116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The month of May is what Iowa bird-watchers are longing for after a long winter.
Although the fall can boast great bird diversity and numbers, but May contains a window of time, during peak migration, where numbers and diversity abound.
Myself — along with others — have recorded well over 100 species in just a few hours at Hawkeye Wildlife Management Area during peak migration.
If there was ever a month to give bird-watching a try it would be May.
The best way to start is to get a dependable pair of binoculars and then go enjoy the outdoors.
Citizen-science has taken off in the last couple decades. In fact, bird-watching boasts one of the largest citizen-science communities, eBird. eBird has evolved over the years from a basic citizen-science project to a powerhouse of bird-related data.
Although a wide range of experts have shaped and continue to develop eBird, its everyday users still make up the core: people like you and I. eBird is completely free to the public.
Several years ago eBird launched their free mobile App. The App is available for iPhone and Android users. Instead of waiting to enter sighting information via computer at a later point, eBird users can now enter their info directly from the field.
eBird definitely opened up a whole new world to me when I started birding. I started using it months before moving back to Iowa from New Jersey, where I first started bird-watching. I found myself exploring all the eBird “hot spots” in Eastern Iowa through the study of past checklists.
My first Iowa bird-watching visits were to Wickiup Hill and Hawkeye WMA. Through eBird, I knew going to these places would likely produce fruitful birding.
eBird is an excellent resource to help plan birding activities while on vacation. In April 2019, a friend and I used eBird to plan a trip to Texas centered on bird-watching. We finished the trip seeing a whopping 225 species in about a week. eBird was invaluable for seeking out the bird-watching hot spots in the Lower Rio Grande Valley among other locations.
Do you have to be an avid birder to use eBird? The answer if definitely no. Use eBird to the best of your time and ability. If all you have time to do is eBird an occasional checklist from your yard or bird feeders, then that is great.
Each state has regional reviewers who can aid in the identification of birds, especially in photos. Media — such as audio, photographs, and even video — can be uploaded to eBird checklists.
If you are new to bird-watching there is nothing wrong with easing into eBird. Make checklists of the birds you know, perhaps yardbirds, and hone in on your identification skills as time passes. The nice thing about eBird is it saves and organizes your checklists and media. It keeps track of your “life list” of birds.
One of the best tabs from the eBird homepage is “Explore.” This page offers “Species Maps,” where you can explore range maps by species from the world map all the way down to your neighborhood. The “Explore hot spots” map is a great way to find productive areas for birding all over the world, including in Eastern Iowa.
I have included a section this month with a list of the best eBird hot spots in the region. Type these locations in the “Explore hot spots” search bar and check things out. There are a lot of other things to look at using “Explore.”
Also worth mention is the “alerts.” You can set up your account to receive emails about rare birds in many different defined areas, the smallest being to county level. You can also set it up to tell you what birds you need for life or year lists. Lastly, all checklists and hot spots have Google Map links to give directions to the locations.
As April turns to May and “bird-watching heaven” falls upon Eastern Iowa, perhaps exploring eBird may lead you down an exciting path. Who knows where it could take you and what amazing things you might see?
Species to look for in May
- The most diverse and colorful groups of birds are the wood warblers and shorebirds. They couldn’t be found in any more different types of habitat. Most wood warblers are found in woodlands, no surprise. Some of the best places to see warblers are at the edge of woods in the early morning hours, when the sunlight starts to illuminate the tops of trees. The warmth from the sunlight increases insect activity, which is their main food source. Look for shorebirds along the shores of shallow lakes and ponds and along muddy river flats and sandbars. Before crops shoot up, look for temporarily flooded agriculture fields during wetter periods. Areas of shallow “sheet water” often attract shorebirds.
- Yellow-billed and black-billed cuckoos should be returning to Eastern Iowa by mid-May.
- Four species of terns can be seen in May. These include: caspian, black, common, and forster’s.
- Keep an eye out for dark ibis in early May. While white-faced ibis is more common in Iowa, glossy ibis, more of a coastal Atlantic species, has become increasingly more common over the past decade.
- Early May is a great time to see all of Iowa’s seven regular woodpecker species, sometimes in one outing.
- Ten species of flycatchers are regularly seen in May around Eastern Iowa. Olive-sided flycatcher is a favorite Iowa migrant flycatcher among many. They specialize in hunting bees and will usually occupy the tops dead trees snags. One great way to identify them is by their behavior. They will launch off a snag to catch a bee, usually returning to same spot.
- Seven vireo species either migrate through Iowa or stay to nest in May. Vireos are small passerines related the shrikes. They are more dull than the wood warblers, usually having yellowish and greenish coloration somewhere on them. The blue-headed vireo is perhaps the most striking of them all.
- Four migratory thrush species can be seen in May. These include veery, gray-cheeked thrush, swainson’s thrush, and hermit thrush, although veery nest is a few select places in Iowa. Hermit will have essentially moved through Iowa by early May. Wood thrush, an Iowa nester, will move into Eastern Iowa by the end of April.
- About 15 sparrow species can be found throughout May. A late dark-eyed junco may be detected in the earliest days of the month, although most have migrated north by then. Henslow’s sparrow is a highly sought-after species. A great place to see them is at the “Hawkeye WMA — Mallard and Gadwall Ponds” eBird hot spot.
- Scarlet and summer tanagers can be seen at the “Coralville Lake — Squire Point Trail” eBird hot spot.
- Indigo bunting will show up in early May, becoming widespread quickly. Dickcissel will trickle in at the beginning of the month and slowly gain numbers into early June. Blue grosbeak should be back in Eastern Iowa by mid-May in low numbers.
Suggested eBird hot spots in Eastern Iowa to both explore on the website and in person (note: some of my previous columns highlight several of these hot spots):
- Pleasant Creek SRA (Linn Co.)
- Wickiup Hill Learning Center
- Cedar Lake
- Hawkeye WMA — James Ave NW
- Hawkeye WMA — Swan Lake
- Hawkeye WMA — Sand Point
- Hawkeye WMA — Hanging Rock Woods
- Hawkeye WMA — Round Pond
- Hawkeye WMA — Mallard and Gadwall Ponds
- Macbride Nature Recreation Area
- Lake Macbride—South Arm
- Coralville Lake — Squire Point Trail
- Coralville Lake — dam area
- Terry Trueblood Recreation Area
Brandon Caswell has a keen interest in natural and social sciences. He enjoys birdwatching and nature photography in his spare time. He resides with his wife and two young children in Marion.