Wading birds making their way back to Eastern Iowa

Bird-watching: Watch for herons and egrets, among others

A great egret hunts for prey around Goose Lake in North Liberty. (Brandon Caswell/correspondent)
A great egret hunts for prey around Goose Lake in North Liberty. (Brandon Caswell/correspondent)

Several species of wading birds, especially herons and egrets, make Eastern Iowa their home in warmer months.

They are larger, elegant birds with long proportions. Their bills are knifelike and pointed, like a spear, for hunting prey.

You may think fish and other aquatic critters are their staple food source, but anything that fits down the hatch is usually on the menu. Long legs and toes make wading through the shallow waters effortless. Stealth and impeccable patients make these birds extremely successful at feeding themselves and their offspring.

The great egret is widespread in North American during late summer into fall. It is a large white bird with a long S-shaped neck, long black legs and a long, yellow dagger-like bill.

Starting in August and usually peaking in September, these egrets will stage in some of the larger wetland areas in Eastern Iowa. A few important areas include Hawkeye Wildlife Management Area in Johnson County, Green Island WMA in Jackson County and the Tama County Otter Creek Marsh SWR.

Along with staging of the American white pelican, these large white waders will gather in the many hundreds, often assembling in their largest concentrations just before sunset. Many will roost way out on the inaccessible flood plain, far away from the risk of predation by land mammals.

Many of Iowa’s wading birds are not adapted to staying the winter. They need constant access to open water to stay properly fed and hydrated. The great blue heron is probably the only Iowa wader that reliably winters in the state, largely on select spots along the Mississippi River. Credit Island, in Davenport, is one location they can eke out a living, especially during more mild winters when patches of water stay open.


Often, industrial waters being fed into the river can keep small sections of water open all winter. This can provide vital habitat to not only herons, but other species of waterfowl.

Be aware of a couple other wading species that, although rarer, can show up in the fall. Both species are smaller than the great egret.

The little blue heron used to be somewhat “more common” in Iowa, but over the last decade or longer has become increasing more rare. The adult has a beautiful slate-colored blue body and purplish head and neck. Juveniles are completely white, with greenish legs and a bill that is two-toned with a dark tip and lighter base. Juveniles also have dark coloration in the tips of the primary feathers, which can be nicely seen in flight. Immature birds seen in the spring are often referred to as “calico,” appearing largely white with patches of blue and white in random places.

The other notable species, the snowy egret, is primarily white, with a black bill, yellow lores, black legs and distinct yellow feet. Juvenile snowy egrets can often be mistaken as juvenile little blue herons, and vice versa. The juvenile snowy egret looks like an adult, but has yellowish-green legs and feet.


l Look for shorebirds where habitat persists. The most ideal places are floodplains with low water levels where muddy banks or sandbars exist. Occasionally, lakes or ponds are temporarily drawn down to help restore fish habitat. These draw downs often provide the best opportunity for shorebirds, as shallow, muddy pockets usually persist for some time.

l Migrant wood warblers along with other non-Iowa nesting passerine species will start passing back through on their slow progression back to the tropics and subtropics. Note some species will appear increasingly dull as compared to their spring coloration, making identification more challenging.

l Staging of the American White Pelican, at places such as Hawkeye WMA, should peak in September. See information about the Iowa Pelican Festival in the events section. This is a great family event.


Setting an autofocus mode is an important aspect of photography. It largely depends on your style of photography. For bird photography, many will use a “spot autofocus.” This will weight all the autofocus to the very center of the image you see through the eyepiece.


Years ago someone I ran into in the field suggested this autofocus mode. It has been the primary mode I have used ever since. Often, a bird photo attempt will consist of trying to capture a single species, often tens of meters away. Having a single spot, directly in the center of the autofocus grid, will usually give you the highest probability of getting a focused shot. For birds that are more approachable and not moving around quickly, try moving the spot to the upper left or right corner, so the head or eyes of the bird are in best focus.

Read your camera’s instruction manual to learn how to manipulate your autofocus as desired.


l Aug. 23-25 — Iowa Ornithologists’ Union Fall Meeting in Pella, with trips around the Lake Red Rock area. See iowabirds.org for more details. You do no need to be a member of the IOU to attend the meeting. Bird-watchers of all skill levels are welcome.

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

l Sept. 8, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. — Iowa Pelican Festival 2019. View large flocks of migrating American White Pelicans with the help of local bird-watchers. Iowa DNR and Iowa City Bird Club members will have spotting scopes set up for public use, or bring your own scope or binoculars. Don’t forget your cameras. In addition to many display booths, free programs about pelicans, ospreys and other nature-related subjects, free face painting for the kids plus other fun activities will provide hours of free entertainment for the whole family. A food vendor on site will be selling tasty snacks and beverages.

l 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 lives with his wife and son in Marion. Email brandon.caswell83@gmail.com with birding-related questions, including questions about activities.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.