Monday, March 13, 2023

Labor of Love

 I just started reading Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. It's a book that uses scientific knowledge to bring up the philosophies of indigenous people in an attempt to help us become closer with nature. In it, I found a quote that I would like to center this weeks post around. Near the end of the third chapter, titled The Gift of Strawberries, Robin states,"For the plant to be sacred, it cannot be sold." This is in describing the difference between a commodity economy and a gift economy and it strikes me as a very powerful statement even as it relates to conservation.

Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) singing from atop a Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) box.

For me, this means more than what is seen on the surface. More than just plants are being discussed. If the birds charged us for every time we heard their song, it might not be all that worth listening to. But when the Meadowlark returns from a winter away and gifts us with a beautiful song, it means so much more. This is the basis for why I entered a career in the field of conservation. If I were wanting to do conservation to benefit myself then my efforts would be wasted.

Meadowlark singing from a Kansas fence post.

The conservationist attempts to preserve the landscape for future generations to be able to enjoy. They do it to provide an area for the meadowlark to return to so that its song may be heard once again. They do their work knowing that not many will say thank you but finding the little signs that the natural world appreciates it. The conservationist has chosen a labor of love. What I take Robins quote to mean from a conservation standpoint, is that if we did it for any other reason than that we love the natural world that we are preserving, that's when conservation becomes a job.

Sunday, March 5, 2023

They're Not All Birds

 Often I have people ask me why I enjoy birding so much. To that I ask back, how could you not? Birds are bright and colorful and sing some beautiful songs. Birds are able to construct complex nests without arms. Birds travel from long distances just for the opportunity to breed and continue the existence of their species. How could you not like birds?

While the person asking me the question then thinks of an answer and regrets asking me the initial question, I also tell them about all of the other great animals that I get to observe while out birding. So while it's about the birds, it's not all about the birds. Birding is about being outdoors, enjoying nature, and learning something new while doing it. In this week's post I want to share some of the photos, and maybe stories, of non-birds that I've captured while out birding. Let's get started!

Black Rat Snake (Pantherophis obsoletus) in a tree!

I found this Black Rat Snake on one of those rare occasions where my wife agreed to go on a walk with me, knowing full well there was no way I wouldn't be birding at the same time. We were having a pretty good walk. I was teaching her some birds, she was pretending to be interested, we were having fun taking pictures of each other doing goofy poses. When we turned the corner to find this huge snake sitting right at eye level in a tree! My wife ran to the other side of the trail and I got as close as I felt both the snake and I were comfortable with. Of course I had to get pictures!

They're kind of cute. In a way only a mother (or nature nerd) could love.

We were never expecting to find a snake on our walk, let alone in a tree. Now we always look up for snakes while in wooded areas.

Southern Leopard Frog (Rana sphenocephala) pretending not to see me.

Frogs may be my second favorite animal group to photograph, behind birds of course. They have these amazingly beautiful, unblinking eyes and a zen manner that I wish I could tap into. I don't believe there is any special story behind this particular frog, I just really liked the photo.

Red-eared Sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans) sunbathing.

Pond life in general can be some of the most interesting things you might see while out birding. While there are only three turtles in this photo, I have seen some logs with so many turtles on them that they stack on top of each other. The red patch on the side of the head of the middle turtle helps to identify these as Red-eared Sliders.

Familiar Bluets (Enallagma civile) having a bit of an intimate moment.

We've made it to the insects! There are so many insects that you can see while out birding that it sometimes distracts from the birding. I love the color of these bluets. It's probably what drew my attention to them in the first place.

Gray Comma (Polygonia progne) on a Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis).

Butterflies always catch my attention. They're so colorful and flit around so playfully that it's impossible not to watch them. If you've been birding on a hot day and your skin is sweaty, they may even land right on you. 

Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) trying to convince me that it's not actually there.

No animal has given me the hardest time in identification more than the Eastern Chipmunk. Not when I see them scurrying across the trail or into a hollowed out log. But when these little guys let out their warning calls they stump me every time. I stop and search for them for what seems like forever. The problem is, I'm always looking for a bird. The little chip noise that these tiny rodents make always catches me off-guard when I'm in birding mode. It almost sounds like a Northern Cardinal, but just slightly different.

Ohio Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) has to be one of the prettiest flowers that I find consistently.

Flowers are the show stoppers. When I'm having trouble capturing images of the tiny flitting birds that I'm counting, it can be nice to slow down and photograph something that mostly sits still. And people always love seeing beautiful flower photos.

