Make your own journey of discovery

PHOTO BY GARRY BRANDENBURG Cranes will soon be filling the sky along the pinch-point of the Platte River in central Nebraska. The entire area of this shallow braided river system between Scoots Bluff and Kearney will have hundreds of thousands of Sandhill Cranes arriving, feeding, resting and then migrating by early April to northern Canada and Alaska. Locally we will also be privileged to witness a few cranes at Hendrickson Marsh, Otter Creek Marsh and even the bottomlands northwest of Marshalltown. Huge flocks of geese will also continue to move through this month. Keep watch for all of them.

WATERFOWL in huge numbers have dominated this past week. Well folks, this natural history moment is not going to fade quickly. All this month it can be expected that the sky on any particular day may have lots of snow geese, white-fronted geese and Canada geese congregating, and talking their goose music to each other. For us humans on the ground, goose music will be nice to listen to.

Migration of birds northward at this time of year will encompass critters of all sizes. The biggest birds are eagles and geese. The smallest I’ve seen so far are robins and common grackles. Many song birds will make the big push during April. Neo-tropical song birds will make their appearance into early May. But if you do not want to wait for the small stuff, the big stuff is coming to a wetland habitat right now.

On your bucket list of places to go and things of nature to see, do plan a visit to LOESS BLUFFS NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE located near Mound City, Mo. This 7,440-acre refuge system is 100 miles north of Kansas City or 100 miles south of Omaha, Neb. Loess Bluffs was renamed in January of last year. Prior to that time and from the beginning of its designation as a national wildlife refuge in 1935, it went by the name Squaw Creek NWR. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the authorization paperwork for the refuge on Aug. 23, 1935. If you go there during March, you will not be disappointed. Geese and ducks will seem to be everywhere. It is spectacular to see, to listen to and it will create a memory you will tell your friends about.

The Missouri River floodplain lands and the loess hills make for a unique landscape feature. From the area 30 miles south of St. Joseph, Missouri all the way north to Sioux City and a bit beyond, are wind-blown deposition of fine silt dumped into huge piles. It looks like a miniature “mountain’ range along this entire segment of the Missouri River. First, I’ll ask you to turn back your time clock to at least 2.1 million years ago, and then envision the slow but steady advance and retreat of at least eight glacial ice episodes that came from Canada across the plains that are now the Dakotas, Minnesota, Nebraska and Iowa. Between each natural cooling of the earth that brought on the glaciers in the first place were inter-glacial warm periods. During these many thousand year long ice free landscapes, strong west and northwest winds blew hard over the land. Wind picks up very fine soil particles and moves them like a blizzard moves snow into big drifts. When these scouring winds blew across the floodplain of the Missouri River, higher lands on the Iowa side caused the wind currents to be pushed up. When this happens, wind speeds slow somewhat, and does so just enough to not be able to hold its load of silt particles any longer. The silt falls out of suspension. Give this process enough time, geologically speaking, and you can see how the accumulation of silt ridges are built. Our name for them today is the Loess Hills. The work Loess is correctly pronounces “luss.”

Each spring during the month of March and early April, waterfowl and hundreds of smaller bird species will filter into the Missouri River valley wetlands near Mound City, Missouri. The National Wildlife Refuge development took lots of time to build its infrastructure. Today it has a visitor center and maintenance facilities. A large network of levees, with public access roadways on their tops, have water control structures to move water into and out of many shallow wetland pools. This habitat and the natural river oxbows in the valley is what causes waterfowl to stop, rest and eat. I hope you can make this journey of discovery.

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Another journey of discovery you can add to your bucket list is the Platte River of Nebraska. This shallow river system beginning in the area of Kearney going west to North Platte is SANDHILL CRANE country right now and into early April. More than one million cranes will pass through Nebraska. They are impossible to miss. They are spectacular to see. They are interesting to listen to. And they are busy ‘dancing’ as their behavior must allow as they seek mates. Sandhill Cranes are a huge tourist draw for this region of America. This author highly recommends a journey to see them. Do obtain a copy of the DeLorme Atlas and Gazetteer for the State of Nebraska before you go. This map book has fantastic detail and shows every back road accurately. And you should know already that back roads are the best roads to see the landscape and its wildlife.

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IOWA TAXIDERMISTS ASSOCIATION (ITA) used to hold their annual conference in Marshalltown. Many of the readers of this column have used the opportunity in past years to go to a public open house to see incredible art works by wildlife taxidermists. For 2018, the venue has moved. The organization needed more floor space and more rooms to accommodate their membership. So for 2018, the ITA will be located at the Meskwaki Bingo Casino Hotel in Tama County. The dates are March 24-25. Public viewing of wildlife art work will be on the 24th from 12-5 p.m. and again on Sunday the 25th from 9 a.m. until noon. This is the 35th annual meeting of ITA members. It is a competition between taxidermists to learn new and preferred methods for reptiles, fish, mammals and birds. There are divisions for youth and experts. However the quality of all the work is outstanding and credit to the art they try to master. This is a close-to-home journey of discovery. I invite you and your friends to attend. The public can participate by voting for best of show display.

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PUBLIC LANDS, whether local, state or national, are important cogs toward conservation of landscapes and wildlife that live there. Most public lands were set aside specifically due to unique geologic features, location of existing habitats of native grasslands, wetlands or forests. And at the time most of these areas were set aside for a host of public uses and long term conservation management goals, people had already pretty much figured out which lands were productive for agriculture, cities and other infrastructure needs. What was left in this intermix of give and take, were those lands someone else thought were too wet, too rocky, too hilly, too hot, too dry, or too ‘unproductive’ to bother with. I should mention that many of these lands were also tremendously scenic and good places for botanical and wildlife habitats.

America’s long history of living on the land required development. And the foresight of conservation leaders in the 1900’s saw what was happening to many places if certain lands were not set aside for future generations. What makes a unique area of land with its native tall standing grasses, or its spires of tall trees, or its wetlands filled with ducks and geese so special? For people who love nature in all of its varied aspects, there is no dollar and cents amount that can come close to the value one receives from these natural settings. While one person may not participate in spring wildflower hikes, hunting mushrooms, or turkey hunting, another values these same lands in different ways through the summer and fall. Hunting seasons may be a prime reason to value public lands. Picnics and camping with family can be another. Quiet times spent fishing will fill the bill for many folks. Taken as a whole, public lands add tremendous value to our lives. It is up to us to make each foray outside a journey of discovery.

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Last call for DUCKS UNLIMITED this coming Saturday night, March 17. The place is the Impala Ballroom in Marshalltown. Tickets can be purchased at the door. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. Games, raffles and meeting friends will be part of the evening. Contributing funds to DU projects will be the reason for the gathering. Silent and live auction times will be fun. And so to will the good food served by Smok’n G’s. Enjoy your time at this DU banquet. Thanks for attending.

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Reminder: Due date for Izaak Walton League scholarship applications is March 15. Contact Pam Strobbe at (641) 752-4175 for an information packet. High school students planning on a college level study regime toward conservation may want to consider this scholarship possibility. Grants of $2,000 are awarded to the college or university where the student will attend.

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“A tree grows out of what appears to be solid rock, reminding me that possibilities exist everywhere. All the time.”

— Kay Foley


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.