People familiar with this little nickel-and-dime operation may remember from the last post that I recently spent some time in Chicago looking at birds and pretending to get electrocuted by my nephew to his endless pleasure and his mother’s dismay (apparently giving a 2-year old the impression that electrocution is fun is frowned upon for reasons that probably should have been obvious to me at the time).
A day later I was on my way to the Wilcox Prairie Preserve (unofficial name) in lovely southeast Iowa for another day of power birding and morel hunting. I knew the birding would be stellar and my mom’s facebook morel photo tease from a few days prior had me anticipating a bumper harvest.
I didn’t have to travel far before being presented with some great photo ops right outside the front door courtesy of our splendid array of bird feeders. A lot of our common feeder birds disperse into the woods to breed or move north during the spring but thankfully our animated friends Red-bellied and Red-headed Woodpecker remain, peckin’ away at peanuts and suet.
Female Red-bellied Woodpecker
“Like exsqueeze me, but have you ever heard of styling gel?!” (sometimes I feel like my life is just one continuous ‘Zoolander’ reference).
The allure of the prairie and the forest soon beckoned me away from the yard and into the wild. I began my journey by skirting the woods on the perimeter of the property in search of migrating warblers. The warblers sadly eluded me, but their absence was quickly forgotten as I was greeted with a welcome sound emanating from deep within the woods: the guttural staccato rattle of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo! I added the exclamation point because I was excited for multiple reasons. First because these are really cool birds. Second because although they are fairly common summer residents in Iowa, they are quite elusive and I’d never seen or heard one on our farm. Third because my next bird field job starting in June is working with them so this was like a little preliminary field study. I ended up hearing 6 of them over the course of the day calling back and forth so I hope they’re breeding there. I also got lucky enough to get my scope on one (not an easy feat) and it cooperated long enough to get some halfway decent photos.
After this unexpected find I took to the woods to see what other treasures awaited me. On the way I saw one of our favorite old friends the Pileated Woodpecker and was serenaded by a trio of warbling Wood Thrushes and Red-eyed Vireos. Along the way I discovered this little magical abode that made me wish I was a woodpecker.
Upon emerging from the woods I scored another first-time Iowa sighting of a Summer Tanager. Southern Iowa is the northern extent of their typical summer range and I don’t think they’re super common here so this was an exciting sighting and it was a pair to boot although the female proved too shifty to photograph.
Once the tanagers had retreated into the safety of the woods I made my way back to the prairie where my goal shifted to Ammodramus sparrows. This group of sparrows is found in grassland habitats and are often very secretive and seldom perch in the open except when singing. Many of these species are declining and quite uncommon due to loss of grassland/prairie habitat over most of their traditional range. However I had the fortuitous advantage of being in the midst of a lush and healthy prairie ecosystem that has had about 20 years to attract such species so I figured the odds were in my favor. After a little standing and staring (a tried and true birding tactic) and sifting through a choral cacophony of Common Yellowthroat, Indigo Bunting and Field Sparrow, I finally heard something that didn’t fit and went to investigate. With the help of my bird guide app with vocalizations and my trusty scope I concluded that I had discovered the rare and richly hued Henslow’s Sparrow. This is definitely a species in decline that needs habitat like this to stay afloat so hopefully the two counter-singing males I heard brought some ladies along because what’s the point of defending your patch of grass if you don’t have a little Henslowita to kick it with? Anyway, here’s some grainy pictures to offset my lame attempt at talking about birds mating in non-technical language…
What’s happening here is that he is warbling so vociferously that he’s actually shaking which is why the photo is blurry! You see, not my fault.
This would be the classic sparrow shot, spread eagled grasping two pieces of grass, if only it was a little more clear. But you can still get a good look at his distinctive double-mustache face pattern and the colors of the grass are a little less washed out.
This was the best shot I managed but you can clearly see his olive green head and intricately patterned back and sides. A truly gorgeous bird that the pictures don’t quite do justice. Becoming acquainted with birds like this and getting to see them up close helps one to appreciate them as more than just a brown blur that you see out of the corner of your eye as it flits through the prairie grass 50 yards away. Seek and you shall find.
In closing, a spring trip to the midwest would be woefully incomplete without the only ‘M’ not yet mentioned from the title…
Trying to look up (birding) and look down (mushrooming) at the same time don’t necessarily compliment each other but I think I managed success in both endeavors on this trip. Until next time…