Ver Meer Woods – Pella, Iowa – May 6, 2019

On May 6, 2019 my son-in-law and I assisted a member of the Ver Meer family in an inventory of the species at Ver Meer Woods, on the banks of the South Skunk River near Pella, Iowa.  Here is a list of the birds we saw that morning.

First and most spectacular were the nesting colonies of Great Blue Herons in the great old Sycamores on the property.  We saw about 100 nests and even more Herons, and in many of the nests could be heard young chirping.  Hatched eggshells littered the ground.  This may be the largest Great Blue Heron rookery in the State of Iowa.  What a sight and sound it was.  And what a Natural Treasure it is!!


Other species seen at the Woodland during the morning were:  Turkey Vultures, Crows, Red-tailed Hawk, Wood Ducks, Mallards, Turkeys, Eastern Kingbird, Great Crested Flycatchers, Barred Owl (heard only), Least Flycatchers, Empidonax species, Wood Thrushes, Swainson’s Thrushes, Veery, Grey-cheeked Thrush, Brown Thrasher, Mourning Doves, House Wrens, Yellow-throated Vireos (heard only), Blue-headed Vireo, Cardinals, Indigo Buntings, Catbirds, Common Grackles, Bluejays, White-breasted Nuthatches, Baltimore Orioles, Robins, Eastern Towhees, Red Headed Woodpeckers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Downy Woodpeckers, Hairy Woodpeckers, Pileated Woodpecker (heard only), Goldfinches, White-throated Sparrows, Lincoln’s Sparrows, and the following bonanza of 7 Warbler species:  Redstarts, Northern Waterthrush, Ovenbirds, Palm Warblers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Black and White Warblers, and the bird of the day, a beautiful male Blackburnian Warbler.  Total Species at the Woodlands: 45

Others seen near the Woods were Pheasants (at least 5), Great Tailed Grackles (3), Meadowlark species, Barn Swallows, and Red-winged Blackbirds, bringing the number at or near the Woods to 50 species.  The Ver Meer Family deserves great credit for placing this unique place under a conservation easement to assure the preservation of its treasures far into the future.

Other sightings of special interest were a lovely Coyote, a very large Woodchuck, a Garter Snake and Spring flowers covering the forest floor in profusion:  among others,  Spring Beauty, Rue Anemone, Violets, Buttercups, Jack-in-the Pulpit, with a few Jacks present in their pulpits, May Apples (but no apples yet), Wild Ginger, and Dutchman’s Britches (of course), but not in flower.

Harlequin Duck in Iowa – December 31, 2014

In November I saw hundreds of colorful breeding plumaged Harlequin Ducks in Adak, in the Aleutian Islands, but never before have I seen a Harlequin Duck in any plumage in Iowa.  This plain jane “Harley” showed up in Des Moines below the Center Street Dam in late December and continues to inhabit our local waters.  I wonder where she will go from here?  Birds found so far out of their normal territory are always of concern for their ability to find their way home.










The size difference is noticeable between the Harlequin Duck and the Canada Goose.


Iowa Prairie Chickens and Nebraska Common Crane – April 7, 2014

On April 7, 2014, I left Des Moines about 7:00 a.m. and drove to the Ringgold County Conservation Area to see the Prairie Chicken mating display.  I was hoping that this distinctive, and now rare in Iowa, prairie resident would represent number 100 on my 2014 Iowa species list.  The Ringgold County population is the only known remaining population of Prairie Chickens in Iowa, and this only because of extensive reintroduction efforts.  As I was driving through Kellerton, a Eurasian Collared Dove blatantly displayed itself on the road in front of my car and I could not ignore it, so this introduced species became my 2014 Iowa #100.

