Bird-watching 'dream' season is upon us

Birding column: Keep an eye out for shorebirds

A solitary sandpiper on duckweed at Gun Club Ponds, Hawkeye Wildlife Management Area. Johnson County. (Brandon Caswell/correspondent)
A solitary sandpiper on duckweed at Gun Club Ponds, Hawkeye Wildlife Management Area. Johnson County. (Brandon Caswell/correspondent)

A calm, warm morning in the month of May is what many Iowa bird-watchers dream about.

The last week of April leading into the first couple weeks of May is a period when the spring migration ramps up to its peak. Not every day is a spectacle, however. There can be streaks of days when the bird activity is astounding.

Being posted in the woods early in the morning is best. When the first rays of sunlight hit the tops of the trees it can reveal dozens upon dozens of tiny, colorful birds vigorously feeding to build up the energy needed for their next big overnight flight north.

Since many birds are getting ready to breed at this time they often sing. The cacophony of bird songs in the woods on a May morning is quite an experience.

The forest birds are not the only influx of migrants during this time. Shorebirds also reach their peak in May. One big difference between their forest relatives is they migrate during the day. The consequence for bird-watchers is you never know what you are going to see at any given time. Sometimes shorebirds will land for minutes to seconds only to continue their journey north. This means checking the same spot multiple times per day can be advantageous.

At least two dozen species of somewhat common shorebirds move through Iowa in the spring. Two of the most colorful are Wilson’s phalarope and red-necked Phalarope. Being a smaller-sized shorebird, getting good looks requires a combination of vantage point and good optics. Feeding behavior can be a key way to recognize their presence, even at a distance. Phalaropes often spin around very quickly on the surface of the water, plucking off insects and other invertebrates. Unlike most other bird species — where the male is colorful and the female drab — the opposite is true for phalaropes. Females will battle for multiple males in a breeding season, abandoning the nest and moving on from their current partner once eggs are laid.

The female Wilson’s phalarope has a long, thin black bill, a gray cap and black eye line on a white face. The back of the neck is white with black sides that are continuous with the eye line, terminating at the shoulders. The backside of the body is mostly a mixture of red and gray streaks. The underside is completely white. The female red-necked phalarope has a similar black bill and white face, but more of the head above the eyes is gray. The neck is a dazzling orange-red. The backside is mostly gray with streaks of orange. The underside also is white.

Males of both species are essentially a drab versions of the female. Perhaps the most striking of phalarope species is the red phalarope, but it is rare in Iowa.


Shorebirds, including phalaropes, can be found in a variety of habitats. Any place that has shallow water with a muddy or sandy substrate can provide an ideal place for feeding. Sand Point at Hawkeye WMA in Johnson County is one of the premiere places in Iowa to find shorebirds. Terry Trueblood RA in Johnson County also has had years when the shorebird viewing was impressive and close.

Shorebirds also can persist in flooded agricultures fields and along wet roadside ditches. Since they usually require calm, shallow water, finding these habitats can greatly depend on recent weather conditions in relation to the current water levels of lakes and rivers.


On a cloudless day, you may experience the “magic” or “golden” hour of photography. This is a period of one to two hours, shortly after sunrise or before sunset, when light has an overall lower wavelength (i.e. more red). During these hours, the overall intensity of light is low, which can result in the warmest of color hues on various subjects, especially on birds. Some photographers will go out exclusively during this period.


l Passerines (i.e. perching birds): warblers, vireos, thrushes (Pleasant Creek SRA, Squaw Creek Park and Palisades-Kepler in Linn County, Hawkeye WMA, Terry Trueblood and Hickory Hill Park in Johnson County)

l Shorebirds (Sandy Beach and the mouth of Hoosier Creek, Sand Point at Hawkeye WMA among other locations at Hawkeye and Terry Trueblood in Johnson County, Cone Marsh in Louisa County if water levels are low)

l Yellow- and black-billed cuckoo, rose-breasted grosbeak, summer and scarlet tanager

May is typically the month when most casual to accidental birds are found. In other words, this is the month when birds will show up. Rarities can be defined as birds that somehow extend out of their known range, either within our continent or even from other continents.


l Birding course: Tuesday, April 24, 7 p.m.: Warbler Identification and Review by Karen Disbrow. Warblers are among our most colorful birds, but identification can be a challenge. Compare and contrast similar species.

l Sunday, April 29, 8 a.m.: Field Trip to Hickory Hill Park. May is prime time for viewing warblers in Iowa, and this park is an Eastern Iowa hot spot for viewing migrant warblers and other songbirds. Meet at Hickory Hill Park, at the parking lot at the end of Conklin Lane, off North Dodge St.


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l Sunday, April 29, 6:30 a.m.: Shimek State Forest. This joint trip with the Iowa Ornithologists’ Union will target SE Iowa specialties and early migrants, including yellow-throated warbler, pine warbler, worm-eating warbler, bewick’s wren, yellow-breasted chat and white-eyed vireo. Advanced registration is required (coming soon at http://iowabirds.org/Connections/SpecialEvents.aspx). Pack water, snacks/lunch, and insect repellent. Expect hiking on wooded trails at several stopping spots. We will return to Iowa City by mid-afternoon. Meet leader Dan Rose at the Fin & Feather parking lot at 6:30 a.m.

l Saturday, May 12: Spring Migration Count. Work in teams to count as many birds as possible in Johnson County. Species and individual birds are tallied — last year 156 species were recorded. Gather for a noon sack lunch at the North Liberty Community Center. Afternoon birding is encouraged, but optional. To participate on a team, email Chris Caster at cjcaster@q.com in advance of count day.

l 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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