Outdoors

Waves of geese headed to Eastern Iowa

Bird-watching: Sights and sounds are spectacular

A “tsunami” of geese, mostly Snow, descends to the water over Cone Marsh, Louisa County. (Brandon Caswell/correspondent)
A “tsunami” of geese, mostly Snow, descends to the water over Cone Marsh, Louisa County. (Brandon Caswell/correspondent)
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Editor’s note: Brandon Caswell has undergraduate degrees in biology, anthropology and geology. He enjoys bird-watching and nature photography. He helps instruct introductory and advanced courses in environmental science and geoscience at the University of Iowa. He lives in Marion with his wife and son. 

Before the green of spring takes hold of Eastern Iowa, another of nature’s great bird spectacles is underway.

Snow Geese, by the millions, migrate north through Iowa on their way to breeding grounds on the Arctic tundra. The most traveled migration path is up the Missouri River in western Iowa, but Eastern Iowa sees thousands of geese.

What makes this spectacle so amazing is how it affects the senses.

Waves of geese, almost like a tsunami, can materialize on the horizon near large wetlands. The sound is something akin to a massive cacophony of simultaneous honks. Snow Geese, among four other goose species, will first appear in large U- to V-shaped formations or skeins. More often skeins will pass by overhead, however, at places such as Cone Marsh and Hawkeye Wildlife Management Area, skeins will descend in huge walls, often forming vortex-like masses before settling over water or agricultural fields.

The sound of thousands of geese lifting off from a wetland or field can also leave the observer in a sense of awe.

Snow Goose is smaller than Canada goose in length by about a foot, but has a similar wingspan. Unlike the typical Canada goose, Snow Goose come in two different varieties or morphs. There are both dark and light adults. White adults are nearly pure white with black primary feathers and a pink bill. The adult bill will have an obvious black “grin patch,” which some believe to be reminiscent of lipstick. A dark adult will retain a white head, while juveniles are a variable gray-brown overall.

Large geese flocks are often a mix of up to five different species, including Snow, Ross’s, Canada, Cackling and Greater White-fronted Goose. Cackling Goose appears as a miniature-sized Canada, while Ross’s appears as a miniature-sized white morph Snow Goose. The adult Greater White-fronted is similar in size to Snow, with a brownish-gray appearance overall, black stripes on a lighter belly, pinkish bill often with white feathering around the base and obvious orange legs.

Do not be fooled by small Canada geese, which often get confused with Cackling.

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Viewing geese and other waterfowl can easily be done with a pair of binoculars, but a spotting scope is often necessary for distant looks over larger bodies of water or agricultural fields. Dams or other small bodies of water can often harbor a wide variety of geese and ducks. Roller dams, also known as low head dams, can be found along the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids and in Iowa City along the Iowa River. Perhaps the best access to a roller dam is near the Iowa River Power Restaurant, which offers handicapped accessibility.

Another bonus of viewing geese is the plethora of puddle and diving ducks present at this time of year. At least 20 species of ducks can be expected throughout March. It always is best to be mindful that Snow and Ross’s Goose hunting season last until around mid-April.

As a bird-watcher, the return of the Snow Goose is a magical time, one that inspires me to get back outside. I hope many of you will take the opportunity to visit a local wetland in pursuit of this great annual spectacle of waterfowl migration. Even if you are not afforded the time to get out, keep an eye and ear out for large skeins that might be moving overhead.

OTHER BIRDS TO WATCH

— A wide variety of duck species, including many dabbling and diving species.

— Three swan species including Trumpeter, Tundra and Mute. Mute Swan is an invasive species from Europe that has been established in the Midwest by humans.

— Gulls still will be around, especially if ice persists along lakes and rivers.

March calendar

March 4. 8 a.m. — Cone Marsh in Louisa County for Snow Geese, Sandhill Cranes, migrating ducks, and other water birds. Meet at the Fin & Feather parking lot, 125 Hwy. 1 W in Iowa City. We’ll stop at several points around the marsh, and take a walk on the dike, returning by noon. Leader: Linda Rudolph.

March 7, 8 a.m. — Kent Park Bird Walk with leader Rick Hollis. Meet at the Kent Park CEC.

March 10, 6:30 a.m. — Burlington Area for spring waterfowl migration along the Mississippi River. This is an all-day trip led by Burlington local expert birder Chuck Fuller. We’ll stop for lunch at a nearby restaurant. Dress for cold and wind, and bring a scope if possible. Meet at the Fin & Feather parking lot, 125 Hwy. 1 W, Iowa City; or at the Port of Burlington, 400 Front St., Burlington at 8 a.m.

March 15, 7 p.m. — Meeting. Rick Hollis will present “Learning Bird Song: Tips & Apps.”

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March 20, 7 p.m. — Beginning Birdwatcher Course: Basics of Birding I at the Conservation Education Center in Kent Park. Advance registration is requested, and is free for club members. Call Sydney Algreen, (319) 645-1011, to register.

March 21, 8 a.m. — Kent Park Bird Walk with leader Rick Hollis. Meet at the Kent Park CEC.

March 25, 8 a.m. — Cone Marsh in Louisa County for Sandhill Cranes, migrating ducks, geese, and other water birds. Meet at the Fin & Feather parking lot, 125 Hwy. 1 W in Iowa City. Beginning Birder Trip.

March 27, 7 p.m. — Beginning Birdwatcher Course: Basics of Birding II at the Kent Park CEC. Advance registration is requested, and is free for club members. Call Sydney Algreen, (319) 645-1011.

March 31, 8 a.m. — Kent Park near Tiffin. We will explore the trails in this county park looking for migrating songbirds and resident woodland birds. Meet at the CEC in Kent Park. Beginning Birder Trip.

Click here for specifics about Iowa City Bird Club events and also for a link to their Facebook group.

Photo tips

Same logic is in place for Snow Geese and other white waterfowl such as swans, which was covered in last month’s column about Snowy Owl. Slightly negative (e.g. -1) exposure compensation will help to attain detail on a mostly white subject. Getting flight photos is best done in late morning or late afternoon sunlight. Use a higher shutter speed (e.g. 1/800 to 1/1000+) to get a “freeze frame” shot. Lower shutter speeds can be used if the camera is kept particularly steady. However, lower shutter speeds also can blur wings giving the photo subject a sense of motion. Many times skeins of geese will come from the south so positioning at a wetland venue can be important to think about. The main (central and E-W running) dike at Cone Marsh, as well as other water retention structures at wetlands, can offer a great vantage point for photography.

Email brandon.caswell83@gmail.com with comments and Eastern Iowa bird-watching events

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