Outdoors

A closer look at Iowa's breeding birds

Outdoors: Henslow Sparrow isn't hard to find despite threatened status

A Henslow's Sparrow sings atop a grassland plant at Pleasant Creek State Recreation Area in Linn County. (Brandon Caswell/correspondent)
A Henslow's Sparrow sings atop a grassland plant at Pleasant Creek State Recreation Area in Linn County. (Brandon Caswell/correspondent)
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Near the end of May and into early June, bird migration wanes out.

The remaining birds make up Iowa’s breeding species.

There are more than 200 documented bird species that have nested in our state, nesting in about every habitat imaginable. For instance, Peregrine Falcon nests atop the tallest buildings in Cedar Rapids. The ravines of Palisades-Kepler State Park host plenty of woodpeckers, flycatchers, warblers and vireos among other woodland species. The small plots of maintained grassland in Eastern Iowa also have a nice variety of nesters.

One of Iowa’s well-known grassland bird species is the Henslow’s Sparrow. Despite its threatened status, this sparrow is not too hard to find if you know where to look and what to listen for.

An excellent place to find Henlsow’s Sparrow is at Pleasant Creek State Recreation Area. Along the south side of the reservoir, of Strawn Road, is an extensive tract of maintained grassland locally known as “the prairie bowl.” This can be an excellent location to find Orchard Oriole, Bobolink, Henslow’s Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Field Sparrow and Bell’s Vireo among others.

Henslow’s Sparrow belongs to the genus Ammodramus, which for Iowa sparrows also includes Grasshopper, Le Conte’s and Nelson’s Sparrow. The strictly migrant Le Conte’s and Nelson’s similarly nest in grassy environments farther north.

Henslow’s and Grasshopper are similar, however there are some key differences. Henslow’s Sparrow has an olive-colored face, a dark streak behind its eye and dark stripes atop the head. It has rusty coloration on its back and wing feathers. Grasshopper Sparrow is similar, but paler overall. Its chest lacks dark streaks like Henslow’s. Both birds have a characteristic song. Henslow’s is a short, two-syllable “tsi-lick” having a metallic quality. Grasshopper Sparrow has two short notes followed by a long insectlike buzz. Sometimes its song gets jumbled, but maintains the same quality.

Although both species can be detected in longer grass, Grasshopper Sparrow seems to prefer short grass, less than a few feet tall. Besides “the prairie bowl” another key location for both of these species, along with other rural, grassland species is Indiangrass Hills in Iowa County.

This restored prairie savannah is an Iowa Important Bird Area (IBL). It hosts both of the highlighted sparrows, as well as Bobolink. Both Northern Mockingbird and Loggerhead Shrike also have nested at this location in recent years.

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OTHER BIRDS TO LOOK FOR IN JUNE:

  • Nesting White-eyed Vireo, Blue-winged Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Bell’s Vireo and Bobolink at Pleasant Creek “prairie bowl.”
  • Several nesting warbler species at Palisades-Kepler State Park, including Louisiana Waterthrush, American Redstart, Yellow Warbler, Northern Parula and Yellow-throated Warbler.
  • Summer and Scarlet Tanagers in old growth or significantly established secondary growth forests.
  • Yellow-billed Cuckoos at Hawkeye WMA.
  • Northern Mockingbird and Loggerhead Shrike in rural areas with pastureland.

JUNE BIRDING CALENDAR

  • June 6, 8 a.m. — Kent Park Bird Walk with leader Rick Hollis. Meet at the CEC.
  • June 9, 7:30 a.m. — Bur Oak Land Trust Properties in Johnson County. Check out some of the new Bur Oak properties open to us for birding. This half-day trip will have on-trail and off-trail hiking over uneven terrain. Hiking boots, long pants, water, and insect repellent are advised. Meet at the Fin & Feather parking lot. The leader is Mark Madsen.
  • June 20, 8 a.m. — Kent Park Bird Walk with leader Rick Hollis. Meet at the CEC.
  • June 23, 6:30 a.m. — Indiangrass Hills in Iowa County for breeding grassland birds. Expect to see Henslow’s Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Sedge Wren, and Bobolink. Extensive walking on mowed grass paths through this 600-acre restored prairie. Return time is early afternoon. Meet leader Mark Brown at Kohl’s parking lot in Coralville.

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. Email brandon.caswell83@gmail.com with birding-related questions, including questions about activities.

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