For many, feeding birds in the yard brings a sense of prolonged enjoyment.
A seasoned bird feeding station will not only have a variety of bird species, but many of the same individual birds may show up day after day.
Spring and fall migration, as well as the winter, can each bring a unique makeup of avian life to your yard.
Keeping feeders constantly full can be expensive, time consuming and messy. Some prefer to only keep feeders full in the winter, when natural food sources are less abundant. Others may only set up hummingbird feeders or sliced oranges with jelly for orioles. Even throwing cracked corn on the deck or in the yard once a day is bound to bring in some colorful visitors, such as blue jays.
One great thing about bird feeders is this: the birds you attract will eventually attract other birds. An established backyard bird feeder station will not only draw in the usual feathered suspects, but will eventually draw in something different. Among bird-watchers, it is common to keep a “yard list.” This is a list of every bird species that has visited your yard. Adding to this list gets harder as time passes, but each new bird can bring added excitement and enjoyment.
One of the “holy grail” yard birds in Iowa is undoubtedly the varied thrush. Typically found in the Pacific Northwest, they breed from British Columbia up through the Yukon into Alaska. Every year, a small number of them extend their winter range eastward into the far reaches of the United States.
The male varied thrush may arguably be one of the most beautiful birds in North America that is not tropical or subtropical in origin. Males have a deep orange throat with a dark slate head and breast band. They also have an orange eyebrow stripe along with a breast and underside that can be variable shades of orange. The back is a lovely grayer slate color, almost bluish in certain types of lighting. The wings are dark with an orange wing stripe.
Females often are less vibrant orange with a grayish, sometimes broken breast band. Their underside may be more white along with their eyebrow stripe.
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On average, Iowa typically gets one reported varied thrush every other year. There may be streaks where we get a report several years in a row and sometimes even two different reports in the same year. In the last 20 years in Iowa, there have been at least 15 records for varied thrush, most occurring north on Interstate 80. Many of these occurrences probably go unreported. Most records have occurred in January and with many in December and February. However, they can show up in October through March.
Most of these birds typically spend days to months at the same bird feeders, showing up regularly to feed.
There have been two different reports already in winter 2020. One stayed about a week in Independence, coming to an area where bird seed was thrown along a roadside on a daily basis. The other was on an acreage east of New Hartford. The New Hartford bird may be spending the entire winter at the residence.
One common denominator about Varied thrush showing up in Iowa is they always pick a place where they can quickly escape to safety, such as a thick stand of nearby pine trees or a wooded ravine.
BIRDS TO SEE IN MARCH
— If lakes and rivers do not thaw out too quickly in late winter into early spring, gulls may be abundant at areas where there have been large die-offs of gizzard shad. Some of the better places to find gulls in Eastern Iowa include Cedar Lake in Cedar Rapids, Terry Trueblood Recreation Area and Lake Ridge Pond in southern Iowa City, the Iowa River Gazebo by Iowa River Power restaurant in Coralville, Lock & Dam 14 and 15 in the Quad Cities, and Sabula Lakes Park.
— Bird blinds should be active in late winter into early spring. Lake Macbride Recreation Area and Kent Park in Johnson County have well-stocked bird blinds. In Linn County, there are bird blinds at Indian Creek Nature Center (called “Amazing Space”) and Wickiup Hill Learning Center. There also is a nice bird blind at George Wyth State Park in Black Hawk County.
— March typically marks the arrival of waterfowl as river, lakes and ponds thaw out. Cone Marsh Wildlife Management Area in Louisa County is an excellent place to see geese in their prime migration. See the March Birding Calendar for information about a beginning birding trip to Cone Marsh with the Iowa City Bird Club. Another great trip for waterfowl viewing with this club is to the Burlington area, with many stops along the Mississippi River.
