More Spring signs to watch for

PHOTO BY GARRY BRANDENBURG An American Goldfinch male, with his bright yellow and black plumage, samples sunflower seeds. They will eat from feeders or on the ground, happy to pluck at the spoils other birds have discarded. Foods include sunflower seeds, thistle seed (nyjer), asters, grasses, dandelion and seeds of trees such as alder, birch, western red cedar and elm. Goldfinches are a colorful addition to spring time bird observations.

AMERICAN GOLDFINCH (Carduelis tristis) do not nest until mid-summer when thistles and other weeds have gone to seed. Nest sites will be high in a tall shrub. The nest cup will contain rootlets, plant fibers and have a lining of plant down such as the soft white fluffy thistle seed. Inside this three inch diameter nest that can be 3 to 5 inches deep will be 2 to 7 eggs, each being about a tad over one-half inch long. Hatched after 14 days of incubation, the young will be fed by the parents for up to 17 days. Then the young will be out of the nest to learn about survival from their parents and ultimately find foods on their own.

Finches contain a long list of seed-cracking birds numbering 16 species in North America. In the central portions of the USA, Iowans might observe Common Redpoll, House Finch, Purple Finch, Pine Grosbeak, Evening Grosbeak and Pine Siskin. There are other finches however those species may more likely be found in mountain states our west.

The American Goldfinch has a numerous population estimated to be about 42 million according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey Partners in Flight.

BROAD-WINIGED HAWKS (Buteo platypterus) are migrating northward. On a day with the right weather conditions, a huge number of circling hawks can be seen flying in thermals of rising air. As they circle, the entire kettle drifts northward. It is an amazing sight to see.

That was the luck of Bobbi and I this past week. We happened to glance skyward to see lots of hawks. It did not take long to identify the banded white and black tail fan feathers of these masters of the air travelers. As high as we looked there were hawks way up high, at lower levels and everything in between. They circled in graceful arcs while the entire mass of hawks seemed to work as a unit drifting north with the wind.

Long ago observers likened the circling birds to features seen on the surface of a boiling cauldron pot of stew. As the bubbling pot masses rise and fall, a circling effect was noted. Then when looking skyward at large groups of hawks, the title of ‘kettle’ was applied to the birds. So a kettle of hawks is how that name came to be. Weird but true.

The hawks we watched were visible for only about one minute before the entire group had passed out of visual range. Right time, right moment, lucky observation and a check mark made on another episode of spring signs to watch for.

MAY BIRDS to look for during this month include many. Try being careful to observe at a wetland complex such as Otter Creek Marsh, Hendrickson Marsh, Colo Bogs, Iowa River Wildlife Area, Stanley Mill Mitigation Area, where you may spot Yellow-headed Blackbirds. Bobolinks need to be on the list along with Bluebirds. Look for Marsh Wrens, lot of waterfowl species and perhaps first hatched nest of Canada Geese goslings.

Other May bird arrivals will include Bonaparte’s Gull, Yellow-billed and Black-billed Cuckoos, Eastern Nighthawks, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Red-headed Woodpeckers, Arkansas Kingbird, Northern Crested Flycatcher, eastern Wood Pewee, Short-billed Marsh Wren, Catbird, Wood Thrush, Red-eyed Vireo, all species of warblers, Orchard Oriole and Baltimore Oriole, Scarlet Tanager, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Dickcissel, Harris’s Sparrow and White-Crowned Sparrow.

On upland sites, ring-necked pheasant hens will be building and sitting on ground nests. So will wild turkey hens. These female game birds are very picky about finding just the right place to nest on the ground where predators are not likely to find them. That is easier to say than do. But they do it every year.

SNAKES, the most common species being the garter snake, are finding warmer weather to their liking. They and several of their cousins will be doing what snakes must do, emerge from winter hibernariums to fan out across the landscape to find insects, worms, small birds or rodents to eat. As part of Mother Nature’s food web, they play a part vital to the interplay of life on the land. Even if people do not understand all the intricacies of nature’s connections, they must acknowledge the important role all critters play in life cycles.

Some of the winter snow bird friends, people that is, have returned from Arizona where they waited out the Iowa winter weather. Now back home, they may regale you with Arizona snake stories. For instance; Arizona has 13 species of rattlesnakes. Most often encountered along hiking trails would be Western Diamondback, Mojave, Black-tailed and Sidewinder. Arizona has more rattlesnake species than any other state. As spring weather warmed the soil, snakes emerged from winter gathering holdouts to disperse on their quest for food. April was a prime month for snakes to emerge before intense heat drives them to do conduct hunting at night. But during the cooler times of April, Arizona snakes might be seen or inadvertently encountered by hikers. The snakes want to be left alone. People need to be careful.

Back in Iowa, snakes native to the landscapes include 27 species, 23 non-venomous and only four are venomous. Iowa trail hikers are most unlikely to never encounter one of the four. The four venomous snakes names are Massasauga, Timber and Prairie rattlesnakes and the Copperhead. Range and distribution is very limited for all of them. People have to really know what habitats these snakes live in to be able to discretely invade their habitats. Even then you would have to look in just the right places to find them. Note: People are safe in Marshall County.

Spring: What a great time to go exploring outdoors, away from people and yet close to nature’s beauty.


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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