: Go hiking along the Iowa River this winter, at night, with a big moon lighting the way, after a fresh snow, and when the clear cold air seems to beg the stars to twinkle a bit longer and brighter. Listen to the crunch of snow underfoot, hear owls hooting from the trees and watch deer bound away before you. Your journey along the Iowa River Valley will be a treasure you will cherish. Just do it.

You will be glad you did.


Winter must be tough this year in Canada for some birds. In this case, SNOWY OWLS are making what ornithologists call an 'invasion', a periodic movement of many of the species into territory not common to them. Snowy owls like to eat lemmings and other little rodent critters that burrow under the snow at ground level. Snowy owls hunt by hearing the lemmings while still under the snowy blanket, then diving into the snow to pluck the little hairy beast away to become owl protein. When lemming populations cycle through the low side, food is very scarce for owls. They are driven by hunger to places they normally do not go. That is part of the reason at least 50 sighting of Snowy's in Iowa have been reported so far this year. Many bird watching websites will note where the big white owls have been found. Check it out.


On December 15, the Central Iowa Ornithologists did a day long bird count from routes within the city, at backyard feeders, and at several rural routes within a 15 miles radius of Marshalltown. The totals at the end of the day noted 30 species and a total of 3,890 birds. All the normal resident birds such as woodpeckers, cardinals, blue jays, chickadees, nuthatches, juncos, and gold finches were seen. Eagles topped the list at 37, not bad for such a small circle of surveyed lands. A ring-billed gull was observed at Union Grove State Park. One Northern Shrike held its perch on a power line long enough for a good look. Cedar waxwings totaled about 50 birds along with one tufted titmouse. Eight people participated in the Christmas Bird Count, spent 23 1/2 hours and collectively traveled over 250 miles in the effort.

Christmas bird counts are conducted nationally to help keep tabs of who, what and where. Who says winter is boring? Not birders.


To each and every one of you, MERRY CHRISTMAS. May 2012 be a continuation of enjoyment, exploration and fun in the outdoors where nature calls the shots and we adapt to her whims willingly.


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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