— Feb. 20, 7-9 p.m. — Bird Club Meeting: Professor Christopher Brochu, vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Iowa, will present “What is a Species?” focusing on birds and crocodiles of Africa. Spotlight speaker: Jerry Denning will speak about his trip to Alaska. Meet at the Environmental Education Center, 2401 Scott Blvd. SE, Iowa City.
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Feb. 2, 9:30 a.m.-noon — Macbride Nature Recreation Area (MNRA): Cure your cabin fever. Join us to see winter birds in natural habitat, feeder birds at the bird blind and hike some of the surrounding trails. Target species are purple finch, red-breasted nuthatch, pine siskin, brown creeper, woodpeckers and more. Meet leaders Deb and Mark Rolfes at the MNRA main parking area where heated restrooms are available (2095 Mehaffey Bridge Rd NE). Be prepared for winter temperatures, to hike on mulched, uneven and possibly wet or snowy trails with a short walk to the bird blind. Help fill the feeders with cash donations at bird blind.
— March 4, 8-10 a.m. — Kent Park Bird Walk: Bird Walk with leader Rick Hollis. Meet at the Kent Park Conservation Education Center, 2048 US-6 Oxford.
— March 7, 6:30 a.m.-2 p.m. — Burlington Area and Mississippi River: target birds include ducks, geese, pelicans, winter wren and many more. This is an all-day trip or take the option to return early about midafternoon. Our trip leader is Burlington local expert birder Chuck Fuller. Stops include locks and dams, riverside parks and other hot spots. Walking is usually short distances from frequent stops. We’ll stop for lunch at a nearby restaurant. Dress for cold and wind and bring a scope if you have one. Meet Karen Disbrow at 6:30 a.m. at the Fin & Feather parking lot, 125 Highway 1 W, Iowa City; or at 8 a.m. at the Port of Burlington, 400 Front St.
— March 17, 7-8:30 p.m. — Beginning Birder Course: Basics of Birding I by Karen Disbrow, learn about bird identification, field guides and equipment. Classes to be held at Kent Park Conservation Education Center. Advance registration is requested and is free for club members. Call Kristen Morrow, (319) 645-1011, to register. There will be six Tuesday evening sessions.
— March 18, 8-10 a.m. — Kent Park Bird Walk: Bird Walk with leader Rick Hollis. Meet at the Kent Park Conservation Education Center, 2048 US-6 Oxford.
— March 19, 7-9 p.m. — Bird Club Meeting: Mark Bowman, bird bander and past Iowa City Bird Club member, will speak on the American kestrel. Spotlight speaker Rick Hollis will be reviewing books of interest to the membership. Meet at the Environmental Education Center, 2401 Scott Blvd. SE, Iowa City.
— March 21, 8 a.m. — Field Trip: Cone Marsh in Louisa County for sandhill cranes, migrating ducks and geese, and other water birds. Wear boots for walking in wet areas and bring binoculars if you have them. This is a Beginning Birder Trip. Meet trip leader Fawn Bowden at the Fin & Feather parking lot, 125 Hwy. 1 W, Iowa City.
— March 24, 7-8:30 p.m. — Beginning Birder Course: Basics of Birding II by Karen Disbrow, learn about helpful apps such as eBird, Bird Song ID and many more resources. Class to be held at Kent Park Conservation Education Center. Call Kristen Morrow, (319) 645-1011, to register.
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— March 28, 8-10 a.m. — Kent Park Bird Walk with leader Rick Hollis. Meet at the Kent Park Conservation Education Center, 2048 US-6 Oxford.
— March 31, 7-8:30 p.m. — Beginning Birder Course: Kent Park Conservation Educational Center. Where to Bird in Johnson County. Well-known, lesser-known and secret places to watch birds and study nature in and around Johnson County. Advance registration is requested and is free for club members. Call Kristen Morrow, (319) 645-1011, to register.
Brandon Caswell has undergraduate degrees in biology, anthropology and geology. His graduate degree centered on dating continental collisions within the Precambrian Canada Shield. Bird-watching and nature photography are among his favorite hobbies. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with birding-related questions.