A few miles later I was the lone observer at the deck looking eastward toward the Prairie Chicken lek.  I was not disappointed, for 10, I believe all males, were cavorting about.  They made a great display and a good start for my day.  I hope this reintroduction effort succeeds in restoring such an iconic prairie bird in Iowa for the delight of generations to follow.  I was reminded of my father’s account of his childhood trip by wagon across northwest Iowa to their new farm home in 1884, where the Prairie Chickens flushed from the grasses by the dozens per mile.  I was also reminded that he became one of the best shotgun hunters in the area, bringing home Prairie Chickens which were a staple of the dinner table in his farm home.  He would have enjoyed watching this now rare display, as he loved, as well as hunted, the birds.

I left about 8:30 and drove Highway 2 west to Lincoln, Nebraska, to connect with Interstate 80 for the next leg on my journey.  I would try to find the Common Crane that others had seen in the preceding few days near the Elm Creek exit just west of Kearney, Nebraska, on the Platte River plain.  “The Common Crane is a Eurasian species, [an] accidental vagrant to the Great Plains, western Canada and central Alaska, almost always with migrating flocks of Sandhill Cranes.”  [National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, Third Edition]

The weather was not conducive to birding.  High, cold, north winds and intermittent rain squalls prevailed all afternoon.  I drove up and down muddy Buffalo Creek Road, using my spotting scope to look south from the protection of my car, as the rain and wind pelted the north side window.  Thousands of Sandhill Cranes were crowded into a field of corn stalks, but they stayed quite close to the south border of the field, about a quarter mile from the road and adjacent to I-80.  For most of the afternoon I was the lone birder.  About 4:00 a woman from Massachusetts arrived and we agreed to split the duties of scoping the flocks of Sandhills and exchanged cell phone numbers so we could communicate with each other if one of us spotted the “Bird”.  As the rain became heavier, the cranes spent more time shedding the rain with their necks extended, making it more possible to distinguish the Common Crane, if present, from the Sandhills.  She first spotted the Common Crane, then lost it.  Knowing it was there, and the general location, I was able to refind it and we both were able to enjoy excellent looks as it moved to the nearer edge of the Sandhill masses.  Thus, the Common Crane, a Code 4 ABA bird, became number 719 on my North American Life List.

I arrived home about 10:30 p.m., for a satisfactory closing to a very long day on the road.


Albino or Leucistic Possum? – February 20, 2014

     I haven’t posted anything on since September of last year.  Not much of interest has happened to justify a report.  I returned from Spain in August ready for back surgery to relieve the increasingly debilitating pain that I had experienced all year.  On October 31 I had a laminectomy, which has been successful.  Recovery has taken a few months and is somewhat complicated by hip problems that may require hip replacement in the near future.  Suffice to say, since August last year I have not travelled out of Iowa and therefore there were no interesting birding results to post.

     On the other hand, I have increased my concentration on my own back yard.  I have kept a birding journal for quite a number of years.  In it I note the species seen each year in (1) my yard, (2) in Iowa, and (3) in North America.  I spent a lot more time in my yard in 2013, especially since August, than in any prior year, and I did set a new record for species recorded in here in 2013: 110.  The previous annual counts ranged from 94 to 104.  The total number of species seen in my yard since we moved here in 1985 is 153.  At this point a new yard species is rare and good reason for celebration. The count thus far in 2014 has been rather small compared to similar periods in prior years:  26 to date.  Nothing unusual has shown up, although the attractive Fox Sparrow that came to my feeder during the most inclement of our inclement weather is somewhat uncommon here in winter.  Eastern Bluebirds, normally seen in January, did not show up until today.  I have been able to drive around central Iowa on a few of our nicer days to see what other birds may be moving about.  The best of those is the male White-winged Scoter, a very unusual bird for Iowa, that has been fishing below the Red Rock Dam, about 40 miles away, for the past 2 weeks.  The northern birds that often invade Iowa in harsh winters have been notably absent this winter.  Snowy Owls have been somewhat of an exception and a number of them have been seen about the state.  Others, such as Purple Finches, Pine Siskins, and Red-breasted Nuthatches that I sometimes see in winter have been absent from my yard and largely absent from Iowa this year.  The food supply must be good in Canada. The scarcity of birds has been offset somewhat by the large number and variety of mammals that have frequented my yard this year.  They include numerous White-tailed Deer and Fox Squirrels, plus occasional Raccoons, Cottontail Rabbits, Coyotes, and Red Foxes.  Yesterday a very rare white Possum (“Opossum”) came to clean up the seeds fallen from my bird feeder.


