June 30, 2009

June 21, 2009

Barn Swallows Nesting on Cliffs!

For Father's Day I decided to tell about a Father's Day adventure that took place one year ago up north near Sioux Falls, SD. The weather was great and my dad and I were having a wonderful time. We visited Palisades State Park and checked out the neat Sioux Quartzite formations that rose above Split Rock Creek. The formations were neat and what we found nesting on them was even neater-Barn Swallows!! I saw a small nest clinging onto the cliff face and it had Barn Swallows going to and from it. It is hard enough to find Cliff Swallows nesting on cliffs not to mention Barn Swallows who were named very well. You just never seem to see them nesting away from human structures, at least not until then.
Later on my dad and I went to a place called Devil's Gulch (this was once a hide out for Jesse James) in Garretson, SD which had similar formations but on a smaller scale. They too had nesting swallows with Barn and Cliff Swallows nesting together! The lighting was just right when I took this photo from about 10 ft away.

and this photo. The Cliff Swallows were nesting right nearby.

I wonder how common the Barn Swallows were back when there were no barns or homes and where they nested. I am pretty sure they used to nest here but where else and what else did they use? Has anyone seen them nesting away from barns and homes as well? This discovery still intrigues me to this day.

Comma and Skipper

I got two butterfly lifers today-Tawny edged Skipper and Eastern Comma! I ordered a butterfly net, cage, and book (Kaufman) to get started with learning about and seeing more butterflies up close. Everything has arrived except for the net so I am stuck with trapping butterflies with the fine-mesh cage by putting it over them and scaring them up into it. As you may be able to guess this didn't work too well. Keep watching for more posts to do with butterflies especially once my net comes.

June 20, 2009

Bison and Rattlesnakes

Bison and Prairie Rattlesnakes often invoke images of the western plains far out west in Nebraska and South Dakota. At Broken Kettle Grasslands Iowans can get a taste of the west and see both Bison and rattlesnake. The Loess Hills here which I talked about in a previous post have many western species of plants and animals, some of which you may have to travel a hundred miles or more west in order find them again once you leave these prairies. Broken Kettle Grasslands is well known for a number of species with Bison, Black-billed Magpies, and Prairie Rattlesnakes capture most people's attention. It is also known as the largest grassland area in the state. The Nature Conservancy had it's annual meeting at this property that it owns and I made the 45 minute drive up to the grasslands to join in the fun all day today. They had field trips that gave me the opportunity to see the Bison and Prairie Rattlesnake.The day started out at Rattlesnake Knob (above) where Iowa's only known Prairie Rattlesnakes thrive. There are about 300 individuals there and I was lucky enough to see a few of them before the day was over. Dan Fogell, a university professor in Nebraska took a large group out to look for these reptiles. It was a bit scary to be tromping around a hill that these venomous snakes are supposedly common on. Every stick that somewhat resembled a rattlesnake and any noise that somewhat resembled a rattle seemed to turn into a rattlesnake in my mind, giving me an adrenaline rush from time to time. Thankfully Dan got us through without getting bitten, which means he has a perfect record of not having anyone being bitten by a dangerous snake under his guidance. He was worried about ruining his record today since he had such a large group.

