Outdoors

Green Island offers rich views in slow month for bird-watching

WMA is a 'crown jewel' of Iowa wetlands

An adult Common Gallinule briefly steps up out of a marsh near Center Point. (Brandon Caswell/correspondent)
An adult Common Gallinule briefly steps up out of a marsh near Center Point. (Brandon Caswell/correspondent)
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July is perhaps the slowest month for bird-watching in Eastern Iowa.

At some point, the majority of our bird species have finished nesting or are nearing completion. Shorebirds will begin to migrate back south from their far northern summer breeding grounds. Many of these early shorebirds are adults, who quickly relinquish their parental duties not long after their chicks fledge.

One highlighted trip many Eastern Iowa birders take is to Green Island Wildlife Management Area in Jackson County. This mix of mostly wetlands with woodlands and uplands has hosted more than 250 species of birds. As one of the most reliable places to find breeding Least Bittern and Common Gallinule, it is perhaps our “crown jewel” of wetlands in Iowa.

At the local scale there is a small analog of Green Island just north of Cedar Rapids, located west of Center Point. Although the marsh is private property, it can be viewed along Cedar Ridge Road. The east side of the marsh seems to be the most productive.

Over the last two years, birders have detected nesting Common Gallinules and Least Bitterns. Wood Duck and Green Heron are other notable breeders in the marsh. Although many wetland species are sometimes hard to see, their fledglings eventually will bring them out into the open. Early to mid-July is perhaps the best time period to see nesting marsh birds out with their young.

The Common Gallinule, once called Common Moorhen, is a crow-sized marsh bird in the rail family. It is mostly a bluish-charcoal color with a small white stripe down its side and along its outer tail feathers. Its legs are long and yellow, but sometimes a bright orange coloration can be seen at the leg base.

This orange color is similar to the most striking and recognizable feature about this bird, its bill. The tip of the bill is yellow, sharply demarcating into a bright orange. The orange is continuous into a “shield” that makes up the front of the face. Shields are typical in gallinule and coot species.

Many times gallinules are very secretive and only heard. Vocalizations of Common Gallinule consist of squawks, yelps, whinnies, cackles and clucks. Be careful not to confuse this species with the vocalizations of Pied-billed Grebe. These sounds give gallinules the colloquial name “swamp chicken.” Juvenile Common Gallinule is more brown overall and lack the red shield on the face.

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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.

PHOTOGRAPHY ADVICE

Marsh habitats often are difficult to access. Many times species are heard often, but rarely seen. My advice this month is not related to photo technicalities, but to approach. Kayaking or other small types of watercraft can provide the best way to see and photograph many secretive marsh species. Oftentimes birds will not recognize a kayak as a threat, which can produce spectacular photo results. Keep in mind inflatable vessels under seven feet and canoes and kayaks fewer than 13 feet (without motor or sail) do not need registration. As always, take precautions against tipping. Use your best judgment when considering photography with expensive equipment while floating out into a wetland.

OTHER BIRDS TO LOOK FOR IN JULY

l Prothonotary Warbler in wooded floodplains.

l Shorebirds, especially adults, will begin to trickle back southward.

l Green Heron along lakes and pond edges. Least Bittern prefers stands of cattails in permanently wet areas.

l Sandhill Cranes with colts in wetlands and damp fields.

l Hooded Merganser with fledglings, the only merganser species that breeds in Iowa.

l Pied-billed Grebe with fledglings.

l Sedge Wren in wet grasslands and meadows.

l Grasshopper and Henslow’s Sparrow in grasslands.

JUNE BIRDING CALENDAR

l July 4 — 8 a.m., Kent Park Bird Walk with leader Rick Hollis. Meet at the CEC.

l July 7 — 8 a.m.-noon, Turkey Vulture Festival at the Coralville Dam East Overlook. Featuring face painting and Gonzo the Turkey Vulture, who will arrive by midmorning.

l July 18 — 8 a.m. Kent Park Bird Walk with leader Rick Hollis. Meet at the CEC.

l July 21 — Annual Butterfly Count sponsored by the North American Butterfly Association. We’ll visit Kent Park, Hawkeye Wildlife Management Area, Lake Macbride and other areas. To participate, contact Chris Edwards, (319) 430-4732 or credwards@aol.com

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