Asteraceae sp.

I end this post with a beautiful Asteraceae species that I'm not 100% sure the identification of. This plant family hosts so many of the beautiful flowers that we often see that I have a hard time keeping track of them all. But through birding, I have become much more familiar with the plants around me and can identify many more than I ever used to. For me, birding makes me a better naturalist. It gets me out and looking at nature and curious about what I'm seeing around me. Birding has sparked such a deeper love and appreciation for nature in me that I have a hard time understanding why more people don't do it. It's a therapy for me and it's one thing that I love sharing with others.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Highs and Lows

 In birding, there are many amazing moments that warrant celebration. Observing a new species for your life list, reaching or exceeding your birding goals for the day, month, or year, capturing sharp images of tiny warblers. But as birders we also have some days that just aren't as great. Plans being cancelled due to bad weather, a spot not being as productive as we would like, thinking we've captured sharp images only to find out later they are all blurry.

recently in my birding I have hit one of these low places. We haven't had the best weather lately her in Iowa for birding. I'm also still trying to find the spots that will provide the best birding opportunities and have been striking out in surprising places. My photography has been improving, which is one plus, but I find myself photographing the same few species over and over. This low is highlighted even more by the fact that it's February. Why February? Because in January, every bird is new to your life list and it's exciting to be starting over again, but by February you've recorded most of the winter birds that you're likely to see before migration begins.

I've been photographing a lot of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) this winter.

On one hand, this repetition gets extremely old and the thought of migration ever more enticing. On the other, observing the same species over and over gives you the opportunity to witness small parts of their life history that you may normally just look over. With all of the waterfowl that I've been observing lately I've been able to witness some of their mating displays and territory defense displays. Sometimes it's good to remember, when we hit these lows in birding, that this is an opportunity to make our birding more about the observing and less about our lists. Many studies on the life histories of birds have been done by people who simply observe them repetitively at feeders. Slow down and take the time to see what the birds are doing, you'll become a better birder by doing so.

I was recently granted the opportunity to witness the mating displays of this pair of Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos). This female is accepting the male.

It's also good to remember in these times to never quit just because we're in a slump. Soon spring migrants will be returning and there will be new observations waiting to be made every day. And in the mean time, you never know when an uncommon bird might show up on an ordinary day. Just this week while birding at Lake Wapello State Park I was able to record and photograph a Horned Grebe, an uncommon species for this area. This was also a life species for me (#247) and a great bird to get me out of the early year slump that I was really feeling.

My slump buster Horned Grebe (Podiceps auritus).

We are now exiting February and preparing for migration season. If the weather holds out early on we just might get some early birds moving to their breeding grounds. This is my favorite time of the year because of the species eruption that my year list is about to experience. It's also exciting because you never know who might be stopping over right in your own back yard. So if you've felt like birding is really dragging lately just remember that migration season and good weather are almost here. Happy birding!

Monday, February 20, 2023

My Bluebird Project

 Spring is coming, and with it comes nesting birds! This is a very exciting time, as we get to watch the migrating species return and move North to their breeding grounds. Some people will put out wren houses or maybe bluebird boxes, but not everyone will have birds utilizing them. This year I am going to be establishing a bluebird nesting box trail at the Eddyville Sand Prairie. With this trail I hope to be able to study Eastern Bluebirds nesting patterns. I'm planning to work with a local biology teacher and her STEM class to monitor and maintain boxes and collect data.

My trail will consist of ten boxes that will either be facing South, East, or Southeast as these are the directions that current literature suggests facing your boxes. This orientation makes sense because it allows the birds to use radiant heat from the sun to help incubate their eggs. East and Southeast facing boxes will likely capture more of the morning sun which will help warm the bird and the nest after cooler evening temperatures. South facing boxes will likely stay warmer during the day because in the Northern Hemisphere the sun is always slightly in the Southern half of the sky. With even distribution of boxes facing in these directions, I plan to test whether bluebirds prefer a box facing a particular direction.

Male Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) perching on a fence.

Current literature also has differing opinions on the spacing of boxes. Some say that boxes should be individual and spaced at least 100 yards apart. Others state that having boxes in pairs with the individuals within the pair spaced at least 15 feet apart and groupings spaced at least 100 yards apart is beneficial. Bluebirds are fairly territorial when it comes to their nesting and don't like to be over-crowded. This makes sense that they would then select nesting sites with plenty of room (individuals 100 yards apart). That being said, there is an argument to be made for nesting in groups. This provides more security for the nesting birds as there are more eyes watching for predators. If one mother is out collecting food for her nestlings, there might be another nearby that can sound the alarm if a nest predator comes near. To test which spacing is preferred, I will have four individual boxes that don't have another box within 100 yards, and three sets of pairs with 15-20 feet between them.