We got to see one out on the knob thanks to the sharp eyes of one lady there. The first rattlesnake of any sort that I have ever seen in the wild is pictured below.
The rattlesnake was brought out of the net for pictures and better looks and then it was time to do research on it. Some of the snakes are implanted with a micro chip and this one is one of those snakes. All rattlesnakes that we saw were females and the one in these two photos is pregnant.
Besides the rattlesnakes I noticed this Yucca on the knob.
I also noticed my lifer Variegated Fritillary up there......
as well as my lifer Little Wood Satyr.
After that we went and listened to talks for a couple hours and had lunch which was obviously not as exciting as chasing rattlesnakes. When the talks were over some of the herpetologists (reptile and amphibian researchers) came out of the hills with another rattlesnake which I got great pictures of when they let her out of the bag.
This one looks ready to strike! They sure do make a neat noise with those rattles.
The Bison were next and so we drove to the pasture where they are kept. They locked them into a small pasture for easy viewing. When we got out of the bus the herpetologists found a Plains Leopard Frog which was a lifer for me. The frog was playing hard to catch so everyone was running around in the grass trying to find it. I was waiting to hear a loud crunching or squishing noise from the grass but luckily I didn't hear it which means no one stepped on him. The hump on his back I heard is not an injury even though it looks like something is wrong with it. It is just how they look when you hold them that way.
We saw the Bison from a distance but none of the pictures I got were that great. When we were riding in there I saw White Sage plants growing, which was another lifer for me. I also was glad to hear a Blue Grosbeak. An hour or two later four people including me drove up watch the Bison go back into the large pasture with the grassland conservationist Scott (he lives at and manages the prairie there), who is husband to a naturalist I know real well. We got to see the Bison even closer this time and I got some better photos. The male below was huge!The heard was awesome and it was neat to watch the bison calves in with the adults. When we were at the pasture I saw my life Regal Fritillary! It was a beautiful butterfly indeed. Earlier when we looked for them we just went on a small path on a wagon hooked to a tractor but Scott took us cross country in his truck which gave us an advantage. The herd of Bison is pictured below.
The day came to an end at 6 pm and I was glad to have had such a great time and to see so many things. I got 1 reptile, 1 amphibian, 3 butterfly, and 1 plant lifers for a total of 6 new species to add to my lists. No magpies were around but I still had a great time. Broken Kettle Grasslands is an amazing place made possible by the Nature Conservancy. It is a place worth visiting and exploring at least once and the Nature Conservancy is a great place to donate!

June 19, 2009

Favorite Bird (post #100)

For post number 100 I decided to tell about my favorite bird, the Blue Grosbeak. One reason that I like them is that they are beautiful birds with a neat blue body and chestnut wing bars. I especially like their thick beaks, which, when seen in the right light, seem glossy. To see a better photo of a Blue Grobeak click on the link below:

I enjoy hearing them sing their unique song every spring and summer as I ride my bike down the gravel roads.

Another thing that I like so much about them is the fact that the only areas in Iowa where you regularly see them is in the west, where I live. We kind of have them all to ourselves. I love to tell all of the central and eastern Iowa birders at the ornithologist union meetings of the Blue Grosbeaks I have had in my yard.

So what's not to like about this bird?

June 18, 2009

House Wren Close-Up

Severe Weather Season

In the Midwest, the arrival of spring and summer means the arrival of severe thunderstorms and even tornadoes. Hail, wind, and lighting all are major threats and flash flooding is not unexpected. Although I have lived in the Midwest all my life, I have never seen a tornado. However, I have seen some funnel clouds that certainly seemed threatening. One time when I was on the computer at my house an unexpected tornado dropped just under a mile away. I didn't know it was there so I missed it when it was on the ground and I only got to see it going back into the clouds as a funnel. The severe weather has been in the area the past couple nights, and last night I took the following pictures from our deck.
This was taken at 10:40 last night. The lighting lit up the ominous clouds.

Taken at 10:49pm, this picture shows how much the lighting lights up the sky and everything else.

same with this one which was taken just minutes earlier.

and the next morning across the street, the wind damage was easy to see just across the street from my house.

June 17, 2009

Another Hike Through the Forest

Today I went hiking at the same state park I mentioned in a previous post. The only thing that changed is that it was a friend from boy scouts not my sister that was hiking with me. We are preparing for a high adventure trip through the mountains in New Mexico at a place called Philmont Scout Ranch this year. This scout ranch is the largest in the world and has a couple mountains reaching over 14,000 ft and of course some neat birds.

While hiking around the park in the humid weather we saw a number of birds including one that is fairly rare to our part of the state.

When we got to a place called Turtle Lake I heard the song of a Prothonotary Warbler! This is a pretty rare bird for our area. This past week a birdwatcher found a pair nesting about 45 minutes north from there on the IA-SD border. It is amazing that the area has has a couple sightings of this species in late June. I never did see the bird but maybe I will some other day when I'm out there. I also heard a Northern Parula which was the first one I saw at the park this year.

The valley that the lake is in has a small stream that had a few birds along it like a singing Louisiana Waterthrush and a Summer Tanager. We were able to see the tanager out in the open, which doesn't happen often.

After that we started to hike back. On the way I checked for the Cerulean Warbler that I heard a couple weeks beforehand but we could only find a Louisiana Waterthrush.

