Get outside - and look for swans

Bird-watching: Lily Lake is a great place to find 'massive birds'

This trumpeter swan was with its mate on Lily Lake near Amana in early March 2020. They were joined closely by two juven
This trumpeter swan was with its mate on Lily Lake near Amana in early March 2020. They were joined closely by two juveniles, likely their offspring from 2019. There were 128 swans on the lake that day. Seeing more than 200 at this location in the late fall is not uncommon. (Brandon Caswell/correspondent)

Amidst these days of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are looking for safe ways to escape the confines of self-quarantine at home.

One great way to get out of the household and still maintain safe social distancing is watching birds. Enjoying birds can be done from just about any place with at least one window to the outside world.

However, nothing beats getting out into the fresh air and open country. The sights and sounds of spring, including the rejuvenation of animal and plant life in Eastern Iowa are things that can help relax and restore the mind and body.

Located along Highway 220, just west of Amana is Lily Lake. This lake formed around 1880 when a canal levee broke, flooding a low-lying area adjacent to the canal. While the canal was built to channel water to textile and flour mills in the Amanas, today it exists without much purpose.

The lake’s name reflects what it is most famous for — the annual blooming of thousands of yellow American lotus lilies.

The lake also is a great birding destination during much of the year. Perhaps the most iconic bird associated with the lake is the trumpeter swan. This graceful and elegant species was nearly hunted to extinction by the late 1800s because of market hunting for their skins and feathers. Strict conservation, in which Iowa helped play an integral role, brought trumpeters back to more appreciable numbers by the early 2000s.

Trumpeter swans are massive birds. Weighing around 25 pounds with a 6-foot wingspan, they are the heaviest bird in North America and the heaviest waterfowl species on earth. They nearly double the weight of tundra swans, another native Iowa species.


Several years after birth, trumpeters will form a pair bond. While many pairs mate for life, some will eventually switch mates. Some individuals that lose mates, either by death or other means, may never pair bond again.

Both sexes of trumpeter swan appear identical; the scientific term is “sexually monomorphic.” Most adults are white, but the head and neck can be stained a rusty coloration. This staining is due to iron oxides in the lowest aquatic levels of marsh habitats, which collect on their feathers when they dabble for deeply submerged vegetation. The bill is entirely black in adults and is conjoined to the eye by a large area of black skin. The legs are black.

Juveniles are a grayish coloration with pink centering on an otherwise dark bill. Juveniles have yellowish-green legs.

Trumpeter swans often winter and spend parts of spring and fall on Lily Lake. The lake offers swans a safe place to rest between feeding forays in nearby agricultural fields. They have increasingly become adapted to eating leftover grains in Iowa’s countryside when their primary sources of food are locked up in ice. Hundreds of them can stage at Lily Lake in late fall and also in early spring before they head north to breeding areas.

In 2019, their numbers peaked on the lake at the end of November, with more than 200 being counted. At that time there were around 10 tundra swans in the mix.

While Amana’s Lily Lake is a great place to see trumpeter swans, another excellent location is Cone Marsh WMA in Louisa County. This premiere Iowa marsh is a 10-minute drive south of Lone Tree. One key thing to remember is swans will often leave lakes or marshes early in the morning to feed in fields, but they will eventually return after their dietary needs are met.


— Snow, Ross’s and greater white-fronted geese should still be around, but probably not in huge numbers. Blue-winged teal numbers will peak. Look for duck species, such as wood duck, northern shoveler, gadwall, American wigeon, green-winged teal, canvasback, redhead, ring-necked duck, lesser scaup, bufflehead, red-breasted and hooded merganser, and ruddy duck on lakes, ponds or open marshes. Pied-billed and horned grebe numbers will peak in April.

— American coot numbers will peak. Seeing them in the thousands at Cone Marsh and other marshy areas is quite a sight.

— Chimney swifts will return, growing in numbers over the course of the month. Ruby-throated hummingbird will start showing up in far southern Iowa toward the end of the month.


— Shorebirds will start appearing again. Look for American golden-plover and hudsonian or marbled godwit. Dunlin will start appearing, some without their black stomach patch. Baird’s, least, pectoral and semipalmated sandpipers will be back in low to high numbers. Long-billed dowitcher will return ahead of their closely related cousins, Short-billed dowitcher (short-billed return in May). Wilson’s snipe numbers will peak. Spotted and solitary sandpipers will return. Greater and lesser yellowlegs numbers will continue to increase over the month.

— Common loon numbers will peak during their migration north. Some non-breeding and sub-adult birds might linger on lakes into the early summer.

— Broad-winged hawk numbers will increase throughout April, while rough-legged hawk will wane out.

— Eastern phoebe numbers will peak.

— Eastern kingbirds will return near the very end of the month.

— All of Iowa’s regular swallow species will start showing up. Tree swallow numbers will peak.

— House wren will slowly, but surely come back. By the end of April, they will nearly be in full force. Winter wren will be more easily detected and then drop off at the end of the month.

— Blue-gray gnatcatcher will slowly increase in numbers.

— Hermit thrush numbers will peak in April before all head farther north of Iowa to breed.

— American tree and fox sparrow along with dark-eyed junco numbers will slowly wane out over April. Chipping, field and Lincoln’s sparrow numbers will increase over the month. Swamp sparrow numbers will peak.

— The first non-wintering warblers will start to show up in April. These include Louisiana and northern waterthrush, common yellowthroat, ovenbird, northern parula, along with black-and-white, Tennessee, Nashville, palm and orange-crowned warblers.

Birding calendar

Not surprisingly, all April 2020 Iowa City Bird Club courses have been postponed and events canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It still is OK go outside and visit parks, while safely practicing social distance. Pick a park or wildlife area and go exploring. Many of the wildlife management areas do not have bathrooms, a potential place of viral contamination. If you do use park facilities, such as bathrooms, wash your hands well with soap or use hand sanitizer immediately after use.


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 brandon.caswell83@gmail.com with birding-related questions.

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