116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Iowa, along with much of the Eastern United States, gets the short end of the stick when it comes to hummingbird diversity.
The ruby-throated hummingbird comprises Iowa's only regular and nesting species. For a very lucky few observers, the flash of orange may signal the presence of Iowa’s second most “common” hummer, the rufous hummingbird.
The rufous hummingbird wasn't officially recorded in Iowa until the first state record appeared in St. Olaf, Clayton County, in July of 1986. The next decade produced another five records, including a female in November of 1995 in Cedar Rapids. A dozen more sightings popped up over the next 25 years, including another in Cedar Rapids in November of 2013.
That bird was an immature male found deceased on a deck and under a feeder. Surprisingly and excitingly, the latest record for the species was recently seen at a private residence near Faulkes Heritage Woods on the evening of Aug. 12. This was the first adult male ever detected in Linn County.
Rufous hummingbird breeds from southern Alaska down to Oregon and east to the western half of Montana. They winter around the Gulf states and southern Mexico. In the spring, their migration path is tethered further west; essentially a straight shot up to breeding grounds. In the fall, however, their migration path can swing further east into the Midwest.
The species is considered a rare migrant in Iowa.
Adult male rufous hummingbirds are almost completely orange. A small percentage of males have a green back, which makes separating their identification from the closely related Allen's hummingbird tricky. The adult male’s gorget is a dark coppery color in shade or overcast. When sunlight shines on the gorget it can cause the iridescence of all kinds of striking colors, such as electric greens, yellows and reds.
Adult female and young male and female (immature) rufous hummingbirds have a greenish back. Young males have a completely rufous tail, which is partially rufous and mostly green in females. All sexes have orange flanks (sides) and white on the breast and belly. In the adult female and immatures, the top half of the head is largely green and the throat has linear green spots with centralized orangish-red spots.
Including the recent August 2021 Cedar Rapids record, there are 18 total sightings in Iowa. Six sightings are from November, five are from August, four are from July, two are from September, and April and May each have one. The records clearly reflect the previously discussed migrational tendencies of the species.
How exactly does a rufous hummingbird find an Iowa backyard? Since their window of migration spans five months, keeping an eye on hummingbird feeders into the month of November greatly increases the chances. Remember, several of the rarer hummingbirds that have or can show up in Iowa live at higher elevations in their native range, so they are used to colder temperatures. If you keep a hummingbird feeder up into November, you also may occasionally see a late ruby-throated. Other rare species to look for that have shown up in Iowa include Mexican violetear, Anna’s and broad-billed hummingbirds. A few species could theoretically show up in Iowa and are recorded in neighboring states include buff-bellied, calliope and Allen’s hummingbirds.
BIRDS OF SEPTEMBER
September is one of the more exciting months for birding in Iowa.
Warblers and other small passerines reach their peak migration, while shorebirds still are coming through as well. A good strategy can be to first try the woods early for warblers, vireos, flycatchers, etc. Then try for shorebirds either before lighting gets difficult or forming “heat rise” (also called heat shimmer) off water surfaces create difficulties viewing birds. Heat rise tends to get worse as the day gets hotter.
September also is a time to possibly find rare wading birds, such as snowy egret, little blue heron, yellow-crowned night-heron, and other much rarer species like roseate spoonbill, white Ibis and wood stork. Oftentimes these rare waders are juvenile. This is because young wading birds, who have never migrated, may wonder in the reverse direction as adults.
- Warblers, warblers, warblers. This is the time to visit places in Linn County like the north end of Cedar Lake, Wickiup Hill Nature Center’s savannah trail and Pleasant Creek’s wooded trails as well as Hawkeye WMA’s Hanging Rock woods, Lake Macbride State Park, Squire Point trail, Terry Trueblood Recreation Area’s west side paved trail, and Hickory Hill Park in Johnson County. All of these locations are proven areas where warblers stop during migration to fuel up until their next leg. The tricky part is the timing; going when there is a nice pulse of migration overnight.
- Look for American white pelicans in the thousands at Hawkeye WMA at the parking lot near the DNR headquarters off Amana Rd NW. This is roughly 3/4 of a mile west of the intersection with Highway 965. See the birding calendar for information about the Pelican Festival on Sept. 12. In the evenings this location also can be an excellent place to see hundreds of great egrets and other waders, such as great blue heron, coming in to roost farther out on the floodplain.
- Hawk watching is another September highlight. Mid-September is usually when broad-winged hawk makes its migration back through Iowa. See the birding calendar for information about a hawk watch on Sept. 26 at Coralville Lake. This can be a great opportunity to learn raptor identification in flight. The event will have experienced hawk watchers present to help assist. This also may be a great opportunity to buy that first nice pair of binoculars, which greatly help at a hawk watch.
- Sept. 1, 15, 29 — Wednesdays, 8 a.m. Kent Park Bird Walk with Rick Hollis. Meet at Kent Park in the parking lot at Conservation Education Center. Walk with Hollis along his patch of mulched and mowed trails. We’ll spend about two hours observing breeding and migrant birds throughout the seasons. Group size is limited to 10 people who are COVID vaccinated.
- Sept. 12 — 11 a.m. ——4 p.m. Pelican Festival at Hawkeye Wildlife Management Area, Headquarters Area at 2564 Amana Road NW, Swisher. Free and kid-friendly event to enjoy and learn about our local and migrating American white pelicans at the edge of their habitat. Get up-close looks through our spotting scopes. Attend outdoor presentations on American white pelicans and the birds/animals/ecology of HWMA. Exhibits by more than a dozen organizations, food and face painting are all part of the fun. Volunteer assistance needed with setup, parking and staffing spotting scopes. Call Karen Disbrow, (319) 430-0315, if interested.
- Sept. 17-19. Iowa Ornithologists’ Union fall meeting will be held in Centerville. We will be headquartered at the 1880 Club at 922 W. State St. in Centerville. Rathbun Reservoir and Sedan Bottoms WMA are two of the premier birding areas in the state. Other potential sites include Sharon Bluffs SP, Coline WMA and Woodpecker/Coffey Marsh. Depending on water levels this can be an excellent shorebirding area. Nelson's sparrow is seen most years. Tom Johnson will put together a list of prime field trip options. Our keynote speaker will be Ty Smedes, who will take us on a visit to South Georgia Island. Smedes puts together great programs and he is especially excited about this one.
- Sept. 26 — 9 a.m. ICBC Hawk Watch at Stainbrook Preserve, located along Mehaffey Bridge Road just north of Sugar Bottom Recreation Area. Join us on the hill to watch for migrating raptors, including broad-winged hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk and red-tailed hawk. Bring a lawn chair and binoculars and/or a spotting scope if you have one. Directions: Park on the north shoulder pull-out just east of Mehaffey Bridge. Look for the Stainbrook Preserve sign and follow the short path up the hill.
Brandon Caswell has a keen interest in natural and social sciences. He enjoys bird-watching and nature photography in his spare time. He resides with his wife and two young children in Marion.