Other common forest birds that we saw or heard on the way back included Ovenbird and Scarlet Tanager but not much more.

Young Woodpecker

My sister and I found this young Red-bellied Woodpecker sitting on a sidewalk at a nature center yesterday. We also heard a Louisiana Waterthrush as well.

June 16, 2009

Black-necked Stilt & More

This past Sunday my dad and I went on a trip up to the Iowa Great Lakes (north central) region to go fishing. It just so happened that just a short distance from where we were going to fish a Black-necked Stilt (a fairly rare but regular bird in Iowa) was seen just the night before at an area slough. When we pulled up to the area we easily found the bird wading out in the shallow water of the slough looking for food. It's legs were very long and really made him stand out. I was having trouble with getting photos of this, my 309th life bird because of the clouds and distance but then the skies opened up and I was finally able to get a decent but distant picture.
As we were watching him my attention turned to a white colored tern that was flying over with a group of Black Terns. It had completely plain gray upper wings and a hint of black on the underside of the primaries, he was smaller, and had an orange-red bill. This turned out to be the first Common Tern that I had seen in Iowa.

After the stop at the slough we went on and spent some time fishing. We caught bullhead and I even snagged a carp but the line got when we tried pulling it up. It was only a couple feet from us when the line gave out. That was the "fish that got away story" of the trip.

When the fishing was done with my dad and I went out and did some more birding before we had to head home. On Grover's Lake on the Iowa/Minnesota border I was pleased to find two breeding plumage Red-necked Grebes along with five Redheads. At Storm Lake, about an hour south of there we came across a group of thee Caspian Terns. I chased them around trying to get photos but they didn't cooperate.

The day ended up being nice and sunny which was nice since the weather has been bad lately. The fish were biting (for a while at least) and the birds were nice too.

A Hike Through the Forest

My sister and I took a four mile hike through a local state park a couple weeks ago. During the trip we were able to search many wooded ravines around the park, many of which held some nice birds. The first good bird we came across was a singing Cerulean Warbler. These warblers are somewhat rare to our area but obviously this spring we had a few more than usual. Since he was up in the high treetops were were unable to see him. Not to far down the trail from the warbler we heard a Summer Tanager. Just like the warbler, he was hidden in the treetops. The trail was downhill and as we got to the bottom we began hearing Louisiana Waterthrush. We had four during the whole trip. I was able to actually see one as it walked around near a small stream. Another Summer Tanager was heard but not seen as well.

The non birding highlight of the trip was seeing a baby deer. Luckily my sister had a cell phone with a camera with her so we could get some pictures.

I love to hike in this park and am always finding something new and interesting there, especially when it comes to birds. I am going out there tomorrow and hope to find some more good birds so keep watching for a post on that.

Hooded Warbler on the Road

Another shot of the Hooded Warbler from the last post. He decided to land on the side of the road when we were taking pictures.

June 15, 2009

Birding at Pilot Knob and Eagle Marsh

*Make sure look at the previous posts I made, I have been putting out quite a few these past few days to catch up and don't want you to miss them.

Back on June 1 I took the 3 hour journey up to Pilot Know State Park in north central Iowa with Paul to look for a Hooded Warbler and other warblers that were being seen there. The park is named after the hill there which is the second highest point in Iowa. We got started a little bit late but we still saw some nice birds. The first bird on our list of things to find was the Connecticut Warbler. We looked and played a tape right where it was seen the day before but we were unsuccessful in finding it.

The Hooded Warbler was next and we found the bird fairly easily. It posed very nicely at sometimes but it would often move as you brought up your camera to take a picture. Despite that I got this nice picture of my 308th life bird. He decided to sing just as I took it.

Here is another picture of the same bird.

The Hooded Warbler is quite the rarity this far north in Iowa. They usually hang out in the southern and eastern areas of the state.

The other bird we were wanting to find was a Cerulean Warbler. We found one of these stunning blue birds and I got a great photo of it. The natural lighting was great, plus I added the flash to make the eye and the underside stand out. Obviously I had the settings just right when I took that photo. It turned out great, and the eye showed up which really added to the photo!

When we were done with looking for warblers we went off in search of other woodland birds around the park. We heard a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher while driving and walking around. Another thing that we found was a family of Eastern Phoebes. The young ones were all squished tightly into the nest which was under a picnic shelter's roof.

