Record year for raptor sightings

PHOTO BY GARRY BRANDENBURG Summer is only five months and one week away. During this newest winter cold snap of earth's weather machine, a quick study of today's image will be a complete change of pace from what we are witnessing outside our windows. Never fear. Be positive. This winter season is only temporary. And yes, we have to endure it. If you want to “escape” winter cold weather, travel to the Botanical Center in Des Moines and walk the pathways that lead one through lush tropical plant species of many varieties. Bumblebees are not part of the animal life inside the dome of the Botanical Center. Small birds are present however and add their songs to the sounds of cascading waterfalls. While in Des Moines, check out bald eagles that may be fishing in the Des Moines or Raccoon River.

WINTER is reminding us that it has a full grip on us in the northern hemisphere. If you do not like the weather here, well one can travel to any southern hemisphere destination where it is summer. Or we could join our “snow bird friends” in Arizona, Texas, or Florida. Cold arctic air masses can and do sometimes penetrate as far as the southern states as we witnessed just a few weeks ago. And when one tiny snowflake was forecast to fall in Georgia, schools closed. Certainly there must be a few ex-Iowans living in Georgia that went to work just like a normal day. Friends in Fargo, North Dakota think Iowans are wimps when it comes to weather adaptation. No matter where one goes, we have to deal with Mother Nature’s new day each day.

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HAWK MIGRATION numbers are in from last Fall’s Hawk Watch activities at Grammer Grove. Mark Proescholdt conducts his hobby of bird watching while duly taking notes of how many of each species he can identify. Let’s just day that 2017 was an outstanding year and lots of fun. Each year is different and each year has many similarities. His chosen viewpoint and lookout station is a bluff overlooking the Iowa River valley. Migrating birds of prey, and other species too, follow the general course of forested lands adjacent to the river on their southward journey. There is nothing in particular special about this river. It is just like every other river system in Iowa including and between the the Missouri and Mississippi.

Mark spent 224.5 hours observing hawks, vultures, falcons, kestrels and eagles during a time span of 62 days between Aug. 22 and Dec. 22. Birds of prey just casually cruise past his observation station, or even make giant circling patterns as they ride the air currents and thermals. Experience has taught him to note those unique color patterns, wing shapes, tail lengths and calls that help identify the feathered critters making a presentation. 2017 was his 28th year of ‘hawk watching’ at this Marshall County conservation area, a site close to home and easy to get to.

During the August to December viewing times, Marks enlisted the help of other bird watchers. Diane Pesek and Ken and Mary Ann Gregory were major assistants, Other folks joined occasionally as they could. All the help received was appreciated. As for totals sightings, 2017 broke records. Four thousand and four raptors was the high record in the past. For 2017, total counts showed 6,580 birds of prey gliding past Grammer Grove.

Top on the list were the common Broad-winged Hawk with 4,405. Second in number were Turkey Vultures at 676 followed by Bald Eagles at 536. Sharp-shinned Hawks were next at 420, and next in line were Red-tailed Hawks with 402. From that point actual numbers of different species may be small in number but still impressive in their own right. This list shows Ospreys at 15, Northern Harriers at 16, Cooper’s Hawks tallied 33, Rough-legged Hawks with just 3, Golden Eagles at 3, American Kestrels numbered 14, Merlins at 8 and Peregrine Falcons at 18.

From Mark’s past notes, he told me of old records broken for several species. Without a doubt, the old record for Broad-winged Hawks was 1,703 and this pst fall he observed as noted above 4,405! Peregrine Falcons old record was 14 and this record is now 18. The biggest days for big numbers, if graphed to show the peak of migration in this area, would show Broad-winged Hawks on September 17th at 768 followed by Sept. 20 with 1,332, the 21st at 798, another 333 on the 22nd, and 456 on the 23rd. The last big day for Broad-wings was Sept. 27 with 537. From that date forward, sightings of this species dropped dramatically.

Other species like the Bald Eagle hit its peak on November 18th with 91 birds. Turkey Vultures peaked on Oct. 7 with 144. Red-tailed Hawks had their best day on Oct. 9. Congrats to Mark and his crew of dedicated wildlife watchers for a job well done. This hobby, or maybe obsession, is a fun way to spend time outdoors enjoying and observing the patterns and cycles of another year.

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Watching bird birds will take place at the TRUMPETER SWAN SORIEE at Walnut Woods State Park (near he southwest edge of Des Moines) on Jan. 27. Time frame for the gathering of guests is 10:30 a.m. until 2 p.m. Programs to learn about swans will be featured, habitat for wetlands and good water quality will be noted. Live birds will allow people to touch and learn more about T. swan with a review of this successful restoration program by Dave Hoffman and Ron Andrews right after lunch. A 30-minute film documentary preview on the “Return of the Trumpeter Swans” will be offered from 1-1:30 p.m. Guided field trips to see swans at the Dale Maffit Reservoir will begin at 2 p.m. All day long youth activities are offered with Bill and Beaks, How birds eat, a swan touch kit and pine cone crafting.

Trumpeter Swans were once common in Iowa, but were gone from the state by the late 1800s. By the 1930s, only 69 trumpeter swans remained in the lower 48 states. Restoration projects began, slowly, and really picked up the pace 50 years later. Biologists found that if they clipped the flight feathers on adult breeding pairs and dispersed these cygnet raising adults to a wide range of suitable pond, wetland or other sites, the new hatched cygnets could be captured and taken to a wintering area in Arkansas. Later, new cygnets were allowed to become free fliers and allowed travel where ever they desired. As in most waterfowl, the female of the species likes to return to her natal point of growing up. In so doing, she will bring another wild male swan with her. The cycle continues so that today many thousands of T. swans live in many states across America.

Directions to drive to Walnut Woods State park are as follows: From the intersection of I-35 and Hwy 5, go east 1.5 miles to SE 35th Street (exit 102), then north one-fourth mile to Army Post Road, then west one-half mile to SW 105th Street, then 1.5 miles north and east on Walnut Woods Drive to the park entrance.

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“The New Year lies before you like a spotless tract of snow. Be careful how you tread on it, for every mark will show.”

— Author unknown


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.