Uncommon birds making appearances

PHOTOS BY GARRY BRANDENBURG — It is called an irruption according to avid bird watchers. It is the sudden appearance of species that usually migrate short distances at most, but occasionally move south in large numbers. The reason is not well understood by biologists. However, finding foods is high on the speculation list. Iowa has several postings of snowy owls already this year, one being in and around the area southwest of Ames. As for cedar waxwings, they tend to move in a flock and can show up at any location, stay for a bit, and then move on. In either case, if you’re at the right place at the right time, enjoy Iowa’s winter bird life.

UNCOMMON BIRDS may show up almost anywhere. Being at the right place at the right time can be a planned excursion into Mother Nature’s realm of habitats where sightings are likely or just the casual observation at one’s backyard bird feeding station. Today’s photographs illustrate both scenarios.

It was in December of 2017 near Clemons that a snowy owl was observed by several folks, including avid birder Mark Proescholdt. He called me with the information and was excited to report the big white owl to me. So I naturally wanted to see for myself.

I was fortunate indeed to find the owl, sitting on a fence post near a picked corn field along a lightly traveled county gravel road, surveying its surroundings. To avoid disturbing the bird, I remained in my vehicle and very slowly approached the area where it was perched. A long lens on my camera was already set in place on a window mount, ready to click away in my image gathering business at hand.

My camera recorded many images, and I have preserved about 30 of the best on my computer file. I am grateful for the opportunity because it was a rare event. It was a fleeting moment now preserved in a photograph.

Biologists call the sudden appearance of unusual or uncommon birds an irruption. It happens often enough to grab the attention of conservationists, and especially those who specialize in bird observation. Bird watchers can narrow the odds by selecting habitat areas where those odds might be greatest.

Examples could be area lakes with open water, or tall grass prairies, or unique forests. Local habitats that attract birds of all kinds, and uncommon species, are Saylorville Lake north of Des Moines and Red Rock Lake. And never forget to carefully examine other sources such as Green Castle, Sand Lake, Hendrickson Marsh or even the pond inside Riverside Cemetery.

Unexpected sightings of wildlife, in this case birds, add excitement to your day. Nature provides a step back from the hustle and bustle of our busy life and seems to ask us to “take time to smell the roses.” And if we take that time to enjoy a fleeting moment of natural history that is offered to us, we will be glad we did. Those moments are like an unexpected gift under the Christmas tree, especially wrapped and freely given just for you.

Irruptions of bird species, especially songbirds coming from the boreal forests of Canada, can happen when pine cones or cones from spruce trees have an “off” year. When food for birds gets scarce, some will go wherever they must to find nourishment. Finding food can also be called resource tracking, going to where the food is outside of their normal ranges. And those southward flights may bring those species closer to us, our binoculars, cameras, and our naked eyesight spotting something unusual.

Snowy Owls have a unique reason for going to places far south of Canada. They could have abundant rodent populations on the tundra landscapes of sub-arctic habitats. Excellent food supply means that adults had easy foraging for their nestlings. And with good lemming and vole populations, many young snowy owls survived.

And then comes winter. And then comes snow. And then comes hard pickings for too many owls. That can lead to snowy owls disbursing to other locations well south of home ranges. Even in the Arctic, habitat variability is huge. What may be happening in Alaska can be far different than eastern Canada.

A good website to check on is Iowa Bird Hotline. Postings of common and uncommon birds are listed, and dedicated bird watchers may want to add a special bird species to their “life list” of feathered critters they have observed. That activity is just one example of Christmas gifts available during any season all year long.

GRAY PARTRIDGE are a native upland game bird. Smaller than a ring-necked pheasant, and larger than bobwhite quail, these fast flying critters of the bird world surprised me the other day. On a gravel road surrounded by picked corn fields and the same for soybeans, a large flock of gray partridge happened to flush from one side of the roadway crossing in front of me at close range. Their rusty red top tail feathers were easily discerned.

However, the open fields where they like to gather or hang out make them inconspicuous. I watched the flock glide into an adjacent field. And when they landed, they disappeared. Not really, but it seemed that way.

My binoculars knew where to look for those now on the ground birds, but I could not find them. A spotting scope may have helped, but even then, it would have taken a skilled pattern search to find a sitting gray partridge so well camouflaged among the stubble of last year’s crops.

Iowa has a hunting season for gray partridge. It takes a special technique and lots of walking and good luck to get within shotgun range of these birds. I have had very little conversation with dedicated partridge hunters— probably because those birds are so hard to hunt. Partridge may be hunted between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. daily, just like pheasants, with the last day of the season being Jan. 10, 2022. A daily limit of eight is allowed. I have never seen a hunter with more than one gray partridge, let alone eight.

COUGAR UPDATE: In the news last week was the report of a mountain lion (cougar) found already dead by deer hunters in Poweshiek County. That event took place on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021. The animal was reported to DNR Conservation Officer John Steinbach, and after a series of calls to fur biologists and supervisors, it was deemed best to have the big cat examined by veterinarians at Iowa State University for necropsy and tissue sampling. The hunters voluntarily gave up the cat to Iowa DNR officials.

So far, the examination found this adult male cougar, age still unknown, weighed in at 119.4 pounds. Its stomach was empty. A snare around its neck had led to its suffocation. And the unknown location of the snare set was not where the cat was discovered. What is left to be determined by more testing will be DNA samples to determine this cat’s place of origin.

We can speculate about the Black Hills of SD being the birthplace, but that is only a possibility because the Black Hills has a resident population of mountain lions. Dispersal of male lions from there in the past has been documented in all the surrounding states, and especially eastward along the Platte River system of Nebraska. A tooth sample will be sent to a lab for detailed microscopic analysis of growth rings to determine age. As more facts are obtained, I will bring those details to your attention.

Meanwhile, Iowa does not have resident mountain lions. The very few that make themselves known are most likely passing through to parts unknown. The home range of resident cougars in mountain states is huge, in the order of well over 100 square miles. And in those rugged forested and mountainous habitats, deer and elk, wild sheep, porcupines and wild turkeys make up the diet. Iowa simply does not have the kind of habitat it takes to sustain a breeding population of this big cat species.

DEER GUN SEASON number two winds down this weekend. As of mid week, the tally of reported harvest shows over 76,000 deer kills across the state. Hunters will continue to take deer during the late muzzleloader season, though at a slower rate than now.

If the harvest trends continue similar to past years, an additional 10,000 or so deer will end the 2021-22 hunt. Hunters have until midnight of the day after a deer is taken to report it via phone app, website or phone call. Tyler Harms, DNR Wildlife Biologist, notes that a total take of about 100,000 is very likely for the current season.

As in any year, there were lots of buck deer killed, about 55 percent of the total, which means approximately 45 percent were doe. A few very impressive antlered bucks have been taken by hunters. And those hunters will be anxious to get a special mount made at a taxidermist’s workshop over the coming year. A cleaned skull plate, skull or finished mount at least 60 days from being taken is required before an official scoring worksheet is filled out. This scribe can accommodate scoring requests on a case-by-case basis after that 60-day drying period.

Do take note that many Iowa buck deer from the 2021-22 season may be brought to the Iowa Deer Classic show to be held in Des Moines on Mar. 4 – 6, 2022. They can be entered into the big buck contest. Categories are available for youth, adults, and type of weapon used.

The final big buck contest display panels become quite impressive when all the entries are in. A leaderboard tells the name and score for each deer with normal first through fourth places listed. Before the show ends, on Sunday afternoon at about 3 p.m., awards are presented to the owners of each big buck with specially prepared wooden plaques to commemorate the hunt and hunter.


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