Eastern Bluebird perching on a twig.

Another factor that I would like to monitor is the nesting success rate of Eastern Bluebirds. This will be determined based on whether or not nestlings fledge. Students will do occasional nest checks to monitor the progression of eggs and nestlings. Many factors will likely play into the success or failure of nests including; box direction, habitat structure around nest, nest spacing, or effort of parent. There may be many other factors that play into the success or failure of bluebird nests, and with this small scale study I hope to add to the list of causes.

Possible female Eastern Bluebird taking rest before coming to the feeder.

Finally, I am hoping to become sub-permitted to band birds, specifically bluebirds, for this project. I believe that being able to band these birds, both parents and fledglings, will help us to determine whether or not bluebirds return to their same nesting areas each year. Returning to the same nesting site year after year is called site fidelity and many species display this behavior. It will also be interesting to note whether site fidelity has anything to do with success or failure in nesting attempts.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Feb. 5 - Feb. 11

 This week I had to do a long run on our new treadmill that came with a free year of the program iFit. This program allows you to run virtually with trainers in different locations and your treadmill adjusts the incline and speed as you go. During my run, the instructor began telling a story about an interaction that he had with Mute Swans. As he told this story, I thought that maybe I should write this week about all of the swans I have been seeing this year as they're a very large and beautiful group of birds that are typically associated with love and it's nearing Valentine's day. So, in this post I will be sharing some fun information about our native Trumpeter Swans with my weeks list of birds at the end.

Lone Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator) at Lake Wapello State Park.

Trumpeter Swans are our largest native waterfowl species in North America. They can weigh up to about 30 pounds with the average adult weight being 26 pounds. They have a total length of nearly six feet with a wingspan reaching up to a little over eight feet according to some sources (Pough 1951). This large size makes Trumpeter Swans fairly easy to distinguish in large groups of waterfowl or in flight.

 Some features that distinguish them from the Tundra Swan, another native swan species, is their all black bill that has a slightly more long, slender, and sloped shape to it. The calls of these great birds are the best identifying feature though. With their low tone and distinct trumpeting sound, these birds are easy to identify in flight even when they are flying really high up.

On guard as most of the group naps.

Swans are thought to mate for life, but some individuals have been known to seek multiple mates in a season. Some swans that lose their mate never seek another. Mating for life is quite an impressive accomplishment in these long-living birds, with the oldest known wild Trumpeter Swan living at least 26 years and two months and in captivity up to 32 years (

This species lays between four and six eggs in a nest, but nesting is dependent on there being good beaver and muskrat habitat because they use dens and dams to construct their nests on. This is an interesting inter-species relationship that helps to show how every species in an environment serves a purpose. 

Congregating on the open water at Lake Wapello State Park. 

Trumpeter Swans also present a good conservation story. They were nearly extirpated by the late 1800's, with small populations holding on in Yellowstone and Northern Canada. At one time the total breeding population was thought to be only 69 individuals. They were hunted and their feathers used in the fashion industry in women's hats and as quill pens. Their skin was also used for powder puffs. Today their populations are rebounding with some estimates of a global breeding population of 63,000 birds (

Likely breeding pair wading in a local city park.

I have felt very fortunate this year to observe this species as much as I have been able to. When living in Kansas, Trumpeter Swans were always a species that I always seemed to be just a little behind on their migrations. Here in Iowa we have a great wintering population thanks to all of our lakes, ponds, and rivers. They also seem to enjoy foraging on the dropped corn in fields.