On the way home we stopped by Eagle Lake (marsh). There were lots of cattails and plenty of deep water for marsh birds to reside in. When we first got there I easily discovered a Red-necked Grebe and a Western Grebe. Since the discovery I made, the local birders have been monitoring these birds which are still there. Ruddy Duck, Sora, Northern Harrier, Marsh Wren, and Swamp Sparrow were also there on the marsh. We heard an Alder Flycatcher there and on the way out we picked up five Olive-sided Flycatchers.

We had a great day of birding and I got one life bird as well as four year birds. That concludes my birding adventure to the second highest point in Iowa.

Seminar Bird Photo

The people of a small town in the Loess Hills put a Christmas Star decoration on top of one of the highest hills in the area. It is kind of neat to see it lit from miles away but the down side is that birds have trouble seeing it sometimes which means that they could potentially hit it and die from the impact. The star is kept in place by wires which are even harder for the birds to see.When I took a hike to the top with a group (from the prairie seminar) learning about the 6000 year old human skeletons found at the foot of the hill we came across an oriole that apparently hit the decoration. I stated that I didn't get one bird photo during the seminar but I forgot about this one. It is the poor Baltimore Oriole that hit the star. It makes me wonder what other kinds of birds have hit this while passing through.
Despite the find of a dead oriole it was a nice field trip and the view was amazing (at least for Iowans who don't have any mountains) and you could see for miles. The wires that keep the star in place that can be a hazard to birds can be seen easily in this picture.

June 14, 2009

Wet Papers :(

A week ago a birding friend of mine took me along with him to do a Breeding Bird Survey Route. The point of the survey is to find out how many birds are around in a certain area during the breeding season. We got up before the sun and got started right as the birds woke up. The survey consists of stopping at 50 stops along a 25 mile route and looking and listening for birds for three minutes at each stop and then recording what birds there are and how many of each there are. The morning was going great and we saw some neat birds like Blue Grosbeak and Western Kingbird but then it took a turn for the worst at stop 19.

We were standing on a bridge surveying birds from there. My friend decided to put the paperwork which was attached to a clipboard on the railing. He decided to move it to a safer spot since it was a little windy and he didn't want them to go into the river. In the process of trying to move the papers somehow they ended up falling out of his hands and into the river! We acted quickly to save the papers but it was to no avail. I did manage to catch a few with a stick but the rest just floated down the river. When I got back we noticed that the papers I did snag had nothing recorded on them yet!

Although we were discouraged and in total disbelief we moved on and finished the route and rewrote all of the papers from memory.
Talk about dampened spirits!

Loess Hills Prairie Seminar

The Loess Hills of western Iowa are an interesting land form that only occurs in Iowa and China. A light colored soil called Loess was blown into huge piles to the east of the Missouri River and that was how they were formed. In some areas the soil is over 200 ft deep. This 200 mile long stretch of hills is rugged compared to much of Iowa and is home to many interesting animals and plants. The Loess soil has a hard time retaining water and atop the dry ridge tops the prairie is dry and is home to species of both plants and animals that are found further west where it is drier.

The Loess Hills Prairie Seminar was created to help acquaint people with these hills (which I live in) and get them to understand their importance. Many people including me go to the seminar to learn about these hills and about all the plants and animals that inhabit them. I didn't just go to learn this time like I have in recent years but I also went to teach. I did a presentation called "An Introduction to Birdwatching". Twelve people came and a few seemed very interested in birdwatching and some even took notes! It was neat to have a chance to share birding with other people.

I saw a few birds including Black-billed Cuckoo, Blue-winged Warbler, and Northern Parula while I was at the seminar a few weeks back.

One thing I tried to do at the seminar is to learn about plants. I went on a hike to learn about prairie plants with a professor from Iowa State University and learned a lot from him as did the other participants. I took some of these pictures of the plants I saw the trip and during the rest of the weekend. Amazingly I managed to not get one single photo of a bird! Don't worry, the plants will never replace the birds.

Purple Locoweed Large-flowered Bearded Tongue
Prairie Phlox
Hoary Puccoon Soapweed (Yucca)

Prairie Turnip
Low Bindweed
Downy Painted Cup
Ground Plum
Blue-eyed Grass