I suspect this is the same individual that I saw in the woods behind our house several years ago, when it was a half-grown juvenile.  Because of its obvious divergent coloration I wondered if it would survive, but it seems to have.  Barbara was able to get some pictures of it.


I think that it is not truly an albino, but rather a leucistic variant, because the eyes  appear to be dark, rather than the distinctive albino pink.  What a strange animal.  How it survives our winters, especially this one, is a mystery to me I am really hoping that one day I will spot a Bobcat in my back yard.  Very surprisingly, they are increasing in Iowa and I keep thinking that one will show up here, but none has, so far.  Bobcats were common in Iowa before settlement in the 1800s.  By the 1980s they were practically extirpated here.  Since then, they have increased steadily in southern and western Iowa, with a current estimated population of 3000.  The Iowa Department of Natural Resources now allows trapping or hunting bobcats in about 40 of our 99 counties.  I hope that doesn’t cause a severe decrease in the number of these beautiful creatures in our state.  Some consider them a pest because they do take a number of our birds, especially game birds such as pheasants and bobwhite quail.  I guess it is all a matter of balance.

May Snows

May Snows bring Orioles to oranges and a Green Heron and Solitary Sandpiper to my neighbor’s frog pond.

Our record May snowfall stranded many migrants here in central Iowa.  Among the more interesting drop-ins was this Baltimore Oriole who found our orange in the midst of the snow fall.


The next morning a visit to my neighbor’s pond showed a first-time caller to our neighborhood, a very complacent Green Heron who found a good source of frogs.


The Green Heron was joined at the pond by another first time visitor to our neighborhood, a Solitary Sandpiper.


Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Every spring I look for Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers in my back yard here in West Des Moines, as they migrate north to their breeding grounds.  Sometimes I find none, but this year was a banner year.  At least four individuals showed up one early April day.  Here is a picture of one of them, as he worked over one of the bigger trees in our ravine looking, I suppose, for sap.



Falcated Duck in California

It took a while to rest up from the trip to Papua New Guinea in August, 2012.  Much of my birding for the rest of 2012 was confined to my own back yard here in West Des Moines.

I participated in the Red Rock Christmas Bird Count in late December.  Among the better sightings on that gray, cold, drizzly day were a pheasant, 100 or so Snow Geese, 5 Trumpeter Swans resting on a plowed hillside, 2 Swamp Sparrows and a Northern Shrike.  On December 22 I participated very casually in the Des Moines Christmas Bird Count, by noting whatever showed up in my back yard.  The only species that was different from what all the other participants were able to identify was a pair of Common Grackles hanging out by my feeders.

On Christmas eve my son-in-law spotted some large, white birds flying toward my house from the west.  I was able to get the binoculars out in time to identify the 11 Trumpeter Swans that were flying eastward through the mist, like angels going to find the Babe.  It was a beautiful sight, and to add to the pleasure, these were the first Trumpeter Swans that I have ever seen from my yard, so they became my Yard Bird number 155.  (I have lived here for about 28 years).

On December 18th I flew to San Francisco where I rented a car and drove northeast to the Colusa National Wildlife Preserve.  A Falcated Duck, which I have never seen, was being seen there on a regular basis.  The afternoon was clear, windy and cold, following upon the heavy rains of the preceding few days.  Colusa is a very special place.  Thousands of ducks, Snow Geese, other geese and other water birds winter there.  Two other birders and I arrived at about the same time and after an hour or so spent scanning the thousands of ducks and geese, hunters’ guns spooked nearly all the geese and I was able to spot the Falcated Duck, actually quite close (my North American Life Bird number 708).  One of the other birder’s, Lew Milligan, got a good photograph, and with his permission, I am posting it here.  Thanks very much, Lew, and good birding to you.