*  *  *

This week I observed 27 species. A list of species observed follows:

  1. Rock Pigeon (invasive)
  2. Red-bellied Woodpecker
  3. Blue Jay
  4. American Crow
  5. Black-capped Chickadee
  6. Tufted Titmouse
  7. House Sparrow (invasive)
  8. House Finch
  9. Canada Goose
  10. Mallard
  11. Common Goldeneye
  12. Common Merganser
  13. Ring-billed Gull
  14. Bald Eagle
  15. European Starling (invasive)
  16. Dark-eyed Junco
  17. Greater White-fronted Goose
  18. Trumpeter Swan
  19. Mourning Dove
  20. Killdeer
  21. Red-tailed Hawk
  22. Downy Woodpecker
  23. Northern Flicker (yellow shafted)
  24. White-breasted Nuthatch
  25. Northern Cardinal
  26. Barred Owl
  27. American Tree Sparrow
Sources for todays post:
Audubon Water Bird Guide, Richard Pough, 1951 (Pough 1951) (

Sunday, February 5, 2023

Jan. 29 - Feb. 4

 Sometimes when you go birding, it's just a total bust. You can plan everything and go to places where you've had success in the past, but on the day of it's always up to the birds. That was my experience this past week. During the week I was too busy with work and errands to be able to get out at all, so my only chance was on Saturday. I planned on going to White Oak Conservation area where I typically have fairly good luck finding sparrows in accessible and photogenic locations, but the birds had other plans.

My walk started off alright, with a few American Crows and American Tree sparrows, and I though it would be a fairly birding day. The weather was nice and the sun was out so there was good light for spotting birds and movement, but after picking up a Blue Jay as my third species, the birds just stopped showing up. At first I got a little frustrated. I had driven all the way out to this park and knew that birds utilized it, but where were they?Then I remembered the zoom course that I attended recently hosted by the University of Northern Iowa. 

This course featured Chris Helzer, also known as the prairie ecologist across social media, and his approach to nature photography. Chris captures many amazing scenes in nature that aren't what you might typically think of photographing. He captures the art and subtle beauty of shapes and forms, and is able to share the biological story of prairies through close up photos. Now, I don't have the macro lenses that Chris does and can't get as close as he can, but I thought I'd take this walk without birds as an opportunity to slow down and notice a side of nature that I often overlook.

Seed head with a spiral vine growing through it.
I began looking at seed heads and tree bark for interesting shapes and patterns. I also began noticing textures. Then I found a small pond that was frozen over and thought that I'd try my hand at photographing ice bubbles. Unfortunately the ice wasn't very pretty and clear so ice bubbles didn't come out very well, but I did notice some ice windows and attempted to capture the secrets they contained as well.

Ice window formed from the melt around the air pocket of a stick.

I continued on my walk, photographing more seed heads and plant parts. Then I got the idea to try capturing a close-up of some tree bark. There's lots of texture in bark and it can be one of the defining in identifying tree species, so why not draw some attention to the complexity of bark. I found a little Black Cherry tree to practice on. I've always liked the flakey bark of Black Cherry trees and the lichens that grow on them and I'm fairly happy with how my photos came out.

Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) bark with yellow lichen.

As my walk around the lake came to a close, I was able to find a few more species of birds. Black-capped Chickadees were sounding alarm calls, a Bald Eagle soared overhead, and a couple of Red-tailed Hawks were "playing" right above me. It was a moment where I wished that I had a longer lens, as I was using my D780 instead of my P900 and could have captured some great photos of these beautiful hawks.

Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) in flight

The final bird of the day for me was a White-breasted Nuthatch that gave a little "Ank, Ank" call from an old Cottonwood tree while I was photographing pine cones. Although I may not have observed many birds during this outing, it was really nice to slow down and notice nature in a different way. I thank Chris Helzer for presenting his work and photographic perspective. You can see his photography and read about his adventures on his blog, The Prairie Ecologist, or follow him on social media @prairieecologist.

Field Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis) seed head.

Textures in Round-headed Bush Clover (Lespedeza capitata).

Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) has one of the best smells in a prairie.

Northern Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) bark with yellow lichen.

Red Pine (Pinus resinosa) bark has some interesting colors and textures.

This Red Pine (Pinus resinosa) cone almost looks tropical with the effect the light gave.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

January 2023 Summary

 Not a bad way to start the new year! In January I observed 35 species, with Ross's Goose being a new addition to my life list which now totals 246. I spent most of my time birding in county parks and on public lands. My most common area for this month was the Ottumwa River Access hotspot on eBird, located just below the hydro-electric dam. While out birding, I was also able to practice my photography a little bit. Below are a few of my top photos for the month.

White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) flushing a Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)

Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) on the Des Moines River

Female Canvasback (Aythya valisineria) wading during sunset

Male yellow shafted Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) eating his frosted berries

Male Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) among the Canada Geese (Branta canadensis)

For more details about my birding adventures the past month, feel free to look back through any of my past posts. I have big hopes for February and can't wait to share the birds with you. We're getting closer and closer to migration, and my excitement continues to grow!