Outdoors

Watch for 'snowbirds' wintering in Iowa

Bird-watching: Plenty to look for in February

A male dark-eyed junco of the slate-colored subspecies. The pink bill, white outer tail feathers and overall dark gray c
A male dark-eyed junco of the slate-colored subspecies. The pink bill, white outer tail feathers and overall dark gray coloration are key field marks. This photo was taken late November in north central Iowa. (Brandon Caswell/correspondent)
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One of the “snowbirds” of Iowa, ubiquitous from rural areas to cities, is the junco.

There are two junco species in the United States. These are the aptly named dark-eyed and yellow-eyed. The dark-eyed junco is widespread over North America, whereas the yellow-eyed is restricted to the southwestern United States near the Mexican border.

The dark-eyed junco is an interesting species, to say the least. It is classified as a sparrow. Across the U.S. there are several different populations, many of which look largely different from one another. One visual commonality is all have pink bills and white outer tail feathers.

Out of these populations, there are six recognized subspecies. Until just a few decades ago, several of these subspecies were recognized as different species. These included the white-winged, Oregon, dark-eyed and gray-headed. Two of these now recognized subspecies, slate-colored and Oregon, can be found in Iowa. The two other recognized subspecies are the red-backed and pink-sided. All of these, other than slate-colored, occur in roughly the western half of the U.S.

Start looking for small numbers of juncos in September. By late October, juncos move in and winter in Iowa. By April they migrate back to more northern breeding grounds. Seeing a junco in early May, although not unheard of, is certainly a noteworthy sighting. I have heard anecdotal stories of juncos breeding in Iowa, which is certainly not accurate.

The most common of our two subspecies is the slate-colored. The male has a dark gray head that blends seamlessly into a lighter, slate-colored backside and sides. Sometimes a little brown can be seen on the mantle (roughly the shoulders area). The belly is white. The female has a grayish hood, a muddled brownish and grayish backside and brownish or grayish sides. The belly also is white. As previously mentioned, a great way to identify a moving junco is by their flashing white outer tail feather.

Although more notable, another junco subspecies that may show up under feeders is the Oregon. The male has a black hood with brown back and brownish sides. It is the contrast between the hood, body and bill that really make the Oregon “pop out” among a group of slate-colored.

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Another junco oddity is the “cassiar” junco. They are seemingly pretty common throughout Iowa and further west. The cassiar is probably not a true subspecies, but rather a hybrid of slate-colored and Oregon. Not surprisingly, the male cassiar is intermediate in appearance between our two recognized subspecies. Cassiar has a more “hooded” appearance than slate-colored. They have a lighter brown backside and grayish sides. Females are a lot harder to identify.

Photo captions:

SPECIES TO LOOK FOR IN FEBRUARY

— Snowy Owl has shown well this winter. They have irrupted into our region this winter, but not as strong as the last time they did in the winter of 2017-2018. Eastern Iowa has had a fair share of sightings in the last two months.

— Bird blinds offer a great place to observe and possibly photography common backyard birds. These include: downy, hairy, red-bellied and redheaded woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatch, American goldfinch, black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, dark-eyed junco, American tree sparrow, white-throated sparrow, Carolina wren, etc. Once in a while a less common bird may show up to feeders, which can cause great excitement in the birding community.

— February weather can get really cold in Eastern Iowa, so keep in mind the only open water is often found around dam structures. The Coralville tailwaters area and any low head dam (roller dam) can be an excellent place to see and photograph bald eagles and several types of waterfowl.

PHOTOGRAPHY ADVICE

The winter is an excellent time for photography at bird blinds. Despite the current pandemic, many blinds are open to the public. Some may request mask usage.

There are some good things to know before seeking out a bird blind. Is it well-stocked with food on a regular basis? What species does it typically attract? Is there access during the pandemic? These questions can be addressed by calling ahead to locations that have blinds, such as Wickiup Hill Learning Center, Indian Creek Nature Center, George Wyth State Park, Macbride Nature Recreation Area (MNRA) and Kent Park. MNRA is closed to the public until sometime later this year.

Once food upkeep and access questions have been addressed, it is time to visit. Take the initial visit to determine the best time of day for lighting conditions. Once the better hours for lighting are determined, it can make future visits for photography more fruitful.

Another thing to note at bird blinds are possible nearby natural perches, such as tree snags, boulders, etc. Photos at feeders can be nice, but birds on a natural perch may seem more aesthetically pleasing. Look for woodpeckers, nuthatches and other birds to stage on nearby snags or branches before going in or upon coming out of a feeder setup. Knowing these spots can be the key to catching a bird stopped just long enough for a nice shot on natural substrate.

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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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