Outdoors

Plenty of birds to watch in December

Bird-watching: Longspur hard to find, but are here

A typical Lapland longspur in winter plumage, just west of The Eastern Iowa Airport on Cherry Valley Road SW in Linn County. (Brandon Caswell/correspondent)
A typical Lapland longspur in winter plumage, just west of The Eastern Iowa Airport on Cherry Valley Road SW in Linn County. (Brandon Caswell/correspondent)
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Backyard birding during the winter can be a delight.

However, other options are, let’s say, closely afield.

Any seasoned Iowa citizen knows sprawling agricultural fields cover most of Iowa’s rural landscape. Access to such places can be much closer than you think.

Ag fields provide great habitat for many wintering bird species.

The Lapland longspur is a small, gregarious and nomadic variety similar in form to sparrows. Probably the most common passerine on the arctic tundra during its breeding season, the fields of Iowa provide a great analog to the arctic in winter and early spring. Lapland longspurs are by far the easier found of the two regularly occurring longspur species found in Iowa. The other species, Smith’s longspur, is transient and typically found in early spring. Smith’s usually travel in smaller flocks, although some flocks may sometimes contain both longspur species. Smith’s typically likes stubbier, grassy substrate that is usually damp.

The Lapland longspur is an expert of disguise. Flocks in the tens of thousands can form around some parts of the state, amassing over the seas of tilled soil and ag vegetation. Flocks may suddenly appear and pass over, providing a spectacle of bouncing and warbling, before altogether disappearing on the ground surface. Once a flock lands it silences and blends in perfectly, rendering it nearly impossible to find.

Lapland longspur has a distinct face pattern on a generically sparrow-like body. Adult males won’t usually be in full breeding plumage as they migrate northward through Iowa in the early spring, but they can get close. The face is a brilliant black with yellow eyebrow stripe. A white band on the neck sits between a black cheek and throat and rufous nape. The bill is yellow. The longspurs we see in winter loose nearly all the black on the face, aside some on the throat, crown of the head and a distinct black U-shape on the face.

How are these birds observed well, aside a quick and chaotic-looking flyover? The lucky observer might find a flock right next to the road, but more often than not distance and windy conditions obscure the chances of seeing them well on the ground. Perhaps the best way to observe longspurs is following a snow event, when birds are forced out of the fields and onto the roadside. Additionally, flocks will gather along gravel roads to ingest tiny stones in order to fill their crop.

Slowly approaching roadside birds from the comforts of a vehicle can often result in impeccable looks. Sometimes birds may not even flush. Remember, longspurs spend much of their lives on the tundra, far from humans and vehicles. This means a person in a vehicle poses no threat. It’s possible a human observer, with binoculars dangled out the window, may be the first human that bird has ever seen.

PHOTOGRAPHY ADVICE

In the frigid winter months, staying close to or inside an automobile is probably not a bad idea. Although I have alluded to this in the past, staying in a vehicle can be the best type of photography blind imaginable. There are camera mounts available that attach to a lowered window and bag-like devices where the camera firmly sits over the door when the window is completely down.

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If there is a need to get out, keep your body behind an ajar door or exit the vehicle on the opposite side of the photo subject, leaning around an edge to take photos.

A slow approach in an automobile can lead to extremely rewarding photos of birds along the side of a road. These slow approaches in a vehicle may put little to no stress on birds and other animals.

Perhaps most important of all, be wary of your surroundings while doing photography on roadsides of any type. While rural gravel may not have oncoming traffic for miles at a time, it’s always good to be cautious and courteous to approaching vehicles for both their safety and yours.

OTHER DECEMBER BIRDS

— Look for snow bunting and horned lark mixed in with flocks of Lapland longspur.

— Open water can be hard to find in December. Low head dams and tailwater areas of reservoir dams may often be the only open water in a given area in winter. Look for waterfowl at these areas, especially when temperatures get extremely frigid. Bald eagles will often perch near these areas in search for fish.

— Wintering raptors such as eagles, hawks and falcons can be found atop poles along rural roads. Another predatory bird, the northern shrike, also can be found in the winter in Iowa.

— Feeders can be a great place to see yard birds. The following places have feeders stocked throughout the winter: George Wyth State Park in Black Hawk County; Wickiup Hill Learning Center and Indian Creek Nature Center in Linn County; Macbride Nature Recreation Area and Kent Park in Johnson County

NOVEMBER CALENDAR

— Dec. 1 — Join the IOU Events Committee for a Mississippi River birding adventure as we make a loop around Pool 13 (which is the “lake” above Lock & Dam 13, positioned between the towns of Fulton, Ill., Thomson, Ill., Savanna, Ill., Sabula, Iowa, and Clinton). Meet the group by 8 a.m. in the southwest corner of the Hy-Vee parking lot in Clinton (901 S 4th St). As soon as the carpooling is arranged, the caravan will leave the parking lot, so try not to be late. This is a free event, but you must register in advance on the IOU website (iowabirds.org). The trip around Pool 13 should take until at least noon, but should probably last a bit longer. It will be done by 2 p.m. at the latest.

Visit this web address to see a current list of 2018 Christmas Bird Counts in Iowa along with information about how to attend at www.iowabirds.org/Connections/CBC.aspx.

— The Bremer County CBC is Dec. 15 and the Cedar Falls-Waterloo CBC is Dec. 22.

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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. He resides with his wife and son in Cedar Rapids. Email brandon.caswell83@gmail.com with birding-related questions, including questions about activities.

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