I drove back to San Francisco and flew to Los Angeles where a White Wagtail (which would also be a new North American Life Bird for me), had been seen for several days on the Outer Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro.  I arrived early and spent the whole day, but the bird did not show (and has not been seen since).  The hours spent lounging on the rocks in the sun while the waves lapped the beach and shoreline rock, was a decent consolation.  I left in time to catch a flight to Las Vegas and drive to Lake Havasu City, Arizona, where I hoped to find the third of my “life-bird” trip targets, a Nutting’s Flycatcher.  One had been reported at mile marker 2 of Planet Ranch Road, south of Lake Havasu City. Planet Ranch Road is posted as “Primitive”, and lives up to its billing.  I was able to maneuver my little rental car around the rocks and wash-outs, arriving at Mile Marker 2.  The day was a bit chilly and windy, but not too bad.  I spent it walking up and down the road, exploring a few trails off road and warming up in the car now and then.  The Flycatcher was very reclusive, and I neither heard nor saw it.  (It has been seen there again in recent days).  Net result of the trip:  1 for 3.

My statistics for the year 2012:  91 species of “Yard” birds; 143 species of “Iowa” Birds, 2 new North American Life Birds (Purple Sandpipers in Maine in January and the Falcated Duck in California in December); 4 new Iowa Life Birds (Cinnamon Teal, Arctic Tern, Roseate Spoonbill (believe it or not) and a Townsend’s Solitaire.  Lifetime totals to date:  North America, 708; Iowa, 332; Yard, 155.  I haven’t made a count of the species that I have seen elsewhere in the world, but if I get bored enough in the next few winter months here in Iowa, I will probably try to calculate that.

This “empty nest birder” wishes all of you birders around the world (and anyone else who happens to open this blog) a happy and productive year in 2013. Birding is a wonderful hobby, whether you are traveling to the remote corners of the earth or sitting on your own back deck.  I am looking forward to adding a few new species to each of my lists in 2013.

Snowy Owl in Iowa

This winter has witnessed the largest Snowy Owl invasion Iowa has ever experienced, at least in my 77 year memory. Normally residents of the tundra in northern Canada and Alaska (and elsewhere in that latitude around the world), Snowy Owls in 2011 experienced a population explosion in their northland (probably due to an abundance of their main food source, lemmings), followed by a crash in the lemming population and a southward surge of young Snowy Owls, looking for food.

During the Christmas Bird Count at Red Rock, a Snowy was reported south of Monroe, Iowa, just outside the official Red Rock Count Area. The 8 or 9 of us conducting the count caravanned to the location and were rewarded with a close view of a young Snowy, on a post in a ditch right by the road.

Later reports over the Christmas holidays of Snowy Owls in Story County resulted in a couple of unsuccessful trips with my son-law from Oklahoma to try to find what for him and for my daughter and wife would be a life bird. Again, we apparently just missed the Owl after hours of patrolling the roads west of Ames. Then, early this week another (or the same) Snowy was reported just east of Ames. Barbara and I took off immediately after the sighting was posted on the Iowa Bird Line. We were rewarded with a view, although somewhat distant for photography purposes, of Barbara’s first ever Snowy Owl.

A recent post to the Iowa Bird Line contains a lovely video of Snowy Owls. You can access it at

