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Signs of spring approaching

Photos by Garry Brandenburg — Bald Eagles are quite common now. Not so a few decades ago. Their comeback is remarkable and a good thing. Now it seems that eagles can be found anywhere across the Iowa landscape. Marshall County is no exception. Many eagle nests are active right now with incubation taking place. In today’s image of an eagle near its nest, the nest site is located in a grove of trees surrounding a farm stead in open farmland country. For whatever reason this eagle pair chose this nest site is entirely their choice. If it works for them it is a good choice. Today’s close up image of a flying eagle was made near Roberts Creek Park near the north edge of Lake Red Rock.

EAGLE WATCHING never gets old. These majestic raptor birds are big and their full white head and tail feathers make a distinct contrast of color to their dark brown to blackish body plumage. An adult eagle’s large and powerful beak is yellow in color. It is used to cut like a knife to break off parcels of meat and flesh from the critters it kills. Its talons have immense grasping pressure and as those toes and talons encircle a prey animal, the prey is unlikely to escape. Deep long curved talons dig deep and pierce far into the prey. And eagle’s eyes are estimated to be four to eight times more acute to detail than a human eye. Eyes are fixed in their sockets so the bird must point its head at a subject to allow both eyes to focus on the subject. Bald eagles get their full white head and tail at age four to five years. Most eagle nests are moderate in size like this new nest featured in today’s photo. However, it has been documented that one of the largest bald eagle nests, built upon each year for many years, had accumulated branches and twigs estimated to weigh 2 tons. hat nest was 20 feet deep and 10 feet wide.

MIGRATION SOUNDS are all around us. Just listen carefully while at an area wetland, marsh, forest or river edge. Bird talk is beginning to fill the airwaves. Even for non-wildlife oriented folks busy with day-to-day activities, a huge V-shaped skein of honking white-fronted geese, snow geese or Canada geese flying overhead is hard to resist. People stop and look up. I’ve seen that many times.

Other sounds betrayed the presence of robins seeking food morsels on area lawns. It was good to see a robin again. Also, the unmistakable throaty twitter of sandhill cranes were listened to by this author while at Hendrickson Marsh this week. I did not see the birds, but my ears told me the cranes were in the area.

Hendrickson Marsh is ice free at this time.There is just enough open water to create excellent resting and feeding places for migrating waterfowl. And that is exactly what happened. I estimated that several thousand snow geese were in attendance. There were lots of Canada geese of course. And white-fronted geese also by the thousands were settled in for a good rest. On the duck side of the identification ledger were just about every species one can think. I saw pintails, mallards, widgeon, teal, shovelers, redheads and canvasbacks, ring-necked ducks and scaup. There were probably more I did not pick up on. But on another day, I’ll venture forth to watch wildlife at Hendrickson, or Sand Lake, or Sand Lake, or Otter Creek Marsh, or I’ll just look up from my backyard. I’ll be listening for the sounds of migration.

WINTER WEATHER did a disappearing act this week. Snow melted quickly and farm field surfaces reemerged. Lawn grasses reemerged. Last fall’s leaf litter reemerged. The soil surface seems eager to shake off last winter’s strangle hold. Ice in the Iowa River slowly and calmly (this year) found its way downstream without causing ice dam blockages.

But since this is the month of March, you and I know that winter is only one strong cold front away from returning and reminding us humanoids to be careful what we wish for. Mother Nature will, and can, smack us up the sides of our faces with weather events we hoped were in our rear view mirror. Time will tell us what to write in our history books for what actually happened in the spring of 2021.

As the snow line did its disappearing act from a warm air mass being blown in from the south, adult geese such as snow geese, and Ross’s geese, are leading the way northward along the Central and Mississippi Flyways. Stop over points for waterfowl will focus on resting and feeding, rebuilding fat reserves for long flights still awaiting their impatient urges. Little to no snow cover on the land means there is little to keep migrating geese from pushing north.

MONARCH BUTTERFLIES migrate to a remote and isolated mountainous area in Mexico each fall. In the past, as much as 15 acres of mountain forests were the focal point for the colorful orange and black insect. The trees in this wintering area were heavy with an almost unbelievable accumulation of monarchs clinging to the branches.

A report from this winter has shown that the number of monarchs has decreased in population so they now cover only five acres. The area was seven acres one yer prior. An obvious decline in overall population counts for monarchs so a big decline. It means we will see fewer monarchs in the eastern portions of the USA during 2021.

Why the population drop of such a huge magnitude? That is a great question. And like all things biological, the answer is not simple. Remember this admonition….there are no simple solutions to complex problems.

What is known about monarch butterflies is that the population that leaves Mexico this spring for places northward will do so in stages of the life cycle. It is only the last life cycle of this animal this coming fall that will be programmed to make the incredible journey all the way to the Mexico mountains. At every stage of its life cycle, habitats where the butterfly’s food sources and egg laying sites are abundant and are large enough in scale to have meaningful effect will be very important.

Voluntary conservation efforts within the upper Midwest through cooperation with Iowa State University and Iowa DNR and the Department of Ag and Land Stewardship will seek to find answers and projects to apply our landscapes. A key plant, among others, that monarchs need is milkweed. Female monarchs lay eggs exclusively on milkweed plants. Caterpillars also feed solely on milkweed leaves. Adult monarchs can and do feed on nectar from a variety of flowering plants. If a habitat planting is being contemplated for restoration or reconstruction, a diverse array of milkweed and other blooming plants is a good place to start.

Iowa State University Extension and Outreach has developed several free publications. They are titled “5 Ways to Help the Monarchs”, and “Enhancing Monarch Butterfly Conservation in Iowa.” Check it out. Every planting for monarchs is a sign of hope that Spring is getting closer.

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