Outdoors

Look - and listen - for winter wren

Bird-watching: Wooded areas a good place to find smallest wren

A winter wren briefly pops out of a wooded ravine at Hickory Hill Park in Iowa City. Often difficult to see for extended
A winter wren briefly pops out of a wooded ravine at Hickory Hill Park in Iowa City. Often difficult to see for extended periods of time, patience can greatly increase the chances of catching one out in the open long enough for a photograph. (Brandon Caswell/correspondent)
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The smallest wren of Iowa also is the most skilled singer.

The long trills interspersed with warbles give the winter wren an unmistakable and beautiful song.

Living up to its namesake, this wren rarely spends the summer in Iowa, although some breeding records exist along counties bordering the Mississippi River. Summers are typically spent from southern Alaska east to Newfoundland and south through much of New England, Wisconsin, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and the northeast corner of Minnesota. There are some populations in the Appalachians that stay year-round.

In winter, the best chances of seeing this bird are in the southern tier of Iowa’s counties, especially in far southeastern Iowa. Winter wren may occasionally be found on Christmas bird counts. Otherwise, the wintering range is throughout much of the lower Midwestern states and eastern Texas east throughout the southeastern states.

Look for peak migration in wooded areas throughout April and October. Densely wooded ravines are prime winter wren habitat, although during migration they can easily turn up in an urban backyard.

Almost always hyperactive in nature, this wren resembles a dark pingpong ball with a short, upright tail sticking out of it. They move in an almost mouse-like fashion through dense tangles of fallen trees or roots, brush piles and thickets. Trails that follow small streams braiding through ravines are probably the best place to look for this bird.

Listen for their song in the spring. In the fall or winter, listen for a short and hard “jip-jip jip-jip.”

SPECIES TO LOOK FOR IN NOVEMBER

— Geese. Look for Canada goose numbers to increase as migratory flocks pour into Iowa from the north. Also look for greater white-fronted goose. Although most of the interior snow goose and Ross’s goose populations migrate back south along the Missouri River, some will occasionally show up in Eastern Iowa.

— Lily Lake in the Amana Colonies is a great place to look for Trumpeter and Tundra swans.

— Duck diversity stay at its peak throughout November. Look on both deeper lakes such as at Pleasant Creek SRA and Cedar Lake for diving ducks and in shallow wetlands for dabbling ducks. Also pay attention for pied-billed and horned grebes. They resemble ducks, but are generally smaller, more sleek and have smaller bills.

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— Common loon will peak in November. Both Cedar Lake and Pleasant Creek’s lake are great places to look.

— Bald eagle numbers will continue to increase, especially if water north of us freezes up earlier than usual.

— Raptor migration still is in full swing in November. When out and about, make sure you are occasionally looking up in the sky for eagles, hawk, vultures and falcons. Turkey vulture numbers should drastically decrease in November.

— Northern shrike will be back in full force by November.

— Continue to look for purple finch, American goldfinch and pine siskins at your feeders.

— November still is a month to look for sparrows. Hawkeye WMA and Pleasant Creek SRA are two excellent places to look. Sparrows can often be seen foraging right along the roadside.

PHOTO ADVICE

Photographic image quality greatly increases with available light. The best light is on sunny or very thinly overcast days in the morning and late afternoon to early evening.

When planning a bird-watching outing with photography in mind, stay cognizant of where the sun is in relation to yourself. If you plan on walking a field, roadside, fence line, etc., start at a place where you can walk with the sun at your back. This assures that during the entire walk you’ll have nice sunlight on all the subjects out ahead of you.

Another thing that can happen when taking this approach is birds might essentially be “blinded” by the sun when you approach them. I often use this method on sunny days when I’m out attempting to get sparrow photographs.

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. Email brandon.caswell83@gmail.com

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