Winter wildlife wonders

PHOTOS BY GARRY BRANDENBURG — A winter wonderland of frosty tree limbs helped to add beauty to the landscape this past week. Freezing fog/mist allowed moisture to accumulate on trees in spectacular fashion. The opportunity to make new photographic images had the stage set. All the photographer had to do was find a willing subject or subjects that emphasized both the frost and the critter. That is how the Bald Eagle near North Center Street was spotted and allowed me to record a few images captured in my long lens fitted camera. Then back home while observing my back deck feeder station, good light and a compliant Downy woodpecker allowed more natural history moments to be recorded. It is good to see these birds, big and small, going about their daily lives of seeking food to survive.

Our American Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is now a common winter, spring, summer or fall sighting for anyone interested in watching the sky or tree lines. A large bodied bird sitting on a tree branch always deserves a second look.

And if the location lends itself to the making of a photographic image, all the better. In today’s image of the eagle perched on a snowy covered branch, the white of the snow and darkness of the tree bark were perfect matches for the white of the eagle head and the darkness of its body plumage.

I was able to make just two images of this adult eagle before it launched itself into flight, so I tracked it with my camera and was lucky to get a few more acceptable in-flight snaps of this giant bird. I do not know if this eagle was a male or female. Females are larger and have wingspans of up to eight feet.

Males are a tad smaller in body with wing spans of six and a half to seven feet. Females can weigh 12 to 14 pounds. Males typically are less at eight to 10 pounds. If two mature bald eagles are standing next to each other, perhaps at a nest site, the male will stand 32 inches tall and the female 42 inches.

Estimates of the total number of Bald Eagles soaring the skies at the time settlers were arriving has been pegged at 25,000 to 75,000 over the continental United States. A problem with such a wide spread in the numbers for this estimate is that the gap is huge.

No one really knows how many there once were. What is safe to say is that it was a lot. What is also safe to say is that eagle numbers dropped considerably due to habitat losses and persecution during the two hundred or so years of settlement activities.

Fast forward to today, and biologists have learned much about the habitat needs, improved land conservation techniques, and positive education to the public about the role large avian predators play in healthy ecosystems. A steady growth in eagle population census notes have been documented across Iowa since the 1970s. What was once rare is now commonplace.

A check of the eagle websites in Iowa, particularly Decorah, Iowa, reveal active nest procurement and defense by breeding pairs of bald eagles. Remote cameras keep a full time eye on the activities at the nest.

It is always interesting to observe the interactions of eagles as they bring food to their mate, exchange egg incubation duties, and later this spring share in feeding the young eaglets bits of rabbit, fish, ducks or other morsels of scavenged energy.

There are about 10 to 12 bald eagle nest sites in Marshall County. Soon, these nests will become the focal point of lots of eagle activity.

However, during January and February winter months, Saylorville Lake will host about 100 roosting eagles. Lake Red Rock will do the same.

Open water below the dams of these lakes ensures fish spotting and easy food gathering.


The other small bird featured today is a small woodpecker. It goes by the name Downy woodpecker.

It is a small bodied woodpecker that lives year around in Southern Canada and most of the lower 48 states. The short and sharp bill is used to probe into tree bark cavities looking for insects, and to get to deeply burrowed insects, they — like all woodpeckers — have a long tongue to probe spaces.

A quick search of biology notes found that woodpecker tongues are used as special tools to find hidden foods. The chisel-like bill can make a hole in woody material to gain access to an insect holding cavity. Then the tongue does the rest of the work to seek out and extract any edible foods.

Photographers of natural moments try all kinds of ingenious ways to capture images of bird secrets. It is one thing to get great photos of the bird, but quite another to get an action image of the probing tongue of a woodpecker since that action is so quick.

I have been lucky to capture hummingbirds with their tongue out as they sip sugary water at a summer time feeder. Capturing a robin in the act of pulling an earthworm out of the soil is way easier said than done.

Likewise, the task of seeing a woodpecker tongue extracting a grub or other bug is a rare accomplishment. What is different about woodpecker tongues is the length, the tongue winding back behind the skull and forward to its upper beak.

A special bone called the hyoid is a muscle wrapped in the upper beak. Tongue tissue splits into two segments as it passes back and behind the top of the skull, then forward into the lower jaw and beak. Total length of the tongue can be up to a third the body length of the bird although this can vary with other species of woodpeckers.

Woodpecker brains are protected by unique skull bone plates and special spongy bony areas that help absorb shock and distribute any shock away from the brain. High speed cameras used to take slow-motion 3D videos of woodpeckers in action reveal details of pecking that would otherwise be too quick for us humans to observe.

Woodpeckers tapping on dead tree branches is one way for the echo effect of its staccato messaging to be heard by other woodpeckers. It is equivalent to humans talking, or other birds singing, as communication to other birds continually takes place.

Mother Nature is way smarter than we think. That is a good thing.


There are some really cool and exciting programs coming next month to the Grimes Farm and Conservation Center. First off is the date of Feb. 14 at noon time, actually 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., for a program about South Georgia Island.

Photographer Ty Smedes will show his works of a recent visit to South Georgia which is located in the South Atlantic Ocean, halfway between the tip of South America and Africa. This 100-mile long island is home to an estimated 100 million birds.

Ty’s images will be outstanding recordings of what lives in this special location. Do call the MCCB at 641-752-5490 before Feb. 10 to register for this free program.


On Feb. 22 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., there will be a deer antler measuring program. This will also be located at the Grimes Farm.

This is free also, but you must register before Feb. 17 as space is limited. Call 641-752-5490 pertaining to this program.

Anyone curious about the score an antler set may have and how that score is obtained will be interested in watching the process. Antlers could be from an animal taken this past season or a deer from long ago that grandpa may have taken many moons ago.


Garry Brandenburg is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. He is a graduate of Iowa State University with a BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology.

Contact him at:

P.O. Box 96

Albion, IA 50005


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