Black Rail, Masked Duck & Yellow-green Vireos

My summer birding has been going well.  After reaching 700 North American lifers, as previously posted herein, I returned to Iowa where I was able to locate, by ear, my first ever Black Rail.  This elusive bird has seldom been seen in Iowa and is very difficult to see anywhere.  This one has been heard and seen near Solon in eastern Iowa for several weeks, and many birders and photographers from near and far have trudged through the muddy and vegetated river-bottom swamp to see it.  I slowly and tediously followed suit, the mud very nearly sucking my boots  off my feet.  I did not see the bird, nor do I intend to try further.  I think it deserves some protection from over-intrusive birders and photographers who have created muddy, matted down trails through the swamp, and have over-used recordings of the Rail’s call in order to get the bird to come close, thinking it has a potential mate or rival. He or she has little prospect of that here in Iowa, so far from the Black Rail’s traditional nesting areas.  My newly adopted personal view is that hearing is as good as seeing if you are absolutely sure of the call, which I am.  Moreover, it eliminates the foolish incentive to disturb unnecessarily the target bird and thereby perhaps damage its prospects of survival or reproduction.  And so, the Black Rail becomes my North American Life Bird number 702, and Iowa Life Bird number 327.  Inconsistent with the opinions of some purists in the birding community, and especially photographers, (and, I must admit, my own past practice), the Black Rail becomes my very first “heard only” life bird.  I feel good about that, for, as expressed by our famous American poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson:

     “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen, and philosophers and divines.  With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.”

For several days the North American Rare Bird Alert has reported online that at Sabal Palm Audubon Sanctuary south of Brownsville, Texas, a single female Masked Duck and several Yellow-green Vireos have been seen on a regular basis.  Both species are rare in North America (ABA # 3s).  Having never seen either of them, and having nothing better to do, I headed out for Texas last week and was excited to locate both birds.  Others were there for the same purpose, many successful and some not.  Everyone was most cordial and helpful to one another, a common characteristic of birders I have met over the years.  It was of mild interest to me that of the dozen or so birders there for the same purpose I was, all were men. One was doing a “Big Year”.  The heat index was 103, the wind was gusting at 40 miles per hour, and the “dry jungle” which Sabal Palm is, was muggy and uncomfortable. This, of course, added to my satisfaction of finding these two great birds.  Actually, there were 4 Yellow-green Vireos, apparently reflective of a successful nesting effort.  My first “identification” of the somewhat distant Masked Duck is suspect, because when I returned later I thought I saw three of them, again at quite a distance.  I really needed a scope, which I had left home to make my air travel less cumbersome.  These 3 all turned out to be the somewhat similar and far more common Ruddy Ducks.  And so I lingered long at the blind until, fortuitously, the real Masked Duck appeared close at hand enabling me to clearly see the three black lines across the face, and confirm its identity. North American birds number 703 and 704 are now securely on my list.

Late October Sparrows in Iowa

I participated in the Iowa Ornithologists’ Union field trips this past weekend.  These were run in connnection with the fall meeting of the IOU at Neal Smith Prairie Preserve near Prairie City.  On both days I elected to participate in the field trip which  “walked” the prairie in search of Smith’s Longspurs, Lapland Longspurs and the various sparrows (e.g., the Emerizinae Subfamily) that can be expected in central Iowa in late October.  No Smith’s Longspurs were seen, probably because they have not gotten this far south yet.  A few Lapland Longspurs were observed in flight.  The sparrows were a better story. 

 The best observations were of LeConte’s Sparrows.  We saw several each day and they made themselves very obvious by coming within a few feet of the group and posing close-by on whatever little stalks or twigs that they could find.  The photographers in the group were especially ecstatic.  Everyone remarked that never before had they observed so many LeContes at such close and sustained range.  Clearly, they were the highlight for many of the birders, including me. 

The other sparrows that I was able to identify were:  White-throated, White-crowned, Savannah, Vesper, Swamp, Song, Fox, Lincoln’s, Harris’s,  Field and Juncos.  Some other particpants reported finding a Clay-colored, one or two early Tree Sparrows, and a late Grasshopper Sparrow.  Oddly, I do not recall if anyone saw any Chipping Sparrows, and I would have thought they would still be present.   Another less surprisingly absent (I believe) species was Nelson’s.  Henslow’s, which are now quite common at Neal Smith in summer, were all gone.  Nor, as I recall, did anyone see a Lark Sparrow. 

It looks like a good year in Iowa for the northern finches.  A fair number of Pine Siskins and a few Purple Finches were observed.