Despite Iowa’s lowest bird diversity in the winter months, there are many hidden treasures still to be found.
Owl diversity is at its height during the coldest months. In fact, all of Iowa’s eight regularly occurring owl species can be found by knowing where to look and when. A little luck also helps.
Half of our regular owl species typically migrate south in the winter from more northerly summer breeding grounds. Snowy and northern saw-whet are strict migrants, with no known Iowa nesting records.
Long-eared and short-eared owls are rare nesters in Iowa. It is thought short-eared was once a more common nester, particularly in northern Iowa. Summer sightings of short-eared are not unknown and may indicate nesting. It is possible the decrease in pastures and hayfields on the Iowa landscape led to a stark decrease in nesting attempts.
Both “eared” species roost in the daytime, with long-eared preferring dense stands of conifers or willow thickets. Short-eared owls roost in tall grasses and are sometimes flushed by pheasant hunters.
Unlike long-eared, short-eared owls are highly crepuscular. They will actively start hunting over grasslands even hours before sunset, but typically come out as the evening light starts to quickly fade.
Look for a roughly crow-sized bird with patterned upperwings, especially darkly barred wingtips. The underside is fairly pale with dark streaking around the head. The face of the short-eared owl isn’t perfectly flat, slightly projecting outward and the eyes appear as if the bird is wearing mascara. Owls that get an early start to hunting may be seen interacting with northern harriers as well as other members of their species.
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Most human encounters with long-eared owls occur in a roost. Knowing their preferred roosting habitat is the key to finding them. They are sensitive to disturbance and most often they will flush from their roost if approached too closely. If you do decide to look for them make sure to follow some simple birding etiquette. Give long-eared owls plenty of space and keep the time in their roost to a minimum.
Ear tufts are highly diagnostic of the long-eared owl. While short-eared owls do have tiny ear tufts that are usually not visible, long-eared tufts are ubiquitous. They have an orangish face with dark, vertical stripes through the eyes. These dark stripes border a white, inset V-shape in the middle of the face, with a dark forehead above the bill. The body is fairly multicolored with both dark streaks and barring. While the great horned owl also has long ear tufts, they are larger, have a thinly striped front side and will typically roost in trees or even on human structures.
Keep in mind that long-eared owl and northern saw-whet owl can roost in similar coniferous habitat. They are typically found in stands of young to semi-mature cedars.
OTHER JANUARY BIRDS
— Snowy Owls are showing signs of a minor to possibly major irruption. The last major irruption was in the winter of 2017-2018, which produced hundreds of sightings throughout the state.
— Flocks of Canada geese may contain low numbers of greater white-fronted, snow and cackling geese.
— Any open water on lakes and rivers may have dabbling and diving ducks, such as redhead, ring-necked duck, lesser scaup and common goldeneye. Goldeneye sometimes spend the coldest months of winter between the low-head dam just upstream from the First Avenue Bridge and the Eighth Avenue bridge in Cedar Rapids.
— Look for game birds, such as gray partridge, ring-necked pheasants and other field birds like snow bunting, Lapland longspur and horned lark, along rural roads after snowfall events. Calm, sunny afternoons can be a great opportunity to try for photos.
— Cedar Lake is a great place for watching gulls come in to roost about one or two hours before sunset. Oftentimes gulls will continue coming in to the roost even after sunset. Along with the common ring-billed and herring gulls, less common gulls include lesser black-backed gull, glaucous gull and Iceland gull. There are a couple reports of great black-backed gull at Cedar Lake as well.
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— The opportunities to photograph bald eagles are best at the height of winter cold. Look at low-head dams, Mississippi lock and dams and tailwater areas at reservoirs. Some popular spots in Eastern Iowa are the tailwaters at Coralville Lake, the Iowa River Trail by Iowa River Power restaurant, and Lock and Dam No. 14 on the Iowa side of the Mississippi. The best time to photograph eagles at the lock and dam is in the afternoon. Dozens of eagle photographers line the riverbanks of this location when the river and lighting conditions are best.
— Close to a dozen species of hawks will make Iowa their winter home. Hawkeye Wildlife Management Area in Johnson County is a great place to see northern harrier, red-tailed hawk and rough-legged hawk.
— Continue to monitor feeders for any irruptive winter finch species, such as purple finch, red and white-winged crossbills, common redpoll, pine siskin and evening grosbeak.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org